How should a feminist be?

I lived through the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and 1970s and it deeply affected me, as I believe it affected all women at the time. For a brief bright moment, feminism burst out of the niche and exploded into mainstream culture. And even though the male establishment ridiculed it, Germaine Greer and Kate Millett were on the evening TV chat shows outshining them with their sublime intelligence and sexiness.

I tried, tentatively, to find a women’s group to get involved with but was put off by the women’s loud self-confidence. I was a tight knot of rage and pain – a casualty of the system they claimed to be fighting. They had no time or patience for a girl as broken and difficult as me. At least that’s how it seemed.

My elder sister who was active in the women’s movement in Australia, continued this theme, looking down her superior nose at me, making it clear that I wasn’t good enough to be a feminist – unlike her. Repelled and lacking hope there would be a place for me in the feminist movement, alone I guzzled the explosion of feminist literature that was now available and took solitary steps to live a feminist life.

Then, in the late 1980s I gave birth to a baby girl and was reincarnated as a mother who was as determined as a lady tiger that my child, my beautiful girl, would not suffer as I had done. But how had I suffered? Where had the solid knot of pain and rage in my chest originated? What had I been running from for so many years?

Suddenly it became clear where it began. Absolute clarity. It began with sexual abuse. My maternal grandmother when I was nine. An adolescent neighbour around the same time. But no, it began way back before that. It began when I was still a baby and my respected and respectable, upstanding war hero and lawyer father orally raped me. I thought I was going to drown. I thought I was going to die. And probably I nearly did, if not then, then afterwards when I almost gave up the fight for life. And later when I was little more than a toddler, he passed me round his colleagues to anally rape. Until my mother walked in and all hell broke loose.

She didn’t know what to do. How could she? It was the 1950s. She had three children under 10. She had no way of making a living. She’d never had a job. Would anyone believe her anyway? Of course they wouldn’t! So my father had her sectioned. Of course, the (male) psychiatrists believed him and not her. And they proceeded to torture her into submission with ECT and insulin shock treatment. Until she’d forgotten what she’d seen or understood that she must never speak of it again.

So not only was I deeply traumatised, I was now motherless. Because when my mother was finally released from the sanatorium, she could not let me near her in case I reminded her of what she had been tortured into forgetting.

But now I was an adult and I had to unravel all of this. I had to break through the decades of denial and cover up and silence and cruelty, and unravel what had really happened. Otherwise, I knew my beautiful baby daughter didn’t stand a chance. I knew that without a shadow of a doubt. I’d never have done it for myself. But for her, it had to be done.

The first thing I knew was that I had to talk about it. For so long I had not let anyone close to me in case they found out my awful secret. That it had been proven that I was disgusting and worthless. That I had asked for every bad thing that had happened to me. I saw that so long as I was silent, I was declaring the shame mine. But now I was beginning to see that the shame was not mine. It belonged to my father and all the other adults who had failed me. I had to speak about what had happened. I would never be able to be close, truly close, to anyone while I hid this terrible truth in my broken heart.

Not only that, but I had to speak about it to understand what had happened, to unravel the threads. The first people I turned to were my two sisters. I was confident that they would want to understand what had happened as much as me. But they wouldn’t listen. Neither of them. Every time I tried, they cut me off cold.

For a while I couldn’t accept it. I waited and tried again. And again. And again. But always the reaction was the same. They’d get up and leave the room. They’d put the phone down. They wouldn’t come to the phone. They’d refuse to engage. They’d tell me I was imagining it. Daddy was such a good man.

So eventually I realised I was on my own. And then, in my extremis, I sought help elsewhere and to my surprise and joy I found a whole movement of women also trying to unravel the pain of their childhood sexual abuse. I joined a group. After a couple of false starts, I found a feminist psychotherapist. All of this had been made possible by the women’s liberation movement. A movement that told women that your reality is valid, however inconvenient. A movement of women doing their own thing. It was not an organisation. There were many threads. It was not and could never be controlled by the self-satisfied women who’d so alienated me years earlier.

Slowly, slowly healing happened. Imperfectly of course. My daughter didn’t escape scot free but I have never doubted that it would have been much worse for her if I hadn’t done my best to unravel that hard, stone wound in my heart.

