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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

On feminism: An interview with Jennifer Thorpe

Jennifer Thorpe - 2011-08-02

Jacques Rousseau recently wrote in The Daily Maverick about feminism:

But the state of what is called “feminism” today is my main concern. Try this experiment: Pick a social or moral issue and do a Google search for that and feminism. It’s almost certain that you’ll get screens full of hits for many of these combinations, just as I did when I tried this for “organic food”, “cloning”, “wikileaks”, “secrecy bill” and “fracking”.

Your rebuttal to this was:

The various forms of oppression that we are subject to are not always the same. I am a white, middle-class, heterosexual woman, and I can by no means share the experience of a black, working-class, lesbian. However, I can identify that unless I work to raise awareness about the various forms of oppression that we face, the democracy I live in is weaker and less meaningful. So while you might not identify the links between fracking, the protection of information act and corrective rape, I can. They all affect women’s lives, and feminism is the magnifying glass that can help to make that clearer. It is exactly as you say: “Those committed to equality and freedom need to oppose [oppression] in all its forms.”

In this light, how would you go about distinguishing between feminist groups, women’s rights groups, environmental groups and humanitarian groups? How do you identify an issue/oppression as feminist, and does one, by doing this, “hog” that issue as feminist and nothing else?

I think the point I was trying to make was that forms of oppression are necessarily linked to one another. For example, if you consider a trafficked young woman, she has been trafficked because of socio-economic oppression (either in her community, within her family, or within the society she came from). Many times these problematic economic conditions come from environmental degradation or exploitation, which means that the land is unable to generate sufficient resources for everyone, or a few corporations have taken the benefits. Problematic socio-economic conditions can also come from patriarchal political regimes that do not promote the rights of women and children. In many cases this means that women and children are not educated, cannot be economically independent and so are more vulnerable to trafficking, or sexual slavery. It is clear that feminism is linked to all of these issues, and this doesn’t hog these issues as “feminist”, it just says that as a feminist you should recognise these links, and try to do something about oppression.

On a recent blogpost on FeministsSA.com you write, in short, that men might need a movement to help them understand “what it means to be human”. You suggest “masculinism” as a possible movement:

So what does masculinism look like? Because I think we need a movement for men. While women are in motion within and towards something big, men are left flailing in the wake, uncertain of how to react. I am not asserting that men need more rights, more opportunities or more freedoms. What men need is a safe place to go when the darkness of our new land engulfs them; they need a safe place to go where they can feel like they belong. They need a movement which will help them to develop a new culture of norms and standards which will help them to deal with this new land.

Would starting such a movement still make you a feminist, or rather a “genderist”? Is this a feminist issue as well, and if so, what makes it so?

I didn’t write that particular blog post. I think what the writer was trying to say is that many people find feminism to be threatening, because they are so used to relations of power where one person/group has to be dominant. The thing about feminism is that it is working to a state of affairs where that whole conception of power relations is changed. You do not need dominance for freedom. You need equality.

On the FeministsSA-blog a quote by Sharon Lennon is shared as to why feminism is needed:

Now as a feminist, I have a resource that is like no other: a long line of women who have the beautiful ability to share their experience – their obstacles and triumphs, setbacks and head starts. We can help each other finally be who we are. We walk through life together as women, in all our individual ways. This is what makes women so strong, what makes feminism so powerful, what makes an individual. This is what has brought me back to ME. This is mine.

Do you believe that only feminists can access this resource, and that women who choose not to call themselves feminist forfeit it? Also, do you believe that one needs to understand feminism to be a feminist? Is it possible, thus, that a woman (or a man) can by choice practise and live a life free from oppression and gender inequality but not believe her-/himself to be a feminist?

The opportunity to move beyond other identities is one that feminism offers, but doesn’t erase. So, for example, I might not be from the same background as you, but we can identify that women’s equality and empowerment is something we can work for. It’s about seeing the bigger picture, and perhaps if you don’t see yourself as feminist, this is a bit harder.

It’s good to understand the history of feminism, and of your country’s specific manifestations of feminism, because this helps you to make decisions about where you’re at and what you stand for, but you don’t have to have done this to call yourself a feminist. Sometimes you just know that you want a better world for women.

I also think, though, that labelling yourself a feminist commits you to some form of action. Of standing up for women’s rights, and of doing something about the situation of women. It’s a commitment, not just a name tag.

In a literary study1 of the works of Bessie Head, an unsung Drum writer of the ’60s, LJ Rafapa, AZ Nengome and HS Tshamano write:

Bessie Head’s first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, originally published in 1969, provides fertile material in which the complex intersection of her autobiographical approach with her perspectives on feminism can be examined. Not only should a closer scrutiny of any of Head’s literary works reclaim the central position Drum writings deserve within the evolutionary history of black South African literature written in English (Rafapa 2007:63), but this should also redress the fact of Head’s unjustifiable exclusion from the Drum hall of fame. It is true that when other Drum greats such as Todd Matshikiza, Es’kia Mphahlele, Casey Motsisi and Can Themba’s outstanding literary contributions are acknowledged, the name of Head is almost always excluded, thus subjecting her to a double marginalization.

Firstly, do you believe history to be a feminist issue? The given quote implies that Head has been omitted from Drum history not only because she was a woman but a feminist as well. Do you think women through the ages had unfairly little mention in comparison with their deeds and actions to change the course of history?

Secondly, do you believe that double marginalisation is still prevalent in South Africa today, and if so, how?

History is of course a feminist issue. The way history books are written is shaped by the dominant political order of the time, and because of this the role that women played in shaping history has often been overlooked.

There are a number of ways that double marginalisation exists in South Africa, for many people – not just feminists. Being black and poor and lesbian opens you up to forms of oppression that being white and rich and a heterosexual male does not. Life chances are affected by random categories. These various forms of oppression and marginalisation are extremely real.

Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela is currently amidst a media storm regarding her possible arrest for corruption and fraud at the same time the Protector's office was probing alleged corruption in a leasing deal involving South African Police Services head General Bheki Cele and property vendor Roux Shabangu. Do you believe gender inequality, patriarchy and chauvinism are playing a role in this specific instance and in South African politics as a whole? Also, is feminism critical to politics, and if so, in what way?

I think here the issue is less about feminism, and more about corruption. Because of the deep corruption in government, if Adv Madonsela had been a man they still would have set that person up.

Where you might see chauvinism and patriarchy is in the language that is used to talk about Madonsela in the media, and how this might differ if it were a man involved.

Rousseau writes:

According to Zoe Williams’ review of Caitlin Moran’s book How to be a Woman, the definition of feminism is simple: “Feminism is just equality. Would a man be allowed to do it? Then so should you. Would a man feel bad about it? No? Then nor should you.”

Do you agree? How would you define feminism?

I completely disagree with this definition of feminism. My feelings of success and self-worth are not based on whether a man can do what I want to, they are based on whether women have rights, and can exercise them in a country that supports them and recognises their needs. It’s not at all about emulating men or masculinity – I have no desire to do that.


1. “Instances of Bessie Head’s distinctive feminism, womanism and Africanness in her novels”, Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, 48(2), 2011