Speech: the power of feminist writing

This is the text of a speech I gave at an event organised by Women Talk Back at the University of Bristol, 28 May 2019. Women Talk Back is the sole female-only student feminist society in the UK. You can watch a recording of the event here. , and read Jeni Harvey’s speech about feminist writing and the internet here. How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ and Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin, which I quote in this speech, are both online as PDFs. 

If feminist writing wasn’t powerful, people wouldn’t work so bloody hard to discourage women from reading it.

And they really do work hard, although they’re usually subtle about it. Feminism is quietly cut from the canon, and when women’s writing does threaten to sneak through, there’s a systematic backlash.

Few people – Dominic Raab aside – come right out as anti-feminists now. Even the guys in masks outside protesting this event would say they’re the real feminists, and we’re the baddies.

Instead people will say that they support feminism, but not this particular feminist.

She’s too white, or too “vaginacentric” (real thing someone once said to me), too “sex negative”, too mumsy, too headgirlish, too crude.

They’ll support feminist writing, in other words, as soon as you can find them one perfect, unthreatening, well-behaved woman.

***

I’ve been a professional writer for about ten years now. I’m also a feminist. I guess that means that what I do is by definition “feminist writing”.

I’ve written about abortion rights. Stalking, rape and femicide. The wage gap.

But here is something interesting, and a bit shameful.

I was a feminist writer before I was a feminist reader.

It’s only since I hit my thirties that I’ve read much feminism at all.

And it’s only even more recently that I’ve started to wonder how I could have fallen into such a massive sin of omission.

***

There’s one theory which says we don’t know much about women’s writing because not much of it exists.

Women, says this theory, were too busy having endless babies and being oppressed to get very much down on paper before the second wave kicked in.

It sounds plausible.

But it isn’t true. Or anyway, it isn’t the whole truth.

Women have always been writing.

And women’s writing has always been suppressed.

Actually, there’s a fantastic book about this by a writer called Joanna Russ.

It’s called How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

If you haven’t heard of it, it’s because of exactly the thing she’s writing about.

How is women’s writing suppressed? Here is what Russ wrote, in 1983:

“informal prohibitions (including discouragement and the inaccessibility of materials and training), denying the authorship of the work in question (this ploy ranges from simple misattribution to psychological subtleties that make the head spin), belittlement of the work itself in various ways, isolation of the work from the tradition to which it belongs and its consequent presentation as anomalous, assertions that the work indicates the author’s bad character and hence is of primarily scandalous interest or ought not to have been done at all (this did not end with the nineteenth century), and simply ignoring the works, the workers, and the whole tradition, the most commonly employed technique and the hardest to combat.”

From Sappho in the classical era, to Christine de Pizan in the Middle Ages, to Margaret Cavendish in the seventeenth century, women have always been writing.

None of the women I’ve just mentioned would have called themselves feminists, because the word didn’t exist.

It didn’t exist when Mary Wollstonecraft was writing her Vindication either.

But if feminism is the rejection of men’s authority over women, we can find threads of it in all their work.

As the word feminism appeared in the nineteenth century, the women’s movement boomed and so did its literature. Philosophical tracts. Pamphlets. Histories. Novels.
There was another flourishing from the 1960s to the 1980s, with the second wave. And around those key epochs, you’ll find other women producing incisive, inspiring feminist writing.

And yet, when I was taught about feminism at university in the early years of this century, none of these women showed up on the syllabus.

I studied English. When I was taught about feminism at university, it was one week of a semester-long course on literary theory. Which means one week devoted to women’s writing and the rest given over to men without comment.

And the one writer chosen to represent the entire movement was Judith Butler. A writer so hopelessly apolitical that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum called Butler the “professor of parody”.

***

Discarding all the feminists who aren’t Butler is an example of “simply ignoring” from Russ’s list, and it was a very effective way to stop me coming across other types of feminism.

But there are also all the other forms of suppression that Russ described.

And of everything on Russ’s list, THIS is the one I think we need to be most alert to:

“assertions that the work indicates the author’s bad character and hence is of primarily scandalous interest or ought not to have been done at all”

There’s not one feminist writer in history who hasn’t suffered this fate. Look at the way Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation was trashed after her death because of her unconventional sex life.

Today, feminist writers are systematically pushed out the canon for being “problematic”.

