Building bridges and why we should bother.
Some thoughts from lenka
“What we risk reveals what we value.” Jeanette Winterson
I’ve often heard women who don’t like feminists or call themselves “I feminists” or “post feminists” say that women are women’s own worst enemy. This is usually followed by talking about how bitchy and mean women are to each other. I don’t think that many feminists would try to claim that any amount of bitching, backstabbing or even bad meetings would make other women a worse enemy to them than the patriarchy for its years of rape, violence, control and oppression. But I have heard feminist women talk about being treated badly by other feminists and how traumatic and disappointing this experience is.
I am feeling motivated to write about this right now partly as a result of a rather upsetting weekend-long feminist workshop that I and many other Wellington feminists attended. I do not want to write about the events of the weekend in depth, only to say that communication was not good, people behaved badly at times, there was conflict and many women left feeling hopeless and upset. The way that I have heard many women talking in the aftermath of the weekend has made me realise what extremely high expectations we have of other women, even other women who we hardly know. I think that for many of us having a bad experience with other feminist women is so much harder to take than having a bad experience with any other group. Our expectations of each other are so high, and so the disappointment when those expectations aren’t met is huge. I have heard women say that they feel really reluctant to attend feminist events outside their usual familiar groups because it feels too unsafe.
I have also been finding that lately the feminist groups that I am involved in have lacked passion and energy. We feel a bit lost and listless. I often feel that we have huge amounts of energy and passion when reacting to a crisis or responding to a negative experience we have had with men, but when we come together just as women we don’t really know where to start! This is hard to deal with and many women have felt discouraged and stopped coming to meetings as a result. Many of us have had such amazing, cathartic, life changing experiences in women’s groups that we attend expecting it to always be like that. When we arrive and find that it is unexciting and hard work we feel let down.
While I completely understand and relate to both these feeling I find it really sad and feel that it is somewhat of a victory for the patriarchy that women are not managing to find broader solidarity with each other than we are. I guess that what I am trying to do by writing this article is to encourage us not to give up on each other. Wider solidarity among feminist women is worth fighting for.
I am not suggesting that we should lower our expectations of each other because I do believe we are capable of working together amazingly and achieving huge things. But I think we’re going to need to put some work in to get to that point and that it is likely to push our tolerance and sometimes be hard and boring.
We struggle so hard and so constantly to work with men, in personal relationships, in groups and in families. Most feminists I know struggle to live alongside men and to do political work with men every day. For me personally this has involved struggling to resolve issues of sexism in countless groups. Running some horribly disempowering workshops for men on sexism (and some more successful ones), trying to work with rapists and dealing with being objectified, ignored, belittled and patronised by men I love and trust. None of this has got any easier. I have learned lots of hard lessons. I have incorporated a great deal more separatism into my life but I have not given up on men. It is too important. I have to exist in this world. I have a brother, a father, male friends and most importantly a nephew and a son. Giving up is not an option.
The fact that I can’t give up on men makes it even more important that I struggle to build wider and stronger networks and relationships with other women. And surely if I can endure hard work and disappointment for men I can endure it for women too!
It is lovely to think that we can all come together with ease and automatically be full of energy and have our shit together (by which I mean being able to communicate in a way that works and feels safe for everyone). Perhaps this doesn’t seem like a lot to expect. It shouldn’t be. But we have all been struggling to live under the patriarchy! The fact that we are feminists doesn’t make us immune. If there is one thing the patriarchy has worked hard at, it’s eroding women’s ability to come together and find solidarity without men. I do not want to condone bad behaviour. I am just saying that we are all human. We are hurting and we are passionate. There is urgency and excitement and desperation. We are often scared and often angry. We often get it wrong and sadly we treat each other badly sometimes. I think that this is all a side effect of how deeply we care and just how important it is. If we are going to create a truly strong feminist movement we are going to have to push though the hard bits and challenge bad behaviour in women, just as we have all become accustomed to challenging bad behaviour in men. We have to have high expectations of each other but we also have to have the commitment, understanding and trust to help each other live up to those expectations. It’s not easy and it’s scary, but I believe it’s one of the most important and rewarding things we can do and to me it’s what feminism is all about.