But how could I understand my sisters’ reaction – which soon moved into full scale ostracization when they realised they couldn’t control me and I wasn’t going to turn back and agree that my dad was a wonderful, kind father?

It was the early 1990s now and I was volunteering for an organisation that provided holistic healthcare to gay men who had AIDS. I was browsing the bookshelf during my lunch break one day and saw Marilyn French’s magnum opus, Beyond Power, On Women, Men and Morals. Ever hungry for feminist texts, I asked if I could borrow it and I took it home and devoured it. Perhaps more than any other book, that one changed my life. It was as if she gave me a map to understand the world.

She explained the highest value in patriarchy (and the capitalist system that developed from it) as ‘power over’ – power over others, power over nature. She showed me that all the institutions, structures and sub-religions of patriarchy are designed to further the power of the powerful and ensure they go unchallenged.

Suddenly it all became clear: my sisters, in supporting and claiming to believe my father’s denials of what I was trying to tell them, were simply acting out the patriarchal script – power must never be challenged. The first rule of patriarchy. And if anyone dares to disobey, they must be punished, even unto death. And they had risked my death. They did not know I would survive the turmoil I was in. And if I had died or like my mother, had been sectioned, what would the future have held for my baby daughter? They risked her life too.

So much for my older sister’s assertion that she was a feminist. Can you be a feminist while acting out the patriarchal script – giving unconditional support to the most powerful person in the room without even listening to what those with less power are actually saying? Can you?

And of course, their unconditional support for my father didn’t end there – they went round the country visiting the extended family, wooing them and telling them all sorts of concocted stories about me that were so far from the truth they were in fact lies.

We are trained from infancy to understand anyone who challenges the accepted power structures as inherently bad, so most of my extended family sucked it up and accepted what they were told – that I was self-evidently mad or bad or both. Meaning I – and my infant daughter – were isolated once more. They didn’t know we’d make it. None of them knew we’d make it. That is the cruelty of the patriarchal world. I was sent into exile.

As the years went by, one or two of my older relatives got in touch to see how I was – not to apologise exactly, but rather to sheepishly admit that my sisters’ behaviour had in fact been rather shabby.

For my beloved nieces and nephew, however, it was more complicated. Their mother and aunt had clearly demonstrated what happens to anyone who questions my father’s inviolable status as the benign and benevolent patriarch. Could they survive this increasingly hostile world without their now comfortably-off boomer parents’ support? Could they face the reality of being exiled like I had been – to not even be invited to the family weddings and celebrations? Could they live, let alone thrive, in a world without siblings and parents?

In a patriarchal world, the greatest sins – in archaic terms – are blasphemy and treason – the sins of doubt and disloyalty to the father, and the institutions that legitimise his power, and the fatherland. We are trained from infancy to honour the fathers – the ones who hold power – who may not always be male now but still usually are.

Another thing that Marilyn French explained to me in Beyond Power was what qualities you need to succeed within patriarchal (and capitalist) institutions – the traditional families, the major and minor religions, the corporations, the government agencies, even social networks and community groups. She said you need two essential qualities in the right proportions. The first, and I paraphrase, is acceptance of and respect for the hierarchies of power, a willingness to defer to those above you in the hierarchy, and perhaps also to stamp on those below. The second is a marked dose of ambition and self-interest. No matter how smart and hard-working you are, you won’t rise to the top if you have these qualities in the wrong proportions. No one will trust you if you have too much deference – just as they won’t trust you if you have too much ambition and self-interest or god forbid little or none.

And she explained how we sense this out. We don’t need to go on a training course to discover how to recognise someone with these qualities. It is second nature. We have been trained in this since infancy.

My father did not have to tell my sisters to not listen to me, to not believe me. They knew intuitively that they would lose his goodwill if they sided with me. On some level they must have weighed up who was more important to them – my father with his moneyed social standing or me, with neither money nor social standing, but a ball of raw anguish, grappling for my sanity. It wasn’t really a contest, was it for two women on the brink of middle age who wanted a little piece of the patriarchal pie, if only by proxy? That is after all the most that women of their generation were led to believe it is reasonable to hope for.

