I’ve been a feminist for a very long time. I’ve self identified this way to students and in my research for my entire career so far. But when time came to name this blog, I hesitated about putting the word in the title. This wasn’t about being cagey; you can read about my feminist ethos on the “about” page, you can guess it from the title of my first solo-authored book (Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance: Invisible Acts), and you can read my regular contributions to Fit is a Feminist Issue, which I always cross-post in this space. So my hesitation about labelling my blog “feminist” wasn’t about minimising or denying my feminist habitus. Rather, it was based in an anxiety about securing readership: I didn’t want the word to somehow limit the scope of the blog, for readers and, maybe, also for me. But what are the stakes of making such a choice? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, largely because a confluence of recent, auspicious events has encouraged me to reflect anew on how I practice my feminism, and indeed about what contemporary feminist practice looks – or might look – like. (For more on “practice” used in this way, click here.)
The first of these auspicious events is a contract: I’ve just signed with Palgrave, my regular academic publisher, to write a book called Theatre& Feminism. Theatre& is a respected book series edited by my friends and colleagues Dan Rebellato and Jen Harvie; its volumes are short, accessible, and written with a student audience in mind. As I’ve begun preparing to write Theatre& Feminism, then, I’ve been reading as much as I can about what the term “feminism” might look and sound like to such an audience: I’ve been investigating blogs of all kinds, listening to interviews with women in the mainstream who call themselves (or not!) feminists, and reading books such as the superb Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates. (I really like and respect this book; I’ll do a full review of it on the blog when I’m finished with it. Meanwhile, visit the Everyday Sexism project here.)
Exploring feminism via the contemporary mainstream has been enormously eye-opening for me as an academic feminist; I’ve realized that as much as Western, Anglophone culture is still anxious about the term and its polemical, bra-burning connotations, we also seem to be undergoing a kind of feminist resurgence right now, especially among young, politically aware men and women. This is heartening and inspiring for me, but it’s also, I’m cautious to note, not a simple given. (Phew! It’s 2014 and we finally all “get” feminism. Um, sadly, no.) As I’ve learned from my students when I bring up this topic, not all the women (or men!) who engage with stuff like Everyday Sexism are interested in calling themselves feminists: there’s still something uncomfortably sticky about the word, and about what it might say about you if you were openly to wear the label.
I’d just got stuck into Everyday Sexism when I was invited to appear on a public roundtable a couple of weeks ago as part of Queen Mary’s “Peopling the Palaces” festival. Curated by Lois Weaver, the roundtable was intended to explore the place of feminism alongside Live Art today; somehow, though, in the moment it turned into a debate about what the term “feminism” means now. This wasn’t unexpected or even unusual; as Lois noted to the audience, whenever she has hosted events like this in the past – and she’s been hosting them a good long while! – audience members and contributors alike always seem to circle back onto the problem of language. And then we, too, get stuck.
Luckily, however, on this occasion we managed to get unstuck – thanks largely to my colleague Caoimhe McAvinchey. Prompted by my description of what it was like for me, as a feminist scholar, to read Bates’ common-sense book, Caoimhe suggested that what we perhaps need most of all, feminist scholars and “mainstream” feminists alike, is a project that chronicles gestures of “everyday feminism”: the things we do, both men and women, each day that constitute the promotion of sex and gender equality, both in public and in private.
Caoimhe’s words were a revelation to me. Feminism as a practice of everyday life! Why had I not considered this before? Provoked to think about feminism in this way – as a kind of doing that does not always need a fixed label, but that should nevertheless demand attention be paid – I started seeing “everyday” feminism everywhere. Including in event number three: my reading of a terrific new article by the performance scholar and blogger Jessica Pabón about the feminist labour of female graffiti crews in Brazil and Chile. Pabon’s field research turned up a group of intelligent and talented young women who are working, right now, in a non-traditional field, supporting one another in that work, collaborating on its making, and even helping one another to raise their children “at the wall”, in the tradition of the graffitera – yet staunchly refusing to call themselves feminists. Why? For these women, Pabón explains, feminism has connotations of public activism in which they do not see themselves engaging. It reads to them as ideological and as polemical, and as such it registers as outside the reality they choose to inhabit as working female artists.
