This blog post is based on a talk titled ‘The function of feminism: From the Adelaide Northern suburbs to the ivory tower’ delivered as part of the South Australian History Festival. Photo: Kathy Radoslovich
What is feminism?
Feminism is first and foremost a political movement and mission underpinned by a focus on gender as a binary social structure that currently constructs men as powerful, women as subordinate and largely ignores non binary and trans people. Feminism has had enduring problems with exclusionary tensions, for example with black and Indigenous women, trans women, and sex workers. These problems have included minimising the concerns of these groups of women, attempts to exclude them from the movement, silencing these women and speaking on their behalf without their consent, and inciting hate against these women. We can find examples of exclusionary feminists among early US suffragettes such as Susan B. Antony who had links to the KKK and Margaret Sanger who helped to found Planned Parenthood but advocated for eugenics policies that forcibly sterilised black women, women with intellectual disabilities, and women living in poverty. Unfortunately, these historical examples are not isolated. There continue to be many who claim the feminist label but exclude other women through fundamental misunderstandings of the difference between sex and gender present in debates about trans women and the enduring insistence that sex work is inherently exploitative and must be criminalised. We are celebrating 125 years of women’s voting rights in South Australia this year – but we are also fighting for law reform for sex workers industrial rights and safety and abortion access for regional South Australians. Our fight is not yet complete – as Audre Lorde says “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Feminism can be thought of as an umbrella term that houses many different sects of feminist thought. Intersectional feminism is thrown around in popular, political and academic realms – which demonstrates a welcome departure from feminisms that have focused solely on gender at the expense of black, Indigenous, queer, trans, working class, and sex worker women – to name a few. Kimberle Crenshaw developed intersectionality in critique of white feminist ideologies that had permeated feminist work and continued to centre white women’s issues and ignore overlapping systems of oppression such as race and class. In order to practice ‘intersectional feminism’ we must broaden our conceptualisation of feminism as rooted in the history of white feminists and instead recognise that women outside of the Western world have always practiced feminism, perhaps not in the way that we have come to recognise it. I hope that this talk will encourage you to consider how feminism functions as more than an organised political movement – as a personal, political, and collective ideology that can manifest in different ways for us all.
My relationship to and understanding of feminism has shifted over time based on how I needed it to function at the time. To understand my relationship to feminism and what it means to me it is necessary to go back to the beginning and contextualise how feminism became relevant to me. My life was shaped by gendered violence from the beginning. Domestic violence was a feature of my household from the time I was 3 years old until I was 13. My experiences of trauma have negatively affected my mental health for most of my life. I was a very insecure and socially isolated child. Despite what people might believe about PhD scholars needing to be child prodigies, this was never my experience. I was never the smartest kid at my Adelaide Northern suburbs’ public schools, I made average grades. I never would have imagined that I would be in the position that I am today when I was a child. I found it difficult to even imagine getting to adolescence, let alone adulthood. However, these experiences have given me a real-world perspective that is supplemented by my theoretical knowledge.
I found feminism in the most unlikely of places while living in country South Australia on the Yorke Peninsula. Public schools in country regions of Australia rely on distance education to deliver extended curriculum through the Open Access network. In my final year of school, I took a Women’s Studies class via Open Access and it blew my mind. I had typically been a relatively disengaged student and I had become accustomed to coasting along in my classes. This approach to learning quickly changed and ignited a passion for feminism and social justice that I have continued to carry with me. The Women’s Studies class was the most stimulating, validating, and challenging intellectual experience that I had in part because it helped me to find a framework for processing my own experiences. Importantly, I realised that violence against women was common and were not unique to me. This realisation emboldened me and meant that feminism became a fundamental part of my early political and intellectual identity. At the time feminism functioned to validate me and my existence. My feminism was very personal and gave me a feeling of strength and clarity.
I am often asked ‘why sport’ as an area of study of study and research. People assume that I am an ex-athlete or have some other sort of investment in sport that has led to me researching it. My interest in researching sport was also born on the Yorke Peninsula as this is where I encountered everything that was good and bad about sport culture. Anyone who has lived in country areas knows that participation in sport is compulsory and is part of the fabric of communities. Everyone shows up to support the local sporting teams and socialise with each other. There is still a clear divide between men and women’s sport and an undercurrent of sexism that can result in sexual violence, including harassment and assault. The problem of sexual violence is not unique to sport, but we can use sport as a microcosm to view both good and bad parts of Australian culture that are present in sporting culture. We can see the sense of responsibility, leadership and commitment to communities that sport fosters, but we can also see the exclusion of people based on their gender, sexuality, and race and the violence exclusionary attitudes can encourage. Looking at sport with a critical feminist lens allows us to take a step back and see how the nuances present in our current configuration of gender and sexuality play out and how upholding this status quo affects all genders and can encourage the perception of women as subordinate.