No one has to tell you who the patriarch is – you see it, feel it, sense it. That figure doesn’t have to tell you explicitly how to support them. You have been trained in sensing this since birth. And you don’t have to be trained in knowing who the dissenter is. We can all spot these things. And once you are co-opted into the system – and you’ve betrayed your sister or your friend in order to gain favour with the current patriarch – there’s no turning back. You are implicated in the abuse of power now and to turn back you would have to acknowledge that. Turning back would be an admission that you were wrong. That you did wrong. And who is brave enough, true enough, to risk that?

And there is a whole web of institutions that use carrots and sticks to enforce our compliance. Take for example, the British honours system. It masquerades as a celebration of people’s selfless work in the community, cultural and scientific achievements, and sporting endeavours, but its real purpose is much more sinister. Its real purpose is about maintaining control and compliance.

The submission of editors of the major newspapers, top diplomats, civil servants and government advisors, leaders of business, science, technology, banking and major cultural institutions is secured by the carrot of the prospect of retiring with a knighthood or even a peerage – and the stick of the threat of exile for non-compliance.

Most importantly this ensures a docile press. Just one example – among many – was how the British media reported the verdict of Princess Diana’s inquest. Almost without exception they reported the results incorrectly – suggesting – or blatantly stating – that the inquest jury had implicated the paparazzi – when in fact they had not specified the identity of those driving the other vehicles they found had caused the accident. If the jury had meant the paparazzi, they would undoubtedly have stated this.

Although the paparazzi were not without fault, they were driving scooters that could not keep up with the powerful Mercedes and so they arrived on the scene some minutes after the crash. The jury’s hands were tied because the coroner, Lord Justice Scott Baker, had already ruled out certain possible outcomes in his summing up. Their verdict went as far as they were able to implicate other actors.

But the British press almost unanimously reported those unidentified actors incorrectly as the paparazzi. How else can this be explained but that they had been co-opted into the service of the powerful British establishment? And, of course, anyone who objects is written off as a barmy conspiracy theorist.


Perhaps one of the biggest problems holding the feminist movement back is that we continue these patterns when we join the movement – sniffing out the power structures and consciously or unconsciously lending them our support, turning a blind eye to abuse of power, isolating and scapegoating anyone who attempts to stand up to it, describing them as mad or bad or both, retelling the narrative to exonerate those with power and to blame anyone who falls out of line.

This is not surprising because the patterns we learnt from infancy do not disappear overnight just because we’ve started to gain a feminist understanding of the systematic oppression of women – and some of its more egregious current incarnations.

I help to administer the Nordic Model Now! (NMN) Facebook page. NMN is a practical campaign group – we want to bring about material change for women and children. We believe we’re unlikely to be successful unless there is widespread public support for change. So, one of our key aims in running the page is to raise awareness of the harms of prostitution and related practices (such as porn and surrogacy) and of the radical feminist analysis of these practices as part of the systematic oppression of women.

We know that women who are stuck in the sex trade follow us – because some of them get in touch to tell us how grateful they are for our work and how much it is helping them understand what has happened to them, and to thank us and to tell us not to stop. For these women in particular, we want the page to be welcoming and not a hot mess of Internet rage – but also for other people who are trying to understand the issues in a field that is deeply polarised and where the loudest voices are shouting that “sex work is just a job” and that the solution is decriminalising it and bringing it under employment legislation. So we are pretty strict on not allowing trolling and personal attacks.

But sometimes we end up banning more self-proclaimed radical feminists than any other group. For example, when we posted about the plight of prostituted women in India during the COVID-19 lockdown, a young woman from a poorer region of the UK asked why they didn’t just get another job. Along with a few other women, we explained that in fact it was not that easy and we pointed her to further information and asked her to read the linked article before she commented further. She responded positively and seemed to genuinely try to understand our position.

But then a lot of self-defined radical feminists piled on, repeatedly telling her she was wrong and even criticising her for what they could see on her personal profile. It was like watching the hounds attack the fox at the end of a hunt. The moderator comments asking them to stop were ignored and we ended up banning about 15 so-called radical feminists from the page that day.

