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Dissenting feminisms: reflections on the Feminist Writers Festival

diy-feminismWhen I was a teenager, my mum bought me a book called DIY Feminism. It was garishly bright and fairly light on theory, but it conveyed a clear message to me: you can create your own feminism, no one generation owns it.

This book was emblematic of my mother’s approach to passing on her feminist beliefs. She taught me to see the damaging effects of patriarchy and to ask who was being privileged by it, but she never claimed to have all the answers. And so I grew up thinking that I had the right to find them out for myself.

While not all women have the benefit of growing up with an explicitly feminist mother, it is common for women to feel they have the right to define their own version of feminism. In the abstract this is a good thing – but it presents some practical challenges for feminism as a social movement. It also raises the question: if we want to unite behind a common cause, do we need to start on the same page?

I make these observations after reflecting on the recent Feminist Writers Festival, which took place from 26–28 August in partnership with the Melbourne Writers Festival, and brought together feminists across all generations – from high school students to women in their seventies – and from a wide variety of backgrounds. The remarkable thing about the Festival was the warm and generous spirit permeating the corridors, and the constructive and honest conversations that took place. However, underlying this heartening spirit were a series of unresolved tensions that occasionally bubbled to the surface on the day, and were gently expressed by some attendees in the wake of the festival.

The fact is, we don’t all agree.

One of the most evident divisions within the feminist movement lies along generational lines. The older generation – second-wave feminists, if you like – raise concerns that insufficient attention or respect is paid to their contributions and accumulated wisdom. Related to this is a sense of exhaustion (more recently echoed by women of my generation), that we run the risk of continually reinventing the wheel because our feminism is insufficiently informed by the struggles of the past and the existing body of theory.

Deborah Siegel once described third-wave feminism as a movement of ‘dissenting daughters’. The label ‘daughter’ implied we were young, child-free and filled with a youthful sense of self-importance, and there’s an appealingly powerful energy to such an attitude. But this approach lacks depth and the humility to learn from the past, so the recent increasing interest in motherhood as a legitimate subject of discourse from third-wave feminists is a positive indication that we have started to grow up. Our maturation, as we become mothers ourselves, is helping to bridge the gap between second- and third-wave feminists, and to enable us to better understand their perspectives.

But even as we embrace these new subjects of analysis, the next wave behind us is starting to challenge our priorities. As the moniker ‘dissenting’ reveals, each wave has a tendency to perceive the older generation as gatekeepers to the feminist movement. The young women of the 1970s didn’t invite their own mothers to their consciousness-raising circles. Just as they focused on their peers and themselves, it is tempting for each of us to demand the same freedom to learn through the lens of our own lives.

The risk is, of course, that this approach can become overly insular. If we only consider our limited experiences, how will we move forward? How will we even know where we want to go? More significantly, how inclusive will our movement be?

Perhaps counterintuitively, the issue of inclusion and intersectionality also has the potential to create division. Reassuringly, there appears to be an overwhelming agreement that diversity is essential to the feminist movement, and that it must be informed by a greater range of life experiences lest it risk only reinforcing structural disadvantage.

The most popular session of the Feminist Writers Festival’s networking day, hands down, was a series of spoken-word performances, curated by acclaimed author and slam poet Maxine Beneba Clarke. The power and beauty of these performances clearly played a role in their popularity, but people particularly commented on their delight at seeing such a diverse group of women on stage. We are hungry to hear from new voices and to witness a more inclusive feminism. But the practicalities of achieving this end remain challenging.

In the lead up to the event, we were accused of programming predominantly white women rather than women from a diverse range of backgrounds. In fact, over 40 per cent of our speakers were women of colour, and of the remaining women, a majority were able to speak from a diverse range of perspectives, such as identifying as LGBTQI women, or as women with a disability – but we could still have done better in this regard.

It was instructive to be confronted with the challenges of programming for inclusivity in the face of the reality that white, middle-class women (such as myself) are still overrepresented within the writing industry. But progress in this area requires both collaboration and vulnerability, and this can be hindered by the ‘call-out culture’ that still lurks within the feminist movement.

Post-Festival, many women confided in me that this call-out culture is the single most exhausting part of feminist activism, one they believe to be hugely destructive. Judging from our packed out session (How can we stop) tearing each other apart, this is a widely shared sentiment. The popularity of the session seems to indicate that the majority of us are keen to both listen to each other and to cut each other some slack.

The same could have been said of the Feminist Writers Festival as a whole. It is a testament to where we are at as a movement that tickets to the Festival sold out more than a month in advance. There is a real hunger for feminist discourse – one that spans generations and perspectives. Another of the most popular sessions was focused on feminist approaches to history, featuring academics Clare Wright and Liz Conor. The crowded room and glowing feedback indicate that far from wanting to simply DIY, many feminists are keen to learn from the past and to critically engage with theory. This appetite for depth was also reflected in the suggestions for improving the Festival, which included more time to delve into each topic, and further engagement with both theory and the question of where to now.

So what have I taken away from all this? First, we need to become even better at listening to each other. This might not always be a comfortable experience – it might be challenging or even boring – but it is an essential foundation for moving forward together as a movement. Second, we need to be willing to learn from our mistakes and, perhaps more importantly, we need to give each other permission to make them. Only then can we risk making ourselves vulnerable enough to really grow and stretch our capacities.

Finally, even as we keep these lines of communication open, we need to be comfortable with building a variety of communities. The feminist movement is huge and continues to grow. This is a fantastic and exciting thing! But it also means that it will naturally splinter off into sub-movements that better support the needs and interests of the wide variety of women who identify as feminists. Maybe we don’t need to all start on the same page. Maybe we just need to agree on where we’re going.

As we reflect on the Festival and start planning for future events, we will consider these lessons and keep focusing on opportunities for us to come together as a movement – to listen, to learn and to consider the question of ‘where to now for feminism?’.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Cristy Clark is a legal academic and chair of the Feminist Writers Festival.

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