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Feminist Times: Ten things I hate about feminism

Hate is a strong word, which is why we thought you’d read it! Don’t get me wrong – I love feminism – but there’s been plenty of frustration and confusion in my time as Editor of Feminist Times. So in my final word on Fem T I thought I’d break my own rule and start taking some sides.

1) Pluralism is the most radical option in feminism.
I went to a convent where the one lesson we had on abortion was conducted by a nun, in a chapel, with a projector flashing images of dead foutuses onto the alter. The Catholic church is known for being balanced like that. Since then I’ve been pro-choice and suspicious of people who are very sure they are completely right.

I wanted Feminist Times to not be sure, but to definitely be nice. Instead of telling people what to think we should be presenting lots of contrasting ideas for everyone to make their own mind up. From the off we were being asked to take a side. How can you use the word “cis”? Why did you allow sex work to be in inverted commas? She said we shouldn’t wear high heels! Shut her up!

We had lots of high profile feminists refuse to take part in real life discussions with their online nemeses. A movement like this isn’t moving. It’s entrenched. Stuck, like that song, with clowns and jokers, etc. Being prepared to have offline conversations with anybody, particularly those who disagree with us, might be the most progressive thing we could all do. Some of our best writers have been people I’ve approached because they criticised us, savagely, online. Every one of them was lovely in person.

2) Feminism is being co-opted and by 2016 it will be dead again.
In 2009 I launched a feminist act called Gaggle, a weird punk choir. We were often ridiculed for being out and proud feminist. It was just five years ago and yet you couldn’t find a columnist who would admit they were a feminist, hence the website the F-word – it was taboo. You could tie several cats together, swing them and not hit a single feminist.

Now you can’t. Feminist columns, T-shirts and events clog up the zeitgeist. Every night there’s another panel discussion about Women in Music, so much so that I can’t remember what it was like before this 4th wave? Something about cupcakes and burlesque, I think.

Anyway, feminism is so popular right now that it’s one of the biggest buzz words in marketing for 2015, hence why Pantene is selling us feminist shampoo and Special K’s gone all “Dove” with it’s cornflakes. Unfortunately everything in fashion will go out of fashion. Like Skip Its, environmentalism and hipster beards, if feminism is dead again by 2016 what do we want to have achieved during this brief spell in the limelight?

3) The transgender tipping point is good for women.
It could be the single most important ally in killing gender bias – not because it says anyone can be a woman, but because it forces us to ask what the fuck are women and men anyway?

GenderWeek is perhaps the part of my journey in Feminist Times I am most proud of. It is a direct result of my disgust at the levels of hatred towards transgender women and also my sympathy for the old guard who are naturally suspicious and scared. We tried to build a bridge between two hurt parties, but who were we to think we could do that?! And so, six months after I asked for a membership level to be named after her, Roseanne Barr was hurling abuse at us!

4) Trolling is the worst kind of activism.
Being keen on pluralism I’m sure you can figure out why I’m not into the polarisation of Twitter. A lot of precious time and ideas are swallowed up by those timelines which are forgotten in minutes. If you troll as a form of activism…. yeah, good luck with that.

5) The idea of “choice”.
Lynne Segal said all this a lot better for us in Gender Week, but hardly anyone read it. So, in a nutshell – we are not completely autonomous consciousnesses outside of culture and all its perversions.

Our choices are not purely determined by free will but are in many ways pre-determined by our culture. I “choose” to wear heels is like saying I “choose” to drink a flat white. Before 2012 no one knew you could mix coffee and milk in such a new fabulous way and so this is where I find myself with Larry David when it comes to “choice”: you can’t choose what isn’t there, and very often a new choice is an old one rehashed.

7) Where is the revolution?
Why are we so polite when we are trying to insist that some people give up their grip on power and share. Russell Brand wants us to have a humorous revolution, Uncut continues to march with masks on, the Keiser Report calls for hanging – what does a feminist revolution look like?

I’m longing for a feminist revolution, where culture catches up with the law in places like the UK and where the law catches up with basic humanity in other parts. A world with a socio-economic F-plan.

We’ve been trying to get an economist to write a feminist economic blueprint for the future but no luck. Without it though, any feminist movement will have limited effect, capitalism is part of the problem.

8 ) Never use the word austerity.
Like the F-Plan, I’ve been trying to commission a piece about finding an alternative for the word “austerity”, but we still haven’t published it.

“Austerity” can too easily conjure, mistakenly, nostalgic images of blitz spirit, 1950s home economics, virtuousness, instead of the economic political ideology and the pain it leaves in its wake. The word “austerity” can appear innocuous, but like all words it has power, it can put a spell on you. We need a new word. Until then it’s like calling a 13-year-old girl who is forced into marriage a “wife”; she’s not a wife, she’s a slave.

9) I’ve put on two stone in this job.
Feminist Times has been an all encompassing venture. I had to start putting in every therapist’s favourite, “boundaries”, from week one: Don’t always be on Twitter, don’t take things personally, don’t email at night or weekends, don’t work in someone’s house, don’t eat two lunches. You don’t think the pressure’s getting to you, then suddenly you’re buying size 24 knickers! Tomorrow I’ll be eating my own words and taking up running.

10) The rest will be one for the memoirs.
Thanks to everyone at Feminist Times and everyone who read Feminist Times.  It’s been thrilling, challenging and an experience of a lifetime. <3

Deborah is a writer, producer, editor and tunesmith. She founded and directs all-girl radical choir @Gaggle, writes occasionally for the Guardian and can be heard making very authored reports for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Founding Deputy Editor of Feminist Times, Deborah became Editor in December 2013 and leaves Feminist Times today for new projects. Follow her @deb_rahcoughlin

Photo: Taken by Jim Eyre. Lucie Evans, Gaggle.

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Charlotte Raven

Feminist Times: My Feminist Times ‘journey’

Intro

What a sad day! I kept thinking we would turn it around and praying for a miracle. Leaving our office for the last time last week, with the FemT box files in a shopping bag, I felt mainly sadness but also a little relief. No more sleepless nights worrying or fruitless hours writing supplicating emails to rich people. No more guilt about not being fully present for my husband and young children or my FemT colleagues. I’m looking forward to spending time with my family (as disgraced politicians say) with a clear conscience, and gathering my thoughts for the rest of the summer and possibly longer.

I won’t miss being resented from afar; I am privileged but my life is far from enviable. I am in the early stages of Huntington’s disease, cognitively impaired, and struggling with many aspects of every day life. I lose things, break things, hurt myself, rage at Tom and the children. This is a symptom and can’t be addressed by anger management techniques. My dad is in the late stages of Huntington’s disease; he can’t speak, read, swallow or co ordinate his movement but is otherwise compos mentis and so all too aware of his predicament.

I don’t think quickly now and have sometimes struggled to keep up with the breakneck pace of this project. My short term memory is shot and my mind wanders. I exist much of the time in a state of terrified befuddlement. Furthermore, I can no longer multi-task, which might explain why I’ve struggled when too many things are going on at once during this project (i.e. most of the time) and there’s literally nothing I can do about it.

I haven’t previously written about Huntington’s Disease in Feminist Times and I was in two minds about mentioning it even now. On one hand I want to tell the truth, but on the other I worry that my condition will make FemT less credible (and perhaps less tempting to publishers and investors).

But not telling the truth is worse. The whole point about FemT is that it was true to life, unlike the other media. The truth is that my daily life recently has been assembled piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle with my family and FemT colleagues’ help.

Thank goodness for Deborah and Sarah; my FemT colleagues have been wonderful help for the hard of thinking. They can work magic on my half-formed ideas and sharpen my copy. They work and think a hundred miles a minute but, unlike most prolific writers, the quality of their output is consistently high. I didn’t think this was possible. I’m completely in awe of them because they are multi-skilled, and can balance the books and husband our limited resources very effectively. Because of them I have a clear conscience whatever happens next.

Like a Big Brother contestant, I come out of this project more vividly alive than when I went in, disinhibited and ready to reveal all. My wise colleagues have cautioned against full disclosure, so what follows is an edited account of the last 18 months rather than the whole nine yards. I hope you will forgive digressions and deviations as I want convey what it felt like as well as the whys and wherefores of how we got to this point.

Masturbation

The setting off point of all modern feminist ‘journeys’. You must begin with masturbation, whether relevant or not, if you want people to sit up and take notice.

Vivenne Albertine from the Slits begins her memoir with an account of a lifetime not masturbating. She says masturbating when you are single is like getting drunk when you’re miserable; it makes you feel more lonely. I liked this. Maybe the same is true of literary masturbation – I have read so many accounts, for business rather than pleasure, and felt lonely afterwards .

It isn’t taboo, as Petra Collins and Caitlin Moran claim. Moran’s new novel begins with a masturbation scene. The woman interviewing her on Newsnight looked thoroughly embarrassed. Who put her up to it?

Collins says: “We’re taught to hide our menstrual cycles and even to hide masturbation.”

Are we? In fact we are being goaded to reveal the intimate facts in public, on pain of being accused of prudery. I am not a prude or repressed, but won’t wank in public. Feminist Times isn’t a wank fest. I wanted there to be one place where authenticity didn’t equate to baring all.

In fact, it’s not talking about the intimate details of your sex life that is taboo. Men love it.

Distracting Lucy

I have known our art director Lucy for 32 years, but only recently got to know her. We were in the same class at secondary school and I kept distracting her with my big ideas and stopping her from concentrating. I tried to convert her to Marxism and Modism, but it didn’t work. She didn’t join the school students’ strike or beg her mother to let her see The Jam’s last ever concert. She was her own person; much less malleable than the people in my gang. They thought she was straight, and it took me a while to realise – we were the conformists.

We kept in touch, and she did get a word in edgeways eventually. I met Lucy for coffee in Foyles eighteen months ago and pitched this big idea to her. She took a long time to respond. I kept emailing her for an answer. She had been consulting (very sensible) and thinking and only when she had done so did she agree.

Lucy is the subversive soul of Feminist Times. She wouldn’t talk about wanking on Newnight and her reticence makes her stand out . We had such a good time mocking up concept covers. One was a full bleed cover of a bare breasted Femen activist with a chainsaw. Lucy said the straights (although she wouldn’t use that term) in her studio were giving her funny looks.

One of our digital consultants said Lucy’s logo would alienate Telegraph woman, Grazia woman and even Guardian woman. It looked like a stop sign and broke every design rule, including the one that said it was good to experiment as long as the results aren’t experimental. There was still time to rethink, but not much. Once we were out there on the margins, there would be no way back…

The unfocused group

It wasn’t a focus group and we weren’t brainstorming. I bought a whiteboard, because I was nervous, then hid it in the broom cupboard just in time.

“What are you doing?” Anna said. “Don’t you want to use it?”

“No!”

“Why did you buy it?”

“Shhh! They’re here!”

One of the brilliant things about this project was having an excuse to get in touch with people I admired. Playwrights Emma Crowe and Penny Skinner, Kat Banyard, writer and activist Jan Woolf, artist Marica Farquar and Hannah Pool were all mildly or moderately drunk around my kitchen in the early days (not all at the same time). It was a riff on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party.

These conversations were respectful, revealing and hilarious. We were connecting. Kitty Finer thought of our brilliant strapline ‘Life not lifestyle’, Kate Tempest was very excited by our vision of a women’s magazine with no celebrities or brands that told the truth. It seemed more timely and necessary the more we talked about it. Why hadn’t this happened before? And why did Private Eye have the monopoly on humour? Bloody Woman’s Hour, with features on ‘do you let your dog sleep on your bed?’ and no SOH didn’t speak to us.

We wanted satire, investigations, columns and properly written features. Some of us really wanted a printed magazine, others weren’t that bothered. Radical empathy was a founding principle. We wouldn’t judge women or hold them accountable for the ills of society. There would be no shaming or blaming. We would have positive reviews. But they wouldn’t be bland.

So many open questions. How did we feel about lesbian mud wrestling if the wrestler was funding her art? And what price honesty? How would it play? Laying yourself bare was very risky as some of us had already discovered. Would positivity come out bland? We were at the intersection of life and art! It was thrilling and scary.

These women aren’t muses or ‘inspirational’ in a Woman’s Houry way. I often thought, we need a new word for this. I should have asked the unfocused group while you were there.

Crowdfunding

What a brilliant idea! I wanted a brand and sponsorship free space for women and the membership model seemed to have more integrity than one off asks on Kickstarter where the commitment was one sided.

Someone said crowdfunding is like a courtship. You show the public your best side, offer them presents and positivity, garlanded in tweets. An unwise crowdfunder sticks the ask on a site and gets on with his life. In fact you are meant to promote your project (and yourself) in creative and compelling ways continually. You are selling yourself. The paradox of crowdfunding is that it is still all about you and me, not really a form of collective ownership at all.

This sounded exhausting. Our membership model was a marriage; not a dalliance. We wanted a long term commitment; a relationship that could grow and deepen over time. I had never been in that kind of relationship with hundreds of people simultaneously. I’d also never tweeted so didn’t know the form.

We called in the ‘relationship based engagement experts’, then fell out with them. They said it was about making people connect with me by tweeting and communicating in my voice, which made sense, then said we should ask founder members for more money, which didn’t.

Our relationship with our founder members was the lynch pin of the project; I felt I knew them but couldn’t be sure. When we asked them whether they still wanted to commit to the project if it wasn’t called Spare Rib I still held my breath. But the vast majority did, which was hugely motivating.

It has been a privilege getting to know so many of you and I have happy memories of our time together. I’m sad that this relationship will be broken off rather abruptly at the end of this week. I’m sorry it didn’t work out…

I think the membership model might have worked if we’d had more time to reach critical mass.

Hashtag not Spare Rib

We needed a new name as good as Spare Rib. And fast. Crucially it mustn’t seem as if we’d tried too hard. From what I recall, that name had come about organically. A joke that stuck, like all the best names. I knew the more we thought about it the worse it would be, but what was the alternative? We tried to crowd source, but people were obviously struggling. There were a lot of biblical references, Lilith, some suffragette ones, Purple Sash. I loved Redstocking which was Shulamith Firestone’s activist cell but it was already taken. In fact all the good names were already taken.

This is how mad we were. One afternoon we were kicking around ‘fall’ ideas, specifically the feminist rehabilitation of Eve as the heroine of the piece. We were under a lot of pressure to deliver and then… a breakthrough. Someone had suggested Eve’s Apple several hours ago, I wasn’t keen. But what about APPLE?

It had a ring to it. Slightly surreal and edgy but not clever clever. I could see the logo in my mind’s eye. An apple with a bite taken out of it. A powerful founding myth and a feminist joke. We will gorge on the forbidden fruit and hang the consequences. I was so happy, then we all noticed the logo on the back of our computers at the same time. `

We had a short list, put it to a vote, then ended up with the second placed name. I hated Feminist Times at first it, as it seemed banal and literal minded. But quirky is the new normal in publishing. There is a magazine called Elephant, another called Tirade and an online women-fronted tv show called Fox Problem. A straightforward name is as radical today as weird was in the seventies.

Elle on earth

The lads mags are folding or recalibrating and feminists are delighted. Nuts is no more. Loaded has turned it’s back on lad culture after publishers felt it’s “lewd content was lowering the tone.” Will the strapline ‘for men who should know better’ be consigned to the dustbin of history?

Men are no longer behaving badly when feminists are looking, but women are. Women’s magazines are still full of hot chicks demonstrating the truth of the old maxim; a little bit of what you fancy does you good.

What about the lewd content of women’s magazines? Won’t Cosmo be lowering the tone when Loaded has a cover image of Antoina Byatt? The feminist gaze has been on lads mags, and our old adversaries have been growing in confidence and borrowing our clothes without asking when we were out campaigning.

The argument against women’s magazines is the same as ever. They pretend to be your friend, then stab you in the back. Mean girls who keep you guessing about their motivations. They are party animals. And killjoys. They preach indulgence and abstinence in the same breath. Spend, shag, repent. No wonder we’re confused. Lads mags weren’t conflicted. There were no ads for detox spas in the back of Loaded.

So why don’t womens mags “move with the times” like Loaded? Nobody’s telling them to. They appear to be making it new and constantly reinventing themselves into people with short memories. In fact, it is a repetitions compulsion.

Every few years, a womans magazine is launched for people who don’t like woman’s magazines. Marie Claire was aimed at women who feel patronised by the women’s media, and want long features and occasional references to A N Other country.

Now Elle is “the best of the bunch” because it has long features, according to Vagenda.

I wish we hadn’t taken part in Elle’s rebranding feminism project. Who are they to tell us we have an image problem? And imply that they can fix it by giving us a makeover. They flattered us, made us feel special by seeming to be interested in us. Such lovely ladies they are too, talking about how intelligent Elle was compared with its competitors.

I wanted Feminist Times to be a real friend, not a fake one, who would dump you over a fashion faux pas or a mistimed downward dog

Angry bird

Elle wants feminists to take a chill pill. If we use quiet voices, people will listen. That makes me so bloody angry. I was rational and reasonable when this project began, but no more. The newspapers all enrage me, Women’s magazines, ditto.

I’m angry with Ed Milliband for not being angry enough about food poverty and the destruction of the NHS.

And outraged that feminism has been co-opted by brands. Fuck Dove and all the others.

I’m angry about the new female stereotypes, and the old female stereotypes. Reports of the ladettes’ death were exaggerated,

I am even angry about the lack women at board level for the first time. The boards sound like a bear pit so this isn’t surprising.

And I’m angry about how the equal pay act isn’t being implemented and won’t be until there is transparency.

A year on I’m more convinced more than ever that feminism needs some firebrands, not milquetoasts.

The bottom line

We produced some amazing content and held some memorable events but some aspects of our business plan – no corporate sponsorship and no slave labour – didn’t pay off in the current climate. The project wasn’t supported by a phalanx of cheap interns because we believed that was wrong. And we were committed to remaining free from the dead hand of advertising and corporate sponsorship.

I wanted FemT to be different, but in the end the income from membership alone was not enough to keep it going. Rather than break our promise to reject intern labour and advertising, we decided to stop. We have kept our integrity and I want to put the project on ice while we work out if there is another way of funding the project that’s both ethical and sustainable. My Feminist Times email will be open for the next several months; please feel free to submit any suggestions and let me know if you want to get involved. If you have an idea of how you could relaunch it I’d be pleased to hear from you.

charlotte@feministtimes.com

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The Best of Feminist Times

Feminist Times launched on 3 October 2013 and has published almost 500 articles in just nine months online. Here are some of your favourite moments, as well as some of our personal highlights.

Theme Weeks:

Fascinating, fun and challenging in equal measure, at FemT we’ve commissioned some brilliant content for eight theme weeks, aiming to bring together different ideas and debates on particular, often polarising, feminist issues.

1. Man Week – 18-25 November 2013

Coinciding with International Men’s Day and the UN Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls, FemT presented our first theme: Man Week. Click to see all content here.

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2. 5 years since Maria

In collaboration with Refuge, we marked the fifth anniversary of Maria Stubbings’ brutal murder at the hands of her former partner – featuring the manifesto of a survivor, asking whether domestic violence sentencing is fair, and exploring how the authorities can stop failing women like Maria.

3. I don’t buy it

An anti-consumerist Christmas theme week, kicked off by our alternative Christmas service at Conway Hall. Click to see all content here.

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4. 12 Days of Sexism

While everyone took a Christmas break, FemT spent the 12 days of Christmas looking back at the previous 12 months of sexism, as well as reflecting on a year in black feminism and the most and least read Feminist Times articles of 2013.

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5. New Year, New You

While the women’s mags filled their pages with the annual quest for a “new you”, Feminist Times asked: what are women really worried about? (Clue: it wasn’t their weight.) Plus: why the yoyo diet is only good for capitalism; a response to Running? It’s just jogging; how to face 2014 with FATITUDE; one feminist’s new year’s resolution to adopt a new feminist; a new year message from self-described “crone” Raga Woods; a plea for no more sadomasochism on the high street, and finally our January members’ event, Feminist Fat Chat – is fat still a feminist issue?

6. Sex Industry Week

A week of, let’s call it, lively discussions on the sex industry, featuring an exclusive serialisation of Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing The Whore. Click to see all content here.

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7. Gender Week

Another polarising topic that divided opinions across our readership. Click to see all content here.

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8. Mental Health Awareness Week

Produced to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we looked at media coverage of ‘White Dee‘, the problem with mixed therapy groups for women with borderline personality disorder, feminist responses to anorexia and self-harm, how to stay mentally healthy on Twitter, and the women occupying their community mental health clinic. Plus, we asked why so many progressives fall short on mental health, is it feminism that’s making us mad, and is there a feminist alternative to asylums?

Most Shared:

1. Open letter to journalists: middle class strippers – it’s neo-liberalism, stupid – after another Daily Mail journo gets in touch, Dr Kate Hardy is compelled to write an open letter

2. Summertime body-shaming is upon us: no more bikini body war! – Bethany Rutter explains how every time you subvert cultural norms about how a body should look in public, that’s a victory.

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3. Call yourself an “Intersectional Feminist”? – Contributing Editor Reni Eddo-Lodge interviews the mother of intersectionality, Dr Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

4. Debbie Harry to become first woman musician awarded Godlike Genius – Blondie picked up NME’s Godlike Genius award in February; Kat Lister looks at the impact for women in music.

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5. Women Against Pit Closures: Memories from the miners’ strike, 30 years on – As part of Women’s History Month, we mark the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike.

6. The forgotten women of Kalamazoo – How Gibson forgot the women who made some of their best guitars.

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7. Top 10 Shit Valentine’s Gifts – What not to buy the woman in your life this Valentine’s Day.

8. A Womb With A View: After birth – What I’ve learned… – After the birth of her baby boy, Jude Rogers has some epiphanies and top tips.

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9. The Punk Singer – Return of the Riot Grrrls? – Faye Lewis hopes Kathleen Hanna’s legacy will inspire a new generation.

10. LONG READ: Chav is a feminist issue – Intersectional feminism, class and austerity: a speech from Manchester feminism conference by Rhian E. Jones.

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Most Read:

1. A feminist in high heels is like Dawkins in a rosary – Editor Charlotte Raven responds to the first question she always gets asked. See also our readers’ responses, Comeback: #FeministHeels

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2. For once let’s really talk about slut-shaming – Can you be sex positive and anti-objectification? Glosswitch calls for a more honest discussion of “slut-shaming”.

3. No More Page 3: A bit of fence sitting – The No More Page 3 team explain why they’re sitting on the fence about porn.

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4. A year in black feminism – Reni Eddo-Lodge looks back at Black Feminism in 2013.

5. Congo Stigmata: The day Ensler crucified herself – Jude Wanga mourns a loss of faith in V-Day, telling Eve Ensler: “The women of Congo are not living cadavers.”

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6. Femen – The beauty fascist fauminists – Femen are recruiting in Britain. Would the Feminist Times team qualify?

7. Feminism cannot compromise on the liberation of women – Compromise cannot and should not be a feminist policy, argues Louise Pennington.

No compromise

8. The essential feminist’s guide to Pick Up Artists – Kate Smurthwaite investigates the sinister world of The Game.

9. Men, know your place! – “Men who understand feminism don’t need our praise,” says Louise Pennington.

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10. Dworkin was right about porn – “Feminism has to do more than simply polish patriarchy’s turds,” says Glosswitch on porn.

Our Favourites:

Some of the Feminist Times team’s personal favourites, in no particular order…

1. Three Dimensional Feminism – One of our most popular launch pieces: Nina Power, author of One-Dimensional Woman, on how to create a Three-Dimensional Feminism.

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2. Obituary: Post-Feminism – Girl power, Tory feminism: Professor Lynne Segal buries the wannabes.

3. Should we stop asking pop stars about feminism? – Contributing Ed Kat Lister on how feminism is being used to market popstars and yet we fall for it every time.

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4. Feminist Valentine’s cards – Greer? hooks? Dworkin? Looking for the perfect Valentine’s card for the feminist in your life? Look no further.

5. TV’s got a Fox Problem and I hope it’s zoo TV – The second series of an all-female zoo TV show heralds a serious channel change predicts Editor Deborah Coughlin.

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6. War on Spanx – Another of our launch pieces: Burning your bra? That’s so second wave. Decommission your shapewear instead.

7. 10 reasons why debt is a feminist issue – We need to start talking about women’s debt, says Fran O’Leary.

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8. Becoming advertising – Now even the Guardian’s at it, will it be long before reality segues seamlessly into advertising? Or has it already happened?

9. Nimko Ali – a year as the face of FGM – Sarah Graham interviews “fanny forward” anti-FGM campaigner Nimko Ali.

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10. Losing it – no one warns young women about anxiety – Feminist blogger Grace Campbell opens up about her recent battle with anxiety after leaving home for the first time.

Don’t see your favourite in this list? Let us know which articles you’ve most enjoyed and why.

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Feminist Times: Money and a room of our own

The tweet above was one of my personal highlights of Gender Week – a week that confirmed my long-held suspicion that Twitter is no place for civilised debate. In an effort to keep our own content prominent in the Gender Week hashtag overnight, when conversations online tended to take their most unpleasant turn for the worst, we scheduled a series of tweets to be posted every 30 minutes outside of office hours. When I saw this tweet, the morning after it was sent, I couldn’t help but LOL.

“Here’s how you know a feminist blog is owned and operated by men: they have an office, and keep ‘office hours’ @Feminist_Times #GenderWeek”

I laughed not only because of how ludicrous the suggestion is, but also because of how painfully, excruciatingly ironic it is in the context of Feminist Times.

I remember reading Virginia Woolf’s famous essay A Room of One’s Own as a student and aspiring writer, and thinking “fuck, I’m never going to make it as a writer.” The notion of a room of one’s own is popular in feminist thought around the importance of creating women’s spaces –  take the Rooms of our Own project, aiming to provide a work space in London for women’s businesses and organisations, and the Room of our Own feminist blog network, founded by Feminist Times contributor Louise Pennington – but it’s only half of the statement from which the essay takes its title. Woolf wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”, but the same is true of non-fiction and journalism.

Many feminist blogs have neither money nor a room of their own – run by volunteers working remotely in their free time. What Feminist Times set out to do was something radically different – not just a blog, but an online magazine which maintained regular, high-quality output by paying staff and contributors alike; an ad-free haven from commercial women’s magazines, funded instead by a community of members who felt passionate about independent feminist media, and who had the opportunity to meet with each other and the editorial team to help shape the content.

We started out with money – the result of a one-off crowdfunder – but no place of our own. In an effort to keep overheads minimal our first workspace, Charlotte’s kitchen table, was shared with her husband and children and – appropriately for a feminist publication – two cats. Our working day was divided into school time, when it was quiet enough to hold editorial meetings and discuss project ideas, and after-school time, when it wasn’t. We did try it once or twice, resulting in some pretty off the wall ideas being thrown into the mix; 4-year-old John was adamant that We’re on Safari would have made a better name for the website than Feminist Times. Less endearingly, there was also the threat of excitable children running in and out during sensitive interviews with women working in the domestic violence or FGM sectors.

Working out of Charlotte’s home meant the lines between home life and work life were inevitably blurred; like many working mothers, Charlotte had to juggle work with childcare and family life. School holidays meant time off for Charlotte, and temporary eviction to nearby cafes with WiFi for Deborah and I.

But children were not our biggest obstacle to harmonious working hours; while the older of Charlotte’s cats was perfectly content to share her home with us, the younger one objected violently – and I still have the scars to prove it! When he wasn’t attacking us in defence of his territory, this ferocious kitten was getting himself lost or stuck in trees; holding the ladder while Charlotte climbed onto the shed to coax him down very quickly became part of my job description. There were other perils too, from protecting our laptops from the water pistol that 9-year-old Anna was using to train the cat out of his aggressive behaviour, to occasional baked bean or tomato ketchup splatters adorning our notebooks. Never was the expression “never work with children or animals” more relevant.

Eventually Deborah found us some respite, negotiating free use of the basement room below her friend’s knitting shop, iKnit London, one day a week. It was a surreal haven – three women working on a feminist website, surrounded by balls of coloured wool and posters showing different breeds of sheep. Ok, so there was no phone reception or natural light – not ideal for running a new business – but we were thankful for the weekly peace and quiet. Sadly, as with borrowing space from family, favours from mates quickly wear thin, and invading the knitting shop basement was never going to be a long-term solution, though we loved it while it lasted.

Unlike many feminist bloggers, having feminism as both a day job and a passion meant we all struggled to switch off, particularly during those all-consuming first few months when press attention and public anticipation were so high. Ideas were flowing constantly – often in the form of emails sent by iPhone at anti-social hours – and we were quickly beginning to feel burnt out by the intensity of the project.

By the time we started looking for an office – a real place of our own, that would allow us the work-life balance we so desperately needed – it was money we were lacking. Though our number of monthly paying members was growing, it wasn’t growing quickly enough to sustain full-time salaries and contributor fees while also leaving enough left over for desk space. The solution – far from proving our alleged maleness – came in an unexpectedly feminist form when we met Hilary and Sarah from Shoreditch Trust, a charitable organisation that owns a number of shared office spaces in Hackney.

The women in the Shoreditch Trust office had heard Charlotte on Woman’s Hour the morning that Feminist Times launched and were excited not just about the project itself but about the prospect of getting more women into an office space that was, at the time, almost entirely occupied by men working in the creative and tech industries. Because of this, and the fact we were running on a shoestring, they suggested providing us our first three months of desk space through their Echo scheme, which we featured as part of our Christmas anti-consumerism theme week, #IDontBuyIt. Echo, or Economy of Hours, is a marketplace where members trade using time and skills, instead of money. It’s a radical, alternative economy and, as an organisation with anti-consumerist feminism at our core, we loved the concept.

So it was agreed; for three months we would pay for our desks by providing publicity for a number of Shoreditch Trust’s projects, training and workshops for other Echo members and Shoreditch Trust, and free tickets to our events, as well as using their event space to host our January members’ event Is Fat Still a Feminist Issue?

Having our own office was a god-send for getting some work-life balance back and improving our productivity during the working day; we can’t think Hilary and Sarah enough for the opportunity. All of a sudden we had a bookable meeting room in which to plan, discuss, interview and meet contributors uninterrupted, and a lockable cupboard in which to store our accounts and invoices. We had somewhere to leave review copies of the books we were sent without the fear of a cat or a breakfast mishap destroying them, and we celebrated by stocking up on some stationery of our own. I quickly cultivated a stash of teabags, Cup-a-Soups and value instant noodles in my cupboard, in order to get maximum usage out of the instant boiling water machine in the communal kitchen; Deborah was amused by how readily I adapted to our tightened salaries by reverting to the lifestyle of a fresher!

Our time in the office was responsible for almost all of my personal Feminist Times highlights: some brilliant, inspiring meetings with our Contributing Editors, who always left me feeling uplifted, and a marked improvement in the consistency and quality of the content we were commissioning and producing. Even paying back the Echo hours for our desk space provided some incredibly rewarding experiences for Deborah and I, like meeting the women behind Bump Buddies, a peer mentoring project for expectant mothers, and running a workshop for the young people on Hilary’s Active Citizen’s course.

My biggest frustration will always be that during that time, while our content, our readership and our social engagement were going from strength to strength, our funding situation was steadily becoming less and less sustainable, despite the brilliant efforts of our fundraiser Jenna. As Deborah and I gradually reduced both our salaries and our working hours, we were grateful to still have use of the office all week for the freelance work that we took on to supplement our incomes.

In that context, my amusement at the tweet about our office hours was bittersweet. Though clearly a ridiculous assertion, the sentiment underlying it was telling of the way we, even in feminist circles, think about women’s work. So often women’s work is unpaid, a labour of love, that women expect to work for free and, like many others in the digital age, expect online content to be free too. It’s true of almost every feminist website online; in fact, as we were preparing to wrap things up at Feminist Times, Everyday Victim Blaming, a fantastic feminist campaign run entirely by volunteers, tweeted that they were at crisis point and desperately needed funding to continue. Their supporters responded fantastically but, the fact is, beyond one-off donations, funding is so hard to come by for women’s projects.

Although it was a fairly well publicised founding principle, many of our contributors were still surprised to find that we paid for every single piece of content unless the writer was publicising an event, business or campaign. Our small but loyal core of members allowed us to maintain this policy right up until the final week, although ironically some of our most engaged contributors were also Feminist Times members, indirectly paying their own contributor fees!

Not only are women so often expected to work for free but, as the tweet implies, it’s not enough for running a feminist website to be just a full-time job – it should be a 24/7 vocation, like everything else about being a feminist, or even being a woman. How dare we want to shut down Twitter for the evening, after being on it for work from 9.30 till 6, and have some down time? How male of us to want a work-life balance. How dare our small team – two of us shared responsibility for day-to-day management of the website and social media – not moderate comments or respond to tweets immediately? And how dare we ask readers to contribute to the funding of the site, demanded many of the same people who I’m sure would have seen us as selling out had we bowed to commercial pressures and taken advertising for fad diets and lipstick, like virtually every other women’s magazine that isn’t run by volunteers.

In many ways, Feminist Times has been a labour of love like any other. 14 and a half months ago, Charlotte Raven and I took a chance on each other; I entrusted her with my first step on the career ladder, and she entrusted me with playing a key role in acting out her vision. Though it’s not taken quite the path I expected it has been an incredible learning experience and I’ve gained more, personally and professionally, than I can fit on my CV. Thank you, Charlotte, for the opportunity.

I am immensely proud to have been a part of Charlotte’s vision for Feminist Times, and of what Deborah and I have achieved on the website since taking on our new roles at Christmas. It’s been an enormous privilege to interview so many brilliant women – Anne Scargill, Leta Hong Fincher, Dr Louise Irvine, Angela Berners-Wilson, Nimko Ali – and to work with so many more. I hope you’ll all stay in touch. It’s been a real pleasure, but all good things must come to an end – and I need money and a room of my own if I am to continue writing anything at all.

Sarah Graham is a journalist, writer and editor, who has been published by The Telegraph, Guardian, Metro, Press Association, Open Democracy, and more. She has been Deputy Editor of Feminist Times since December 2013, having joined as the founding Editorial Assistant in May 2013. Today she leaves Feminist Times to work freelance, in a room of her own. Follow her @SarahGraham7

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What Feminist Times means to me…

We asked some of the women who’ve been most closely involved in the project to tell us what Feminist Times has meant to them. We’ve also added comments sent by email since the announcement.

Lucy Newman, Art Director:

My experience of Fem T: Dangerously destroying and burning plastic spandex with Charlotte in the garden, a one off day at Giuliana’s house with original artists and makers, creating new pieces  from decommissioned shapewear. Meetings around the kitchen table planning with Emma and Louise, and with Deborah and Sarah in the blast and energy of the launch.

Political, punk and screen printing styles, design and image making with Neni and Bob. From helping to visualise Charlotte’s concept at the start, through all the interactions and articles, my feminist consciousness has truly been raised.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, Contributing Editor:

As feminist thought increases in popularity, I had always feared that it might be devalued into a sort of consumerist lifestyle politics, concerned with issues that failed to analyse the material conditions that create inequality. I’ve been proud to be part of a feminist website that has bucked this trend. Feminist Times has achieved something very few UK based feminist websites manage to do: it has captured the cacophony of jostling voices from many women who call themselves feminists.

What has worked really well is Feminist Times’ bravery in displaying the subjectivity of feminism. Inequality is not a simple, one track problem that can be solved with sticking plaster style aesthetic changes. So many women experience discrimination and oppression that includes, but isn’t limited to their gender. It’s disingenuous to suggest that all of our feminisms are the same, or that we start from the same place. The word means different things to different people with different political stances. I’m glad that Feminist Times hasn’t indulged in the myth of a militaristic style movement, in which nobody can deviate from the line. There has been no priority campaign. Instead, Feminist Times has embraced the idea of a broad, intersectional church, whilst keeping inequality front and centre. Hierarchy has not reigned here. And whilst I’ve loved some articles, and strongly disliked some articles, I’ve always been relieved that – unlike other publications – Feminist Times doesn’t have an editorial line. Instead we had editors actively seeking out unheard voices and maligned perspectives. These are the conversations that feminism needs to have. I’m glad that FemT was one of the places that they could take place, even though it was sometimes messy and painful. And I’m not sure we’ll see another independent, funded online publication that can take its place.

Kat Lister, Contributing Editor:

One of my heroes Nora Ephron once said: “I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.” So thank you, Feminist Times, for allowing me to break a few rules and make a little trouble out there on behalf of women. I think we did, and I think Nora would’ve been proud. You gave me the opportunity to be myself and write the things that matter. It’s been a gift to write for you and an honour to call myself your Contributing Editor. Here’s to making trouble, here’s to women, and here’s to Feminist Times. Let’s keep breaking those rules.

Roz Kaveney, Contributing Editor:

I shall miss Feminist Times. If you look back over its short life, it fulfilled pretty much all of its promise for as long as it could. It was a place where feminists with different analyses talked to each other, for the most part respectfully.

If intersectional feminism is the way forward, as I think it is, then the various communities of women within feminism have got to learn skills in dialogue and negotiation, of which the recent discussions and debates around race, around trans issues, around sex work and around mental health are only the beginning. The important thing has got to be that our feminism always be a work in progress, never the implementation of answers that were decided upon in America in the early 70s or London in the 80s. 21st Century feminism needs to be bigger and more inclusive – it has to be about protecting the vulnerable as well as consolidating the few victories already won.

Feminist Times was a useful time and space for that work – when someone puts together a successor, and I am sure someone will, our experiences here will have been useful to them. And the lesson – as always – will be ‘Fail Again, Fail Better.’

Jude Wanga, regular contibutor:

Writing for Feminist Times has been fantastic. It’s allowed me to fine-tune how I connect to readers through my words by giving me a wider platform, editors to discuss work with and engagement with an audience, which has helped me to find my voice as a writer. I’ve been able to write some challenging pieces, like the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit, with the support of the editorial team. The editors let you argue your own point at Feminist Teams, never forcing you to take a view you’re not comfortable with, or silencing the opinion you do hold.

FemT has allowed me to express my specialist knowledge, as it has for other writers, but it also encourages its writers to write about subjects that interests them, rather than being pigeonholed and asked only to contribute on a few set subjects.

The mainstream press lacks a diverse array of writers, particularly when reporting on feminist issues. Projects such as the Feminist Times offers this variety alongside the freedom to write about the issues that matter to those writers, rather than just those which are reported elsewhere. These issues are given exposure that they aren’t afforded in the mainstream press, and Feminist Times amplifies voices that are underrepresented.

Philippa Willitts, regular contributor:

Feminist Times has become a space on the web where a variety of women’s voices have been heard and, as it has not been afraid to tackle difficult subjects, the site has been host to both popular and unpopular opinions. The importance of a feminist website with a policy of paying its contributors should also not be underestimated. This is rare and, for full-time freelance writers like myself, meant I could dedicate time to feminist writing that otherwise might have had to go onto the endless list of ‘articles I’d love to write but can’t justify prioritising’. I hope this is a model that grows, so that we don’t have to constantly choose between writing what we are passionate about, and writing what pays the rent. The future of Feminist Times is unclear, but the legacy it has built will continue to have an impact.

Louise Pennington, regular contributor:

I will miss Feminist Times. Whilst I did not always agree with editorial decisions, it was one of the only feminist publications which published articles by gender-critical feminists. It was a much needed feminist space free of advertising that was also willing to take risks. More importantly, it was a space to combat cultural femicide within a backlash to feminism.

Leisa Taylor West Midlands Local Team:

Becoming involved in local teams came at a time when i was desperate to be involved with something unapologetically feminist. It has been an excellent experience for me to bring like-minded people together to discuss issues in an intelligent, thought provoking and useful way.
It had also given me the opportunity to meet and work alongside some brilliant women. Although this project may now be coming to an end and is deeply disappointing, I believe that it had been a catalyst for me, and hopefully others, to keep on keeping on and to continue to work towards creating a feminism for the future.

Refuge:

A ltitle crestfallen wave has just passed over the comms team here as we received your email. So sorry to hear that Feminist Times is coming to an end. It has been really fantastic to work alongside you, and it really speaks to the credentials of Feminist Times that you used the short time you had to help amplify the messages of Refuge and other similar organisations. I just wanted to say thank you for your commitment, both personal and professional, to supporting the cause, and to wish you well for the future.

Peter Tatchell, LGBT campaigner:

Commiserations re Feminist Times. I know from first-hand experience how hard it is to sustain these projects. But congratulations. FT was trail-blazing and amazing. A bright feminist star. I hope it returns – asap. Good luck in your future endeavours

Jon Snow, Channel 4 news:

I’m sad indeed to hear that you are closing. Thank you for what you have done and I hope you come back in some other form.

Trista Hendren, Feminist Times member:

I am beyond saddened to hear this news.  Many times, I have had to cut corners myself these last years, and honestly it did cross my mind to stop contributing because money is so tight, but I could never do it. I don’t think this is a reflection on your magazine, but rather the horrid economic conditions now, particularly for women – and even more so for those of us who live on our own terms.

Please know that I valued and appreciated what you did SO much this last year.   I hope you are able to continue in some way moving forward, but I respect your decision very much.

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Dolly Parton – “A radical in rhinestones”

When Dolly Parton played at the Glastonbury Festival last month she won rave reviews. However, the media focus was not just on her exquisite singing (or alleged miming) and fabulous costumes, but also turned to feminism.

Lily Allen discussed feminism with Dolly in an interview for The Radio Times, Krissi Murison and myself debated whether Dolly is a feminist with Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and articles in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times also honed in on the subject. Seeing Dolly Parton as valuable for feminism is, in itself, nothing new; in 1987 she was named one of Ms. magazine’s women of the year, and Gloria Steinem wrote in praise of Parton’s business acumen and philanthropy. But given that it is not something that the star herself explicitly encourages – she tends to deflect questions about feminism by joking “I was the first woman to burn her bra. It took the fire department four days to put out the fire”.

Many of Dolly’s songs are feminist in that they articulate the realities of women’s lives, including the oppression of women. Just Because I’m A Woman criticises sexual double standards, Blackie Kentucky tells the story of an abused woman who commits suicide, and Mommie, Aint’ That Daddy and Daddy’s Moonshine Still witness the damage caused by alcoholism, with women driven to prostitution and despair. She has written of a woman forced into a mental institution because her lover wants her out of the way, and of a pregnant teenager who is rejected by her family and goes on to have a stillborn baby. She wrote these songs in the late sixties and early seventies, during the advance of second wave feminism. Her 1980 hit 9 to 5 remains the anthem for justice for working women.

More recently, the tenor of feminism in her lyrics has changed. It is more in tune with the new age, noughties strand of feminism tells us women that we’d “Better Get To Livin’” even if we are “overweight, underpaid, underappreciated”. Other songs are gently subversive. Travelin’ Thru, from the soundtrack to Transamerica, is about Christianity and transgender experience. Even Jolene, when you think about it, is less about a woman’s jealous insecurity that she might lose her husband to Jolene, than a song of praise to the gorgeous redhead; the focus is all on her, not him.

Dollywood, the amusement park in east Tennessee co-owned by Dolly Parton is the only theme park in the world, to my knowledge, that is themed around a woman (there are plenty themed around men, real and fictional). She is a savvy businesswoman. Not many singers would have turned down Elvis’s request to sing one their songs (I Will Always Love You) because he wanted too big a cut of the royalties. And she has used her money to revitalise an impoverished area of Tennessee, and to encourage literacy through her international Imagination Library reading scheme. All of this with outrageous wigs and wit.

