Becoming a Women’s Liberation Activist—My Story

ME

I am a young adult woman in my late twenties, targeted by racism, of mixed-heritage, with very light skin. I did family work as a young person and really took on RC for myself when I was twelve and went to my first young people’s workshop. I was hooked by the theory on young people’s liberation and the idea of using the tools of RC to end oppression. The second workshop I went to was a young women’s workshop. I felt excited hearing other young women talk about young people’s oppression, sexism, and how sexism affects us. A group of us formed a ‘gang’ there, and we decided to stay in contact and to really take on RC together. Part of our deal was to go together to all the mostly adult workshops and to work on internalised sexism and young people’s oppression so that we could learn how to be the best counsellors for one another and not feel like we could rely only on adults. We had many exciting ideas about how we would back each other’s leadership and lives. I felt like I was part of a team that could take on anything. It made RC exciting.

ME AND WOMEN’S WORK IN RC

I’ve always loved women’s workshops. There’s some place where I got it early on that fighting against sexism was a big part of fighting for myself as a female. I loved Diane Balser from the first time I met her. The big picture she put out for women and the bold way she held out for ‘no limits’ made any of the distresses I struggled with about feeling stupid or wrong seem insignificant compared to what we were striving for. I got it that for me to speak out as a young woman and to share my thoughts and fight for what I believed in was more important than the places I felt bad and the mistakes I might make.

After the first women’s workshop three of us young women (all fourteen years old at the time) got to spend time with Diane on a trip we made to the United States. It made such a difference having that time with each other and with Diane. My relationship with Diane and the relationships with my other important women Co-Counsellors throughout the years have been important to me in terms of figuring out how to keep women’s liberation central to my life.

SEXISM AND ME AS A YOUNG WOMAN AND YOUNG ADULT WOMAN

In doing work on sexism as a young woman and young adult woman, for me what has stood out as a major hurt and confusion for our generation has been not having a wide-world women’s liberation movement actively exposing sexism and taking a stand against it.

Our generation has been born into a period of intense capitalism and neo-liberalism in which we have been told that sexism is no longer an issue for women in the economic North, and that liberation is the ‘freedom’ to pursue personal empowerment through consumerism, rather than the opportunity to fight for real change as a united movement.

At the same time as being told that sexism is over and feminism is outdated, we have been subjected to a backlash against gains made by the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s. We have been, and continue to be, targeted by an intensification of the sex, pornography, and beautification industries, which objectify us, dehumanise us, and underpin attitudes that make sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and violence against women seem normal.

Feminist language has been co-opted by market forces and we have been told that we are now ‘empowered’ to objectify ourselves, to pluck, wax, shave, pierce, have cosmetic surgery to increase the size of our breasts, alter our genitalia, or change sex altogether, diet, pole dance, striptease, watch and/or take part in pornography, and turn ourselves into the ultimate ‘sex objects.’

This is hard on us, and we have lots of work to do as younger women to discharge the internalised messages about ourselves as females, as well as to figure out how to stand up against the sexist institutions and mechanisms of oppression. But for me the biggest hurt and confusion for women of my generation in the economic North has been witnessing and being conditioned to be part of the passivity of society as a whole in terms of not taking a visible and open stand against this form of oppression, to say that it is wrong.

As a young girl I clearly remember seeing so many things that were wrong. I found it scary and confusing watching other people appear to accept these things as if they were normal and not to look as upset or angry as I felt. I think these are the feelings that make us feel most alone. In taking on feminist activism I decided that I wanted the opportunity to take a public and visible stand against sexism and to try and get as many women as I could on board with me to challenge these feelings of hopelessness and defeat. I wanted for our generation what I had heard older women talk about in terms of getting to feel a sense of sisterhood as they fought in unison for big things. This was exciting.

GETTING INVOLVED IN FEMINIST ACTIVISM—WHAT I WAS UP AGAINST AND WHY I WENT FOR IT

As well as feeling excited, I also felt scared to get involved in feminist activism. The intersection of sexism, Gay oppression, and attacks on feminism were a major part of everything I saw around me growing up. Females speaking out against sexism or refusing to buy into how we were supposed to look and behave as young women were systematically targeted and ostracised as ‘Lesbians’ in vicious ways.

One way in which I was up against this was that I held out for having relationships with boys that weren’t based on sex and us living out the kind of sexual relationships put out to us by the mainstreaming of pornography. This was tough. There were massive pressures on me to start having sex from the age of eleven, and I had daily fights with boys my age to stop them touching me, grabbing me, and trying to pin me down. I also had good talks with them about what was going on, about what the pressures were on them, about how hard it was on me the way they had started to treat me as a result of the pressures on them, and about how we could stay being friends through it all. We did well in lots of ways, and I did well in trying to figure things out and not give up on myself or on relationships with young men; but what we were up against was big. When I was seventeen, it felt like it had got too much, and although it wasn’t a terrible situation, I ended up going along with having sex even though I didn’t really want to. It did feel like I had given up on something that I had been holding out for in terms of staying in charge of my body.

