How we can tackle the negative image of feminism among many women? How can we re-brand feminism to make it more attractive to a new generation? These were some of the issues being discussed at a meeting entitled Rebranding Feminism held at the ICA in November. Catherine Redfern reports from the event.
How we can tackle the negative image of feminism among many women? How can we
re-brand feminism to make it more attractive to a new generation? Does feminism
deserve its media stereotype? Does feminism need to change or just change the
way it communicates itself? Do we need a brand – or can we just have cutomised
versions of feminism, to suit different situation? Is feminism now so mainstream
it’s often invisible? And if young women are no longer marching, what form does
their activism take?
These were some of the questions being addressed by a meeting held at the
ICA in London on 30th November. The event was hosted by the Fawcett Society,
one of the leading bodies campaigning for women’s rights in the UK. I went
along and here’s my report on what happened.
I’d never been to the ICA before, but it’s the kind of place I’d imagine
Germaine Greer, Ekow Eshun and Tom Paulin hanging out, sipping wine just after
they’ve appearing on Newsnight Review, debating the intricacies of
the latest literary blockbuster or independent film. It’s a very trendy
place, with trendy people inside it. This may have contributed to the fact
that I was absolutely petrified! I knew nobody there, I’d never been to an
event like this before, and as usual I was plagued by paranoia. What if
nobody was interested in the flyers I’d brought with me for this site? Would I
get to talk to anybody? What if they thought I wasn’t a proper feminist because
all I do is this website (as opposed to chaining myself to parliament
What if they thought I wasn’t a proper feminist?
We all crammed into a smallish room – apparently the event had more than
sold out – and waited for the latecomers to arrive as the panel chatted amongst
themselves. The panel was chaired by Libby Brooks of the Guardian’s Womans
pages. The panelists were Madeline Bunting (also from the Guardian, standing
in at the last minute for Suzanne Moore), Geethika Jayatilaka, Head
of Policy and Parliamentary Affairs at Fawcett, Sam Roddick, (daughter of Anita)
who’d recently opened a spophisticated new sex shop in Covent Guarden called
Coco de Mer, and finally two women from the advertising agency St.Lukes whose
names I didn’t catch.
It was the two from St.Lukes who started off the proceedings with an
interesting perspective of an advertising agency attempting to rebrand
feminism, for us, the clients. They pitched two ideas to us to attempt to
make feminism appeal again.
First they briefly covered some of the reasons why young women don’t
call themselves feminists. The label is seen as negative, they explained.
There is often a perception that we’ve already achieved equality (this drew
a loud sarcastic snort from someone in the audience!). Another reason was
that newer causes seem more important, and young women were less likely to
subscribe to labels of identity. The solution to this problem, they argued,
was to give feminism a new relevance. But how? As possible solutions, they
presented two ideas.
1) Launch “new feminism.”
Launching a kind of “new feminism” would present a strict dividing line
between feminism of the past – which brings unpopular “baggage” along with
it – and the feminism of the present and the future. Removing all
connnections to feminism’s past would free young women to associate with it
again. To represent this, St.Lukes showed us a poster they’d designed with
the tagline “So you think you’re equal now?” A picture showed two men at
work, and two women at work in very similar situations. Text at the bottom
explained that the pay gap still exists and that men and women are still
sometimes not paid equally for the same work.
One problem with this approach, suggested St.Lukes, was that just like
“new Labour”, “new feminism” could be seen as nothing more than spin. I also
wondered whether they realised that Natasha Walter had written a book called
“The New Feminism” back in 1998! In the book she wrote: “I am not trying to
invent it [the new feminism], but to describe it.” According to her, the new
feminism already exists.
