Social media editor, Maya Jones, discusses the new essay collection ‘I Call Myself a Feminist’ and what it means to her
Do you think it is difficult to adopt the label ‘feminist’? What is the most important fight for the future? Should we be grateful for previous waves of feminism? What for?
As a young feminist, these are all questions that I have been asked at some point in my life. I came from a school where the only thing I knew about feminists was that they were fighting for equality and that made me one. My English A Level taught me that Alice Walker was great and that Margaret Thatcher was not. It taught me nothing about waves or about the differences within feminism. It is no surprise, therefore, that university, with its endless gender and feminist theory, felt a little daunting.
This is why books like I Call Myself A Feminist are vital. Published by Virago, an international publisher of books by women, this new collection of essays prides itself in being written by 25 young women under 30. It emerged when the absence of the young feminist voice was noticed within feminist literature and criticism. Undeniably, this absence must be filled in if feminism is going to remain inclusive and reach out to younger generations.
Sweden’s recently announced initiative to give every 16-year-old a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists shows that sometimes just a heart-warming essay can have the most impact. Like Adichie’s essay, I Call Myself A Feminist seeks to answer some of the most important questions that are central to feminism today. However, the key difference with academic criticism is in the accessible format. Much of the collection reads like prose, or even poetry – especially when read aloud.
Thanks to the Bristol Festival of Ideas, last week I got the chance to hear a few of the essays being read. Chaired by Jenny Lacey, we were joined by three of the writers: Yas Necati, Amy Annette and Isabel Adomakoh Young. Each writer began with an extract from their essay before a general discussion started about their experiences as young feminists.
Adomakoh began with her essay entitled ‘Women Should Get To Be Rubbish Too’. Her focus was International Women’s Day. Whilst she praised the undeniably great effort to celebrate women, she emphasised the problematic link that arises between achievement and deserving equality. She concluded that ‘this moves women from the oppressed to the ideal. We need to be celebrated for all our complex glory and our flaws’.
For me, International Women’s Day had always been a cause for celebration. I never once considered its negative implications. Sadly, I feel that until every other day ceases to focus on the achievement of men, we must continue to use this day as a means of celebration. We only have to look at the new passport design or the new Politics A Level to see that women are so often brushed aside when it comes to achievement. Perhaps, then, we should focus our efforts on using International Women’s Day as both a celebration and a means to enact change through recognition of inequality.
Necati then discussed, perhaps controversially, the isolating nature of feminism. She pointed out that when she discovered the word feminism, aged fifteen, the only feminists she could find were either old or dead. In both cases they were academics.
Her essay perfectly summed up the need for this collection of essays. Whilst we should not forget the achievements of feminists before us and what they have done for the movement, it is now the younger, new generation that matters most. If this means acknowledging that academic feminism is not enough, then I think we should.
When Annette walked on stage, I acknowledged, for the first time, how young all these women are. As she explained that not once did she ever consider actually performing her essay, I was refreshed by her honesty. She began her essay ‘I Call Myself A Feminism With My Elbows’, and asked the audience, rather forcefully: ‘what does your body say about you?’ It is a simple question, but one that has many implications for a woman. I had nowhere to hide as she critiqued the language of women’s magazines and asked the women in the audience to be conscious of the space that they, and their bodies, are not given.
The remainder of the event followed a question and answer format. Adomakoh and Annette both named their mothers as their, rather clichéd, role models. Necati discussed her involvement with Campaign4Consent. They all agreed that intersectionality must be understood; it must drive the movement forward. I got the feeling that many of the answers were spontaneous and unplanned and what touched me most was the absolute optimism they projected. That alone, was empowering.
Sitting in an audience of mostly middle-aged women, my first thought when I arrived was that perhaps the point had already been missed. By the end of the evening, I had changed my mind. The focus of the evening was on the writers and on projecting their young voices. The lack of young people in the audience just shows we have a long way to go.
Illustration by Miriam Cocker