I still have much to discharge about how angry and heartbroken I am about the way that we were divided and pitted against one another as females and males so early in our lives: I feel mad at the sexism and the influence of the mainstreaming of the sex and pornography industries; mad at the Gay oppression viciously used to reinforce the roles we were supposed to play in relation to these industries, and to threaten us if we didn’t abide by them; mad at young people’s oppression which put us in hard situations without support, trying to figure out the distressed messages we were getting from adult society. When I think about how well we did together in the face of this it makes me cry, but it makes me mad how harsh the oppression is.

The way that racism and sexism shaped my particular distresses also led to me feeling scared to take on feminist activism visibly. I grew up witnessing my mum being targeted in various ways as a woman targeted by racism. I also experienced these kinds of attacks on myself with white people having their racism restimulated around me and yet not feeling like they needed to be thoughtful or ‘careful’ because I was a young person and I didn’t look black. This meant they could target me with certain parts of it without it being recognised that this was what they were doing. A phrase I heard from various white adults growing up was ‘there’s something about you’ (said in a negative way and used as an excuse for mistreatment). I experienced these adults as trying to single me out, divide me from my friends, and set me up against them. I grew up fighting this, but also learning to expect this type of mistreatment in ways—to expect to be targeted.

The distresses resulting from these experiences made me feel like I would do anything not to be different; that my survival depended on trying to belong and trying to be the ‘same’ as whatever group of people I was with. I knew that taking a visible stand against sexism and saying I was a feminist would make me stand out as ‘different’ and would leave me vulnerable to attack; and that felt scary.

At the same time, I also knew that it was too hard on me to stay passive and small around something that affected me so deeply and which I cared about so much, especially if I was to live the kind of life I wanted to live. I knew that I felt most alive when I could figure out fighting for something I cared about, especially with a group of people by my side. I had had this experience with my ‘gang’ in RC, and I wanted to use that to be able to take risks and try things out with people in the wide world focused on women’s liberation and ending sexism.

HOW I GOT INVOLVED IN ACTIVISM THAT CHALLENGES THE SEXUAL OBJECTIFICATION OF WOMEN AND THE MAINSTREAMING OF THE SEX AND PORN INDUSTRIES

I knew I was passionate about ending the objectification of women’s bodies, but it felt like the scariest issue to take on. I learned early on from going to feminist conferences and reading about feminist groups on the Internet that challenging pornography and the sex industries was oneofthemost controversial and divisive issues within feminism and that it was the issue that women were most vilified for speaking out against.

I decided to go against my fears by applying for a job with what was then a small feminist organisation focusing on ending the sexual objectification of women in the media and popular culture by challenging the mainstreaming of the sex and porn industries. I didn’t get the job I went for—they gave it to somebody with more experience—but the Director liked my interview and asked if I would come on board to develop and lead grassroots activism on the topic.

I was first paid only a couple of hours a week whilst I also studied and had another job, but soon I was spending all my time building up an activist network and working closely with X—, the woman who got the job I had applied for, on campaigns to challenge the proliferation and mainstreaming of the sex industry through calling for political changes. I now work full-time for the organisation, after having developed and expanded the role for myself. We have had massive successes changing laws and shifting public debate on the topic, and we have a growing activist network around the country. In fact we are now being profiled in the media as proof of a resurgence of feminist activism!

RELATIONSHIPS AND USING RC AT WORK

One of the best things about working for this feminist organisation has been striking up a partnership with X—, who is the same age as me and who started at the same time. We are now close friends, and X— has recently started Co-Counselling.

The first time we really worked together was to run a workshop at a university on challenging the objectification of women. We stayed up nearly all of the night before sharing our thinking, preparing, going through our arguments and practicing together. It was so good! I loved how well we could think together and how well we bounced off each other’s ideas. It was clear from the beginning that we were going to make a formidable team.

A week later we did the same thing getting ready for another workshop at a national student women’s conference. We thought this workshop could be challenging, as we knew there would be opposition to our position that pornography and prostitution are results of and forms of oppression, and I had experienced from previous workshops on these issues the level of restimulation that these topics can provoke.

At this workshop, X— and I knew that we wanted to shift the debate away from issues to do with individual choice and actions—a perspective that has been pushed on our generation heavily as part of the intensification of capitalism and neo-liberalism. We wanted to be able to offer a full enough picture about the way that oppression operates, and the way that it affects all of us, that we could focus on how as women we can challenge the effects of the mainstreaming of the sex industries without getting caught up in restimulation about places where the messages have been internalised. We put a lot of thought into how we wanted to structure the workshop. I told X— about the idea of ‘think and listens,’ which she liked and which we have used at every event since. We were nervous but we knew we were in it together, and the workshop went well.

