When Will We Ever Be Good Enough – and Should We Stop Caring?

// 18 January 2009

Yesterday I was at the Fabian Society‘s new year conference, taking part in a panel on feminism with our own (and the Fawcett Society’s) zohra moosa, Johann Hari, Zoe Williams and Patricia Hewitt.

The panel was entitled “The next feminism: a voice for a new generation.” I enjoyed the session and was grateful to have been invited, but it does seem a shame that if the idea was about a ‘new generation’ of feminists there was no-one on the panel who was a teenager, or in their early-to-mid twenties (as opposed to in the audience which seemed to contain mostly younger people). To be fair on the organisers it can be very difficult to find speakers, and sometimes, rightly or wrongly, you get more attention with ‘big names’ like Hewitt, Hari and Williams. Indeed, who gets invited to speak on behalf of feminism, and whose voices get heard in the media on feminist issues is a whole other thorny question.

People seemed generally pleased and interested by the debate, which was quite wide-ranging about the state of feminism generally. However at one point I felt slightly depressed that the discussion seemed to revolve around bemoaning how feminism is still not really as effective, or powerful, or exciting, as it was in the height of the second wave. You know… you just don’t see the same things going on these days, younger women aren’t really interested in feminism, there aren’t any consciousness raising groups, or enthusiasm, or successes… it just doesn’t have that certain je ne sai quoi.

This impression seemed to come from fellow panel members Patricia Hewitt and Zoe Williams rather than anyone in the audience, though, to be fair. I hope I’m not misrepresenting them by saying that, and they may have changed their minds later on, but that’s how I saw it.

This frustrates me because it simply does not match to what I see with my own eyes, which is firstly, that there is a very active, exciting feminist movement today and secondly, that younger women are absolutely fundamental to today’s feminist movement, as organisers and participants of new campaigns, actions, events and conferences, along with women of all ages. (Please note: I am not trying to diminsh the involvement of older feminists in today’s movement. Rather, I am trying to counter the idea that younger people are not interested in feminism. Younger activists respect and work in conjunction with older feminists on many occassions.)

I tried my best (but maybe failed as I’m not a professional speaker) to convince that there is actually vibrant feminist movement today, and that younger women are involved. I mentioned a random selection of organisations and actions.

I also had some intial rough statistics with me from some survey research I’m doing with Kristin Aune, about feminists active today, taken from participants of various feminist conferences and events last year (FEM, Ladyfest). 74% of the first 100 people who completed the survey were under 30, with 72% of them saying they started to describe themself as a feminist under 20.

Whilst obviously a very limited range of responses and scope, doesn’t this prove the point about younger feminists? Indeed, some might argue that this shows that older women need to be included more as participants of these events rather than younger women. (We are still working on expanding the range of survey responses over the next few months to get a wider picture of feminist activism today.)

Yet still the feeling is that feminism has failed. Why? It annoys me that the amazing efforts of these wonderful, passionate activists that inspire me so much are so often dismissed in a bland “Hmmmm, that’s all very well but it’s not really like it was in the old days though is it?”

It does seem bizarre that whilst increasingly large events, organisations and actions (FEM, Million Women Rise, Reclaim the Night, Ladyfests, Object, FCAP, Feminist Fightback, Feminist Activist Forum, Abortion Rights protests, etc) are being organised by and participated in by younger feminists; the Fawcett Society is experiencing increased membership; feminist magazines and blogs are all over the place; there’s a feminist event you could go to almost every week of the year (our Events page will list the major ones); and feminist groups are springing up all over the country, some people just don’t consider this enough to count as a ‘proper’ feminist movement. It’s like living in a parallel universe.

I now have a few questions in my mind.

1) I really wonder, for those who are sceptical about today’s feminism, what exactly would count as a ‘proper’ or valid feminist movement? If you had to write a SMART target (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound) to measure having reached that goal in your eyes what would it be?

