Tuesday, 17 March 2009

BBC Radio 4 discusses the 'F' word

I've only just gotten around to listening to the first in a 3-part series by BBC Radio 4, entitled Call Yourself A Feminist and hosted by historian Bettany Hughes, which aired last Tuesday. The second one aired this morning, and I managed to catch that one as well.

My very first post* on this blog, ending with the exact words as the title of this series, encouraged women to not be ashamed to claim feminism according to their own definition of the word.

I tend to feel strongly that many people who oppose the idea of feminism like to hide behind age-old, over-simplified connotations that they know are wrong in order to suit their purposes. So while you can't deny all the historical incarnations of the definition of the word, it is disingenuous to persist in representing some caricature of feminists as all man-eating, separatist lesbians advocating female domination, when we know that in 2009, this is far from the case (and arguably never was, although some earlier waves needed to be more revolutionary in their time). It is not enough to sit back on our haunches and allow ourselves to be consumed by irrelevant definitions. In this internet age, We interrogate everything else; we search for the definitions that are important to us. So I refuse to accept responsibility for some false image of feminism people have managed to conjure simply because they are too intellectually lazy and ideologically insular to hit Enter on their keyboards.

And it is people like the ones above by whom I encourage would-be feminists - men and women who believe in equal rights for both sexes - to not be cowed. If you want to call yourself a feminist, if this word suits you as it does me, then go ahead. Other activists for women's equality choose to call themselves other things, as is their prerogative. But 'feminist' is still a viable word.

In the first part of the BBC series, journalist Ann Leslie, American academic Elaine Showalter, activist and historian Sally Alexander and co-founder of the US National Organisation of Women, Sonia Fuentes talk to Hughes about first-wave feminism in the US and UK from the 1960s. The only thing I took issue with in this first part is when Leslie declares that the real feminists are in places like Africa and the Middle East where they mount their campaigns in very dangerous situations, nothing like the cozy activism in which we engage in the West. Well, I hardly think such a hierarchy of struggle is necessary. It is important to engage, support and try and understand the work of feminists from the global South and do away with the notion that feminism is owned and pioneered by the global North. But I'm not sure that this requires the pooh-poohing of US and UK activism. And I say this as a feminist from the global South who operates within and draws on both contexts and both bodies of knowledge.

In the second part of the series this morning, former local government leader Linda Bellos, businesswoman Roz Morris, academic Lynne Segal and author Beatrix Campbell spoke about feminism in the 1980s, touching on the still current issue of making visible other identities within the women's movement, and discussing them simultaneously; and on the points at which it is necessary to create a safe, separate, women's space, or to include men in order to better integrate popular constructions of masculinity and relationships with men. They also looked at feminism in the Thatcher era, and the extent to which Thatcher politics damaged women's rights, and made difficult the progress of any movement concerned with egalitarianism and social justice, even up to this day.

This will be part of the historical context for next week's final episode, when journalist and critic Miranda Sawyer, Feministing founder Jessica Valenti and Rachel Bowlby, writer and professor of Modern English Literature, will join Hughes to discuss what she calls the post-post-feminist era, painted as taking place largely online and with a whole new agenda.

The first episode is no longer available for listening, but you can hear the second one here. It will be available until next Tuesday March 24, when the final episode airs.

*The title is of course a play on the film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and the photo pictured is an advertisement for the film. It is meant to reflect the notion of women as broken in some way if they possess feminist ideals, and the final sentence 'they're not allowed to shoot you for it' invokes a democratic society in which we are entitled to represent those ideals. However, in the current climate of increasing violence/harassment against women activists overseas, especially over the last few weeks, I might not choose that title now, at least not with that content. But I've left it there for the moment to reflect the original meaning of the post while it is being linked here.

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