Jonathan Dean: Rethinking contemporary feminist politics
Jonathan Dean's recent academic book Rethinking Contemporary Feminist Politics analyses the state of contemporary feminism in the UK, and uses The F-Word as a case study. Catherine Redfern invited him to explain more about his findings
Hi Jonathan. Please can you summarise a bit about your academic background and how you came to write this book?
I’m a junior academic with a background in political theory, but have also taught sociology and gender studies. My book is based largely on research for my PhD, which I carried out in the politics department at the University of Essex from 2004-2007. However, it’s been reworked quite significantly as a book demands an altogether different style of writing to that required for a PhD thesis and of course, with the feminist scene changing so quickly, my PhD very soon became out of date! The book was mostly written during the first half of 2009, during which time I was lucky enough to have a one-year research post at the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics.
During 2009-2010 I’ve been back at Essex teaching political theory, and I’ve just been appointed to a lecturing post in political theory at the University of Leeds. This comes after a long and frankly difficult period of job hunting and unemployment. I suspect, though obviously can’t prove, that my decision to specialise in gender/feminism, rather than a more desirous area like security studies or political economy, may have worked against me! That said, temporary posts and periods of unemployment are becoming the norm for many academics, given the current higher education funding situation.
Whilst I’m at Leeds, I’ll be lecturing to undergraduate and post-graduate politics students, but I also intend to write an article about the current resurgence of feminism in the UK – bringing things up to date – and start a new research project which explores the different ways in which the radical politics of the late 1960s and early ’70s (including the gay liberation movement, feminism, the struggle for black emancipation, the student movement, etc) are represented in contemporary academic and popular writing.
What is your book about and what are the key findings?
My book is called Rethinking Contemporary Feminist Politics, and it’s part of a new gender and politics series from Palgrave MacMillan. It’s not the catchiest title ever, but it does what it says on the tin! Basically, it examines the current state of the UK feminist movement. It contains an examination of a range of different academic texts that have been published in recent years about feminism, and also contains detailed analyses of three different feminist groups: the Fawcett Society, Women’s Aid and indeed The F-word. The first part of the book argues that existing academic works either completely ignore more recent instances of feminist activity, or assume that genuinely radical feminism (e.g. feminist separatism, ‘political lesbianism’, etc) was over by the beginning of the 1980s. I felt that a lot of academic work tended to work with an understanding of feminist ‘radicalism’ which was not very useful for looking at contemporary feminism.
To put it simply, I found that a lot of academic work tended to assume that the most radical kinds of feminism are those that are most purist and separatist. There are good reasons for the popularity of that assumption, but my book tries to argue that there might be other ways in which feminist practices might be described as ‘radical’. This sets the scene for the book’s main argument, which is that all the groups I studied were in many ways becoming increasingly vibrant and radical during my research period. The F-Word, for instance, has been astonishingly successful in bringing together a plurality of different – and sometimes competing – voices from across the spectrum of UK feminism. I think there is something quite radical and challenging about that plurality of voices (rather than, as some might argue, it being a mixture of radical and ‘non-radical’ voices). Also, the Fawcett Society – which could be seen as quite a mainstream, liberal group – used to project quite a safe and unthreatening image, but since around 2005 its feminism has been much more assertive, and it has collaborated in interesting ways with several smaller organisations.
Whilst I don’t mean to suggest that everything is great, for the most part the book talks about the ways in which contemporary feminism has a certain radicalism which is ignored or downplayed in most academic work. I should qualify all this though by saying that the book is in no way intended to be a comprehensive account of contemporary feminism, and there’s a load of groups which have leapt to prominence during my research which I don’t cover in any detail.
There is undoubtedly a feminist resurgence happening right now, but some feminist commentary on this can be a bit over-celebratory
You describe your book as having a ‘cautious optimism’ about feminism today. Why optimistic and why cautious?
Yes, that’s right, I am cautiously optimistic! Optimistic because you hear a lot of talk – in the media and in academic circles – about how feminism has at worst completely disappeared, or at best only exists in superficial forms (for example, feminism as about representations of assertive women in popular culture). But despite this, the current upsurge of feminism shows that feminism – and indeed forms of oppositional politics more generally – can and do emerge to challenge the status quo, even in conditions where academics and media commentators consider it unlikely to happen.
