FEMINISM IN 2018: it is tangible

When I wrote, ‘Feminism in 2017: A Wake Up Call’, it felt that the world was in rapid decline. I knew it had never been in great shape, but fundamental achievements that had been hard-won were being cast aside, hastily, and in ways that were disorienting. It felt that a curtain, behind which a bunch of nasty stuff lay, had been ripped away, and there was nowhere to hide a festering mess. Maybe I had known this mess had always been there, growing, but I had been able to select when to take a peek.

 I was reliant on others to deal with issues, whether or not they directly impacted me. Despite occasional discontent, I believed things could not get ‘too’ terrible before righting themselves. Right themselves? What part of looking at the world, and its history, made me believe that to be true? Behind that curtain, there had always been individuals fighting, particularly members of other vulnerable groups and their allies that could not swing back and forth that curtain. I had been reliant on these individual to bring issues into stark relief for myself.

Yet, finally seeing the mess in full view brought with it the need for self-reliance. In particular, troves of other women were recognising that the world’s shape is based on they, themselves, caring about themselves – not on complacency. The recognition of the importance of action, contribution, and involvement was 2017. You did not have to be a tidal wave to do something or share something. And that added up. 2017 tested the water for new stories, and then individual experiences flooded in, and, importantly, were shared by others who may or may not have lived a similar reality.

We are now seeing the impact this is having in 2018.

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Do dark times always lead to renaissance?

The magic born of dark moments is being breathed into 2018. While meaningful stories are often born out of an injustice, or worse, stories have a purpose: they are helping myself, and many others, understand more fully lived experiences. Instead of feeling queasy or helpless or looking away, I have been made ready to digest these stories, and to try to live them.

Our lived experience is something we all possess, and can contribute to this marked revival in the intertwined nature of human fates.

We can remember and remind of personal or historical occurrences, and we can bring that into our own lived experience. Yet, we cannot do that if we think the past speaks for itself, or, so too, if we think the same of the present. That is what there clearly was a lack of when we descended into madness. We were made aware, if we had been so lucky to dismiss or had not listened closely enough, that the madness was always there.

My resentment following the undermining of rights (women’s and that of many other – intersecting – groups), at the close of 2016 was not so much to do with the people who I knew in their heart of hearts were full of dangerous ideas about how power should dictate people’s experiences. Rather, it emerged from my knowledge of the people I spoke with that did not know how horribly destructive their lack of awareness was to the democracy.

In parallel, it took a repulsive acknowledgement on my part that, as much as I had studied these issues and had made myself aware of the problems going on all over the globe, in the past I had the luxury of being able to look away, pass the buck, or, at the very most, do the very least to raise awareness about an issue. I shied away from taking too strong of opinions, making an effort at engagement, and, rather, let the knowledge that I could only effect small change – change which would not solve the whole issue – decide that what I did, or did not do, really did not matter.

But honesty is powerful.

However, the notion of sharing one’s voice and divulging self-reflective insights about one’s experiences can, at best, seem superfluous, and, at worst, make one feel incredibly vulnerable. And if it is the latter, so too can it make one feel incredibly pressured to get things perfect the first go when explaining an experience of impact (that, more often than not, takes a lot of analytical unpacking and can never be fully gotten ‘right’).

In 1977, Audre Lorde addressed the Modern Language Association on just such an issue: “The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action.“ In the address, she underscored the fleeting mortal nature of our unique individual experiences, and why staying silent a moment too long can jeopardise ever sharing what you are holding close to the vest:

“I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength and enabled me to scrutinize the essentials of my living.”

Note: if you have not read Lorde’s address before, it is one of the most inspiring short reads you can find – see here.

Lorde illustrates this fear of sharing, in addition to whatever personal reasons exist, is also something that has been driven into us by how we have been socialised. We see it as self-preservation keeping one’s thoughts to one’s self, and this manifests as an actual fear of sharing. Counter to this sociological influence, it is human nature to share. Sharing is also hindered by the knowledge that being forthcoming is a vulnerable position to be in with oneself. It takes critical analysis, refection, and work. We may not enjoy what we discover.

When we recognise what sharing can achieve – and that a greater fear is our unique experiences never meaning more to anyone, or anything, but ourselves – we can gain clarity.

By far, the best thing about the current state of affairs has been the theme of storytelling. Janelle Monáe’s speech at the GRAMMYs provided a call to action for artists:

“And just as we have the power to shape culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well.”