But what about the ‘Backwoods Barbie’ image? Feminisms faced some flack on Twitter for embracing a star who has had so much cosmetic surgery. Ben Macintyre, in a favourable article in The Times, wrote that “the Dolly look is itself a deflation of sexism, a standing joke about male chauvinist expectations. She may look like a male fantasy of female sexual availability (frozen in about 1968), but her image is entirely owned and controlled by her.” Really? Does any artist who looks like a male fantasy of female sexual availability but who “controls” their image, therefore deflate sexism? Does Rihanna? Does Miley Cyrus (who happens to be Dolly Parton’s goddaughter)? To argue this is to tread close to the headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion: ‘Women now empowered by anything a woman does.’

It is doubtful that anyone can control their image, even stars with some say over their self-presentation, like Parton. Her persona, even before the cosmetic surgery, made her the target of sexism in music journalism and beyond. Scientists named Dolly the sheep, the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell (a mammary gland) after Dolly Parton; how crass!

What Parton can and does do is to challenge some of the sexist stereotyping that accompanies her look. A repeated motif in her songs is that you should look beyond a woman’s appearance, and not underestimate her (Dumb Blonde, Backwoods Barbie, and 9 to 5: The Musical: “You only see tits, but get this: there’s a heart under there..well, ol’ Double-D Doralee’s gonna stick it to you”). It is also important to recognise where her look came from. In her autobiography she says that she took on this image because looking “like a hooker” meant that the local men would not harass her; looking feminine commanded respect. In that context, the cosmetic surgery and the emphasis on bust, hair and nails, has a different meaning.

Of course, creating feminist heroines always involves looking at them with a selective eye. In Dolly Parton’s case this may mean choosing to ignore the early songs that promote co-dependence, the idiosyncratic retelling of American history in her Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction (worth seeing for the racing pigs alone!), and her being less pluralist with religion than she is with sexuality.

I think there’s another reason why Dolly Parton has been claimed as a feminist. She fills a vacuum that might once have been filled by Maya Angelou, or Germaine Greer. There are now no active, internationally recognized feminists with the charisma, empathy, and sparkle of Dolly Parton. Perhaps this is why we must turn to popular culture for our icons, to Dolly and to Oprah. Dolly Parton: a radical in rhinestones.

Helen Morales is author of Pilgrimage to Dollywood (Chicago University Press, 2014)

Photo source

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Andrea Dworkin’s Last Rape

Soon after Andrea and I met in 1974 she began to let me know about her history of battery and rape. I had never spoken with anyone to whom such things had happened. Or maybe I had, but no one before had trusted me to hear. This new knowledge learned from Andrea shook me to the core. I realised my life had to change. I had to take responsibility for what I now knew.

The public and political form of that responsibility included a dramatic shift in what I wrote and why. Since college I wanted to be a playwright. When Andrea first got to know me, I was working in an experimental theatre company. She and I were introduced by its artistic director, a mutual friend. Impelled by my new knowledge—about men’s rapacious capacity to enact their misogyny through violence against women—I stopped writing plays and started writing non-fiction, to figure out who I was, who I had to become, and what I had to do now that I knew what men as men do to women.

The personal form of that responsibility included Andrea’s and my private life together. A priority was safety and security, at home and wherever she or we went. She was vulnerable as a recognisable public figure who encountered haters because of what she stood for. She was also vulnerable to insults and assaults simply because she was a woman. One day she came home distraught and told me she had just fought off some young men who accosted her as she was walking on a nearby street and tried to force her into a van. A friend at a local rape crisis centre told her later that women had come in reporting having been raped inside such vans, their rapes videotaped. This was not the only near-miss during our life together. I always knew that her terrible history of male-pattern sexual violence—the lived knowledge that she wrote from to help other women—could at any moment resume.

One day it did.

In May 1999 Andrea went to Paris. She had just completed her monumental book Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women’s Liberation. Researching and writing it had consumed her for nine years. The work included immersion in Holocaust literature and had been so draining it caused her health to suffer. She needed a break badly. She wanted to take a vacation in Paris, a city she loved. She wanted to fly first-class and stay in a five-star hotel. I objected because we couldn’t afford it, but she persuaded me: this was what she most wanted to do; this was what she needed to be safe; her life mattered more than money. When I saw her off, I wanted more than anything for her to be okay.

She was. She was happy there; we spoke daily by phone and she told me. She took long walks. She saw art. She began writing a new book. She was resting and replenishing what she had sacrificed for Scapegoat.

Then one day she called in a state of alarm and agitation. She told me she thought she had been raped. In the hotel. While she was blacked out from a drugged drink. She sounded beside herself with confusion and distress. I tried to think fast and calm her. I said she should call her gynaecologist, whose phone number I would get her. She didn’t want to deal with authorities because she didn’t speak French, so I told her she should fly back home immediately on the first flight she could get.

The experience had shattered her. She struggled to recover. She had terrifying nightmares. She consulted two therapists. She went on anti-anxiety meds. Her health declined further.

For Andrea, writing was always a way to understand what she otherwise could not, so I was relieved when soon after the Paris ordeal she told me she had begun to write about it. Months later she showed me a first-person essay she was going to submit to the New Statesman titled “The day I was drugged and raped.” When I read it I was troubled. I recognised the veracity of everything in it, but I was fearful that this pubic disclosure would hurt her. I was uneasy that it said “John looked for any other explanation than rape” (which was true) but did not mention why (because I desperately did not want her to have been raped again), so it seemed to say I did not believe her. But I also recognized this was an instance when the last thing I should do was suggest editorial amendments or be a filter. If only for the sake of her healing process, Andrea needed to speak aloud what she wanted to say, on her own terms. So on June 5, 2000, about a year and one month after she was drug-raped, the piece as she wrote it was published.

Neither Andrea nor I anticipated the disbelieving, dismissive, and derisive attacks that followed—a contemptuous cacophony that accused her of, among other things, concocting the story to get attention. As I knew her to be tormented daily by ongoing and worsening physic and physical symptoms resulting from the trauma, I was shocked and angered by this ridiculing reaction. Not only did it bear no relationship to her reality, it also exacerbated her pain. I thought the attackers – all women – should be ashamed.

In the last years of Andrea’s life, the dark cloud that had hovered since Paris slowly lifted and let in light. Her fighting spirit was reclaimed, our troubled times were behind us, we were closer than ever, and she was working again. She wrote and published Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant. Though she could no longer accept speaking engagements, because she was unable to travel (due to bone disease, as she describes in “Through the pain barrier”), at the time of her death in April 2005 she was deep into researching and writing what would have been her fourteenth book.

It was many months after Andrea died before I felt emotionally ready to look through her computer. There were no surprises, nothing I would not have expected to find, except a manuscript I did not know existed. The text file had last been last closed and date-stamped August 30, 1999—about three months after her drug rape in Paris. I took a look, realised quickly it was about that anguish, saw it was dedicated to J.S. (me) and E.M. (Elaine Markson, her dear friend and agent)—and promptly put it aside. I could not bring myself to read it. I could not bear to revisit that painful time.

As months then years went by and my grief became not so constant, I realised that whatever emotional reaction I was avoiding, I really had a responsibility to read that piece. When I braced myself and finally did, I was overwhelmed and awed. Because what I discovered was a 24,000-word autobiographical essay, composed in twelve impassioned sections, as powerful and beautifully written as anything she ever wrote. It was searingly personal, fierce and irreverent, mordantly witty, emotionally raw. It was also clearly not a draft; it was finished, polished as if for publication. And I understood why she did not show it to me or Elaine. She had to have known it would devastate us. Because she had written it in the form of a suicide note.

Obviously it wasn’t an actual suicide note, or at least didn’t turn out to be. She lived on after completing it, kept to an intense writing schedule, and died in her sleep of what an autopsy determined was heart inflammation. But in choosing to write in that form, she found and released language with which to speak in her emotional extremity that gave utterance to the experience of being a drug-rape survivor as no other major writer has ever done.

Andrea designated me to be her literary executor, a responsibility that now included deciding whether she intended that manuscript to be published. Clearly she wrote it for her own sake, to excavate and exorcise her pain by shaping it into language through the agency of her art. But I honestly did not know whether she meant it to be in the world.

One day when I was rereading it, my theatre background kicked in and something about the writing struck me. I noticed that the text read like an extended dramatic monologue or monodrama, like the script of an indelible solo theatre piece. And I began imagining that a live performance of the work could be a way for Andrea’s words to be heard. By a live audience, aloud on stage. In a way that would fully honor and honestly express the passion from which she wrote.

The process took several years. Finally in early May 2014 the piece, now titled Aftermath, was performed six times in New York City in the Willa Cather Room of the Jefferson Market Library. The text was entirely by Andrea (the original manuscript cut by half to run 90 minutes). The director and dramaturg was Adam Thorburn, a longtime friend and collaborator. The performer was a phenomenally gifted actor, Maria Silverman.

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Maria Silverman in Aftermath by Andrea Dworkin.

Audiences were intensely engaged. Night after night in post-show talkbacks there was overwhelming sentiment that the piece should go on. From those talkbacks it was clear that the performance spoke both to people who knew Andrea (and/or her work) and to people who had never heard of her. A post-performance online survey asked audience members to say what the piece was for them and meant to them. Here are some responses:

“The writing was painful, poetic, incisive. The actress was superb.”

“It was intense, painful, occasionally funny, and incredibly worthwhile.”

“Moving, touching, gut wrenching in the best way, brilliant writing, superlative performance, beautifully directed…wanting more!”

“It blew me away. So full of deep truths, so beautifully written, so powerfully performed. I thought it was fantastic.”

“This was incredibly moving. As honest and powerful as anything I had heard in a long time.”

Aftermath has since been accepted into the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York City, where it will be performed in fall 2014. I am seeking other circumstances in which audiences in the U.S., and someday around the world, can have the powerful experience of Aftermath.

At each step in putting this theater project together, I have wished I could talk with Andrea about it. I would want to tell her how the words she showed no one are now reaching and affecting audiences in live performance.

Aftermath_image3_Feminist Times

After a performance of Aftermath by Andrea Dworkin (from left): John Stoltenberg, Adam Thorburn, Maria Silverman, Gloria Steinem. Photograph by Jackie Rudin.

As an author Andrea was always an artist, and Aftermath as literature is no exception. The writing is stirring throughout and ranges dramatically over many themes—her aspirations when she was young, her erotic and romantic relationships, the marriage in which she was battered, her understanding of the connection between Jews and women, her take on President Clinton’s behavior, her deep commitment to helping women, her critique of women who betray women. The fact that Aftermath is acted means audiences get to hear an emotional dimensionality in Andrea’s voice that in life she shared only with me and her closest friends—trenchant and oracular as the public knew her but also tender, sardonic, sorrowful, vulnerable, funny.

Andrea also always wanted her art to be of use. To matter, to make a difference. So I would want to let her know that through Aftermath her fearless, unfiltered articulation of her solitary anguish in the aftermath of being drug-raped is now touching other survivors of sexual abuse, female and male—helping them come to terms with what is incomprehensible and unspeakable about their own experience, helping them not feel so alone in it.

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To receive updates about Aftermath: The Andrea Dworkin Theater Project, like its Facebook page. For tickets to the United Solo run in New York City, click here. For production inquiries, email media2change@gmail.com.

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John Stoltenberg’s essays include “Living With Andrea Dworkin” (1994) and “Imagining Life Without Andrea” (2005). For Feminist Times’ #GenderWeek, he recently wrote “Andrea Was Not Transphobic.” He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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The Ecosexuals are Coming!

Last week, I sat down with a legend – a porn legend. Annie Sprinkle, sex worker, porn actress, performance artist and activist, has been making performances, films, and visual art for decades, educating her audiences about female sexuality and the political power of pleasure. Her work has played an impactful role in the history of feminism and the heated debates around pornography.

But recently, like other famously outspoken feminists – Germaine Greer, Vivienne Westwood, and Isabella Rossellini – Sprinkle’s work has turned eco-friendly, or to use a more appropriate term, ecosexual. Beth Stephens, artist, educator, and Sprinkle’s romantic partner and collaborator for the past 13 years, is the leader of their current project – a film about the devastating effects of mountaintop removal in Stephens’ homeland of West Virginia. Their film, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story, premiered at the Sheffield Doc/Fest and the East End Film Festival this month. Over a lovely and lengthy brunch, Stephens and Sprinkle talked to me about their new film, their sensual relationship with the Earth, and their loving relationship with feminism.

LBH: I’m going to rewind a bit first – to 1989. Annie, Post-Porn Modernist was probably your most famous piece in the UK – do you consider that show feminist?

AS: Absolutely. 100%. I was trying to say that porn was a feminist issue, that you could make feminist porn. I did this show from 1989-1994. Post-Porn Modernist was a well-known piece, but the only place in England I did it was in Newcastle. I performed once at the ICA, but I had to censor the shit out of everything. Porn was illegal here, so I wasn’t able to do my shows. Post-Porn Modernist was my first one-woman show, and I was kind of like the first sex worker to do performance art, so it was hotly debated – is it art or is it porn? People were trying to figure out, can you be a sex worker and be a feminist? Can you be a pornographer and a feminist?

LBH: Do you feel like the work was accepted by the feminist movement at the time? I think what was so interesting about this piece is that it was happening at this incredibly rich moment in feminist history, where the issue of porn created a number of divergent feminist factions.

BS: It was accepted by the pro-porn movement, I can tell you that.

AS: I was never against the anti-porn feminists. I welcomed them, I welcomed the debate, I loved them. But they would often protest, shut things down. And they didn’t play fair – they wouldn’t even be in the same room with me, or have a discussion with me. Andrea Dworkin was the face of anti-porn feminist movement. I heard her speak and she gave a very impassioned speech. I disagreed with 75% but the other 25% was, yeah, there are crazy serial killers murdering women and children in their garages and videotaping it. Yes, we share that concern. But then she was speaking for me, that I was a victim, and I’m like, no, you’ve got that wrong. But I say we needed to have this conversation, and I was at the frontlines of that debate.

But you know what, when I was younger I wasn’t a feminist because I thought, if feminists were anti-porn, then I wasn’t feminist. It wasn’t until someone came up with the term  ‘sex-positive feminist’ that I said, ok I can identify. It gave a doorway for sex-workers, for all the women who weren’t anti-porn, to enter, and claim the feminist identity. That term gave me a place. That’s what we’re trying to do with ecosex. We’re trying to open the door for those who don’t feel they fit into the debate. The fact that there’s been no other queer, environmetalist film – that we know of yet – [means] there’s been no place.

LBH: Ok, so to the present day – can you tell me what ‘ecosexuality’ is?

AS: Ecosex is a sexual identity, in a way. Sexocology is the field of ecosexual art, theory, practice, and activism. In LoveArt Lab [a series of art and performance works about love] we performed 18 or 19 performance art weddings. In the first weddings we did, we married each other and the community. But in the 4th one, we married the Earth. The next day we were changed people. We made vows to love, honor and cherish the Earth in front of 400 people. Everyone there who wanted to also took the vows. We were thinking, how we can we care for our lover, Earth?

BS: What was really incredible about our green wedding is this: I was the chair of the Art Department of Santa Cruz (University of California) and we were able to get a lot of funding (from the University) to launch this wedding. The Chancellor of our university was there, a lot of sex workers, a lot of my students – [these weddings] are huge community building events, pedagogical events, political events. This marriage actually took place on the day that Prop 8 was overturned. Annie and I are of the position that if human beings can get all these rights through the act of marriage, why can’t the Earth get these rights too? The Earth is being destroyed.

AS: We teach these ecosexual workshops, where we teach people to connect sensually with the Earth. The pleasure, the erotic, sensual pleasure of just laying in the sun. Everything is alive, and everything is sexual. There is sex going on all around us in nature. So we put on these ecosexual eyes in the workshop and it really expands what sex is, which is a very feminist issue.

BS: It’s hugely empowering. Because women are really taught what sex is, how to have sex, and how to have the correct kind of sex. But sex can be anything you want it to be.

LBH: How do feminism and sexecology come together? How does your feminist politics inform the ecological politics of what you’re doing?

AS: It’s a feminist issue because people are raping, abusing, and disrespecting their mother. Our basic idea is instead of imagining the Earth as a mother – because within this metaphor, she is old, exploited, pissed off, and being treated like shit– we want to change this maternal archetype to lover.

BS: I think it’s a feminist issue because– I’m going to essentalise a little bit here – whether it’s biological or sociological, women have been left to take care of the children, and left to take care of each other. Free domestic labour is really about taking care of everyone else. And I think feminists have turned that care-taking into a theoretical position where women are more likely to be concerned about the good of the whole, rather than the promotion of individuals to dominate the whole. Feminists can definitely be bitchy or egocentric, which I actually think is great – when men are that way, they’re heroes; when women are that way, they’re put down. There is a component of individuality [about that bitchiness or egocentrism], but even the most individualist feminist thinkers are systems-thinkers, thinking about the whole. What Annie and I are trying to do is to knock down some of these binaries: [gender and sexuality binaries, but also those] between nature and culture, human and non-human, source and resource.

LBH: Can you tell me more about the film? Like most of your work, the film seems political, but also silly and warm. What is this film about for you?

BS: In Appalachia, 500 mountaintops have been removed through mountaintop removal. The Appalachian Mountains are the 2nd most bio-diverse region in the Western Hemisphere, and they’re being devastated. We’re really trying to garner empathy for the Earth [through this film]. There really is an interesting movement in feminist thought around our current geological age, which is an age caused by man-made destruction. So what we’re trying to do with the ecosexual movement is make it more sexy, fun and diverse. But we’re also trying to engage queer people and women. I think women need to mobilise and start thinking about the entire social body, which, like it or not, we’re responsible for.

AS: The environmental movement has a certain image of either the Sierra Club, this kind of conservative and white [organisation], and then the tree-hugger version, which is actually very heterosexual. We adore them all, but where is the place for the queers, the drag queens, the sex workers, the art students, the people of colour?

LBH: What do you feel are the biggest challenges for women today?

AS: I feel the movements I’ve been a part of are starting to eat their own, and kill their parents. For example, the trans movement now is eating their own. Some of these young people are anti-drag, and attacking Ru Paul, who’s done so much for the trans community.

BS: I encounter a lot of young women who don’t want to associate with ‘feminism’. But I think we’re at this moment where we really need to regroup, re-imagine and redefine what the issues we want to address are. And that’s what we’re doing through ecosexuality. I just heard Germaine Greer say, “Feminism has not happened yet”. That is so radical – and we completely agree.

Photo source

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“Cliquish, tunnel-vision intolerance afflicts too many feminists”

When the Daily Mail described our interviewee as a “dissident feminist” last December we knew we had to talk to this outsider of mainstream feminism, professor and writer Camille Paglia. I wanted to know why it’s not easy to slot her into a “camp”, what we can learn from her dissidence, and whether, looking back, she would consider acting differently in the public sphere. Has Paglia mellowed with age? Erm, that would be a big, bellowing, NO!

The Daily Mail described you as a “dissident feminist” and then went on to list a series of counter intuitive opinions you are reported as having. Why is it important for a feminist to be “dissident”? Do you ever play devil’s advocate and do we need feminists who are “controversial”?

I am a dissident because my system of beliefs, worked out over the past five decades, has been repeatedly attacked, defamed, and rejected by feminist leaders and their acolytes across a wide spectrum, both in and out of academe. This punitive style of mob ostracism began from the very start of second-wave feminism, when Betty Friedan was pushed out of the National Organization for Women by younger and more radical women, including fanatical lesbian separatists.

As a graduate student in 1970, I quietly clashed with future bestselling lesbian novelist Rita Mae Brown at an early feminist conference held at the Yale Law School. Brown said, “The difference between you and me, Camille, is that you want to save the universities and I want to burn them down.” The next year, I nearly got into a fistfight with the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band over my defense of the Rolling Stones. Two years after that, as a Bennington College teacher at dinner at an Albany restaurant, I had an angry confrontation with the founding faculty of the pioneering women’s studies programme of the State University of New York when they sweepingly dismissed any role of hormones in human development. They accused me of being “brainwashed by male scientists”, a charge I still find stupid and contemptible. (I walked out before dessert, thereby boycotting the feminist event we all were headed to.)

“Neither she nor any other feminist has the right to canonise or excommunicate.”

There was a steady stream of other such unpleasant incidents, but everything paled in comparison to the international firestorm of lies and libel that greeted me after the publication in 1990 of my first book, Sexual Personae (a 700-page expansion of my Yale dissertation). It’s all documented and detailed in the back of my two essay collections, but let me give just one example. In 1992, Gloria Steinem, the czarina of U.S. feminism, sat enthroned with her designated heirs, Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, on the stage of New York’s 92nd St Y and, when asked a question about me from the floor, replied: “We don’t give a shit what she thinks.” The moment was caught by TV cameras and broadcast by CBS’s 60 Minutes programme. Faludi has monotonously insisted over the years that I am not a feminist but “only play one on TV”. Well, who made Faludi pope? Neither she nor any other feminist has the right to canonise or excommunicate.

I remain an equal opportunity feminist. That is, I call for the removal of all barriers to women’s advance in the professional and political realms. However, I oppose special protections for women (such as differential treatment of the names of accuser and accused in rape cases), and I condemn speech codes of any kind, above all on university campuses. Furthermore, as a libertarian, I maintain that our private sexual and emotional worlds are too mercurial and ambiguous to obey the codes that properly govern the workplace. As I recently told the Village Voice, I maintain that everyone has a bisexual potential and that no one is born gay. We need a more flexible psychology, as well as an end to the bitter feminist war on men. My feminist doctrine is completely on the record in four of my six books.

As for playing “devil’s advocate”, I can’t imagine a committed feminist engaging in that kind of silly game. The real problem is the cliquish, tunnel-vision intolerance that afflicts too many feminists, who seem unprepared to recognise and analyse ideas. In both the U.S. and Britain, there has been far too much addiction to “theory” in post-structuralist and post-modernist gender studies. With its opaque jargon and elitist poses, theory is no way to build a real-world movement. My system of pro-sex feminism has been constructed by a combination of scholarly research and every-day social observation.

The infamous faxes between you and Julie Burchill in The Modern Review are still very much the stuff of legend in the UK’s media. Any regret about the whole thing? If you were mentoring a young Camille today how would you tell her to deal with that kind of situation? All guns blazing, take her down and combative, or would you be recommending some mindfulness, meditation and understanding?

There is not a single thing I would change in my handling of that acrimonious 1993 episode. British journalist Julie Burchill gratuitously attacked and insulted me, and I responded in kind. Our exchanges continued, with my replies getting longer and hers getting shorter, until she realised she had misjudged her opponent and “bottled out” (a British locution for beating a hasty retreat that I heard for the first time from an amused Times reporter commenting on the battle).

I learned how to jab and parry from my early models, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and Mary McCarthy. Germaine Greer, whom I deeply admire, has always been glorious in combat. As for mentoring a young Camille Paglia, I would tell her to study my martial arts moves and do likewise!

We have found ourselves in the midst of many similar battles of wits online, as Twitter is effectively publishing everyone’s faxes. As someone who can give as good as you get, how do you feel about some prominent feminists and writers being hounded off Twitter by other feminists? What do you think Twitter is doing for feminism – making it narcissistic, polarised and too noisy, or democratic, pluralist and a thriving community?

It’s a sad comment on the current state of feminism that the movement has been reduced to the manic fragments and instant obsolescence of Twitter. Although I adore the web and was a co-founding contributor to Salon.com from its very first issue in 1995, I have no interest whatever in social media. My publisher maintains an informational Facebook page for me on the Random House site, but I don’t do Facebook or Twitter and wouldn’t even know how.

“…without strong books and essays as a permanent repository for new ideas, modern movements eventually sputter out…”

It is difficult to understand how a generation raised on the slapdash jumpiness of Twitter and texting will ever develop a logical, coherent, distinctive voice in writing and argumentation. And without strong books and essays as a permanent repository for new ideas, modern movements eventually sputter out for lack of continuity and rationale. Hasty, blathering blogging (without taking time for reflection and revision) is also degrading the general quality of prose writing.

As for feminists being hounded off Twitter by other feminists, how trivial and adolescent that sounds! Both sides should get offline and read more—history, sociology, psychology, and the big neglected subject, biology. How can the greater world, much less men, ever take feminism seriously if its most ardent proponents behave like catty sorority girls throwing hissy fits at the high-school cafeteria?

The two feminist issues that create the most noise on Twitter, and generate backlash whichever way you side, are the sex industry and gender, the latter especially in relation to transgenderism. What are your thoughts on both?

I support, defend, and admire prostitutes, gay or straight. They do important and necessary work, whether moralists of the Left and Right like it or not. Child prostitution and sexual slavery are of course an infringement of civil liberties and must be stringently policed and prohibited.

Feminists who think they can abolish the sex trade are in a state of massive delusion. Only a ruthless, fascist regime of vast scale could eradicate the rogue sex impulse that is indistinguishable from the life force. Simply in the Western world, pagan sexuality has survived 2000 years of Judaeo-Christian persecution and is hardly going to be defeated by a few feminists whacking at it with their brooms.

Transgenderism has taken off like a freight train and has become nearly impossible to discuss with the analytic neutrality that honest and ethical scholarship requires. First of all, let me say that I consider myself a transgender being, neither man nor woman, and I would welcome the introduction of “OTHER” as a gender category in passports and other government documents. I telegraphed my gender dissidence from early childhood in the 1950s through flamboyantly male Halloween costumes (a Roman soldier, a matador, Napoleon, etc.) that were then shockingly unheard of for girls.

As a libertarian, I believe that every individual has the right to modify his or her body at will. But I am concerned about the current climate, inflamed by half-baked post-modernist gender theory, which convinces young people who may have other unresolved personal or family issues that sex-reassignment surgery is a golden road to happiness and true identity.

How has it happened that so many of today’s most daring and radical young people now define themselves by sexual identity alone? There has been a collapse of perspective here that will surely have mixed consequences for our art and culture and that may perhaps undermine the ability of Western societies to understand or react to the vehemently contrary beliefs of others who do not wish us well. As I showed in Sexual Personae, which began as a study of androgyny in literature and art, transgender phenomena multiply and spread in “late” phases of culture, as religious, political, and family traditions weaken and civilizations begin to decline. I will continue to celebrate androgyny, but I am under no illusions about what it may portend for the future.

Camille Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her latest book is Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars.

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Suarez got a longer ban for biting than racism

Football is a passionate sport. There’s none quite like it. If religion was the opiate of the masses, football is the methadone. It can elicit the most extreme of reactions from the most conservative of people, tears from the most stoic of men, and scenes of jubilation unrivaled by most sports. Children and adults unite in adoration and appreciation of a club, a player, or an awesome goal.

Sport, perhaps, is one of the few places along with finance, politics and celebrity where indiscretions and flaws can be overlooked and tolerated on the basis of talent – and this is especially true of football, where triumph over adversity is part of the story of many to have played the game – Pele and Maradona, for example. It’s full of romantic tales – local boy done good, rags to riches. All of these only serve to enhance the popularity of this pastime.

When Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield during their boxing match in 1997, taking a chunk of his ear with him, the punishment for this was a $3 million dollar fine and the rescindment of his boxing licence in Nevada, a move that was upheld by subsequent states, effectively banning him from boxing in the USA. Though the ban was later overturned, he would serve over a year out of the sport, returning to the ring in 1999. Overwhelming opinion was that biting was unacceptable, even in a sport where success is determined on your ability to hurt your opponent physically.

So we fast forward to now, and Liverpool & Uruguay player Luis Suarez, who has just been banned for nine international matches and four months of all football-related activity by the world football governing body FIFA, following his bite on Giorgio Chiellini during Uruguay’s game against Italy at the World Cup.

It’s not the first time Suarez had bitten an opponent on the field – in fact, it was his third such transgression. Previous bans of seven and 10 matches respectively had failed to overturn his penchant for using his teeth on the field of play. This time was different; this was on the world stage, in a World Cup which promised to be marred by political unrest in the host nation but, to FIFA’s relief and advantage, had been relatively controversy-free until the Suarez incident. An international ban would not be enough of a statement to make. A strong sentence was necessary. Children bite. Animals bite. Adults should not bite. Professional athletes should not bite.

Football often is a great mirror of society. All the flaws of the latter can be found in the former. From the stands to the pitch to the administrative bodies, football has a sexism problem, a racism problem, and increasingly a class problem, with the working class priced out of a sport that they helped to elevate to such heights.

Opinion has been divided following the ban. There are those, such as the Uruguayan team, the  press and even Maradona, who think the punishment is too severe for the crime. There are also those who think the ban is just, as it is the third time in four years he has done such a thing. Controversial stars are part of the allure of sports. They elicit polarising and extreme opinions from those who hate and love in equal measure. Yet every so often there are controversies we are unable to overlook.

Whilst this was a third bite, and as unacceptable as biting is, Suarez has actually been found guilty previously of a far worse crime – racially abusing an opponent on the pitch.

For that, he served a mere eight-match ban – a ban which was met with indignant howls from fervent Liverpool fans. A ban which – in the press as in the stands – revealed that football, much like society, still had a racism problem and it couldn’t be confined to just the supporters; it was now playing out on the pitch.

In any other profession, were you to be found guilty of racially abusing a colleague in their place of work you would not have a job to come back to. That Suarez was not only able to return to his job a mere two months later, but would go on to be seen, through the eyes of a few high profile journalists, as redeemed is part and parcel of the problem, and why we find ourselves here again with this deeply flawed player.

Significantly, this third bite and subsequent ban has not been enough to impede on Suarez’s career options. The player is rumoured to be in talks to move to Barcelona in an £80 million transfer, the club seemingly unbothered by the non-apology for the incident offered by Suarez, where personal responsibility was absolved in double-speak. “I’m sorry my teeth hit you when we collided” isn’t quite “I’m sorry for biting you” but at least an apology of sorts emerged, despite previous claims at the time that he was a victim, not the perpetrator. Patrice Evra is still awaiting an apology for being racially abused.

In the aftermath of Suarez’s racial ban, many were subjected to some of the worst racial abuse online. Abuse that came from challenging the media and journalists that this, unlike his previous biting or cheating at the World Cup in 2010, would have far more serious repercussions to just excuse as another indiscretion.

And so we return to football mirroring society. When we fail to properly hold people to account for their actions, not merely because they’re high profile or role models, we do a disservice not just to the game, but wider society. We reinforce injustices across wider society, and allow them to play out.

For this reason, we can accept the ban as retrospective justice of sorts and properly examine why we so often overlook that which would not be done so in most professions.

Perhaps, had racism been treated as seriously by the FA as biting has been by FIFA, if fans and journalists had engaged their sense of morality rather than looking for the easier story and resorting to tribalistic tendencies, then Suarez would not have been predisposed to bite a player for a second time, let alone a third.

Jude Wanga is a human rights campaigner, activist & freelance writer. Follow her @JudeInLondon

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Feminist Events Listings: July 2014

Verity FlecknellWelcome to my feminist event highlight blog for Feminist Times. Storm in a Teacup are thrilled to be highlighting all the best feminist events from London and beyond.

Whether you are an armchair activist or a full time activist, into your international politics, or personal politics, feminist artist, or radical feminist – there are just so many events happening up and down the country – there is bound to be something to tickle your fancy/get your teeth into.

Arguably there are more feminist events popping up more than ever and so many opportunities for you to get involved, meet like minded people, share skills and be a part of the movement.

We will be bringing you highlights of some of the feminist events not to be missed in July!

Verity Flecknell, Storm in a Teacup

NATIONAL

19-20 July || 40th Anniversary of the ‘74 Women’s Liberation Conference @ Kinning Park Complex, Glasgow.

Women’s Liberation 2014 conference will be held in Glasgow on Saturday the 19th and Sunday the 20th of July but it will commemorate the 1974 women’s liberation conference held in Edinburgh. 40 years on, women will come together to reminisce, to celebrate their achievements and to look to the future. The organisers envision a return to a politics of women’s liberation – moving from single-issue campaigns drawing on feminist ideas to a women-centred revolutionary movement. There will be workshops, talks, exhibitions and an evening event with an open stage and then disco on one floor, and a quieter space to talk to one another on the other floor.

HOW TO REGISTER:  e-mail scotwomenslib@gmail.com for a registration form. There’s a suggested donation of £40 for the weekend for women earning over 25k and women who can claim expenses, £25 for low-waged women and £15 for unwaged women. Asylum-seekers can attend for free.

MORE INFO: http://scottishwomensliberation.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/how-to-register-2/

LONDON

15th July || London Comedy Forum @ Institute of Education, London.

The LCF is an interdisciplinary forum for comedy and humour research. The July meeting is themed: Feminist Humour, and artist/researcher Hannah Ballou has curated a top notch panel of feminist humour practitioners. Bryony Kimmings, Kate Smurthwaite and Vikki Stone.

MORE INFO: https://www.facebook.com/events/883257285024899/

16 July || Women in Leadership – What Needs to Change? @ St. Pauls Institute, London.

Creating greater opportunities for female empowerment has been designated as one of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. It is clear that the tide is turning and large strides are being made to overcome problems of institutional inequality; many voices have joined together to call for our leaders to represent the diversity of the people they govern, but there is still work to be done to remove impediments that have restricted female advancement. How can we remove the institutional and cultural barriers preventing many women from reaching positions of leadership? What can different sectors learn from one another in the fight for true equality? What actions can we take to create lasting change? Join us at St Paul’s Cathedral for a public discussion led by: Liz Bingham, Managing Partner for Talent at EY, Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, Ceri Goddard, Director of Gender at the Young Foundation, The Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Chaired by: The Very Revd David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. 7pm, doors at 6.30pm.

MORE INFO: womenstpauls.eventbrite.co.uk

22 July || UNICEF host; Girl Summit @ Venue TBC, London.  

UNICEF and the UK Government co-host an event aimed at mobilising domestic and international efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) within our generation. Girls and women have the right to live free from violence and discrimination and achieve their potential, but millions are being prevented from doing so by harmful practices such as FGM and CEFM, which are illegal in the UK. The Home Secretary Theresa May and Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening will host the event, alongside heads of state, practitioners, survivors, charities and community groups. This creative, positive and engaging event will bring together women, girls and community leaders from the UK and overseas, alongside governments, international organisations and the private sector to agree on action to end FGM and CEFM within a generation. Registration essential.

MORE INFO: https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/girl-summit-2014

Verity Flecknell is founder of Storm in a Teacup, a London based feminist arts collective set up in 2009 with the aim of promoting women in the arts. In 2010 Storm in a Teacup helped organise Ladyfest Ten festival, in 2011 were part of the first ever Women of the World festival at the Southbank and in 2012 joined forces with Girls Get Busy zine and Not So Popular to form Lets Start a Pussy Riot collective. In June this year, Rough Trade Records published “Lets Start a Pussy Riot” book, a collection of artistic responses created in collaboration with Pussy Riot. Storm in a Teacup also publishes monthly feminist event listings happening around London.

Please visit Storm in a Teacup’s blog site for full feminist event listings for July 2014.

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Kahlo’s work still tells a story we struggle to talk about, even today

Happy Birthday Frida Kahlo! A mere 107 she would have been on 6 July; alas she died young at only 47.

60 years later, her 1932 painting Henry Ford Hospital (otherwise known as ‘The Flying Bed’) still pierces us with a painful image of womanhood we barely allow ourselves to talk about, let alone look at. Frida Kahlo dared to paint it. She was one of the first female artists to ever portray the realities of womanhood on canvas: the earth red ground beneath her a symbol of her loneliness. “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares,” she said, “I paint my own reality.” Decades later, her reality still beguiles us.

As Frida Kahlo lies splayed on the blood-splattered bed, hovering above ground, reality and reason, six images surround her, tied down with umbilical cords like six lead balloons against a barren sky: the foetus, Dieguito (“Little Diego”), who will never exist; a snail representing the slow horror of losing a baby; an autoclave, a device for sterilizing surgical instruments, the symbol of infertility, “bad luck and pain”; an orchid, a hospital gift from her husband Diego Rivera – a strange mix of sex and sentimentality; the pelvis and uterus, two anatomical signs of her broken body.

On 4 July 1932, Frida’s pregnancy ended in miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital. With this loss came the painful realisation that she would never physically be able to carry a baby to term. It was a reality she had already mythologised seven years earlier. On 17 September 1925 Frida and her boyfriend got onto a school bus. Minutes later it was hit by a tram. In addition to suffering a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a broken pelvis, a metal handrail pierced her abdomen, exiting through her vagina, permanently damaging her reproductive capacity. While in recovery, Frida was forced to face her reality: she may never be able to walk again, let alone have children. She responded by creating a birth certificate for an imaginary son she called “Leonardo”. It was at this moment of reality-versus-imagination that Frida Kahlo began painting seriously for the first time.

To understand Frida is to understand her pain. That doesn’t make her a victim, or her suffering a perversion. Frida Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera once talked about Frida’s art as “paintings that exalted the feminine qualities of endurance and truth, reality, cruelty, and suffering.” He would go on to conclude: “Never before has a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas.”

Whether Frida would have ever identified herself as a feminist remains punctuated with a question mark. For many today, her traumatic life and powerful works communicate a strong feminist message which dream weaves the reality they experience in their own lives. In fact, without the feminist art movement of the 1970s and 1980s, Frida Kahlo’s work would have remained an obscure footnote to husband Diego Rivera’s own artistic career. Second wave feminism in America brought Frida to a mass audience and she has captivated us ever since. Her stark presentation of the harsh lives women face has retrospectively made her a striking feminist at a time when a woman’s reality was hardly ever talked about or discussed. Her battle with miscarriage and infertility tells a story we struggle to talk about, even today.

According to her own count, Frida Kahlo would suffer two more miscarriages. Her art reflects a lifelong fascination with procreation, birth and the female body. Lithograph Frida and the Miscarriage is a stark example: Frida’s one dimensional body is divided into light and shade, two tears fall either side of her face as the tears of blood haemorrhage down her darkened leg. A male foetus is attached to her via an umbilical cord as her third arm holds an artist’s palette: artistic productivity her solace in the absence of children. It isn’t easy to look at but, in the words of her husband Diego, it is agony and poetry.

“My painting carries with it the message of pain,” Frida Kahlo once explained. In each and every canvas Frida painted, there is both the message of pain yet also survival. Paintings such as Survivor (1938), Roots (1943) and The Broken Column (1944) communicate strength, even at the point of physical breakdown and despair. It is also worth noting that her paintings display the true reproductive anatomy of women, a shocking and controversial undertaking in the early 20th century. In 1932 painting My Birth Frida gives birth to herself depicting the moment of childbirth in all its glory. My Birth succeeds in blending both imagination and reality, communicating a woman’s inner and external truth. For every person who struggles to look at Frida’s outstretched legs, its power and relevance is affirmed. Her reality is no longer hidden.

In the last year of her life, Frida told a friend: “Painting completed my life. I lost three children…Paintings substituted for all of this.” 60 years later, her work still endures.

Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor at Feminist Times and a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.

Photo: Chris Weige

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Trojan Horse: Ofsted & the media fall short on gender

Following the ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations of an Islamic extremist plot in British schools, the press has failed to focus on the fact that Ofsted inspections in fact unearthed findings about the way gender inequality can pervade a school culture. The report describes a culture of fear and intimidation within some of the schools, with some female staff members saying they feel intimidated by male members of the school and are treated unfairly because of their gender. Female Genital Mutilation and forced marriage are not being adequately addressed, and there has been opposition to mixed-gender swimming lessons.

Furthermore, children are being badly prepared for life in modern Britain. In some specific cases girls are discouraged from conversing with boys, undertaking extra circular activities and receive religious education separately from boys. The recommendations emphasise the need for schools to “carry out their statutory responsibility for safeguarding all children”, but fall short of ensuring that there is gender equality.

Where is the debate about the implications for gender equality? The narrative behind separation of girls and boys (in religious education, in swimming, etc.) is that girls are considered to be less equal to boys. Boys and girls are taught different subject material in religious and personal development lessons. If teachers expect certain modes of behaviour from girls – for example discouraging them from talking to boys – and if these attitudes underpin the social values of the teachers and parents alike, what actions can schools, governors, local authorities and the Government take to ensure that gender inequality is not promoted and that boys and girls are being prepared for life in modern Britain?

During the inspections and subsequent storm, I have been asking myself if we really have drawn back the curtain that hides the truth between the expectations of boys over girls. The initial claim was about an alleged Muslim plot to take over these schools; although this was not found to be the case in the Ofsted inspections, the subsequent media storm makes it difficult to separate out the Ofsted inspection, Islamic extremism and these schools.

The ensuing furore and the fallout between Theresa May and Michael Gove about the leaking of a private letter, as well as accusations and counter accusations over who is to blame for what  happened in Birmingham, has meant that the real issues remain under the radar. Add to this the fact that the majority of contributors to news and comments in the national media are men – specifically white men – and it comes as no surprise that the black feminist discourse around the findings and concerns for girls in schools is being missed.

But gender inequality is not just an issue for these schools in Birmingham; the control of girls’ behaviour, particularly when there is a match in attitudes between teachers and parents, has been going on for decades and this is why a feminist perspective is needed.

I attended a mainstream state school not very far from the schools in Birmingham. Not only did I have to deal with overtly racist teachers but I also had to contend with teachers who, though they did not display racism openly, nevertheless had low expectations of me ingrained in their stereotypical view, despite my academic ability. But the biggest challenge I faced on a daily basis was controlling my behaviour to avoid the attention of a male Sikh teacher.

This teacher took it as his ‘duty’ to ensure that Sikh girls ‘behaved’ according to his values and beliefs, which mirrored that of many Sikh parents. He did not consider it an inconvenience, let alone an infringement of child protection, to visit the girls’ homes after school and relay in detail to parents if he had seen or heard their daughter talking to boys, wearing skirts, make-up, etc.  This was not a Sikh school, nor indeed a school with a predominantly Sikh or Asian population, in the same way the schools in the Trojan Horse affair were not faith schools. However this teacher was able to monitor our behaviour and had the authority of the local Asian parental population to exercise his power over us as Sikh girl pupils.

What I was left with was a sense of fear. I did not feel safe at school. I did not feel I could go to another teacher and explain my fears. I did not have the confidence or autonomy to do this. I battled with feelings of ‘letting my parents down’, and the ‘whistleblowing’ of a teacher who not only was a professional in the school but also enjoyed a certain status within the community. I would not have been heard nor supported by any authority figure, be it my parents or the white teachers in the school.

This teacher harassed and behaved in a sexist manner towards me within the classroom. I was always careful to abide by his expectations of personal conduct at school. The last thing I wanted was for him to inform my parents of any perceived misdemeanours, because a very real consequence was that I could lose out on further education and be forced in to an early marriage.

Some of the findings of the Ofsted inspection mirror my own experiences as a Sikh girl pupil in a state school. The findings refer to senior leaders within the school feeling intimidated and fearful. Then what, might one ask, are girls experiencing? Those girls who are expected to behave in a certain way, dictated by the social values of governors and parents, which may be at odds with what the girls themselves would like? The girls and their views have been invisible in all the discussions in the media and in the narrative of an Islamic extremist plot.

If the norm of conduct within a school is that girls’ position in relation to boys is enforced through implicit rules and modes of behaviour, then it seems unlikely that the gendered nature of control of girls will be addressed. Is it therefore surprising that gendered violence, such as female genital mutilation or forced marriage, is not being adequately addressed? Tackling gender inequality and addressing violence against women and girls go hand-in-hand. The two need to be addressed together.

The equalities issue is not being caught in the net of this Islam extremism fishing expedition.  That’s a huge cost and a missed opportunity to society. Where are we talking about the actions and the culture in schools that perpetuates a mindset that girls must behave in a certain way, under the guise of faith – and, more importantly, shaping their own thinking and expectations for the future? What if parents collude in the control of their daughters? How are we bringing up these girls to participate and contribute to society as working adults, as positive role models, and as agents of cultural change?

