Sometimes, being a feminist seems really hard. Not in terms of being committed to the eradication of gender disparity, but rather in terms of constantly being confronted by people who think that sexism, is a thing of the past, or should be perpetuated in the interests of preserving a culture or any number of reasons that the patriarchy churns out in order to substantiate its continued methods of domination. With this as the backdrop, feminists may begin to experience burn out and those who are interested in agitating for the women’s movement may begin to be daunted by the size of the need for change that they feel as though they can make no meaningful contribution to the cause. Consider this a friendly reminder of all the ways that we can feminist effectively on a daily basis. GO TEAM!
Clare Dalton wrote that feminism is ‘a range of committed enquiry and activity dedicated first, to describing women’s subordination – exploring its nature and extent; dedicated second to asking both how – through what mechanisms, and why – for what complex and interwoven reasons – women continue to occupy that position; and dedicated third to change.’ Today I’d like to deal with the first two dedications. This statement makes clear the numerous ways in which the patriarchal hegemony can be challenged head-on, sometimes in the simplest of ways. The grounding of feminist enquiry in the lived experience of women makes the first dedication extremely accessible. One need not find a public platform for doing it, conversations with friends, family, strangers making clear that the continued subordination of women is unacceptable and should be rectified will suffice. These conversations create social pressure, because those around you and those that interact with you will soon become aware of behaviour that will or will not be tolerated, thus removing the social sanction that patriarchy requires in order to operate unhindered. Do not underestimate the power of naming and shaming. This clear communication of displeasure and discontent with the status quo may not seem to be particularly radical, but it definitely is, especially where the expectation continues to be that if you even if you don’t endorse the patriarchy, you certainly will not continuously speak out against it.
Here, some people may be concerned about becoming that person. You know, the one who consistently and constantly challenges a lot of gendered assumptions that others may have, taking them to task over snide comments and jokes, sighing over/ boycotting several TV shows on the basis that their depiction of women leaves a lot to be desired and all round Debbie downer. In this image of a future feminist self, all the conversations culminate with accusations of being humourless and very weird, flying around. It is true – challenging entrenched patriarchal norms can begin to feel like a full time job. Just remember to keep in mind that someone always needs to take the initiative when it comes to carrying the obligation of being offended, when offensive things are said/done/portrayed. Also, as someone who became that person, I can tell you that with time your lectures begin to give themselves. People begin to interact with popular culture with a bit more of a critical eye, and when you’re about to give a damning review of a show, say, you find that you’re beaten to the punch or met with an emphatic “WE KNOW!” Either way, people talking about -and thinking about, sexism in varying contexts is a step in the right direction.
Someone was asking me the other day, how to go about challenging unfair mechanisms and assumptions that actually operated in their favour. I.e. someone was asking me how they could best use their privilege as opposed to feeling as though it should be something that they apologise for. The word “privilege” is thrown around a lot, without people necessarily having a thorough understanding of what it is that it being talked about. I found this to be a very user-friendly explanation and guide. Under Clare Dalton’s second mechanism the how provides a practical way in which privilege can be exercised for the good of the women’s movement. Identifying the mechanisms through which the subordination of women is perpetuated, allows us to also look at the way in which patriarchy has become institutionalised, in our workplaces, in our legal systems, in our healthcare systems in our educational systems, really in any overarching tool of governance or the exercise of power.
Challenging institutionalised forms of gender discrimination and really any form of discrimination can be quite a mammoth task for those who are outside of any given system and for those who lack the power that will lend their voices some legitimacy. This creates an opportunity for those of us who are in a position to speak with, or interact with this sort of power. In my case, as I have a legal background, I am better able to challenge the law’s apparently neutral operation in situations where it in fact has a disproportionately adverse impact on the lives of women. I can communicate issues in a way that the law will regard as legitimate. As a result of my privileged background I would be better positioned than some, to not only know my rights but also assert them without necessarily worrying about whether or not legal aid would cover my costs whilst also being able to agitate for better access to justice for the women in my community. The point here is that there will be some of us uniquely positioned to push for certain kinds of reforms and a change in the official modus operandi. Use these positions!
I found the last point of why more than a little bit interesting, particularly the emphasis on the fact that the reasons will be ‘complex and interwoven’. There is always the risk that we might not only underestimate just how entrenched patriarchy is, but also how large an investment in its continued presence a diverse group of people have. When we attempt to deny the inherent complexity of patriarchy, we risk beginning to perceive ourselves as sort of messianic figures. We risk discounting other women’s voices on the basis that we can see better, we know better and really we are just smarter and that is why we are the feminists. There must be some sort of awareness, that patriarchy has been around for as long as civilisation and so people and societies find it to be comfortable,familiar and through the combined impact of the former two points – desirable. In order to smash it to bits and pieces we must be willing to have some difficult or taxing conversations based on the understanding that we need all sorts of people to be involved in dislodging it, if we are really going to get rid of it in all its manifestations.