For being “privileged”. For being “swerfs” – the ugly little curse word that stands for “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist” – and “terfs” – that’s “trans exclusionary radical feminist”. Those who’ve seen the word in the wild can testify that it’s used to abuse and threaten women.

The rationale is different but the result is the same.

And the most powerful thing about this is that self-described feminists will gleefully police their own movement’s history out of existence.

Take Betty Friedan, who kicked off the second wave in America with her book The Feminine Mystique.

Friedan, we’re told, was a homophobe and only cared about middle-class women. And for that reason, her book should be ignored.

Well, Friedan was a homophobe. Like many in the mid-twentieth century, she swallowed the Freud-influenced pathologizing of same-sex desire, and her ugly comments about the “lavender menace” split the women’s movement.

And her book is about middle-class women.

But don’t middle-class women deserve liberation?

Her book is a blazing commentary on women’s domestic exploitation and false consciousness.

Can’t women be interesting and important without being pure? You know, like men are allowed to be.

Read The Feminine Mystique, and I guarantee you’ll agree passionately with loads of it, and you’ll disagree with chunks of it too. I did. And that disagreement, that conversation with the history of the movement, is vital.

The Nigerian novelist and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been called a “terf”.

Her crime? Refusing to pretend that sex has no substance, and rejecting the vapid statement: “transwomen are women”.

Adichie writes sublimely about female desire. Male violence. Identity, and the seductions of identity politics.

But because she holds fast to the notion that femaleness matters, she’s been treated in some quarters as one of the untouchables.

And then there’s Andrea Dworkin.

It took me a long time to read Dworkin, because her reputation preceded her. And her reputation was the epitome of “the kind of feminist you don’t want to be”.

Unfuckable. Uncompromising. And according to the nasty insinuations that followed her death, mad.

Dworkin gets called a “swerf” because she treated prostitution as violence against women.

No matter that she had actually been prostituted herself and knew what she was talking about. No matter that we was a fiercely talented literary critic, who will change the way you read – if you read her.

Her writing has been held up against twenty-first century standards and found wanting. So it must be discarded.

***

Of course, there’s always the possibility that it’s the twenty-first century version of feminism that’s wrong, rather than Dworkin.

There’s a dominant strand of feminism today – dominant in the media, although not at grassroots level – that seems to exist in order to pick women apart.

To attack women’s freedom of speech and freedom of association.

To defend men’s sexual exploitation of women.

To make it impossible to talk about sex, and consequently impossible to talk about sexism.

It’s a strand that a lot of men seem very comfortable with. In fact some of its most active enforcers are male.

Is that really a version of feminism that works for women?

***

Andrea Dworkin said that:

“Men often react to women’s words – speaking and writing – as if they were acts of violence; some men react to women’s words with violence.”

It’s true.

Look at the way women like Julie Bindel have been threatened and assaulted for their feminism.

(And let’s look too at pornography, which happens to be made almost entirely by and for men, and is treated as “free speech” even though it routinely records acts of violence against women then offers them as entertainment.)

But feminist writing is a threat to men’s power. That’s why it’s perceived as “violence”.

Yes, there are women who go along with this. But we should ask:

Who benefits if the history of feminism is erased for being “problematic”?

And the answer is:

Men benefit by being left unchallenged.

***

Feminist writing can only be powerful if it has readers.

So read.

Read curiously. Read omnivorously. Read argumentatively – just because you read something, you don’t have to accept it.

Go looking for feminist writing. It’s very rare that it will be handed to you.

But if we don’t read feminist writing, we will end up having the same arguments again and again. Paddling in the same small circles. Achieving nothing.

Think about some of the big issues feminism needs to address in the twenty-first century.

Take women’s unpaid labour: there is a massive body of writing on this. Yet I recently reviewed a book that called for feminism to take on economics, as though this was a radical new suggestion.

But here’s the thing: feminism has been taking on economics. For more than a century. We don’t have to start from nothing.

The arguments we have about pornography are shaped by the internet, but they were presaged by the “sex wars” of the 1980s.

We could endlessly relitigate them as though they’ve never been discussed before. Or we could look at the debate already laid out, and find a way forward from that.

Without feminist writing, we are stuck. We have no movement.

So reject the purity tests. Defy the limits of the canon. And read.