“Feminism is about repairing and imagining a new way of changing the world. It is not a set of demands, it’s about who we are.” – Beatrix Campbell
Such a compelling call to action is surely something that we can all sign up to, isn’t it? The rallying cry for new social constructs and better political representation that is about the people, for the people. The trouble is, too many of those terms are fluid, undefined and susceptible to manipulation if not misinterpretation – politics, identity, community, feminism. Is it any wonder that we don’t know who we are or what we stand for, never mind knowing if we’re there yet?
All the more reason to go back to basics and ask some fundamental questions, because despite what the neoliberal veneer of a happy productive life full of stuff (the aspiration if not the possession) would have us believe, life is not all democracy, liberty and equality.
Feminism has to mean something otherwise it means nothing at all
According to Finn Mackay, feminist activist and researcher, the ill-informed assumption that choice begets equal opportunities is the root cause of the problem that prevails.
In theory, we can choose to be whoever we want to be, in our jobs, in our lives, in every sphere of Western civilisation, so progressive is the 21st century. Practice tells a whole different story - the lie of “choice feminism”.
There has been no revolution to resolve the ideological conflict, there has been no radical shift to alter the status quo, the prevailing attitudes and behaviour that govern the lives of many women means they remain in a state of subjugation – under-represented in politics and in the workplace, over-represented in domestic life and the gendered arts, victimised and humiliated in male-dominated discourse and warfare.
Speaking at the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, Mackay, founder of the London Feminist Network, set the scene in no uncertain terms: “We live in an increasingly atomised society where we are all supposed to see ourselves as individuals pursuing our own identity projects.”
The toxic idea of the modern era is that progress and success is down to you and you alone - if you try hard enough, you can make it. And if you don’t succeed in having it all, you’ve failed. Because success is open to everyone, we all have a choice, live with it or change it, it’s that easy. The more you work, the more you buy, the more you proclaim your identity as suitable for fitting in with our consumerist culture that values productivity and success as the highest form of existence. There is no battle, only choice.
Only that’s not the truth. And the biggest danger to feminism as a movement agitating for change is if we accept the lie.
The drama of self-discovery
According to the activist and journalist Beatrix Campbell, who was sharing the platform with Mackay, the very notion of what feminism stands for needs challenging and reasserting – it’s not just about equality, if equality means level footing in an unchanged world. It’s about radical change on all fronts, changes to the social and political infrastructures that were grounded in error and have grown up from those poorly nourished roots. Rip it up and start again.
And how we do that? By reducing the distance between us and acting as a collective.
Society may conspire to make us “fiercely individualistic”, in the words of the third panellist, New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis, but we don’t have to accept that philosophy. Depersonalise the mantra, embrace the imperfections, challenge the discourse and gather in real, live forums where a palpable sense of energy and enthusiasm can create the necessary momentum to propel genuine change.
As Campbell put it, feminism is about nurturing a movement in admittedly bleak albeit exhilarating times where the predominantly divisive ethos of many of the systems that frame our existence need not define them:
“This is the beginning of the story, not the end.”