The F word is flourishing

By Eva Cox

The Opera House Foyer was packed with women on the 4th of March. It was a serious mix of older and younger, as we moved into the theatre to fill the seats for three sessions of feminism: Naomi Wolf, then Germaine Greer, followed by a panel with Clem Bastow and Eliza Griswold added. The sessions sold separately but by the day, all three were just about booked out. Who said feminism was dead?

Feminism seems to be on an upswing, despite the often gloomy predictions of its demise or its lack of current relevance. If 2000 plus, mainly women, were interested enough to spend a Sunday afternoon on the F word, for up to 5 hours, this is engagement not just curiosity. The range was surprisingly broad, not just the usual suspects, but many young women, including some with their mothers! There was a buzz of pleasure and excitement that is rare in these disillusioning political days.

The speakers reflected some of the age range: from Clem, not yet 30, to Germaine, an early agenda setter with the 1969 publication of the Female Eunuch. Now over seventy, she is still feisty, outrageous and often a superb performer. Naomi Wolf and Eliza Griswold came in between and offered their differing American viewpoints: one the celebrity writer, the other working as a foreign correspondent.

Looking at the view put in timeline, some of the present tensions and confusions seemed almost insignificant. Greer started with her statement that she had never been an ‘equality feminist’, harking back to the seventies’ view that our version was too seriously radical for the term feminism, so we chose to call our movement Women’s Liberation. I was part of those debates and agree we were not about sharing men’s privileges and wanting to be equals on their terms but about changing the world’s priorities and values to include in the public sphere all those areas that men preferred to remain private and powerless.

We argued then that the vote and other equal rights gains had done little to shift the hold of patriarchy. Liberation would upend the social to make women citizens in our own right. Feminism she stated was about life and death, not seats on a Board. I remember the push to put so called women’s interests’ onto the main political agendas. She made it very clear both during her solo performance and membership of the panel that women’s liberation was so much more than joining men in their power positions.

Naomi Wolf seemed to me to be, too often, an unfortunate reminder of why the next generation, the often ill-defined third wave, lacked the power of earlier feminisms. Born in 1962, her Beauty Myth was a key text in the 90’s shift to more emphasis on women’s physicality and victimhood, and less attention on more radial social change. She is obviously looking for a new approach and is trying to meld some elements of the Occupy movement and feminism. She tended to lose the audience when she tried to redefine the latter as just part of the wider enlightenment movement that moved western thought from feudalism. The result was a muddled mix of Mary Wollstonecraft, Tom Paine and the American constitution. She also got into trouble for facile comments on cross-cultural universalities, female genital mutilation and arguments about imperialism, as neither Germaine nor Eliza tended to support her views.

At the end of the panel session she clearly stated that women’s liberation had barely begun and we had a lot of work still to do to define freedom and to decide what is socially determined and what is in the nature of women. Her approach throughout was not about what we had done but whether we had really started the process of serious change, ergo what still remained to be done.

As a guide for where to from here, the messages were fairly diverse. Some points made by Germaine and supported by others on the panel, also caught the audience’s attention. One point she raised, which caused a murmur of support from panellists and audience, also intrigued me. She raised the need to acknowledge widespread misogyny in women, both in the ways we see ourselves and how we treat other women. We rarely discuss why women seem to judge themselves and others very harshly, or whether this is responsible for the widespread lack of self-confidence that most women demonstrate. Too often self-doubt both reduces women’s capacities to make a difference and the risk taking necessary to push change. Is this a hidden factor in working out where to from here?

Just after this was raised, I asked a question on how we could translate the crowd in the Opera House into wider political action. Could we retrieve the idea of making personal issues collectively political rather than individuals dealing with the political, personally?

If you would like to get involved in shaping a feminist future, the F Collective is holding an event in April to discuss ‘where to from here?’. You can check out details on our events page

Germaine’s suggestion to join the Country Women’s Association was a reminder that this is probably our biggest women’s organisation (25,000 strong) and making political moves on environmental issues. Can we still attract overtly feminist activists to forms of collective change?

At the end Germaine reminded us that the women at Greenham Common, who camped outside a missile site for a very long time, had a slogan ‘protecting life on earth’. She suggested this was a good set of words to use. Maybe, I thought, but let’s make sure that that life is truly gender fair.

4 Responses to “The F word is flourishing”
  1. DV Diary says:

    Glad to see Eva following up her call to action from the Opera House session. I was following the discussion on twitter from home and I was keen to find out if there was any follow up. My friend and I will most likely attend on April 2 with interest. To me the most important issue is violence against women. Look forward to finding out more about the F collective.

  2. Looking forward to seeing you there! Have you been involved in activism on violence against women before?

  3. Keryn Curtis says:

    I was one of those mothers there with her daughter, nearly 18 and a big bunch of women. My daughter loved the whole experience but at the end said, but I still don’t really understand what I can DO from here? What’s the take-home message for me and other young women? she said. Will bring her along on 2 April.

  4. Christine Says Hi says:

    A great report, thank you for posting this. I watched the panel section of the day online and found it interesting. Hearing first hand adds much to the picture!

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