What’s not to like? A chance to hear Bonnie Greer and Beatrix Campbell, among others, in a debate chaired by the Everyday Sexism project founder Laura Bates, on ‘What’s All the Fuss about Feminism?’ Except I had left it too late and it was all sold out. I put myself on the waiting list and forgot about it. On the day of the event, an email landed mid-afternoon to tell me there was now a ticket available – it was the equivalent of being told ‘You shall go to the ball’ (though perhaps not a good analogy in the context.)
By my totally unscientific guestimate of the audience, I’d say it was predominantly made up of young women, with a handful of older women and brave blokes, and even fewer middle-aged women (Why? Were they burdened with responsibilities? Had they fallen through the cracks between third-wave and fourth-wave feminism?) and, as Bonnie Greer ruefully noted, hardly any people from the black and ethnic minorities.
The debate aimed to answer questions such as: Why do some women hate feminism? What is the ‘fourth wave’ of feminism? Who decides what it means to be a feminist? Can men be feminists? As each of the panellists set out their stall, it was clear that they represented a wide variety of approaches: Marxist feminist Bea Campbell (BC), transgender feminist writer Jane Fae (JF), playwright and cultural critic Bonnie Greer (BG), and Yas Necati (YN), a teenage activist who took up cudgels for feminism while still at school. It was far from being the echo chamber predicted by some of the online chatter beforehand.
Bea Campbell identified Thatcherism as the tide that swept away the progress of feminism by placing the market ahead of everything else. For Jane Rae, it was all about the need to get feminist values embedded in society before we see the rollback in living conditions that climate change will bring. Bonnie Greer agreed that values are crucial to the debate, but suggested that ‘feminism’ has become a brand, and maybe a new term is needed. Having gamely ploughed through the impenetrable language of 70s feminism, Yas Necati found many differences between then and now, but some amazing similarities.
Ninety minutes is no time at all in which to debate such huge topics and hope to come up with definitive answers , but along the way (if I may bring in yet another ill-advised fairy tale analogy), what pearls issued from their mouths! I’ve noted below some of the discussion that chimed with me, but go to http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/live/2015/mar/13/fuss-about-feminism-sexism-live-blog for a fuller account of the debate.
BG claimed that we need to be far more flexible in what constitutes feminism – patriarchy seeks to divide and rule by putting us in little boxes – and the idea was extended in discussion to gender itself: surely it’s time to allow concepts of gender to be far more fluid and less restrictive. BG also warned against focusing on inequality elsewhere in the world while ignoring the inequality under our noses in this country.
JF saw the internet as a panopticon: ‘everyone sees everything you do and you begin to police yourself.’ Needless to say porn – the male-generated kind – was seen as causing a crisis for both men and women. Much of YN’s activism has been targeted at countering this through better sex education, particularly on issues of consent.
‘For men, supporting feminism is the condition of their release,’ declared BC, and there was much discussion of the pressures on boys (YN had seen boys at her school who were interested in feminism having that interest bullied out of them) and the toxic nature of masculinity, certainly as defined by the media.
There were many questions from the floor: on how to get men on board with the project, how to vote in the general election (the panel wisely did not tell us where to put our crosses), on how we can create the conditions to be able to live out these aspirations in the domestic sphere; and a significant challenge to everyone from an 84-year-old woman who has spent the last 17 years battling a bureaucracy convinced that a group of female pensioners would not be able to run their own housing co-operative: what are you going to go out and do about this?