A week ago today, The Terry Project hosted a BARTalk that sought to assess how feminism fared in 2014. Panelists Lucia Lorenzi (PhD candidate in the English Literature department), Jarrah Hodge (blogger at Gender Focus) and Scott Anderson (professor in the philosophy department) discussed the events that gave feminism major media coverage over the past year, and whether they represented any “watershed moments” or, at least, “teachable moments” that progressed the struggle against the patriarchy. Eventually, the emcee closed the panel by asking (and I’m paraphrasing slightly here): will 2015 be the “year of feminism”?
I don’t want to dump on the Terry Project here, who I know to be great feminist allies that do important work on campus. However, I am interested, more generally, in this idea of the “year of feminism,” because it’s a trope that seems to pop up in a lot of places. Time magazine recently published an article, for example, entitled “This May Have Been the Best Year for Women Since the Dawn of Time.” I have also seen this “year of feminism” narrative appear in feminist discussion spaces and communities. Intimately connected to this is the idea of “watershed moments” or “breakthroughs” that are conceptualized as single turning points in the state of global gender relations. I understand the impulse to look back on a year, the desire to subtract the bad from the good and then extrapolate from the remainder. But overall, I think our desire to classify this year or that year as the one pivotal “year of feminism” is an impulse that we should resist and question. Why?
We live in a consumerist culture of instant gratification. For those of us privileged enough to have the internet at our fingertips, we are frustrated when our connection lags and makes us wait an entire minute to get the results of a google search. Here in the West, my generation grew up watching action-packed movies that tell the story of a lifetime yet reach resolution in an hour and a half. We were taught that if you have a need and you have the financial means, you fill it by going to the store and purchasing something. In sum: in a culture of constructed wants, we have gotten used to getting what we want, and we have gotten used to getting it immediately.
In the conversation around feminism, this culture of instant gratification encourages us to see every event and development in isolation, to forget the ongoing struggles and the long histories of struggle that came before. We’re on the edge of our seats waiting for ‘the moment’ that changes everything. We want to be able to proclaim that “feminism has won, once and for all” after one major incident. We are unaccustomed to the idea of long, slow battles that can’t be won overnight, that require years upon years of community organizing and coalition building.
I remember the aftermath of one of 2014’s highly publicized events, back when Emma Watson’s UN speech was going viral. Quite a few people messaged me and asked me what I thought this meant, whether I thought this was the beginning of the feminist revolution. Emma Watson’s speech, however, was far from the beginning. As Black feminist blogger Mia McKenzie wrote at the time: “[Watson] seems to suggest that the reason men aren’t involved in the fight for gender equality is that women simply haven’t invited them and, in fact, have been unwelcoming. […] This is an absurd thing to suggest. Women have been trying to get men to care about oppression of women since…always. Men have never been overwhelmingly interested in fighting that fight, because it requires them giving up power and all evidence suggests that’s not their super-fave thing.” Not to forget that the text and spirit of Watson’s speech has roots in white feminist “equal rights” discourses that have been around and evolving since at least the 18th century.
The struggle against the patriarchy has a long history on this continent, longer than conventional (white) narratives would have us believe. Before I go further, I want to situate myself here as a white settler, and stress that there is an important role for settlers to play as allies in the processes and struggles of decolonization. And as someone who originally came to feminism through academic writing, learning about decolonization has had vast consequences for my understanding of feminist resistance and its history.
As Cherokee feminist Andrea Smith writes, we tend to speak of feminism in waves that begin with the suffragettes. As a result, “this periodization situates white middle-class women as the central historical agents to which women of colour attach themselves. However, if we were to recognize the agency of indigenous women in an account of feminist history, we might begin with 1492 when Native women collectively resisted colonization.” When we look at the mass media feminist conversations of 2014 – Beyonce at the VMAs (see 10:26), Emma Watson at the UN, GamerGate, the rise of Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, the pushback to Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, the reaction to Elliot Rodger, #YesAllWomen, Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win, and so on and so on – as important as these moments are, we need to situate them in relation to the feminist struggles that have existed on these lands since before European contact.[*] We also need to remember that gender oppression, as it operates on Turtle Island today, was brought to this continent as a tool of colonialism and enforced through physical violence and racist/sexist legislation. Indigenous women have resisted patriarchal oppression every single year for centuries and continue to resist. So… no, Emma Watson’s speech was not the “beginning.” Far from it.
These origins and histories of resistance are essential to grasping where we are today. In the words of scholar Kiera Ladner: “There have been and will continue to be countless seemingly “little things from which big things grow” on Turtle Island. […] Little things like the women (including Sandra Lovelace, Jeanette Corbière Lavell and Irene Bédard) who refused to leave and/or returned to their reserves after they had married non-status men, gotten divorced or been widowed and who brought this gendered inequality to the Canadian Courts, the constitutional talks, the United Nations, and the International Court of Justice. […] The echoes of these past resistances continue to be heard.” Likewise, the legacies and ongoing struggles of Black feminism, Muslim feminism, trans feminism, and all other feminisms are the context to any “main event” we see play out in the contemporary moment. Though long-form narratives and nuanced contexts may not satisfy our generation’s desire for immediate gratification and simple resolution, we can’t erase these histories to make a conveniently blank page for a single, pivotal “year of feminism.”
I’m also not swayed by the (milder) retrospective tendency to classify this year or that year “a good year for feminism.” As far as I’m concerned, every year that feminism persists is “a good year for feminism.” The resilience of women and allies who continue to resist a system that suffocates and silences them, who continue this fight against all odds, is a powerful thing – whether those struggles make it onto the six o’clock news or not.
So, to finally answer the question, ‘will 2015 be the “year of feminism?”, my answer would have to be: of course it will be. Just as 2014 was the year of feminism. And 2013 before that. And 1492 before that. Because every year is the “year of feminism.” And us feminists know that we can’t let the anticipation of “watershed moments” stop us from building a movement.
[*] Note: I want to acknowledge here that this tendency to erase the struggles of Indigenous women and overlook their contributions to feminist organizing is by no means limited to reflections on feminism’s past. The work of Indigenous feminists continues to be erased. It is telling that the organizing around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women on Turtle Island – including the hashtags #MMIW, #ItEndsHere and #imnotnext/#aminext – is largely absent from mainstream/whitestream feminist retrospectives of last year’s events. I encourage you to read the writings of Indigenous feminists on these topics, such as the articles here, here, and here. This article, which challenges the mainstream conceptions of what “gender equality” looks like in Indigenous nation-building, is also a transformative read.
Special thanks to Sarah King, Matthew Ward, Samantha Nock, Kay Ho and Jane Shi for their editing help and wise words. I learned a lot in the process of writing this piece.