By Cora Morris
British feminism has a class problem.
When I’d looked into going to Latitude in Suffolk earlier this summer I’d been pleasantly surprised to note the number of women performing at the festival. The stand-up comedy line-up at Latitude was almost two-thirds female – suggesting brilliant progression within an industry that is known to be (more than occasionally) sexist. Musical acts ranged from Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders to Lily Allen (who we all undoubtedly have opinions about) and Haim, the trio of Californian sisters who’s lyrics I’m yet to find too much feminist fault in. There was cabaret, theatre, and even an appearance from the English National Ballet. The poetry area was a favourite, with Hollie Mcnish’s spoken word stealing the show entirely. It was safe to say I was catered for – I felt incredibly lucky to be in a place where so many of the arts came together in a way that was of such a high quality, and where female performers were not dismissed or looked down upon in the slightest.
It is pointless to deny that Latitude is anything but a very stereotypically middle-class festival, and this is clear from the sheer scale of variety throughout the acts and attractions – are literary stages and quinoa stands really abundant in other festivals? We, as crowds, were referred to as ‘Latitude Lefties’ several times and ‘Guardian Readers’ at least twice – the privileged lives of many of the festival-goers was obvious. I’m not sure where the association between academia and class formed but it seems to be a false attitude in England which we supposedly can’t quite get away from. The problem is, feminism gets added into the equation too by way of being wrongly perceived as academic in its subject matter.
Awaiting a panel with Laura Bates (of The Everyday Sexism Project), Laurie Penny (PBG Blogger Sophia reviewed her new book, Unspeakable Things, last month) and Zoe Pilger (whose new novel, Eat My Heart Out, is becoming a personal favourite) regarding feminist fiction I look around to see who I’m sharing the literature tent with, and who is sticking around for a talk that I thought would have been one of the less popular of the schedule. I’m met by the unsurprising sight of mainly middle-aged women, a selection of younger, artsy looking types and a scattering of men – boyfriends, maybe, though I’m glad to see a few raise their hands when and we are asked who in the crowd identifies as a feminist. Some of them scurry away hilariously when Penny begins criticising Facebook page The LAD Bible, followed by her sniggering that ‘Maybe they run it… we’re scaring away the men, everyone!” Naturally, we all laugh. The talk continues and I begin to consider whether this evermore middle-class seeming crowd reflects the limited demographic feminism reaches out to and engages in Britain. Yes – the answer is yes.
I think the examples speak for themselves – to quote Marianne Wright-Eldman, ‘You cannot be what you cannot see’. The fact that significant numbers of this country’s most prolific feminists appear frequently as writers for newspapers such as the Guardian – a wonderful and insightful left-leaning publication, but one that undeniably primarily appeals/sells to Britain’s (if only slightly) privileged – says a considerable amount.
We do not have voices in this country at present that are speaking to everyone else. Not prolific ones, at least. Feminism is becoming almost trendy amongst the middle classes whereas it is much less so elsewhere. Intersectionality is so key – the ways we are increasingly considering the oppression of everyone is vital to the progression and expansion of feminism and its values. However, as I find myself being told more and more frequently that I’m ‘a privileged white girl with nothing to complain about’, thus ‘pretending men are causing problems because they’re easy targets’, I am wondering whether awareness of feminism’s modern form is really being reflected as what we’re all about. It has become a movement that strives for intersectionality, and space in the conversation for people other than ‘privileged white girls’. The problem is that in the public eye, we are represented by what are as a majority people who fall into this ‘category’ (so to speak). I don’t think that we can expect to engage a majority if we are being solely represented by a relative minority.
I am not by any means suggesting that the voices are not there. They are. They are all over Tumblr and Twitter and WordPress and LiveJournal. They are writing papers and reports. They are posting blogs, and getting angry with MRAs, and scanning zines they’ve drawn into their computers. Lots of them have been oppressed in different ways. Lots of them are angry. They are angry because their invaluable voices which make up substantial proportions of the population are not being heard in the public eye. Why are they not represented by our media? They are essential voices in this brilliant and potentially revolutionary conversation we are having, and to an extent, they are probably bored of being spoken for rather than doing the speaking themselves.
There is a great deal to say for checking privilege. A good number of feminist journalists in the public eye are semi-militant about this, with Laurie Penny claiming that she is “constantly checking” her privilege “in the manner of an anxious homemaker constantly checking that the gas is off’”. However, when Caitlin Moran says she “literally could not give a shit” about the representation of people of colour in Lena Dunham’s show Girls – well, that statement speaks for itself.
I think Caitlin Moran is brilliant – really, I do. She has done a lot for the cause in this country and elsewhere, which makes her inspirational by default. Besides, as Penny also mentions – “It’s easy to fuck up, especially when you live in a world that tells you, repeatedly and often, that as a white, straight middle-class woman, yours is the only story about women worth articulating.” But, again, it means we are getting representation that is presumed to speak for the majority and yet does not do much more inclusive opinions any justice.
We are not different species. Class shouldn’t be an issue. The idea of it probably shouldn’t exist. But unfortunately, it does. In Britain, it means a great deal to some, as I’m certain it does elsewhere. I use it as a means of acknowledging my privilege, though I’m always conscious of coming across as snobbish. It is there, albeit as another way of putting all of us into boxes by those who wish to do so.
Feminism is valuable for all of us, in all of the boxes. It is just as valuable for the CEO that raised her hand in the Q&A in that literature tent complaining that she was not listened to in the office as it is for the millions that are not in similarly highly paid positions. Again, there are different kinds of oppression – some of those might affect particular boxes more than others. All of the voices are there, and they are all speaking. But at present, not all of them are being amplified quite as loudly as others.