Kalwinder Sandhu is a freelance consultant, researcher and writer and a local feminist activist in Coventry. Follow her @KindySandhu.

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Eclectica: the project demanding equality

The Eclectica Project launch is two days of live music, DJs and guest speakers – and it’s taking place this August. Launching at Manchester’s Kraak, the project aims to inspire leadership by women and minorities in all industries, starting with the music industry. Daniel Ball spoke to two of the project’s founders Lizzie Hudson and Olivia Mayumi Moss to find out more.

Eclectica Project is highly concerned with gender equality and ethics. How have your personal experiences drawn you to creating a project of this nature?

LIZZIE: Over the last few years since leaving school, coming across different work and social environments, I’ve been frustrated by a lot of challenges that I and women around me have to face, whether that’s discrimination in the workplace, slut-shaming or body image issues. There has to be a point where you think, “No, wait… It’s not okay that I am regularly subjected to street harassment on the way home. It’s not okay that I get asked about boyfriends above my career ambitions.” These issues have a ripple effect into every aspect of our culture, and it’s important to find ways to build communities and create opportunities for those facing discrimination to hear each other out and offer support. That is what the Eclectica Project aims to facilitate.

OLIVIA: If something frustrates me, I need to do something about it. To quote Ani DiFranco, “I was blessed with a birth and a death, and I guess I just want some say in between.” I wouldn’t limit myself to the identity of ‘feminist’ or ‘activist’ although I am essentially both – I would rather call myself ‘active.’ Passivity can be a serious illness. I worked in Tokyo for 12 years. Japan is an uber-conformist world, and that experience changed a lot of things for me – It gave me a strong perspective over what is in fact changeable and what is not. So many aspects of our lives are within our power and require hard work to achieve a high standard, but it’s also important to remain philosophical about areas which aren’t controllable and to find alternative routes. Having an international perspective and access to willing professionals is essential to maintaining the diversity and longevity of this project, so I dug out my business contacts.

What are you hoping to change in the music industry through Eclectica Project?

LIZZIE: The music industry, and every industry for that matter, needs to progress towards accepting women and minorities as complex individuals. If we want to achieve any kind of equality within this industry, we have to for instance stop putting these performers in the position where we hyper-analyse as ‘empowering’ or ‘weak’ but instead regard them as people who impact our world culturally and industrially. Women can be artists, light engineers, managers, producers, drummers, business owners, and they can be at the top of their game, while ethnicity, sexuality and gender should never be a determining factor in hiring somebody or offering opportunities. We should be assessing quality based on commitment and competence, not background or gender. The purpose of the August launch and its spinoff shows is to encourage understanding and respect for female and minority people working in various sectors of the music industry.

OLIVIA:  Every industry needs a severe shake, because the patriarchy is everywhere and affects everyone. The UK music industry is no different: too many controls, too much money in the wrong places, too many wrong people in the wrong jobs, too much fear and naivety from the artists, too many people taking advantage, too many false promises… It’s a mess and the whole thing needs revising. Until everyone is treated fairly in all industries, female and minority professionals must never stop calling people out and fighting for their rights. Things will improve if enough people open their eyes, find courage from within and commit. The panels taking place on the August launch weekend will open up many areas of discussion and solidify the already burgeoning network.

What does the future hold for the project?

LIZZIE:  This project is about women and minorities everywhere. It’d be interesting to explore what’s going on in other industries, because sadly there are so many talented people missing out on opportunities because of prejudice or patriarchal structures. The aim is to keep this community and network growing, to let it have its own life, and hopefully inspire people to speak out, learn from each other and keep fighting the good fight.

OLIVIA: Yes, if you want to save your industry and possibly your career, get involved: don’t think that you can’t make a difference, because you can. This project needs to survive – it needs support from funders, professionals, volunteers… There are many ways to become part of this network. Other than that, the post-launch future is sleep!

The Eclectica Project launch & spinoffs will take place in Manchester and Leeds during July and August. You can find out more information on the project’s Facebook page

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Orphan Black: TV’s most woman-centred drama

*Contains spoilers

A woman gets off a train and picks up a phone; in a few sentences we learn that Sarah is a grifter, in town to sell stolen drugs and collect her daughter Kira. At the other end of the platform, we notice a woman stepping out of her shoes, shrugging off her jacket and putting her handbag on the platform. As Sarah walks in her direction, the woman turns round; she has the same face – but then she steps under a train. Sarah looks down and picks up the handbag…

Those were the stunningly economic first few minutes of the Anglo-Canadian techno-thriller series Orphan Black which has managed, in two seasons of ten episodes, to be the most stunningly woman-centred action drama on television.

In the middle of a hokum-filled plot that is mostly about conspiracy, kidnapping and running around dark cities late at night, it manages to make some quite fascinating observations about nature, nurture and free will. Sarah steals, temporarily, the life of dead Beth, only to find that Beth, a cop with morals as sketchy as her own, had problems; a dead civilian, phone calls from mysterious women, and more clones.

The drunken soccer mom Alison says, “we don’t mention the c word”, but the rapidly evolving alliance between Sarah, Alison and lesbian German biologist Cosima rapidly reveals how entirely the same three women can be in some respects and how utterly different in others. And that’s before we meet feral assassin Helena and corporate bully Rachel…

It’s a show that passes most of the tests we now ask of popular media – not just the Bechdel test, because obviously these women find a lot to talk about apart from boys – but also the more recent Trinity test for strong women. All versions of Sarah are strong women – it’s as intrinsic to them as their chancer ruthlessness and sly smile. Strong women who actually do things, albeit in very different ways.

Sarah sleeps with Beth’s fiance, Paul, and realises that he is not to be trusted, even before he works out that she is not who he thought. It turns out, for example, that they all – except for Sarah – have someone in their lives who is spying on them, and reporting back to a company, Triad. In a revealing moment about the different forms that ruthlessness can take, Cosima seduces her colleague Delphine, knowing that Delphine is her monitor.

It’s a show which could easily have drifted into comic book misandry – but Sarah’s gay painter foster brother Felix would clearly die for her, and Beth’s fellow cop Art is almost as loyal. Even Alison’s bumbling husband Donny, and Sarah’s abusive ex-lover Vic, are rich and complex characters who can surprise us.

This is a show which brilliantly alternates excitement, scabrous comedy and moments of still emotion. There are no duds in the cast, but the show rests primarily on a stunning central performance from Tatiana Maslany as Sarah and all the others. It’s not just the well-established and radically different body language and speech of all the clones; it’s the moments of farce when Sarah and Alison impersonate each other, or of tension when Sarah confronts the terrifying, pathetic Helena. For a while, the second season seemed on shakier ground than the first, but latterly it came together, and established stunningly that things which seemed random clips of narrative were nothing of the kind.

Now we have to binge re-watch, noticing extra points of cleverness, while we wait for Season Three…

Roz Kaveney is a Contributing Editor to Feminist Times. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.

Photo: CrazyTVTalk

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Bates’ blueprint for a ‘normal’ wedding won’t inspire those who want to be different

Just over a month ago I married my partner of five years. Almost exactly a month later, I have been inundated with shares on Facebook and Twitter of an article entitled “How to have a feminist wedding” by Laura Bates. I was excited because I have a huge amount of admiration for Laura and her groundbreaking project Everyday Sexism; however, my husband and I found it anything but groundbreaking, and instead rather unambitious and uninspiring. It still lacked what I’d so desperately searched for, and never really found, in the two years leading up to our big day: a guide to being just a little bit more radical in feminist wedding planning.

Weddings are deeply personal events and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Laura getting married exactly as she chooses but, as something purporting to be a feminist wedding guide, it’s as lacking as so many of the articles I read during my engagement – endlessly reassuring women that it’s ok to be a feminist and still have a fairly traditional wedding, with the odd feminist twist, but nothing giving women permission to ditch all that and do something radically different. I ended up seeing myself less as a bride (whatever that is) and more as a creative director – there being virtually no existing model for what we wanted to produce – and much of our inspiration came from queer, rather than heterosexual, feminist weddings. Of course, we were always aware that some feminists would think there’s no such thing as a feminist wedding at all – and maybe the most radical thing would be to blow the whole thing up, not just tweak it – but we decided to tweak, and tweak boldly.

From the off we had very clear ideas of what we wanted: he wanted us both to have an engagement ring, so (much to the confusion of everyone we know) I bought him one; we both wanted to keep our own names, rather than double barrel (Mrs His Name never having been an option we considered); we didn’t want a church wedding, despite my Christian upbringing, because we knew it wasn’t really for us; and I definitely didn’t want a white dress. Finally, we both wanted to walk down the aisle, rather than simply have me delivered to him, and so we did – him accompanied by his mum, me accompanied by my dad, with half a dozen brides-men, women and girls in between.

bridesmen

Beyond that, we weren’t quite sure what a ‘feminist wedding’ should consist of and I quickly realised that there is no simple answer – believe me, I’ve typed “feminist wedding” into Google more times than I care to admit, and never quite found what I was looking for. I’ve read countless articles debating the questions “can you be a feminist and get married in white?” “can you be a feminist and take your husband’s name?” – all of which concluded in a slightly woolly way “yes, of course”, on the grounds that the institution of marriage has evolved, relationships are more equal now, and the sexist associations of white dresses and proprietorial rings have long since died away.  “But I don’t want to wear white,” I’d scream at my laptop: “even if it’s not sexist anymore!”

Earlier this year Zoe Holman wrote in the Guardian, decrying the number of feminist brides blindly following patriarchal traditions but admitting she feels too embarrassed to ask them why. I have to confess I occasionally felt the same up until I started planning my own, when I suddenly realised that it’s really fucking difficult to avoid. You’re not only up against society’s expectations but your family and friends come with their own expectations. Decisions you expect to be entirely personal are suddenly wide open to scrutiny, or interpreted as a rejection of their family identity, rather than an assertion of your own.

And, of course, the wedding industry doesn’t leave much room for rebels – if you’ve never looked for a wedding dress, you don’t realise how limited the colour choices are. When you say “not white”, people think you mean “ivory”, and when you say “no, coloured”, they warn you in bizarrely concerned tones that “you’ll just look like a bridesmaid”. I once laughed out loud at an advert in a wedding magazine daring women to “be bold” in an extremely pale pastel pink dress – think off-white with a “bold!” blush.

The more I searched, fruitlessly, for the kind of alternative wedding I was looking for, the more frustrated I felt, and the more obstinate it made me. I became determined not just to omit the bits I didn’t like, but to consciously replace them with a radical alternative that couldn’t fail to be noticed. Stubbornness is a typical Graham trait, as it happens – which also helped with sticking to my guns on the issue of keeping my surname!

In the end I realised that, with the exception of red (the archetypal anti-white wedding dress – hardly value neutral with its own virgin/whore association), coloured wedding dresses don’t exist in bridal shops and I’d have to go it alone. I sought out a local seamstress – an amazing woman with pink hair, a flair for intricate beadwork, and the punk spirit to bring my vision to life. She was more excited about it than I was and it was an enormous relief to be free from the body-shaming (how much weight are you planning to lose?), tradition-pushing (what do you mean you don’t want to wear white?) ways of the wedding industry.

Beyond the dress and the surnames, our biggest rebellions were against our guests’ gendered expectations. I had three bridesgirls, a brideswoman and two bridesmen; he had a best man, three groomsmen and a groomswoman. Before the ceremony our guests were greeted by the jubilant voice of Debbie Harry as Blondie’s Greatest Hits kicked off the day, and our friend Becca sang The Cure’s Love Cats for the bridal party’s arrival.

Josh Ann

My mother-in-law looked like she might burst with pride as she walked her only child down the aisle, and as many tears were shed over that unconventional but beautiful moment as over my arrival with my dad. My bridesmen read a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; his groomswoman – a fellow feminist, dressed in an utterly fabulous grey suit, complete with tux-style fitted blouse and cravat – read WH Auden’s Foxtrot From a Play, her Yorkshire accent beautifully bringing alive the lines “you’re my cup of tea”; and my mum read The Art of Marriage. It goes without saying that no one was given away and no one promised to obey; two female registrars (as we’d requested) declared us married, and both our mums witnessed the signing of the register because it’s currently the only way for their names to be included on the marriage certificate.

We had six speeches, split between the courses of the meal to spare everyone’s attention spans; my mother-in-law made everyone cry, my dad, bridesmaid, our best man and myself got a fair few laughs, and my husband scared the shit out of everyone climbing up on his chair to recreate a moment from our trip to Prague. The whole thing was so much fun, and so much more rounded than the standard “three men talking, three women keeping their mouths shut” routine that it genuinely made me wonder why everyone doesn’t do it; tradition means we’re all missing out on some really great speeches.

Speech

Ultimately there’s no formula for the perfect feminist wedding – our day was as personal to us as Laura’s will be to her – but I wish I’d read a feminist wedding guide this time two years ago that said this: “don’t be afraid to be radical, imaginative and push boundaries if the traditional, white, church wedding isn’t for you”. We need guides that give us the confidence to be different, just as much as we need guides to make us comfortable sticking with tradition. I wish someone had told me at the start how completely unfounded my anxieties were that all our guests would find it too weird; we’ve had nothing but praise for how special and different it was, and I’m so glad we stuck to our feminist principles rather than convincing ourselves to settle for the way society insists it “should” be done. If you’re planning a feminist wedding/anti-wedding, don’t be afraid to be even bolder than me, Laura, or a pale pink blush.

All photos Copyright Polly Thomas (Polly & Simon Photography) and Owain Thomas.

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Video: “Expected victimhood” – do you know how to escape a zip tie?

(Trigger Warning: contains references to sexual violence.)

Claire Kurylowski’s latest film IN REAL LIFE in which she makes a feminist inquiry into the perpetuation of sexual harassment culture.

“The point of departure for IN REAL LIFE was a YouTube video I watched titled How to Break Out of Zip Ties. It went viral with over 3.5 million hits to date.

For me the video reinstated the idea that women should be accountable for their ‘expected victimhood’ and, inversely, the lack of accountability/deterrent strategies existing in the same forms and scope, if at all, for anti-abuse and anti-sexual harassment.”

Claire Kurylowski is a London based film director, writer & editor. Richly atmospheric moods paired with intimate portraits characterise her body of work. . @kurylowski

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It’s divisive to talk about rebranding the F word

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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OJ, Yewtree & Pistorious: It’s time we listened to Sue Lees

Last week marked the twenty year anniversary of the deaths of two people whose names you may not recognise: Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. They’re famous only because of the name of the man who was acquitted of their brutal murders: OJ Simpson. And if you just went “OJ who?” it’s past your bedtime, go upstairs.

At the time many concluded that if you’re rich enough and famous enough you can get away with anything. This probably explains the Star Wars prequels. I’m not sure what the rules are – how famous you have to be to commit what crime. I’ve been on Question Time, I’m guessing that’s enough for a happy slap. I’ll take Farage.

For feminists, the television broadcast of the trial offered an insight into the court process and why men who attack women so often do so with impunity.

I read a lot of books about feminism at university, which might explain why I only scraped the narrowest of 2.1s in my maths degree. Objectification never came up in my modules, but statistics did.

One of them was Sue Lees’ book Carnal Knowledge. Lees had spent months sitting in court rooms watching rape trials and detailing the systematic ways in which the credibility of victims was undermined.

In December last year I did jury service for the first time. I drew two conclusions from my experiences. The first was that the system is still loaded with misogyny towards victims of rape and domestic violence. The second was that Ms Lees should really have been made a Knight of the Realm for sitting through all those hours of grinding legal argument and vicious victim-blaming.

Having trials on TV is a producer’s dream. Spend millions on a new series of Big Brother? No need, viewers will be queuing up to watch a famous athlete explain why he shot his girlfriend. So far we have resisted televising trials in the UK, resulting instead in coverage that has left me with a paranoid fear of chalk drawings.

Home and abroad the cases show a depressing set of similarities. The barrister defending Oscar Pistorius has produced as evidence romantic texts (true love always texts) and a video clip of the couple kissing. Here in the UK, the defense case for Rolf Harris called celebrity character witnesses.

Shouldn’t someone point out that being an outwardly “nice” guy doesn’t prove anything? Those who commit violence against women have so far refused to stick to a dress and behaviour code that lets us all know what they are really like. I suggest a “this is what a misogynist criminal looks like” T-shirts. Although of course within a fortnight we’d be hearing: “she can’t have been raped, she willingly got in a car with him while he was wearing his misogynist criminal T-shirt”. Doh.

While the Harris and Pistorius cases continue there are a string of others that have been dropped, not even brought to court. Freddie Starr, Jim Davison, Jimmy Tarbuck, and others have been cleared of all charges. William Roach, Dave Lee Travis, Michael Le Vell and most – famously of all – Michael Jackson.

Individually these things mean nothing. Any of them could be innocent. And we should remember that a “not guilty” verdict simply means the absence of sufficient evidence to convict. The basic right to be treated as innocent should prevail, but it doesn’t come with a prize or a medal: “Sponsored by Tefal – nothing sticks”.

No, seen together, as a pattern, they add up to a worrying picture – one that Lees was able to identify in 1996. Attrition at every stage of a system loaded against claimants means that – and this is a frightening concept to consider – the percentage of rape allegations that lead to conviction is now lower than the percentage of the UK population who voted for UKIP.

There have been flashes of hope out there. Mike Tyson went to jail. Max Clifford is in jail now. It may have taken years to get the result but Phil Spector eventually went to prison too. The court system has the potential to put dangerous misogynist criminals behind bars.

I’ve been careful with my language throughout this piece. I wasn’t at these trials, I can’t comment on the evidence presented, only on the system and the overall statistics. I can say this though: MAX CLIFFORD IS A SEX OFFENDER. MAX CLIFFORD IS A SEX OFFENDER. Phew. That does feel strangely exhilarating. It reminds me how empowering a conviction like that is, not just for victims and their families but for everyone who values a safe and just society. Maybe I’ll post him one of my “misogynist criminal” T-shirts. I hear his size is extra small.

We can do even better than this. Twenty years after OJ there are simple changes that could be made to our legal system that would give victims of sexual assault, rape and domestic violence a better shot at justice:

The right for claimants to demand a full trial, rather than allowing the police and CPS to just “give up”. Expert judges for rape and sex assault cases, including more female judges. Making it compulsory for judges to warn jurors that it is normal for victims to delay reporting and show no visible trauma as they give evidence. Information given to jurors on the defendant’s previous convictions, complaints and accusations.

And if you’re wondering where I came up with those simple, elegant ideas… they’re in Sue Lees’ book. And they’re as relevant now as they were when she wrote them nearly 20 years ago. The high profile, televised and media-sensationalised cases don’t really provide us with any new information, but they do provide an opportunity to talk about the legal system and demand much-needed radical changes.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and political activist. Follow her @Cruella1

Photo: Wikimedia

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End Sexual Violence in Conflict: Slow steps towards progress

Last week’s End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit saw dignitaries from 155 nations descend on London’s ExCel Centre.  A magnificent effort from both Angelina Jolie and Foreign Secretary William Hague, the four-day summit highlighted the atrocities and dangers that women (and indeed, men and boys) face in conflict times. The event’s fringe was fantastic, with incredible collections of artwork beautifully complimented by engaging and emotional discussions, as well as innovative and powerful theatre discussions.

I was moved to tears by Save the Children’s performance highlighting the stories of three very different girls, all affected by rape. I could not help but be inspired listening to Congolese gynecologist, Dr Denis Mukwege speak on how his resolve to end sexual violence in conflict only grew following the assassination attempt on his life in 2012. There were also some incredibly painful testimonies that will stay with me for some time. Hague and Jolie are to be commended for successfully getting the world to momentarily sit up and take notice of a humanitarian issue long accepted as a just another byproduct of war.

There were some great ideas and initiatives discussed and put forward during the summit. One in particular was the push to implement a mixed court in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the judiciary is badly letting women down by not holding perpetrators properly to account. This means that generals, who often order the rapes to happen, are routinely escaping justice. A mixed court system, with the international community supporting the existing system, would operate at a higher level of efficiency. Another excellent initiative put forward during the week was Care International’s long standing project of engaging men in conflict nations.  Their work tackles gender inequality and gender stereotypes, with the aim of reducing instances of sexual violence through an amplification of women’s rights and equality. Women for Women International’s policy of empowering women through economic independence is also worthy , as is the protocol itself.

This protocol is the result of extensive consultation with various expert working groups and reviewers, with editorial authority resting with the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office. According to the document, the International Protocol has the main aim of promoting accountability for crimes of sexual violence under international law. Whilst the protocol isn’t binding on states, it can serve as an effective tool to properly document sexual violence as a war crime, a crime against humanity or an act of genocide- all enshrined under international law.

The protocol recognises that it will not tackle every sexual violence crime. Instead it focuses on those that occur under international criminal law. But survivors of sexual violence crimes outside of this context are still in chronic need of support. It is hoped that the protocol will be a springboard for increased action on prevention and accountability for all forms of sexual violence in conflict.

However, there are some criticisms of this that must be addressed. Whilst the aim and launch of the protocol itself is admirable, there is some conflict with our own domestic policy here in the UK. On the opening day of the summit’s fringe, both the Black Women’s Rape Action Project and the All African Women’s Group held a brutally honest demonstration. Their demonstration sought to highlight the conflict between the UK’s treatment of survivors of sexual violence claiming asylum and the aims of the summit. They called for an end to the disbelief and slandering of asylum seekers.

I spoke to two of the demonstrators. They explained to me that the UK was currently detaining survivors of sexual violence in immigration detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood – women who, having fled their home nation, were claiming asylum. How then, could the UK lead the way on sexual violence in conflict, when it was deporting and treating survivors in such a manner? The abuses at Yarl’s Wood are well documented and show the level of honesty that will be required from all the signatory nations if we are to truly help survivors across the world. How can we hope to tackle sexual violence on a global stage when domestically, we are failing women?

There’s also the question of efficiency. The international community is failing to make the most of it’s current resources. How then, can we be confident the protocol will not go the same way? There is a vast range of international legislation on peace and security, women’s rights, protecting women from violence and gender-based violence. They’re simply not being properly implemented. A commitment is laudable, but without real progress it is merely words. The time has come for action.

Countries need to be seen to be doing better. States need to work with women’s rights organisations in their respective countries to ensure the resources on offer, be it through funding or policy, are being efficiently used. In 2010, there was a coalition of 50 non governmental organisations all working together and sharing resources, with a focus on DRC. This coalition eventually folded due to a lack of funding. It’s initiatives like this that the UK, who announced a further £6 million in funding to help survivors of sexual conflict, need to make sure are properly funded. Too often, pledged money gets lost in International NGOs. We need to make sure a lot of more that is reaching smaller charities on the ground.

Looking forward, I am reservedly optimistic that the protocol will be beneficial to tackling sexual violence in conflict. I commend Jolie’s dedication to this subject, and her commitment to making real lasting change. The summit is nothing to be scoffed at. Indeed, when Sunday Times columnist Adam Boulton refers to it as “trivial”,  it serves as a sharp reminder of just how difficult it is to get people to take rape seriously. For Angelina Jolie to use her celebrity in this fashion is refreshing. Often, we see famous people engage in charity work in a very superficial manner, benefiting from the good press without any type of dedication to the cause. That Jolie continues in this field of work, despite media scrutiny and, at times, criticism for her involvement, is worthy of recognition.

Jude Wanga is a human rights campaigner, activist & freelance writer. Follow her @JudeInLondon 

 

Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr

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End Sexual Violence in Conflict: An interview with Women for Women International

This week’s End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit has had a huge focus on conflicts since Bosnia in 1992. There have been numerous events focusing on Rwanda, Congo, Kosovo, the Balkan War and Afghanistan. Many of these nations are recovering from a major conflict and are in the process of adjusting to peacetime, whereas Congo is, though technically in peacetime, still in the grip of conflict.

I wanted to explore the similarities that these conflicts had, but also the differences. Why do some of these areas get more coverage, awareness and support than others- and did the international community prioritise some conflict nations over others? The conflict in DRC is the deadliest conflict since World War Two. But casualty estimates are often conservative, and sexual violence figures that are under reported.

All conflicts are, obviously, different. Their origins are different,  and the obstacles to resolution are different, too. However, the exclusion of women from resolution and community stands in the way of community peace-building. This situation is built on gender inequality before the conflict – patriarchy is a worldwide problem, before, during and after war.

I spoke to Carron Mann, Women for Women International UK‘s Policy Director about these areas.

JW: What are the reasons between the different manifestations, beyond cultural differences?

CM: We see sexual violence in many different ways in the various nations. For example, in Afghanistan and South Sudan, forced marriage of women to their rapist so their families avoid shame is a common issue. The commonality is the role of women being treated as commodities. A woman’s sexual virtue is her value, as opposed to women being valued as human beings. Women are targeted to target communities.

What role does a crisis of masculinity or hyper masculinity play in sexual violence in conflict?

I’m not sure how I feel about crisis of masculinity or hyper masculinity. Masculinity, like characteristics we have as women can be positive or negative. I think hyper masculinity implies you can be too manly, when actually you can be manly in a good way, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself.

I think it’s a reinforcement of positive masculinity and negative masculinity that have real roles to play in both helping a situation and making it worse. What they’re trying to say is that those gender stereotypes that reinforce that men need to be sexually active, they need to sleep with as many women, what it means to be a man and how they treat women. We have this here as well. You only have to walk past some lads coming out of school.
How much support do you think the international community gives in terms of tackling sexual violence through an educational basis? I know that Women for Women International run some great programmes in terms of teaching gender equality and tackling gender inequality in conflict nations, but do you feel the international community is fixing enough support to those programs?

I don’t think women’s rights organisations on the ground are getting enough funding. We struggle for funding, but we can fill out a Department for International Development application form. They can’t. One of the things I noticed about the summit is that there’s a lot of focus on the UN, and what the UN is going to do. There’s talk about financing, and the UK announced increased funding yesterday but again, it’s how does that funding get distributed? Who benefits from it? is it all going to International non governmental organisations or is it going to local organisations? In fairness to International NGO’s, they work closely with local community partners, so when they benefit the communities do too. You can never have too much funding.

Why do you think sexual violence in some conflict nations tend to get more awareness than in others that may have higher levels of the crime?

Broadly speaking, I don’t think we like talking about sexual violence. I think that’s our first challenge. Secondly, I’m always really intrigued about why some conflicts get picked up and some don’t, like the Boko Haram kidnappings. Human Rights Watch and lots of organisations were documenting this last year. In 2012 [there was an] increase of incidents, [but] nothing happened. Then 270 girls were kidnapped and it finally got noticed. But not immediately.

Away from charities who obviously take an interest, what do you think are the reasons the media tend to pick and choose what they report?

I think it has to be that kind of grotesque shock to register with people. There was a report this morning about a girl being gang raped in India because she couldn’t afford to pay a bribe. Or the girls in Nigeria. It’s the shock factor. But actually, we’re hearing more about it. I spoke to a person before travelling to Congo who believed the rape levels were higher. So there are people who think there’s higher levels than what the UN are reporting, but that’s because the issue is getting more attention, so people think it’s happening at an accelerated rate. So there is an initial silence. Ultimately, it’s massively complicated and very difficult to get into a sound bite, which leads to it not being reported.

Do you think it’s ever going to be possible to end sexual violence in conflict?

Yes.

Without gender equality?

No, because sexual violence in conflict sits within a much broader range of violence against women and girls which is a result of gender equality.

I agreed with Mann on many of her points, but I think there are further reasons why some conflicts are prominently highlighted in the media and international community over others. I believe it’s something to do with resources, something to do with power. Will the conflict affect our ability to get resources from DRC? Will it affect our ability to export coltan? Only when it does will we see the international community increase scrutiny on DRC. I also believe the complexity of the situation in Congo hampers the ability to report on it. People can’t understand the conflict, as it has so many layers, and  it has gone on for so long. A conflict like that of Rwanda, with warring ethnic tribes over 100 days is simple to follow. The same can be said with Bosnia. Congo, at the moment, tends to go back to the Rwandan genocide and subsequent overspill as a starting point- yet a lot of the issues have blighted the region for decades, and possibly centuries.

To end our interview on a positive note I asked one final question:

JW: What should the public take away from the summit?

CM: I hope they listen to survivors and survivors’ needs. I think they key starting point is listening. I think it’s also about recognising that [sexual violence] is not an inevitable part of conflict, and it’s also not an alien concept, much as we’d like it to be. No woman or girl ever deserves to be raped, regardless of how drunk she is, how short her skirt is, her ethnicity, her sexual orientation or her political affiliation.

Jude Wanga is a human rights campaigner, activist & freelance writer. Follow her @JudeInLondon 

 

Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr

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End sexual violence in conflict: Change will come from the Congolese

This week sees the End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit–  a four-day event, organised by the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. The summit is co-chaired by William Hague, the foreign secretary, and Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Many from the international establishment – governments, militaries and judiciaries from around the world will have representatives at the summit, as well as field experts. There’s also a three-day Fringe event open to members of the public and media, with exhibitions, discussions and performances from various Non Governmental Organisations and charities.

The Summit’s aim is to identify specific actions by the international community in four areas where greater progress is essential regarding sexual violence in conflict. Those four areas are improving investigations, providing more support and reparation for all survivors of sexual violence, ensuring a response to gender-based violence and promoting gender equality as an integral part of all reform, and improving international strategic coordination.

It’s been five years since I filmed my BBC3 documentary, The World’s Most Dangerous Place for Women. In it, I looked at the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]. Since then, there has been a lot of change. Indeed, that the UK is hosting a summit on sexual violence in conflict shows the progress that’s been made in awakening the international community to a horrific humanitarian crisis. Whilst financial and security obstacles have kept me from returning to DRC since, I have continued to speak out on the atrocities occurring there, as I promised the incredible women who I met whilst filming. I was moved to see a substantial number of the global Congolese diaspora represented in all aspects of the Fringe event of this week’s summit – amongst the public, in the displays and stalls, through the performances and holding discussions on the situation in Congo. More heart warming was seeing how packed all these discussions were, with people interested or looking to learn more about the situation. In 2010, it was not always so.

The cause of sexual violence in Congo has always been a complex question to answer. It is this complexity which has often caused people to underestimate the scale of the issue, leading to certain aspects being more highlighted than others. It has become further complicated as the atrocities, initially committed by external troops in Congo, are now being committed by Congolese troops themselves. At the root of it all is the same issue – a lack of accountability, a system of impunity, and gender inequality.

At the Fringe I was able to speak to Fiona Lloyd-Davies, director of my documentary, who was attending the premiere of her new film Seeds of Hope – a documentary filmed over three years chronicling the work and story of the inspirational Masika Katsuva.

Katsuva, who I met in 2009 whilst filming, runs a refuge for women who are survivors of rape. Whilst watching Seeds of Hope, I was moved to tears at the progress Katsuva’s refuge has made since I last saw her. I was saddened however, to see the number of women relying on her refuge, a sign that whilst her awe-inspiring work empowering these women was producing results, that the danger to these women had not abated. In fact, as we learn in the documentary, Katsuva was raped again in 2012 following the attack in Minova, a period which saw her receive 130 new cases, the youngest of which was 11 years old.

During the question and answer session after the film, which is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Lloyd-Davies agreed that there had been a sea change of opinion and focus on the issue, a view supported by Dr. Denis Mukwege, the two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and founder of Panzi Hospital.

Dr Mukwege also believed that there had been positive change, but stressed the still precarious nature of the situation. He spoke of how only a week ago, 35 people were massacred in a church in the Bukavu region. Both Dr. Mukwege and Lloyd-Davies stressed that in order for further progress, a priority had to be made for the fighting in Congo to stop.

I asked Dr. Mukwege about what hope for the future in Congo, tackling this crisis. “There will be no lasting peace without justice,” he told me.  “Integrating criminals and militia into the [Congolese] army is unsustainable. We need to stop the culture of impunity until all who played a role in the atrocities are accountable”

Dr Mukwege also believes that the Congolese people themselves have the power to make change, both the global diaspora and the citizens. He believes that substantial change and evolution will “not come from the UN, or Special Envoy, but will come from the Congolese people”. This is a view shared by many of the Congolese NGOs and also by Lloyd-Davies.

Lloyd-Davies stressed it was important to view the women in her films, not only as victims, but survivors – three dimensional people with hopes as well as fears. These women were rebuilding their lives. She believes a lot of the solutions to Congo are in Congo itself and that perhaps instead of constantly looking to external solutions, we should aim to better support the internal solutions already in existence. As she so eloquently put it, “there are many more women like Masika.”

Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch, hosting the question and answer session for Seeds of Hope, spoke of a Congolese Justice system “on its knees” and of a need for better judiciary mechanisms. This view is shared by many Congolese activists and NGOs who stress for Congo to adopt a specialised mixed court for cases of sexual violence. A mixed court would see the Congolese Judiciary supported by international community to improve its efficacy. In the recent trial where thirty-nine soldiers were being prosecuted, only two of them were found guilty of rape. Senior command are consistently evading accountability and justice.

All of us, however, are hopeful that real lasting change can come to Congo. There are many positives to be taken from the last five years, such as the Minova trials, the capture of Bosco Ntaganda who is currently awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court, and this week’s Summit. It is up to the international community to continue to support the Congolese people by ensuring the discussions and decisions made at this summit will be followed up and implemented. The future of Congo depends on it.

Jude Wanga is a human rights campaigner, activist & freelance writer. Follow her @JudeInLondon 

 

Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr

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A Womb With a View: After birth – what I’ve learned…

IMG_6788So, here he is. Or, should I say, here we are.

Meet my five-week-old little boy, Evan, and his heavy-lidded, rocket-boobed, topsy-turvy mother. I’m someone changed quite a lot by the last month and a bit. I’m writing this with my thumb on my phone at 4.07am while feeding for starters (EDIT – I’ll be writing the rest of this column in 10-minute bursts in the next week-and-a-half when the baby’s gurgling at his cot’s mobile while farting/sleeping in his pram, which I’ve gingerly inched in from outside as he only conks out in the open air/cooing in the sling with his dad, at a time when I should really be catching up on sleep, blah blah blah).

I’m also someone who remains, despite everything, the same person.

The birth? Not conventional. Then again, whose is? I had an emergency caesarean section after 3 days of failed induction, at nearly 2 weeks over due date, and after countless alternative therapy sessions (yep, even this sceptic tried everything – and isn’t having your feet fiddled with for £60 divine). Pessaries and drips were applied, Mister still wasn’t shifting, his mum wasn’t dilating, and his heart-rate started levelling out.

And so the necessary was done. At 10.06am on Monday 28th April, in a bright operating theatre, my son made his entrance into the world. He was 9lb 4, 57cm long, with brown hair and a chubby belly. And yes, I’m lucky that I love him so very, very much.

Here’s some other things I learned about having a baby:

* Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards, and in high heels. First-time mums do very little that other people do, but they do keep another tiny person alive, with no specialist training or experience, one-handed, on no sleep, in mismatched leisurewear with a stray, leaky tit.

* Yes, yes – I know I’ve barely started, and I’m proving that happy mums whinge a lot. We got ourselves in this position etc, etc. But as a person largely responsible for fulfilling the needs of another breathing human, while you’re in recovery from 24 hours+ of agonising pain/major abdominal surgery/a torn perineum, while everyone else tells you this is all normal, surely you’re allowed a grumble. You disagree? Then bugger off.

* Newborns rarely sleep for more than three hours at a time, if that. I missed this fact in the endless reams of baby literature I read beforehand. Mine is pretty good at kip (EDIT – I lie – the last two nights have been like living with the creature off Eraserhead – EDIT – he’s changed again, he was an angel last night ­- EDIT – this only proves the inconsistency of babies). Anyway, their short sleeping cycles should remind mothers of three little words. Take. Things. Easy.

* A diversion for my brief Caesarean Section. The idea of being too posh to push – ie that caesareans are the easy option – is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Before mine, I hadn’t realised how big an operation a c-section was; five weeks on, the seven-inch smile on my abdomen and the residual aches and pains reminds me I’m still recovering. If you have one, don’t panic – I am still in awe of them, genuinely, as a baby with an impacted head got pulled out of that tiny slit, somehow – but you need to remember how big these ops were after the fact. So: accept help from all sides. Buy a load of high-waisted, non-sexy granny knickers (thank you, John Lewis). Live in yoga trousers bought hurriedly online that make you look like you eat quinoa for breakfast. Take your bloody painkillers. Slob in front of DVDs you love when you’re feeding to cheer yourself up. Don’t be a martyr. You don’t have to be Superwoman.

* Don’t accept too many visitors. Or be prepared to tell people to sod off. You will probably be knackered and crave your own time more than ever before (then again, do see friends if it’ll make you feel a bit better, and if family are bringing warm arms to help you with the baby, then accept them).

* Our generation give ourselves a lot more shit about parenting than our mums and dads did. They only had people around them to ask, and most of us turned out OK. There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

* The internet is unhelpful. Type any question about your baby’s health into Google, and the responses you’ll get will largely be from “normal mums”. Normal mums who a) you don’t know, b) might be mad, c) might be smug, d) keep telling you to “trust in the Lord’s work”, e) keep telling you to “trust in nature”. If I’d trusted in nature, as many women have to in countries less developed than ours, my baby and I might not have been here now.

* The internet is amazing. During endless night feeds, you can play Word Scramble, read the news, nose at people’s normal lives on Facebook, receive advice from countless wonderful people about your baby through Facebook, and text your mum-pals on Whatsapp. Which last point brings me to the the biggest tip of all…

* Meeting people having kids the same time as you, through antenatal classes or activities, or post-natal support groups, is essential. Knowing you’re not the only mad harpy worrying about every burp, sick or poo will change your life.

* The mental health of new mothers is a huge priority for healthcare professionals, as it should be, but normal anxieties get pathologised too much. Worried you might break your baby? Or drop it down the stairs? Every mum I’ve spoken to thought that too, so these worries aren’t necessarily a sign of incoming depression. Other medical issues get less attention, however, like babies that have tongue-tie (this is when babies’ tongues need a snip to help them feed properly). I know four recent babies who had this condition, and their mothers had to fight hard to find out if their children needed help. Without help, babies struggle to gain weight, spend hours at the breast, making their mothers, ironically, more and more distressed. All these women need is someone trained to have a very quick look at their little ones. So listen up, NHS.

* Becoming a mum soon? You will be endlessly grateful for having cooked and frozen meals before the big event. If you like being at the hob, as I do, this is what maternity leave is for (I also enjoyed solo cinema trips, afternoon dozes, and forages for weird old documentaries on the iPlayer – do use your maternity leave to do gentle things you enjoy). If you haven’t cooked and frozen food before baby comes, tell friends not to bring presents round, but something that can be shoved into a pot, or the oven in one dish, and eaten out of a bowl with one hand.

* A tea towel placed over a baby’s head helps you eat out of a bowl with one hand.

* Long, patterned, diaphanous scarves are essential pieces of kit for any new mum (not plain colours, ladies – these will show up dribble, or worse). Scarves help you feed discreetly when you need to, or hang over your pram, especially when the sun suddenly deigns to blaze out on a previously grey day (thanks for that, British spring).

* “Nature is amazing, science is awesome”. My friend Ellie, who gave me advice about what to do about the in-hospital Bounty reps in my previous column, said this to me in a text while I was still in recovery. It’s still the best sentence ever. For instance, when I was sad about Evan not having arrived in the usual way, and my body not having done what it “should” have done, I realised that every time he fed – which was, and is, often – I felt my stomach cramp, and this was helping me heal. Breastfeeding helps the womb contract, and reduce to its old size; now, five weeks on, I look pretty much as I did before I was pregnant. Somehow, our bodies also keep us awake in these difficult weeks, and power us through. But science also has its place, beyond doubt. Take Evan, on antibiotics for a week after he showed signs of infection, who is now absolutely thriving (EDIT – today’s weigh-in – 11 pounds – oof). Things don’t have to be either/or. Let’s use everything we’ve got to keep Mum and baby well.

* If your mum/friends seem to be posting pictures of their babies too often on social media, consider this: that may have been the most constructive thing she felt she did with her day, or the one moment when baby was happy that she wanted to preserve. Facebook pictures are little markers that say, yes, world, I can manage this.

* Midwives are brilliant, undervalued people. One upside of me being in hospital for a week is that I had fantastic midwifery care. I’d go further, in fact: when you’re a new mum, there’s something to be said for having a longer stay in hospital than six tiny hours (the usual time now), and being cared for by people who have been there, and done that. In hospital, I got specialist breastfeeding advice that proved invaluable later, was watched over by a midwife while I slept in bed with my baby (who wouldn’t sleep in his crib, when I’d hardly any sleep for five days), had every question answered about my baby’s qualities and quirks, and felt properly monitored. It’s helped me ever since.

* I’ve also got a new-found respect for the power of women. I’ve had so many of them help me immeasurably since Evan arrived – both professionally and personally – and as a result, I’m enjoying my little boy so very, very much. Here’s to all of you, ladies. And here’s to us. We’re still here!

Jude Rogers is a writer, broadcaster, journalist, romantic, Welsh woman and geek. Follow her here @juderogers 

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“I call on those who live in the shadows”

All good stories get told over and over again, and every time they are told they get changed. The Brothers Grimm censored some fairy tales and softened others as they collected them; Angela Carter and Anne Sexton subjected them to radical revision in the name of feminism and a love of the new. More recently, Gregory Maguire‘s novels about Oz and the musical version of his Wicked shifted attention from heroine to villainess, asking interesting questions about how victims of injustice become perpetrators of evil.

Maleficent is an inventive subversion of the story we know from Perrault. More specifically, it revisits the Disney studio’s animated version. The new film’s hapless prince shares the name Philip with the rather more active 1959 character and the credit titles’ music is a sinister seductive version of the cartoon’s theme song, itself an adaptation of the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Primarily, of course, it is a vehicle for Angelina Jolie, whose glittering eyes and high cheekbones make her a remarkable double of one of Disney’s most spectacularly beautiful villainesses.

Critical reactions have varied – everyone agrees that Jolie’s performance is spectacularly good – noticeably, some critics were not paying quite as much attention as they should have done. There are some things that revisionism cannot change – the story is in the end about a woman who places a terrible curse on an innocent child – but this particularly thoughtful version manages to combine a radically subversive rethinking with popular entertainment. (The Peckham cinema where I saw it was full of delighted children.) Maleficent trusts both the material and its audience enough to work really remarkably well.

It posits two kingdoms – a human world which is all iron, blood and male tyranny and an adjacent realm of faerie, the Moors, of innocent playfulness and Rackhamesque cute weirdness. Even as a child, Maleficent is its hawk-winged protector; a sequence in which her parents were played by Miranda Richardson and Peter Capaldi was cut, partly for length but also because, in the end, this tough fairy needs no parents. It is no stretch of imagination whatever to describe these two kingdoms as Patriarchy and the Queer world.

As children, Maleficent and the boy Stefan become sweethearts. He goes away and his ambitions make him a lieutenant to the evil King – played by Kenneth Cranham – whose invasion of the Moors Maleficent defeats with giants and dragons made of tree roots. Promised the succession if he succeeds in removing her power, Stefan returns to the Moors, renews his pledge of true love’s kiss to Maleficent, drugs her and severs her wings, leaving her a cripple who has to learn to walk using a staff that becomes the new centre of her power. Not only is this a fairly obvious rape metaphor; it’s more interestingly a way of talking about how we adapt to trauma. She cuts the Moors off from the human world he now rules, with her wall of thorns, and swears vengeance.

The standard good fairies are replaced by a trio of slightly idiotic pixies who think the antagonism between Stefan’s realm and their own can be smoothed over with a few presents; Maleficent’s arrival at the christening and curse that the child will prick her finger on her sixteenth birthday and fall asleep forever is as much a rebuke to their stupidity as revenge. One of the most intelligent features of the writing at this point is the proper respect paid to the idea that words are magic – it’s not just that Maleficent’s sarcastic use of ‘true love’s kiss’ as the thing that will wake Aurora. It is that she reinforces the blessing that all will love her, and hardens the curse by saying that no power can break it.

