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.

Geethika Jayatilaka, 16 December 2001

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 take us.

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?

there are young women who call themselves feminists

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 women.

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.

every aspect of a 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 today.

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?

young women who live 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 answer.

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.

If you think Generation X need 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 from us.

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 foremothers.

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.

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