On Feminism – (for Another Gaze)

ON FEMINISM – (for Another Gaze)

On January 1st  2016 I turned 66. I mention this immediately because one thing I learned from second-wave feminism is that the personal is political. Pretending to be younger than I am would play into the sad trope that post-menopausal women should just sink rather quietly into oblivion.

Last night I dreamt I was playing rugby on a muddy pitch. I managed to grab the ball, although rather strangely, in my dream, the ball not oval but round. I was surrounded by men in overcoats trying to wrestle it off me and I was clutching it desperately, looking for someone to pass the ball to, someone on my team, a woman. But there were no women left. The one or two who had been playing earlier had vanished. I called for time-out and the men immediately stepped back to let me say something. I protested that they were all on the same team and I had nobody on mine. They just shrugged blankly, “Well that’s the way it is.” It seemed very unfair but I didn’t know what to do about it, and then I woke up.

I don’t know why I dreamt this. I do have young women in my life I can pass the ball to. I was not terrified or even feeling that oppressed in the dream. It was just not right.

This morning I was asked whether I’d like to write for Another Gaze, and perhaps this dream made me think that I would despite having too many other things to do.

I love the word “feminism”. It winks and blinks at me so seductively. Feminist. Feminist theory. I want it. It has given me so much, including ways of thinking that have been very liberating. But I gradually started finding it hard to call myself a feminist.

I grew up in the British Community in Montevideo and Buenos Aires in the 1950’s. My mother and her friends seemed embittered and dissatisfied. They had regular tea parties where the main topic of conversation was complaining about their maids. They resented the impoverished women who worked and lived with them and endlessly chewed over how lazy, stupid and possibly dishonest they were. There was no common cause there.

I did not want to be like the women I knew. I reacted by announcing that I wanted to be a boy. I played rugby, climbed trees and smoked. I wanted to be magnificent. I wanted to be an artist.

I tore up the papers for the life I was meant to have by running away with an unemployed, working-class actor – and then running away from him too. By the time I was twenty I found myself marooned, wandering about Europe, barefoot, alone and puzzled with my baby son on my hip. It has been a bumpy ride but I have never regretted my refusal to follow the destiny mapped out for me, even though I had no idea what to replace it with. My actions caused my parents a whole heap of pain, convinced my brother never to step out of line and set me adrift for many years.

It was then, when I was 21 and a single mother, that I read Germaine Greer’s book The Female Eunuch. Greer argued fiercely that women were drained of life, “cut off from their capacity for action” and turned into eunuchs by deadly suburban marriages held up as the ultimate fulfillment. I knew exactly what she meant. The Female Eunuch tapped into my rage at the patriarchy, at the narrow prospects I had been offered. For a long time I was very mean to some very nice men because I was so afraid of being swallowed up by matrimony. But I never joined consciousness-raising groups: perhaps unfairly I thought they were another version of privileged women navel-gazing and complaining about their lot.  

My misgivings did not end there. “Most of the women in the world are still afraid, still hungry, still mute and loaded by religion with all kinds of fetters, masked, muzzled, mutilated and beaten,” wrote Greer in her foreword to the twenty-first anniversary edition of The Female Eunuch. Really? To this day I can’t believe any woman wants to be dismissed as such a poor thing. I also resented the victim label. I didn’t feel I had no agency, plus I knew deep inside myself that it was not all about gender.

I also had other things on my mind. Books are not a substitute for experience but key texts can tell you what you know but cannot fully see.  At seventeen I read Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and it shone a light on my world that shook me to the core. I knew immediately that I was one of the hated settlers whose “belly is always full of good things”. I would never forget the shanty towns I saw out of the train window as it sped from Retiro Station in Buenos Aires towards the white suburbs where I lived: “a world without spaciousness,” as Fanon called them, “a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light.”

I lurched into the Trotskyist left in my late twenties and early thirties and eventually that narrowly class based politics where the word ‘feminist’ was always preceded with ‘bourgeois’ and the truly disenfranchised were dismissed as ‘lumpen’ ended up being wearisome. 

So I stopped joining things and calling myself anything but stayed radical and did whatever I could – trying to tell the best truth I could, giving a voice to those nobody listens to. I made films in Leeds about post industrial communities challenging the sentimental notion that victimized workers were living in a sad vacuum, longing for the return of coal mining or factory work. I observed that there was a thriving, mostly criminal economy and I loved the inventiveness of these women and men and their refusal to lie down and be rolled over. Of course there are violent consequences to this life including mass incarceration particularly of young men but they are not supine. 

It is true that those who benefit from the insane ways of international capitalism are a tiny minority of (mainly) white men. The rest of us can argue about who suffers most, but what’s the point of that? Obscene poverty and oppression exist in the countries that supply us with the stuff we toy with and throw away. We unleash violence on other countries, then turn away the refugees who come to us for help. Close to home, young black men in the metropolis are thrown away, encouraged to kill each other and locked up in vast numbers when they do – let alone all the poor young men we send off to be killed and kill others who have done nothing to them. It seems to me that their lives are valued far less than ours as women. 

There were feminists who voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 because she was a woman – a woman who destroyed working-class communities. There are still women who will vote for the violently hawkish Hillary Clinton because she has a vagina.

In 2013 I received an award at the Women in Film and Television ceremony. In our goody bags were a hardback copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and some Mac make-up. The book was given to us because a young woman was being honoured for writing the screenplay for this retrograde rubbish. This is the inevitable, logical result of concentrating on gender to the exclusion of everything else.

Race and class. Class and race. Sexual identity and class. Race and sexual identity. These remain my obsessions and I continue to explore them in my work, because that is what I can do.

Something new and better is in the air.  All kinds of new movements from Occupy to Black Lives Matter are vibrant and alive. It was crystallised for me at an evening event at my Utopia installation at the Roundhouse in the summer of 2015 when a group of brilliant young women from Sisters Uncut took to the microphone. They were diverse, they were loud, they were furious and there is something glorious about them that lifts the spirits. They are about power and entitlement not victimhood.

I love this new wave. “Intersectional feminism” sounds wonderful. Maybe I can start calling myself a feminist again.

Penny Woolcock