Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

What does it mean to be a feminist in Women’s Month?

Many people spend a lot of their time making straw-women arguments about what it means to be feminist. Feminists, they assume, are all unshaven, definitely don’t wear make-up or do their hair, and perhaps are a bit overweight. Feminists, they think, are all militant and anti-men. Feminists do not have a sense of humour, and are party poopers.

It seems unsurprising then, that many women shy away from the label, believing that if they name themselves feminist, they’ll lose the concession granted to ordinary women to define who they are without rigid categories. Ordinary women, they assume, are able to be concerned about their appearance while still wanting their husbands/wives to do some of the housework. Ordinary women, they assume, can be pro-men, and can be anti-violence against women without really having to do anything about it.

I doubt however, that it is ever as simple as either of these examples let on. Feminism is bigger than how you look, and being an “ordinary” (and let’s just state here that ordinary is indeed class, race, and sexuality bound) woman means benefiting from the gains of feminism.

August is generally focussed around activities that celebrate women. In fact, the ministry of women (oh, and children and people with disabilities — in fact, everyone except able-bodied men) spent all their money last year on a nice party to say so. But, the month provides for little discussion of what it actually means to be feminist, and/or what in the hell happened to the women’s movement in South Africa. It doesn’t encourage women to get engaged in civil society, or activism around their rights. That’s because, few gains have actually been made for women in the last 10 years, and all three branches of government have done little to push women’s rights.

My thinking is that somewhere between the stereotypes of feminism, and the burn-out of anti-apartheid feminist activists, we’ve lost our mojo and our identity.

Feminists are not really sure what we’re fighting for anymore, and so, we don’t fight. We watch the news and maybe we make a comment every now and then, but we certainly do not organise around legislative gains that could make it easier for us to access safe abortion. We certainly do not organise, or actively support the few civil-society organisations that do organise, around our right to be free from violence. We certainly do not organise around the education of girls in South Africa, or the fact that women in high-level positions are consistently paid less than men. We don’t organise around the rights of sex workers, and we certainly don’t organise around the rights of HIV-positive women’s reproductive rights. We do not organise around the rights of lesbian, bisexual and trans-women, or around the need to make sure the internet does not become a place where women are verbally/physically/sexually harassed while others watch on.

Why not? Why don’t you organise? Why don’t you go to that feminist get together when it is organised? What do you say when people say that feminism is out of fashion? What concessions do you allow the label “feminism” to make sure that it can work for you?

What does it mean to be a feminist these days? Is it just a middle-class luxury term? Or is it a reality?

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    • http://hismastersvoice.wordpress.com/ The Creator

      One answer might be that nobody, or perhaps more accurately, no middle-class anybody, organises around anything any more unless some corporation is willing to pay them, and corporations don’t see any profit out of feminism. In other words, the disappearance of feminist activism is a side-effect of the disappearance of general activism and the death of civil society.

      However, Ms. Thorpe, looking at the issues you raise:

      education of girls — not really a specific problem in South Africa where education for all children is supposed to be compulsory;
      rights of sex workers — be glad to see prostitution legalised, but this is a rather narrow group, isn’t it;
      more pay for woman executives — this puts feminism on the side of the 1%, doesn’t it?
      HIV-positive women’s reproductive rights — bless my soul, what in the world are you talking about? Who’s stopping HIV+ people from having babies?
      LGBT women — isn’t the media eternally all over this? And again, why focus only on those who have the good fortune to be queer?
      The internet — don';t you know that most South Africans don’t have access?

      Isn’t this, in the end, just a collection of middle-class trendy whinges, light-years away from the real problems of the majority of South African women?

    • http://www.welcomebeach.com/ Salena Gembarowski

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    • http://roryshort.blogspot.com/ Rory Short

      It seems to me that it is not only feminism that has lost its oomph but activism in general. Why should this be? It is not as though all our social problems have suddenly disappeared, is it?

      I think activism emerges when a core of individuals who sense the existence of a wide spread social malaise are able to articulate their thinking about the malaise, and ways to address it, in ways which strike a chord with other people and motivate them to take action to right matters.

    • bernpm

      @Jen: “Many people spend a lot of their time making straw-women arguments about what it means to be feminist. Feminists, they assume, are all unshaven, definitely don’t wear make-up or do their hair, and perhaps are a bit overweight. Feminists, they think, are all militant and anti-men. Feminists do not have a sense of humour, and are party poopers.”

      Your generalising opening statement made me stop reading. Thanks for the effort.
      Woman’s day is only one day a year. The other 360 odd days are by exclusion “man” days.

    • Madame Curie

      “My thinking is that somewhere between the stereotypes of feminism, and the burn-out of anti-apartheid feminist activists, we’ve lost our mojo and our identity.” I think the basic problem is the context. You seem to assume that SA is a Scandinavian style democracy, where people can indulge in luxuries (yes, it’s the right word) like worrying about gender issues. The reality is SA is a state under siege and under threat by probably the most tyrannical values that it has ever seen or faced – which will render such trivial luxuries as blissfully irrelevant. I would suggest all who have special interests open their eyes to the very much larger dangers to the nation as a whole, and realise that all liberties – civil, gender, and other – are at great risk presently – and that men – and women – with balls – are going to have to get up and take a stand.