2) Why is it that powerful people in politics like Patricia Hewett, or influential journalists like Zoe Williams don’t know about how amazing today’s feminism is, by now? Why isn’t feminism more visible to people like that? How can this be changed? Or should we stop caring?

3) Why is it that time after time when conferences which aren’t predominantly feminist-focused have a panel on feminism it’s all framed around the question of whether ‘a new feminism’ is needed, as if feminism is dormant or dead. You spend half your time trying to convince people that feminists do exist, and explaining some of the really basic things going on in feminism today that anyone would be able to find out in five minutes if they googled it. I’d like to see people just finally accepting that there is a feminist movement, and spend the time discussing specific issues and practical ideas of how to move forward and make the world a better place rather than agonising about whether it’s as good as it used to be.

Penny Red will have more on the conference.

Comments From You

Jess McCabe // Posted 18 January 2009 at 3:42 pm

It sounds frustrating, Catherine!

I agree, often it seems to me the truth is not “there’s no feminist activism happening”, but that it’s just not happening within the field of vision of the people who make that complaint.

Like you point out, a quick google will demonstrate that there’s plenty going on.


Saranga // Posted 18 January 2009 at 5:28 pm

I think that one of the problems with the feminist generation gap is that possibly the older feminists (say, from the 60s/70s/80s) just don’t value what is happening nowadays, maybe because it’s not how they would do it?

I see a lot of feminism centered around the internet and blogs. I see lots of women at protests and marches, not necessarily feminist marches, but any political demo. I believe that feminism should be concerned with every sphere of life, so I would look at the young folk’s attendance at marches etc as evidence that actually we do care.

Many if not all of my female friends (in their 20s) believe in feminist ideals, but would not necessarily call themselves a feminist. Without getting into the right or wrong of that, I can assure any old folk that they really do care, and they care passionately.

We’re here, we’re active, we’re vocal, we’re just approaching life differently.

Michelle // Posted 18 January 2009 at 7:20 pm

I would also find it frustrating to be talking to people who were oblivious to the feminist events, groups & protests that have been taking place over the past few years, as it does point to an increasing interest in feminism, and an awareness that women’s rights still need to be fought for.

However, I do think that marches, conferences etc. are not enough by themselves. For example, I personally feel that thousands of us excitedly participate in Reclaim the Night marches, but on an everyday level, that feminist energy and action isn’t followed through. It’s like feminism currently is about ‘attending’ a feminist event, it’s all quite self-conscious, with the only tangible effect of that being a sense that we ‘did’ feminism, but the cultural attitudes and social structures underpinning women’s inequality are hardly dented.

I think there is a place for direct, well-focused, thoughtful activism, and I think we should continue with the marches, media, and conferences. However, I would feel there was more of a feminist movement if I felt feminist groups were doing more ‘behind the scenes’ and acknowledging work that isn’t self-consciously feminist, but nonetheless advances women’s cause, starting in our local communities.

tomhulley // Posted 18 January 2009 at 9:26 pm

I think it is brilliant that there are so many more active young feminists -the blogs evidence this. A friend of second wave feminism, I admit it was often quite narrow. Support now for organisations like Fawcett is much more vibrant.

Perhaps continuing images of backlash imply that young women today are not bothered. Many women seemed disinclined in the 60s too. Remember that ‘I am not a feminist but …’ came that era as a kind superficial denial and quiet affirmation.

Last week watching the Ice Dance on television, I noticed that a woman fell down in every advertisement from the sponsors. Being (stupidly) generous I thought maybe it was men’s week so that this week (women’s week) would have men falling down. No -more women falling down! What kind of message? Especially when women consistently outperform men on shows like this.

Even the children’s TV programme ‘Election’ showed young women (and young men) full of attitude and presentational skills -yes, let’s listen to the younger generation. As Mao said, like the sun in the morning, they are our future. Our hopes are set on them.