2) Reframe feminism as “humanism”
This was the second idea. By reframing feminism as humanism – a
movement addressing equality and freedom for all humans, more people would
be able to associate with feminism. To represent this concept, we were shown
a poster with the text: “The new face of feminism. Humanism.” The poster
showed an androgynous face, which had been made by merging photographs of
the faces of all the St.Lukes staff, male and female. It was an interesting
image for sure, but again there were problems. As one member of the audience
said later, humanism has a specific history which is often associated with the
rejection of a “supernatural being.” If feminism was rebranded as humanism,
feminists who have faith in a god/gods/goddess/being might feel alienated.
Next up was Geethika Jayatilaka from Fawcett, who I think expressed more
knowledge of the current issues in young feminism than any of the other
panelists. Young women are feminists, she asserted, and are living it in their
daily lives whether they call themselves feminists or not. But why don’t they
use the f-word? Well, feminism has often seemed like a burden, a special club
with criteria to be a member, affecting all aspects of a person’s lifestyle from
their dress to what they drink and how they have sex. This hasn’t changed
enough, said Geethika. Policing of personal behaviour by feminists still exists.
and feminism – they are simply doing it differently
Geethika argued that second wave feminism has certainly achieved a lot, and
that feminism today is “in the water.” Young women talk about feminism and live
feminism, but they are less likely to get involved in some forms of activism.
Geethika raised the interesting idea of “DIY feminism” – an Australian term
which means that feminism is simply lived in young women’s daily lives, whether
they’re challenging sexist jokes or breaking through the glass ceiling. In the
end though, feminism must broaden its appeal. I liked her comment that if
feminists think Gen X is hard to convince, its nothing compared to what Gen Y
will be like. Geethika concluded that there’s nothing wrong with young women
and feminism – they are simply doing it differently, in ways which aren’t
necessarily recognised by ‘established’ feminists.
You can read the
full text of Geethika’s talk here.
Third to speak was Sam Roddick. She spoke ad hoc, with no notes, very
eloquently and she made some interesting points. First she stressed that the
kind of feminism we were talking about here was a very urban and cosmopolitan
take on what feminism is. She explained that feminism was not an
international brand and could be lived in very different ways in different
cultures, so we cannot and shouldn’t make blanket statements about what
feminism is or what is should be, or how we can sell it. Sam raised the
question – are we westerners liberated? Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking down
on other cultures as less feminist.
Sam argued that feminism should begin to address the fundamental issues
of the way we live our lives. Particularly she singled out the UK’s intense,
stressful working culture for criticism. Feminism should not just look at ways
to get women into work and get them equal pay, but ways to improve life
in general, to improve our ways of living.
Again, I didn’t think this was a new argument. It echoed was the old debate
between the ‘equality’ feminists and the ‘liberation’ feminists – in other
words, should we concentrate on joining the system or changing it? Writers
like Naomi Wolf suggest that the masters tools can destroy the masters
house, whereas writers like Germaine Greer have argued that “women could never
find freedom by agreeing to live the lives of unfree men.” For more examples
of quotes like this, go here.
concern that feminism should not be about selling something
Last up was Madeline Bunting from the Guardian newspaper. She echoed
Sam’s comments, talking about how she had recently spoken to a group of Muslim
women for an article she was writing. These women had all chosen to wear the
veil, but saw it strongly not as oppression but as a way of reclaiming
their bodies and avoiding sexualising themselves in public. She raised this
point to address ideas that we in the west are liberated. Madeline expressed
concern that feminism should not be about selling something, and was uneasy with
the whole “rebranding” issue. Authenticity is the most important thing, she
argued. Again she echoed Sam’s comments and criticised the working culture. Is
our working culture compatible with raising children at all? She complained
strongly about the cross over between our public and private lives, saying that
feminism should address the anguish and dilemmas women are going through when
they are forced to choose between work and children – much more than men do, who
just continue with their careers.
Madeline questioned feminism’s attention to the world of work, claiming
passionately that having children was the most important, rewarding, and
life-affirming thing anybody could do. What matters most is not women becoming
directors, but rather the women she respected most were those older women who
had really grappled with the fundamentals of life: birth, death, and caring.
