It speaks!: on being a woman and an activist

I protest quite a bit. Sometimes I march. Sometimes I charge around with a megaphone. Sometimes I commit acts of aggravated sitting or aggravated banner waving or other aggravated perfectly legal activities. Sometimes I might get a little stubborn about melted cheese on my food and throw a bit of a strop.

I protest quite a bit.

I also happen to be a woman. A cis, somewhat femme woman.

In a perfectly gender-neutral, equal society in which women are viewed as people rather than objects, these two facts should be entirely unrelated. This is the world I am fighting to build. It is not a world we inhabit.

The media tend to view women who protest as something of an anomaly: a fascinating creature to be documented and photographed meticulously. A particularly striking example of this is this Daily Mail article [clean link; they will not be getting the clicks they crave] which mixes images of “riot porn” with young women, breathlessly commenting on how exciting and new it is that girls are worrying their pretty little heads with politics. The images are strikingly similar to the annual newspaper feeding frenzy of printing pictures of girls celebrating their A Level results, which tend to imply that the route to four As at A Level is to appear female and jump a lot. Many of the photo collections of actions feature a young woman holding a placard or shouting as their front page, reducing the message of the protest down to”you’re cute when you’re angry”. These photographs are invariable captioned “a female protester joins in”.

From personal experience, this is because photographers tend to gravitate towards the women, buzzing like wasps at a jam sandwich. I recall one instance in which a photographer lay down on the floor in front of me, attempting an upskirt shot. A comrade of mine once attracted the attention of a particular photographer, who spent the entire action taking close up pictures of her face and breasts. Another comrade is prominently featured in the photosets of every action she has ever attended.

These women are intelligent, articulate, opinionated and angry, and yet their participation is reduced to little more than a bit of cheap eye candy.

Then there are the trolls: an example of this is the overt misogyny in criticism of articles written by journalist Laurie Penny, who happens to be a young woman. These criticisms are rarely related to the content of her writing, or even to her politics, but, rather a stinking mire of hatred, much of it focused on her gender, including calls for her to be raped and an obsessive deconstruction of her looks.

I have experienced this to a much, much smaller extent on Twitter. Members of the EDL have a fondness for talking about my breasts rather than responding to the fact that I called them a bunch of fucking fascists.

The objectification of women is not merely external, though. Some of it comes from our own back garden.

I have expressed my frustration before that the dominant voices in consensus meetings tend to be male. This can sometimes trickle down into actions.

On more than one occasion, I have heard a frantic whisper ripple through the group:

“Can we have a woman talk on the megaphone?”

On more than one occasion, I have heard this succeeded by:

“We don’t want it looking like it’s all blokes. It doesn’t matter what you say. We just need a woman to speak.”

Before I stopped worrying and learned to love the megaphone, a part of me believed that perhaps this should be the extent of my participation in a protest planned by someone else. These days, I have no such qualms, and that megaphone will be pried from my cold, dead hand.

At the back of my mind, though, I still fear that my words are less important than my gender to the media and some of my comrades.

In the comments to my post on decision making among activists, it was noted that male privilege can sometimes be left unchecked. I have some comrades who identify as feminists, but their behaviour is far from it. They are not misogynistic, rather, they display benevolent sexism.

When I speak with them, I see a look cross their faces of bewilderment mixed with paternalistic delight.

It speaks, they seem to silently say. Isn’t that sweet?

I believe this to be the crux of all of these experiences: the photogenicity of woman activists, the resorts to misogyny rather than political debate, the manarchists finding opinions coming from a woman more adorable than valid.

It speaks. 

We are still lumbered with the belief that women should be seen but not heard, that we are objects rather than people. Our opinions, therefore, are less worthy. Even among those leading the charge for social change, there is unchecked privilege, which, in the unlikely event of a revolution, would mean building a world in which a woman’s opinion is still novel and surprising.

These attitudes need to be destroyed. Benevolent sexism is as dangerous as hostile sexism.

An angry woman is not cute. An angry woman is a person. It speaks. Why should this be exceptional?


10 responses to “It speaks!: on being a woman and an activist

  • Beth Deacon

    It annoys me so much that people in my college dont seem to understand why I go along to the protests with the guys. It is like they all have the attitude that it isnt a woman’s role to get involved in politics or to have an angry voice! I go along because I want to raise the numbers of those who are angered and I want to show solidarity with my comrades. The media do swarm the women at the protests, you are right! They have contrasting photos of the guys causing havoc with photos of “cute” girls with brightly coloured hair waving a banner with their friends.

    We need to still fight for equal rights as women because we do still live in a male dominated world where they put into categories of sex icon or mother.

    We will get our voice heard and taken seriously in the end as long as we dont give up protesting when we are angry and as long as we continue to show we do know why we are angry.

  • E.F.

    Never read any of your writing before but this is great – so true! Thank you.

  • littlespy

    I agree that twitter can be especially nasty for attacks on your gender rather than the point you’re making. A rather charming fellow recently accused me on a few occasions of being a misandrist, man hater, of blindly repeating feminist views from the press (because I have trouble thinking for myself you see.) and of imposing my feminist agenda on him when he corrected me on the use of the word women rather than girls. It all descended in to madness with him saying that I’d forced him to listen to my bullshit. (I think he’s confused about how twitter works.)
    This man was a self professed lefty, political activist and….feminist, it’s just that he didn’t actually want any women talking about any of these things unless they were willing to fawn over him for how smart he was.
    Sadly he typifies some of the views/responses I’ve had before but luckily there are plenty of people who typify the very opposite and give me hope.
    Great blog.

  • Quiet Riot Girl

    I am an angry woman too, and the feminists who don’t like my anger sometimes question my identity as a genuine, bonafide, ‘cis’ woman. Sometimes they call me a ‘man’.

    This thing speaks too.

    • stavvers

      I suspect people other than feminists do, too. God knows I’ve had my gender identity questioned many, many times due to my expressing opinions “too good to come from a woman” in anonymous spaces.

      By the by, are you calling yourself quietriot_boy on Twitter these days, or is that someone else with similar opinions?

  • Quiet Riot Girl

    You will have to ask @quietriot_boy that…

    I changed my name to @quietriot_boy and then someone stole my @quietriot_girl name before I could change it back, and continued to use my avatar and blog URL. I think it is one of the journalists I have pissed off recently. Probably one of your ‘feminist allies’.

    all’s fair in love and gender wars.

  • Sciamachy

    I don’t see where these critics are coming from. Surely as a woman you have if anything more to protest about than us white, reasonably well-off guys? If we protest, why not you? The logic that just because someone is female, however good-looking or otherwise they may be, that that has any kind of interaction on how seriously they should be taken, or what kind of quality of ideas they may have, just doesn’t compute. It’s like saying that if something is yellow, it can’t be square – two utterly unrelated things. On the other hand, if you’re protesting about things that affect women directly & particularly, you’re speaking from more direct experience than say if you piped up about prostate cancer or male pattern baldness. No effect on your expertise when it comes to stats & politics though, and when it comes to these things, you rock.

    I do think though that the conduct of the press around you & your fellow female protesters reflects extremely badly on them. Surely the important thing to report on here is what you’re saying, rather than what colour underwear you have on. It reflects badly also on their readership, if the readers don’t write in protesting at the atrocious quality of reportage they’ve paid for.

  • A Glastonbury tale « Another angry woman

    […] brown lakes surrounding overflowing latrines? Being a woman and an activist is difficult when one’s opinion is not even taken particularly seriously by some male activists. How about the trade unions themselves? How are they looking in terms of equality? The left is […]

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