I want to be part of a revolution. A revolution which will transform the lives of all females. Women are being murdered, abused, silenced, controlled on a daily basis. To be part of a revolutionary fight, we need to know each other in times of risks and danger. We need to trust each other. We need to know that sisters will not lie, manipulate or otherwise, misrepresent the feminist, or radical feminist, position. We need to know that those we work with have politics and ethics.
I have had concerns about conferences becoming the main focus for feminist organising, and the limitations of that, for over a year. The problem is getting worse, not better, so I decided to write about it. My concerns centre around how the conference format, in isolation, de-radicalises feminism.
Corporate ‘feminism’ understands this too well. It is a deliberate ploy for capitalist-patriarchy to exploit women’s desire to enjoy women-only space. It focuses on the richest, and most successful, women and provides corporate sponsorship, recognising the potential for profit in big numbers of women coming together. These two links show a general contemporary increase in women’s conferences. Collectively, they highlight how rich women can come together in expensive spaces, attract corporate sponsors, and chat about ‘empowering’ women already greatly more advantaged than most.
One of the women quoted in the article below says: “It’s almost become a competition, like: ‘Did you go to that conference? Well what about that one?’ And maybe you don’t even want to go, but now you have to because you’re afraid of what you’ll miss out on if you don’t.”
This woman describes her discomfort at going to a women’s corporate event (which was sponsored by AOL and a skin-care product (don’t let that irony escape you).
There were big names who didn’t know why they were there in the spotlight. They faltered and stumbled over their words, admitting they didn’t write them. We can see from the photos how the performance of ‘femininity’, and its re-enforcement, was played out during these ’empowering’ and ‘inspiring’ times
We might have hoped that this author and reluctant attendee was present out of some kind of feminist conviction. And yet even she confesses: “In the interest of full disclosure, I should say the primary reason I attended the conference was because I was promised face time with Steinem.”
Julie Bindel speaks well here about the dangers of ‘fun feminism’. She argues that women coming together on liberal agendas do so to focus on personal liberty and freedom. This is not the same as the radical feminist goal of overthrowing male supremacy.
However, she does not make the links between ‘fun feminism’ and the phenomenon described in the articles above where the conference format is used to sell Neoliberalism back to women via corporate sponsorship and the cult of the woman celebrity. In other words, the conference format, reinforces patriarchal-capitalist ideals hiding behind the rhetoric of women’s ’empowerment’.
I know what you may be thinking. If a conference is explicitly called ‘feminist’ or ‘radical feminist’ it won’t have a corporate agenda. The problem is, it has no choice. We live in capitalist-patriarchy. In order to book a venue with high numbers, women have to be charged a reasonably high amount. In order to get away with charging a high amount, many conferences have fallen into the trap of inviting ‘big names’ to attract the numbers needed. Some of these ‘big names’ don’t even share the politics around which the conference is being organised (examples described above in the articles about more malestream conferences are not so far from experiences I have seen or had described to me). I get the feeling some women are invited simply because they’re controversial. This is instead of rather than (or perhaps as well as) because they have something to contribute to the political goals of that particular conference (should there be any above attracting large numbers).
And if you need to aim for large numbers because your venue and other costs are expensive, you will need a lot of women present to break even, and, even more, to make a profit. This idea is fraught with political dangers. Some conferences capitulate completely and allow men, perhaps, even anti-feminist or violently dangerous men (how can we tell?) to be present. Men can usually be relied upon to boost numbers and revenue – they do, after all, earn £1 for every 80 pence women earn in the UK. Others, fearing that they might be boycotted and not get the numbers they need and/or have venues pull out, have compromised with queer bullshit and held sessions on a series of made-up phobias as opposed to feminism. By a process of needing to be popular, large conferences can end up being de-radicalised, with the conscious or unconscious approval of the organisers.
