The many faces of feminism: Interview with Emily Maguire
- Published: 16 May 2012
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15 May 2012
What does feminism mean to you? If you were speaking to someone new to the concept, would you define it differently?
My basic definition of feminism, which I would give to someone new to the concept, is that feminism is the belief that while there are differences between men and women, none of them justifies one sex having more social, economic or political power than the other.
If I were able to have a longer conversation with someone and speak in more depth, I would talk about how crazy it is to expect the entire world to divide neatly into two halves, and how unjust it is to reward or penalise individuals depending on how well they conform to an invented idea of what people from their ‘half’ should do or look like.
My personal, lived experience as a feminist is one of gratitude and joy and challenge and connection. I feel part of a broad movement of people who understand that sexism and misogyny are real issues in the world and that the injustices stemming from them must be addressed.
The Guardian has recently reported that feminism is experiencing a resurgence. Do you think that's true? If so, what do you think might be driving that change?
There’s definitely a resurgence. I think what happens is that you have a large, powerful movement that succeeds in making change, and then once the big changes have happened, people relax and the core of the movement – the the number of people still actively fighting – shrinks.
And then, of course, it looks like the movement has died and so opponents get excited and start trying to wind things back, which then activates a lot of people who thought things were cool, and so the core expands again.
‘The Feminist Supremacy?’ debate looks like it will be asking the question of who can call themselves a feminist. What are your views on this?
I think concentrating on labels – self-applied or otherwise – is a distraction. Although I do describe myself as a feminist and appreciate it when others embrace the label, I don’t think it’s enough to do so.
I’m interested in people’s actions more than their self-descriptions. Do they fight on the side of breaking down gender-based discrimination and liberating women and girls from gendered oppression or do they not?
Looking at it this way, I find that there are plenty of people doing feminist work who don’t use the label and plenty of people working against women’s rights who do. People who call themselves feminists but fight to deny women autonomy over their own bodies are definitely in the second category.
It seems to me that feminism is a very literary movement in nature. Is this ideal or does it make participation in a feminist conversation too difficult for most people?
It’s interesting to me that so many women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations speak of coming to feminism through reading a particular text. The Feminine Mystique, The Female Eunuch and The Women’s Room in particular come up again and again. These books injected feminism right where it was needed most: kitchens and nurseries and bedrooms. They politicised women who would never – before reading the text – have considered protesting or becoming politically active on their own behalves.
Having said that, I don’t think contemporary, global feminism is reliant on set texts. I personally came to feminism through lived experience and although I’ve now read all the classics and deeply value them, my feminism and that of the activists I most admire here in Australia and around the world, is one of daily, frontline action, not one of theoretical or academic discussion.
You have adapted one of your books for a younger audience. Do you think feminist texts tend to be a bit too academic to get to the people whose lives stand to change most from the movement? How important is it to adapt the message for a mainstream audience?
I’ve never felt that I’m adapting a feminist message. That feminism is directly applicable to the lives of ordinary people – including teenagers – is the message. I think we need more feminist texts of every kind: academic, pop cultural, personal, angry, gentle, philosophical, practical, whatever. As bell hooks says, “feminism is for everybody”, but as we all know, no one writer or book or style is for everybody and every situation. At various times in my life academic feminism has been exactly what I needed to read; at others, I’ve needed riot grrl.
There are lot of articles in magazines, particularly aimed at young women, which seem to have a feminist sensibility running through them without ever using the language of feminism. Is this desirable? Is the message more important than the term 'feminism'?
Ideally, this wouldn’t be an either/or question. But yes, obviously if it’s a choice between getting a feminist-minded article published without the word or not having it published at all, then yes, of course the message is more important than the term!
Feminism has been charged with alienating women of different races, disabled women, trans and intersex people, and others. Do you think feminism is becoming more inclusive in that regard?
Yes and it’s thanks to the activism of those who, having been excluded, chose to speak up and educate and fight for a more inclusive movement. It’s important that we acknowledge that and remain vigilant to ensure that we don’t allow this to be an exclusive movement of and for white, middle-class, highly educated straight women.
What is there left for feminism to do? Is there a problem with feminism at the moment being too directionless, or is the lack of direction an important part of having an inclusive movement?
There is so much to do and there are so many incredible people doing it! I love that the movement is huge and messy and diverse. I love that there’s an acknowledgement that it is impossible for any one person or organisation to attend to the issues and concerns of every woman.
I love that there are feminists working at getting women into positions of economic and political power and that there are feminists working for those women who will never be – out of choice or circumstance – at the top of the professional, economic or political heaps.
And that’s only in Australia. Globally, feminism is heartbreakingly necessary and there are incredible people working on every continent, at every level to end gender-based oppression and injustice.
You've written about female sexuality and its commodification and how the damned whores/god police, princess/pornstar dichotomy is still at work in characterising women. Are there any solutions in making sexuality a fully positive experience for women? Is something like ‘feminist porn’ potentially a good thing?
I think we need to concentrate on changing the way young women and men think about sex and sexuality. It can be hard, especially for younger people who have little experience, to understand that the thing mainstream culture calls ‘sex’ is often a cheap, plastic copy, and that the images our culture labels ‘sexy’ are actually just female body parts arranged in this or that way.
Women's glossy mags and ‘lad mags’ are particularly great for sucking all the sex out of human beings and leaving photoshopped symbols in its place. So, an appreciation of the many reasons people are attracted to each other and the infinite number of activities that come under the broad heading of ‘sex’ is necessary before we can kill off the idea that ‘this’ is sexy and if you don't look/act in that one specific way you'll never get laid or be loved.
Certain kinds of porn may play a role in that, as might certain kinds of non-porn films, books, TV shows and so on. No single media or cultural product can change views that are reinforced in a thousand other ways, all day, every day.
At events that discuss feminism, there are questions that constantly come up: What is feminism? Why isn't everyone a feminist? Has feminism failed? What new questions would you like to be brought up?
I think it’s okay that those questions are asked in large mainstream events because although they’re painfully tired to many of us, we have to remember that there are always going to be people coming to this conversation for the first time and that is a wonderful thing.
Having said that, discussions about ‘feminism’ as an entity are not worth spending too much time on. As I’ve said, let’s look at what’s actually happening out there. Let’s talk about specific manifestations of sexism and misogyny and specific ways in which we can tackle them.
Emily Maguire, alongside fellow panellists Kathy Lette, Catherine Deveny, Tara Moss, and Julia Baird, will be discussing feminism at ‘The Feminist Supremacy?’ at Sydney Town Hall on Saturday 19 May, 8.30m, Sydney Town Hall. For information and to book tickets, visit the Sydney Writer’s Festival (SWF) website.
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