LONDON–Sometime in the mid-to-late Noughties a feminist renaissance started to take place online. Websites such as Jezebel, XO Jane and The Hairpin were trailblazers in this surge of Internet feminism; a phenomenon so significant it is sometimes referred to as feminism’s fourth-wave. Websites such as these are emblematic of fourth-wave feminism’s tendency to utilize the Internet to share stories and ‘call out’ moments of misogyny or gender inequality. These new websites provided honest, good-humored and opinionated alternatives to how so-called women’s issues were being discussed in mainstream media.
My own personal interest in feminism coincided with this boom in feminist media. Like many women in the West, my first real entry into feminism was in a university setting. I took a class on feminist theory and literature and suddenly, I was bothered.
I read and re-read Linda Nochlin’s famous essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” I went on to write a dissertation on the lesser-known women painters in the New York School, and I was repulsed by any idea of male genius. At the time, I could only look at Pollock’s great gestural splatters with contempt.
In a recent review of feminist academic Sara Ahmed’s new book “Living a Feminist Life,” Melissa Gira Grant writes of a feminist origin story, how feminism is frequently reduced to personal memoir and firsts: first feminist book read, first action attended. Or more potent still–first grope, first shaming, first rape. Ms. Grant proposes that the question should be changed from ‘What made you a feminist?’ to ‘What makes you a feminist?’ In other words, we must start to think of feminism as a way of living in the world that is ongoing, continuous, and one which cannot be merely defined by the handful of feminist classes attended or books read or protests partaken in. Instead, one’s feminism may be better understood as something that stops and starts and begins again.
The Women’s Marches in January provided feminists with much hope, but also revealed ruptures and fractures–how a blanket feminism can rarely be prescribed for all. Most recognized the protests as an extraordinary moment of possibility, a rare incidence of passionate mobilization and anger in a contemporary Western society that can largely be defined by its apathy.
Yet, if we have learned anything in the aftermath of second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, it is that feminism cannot be understood as a universal singular but should be thought of in terms of expansive multiples or feminisms. Critiques of the Women’s Marches within the feminist movement itself expressed a frustration at some of the perhaps more irreverent aspects of the marches. For example, trans activists argued that the proliferation of signage depicting female genitalia did not represent their experience. As Perucha Negra wrote on Twitter: “To all the trans women out marching amidst signs that center feminism around having a vagina, I see you, you matter, thank you.”
The marches were criticized for their overwhelming whiteness. On social media, an image circulated of three white women in matching pink beanies, taking selfies and recording the events on their phones. In the foreground, a black woman holds a sign reading: “Don’t forget white women voted for Trump.” In her thoughtful New Yorker article on the March on Washington, Jia Tolentino carefully addressed this point, writing: “If Trump weren’t President-if we had on Friday inaugurated President Hillary Clinton-how many of the white women who protested on Saturday would feel as if there weren’t much about America that needed protesting at all?”
We are now at a feminist turning point. What’s the aftermath of Beyoncé standing in front of a ten-feet tall feminist sign on stage or a designer statement t-shirt quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We should all be feminists” and retailing at £490? For many young women today, myself included, the question has moved beyond whether you are a feminist or not to “What’s next?” Where do we go from here when feminism is frequently disseminated as a brand, co-opted and neutralized by the mainstream fashion, media and advertising industries? Were the Marches a genuine expression of outrage or an extension of a watered-down feminism, merely presenting an endless opportunity for hashtags and Instagram-worthy photos? How do we maintain a feminism that does not lump all those who identify as women into the same category, but somehow manages to be both encompassing and nuanced at the same time?
Feminist is a badge proudly worn by many young people today. However, perhaps that view only really accounts for a small, fraction of educated, middle-class young women and does not cut across barriers in the way that many feminists might believe. In addition, the word feminist only enters the average woman’s vocabulary in her early twenties. Recently, as part of a project, my peers and I spoke with a group of 14-year-old girls. When we asked whether they would call themselves feminists, the answer was a resounding “No.” Yet, they believed that men and women are equal in society, unequivocally.
In the wake of the Women’s Marches, there is still much work to be done. The Marches may not have represented everyone as equally as the organizers may have hoped, but the mass expression of indignation cannot be cynically cast aside; the gathering of so many people together was a powerful and optimistic statement. But perhaps, what we do need to think about is Ms. Grant’s proposal: What makes one a feminist? What are you actively doing to support women, particularly those less fortunate than you, in your day-to-day life? How might your actions oppress or exploit other women? Those are much more difficult questions to try and answer.
From my perspective, feminists must attempt to acknowledge as many internal and external conflicts as possible, and admit to personal knowledge gaps or short-sightedness in order for the feminist movement to progress. Only by owning up to what we don’t know can we begin to bring about radical transformations. As feminist activist and author bell hooks (the purposely lower-case pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins) wrote: “the most powerful intervention made…[is] the demand that all females confront their internalized sexism, their allegiance to patriarchal thinking and action, and their commitment to feminist conversion.” In other words, those who identify as women need to examine their own beliefs and actions as much as those who don’t.
Kathryn O’ Regan is writer based in London, currently completing an MA in Publishing at the London College of Communication. She is a member of the female-identified art collective, Bunny Collective, and blogs at kathrynoregan.wordpress.com
Photos: 1st, Shutterstock; 2nd, courtesy Ms. O’Regan