Younger sisters: say hello to the new feminists

Tue, Oct 12, 2010, 01:00

Feminism is having an extraordinary resurgence, and it is young women who are at the forefront of the change. FIONOLA MEREDITHmeets some of the bloggers and other activists at its heart

FEMINISM HAS BECOME a dirty word for many young women, an unfashionable agenda tainted by its populist caricature of man-hating, bra-burning and regulation hairiness. Feminism, it seemed, was to be treated with disdain, hostility or amusement, or simply ignored as a redundant historical project, while young women got on with their emancipated post-feminist lives – with, perhaps, a weekly visit to the pole-dancing class for good measure.

But the past few months have seen an extraordinary resurgence of feminist activism in Ireland and beyond, and it is young women who are at the forefront of this change. Blogs and Facebook groups are proliferating, and clubs, societies and grass-roots groups are springing up across the country. Hordes of angry, impassioned young women are locating their inner feminists. Many have come up sharply against unexpected discrimination, sexism and inequality. It has given them a painful jolt, and they want the world to know about it. In the words of one veteran activist, surprised and delighted by the sudden interest, “it’s bursting out all over here!”

Last month the Irish Feminist Network was launched in Dublin with the aim of destigmatising feminism and making it more relevant to a new generation. It was a success: 100 people attended, and its 22-year-old spokeswoman Madeline Hawke says the group, which will focus on the media and the political representation of women in Ireland, has big plans for the future. “We’re going to have a book club, a film club, a discussion group and ‘feminism in the pub’. We want to reclaim feminism, to challenge the preconception that feminists see sex as evil and men as bad. We want to give women the tools they need to go out into the world, to develop a strong sense of self.”

Cork Feminista is another new feminist group, set up a few weeks ago by Linda Kelly and Jennifer deWan. Having moved home to Cork, Kelly, a 24-year-old former Union of Students in Ireland equality officer, was keen to set up a casual, feminist-focused social space that was appealing to women of all ages and persuasions, including those with no interest in politics. “I was worried no one would show up, because we only advertised online,” says Kelly. “I said to Jen, if one person turns up apart from us, that will be a success. But 22 people were there on the first night, including six guys.”

In May, Belfast Feminist Network was launched, spearheaded by Kellie Turtle, a 30-year-old blogger. Turtle had already run a successful campaign against sexist billboards in the city, including one particularly gratuitous advert for a used-car magazine that showed a pair of scantily-clad breasts and the slogan “nice headlamps”.

So why are young women flocking to feminism? “A lot of it is to do with realising the illusion of the post-feminist age,” says Turtle. “Young women have been sold an idea of equality that they are not actually receiving.” Turtle’s feminist awakening came in part through her experience of living in a house with five women, three of whom had eating disorders.

Linda Kelly believes that young women often don’t see the barriers that hold them back, at least at first. “Maybe they don’t think that feminism is relevant, or maybe they buy into the stereotype that feminism is for old, fat, hairy women.”

Madeline Hawke says: “People suddenly realised that we had stopped moving forward. The momentum of the 60s and 70s has gone, and the realisation has dawned that things aren’t getting better – they’re getting worse for women in some cases – and these issues aren’t going to just fix themselves. For instance, women make up less than 14 per cent of the Dáil. That is just ridiculous in 2010.”

Hawke believes sexism can be much more subtle today. “Legislation prevents anything overt, but sexualisation and pornography have become normalised, which makes it harder to explain and articulate exactly what the issues are.”

The well-known feminist activist and educator Ailbhe Smyth, a convenor of the Feminist Open Forum, says we shouldn’t be too surprised by this new interest. “These young women are their mothers’ and grandmothers’ daughters. They have grown up with those histories and experiences of feminism in a way that I definitely didn’t.”

Several of the new activists believe the surge is part of a wider cultural phenomenon. Periods of financial crisis are historically worse for women, and Linda Kelly says this brutal recession has focused minds. “People become more politicised when they see things being taken away from them.”

Kellie Turtle says that “there is more of a place for social movements than there was 10 years ago: the antiglobalisation and environmental movements opened it up. It was the same in the 60s, when second-wave feminism was galvanised by the socialist antiapartheid movements”.

There’s no doubt that these young women are full of fresh blood and fresh anger, and they’re proud to call themselves feminists. “A year or two ago I would have been quite uncomfortable about calling myself a feminist,” says Kelly. “But you have to do it, or you just sell out. You have to name it, say what you mean, start a discussion.”

Her fellow activist Jennifer deWan has described herself as a feminist since she was 15. “I think it has a lot of power, and that scares people who benefit from the status quo. People wouldn’t be so afraid of it, or afraid to use it, if it didn’t.”

But the old question of just how radical or political it’s necessary to be hasn’t gone away. Very few people seem to be talking about dominance and oppression here. The Irish Feminist Network has said it wants to have a mainstream appeal to a broad range of young women, including those who don’t identify themselves as feminists, as well as to established older feminists. Madeline Hawke says that, for her, feminism is about “allowing women to be whoever they want to be”, and Linda Kelly of Cork Feminista speaks of converting apolitical women “slowly but surely”. She says it’s issues that matter, not labels.

But Kellie Turtle believes it’s important not to pussyfoot around – and she’s ready to use not only the F-word but also the P-word. “There’s lots of talk about not wanting to offend women, or about women being free to choose what they want to choose. I’m not comfortable with that. I think our choices prop up the patriarchy. I’m more and more coming around to the idea that feminism is quite simply about smashing the patriarchy. Look at the pro-prostitution lobby. We need to start being honest with ourselves: smashing the patriarchy is more important than defending someone’s right to sell sex.”

Ailbhe Smyth says the real challenge for the new feminists is how to get off Facebook and on to the streets. “It’s up to all of us to work together to sustain and support them, and to make the word revolution writ large.”