Negotiating Neoliberalism: Uncovering Narratives of Women’s Everyday Activism in Changing Times
Dr Katy Jenkins ‘Making the Extraordinary Everyday: Women’s anti-mining activist’s narratives of staying put and carrying on in Peru and Ecuador.
This paper discussed the way in which everyday and small scale activism can be seen as significant sites of feminist struggle, focussing on women involved in anti-mining activism in Peru and Ecuador. Whilst much research focuses on the macro, Jenkins’ research drew on Scott’s (1986) and Cheru’s (2005) concepts of activism as small scale, or as Scott suggests, a ‘prosaic but constant struggle (1986:8). Jenkins discussed her research which involved in depth interviews with 27 women activists. Jenkins discussed the way in which the work of activists included not accepting gifts from the mining company and refusing to move. These actions, Jenkins suggests are everyday confrontation, they are not high profile and suggest that the extraordinary can be done within women’s everyday lives. Despite often encountering increasingly violent repression and intimidation , Jenkins discussed discussed the way in which the small acts of women involved in anti mining groups blurs the boundaries between what is seen as activism, as the women themselves do not often see themselves as acrtivists.
Laura Hutchinson ‘Pursuing “Small Revolutions”: Personal Action and Resistance Day by Day in India
Hutchinson discussed the way in which small activism is often in conflict with the desires for NGOs to pursue large scale and externally funded projects. Hutchinson discussed her current research which focuses on four case studies of NGOs in India, noting that there is often a conflict between the need or desire for NGOs to stage large scale protests and the more hidden forms of activism in the Tamil Nadu region of India. The paper highlighted the way in which, the marketisation of NGOs mean that fundraising becomes increasingly important, creating a conflict between NGO workers who recognise the importance of small scale activism, and the NGOs who may desire a more high profile approach. Drawing on research by Stahell and Cope (1994) amongst others, the paper highlighted the way in which hidden activism can provide opportunities for women in Tamil Nadu, often bypassing the strict rules of the patriarchal council regarding women’s activities. However, whilst noting that hidden activism can often provide a covert way for women to do activism within a patriarchal culture, their hidden nature required the activism to be done in devious ways, as making the authorities aware of the activism could lead for it to be stopped.
Dr Carol Stephenson ‘The Eye of the Beholder: The Use of Photographic Images by Female Activists in the Fight for Justiec for Mineworkers in Cape Breton Island
This paper discussed the way in which female activists used photographs in order to produce an emotional response in order to affect change. As miners were made redundant in Cape Breton Island, conflict around the pension allotted the those now out of work lead to campaign led by two women, Edna Lee and Bev Brown. The main contention was the that the use of a cut off point meant that many men were left without a pension and the health benefits that came with it. The paper discussed the impact that mining has had on the area, suggesting that it is an integral part of the culture and community of the area, and that it was the divisive impact of the pension fund allocation that caused the women’s mobilisation. The paper discussed the way that the women used photographs in meetings with officials in order to generate an emotional response and in order to make the officials see the men how they saw them. Key to the activist’s campaign was the use of emotive language and an emphasis on the loss of dignity that the loss of mining an the pension allocation will cause. The paper emphasised the way that the photographs were used both as a method of negotiation, but also as a stimulus and as a reminder of what the women were fighting for.
Reena Shadaan ‘“We are the women of Bhopal. We are flames, not flowers!” Maternal Activism in the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal
Shadaan’s paper discussed the way that female activism in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas disaster can be read in relation to the concept of mothering and motherhood. The paper pointed to the fact that most activists were women and that a motherist motivation was key for many women, especially as many activists had children who were born with birth defects as a result of the disaster. However, Shadaan suggested that as well as a personal involvement, the women could also be seen as mothering on a larger scale. Drawing on Patricia Hill Collins’ idea of other mothering, the paoer suggested that for the women, their activism was strongly linked to class oppressions as community solidarity was a necessity. Shadaan suggested that the women can be seen as subverting the traditional notion of motherhood by using their personal stories in a political way, in a manner linked to feminist ideas of the personal as politcal. By making mothering political, the women reject traditional notions of mothehood and submissiveness. Furthermore, the paper points to the way that activism has been passed down from mothers to daughters as well as the way that activism has gave women more power and agency.