It doesn’t have to be like this. By far, my favourite feminist conference in recent years, still, is ‘radfem2012′ and I remember thinking ‘wow. Radical feminist, thought-provoking, speakers over 2 days for a real value-for-money event.’ £15 compared to the price of some women’s conferences reaching into their hundreds of pounds shows it is possible to be mindful of price. Although, on top of an entry fee, many women have accommodation, travel and other costs. If someone has domestic commitments or is disabled on top, these are added barriers. There are various barriers to individuals reaching conferences. Those barriers don’t, of course, just apply to feminist conferences. The point is if conferences become the main way in which women can work towards feminist goals then it becomes problematic as a method of political organising
One of the biggest dangers around today is that conference organisers will be intimidated from within, or externally, to cave in and accommodate the all-pervasive queer agenda. As a radical feminist I believe that agenda is libertarian, regressive, anti-feminist rhetoric. I believe the true queer agenda is masked behind rhetoric. The true agenda is to uphold ‘gender’ at the expense of women’s liberation. In recent times, it has shown it is more dangerous than merely being a string of words which make no sense. Those string of words are being used, in an ironic reversal, to shut down actual feminists in favour of anti-feminist propaganda . Silencing techniques are disguised as some kind of championing of humanist rights to confuse and mystify everyone. I am all for championing human rights of oppressed people, by the way – just not at the expense of a (radical) feminist movement losing touch with its goal of women’s liberation.
Conferences have had a place – and may continue to have a place for the right reasons and in the right hands. Some involved in the movement pretend that it is possible to have ‘international’ conferences, or, even more grandly, ‘summits’ or a ‘taskforce’ (a patriarchal term if ever I heard one). One or two rich people might make it across the other side of the world but revolution starts at home. Revolution starts on our own door-step. It starts with ourselves and the women around us. It starts with developing a political understanding about our lives. It starts with CR (Consciousness-raising). It does not start with controversial speeches and rhetoric and meeting someone famous. If it does, then that is not the right starting point. Rhetoric without CR can lead to anti-feminist behaviour mingling with feminist theory. What a head fuck that one is.
Without a doubt, some conferences can radicalise some women. They learn the joy of women-only compared to male dominated spaces. They might learn that (for example) radical feminism is being lied about; radical feminist truths are being masked in favour of ones which support male supremacy. They may learn it’s possible for women to fight back. But without the groundwork of ongoing activism, meeting once a year (or more) to listen to ‘celebrities’ speak does not a revolution make. There is a patriarchal tendency to adopt an academic style of conference with ‘plenaries’ and ‘experts’. Even that, potentially, has a place so long as women have a chance to learn how to trust each other and work together. Conferences are usually too big to achieve that and so they often end up with women who don’t know each other making suggestions about the way forward. Anyone who has ever been a grass-roots activist knows that does not work. We need to connect in small groups and we need to work on specific goals to ignite real flames which will stay alight for more than a heady, passionate day or two.
I am aware, even as I write, that it’s a lot of work to organise a conference. I have done it myself so I know. I also know that radical feminist conferences with integrity, and even those labelled ‘feminist’, are fraught with danger. Women organisers and attendees are at risk from misogynists. Threats and no-platforming are the order of the day. This article is not to diss those women organisers – some of whom are my friends and political allies. But I am not here to protect friendships. I am here for a revolution and I can only work with others who want a revolution too. Women who can recognise that there’s more to a revolution than rhetoric and hype.
I am glad women are having fun together, I really am. I am glad that conferences can help alleviate the isolation we feel because we hold radical feminist politics (or even half-way decent feminist politics, these days). That’s not revolutionary though. Being revolutionary is planning an over-throw of systems which oppress women. Being revolutionary is having clear goals and projects with the aim of liberating women. Being revolutionary is coming up with practical ways to support women to break free from patriarchy as far as we possibly can. Being revolutionary is offering alternatives to patriarchy, ways of escaping the worst of it.
Conscious that every single woman who’s ever organised a conference in her life (that will be me then!) may feel defensive in response to this post, I want to temper it (and also illustrate my arguments are political) with another post I have written alongside it (soon to be published) supporting all feminists who are under such a barrage of personal intimidation and threats.
There are many of us who are working towards an alternative to conference-itis. We believe you don’t need hundreds of women to spark a revolution. Our igniter is at the ready.
NB: I am conscious that there have been some feminist conferences recently and that others are coming up. The purpose of this post is to at least open the debate and name the conference format as a political choice, not to encourage defensiveness from particular individuals who may have spent months working on conference organising (as, incidentally, have I which is a main reason for my post).