 Music, art, the written word, images, film – they can have powerful honesty and game-changing impact on how we perceive the world. Monáe’s line is relevant for the rest of us, too. We can acknowledge our fear of sharing certain elements, but also recognise that this fear is serving no one. The speech led into the introduction of another female artist – a two-time GRAMMY nominee – who was fearless about personal, painful truth telling: Kesha.

More and more, people are telling the truth about their experiences, and highlighting crucial aspects, even when it is difficult, intimate, and gives cause to be terrified of people’s reaction. These experiences are relevant and valid in their own right. They do not need to be shared, that is a choice – and everyone deserves to decide.

But the knowledge that an experience may grow beyond one’s own to play a role in contributing to other people’s worldviews – whether that be validating feelings or expanding minds – is something that is evermore lifting limits on silence.

No one should be excluded from sharing – there is room at the table for all, or we can make room- but, we should recognise that some stories may need a bit more focus on them, or response and discussion, than others.

The selfless sharing of others has affected me personally through a variety of stimuli this past year:

– WORDS –

More and more, we are receiving the books we may not have even known we wanted or needed to get our hands on. These works have been developed by incredible people, fearlessly (or perhaps, even more bravely: fearfully), to breathe light into the author’s own experience of a world that may or may not be receptive to said sharing. Hunger by Roxane Gay was a masterpiece I could not put down. This was not because it was an easy read. It was incredibly challenging to face the words she carefully strung together. What the book said about her experience described her reflection on what society, time, and trauma had constructed for her reality. It was not meant to provide a happy ending or a proposed solution for readers’ pleasure. It was meant to unmask and tell about a lived experience. But voices like this can, indeed, cause change. Reading those words changed me. It made me proud to exist as a woman, and made me want to analyse my own interaction with the world. It demonstrated how starved I was for these works – for writing that hurts, but creates an impact person-by-person.

– ART –

Be it amateur posters for protests, to the more complex female-focused exhibitions, to the painful and soft poetry of individuals like Rupi Kaur, to Mari Andrew’s insightful drawings, to companies reinventing the art of the letter: art is empowering women. It is also changing the perceptions and interactions of all. It is an outlet for women to reveal their own truths in their creations, particularly when words do not or cannot work. These creations, likely, were not created for the sole purpose, if for the purpose at all, of propelling us towards gender equality. However, art has many different reasons behind it and reactions to it. The lives and mindsets revealed through this broad, limitless medium, has the (at times intangible) effect of feeling new experiences in sharp contrast to one’s own. Art can make new, or rework old, connections in one’s mind.

– CONNECTIONS –

There have been a whole string of networks and companies and communities that have sprung up, founded by women, to help other women. Taking part in these forums – be it sharing in discussions, submitting articles, bilateral messaging – provides the communal support that many may have felt starved of – or perhaps, more aptly, women now recognise was something of which they were starved. It is allowing individuals to see new possibilities, ask for help, and learn from those who have tread where they are hoping to go – or, at least, somewhere nearby.

Self-reliance should include mindfulness of your own self, in relation to others.

“Everyone has each other to change,” was the really beautiful way that actress Lydia Wilson put it in an BBC Breakfast interview, on 31 January, 2018, when asked about the #MeToo movement. Women helping other women understand that their experiences are not the same, and that they experience oppression differently based on their identities is critical. As is reflected in my 2017 piece, intersectional feminism, while not new, was a hugely influential idea that made the feminist movement check itself in its campaigning and activities this past year. It is the idea that, in the specific case of women’s rights, women have multiple identities that influence the way in which they experience oppression and power. A woman may belong to multiple vulnerable groups, and this distinguishes her engagement with the world from someone who gains privilege through other groups to which she belongs. She could have economic power, but suffer racial prejudice, which plays into how key issues are experienced. An understanding of intersectionality and identity is incredibly valuable in order to learn more about your own lived experience, and how you can be more effective in advocating change for all.

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The Power, a work of magical realism by Naomi Alderman, provides a parallel universe for the mind to tangibly explore the complexities of the patriarchal order of the globe. It illustrates a transition of power from male to female. Magic becomes a reality for women, and is what provides them the opportunity to seize control over men. This magic awakens the possibility to physically dominate men, and in the novel, women explore their own capabilities and opportunities to abuse this dominance.

“It follows that there are two ways for the nature and use of human power to change. One is that an order might issue from the palace, a command unto the people saying “It is thus.” But the other, the more certain, the more inevitable, is that those thousand thousand points of light should each send a new message. When the people change, the palace cannot hold.”