The neglectful dimness of the pixies – to whom Stefan hands the child – means that Maleficent spends Aurora’s childhood protecting her from walking off cliffs and starving to death. Her constant bitch-faced iteration of how much she hates Stefan’s child by another woman is entirely contradicted by her actions – and of course she has trapped herself; all will love Aurora, includes Maleficent.

When they meet and talk, Aurora tells Maleficent that she recognizes her shadow as the fairy godmother who has always protected her – and she is not wrong. Maleficent comes to want desperately to protect Aurora but the terms of her curse, which no power can break, make it impossible for her to do so. Aurora duly pricks herself on a spindle and falls asleep.

Maleficent fights her way into the castle to deliver the charmingly useless Philip, whose kiss – he hardly knows Aurora – is entirely ineffectual; true love turns out to be Maleficent’s maternal devotion – she promises to protect Aurora in her sleep and pecks her on the forehead. This is the kiss that wakens the sleeping beauty. Stefan is far more interested in destroying Maleficent than saving his daughter; he neglected his dying wife to monologue Macbeth-like at the severed wings. He springs his iron traps – and Aurora saves her adopted mother by retrieving her wings. Stefan falls to his death trying to kill Maleficent even after she has defeated him – Maleficent hands both kingdoms over to Aurora, and both realms come out of the darkness of conflict into a sort of innocence…

To say that what is on offer is a queer feminist reading of the story is not to regard Maleficent’s love for Aurora as specifically sexual; it’s not grooming and there is no sign of desire. What we have though is two women who form a mutually self-sacrificing bond that lets them escape from a traumatic past and smash the patriarchy; if that’s not a queer feminist reading, I don’t know what is, irrespective of Aurora’s future relationship with the ineffectual Philip.

I guarantee that before the month is out, some right-wing American pundit will be even more upset by this Disney film than they were by the far less challenging Frozen. Maleficent is far from perfect – Sharlto Copley is far too hammy as Stefan, and Elle Fanning’s Aurora manages charm with almost no good lines – but it looks gorgeous and manages to be a good deal smarter than most Disney products.

Roz Kaveney is a Contributing Editor to Feminist Times. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.

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Elizabeth Fremantle: Feminism is…

Elizabeth FremantleName: Elizabeth Fremantle

Age: 51

Location: London

Bio: Novellist

Feminism is the desire for equality: equal opportunity, equal pay, equal respect. It is recalibrating cultural notions of femininity and busting the popular myths of genetic destiny.

Email your response to the question “what is feminism?” (in no more than 200 words) to editorial@feministtimes.com, with your name, age, location, a one-sentence bio and a photo of yourself.

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We need more women in politics.

Following the West Midlands Feminist Times panel and Q&A event “Do we need more women in politics“, we are publishing the speeches of some of the panelists. First we hear from Ruth Jones OBE.

Do we need more women in politics? The answer of course is yes! I would like to think that this is obvious if only on the basis of equality, but even if we had an equal number of men and women in politics this would still not be representative of the population. The 2011 census showed a population of 56.1 million in England and Wales. 27.6 million were male and 28.5 female. This equates to almost a million more women than men in England and Wales and yet these women are overwhelmingly represented by men in politics. The majority are represented by the minority. A UN report of women in global politics launched as part of International Women’s Day 2014 showed that the UK had 650 MPs with 147 (22.6%) being women. This ranks us 65th of 189 countries.

It has been suggested that women do not get involved in politics. I beg to differ. The reality is that few women are elected but many are political and this has always been the case. Take my subject for instance (Gender Based Violence). Women lobbied for over two hundred years to get successive governments to take gender based violence (GBV) seriously. This gradually resulted in changes to legislation, the implementation of policy and more recently to funding for services. Women are political. So why aren’t there more women in politics and why don’t more women vote?

More women are not in politics due to a number of issues that include the structure in which politics operates which is patriarchal in nature and is a public sphere. Political life is structured around unsociable, long hours that don’t make it easy for women with caring responsibilities in a society in which women don’t ‘have it all’ but have to ‘do it all’. Political women also need to feel confident in having a voice. Historian Mary Beard has highlighted how women’s voices have been silenced and/or ridiculed. Recent comments aimed at women by politicians include the patronising ‘sit down dear’ (David Cameron, 2011), the idea that “there is a danger this feminism thing is getting a bit ludicrous” (Douglas Hurd, 2014). Women in politics have to be thick skinned and determined.

When women do get into politics, they have historically been given what is commonly termed ‘soft portfolios’ based on ‘women’s issues’. While I believe (and evidence shows) that such issues would not be addressed without women MPs, I also argue that issues termed ‘women’s issues’ such as GBV are everyone’s issues and every issue is a women’s issue. By separating ‘women’s issues’ we are colluding with discrimination. It is not ‘women’s issues’ that are missing from politics but women’s perspectives on a multitude of issues.

I also argue that women are generally reluctant to vote for male MPs who do not understand the realities of women’s lives, many of which don’t want to as evidenced by the mass exodus of male MPs (and some women) when Yvette Cooper called for a debate on how Coalition government policy is impacting on women. To engage women the political message has to have meaning for women.

Ruth Jones OBE, Director of the National Centre for the Study and Prevention of Violence and Abuse, University of Worcester
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Coat hangers and blood: Imagine a world without abortion

Trigger Warning. This article contains graphic descriptions of illegal abortions. 

15 years ago I had an abortion. It was in London where women have the right to choose – that is as long as two doctors agree with her choice. But what would have happened if just one of those doctors decided that it would have been better for me – someone they’ve just met – to continue with the pregnancy?

I was young so I may not have been strong nor savvy enough to find alternatives. Or too scared to take them forward. Coat hangers can easily be found, but to shove one up your vagina all the way into your uterus takes a brave – and desperate – woman or girl.

It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to work out what the world would be like without abortion. We women have been through it all before. But the vision is more frightening than anything else I can think of.

Backstreet abortions that consist of pumping the uterus full of soapy water, a la Vera Drake (which would often kill instantly) would be one scenario. The infamous (but never to be underestimated in its volume of use) coat hanger; many reputable gynaecologists such as Waldo Felding have stated that they have seen many women turn up to A&E with the hanger still wedged up their vaginal passage. Or, how about a pint and a half of turpentine? Or. throwing yourself down stairs to induce miscarriage? Some women may think that the trusty household hoover may do the trick. I mean, it cleans up everything else, so why not?

We would go back to a time when less reputable newspapers advertised ‘Cures for menstrual blockage’ as advertising revenue would overtake the moral high ground. A high ground where currently the Daily Mail condemns Josie Cunningham for wanting an abortion. These cures were poisonous, and sometime fatal. You would virtually have to kill the mother to destroy the foetus.

Backstreet abortions would be done without local anaesthetic on someone’s dirty kitchen table, with filthy utensils, in a dark room and by women who didn’t really care if they clumsily ripped through your womb.

One women I talked with spoke of waiting on a street corner in 1962. A van turns up, blindfolds and places her in the van where she is given a backstreet abortion and dropped somewhere in the middle of nowhere hours later, with no money or map to get home.

Removing legal abortion does not remove abortion. It never has done. It drives it underground where violent, life-threatening alternatives loiter for those desperate women and girls who don’t want to be pregnant. Abortion becomes a profitable business on the black market and prices out the most desperate and poor – minority groups.

A world without abortion would leave us like Brazil where one fifth of the one million women who have backstreet abortions each year go to hospital with botched procedures. Or Ireland, where Savita Halappanavar died whilst miscarrying her wanted pregnancy; despite that her life would have been saved from a simple abortion.

In January, the Irish Republic further criminalised abortion with 14 year jail term. In Northern Ireland, more than 1,000 women each year travel to have an abortion in other parts of the UK. I’m staggered that we feminists in the rest of the UK are largely unaware of the terrible restrictions Irish women face in their right to choose, a mere few hundred miles away.

It’s an appalling fact that women from Ireland are forced abroad to access a fundamental healthcare service that they should be able to obtain at home. It’s a sad fact that Ireland is a prime example of what the world looks like if abortion is illegal. A world of coat hangers and blood: where women are forced into continuing with unwanted pregnancies that they may be unable to afford or cope with.

Melanie is a NGO-worker, feminist & film-maker. Follow her on twitter @51percentorg

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Summertime body-shaming is upon us: No more bikini body war!

Body-shaming is all around us, all the time. It feels, though, as if it’s particularly acute in the summer. Your body has to be thin, tanned, hairless, free of cellulite, and your face must be impeccably made-up even in sweltering heat via specially-purchased summer beauty products. And you definitely aren’t allowed to sweat.

Even when you accept and understand that these are completely arbitrary and sexist cultural requirements, actually doing something about it feels like an intimidating challenge. I can’t tell you the number of times edgily simplistic Twitter and Tumblr posts have told us all that the way to get a bikini body is to ‘have body, wear bikini.’ It’s fairly obvious it’s not that easy, though. If we weren’t in a culture that reviled fatness, body hair, scars, body shapes that aren’t precisely proportioned hourglasses then yes, it would simply be a question of ‘have body, wear bikini’.

I don’t think I have what many people would call a dream body. I’m visibly fat, with thick, dark body hair. I don’t shave my armpits ever, and I shave my legs maybe once or twice a year as the mood takes me. I have large surgical scars that cut across my stomach and break up any chance of a ‘smooth silhouette.’

I’m now in a position where I’m happy to wear a tiny bikini that shows all my abundant near-radioactively pale fat without shaving my legs and underarms or having my ‘bikini line’ (read: pubic hair) waxed for the occasion. Did it happen overnight? Hell no.

One year I started to go out with bare legs under skirts. The next I bought a high-waisted bikini and didn’t shave my legs or underarms when I wore it on the beach. This year I’ve found a particularly minuscule tie-side zebra print bikini that I’m looking forward to wearing without fear.

For anyone who knows the tyranny of summertime body-shaming is entirely socially constructed but doesn’t know how to do anything about it, I would recommend a try-and-see process. It’s so easy to get so caught up in the lies about how a woman’s body should look that that we’re too scared to test our personal limits. Giving yourself a chance to go out in public without shaving your legs or without worrying that your fat thighs or your upper arms are on show is the only way to prove to yourself that, in all likelihood, nothing bad will happen to you.

When I’m holding onto a railing on the bus and I’m wearing a sleeveless top, I get a couple of surprised looks or bemused whispers among teenage girls because of my unshaven underarms. When I’m out with my crop top on exposing my many inches of wobbly abdominal flesh, people stare like they’ve never seen anything like it before. And maybe they haven’t.

The reason you think it’s a big deal is because there are so few positive representations of fat women in swimwear in the media. The reason you think you can’t have body hair and be attractive is because you so seldom see representations of female body hair which are framed as attractive. Being fat and confident in a bikini seems unthinkable to many because in films and TV, you put a fat woman in a bikini so you can laugh at her. But it doesn’t have to be like that – I promise!

Although it shouldn’t be, every time you subvert cultural norms about how a body should look in public, that’s a victory. Even if the idea of photographing yourself in swimwear is unthinkable, maybe try and build up to a point where recording your victory is something you want to do. I, for one, know I’ve had lots of comments and emails saying other women have felt empowered to get more of their bodies out more publicly as a result of seeing me and other fat bloggers doing the same- and publicising our efforts. Absolutely no one has a duty to put themselves in a position where they feel uncomfortable, but the more of us go out there and impose our so-called subversive image on the general public, the less uncomfortable that experience becomes, for everyone.

Give yourself a chance to figure out exactly what you want to be doing with your body, what makes you feel beautiful, what makes you feel empowered. Dip your toe in the water and see if you like the ripples. Maybe even start this summer. It’s not easy, but it’s not as hard as you might think.

Bethany Rutter is a fat activist, blogger, DJ and journalist, and writes a blog about bodies and clothes at archedeyebrow.com.

Photo: Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería via Flickr

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Brown beauty: from TV to the high st the beauty industry is still racist

As a woman of colour who finds great joy in wearing lipstick, I’ve long understood that that some make up products were off limits to my skin colour. Foundation and concealer samples provided free with women’s magazines would smear, chalk-like on my skin. There was a universal skin colour aimed at consumers, and I wasn’t it. But there were other products- mascara, lip gloss, nail polish- that I could buy without a feeling of unease.

Still now, women of colour have to consider paying three times as much as our white counterparts for makeup products that match the colour of our skin. What’s stocked in lower end shops such as Boots and Superdrug does not cater to us. So, if we’re into make-up, we head to the brands that cater to professional make up artists who work with all kinds of faces- MAC, Nars, and Bobbi Brown, to name a few.

We’re consistently reminded that our attributes are not the ‘norm’ – the norm being white, of course. This attitude is endemic. Turning up to take part in television interview recently, I was sent to hair and makeup before appearing live on air. There was no concealer available for the colour of my skin, and no comb for the texture of my afro hair.

So it wasn’t a surprise that some of the UK’s most well-known beauty brands ignored the existence of women of colour attending the Afro Hair and Beauty Show on May’s bank holiday weekend. Instead, the show was chock full of not just hair companies, but smaller, independent brands too. There are products from high street companies that women of colour buy from regularly, yet for some reason, our interests are considered niche. It doesn’t seem to make business sense ignoring a large concentration of women in the same venue all weekend, all of whom would have been more than likely to buy products if the brands were exhibiting.

The Afro Hair and Beauty Show isn’t anything new, and there aren’t many reasons to ignore the show, beyond ignorance and marginalisation. 2014 was the show’s 33rd year in business. I can understand the reasons behind its existence – mainstream brands were not, and still aren’t acknowledging women of colour. Whilst it’s important for women of colour to organise separately until we have adequate representation, it’s no longer acceptable for those who dominate the industry to tune out black women’s efforts.

Afua Adom, a journalist working at Pride Magazine, summarised the problems succinctly in an interview with trade website Features Exec. ‘It’s sad to say, but some companies (namely Topshop) and PRs still aren’t keen to send us images or clothes for shoots because they are just, to say it simply, racist. Just because we are a magazine for black women doesn’t mean we don’t reach a huge number of people. It’s silly and makes them look really small and petty.’

And so magazines like Black Hair, Pride, and Black Beauty continue to exist. Black media isn’t just about politics; it’s about creating the representation that’s denied to us. Black women beauty bloggers are organising separately from the mainstream movement and the parallels to the historical splits in feminism are undeniable.

Ever resourceful, it’s up to women of colour to organise and kick up enough of a fuss until we are heard. With the explosion of successful beauty bloggers online in recent years, it was black women on twitter who came up with the idea of a weekly beauty discussion on Sunday evenings. Scroll through the hashtag #brownbeauty at the right time of day and you’ll enter into discussion on co-washing, hair texture, or hand creams. It has recently evolved into a website, Brown Beauty Talk, edited by marketing guru Ronke Adeyemi.

Ronke explains to me why she set up Brown Beauty Talk. ‘ We saw a gap in the market for a platform, a dialogue for women of colour to discuss beauty – topics like choosing the right shade of foundation, or transitioning hair from relaxed to natural… We also try and do a bit of lobbying with mainstream brands.’

With consumer influence transferring from traditional beauty editors in the press to bloggers and vloggers reviewing products online, the insulated, echoing whiteness of the PR industry reveals itself. It is public relations professionals who work on behalf of beauty brands to try and gain as much coverage as possible. Just 2% of people working in the PR industry identify as black or Asian.

Echoing Afua Adom’s comments on Topshop, Ronke says ‘There’s a massive disconnect between us and the decision makers… black bloggers still aren’t being invited to PR outreach events. We have a long way to go. Just look at Stylist Magazine – it doesn’t reflect the multicultural city it’s distributed in. We actually approached Stylist a while ago, and we asked ‘where are the women of colour?’ They were astounded. They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong.’

At the root of the problem is the question of who gets to participate in constructions of femininity. Whilst I can get behind feminist critiques of the restrictiveness of femininity, it’s important to examine who gets to access it in the first place. There’s no denying the beauty industry is institutionally racist. Brands that do not cater to black skins in the West sell skin lightening creams in other, blacker parts of the world. When femininity is still considered the arbiter of womanhood, we have to hark back to abolitionist activist Sojourner Truth who, in 1851, asked ‘ain’t I a woman, too?’

Reni Eddo-Lodge is a black feminist writer and campaigner based in London. She is Contributing Editor at Feminist Times, blogs at http://renieddolodge.co.uk/ and tweets @renireni

Photo: Wikimedia

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Sexism makes female sexual dysfunction a hidden problem

The first time I had sex, it hurt. A lot. I have vaginismus, which refers to painful intercourse. I’m sure this is a pretty common occurrence for many people, so I just shrugged it off. After all, sex education taught me that pain is something to expect the first few times you have sex, and that if my partner couldn’t get an erection it was ok – it was just nerves. I never once heard that the pain may continue, and I suspect this is the case for a lot of women. When it continued for more than a year, I finally conceded that something must be wrong.

Female Sexual Dysfunction, often abbreviated to FSD, is a catch-all term for a range of different conditions, from painful sex to lack of arousal. Around 43% of women and 31% of men have reported some degree of difficulty in their sex lives. Despite the higher number of women reporting difficulties, Erectile Dysfunction (ED) is more widely recognised in mainstream media and the amount of research into it also far outweighs the research into FSD. Much of the research into both ED and FSD is very Viagra-centric – but scientists are not even sure whether this works for women.

Unsurprisingly, due to the lack of research, doctors are pretty clueless when it comes to FSD. When I first told my doctor that I was unable to have penetrative sex, it was automatically assumed I had a lack of sexual desire due to depression and anxiety. But I have a high sex drive. I was also shouted at and told to relax when the doctor was having a hard time examining me. I didn’t get the diagnosis I expected – in fact, the doctor didn’t even give the condition a name. I was made to feel as if FSD isn’t a common problem.

I was eventually referred to a gynaecologist after waiting 6 months for an appointment. I felt excited that I’d finally have an answer to my problem, completely putting my faith in what I thought was an FSD specialist. Hope started to fade when I didn’t even see myself represented on the posters in the waiting room. It was clear that if I was here, it was for help with post-menopausal dryness or pregnancy problems.

There are a range of treatments available for all types of FSD. These include lubrication, psychosexual therapy, Botox injections, numbing gels and vaginal dilators. Dilators range in size from a tampon to average penis size and are designed to help you relax and get used to the sensation of having sex. I’d heard about these through different forums, and they seemed to work for some women, in conjunction with therapy.

During my appointment, the gynaecologist suggested I try vaginal dilators. I was pretty excited, as I’d heard good things about them. But my excitement was short-lived when the gynaecologist’s assistant didn’t seem to understand what vaginal dilators were, and then told me that the hospital didn’t have any. I asked if I could get them on prescription. They’re a medical aid, so why wouldn’t I be able to? I was advised, however, that I’d probably be better off spending £50 to buy them on eBay. I couldn’t resist making a joke that I’d better make sure I didn’t get a second-hand product. She also advised that maybe, just maybe (but probably not) I’d be able to get them at a local pharmacy. This is completely unacceptable treatment for such a common problem.

I’ve also been given a numbing gel that is supposed to help with the pain, but that option is problematic in itself. What is the point of having sex if you can’t feel it? Am I expected to lie back passively? Yes, I want to remove the pain, but I also want to feel something.

The examination was a painful experience that didn’t answer any questions. I’ve been put on a waiting list for an indeterminate amount of time for various scans and psychosexual therapy. It’s a long process, and only time will tell whether any of these things will work for me – it’s pretty much just ‘suck it and see’. There’s no little blue pill.

The great thing is, dilators and psychosexual therapy work for a lot of people. The problems lie in the diagnostic process, the availability of dilators and other treatment options, the amount of research into FSD, and the general lack of visibility. If you’re suffering and not being heard, keep going back to your doctor and demand that you be taken seriously. Always get a second opinion. FSD needs to be talked about a lot more. It’s not acceptable that women are suffering, ignoring pain and feeling inadequate when there are adverts for Viagra on TV.

Emily Griffith is a freelance writer specialising in at-home activism and mental health. She tweets at @AtHomeActivist and blogs at The Agoraphobic Feminist.

Photo: Huffington Post

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What is Feminism? banner

Rachel Williams: Feminism is…

Name: Rachel Williams

Age: 21

Location: Merseyside

Bio:  Politics and Philosophy student at the LSE, with an avid interest in literature and international development. She also likes cats

Feminism is about realising that only 22% of MPs are women. It is about understanding that there are merely 3 female CEOs in the FTSE100. It is about discerning that school days end at 3.30pm because housewives are still a norm and yet unpaid and necessary work in the home is still under appreciated.

Feminism for me has been and continues to be a source of realisation about the position of women in our communities and institutions that I was previously unaware of. I hope that as a feminist I can help others to recognise that too.

Email your response to the question “what is feminism?” (in no more than 200 words) to editorial@feministtimes.com, with your name, age, location, a one-sentence bio and a photo of yourself.

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How pioneering women took back Yoga from men.

Twenty-first century yoga is female. Look around the classes. There are a few men on planet yoga, but they are massively outnumbered by women. Yoga is a women’s thing – isn’t it?

But the practices all these women are doing were created by men, and for men. Some medieval yoga manuals advise yogis to avoid women, for fear of distraction or pollution. Hatha yoga (yoga that works through physical postures to modify mental activities) was a boys’ game, and women were not invited. Medieval hatha yoga manuals were not written for women’s bodies. The practices were closely guarded secrets, to be passed on from one male teacher to his initiates for their spiritual advancement.

So how does a medieval male practice, a secret technology for spiritual evolution, become a multi-billion pound global business with an almost entirely female customer base?

It’s a long, fascinating story, only now coming full circle. Most histories of hatha yoga refer to fifteenth century manuals, and to philosophy set out around the first century. Ideas and techniques from these texts were codified and possessed by male teachers who established powerful lineages to protect their teachings. Some of the lineages are monastic, ascetic traditions, and others are secular, but all of them are patriarchal hierarchies, with little place for women.

But there are feminine roots to yoga. Before the lineages and hierarchies existed to promote certain forms of yoga teaching, the deep roots of this holistic practice of self-care and empowerment were female.

Archeological evidence from 1300 BCE shows the roots of tantra, an approach to spirituality that embraces all aspects of human experience as a means to liberation. The roots of tantra include practices that honour the yoginis (goddesses and women who practice yoga) and celebrate the powerful energies of menstruation and birth as opportunities for profound spiritual initiation. It’s from the roots of tantra that hatha yoga grew. Hatha yoga is the son, but tantra is the mother.

Could this be why women love yoga? It was ours in the first place: a whole technology of self-care and spiritual development inspired by the cycles of our bodies. So when we get on our mats and follow our breath, we come back home to ourselves, rediscover our own power, and reconnect with ancient feminine roots of yoga.

For western women, this rediscovery began at the end of the nineteenth century. During the 1890s, when Queen Victoria was taking yoga philosophy lessons in Buckingham Palace, an Anglo-Irish governess called Margaret Noble met a traveling Bengali monk in a London drawing room, and fell in love with yoga as a spiritual teaching. Margaret traveled to Calcutta to study with her teacher.

As ‘Sister Nivedita’, Margaret Noble was one of a wave of courageous women who rediscovered the power of yoga and shared it. Other pioneering women traveled to India, each seeking yoga teachings to bring back home. In 1912 Mollie Bagot Stack studied in India, and brought her ‘stretch and swing’ classes to the Women’s League of Health and Beauty in London in the 1920s. In 1930, Latvian Eugenie Labunskaia studied with yoga master Krishnamacharya. Known as Indra Devi, Eugenie was a passionate and hugely influential international yoga teacher. By the time she died at the age of 103, she had spread yoga throughout five continents.

Indra Devi was the most prominent of the astonishing women who devoted their lives to yoga. When these women began to share yoga, something remarkable happened. Initially, yoga students would be lined up like soldiers, performing standard poses to order. This masculine approach to yoga teaching is still widespread, but slowly, women teachers began to sense that military approaches to yoga promoted by traditional lineages were not exactly suited to women’s bodies, at least not all of the time. Inspired by teachers such as Vanda Scaravelli and Angela Farmer, many women teachers have begun to work intuitively with the tools of hatha yoga, to share a more feminine, potently nourishing and womanly practice.

This fluid, powerful yoga brings us back to the ancient feminine roots of tantric practices that informed hatha yoga in the first place. We are coming full circle. I’ve been practicing yoga for forty-three years, and have spent seven years researching the history of women in yoga. I’ve been delighted to rediscover that yoga’s feminine roots nourish women today.

When we heed our intuition, honouring the wisdom of our cycles, then yoga responds perfectly to the needs of our female bodies: bodies that menstruate and conceive, bodies that miscarry and give birth, bodies with breasts, wombs and bellies, bodies that go through menopause and experience pre-menstrual tension. The yoga that best serves women does not impose upon us the shapes and forms of yoga practice designed for men, instead, it supports us at every stage of our lives.

So if you are female and you practice yoga, then I invite you, next time you are told in a class what to do, to pause, to feel into yourself and ask: does this really suit me right now? If I am menstruating, or ovulating, does this make a difference to my yoga practice? If I am about to bleed, or if I am having a hot flush, then does this yoga that I’m being instructed to do really suit me today?

When we ask these questions, we don’t just replicate sequences learnt from male lineages that exist to protect teachings, not to serve the well-being of students. Instead we find yoga that works best for us as women, that respects the cycles of our female bodies. This is a radical shift towards self-care as empowerment. And yoga that empowers women has very ancient roots.

Uma Dinsmore-Tuli Phd is a yoga therapist. Her new book, Yoni Shakti: a woman’s guide to power and freedom through yoga and tantra is out now. For more details of the book, please visit www.yonishakti.co. To connect with teachers who share a feminine vision of yoga practice for women please visit www.wombyoga.org

Stockist details www.yogamatters.com

Photo: Wikimedia

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True Detective & the fetisisation of killing women

It was during an episode of HBO’s hit series True Detective that it became clear. When the camera panned on two breasts jiggling up and down on Woody Harrelson like a cheerleader on a bouncy castle, a part of me groaned. I get it: he’s troubled. How does watching a DD chest pogoing on my television screen illustrate this?

As I write this feature the internet is adamant that Jessica Chastain is NOT starring in the next season of HBO hit drama True Detective, despite the rumours. Rumours that hadn’t stopped bloggers from picking up on the debate about sexism in TV drama, pinning their hopes on an HBO-rehabilitation of a female lead detective such as Chastain for season two.

You could say that HBO has experienced a “woman problem” in recent years: shows such as True Detective, The Wire and Game of Thrones have all thrown up clunking questions about how television-makers truly see women. Our TV screens continue to make victims, mistresses, corpses, wives and prostitutes of us all and while I’d like to think that TV doesn’t hold much influence over how women are treated in real life, the events of this weekend have shown that young and impressionable men can be violently and fatally misogynistic. TV cannot be blamed but it is definitely part of the landscape.

Going back to True Detective, the fictionalised Louisiana in which the series is set is devoid of any real women of depth. The female characters who do appear are defined by men and moved around like pieces on a chessboard. A woman’s sexuality is used to illustrate a man’s spiritual disenchantment, every female character exists in a supporting role, often semi-naked, to prove some kind of existential point. Even when detective Marty rallies against the exploitation of a teenage prostitute, by episode 6 the same teenage prostitute is texting him images of herself in her underwear. He’s “damaged”, “misunderstood” and “flawed”, this much is clear – but wait, so is she.

Why does his crisis have to be explained at the expense of her, stripped down to her wonderbra? Stick a pair of antlers on a woman’s corpse (episode 1 opens with the discovery of a ritualistic murder where a prostitute’s dead body is posed wearing a crown of deer antlers) and the issue of violence against women and its sexual fetishism also enters the picture. Let’s face it: most detective dramas are fuelled by it, not just True Detective.

Nothing fascinates dramatists and viewers more than a murdered prostitute or a young schoolgirl missing-presumed-dead. Even when a drama series stars a female lead detective, like Sarah Lund in The Killing, young women are a prime crime-target. And then there’s Game of Thrones.

A rape scene that makers insisted wasn’t a rape scene has communicated a dangerously confused message on sexual consent where clarification is crucial. During recent episode ‘Breaker of Chains’ a woman is very clearly raped by her brother in the tomb of her dead son. Faced with criticisms that this scene glamorised sexual violence, episode director Alex Graves replied, “Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for [Cersei and Jaime] ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” The idea that a rape is “not completely a rape” is an uncomfortable director’s commentary when the apparently “turned-on” woman continually says “stop it” in the script.

So what’s going on and how can we fix it? It’s interesting to note that with only one exception over the course of four decades, HBO has not aired an original one-hour drama series created by a woman. If that wasn’t enough on its own, under 8% of HBO’s original dramas and mini-series came from women. In the UK, the outlook is just as bleak with a study by Directors UK, which represents 5,000 radio and television broadcasters, finding that no women directors have ever worked on many of our most popular dramas. Only 13% of drama episodes were directed by women in 2011-2012 and no sci-fi or fantasy genre dramas were directed by women between 2011 and 2012, yet women make up 27% of the directing force. Director Beryl Richards, who chaired the study added context by suggesting that women are often questioned as to whether they “have the authority to lead a largely male crew, or the technical knowledge”.

When women do take the helm, recent critical-smash Top of the Lake (co-produced by BBC Two in the UK) shows how sexual violence can be depicted to tell a female story from a woman’s perspective. In a strong female lead, abuse still acts as a bumper either side to direct Detective Robin Griffin’s story (played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss). What makes Top of the Lake different to the rest is its unsettling exploration of what it means to survive sexual violence, not just endure it. Robin’s traumatic rape isn’t a titillating tale of a good woman wronged by a bad man to further a male narrative.

To fix things, we need to address gender disparity in TV dramas: both on and off the screen. We need to question why our favourite programmes are caricaturing flimsy female roles and we need to ask why women aren’t writing, producing and directing more of the shows we’re watching. Directors UK are now addressing this imbalance, demanding that 30% of all programmes produced in 2017 be directed by women. In their words: ‘Broadcasters and production companies are willing to work with us to make change happen. Small steps have been taken but there is a great deal of work to be done.’ As for HBO and next season’s True Detective: why stop at one female detective? Let’s double it.

Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor at Feminist Times and a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.

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Why don’t you use the female condom?

Despite having been available for years, and its near endless list of benefits, the female condom has not had the level of popularity or success that global health and women’s rights advocates have hoped for. For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with the female condom, it’s an enjoyable little device that women can initiate on their own and that protects both partners while maintaining a warmer and more natural sensation than the male condom.

The female condom is a sheath of clear flexible material (latex, nitrile, or polyurethane) that can be inserted up to several hours before the sexual act, avoiding its interruption. Its outer ring provides an additional level of protection against sexually transmitted infections, and men have repeatedly stated how great the sensation of the inner ring feels during sex. If taught correctly, women can better negotiate condom use with stubborn husbands and partners, taking greater control over their sexuality and reproduction. It can also play a significant role in keeping sex workers safe and healthy as they can use the female condom as an alternative to inserting a sponge during their periods in order to maintain their work schedule – behaviour seen throughout Latin America.

So why hasn’t the female condom become more popular? Many argue that one of the female condom’s barriers to success is its price. Unfortunately, there isn’t yet enough competition on the market to drive the price down. Currently there are two World Health Organisation pre approved models on the market: Cupid Limited’s Cupid Condom (with a small sponge inside) and the Female Health Company’s FC2 (with a small flexible inner ring). Each are several times more expensive than male condoms. Yet several studies have shown that creating access to the female condom leads to higher levels of safe sex, lower HIV/AIDS transmission, and prevents many unwanted pregnancies, saving governments hundreds of thousands of dollars on top of their initial investment. Others state that the female condom has design drawbacks such as the visible outer ring that makes some women self-conscious. The stereotype that the female condom is noisy (an issue that has been eliminated thanks to design changes) may also be keeping people from giving it a shot.

I would maintain that these characteristics don’t have the impact that some argue, but that instead the female condom’s biggest hurdle is society’s refusal to allow women a greater role in their sexuality and reproduction. Just as the sexual needs and pleasure of women come second, so do the tools and contraceptive methods that put them in control. However, there are ways around this.

In Chile, like in many other countries, the female condom is not yet available. Thus the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW Chile) has decided to lead a strategic campaign to create dual access to the female condom through the National Health System and market vendors, as well as generating acceptance and demand for the product.

ICW Chile will reach out to young men and women, hoping to prevent HIV in the next generation of adults and encouraging young women to take control from the beginning of their sex lives. They will reach out to sex workers through condom negotiation workshops and teach the health benefits of using the condom during their period. They will speak to married couples in regions where HIV rates are high, and teach men that the female condom feels fantastic and that it gives them one less responsibility to worry about. ICW Chile will also work with transgender men and women, HIV positive women, and young mothers to attempt to mainstream the topic and receive thousands of signatures, eventually presenting a master petition to the government and encouraging the purchase of female condoms for the National HIV/AIDS and STD Prevention Program.

The hope is that this strategic introduction of the female condom will outweigh latent machismo in Chile and will give women an opportunity to protect themselves, especially from transmission of HIV/AIDS in their marriage. By 2015, ICW Chile hopes to have convinced the Chilean Government of the importance of the female condom. Soon Chile will be one less country where women are simply dependent on the generosity of men to put on a male condom.

Carolynn Poulsen is the Program Manager at ICW Chile

Photo: Wikimedia

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‘Worcester Woman’ talks back: should there be more women in politics?

As our regional Feminist Times team hurtles towards our first event, I was asked by Editor Deborah Coughlin, why I got involved in setting up a regional events team for the Feminist Times in the West Midlands.

If there had been a short answer to this question it would have made for a very dull blog. The long answer, however, may just fill a book. So here’s my attempt at a shortened and abridged version of why I signed up.

My story starts as an undergraduate, studying the psychology of women, listening to female narratives, discovering feminism as a political movement. These experiences have led me down all sorts of paths of personal and political enlightenment and have created a life long fascination with the psychology of the female body, feminism, women’s talk, herstory, mythology and Goddesses. It also inspired a desire to learn from, and to educate, other women, to join them on their path to enlightenment.

It was this desire that then led me to Youth Work, specifically sexual health education and work with young women in particular. It’s hard to find specific funding to work with young women on issues of sexual equality and I’ve had to be creative to make this kind of work bend to a specifically feminist agenda. More recently, austerity measures have seen further cuts to services for young people so it’s really exciting to see the re-emergence of feminist youth work, like Feminist Webs in the last year or so, but it’s not common place.

The relative informality of the youth work process has all but disappeared in recent years but in my early career the job afforded me hours of sitting in coffee shops, discussing projects, planning sessions and biding my time between them. It was during this immersion in coffee culture that I was first invited to become involved in putting on a VDay event in our local community. I jumped at the chance.

It was great being involved in these events, working collectively with wonderful women to create amazing events out of thin air. Shouting the reclaimed C-word to audiences, raising money for grassroot’s women’s organisations and awareness of women’s global issues to a wide range of women and girls. After doing this for 4 years, however, life has taken me down some unexpected paths and now, one tragedy, one wedding, a pregnancy, and one 7 year old girl child later, my heart and my head are back in action, and feminism calls once more.

During the last three years I’ve been attending the Women of the World festival in London’s Southbank Centre. It’s another contributing factor to my wanting to get involved in feminist events. My experiences there could be a whole other blog in itself but one thing I’m always struck by is how especially awesome it would be if there could be such an event nearer home. Something a little less London centric, where it might be possible to network with like minded local folk.

It was with all these things in mind that I responded to a call for action at the end of last year from the newly founded Feminist Times. The call was to help them fulfill a promise to their members to put on local events. A call that came at a perfect time for me, a frustrated feminist, looking for the right opportunity to ride the current wave. How could I not get involved?

In February I traveled to Birmingham to meet with Deborah to look at how we might start turning an idea into a reality. Since then it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride. That initial meeting was the start of so many fantastic conversations with many fascinating women, each inspiring many brilliant ideas: an arts festival showcasing women’s talent, a WoW festival for the Midlands, Feminist Barbie’s, a Feminist Café, an Edit-a-thon, a Feminist Burlesque show with a Q&A with performers, Feminist workshops in schools, a political party for the new Feminist order… Sometimes it felt like my head might explode.

I soon realised that these ideas were part of something much bigger than I could conceive and definitely bigger than the original brief. I also appeared to be getting carried away by that greater power that understands that when you bring the right women together something quite magical often happens. Fortunately, I also realised that I needed to reign myself in, harness just a few ideas, if I was to achieve anything at all. From small acorns do oak trees grow.

So in reorganising my thoughts I was able to bring together a small group of women, under the banner of a West Midlands Feminist Times team. We are collectively 20 something to 50 something. We each come with a diverse set of backgrounds, passions and experiences to bring to the table, and each with a unique desire to help galvanise a local feminist movement.

Obviously the range of potential themes and topics for our first event were vast but we quickly decided on an event that reflected the context of the recent local and European elections. We were interested in media discussions about all women shortlists. We were angry about increasing cuts, locally and nationally, to the services that have women and children at their heart. We were excited by articles about feminist parties in other European countries and intrigued as to how countries that are generally presented as less politically advanced by our British media could have better female representation in their governing bodies. Our own personal interests and concerns seemed to be centering around politics and how the world might be different with more women in positions of power and influence.

In addition to this, we were all fascinated by the ‘Worcester Woman‘. This politically contentious and ambiguous creature is said to represent the female face of middle England. It’s hard to find when and where the term was first coined but it’s generally understood to have appeared around 1997 and is used in the political media to describe a particularly type of female voter with ‘consumerist views and a shallow interest in politics’. Conversationally, if you Google ‘Worcester Woman’ most of the articles on the first page consist of the furthering of this political stereotype, none challenge it’s basic premise. As a diverse group of Worcester Women, as feminists, and as the West Midlands Feminist Times we decided we wanted to redress this notion of shallowness, we wanted to talk back.

And so our first event was conceived, meeting in women’s centres, cafés, pubs and our own homes to create our first happening: a panel event in the center of Worcester focusing on women’s place in contemporary politics. Since then it’s been a hectic month of extreme multi tasking for all of us. Juggling jobs, families and extra curricula activities with the planning of an event and all that it entails. A venue to find, a panel to compile, letters to write, calls to make, networks to draw upon, favours to ask, decisions to make, problems to solve, solutions to find, publicity to organise, flyers to disseminate, volunteers to recruit…..and now here we are, just days away from pulling off an extraordinary event.

The evening promises to be one of interesting and exciting discussion and debate in Worcester’s prestigious Guildhall. With an amazing panel drawn from local politicians, councillors and academics, as well as the Feminist Times own Editor, Deborah Coughlin. Our title for the event is obviously a rhetorical question (Worcester Woman talks back: should there be more women in politics?) but I’m very intrigued to see how our panel translates the question and how our audience will respond.

My personal hope for this event is that it might create further opportunities for discussion and action at a local level. I hope it encourages people to look at the barriers to women’s participation in local politics and also to look at ways of supporting and encouraging more women and girls into seeing a political career as an achievable and desirable goal.

Longer term I hope that we are able to offer a wide variety of events across the West Midlands that attract diverse audiences of feminists and potential feminists and those still unsure. I’d like to encourage collaboration with other feminist networks, perhaps ultimately creating a strong regional network of passionate, creative voices across the West Midlands. Anything I can do to contribute to this current wave of feminism, participating in its ebb and flow and continuing momentum, hoping to make a difference to people’s lives by challenging the status quo.

So watch this space for our future events (we have a Feminist Café event on the 18th June) and if you have an idea for a Fem T event in the West Midlands then please get in touch.

Attend our debut event “Worcester Woman talks back: Should there be more women in politics?”  Contact us at westmidlands@feministtimes.com

Leisa Taylor is a Youth Worker, Tutor, sometime blogger, Jill of all Trades, Feminista Extrordinaire, currently learning to pay the Ukulele. Follow her on Twitter @munachik; Facebook & LinkedIn @ Leisa Taylor; munachik.wordpress.com

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Forget fascists for a moment as Sweden’s Feminist party make history in the EU

On Sunday, the European elections took a historical turn when voters took a lurch to the right. Press across Europe reported on how nationalist parties gained a stable body of supporters and changed the demographics of the EU through a startling percentage of conservative, right-wing wins.

But European voters did not only vote nationalist, they also voted for a counter-movement: feminism.  A quieter historic moment was taking form. The European Parliament’s first independent feminist party entered the political arena.  Swedish party Feminist Initiative made history, with a final percentage count of 5.3% gaining a chair in the parliament for member Soraya Post.

Feminist Initiative’s journey started in April 2005. Rumour had it that a new feminist party was taking shape on the Swedish political landscape growing around Gudrun Schyman, the former leader of the Left Party. By 2008, the organization was formally a political party that competed in both the Swedish national election of 2010 and the European Parliamentary election of 2009. In the EU election, they gained 2.2% of the vote, but a did not make it into either the European or Swedish parliaments.

The feminist movement seemed defeated. Feminist Initiative disappeared from the political scene, becoming increasingly quiet. Perhaps feminism was not as strong as some may have initially thought – maybe even Sweden was not ready for a feminist political party.

Five years on, and nationalism and racism were taking grip of European politics. In Sweden, the media declared 2014 as the ‘super election year’, with both European elections and general Swedish parliamentary elections taking place in the same year. With this, the battle between the parties began. Who would take the fight against racism and nationalism? Whilst the larger parties began to look increasingly similar, Feminist Initiative was building it’s own agenda, selecting Soraya Post as its first name for the EU election. Her background of a Jewish father and Romani mother gave her a historical name on the election folders – the first Romani topping the lists on a ballot. With this, Feminist Initiative made their agenda clear: they wanted to be the party to fight discrimination, nationalism and racism.

After a threat of extinction, Feminist Initiative was back on the map. A counter movement started to take shape in Sweden that could be seen everywhere: particularly on social and print media. The feminist spring was coming. But the party were not invited to participate in national television debates, and were not taken seriously amongst their political peers. Would a vote for Feminist Initiative be considered a protest vote? Despite the doubts, something had started to simmer. Voters had started to take notice of this flowering movement and wanted to be a part of it. Feminist Initiative’s membership increased from 1500 in October 2013 to around 6000 in February 2014. Two weeks before the election, Feminist Initiative’s membership increased by 200 new members a day, totaling 14000 on the day of the election. In an opinion poll, one in four women were considering voting for the party.

The first election forecasts arrived on Sunday evening. The last three months had been one massive campaign, with the production of a feminist record and the creation of a feminist anthology – all designed to draw artists, writers, authors and journalists into Feminist Initiative’s feminist and anti-racist campaign. Sunday was the peak of the feminist spring, and the party was everywhere. Standing as an MEP candidate, Soraya Post urged people to vote for equality, women’s rights and anti-racism, and she was heard. Feminist Initiative won a seat in European Parliament, gaining 5.3% of the vote. The party made history – not only for being the first independent feminist party ever elected to the European Parliament, but for standing for politics drastically different to the current trend.

Feminist Initiative’s win is a small victory in a bigger battle for women’s rights and equality. Just hours after the election, Soraya Post was included in a list of right wing extremists by The Sun Newspaper, with the headline ‘Neo-Nazis, gun carriers, arsonists…and now MEPs’. But despite Soraya Post’s principally equality focused politics being thrown in amongst a list of extremists, Feminist Initiative’s win represents hope in an otherwise dismal election. There remains a lot to be done, but the confidence of Swedish voters is a big step towards combating attitudes of racism and nationalism. On September the 14th, the date of the next Swedish general election, we will know if Feminist Initiative establish themselves as a party to count on.