Madeline expressed that giving birth was a radicalising experience, and said
that the weakness of feminism today is that it has lost a connection between the
generations and between young and old women. In the 1970s, she argued, feminism
accepted that women were different and shouldn’t have to apologise for it. She
claimed that feminism had been “hijacked” in the 1980s and 90s and turned into
an achievement culture – thinking aloud, she wondered whether it was a
capitalist plot to get women earning stacks of money – and keep them spending
After the speakers, the floor was opened up to questions from the
audience. Some interesting points were raised, such as:
- Feminism has a bad memory.
- What is needed is a new set of concrete aims for a new generation.
- Is the idea of “branding” and “selling” feminism wrong?
A confident young woman, who I happened to be sat next to and found out
later was called Victoria, argued eloquently that the panelists had completely
missed what the thirdwave of feminism had already achieved and is still
achiveing, often unrecognised by established feminism. She spoke about its roots
in riot grrrl and punk. She was right – this was the first time in the whole
evening that the concept of a ‘thirdwave’ was mentioned. I don’t think many of
the people there had heard of the idea before.
An older lady questioned Madeline’s idea that rasing children was the
most important thing you could do – pointing out the growing numbers of
women choosing not to have children. What about them? Feminism can’t just be
about the mothers, she argued.
Another women said that the aims of feminism today have been very vague –
surely we need some defining principles and goals?
An older lady argued that she felt what is wrong with feminism is that it
had rejected all things traditionally feminine, such as sewing and craftwork. It
was here that I nervously spoke! Ignoring the speech I had planned in my
head about young women and feminism, I raised my hand. “On that point,” I said,
“I think that the thirdwave movement, from what I’ve read anyway, is finding
enjoyment in and rediscovering things like sewing, knitting and even baking, so
young women haven’t necessarily rejected those things.”
Ah well. At least I’d said something!
It makes me wonder what people mean when they say things like “feminism
has done (such and such)…” – who or what exactly do they mean has done
it? When did it happen? It seems odd to me to blame an ideological movement
for rejecting something or other – when that movement is made up of many
different people with very different ideas. Anyhow, I’m probably guilty of
doing that myself too.
Geethika came to my rescue as the discussion moved on. “Talking of
the thirdwave,” she said, motioning to the seats where I and Victoria were
sitting, “I was looking at some websites today like The F-Word and Bust.com,…”
She went on to talk about Bust’s use of words like “chick” and whether this was
reclaiming the language. But hey, you should have seen the grin on my face!
The discussion turned to porn imagery entering the mainstream in
advertising and all around us. Madeline spoke passionately that she hated
it, and found it incredible that the porn industry is so incredibly huge today.
But Sam Roddick offered a different viewpoint, saying that porn should be
reclaimed – the way to fight bad porn is to make good porn and there are women
out there doing that.
of discussions are going on between young women every day in informal
The women of St.Lukes made a point that I really agree with. These kinds
of discussions are going on between young women every day in informal
situations. The problem is formalising the debate, making it heard,
giving it an arena and a space. I agree! I think they hit the nail on the
head. It’s all to do with being able to see that there are others out there
like you, not feeling alone in your beliefs. Even if women are discussing
these issues informally together, we don’t see it debated in the mainstream.
This is kind of what this website aims to do.
The last person to speak from the floor was a man who said that the whole
debate had really disappointed him because it hadn’t addressed the terrible
oppression of young girls in the working class. He slammed the discussion
for having a middle class focus. This got a round of applause and nods from
the crowd (as someone joked afterwards, everyone in the room nodded vigorously
at his comments and went “Mmmm. Mmm. Yah.” Hey this was the
The evening ended on what I thought was an good point. One of the
questions raised by the original flyer for the evening was “What are young women
marching for?” The point was that women have never marched just “for feminism.”
They’ve marched for equal pay, the right to choose, against rape, harassment,
and so on: for specific goals. Asking why aren’t young women interested in
“feminism” is kind of missing the point.
My conclusions… for what they’re worth!
