Rebranding Feminism? Geethika Jayatilaka’s talk
Geethika Jayatilaka, Head of Policy and Parliamentary Affairs at the Fawcett Society, spoke at the Rebranding Feminism evening held at the ICA on 30th November. She's kindly allowed The F-Word to reproduce the text of her talk here.
If Juliet has proposed the ‘cure’ then I want to take a step back and think
about the diagnosis: why do we need to repackage feminism and where does this
My starting point is based on working at Fawcett which is a membership
organisation and part of what we do is to sell feminism and a certain model of
activism. What we find is that there is a difficulty in engaging a wide
audience in the traditional forms of both these products.
What is interesting is that we are constantly told that once upon a time
feminism was radical, exciting, revolutionary and liberating; it inspired women
to march to protest and the world stopped and took notice and we are asked –
what has happened? What is wrong with young women today?
The problem with nostalgia for the glory days of the 60s and 70s is that it
blinds us to two important facts that there are young women who call themselves
feminists who are running organisations, setting up websites and organising
action and it also blinds us to the work that needs to be done to connect to
those who in large numbers reject feminism but embrace wholeheartedly the
equality agenda. And these issues are two sides of the same coin.
Young women believe in the values of feminism but many can’t or won’t or
don’t identify with the feminist movement. Why?
It isn’t that we believe the myth that we have it all. Most of us see, hear
or experience ourselves the inequality which still exists. Despite the talk of
girl power many young women don’t feel comfortable saying no to sex, or
negotiating safe sex and anorexia and self harm remains prevalent amongst young
But instead of being seen as a way of empowering ourselves feminism seems to
be an additional burden, the equivalent of an ideological private members club
with an oppressively long list of criteria in order to be allowed in.
woman’s life was scrutinised
This is not a new phenomenon – Julie Bindel in her contribution to Natasha
Walter’s collection On the Move: Feminism for a New Generation talks
about a subculture amongst radical feminists which meant every aspect of a
woman’s life was scrutinised in order to determine whether you were a good
feminist or not, including the music you listened to and the clothes you wore.
She goes on to describe how this has changed – but it has not changed enough and
it is this over policing of individual behaviour that is rejected by young women
We need think how we can expose the pressures on young women today without
attacking individual women and without denying women the pleasure they find in
clothes or in their relationships.
Does wearing hairclips or hello kitty rucksacks represent the infantilisation
of women or is it part of a wider trend amongst 20 and 30 somethings to
celebrate our youth for longer? The Girlie subculture in the US is about
celebrating the feminine, about highlighting that to be feminist is not to not
be feminine and that to be equal does not mean to be the same. The old rules
don’t always apply and we need to accept that this is ok.
The rejection of the old style “personal is political” is coupled with a
rejection of the traditional political altogether. We had the lowest voter
turnout in 2001 and in particular low numbers among young women. There is a
wider disengagement with politics and policy and our ability to influence it
which means we have to rethink how women can connect with the ways in which
change is made.
The victories of the 2nd wavers, legislation on equal pay and sex
discrimination the acceptance of words like chauvinist created a new culture and
changed the society we live in.
To borrow a phrase, today feminism is like fluoride – we scarcely notice we
have it – it is simply in the water. Issues like childcare, domestic violence
and contraception are on the agenda even if not exactly in the ways we would
like, and there are campaigning groups for just about every cause imaginable.
Feminism and activism have changed as a result.
Whilst once, feminist activism enabled us to celebrate with our sisters and
without the need to be part of a couple or with a man. Now no-one bats an eyelid
at a group of girls in a bar or women only gyms, and the other day an all women
line up of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to counter under
representation of women in the show passed without much comment.
We may not always need activism in the same forms we used to. In fact
many young women don’t even know what constitutes activism (it is the 2nd most
faq on the “Ask Amy” advice facility at the feminist.com website)
So how do we “do” our feminism today?
their feminism in their everyday lives but have an ambivalence to the movement
as a whole
Kathy Bail coined the term DIY feminism to talk about young women who live
their feminism in their everyday lives but have an ambivalence to the movement
as a whole. The women she interviewed for her book were committed to redefining
feminism in their own way, building on women’s past achievements but also
developing a much more contemporary style and attitudes. Their main concern was
the right result – it didn’t matter whether it was backed by academic study,
theoretical correctness or party politics.
The concept of DIY feminism is about marketing feminism in a way which will
appeal to young women and is a way of reconnecting the experiences of women to
the movement for change.
Feminism has to stop being seen purely as an intellectual pursuit for the
educated elite and has to start being about real women and real lives.
We need a way of reminding women that when they dance to the song
Independent Woman or start a network of women within their office or
their field of work or even in the words of Bridget Jones share a “rant” with
their friends that this is all part of activism in action.
The DIY idea doesn’t preclude the need for collective action or detract from
the need to revitalise the feminist movement. In fact to me it really reaffirms
the importance of it. The concept of exercising your feminism and activism in
your own life by challenging sexist jokes, by breaking barriers and smashing
glass ceilings is for many women a luxury.
To those in the lowest paid jobs, for whom challenge would mean sacking, for
the woman whose partner is violent towards her, individual action is not the
We need collective action for the reasons we always have done – to effect
change for the people who need it the most. But in order to be effective we need
to be able to broaden our appeal and to reach a new generation and to show that
the personal is political is liberating and not oppressing and we who call
ourselves feminists have to grapple with that.
the hard sell then wait for generation Y
And this is an issue which will not go away – If you think Generation X need
the hard sell then wait for generation Y – the tweenies, the phenomenon which
have marketing departments rubbing their hands with glee, the big spending,
media savvy, technologically skilled, most materialistic generation yet. They
are used to being “sold” an idea, of being convinced and will expect no less
But they were also the generation who grew up with girl power! And there is a
lesson to be learnt here – whatever you think about the Spice Girls, they
showed that feminism could be repackaged and sold. Instead of looking down our
noses at this phenomenon we need to think about how to harness and use it.
Yes girl power has failed if the extent of that power is to go and buy a set
of dolls or to wear platform shoes – but it hasn’t if it enables young women to
begin to think about their experiences and see them in a wider context and to
begin to challenge inequalities in a safe environment.
So if you ask what’s wrong with young women today the answer is there’s
nothing wrong we are simply doing feminism in a different way to our
We are not younger versions of the women who marched in the 60s and 70s
because our conceptions of feminism and equality are shaped by our different
experiences and lives. And it is vital we are recognised as such if we are to be
successful in showing a new generation the importance of fitting their
experiences in to a feminist framework.
After all one possible postscript to the phrase “I’m not a feminist but” is I
might be if I was recognised as one by others.