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Yesterday I was at the Fabian Society‘s new year conference, taking part in a panel on feminism with our own (and the Fawcett Society’s) zohra moosa, Johann Hari, Zoe Williams and Patricia Hewitt.

The panel was entitled “The next feminism: a voice for a new generation.” I enjoyed the session and was grateful to have been invited, but it does seem a shame that if the idea was about a ‘new generation’ of feminists there was no-one on the panel who was a teenager, or in their early-to-mid twenties (as opposed to in the audience which seemed to contain mostly younger people). To be fair on the organisers it can be very difficult to find speakers, and sometimes, rightly or wrongly, you get more attention with ‘big names’ like Hewitt, Hari and Williams. Indeed, who gets invited to speak on behalf of feminism, and whose voices get heard in the media on feminist issues is a whole other thorny question.

People seemed generally pleased and interested by the debate, which was quite wide-ranging about the state of feminism generally. However at one point I felt slightly depressed that the discussion seemed to revolve around bemoaning how feminism is still not really as effective, or powerful, or exciting, as it was in the height of the second wave. You know… you just don’t see the same things going on these days, younger women aren’t really interested in feminism, there aren’t any consciousness raising groups, or enthusiasm, or successes… it just doesn’t have that certain je ne sai quoi.

This impression seemed to come from fellow panel members Patricia Hewitt and Zoe Williams rather than anyone in the audience, though, to be fair. I hope I’m not misrepresenting them by saying that, and they may have changed their minds later on, but that’s how I saw it.

This frustrates me because it simply does not match to what I see with my own eyes, which is firstly, that there is a very active, exciting feminist movement today and secondly, that younger women are absolutely fundamental to today’s feminist movement, as organisers and participants of new campaigns, actions, events and conferences, along with women of all ages. (Please note: I am not trying to diminsh the involvement of older feminists in today’s movement. Rather, I am trying to counter the idea that younger people are not interested in feminism. Younger activists respect and work in conjunction with older feminists on many occassions.)

I tried my best (but maybe failed as I’m not a professional speaker) to convince that there is actually vibrant feminist movement today, and that younger women are involved. I mentioned a random selection of organisations and actions.

I also had some intial rough statistics with me from some survey research I’m doing with Kristin Aune, about feminists active today, taken from participants of various feminist conferences and events last year (FEM, Ladyfest). 74% of the first 100 people who completed the survey were under 30, with 72% of them saying they started to describe themself as a feminist under 20.

Whilst obviously a very limited range of responses and scope, doesn’t this prove the point about younger feminists? Indeed, some might argue that this shows that older women need to be included more as participants of these events rather than younger women. (We are still working on expanding the range of survey responses over the next few months to get a wider picture of feminist activism today.)

Yet still the feeling is that feminism has failed. Why? It annoys me that the amazing efforts of these wonderful, passionate activists that inspire me so much are so often dismissed in a bland “Hmmmm, that’s all very well but it’s not really like it was in the old days though is it?”

It does seem bizarre that whilst increasingly large events, organisations and actions (FEM, Million Women Rise, Reclaim the Night, Ladyfests, Object, FCAP, Feminist Fightback, Feminist Activist Forum, Abortion Rights protests, etc) are being organised by and participated in by younger feminists; the Fawcett Society is experiencing increased membership; feminist magazines and blogs are all over the place; there’s a feminist event you could go to almost every week of the year (our Events page will list the major ones); and feminist groups are springing up all over the country, some people just don’t consider this enough to count as a ‘proper’ feminist movement. It’s like living in a parallel universe.

I now have a few questions in my mind.

1) I really wonder, for those who are sceptical about today’s feminism, what exactly would count as a ‘proper’ or valid feminist movement? If you had to write a SMART target (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound) to measure having reached that goal in your eyes what would it be?

2) Why is it that powerful people in politics like Patricia Hewett, or influential journalists like Zoe Williams don’t know about how amazing today’s feminism is, by now? Why isn’t feminism more visible to people like that? How can this be changed? Or should we stop caring?

3) Why is it that time after time when conferences which aren’t predominantly feminist-focused have a panel on feminism it’s all framed around the question of whether ‘a new feminism’ is needed, as if feminism is dormant or dead. You spend half your time trying to convince people that feminists do exist, and explaining some of the really basic things going on in feminism today that anyone would be able to find out in five minutes if they googled it. I’d like to see people just finally accepting that there is a feminist movement, and spend the time discussing specific issues and practical ideas of how to move forward and make the world a better place rather than agonising about whether it’s as good as it used to be.

Penny Red will have more on the conference.