Grassroots feminism: a few hopeful thoughts

March 15, 2009 at 7:39 pm | Posted in Feminisms | 4 Comments

Towards the end of the ’08 elections, an old interview emerged of Barack Obama on the legacy of the civil rights movement. Billed by Republicans as proof the Democrat was a socialist (he dared utter the words ‘redistributive change’), what was more interesting was his discussion of whether the movement’s methods were, in hindsight, the best way of achieving its goals.

In Obama’s view, a consequence of seeking political equality through the courts was that it distracted from the need to address the economic inequalities caused by slavery, racism and disenfranchisement. Put another way, the victories secured in the court room were less effective because the courts were being used to force social change on the country, rather than the country demanding that change from judges & politicians. As a result, blacks achieved the political equality they’d marched and died for, but economic equality – and equality in the hearts & minds of American citizens – remained tragically elusive.

This question about what methods a political movement persues to achieve its goals is one that’s endured for centuries and still has no easy answer. Securing a victory in a courtroom or lobbying some likeminded political party is often the quickest and least costly way of achieving your aim, but the downside is that your victories often the come at the expense of a democratic mandate. In short, you by-pass the voters. Alternatively, you could try to build a broad-based, grassroots movement, but whilst that method might be more open & democratic, it also takes much longer to mobilise and is prone to perpetual setbacks and the frustrations of realpolitik. For activists, the only certainties are that for each victory there is a new failure, and for each solution a new problem.

To show how this continues to affect real people, let’s make a brief stopover in Africa. In 2001, the Kenyan government made it illegal to subject girls to genital mutilation, but, as this magnificent piece by Johann Hari demonstrates, this nauseating practice is still widespread and goes largely unpunished:

First, Margaret puts her finger under the hood of the clitoris, “and then I cut it completely off.” Then “I cut out all the meat. I know when to stop when I feel the bone and there’s nothing left to cut away.” Then “we take her to bed and cover her with a cloth. In the evening, the women come back to check I have done a good job. If I have left anything by mistake, because the girl kicked and screamed too much, we cut her again.”

In South Africa, equality is deeply embedded within the country’s constitution, but despite this – and despite strict laws against hate crimes – rape is frequently used to ‘cure’ women of their homosexuality:

One lesbian woman said: “We get insults every day, beatings if we walk alone, you are constantly reminded that…you deserve to be raped, they yell, if I rape you then you will go straight, that you will buy skirts and start to cook because you will have learnt how to be a real woman.

And back in Britain, we’ve had a decade of litigation & legislation intended to strengthen the rights of women, yet public attitudes to rape and violence remain troubling :

One in seven people believe it is acceptable in some circumstances for a man to hit his wife or girlfriend if she is dressed in “sexy or revealing clothes in public”, according to the findings of a survey released today.

A similar number believed that it was all right for a man to slap his wife or girlfriend if she is “nagging or constantly moaning at him”.

The findings of the poll, conducted for the Home Office, also disclosed about a quarter of people believe that wearing sexy or revealing clothing should lead to a woman being held partly responsible for being raped or sexually assaulted.

In each of these cases, we can see that a state’s actions towards strengthening women’s rights have secured only a half-measure of equality. The other half can only be won by challenging old traditions, prejudices and misconceptions in the public sphere, and that is something no state – no matter how powerful – can achieve.

And so it falls to grassroots feminists to put in the countless hours of hard work needed to change attitudes, protect vulnerable women and generally try to nudge society towards greater equality. Groups like the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative in Kenya, which provides refuge for girls fleeing the threat of mutilation; the Gay & Lesbian Equality Project in Johannesburg, who campaign for greater social equality; or Rape Crisis, whose excellent online campaign challenges some damaging attitudes to rape. Whilst their means may be meagre and their influence limited, every prejudice they challenge, every supporter they gain and every person they protect is a true victory for their cause.

Sometimes you have to change a law; other times you have to change a mind. Either way, the possibility of change is constant. Whenever we pour over the depressing news from near & far, it helps to keep that one hopeful thought in our heads.



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  1. Thanks for this great post. While I appreciate the protection from discrimination the law can provide, I have always thought it was a terrible mistake for women to rely on the state, founded on patriarchy, to rescue us from that same patriarchy. In fact, the promise of protection is sometimes used by state as a way to “market” its power. For example, anti-porn laws are promoted as measures to protect women and children from exploitation, while in reality they generally function just to enhance government powers of censorship–powers that wind up being used to silence women’s expression, as in the Nan Goldin dust-up a while back.

    You’re right, change is possible; in fact, it’s inevitable. We just have to take responsibility for encouraging the change we want.

  2. Hi Maria,

    Thanks, and I’ll happily agree with your agreement! Both approaches have merit in certain situations, but ultimately the most profound change occurs on a social level rather than when it’s imposed by the state. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. […] to the role of facilitator, merely acceding to the clamour of its citizens. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a vision of change which is compelling and often true – but, as recent events […]

  4. […] to the role of facilitator, merely acceding to the clamour of its citizens. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a vision of change which is compelling and often true – but, as recent events […]

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