Feminism(s) is an international movement. The issues are different in the United States than in Afghanistan, Nigeria and other countries, but the core of feminism(s) as a politic and responsibility is similar, no matter the location. One of England’s finest universities is using social media to spread feminist thought throughout the world. Male and female professors in the University of Sheffield’s School of English are challenging preconceptions about feminism by launching a “We are Feminism” video campaign.
Twenty-one colleagues filmed the series, offering their diverse views of feminism. Several professors are also penning pieces for the School of English’s blog. Dr. Astrid Bracke, a professor at the University of Amsterdam’s Radboud University writes about how she uses feminist thought in educational spaces.
When I told my first years’ we’d be discussing feminism that day, they sighed, and fell silent. They’re never silent. Sensing their hostility, I asked them to just tell me the first things that popped into their minds when I said ‘feminism’.
I wrote them on the board: “whiney”, “angry”, “necessary when women didn’t have the vote, but no longer”, “men and women are equal now anyway”. One of them chipped in, “Feminists don’t want equality, they want to be treated better than men”.
The week before this class, the Dutch minister for emancipation had expressed her concerns about the fact that 48% of Dutch women are financially dependent. This brought feminism back into the spotlight in the country following fierce debates a few years ago about the supposed ‘laziness’ of Dutch women: a huge percentage of Dutch women work part-time – often two or three days a week – leading some columnists to claim that Dutch women didn’t want to work more hours.
My class saw no reason for why women should want or need financial independence. In fact, the group – consisting mainly of female students – shared conservative views on the role of women. Without exception all of them envisioned a future with a husband and children, and all of them expected to stay home at least until their children went to primary school. All of them agreed that women are much more suited to taking care of children, and that pursuing a career is something typically masculine – since men are more ‘ruthless’ – and women are naturally more ‘caring’ and ‘emotional’.
The “We are Feminism” challenge the stereotypes associated with feminism(s), particularly as it relates to interlocking oppressions, traditional gender roles and the impact of patriarchy on children.
Janine Bradbury, a Ph.D. candidate in African-American Studies at the University of Sheffield, recounts how black feminist thought has anchored her as a scholar and woman.
She writes in her complementary essay:
I’m indebted to black feminism. In fact, it’s the only debt I’ve ever had where I actually revel in the sense of owing and where my “repayment” is measured in terms of how lavish I am with my spending. The more I borrow, the less I owe, and the more I spend, the richer I become. And so consider this an attempt to pay it forward.
If I hadn’t read black feminist works at key moments in my life, I probably wouldn’t have beenbold enough or brave enough to pursue a career as an academic in what is a predominantly white and male research environment. It wasn’t a coincidence that it was while reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple that I mustered the courage to apply to a very privileged group of universities when at that moment I was living in a council flat and working as a cleaner at a local private school. It wasn’t a coincidence that it was after a presentation I gave on Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens several years later at The University of North Carolina, that classmates suggested I become a University lecturer.
She also speaks to the power of black feminism outside of the perimeters of education.
Black feminism is pertinent in the way it stretches out far beyond the classroom too, shedding light on spaces and people outside of the academy and other arenas of privilege to help us arrive at a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of why women matter. Alice Walker offers us the image of her mother working in her garden to help us understand the completely underrated role black women play in creating and nurturing the genius that we as academics feel it is our duty (pfft) to gate-keep. “Her face”, Walker writes about her mother, “as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life”. “She has handed down respect for the possibilities – and the will to grasp them” (‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’, pp. 241-242).
No image is more poignant to me than that of Walker’s mother, (or indeed my own) tending to her flowers and plants, nurturing in us (in me), the determination to, in the words of Zora Neale Hurston’s mother, ‘jump at de sun’. As Hurston reflects, ‘we might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.” And that’s why black feminism matters, not just to me, but to all of us. It gives us the courage to try, the will to succeed and the reminder that as scholars, teachers and students that genius lies all around us (and not just in academic chambers).
In the context of our own commitment to civic engagement, as a University that aims to champion the voices of our community and privilege the narratives of those who are often marginalized, misunderstood and overlooked, as a community that shares the message that a University education is for anybody who wants it, black feminism’s message of democracy, inclusivity and understanding is crucial.
The full “We are Feminism” video series has been posted to YouTube. The School of English encourages viewers to participate in promoting the benefits of feminism(s) through social media, using the hashtag #WeAreFeminism.