Feminist Politics and Women’s Writings
This panel contains four papers that all in some way engage with the relationship between feminist politics and the deployment of genre. From myth to poetry through to the “feminist blockbuster” and the Sikh woman’s novel each of these speakers interrogate what exactly these forms offer, proffer and contest in regards to feminism and women’s writing.
Prof. Maninder Kapoor and Dr Seema Singh, ‘What the Female Body Remembers: Shauna Singh Baldwin and Feminist Narratology’
Kapoor and Singh explore the tension between women’s experience as a site of shared oppression yet, simultaneously, being represented by a multitude of diverse cultural, racial, and social voices. Raising questions about the gendering of storytelling and narrative, the paper embraces the metaphor of the “growl” in talking about women’s writing and their argument gives women’s voices a sense of empowerment. Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers serves as an illuminating case study in which they place the female body – as their title suggests – directly into the text to make the case for this feminist narratology. Crucially, this depiction of Sikh women’s experience in the novel places the othered and marginal on the centre stage and thus dismantles the phallocentric binary itself. Concluding the analysis: it is rhetorical writing with a feminist that marks narrative out as a form of protest and whilst the tools are the same, but the intent is always protest.
Dr Anthea Taylor, ‘The Politics and Possibilities of “Blockbuster” Feminism’
The “feminist blockbuster” as a means of feminist mobilisation? Taylor interrogates the divide surrounding texts such as Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman to debate the divergent reception of the “feminist blockbuster” in popular culture and the academy. But, more broadly, the paper asks how has the form been put to use in culture historically? Taylor suggests that popular publishing is important to feminism in moving it forward into the wider society and culture. In recognising these narratives are hermetically sealed, Taylor explores what happens when these texts start to undertake their “public life”. The “feminist blockbusters” upholds the limitations of commercial feminism and, as bell hooks argues, are often written by and for white, middle-class women. Taylor argues that we shouldn’t perceive these texts as politically dubious but interrogate their feminist politics and realise their possibilities for speaking to and about feminism.
Linda Rhinehart, ‘Ecopoetry: A new Frontier in Women’s Writing’
Beginning by establishing a clear link between ecopoetry and women writers by showcasing how many contemporary ecopoets are indeed women, Rhinehart makes the case for this new frontier of genre and gender study. Returning to the gendering of space and the association of nature with the female body, the paper offers a clear means of delineating this theoretical and literary intersection. Artistic creativity merges with the politics that is at the heart of both genre (ecopoetry) and gender (women) and from this relationship a troubling of ideology emerges that seeks to challenge dominant discourses on many levels. The discussion of Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Spring’ and Linda Hogan’s ‘Rapture’ offer two interesting readings of the burgeoning field of contemporary women’s ecopoetry.
Victoria Oldham, ‘Reimagining or Reification? Rewriting Gender Roles in Contemporary Literature’
At the heart of this paper is the question of whether by re-writing myth women writers can indeed achieve Angela Carter’s desire to (I paraphrase here) – put new wine in old bottles until the old bottles smash – and thus re-imagine subversively these women’s lives, or, if in actuality they only serve to fuel the dominance of the patriarchal original and proscribed gender roles. Oldham’s paper provokes some interesting questions around the problems of this entanglement and asks whether or not women can protest in this narrative mode or merely conform? In asking these questions the paper also manages to raise broader questions about how we can circumnavigate the limitations of gender roles per se. Three books that engage in this question particularly well, Oldham suggests, are Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Margaret George’s Helen of Troy.