Feminism at Flinders
I was lucky enough to continue my Women’s Studies education at Flinders University and benefit from the community-oriented program and commitment to social justice that is embedded in feminist teaching and research at the university. Women’s Studies has a history of intersectional work and was once headed by Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson who is known as a pioneering Indigenous feminist scholar. My lecturers were world-class experts who taught me how to develop and apply a critical feminist lens to research and pay attention to issues that did not necessarily affect me personally. I was struck by my naivety and the level of ignorance that I held about social issues – despite growing up in the relatively diverse Northern suburbs.
My lecturers taught me about social realities but also created warm and welcoming spaces to grow, learn, and dream up ways to make an impact beyond the classroom. They lead by example and sought the expertise of other academics and community members including Indigenous women and selected a diverse range of texts for us to engage with. My passion for research and teaching was borne out of these experiences and especially the encouragement of my supervisor during my Honours year, Heather Brook. Heather was insistent that I call myself a scholar and claim my seat at the academic table while also remaining firm that academia must not function as an ivory tower. Heather approaches teaching, learning and research from a fundamental belief in social justice and the equalising potential of feminist research.
Feminism began to broaden from my personal connection and investment in it as a viewpoint, to a way of seeing how gender functions in our social world and how this system of oppression is entangled and compounded with other factors like race, class, ethnicity, ability and sexuality. I learned that feminism had broader functions than the feelings of validation that I felt. I learnt about the joys of connection with others through texts, debates and movements. I have carried these joys with me as I have embarked down a feminist research pathway and PhD journey.
My PhD journey has been marked by significant change, personal vulnerability and growth, including through my relationship to feminism. The PhD is a long and intensive process – it is always going to be marked by change and challenges. I was prepared for this – I think. However, these challenges have felt heightened because a PhD is inherently vulnerable – but especially when dealing with topics like sexual violence. For me, my PhD has been an entanglement of personal, political and intellectual interests and investments.
I began my PhD as a part-time student working 7 days a week across 3 jobs including the PhD. I have learnt what it means to push myself to my breaking point and how to build myself back up again. My feminism has developed further critically and practically, through ethical and methodological challenges that have taught me that we can never observe objectively or separate ourselves from our research.
Feminist research practices also emphasise the exercise of power that occurs in a researcher/researched relationship and theorises the ways that power can be redistributed to participants. Interactions with my participants forced me to consider my position in the research and confront my own personal connections as we discussed our experiences with sexual violence. Interviews with women who had experienced sexual violence involved a level of care and vulnerability that I could not have anticipated would be part of the research process. My PhD journey has required an acknowledgement of complexities and an interrogation of taken-for-granted ideas that have forced me to re-examine my approach to feminism, intellectually and personally.
Feminism as connection with a collective
Through hardships and personal trauma, I have always felt invigorated to persist because I am committed to social justice and an ethics of care. I guess this could mean that the spirit of feminism has always been within me and has emboldened me. However, in my PhD I have continually had to re-evaluate my values, sense of self-worth, and my comfort zone. I have learnt that insistence on politeness in feminist spaces is exclusionary and unproductive. I have learnt to be comfortable with discomfort. Discomfort is a productive emotion because it is provoking and can illuminate pathways to change through our own behaviour and the way that we relate to others, especially other women and those who have been ‘othered’. Relating to each other, might be one of the most powerful functions that feminism can offer us as individuals – aside from structural change. The collective and collective desire for progress has gotten me this far. My feminist support systems, especially other scholars and activists, care for me by forcing me to stay committed the project of lifelong learning, be accountable, and always think outside of my own experiences. I learned that I needed to think of feminism through and with the collective.
Feminism as a feeling
This process of constantly re-examining and re-formulating has led me to my understanding of feminism today, as a feeling that can invigorate individuals, collectives and communities. Coming to feminism can feel powerful, as it did in my initial introduction, or vulnerable as it has in my PhD journey. Feminism, to me, has become embedded in my internal compass. It is never not with me. It guides me through my personal dealings, my healing journey, my research, my teaching, and my writing. It is a fire that burns inside me and calls me to action. It is also, as Sara Ahmed says, “how we pick each other up”. Feminism forces me to acknowledge my position in systems of oppressive power and develop advocacy for others with a critical lens that helps me to decide when to speak and when to stand back.
Consider what we could achieve if we carried these feminist lessons with us into the future. If we held ourselves accountable, took for granted that gender can only tell part of the story, that feminism is for everyone, that Indigenous, queer, migrant, trans, and sex worker women can and should speak for themselves, and that we should listen… What would our progress narrative look like if we shifted women who have been othered to the centre of the story? Feminism is political, personal, collective. It is fundamentally productive. But it is also a gift – and its not just for us – its for everyone. We as feminists must share and prepare to be shared with.