Defanged and sprinkled with glitter, what does modern feminism offer girls today?

I was a little girl brought up by feminists. My mother was a radical activist in the 1980s and I grew up in amongst it all — attending demonstrations, painting banners, huddling around the campfires of Greenham Common women’s peace camp, and demonstrating stranglehold release techniques in the unapologetically woman-only self-defence classes my mother taught with her friend, Gill.

Her politics were a hugely influential part of my upbringing. For my mother and her friends, feminism was not an identity, a label, or an abstract concept — it was work, a verb, a doing word. It was an active attempt to improve the lives of women and girls; to liberate them from the male oppression that kept them second class citizens and prevented them from realizing their full potential.

Of my mothers many friends, it was Gill who would have the biggest impact on me. A charismatic, chain-smoking woman who never pulled her punches, Gill taught me about language: “The word hysterical comes from the Greek word, hyster, which means womb. When have you ever heard a man being described as hysterical?” She refused to water anything down and would call male violence for what it was. Once, when I described a perpetrator of domestic abuse in a book I had read as a monster, she cut me short: “Not a monster, Jeni. Just a man.” And when I disclosed my own experiences of being hurt by the man I was supposed to have been able to trust most in the world, she cared for me, let me talk on for hours, and let me rage without judgement. I admired her hugely.

I think back to my experience being a girl growing into womanhood and what Gill’s radically feminist teachings offered me. Inspiration, certainly, as well as support, safety, a thirst for change, and, most importantly, a filter through which I would not have to internalize all the hatred patriarchy threw my way. It gave me an understanding of sex as a class system, with men on top hoarding all the power. It gave me a sense of the collective power of women, of our ability to be greater together than the sum of our parts, to advocate for one another and to agitate as a group for the rights and freedoms due to us all. I am so grateful that, as a female growing up surrounded by male contempt, I at least had this one thing: a movement on my side that called out male supremacy and the ways in which it was enforced, that supported my anger and my right to kick against it.

Today, I am a grown woman with a daughter of my own — a little girl hungry to learn, smart as a whip, and teetering on the cusp of puberty. What I want very much is to pass down the gift of feminism as it was given to me — a gift of inspiration, of power, and the knowledge of a movement on her side.

Today’s girls still grow up surrounded by male contempt. The pornification of mainstream culture, of popular music and videos, and the constant scrutiny of social media sees their sexual objectification intensify. The conversation around their right to access abortion rages on. Cuts upon cuts are made to women’s domestic and sexual violence services, and astronomically expensive childcare costs inhibit their ability to work outside the home while no value is placed on the caring and domestic work done inside it. What might today’s third wave, liberal feminism have to offer my daughter and all the other little girls who are growing up in this precarious climate?

A fun, feel-good movement for everyone to join no matter their political affiliations, the third wave has seen feminism become fashionable. This, one might argue, can only be a good thing. But defanged and unchallenging in its attempt to become more palatable to the masses, feminism’s core values of liberation for women as a class have been pushed aside in favour of focusing on the more individualistic and neo-libertarian values of personal choice and advancement, on personal empowerment to the detriment of collective struggle, and on perceived individual oppression as opposed to systemic, structural inequality. As feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser, staunch critic of liberal feminism and what she views as its abandonment of social justice issues in favour of unfettered capitalism says, “Just about everyone claims to be feminist now, but what does that mean?”

In 2004, radical feminist and tireless campaigner against male sexual violence Andrea Dworkin declared, “If we give up now, younger generations of women will be told porn is good for them, and they will believe it.” In 2017 many do believe it. Feminism today tells our daughters their objectification is sexy, and that the gendered, commercial exploitation of their bodies can be an empowering and valid career choice. Never mind that the sex trade makes women hugely vulnerable to rape, assault, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Never mind that it is overwhelmingly men using their economic power to exploit women and girls. And never mind the lack of contextual analysis around this idea of “choice.” As far as today’s popular feminism is concerned, choices are made in a vacuum and anything a woman does is feminist so long as she “owns” it. Never before have we seen so many men clamouring to be feminists. If men love third wave feminism — and they do — it is because they know full well it will not seek to unseat them.

If patriarchy hurts men equally, then who does it benefit? What is it for? And why haven’t the men who run the world taken it to bits? Contemporary radical feminist Claire Heuchan writes:

“Under patriarchy, the male sex is the oppressor and the female sex the oppressed — that oppression is material in basis, reliant on the exploitation of female biology. It is impossible to articulate the means of women’s oppression without acknowledging the role played by biology and considering gender as a hierarchy — deprived of the language to articulate our oppression, language which queer politics deems violent or bigoted, it is impossible for women to resist our oppression.”

In her 1999 book, The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer wrote, “Real women are being phased out; the first step, persuading them to deny their own existence, is almost complete.” One does not have to agree with everything Greer says in order to see the terrifying relevance of this prediction. Feminism today seems hell bent on persuading our daughters they must centre men in their political activism, that patriarchy hurts men equally, and that if a man chooses to identify as a woman they must turn their energies towards advocating for him, not themselves. It tells them rape and sexual abuse are no longer gendered crimes and that they may not gather together to speak of the injustices that exclusively affect them, for to name them is hurtful and to gather is exclusionary. It is a feminism that tells them they have no right to political assembly on the basis of biological sex; that feminism is no longer even for and about women, that it belongs to everybody, and that what were once women’s issues are now human rights issues. It is a feminism that is eating itself.

It makes my heart hurt for all the daughters of today. They deserve far better. They, at very least, deserve what I had: a movement on their side, holding them front and centre, fighting for their rights. There are many feminists out there still doing good work but they are not the fun or popular kind and they labour in a hostile climate. We need to add our voices to theirs, to become greater than the sum of our parts.

About a decade ago now, Gill died, leaving behind daughters, grandchildren, and a partner of many years. I took my little girl, then just a baby, to her funeral. The hall was full to brimming with women Gill had loved and inspired, and who had loved and inspired her in return. I often wonder what she would have made of mainstream feminism today. I imagine she would not have mincing her words. I think she would say, “Push back with all your strength.” She would say that feminism belongs to women and girls, that it exists to liberate them, and that we must give them back what they have lost.

Jeni Harvey is a feminist and personal trainer living in Wales. She likes reading, writing, and lifting weights. Tweet her @GappyTales.

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