Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

Feminism is not a wave, it’s an ocean

Dear Jacques,

Firstly, thanks for the links to FeministsSA — I appreciate them. The more interest in feminism, the better (even if it is misguided as in your case).

A few points where I beg to differ:

1. Andrea Dworkin represents a particular segment of feminism — radical feminism. It’s not called radical for nothing, it’s called radical because it is on the extremes of feminism. Dworkin has some excellent points to make, and some incredibly alienating points to raise. However, you are creating a straw man to assume that all feminism is Dworkin-esque. It certainly isn’t. It’s like saying that Julius Malema represents the views of the whole ANC.

2. Feminism is valuable in South Africa today for the same reason that Cosatu is. Because the rights of those in question, are being threatened by the dominant order. It’s as simple as that. With high levels of sexual violence, inequitable pay structures for women and men, a lack of real active political participation from women (at local, provincial and national government) there is a need to begin to rally women together, and to begin to identify our interests as a collective. Without this, we will remain divided, we will remain second-class citizens and we will remain the most frequent victims of violence.

3. The various forms of oppression that we are subject to are not always the same. I am a white, middle-class, heterosexual woman, and I can by no means share the experience of a black, working-class, lesbian. However, I can identify that unless I work to raise awareness about the various forms of oppression that we face, the democracy I live is weaker and less meaningful. So while you might not identify the links between fracking, the protection of information act and corrective rape, I can. They all affect women’s lives, and feminism is the magnifying glass that can help to make that clearer. It is exactly as you say “those committed to equality and freedom need to oppose [oppression] in all its forms”.

4. The battle is both specific and general as I explained in 3 above. It is specifically important for me to define myself as a feminist, because it is a position that is oppositional to the patriarchal dominant norms. It is a position that links me to a global community of women who can share their lessons and activism with me, so that within South Africa, we can work towards a more equitable future. It is a position that links me to other women in South Africa, through our commitment to make change for women, regardless of our own political positionings or background. This doesn’t mean that we always get along, and so we might need to be different types of feminists (or to work for different organisations), but our goal is the same — a better life for women.

5. An equitable future is not one where I define myself against what a man can do as Zoe Williams has done. I’m afraid that that’s not good enough for me. I prefer bell hooks’ definition — “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression”. It means that in the end it’s not about being like men, it’s about ending the oppression of women by men, by political structures, and even sometimes by women themselves.

6. Where you say “the movement has run its course, and now contributes far more to confusion than to any redress of social injustice or inequality” I would love to know what examples you found this in of “lobby groups and tax exempt NPOs” who are doing nothing to help women or improve social justice. I work in the oldest feminist organisation in the country, working to provide counselling and court support to rape survivors, train communities, government and the criminal justice system about the rights of survivors, train volunteer counsellors to provide those services, and participates in parliamentary discussions about the law and policy. This affects all rape survivors regardless of their gender, sexual identity or class background. So actually, we work all day long to address social injustice and equality and we are not alone. There are feminist organisations working in every province of South Africa doing to the same thing. Rape ┬áis a feminist issue (as is domestic violence, education and access to health care) — it affects the way women live out their democratic rights. The confusion about our identity on your, or anyone else’s part, is irrelevant to the very real work we do in SA.

And so to play with the metaphor, feminism is not a wave. A wave recedes and can be diluted among other waves, and can be dispersed when it hits a boulder. Feminism is an ocean. It has historically been essential. It is essential and relevant in contemporary times. The boulder of patriarchy cannot stem its tide. It’s not going away. Its work is not done. In fact, some of its most important work will only begin when there is gender equity in SA.