Anna // Posted 18 January 2009 at 11:07 pm

Politicians are not called ‘out of touch’ for no reason! And journalists are often incredibly ignorant, surprise surprise. So it’s not astonishing – if depressing – that the likes of Patricia Hewitt and Zoe Williams don’t seem to know much about contemporary feminism. I’d have been surprised if they had, to be honest.

Sure, you can find out a lot in five minutes by googling ‘feminism”. But a lot of people just aren’t going to do that. I think it isn’t all that visible for various reasons. There are, unfortunately, many people, including lots of women, young and older, who persist in talking about it as something that’s no longer necessary. Also lots of publicity about girls apparently espousing careers as lap dancers etc. The Daily Mail! in a class all of its own. A general climate in which women get ridiculed if they dare admit to feminist beliefs. Many people read the (reported) news and regurgitate that as their own thoughts and opinions without realising what they’re doing. So if they don’t hear much about feminist groups/actions, they assume feminism is dead – a bit like an ageing actor! It’s an insidious process. And when journalists write about feminism, they still use seventies phrases like ‘bra-burning’, because the seventies is the last era in which there was a lot of publicity about feminism.

Clare // Posted 19 January 2009 at 1:21 am

What I suspect is happening here, is what happens with music and many other things. Basically, what they were involved in or aware of as young people or students was new, vibrant and exciting because they were connected to it. Then they developed a career and weren’t personally connected to new events and groups any more. Time goes on and groups change, disband and new groups form. It’s much easier to look back and see things in context then it is to be aware that that group of excited people over there doing their own thing are going to be the ones influencing the current environment.

I would say that in my experience as a twenty-eight year old, feminism has exploded in the past few years. The internet has been an incredible tool for connecting people nationally and internationally and the movement now is incredibly diverse. Feminists today recognise and have much better links to campaigns on human rights, racism, ableism and lgbt rights. If they’re looking for one true, most pure, most effective feminism they won’t find it because what feminism is, is the discussion and the voices and the actions. Maybe they just can’t see the wood for the trees.

sianmarie // Posted 19 January 2009 at 11:56 am

i always think it would be easier on young feminists if we didn’t have to keep arguing to prove our existence! there’s so much grass roots activism happening that gets ignored, and then a couple of people pronouce feminsim dead and that gets heaps of coverage! at bristol feminsit network (shameless slef promotion there!) we have a real age range, with peopele who were active in the 2nd wave chatting with us younger folk about the activism they did and sharing ideas and organising for the activism now. there’s none of this divide! the same was apparent when i was interviewing networks for my guardian article, everyone was so positive about the fact of young and older feminists working side by side to effect change!

i guess it won’t change because it is easier to pronounce feminism dead than recognise the work we are all doing and then having to recognise that there is work to be done…esp if you are in power…or am i being horribly cynical!!

sian xx

tomhulley // Posted 19 January 2009 at 3:46 pm

Just received a copy of Subtext –

the front cover has a great picture of a young feminist.

Also, I remember Ananya writing on this blog: /blog/2008/10/new_feature_so

Our schools (and society) need these young voices.

Noni // Posted 21 January 2009 at 9:18 pm

I’m pleased that there are so many examples of inter-generational work among feminists when I have had some very negative experiences. I have on many occasions been criticised by ‘older’ feminists for either not being feminist enough or even ‘internalising my own misogyny’ when we had a disagreement about feminist principles. In each case, the other feminist brought up our age difference as a factor in terribly patronising and chauvinistic tones.

I have always been a believer in female solidarity and always resisted criticising women in general and feminists in particular – my rationale being that patriarchy is doing that I don’t need to join in. And yet, particularly on recent experiences it has made me wonder whether there are deep generational problems within feminism.

Partly, I fear that some of those women on the panel were very aware of the feminist activism going on but don’t view it as ‘real’ feminism. Just as the activism I have been involved in and the feminist analysis I bring to my life and relationships has been dismissed by ‘older’ feminists as inauthentic.

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