Women Speak Out in… Bristol

November 27 2010, Bristol University Student Union

We recently held a Women Speak Out discussion workshop at the Bristol University Feminism Conference, organised by the Feminist Society.

Over 70 people attended the conference, providing further evidence of students’ increasing engagement with feminism. Feminism also has a strong presence off campus in Bristol with the Bristol Feminist Network; Bristol Fawcett group; Bristol Rape Crisis, and One25. These organisations were also at the conference, galvanising further feminist debate and action within the city.

We received a warm and enthusiastic welcome from the organisers and got a good discussion going with a group of students all keen to share their thoughts on what it means to be a woman today and to discuss and ask questions about feminism.

Joining us was Tessa, one of the conference organisers, along with Laura; Isabel; Steph; Abbey; Shruti; Alessandra, and our first male participant, Luke.

Is ‘now’ a good time to be a woman?

Laura: More and more women see themselves through the male gaze.  Women are portrayed by many as a commodity.

Tessa: There’s this myth of empowerment surrounding the commodification of sex now. We have more rights in law, but women are sold as sex objects more. For example, lapdancing – my ideas on it aren’t fully formed, but I don’t think it’s empowering for women. And whilst things like prostitution and porn have always been around, they’re now more accessible, especially to young women.

Shruti: So many women knowingly or unknowingly subscribe to the idea that they’re different from men and that there’s a particular way to be a woman.

Steph: There’s a certain masculine, macho culture in Latin America which some women embrace.

Representations of women in the media, how women are increasingly portrayed and ‘sold’ as sex objects, and perceive themselves through a ‘male gaze’ seemed to be of particular concern to this group of young feminists. Though they were aware tackling these issues is not without its problems:

Laura: What about the women who produce porn and who enjoy appearing in it?

Isabel: Ideologically I’m against censorship, so I don’t think we can ban porn, but we need to discuss these issues, and there are groups such as the Anti Porn Men project, and stuff like that all helps to challenge it.

When did you realise sexism still exists?

Abbey: I was 10 or 11 years old. I have two younger brothers and I was always expected to help out with the housework whilst my brothers weren’t, but I was always told that was because I was older than them. However, when they got older they still weren’t doing it, and when I pointed this out to my mum she said: ‘There’s some things in life you just have to accept’.

Luke: Until I started university I thought sexism was dead, that equality had been achieved.  But actually, you don’t have to look far to find sexism.  I can find racism in the newspapers, but I have to look for it.  With sexism, just turn to page three.

Isabel: There’s so much pseudo-science.  If a child shows engineering ability, is it because they were born a boy or because they were given a certain toy?

Luke: My niece started school recently, and she now has much more fixed ideas about gender.  She wants to wear pink, and she even asked why I have long hair.  But her younger brother hasn’t started school yet and so he still wants to wear dresses like his big sister.

On negative stereotypes of feminism

Tessa: At the Freshers’ Fayre, one male student came up to the Feminist Society stall and said what we do is ‘disgusting’. Yet once we’d explained what we were about, he signed up!

Steph: I think the word ‘feminism’ itself can be off-putting, and if we changed the word, more people would get on board, as they agree with the idea of equality, they just don’t like the word ‘feminism’.  If I say I’m an equalist then they’re like, ‘oh, ok’.

Isabel: It’s not just the word.  If there was a new word then they’d attach the same connotations to it.

Luke: When I told my male friends I was attending a feminism conference, they laughed, but I said, you wouldn’t laugh if I was going to an anti-racism conference, so why a feminist one? Sexism is still far more acceptable than racism these days, there’s some things you can’t get away with saying about a person’s race, but you can about women.

We wondered why sexist ideas about women still seem to be excused on the basis of there being a biological difference between females and males, whilst racist ideas of white people being superior to black people based on their biological difference have been debunked and are no longer largely tolerated.

Luke: The abolitionist and anti-slavery movements were able to put an end to the biological arguments for racism, so what does feminism need to do when it comes to sexism?

On feminism and its relationship to other politics

Is feminism necessarily a left-wing politics or is there a case for engaging with more traditional right-wing perspectives? Left-wing politics has traditionally been about working for a radical restructuring of society, whilst more liberal and right-wing traditions are more individualist and concerned with making changes within the current social structure.

Shruti: I identify as left-wing, but listening to Judith Orr speak earlier (at the conference), I didn’t like how she talked about ‘Tory feminists’ and not wanting anything to do with them. There seems to be this closed-mindedness in feminism around political labels, but I think we should be listening to women with different political beliefs to our own.

Luke: I think feminism and left-wing politics are more companionable. I believe that equality should be state-led.  If you leave things to the market then it will be bad for women.

We then had some discussion about the extent to which we thought the state should have a role to play in securing women’s equality and whether legislative change is ever enough. Shruti and Luke in particular seemed to think more radical change was needed and that feminism involves changing the fundamental structures of society.

Luke: I don’t think changing things within the system is enough. Women need support from the state top down, but change also needs to happen from the bottom up.  

Alessandra: What is radical feminism?

Shruti: Radical means to get to the root of the problem.

Alessandra: Aren’t all feminisms trying to get to the root in different ways?

 ————-

Now we want to hear from you! Feel free to leave your comments in response to anything we discussed or any other issue by clicking on ‘Leave a Comment’ above, and also don’t forget to take part in our polls!

We’re planning on publishing a Women Speak Out booklet and hope to include comments and poll results from this blog alongside the quotes from our discussions, so it would be great to get more of your views!

Or why not think about setting up your own Women Speak Out-style discussion in your city or town and tell us about so we can include it on the blog? Click here to find out more.

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