Friday, 7 August 2009

The Myth of the Old Humourless Feminist

The Myth of the Older Humourless Feminist

As you can see, today is a day for deconstructing the myths Sian style!

Like a lot of feminists on the blogosphere I have been getting a bit irate with the current business of Ellie Levenson’s new book. Lot of reasons for this, including the unpleasant things she has to say about rape, rape jokes, how you can be anti abortion and feminist, and how feminism is primarily about individual choice. I will hopefully deal with these issues in another post (not to personally attack Ellie, but because I think these are important issues to be questioned, and Ellie just happened to bring them up). But the one thing that I am going to talk about now, and which has been discussed at length is this idea that second wave feminists were dull, po faced and serious, and to attract new women to feminism we have to turn our backs on this history.

I have many, many issues with this philosophy which I will try to explain.

Firstly – even if this rumour were true, what is wrong with being humourless and serious? Surely when we are talking about issues that are so devastating and life changing as rape, domestic violence and assault, as important as equal pay rights, as vital as reproductive control and as globally necessary as education to rescue women from poverty, a little seriousness is in order? These are big, big issues. They are not be taken lightly. They demand concentration, respect and serious consideration. Despite the growing number of rape jokes (I’m looking at you Frankie Boyle) I think most of us can agree that we shouldn’t talk about rape in a non-serious way? Some issues don’t require lightness and humour. The fact that many in the feminist world can tackle these issues with humour and cleverness is applaudable. I will come to that later. I think we do feminism a massive injustice when we criticise it for being too humourless, as if any of the issues the second wavers tackled required anything less than a serious approach.

Second – exactly which revolutionary movement was a barrel full of laughs? Socialism? The Old Left? The New Left? The MRA? The October 1917 revolutionaries? Civil Rights? All of these movements can be similarly characterized as humourless! What these people were fighting for was the actuality of the deep, deep political beliefs they held. I’m pretty sure they didn’t feel the need to not take their beliefs seriously in case they are characterized as “humourless”. Yet feminism is criticised for taking itself too seriously, not understanding irony (as if there’s anything ironic about rape jokes) and being humourless. I would like to see one of these critics go up to Marx or Malcolm X and tell them to chill out, stop taking this all so seriously, it’s not that bad.
Why is feminism under attack for being humourless rather than all the other movements? Could it be because of the age old stereotypes that women aren’t funny? I think this is partly the problem. By saying feminists take themselves too seriously is a way of saying we won’t take it seriously. By saying we’re humourless is, in a way, saying that we’re a joke, an aberration.

But the final point is, and this is the most important one, is that the idea of the humourless po-faced feminist is a lie. It’s not true. It is a stereotype created to undermine feminism and to suggest, as I say, that it is not a movement to be taken seriously.

Obviously some older feminists are humourless and dull. So are some younger feminists. So are people you meet in all walks of life! You meet dull humourless people all the time, from the person you wish you hadn’t started talking to at a family gathering to the person at work you really don’t want to go for a drink with. But just as not everyone you meet is dull, neither is every feminist. People come in all personality types, feminists come in all personality types.

That was my disclaimer btw so no one can come on the blog and say “I met a feminist once and she was boring.” I can’t tell you how many socialists I have met that make me want to chop my ears off. Doesn’t mean I think all of them are like that. So there!

By characterising second wave feminists as old and humourless we are saying that they have nothing to offer us, nothing to say to us, that their concerns are not the concerns of younger women. But this is not true.

When I read stories about the second wave, from stringing up “Women of the World Unite” banners on the Statue Of Liberty to women pulling together on Greenham Common, I am struck by the humour, community spirit and vitality that characterizes these women’s experiences. These women came together to fight injustice, arm in arm, shining with excitement at the possibility of change. When I read Gloria Steinem’s essays, they condemn inequality but they are full of joy and love for the work her and other women were doing. Talking to my friend about her consciousness raising group in the seventies and eighties, she describes women talking, sharing, sometimes crying but mostly laughing (and drinking cider!). It was an inspirational time. It was a time when women discovered their voices.

Obviously I wasn’t there. And obviously life wasn’t a bed of roses and there were fights and factions and splits in the feminist movement. But that is characteristic of any movement. As with the humourless argument, I don’t see why this criticism should be specifically used against feminism. My point is that just as there were fights and anger, there was joy, vitality and a sense of togetherness. Because the former existed should not negate the other. And we should never have let the negatives become used to define feminism. Because just as the positive elements are only half the story on their own, so are the negative elements.

This is how we should characterize the second wave.
We should see it as a time where women won rights that we don’t even question these days.
The right to not have to get married.
The right to be able to work if you were married. (working class women kind of had this right already, but the class issue is a whole other argument I hope to address in a different post.)
The right to expect equal pay for equal work (a right we still fight for)
The right for a woman not to be raped if she is married. (sadly, a right we still fight for)
The right to have an abortion (even if this is a right we must continue to uphold)
The right to have your name on a utility bill (can you believe that wasn’t possible in the 70s if you were married!?)
And so many more rights and beliefs that I can’t fit them all on one post.
We should remember the second wave as a time when women stood up and showed that together they could form a movement to be bloody well reckoned with. That they had voices, that they had power, that they did not have to keep quiet and wait for a man. Feminism changed our lives, these women changed our lives. Just because we aren’t there yet, doesn’t mean that what they did didn’t mean anything. Again, this is a criticism only really levelled at feminism. Do we stop listening to Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech because racism is still a problem? No we don’t.

But because the movement has become tarred by this humourless brush, we forget that they fought the fight worth fighting for, so we didn’t have to.

So why was feminism portrayed this way? The reason, I believe, is very similar as to why commentators continue to deny the existence of young feminists. If the Mail style media and anti feminists portrayed feminism as a force to be reckoned with, a movement full of vitality that changed women’s lives for the better, then they would have to take notice, they would have to recognise its successes, and recognise that we have further to go. If they portray feminism as a bunch of grumpy dour women with an axe to grind, they are let off the hook in taking it seriously. They don’t have to listen, they can point and mock. It is in a lot of people’s interests to uphold this view.

It’s so sad. It’s so sad that such an exciting movement has been so derided by a few made up stereotypes.
So what’s the solution? I believe it is much, much bigger than the view that to get young women into feminism we have to turn our back on second wavers and say all the “you can be feminist and wear lipstick now!!” nonsense. I believe that we should look at the achievements of the second wave and say, hell yeah! We should applaud our sisters for what they did, and we should then move on to say – what still needs to be done? How can we take the lessons of the second wave to help us fight the battles we face today? We should talk to older feminists and find out more about their experiences, we should hear their stories and add our own. We should not see it in terms of us and them, we should see it in terms of ALL OF US!

Most importantly we should recognise that the stereotype just doesn’t hold water. And even if it did, why should we care? I’d rather that feminism was peopled by the dullest most unfunny people in the world rather than give up the rights they won for me. I’d rather they were all miserable and po faced than give up the freedoms I don’t even question.

A short anecdote to share with you now.
When we did Bristol Reclaim the Night we finished in the Trinity Centre, had some amazing speeches, and then Lipstick on Your Collar dj-ed. The first song they played was Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain and me and three or four of the other organisers put our tiredness aside and danced. We laughed and we danced and we sang along and I felt a huge rush of euphoria. I remember thinking ecstatically how we had done it, we had really done it. I felt such a flood of joy and excitement and I remember thinking that this must be what it felt like back then. I felt a beautiful connection with my history. And although I was sad that we are still having to do Reclaim the Nights, I feel that with the second wave on our side, this time we will win.

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