Sofia Landström is currently studying an MA in Exhibition Studies at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. She researches inequality in the arts and writes about representation and separatism.

Photo: Feminist Initiative

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Fourth-wavers: We still need to fight for abortion.

I’ve had an abortion. Several women I know have had an abortion. Some have had more than one and one friend has had four.

With one in three women having an abortion in their lifetime, why is it that we still can’t talk about it?

I made short film, Break the Taboo, because the shame that people expected me to feel when I mention having an abortion – quite frankly – filled me with frustration.

People would push me to show remorse with sympathetic funeral-like comments whilst looking at me as though I’m a slut who has just lost an arm to leprosy. My usual response is: I’m not sorry.

It’s a circumstance that I wish I had not encountered, but I made the right decision to have a termination. Without it I wouldn’t be who I am today. I wouldn’t have met and be engaged to the most wonderful man. I wouldn’t be working in a career I love. I wouldn’t be surrounded by the loveliest, warmest friends.

Where would I be? Well, taking into account where I was at the time of the abortion, I would probably be single, with no career and no friends that I can truly connect with. Lonely and struggling is probably where I would be.

91 percent of women who have an abortion do so within thirteen weeks and the majority of us chose an abortion not due to some tragic foetal abnormality, not because of rape, and not because our life is in danger. Our stories are neither exciting nor dramatic; they are everyday and sometimes even a little dull.

We choose to have an abortion because the time isn’t right, we want to focus on our career, our financial circumstances are difficult, or because (shock, horror) we just don’t want a child. As a result we continued to be ridiculed and victimized for choosing our future over our fetus.

As someone on Guardian comments put it: “once a woman consents to have sex, she consents to being pregnant.” This made me laugh aloud, whilst simultaneously wailing in fear of society.

When attitudes like this exist, why don’t us feminists speak out louder and tell the world that women have the right to choose? Why isn’t abortion firmly on the fourth waves agenda?

When Big Brother wannabe, Josie Cunningham, chose an abortion in order to pursue her career the social media erupted with hate. She received an avalanche of violent threats that would make a Guantanamo Bay guard take notes.

The right to an abortion is a basic human right that Britain has signed-up to. The 1967 Abortion Act has saved countless women’s lives from backstreet abortions. Why? Because whether abortion is legal or not, the demand will always be there.

Just yesterday I met a woman who had a backstreet abortion in 1965. She told me that ‘everyone had one’ and couldn’t recall anyone who had regretted it. It was a life-threatening procedure that around 40 women a year died from in the UK. For all those who mourn those aborted foetus’, who mourns the women so desperate that they risk death?

It’s time we stopped judging those who terminate their pregnancies and talked about their reasons for wanting an abortion by looking at a woman’s circumstance in its individuality. It’s time at we genuinely accept that a woman has a right to decide what her future looks like. Not the strangers who threatened to throw acid in Ms Cunningham’s face, or told her she should die.

When I speak about my abortion people are shocked because I’m not ashamed.

When Emily Letts posted a video of her experience online she received criticism because she is also unashamed. She shared her story to help make this horrible process easier to suffer which is in itself controversial – abortion mustn’t be an ‘easy’ experience. It must be a terrible and painful procedure to make women ‘learn their lesson’. Yet there’s no evidence that speaking about abortion and making the process more bearable will encourage more abortions.

We need to fight for abortion, because women’s reproductive rights globally are rolling backwards. It’s a devastating scenario that fills me with fear for women now and our future generations.

We need to fight for abortion to let the rest of the world know that, for 51 percent of the population, it is a health procedure and a decision that should be ours to take.

We need to fight for abortion, to tell women that they should not be ashamed. That one in three of us will have one in our lifetime, and it’s OK.

Let’s fight for abortion.

Melanie is a NGO-worker, feminist & film-maker. Follow her on twitter @51percentorg

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Erica Böhr: Feminism is…

Erica BohrName: Erica Böhr

Age: 47

Location: Cambridge

Bio: Radical feminist lesbian artist and mother

For me, feminism is:

1. A radical political stance of activism in the face of ongoing inequalities in gender and sexuality

2. Not saying sorry for wanting the same wages; occupying the same personal space as men; challenging homophobia and sexism; not apologising for existing; not buying into and actively resisting patriarchy’s attempts to mind-maim women

3. Wanting a t-shirt that bears the following slogan :This is what a Ball-­‐breaking, Empire-­‐ building, Machiavellian Butch Dyke from Hell looks like

4. A space where the personal is always the political

Email your response to the question “what is feminism?” (in no more than 200 words) to editorial@feministtimes.com, with your name, age, location, a one-sentence bio and a photo of yourself.

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Fem:Ale a beer festival for women

This weekend sees the first ever Fem.Ale festival taking place in Norwich – a three-day event celebrating delicious beer, brewed by women, enjoyed by everyone. We caught up with festival founder and curator Erica Horton to find out why this is event is so important and why it’s happening now:

The myth that the pub is a predominantly male space, and that beer and ale are enjoyed more by men than women, is unfortunately still resonant at the moment. The assumption that men are making the beer for other men, and women are used as a way of selling it, rather than as collaborators and creators, is a massive problem.

Even something as rudimentary as a pump clip that may go unnoticed, depicting busty women serving ales with names like ‘Buxom Blonde’ and ‘Red Head’, show how women can be seen as a commodity in this business; a commodity that is often sexualised. There is no male alternative to this, though I’m sure the male equivalent would involve beers called ‘Landlord’ or ‘Trawlerboy’, depicting positions of power. However there seems to be a shift in beer culture right now in Norfolk.

Norfolk loves its ale and there certainly lots of ‘old man’ pubs to be found, but not only is it no longer unusual to see women drinking beer, here it’s not unusual for women to make the beer.

I’m not sure this is true on a national scale yet, either because the beer isn’t as good or perhaps the myths hold more weight, but Norfolk seems to be at the forefront of a gender change in the beer industry so it seems apt that we’re having this festival.

One of the ways we can break down the myths surrounding the female relationship with beer is by looking at women who are working within the industry itself. FEM.ALE is focused less on trying to get more women drinking the stuff and on showcasing the female brewers themselves, providing a platform for networking and collaboration to build support for women in the industry. That’s something we hope to get out of the panel on Saturday afternoon. Do women feel separate or other to male brewers? We want to give women space to talk about their experiences as women in what is otherwise perceived to be a predominantly male industry.

I’ve had people (only men up until now) asking me why I am putting on a female specific ale event, saying beer doesn’t have a gender and should just be about good beer. In an ideal world this would be true, but when you look at pub culture and specifically beer culture it would seem that women’s behavior is being policed to a certain extent. Questions are still raised about whether women are ‘ladylike’ enough if they drink beer, should they be having halves if they are going to drink ale? This specific gendering of behavior needs to be questioned on a grassroots level, otherwise the everyday cultures that ascribe and normalise different appropriate behaviours are reinforced.

For me, as a feminist, it is crucial that these heteronormative gender binary distinctions are continually questioned and those constructions of gender need to be broken down. There is an assumption that the pub is a male domain where men make the beer, women serve and men drink. Admittedly this stereotype does occasionally ring true, but we wanted to break with what was perceived as traditional and celebrate the women who make ale and love ale.

It may seem that there are more problematic issues to be focusing on in feminism than simply what alcoholic beverages men and women are typically drinking, that this is a trivial matter, but women working in the industry face sexism and it is important to confront that.

CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) who currently have a female director, Christine Cryne, put forward a motion at the last AGM to tackle sexism and racism within the industry, so this is a really exciting time to be hosting an event like this; there is a real sense of camaraderie and purpose surrounding it.

I hope that FEM.ALE will get both men and women openly talking about these issues. We want to break the everyday cultures regarding what is ‘appropriate’ behavior for women in a traditionally male-dominated public space… whilst enjoying lots of delicious beer in the process, of course.

The three-day event is part of the City of Ale Festival and is providing a home for female brewed beers within the city wide festival. It’s taking place this weekend (Friday 23rd – Sunday 25th May) at The Plasterers Arms in Norwich. It will feature panel discussions, beer tasting, live music, all of which are free apart from Dea Latis’ ‘Beers with Breakfast’, which is a ticketed event. Full event program information can be found on the festival’s website, or follow @FemAleFestival.

Ellie Jones is a musician currently playing guitar with Buoys and Hannah Lou Clark, co-founder of Gravy Records and works with Transgressive Artist & Producer Management. Feminist and beer lover.

Photo: Simon Finlay

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The fear of reprisal: What happens if you stand up to harassment?

All too often women experience some form of verbal harassment, whether it’s a “nice arse”, a “slut” or occasionally, a “pussy”. Entirely dependent on the situation and the woman, we have a few seconds to decide whether we are going to respond – essentially a fight or flight decision – and most times, I jump at the chance for a fight.

Swimming in my local pool a few weeks ago, I noticed three, middle-aged men loitering by the side, making loud, obscene comments about the women steadily doing lengths. It was clear they had no intention to exercise – but instead to make the other, predominantly female swimmers feel uncomfortable. They jumped into the opposite end of the pool, directly into my path.

Splashing and shouting – the trio seemed to have evaded evolution entirely – they turned their attention to me as I entered the shallow end. “Come and sit on my knee, love,” one of them jeered, while the other two guffawed, slack-jawed. I diverted away from them and began to turn away. “Fancy a shag?” one of them called. The other women in the pool watched awkwardly, and I cast my eyes across at the children paddling opposite. Fuming, embarrassed and tired, I decided to take one for the team.

I marched – or waded – over and promptly informed the three men that I would rather sew myself up and remain sexless for the rest of my life than have relations with any of them. My fellow swimmers tittered, while I stood, trying to maintain as much dignity as possible in a late-90s Speedo swimsuit and a red face. Then the middle one came forward and hissed, menacingly: “You fucking bitch.” Fear began to set in and my heartbeat quickened. I could feel my pulse in the soles of my feet. I glanced up but the life guard was busy watching over the kids. As I turned to swim away, I could feel them watching me. After two more lengths, I got out.

It’s a myth that verbal harassment is just a bit of harmless fun. It’s about power, control and intimidation, and as I have found out from personal experience, it can easily turn into violence. Cat-calling, verbal harassment – whatever you want to call it – is never flattery. The Everyday Sexism project has received thousands of stories from girls aged eleven and twelve, who have received comments about their developing bodies while they walk to school in their uniforms. Shouting, whistles, even clicks (I watched one man whistle and click at a woman in a bar once – like a bat), are never designed to be taken as a compliment. Verbal harassment causes a flood of different emotions. Fear. Anxiety. Anger. Frustration. Impotence. Misplaced shame. But the real threat is the potential for reprisal – of what will happen to us if we respond.

I escaped unscathed. But for Oxford University student Jeanne Marie Ryan (pictured), an incident in a bar quickly escalated into bloody violence. A couple of months ago, Ryan was on a night out with friends at a bar when she was groped by a stranger. Infuriated, she turned around and told him that his actions were unacceptable. The man then punched her seven times, breaking her nose and leaving her battered, bruised and shaken. Although terrible, Ryan’s attack took place around the same time as the breast cancer awareness “selfie” trend – and by posting a picture of her bruised face, she raised £12,000 for her local rape crisis charity.

When some men ask what the big deal is – that you should “take it as a compliment” – the whole notion of verbal harassment becomes trivialised. It’s not that simple, and certainly not a brief experience. It’s horribly drawn out. Crossing the road to avoid large groups, scanning the street as you walk, clutching your keys between your knuckles, the sinking feeling of noticing someone’s eyes on your breasts, legs or arse – it all has a lingering effect on your mental health. Verbal harassment is no more of a compliment than rape is sex.

Cat-calling is a statement of power. It’s a way of telling us that a man has the right to our bodies, a right to discuss them, analyse them, praise them, criticise them – whether we like it or not. It’s dehumanising. But when we respond, however calmly or viciously, the rejection disrupts their entitlement to our bodies, which society has allowed them to believe is their given right. This leads to the violent outbursts. We might be taking our lives into our own hands, but the more we react, maybe the more this will change. That’s going to take time and while it does we must take care of ourselves.

Lydia Smith is a journalist for the International Business Times UK and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Daily Mirror and the Huffington Post. Follow her @Lyd_Carolina.

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Mothers and babies will die

OFFERED: Fabulous boutique room, freshly painted, king size bed, 24-hour staff, pool.
REQUIRED: vaginal delivery of a perfect baby.

Of course, you’ll be lucky to make it through the doors of this little piece of heaven within the NHS. If you have any hint of a complication you’ll be sent packing to your standard local obstetric-led maternity suite. Oh, but hold on – there’s no room at the inn: all of the obstetric-led units have been shut!

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for natural childbirth. Women should be supported to give birth at home or in a midwife-led unit as advised in new guidelines from NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence); let’s make sure every baby’s first moments are skin-to-skin, suckling at the breast. But the harsh reality is that the sweet, sweet words from NICE are nothing more than a whispered lullaby to lull women into thinking that they have a heart and that they’ve listened to mums and midwives. With a shortage of nearly 5,000 midwives nationally and a maternity service in tatters thanks to countless hospitals being downgraded, there is no way that a move to a midwife-led model of maternity care is a serious proposition.

So, let’s get serious. Women need an individual service tailored to their needs. Home birth requires two midwives to be present but is otherwise cheap as chips and has very good outcomes for mums and babies (within reason). Birth Centre delivery requires one midwife, with very little intervention, is slightly more expensive and also has good, reliable outcomes for mums and babies (within reason). Acute Obstetric care is on a graded scale of expense with increasing intervention and has good outcomes for mums and babies (within reason).

Reason, skill and medical training decide where it is most appropriate for a woman to give birth. In a service where the mother is at the centre of care, this should be a fairly straightforward decision – but in a service where profit and a confusing web of tariffs, CQUINS (and I’m not talking disco here) and penalties take centre stage, then the woman and her ever-expanding waistline are left to the mercy of a lottery of the market.

NICE can say what they like but the Department of Health are no longer accountable for our care and, with the advent of the CCG, they have no control of a national maternity strategy. When asked in a recent government report the Department of Health were not able to name a national policy for maternity. It’s still Maternity Matters, by the way, Jeremy.

The Health and Social Care Act untethered the Department of Health from the NHS. It claimed to hand over power to the Clinical Commissioning Groups, but in reality they are at best confused and at worst rife with corruption. All of this while introducing an open market that is spiraling out of control. The result for women is that maternity services are floundering. In that government report it was found that the Department of Health is no longer responsible even for such basic and fundamental aspects of care such as how many midwives are employed by the NHS. So, who is? No one.

With Public Health banished to the savaged hinterland of the Local Authority there is no longer a powerful body integrated into either the NHS or the CCGs to ensure that local commissioning of maternity services is in line with Department of Health Policy. Even if they knew what that is. By breaking up the NHS, the Department of Health has made it perfectly clear that it is not remotely interested in having a public health policy at all. They prefer to focus on forcing hospitals into becoming Foundation Trusts as quickly as possible.

Jeremy Hunt and his cronies may not care about boring epidemiological studies and evidence-based care, but for us mums the fragmentation of services is a catastrophic blow to choice, continuity of care and equal access to healthcare. With the desperate shortfall of 4,800 midwives (The Royal College of Midwives ‘State of Maternity Services’ Report 2013) and almost half (47 per cent) of UK hospitals lacking enough consultant obstetricians, along with a steady baby boom in England over the past decade, there is increasing strain on maternity services. Midwives and obstetricians look after women with much more complex needs.

The Coalition, UKIP and other misguided souls push an identity parade of people to blame: Immigrants (the Polish get a hard time despite working legally, paying taxes, and therefore being no different from Mr and Mrs Smith born and bred in Tunbridge Wells); The Poor (to listen to George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith, one could be forgiven for thinking that eugenics may well be on the cards for the next election manifesto); The Needy (we might as well kick the disabled while they’re reeling from ATOS); and finally, The Labour Party (they gave those pesky women far too much with their tax credits, Child Benefit, Children’s Centres and Maternity Matters).

Amid the frenzied dismemberment of the NHS we are hurtling towards an insurance-based system for our maternity care, which embraces intervention rather than holistic, aromatherapy and massage amongst caring midwives handy with a birth stool. We need to ask ourselves, do we seriously want to live in a society in which only the super-rich can afford to have babies while the rest of us lucky enough to have health insurance count the pennies to calculate whether we can afford for the stork to pay us a call?

Never forget that pre-NHS women died in their droves in cavernous lying-in wards, or for want of an experienced midwife. The idea that all women are going to have the opportunity to lie-in in a luxurious birth centre would be a joke if it weren’t so utterly terrifying that the back-up intensive obstetric care is being closed down. We mothers need to fight and fight hard for our hard-won maternity services. We need to join together and fight those seeking dismantle the NHS and fight them we shall: we shall fight them on the labour wards, we shall fight in the midwife-led units and we shall fight in the birthing pools; we shall never surrender. We shall go on to the end.

Jessica Ormerod is the parents’ representative on the Lewisham Maternity Committee and a candidate for the National Health Action Party in tomorrow’s European election.

Photo: Wikimedia

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The Punk Singer – Return of the Riot Grrrls?

Pioneering musician Kathleen Hanna, of punk bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, is the subject of an upcoming documentary, The Punk Singer, released in the UK this week. Directed by Sini Anderson, the film focuses on Hanna’s spearheading of the initial Riot Grrrl movement, offering in-depth commentary on the inception of Bikini Kill, the Olympia music scene and the ups and downs of being an inspirational force in DIY punk-rock history.

In many ways, the film’s release could not have come at a better time, with the incendiary Riot Grrrl subculture and all that it stood for currently seeming more of a distant memory. Initially born from a hardcore punk ethos in the early 90s, bands like Bikini Kill, The Raincoats and many more sought to challenge attitudes of patriarchy, addressing rape, abuse, sexuality and political activism from a feminist perspective. This willingness to openly confront these issues resulted in female empowerment that inspired a generation of women and men.

4 The Punk Singer documenary Dogwoof. Kathleen Hanna Photo courtesy of Pat Smear

Sadly, there has been a cultural shift over the last twenty years in music and politics to distance itself from feminism. Many musicians have made a case for mobilising sexist ‘irony’ into music, while others insist the war for equality is over and that sexism towards women in music has been consigned to history.

But forget that. Switch on any music video channel and you’ll struggle to find a single woman fronting a prominent rock band. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of woman-fronted acts out there – bands like Marmozets, who utilise math-rock and hardcore, fronted by 20 year old Becca Macintyre are starting to gain some ground; as are hard-riff, stoner rockers Deap Vally; and, most surprisingly, the authentic, atmospheric melancholy of Chelsea Wolfe.

However the vast majority of female-fronted bands — Blood Command, Rolo Tomassi, Wolf Alice, Sisters, Honeyblood, Fight Like Apes, The History of Apple Pie — are struggling to find a platform to be seen or heard.

The next generation of female musicians are stylish young waifs sporting ironic band t-shirts, wafting around like Haim or Lorde. Musically, their output is over homogenised, mass-produced, pop landfill. It’s a sad acceptance that in music over the last twenty years, it is sex that sells, not opinion.

Take the most famous women in pop music — Cheryl Cole, Shakira, Nicki Minaj — what it is they stand for? Beyonce is a global superstar who contributed to the Shriver report, slating the myth of gender equality. But even she can be seen pole dancing and writhing around husband Jay-Z in videos like Drunken Love or Partition. Sigh. Let’s face it, the Beyonces of this world are merely mirrors to mass culture. They are not the women to look to for change — and yet they are the ones who dominate our TV screens and airwaves.

These are just some of the challenges faced today by Riot Grrrl bands such as Tacocat, Bleached and Throwing Up, who have received little or no media attention despite their music being loud, refreshing and intelligent. Today, the musical landscape (much like the political) is as unwelcoming to feminist artists as it has ever been.

This attitude towards women in contemporary music is a far cry from the music of my youth in the early and mid nineties. Back then there was a constant horde of rising bands fronted by women: The Breeders, Free Kitten, Pussy Galore, Heavens to Betsey, Bratmobile, Silverfish, Ruby, Veruca Salt, L7, Babes in Toyland, Skunk Anansie, Curve, Garbage, Excuse 17, Bjork, Portishead, Daisy Chainsaw, and countless others.

The Punk Singer Dogwoof Documentary 1

My musical education was shaped by strong front-women constantly seeking to educate, inspire and be heard – even when conflict was commonplace at gigs for bands like Bikini Kill. As these women battled on, both courageous and profane, their message was clear: form your own ideas, question wider problems, do what you want to do and be who you want to be.

But it falls to the insurgent Riot Grrrls of 2014 to reclaim empowerment through DIY. Most famously, it is Pussy Riot (who cite Bikini Kill as an influence) who have been a political, musical and cultural reference point of late. Using their anti-fascist tactics to attract attention to issues of feminism and social structures, both the band and movement have created a public discourse around their concerns. And there are certainly parallels between the resurgence in women aligning themselves with Pussy Riot and the Riot Grrrl community of the 90s.

While the Riot Grrrl name may have diminished in the media over the last two decades, the movement’s values never went away. Riot Grrrl taught crucial lessons about directing anger and frustration about inequality into a public sphere. The issues that existed then are as relevant today.

With the UK release of The Punk Singer showcasing Kathleen Hanna’s political diatribes afresh, it will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of Riot Grrrls to fly the flag for equality, give women agency and make their mark in music and beyond. If ever there was a time to push women in music to the forefront, it is now. And if that means bands will don the Pussy Riot balaclavas to be heard, so be it!

Faye Lewis is a music writer, literature fanatic and George Carlin aficionado. Follow her @FayeLewis85.

The Punk Singer Competition

the_punk_singer_quad_dogwoof_1600_1200_85

Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre, rose to national attention as the reluctant but never shy voice of the riot grrrl movement. She became one of the most famously outspoken feminist icons, a cultural lightning rod. Her critics wished she would just shut-up, and her fans hoped she never would. So in 2005, when Hanna stopped shouting, many wondered why. Through 20 years of archival footage and intimate interviews with Hanna, THE PUNK SINGER takes viewers on a fascinating tour of contemporary music and offers a never-before-seen view into the life of this fearless leader. 

The Punk Singer is released in the UK this Friday, 23 May, with screenings across the UK until 26 June. Click here to find your nearest screening.

To celebrate, we’ve got a “Girls to the front” T-shirt and set of The Punk Singer badges to give away to one Feminist Times reader. To enter simply tweet us @Feminist_Times with your favourite riot grrrl song lyric, using #ThePunkSinger. The winner will be announced at 5pm on Thursday 22 May.

SO200688 Dogwoof Badges comp

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Who cares if Jill Abramson was bossy?

“Her style sometimes grated”, The New Yorker reported, “her personality was an issue”. You may think that executive editor Jill Abramson’s dismissal last week from the New York Times doesn’t affect you, but think again. It is significant for all working women and poses questions across the Atlantic too. Why? Language, gender and stereotype in the workplace.

Words like “slut” or “bitch”, gendered speech like “that takes bollocks” to denote courage, and insults like “he throws like a girl” to signal weakness, these are all obviously sexist. But what about the language that goes under the radar in offices up and down the country every day? Nuanced, ambiguous yet incredibly damaging and potent.

“‘Mercurial’ is a word you hear used for her a lot,” one female New York Times reporter commented, implying her former boss was volatile, following the news of Jill Abramson’s sacking. Words such as “stubborn” and “pushy” soon dominated the headlines, quickly followed by the labels “polarising”, “brusque” and “abrupt”. It was a Greek chorus loud enough to drown out the serious accusation for her dismissal: that her axing was due to her reasonable demand to be paid as equally as her male predecessors.

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger has denied any accusation of gender bias yet still issued a stinging takedown of Abramson that could surmise any of her male contemporaries: “arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.”

Try and forget the pay discrepancy story for a moment and simply concentrate on language and the expectations women placate to exert authority with one foot stepped back. Jill Abramson’s story shows us all what happens when a woman throws her ball like a man. She gets knocked out of the game altogether. She’s told it’s her fault.

Working women are adept at the highly-skilled art of tightrope walking, so much so we do it now without challenge. The exhausting balancing act that asks so much of us, compromising a part of ourselves to achieve success. Assertive? Yes, but never aggressive. Commanding? Certainly, but always with a smile. Behave too professionally and you’re an ice queen, show too much emotion and you’re unstable. Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, told us all to Lean In in her best-selling book and that’s what we did – 1.5 million of us to be exact. Abramson has shown us exactly what happens when we lean in too far and without the Geisha manners.

The reality is Sandberg’s empowerment manual expects a lot of compromise from women if they wish to become a success at work. We’ve got to smile even when we don’t feel like it, we’re encouraged to substitute “we” for “I”, and we’ve got to put up with language such as “stroppy”, “difficult” and “mouthy”. It’s a feminist manifesto that accepts an unsettling premise that women must mould themselves around their sexist surrounding, not the other way round. It assumes that landscapes and language can never change.

The #BanBossy campaign learned this the hard way; led by Sheryl Sandberg and backed by Beyonce, their commitment to ban the word sparked question marks. How can banning language rectify the sexism behind its usage? You can burn a book but the ideas still remain – it’s a psychological issue not just a structural obstacle. Jill Abramson’s sacking has shown us all that we have a media-endorsed problem with sexist linguistics. Words such as “pushy” or “condescending” still permeate our language, our offices and our newspapers. When it comes to defining professional women, words still scratch away at confidence.

Look a little closer at gender and confidence in the boardroom and recent statistics may not surprise you. Not only do women make up only 17 per cent of board directors of the FTSE 100 companies, a study by the Fawcett Society found that 51 per cent of women and men from middle management to director level identify stereotyping as the major hurdle facing women at work. More startling, a recent study in the US by global management strategists Strategy& found that over the past decade, 38 per cent of women were forced out of the chief executive role compared to just 27 per cent of men. It doesn’t take a chief strategist to work out a connection between these numbers – the glass ceiling is still pretty sturdy and it’s language that is helping keep it double glazed.

Jill Abramson’s story is our story. Women are still struggling to get promoted and, when they do, their behaviour is often analysed negatively as aggressive or unfriendly. Women are often subjected to unfair emotional judgements based on behaviour: how we are perceived as opposed to how we perform. For Abramson, her leadership was subjected to stereotype and caricature that was ultimately used as evidence of a morale-drained newsroom.

Maybe Abramson was paid as equally as her male predecessors, maybe she wasn’t – no doubt there will be a court case to find out – but what’s equally as important is the language batted around in the press to rationalise her overnight sacking. That language will be used against us too so let’s not gloss over the subtler gender bias, let’s call it out.

Have you experienced gender bias or sexist labels at work? Tweet us your examples @Feminist_Times.

Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor of Feminist Times. She is a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.

Photo: The New Yorker

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What is Feminism? banner

Ana Hine: Feminism is…

Name: Ana Hine

Feminism is bodily autonomy. The freedom, as a woman, to participate actively in society without discrimination.

Email your response to the question “what is feminism?” (in no more than 200 words) to editorial@feministtimes.com, with your name, age, location, a one-sentence bio and a photo of yourself.

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Charlotte Raven

A feminist alternative to asylums?

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

“You’ll enjoy this piece,” my daughter just said. “It’s your specialist subject.”

She’s right and this a bit of a worry. I hardly notice how much time I spend discussing theraputic modalities with friends and colleagues, or how many Google searches of the side effects of psychoactive medications.

Some of my best friends are mad. One writes self help books using an online acronym generator and another weaves. And one is in an out of the emergency psych ward of our local hospital, which really does seem like a revolving door.

Trawling through recent statistics at the start of mental health week, I was convinced that my mad friends are ‘everyday people’; mad is the new normal, in fact. 1 in 4 of us will experience some kind of mental crisis in the course of a year. It is a woman’s issue, unarguably: women are more likely to be treated for a mental health problem than men. We may be getting madder but a rational discussion is taking place about all this for the first time and nothing is off limits.

Everyone agrees; the crisis in mental health care is a gathering storm. Politicians are responding strangely and uncharacteristically. The brutal reality of care in the community has drawn criticism across the political spectrum, although the reasons are different. The Tories are worried about the sane members of the public being attacked by the mentally unstable and the left are worried about the people left in front of the TV in lonely flats for decades, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

At Christmas I was mad as a brush; depressed and alienated with little fellow feeling. Our family home had been a war zone because of my mental crises which have all merged into each other. Until three months ago, I was chronically depressed. I wasn’t sitting quietly in front of the TV watching Friends like my other depressed friends; I couldn’t move but managed to station myself in the one spot in the house where everyone would hear my anguished perorations. I spent whole weekends on the only comfortable chair in the kitchen, complaining about the chores, my doomed existence and the internet age.

I spent 5 years wondering what to do. Having recently read Gone Girl I’m glad I didn’t relocate to a provincial town and set up a bar with an East London name. Then one day an epiphany: I should retrain as a therapist! Several of my mad friends had done this, and a few sane ones who found their skills surplus to requirements. The writer I most admired had gone down this well trodden path. Fortunately for my patients-to-be, I realised I’d be a rubbish therapist one year into a course at the Tavistock: “You’d go on about your problems and never listen to theirs,” my daughter said.

For those who made this leap, their business is sustainable, if poorly remunerated. It is recession proof; a booming industry in this crazy-making late capitalist era.

Why is anyone sane? This system is built on false promises; you are built up and knocked down. We are constantly reinventing ourselves to keep up – and failing. Jobs for life to zero hours in the blink of an eye. Poverty drives people over the edge and if they bear witness to their traumatic experiences of inform on this ‘structurally genocidal’ system, they are discredited. We are all being gaslighted all the time; capitalism dims the lights, murders our friends and relations, then tells us we are lunatics. This system is a suitable case for treatment.

The biological view of mental illness is appealing because the pharmacological answer is a quicker fix than global revolution. We are all drugged up to the eyeballs and increasingly cavalier about it. I recently read something about Ritalin that said few parents asked about the side effects, possible alternatives, what these drugs were whether these drugs are even effective. We think they’re mild because we give them to children. In fact, Ritalin was first synthesized in 1944 in an unsuccessful attempt to create a non-addictive stimulant. This amphetamine-like substance is similar in chemical structure and effects. Like speed, it keeps you awake, suppresses your appetite and makes you anxious and irritable.

I empathise with this desire for quick fix. Who the hell wants a long fix? I was in three times a week therapy for a few years, and barely scratched the surface. When I couldn’t afford it, I decided pills were the answer – I just hadn’t found the right ones. An NHS psychiatrist diagnosed double depression; major depressive episodes on top of persistent dysthymia. He prescribed two different types of anti-depressants and a mood stabilizer. It worked, in a way. I am no longer depressed, but do feel like I’m on drugs.

One recent documentary, Generation RX examines the rise in psychiatric diagnoses among American children and teens from 1980 to 2007. The producer was shocked to learn that the majority of the psychiatric drugs prescribed to kids had never been proven safe or effective. But the regulatory watchdogs colluded with drug manufacturer in supressing evidence of suicidal thoughts and other side effects before Ritalin and other stimulants came to the market. The predictable result; a spike in teen suicides and 7-year-old insomniacs. Our children are the victims of our quick fix mentality.

If not drugs and TV then what? It’s the right moment to re-imagine institutional care and thereby capitalise on public disillusion with community care, without reviving the fear of Nurse Ratched. I came across a magazine of ‘democratic psychiatry’ called Asylum, while Googling the word to find out whether anyone had reclaimed it as a place of safety. They had.

I’ve been heartened by the dialogues I’ve had with radical service users and activists. “We’ve been banging on about this for years,” they said. Now people are listening. A group called Madlove has set about creating a ‘designer asylum’, a safe space where you could go mad “in a positive way.” The project will bring together people with and without mental health experiences, artists, and academics to conceive “a unique space” where “mutual care blossoms” and madness is redeemed. Then it will be built, opened and operate as a voluntary day hospital for six weeks.

As well as model asylums there should be mental health hubs (but don’t call them that!) in the community, within walking distance, where you won’t be stared at. I have been stared at in cafes. What would I have done if my husband had bailed out to protect his sanity? Where would I have gone?

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Hysteria 2.0: has fourth wave feminism made us all mad?

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

A recent in-depth study by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the “traditional gender roles further increase susceptibility [to mental illness] by stressing passivity, submission and dependence.” Reassuringly, the WHO concluded that “the pervasive violation of women’s rights” contributes to the growing burden of their mental disability.

However, the problem with this mass diagnosis of female ‘madness’ is that it relies on social, economic and cultural constructs. Therefore much of our understanding of mental illness and women has to lie in the controversial term, hysteria. Once described as a “mimetic disorder”, as it tended to mimic culturally acceptable expressions of distress, the term has appeared in our lexicon under many guises, from the ‘wandering womb’ to ‘unmanageable emotional excesses.’

Today its root can be found in a extensive list of disorders including anxiety, depression, psychosis, body dysmorphic disorder, borderline personality disorder, sexual dysfunction, amnesia, bipolar disorder and many more.

The term hysteria, from the Greek meaning ‘womb’, was first used to describe “the restless, migratory uterus that caused mental disorders”. This idea of the “restless and migratory” female can be seen in the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder and, in a metaphorical sense, in the continual waves of the feminist movement and the numbers of those within the movement suffering from mental illness.

Shulamith Firestone, author of the radical feminist text The Dialectic of Sex, blames Freud’s failure to “question society itself” for the “massive confusion in the disciplines that grew up around his theory”, since the Freudian talking cure for the hysterical Dora, and his theories of the sub and unconscious, were ruled by the potent theory of the Oedipus Complex – or ‘penis envy’.

Freud’s “poetic genius” and failure to question the constraints of women has followed on into the 21st century; current psychiatrists and doctors still fail to consider alternative factors in diagnosis, whilst reeling off an elegiac list of symptoms. Looking back to borderline personality disorder, an often misdiagnosed illness, we can see the irresponsible reliance on outdated diagnostic rubric. Its emphasis on “impulsivity” and “instability in sense of self” mirrors traits pinned on to the wanton, unfeminine woman. Used when psychiatrists could not decide if a woman was being “psychotic” or “neurotic”, this catch-all diagnosis for women has led to many sane women walking around thinking they are mentally ill. Cue once again mass hysteria – the proverbial wandering womb.

Firestone accounts that psychological moulding by the “patriarchal nuclear family”, where women and children are the dependents, led to the greater risk of psychological problems. Similarly, gender inequality from childhood experiences have conditioned children into believing in what equates to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which is reinforced and constructed through the sensationalism and male dominance of the media.

According to journalist and author Kira Cochrane, the fourth wave of feminism is all about ‘the rebel woman’: the women who will not sit down and shut up; the women who will speak up against patriarchal media. However, I have a problem with the word ‘rebel’, which suggests a mob, a frenzy, and consequently leads back to that controversial word ‘hysteria’.

Despite Cochrane’s best efforts to allude to empowerment, she has managed to reinforce second wave feminist Phyllis Chesler’s idea that psychoanalysis regards madness as a normative characteristic of femininity. The 21st century rebel woman is equivalent to the 19th century hysterical woman.

Recent campaigns such as Slutwalk and No More Page 3 challenge terms and images that were once used to oppressed women, transforming them into punchy media slogans and sealing their negativity in the public consciousness. The female mind interprets the eradication of these illiberal ideas as a means to liberate ourselves, and yet the oppression continues, anxiety rises, and women are still searching for their own lexicon to establish mental liberation.

As Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex argues, in the context of Freudianism and feminism, like all Freud’s theories about women, he “analyses the female only as negative male.” While Freudianism gave women the ‘talking cure’ – the means to express their oppressed unconscious to cure hysteria – it developed a feminine stream of consciousness, littered with inverse male words; a modern repetition of penis envy.

This relentless quest, or to quote Hippocrates, this “restless and migratory” quest, has left a generation exhausted, depressed and anxious. Female rebellion has been going strong for decades, when so many women in the 1960s and 70s thought that everything would be alright in the end. Unfortunately, as we get deeper into the 21st century and our perspectives broaden to become more global, women’s lives are actually getting worse.

If, as the WHO study suggests, mental health has much to do with freedom we need to scrutinise the high points of women’s liberation: getting the vote; sexual liberation thanks to the contraceptive pill; and the rising prevalence of successful career women. Fast-forward to today, and women face corrupt politicians, frequent threats to reproductive rights, and vast unemployment, as well as bearing the brunt of government austerity measures. Women’s rights have indeed once again been violated; this time against many of the victories once crusaded for.

As Deborah Orr points out in the Guardian, the very thing many “leftwing feminists” don’t like to hear is that “combining motherhood with a demanding career is hard”, but there has to be a better solution than the lines of our sisters queuing up for sedative doses of “mothers’ little helpers”.

Women’s mental health will always be a sensitive subject, as it plagues so many lives, and 21st century feminism is indeed suffering from its own form of hysteria. Its unmanageable, emotional excesses towards reform are likely to have triggered a psychosomatic response within women. As the number of women turning to feminism is rising with the hope of change, the internal conflict of its stagnancy is troubling for many. It’s an uncomfortable question, but what if the very thing that has shifted women’s liberation to its height is also what has mentally exhausted us?

Nikki Hall is a writer and critic. Her work has featured in The Independent, The F-Word, For Book’s Sake and Litro. Follow her @nikkihall101

Photo: Hey Paul Studios

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“Silly, attention-seeking girl”: self-harm is a feminist issue

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

The last time I sought support around self-harm the response was, ‘Have you considered a cookery class?’

At the time I wasn’t clear how this would help me deal with the next time I came out of a disassociated state to discover I had attacked myself with scissors, but over time it has started to make more sense.

Working for Bristol Crisis Service for Women (soon to be Self-Injury Support), a national women’s self-injury support organisation, every new report about self-harm in the media makes me a little more demoralised. The findings generally come as no surprise, but it’s the platitudes from high-ups that accompany these articles that I find so depressing.

‘We must put an end to this,’ is an oft quoted pledge, but to be honest in my years working in this sector it feels like the will to understand self-harm has stagnated in a flurry of desire to be seen to be ‘doing something,’ regardless of what that something is.

Self-harm isn’t a new phenomenon, but how we conceptualise it has changed over time. Self-flagellation and scarification have existed for centuries. Studies of self-harm in Victorian literature show a holistic approach considering self-harm to have psychological and emotional meaning. As we moved further into the twentieth century the medicalization of self-harm drew us away from trying to understand to focus on trying to fix the obvious wound and the societal discomfort it evoked.

The underpinning ethos of our organisation is to focus on why someone uses self-harm and what they want support with. We know from years of research that the vast majority of self-harm is symptomatic of something else going on in someone’s life. Each person’s experience is unique and it could be anything – from bullying or social isolation to past or present experiences of sexual violence.

Focusing on preventing someone from using self-harm puts them under huge pressure and removes a way of coping that is working for them. For some people this can lead to a shift to more ‘socially acceptable’ things such as drinking or eating to excess or gambling. For others it can remove a safety net standing between them and suicide.

If we look at self-harm and self-injury in only the narrow context of what and who then it does appear to be an overwhelmingly female and more specifically young female issue. But these are the figures we know about collected from studies focusing on hospital attendances and targeted research, often with young people.

Recent research has shown that rates of men and women self-harming are no longer in such sharp contrast when forms of self-harm other than cutting and overdoses are taken into account.

So perhaps it’s not the act of self-harm which is a feminist issue but the response we offer as a society. From being told you’re a ‘silly girl’ when seeking treatment for self-harm to being vilified for ‘daring to bare’ long-healed self-harm scars, responses to self-harm in women reflect wider themes for women in today’s society. Even the language often attached to perceptions of self-harm – attention-seeking, manipulative, hysterical – is overwhelmingly associated with negative traits commonly attributed to women.

The focus on women’s appearance as a defining factor of their worth is constant and raises its ugly head around self-harm in a number of ways. Clumsy attempts to stop women self-harming often include pleas to stop as it will spoil their bodies; they will regret the scars later; they will repel other people.

Women’s bodies are often not seen and sometimes not experienced as their own. A common consideration for me when using self-harm was always where, not for reasons of safety, but to preserve my privacy and prevent others from feeling they had the right to comment on my body. Others feeling they can comment and ask complete strangers about self-harm scars is such a common issue that a colleague of mine role plays with women so they feel confident enough to respond with ‘I did it myself, why do you want to know?’

This lack of bodily autonomy also extends to the coercive approaches sometimes used in relation to self-harm by others in a supporting role. Attempts to persuade someone to stop using self-harm often focus on the impact it is having on others and their discomfort, effectively dictating what a women can and can’t do with her own body.

I realise now that the suggestion of a cookery class was nothing to do with me, but at the time it only reinforced the feeling that my body and any damage I was doing to it were of little importance. As often happens the emphasis of support was disproportionately focused away from the distress I was feeling.

There’s no denying that self-harm is an emotive and often distressing issue – that’s why our organisation exists. But responses which reinforce some of the very reasons women use self-harm are as much a reason to consider self-harm a feminist issue as the causes.

Naomi Salisbury works for Bristol Crisis Service for Women, a national self-injury support organisation for women and girls. Follow @BCSWBristol, or for information and support, visit: www.selfinjurysupport.org.uk

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Eight ways to keep yourself sane on Twitter: online feminism & mental health

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

A number of recent cases, as highlighted in Kirsty Wark’s recent BBC documentary Blurred Lineshave brought into focus an alarming anti-feminist backlash, where abuse online has emerged as a serious problem in the new culture of misogyny and hate .

Such behaviour can compromise the physical and psychological health of our community, and the strategies below aim to help minimise the stress, and maximise the benefits that a global online community provides.

1) Stay safe 

There is a curious dichotomy in the use of social media. It has the ability to relieve stress with its fulfilment of the human need for social connectedness, but can cause anxiety and infringe on our sense of safety. At the worst extremes, this can result in identity theft, cyber stalking, and cyberbullying.

Keep personal details (e.g. where you live or work) off Twitter. Use the maximum security settings to allow some degree of privacy. Don’t take other users at face value.

Twitter allows its users considerable control of their projected persona, with the opportunity to delete any content that contradicts this perfect self-image. In the real world our assessment of people is far more multidimensional, with information from others, our visual impressions, body language and the nuances of our undervalued gut instinct.

Online, narcissists may appear harmless, but their inflated sense of self-esteem may be fragile and descend into vicious damaging behaviours. In the large groups that form on Twitter, even individuals with a healthy sense of self can lose it. There is a propensity to descend into narcissism, with unwanted aspects of self projected onto an opponent’s avatar. When hateful projects are validated in groups (a cause of concern in the feminist community) the dangers of groupthink and a lack of this reality testing can be apparent.

2) Don’t tolerate abuse of yourselves or others 

There are some behaviours that are automatic red cards, involving immediate blocking and reporting as abuse. If there is a specific threat of harm to yourself or others contact the police in the first instance. Take screen shots as evidence to email to the investigating officer so they can assess the level of risk and proceed appropriately.

Content on Twitter can be inflammatory, with a diverse range of opinions. However, personally insulting or seriously offensive messages can be reported to Twitter. If you are the victim of predatory behaviour, try to resist the temptation to engage in defending yourself or counter-attacking. Such “trolling” is a means of seeking validation via human contact, even horrified or offended responses. Do not “feed the trolls”; show your contempt through silence, blocking and reporting. These “games” of human interaction, as described by Eric Berne, can feel compelling but, when they serve to increase distress and feelings of victimisation, are to be avoided.

3) Use the block function 

Blocking is Twitter’s key safety tool. Be clear on your own boundaries and if somebody violates them, act. Twitter is a virtual space but you are in charge of who you interact with. If you feel interactions lack worth and invite damage to your self-esteem then the online connection can be broken.

