Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Between The Waves: Experiences at the 2014 Feminism in London conference

The Feminism in London conference made me feel uncomfortable. It also made me feel elated, disgusted, relieved and confused. And in that regard, I would say that it did its job. Feminist conversations are oftentimes uncomfortable.

However, as I am what some people are terming a "fourth wave feminist", I sometimes feel caught between, or perhaps under the various waves of feminism. And I must admit, I'm not entirely satisfied with any of them. That perhaps, is also the point. Feminism must move forward as it encounters new barriers to the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.

I felt particularly caught between these waves when listening to the opening speech of the conference by Gail Dines. She called for a return to radical feminism, which originated in the 1960s with the rise of second wave feminism. Radical feminism's fly in the ointment is patriarchy; male domination over all aspects of society. Now, as a modern day intersectional feminist, I have a bone to pick with this idea; for example, what about race? What about class? Sexuality? Trans rights? I would argue that as a white, middle class, heterosexual woman, I have more privilege than a black, working class, lesbian woman; I get a bigger slice of the pie. Intersectionality is about being mindful of this and supporting all our sisters in their struggles against the multiple oppressors they face.

 I also believe that men have their place in this too, and can effect positive change, so long as they don't attempt to dominate a movement that is primarily about women's rights. Case in point the recent cock-up with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg wearing "This is what a feminist looks like" t shirts which were allegedly made by women under sweatshop conditions. If true, this is certainly an  utter outrage, but to my mind also rather begs the question: what were these men doing making the feminist conversation about them? At which point we return to the issue of patriarchy. These men are the living embodiment of the word, taught to believe everything is always about them. It's up to "scrappy upstarts", i.e. the thousands of women who attended and supported the Feminism in London conference, to remind them that it's not. This is a message from the speeches at the conference that I wholeheartedly embrace: that feminist revolution is a collective effort. That we must pull together to make our voices heard.

There was a strong focus on the increasing "pornification" of our culture at the conference. The next day, I was idly scrolling through Tumblr when I happened upon a fashion editorial advertising a new line of Barbie-themed garments. One of the t shirts proclaimed the legend "This bod's for you." Many women today claim that they don't need feminism; some because they think feminist = man-hater, some because they believe there is equality now, so what's the point of feminism? Well, I would argue that when our own bodies are not for us is precisely the point at which we need feminism. That's not even taking into account the disparity in what men and women are paid for equivalent jobs, to give but one example of inequality.

A young woman who is painfully aware of this inequality is Freya Pigott. In Freya's own words: "I am a 16 year old student with a love for standing up for what I believe in." And what Freya believes is that injustices committed against women have to stop.


As part of The Art of Feminism exhibition which made an appearance at the conference, Freya exhibited a textile piece entitled I wish the content of this would age quicker than the fabric will disintegrate.

The mismatched fabric squares making up the work are machine embroidered with statistics related to gender inequality and observations on the misogyny Freya encounters in society today.




I found the below the most harrowing: More people would dial 999 if they were to witness animal rather than domestic abuse.






Creating this piece was a considerable act of bravery for Freya; some of her classmates criticised her efforts, asking what the point was, and stating that "it wouldn't change anything"'; as if art has never changed the world!

I was invited along to the Feminism in London conference by Catherine of Significant Seams, to document a discussion on how craft can change the world.

Catherine was joined by Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective and Deadly Knitshade to present the talk Crafting Politics. Creativity couched as craft rather than art was important here; the speakers concluded that art is less accessible and more exclusive than craft, which is a form of creativity which transcends class, gender, and race divisions. Of course, the particular forms of craft discussed by the speakers, stitching, knitting, and patchwork, are to a large extent still gendered female, though "manbroiderers" such as Mr X Stitch are doing their best to debunk this. However, as Roszsika Parker notes in The Subversive Stitch, the very term "manbroidery" wards off the associations with "trivial" femininity embroidery still holds.



Through her work with the Craftivist Collective, Sarah Corbett has encountered some male activists who say of Craftivism that it's "crap"; that activists need to be angry, to shout, to effect change. Sarah argues that she is channelling her anger to reach the right audiences, and simultaneously creating joyousness out of anger. This reminds me of a glorious cross stitched quotation I saw once: "I sublimate my rage through needlework". Craft can be political in unexpected ways, partially as consequence of its "girly", "fluffy" associations.

As Deadly Knitshade noted, when you tell people that you are protesting or raising awareness through needlework or knitting, they relax and say "Oh, that's really interesting". In a similar way, colleagues in a school I was working in recently couldn't seem to reconcile the fact that I wear a lot of pink lace with the fact that I'm a "rampant" feminist; my feminism and Craftivism are thus both slightly stealthy forms of politics.

Craftivism is neither high (elitist) art or confrontational (scary) activism. It is Craftivism; activism using craft in a quietly beautiful way.

Returning to the theme of second wave feminism for a moment; Catherine argued that textile crafts were thrown under the bus by second wave feminists in the 1970s, just as research was beginning to indicate that they were the most effective hobbies for better mental health and deeper relaxation.

 I concede that during the second wave domesticity was in feminist firing lines, and needlecrafts were part of this domestic sphere (hello, the enduring phenomenon of Jane Austen). However, during the 1970s a number of feminist artists turned to textile craft as a means of self-expression and manifestation of "the personal is political"; the collaborative work of Judy Chicago particularly springs to mind. During each wave of feminism, craft has played its part; think of appliqu├ęd Suffrage banners in the first wave; of Womanhouse and The Birthday Party (both instigated by Chicago) in the second; of Craftivism, and the reclamation of craft as an undervalued, gendered art form in the third.

In each wave, in each era, there is much to be proud of in the efforts of feminists, craftswomen, and women who fit into both categories (why, hello there). I think there will be much to be proud of in the waves which follow, as well.

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