[Speech given by Finn Mackay, researcher and feminist activist at EWL’s 25th anniversary]
It is a great honour to be here, to celebrate your anniversary with you and to be in such esteemed company.
I’m also proud to represent my country, the UK, while we are still part of the EU…!
I’m please do be able to bring you good news from the UK. Good news about the feminist resurgence that has been sweeping my country since the early 2000s.
Feminist activism is being seen again, on the streets and online and in places it never was before. Our movement is enjoying a profile and visibility that it hasn’t had for decades; and the question then becomes: what do we do with this moment. Because, one never knows how long it’s going to last, and because we do need to know where we want it to go. Alongside this resurgence of feminism, we face ever increasing challenges of course. In many cases we face the same old struggles, the same old sexism, wrapped up in new media and new communication technologies.
Our Sisters before us could not have imagined in their worst nightmares the normalisation and expansion of prostitution and pornography that we have seen for example. And this forms a backdrop, against which new generations are finding their way; all the while being told to accept as post-modern irony, a situation they have never known to be any different. We must make no mistake that this normalisation of the sex industry is a most base element of the backlash against feminism, by which I mean a kickback at the successes we have achieved so far, and an attempt to stop us going further still.
Sexual objectification always follows wins for women. It is an attempt to put women back in ‘their place’; that place being beneath men, individually collectively, metaphorically and literally. Commonplace sexual objectification sends powerful messages to women and children of course; but it also sends messages to men. It sends messages of assurance, messages that say no matter women’s gains towards equality in the workplace, in politics, in the home – women as a class can be, and are still, reduced to their sex alone: scrutinise-able, purchase-able and abuse-able.
We also have to accept that although we have made great strides, some numbers do not change. These are the very numbers we must be judged on; and the stories, lives and lives lost behind those numbers must be what motivates us on. I’m talking of course about the numbers of rapes, the numbers of so neutrally named ‘domestic homicides’, then numbers of assaults.
We all want to see an end to male violence against women. And I use this phrasing consciously and deliberately: male violence against women. Because it does not just fall from the sky, because it is not a product of nature and because it is not in men’s ‘nature’ either. We all here want to see an end to this violence. But we know we may not see it in our lifetime, and neither may our children or their children.
But it can be decreased, it can be adequately investigated and prosecuted, survivor services can be funded and stigma can be removed from victims. These are workable goals.
It is important for Feminism as a social movement that we consider what our workable goals are, as well as an alongside our ideal visions.
Of course, it is not easy to struggle against the attacks we are under, in a context of backlash. A context of ideological Tory cuts in my country, cuts to our proud welfare state, which women depend on and work in at much higher rates than men.
And it is perhaps harder still to imagine what we are struggling for, as well as what we are against, to imagine a world beyond the system of patriarchal governance that has divided the world up for sale to the highest bidder and brought us to the brink of a planet crisis.
Many of you here are involved in work which is still only firefighting. You are whittling out niches in institutions that women were never meant to work in, and which were never meant to work for women. And it is so vital that you are there; in law, in politics, in policing, in education, in social work, in policy.
This, this is Feminist activism and indeed equal representation, 50/50 at the very least, is another of our workable goals. A goal that your work strives towards; yes, even in institutions that we know are less than perfect. But these are merely our transitional demands. This is far from an end point, in fact, it is just a beginning.
We need then to encourage Feminist, progressive women into these institutions. Promoting and not competing with our Sisters and trying to win for women, albeit in a game where we never wrote the rules. In fact, we must encourage women and girls into politics of all sorts, and by politics of course I mean every kind, and everything, just as politics is no more or less than life itself. Because politics has the potential to be the bridge between what is and what could be. And that’s why women’s voices and visions, from all backgrounds, must be at the fore. So we need activists in wigs and gowns standing up in court rooms, just as we need them out on the streets with placards too.
If Feminism is about women’s liberation, then women as a group need to be politicised, so this is another of our workable goals. Yet time and again, young women speak to me about the sexism that they face in mixed social movements, coming to believe the lies that heroes are male, that leaders are male. And this is just one reason why women-only space is so important and so powerful. So tragic then, that within Feminism itself women-only space is rare and so often under attack. Because if that is a site where women can become politicised, skilled, confident, ‘empowered’ even, if that is not too tired a phrase, then that is Feminism in action. That is the means and ends right there. Surely creating and sustaining these spaces must be one of our tasks.
Not least, because we know from international research that what improves conditions for women most effectively the world over is the existence of a strong Feminist activist movement. Now, doesn’t that fact just speak volumes about the power of women working together for change, in a process that always changes individuals and in turn the world around them.
This goes for policy activists too of course, and that is why groups like the EWL are so important. You inform direction, you frame issues and debates and you influence public commentary. Though I have to add, that I know from bitter experience of policy work myself, that sometimes it can feel like such an uphill struggle. That we may work tirelessly together on a project for years, with the only result being that we get a sentence spelt correctly in a policy document that will be redundant within the year.
And this is another reason why activism is so important and is helpful here, because it can push the borders of debate that bit further; so that we might get even halfway to where we want to be.
And that is further towards the liberation of women and society based on equality for all people. But this goes much further than our notions of simple equality; because you cannot stop or rest at equality within an unequal system.
So we must retain and reclaim the radical, powerful and inspiring visions of our movement. We must do our best to tackle the co-option and commodification of our movement, our theories and our language. Because, with that commodification comes dilution, comes so-called ‘choice feminism’ which the media so loves to promote and platform.
Well, Feminism is indeed about choice. It is about the choice to work for change, for better, for good; rather than for the status-quo, and that, is nothing less than revolutionary.
So, I look forward to your next 25 years, but more than this, I look forward to the day you are no longer needed. Carry on marching in the footsteps of those women who went before us and carry on blazing new trails for those who come after. Thank you for all that you do for women and thank you for inviting me here today.