Rebranding Feminism

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.

Catherine Redfern, 16 December 2001

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 waving banners!).

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.

there's nothing wrong with young women 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.

Madeline expressed 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 managing 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 it.

The Debate

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! Totally chuffed.

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.

These kinds of discussions are going on between young women every day in informal situations.

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 ICA!).

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 this point
  • 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?) are 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 inadequate.
  • 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 shorts!

The Rebranding Feminism event was so popular that a similar "Rebranding Men" event is planned in early 2002. See the news page for details.

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