The last thing one of these women said before we banned her was that she disagreed that women should have to be ‘nice’ and she justified dumping her anger on the young woman because she was ‘anti-woman.’ This is such an extraordinary misunderstanding of radical feminism. Women have been encouraged to dump our rage on other women since the dawn of patriarchy. There is nothing either radical or feminist about it.

Not only is dumping our rage on a single isolated young woman punching down, but it is likely to drive her into the arms of those who are lobbying for full decriminalisation of the sex trade.

We hear from many young women that until they read our posts or came to one of our events, or talked to us in some way, they had never in their lives been exposed to a critique of the sex trade. Never! They had only heard that it was empowering for women. And they are amazed to find that there is a well-developed critique that no one had told them about before.

How are we going to bring about change for women if we fail to help them understand the reality and instead gang up and dump our rage on them and accuse them of being anti-woman – when they have been systematically deprived of the feminist analysis that could help them understand – a feminist analysis that has been well-developed since Victorian times?

It was the exposure to a feminist analysis that enabled me make sense of my life. If I’d never been exposed to it, would I know any better?

So how did we arrive at a place where Nordic Model Now! a group that works tirelessly to change the narrative on the sex trade and to make a critique of it accessible, find that it is repeatedly accused of not being radical feminist enough?

Could it be because within the wider feminist movement we have not connected our feminism with our heart? That we haven’t understood that it is not only an analysis but also a different way of being? A more courageous way of being?

Could it be because many of the ‘big name’ so-called radical feminists do in fact live out the patriarchy they claim to be wanting to smash? That they still worship power, especially their own? That they have no loyalty to parts of the grassroots movement that they can’t control and they fear may upstage them? That they use all the well-tried patriarchal (Machiavellian) techniques to shore up and maintain their own power base, including organising award ceremonies, spreading malicious rumours, steadfast refusal to ever retweet anything the unanointed grassroots movement might do, no matter how excellent and important, and inflaming any normal conflict that might occur between its members?

Patriarchy is a system that colonises our minds like a brain tumour. If we really want to change the world, we need to work on ourselves on an emotional and psychological level as well as on a cerebral and intellectual level. We must refuse to enable any abuse of power within our movement. We must refuse to fall for malicious rumours or to amplify or legitimise them. We must refuse to take advantage of women’s distress, vulnerability and desperation for attention. We must refuse to punch down on women who are new, who are isolated, who are inconvenient, who refuse to conform to the rules of power.

9 thoughts on “How should a feminist be?

  1. Actually this reminded me of various awful experiences I have had , mostly at conferences but sometimes in groups .
    I have been told horrible things about myself and have had frequent breaks from involvement in the WLM because I didn’t feel strong enough to cope with it . Most of my support comes from reading books !

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a great article. It reminds me of an incident on Reddit where a radical feminist went off on an OP because she did not use perfect language in criticizing porn and seemed like she was “pandering.” I defended the OP and said why do we have to be so judgmental of younger women who are trying to understand the issues despite receiving so much harmful propaganda, and I was told I was being ridiculous and to get over myself. I told her we needed these women on our side and then she told me I was a joke. I left that subreddit. It seemed many radical feminists on there DIDN’T WANT women on there that were confused and trying to make sense of the world. They often mocked them. Not all the participants, but many did. It was a holier than thou attitude. Maybe what I said also sounded holier-than-thou, but how do we get women to truly understand the harms of porn and prostitution if we alienate them? How do we start a cohesive movement? I also think that there is an internalization of the whole liberal “educate yourself” which I hate because I believe it is elitist. Not everyone has the time, and if you are someone not used to doing academic research or grew up incredibly literate, this can be tough.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m pretty antique and have often thought I was using correct language only to find that it was wrong in that context , group , conference , newsletter etc. I guess it is always easier to exclude women rather than include them . And it happens to those of us from heavy intellectual backgrounds too – after all it can still be wrong language ! And now within Women’s Studies we have academically qualified experts … Radical feminism used to say that every woman was the expert on her own life .

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I am 37 and feel antique. I feel like modern movements of all kinds are focusing more on buzzwords and phrasing than actual substance.

        Liked by 3 people

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