It’s divisive to talk about rebranding the F word

By Leisa Taylor

Leisa Taylor reports back from the second Feminist Times West Midlands event. Click here to read about their first event, ‘Worcester Woman’ Talks Back.

Just under a week ago we held our first Feminist Cafe.

The idea for the ‘Cafe’ came from Cafe Philosophique – meeting in small groups to discuss ideas related to philosophy and the great philosophers. Our idea was to create a similar space for people to meet in small groups but our theme would be Feminism. It was hoped that if this seemed to be of interest to people then we could roll it out across the West Midlands.

The first Cafe was held in a small space on a very hot and sticky night and attracted a small group of people to complement our six strong team who, although have been meeting since March, had yet properly get down to the ‘nitty gritty’ of our own feminist beliefs and concerns.

Our format was simple – split into small groups of three to four people and have a discussion, starting with the following themes:

  • What does feminism mean to me?
  • What seem to be the main issues driving this fourth wave of feminism?
  • Are there any issues particularly pertinent to the West Midlands?

We thought that these discussions would help inform ‘themes’ for future cafe events and also would generate ideas for other events.

As always, in my experience, if you give women a forum to discuss anything related to the female experience, then they are away before you have time to say ‘oestrogen’. This evening was no exception and we quickly realised a couple of hours was nowhere near long enough to air all that we had to say and only ended because the keyholder wasn’t feeling too good and needed to go home, otherwise we might still be there now.

Some of the issues we explored in my group started with one woman exploring her frustrations that her particular brand of feminism often conflicted with that of her 20-something-year-old daughter’s ideas. She said she had been accused of being a prude on issues around sex, sexuality and, in particular, that controversial occupation of lap and pole dancing. I was particularly surprised to find out that it’s a common way for young women to support themselves through university. This led us to reflect on how our feminism had changed over the course of our own lives and experiences.

We also discussed how female bodies are objectified more generally and prolifically and how we try to manage that with our own children. There was a general conclusion that it was very frustrating that society is so unsupportive in helping parents protect their children from the sexualised images that have become a backdrop for all our lives in the media. From this we began to discuss how the use of humour can be an excellent way of tackling sexist attitudes and that maybe we should spend more time thinking of little quips and retorts to angle at would-be sexists and misogynists, rather than getting paralysed in our angry and frustrated emotions. An idea, it turned out, that had been explored in some of the other groups that evening.

So this was just a flavour of our first cafe, and I think I speak for all when I say we found it peculiarly empowering, interesting and refreshing to have the opportunity and permission to discuss some of these issues. The team also left armed with plenty of ideas for topics and themes for future cafe events. But there is a ‘but’ for me.page1image29664

The ‘but’ here was the personally frustrating yet almost inevitable discussion about the ‘F’ word and whether we use it for future events. I find it such a divisive and distracting argument, and maybe also a touch destructive. Allow me to unpack my thoughts around this:

  • Divisive because it divides people like me (who has embraced the word, used it for nearly 30 years, and stubbornly finds it more than embodies all the things I need it to) and others who may have recently joined the battle due to age or circumstance and/or those who just want to move forward and feel that, by finding a more socially acceptable word, sexism and misogyny might magically disappear overnight.
  • Distracting because it allows those who are not really sympathetic to any feminist cause to move the discussion into one about semantics and thus avoiding any useful discussion about the real issues.
  • Destructive because of all of the above and that the fact that, in this instance, it slightly marred a great evening for me and left a bit of an unsisterly feeling in my heart.

I do understand that it is a word that divides people – it’s almost a cliché that many people will say ‘I am not a feminist but…’ and then go on to describe their own experience of sexism or values and ideals in a feminist way. Others, usually an older generation, report that women have come so far since they were young women that they aren’t sure that feminism itself is even relevant anymore.

That’s just the people who are at least a bit sympathetic. There are also those who fear the word and think that by encouraging feminist thought this will somehow lead us to hating men, as if misandry was a direct result of feminism. And then there are the real misogynists who attach a dictionary full of hate labels and several tabloids worth of stereotypes to the word and to anyone who associates themselves with feminism.

I know it’s a word that has got so twisted out of shape and one that, given the myriad of issues that fall under it, is understood by every individual as something quite unique to them. My friend was telling me how her children (10 & 11) had until recently believed it to be a bad word, like racism or sexism – confused by the ‘ism’ – making feminism a negative concept by default. It’s for some of these reasons that I believe the word needs to be reclaimed, it’s meaning expressed in its historical context, with all its failures, shortcomings and glories.

I also understand that it’s a word that might alienate some of the very people we, as the West Midlands Feminist Times team, want to attract to our events. We want to spread the word, start the conversations, with those people who might ordinarily reject it on the grounds of ‘not being for them’. Yet I really can’t think of another word, a better word, that specifically describes a movement that aims to further the rights of women (not over the rights of men), that strives to end inequality (in all it’s guises) and give a voice to all those who marginalised within patriarchy (which isn’t just women but any expression of the feminine).

When women and girls finally do achieve equality with men and boys, and sexism truly is a thing of the past, then I will be happy to see the word become redundant, become relegated to the past. But I’m definitely not giving it up yet nor replacing it with another word that just doesn’t quite cut it for me.

And therin lies one of the dilemmas moving forward for our local team. Any suggestions are more than welcome.

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