Afterwards X— and I had a debrief chat. We talked about the feelings we have attached to public speaking and the ways we wanted to get bolder and more confident at it. We decided to work that year on completely backing each other to be as good as we could be, to get confident at speaking in front of people, and to do it together. I left feeling like as a team we could do anything.

There are so many examples of us backing each other in this way: staying up all night writing speeches together, going over plans together, practicing for media interviews together, taking on more and more challenges, and backing each other always to do more. As we have been growing in our closeness and collaboration, the organisation has also grown in size and influence at an amazingly fast rate.

We have launched three major campaigns over the last couple of years and changed two laws; we have started and promoted grassroots feminist activism around the country with protests, stunts, and days of action; we have spoken at marches and political rallies; at trade union events and student union events; as part of Government strategy groups; and to the media. In fact we are now in a position where major charities have asked our advice in campaigning!

An important part of this work has been growing a team of activists who meet at least once a month and who stay in regular contact by way of Internet discussion groups. The general tone that we have set as a group is brilliant. Our protests have become well known for our songs and chants (all written by ourselves) and for the feeling of empowerment people come away with after having been so bold and loud in a way that isn’t attacking or negative. On a recent march on International Women’s Day, we had people wanting to march with our group because they had heard that we were the ones with all the songs.

One example of how our group has stuck together and held on to how we want our group to be was a few months ago when a woman launched some personal attacks against me in the public forum. She attacked me for the line I held about not blaming or attacking men but instead focussing our anger at the institutions and the mechanisms which enforce sexism. The whole thing restimulated me. I was taking on big challenges at the time, and I would open my computer each day to more attacks. At first nobody else was getting involved, and I used sessions to discharge and to think about how I wanted to respond to each attack. I was pleased with how I dealt with the situation. I didn’t retaliate or get defensive, but just found different ways to put out my perspective and write what it was I thought we were after. After I had done that a few times, others in the group started to join in. They, too, were brilliant at holding on to a perspective of how we wanted our group to be and stating their positions without getting dragged into personal disputes or arguments (even when attacks began to be directed at them). I was pleased and proud.

After we had worked together a little while, I started telling X— more about RC: about how I thought the tools of listening and having the chance to discharge the effects that oppression has on our minds is an important part of social change. Every time I came back from an RC workshop, I would use the opportunity to tell her about what we had done and to give her more information about basic theory. Earlier this year I asked her to be part of a fundamentals class with me that was led by another young adult female leader and she said yes! I was so happy!

I loved having X— in the class, getting to show her more of me and getting to see more of her. I loved chatting with her to and from the classes, listening to her talk about the things she liked and talk through and ask me questions about the things she wasn’t sure about. I remember a moment listening to her in one of the classes when I thought, “This is going to make a difference to what we can do.”

At first it was challenging to have sessions with each other outside of the class. We could both get into work mode, working hard to try and get through our ‘to-do’ lists, and I often felt shy to push for us to swap time. However, recently we have got better, and there were two times in particular that we got to use counselling in a work situation that made a difference.

On the last occasion things had come to a head in lots of ways and X— was in the position of having to make a pretty big decision with a situation that was feeling hard and almost impossible to change. We had a session in which X— ‘went for it’ in her time, and at the end her perspective was completely different. She said, “Let’s go for this; we can do it. Let’s go for everything and not settle.” We had a massive hug, and X— said she hadn’t felt that hopeful or excited about things for a while.

In the days that followed, we both remarked that things that had seemed hard and that might have thrown us before didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore—that we had a confidence that, tough as things could get, we could pull something off together. We decided that, whatever the outcome, it would be harder to settle than to have fought all out and that we would do every step together and really use counselling to work through all the feelings that are restimulated and to continually re-evaluate together. This is the position we are in now, and it is exciting!

RC AND WIDE-WORLD ACTIVISM—THE PERFECT COMBINATION

Having the support and backing from the relationships I have in RC; having the perspective I get from RC that there is a distinction between feelings and reality and that fear can be discharged and is never a reason not to take something on; and having the knowledge that if I make mistakes or things go terribly wrong I’ve got a base where I can discharge, re-evaluate, and try again—all this has provided the perfect support for me to take on the challenges in my activism.

As well as RC supporting me to take on activism, a big reason for wanting to try out taking on this kind of leadership was that I wanted to get to work on the feelings that hold me back from being my biggest self and from moving things forward in all areas in my life—including in RC.

Taking on feminist activism around an issue I care about so deeply has been a perfect way to push myself in areas that allow me to discharge what gets in my way of really being able to reach people with all that I know, so that I can be as big and bold as I want to be in terms of moving people forward. For me, a crucial part of moving people forward is giving larger groups of people the tools of RC so that as a society we can start discharging the effects of oppression and dismantling the patterns which preventreal change from taking place. The skills I am learning and the practice and discharge I am getting from my activist work combine perfectly with the amount that I learn and grow from my commitment to being part of building the RC Community and from taking on leadership within RC. This combination of activism and RC is a central part of my goal of focussing my life on creating world change.

Young Adult Leader
London, England


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00