4) Don’t get into long, ongoing arguments 

When you believe something passionately it is perfectly appropriate to argue your corner. But engaging in long repetitive discussions with someone whose views are concrete and opposed to yours is draining and futile. While in interpersonal relationships disagreement is inevitable (and healthier than the alternative passive dependant strategy of denial of self), we would be unlikely to develop or continue any relationship based on arguments. The Twitter world is no different: recognising this and withdrawing is likely to be the healthiest option for all involved.

5) Avoid Twitter at work 

The use of Twitter at work (other than as part of your role) is fraught with difficulties. Any employment is a transaction where you receive remuneration for performing tasks. If your Twitter usage is impairing your performance and it is noticed, you risk damage to your hard earned status and position. Venting your frustrations about your boss on the Internet may even directly contravene your employment contract, or your registration if you are a professional.

Recent research by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) showed that two out of five employers used a candidate’s online presence for screening prospective employees. While it is debatable whether a prospective employer has the right to analyse a private Twitter feed, employing privacy blocks can help separate your work and personal identities.

6) Beware of using Twitter as a means of avoidance 

Twitter and the Web allow you the psychological defence of avoidance by procrastination. While reading every tweet from a person who interests you might seem like a good idea, if it happens to coincide with your dream job interview preparation you may be defending your underlying anxieties about failing by avoidance of the important task. Prioritise effectively and resist the temptation.

7) Keep it in perspective 

Twitter users come and go, and are perhaps the most potentially rejecting of all online communities. While amassing followers may strengthen your ego, these online communities are only a small part of our unique self. An online indiscretion, unless you are a heavily scrutinised celebrity, may actually go unnoticed in the constant stream of information, and tweets and other online posts can be deleted rapidly.

8) Switch off and relax 

The breadth of information that can be accessed via Twitter is of variable quality and can feel limitless. The lines between work and leisure time can become blurred, with a non-stop conveyer belt of articles and tweets. Anxiety can be seen as a button being held down on the fight-or-flight reflex to stress. Trying to keep that button held down so you can devour more information could generate symptoms of stress and tension, leading to symptoms such as insomnia, low mood, free-floating anxiety and panic. If you detect the symptoms of information overload, consider declaring a technology-free zone such as your bedroom, or daily offline time, such as the last two hours before you go to bed.

Using mindfulness approaches to manage these symptoms can be useful, and allow us to remain in the present and stay grounded. If you have any concerns about your mental health, talking to your GP can help you access local counselling, psychology and other appropriate treatments.

Anna Fryer is a Psychiatrist, feminist, mother of one preschooler and fan of the arts. Follow her  @annacfryer

For information and support on mental health issues, visit the Mental Health Foundation or Mind.

Photo: Baishampayan Ghose

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Feminist Events Listings: May 2014

Verity FlecknellWelcome to my feminist event highlight blog for Feminist Times. Storm in a Teacup are thrilled to be highlighting all the best feminist events from London and beyond.

Whether you are an armchair activist or a full time activist, into your international politics, or personal politics, feminist artist, or radical feminist – there are just so many events happening up and down the country – there is bound to be something to tickle your fancy/get your teeth into.

Arguably there are more feminist events popping up more than ever and so many opportunities for you to get involved, meet like minded people, share skills and be a part of the movement.

We will be bringing you highlights of some of the feminist events not to be missed in May.

Verity Flecknell, Storm in a Teacup

NATIONAL

May – June || The Punk Singer, a film about Kathleen Hanna | Screenings across the UK

Kathleen Hanna, will be in London for two very special Q&A screenings of The Punk Singer. If you are not London based, don’t fret- there are lots of events happening up and down the country coinciding with the cinema release- full listings below. The film will be released in cinemas nationwide on May 23rd, we are really excited to hear that Kathleen will be attending a Q&A session following special preview screenings of the film at the Curzon Soho on 13th May at 6.30pm, hosted by Lauren Laverne, or at the ICA cinema on 14th May at 6.45pm. Director- Siri Anderson will be doing a Skype Q&A for the screening at Rich Mix on Thursday 15th of May.

Synopsis:  Through 20 years of archival footage and intimate interviews, The Punk Singer tells the story of Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre. Kathleen Hanna rose to national attention as the reluctant but never shy voice of the Riot Grrrl movement. She became the most famously outspoken feminist icons in music.

BOOK TICKETS: Dogwoof.com/thepunksinger

MORE INFO:  Dogwoof.com/thepunksinger

National screenings;

Friday 09 May

Derby – Derby Quad – Derby Film Festival

Tuesday 13 May

London – Curzon Soho

Sheffield – Showroom – Preview

Wednesday 14 May

London – ICA

Thursday 15 May

London – Rich Mix – DocHouse Preview

Friday 23 May

London – ICA

Bristol – Cube Cinema

Dublin – Ifi

Glasgow – Glasgow Film Theatre

Nottingham – Broadway Cinema

Saturday 24 May

London – ICA

Dublin – Ifi

Glasgow – Glasgow Film Theatre

Nottingham – Broadway Cinema

Sunday 25 May

London – ICA

Dublin – Ifi

Glasgow – Glasgow Film Theatre

Nottingham – Broadway Cinema

Monday 26 May

Bristol – Cube Cinema

Dublin – Ifi

Glasgow – Glasgow Film Theatre

Nottingham – Broadway Cinema

Tuesday 27 May

Bristol – Cube Cinema

Dublin – Ifi

Glasgow – Glasgow Film Theatre

Nottingham – Broadway Cinema

Wednesday 28 May

Dublin – Ifi

Glasgow – Glasgow Film Theatre

Nottingham – Broadway Cinema

Thursday 29 May

Dublin – Ifi

Glasgow – Glasgow Film Theatre

Nottingham – Broadway Cinema

Friday 30 May

Cardiff – Chapter

Saturday 31 May

London – Rio Cinema

Cardiff – Chapter

Monday 02 June

Cardiff – Chapter

Tuesday 03 June

Cardiff – Chapter

Wednesday 04 June

Cardiff – Chapter

Thursday 05 June

Cardiff – Chapter

Leeds – Hyde Park Picture House

Monday 16 June

London – Riverside Studios

Thursday 26 June

Staffordshire – Stoke Film Theatre

16 May || What the Frock! 2nd Birthday Party @ The Maurentania, Bristol.

Join Bristol’s award-winning all-female comedy night as they celebrate their second birthday, with a night of fabulous comedy. With Cerys Nelmes at the helm all night, the team welcome back the return of the larger than life Jayde Adams to the headline spot, as well as cabaret from Ada Campe and stand-up from Hatty Ashdown. There is also a star prize raffle. Tickets: £12 adv, £15 on door.

TICKETS:http://goo.gl/iZAgqq

22 May || HOMETRUTHS Conference 2014 ‘Womb to Womanhood’ @ The Meadow, Swindon, Wiltshire.

HOMETRUTHS is an independent, community based specialist service for survivors of domestic violence and abuse aged 16+ living in Swindon and Wiltshire, who have experienced domestic violence and abuse including stalking and harassment from partners or ex-partners. This is their 2nd Conference and they are pleased to welcome presentations from local and national speakers, looking at the impact of domestic abuse on women and their children

MORE INFO: http://goo.gl/HpfBLx

25 May || Laughing Cows Comedy @ The Frog & Bucket, Manchester.

Laughing Cows hosted by Kerry Leigh with Jo Enright, (Lab Rats / Ideal / The Job Lot) Jenny Ross (The Sunday Show) and Hawkeye & Windy. For more than a decade now the highly acclaimed comedienne Jo Enright has crafted a completely unique style of stand-up comedy. As well as performing it both on television and radio, Jo also thrives on live theatre performances, winning several comedy awards including the 2002 Chortle Award for ‘The Best Female Circuit Comic’ and the 2001 ‘Best Female on the Jongleurs Comedy Circuit’ award.7.00pm.

FACEBOOK EVENT: http://goo.gl/gxGkNK

LONDON

12 May || Fans of Feminism @ Cass School of Art and Architecture.

Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design Fans of Feminism invite you to discuss: Fighting the art establishment or creating a new one: How can we achieve equality?’ The art establishment in Britain is a hostile environment for under represented artists. Despite encouraging statistics showing a gradual rise in the number of women artists showing in galleries, we are by no means near achieving equality. This panel seeks to tackle some of the issues that women and other under represented artists face, and discuss what we can do to drive change. An interactive discussion With Panelists: Dr Mo Throp, Helena Reckitt, Martina Mullaney, Phoebe Collings-James and Maria Kheirkhah. 17:30 -21:00pm

MORE INFO: http://goo.gl/30gzEg

12-19 May || Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring her Pussy and little else! @ Soho Theatre, Dean Street.

Time Out recommends: In 2013 Adrienne Truscott’s Foster’s Panel Prize-winning political, satirical and experimental solo show got the Fringe set talking. Now she’s taking over Soho Theatre for a 19-date run of her acclaimed part-stand-up, part-performance and part lecture. Rape culture apologists Todd Aiken and Daniel Tosh don’t escape Truscott’s logical and belly achingly funny social commentary on laws surrounding date rape and the controversial ‘what were you wearing’ argument. Truscott is fearless in her commentary on the prevalence of rape joke culture, it’s set to pop music, and oh yeah, she’s starkers from the waist down and ankles up. £10-£17.50

MORE INFO: http://goo.gl/hDJDCU

16 May || Women’s Spaces and Feminist Politics- Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow @ Queen Mary University of London.

This one-day conference will explore the role of women’s spaces in feminist politics, focusing on women’s centres and other women’s spaces in the past, present and future. During the past decade a new generation of feminists has started to campaign against the objectification of women in the media, the expansion of pornography, sexism in the workplace and on the street, the lack of representation of women in public life and the sexualisation of young children. This new generation of feminists is largely organized via social media rather than in physical spaces. Admission: £38.00. 9.30am-5.00pm.

MORE INFO: http://goo.gl/dWeHpg

Verity Flecknell is founder of Storm in a Teacup, a London based feminist arts collective set up in 2009 with the aim of promoting women in the arts. In 2010 Storm in a Teacup helped organise Ladyfest Ten festival, in 2011 were part of the first ever Women of the World festival at the Southbank and in 2012 joined forces with Girls Get Busy zine and Not So Popular to form Lets Start a Pussy Riot collective. In June this year, Rough Trade Records published “Lets Start a Pussy Riot” book, a collection of artistic responses created in collaboration with Pussy Riot. Storm in a Teacup also publishes monthly feminist event listings happening around London.

Please visit Storm in a Teacup’s blog for full feminist event listings for May.

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Donna Navarro: Feminism is…

Donna NavarroName: Donna Navarro

Age: 35

Location: Nottingham

Bio: Freelance writer wanting to contribute to change, with over a decade of experience working with perpetrators of domestic abuse in the public sector

Contrary to popular belief feminism is not about man-hating or bra-burning. For me, feminism is about men and women standing up for, protecting and creating equality.

It’s about ensuring women have the same choices as men, and ensuring women are free to make those choice without persecution or fear of violence. Feminism is about not making do with how things are for women, not accepting that this is just the way life is. Feminism is realising women want and deserve equality.

Ultimately. it’s about teamwork. It’s about challenging and making positive changes to the existence of patriarchal attitudes, attitudes that have produced a government and society in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.  By shouting back, we are challenging the entrenched misogyny of our society. Together we can make a difference and we should! If we don’t, no one will!

For me, feminism is about making the world a better place for all women and girls, but especially for my children and my children’s children and the generations of women to come.

Email your response to the question “what is feminism?” (in no more than 200 words) to editorial@feministtimes.com, with your name, age, location, a one-sentence bio and a photo of yourself.

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Why we can’t have nice things: A Gender Week post-mortem

One of the biggest debates within feminism has always been how we define, how we describe, the word ‘gender’. One of the biggest problems with that debate has always been that, for a significant minority of feminists, there is none; only a dogmatic assertion that “feminism solved this long ago once and for all”.

Feminist Times has, as a part of its mission statement, a commitment to listening and giving space to all sections of feminism as long as the discussion remains empathetic and respectful. Part of the background to that commitment is a radical scepticism about the idea that anything has been permanently settled; that any section of feminism has a final and definitive answer to the intellectual challenge that feminism poses to those values of patriarchy and kyriarchy, in which we were all brought up and which surround us every day.

It can be argued, in fact, that any premature assumption of a definitive position’s correctness is almost certainly a hindrance; dogmatic certainty on the part of any section of the community about anything except their own personal experience is going to be problematic when it comes to discussion.

I’ve taken flak from my own trans community over Gender Week. Some trans people feel that, given our embattled status, abstract disscussion of issues around gender is an indulgence we cannot afford. Personally, I don’t for a second think that discussion of gender can ever risk the validation of trans identity; the arguments on our side, and our own diverse experiences of gender, are too strong for anyone to discount them except if they absolutely refuse to listen.

It is, though, the case that a lot of trans people are very vulnerable and a wide-ranging public discussion of gender is going to risk triggering their own doubts and fears and memories of bad times; perhaps neither I nor Feminist Times should have been prepared to take that risk.

In spite of long experience to the contrary, I and we thought that the time had finally come when it would be possible to have a serious discussion that would start the process of healing the rifts within feminism. The editors commissioned a number of pieces from which a respectful and intelligent discussion might have emerged.

Only it did not. Instead, the comments on a number of the pieces, and not only those written by trans people, became unpleasantly abusive in the face of the best efforts of the editors to moderate them. There was little good faith in many of them – well known trans-exclusionary radical feminists did not reveal their preconceptions or even used aliases and sock-puppet accounts.

What happened on the Twitter #genderweek hashtag was even worse. The writers* for that issue of Feminist Times were subjected to unpleasant hate speech including, but not restricted to, constant misgendering. I saw only some of the attacks on me – these were not for the most part serious discussion of my arguments but instead anonymous personal abuse based on my age and looks.

It’s now abundantly clear that serious feminist discussion can’t take place on Twitter without it being hi-jacked for hate speech. I know some people feel that the terms cis and TERF are, or have the potential to become, derogatory; I didn’t see those people complaining when my photo was tweeted with abusive comments.

I had hoped we could have an adult discussion of gender and what we mean by the word; clearly I was culpably naïve and I apologise for thinking that certain women involved in that hashtag are capable of respectful discussion between equals.

Roz Kaveney is a member of the Feminist Times Editorial Board. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.

Following Gender Week, we have revised our editorial comment policy, which is now published here.

*Editor’s note: We asked Roz to write a personal perspective on Gender Week, as a member of our editorial board, as someone who was involved in helping us plan the week, and as someone who received criticism both from radical feminists and trans feminists for her involvement. We are, however, aware that abuse throughout the week – particularly on Twitter – was directed at many of our contributors, not only those who are trans.

We don’t believe, as Roz says, that any one side has a final and definitive answer to the complexities that feminism throws up. Because of this we are committed to respectful, empathic discussion of the differences within feminism, and the varying experiences of those within the movement, and our content will always reflect this. The constructive discussions of our Gender Week content that did take place on Twitter were regretfully at times almost completely drowned out by repetitive and abusive comments from a small minority of individuals.

– Sarah Graham, Deputy Editor.

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Plenty of problems but no solutions in Kirsty Wark’s ‘Blurred Lines’

Tonight Kirsty Wark promises to examine ‘a new culture’ of misogyny in Blurred Lines: The New Battle Of The Sexes on BBC2. I’m cynical. I can’t help but wonder how much more there is to say on the matter, as someone who spends a lot of time – professionally and socially – being both a woman and a feminist in the online world. Would Wark simply rehash what many of us have known for years, on issues that now even the mainstream media devotes much attention to? Would she offer up solutions, or simply remind us all yet again what we’re up against? Imagine my surprise then when what Wark presents is a far more useful overview and contextualisation of contemporary misogyny than we’ve seen to date in the mainstream media.

While the many examples of cultural misogyny Wark gives will come as no surprise to Feminist Times readers, placed alongside each other they do offer a compelling patchwork of evidence for those sexism skeptics out there; like the Everyday Sexism Project, incidents of 21st century cultural misogyny are harder to dismiss when seen together. From online abuse directed at high profile women, rape jokes by celebrated comedians, and sexism in music videos (featuring, of course, the inevitable clip from the programme’s namesake) to everyday experiences of sexism in school and online gaming, and the impact of lads mags and online pornography, Wark paints a depressing yet necessary picture of women’s position in UK society in 2014.

More helpfully, Wark goes beyond the ‘what’ to explore the ‘why’, placing Twitter abuse and Blurred Lines firmly in the historical context of a new wave in the anti-feminist backlash that has repeatedly shown its face, under ever evolving guises, over the past four decades. Speaking to students at Stirling University about the now notorious YouTube video of male sports stars singing a sexually degrading drinking song on a public bus, Wark reflects on her own time as a student at Stirling during the 70s. Whilst much has moved on for women since then, Wark comments that the sexism on show is now far less insidious than in her day, with obscene humour about rape now being casually passed off as ‘banter’.

Much time is devoted to this notion of ‘banter’, with Wark asking everyone from young people at a comedy show to ex-Loaded editor Martin Daubney where they draw the line between ‘banter’ and sexism. Since the obvious implication is that these lines are blurred, there are frustratingly few conclusions to this question, beyond subjectivity, as we’re shown women laughing at the same rape joke which has appalled their male friend, and (ever-helpful on the subject of women’s rights) Rod Liddle suggests victims of online abuse like Mary Beard should merely ‘man-up’.

On the subject of Liddle and Daubney – neither of whom Wark lets off lightly – Blurred Lines does provide an interesting look at the role the media has to play in both reflecting and perpetuating the misogyny that takes place online, with research showing how views like AA Gill’s on Mary Beard are amplified through social media, before coming full circle, as in Liddle’s Spectator piece “It’s not misogyny, Professor Beard. It’s you.” And, though Daubney remains laughably insistent that the 90s advent of lads mags and ‘laddism’ was about “celebrating women”, rather than a Britpop-era backlash against their increasing power, there’s little arguing with him that much of the pornography now freely available online is far more harmful and upfront in its hatred and degradation of women.

Tellingly, it’s also Daubney who refers to the so-called crisis of masculinity that appears to play such a key role in the increasing levels of public and cultural aggression towards women. Women have never had it so good and the poor men aren’t sure how to react so, like children on the playground, they resort to name calling and hair pulling – in the form of trolling feminists on Twitter and brutally murdering prostitutes on Grand Theft Auto. Meanwhile, on real playgrounds across the country, we’re told that slut-shaming and sexist remarks are an everyday occurrence for adolescent girls, and pornography is standing in for proper sex education, which teenage girls (including those behind the Campaign 4 Consent) tell Wark is hugely inadequate, if not altogether lacking.

While Germaine Greer paints a pretty bleak picture of life for women since the publication of The Female Eunuchand journalist Laurie Penny describes how social media has enabled existing misogyny to evolve a powerful new form, the young women of Campaign 4 Consent form part of Wark’s redemptive conclusion. They, and women like them, are part of the backlash to the backlash; misogyny has got louder, but women (and especially young women) are raising their voices to shout back. It doesn’t offer a solution, as such, but a reassuring reminder to the Thursday night audience of BBC2 that we cannot be so easily silenced.

Blurred Lines: The New Battle Of The Sexes airs tonight, Thursday 8 May, from 9.30pm on BBC 2.

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The Daily Mail, “White Dee” & the “Happy Depressive”

Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week. If you have an idea for an article email editorial@feministtimes.com

In this country 1 in 5 of us will have an experience of clinical depression in the course of a lifetime and there will be a higher proportion of women sufferers. The mental health services are in crisis with severe cash shortages and mental illness continues to carry a heavy stigma.

It is indeed hard to understand an illness that cannot be seen but to suffer from depression can feel like living under a curse. Most people think they know what a depressed person looks like but they would be wrong. A doctor friend of mine, when training to be a psychiatrist, was told ‘beware the smiling depressive.’ It is good advice and not stated often enough. Many psychotherapists will have had experience of the client who can appear cheerful and upbeat and then unexpectedly make a suicide attempt.

When reading the Daily Mail’s article on ‘White Dee’ I was shocked but not surprised. Dee, from the Channel 4 program Benefits Street, is seen partying during 4-day holiday, which she has been offered free. However, the potentially high price she is paying is having her picture in the paper, drinking, kissing a man and being offered up to the general readership as an object of contempt. The implication is that she is a liar who is fooling the benefit system. The reader can feel rightly appalled. But the premise here is that depressed people never laugh or smile and if they are able to do this then they are not depressed. This is simply not the case.

I can sit with a very depressed client who is in utter despair and full of self-loathing and hopelessness. Yet, even in the midst of this misery, we can sometimes enjoy a laugh together. I also know that such a client, often a woman, will then go home to their families and make a superhuman effort to be cheerful. Sometimes they manage better than others. It is interesting to note that buried in the article on White Dee was a comment she made on not really enjoying herself because she misses her children and hates flying. The reader is again invited to disbelieve this because all the pictures show her partying.

Ironically there was another article in The Mail the same week on Compassion Focused Therapy. (CFT). This is a relatively new therapy that is used for treating anxiety, which is often a feature of depression. One of the most painful aspects of depression is self-hatred and worthlessness. CFT helps the client treat and think of themselves with compassion rather than criticism. Compassion is not the same as self-pity. It is about being able to have realistic thoughts to combat negative self-beliefs. I’m just ‘completely useless’ isn’t a helpful thought but being able to think ‘I’m doing my best’ and ‘I’ll get better’ is vastly preferable and more constructive.

Depressed people will have such an internal bullying voice which attacks them for not being good enough, perfect enough, thin enough, rich enough and so on. The bully by definition doesn’t have compassion or empathy for the victim, which in the case of depression are the sufferers themselves. The tabloid papers frequently use bullying strategies that denigrate those they wish to attack. The article on White Dee was designed to prevent understanding or compassion. We only saw the photos they want us to see and which invited condemnation. They offered no possibility that this woman might in reality suffer from depression and that being at the receiving end of such media coverage might truly cause her harm.

Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and EMDR Consultant in private practice in North London.

Photo: Daily Mail

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“Whose Islam? Whose feminism?”

An artist’s depiction of ‘the feminist table’ today would look decidedly different to how it may have looked fifty years ago. Marriage – formerly perceived as a betrayal of the sisterhood – has been normalised, and even arch-enemy number one, the man, has been welcomed into the movement in some circles. The advent of the theory of intersectionality, which recognizes that women from different backgrounds are subject to different layers of oppression – be these related to race, class, sexuality or disability – has created space to broaden the feminist lens of analysis and challenge narrow interpretations of what a truly emancipated woman can look like. Feminism has evolved and will continue to do so.

Yet despite the fact that mainstream feminism has come to accommodate a broader range of experiences since its first wave in the 19th century, many still falter at the idea of a Muslim feminist.

Muslim women seeking to advance gender equality agendas face solid resistance from various camps: negative media perceptions and tensions with mainstream feminism, plus tensions from within the Muslim community – where feminism is often viewed as a neo-colonialist imposition – can all operate to perpetuate stereotypes of Muslim women as subordinate and limited in terms of what they can aspire to.

In many Muslim countries women’s efforts to advance gender equality agendas are hampered by the fact that hierarchical constructions of gender relations are enshrined in law and defended in the name of the divine. The last three decades have seen a dynamic and multi-stranded wave of academic thought, which is frequently referred to as ‘Islamic feminism’, grow in prominence. Iranian scholar Ziba Mir Hosseini has described this as “new voices and scholarship in Islam that are feminist in their aspirations and demands and Islamic in their source of legitimacy.”

Unveiling the social construction of how laws are formed, and the subjective ideologies, political, sociological, cultural and economic factors that informed these has been key to such efforts. As well as providing compelling gender-sensitive readings of holy texts to separate religion from patriarchy, Islamic feminists have drawn on Islam’s rich history of important figures and movements working to improve women’s rights and autonomy to support their drive for egalitarian gender relations.

We can see the progress that has been made using ‘Islamic feminism’ with the reform of some aspects of laws concerning family relations in Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and Indonesia and in the work of groups such as Sisters in Islam and Musawah, working today to emphasise that the attainment of de jure and de facto equality and justice for Muslim women is both possible and necessary. However the fact that these conversations are predominantly being conducted in scholarly circles runs the risk that they are not adequately filtering down to the young people or indeed, the general public, who could benefit from them.

This was one of the issues raised in a project, Islam and Feminism, which we launched at Maslaha in March in an effort to explore what feminism in Islam can mean to different people and how it might challenge stereotypes both in Islam and feminism, as well as the perceived clash between the two. The motivation behind this was to bring together historic and contemporary action and grassroots and academic conversations on Islam and feminism, and moreover to make this breadth of ideas and knowledge available to everyone.

Whilst providing an insight into key thinkers currently working in the fields of women’s rights in the context of Islam – such as Amina Wadud, Leila Ahmed and Shuruq Naguib – a salient feature of our resource was a series of short videos with professionals, activists, academics and artists providing personal perspective and experiences of Islam and feminism in everyday life.

The intention was that the range of voices and faces would not only help to debunk that age-old stereotype that Muslim women are carbon copies of each other, but also to foster an understanding that similar to feminism among non-Muslim women, one common vision of what gender equality is in Islam should not be assumed.

While many non-Muslims and Muslims struggle to move beyond labouring over the nuances of whether in theory Islam can be reconciled with feminism, we found that in reality Muslim women in the UK are finding space to articulate and express their identity in diverse ways, whether or not they choose to define these efforts as feminism.

While some Muslim women lobbying for change in the UK, for example Dr Sariya Contractor, see the term feminism as an ‘icebreaker’ and an important enabler in the demystification of difference, others, for example the editors of One of My Kind (OOMK) – a zine exploring the imaginations, creativity and spirituality of women of color and faith – feel they don’t need to talk about feminism explicitly, “we let what we are doing speak for itself which is more natural and every day and practical and we invite people to take part without dictating how they should do this.”

Journalist Kübra Gümüşay told us that while in her teens she felt excluded by feminism and that “mainstream feminism would never include women like me,” she believes Islamic feminism, far from being a threat to mainstream feminism, can support it as it provides more sources and resources to reinforce feminist aims of empowering women.

Similarly, while acknowledging that “there is still a fair amount of resistance to the idea that people of faith have anything to contribute to feminist ideals,” writer Myriam Francois-Cerrah finds that feminist values feed seamlessly into her beliefs as a Muslim: “As a Muslim my frame of reference is the texts, but truth is truth wherever it’s coming from – and if I recognise something that’s coming from any feminist – Gloria Steinam, Germaine Greer – that to me reflects truth, then it becomes part of my Islamic lexicon.”

These views are a far cry from the rigid definitions of Islam and feminism which so often dominate discussions of women’s rights in Islam. An important step to opening up space for more fruitful discussions has been to move beyond simplistic conceptualisation of both Islam and feminism and to seek alternative and equally valid narratives to support more inclusive understandings of both. Muslim women have a right to their religion, but also to feminism, which does not necessarily have to be associated with secularity.

In the UK today, amidst negative stereotypes of what a Muslim woman can be, it is important, as grassroots activist Noori Bibi argues here, to ensure that the gap between grassroots and academia is being bridged and that the language and approach of debates connects with the communities that need them.

To continue to essentialise about the experiences of Muslim women is to deny the diverse realities of the lives of Muslim women, both today and historically, who have comfortably reconciled their own gender identity with their faith. As Ziba Mir-Hosseini has said, an important question to keep in mind when considering the nuances of Islam and feminism on any level is: “Whose Islam? Whose feminism? Who is speaking for Islam? Who is speaking for feminism?”

Latifa Akay is a project manager at Maslaha and a writer and commentator on women’s issues. Follow her @LatifaAkay, and find out more @Maslaha.

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#GenderWeek: What is gender? Survey results

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

Throughout #GenderWeek, we’ve been asking our Members and readers to fill in our survey, responding to the question: What is gender?

We’ve had 148 responses, 36% of them from Feminist Times Members, and the remainder from readers and supporters who are not Members. The infographics below takes into account all 148 responses, while the examples of text responses selected from the responses of Feminist Times Members.

What is gender?

A selection of responses:

What is gender?

Gender is self defined. It is how you feel, what you associate with. Yes, there is a biological gender but that does not dictate the emotional gender of a person.

The state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences, rather than biological ones). I would use “sex” for the latter.

It refers to the structural relations between men and women, reflecting the dominance of men in society and the subordination of women.

For me it’s a biological definition. Sex you are physically born with.

Gender is the external representation of biological sex, the visible presentation of our sex as interpreted by society, a reductionist binary.

Whatever you identify with or what you aspire to identify with. However the spectrum can include many options and is not linked to sexuality.

Gender is the socially constructed roles, expectations and spaces to act allocated to biological men and women. Gender roles and entitlements are fluid across cultures and contexts, though are globally inequitable, with women allocated less status, fewer resources and very much restricted space and autonomy; in most cultures and contexts women are to a greater or lesser extent not understood or constructed as fully human, and often considered the property of men.

Gender, as it relates to the individual, is deeply personal and will affect each person differently. Gender does not exist in isolation, but is articulated in relation to other forms of repressions.

I believe gender is socially constructed; exists on a spectrum of performativity; not innate, but learned as part of sexual stereotyping during enculturation.  One learns to perform binary oppositional ‘male’ and ‘female’. Sex determines XX, XY, and variations thereof.

Most people identify with the gender i.e. genitalia they were born to. But it must be incredibly painful for those individuals who do not fit into a specified gender, either because they are born with indeterminate genitalia or because they feel they are trapped in the wrong body. I believe those individuals should have the right to choose the identity they feel comfortable with.

A hierarchical oppressive social construct designed to keep women at the bottom of the hierarchy.

It is the biological differences between human beings, defined by reproductive function. It is the cultural differences between human beings that have come about by the unequal distribution of power and education.

Ideally it’s a personal identity but the lived reality is that others place their opinions of your gender over what you say and treat you according to how they believe people of your gender should be treated. I think there is some overlap between liberal and radical ideas behind gender in that both believe you can suffer because of your gender, but modern feminism recognises that there is more than just gender at play in the systems of oppression that we all live under.

A social construct – I agree with Simone de Beauvoir when she said that women aren’t born, they are created.

How do you define your own gender?

A selection of responses:

How do you define your own gender?

Female, woman, cis, trans, queer, gender-queer, agender, anti-gender, gender-free, gender-fluid, gender-variant, non-binary, cisgender, cis-woman, transman, transwoman, lesbian-feminist, transfeminine, masculine, femme, man, queer-femme, unspecified, non-gendered, conformist, rebellious, spectrum.

What defines your gender?

Genitals

Your sex strongly influences your perception of your gender because people with female genitals are defined in certain ways.

Not necessarily, it depends a lot on background and upbringing so for me yes, but I don’t think that it has to for anyone!

Genitals define your sex, which is often incorrectly used intechangiby with gender.

I’m born intersex and I try to reject gender classifications, while acknowledging that a third classification doesn’t solve the gender hierarchy or anything very much, in and of itself.

No, but they are used by cultural norms to construct a gender identity.

They contribute to my being assigned into the sex class.

Would prefer them to be different – they don’t define me.

I don’t know, probably because I identify with the same gender that my genital identify me as and I was brought up in that gender. I can’t tell whether they are defining it or not.

They do if you view it as a binary, but if we were to see gender as traits, social conditioning and assumptions not as something essential, then no, they don’t at all.

Genes

My genes (probably) coincide with my chromosomal gender.

They determine biological sex.

Mix of genes and socialisation.

I don’t know. They likely have an influence.

No, but my genetic makeup as a female determines what gender society considers appropriate for me.

Scientifically yes but I’m not 100% sure.

Socialisation

Not define but will nurture a direction.

None of us are outside our socialised experience. I would say that I am not a ‘woman’ in the sense that my culture and socialisation has taught me I should be – however, at the same time, my understanding of myself as a woman has been and continues to be in reference to that as i unlearn some expectations, reshape my understanding and do not live outside social discourses of womanhood. I am constantly engaged in struggle between my definitions and those of the people around me.

To some extent, but you can resist.

‘Socialisation’ is how one comes about having an understanding of one’s gender – indeed the only understandings any of us have of any human concept come to use through social relations, as otherwise how would we know what we mean by something is the same as what others mean by it? Furthermore as one aspect to gender is its force of compulsory normativity, for many people their understanding of their gender will one envisaged as to be in accordance with this normative force, which could be what some consider the term ‘socialisation’ to mean. However one’s gender identity itself is constituted as an *engagement* with the set of power relations (e.g. norms etc.) that make up gender, which in each person is always in tension, never perfect accordance, with the elusive ideal of ‘woman’ (or ‘man’) posited by social relations.

No, but it created my concepts of gender.

Yes, but socialization is a complex process that can produce a variety of understandings of gender norms, gender identity, and one’s “place” relative to gender, so saying that trans women experience some kind of homogenous “male socialization” is simplistic and locates systems of oppression in the individual, not in the class (woman) which includes everyone who experiences societal messages about women in the first person, regardless of whether they’re “Supposed” to do so.

No, but it does contribute to one’s experiences and personal history, which are important.

Which of these statements do you agree with?

Statements

Top 5 responses:

  1. Gender is a social construct (19%)
  2. A rigid gender binary oppresses both men and women who don’t conform (19%)
  3. Sex is biological (17%)
  4. Gender is a personal identity (14%)
  5. My vision of the future is a spectrum of gender (14%)

Do you identify as…?

Feminists

How sure are you that you have XX chromosomes as a woman and XY chromosomes as a man?

(1) being Not at all sure and (5) being So sure I’d bet my life on it.

Chromosomes

Word clouds created via Wordle

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#Genderweek: Why are men violent?

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

We sent all our #GenderWeek contributors this brief:

Prof Jesse Prinz (Author, Beyond Human Nature)

If biological sex is not binary, if the current trend is towards trans inclusion in feminism and non-gendered charities for domestic violence – how in this context of a gradual break down in “gender norms”, can you explain why men continue to be much more violent than women? And what repercussions does this have for the discussions we’ve been having in #GenderWeek?

  • What do you consider the reasons behind men being more likely to being violent – is it culture, society, or evolution?
  • If the latter, how do you then deal with the idea that biology of sex is not binary – people assigned male and female at birth may not have XX/XY chromosomes?
  • And how do you deal, in an empathic and caring way, with the real threat that some women feel when with someone who was assigned male at birth in their space?

Here are their responses:

Dr Finn Mackay is a feminist activist and researcher.
Male violence against women is epidemic, it is a symptom of patriarchy and also maintains it. Male violence is not due to biology, it is made and not born. This means it can be unmade through the dismantling of patriarchy, which would liberate all of us, women and men. Not all men rape or abuse women, this means there’s no genetic excuse for those who do. Masculinity is wedded to violence, displayed through domination at any cost; leaving women and children to pay the price. We need to create an equal world, where we can all be the human beings we are, not brutal and limiting stereotypes.

Karen Ingala Smith is the Chief Executive of nia, a charity supporting women and children who have experienced sexual and domestic violence.
Gender kills. Sexual inequality is structural and based on biological sex. Gender is a social construct, a means of maintaining and reinforcing men’s oppression of women, sexual inequality. Gender is neither natural nor innate. Gender is a critical enabler of male violence against women. For me, feminism is about the liberation of women from male oppression. This does not mean that as a feminist I do not recognise or seek to end other forms of oppression, such as those based on class, race and disability; but it means that I see eradication of socially constructed gender as vital for the liberation of all women.

Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.
I am suspicious of what is meant in trying to sum up, or wrap up, gender contrasts – seeing problems with all binary reductionism, gendered or otherwise. My basic feminism has never been Manichean: men equals ‘bad’; women equals ‘good’, when many women are not feminists in any way I can recognise (that is instinctively egalitarian and inclusive of all women); while some men do support women in all the ways they can think of, however privileged their gender position. But of course gender remains a hugely, multifaceted, hierarchical structure, which affects us all, so here is what I would say:

Some forms of gender polarisation are foolish. Men do not start all wars, women often condone, assist and more recently fight in them – was Margaret Thatcher a man? We need boys and men to support feminism. Some do. But I can laugh along with Barbara Ehrenreich: “Of all the nasty outcomes predicted for women’s liberation… none was more alarming, from a feminist point a view, than the suggestion that women would eventually become just like men.” Some have!

CN Lester is a musician, writer and activist.
I don’t feel that there’s any simple answer to this question, and that trying to reduce it to a sophistic “nature vs. nurture” argument distorts the research already carried out. It hampers our future efforts at reducing violence, and examining and trying to solve the myriad reasons why violence happens.

I think a multidisciplinary approach is needed – we need research and ideas for action from a range of activists, psychologists, neuroscientists, social workers, anthropologists (I could go on) – and while it’s necessary to remember that men commit the majority of violent acts, we can’t afford to ignore violent acts committed by women. The idea that men are somehow tainted and irredeemable and women are innately virtuous helps no one.

Natacha Kennedy is an academic, former primary school teacher, political and transgender activist who identified as a girl from a young age.
I believe that if one accepts that male violence is the result of biology then one has effectively given up on any idea of human self-determination either for men or for women. In the same way that Cordelia Fine has demonstrated that women are culturally influenced in terms of behavioural expectations and self-perception, so men are also influenced by a culture that expects certain things of them. This has probably come about largely because the ruling class needs to maintain a reserve of potentially violent people to use to protect their power and economic interests, consequently it needs to promote a culture that encourages men to develop violent dispositions.

Ruth Greenberg is a UK radical feminist, involved in RadFem UK, Abolish Prostitution Now and local feminist activism.
Male violence against women and girls, and other men too, is a socialised phenomena. It is understandable that some women, overcome with the horror of male violence, seek a biological explanation for this violence but the scientific evidence does not support that (Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender).

The prevalence of male violence presents a challenge to women who do not want male socialised people in women-only spaces. Trans women are socialised as boys and sometimes as men, depending on when they transition. So for many there is a concern that violence is not reduced by transition.

That is why I think we need women-only spaces that include trans women, and also spaces that are for women born female only.

Roz Kaveney is a member of the Feminist Times Editorial Board. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.
Patriarchy is a system of social organisation and control dedicated to ownership and the transmission of ownership. To this end it makes use of violence and the threat of violence to control women’s reproduction and to police everything which might threaten bloodline transmission, e.g. sexual and gender variance, or exposure to other cultures. Subordinate groups are taught to fear: recruits to the dominant group are taught to value violence. Socialisation into violence is accordingly linked to systems of expectation particularly, but not limited to gender and sex assigned at birth.

Louise Pennington is a radical feminist writer and activist who founded A Room of Our Own.
Women are oppressed by the biological reality of sex as is so clearly highlighted by the Everyday Sexism Project and Women Under Siege. Radical feminism is a political theory that recognises this sex-based oppression (Patriarchy). As a radical feminist, I do not believe that men are biologically programmed to be violent. I believe that male violence is encouraged and perpetuated in order to maintain wealth and power within a select group of, mainly white, men. We need women-only services that recognise gendered patterns of violence because violence is both a cause and a product of socialisation and sex inequality.

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#GenderWeek: The problem is capitalist-patriarchy socialising boys to be aggressive

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The most common criticism of radical feminist theory is that we are gender essentialist because we believe that women’s oppression, as a class, is because of the biological realities of our bodies. Radical feminists define sex as the physical body, whilst gender is a social construct. It is not a function of our biology. It is the consequence of being labelled male/female at birth and assigned to the oppressor/sex class. The minute genetic differences are not reflected in the reality of women’s lived experiences. Gender is the coercive process of socialisation built upon a material reality that constructs women as a subordinate class to men. As such, radical feminists do not want to queer gender or create a spectrum of gendered identities; we want to end the hierarchical power structure that privileges men as a class at the expense of women’s health and safety.

This assumption is based on a misunderstanding of radical feminist theory, that starts from the definition of “radical” itself, which refers to the root or the origin: that is to say, the oppression of women by men (The Patriarchy). It is radical insofar as it contextualises the root of women’s oppression in the biological realities of our bodies (sex) and seeks the liberation of women through the eradication of social structures, cultural practises and laws that are predicated on women’s inferiority to men (gender).

Radical feminism challenges all relationships of power that exist within the Patriarchy including capitalism, imperialism, racism, classism, homophobia and even the fashion-beauty complex because they are harmful to everyone: female, male, intersex and trans*. As with all social justice movements, radical feminism is far from perfect. No movement can exist within a White Supremacist culture without (re)creating racist, homophobic, disablist, colonialist and classist power structures. What makes radical feminism different is its focus on women as a class.

Radical feminists do not believe there are any innate gender differences, or in the existence of male/female brains. Women are not naturally more nurturing than men and men are not better at maths and reading maps. Men are only “men” insofar as male humans are socialised into specific characteristics that we label male, such as intelligence, aggression, and violence and woman are “woman” because we are socialised into believing that we are more nurturing, empathetic, and caring than men.

Women’s oppression as a class is built on two interconnected constructs: reproductive capability and sexual capability. In the words of Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy, the commodification of women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is the foundation of the creation of private property and a class-based society. Without the commodification of women’s labour there would be no unequal hierarchy of power between men and women, fundamental to the creation and continuation of the Capitalist-Patriarchy, and, therefore, no need for gender as a social construct.

Radical feminism recognises the multiple oppressions of individual women, whilst recognising the oppression of women as a class in the Marxist sense of the term. Rape does not require every woman to be raped to function as a punishment and a deterrent from speaking out. The threat therein is enough. Equally, the infertility of an individual woman does not negate the fact that her oppression is based on the assumed potential (and desire) for pregnancy, which is best seen in discussions of women’s employment and men’s refusal to hire women during “child-bearing” years due to the potential for pregnancy, which is used as a way of controlling women’s labour: keeping women in low-paying jobs and maintaining the glass ceiling. Constructing women as “nurturers” maintains the systemic oppression of women and retains wealth and power within men as a class.

Even something as basic as a company dress code is gendered to mark women as other. Women working in the service industry are frequently required to wear clothing and high heels that accentuate external markers of sex. Sexual harassment is endemic, particularly in the workplace, yet women are punished if they do not attend work in clothing that is considered “acceptable” for the male gaze. The use of women’s bodies to sell products further institutionalises the construction of women as object.

There is a shared girlhood in a culture that privileges boys, coercively constructs women’s sexuality and punishes girls who try to live outside gendered norms. The research of Dale Spender, and even Margaret Atwood, dating back to the 1980s has made it very clear that young girls are socialised to be quiet, meek and unconfident. Boys, on the other hand, are socialised to believe that everything they say and do is important: by parents and teachers, by a culture which believes that no young boy would ever want to watch a film or read a book about girls or written by a woman. Shared girlhood is differentiated by race, class, faith and sexuality, but, fundamentally, all girls are raised in a culture which actively harms them.

Radical feminists are accused of gender essentialism because we recognise the oppressive structures of our world and seek to dismantle them. We acknowledge the sex of the vast majority of perpetrators of violence. We do so by creating women-only spaces so that women can share stories in the knowledge that other women will listen. This is in direct contrast to every other public and private space that women and young girls live in. Sometimes these spaces are trans-inclusive, like A Room of our Own the blogging network I created for feminists and womanists. Sometimes these spaces will need to be for women who are FAAB only or trans* women only, just as it is absolutely necessary to have black-women only spaces and lesbian women-only spaces.

There is a need for all of these spaces because socialisation is a very powerful tool. Being raised male in a patriarchal white supremacist culture is very different to being raised female with the accompanying sexual harassment, trauma and oppression. The exclusion of trans* women from some spaces is to support traumatised women who can be triggered by being in the same space as someone who was socialised male growing up. This does not mean that an individual trans* woman is a danger, but rather a recognition that gendered violence exists and that trauma is complicated.