- Older feminists often have no idea what younger women are up to but
they’d love to know – evidenced by a lovely, lovely older lady who came over
to myself and Victoria afterwards, asking with great genuine interest what
young women are doing and how did we organise. I hope I didn’t scare her
off when at one point I told her I thought she was misundertanding the whole
nature of thirdwave! Whoops!
- The concept of a thirdwave is still generally unknown in the UK among
mainstream feminism – I would reckon we’re a few years behind the U.S. on
- Established feminism has lost touch with what some young women are doing –
particulary zines, riot grrrl and the underground culture. Feminism must
reconnect with what is going on in the underground! Riot Grrrls are often simply
doing it while the rest of us are talking about it.
- During the debate, everyone had different issues in mind which they wanted
to talk about. There was not much of an ongoing discussion happening – but then
it wasn’t really the right forum for it. Young women wanted to talk about what
other young women were doing. Older women wanted to talk about where feminism
had gone wrong in their view, without necessarily realising that young women are
already addressing these issues! There were kind of two threads being addressed
which didn’t always correspond. One: young women and feminism, Two: what’s wrong
with feminism. Talking to other young women afterwards, we agreed that a
possible option was to arrange an event just for young women to enable them to
talk to each other together.
- Having said that, older feminists and younger feminists can learn from each
other and should talk together. Sometimes in the U.S. the thirdwave
movement has assumed things about the secondwave that were wromg or untrue.
We are wasting our time if we reinvent the wheel and we can and should learn
from what went before.
- In my opinion, young women are interested in feminism but they just
don’t know how to find it and where it is! This was my experience, and one of
the main reasons why I founded this website. From the comments I’ve received, it seems I (we?)
not alone in feeling this way. There is often a sense of being alone, a sense of
frustration among young women at the apparent lack of feminist debate. This
isn’t to say that there is nothing out there – just that they don’t know where
to find it.
So how can we enable young women to identify as young feminists? Where can we
take it from here? Here’s some crazy ideas for you off the top of my head:
- Young women need to talk together about these issues – whether formally or
informally. (I’m hopefully getting involved with something like this with
some people I met at the event!).
- How about a mailing list created for UK young women to share, debate,
disucss, and organise. Although there is the ukradfem list, I’ve never seen
or heard about any other feminist mailing lists like this which are not in
the academic field.
- I don’t know if this already exists, but I think it would be a good
idea to have a comprehensive list of feminist organisations in the UK –
from campaigning groups to cultural groups and more. If we could put such a
list online it would be a good way of letting people know what is happening
out there. I know my knowledge of what’s happening in the UK is woefully
- An informal cooperative of riot grrrls, political fems, girlies,
thirdwavers, rad fems, cartoonists, artists, and zinesters could collaborate on
a one-off celebratory issue of a funky, passionate, raging magazine designed to
scream “we’re here!” An issue produced by young women, for young women. Could be
superficial and serious. It could be sold at women’s bookstores,
Borders, alternative hangouts, by word of mouth. I’m thinking Listen Up crossed
with Girlfrenzy: To Be Real crossed with Chica. The UK version of Bust and
Bitch – rolled into one. I’m talking Amp minizine crossed with Manifesta. A
little bit of each goes into the mix, and boom you’ve got yourself a
genre-defying one-off publication made to make your mouth water.
Ambitious, moi? :-)
- Ladyfest is hitting London in 2002! Perhaps feminists could use the
opportunity to organise, connect, meet others, attend workshops, learn, and
have fun. More on LadyFest to come soon on this site. Check out the news pages for latest info!
Phew, there’s a lot to think about there! While you’ve finished mulling
that over, why not check out the text of Geethika’s
talk at the event.
If anyone has any thoughts on any of these issues, send me an email!
Oh and by the way, everyone was really really nice to me, once I’d
plucked up the courage to introduce myself to people! Paranoia – eat my
The Rebranding Feminism event was so popular that a similar “Rebranding
Men” event is planned in early 2002. See the news page for details.