The Power of Feminist Writing Amidst a Patriarchal Backlash

Last night I spoke at a wonderful event organised by Women Talk Back — a feminist group based at Bristol university. The bravery of young women prepared to stand up for their sex based rights in this climate of fear and repression moved and inspired me greatly. Thank you so much to the organisers for making this event possible. I was thrilled to have been asked to speak, so for those that couldn’t attend, here is what I had to say, minus a few ad-libs.

Hello, my name is Jeni Harvey and tonight I’m going to talk to you specifically about feminist writing on the internet, as that is mainly what I do. I write longform on Medium (previously for the Huffington Post before they decided I was a liability) and shortform on Twitter where I can be found enjoying a bit of argy bargy in our modern equivalent of the public square.

I actually came to the internet very late. About ten years ago when most people were already happily googling away, I was a single parent of three small children, living in social housing (I still do) and dependent on state benefits. I didn’t have either a computer or an internet connection. One Christmas my mother asked me what did I want and I said a set of encyclopaedias please. To which her reply was: “Fucks sake Jen, you really need to get on the internet. Nobody looks at encyclopaedias any more, what are you on about?” So for Christmas that year I got a big brick of a computer. And the first thing I did with it was start writing. I bought a big black and yellow striped book called blogging for dummies, somehow managed to set up a free blog on blogspot without a single clue what I was doing, and off I went.

So I started off essentially as a mummy blogger — I wrote about my life which consisted at that time almost solely of caring for small children — but with added feminist flavour because that is who I was, and it is who I am.

The internet blew me away. It still does. The idea that anyone with a connection had access to this vast wealth of information, that they could self publish and potentially disseminate their ideas to thousands upon thousands of people, just made my head go (exploding sign.) As far as I was concerned, the internet was the most disruptive technology since the wheel and I immediately saw how it could be an incredibly useful political tool. In common with this, feminism, done properly, is some seriously disruptive politics. And so put the two together and it was clear to me that feminists had much scope for being very disruptive indeed.

Growing up I was lucky enough to have a second wave feminist activist for a mother, and so to have been given a lot of feminist books to read. I read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch which — whatever you may think of Greer now — I still believe to be a brilliant, seminal work. Gloria Steinem’s essay, ‘If men could menstruate’ made the newly menstruating me thrill at how transgressively funny poking fun at male power could be. But it was Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth that for some reason really spoke to me.

The basic premise of The Beauty Myth was that the more freedom women gained with regards to being able to work outside the home, leave unhappy marriages, and generally lead more independent lives, the more the forces of patriarchy applied their pressure in other areas. Now of course in this book Wolf was specifically discussing beauty standards — her argument being that they became more extreme, more restrictive, and ever more impossible to live up to, the more so called “equality” women enjoyed. But it was the more general concept of a backlash always coming out of left field that I found so resonating and it is an idea that has stayed with me and that features a lot in my own writing.

It’s a concept that I think could not be more relevant right now. If we think about the last few decades and the ground women gained during feminisms second wave in terms of reproductive rights, workplace rights, refuges built and issues of sexual and domestic violence brought more out into the open, we can still see this pattern as we find ourselves under attack from multiple directions yet again.

The recent drive to criminalise abortion across many states in North America, to further commodify women’s bodies by opening up the sex and surrogacy trades to the free market, and the push to erase biological sex as a meaningful social and political category altogether, replacing it instead with the ill defined and nebulous concept of gender identity, I believe constitutes the kind of backlash Wolf was talking about on a grand scale.

Only of course this time we’re not talking about lipstick and thigh gaps. This time we are talking about women potentially being put to death because they cannot bear to carry their rapists child to term. We are talking about women coerced into prostitution via poverty, addiction and violence, able to be traded and brutalised by pimps and punters with impunity, their suffering reframed as active and authentic choice. We are talking about the destruction of women’s hard won services, spaces and resources in the name of rights for those who identify as transgender.

Always we women are firefighting. One blaze dies down over here, another ignites over there. It is a backlash created by a system that cannot allow women to be free; to rise up and be unencumbered, because it runs quite literally on our backs. It is us who perform the vast majority of unpaid labour in the home; us who gestate, labour, and birth the future workforce; us who care for the children, the elderly, and the sick. It is only us whose status is so easily reduced to that of domestic and sexual convenience.

I believe the current backlash is the most clever and vicious we have ever seen. Today our own language and movement is being used against us in an effort to invisibilise the material, sexed reality of women’s oppression. This means the structural analysis of an entire axis of oppression being effectively disappeared in the name of so called progress. For when there are no distinct female and male sex classes - when you can opt in and out dependent on your individual identity - sexism, in other words the subjugation of women by men because we are sexed female (and please let’s remember it was twenty five men who decided that no woman in the state of Alabama may end an unwanted pregnancy under any circumstances,) disappears. Now who is to say who has the power and who does not? Who is the oppressor and who the oppressed? The truth of who dominates who has dispersed, cloudy, like milk poured in water. Now it is just people… oppressing some other people… sometimes.

Except of course it isn’t, is it. Because reality remains the same, no matter what you call it. The “people” spending great chunks of their adult lives unable to pursue their dreams because they are too busy wiping arses, cooking the dinner, and scraping by on any low paid part time work they can fit around their caring responsibilities; the “people” imprisoned because they miscarried a pregnancy and cannot prove it was not self induced; the “people” murdered two a week by other “people” who claim to love them, and the barely yet adults forced to stand on Swansea high street selling blow jobs for a ten bag. Those “people” are, and have always been, female. Those people are women and girls.

Back to writing then, and in particular the power of feminist writing. Reading feminists shaped my life. It informed my world view and helped me grow into the thinking woman I am today. Later, writing as a feminist, particularly on the internet, would give me an outlet when I needed it most. A combination of small children, single parenthood, and no money kept me stuck in my home for a very long time. Nobody would ever have heard what I had to say without the internet — this wonderful tool we have for spreading ideas.

There will always be girls and women out there hungry for information. And so we absolutely must disrupt this current narrative of choice feminism. This feminism for men, as Julie Bindel calls it. This third wave, pseudo, post feminism that does not seek to dismantle any power structures, but instead pretend they are not there. Nobody is going to do it for us. But we do now have the power to reach people fast. Every single woman in this room has a potential direct line into the public consciousness.

So I’m going to end this talk on the power of feminist writing with a call to arms, which is: go home and write something. It doesn’t matter if you think your grammar’s a bit shit — my grammar is definitely a bit shit. Nobody cares, except my mother. Seriously, roll your sleeves up. Be a part of this conversation. You have the power to change peoples minds.

Thank you for listening.

Writer, feminist, mother.