It is our direct challenge to hegemonic masculinity and control of the world’s resources (including human) that makes radical feminism a target of accusations like gender essentialism. We recognise the importance in biological sex because of the way girls and boys are socialised to believe that boys are better than girls. As long as we live in a capitalist-patriarchy where boys are socialised to believe that aggression and anger are acceptable behaviour, women and girls will need the right to access women-only spaces however they define them.

Louise Pennington is a radical feminist writer and activist who founded A Room of Our Own: A Feminist/Womanist network. She can be found on twitter as @LeStewpot and @Roomofourown

Photo: Pixabay

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#GenderWeek: Respectful discussion is possible

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Discussing “gender” is one of the most contentious topics in popular feminist discourse. Many misunderstandings can be attributed to different usage of the same words; and to make matters worse, many of us have been traumatised during previous attempts to engage in political conversation about gender. The history between trans advocates and gender critical feminists is extremely hostile. Personal insults, condescending dismissals, and even threats of violence are not unusual.

Late last year, we were both invited to participate in a new Facebook group that aimed to bring radical feminists and trans advocates together to discuss gender. Unfortunately, critical analysis of gender was not tolerated and we were both quickly removed from the group. This was not entirely surprising, but we were disappointed as the idea excited us.

Gender discussion rulesWe wanted to continue the conversation, so we decided to start our own Facebook group. We decided that the new group should be ‘open’ in Facebook terms, so anyone with a Facebook account could read what was being discussed even if they didn’t want to participate. Secondly, anyone would be allowed to join the group no matter what their political opinions—liberal, conservative, anarchist, libertarian, or N/A. The only rule was to engage respectfully and in good faith with the other members. It would be a grand experiment! But still, we weren’t very optimistic about its potential longevity.

We were clear that the point of the group isn’t to change people’s views, but to build a greater understanding between everyone, and hopefully build some bridges.

In just four months, Discussing Gender Critical and Gender Identity has ballooned to more than 600 members. We currently have four moderators, all of whom are feminists and one of whom is a trans woman.

Generating discussion of gender is not difficult, but maintaining harmony in the group is our greatest challenge. Towards that end, we have also developed some very basic ground rules regarding language. By preempting some common stumbling blocks to discussion of gender, we’ve been able to sustain unusually long and interesting conversations. For example, in order to avoid the minefield of misgendering, our group policy is to use preferred pronouns or the plural-neutral they/their. Predictably, we’ve been criticized by some on both sides of the table, but despite occasionally removing a member from the group, we have had surprisingly few problems. As one of our trans members commented:

“I think this group is the first concrete step leading to a better understanding between trans people and gender critical feminists. Understanding does not mean agreement, but it can show that finally there is dialogue.”

From this first step, we have already begun challenging the idea that there are only a few views around key gender issues. There is a wide diversity of thought among trans people as well as among feminists; and the group provides a forum to explore these ideas. We have also begun discussing whether there are any areas of broad agreement or commonality within the group. Ultimately, we would like to identify issues that we can potentially work together on, leading to joint trans and feminist political activism.

We invite anyone who is interested in moving beyond hostility and into creative solutions to join our conversation on Facebook.

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#GenderWeek: Truce! When radical feminists and trans feminists empathise

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We wanted to explore the ground between the polarised, entrenched positions in the so-called “TERF-war”. Radical feminists on one pole, trans-inclusionary feminists and trans activists on the other. The disputed territory being women-only space, language and the ever changing legal framework surrounding gender.

Entrenchment leads to stalemate. Stalemate is no friend to progress.

We want to know how feminism can progress when it comes to these gender debates. Can we stop hurling abuse and start listening? What would happen if people in these polarised positions began to empathise with each other? Is it possible to find common ground and start building towards a shared vision of the future? Fighting common enemies?

We asked Finn Mackay, a radical feminist, and Ruth Pearce, a trans feminist, if they would help us explore the place between the poles, this no (wo)man’s land, with some radical empathy.

Finn Mackay:

The disagreements between some feminist theory and the growing movement for trans rights and recognition perhaps began most publically with Janice Raymond’s 1980 book The Transexual Empire and Sandy Stone’s famous riposte in The Empire Strikes Back. The main two critiques were that Raymond denied a history for trans people and stated that trans people are not ‘real’ men or women.

It’s not difficult to see why the latter would cause offence, and indeed Raymond does suggest this in her book. Mainly she is concerned with critiquing the medical industry and its pathologisation of gender in the clinics of the 1970s, which she sees as charm schools for gender stereotyping.

Raymond does not deny a transgender history; she is not naïve to the fact that gender rules are different around the world and are often flouted. However, Raymond argues that it wasn’t until legal and medical advancements that it became possible to talk about the identity of transexual.

This highlights an important distinction between gender and sex. I am not an essentialist; I believe gender is a social construct – by which I mean masculinity, femininity, camp, butch, high femme or androgynous, for example. Sex describes the biological features of our bodies, such as genitalia, reproductive capacity and hormones. In patriarchy of course, sex equals rank and gender roles are used, promoted and policed so that sex rank is obvious and unequivocal.

I don’t believe gender is natural, fixed or innate, but made and not born. It is made by all the stereotypes around us about how men and women are supposed to look, act and dress. Everyone works hard at their gender, it does not come naturally. Men and women work to live up to narrow and impossible gender ideals; they diet and spend vast amounts on cosmetics and plastic surgery. In that way we are all performing gender, and it is difficult to say if anyone is a ‘real’ man or woman.

Therefore, I don’t believe that trans people are any less ‘real’ men and women than anyone else, and I don’t believe trans women are ‘men’. I respect self-definition and use the pronouns individuals identify as; I would never refer to trans women as ‘he’ or to trans men as ‘she’. I agree that women-only spaces should be open to all women, including trans women. However, I also respect the right of all oppressed groups to self-organise. For example, recently a mixed feminist conference in Manchester held a workshop on girlhood sexual abuse which was open only to women assigned female at birth. I do not think it was right that the conference was attacked as a result.

I do not agree with the term ‘cis’ and do not use it. It suggests that all non-trans people are gender normative Stepford wives, which is far from the case. I do not get read as a woman in many daily interactions and experience harassment and violence as a result. I do not have the privilege of not being questioned about my sex and gender in the street, in passport control or in interactions with health services. I also do not believe that being categorised as female in a patriarchal world can ever be seen as a privilege, and the facts of sexual violence, marginalisation and poverty bear that out.

 

Ruth Pearce:

In you, I see the girls who spat in my face as I walked home from school.
In me, you see every man who has ever treated you like a lesser being.
In you, I see the boys who always wanted to pick a fight.
In me, you see someone who just won’t listen.
In you, I see my father, a man I’ve always considered to be wise and thoughtful, telling me that I’ll be outed by the press and kicked out of university for using the women’s toilets.
In me, you see a forceful male penetration of women’s spaces.
In you, I see a thousand tabloid headlines screaming “tranny”.
In me, you see a blind adherence to the oppressive system of binary gender.
In you, I see the doctor who tells me what I can and can’t do with my body.
In me, you see the stooge of a patriarchal medical system.
In you, I see how friends who have been beaten or raped were told that they brought it on themselves.
In me, you see a systematic desire to control and define womanhood.
In you, I see a systematic desire to control and define womanhood.

My truth and your truth are both derived from a fierce feminism, but somehow remain diametrically opposed.  Why is it that we disagree so much over the meaning of my body, over the meaning of your lived experience, over the existence of feminist events that exclude trans women?

I would tell you that my subconscious sex, the mental matrix that somehow marks the flesh I expect to see and feel when I behold myself, maps snugly onto the body I have inhabited since undergoing hormone therapy and genital reconstruction. I would tell you that for the last six years I have been happy and at ease with myself in a way I could never have been before.

I would tell you that yes, I agree that gender is a social construct which ascribes hegemonic power to the masculine. I would tell you that I, like you, am forced to negotiate a society where we cannot simply reject gender because we are constantly gendered by others. The body I inhabit, the things I enjoy, the manner in which I communicate, the clothes I prefer to wear all fit better into the artificial category of “woman” than the artificial category of “man”.

I would tell you that I too am subject to sexism and misogyny in many of their vile forms. My transness does not spare me. I would further tell you that I have experienced worse for being trans than for being a woman, although such unpleasant experiences have been limited by the privileges that come with my class background and the colour of my skin.

I would tell you that I believe in the importance of women’s spaces. I would argue that no group of women should be rejected from such a space.

I would tell you that I am a woman because I identify as a woman and because I move through the world as a woman. That I reject outdated ideals of “appropriate” female behaviour. That I rage against sexism and misogyny, and fight alongside my sisters for equality, for liberation, for choice.

I would tell you that this is my truth, and that there is no universal trans truth. I would ask you to acknowledge the diversity and complexity of trans truths.

And you would tell me your truth. You would tell me of the pain that comes from growing up as a girl and then living as a woman in a patriarchal world. You would tell me that I can never know what this is like, that I will always be male, that my chromosomes and life experience cannot be erased. You would tell me that you have a right to organise without me. That I should just leave you alone.

And our argument could roll on for a long time. I might draw upon the wisdom of black feminist thinkers to argue that there is no universal experience of womanhood. And you might respond that I, nevertheless, will always have with me the privileges that come with being raised as a boy. And I would say yes, I accept that, but seek to acknowledge and check this in the same way I seek to acknowledge and check my other privileges, and moreover this intersects complexly with the oppression I experienced growing up as a trans girl, learning to hate myself and unable to access hegemonic forms of masculinity.

Where does this leave us?

At the end of the day, we have to draw a line in the sand. So you read and write and share your critiques of my existence, and attend your conferences from which I am explicitly excluded. But I necessarily object to writings and events that actively oppose or undermine my liberation: articles that turn me into a joke or demean my struggle for survival, activists who out vulnerable children, keynote speakers who say that we are all rapists and call for the abolition of gender clinics.

I am left with no choice but to actively oppose the public manifestation of opinions that will do harm to myself, to my friends, to my trans sisters, to my trans brothers, to my queer and/or non-gender-specific trans siblings.

I oppose you not because I hate you, and certainly not because I oppose feminism. I oppose you because you would cause me harm.

And in doing so, you believe that I cause you harm.

And so the dance goes on.

Ruth’s piece is adapted from her 2012 blog post, which you can read here.

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#GenderWeek: Non-binary gender makes me free, not a traitor

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Ideas of genders outside of the strict female/male binary are enjoying unprecedented levels of attention at the moment – in mainstream media outlets, feminist websites, LGBT and student campaigns, popularised and disseminated through social media platforms Twitter and Tumblr. Genderqueer, agender, neutrois, bigender, gender-fluid, androgynous – a wash of varied and various nomenclature that some group under the label ‘non-binary’.

I’ve been out as transgender and androgynous/genderqueer for half my life, and an ardent feminist since before I knew that there was a word for it. I have yet to meet a person with a ‘non-standard’ gender who isn’t a feminist and/or womanist. Trans feminist pioneer Leslie Feinberg is cited by many of my peers as an inspiration, and many of us found hope for a world that included us in the works of Judith Butler, Jack Halberstram and Del la Grace Volcano.

But, for a certain subset of feminists, an acceptance and celebration of gender variance is counted as antithetical to the core values of feminism itself. As someone who was assigned a ‘girl’ at birth there are some who have called me a traitor for my refusal to call myself female; who argue that people not comfortable with designating themselves women or men (or solely women or men) are upholding sexist stereotypes. That, even if we had a valid point in terms our personal lives, we’re taking up vital space, time and attention that should be spent on the ‘real’ issues. That we should stop being divisive.

I can see, in an oppositional, binary-entrenched way, the way I must seem to them. But I can’t condone it. For me, being genderqueer and being feminist are wound around each other in a way that I couldn’t untangle, even if I wanted to. And I think that that symbiotic relationship can only serve to help feminism as a whole, if we let it.

1. Gender plurality frees us from an immutable, ahistorical idea of gender

One of the main stumbling blocks I’ve found to spreading an awareness of the possibility of freedom from a patriarchal system is the widespread sophistry that “it’s just the way it is”. “Boys will be boys”, “it’s always been this way”. But an examination of the history of the gendered categories we use, an awareness of new terms springing into existence, an acknowledgement of cultural differences in how we classify women, men, both and neither, shows us that change is possible. That change has always been possible. That there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to human diversity – but that we’re always inventing new ways of seeing, new ways of understanding our cultures.

‘Gender’ is such a nebulous concept –  a word to describe individual variation, a hierarchical system of punishment and reward, a way to name the self to the self. The more we can recognise just how vast and changeable that concept is, the more we can explode the limitations patriarchy places on us.  

2. If some of us are non-binary, we are all non-binary

There’s a reason why I hesitate to use the term ‘non-binary’ to describe only those who are not men and women – because if the binary cannot include us all, then it cannot include us all. It is never to say that everyone should call themselves genderqueer or agender – but it is to say that each person’s individual experience of what makes them a man, or a woman, or something else, is valid. What a person’s body and life means to them must be approached as real – we can’t attempt to apply a standard meaning to unique and dynamic experiences. We seek commonality – but only through an acceptance of diversity, not an erasing of it. 

3. We can catalogue the full extent of misogynistic oppression and abuse

Patriarchy, overwhelmingly, hurts women the most – but misogyny harms nearly everyone. Naming the problem is the first step to solving it – and we cannot solve the problem of patriarchy, or kyriarchy, without acknowledging the extent of its damage. The idea of a binary gender system has been used to punish, to brutalise, to silence; naming its crimes and attempting to heal the destruction caused helps us to move forward in a better way, towards a better system of understanding. 

4. Self-determinism + dismantling of oppressive systems = feminism in action

When asked to define feminism, some feminists say “it’s about choice”. I agree, but think the sentence needs finishing. “Feminism is about choice – and the creation of a society that allows all compassionate choices”. To come out as a non-standard gender is not just to celebrate self-determinism, but to strike a blow at a patriarchy that denies us freedom and justice, along gendered lines. It might be a personal blow – it might, through activism, through visibility, be a blow on a wider scale.

The question is not “should feminism allow gender plurality?” – we are already here, deeply embedded in the feminist movement, and have been for a long time. Better, I think, is the question is: “where can we go from here – as women, men and everybody else – and how can we use what we’ve learnt as individuals for the benefit of us all?”

CN Lester is a musician, writer and activist, whose second full length alternative album Aether is out now. Follow @cnlester

Photo: Social Vella

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‪#‎GenderWeek: Andrea was not transphobic

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When Andrea and I met in 1974 her first book, Woman Hating, was on press. She wrote all her subsequent work in the home where we lived together until 2005, when I and the world lost her.

One passage in Woman Hating changed my life forever:

“The discovery is, of course, that “man” and “woman” are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs. As models they are reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming. As roles they are static, demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both.”

That radical interrogation of gender became a foundational understanding between us. It formed a basis for how we knew and cared about each other. We recognized that we each came from a gendered culture—she as a woman, I as a man—but our best and deepest times together were when that ceased to matter, when it was as if we were communicating simply self to self. Or soul to soul. Or I to Thou.

To this day I don’t fully know why Andrea risked trusting me. I have no doubt, however, why I began to trust her.

I was attracted to and sexually active with men; Andrea always knew that. We were first introduced by a gay male mutual friend at a gay and lesbian gathering, after all. But what I learned from Andrea—first from reading Woman Hating, then from growing more and more to know her—was a wholly new experience to me: what it means to be soul mates beyond gender.

That belief in the possibility of life beyond gender was a core of both her work and mine. A speech I gave within a few months after our meeting was published as Refusing to Be a Man (the title I gave my first book). In a speech of Andrea’s written about a year later she drew a distinction between reality and truth in order to say that:

“while the system of gender polarity is real, it is not true…. [T]he system based on this polar model of existence is absolutely real; but the model itself is not true. We are living imprisoned inside a pernicious delusion, a delusion on which all reality as we know it is predicated.”

I’ve thought back to such passages in Andrea’s work (there are many) as I’ve pondered how she would sort out the current controversies and conflicts among radical feminists who call themselves trans critical and transactivists who call the same feminists trans exclusionary. Andrea wrote of transsexualism (as it was called then) only in Woman Hating, in a prescient section that can accurately be cited as evidence that Andrea was not “transphobic” and was in fact “empathetic to transpeople” (as would come as no surprise to anyone who knew her).

To my knowledge Andrea never wrote any more on the subject. I cannot say for certain why, but I suspect it’s because she already said what she had to say about it—and she was driven to write next what no one had said yet. The topic came up in our conversations, of course, but prior to her death the divisive controversy/conflict had not yet erupted as it has today. I’ll not rehearse those troubling tensions except to acknowledge that I recently came under sharp criticism online after I posted a tweet about an essay I’d written about U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley), in which I referred to the courageous young whistleblower by the female pronoun she now preferred.

To my philosophically inclined mind (now recalling Andrea’s and my talks), the current controversy/conflict turns on an ethical/metaphysical disagreement about the fundamental meaning of gender in the human species. Obviously I cannot know what Andrea would have to say about it, except that I am certain she would not ally herself with any view that furthers “biological superiority,” which she considered “the world’s most dangerous and deadly idea”:

“It is shamefully easy for us [she means here, I believe, so-called female-assigned-at-birth women] to enjoy our own fantasies of biological omnipotence while despising men for enjoying the reality of theirs. And it is dangerous—because genocide begins, however improbably, in the conviction that classes of biological distinction indisputably sanction social and political discrimination. We, who have been devastated by the concrete consequences of this idea, still want to put our faith in it. Nothing offers more proof—sad, irrefutable proof—that we are more like men than either they or we care to believe.”

This was always Andrea’s ethical framework, which I learned from constantly: Moral agency and accountability are true, foundational to our identity as human, and they do not equate with the reality of gender. I was inspired by that ethical framework when I wrote in my essay about Chelsea Manning of:

“my belief that one’s moral agency is not gendered; it is—as it is for Pfc. Manning—a continuity of conscience irrespective of gender expression. I believe that separate and unequal ethical codes for “men” and “women”—which are ubiquitous in conventional wisdom—are erroneous on their face, because the constant core of one’s conscience is human only.”

I confess I did not learn from Andrea’s ethical framework about living beyond gender only conversationally or conceptually or in the abstract. I learned concretely, and I learned humbly the hard way—because episodically in our relationship I learned what it meant to her and us when I fucked up and broke the trust she had in me. I acted like a man. My impulse to assert/defend my gendered social conditioning trumped my intention to be my best self. I did not act like the person Andrea had grown to love and I did not act like the person I had learned to know it was possible to be with her. Happily we got through those hard times. In the last years of her life, even as her health failed, we became closer and dearer to each other than ever before. But the lesson never leaves me: Who I am is not my gender.

Curious, isn’t it, that in English only third-person pronouns are gendered but first- and second-person are not. Do we remain imprisoned in gender because we persistently “third-personise,” or objectify, ourselves and one another; and do we not sufficiently speak to each other as subjects who say I to Thou? Has our language always been telling us that when we speak as ourselves directly to other selves, and when other selves speak directly to us, gender becomes irrelevant?

I enjoy following the favorite quotes of Andrea’s that people post here and there in cyberspace, and the other day this one caught my eye: “When two individuals come together and leave their gender outside the bedroom door, then they make love.”

Andrea got it. Living beyond gender leads to loving beyond gender. And vice versa.

I miss our communion terribly.

genderwkbody

John Stoltenberg has explored the distinction between gender identity and moral identity in two books—Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice and The End of Manhood: Parables on Sex and Selfhood. His many essays include “Living With Andrea Dworkin” (1994) and “Imagining Life Without Andrea” (2005). His novel, GONERZ, projects a radical feminist vision into a post-apocalyptic future. John conceived and creative-directed the acclaimed “My strength is not for hurting” sexual-assault-prevention media campaign, and he continues his communications- and cause-consulting work through media2change. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg and @media2change.

Photography by John Goetz. Copyright © 2005 by John Goetz and the Estate of Andrea Dworkin.

This article was amended at 4pm on the 28th April at the author’s request.

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#GenderWeek: The delusion of choice

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Like Charlotte I get irritable when I hear about feminism and freedom and choice, although not for exactly the same reasons. No, I don’t wear stilettos firstly because – quite apart from the fact that they’d hurt my feet and give me painful bunions, just like my mother had – I instantly fall over. Even if I could stay upright, as Charlotte suggests, I’d feel a tad silly wearing my feminist badges while wobbling about in them.

I’m a little more devious, and feminism did encourage me to be somewhat more rebellious in how to dress. I didn’t burn it, but I’ve never worn a bra, even if I know I’ve always chosen to add just a little height to my five foot four inches (platforms will do that nicely) and have routinely worn just a little make-up, trying to look quite as ‘sexy’ and attractive as I can manage  – although not just to please men.

But I don’t feel too strongly about couture – haute, bass, or even crass – and I suspect that once-upon-a-time we women’s liberationists were rather excluding of some more timid souls in imposing a certain type of dress code. Flowered smocks and dungarees were for a long time the favourite attire: forget high-heels, a woman arriving at a feminist meeting in skirt and twin-set might find it hard to relax and fit in.

The issue of ‘choice’ annoys me because most of us, and many women in particular, have so very little of it – and indeed, less all the time. Last year I was asked to discuss ‘the tyranny of choice’, on the supposition that nowadays we suffer from having too much it. Can you believe it? Now that really is infuriating. On every important issue: where to live; what jobs are available; the length of the working day, if we have jobs; how to avoid being the objects of sexist abuse or violence; having the time and resources to choose to have a child, should we wish to; being able to care for our loved ones, when they are young, old, or for any slew of reasons, are in need of care – all these are choices that are so very hard, almost impossible, for the majority of women to make in ways we would like to.

All this is a feminist issue. The very mention of ‘free-choice’ feminism by the likes of Louise Mensch and other ‘Tory feminists’ (who believe that women hold themselves back from the top jobs) is for the most part absurd. Top jobs? Young women coming out of university are very lucky if they can get any job at all. If in work, the precarious nature of most jobs today and the ever-stretching working day, leave almost no time for attending to all the work of caring, loving and building communities we want to live or raise children in.

I am similarly irritated by accusations of feminism’s complicity with neoliberalism, made by certain older feminists such as Nancy Fraser, because of our supposed embrace of ‘choice’. Yes, we did want the right to reproductive choice, and all sorts of other resources for creating more egalitarian and nurturing environments for all. But despite all our campaigning – some of it successful – what we have ended up with, by and large, is the opposite.

Most women, much of the time, have no choice at all over all the important issues in their life; which of course has little to do with either make-up or foot-wear. This lack of choice, especially for women caring for children or other dependents, has left many women much more vulnerable to domestic violence. And, with women still largely doing the caring jobs in society, whether paid or unpaid, it is women above all who are hardest hit by the austerity policies of recent years. A recent Labour Party document on older women reported that unemployment amongst older women has increased by 41 per cent in the last two and a half years, compared with one per cent overall.

The majority of women have much too little choice about how to live our lives. The fetishisation of choice is all about equating the private and privatised with ‘freedom and choice’; the public, the collective, the community, the nationalised, with ‘constraint and imposition’. Yet it is precisely in the private arena, and above all because of the rolling back of welfare and the spending of resources in the public sector, that women today actually have so little choice.

Feminists worth their salt have always known this, yet it is quite extraordinary how successful Thatcher, and all those trailing her legacy, have been in selling people delusion of ‘choice’. Let’s go back to basics. Over two centuries ago, one of our greatest foremothers, Mary Wollstonecraft in a A Vindication of the Rights of Women, knew then that was that it was no good merely talking about rights or freedom of choice. As a woman, she knew that what we need to talk about was not just rights, or choice, but equality, insisting that “the more equality there is established” among us, “the more virtue and happiness will reign in society”.

Choice is an irritating concept without that feminist imagination that tells us more about the societies we want to live in and how best to head towards them. With this government in command, we seem to moving further away from the possibilities for true virtue or happiness every day.

Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.

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#GenderWeek: “TERF-war”, online bullying & the dark art of doxing

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Online bullying is, self-evidently, a phenomenon that has only been able to exist since the rise of the publicly available internet. The existence of “doxing” has followed it. Doxing (or Doxxing, Docx), for those who don’t know, is a shortened form of the word ‘documenting’ and is the practice of outing somebody online, usually by linking to the person’s photographs or identity in some way.

It is not always motivated by malice. The net provides a convenient cloak of anonymity for those who seek to dissemble. Few of us could have failed to laugh when Mary Beard received a snivelling apology from a no-longer-brave young man faced with having his tweet shown to his mother, and it will rarely be against the public interest to discover that a brand advocate is actually employed by said brand.

It becomes sinister when it is used as a tool to attack private individuals who have done nothing more offensive than exist.

In what has been dubbed the “TERF-wars”; where trans-exclusionary radical feminists, trans-inclusionary feminists and trans-activists have come to blows on Twitter – often over subjects such as women-only spaces and equalities law – the lines between debate and abuse often become very confused, with both sides accusing the other of abuse. The legal tipping point between the two is discussed below, although the moral high ground is obviously a different matter.

Many feminists find the term “TERF” offensive and the word “cis” – a Latin prefix used as the opposite of “trans” – uncomfortable.  There is no right not to be offended, so a person who dislikes the terms is unlikely to be able to make out a legal case to prevent it. Insisting on calling someone “cis” or “TERF” if they do not like it or identify with the term is rude, probably bullying, but unless it is used deliberately to cause distress, which would be hard to prove, it is unlikely to be illegal. Similarly, deliberate misgendering would in most cases be considered obnoxious rather than unlawful. There is no hard line definition of what is offensive; that is considered on a case by case basis according to what the “reasonable” person would think.

It goes without saying that there is no remedy in criminal or in civil law for someone putting forward a viewpoint with which one disagrees. As with all online debate, holding an opposing position is not in itself abuse or bullying. So, for example, there is no possible legal way to prevent “trans-critical analysis”, which theorises the non-existence of transsexuals, no matter how hurtful it may be to a person reading it. However it is very often within this context that doxing occurs which is often used in the online bullying of trans people.

Doxing is by no stretch of the imagination a simple analysis problem. It has involved deliberate targeting of individuals in a way designed to intimidate them, including vulnerable people (minors) who could in no way be said to have raised their heads above a theoretical parapet.

It is a sad truth that the application of the law cannot force anybody to be right. However, the law does provide some protection to the victims of bullying no matter what views you hold.  Here’s a slimmed-down synopsis of how.

The Public Order Act

The Public Order Act of 1986 makes it a criminal offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, either with intention to cause harassment, alarm or distress or in the presence of someone who might be caused harassment, alarm or distress. Equally, it is an offence to ‘display’ such words or behaviour. In 1986 that meant on a wall, placard or similar, but it could equally apply to Tumblr or Twitter in today’s terms.

It is a defence to show that the conduct was reasonable or that the person doing it had no reason to believe that anybody would actually see it.

Sending malicious communications

The Malicious Communications Act 1988 makes it a criminal offence to send any article which is indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat, or which is false, provided there is an intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient. The offence covers letters, writing of all descriptions, electronic communications, photographs and other images in a material form, tape recordings, films and video recordings.

The offence is one of sending, delivering or transmitting, so there is no requirement for the article to reach the intended recipient.

In 2007 the court considered whether a political or educational motive would be a defence (when applied to a woman who was sending graphic photographs of aborted foetuses as part of an anti-abortion campaign.) It was not held to be a defence and any restriction on freedom of speech was justified by everyone else’s right not to be victimised.

Harassment

The CPS use the term harassment to cover the ‘causing alarm or distress’ offences under section 2 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (PHA), and ‘putting people in fear of violence’ offences under section 4 of the PHA. Harassment is not specifically defined, but it can include repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications and contacts upon a victim in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear in any reasonable person. It would be difficult to prove that doxing someone (without notifying them) constituted harassment of that individual, but the CPS guidance states that:

“Closely connected groups may also be subjected to ‘collective’ harassment. The primary intention of this type of harassment is not generally directed at an individual but rather at members of a group. This could include: members of the same family; residents of a particular neighbourhood; groups of a specific identity including ethnicity or sexuality, for example, the racial harassment of the users of a specific ethnic community centre; harassment of a group of disabled people; harassment of gay clubs; or of those engaged in a specific trade or profession.”

This could undoubtedly be applied to an individual (or small group of individuals) harassing a group by doxing them, if the doxing is targeted at members of a particular group.

Doxing: outside the criminal law

Of course, although the CPS have an impressive policy on hate crime, the system is not always interested in what are perceived to be online spats and although, in my view, the system will increasingly recognise that offences can and do occur in the virtual world, the civil law may also be of more immediate interest.

The Equalities Act 2010 protects people with certain characteristics (race, sex, disability, gender reassignment, religion, pregnancy, marriage, sexual orientation and age) from discrimination, harassment or victimisation.  Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 guarantees a person’s right to privacy (unless there is a very good reason).  A private individual cannot be sued under either the Equalities Act or the HRA, but public bodies can be (and in the case of the Equalities Act, so can private members’ clubs, associations, employers and service providers).

This means that doxing someone out of malice would be unlawful if it is done by a tabloid – but not if it is done by an individual. However, if it is published by an online publication, it is worth looking at whether that publication is an association or service provider. If so, there may be a remedy in civil law for damages.

One final possibility would be to sue the bully in tort. Tort is a legal concept whereby a person who is harmed by another can claim damages. It is self-evident that doxing would foreseeably cause harm, from distress to actual psychiatric injury. As far as I can tell, nobody has ever attempted to use this route as a remedy for outing or doxing, but it appears that if a person were caused harm by another’s actions in doxing them, they may well be entitled to damages.  A precedent for civil damages could prove more of a deterrent than the threat of criminal action.

Julian Norman is a barrister, professional law nerd, feminist and writer. Follow her @londonfeminist

Photo: Maryland Gov Pics

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‪#‎GenderWeek: Race shatters the idea of a shared female experience

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Safe spaces exist in political circles for safety and security away from oppressive attitudes – sexism and racism, to name a few. When structural inequalities permeate daily life, it is a relief to spend time with others who get it. Some safe spaces invite allies to join; others come with conditions of exclusion. Those exclusions are applied to those who don’t have similar lived experiences, who are more than likely to engage in oppressive behaviour. Women-only spaces are an example of this, gay clubs another, but each holds its own flaws.

Exclusive spaces are not limited to the politics of liberation. Work places, school places and social spaces show time and time again how exclusionary spaces are informally created. Those who are similar to one another tend to gravitate towards each other. Exclusive spaces tend to expel difference, and they tend to lack a power analysis. Exclusive spaces are not always safe. They can reinforce power and collectively punch down on a regular basis. They can be echo chambers that resist challenge and the possibility of growing. Trans exclusionary feminist spaces are the latter.

Women-only spaces have always been a contentious issue in feminism. There’s a strand of politics in feminism’s broad church – often called trans exclusionary radical feminism – that argues that trans women are not women, thereby excluding them from women-only spaces. Further still, some of these feminists compare trans women to white cultural appropriators. Rachel Ivey, of US based radical feminist and environmentalist group Deep Green Resistance, compares trans women to cultural appropriators in a 40 minute radical feminist manifesto on Youtube.

But writer Savannah G deconstructs this argument in a great post on Autostraddle, saying:

…these things are not analogous because cultural specificities have to do with a group of people forming, over time, a local context and traditions. There is innumerable evidence that undermining such cultural specificities (through colonization, globalization, etc.) leads to mass-scale human suffering, and is in fact virtually always a component of genocide.

Neither woman-typical nor man-typical clothing resides in the same realm as such local cultural specificities. A person with a penis wearing woman-typical clothing does nothing to undermine “woman culture” nor vice-versa. For example, when women began wearing trousers more commonly in the latter half of the 20th century, they did not do so as a result of male cultural coercion or colonization. Instead they did it out of a component of liberation: it’s called, given your local context, wear whatever the hell you want.

Racism is too often misused as a hypothetical metaphor to illustrate the injustice of some other issue rather than being an injustice in itself. In liberation movements there is a trend of comparing inevitably overwhelmingly white movements to fights against racism. Indeed, comparisons to racism often imply that the complexities of racism are widely understood – they are not – and that the struggle has ended, when it most definitely hasn’t.

Cis black women and trans women of all races have a lot in common when it comes to feminism. We complicate things. We disrupt women-only spaces. When we call attention to the power disparities between women, we shatter the idea of a shared female experience. When we have access to women-only spaces, we draw attention to the pre-existing hierarchies in place that haven’t disappeared just because of a sense of ‘sisterhood’. When we challenge racism and transphobia in feminist spaces we’re both often described as the same things: self-interested, divisive, bullies. By raising the problems of racism and transphobia in the feminist movement, we become the problem.

Black feminist contributions to political movements are often written out of history by our white counterparts. So are trans women’s. When Nancy Fraser wrote in the Guardian that feminism what becoming too capitalist, she excluded the anti-capitalist works from women of colour such as Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Himani Bannerji, Avtar Brah, Selma James, Maria Mies, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Silvia Federici, and Dorothy Roberts. Stonewall, now a charity that explicitly only advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, was initially a riot in which cis and trans LGB people fought side by side.

bell hooks called this phenomenon “white people fatigue syndrome“. This is the problem with these limited politics – there is a collective ‘forgetting’ that is inherently exclusionary. As a former English Literature student, there are more than a few comparisons I can draw with the exclusion of white women from the literary canon. They were forgotten. We are forgotten.

The transphobia displayed in some radical spaces is as conventional and conservative as the transphobia displayed in wider society. “There’s this widespread view of being transgender as a deviance or a perversion,” Gigi, aged 17 explains to me. “For example, the reactions trans people face when we want to use public toilets.” This culture of suspicion is repeated in the exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces. There is no difference. Women-only spaces aren’t safe if they impose the same hierarchical structures we aim to resist.

Both cis black and transgender women share an extra layer of having to fight for our humanity. Our existence is intersectional. We straddle awkward gaps. When it comes to the battle grounds of equal pay, gender quotas, reproductive rights, neither of us are the acceptable face of what it means to be a woman. We raise these points in feminism and we disrupt women only spaces.

Reni Eddo-Lodge is a black feminist writer and campaigner based in London. She is Contributing Editor at Feminist Times, blogs at http://renieddolodge.co.uk/ and tweets @renireni.

Photo: Google Images Creative Commons

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#GenderWeek: What about men? The end of women-only charities?

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What about men?

As my Irish mother always says: “Don’t let the b******ds grind you down!”

I was approached to write this article because we (Survive) advertised for a post in our local A&E for an IDVA (Independent domestic Violence Advisor), and in our advertisement we stated the post holder must be female using section 7(2) of the Sexual Discrimination Act. As our work primarily supports women and our women are primarily abused by men, we have found it appropriate for them to be supported by a worker who legally identifies as a woman. As an example of how this works on an everyday level, if you visit your GP it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a female practitioner to make you feel more comfortable when dealing with personal subjects such as fertility and sexual health; discussing a traumatic relationship is no different. Makes sense right?

So I find it hard to understand why, when someone makes a statement or publishes an article about violence against women, particularly domestic violence, the reactionary comments are full of people (men and women) asking: “what about the men?” “it’s not just women you know!” Or “just as many men as women experience DVA.” And my favourite: “why should women get all the help and support? Probably more men suffering in silence than women anyway!”

How do they know this? Where is their evidence? And why do they feel the need to attack women and those who help them? Why should it be that if I want to support women and their children I must be against male victims? This is simply not the case; I, like most in the DVA sector, recognise that there are also male victims. It feels to me that whenever women state something is for women only, people feel threatened. It is accepted (although odd in our day and age), that there are golf clubs and Mason meetings which are for men only, but the other way round makes people feel uneasy?

What I suggest to people is to go out there and set up support where you see gaps. That is what the first female voluntary domestic violence support workers did during the 1970s; this work was born out of the feminist movement, by women for women and their children.

The problem with the question “what about men?” is it creates is a world where funders, government and local councils start to demand that the services they fund support all, and support them thoroughly; that services spread and stretch their resources (often using the same if not lower funds), in order to evidence that they will and are supporting both male and female victims.

I work in one of the last organisations which specialises in supporting women and children only and at a grassroots level. I believe we are a dying breed and that as funding requirements change we will have to look at amending the fundamental principles of our constitutions and mission statements in order to keep up with funders’ expectations. So we risk losing our identity as a female only org in order to literally survive.

This change and expansion is clear to see in our new projects and ventures; we now support men off site if they come into our local A&E, and men can now attend our parenting sessions which are also off site. We also have male mentors to support the children living in our refuges and accessing our services, however our direct and main support within refuge, group work and outreach is still for women only.

The possible harm I can see coming from a complete change to support provision, and losing our founding identify, would be the message it would send out; that domestic violence and abuse is not a gender issue, which from my experience and research it still very much is.

  • On average two women a week are killed by a male partner or former partner: this constitutes around one-third of all female homicide victims
  • 42% of all female homicide victims, compared with 4% of male homicide victims, were killed by current or former partners in England and Wales in the year 2000/01. This equates to 102 women, an average of 2 women each week
  • In a study by Shelter, 40% of all homeless women stated that domestic violence was a contributor to their homelessness. Domestic violence was found to be “the single most quoted reason for becoming homeless”

I can already imagine the comments this article will provoke: Men are too ashamed to report, men are less likely to report, and so on… and while I agree there is some truth in these refutes, you can’t argue with these statistics – they are facts.

Out of the 367 male victims of homicide in 2011/12, 17 were killed by partners or ex partners and 124 by strangers. While these 17 deaths may have been prevented by better support from services, the figure for women in that same year is much higher: out of the 127 female homicide victims, 88 were killed by their partner/ex-partner and 25 by a stranger.

I do support the engagement of men in the DVA sector; it has been of great benefit for our younger service users to be supported by male mentors, for them to have a positive experience of non-violent/abusive men. I willingly accept that we will be exploring this area further and looking at the role of male workers supporting DVA victims, but we need to address this without losing our identity as a female led organisation. There are not many working environments where the CE, the management team and administration, as well as front line workers, are all female and this is a fact I am proud of.

Ruth Wood is IDVA & Outreach Services Manager at Survive: Working towards freedom from domestic abuse. Follow her personal Twitter @WoodWoodruthie

If you have been affected by domestic violence, call the national domestic violence helpline on 0808 2000 247. Calls are free and the line is open 24/7.

Support services for men

Photo: Wikimedia

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#GenderWeek: Biological sex is not binary

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Biological sex is often assumed to be binary, but it is not. Among animals there are a range of species that change sex on a regular basis, for example shrimps that hatch as males and turn female at a certain body size, and some fish that change sex depending on social circumstances. Sex is not always decided when an egg and a sperm fuse – as in crocodiles and most turtles, whose eggs are unsexed at first and it is the temperature during incubation that leads to the development of a certain sex. There is even a lizard species in which both sex chromosomes and temperature simultaneously influence which sex develops.

Neither is there a strict dichotomy between human male and female bodies. Having XX chromosomes does not always mean having a female body and having XY chromosomes does not always mean having a male body; sometimes an individual with XY chromosomes is insensitive to the influence of testosterone, resulting in a female body. There are also other combinations of sex chromosomes, such as X0, XXX, XXY, XXYY, XXXY, XXXXY and XYY, and exposure of external hormones as a fetus may also influence sexual characteristics.

There is a range of variation in anatomical and reproductive characteristics – chromosomes, ovaries/testes, genitals, bodily appearance – that do not fit typical definitions of male or female. That is the definition of intersex (in medical terms, Disorders of Sexual Development). Some intersex organisations reject the term DSD because it is not necessarily a disorder, but simply part of the variability of human bodies. This variability means that sex is much more complicated than the commonly assumed binary; there simply is no true boundary between female and male bodies, we are all part of a continuum or a mosaic of sexual characteristics.

How would it influence your identify if you realized tomorrow that your biological sex – your sex chromosomes, your ovaries/testes, your hormone levels, or your body – are not what you were brought up to think they were? Would that change your whole perception of your identity, your behaviour, appearance and relations – or would it not matter at all?

What is the connection between biological sex and gender identity? This is a contested area of research for psychologists, sexologists and medical scientists, and intersex individuals have often been the means by which to test and prove various theories. Psychologist John Money, who became very influential for the treatment of intersex children from the 1950s and onward, considered gender identity to be only dependent on the social circumstances and that there was no innate basis for it. Successful treatment would lead the child to psychologically developing into an unambiguous gender, and as part of this it was essential that both the parents and the child believed that the child had a true sex that only needed medical intervention to get it right.

The assumption of the all over-shadowing social influence, however, has not been without critics. This is especially true following Money’s showcase example of John/Joan, a boy who accidently lost his penis and was brought up as a girl, who turned out to reject his assigned sex, transition to male and later take his own life. In 1965, Milton Diamond suggested a competing hypothesis, namely that the influence of hormones provides a predisposition for gender identity and behavior that sets limits to the social influences. Later, evidence accumulated of intersex individuals rejecting their medical sex assignment and, as more and more intersex individuals give their stories and interpretations, the still controversial debate has become more nuanced. Yet intersex children are still regularly treated to conform to current binary gender norms, despite there being no medical reason to do so in most cases.

The idea that prenatal hormone levels determine gender and sexual identity in turn has become the dominant theoretical framework within the neurosciences, but brain scientist Rebecca Jordan-Young has criticised this research tradition on the basis of questionable assumptions, methodological inconsistencies and overly grand conclusions given the conflicting results. She suggests that brain scientists are too focused on nailing down sex differences and would be better off studying the dynamic processes of the interaction between environment and internal factors.

Hence there are both cultural and biological deterministic essentialist positions when it comes to sex and gender. The biological sciences have a high status among the general public and what is considered biological or ”natural” has a material affect on people’s lives. Several gender researchers have problematised the distinctions between gender/sex and nature/culture, notably Judith Butler, saying that conceptions about biological sex are already culturally influenced. In the structure which Butler calls the heterosexual matrix, norms about sex/gender are inextricably intertwined with norms of sexuality: the only positions available are male or female.

The process of sexing bodies, which makes them conform to a sex binary, is already regulated by culture because it does not allow for ambiguity. This sexual binary, unquestioned and assumed to be natural, becomes the basis for constructing gender as a natural binary, and the naturalisation of a gender binary leads to oppression of those who do not conform to it. Questioning both binaries of biological sex and gender gives room for more variable concepts of both sex and gender.

I think that these variations in biological sex and the lived experiences of intersex individuals unsettle many taken-for-granted assumptions about gender. Irrespective of different feminists’ views on transgender identities (personally, I respect each person’s gender identity), gender is clearly not a direct effect of biological sex, and there is not a perfect overlap between biological sex and gender identity. These findings problematise both biologically essentialist notions about sex and the culturally essentialist notion of gender identity as a purely social construction. So, what are the consequences for liberal vs radical feminists’ debates about gender?

Malin Ah-King is an evolutionary biologist and gender researcher at Humboldt University Berlin, Germany.

Suggested readings: Anne Fausto-Sterling Sexing the body 2000, multiple works by Alice Domurat Dreger.

Intersex organizations: www.oiiinternational.com/intersex-organizations/

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#GenderWeek: Survey – What is gender?

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What is gender? What does it mean to be a man or a woman? Male or female? Trans or non-binary? It’s a subject that divides feminists, and we want to know where you stand. Are the liberal and radical definitions of gender diametrically opposed? What do they have in common, where do they differ, and is it possible to believe bits of both?

Below is a simple outline of both definitions, which are discussed in more detail (from a radical feminist perspective) in this article by Trouble and Strife.

We’re also keen to know where Feminist Times members and readers stand. Please click here to fill in our #GenderWeek survey. We’ll publish the results at the end of this week.

Infographic-gender-edit

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It’s feminist to vote in the EU elections

Even for those of us who do not call ourselves Euro sceptics, the EU is hard to love – there is no doubt about that. It’s a bit like maths or entomology. We know it’s there, and it’s probably serving a vaguely useful function, but apart from a narrow proportion of geeks, experts and fanatics among us, in everyday life we rarely find ourselves enthusing about quadratic equations, critters or Directives.

