Feminist rage is a double-edged sword. Women need it, and have needed it for as long as the world has been an unjust place for us. Without it, key battles for women’s rights wouldn’t have been won. Imagine what would happen if the women’s vote was withheld from the upcoming US election? Someone very kindly did think of this.
On its own feminist rage is also used as a weapon against women. Proof we’re all straw feminists, who lust for male blood and want to transform society into a kind of women-only Amazon jungle. A negative label that marks you unruly and unlikeable, and stops others from considering what the women’s movement actually sets out to achieve.
There invariably needs to be elements of fighting and struggle to shift the balance of power: this is true of any society with dominant and marginalised groups. Going into battle is something at the core of the women’s movement, from the first days of Suffrage to today’s waves of abuse from faceless keyboard warriors. What’s changed is the terms and nature of how we’re fighting.
Today’s fight is largely to be treated socially and culturally equitably — not equally — to men. And the negative press around the word ‘feminism’ is a gargantuan setback. How can we rage in a way that counts for us, rather than against us?
The Telegraph considers that while over two thirds of Brits support gender equality, only 7% identify as feminists. A 2015 survey by Statista found that 80% of women in the UK were sure they understood feminism. This discrepancy suggests that actually, most of those women don’t understand what feminism means at all, and view it in a way that makes them consciously reject the label.
I’m sure every feminist can recall a, or several hundred, moments when they’ve been talking to a friend, colleague, or family member, who have been resistive or negative about the term and clearly did not understand what it encompasses. Usually because they’ve felt it’s too aggressive.
There needs to be a place for women to get angry and assert themselves. To be the push against socially oppressive pulls. But it is also true that the different ways we rage, communicate, and deal with our rage have very powerful and different effects on the people around us. Sometimes the effect is positive, and other times it’s detrimental — even if on principle you know you’re right.
This right to be angry is a tricky one, and something I’ve struggled to reconcile since growing into a political person. Of course there is plenty to be angry about, and reserving that right to feel that anger is incredibly important. But what I’ve felt the most success with is being strategic in the way that anger is addressed and channeled into action. And I’m not alone.
Modern protesting has a distinctly nuanced, awareness-raising lilt. From topless protesters challenging double standards of censorship and nudity to an occupation of an unused council home to protest the way victims of domestic violence are protected by the government, anger is present but used in action to channel wider messages about specific issues. Thinking points intended to challenge, to start conversations, and to spur action.
Fourth-wave feminism also welcomes the digital world as a democratising tool: while we all know that social media platforms aren’t completely democratic tools (looking at you, Facebook), they’ve been invaluable channels to gather momentum and communicate public sentiment to people in power in ways like never before. Websites like change.org and the growing, wide-ranging, content-rich world of blogging have also catapaulted this forward.
Consider the #BlackLivesMatter movement. What seems a simple collection of characters on a social platform has raised global consciousness of narratives and experiences that have been historically and systematically oppressed. At this year’s Geek Girl Meetup in London, speaker Esther Kuforiji implored us to take Twitter seriously: re-Tweet empowering messages, use important hashtags and try to get them trending. Every iota of representation carries meaning.
At the same conference, we spoke about how to increase diversity in the workplace. If being discriminated against at work isn’t worth raging about, then I don’t know what is. What was clear though was that the lack of diversity in a workplace isn’t because everyone is inherently sexist or racist, it’s because privilege has a blinkering effect. It’s a bit like that scene in Mean Girls when Regina George declares that “we don’t have a clique problem in this school”. Being privileged enough not to feel discrimination from the year level’s social class system, Regina doesn’t see or understand how others might feel oppressed by it. Here it’s important to remember that a lot of people who reject feminism aren’t rejecting gender equality per se: they are likely rejecting the baggage that comes with the term.
There are times when aggressively approaching someone who doesn’t understand why you’re angry will do more harm than good in the long run: even if you have all the right in the world to rage. There are times when it is worth making it a bit awkward or uncomfortable for people in the room by explaining to someone why they have offended you. In this case it’s likely you’ll have to be careful with your words to truly make them understand. Whether we like it or not, we need to acknowledge and deal with the negativity that comes with calling oneself a feminist. These truths are additional burdens for women to carry, but our fight for equity was never, ever going to be easy.
The challenge lies in education, which on principle is also problematic as it’s not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate. But I’m increasingly feeling that we’re going to need to be a bit flexible with this principle to get where we need to.
The women’s movement has come a long way since the Suffragettes chained themselves to railings, and it’s precisely because of all that progress that the ways we’re fighting have changed. Campaigns for cultural and social equity that challenge norms of collective thought need to be smarter, more nuanced, and specifically incite a strong sense of self-awareness. Privileged groups that haven’t lived certain experiences of oppression have an obligation to educate themselves, but the reality of that can mean that sometimes we see little movement because people just don’t know what they don’t know.
Feminist rage is at the core of every action taken to make the world an equitable place for women, but to turn this into change we need to acknowledge it, address it, and enshrine it within strategy. Changing collective consciousness is a strategic, long, and complicated quest to which open dialogue is essential.
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