Modern Movements and Mobilisations
Dr. Helen Hester (Middlesex University). “A(ffe)ctivism: The Mobilization of Emotional Response in Feminist Protests”
The focus of this talk engages with the way feminism appeals to affects and emotions, and in particular the subculture of Riot Grrrl emerging from the punk movement in the 1990s. Zines associated with the movement are seen as exploiting feminist anger and visceral reactions. Dr. Helen Hester looks at their goals and reminds the audience of the accusation of “man-hating” commonly levelled at women expressing anger, which explains how the punk aesthetic of the zines became a way of reflecting their content in their form. The cut-and-paste techniques, for instance, remake the female body through fragmentation, which is also present in feminist practice. Dr. Helen Hester mentions Barbara Kruger and other collage artists who use found images and re-contextualise them, creating an aesthetics of anger stemming from the juxtaposition of conflict within the works themselves as well as between the works and society. Confronting the viewer with a destabilising experience is seen as a means to physically engage with them. If the body genres consist in performing extreme reactions to trigger emotion in the viewer, Dr. Helen Hester reframes them to explore the effect on the audience’s bodies. The immediate appeal of the zines to anger are seen as fostering identification and corporeal mobilisations through anger, and thus provide space and legitimisation for rage. The talk ends on a warning note attracting attention to the possible undesired consequences of an uncompromising take on sensitive issues such as child abuse, including the risk of problematic appropriation and the lack of trigger warning. Several studies also show that anger can motivate people but fails, as a political means, to achieve specific goals, hence the example of pragmatic activists hiding their anger from the public space to avoid what they see as damaging their cause.
Isobelle Barrett Meyering (University of New South Wales, Australia). “Everyday Protests: Socialist Feminism and the Lifestyle Politics of Women’s Liberation in Australia.”
This paper looks at second-wave feminism’s focus on transformation of the self and way of life. Isobelle Barrett Meyering reminds the audience of the strong presence of socialist feminists in the feminist movement. She focuses on the Australian feminist journal Scarlet Woman (1975-1991) which was not tied up to any political organisation but had a strong socialist leaning. She also explains the defensiveness of socialist feminists towards radical feminists forming the majority of the movement. Indeed, the journal’s critique of lifestyle politics as ‘personal solutions’ reflected this defensiveness. ForScarlet Woman, the right interpretation of the feminist slogan “the personal is political” meant seeing one’s experiences as connected to those of other women and thus as a political rather than individual problem. However it did not mean that personal transformation was necessary. They also warned that too great a focus on lifestyle change could lead to feminists losing touch with ‘ordinary’ working-class women and rendering their politics ineffective.Scarlet Woman considered lifestyle politics as personal rules to live by but not as the drive for wider social change. Isobelle Barrett Meyering gives the examples of journal members Joyce Stevens and Janet Wahlquist’s attempts at collective living as evidence of them recognising the appeal of lifestyle change as well as its limitations. Communal living was then embraced as an alternative to the nuclear family and a way of living one’s politics, but not necessarily considered effective to foster large-scale social and political change.
Dr. Vikki Turbine (University of Glasgow). “Rethinking Women’s Political Activism in Contemporary Russia.”
The topic of this talk is the question of women’s involvement in post-Soviet Union Russia. Before 2012 and the Pussy Riot case, the lack of visibility of young women in the Russian political and social sphere could be ascribed to a rejection of participation and a rejection of the concept of equality derived from the memory of communist totalitarianism. The increased influence of conservative politics and orthodox religion could also be responsible for this situation. Dr. Vikki Turbine’s focus is a study of the wide political spectrum of women’s activism, whether pro or anti regime, and the way they use the female body (including Pussy Riot and Femen). Dr Turbine takes the the example of the “Calendar Girls” (2010) and explains her quantitative methodology relying on tracking links online and looking at comments. The original calendar was illustrated with photographs of journalism students in lingerie wishing Putin a happy birthday, then a response calendar was made by other journalism students asking Putin questions on human rights issues. The study of responses from the comments varied but concentrated on two main areas: whether the women’s bodies were sexualised and how intelligent they looked.Very few comments mentioned women’s objectification, feminism, or opposition politics. Dr. Turbine concludes that that even though women are getting involved in activism they are not always viewed as such, which could account in part for the marginalisation of young women within larger political movements. Her main concern regards the risk of Russia closing down the space for contestation due to conservative political and religious authorities, including a monitoring of online space.