So far so ignorant! – or so an academic feminist (myself included) might say. But Pabón helpfully follows another line: what if, she asks, we took these women seriously as working feminists, feminists in their actions, in their doing rather than in their labelling? She writes:
We have lost sight because the power of the word — claiming and naming a self and an act as feminist — trumps the invisible, individual feminist acts happening everyday by a generation of women raised by, or at least privy to, feminist ideals. Instead of seeing the various modes of feminism being performed differently as a hindrance, and instead of seeing the failure of feminism to attract a unilateral following, with the example set by [these graffiteras] we can reinvest these terms with the dynamism of movement. (114)
The notion of feminism not simply as “a movement”, but as movement, strikes me, if not perhaps as revolutionary (Pabón builds here on the ideas of the remarkable Latina feminist and human rights activist Gloria Anzaldua), then as undeniably useful for working through what and how feminism means right now to exactly the kinds of ordinary men and women attracted to things like the Everyday Sexism project and the remarkable example of activists such as Malala Yousafzai. How does doing feminism, rather than “being feminists,” work for this group of people? And how might we recognise and build on that?
Of course, ultimately, language does matter: being able to identity as a feminist and not automatically call to mind unhelpful, stereotypical images of breast-beating barricade-huggers or hairy women’s studies lecturers is a big part of what it means to bring feminism into the mainstream. But maybe that’s not step one; maybe it’s step two. First, I think we need to ask: how do we take the lessons of “everyday feminism” as practiced by, for example, Pabón’s artist subjects and use those lessons to turn the language of feminism into “everyday” discourse?
Enter my final event. Yesterday at the gym I listened to a recent interview with the Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis on the cultural affairs show Q, hosted by Jian Ghomeshi. Davis is the star of the new AMC series Halt and Catch Fire; she is also a graduate of the English and Women’s Studies programs at McGill University in Montreal. And she’s a feminist: out and proud. Recently, Lena Dunham – another out and proud feminist and successful TV actor, writer and producer – shouted out to Davis for her willingness to voice her politics in public (something Dunham also does, and does brilliantly). Unsurprisingly, Ghomeshi picked up on this call-out and queried Davis on what it meant to her to be praised, publicly, for calling herself a feminist. Davis had this to say:
…culturally there’s this weird thing where we vilify the word, and people need to step around it, so I think the best thing is just for us to talk about it and be like ‘oh no, it’s just about human rights! It’s just about civil rights!’ …[Feminism] is a wonderful thing and I studied it, so I … have the luxury of having a more nuanced understanding of it and not just this cultural idea of it being a bad word that we need to stay away from. But I’d like to make it so that you don’t have to be in gender studies, or study it, in order to know that feminism isn’t a bad word.
I was struck not just by the thoughtfulness, honesty, and forthrightness of Davis’ remarks here, but also by her clear-eyed comment on the relationship between “academic” and “mainstream” attitudes toward feminism. She’s lucky, she notes, to have the “luxury” to think about feminism outside of the fear the term sometimes (often) inspires; as a public figure with this privilege, she feels responsible for disseminating how basic, at its core, feminism really is: it’s just about human rights, it’s just about civil rights. It’s not an ideology or a polemic: if we’d just listen carefully, we’d hear that it’s about fairness and equality and treating one another with the spirit of fairness and equality in mind, always.
And so I return to Caoimhe’s “everyday feminism.” What might be an everyday feminist action? It need not itself be ground-swelling; everyday feminist doings may be profoundly small, and even unique to you or me. The point is that they embody the spirit of feminist practice – even, and perhaps especially, if we’ve never considered such things in such a light before. That kind, respectful way you spoke to that strange-looking young man or woman just now? The response you offered to that not especially progressive statement about how you look, or who you’re with? Your refusal to put up with something that might fall into the category of “everyday sexism”? Or your support for that person (man or woman) who might be experiencing a moment of everyday sexism themselves? Yup, all of those things.
Caoimhe and I, along with our terrific feminist peers at QM, are working on ways to turn a collection of everyday feminist gestures into some kind of broader feminist action; meanwhile, I want to encourage you to share yours – with your students, teachers, friends, peers, partners, with a younger person (or older person!) you know, or here in the comments section. I’ll start; here’s mine.
My mom is really ill right now, and my father, who was a “traditional” dad his entire life, has become her full time caregiver. He is struggling with the weight of this work – not because he’s a man, but because it’s just really, incredibly hard work. Knowing as I do that this kind of caregiving labour has historically been “woman’s work”, and thus that my dad probably doesn’t know how to do all of the parts of it, I’ve been trying to support him, and especially to encourage him to get more rest, take good care of himself, and share his hurt and anger with me and others who can help. As an academic feminist I know it’s very hard for some men to admit when they need help – because men of my dad’s generation in Europe were socialised to regard themselves as strong and self-sufficient, the bearers and not the feelers of pain – so I’ve been encouraging him to get as much help as he needs, and I’ve been doing what I can to assist with that.
You might say I’m just being a good daughter. Nope: I’m being a good daughter and a good feminist.
(Me and dad, Napa Valley, 2010)
Pass it on,