Europe’s decision-making bodies sit far away, with their unfamiliar bureaucrats, strange rituals and opaque processes.

Our apathetic (or downright hostile) media has given up on reporting how and why decisions are being taken in Brussels by our Ministers and our MEPs working with their counterparts from other countries. This has allowed successive UK Governments to blame ‘Brussels’ for tough decisions and to take the whole credit for successful EU initiatives.

I don’t entirely blame editors having to make tough choices in these cash-strapped times: covering the EU story costs money; repeating lazy misconceptions and firing off indignant editorials is far cheaper.

But don’t let them fool you into thinking the coming European Parliament election doesn’t matter, or that a UKIP triumph is inevitable or indeed that it might be a desirable outcome, to shake things up or send some sort of message to complacent Westminster elites. A decisive UKIP win would do nothing to help the UK lead on reforms in Europe, but spell disaster for the cause of gender equality at UK and EU level.

The European Union has been promoting equality between men and women since its inception, enshrining the goal of equal pay for men and women in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. A Directive on Equal Pay was finally passed in 1975 to be followed by dozens of other pieces of EU legislation – against discrimination at work or in accessing services, combating violence, sexual harassment and people trafficking, establishing maternity rights and parental leave.

The EU funds national campaigns against gender-based violence and, in the last 7 years, has spent some €3.2 bn in Structural Funds to provide childcare and promote women’s participation in the labour market in Europe’s most economically depressed areas. The EU further promotes gender equality all over the wold with its humanitarian actions and through its trade agreements.

Now contrast this with UKIP’s view of women and their programme.

Their attitude towards women is often described as reminiscent of the 1950s, although my conservative grandfather would have been horrified by their language and sentiments. Women are sluts, who should be seen (cleaning) and not heard; mothers are worthless to employers. And these are not just retired colonels, old fashioned fogeys – the Twitter trolls who tried to silence Women Against UKIP all last week are the party’s tech-savvy young guns, UKIP’s bullish, bullying future.

But worse than their attitudes is their programme, insofar as they can articulate one. Make no mistake: the biggest advantage Nigel Farage sees in the UK withdrawing from Europe is that it would be able to return to the 1950s, not just culturally but also in the law: no maternity leave or labour protection of any kind for the most vulnerable workers, who are often women; a bonfire of health and safety and anti-harassment legislations. This might resonate with chain-smoking pub landlords, (freedom of smoking is championed, by the way; freedom of movement less so), but it sure scares the hell out of me.

Since the 2009 European Election UKIP’s only two female MEPs, Nikki Sinclaire and Marta Andreasen, have both left the party. Andreason said Farage: “doesn’t try to involve intelligent professional women in positions of responsibility in the party. He thinks women should be in the kitchen or in the bedroom”. Nikki Sinclaire won an Employment Tribunal claim for sex discrimination against the party.

Last week we finally saw UKIP’s leader drop the genial ‘chap down the pub’ act when being questioned about his use of EU expenses. Chummy Nigel turned into Snarling Nigel, railing against the media that so far has idolised him for having the cheek of asking him to account for his actions, like any other politician.

Farage’s confusion about EU money not being, somehow, taxpayers’ money tells a bigger story about what you get when you vote for a UKIP candidate to represent you in Europe. Their goal is to destroy Europe, not reform it or make it work in Britain’s favour.

In practice this means that after 22 May, unless we feminists use our vote, even more UKIP MEPs will be flocking to the European Parliament to get their nose in every possible money trough, whilst disrupting sessions with their cheap stunts and insulting speeches, clogging committees, (including the Gender Equality Committee, where so much of the above legislation is dealt with), not voting, not amending, not doing anything at all, and all at our expense, for the next five years.

I happen to believe in the EU project. But even if I didn’t, as a woman and a feminist I can think of few worse fates than having Farage and his braying chums in charge of or able to influence any policies at all, at home or internationally, as my chances of becoming a chain-smoking pub landlord, unconcerned with maternity leave, anti-trafficking laws and all that – what do they call it? red tape – are vanishingly small.

Paola Buonadonna is Media Director for the pro-EU membership campaign British Influence.

Graphic: Sarah Spickernell is a freelance journalist and Interactive Journalism MA student at City University London. She has written for the Financial Times and The Sunday Times, and has a particular interest in women’s rights in the Middle East. Follow her @Sspickernell

Main Image: Rock Cohen

You need to be on the Electoral Register to exercise your right to vote. The deadline to register to vote in the 22 May European and local elections is 6 May. Please visit:
https://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk/register_to_vote/electoral_registration_applica.aspx

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Announcing #GenderWeek, starting 28th April

Gender is one of the most explosive subjects in online feminism.

From so-called “TERF-wars” to gender-based violence, nothing both polarises and solidifies people as much as the subject of gender.

In #GenderWeek we are going to explore the definitions of gender through biology and essentialism, performativity, conditioning and binary/non-binary arguments. We’ve looked at both liberal and radical feminist positions and found much more common ground than you may have previously thought. We investigate whether race theory can and should be used in gender theory, whether class is a foolproof way of analysing gender, and what happens if you replace the word gender with “sex roles”.

As some of history’s greatest feminist thinkers’ work is bounded about Twitter and blogs to back up modern day arguments, we’ve looked into whether the people closest to Andrea Dworkin believe Twitter is corrupting her legacy on the subject. We also look at what’s legal and not in so-called “TERF-warfare”, with a legal analysis into the dark art of “doxing”, words like “TERF”, “cis” and misgendering online.

Of course we could not ignore the fact that the most devastating impact of gender as we know it is gender-based violence. We look at the evidence of endemic gender-based violence and why new trends are pressurising VAWG charities to drop ‘gender’.

Selection of #GenderWeek content.

Published Monday 28th April:

Survey: What is Gender?
Liberal & Radical Feminist definitions of gender: Whats your definition?

Race shatters the idea of a shared female experience
Reni Eddo-Lodge
Why feminists who compare trans women to white cultural appropriators are wrong, and what happens when feminists apply race theory to gender?

Andrea was not transphobic
John Stoltenberg
Andrea Dworkin’s life partner on why she would not have allied herself with any view that furthers “biological superiority”.

Class is to gender what a tube map is to London
Roz Kaveney
Gender as a class system is a useful schematic but it does not show the full terrain of gender.

The delusion of choice
Lynne Segal
Feminism must do more than talk about ‘freedom of choice’.

Male violence against women goes beyond domestic violence
Karen Ingala Smith
The founder of Counting Dead Women on why, when it comes to fatal male violence against women, there’s no such thing as an “isolated incident”.

What about men? The end of women-only charities?
Ruth Wood
Why this domestic violence worker feels the pressure to stop seeing DV as a gendered crime.

Biological sex is not binary
Dr Malin Ah-King
An evolutionary biologist and gender researcher uncovers that many of us may not be XX or XY.

“TERF-war”, online bullying, the dark art of doxing
Julian Norman
A feminist barrister looks at the legality of some of online debate’s most dirty tactics: what is bullying, harassment, name-calling and abuse in the eyes of the law?

Non-binary gender makes me free, not a traitor
CN Lester
Four reasons why gender pluralism is a feminist concept.

Published Tuesday 29th April:

#GenderWeek: Truce! When radical feminists and trans feminists empathise
Dr Finn Mackay & Ruth Pearce
Is it possible to have both trans inclusion and women only space?

Published Wednesday 30th April:

Respectful discussion is possible – Profile: Gender Discussion, a Facebook group.
Ruth Greenberg and Elizabeth Hungerford
What are the group trying to achieve and is it working?

The problem is capitalist-patriarchy socialising boys to be aggressive
Louise Pennington
Rad Fems need women-only space because trauma’s complicated, not because we’re essentialist.

Published Thursday 1st May:

Why are men violent?
Editorial Team
We asked our #GenderWeek contributors to tell us why they think men are so violent and how that affects gender theory.

Published Friday 2nd May:

What is Gender Reader Survey Results

In a change to our normal format we will be publishing the majority of Gender Week content on Monday, with a few additions during the week. We want our readers to see the whole debate at once, with no waiting!

If you have something you think should be included in Gender Week, email us now at editorial@feministtimes.com

Keep up with the debate online at #GenderWeek

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Feminist Toolkit: Free Tampons For All

Picture the scene: you’re going about your day, power walking to work, singing along to your favourite feminist anthem, smashing the patriarchy with every step you take. And then it comes: the familiar wetness between the legs, and you’ve left your stash of tampons at home.

You break it down; you’ve got a few options:
1) Go home and pick up your provisions
2) Buy some more
3) Hang around in the toilet and hope someone armed with menstrual protection comes to your rescue
4) Bleed on yourself, and potentially others

As you’ve already forked out this week to buy the new trousers you’re fashioning today, options 2 and 4 will have to go. Risking being late for work whilst weighing up your shortlist with frustration, you have a light bulb moment.

You realise what’s been missing all this time; wouldn’t it just be great if you could access free tampons in your workplace? You tease out the idea in your head: your place of work won’t fund them and you can’t sustain a communal tampon stash out of your own back pocket. Then you think back to all those times where you’ve been accompanied by an unneeded tampon goldmine in your bag. If there were a collection point for those tampons, never again would a woman like you be stuck in the street weighing up her options.

Taking action, you march home inspired by your revolutionary idea. You wash up last night’s takeaway tub, grab the box of tampons in your draw and a few pads for good measure, rushing to work, pausing only for an instant to plug your own menstrual flow. Arriving at work you tear into the bathroom, ripping apart an old envelope from your desk and securing it onto the tub, scribbling on it a few words about your idea.

You feel elation as you place the tub in the bathroom and stare back at the revolution you have started. The words read: “The Sisterhood of the Slightly Stained Pants: please take a tampon if you are in need, and put one back whenever you have a spare”

DISCLAIMER – this story is not entirely fictional.

UoN Feminists, Nottingham University’s feminist campaign group had a very similar revelation. We call them Tampon Tubs and we want them to empower women by ensuring a ready supply of menstrual protection. We thought it was important that an unexpected period should not impede women in our university, therefore this term we will be placing Tampon Tubs in our Student’s Union building.

One of the best parts of this campaign is that the Sisterhood of the Slightly Stained Pants can be easily built wherever you are. Here is a how to guide to setting up your own:

#1: Find a container: any kind of Tupperware, tub or bowl will do. For best results, choose something plastic and transparent.

#2: Next, label your container explaining the ethos behind the idea. Make sure people know that the sustainability of the system relies upon others replenishing the tub.

#3: Provide an initial supply of tampons and pads. Depending on your outlet, you could gather a group to chip in or secure funding from your Student’s Union, employers, or nearest patriarchal figure.

#4: Place your tub in the toilet in your place of work, school, university, or anywhere else. We recommend this facility for women’s, gender-neutral, unisex and disabled toilets.

#5: Finally, tell everyone about it! Make sure your tubs are known about and used. Share the idea and encourage your friends to do the same. The more Tampon Tubs about, the more women are able to arrange their periods around their lives rather than the other way around!

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I didn’t know how to help until Rumble in the Jumble

The reality of the horrors that rule the lives of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo are unimaginable to most people like you and I. Following independence in 1960 the citizens of this shattered state have existed with civil strife, then civil war; the tensions ever mounting until 1998, when the people found themselves in the midst of the worst international African conflict on record, with reports of three million dead by 2003. The unrest has continued ever since.

The status quo now for many is a quagmire of displacement, bereavement, torture, starvation, rape, abduction, prostitution and abandonment, with no reliable authority to beseech or even bribe for safe passage into fields which for centuries provided sustenance for the people and their ancestors. From the earliest age girls and women are unable to even fetch water without the omnipresent threat of the most violent rape, that terrible weapon wielded with impunity by soldiers and militia at a frequency so alarming it’s impossible to comprehend. How are we to understand this from within the luxury of ours?

Like everyone else I read the news and try to take in as much of the unquantifiable horror occurring around the world each day as possible, and then give pitiful sums of what money I can, but it’s a minor balm against that nagging helplessness – how can I help ease the raging terror of millions of desperate fellow souls?

This desire to empathise and aid, this want to help, defeated by a lack of resources and a feeling of being overwhelmed by the scale of all the calamitous situations around the globe, was broken in a direct way for me with regard to the Democratic Republic of Congo when an email arrived in my inbox two years ago informing me about the Music Circle and its work.

The Music Circle, a subsidiary of Annie Lennox’s The Circle, which was created to assist women in the empowerment of fellow women, was founded in 2011 by PR whizzes Emily Cooper and Laura Martin. The pair brought together a group of key women working in the music industry to gather ideas as to the best way of raising money for and awareness of the devastating situation faced daily by women in the DRC.

One of these ideas turned out to be joining forces with Radio 1’s Gemma Cairney to expand an event that she hosted in 2012 with TV presenter Dawn Porter, as part of Oxfam’s Get Together campaign – the first Rumble in the Jumble. So in 2013, all resources combined, the second Rumble in the Jumble event took place and was attended by hundreds of fantastic women including Gizzi Erskine, Laura Whitmore and Caroline Flack, with items donated by the likes of Damon Albarn, Alison Mosshart and Annie Mac.

Crucially it raised £16,000 to stream into projects organised by NGOs in the war-shredded Democratic Republic of Congo. These projects strive to find ways to protect, shelter and educate; to give the citizens of the DRC as much of a chance as possible to one day have a normal experience perhaps even the tiniest bit akin to ours. One where the gathering of food, fetching of water, the necessities of life can occur without the threat of grave injury.

So, say you were going to have an indulgent Saturday, swipe away that intellectually bettering reading pile, leave the underused trainers lurking in the hall, what might you then choose to do with your afternoon? Take a mate for tea and cake? A bit of vintage shopping? Treat yourself to a manicure? Buy some records, or have a dance to someone else’s?

Well, being able to do all that under one roof would be pretty appealing then, wouldn’t it? Especially if getting stuck in to all those things turned out to also be a way of supporting these women half way round the world in the DRC who are in the direst need imaginable.

That’s what this weekend’s Rumble in the Jumble #3 at London’s Oval Space is all about. It’s a huge pile of fun put on by Radio 1’s Gemma Cairney and The Music Circle, in conjunction with Oxfam, to raise funds for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This Saturday’s event is already promising to top the last in every aspect, from fundraising scope through shopping potential to just all out entertainment. All you need to do is show up with £3 and a bag of your own under loved jumble, and you can peruse stalls hosted by Cherry Healey, Elizabeth Sankey (Summer Camp), Gaggle and Mixmag to name but a few; keeping a sharp eye out for celebrity jumble swag donated by Goldfrapp, Jessie Ware, David Gandy, Arcade Fire, Anna Calvi, Lauren Laverne and many more.

This year a host of fashion, culture and music brands have also donated brand new items including: Whistles, Dr Martens, ASOS, SONOS, VICE, Marshall Amps, Warp Records, L’Oreal, Dazed & Confused and Black Dog Publishing. Once you’ve bagged yourself a new outfit and topped up the record collection, you can spruce yourself up at the Smashbox Cosmetics and Bumble & Bumble Hair stalls before tucking into a tasty stew provided by Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa, or tea and cake from Drink Shop & Do, before a glass of prosecco to get you primed, or a little dance to one of the brilliant DJ sets that will be sound-tracking the day.

And vitally, whilst enjoying all these things that are equally as unimaginable to those you are raising funds to aid as the realities of their lives are to us, you will be part of an event that will go some way to securing the safety of these women who live with the constant threat of forced displacement, sexual violence, abduction and extortion. There really couldn’t be a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon now, could there?

Facebook Event HERE.

rumble5

Suze Olbrich is a freelance writer, video producer, promoter, manager and member of the Music Circle. Follow her @suzeolbrich

The Music Circle is a group of women from the music industry who are aiming to raise £50,000 for Oxfam’s work with women in Eastern DRC. Follow @themusic_circle

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The forgotten women of Kalamazoo

In 1942 Glenn Miller’s I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo swung its way to the top of the Hit Parade charts for eight weeks. One year earlier, a surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy at Pearl Harbour had dragged America into war, stealing its men overnight like a hypnagogic hallucination. At the same time an extraordinary group of women walked quietly through the doors of 225 Parsons Street, Kalamazoo, Michigan. Their mission: to build wartime Gibson guitars.

Glenn Miller wasn’t the only one who had a gal in Kalamazoo. During the years 1942-45, Gibson Guitar Corporation had several. As is the case with many a clandestine affair, their existence has long since been deleted and rewritten from the Gibson history books, their fingerprints and handiwork polished away with a J-cloth. As quietly as they entered the Gibson factory in January 1942, they disappeared again.

John Thomas’ personal quest to find the lost Kalamazoo gals is endearingly told in Kalamazoo Gals: A story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII. This is not just one story but many; finally giving these women their voice, to talk about the guitars they made for a manufacturer that denied they ever existed.

Why the cover-up? We never quite find out. The Kalamazoo women produced nearly 25,000 guitars during World War II yet Gibson denied ever building instruments over this period. Their ads in 1945 even welcomed a ‘new world’ where guitars would be ‘available again’. Gibson folklore eradicated their gals from history, claiming only “seasoned craftsmen” too old for war were carrying out repairs. In reality, women such as Jenny Snow, Velura Wood, Mary Jane Dowels and Ruth Stap populated the work benches, creating refined Banner Gibsons from rationed materials. No mean feat.

As the women vanished in 1945, returning to their children, kitchens and marriages, the Banner Gibsons vanished too. These guitars are unequivocally strapped to the women who made them, with the slogan “Only a Gibson is Good Enough” on the golden banners of the guitar headstocks. “There it would reside for four short years, to disappear sometime in 1945, not again to be seen until the Gibson Company produced reissues in the 1990s of the guitars that many players and collectors contend represent Gibson’s zenith.” And this is what makes John Thomas’ book all the more vital; the Kalamazoo Girls created some of the best guitars in Gibson’s history.

This book is their story, their lives, in their modest words. None consider their work extraordinary. Most shrug themselves off the page that frames them, undermining their contribution as unskilled. 84-year-old Jenny Snow who can uncoil and recoil Gibson mona-steel string in a blink of an eye; Velura Wood who inspected every single Banner flattop guitar during the years 1943-46; frail Mary Jane Dowels, now 80, who back in 1944 “did those fancy ones, you know. The L-5s and Super 400s. I could bind 26 or 27 headstocks in a day.” And then there’s Ruth Stap, who inlaid the Gibsons with mother of pearl. Around her neck is a wooden heart she made in the Gibson factory with five mother of pearl stars. Each star represents one of her brothers: “One for each of my brothers who was in the war. I wore it every day of the war and, you know what? All of my brothers made it back.”

What makes each tale bittersweet is their brevity. As one Gibson gal, Delores, sums up for the group: “My husband got out of the service in 1946 and I became a homemaker”. They loved to work. Like most of us, they loved getting paid even more, but when the time came the same modesty that underpinned their talent, underpinned their willingness to leave as quickly as they arrived without complaint or protestation.

All we’re left with is this one sincere testament to their story, told 70 years after both the Banners and their Kalamazoo gals disappeared, just like Glenn Miller, whose aircraft vanished without trace only a few months earlier in 1944 somewhere over the English Channel. Miller himself once declared: “America means freedom and there’s no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music”. How true that was, and will always be, for the extraordinary Banner women of Kalamazoo.

Competition

We’re offering Feminist Times members the chance to win a copy of Kalamazoo Gals: A story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII, signed by author John Thomas.

Enter your details here and we’ll select one winner at random at 5pm tomorrow, Thursday 24 April. Please enter the email address you used to sign up as a member; only entries made by current Feminist Times members will be counted. If you are not yet a member, or your membership has expired, click here to join us.

Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor of Feminist Times. She is a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.

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Sisterhood & After: Listen to Fifty Years of Feminism

Tonight the East London Fawcett Society is holding a debate on the legacy of feminist campaigners from the Second Wave, 50 Years of Feminism. This event, chaired by the Southbank’s Jude Kelly, has been inspired by and is being held in partnership with The British Library’s new feminist oral history project, Sisterhood and After: An Oral History of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Panelists include Melissa Benn, Beatrix Campbell, Laura Bates and Lesley Abdela.

To coincide with this event, The British Library has selected three of the more than 150 recordings to share with Feminist Times readers. These recordings and their transcripts, as well as the rest of the archive, are available online on the British Library’s ‘Sisterhood & After’ website. Listen to them below.

Sisterhood & After is a unique oral history archive depicting the stories of the women involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement, launched on 8 March last year by the British Library, in partnership with the University of Sussex and The Women’s Library.

From Spare Rib to Greenham Common, the Southhall Black Sisters to the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights’ movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s transformed the lives of men and women and shaped the world we live in today. This oral history archive brings together the diverse experiences of the women involved in this movement for the first time, including issues ranging from reproductive rights, equality, independence to marriage and sexual rights. Over 350 hours of unedited recordings from the archive are available in the reading rooms of the British Library, and highlights from the archive, including edited clips, video and contextual information are available online.

The project was developed over the last four years in response to a demand from the activists themselves, who felt their stories had never been recorded in full before. Participants include well-known figures such as Susie Orbach and Jenni Murray as well as lesser known stories, such as Una Kroll, a former doctor, nun and campaigner for women’s right to be priests; Rowena Arshad, a trade union activist who co-organised a pioneering black women’s refuge in Scotland; Betty Cook, a miner’s wife who became politicised during the miner strike forming ‘Women Against Pit Closures’; and women involved in campaigns such as the Miss World protest, the Grunwick Strike, Reclaim the Night, the Equal Pay Act and many more.

Pragna Patel describing her involvement in Southall Black Sisters

Pragna Patel is the founder and Director of Southall Black Sisters Centre (SBS). SBS is, a multi-award-winning women’s organisation founded in 1979 to address the needs of black and minority women experiencing gender violence. It successfully campaigned for the release of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a landmark case in which an Asian woman was convicted of the murder of her violent husband. The case reformed homicide law, creating greater awareness within and outside minority communities. Pragna is also a co-founder of Women Against Fundamentalism.

Pragna Patel interviewed by Rachel Cohen, C1420/18 © The British Library and The University of Sussex

Karen McMinn describing violence against women in the context of the Northern Irish conflict

Karen McMinn (born 1956) joined Belfast Women’s Aid in 1977 and was involved in the Free Noreen Winchester Campaign in 1978. As Director of Northern Ireland Women’s Aid 1981-1996, she played a key role within the women’s movement in raising the issue of violence against women and women’s social and political empowerment during a period of intense political violent conflict in Northern Ireland. Karen now works as an independent consultant focusing on issues of gender inequality and marginalisation within post conflict societies.

Karen McMinn interviewed by Rachel Cohen, C1420/26 © The British Library and The University of Sussex

Ursula Owen talking about setting up Virago and the way it was received

Ursula Owen is a publisher and editor. She was a founder director of Virago Press, which published many remarkable women writers, including Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Rebecca West and Mary Chamberlain, and recovered many out-of-print writers, including Willa Cather, Rosamund Lehmann, and Isabella Bird. She worked at Virago for seventeen years from l974 as editorial director and then joint managing director; she was chief executive of Index on Censorship, the magazine for free expression, from l993 – 2006, and founder of the Free Word Centre for literature, literacy and free expression.

Ursula Owen interviewed by Rachel Cohen, C1420/36 © The British Library and The University of Sussex

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What is Feminism? banner

Janet Sparks: Feminism is…

Name: Janet Sparks

Age: 51

Location: Salisbury, Wiltshire

Bio: Married working mother of 2 sons at University

Feminism is making your own choices.

Email your response to the question “what is feminism?” (in no more than 200 words) to editorial@feministtimes.com, with your name, age, location, a one-sentence bio and a photo of yourself.

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You don’t only get photographed when you’re eating

On Monday lunchtime women protested the now infamous blog Women Who Eat on Tubes by topping up their Oysters and having a good old munch on the Circle Line. This just after the founder of WWEOT Tony Burke made a toe curling appearance on the Today Program, when he tried to claim the project is some form of high art, an “observational study”, “something artistic”.

Tony’s day job is in advertising, so it’s really no surprise that he would consider something sexist, creepy and yet also banal as being very artistic and creative. No offense to those making a hard-earned-living in advertising; I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you either.

But while he was promoting himself as one of London’s biggest morons I was genuinely surprised at how much attention his project was getting when his blog is really a pin prick, and I emphasise the word ‘pin’, because a pin is very very small and would be completely lost in the internet haystack that are “creep shots”.

Creep shots are so common on public transport that even I, someone who avoids the tube as much as I can, have seen two men take pictures of women’s cleavages on the underground. The first time I was struck dumb in shock; the second time I saw the man take the picture from an adjoining carriage, and when I knocked on the window to tell him to stop he ran. I’m not quite sure what I’d do if I saw it happen for a third time. Stand up and shout “he’s taking a picture of your breasts”? Tell him he’s gross? Perform a citizen’s arrest?

Just like WWEOT there are creep shot Tumblrs, but google #creepshot and you should get a pretty good idea of how endemic this is – just put it into the search bar in Twitter now. Many of the photos are taken in restaurants, supermarkets, on the beach. Women and girls bending over, sunbathing, photos taken from under tables.

Here’s the rub. It’s technically legal to photograph someone without their consent, and of course it’s in our interest to be able to take photos of strangers in public places. It means taking pictures at the Great Wall of China, Eiffel Tower or other packed places we want to take pictures of, which are full of tourists, is not going to land us in court. It also means reporters can go to war zones and disaster scenes or places of public interest and document; something Burke alluded his project did.

Of course Burke’s project was no more serious documentation than Viz is a serious issue-based magazine, no matter if some photography student somewhere is writing a very convincing dissertation on how Burke is the new Nicholas Nixon, or the 21st Century Corinne Day, or the eating woman’s Terry Richardson.

For all of us in the real world, we just want to go about our lives feeling safe and secure whether sitting on public transport or grabbing a cup of tea in our local cafe. We deserve a legal framework that protects our privacy from the whims of the “Creatives” theoretical justification, the shaming or documenting of us as grotesque subjects or, whats more likely, protect us from a weirdo’s wank bank. No such luck.

Last month a judge in Massachusetts ruled that ‘upskirt’ photos taken without consent are NOT illegal so long as the victim is wearing knickers. And there we have it. Carte. Blanche.

Here in the UK, the law asks whether a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. So readers, do you have an expectation of privacy on the tube, bus or train? Do you not expect to have your bottom photographed when picking up something your toddler has dropped in the supermarket? Do you expect people to photograph up your skirt whether or not you’re wearing knickers? And is that reasonable?

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Radical Agony Aunts: “I don’t respect my passive boyfriend”

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

My dilemma is that I am a total hypocrite when it comes to what I seemingly want from a partner. I find men who match certain gendered roles set aside for men attractive; I find physically brawny men attractive, men who are good at DIY, who can find their way about, who are smart, confident, competent and will debate etc.

I have a very lovely and sweet and feminist boyfriend (who is also gorgeous), yet I sometimes don’t respect him because he can be quite passive and doesn’t really participate in debates, so sometimes I wonder if he is smart enough for me. I can be quite dismissive of him and can accuse him of being a bit useless. He isn’t physically muscley and doesn’t do DIY and is crap at reading maps, doesn’t make decisions quickly, so I feel I have to take control ALL of the time and sometimes that is tiresome. I am a strong personality and I am definitely the dominant partner in the relationship and it saddens and worries me that I don’t respect him because of this.

I should be happy that he doesn’t expect me to do the cooking, shopping and cleaning, or expect that it should automatically be him that drives etc. I would be maddened by an alpha male who expected me to follow gender roles assigned to me as a woman – the nurturing little wifey etc. so as much as I know I am being totally hypocritical I can’t help it. How can I stop being a hypocrite and also stop being a bit of a bully to him? Why do I have this internal need for him to be smarter than me for me to respect him?

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Strong Personality,

So let me get this straight: you don’t respect your boyfriend, you feel he isn’t smart enough for you, you tell him he’s useless, you’re dismissive of him and you are more attracted to his complete opposite in terms of personality and physical type. Believe me, these are not words I say very often – but poor man!

But you know you’re treating him badly; that’s why you’ve written to us. Of course relationships have their ups and downs, and things may get better between you. But when you stop respecting someone, as you say you have, it’s a big deal. If you look at your partner and find your lip curling instead of your heart swelling, is there a way forward? I can’t tell from your letter whether your boyfriend has changed or whether he was never your type. Either way, are DIY and map reading really so important to you? Or are you (and I apologise for the phrase) just not that into him and looking for any reason why he’s not right for you? I think you need to consider whether the two of you have a future.

Like you, I’ve been out with men who looked good on paper – right-on types who wouldn’t hurt a fly, nice to their mums, good listeners, eager to please. In principle, my ideal men. In theory, a perfect match. In practice, kinda boring. We agreed on everything – but how was I going to develop my own thinking and my own view of the world without anyone challenging my opinions? Being with a good listener is great, but if we can’t learn from each other it’s bound to feel sterile. It’s a hard lesson that no amount of “looks good on paper” or 90% match from a computer algorithm is a guarantee that there will be a spark.

You give a pretty detailed description of the kind of man you find attractive, so I’m wondering if you’ve already met someone else who fits your ideal profile. You ask if it’s possible to hold feminist views and still be attracted to alpha male types. My very definite answer is: well, that all depends. If someone is an alpha sexually and that’s what you’re after, then of course – we are excited by what excites us, politics or no politics. The same goes for decisive personalities.

However if  someone’s view of alpha is insisting we play traditional female roles in everyday life, regardless of our own needs and desires, then we have to accept that they are a hindrance to us leading a feminist life and make our choices accordingly. That may be something you have to negotiate in a future partnership.

You use the word hypocrite three times in your letter and it’s a harsh word to use about yourself. I wouldn’t call you a hypocrite. But it is heartless to keep your boyfriend around when you seem to despise him, and it’s doing you no good either. If you really can’t respect who he is, then you need to take action. It’s nice when someone else takes responsibility for decisions, but sometimes you’ve just got to Do It Yourself.

Personal agony aunt

Political agony aunt

Dear Strong Personality,

Your question comes from the heart, and the sincerity in the expression of a deeply felt quandary is irrefutable. But when you ask how you can stop being a “hypocrite,” you introduce a term that is deeply unsuitable to the complexities of human relationships, especially sexual and romantic ones. Posed in such terms, the answer is simple: either change your desire or change your boyfriend.

The framing of your question, however, makes it difficult for the first to happen anytime soon. You talk about your desires as if they exist independently of you – as if such desires and tendencies had been offloaded onto your person, and could not be removed from you without some fundamental loss of personality. But to think about desires in such terms is to abstract them from the real situations and relations in which they develop and are expressed.

Even your self is presented here as if it were another person, fully formed and implacable. “I”, in your letter, operates almost in the third person. The same goes for the qualities that you attribute to your partner. You wonder if he “is” smart enough for you. But intelligence, so conceived, is an abstraction; and so is the lack of it. Intelligence arises in situations, and situations either release or stultify it. If desire could be so easily satisfied by items on a checklist (brawny, good at DIY, smart, confident, competent, good debater, etc.) then you ought to have no trouble upgrading. But we are not consumers when it comes to romance and love; desire is not so satisfiable.

You may not be attracted to your boyfriend. However, I don’t think this is due to his inability to read a map, or his lack of muscles. The negative checklist (passivity, lack of debating skills, indecisiveness) is as implausible as the positive one.

What would happen if you reconceptualise your boyfriend’s passivity as a form of agency, one that has developed over many years, and that has led him to his current situation of being partnered with a “strong” personality? Could you try to understand his map-reading incompetence, similarly, as a capacity – a decision taken early in life, in a specific situation, to organise the mind around one set of coordinates (for example, temporal ones) rather than another (spatial)? What happens if you approach his refusal to debate as motivated by intelligence rather than its absence?

Email your questions and dilemmas to agony@feministtimes.com

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The Daily Fail doth protest too much

Yesterday UN Rapporteur Rashida Manjoo raised concerns about the UK’s portrayal of women and girls in the media saying the UK had a “boys’ club sexist culture“. Ms Manjoo also criticised cuts to services and called for more work to be done in schools. The expert in violence against women and girls commented that “negative and over-sexualised portrayals of women” in the UK media led, in some cases, to the “marketisation of their bodies”.

The “marketisation” of women’s bodies eh? Cue the Daily Fail…

dailyfailfeat

In some kind of patriotic tit for tat the Maily Pail took umbrage that a South African should dare to criticise anything about the UK while their “native” country is “the rape capital of the world”. This just two hours after publishing a story about Myleene Klasse enjoying a lovely break in a “sun soaked trip” to the country.

The newspaper showed uncharacteristic concern for not only the women of South Africa but Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Papa New Guinea, and went on to show off that the UK came 18th out of 136 countries in being “most equal”. Would that they were the 18th most read paper in the UK, but I’m sure coming 18th wouldn’t feel that good for a business.

The only woman they could find to comment on the new story was Edwina Currie. “Most of the women I know like living here” she said, convincingly.

But the real stars at the Faily Dail are the readers:

expertsized

Is “Brigante7” from Edinburgh a disgruntled former academic colleague of Professor Manjoo, we wonder?

What makes Manjoo an expert? Oh, we don’t know! Her impressive CV? The UN? Perhaps the fact she is Professor in the Department of Public Law of the University of Cape Town, former Parliamentary commissioner of the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) in South Africa, Visiting Professor at University of Virginia & Webster University in the US and an Eleanor Roosevelt Fellow with the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School?

lookslikefeministsized

True.

Then Hobart’s “Henry Porter” lets the side down by saying something fairly sensible, provoking the wrath of 689 angry Naily Bail readers who furiously battered their cursors on the “dislike” button.

sensiblesize

Shame on you Waily Tail.

Read the End Violence Against Women Coalition’s response to Manjoo’s comments here.

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EVAW welcomes UN expert’s comments on UK’s ‘sexist culture’

The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, yesterday described Britain as having a “boys’ club sexist culture”. The End Violence Against Women (EVAW) Coalition respond to her remarks.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition today (15 April) today welcomed the recommendations made to the Government by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Ms Rashida Manjoo at the end of her two-week mission to the UK.

EVAW Coalition Co-Director Liz McKean said:

“Ms Manjoo is a renowned global expert on violence against women and girls and the UK is fortunate to have had her visit and make an assessment of our progress in this area.

“The EVAW Coalition notes that while Ms Manjoo recognised good progress in the UK in terms of action plans and some new domestic violence protections, overall violence against women and girls remains “pervasive” here and that work to prevent it is only “isolated pockets”. We warmly welcome her recommendation that work currently carried out by the Home Office on tackling abuse in teenage relationships – the thisisabuse campaign – should be extended to schools.

“Ms Manjoo is very clear that the so-called austerity cuts are having a devastating impact on the women-run services which protect and support women leaving or at risk of violence, and especially those for BME women. We support her recommendation that there must be safeguards to ensure women’s human rights to protection are guaranteed. We also hope the Government will heed her remarks about ‘gender neutrality’ creeping into policy and service delivery and the impact this is already having.

“Ms Manjoo is clear that legal aid cuts are reducing women’s access to justice. EVAW members have reported that the legal aid cuts are leaving some women experiencing domestic violence without access to legal aid – and in some cases they are having to represent themselves in court and face their abusers. We urge the government to listen to the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur and speak to expert women’s organisations to find a remedy to this situation.

“The EVAW Coalition is very disappointed that Ms Manjoo’s requests to visit Yarls Wood detention centre were denied by the Government. The UK would be among the first to criticise a foreign government which denied access to a Special Rapporteur. Jamaican woman Christine Case recently died at the facility and an investigation is ongoing. Women’s organisations are very worried about multiple reported abuses at the site. We urge the Government to talk to women’s groups about urgent changes to the detention regime there.

“Ms Manjoo’s comments that violence against women cannot be successfully challenged unless it is seated within work to improve women’s equality and freedom overall are a welcome reminder to policy makers that abuse of women and girls cannot be tackled alone as some perceived corner of the crime agenda. Women are abused because they lack equality with men, and once subject to abuse find it harder to become free and equal. Her comments on the way different women experience racism, poverty and disability as well as gender-based violence need to inform all work in this area.

“And finally, we welcome the Special Rapporteur’s observation that as a society we are happy to blame “culture” when some women and girls are subject to forced marriage and FGM for example, but we refuse to take on an ever more “sexualised” media culture which upholds sexist rape myths and harms women. Media and culture are areas where clear policy to prevent abuse of women and girls is needed. We hope to see a response to this soon.

“The EVAW Coalition hopes that this spotlight on current UK work to end violence against women and girls will be used by all the political parties to develop better, more effective, more concerted commitments to end abuse in our lifetimes. As local and general elections loom, and as women’s rights activists are again very visible on the political and social scene, let’s hope we see a real offer to women and the whole community that everything possible will be done to eliminate violence against women and girls.”

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What is Feminism? banner

Hannah Wheatley: Feminism is…

Name: Hannah Wheatley

Age: 20

Location: Melbourne

Bio: Politics student at the University of Warwick, currently on exchange at Monash University in Melbourne

Feminism is refusing to accept the biological essentialist argument that has dictated sex roles for years across the globe. It affects men and women and those who do not identify with either gender because it puts parameters and borders on the ways in which we all experience life. Women can… women wouldn’t… men are… men shouldn’t, and worst of all ‘real women/men don’t _____’. Biological determinism states that we are born with innate biological predispositions to act in certain ways but the science used to back up claims such as ‘testosterone causes men to be more aggressive’ is inconclusive and often used in misleading ways. Feminism argues that there is clear evidence that our behaviour and thought is in fact influenced by a plethora of social, cultural and historical factors. Because Feminism sees gender as a product of these factors, it asserts that changing practices will change attitudes and thus it can be seen as a liberating tool for change.

Email your response to the question “what is feminism?” (in no more than 200 words) to editorial@feministtimes.com, with your name, age, location, a one-sentence bio and a photo of yourself.

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Happy fatties are erased from the media

I’m no stranger to the press; I’m part of that MySpace generation of yesteryear – self-generating PR mongers that are not afraid to speak their mind. I can be gobby, or what some might call outspoken, so when it comes to getting some column inches to promote my projects I know I can dive into my black book and pull in some favours. But, no matter how much I try, this year one project has been left in the dark – Hamburger Queen.

For the past four years I’ve been running an annual beauty pageant and talent show for fat people – Hamburger Queen. The premise is simple; to celebrate body diversity and encourage fat liberation – it goes against the grain and challenges the myth that fat people are unhappy. With a mainstream media obsessed with obesity you might have thought a project like this would receive a lot of attention. Wrong.

After three rounds of press releases, a press launch in London’s favourite burger bar, endless phone calls, Skype calls, tweets to journalists and some PR support from a couple of noted publicists, I find myself with nothing to show for it apart from a late night appearance on BBC London.

Some journalists respond with: “Thanks, we’ll see what we can do”; others don’t bother responding. Some have said they don’t “do” obesity; the dickheads amongst them say: “it’s a bit off brand for us.” The brave ones call and tell me: “We’d love to but we can’t be seen to promote obesity.” How would giving a balanced argument be “promoting obesity”? Is it healthier to have a press that endorses yoyo dieting and the objectification of women?

Numerous TV companies have flirted with the idea of putting Hamburger Queen on the box but every one of them ends up pulling that weird, sympathetic, half-smile face and saying: “we don’t think it’ll get commissioned”. Some have even gone as far as saying it would needed to be hosted by someone like Gok Wan – Gok Wan? The man who hides women’s bodies using fruit – I am not an apple, I’m a bloody human!

On the face of it, this might sound like I’m moaning because I’m not getting enough attention and that might be true if I was trying to flog a solo show, but Hamburger Queen is about girls who work in call centres feeling liberated about their bodies whatever their size. It’s about size acceptance, throwing new ideas of beauty into the arena and I want the world to take notice. I want women across the globe to know there is a movement that embraces their flabby thighs.

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Hamburger Queen is also about trying to reach those women who are yet to stick two fingers up to the Dove advertising, weight watching, circle of shame culture. To do this I need to reach beyond my audience and those of the lovely readers of lefty liberal blogs.

I took my frustration to Facebook and asked my Like-ers to spread the word, to help me reach those women in hard to reach places (like Surbition). 30 shares later and I’m still struggling to reach those women.

Evidently the mainstream media want to perpetuate a culture of negative attitudes towards obesity and leave those liberated from their BMI outside of their safe values.

Maybe Hamburger Queen is ahead of its time in newspaper land but, with an NHS allegedly on its knees because of fat people, and the public’s continued reaction to having to sit next to a fat person on the bus, I’d say that socially this project is bang on time.

I put my head above the parapet and failed somewhat. I’m OK with that; failure might teach me a thing or two but I won’t die quietly because I know the message is important.

Fuck the press and their beige, pashmina wearing, shortsighted editors. I’m asking you, brilliant Feminist Times reading radicals to spread the word – if not about Hamburger Queen then about your own version of body diversity and empowerment. Take to Twitter and force yourself on to Facebook – this is a call to arms. We will not be silenced be a mainstream media afraid of “promoting obesity”.

Scottee is a performer, artist, broadcaster and director. Hamburger Queen is on from 3-24 April. For more details see: hamburgerqueen.co.uk or follow @ScotteeScottee

Photos: Holly Revell

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Becoming Advertising

Like most free to access online entities we have explored the various options for monetisation, some more appealing than others. We’ve narrowed it down to three – sneaky ads, straight forward ads or a pop up feminist cat café.

Straightforward, olden day advertising was the line of least resistance but how would this play with our friends and supporters? I asked an unscientific sample – few were anti-advertising and some, surprisingly, were rabidly pro. One asked: “Why are you against advertising? Do you want to live in a Maoist state?”

Then I remembered, I’ve always loved the ads! They were the incidental music of my seventies childhood. My mum used to turn the telly off when they were on, but my brother and I preferred the ads to the programmes.

This early exposure to gender stereotyping didn’t Sindyise me as my mother feared. I kept telling her – you don’t turn into Charlie Girl or Shake n Vac woman from watching the ads. My brother and I were ad aficionados, not dupes or ironists. We didn’t buy into them or think ourselves superior to the ads or the people who were impelled to spend their hard earned money on Sure for Men or Ultrabrite.

I don’t feel as fondly about eighties advertising. The ads of that period were blunt instruments; “intimately terroristic” like Charles Saatchi and not as good or clever as everyone remembers. They were uber confident but as repetitive and ineffective as a coke addicted city boy.

When I got older I enjoyed ‘decoding’ ads in the manner of structural theorists like Judith Williamson, rather than reinterpreting them. Do people still do this? Are the ads a window on the world anymore? I’m less interested in specific ads these days than the modern malady of marketing which is constantly pushing the boundaries and overstepping the mark. Advertising is not OK when it’s delivered intravenously to children or women postpartum.

I pictured the ads in Fem T in a clearly circumscribed space that couldn’t be confused with editorial. We ruled out sneaky ads and sponsored content because we felt they broke the bond of trust we have built up with our readership. With a clear conscience, we started costing the redesign of the website and finding an ad salesperson to sell, sell sell the Fem T concept to ethical brands. (This wouldn’t take very long – the list was very short.)

The fabulously attired ad salesman on the Modern Review managed to convince a range of high end brands it was going to be a cross between the New Yorker and American Esquire in it’s heyday. They were bitterly disappointed, understandably, when issue one of Marxist Feminist monthly hit the stands.

This time round, if I sold my soul, I wouldn’t get anything for it. We were reliably informed that the revenue from banner ads would be unlikely to cover the cost of redesigning the website; the model that we’d given so much thought to was declared a busted flush by a range of media professionals. Sneaky advertising is the only game in town, unfortunately. Nativ