While a work of fiction, if looked at symbolically, when magic was found harbouring in each woman, it was unstoppable. It did not stop until the world was transformed, because people’s experiences, led by women, were changing daily.

The next generation of women are now getting to see that power is not a fantasy.

I ended my article last year with Rebecca Walker’s phrase, ‘the genius is here.’ Genius or magic, she was right – it was always here, and now it has arrived. The magic that had settled in many women is now shaken, and pouring into more writing, art, actions, hopes, and dreams, at an unrelenting pace.

There is plenty of room for more. We all have the opportunity to make changes in the world. It does not have to be daunting or high-level change. But, it does have to be something. It cannot be someone else.

Do not worry about getting it perfect, and “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”

The magic is now tangible. Good luck trying to forget seeing your spark.

Feminism In 2017: A Wake-Up Call

*The original post was an article I wrote for Ellevate (here), a global women’s network, in early 2017. It was also featured by The Huffington Post (here) on 23 March 2017.

Anxiety about the state of things was palpable. The issues that still needed changing now lacked the prospect of hope.

That was the atmosphere in which Rebecca Walker, the renowned feminist author, delivered Feminism in a New Era to a crowd of hundreds at the University of Washington on January 11, 2017 — just prior to the worldwide Women’s March.

Two months on, amid a list of growing challenges, that bleak hopelessness has diminished. Hope has grown as the year has moved forward.

At Walker’s talk we did not define feminism for 2017. Perhaps, I should say, we did not narrowly define it. For what this new era cannot call for is defining something that is meant to be limitless — and that is where I find hope anew.

In the introduction to her 1995 anthology, To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, Walker states:

My hope is that this book can help us to see how the people in the world who are facing and embracing their contradictions and complexities and creating something new and empowering from them are important voices leading us away from divisiveness and dualism.

A passage that is very much still relevant, this year is going to call upon all of us to reject divisions in new and sometimes painful ways. A narrow and self-serving view of what issues we need to dedicate ourselves to is utterly futile. Furthermore, the fear of learning new things that did not fit my worldview made me hesitant to engage on items of substance when what mattered needed to be defended. So, too, that fear appeared when simply analyzing and dissecting my beliefs amongst like-minds.

Roxane Gay’s powerful collection of essays in Bad Feminist breathe truth into facing down how one sees the world:

To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.

The instructions at many of the Women’s Marches were to walk side-by-side, not to leave others behind, and to listen before we took action.

The needed feminism in this new era is one that is intersectional. Intersectionality takes account of the different ways in which individuals experience oppression, and recognizes that the different aspects of peoples’ identities do not interact with the world in silos. A feminism bolstered by intersectionality is the only type of feminism that can succeed because it is the only one that acknowledges its members’ full identities and world views.

“How can we be apart of the future in a proactive way?,” Walker posited.

In February, I organized a Women’s March Huddle on Capitol Hill in Seattle, WA. The Huddle was a rare experience to meet with women who were strangers, and with whom — even if we had met under a separate set of circumstances — we would never have felt the collective permission that we did to delve into the issues at hand. We decided to start small but mighty. We have made strides to expand our awareness beyond our own individual expertise and interests, and have looked towards creative ways to hold our representatives to account. We have also, importantly, sought to challenge our perceptions by aiming to expand the Huddle to un-like minds.

A return to a time of dialogue, rather than echo chambers and feuds, is not a short-term or pain-free goal. The goal of dialogue, however, is as essential to understanding the experiences of those who do not recognize the key issues to the feminist movement, as it is to understanding the varying experiences of those within the movement itself.

I recognize what the new era cannot be – none of these tools at our disposal to further women’s rights, however cloaked in goodness, can be divisive. Feminism is a tool to address this new era, but we must be intentional about who it is seeking to help (hint: all women). Additionally, feminism has to leave room for us to recognize our shortcomings and our strengths, connect us to counterparts that will encourage us, and it must intersect in our lives in ways that push our own growth.

At the University of Washington talk, Walker impromptu suggested that feminism may need to be “blown up” to start anew, and, ultimately, be fit for purpose. I agree – it should be blown up. But, by blown up, I see it as being inflated, as if one were to blow up a balloon. Inflated with any number of the other issues it does touch, or should be touching, and raising those issues up (passionately!) with it.

Walker tells us “the genius is here.” I think we should recognize this, but not assume we already know everything there is to know about this genius – be it our own genius, the genius of others dear to us, or the genius of strangers. It is 2017 – a time not just to act, but to actively learn.