Tuesday 30 November 2010

Women of the Revolution: Forty Years of Feminism, ed. Kira Cochrane

A landmark anthology of feminist writing covers forty years of zeal, wit and outrage.

The cover of Women of the Revolution.
Spot any pink? *satisfied grin*
 Can you hear that noise? It’s the sound of rebellion – one which reverberates ever louder with each successive page of this collection, which ought to be bought up, kissed, studied and prescribed by and to every woman, man, library, bookshop, cultural historian and gender studies university department in the world. Women of the Revolution is itself revolutionary in being a feminist book which does not feature any ‘ironic’ pink inking, dolls, body parts, models or other bullshit on its cover. Edited and selected by the Guardian’s women’s editor (and now staff writer) Kira Cochrane, it’s a compendium of some of the newspaper’s feminist writing from 1971 to April 2010.

Full disclosure A: one of my briefer columns (a tame one) is in it. Disclosure B: in the run up to the publication of the collection, Kira Cochrane and I have been speaking at some of the many events which are part of the current resurgence of feminist activism in this country. She has talked about the book and the inspirations and challenges of putting it together, so I’ve learned something about the thinking behind Women of the Revolution, which I am drawing on here. There were many articles to choose from in the 1970s, from interviews with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller and Simone de Beauvoir to features on women workers uniting and striking, the dismissal of men’s violence against women and attitudes to rape. The tone of these pieces is so fresh, inquisitive, exploratory and new that one is filled afresh with the energy of these political pioneers, putting into words what so many millions of women have felt. Shocking, though, that Brownmiller's famous book about rape, Against Our Will, is still so very pertinent.

In the 80s, however, there is a noticeable change as the decade wears on. The fire and inspiring rage of features about the Yorkshire Ripper case, the genius of Maya Angelou, a day at Spare Rib and the brave women of the Greenham Common anti-nuclear demonstration becomes more circumspect, more nuanced and shadowy, more troubled. There are thrilling (to me as a critic and reader) and painful (to me as a woman) articles on that particular intersection of misogyny and racism, Judaism and Islam and their attitudes to women, the challenge of making a feminism that is truly global and the first appearance of writer Joan Smith, a heroine of mine, who confronts the normality and banality of misogyny: “Women-haters are not freaks or outcasts....but ordinary men,” runs the strapline.

Compared to the other decades in Women of the Revolution, the 80s are thin and wary. It is awfully tempting to put the blame, not on male perpetrators, whose hatred and violence have never really wavered, but on one Margaret Thatcher, a woman who used her great power to make sure no other woman got anywhere near the Cabinet. As Kira said at one talk, laughing ruefully, “Thatcher pretty much killed feminism. And then we were onto the nineties and this strange thing called post-feminism. Which is funny, because that phrase presupposes that there was a feminist era, which we have now moved beyond. If there was a feminist era I’d really like to hear about it.”

What we hear about in the Guardian during the 1990s may have been written in a general climate of gender-political complacency, but it is some of the most thrilling and confrontational writing in this collection, because it makes a global, precise, holistic and ultimately devastating critique of women’s position on a broad scale. It is tough, enthralling reading, tackling women who kill violent and abusive partners, systematic rape in war, women’s survival despite violence, Catholicism and misogyny (spotting a theme here, feminist religion watchers? It’s not going so well for the holy men, those pious-faced pricks), the perceived ‘whiteness’ of Anglo-American feminism and appearances from women writers who are still stars of the paper, like Maya Jaggi, bell hooks, Beatrix Campbell, Germaine Greer and Catherine Bennett. Star billing goes to Andrea Dworkin for her painfully funny open letter to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Just to get it straight – he did not have sex with that woman. She sucked him off and spat his jizz on her frock. Because that’s so much better.

Come the 2000s, according to Kira, and obvious from this collection, the intensification and sheer urgency of feminist feeling has been reflected in the number and range of features. Each piece crackles with anger, yes, but this section of Women of the Revolution shows a marked change in tone. Underneath the ire, the humour, the punchiness and brilliance of the writing is a haunted, prowling chagrin that while so much has changed, so much remains the same. The challenge of achieving equal pay, the endemic nature of male violence against women, the question of police attitudes, sexual harassment... these issues are revisited with ever greater brilliance and incisiveness, but deeper despair. How long must we say the same things, turning ourselves inside out as we writhe in frustration while the perpetrators continue abusing and the apologists, those civilised men and women, the writers, the judges, the officials, the businesspeople, the friends of friends, the politicians, the commentariat, the dinner party guests, carry on victim-blaming?

In addition to this, though, the 2000s section very clearly reflects certain new aspects of mainstream culture, of the general society in which we all live, and which shape both women and men. These new aspects may well be a reason for feminism’s revived zeal, along with the across-the-board outrage at the Con-Dem chaps’ cabinet of Eton-educated wankers, who between them have put together a budget which punishes women. The tackiness, objectification and outright misogyny of so-called raunch culture, attitudes to working mothers, the effects of the pornification of culture, the mainstreaming of the sex exploitation industry, the realities of sex work and the consequences of porn on young men’s and women’s intimate relationships are all examined.

Feminism is about to change the world again. It did it during the Suffragette era. It did it in the 1970s. It’s doing it now, at last. It doesn’t, I admit, feel like it when you’re in the middle of it. But Women of the Revolution: Forty Years of Feminism is proof of our triumphs and a testament to our achievements, as well as a sometimes heartbreaking record of what is done to us. Many of the issues written about with such concern and revelation in the early pages of the book are now theoretical ‘givens’ in the fight for justice, emancipation and equality. The extent and seriousness of domestic violence, relationship abusiveness, rape, harassment and discrimination are accepted if not resolved. Western women’s participation in the world and our fundamental human right to have a say in what happens to us are accepted, happily or grudgingly. We are able to blow the whistle on misogyny – we can even take the government to court. And yet still, despite that, we exist in the gaps between the lies and myths told about us, the violence done to us, the excuses of those who condone the perpetrators, the use of our labour and the never-ending sneer/jeer/leer/exploit/ignore creed of regular, normal, ‘civilised’ society.

Women of the Revolution is an inspiration to activism, a spur to creativity, a spark to fellow-feeling, a prompt to sisterly glee and a brazen, honest, wide-ranging collection. It is extremely readable and funny and very, to use a patronising word, accessible. As the closing feature, an interview with the brilliant Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi, demonstrates, it is women’s famous strength and resilience, our ability to fight without violence, which will see us through the next forty years, whatever they bring. The last words salute her, as they salute every woman in these inspiring pages, and every avid reader, and every woman who has thought or felt that something wasn’t quite right, and did something about it: “A fighter to the last.”

Women of the Revolution: Forty Years of Feminism, edited by Kira Cochrane, is published by Guardian Books, £18.99