Finn Mackay (University of the West of England)
We are currently in the midst of a Feminist’s most favourite time in the political calendar, no, not International Women’s Day, but the run up to the UK General Election in May. Oh how our hearts can leap with pride at the knowledge that the right to vote is one thing we can firmly cross off our list of transitionary demands. As we march to the ballot box and make our mark we maintain a tangible connection with all those brave Sisters before us who literally fought and died so we could participate in this simple act. If you vote slowly, you might be able to hear the rustle of petticoats, the lilt of voices raised in song or perhaps, the sound of hard won success.
Feminists today might look back rather enviously to a time when women were seemingly united around a simple cause, a banner everyone could get behind – the right to vote. Of course it was never that clear cut even then, and there was plenty of disagreement over methods, aims and tactics as well as the ideological differences that always underpin those elements. There were Suffragettes for and against militarism, for and against imperialism, for and against compromise. Their struggle was also never limited to the franchise alone, as they took on rape in marriage, the age of consent, prostitution and divorce law for example (Anand, 2015; Liddington & Norris, 2000).
These are the issues that were taken up again by feminists of the Second Wave in the 1970s and 1980s and indeed they are no less relevant now. In my new book “Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement” (2015) I chart the herstory of the British Women’s Liberation Movement and look at how this movement has changed from the 1960s to the present day. Surveying and interviewing over one hundred feminists of different generations I explored differences in methods and motivations; asking feminists who were active in the 1960s and 1970s about their campaigning and how far they think things have progressed. I asked the new generation of activists – the millennials of the resurgence or so-called third or even fourth wave – what feminism means to them and what winning would look like.
There were marked similarities alongside some stark differences. Online activism and the speed of modern communication technology has, obviously, completely changed the practicalities of organising. No longer are women slaving over a hot printing press in the basement of a feminist collective; now networks can be created worldwide at the touch of a button. Today’s activists seemed more professionalised and many had a more managerial approach, a certain type of ‘do-it-yourself’ activism seemed to have passed away and methods like non-violent direct action were just not on the radar of most of the younger feminists. Motivations for getting involved in feminism, however, remained depressingly similar, with women recounting experiences of sexual harassment on the streets and at work, of rape and other forms of male violence, of sexism, misrepresentation, poverty and disempowerment.
One observable shift was a move towards the involvement of men in feminism, including in organising and leadership. Women-only space today is rare, and where it does exist it is a fraught battleground, as turf wars are fought between those who would place no borders around the identity of woman and those attempting to protect the ground upon which this movement rests. Feminist fault lines with regard to class, race and sexuality have not gone away, but are arguably these cracks are less visible today than those relating to the involvement of men, the inclusion of trans women and the familiar divisions between those for or against the industries of prostitution and pornography.
Younger activists are working in a changed environment, dramatically altered by the World Wide Web, the explosion of the sex industry, the rise of neo-liberalism and the insidious legal restrictions on protest. Many of the activists, I spoke to, looked back wistfully to a time they presumed was more free, more angry and radical. They had inherited an idealised version of the Second Wave as a time of collectivity, of mass protest and of unity. This was ironically set alongside the familiar narratives of feminist failure by our big sisters, the received wisdom that the movement then was inherently racist, classist, homophobic and transphobic; a bleak backdrop against which younger women could play out their own stories of linear progress to the presumed new and improved version of activism we have today (Henry, 2004).
Despite these notions of progress then, contemporary activists longed for a simple sense of collective struggle. This is not surprising, and it is not limited to feminism either as it is evident in other contemporary social movements, following the assault on class based movements and the rise of individualism, individualistic politics and online ‘clicktivism’ (Kinser, 2004). Many activists expressed their wish for a ‘Suffragette’ cause of today, they wanted a unifying banner that everyone could agree with; a sound bite that no internal wars would be waged over. They were often frustrated and burnt out by conflict, they spoke of feeling that nothing was good enough for their fellow feminists, that whatever campaign they organised or event they ran, it would be found wanting in some way. Most activists felt they had to compromise in order to get things done, they worked with the police, took funding from large organisations or from the state in the form of Local Authorities for example. Meanwhile others saw this as selling out and focussed their energies on smaller wins, committed to the idea that the means are as important as the ends.
In these defensive times I was heartened to hear stories of any kind of activism at all, of any kind of resistance, whether insider or outsider, whether in a squatted building or a hired conference centre. I was humbled to meet feminist Social Workers, Teachers, Lawyers, Probation Officers, Youth Workers, Nurses, Counsellors, Magistrates and Mothers. They were working in difficult circumstances, against all the odds and with little support. They put their feminism into these arenas as well as into their spare time activism. These efforts are to be applauded. This is no time for hanging back on the moral high ground, nor is it a time for leaning in, it is a time for getting in.
The same can be said of the ballot box. It’s too important to write it off as jobs for the same old boys. Our world is the way it is right now, replete with imperfect institutions, difficult choices and muddy policy swamps between right, wrong and more wrong. Ironically only the status quo will benefit if we renege on using our hard won franchise. We need to dust off those unifying banners, because the vote is still a cause we should all rally around.
It is estimated that around 30% of young people, for example, are not even registered to vote, and many students are between residences and unsure where to register. New citizens to our country are also underrepresented, as are those with insecure housing, and Black people are still around 10% less likely to be registered to vote that White people. This is a very basic injustice; it is one we can all get involved in remedying.
Don’t be deceived into thinking that it doesn’t matter, that it isn’t worth it. Truth be told it often is hard to decide between political parties and politicians. Most people are sick to the stomach of yah boo braying and political games and of the toying with our very lives. But although many people feel politicians are all the same, they’re not. There might only be paper thin differences sometimes, but those differences in policy have real effects. They dictate whether you can get welfare support when you are sick or disabled, and how much you will be paid at work. They dictate whether you have a local bus service or a bank branch within reasonable distance and whether you own your local GP surgery or whether Richard Branson does.
So, in May I’ll certainly be voting; I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I might lean in to the ballot box like a delicate flower, I might wear purple, white and green, but I will be there – it is my duty as a feminist. And, in case you’re wondering, I’ll be voting Labour through gritted teeth; angry about Trident replacement, support for so-called austerity, the horror of Tony Blair, endless vacuous soundbites and business as usual media spin. But that’s politics, it isn’t simple. I’ll be voting Labour and hoping for a coalition of the Left-ish-as-we-can-get, with plenty of power for the Greens and the SNP.
References and further information:
Anand, Anita (2015) Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary. London: Bloomsbury.
Duggan, Lisa (2003) The Twilight of Equality? Boston: Beacon.
Henry, Astrid (2004) Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Kinser, Amber E. (2004) ‘Negotiating Spaces for/through Third Wave Feminism’, National Women’s Studies Association Journal, 16 (3), pp. 124-153.
Liddington, Jill & Norris, Jill (2000) One Hand Tied Behind Us. London: Orum/Pandora.
Mackay, Finn (2015) Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement. London: Palgrave.
Operation Black Vote
Rock The Vote youth voter drive
UK Feminista #VoteFeminist Election Toolkit
Worker’s Educational Association Why Vote Series
Finn Mackay founded the London Feminist Network and revived London Reclaim the Night in 2004. After a background in youth work she moved into Local Government policy on domestic violence prevention and anti-bullying before returning to academia. Finn is currently a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of England in Bristol. She is a Trustee of the Feminist Archive, an Ambassador for the Worker’s Educational Association and on the Executive of the Feminist & Women’s Studies Association