Cautious because whilst there is undoubtedly a feminist resurgence happening right now, some feminist commentary on this can be a bit over-celebratory. Whilst this new resurgence is certainly to be welcomed, my optimism is ‘cautious’ because I think it’s important for everyone interested in feminism to be able to engage critically with the different kinds of feminist practices that are going on. As contributors to The F-Word have pointed out on a number of occasions, there remain problems concerning, for example, feminism’s relationship to trans issues, the relationship between feminism and anti-racism, and the question of feminism and social class. So my optimism is ‘cautious’ in that it acknowledges these possible problems and hopes to provide a space to discuss them: my worry is that a triumphalist or over-celebratory optimism doesn’t provide much room to acknowledge these ongoing difficulties.
F-Word readers might be aware of the media’s negative attitude towards today’s feminists; until recently we’ve been told that feminism is dead and young people aren’t feminists despite evidence to the contrary. Do you think this attitude has been reflected in academic circles too?
There is, and has been for a long time, a bit of a tendency in some sectors of feminist academia to be quite dismissive towards younger feminists and sometimes younger women in general. But, that said, I don’t think the attitude is as prevalent as it is sometimes made out to be. There’s loads of academic work on the relationships between young women and feminism, and most of it is actually quite sensitive to the very complex nature of the issue. I acknowledge that some academic work can seem to ignore certain kinds of feminist activism, but I think this is often due to a genuine lack of awareness rather than a dismissive attitude. It is true that so far there has been very little academic work on the resurgent feminisms we’re currently seeing, but, to be fair, it is quite a new phenomenon and – partly because of the length of time it takes to secure funding, do research, publish your work, etc – academia always lags a few years behind the real world, so I’m sure we’ll see more work on this issue in the near future.
If you look at the current feminist scene, you see a lot of fairly clear continuities with the second-wave
Do you think ‘new’ feminists’ views, activities or concerns differ much from previous generations of feminists?
Crikey, this is tough question! Obviously the ‘new’ feminists are quite a diverse bunch, so it can be hard to generalise. That said, I think there is an increasing move towards emphasising continuity between the present and the ‘second wave’. There was a period in the 1990s and early 2000s when the ‘third wave’ was quite popular, and much of the feminism coming under the ‘third wave’ banner was quite keen to differentiate itself from the ‘second wave’. Interestingly, you don’t hear the ‘third wave’ being talked about so much now. Personally, I think that is for the best, and if you look at the current feminist scene, you see a lot of fairly clear continuities with the second wave: you’ve got Reclaim the Night marches, protests against the utterly abhorrent Miss University UK pageants, and organisations like Women’s Aid who are still providing services to survivors of domestic violence, just as they were 35 years ago.
There’s also recently been a lot of oral history research with participants in second wave feminism, so I think all of this can be seen as a willingness on the part of many younger feminists to acknowledge these continuities. That said, in some respects these continuities are quite depressing, as it is rather sad that there is still a need for the same kinds of activism. To be honest, though, there are other kinds of depressing continuities: my impression is that, after all these years, issues of race, class and cis privilege remain, within feminism, as delicate as ever.
Did anything surprise you in your research for this book?
I think what surprised me most was how quickly a lot of these new feminist groups and actions emerged. I remember, when I started my PhD in 2004, I planned to explore how the feminist groups that did exist dealt with the fact that feminism was in such a bad state! Then around 2005-06 you could see signs that things were changing: for instance, the Fawcett Society had their big ‘rebranding’ and the London Feminist Network were increasingly making their presence felt. By the time I finished my PhD in 2007, things were really kicking off and even though my book was published less than two months ago it already feels out of date! In some respects, though, I was quite lucky with the timing in that I was able to keep an eye on all these new developments as they were happening.
Obviously it’s very hard to predict how current feminist activity will come to be viewed in historical terms, but I do think there is a reasonable chance that 30 years from now feminists currently in their 20s and 30s will be writing memoirs of the glory years of 2006-? whilst a new generation argues over the legacy of current high-profile feminists.
Read a sample chapter of Rethinking Contemporary Feminist Politics [PDF].
Read Jonathan’s 2006 article for The F-Word (Reasons to be Cheerful), looking at the idea that feminism is ‘less radical’ than it used to be.