Just don’t ask us if feminism is still relevant


A version of the question ‘does anyone care about feminism?’ seems to do the rounds every two or three years. I think most feminists roll their eyes then get on with the writing and the washing. We do still like an affirmation though, so the incredible response to the announcement of the Feminist Writers Festival, as well as the sold-out recent events with visiting activist Gloria Steinem, have been welcome.

Within feminist circles I think the question of ‘why are we arguing the same things again… still…?’ tends to do the rounds too, and it was this that Gloria Steinem picked up on at Sydney Writers’ Festival at the weekend.

Reflecting on the conversations she’d had during her nine-day tour of Australia and New Zealand, Steinem said the overwhelming question was: why aren’t we farther along than we are? Cue much head-nodding in the audience. Her answer was that we must go ‘back to basics’.

Steinem recounted that at the beginning of her activism, she assumed that injustice would explain itself. We all know, sadly, it hasn’t been a done and dusted thing. She spoke about her realisation that the question of who is profiting from injustice is fundamental to every social justice movement on earth; and that all inequality is linked. ‘It’s impossible to be a feminist,’ she said, ‘without being anti-racist and understanding unjust caste systems. Human beings are linked, not ranked.’

She mentioned reproductive control several times as central to inequality, saying that it has been used repeatedly and in many varied political structures to control women and is ‘basic to maintaining caste and class systems.’

But, she continued, ‘It’s comforting to me to know it has not always been this way.’ And this is where the audience breathed again, remembering we are but a dot in the timeline of humanity and that our oppression/discomfort/unease/rage/action is part of a bigger story.

She continued on the theme of a life of activism: ‘If we think about the demands of it, we’ll be less patient with it. If we think about the rewards of it, we can bear it.’

And then she riffed:

  • On explaining the Hillary Haters: ‘When taken to see her speak in person, they were converted… There was a sense that women wanted her to leave Bill after the Lewinsky affair to punish – symbolically – all men.’
  • On whether Hillary can succeed this time: ‘We are more used to seeing women in power, so we are further down the track. But she attracts such hateful remarks… it won’t be easy.’
  • On Trump: ‘He cannot become the President of the United States. If he does, I’m coming here.’
  • On transgender identity: ‘We have to accept people’s self-naming, self-identifying. It’s good to blow up the gender binary. I can’t think of any other way we can honour others than by speaking our own stories and naming ourselves.’
  • On how younger generations are doing: ‘We could list so many amazing young women. I’ve always worked with women younger than me; with women who are younger than my blue jeans. I just had to wait a long time for some of my friends to be born.’
  • On Bernie Sanders: ‘Bernie Sanders is the diagnostician; Hillary is the doctor. I hope that they can get together.’
  • On young feminists: ‘You are lucky, as you’re coming of age in a time where you have words for what you feel. But there’s also backlash. There are new challenges: there’s more pressure to be skinny and have plastic surgery and such bullshit. Don’t listen to me, listen to yourselves. Know who you are!’
  • On democracy: ‘There is no point asking for democracy in society, if we don’t have it at home. We don’t have democratic families, so we don’t have much practice of it.’
  • On mothering: ‘To make mothering valuable, first and foremost, we have to choose it. It’s part of reproductive freedom. Every child has a right to be born loved and wanted. And then there’s also the economic part: part of the disregard of mothering – and caregiving – is that it lacks attributable economic value.’
  • On slut shaming: ‘Slut walks are a positive thing. It’s taken me all this time to work out what to say when people call me a bitch: ‘Thank you’. We’re judging other women, but instead of accepting insults, accept that you are a free woman – free to be, free to judge, free to react.’
  • On the importance of feminist writing and publishing: ‘It makes us know we’re not alone, it gives us a consciousness. We should use every media that’s available to us. It’s the campfire equivalent.’

We hope you’ll be able to join us at the campfire in August, and in the lead up to the Feminist Writers Festival. To question, to challenge, to affirm, to assert, to gather, to gasbag, to party. Just don’t ask us if feminism is relevant today.

Nikki Anderson is Deputy Chair of the Feminist Writers Festival

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