Last weekend Jender and I went to FEM08, an activism conference for women and men. It was generally excellent – interesting and inspiring, and great to be in the same place as so many other people interested in feminst issues!
We’ve had time to reflect on all we saw and heard and discussed, so now its time to join the blogging about it (plenty already going on see here for fword blogging and links to more, including here)! As Laura over at the fword writes, one thing the conference could have involved more of is *discussion time* – the hectic schedule meant there was little time for dwelling on the issues and sorting through problems and potential solution.
So perhaps some of that can happen in the comments here! It would be great to hear from those in attendance what they thought, or from those who couldn’t make it, what they make of the issues raised in the de-brief!
There was much to offer – more sessions that we could attend – so this is necessarily a partial review of the parts that we experienced – we’ve enjoyed reading about others’ experience of the day and hearing about the other sessions! There are parts where we no doubt fail to do justice to the complexity of what was said – but we hope to add to some of the parts as well. This will be a series of posts, because there’s so much to say!
Panel on rape
The conference was opened by Kat Banyard, from Fawcett. She introduced the first session of the day, Julie Bindel and Kira Cochrane, who spoke on the appalling statistics for rape conviction.
One of the key points from Kira Cochrane was the way that rape was treated as anomalous, an uncommon atrocity; she called for an attitudinal shift to acknowledge that rape was an EVERYDAY atrocity for women. Julie Bindel likewise criticised the media focus on the very small number of false rape allegations, contributing to the deficit in women’s perceived credibility when reporting rape. She called on men to play a key role in challenging sexist attitudes.
Such criticism is, of course, absolutely justified, and the low conviction rate was rightly criticised by panelists as ‘an absolute fucking disgrace’. However, the failure to locate the discussion in a broader context was somewhat disappointing. For example, insufficient attention (in my view) was paid to the connection between women’s material inequality and rape rates. That women cannot leave abusive relationships because in doing so they would face poverty; that women are predominantly primary caregivers and are hence excluded from the workforce, financially dependent upon their partners; that extreme poverty often drives women into vulnerable roles such as prositution; addressing such issues seems of fundamental importance to addressing the high rape rate.
Panel on men’s activism
Following Julie Bindel’s call for men to do their bit in challenging sexism, the next session was from two men involved in feminist activism. Chris White introduced us to the white ribbon campaign, which works with men to end ‘destructive masculinities’, and Damian Carnel (from NFDV) who talked about his work with men, and in particular, the strategy of ensuring that when men were referred to men’s groups, his work to ensure that those groups were *constructive* and concerned for gender equality (rather than those which encourage resentment against women, making ‘feminism’ a scapegoat.)
This leads me to another critical point about the day; there was a lot of focus on individual men, and what they should be doing. Now I absolutely agree that men should be feminist. But to be honest, if I were a man, I would have felt a bit sheepish (at one point, Julie Bindel directly addressed the men there: ‘what are you doing to help feminism?’). [Jender adds: It was clear they did feel sheepish. In fact, they were very apologetic about how little they were doing. And these were men who were running organisations doing incredibly important outreach work trying to change men’s attitudes. I’m really not sure why they should be feeling sheepish. Many of the women present, myself included, do far less and nobody was trying to make us feel sheepish. Our sex/gender should neither get us a free pass nor make us instantly blameworthy!] Three concerns:
i. the men there are already on board! We need to keep them on board, and encourage more men to do so – i’m not saying there shoudl be any pandering to men, but I don’t think the most constructive atmosphere is created by personal challenges. This is not least because…
ii. there’s some really interesting work, by Paul Benson amongst others (see his paper ‘Blame, Oppression and Diminished Moral Competence’ in Moral Psychology: Feminist ethics and social theory, Peggy DesAutels and Margaret Urban Walker, eds), about the degree to which agents can be held fully blameworthy in contexts in which oppressive social norms and structures pervade. Roughyl speaking, the claim is that insofar as men, like women, may have their ‘moral competence’ distorted by gender oppression, full blame may not be fully justified. [Jender adds: This is an important point, and a very tricky one to implement. But I think my main concern was that blame/suspicion seemed to be getting apportioned based not on what we do, but on our sex or gender. And that just seems wrong.]
iii. whilst we need individuals on board, we also need *structural* change; with all the well intentioned men and women in the world, unless issues such as the pay gap, the structure of the workplace, the expectations with respect to domestic roles etc are addressed, inequality will persist. [Jender adds: Of course, individuals can work toward those structural changes. But there was very little discussion of the need for such changes in these sessions.]
More to come…