“A diverse, quarrelsome, and important movement” was how Finn Mackay described the historical state of women’s liberation, and these words reverberated beyond themselves on Friday evening.
I sat down in Waterstones, geared up for an evening of radical feminism. The atmosphere was fizzing. Almost every seat was filled (mainly by women) and the buzz of noise circulated expectantly, nicely echoing the mood and hope surrounding the resurgence of feminism in wider society. “The sound system has broken” it was announced. No matter. This was surely a space where being heard wouldn’t be an issue.
The evening started with Finn giving an impassioned account of her deep involvement in the women’s peace movement. As a self-identified Greenham Common geek growing up, she moved to Menwith Hill peace camp in Harrogate, aged 17. She recalled the practical skills developed there (building disabled toilets, fixing vans etc) and the commitment to the shared principles of the movement.
Finn then usefully outlined the four fault lines of radical feminism: 1) Belief in the existence of a patriarchy; 2) Advocating women only spaces; 3) Belief in male violence against women as a keystone in their subordination; 4) Belief in the damage caused to women by prostitution, porn, and the wider sex industry. She noted how these never seemed particularly radical at all to her, just common sense.
And yet perhaps this does her an injustice. It is hardly fashionable, in feminist terms, to talk about the damaging impact of the sex industry. There is now, thankfully, increased awareness of intersectionality which has moved the discussion forward no end. However, a kind of liberal-socialist dogma has taken hold in a lot of mainstream feminism. Porn is shoved down our throats as empowering, we are urged to be ‘sex positive’ while also being called to recognise that sex work is work.
There is no question that we need to listen to sex workers and their accounts of their work, and need to advocate for legislation to make the conditions of work as safe as possible. But the damage that mainstream porn causes women’s sexualities is unquestionable. Its normalisation (mostly by men…) obscures its power for enforcing painful hetero-normative expectations. It was not discussed how we might reconcile beliefs about the damaging nature of the sex industry with socialism and workers’ rights, or the potential conflict between an individual’s empowerment and progress for the collective.
Regarding women’s only spaces, again more needed to be said. While I enjoyed hearing about the history and the positive effects of these spaces and all of Finn’s work with Reclaim the Night, there was no word on how this fits in with being trans inclusive and ensuring that we do not reproduce exclusivity politics in our own feminist spaces. Perhaps this was too much to ask of Waterstones at 7pm.
The evening drew to a close with discussion of Firestone and others. This was in line with the feel of the whole evening: drawing on the past in order to progress. Although a thoroughly engaging, pleasingly inter-generational, thought-provoking evening (and a lovely alternative/antidote to all things ‘lean in’), I was stirred most by some of the omissions, and trundled home trying to connect the dots. Echoing the statement at the start and its implications in the context of the evening, I remain struck at the potential divisiveness of what was not said and how we might push forwards together in spite of this. Perhaps we’ll find out in Finn’s book.
This blog post originally appeared on the Bristol Women’s Voice website.