Feminism Friday: What makes a feminist icon?

It pains me to admit it, but this piece is inspired by Thatcher. In the wake of her death, everyone’s had something to say. One of the more bizarre ideas, though, is a few people claiming her as a ‘feminist icon’. Really? Thatcher is widely quoted as saying, ‘The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.’ She’s no feminist – she was a powerful and intelligent woman, but no feminist. There’s a difference. Feminism implies at least some concern for women collectively and women other than oneself, and agreeing with the idea that there are some issues that affect women specifically and collectively. Thatcher, and her ruthless individualism, had very little time for collective causes – just ask the unions.

So what makes a feminist icon? It can’t just be someone who succeeded in a male-dominated field. It has to be someone who has had some success in intentionally improving the lives of other women. A woman who’s succeeded where no other woman succeeded before can be inspiring, certainly, but not necessarily feminist. Sadly, for all the names we list as feminist icons, it can sometimes feel like they keep having to be struck off the list. Ill-judged jokes at the expense of other minority groups, ignoring one’s own privilege, thoughtlessly writing off the lived experiences of other women in favour of an ideology. Who can we list as a feminist icon that all feminists can agree on and who has never spoken unthinkingly or caused any offence?

(Clue: I can’t think of any)

Everyone makes mistakes, and public figures get to make them more obviously than the rest of us. How you respond to making mistakes and causing offence matters, a lot – if someone points out that your use of language was upsetting, for example, it takes no effort at all to say ‘I’d never thought of it like that, thank you, I’ll try and avoid doing that in future’ rather than ‘god this is so hard, I’m trying to be an ally, why are you being so picky?’. But I’d far prefer to have a public space full of opinionated intelligent verbose women who get it wrong than a public space full of people who are over-cautious of causing offence and never speak boldly.

The Queen, a rich and powerful woman, is in fact a brilliant example of this – as the head of state, she cannot risk giving offence. Even amongst people who are politically opposed to the monarchy, the Queen herself tends to score very high approval ratings – but she never speaks. She’s never given a press interview, and practically all we know about her is that she likes horse-racing and corgis. There’s nothing to dislike because there’s nothing we know about to dislike. A public space populated only by women as inoffensive as the queen would be worse than dull – it would leave all the interesting, difficult and important conversations in the hands of men alone.

No-one is perfect; we can’t demand perfection of our icons, but our distress and anger when very visible feminists screw up is largely because there are so few of them. If we had a public discussion space full of feminists of all stripes, screw-ups would of course still matter but they would matter less: if someone came out with jaw-droppingly thoughtless comments on race, or trans issues, or sexuality, with a huge and noisy diversity of feminist voices in the public space there would be plenty of counterbalances, and those could be moments of disagreement, rather than feeling like a woundingly personal betrayal.

Feminism cannot and should not be monolithic. My feminism is heavily lefty-socialist, atheist, kind-of-lazily-environmentalist, heavily sex-positive, queer-, trans- and poly-friendly, etc. Your feminism might be different. There are plenty of feminists out there who would disagree with me on all of those – and they’re still feminists, because they are concerned with making the world better than it currently is for women and with removing obstacles to gender equality. They and I might well disagree on priorities, or on the best way to do that; in fact some of their views might completely horrify me – and vice versa. But I still want their voices to be heard; not at the expense of views I agree with, but alongside them.

We don’t need a final agreement on a definitive version of feminism. Far better, we need a discordant diversity of feminist opinions to be part of public life, to underpin our understanding of the world. I want a feminist cacophony, not a perfect chorus. Plus, my feminism likes to dance.

So my nomination, today, for a feminist icon is Annette Barlow and the whole team behind The Girls Are – a fantastic site dedicated to championing women in music, finding total joy in brilliant musicians who happen to be women, giving their readers the tools to re-read the mainstream music industry’s presentation of women and even take control of their own music-making. They’re not only celebrating women’s achievements, they’re doing so specifically to help widen the field for other women, and to help us look critically at the way the music industry sells women artists.

This post was written by a RWL Guest BloggerJo Breeze likes to write about music (especially traditional music) and the arts, drinks a lot of tea, but unlike the rest of the internet prefers dogs to cats and vodka to gin. She’s been some sort of feminist since before she knew a word for it (thanks mum!) and is constantly trying to learn more.

Image of anti-Thatcher button badge via dannybirchall‘s Flickr photostream. Image of Queen Elizabeth II via Michael Gwyther-Jones‘s Flickr photostream. Final image taken from thegirlsare.com.

10 thoughts on “Feminism Friday: What makes a feminist icon?

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  1. Excellent article. I love the call for a feminist cacophony… so here are my thoughts regarding Margaret Thatcher. I couldn’t help having a secret pleasure in the fact that we had a female monarch and a female prime minister, while my two small daughters were starting to grow up. Two women, two mothers, however flawed the individuals or the system, in the two top jobs. That’s all.

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