In Irish Feminist Network and Feminist Open Forum, we’re agreed that feminism is still necessary: Because, as we head towards the 20th anniversary of the X case, free, safe and legal abortion on demand is still a long way off. Because the European Court of Human Rights ruling on the ABC case is a year old and still nothing has been done about it. Because we still don’t have equal pay. Because there’s still absolutely no sign of state-funded pre-school childcare. Because some of the political groupings which we have helped to build, still refuse to recognise sexism when it pops up within our ranks.
But how can we make feminism more attractive and get more of us involved? This kicked off our floor discussion at IFN’s recent relaunch. And it’s a great question. Strength lies in numbers and the more of us the better if we are to succeed in making real the foregoing aspirations. But is trying to make feminism more popular a good use of our time?
My experience of objecting to sexist behaviour/attitudes has resulted mainly in a bit of name-calling: “Well you would, wouldn’t you – you’re a feminist.” The attempted putdowns always remind me of what author Rebecca West said: I don’t know what feminism was. I only know whenever I try to distinguish myself from a doormat, I’m called a feminist.
The F-word is used regularly to fend off anti-sexist argument. Feminists such as West were reviled when they campaigned to get us the vote. Similarly, the so-called “bra burning man-haters” of the 1960s and 1970s are the same women who taught us all to expect, as a matter of course, local rape crisis centres, women’s refuges, women’s health clinics, contraception over the counter, the right for women to have an interest in the family home and so much more.
Basically, we don’t come to feminism because we want to be liked and admired. We come to it because we are angry and we want to create a society that isn’t sexist – or classist or racist or homophobic or violent or destroying the planet. And we know we won’t get any of that unless we work together to challenge, head on, what’s blocking it from happening.
So our feminism informs our participation in campaigns not exclusively about sexism. We engage in the drive against house repossessions. We resist austerity and bank bailouts. We demonstrate against war. And while we do that we insist, for instance, that all-male platforms at meetings will not do. We say that budget cuts affect women’s lives differently because of our different social roles – therefore we don’t only need debt audits, we need gender audits – of policy, of budgets. We repeat until we are heard that working class women, lesbians, women of colour are doubly oppressed and that any campaign is obliged to address their experiences. So we really need to organise as feminists within these campaigns to strengthen our voice and make our presence – and disquiet – known and felt.
One participant at IFN’s relaunch agreed it was time for us to take to the streets on all the issues mentioned here. She then asked how we expected that to happen in any meaningful way when society was paralysed and people really did believe there was no alternative to the medicine being dished up by FG/Labour. She was discouraged by the constant complaining which was constantly followed by inaction.
Getting discouraged is inevitable when the campaigns we engage in – both explicitly feminist and otherwise – seem to refuse to expand and street demos seem only to confirm that support is minimal. But giving up is a form of giving in, so it isn’t an option. And just because something looks impossible to achieve at present (safe free legal abortion on demand!) doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. At one stage, it seemed impossible that women would get the vote. Now it seems impossible that anyone ever thought they could get away with not giving it to us!
Small groups such as Irish Feminist Network and Feminist Open Forum, to name just two of many that exist right now, are crucial because they remind us that while feminism may not be popular, it is fundamental to any struggle for an alternative world. By organising together and supporting each other wherever and whenever we can in whatever way we can, we’ll have a louder voice and be much less easy to ignore. And okay we might not be flavour of the month – but we’re deadly serious and we will not go away until we’ve got what we want!
Co-convenor, Feminist Open Forum
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