Histories of Feminist Resistance and Protest- Notes from around the world
Prof. Samira Khawaldeh (University of Jordan, Jordan), ‘Women’s Protests in the Age of Phrophethood’
Professor Samira Khawaldeh’s presented her historical research, which explores women’s protests during the formative moment of Islam in 610-632, suggesting that this context is important for understanding contemporary protests within Muslim societies. She highlighted how the spirit of protest is important within Islam, pointing as an example to the concept of Jihad, and the fact that the greatest Jihad is considered to be speaking the word of truth in the face of a dictator. Professor Khawaldeh’s research highlights how women were active participants of the newly emerging community of Islam in the 7th century, with both the first Muslim (Khadijah) and the first martyr (Sumayyah) being women (Sumayyah was a slave woman who protested against her master for the freedom to be a Muslim and was tortured to death). Justice is a central value within Islam, and Qu’ranic discourse from this period supported the idea that women and men were equal. Professor Khawaldeh shared verses from the Qu’ran which emphasise this, pointing to, among other examples, the non-gendered language of insan (human being), nas (the human speices) and nafs (soul or mind). Other verses tell of women coming together to organise against their oppression by men in their lives, and sending representatives to the Prophet to complain and protest their treatment. In all reported cases, the Prophet responded positively and granted their requests and supported their rights. Professor Khawaldeh concluded by bringing the discussion back to the present, arguing for the importance for young Muslim women activists to learn about this history and consider its significance for contemporary protest movements within Muslim societies (as even if they are familiar with it, they often dismiss its contemporary relevance). She argued that the “spirit of public belonging” for women which is evident from these historical narratives should be brought back as a model of protest of value within contemporary protest movements.
Prof. Maria DiCenzo (Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada), ‘Challenging Theories of Abeyance – Feminist Activism in the Interwar Years in Britain’
Professor Maria DiCenzo’s paper highlighted the significance of paying attention to women’s organising in Britain in the interwar period. Her paper was organised around two questions: 1) what happened to the women’s movement after the first world war? and 2) how might we rethink our current theories of periods and phases of women’s mobilisation in order to capture these developments more fully? The interwar period (as well as the fifties) is often characterised within the narrative of British feminism as one of decline and demise, blamed on a loss of focus following the success of the suffrage campaign and a resulting fragmentation among feminist activists following. These assumptions have obscured widespread feminist activities in the aftermath of the first world war. Instead of a narrative of demise and fragmentation, Professor DiCenzo argues that it is more productive to consider this period of women’s organising as one of pluralisation and diversification. The fight for the vote had been a unifying goal for feminist activists at the beginning of the 20th century, and following the success of this campaign, women’s activists were suddenly faced with a whole new set of concerns. The sheer amount of issues which women were facing meant there was a lack of consensus about how to take the movement forward. As a result, women’s organisations required space and time to develop coherent political goals and demands. This was important work that needed to be done, and should not be considered as evidence of a movement in decline. Professor DiCenzo’s research highlights the need to draw on a wider range of empirical documents in order to map this moment of women’s activism, as where we look of course influences the kind of data that we generate. In particular it is important to look at documents from the women’s organisations that were active at this time. Paying attention to the discourses emerging from these sources highlights a need to look beyond insurgency as the only recognisable form of activism. Rather than describing the movement as in abeyance or decline, it is important to look closely at the kind of work feminist activists were doing in order to develop new strategies and organising priorities in response to a new set of concerns. Paying attention to this work forces us to rethink our theories of mobilisation, and also raises questions (alongside the problematising of the wave metaphor) about the dominant periodisation of the history of feminism.