Feminism is: Skirting spaces between theory, practice, consensus

When I read something, there is usually a faint line that I can trace between the words and how they make me feel. That line is often barely there, almost impossible to articulate and I get anxious that it will disappear before I can grab at it.

This is the only way I know how to make meaning of something.

When I was younger, I’d draw nonstop. From a short distance, I’d let my pencil drop on to the white printing paper — which, in my house, we had mountains of — and the almost imperceptible mark it made would be the start of a woman’s shoulder, a butterfly, a tree.

When I read the collection of essays in Feminism Is: South Africans Speak Their Truth, no line appeared in the space between my eyes. I felt at a loss. Even my strategy of poring over the book on International Women’s Day, to try to give my reading some backbone, failed to make me feel any less unmoored.

Perhaps this has to do with feeling inadequate when faced with the thoughts of those who some might call, without irony, the voices of a generation; Pumla Dineo Gqola, Gugulethu Mhlungu, Gabeba Baderoon, to name only a few.

Maybe it’s having to admit that there is no feminist origin story filed away for me to share as generously as these writers seem to be able to.

It could also be, of course, that what feminism is to me is just too tricky a thing to sound out in the midst of my own disillusionment with identity politics — and the feelings of being a traitor for not holding on to the same convictions as my would-be comrades.

In her introduction, the book’s editor, Jen Thorpe, suggests that the idea for the volume comes from an understanding that “feminism is a contested space”. It is this sense of contestation that binds each essay, and stops the collection from performing the prescriptive role of, say, a feminist manifesto.

It is, in other words, multivocal — a characteristic that makes it, as an anthology, pretty much unassailable in terms of what is today considered good feminist practice. The centrality of intersectionality, as a theoretical touchstone, lets each truth clamour for space without judgment or harm.

This theoretical eclecticism readily exposes the fractured regime of the feminist movement now — and perhaps that of the left in general — and, for the most part, that seems okay.

And so many of the essays in Feminism Is take up the subject of the disappointment, and sometimes fear, provoked by call-out culture, especially online and in so-called safe spaces. It’s a concern that I’m not used to seeing aired like this, with no comment section to drag these instances of dissent down as ignorance, or as white feminism — the indisputable bogeywoman of the movement.

This seems to be the line drawn between some in the older cohort of feminists and a new guard, ready to, as Ferial Haffajee puts it, “scald you with shade” if you land on the wrong side.

But even my age-mates, like Pap Culture’s Thembe Mahlaba, express trepidation at talking with any singular authority on feminism in theory. “I’m gonna put my foot all the way down my throat because I’m still trying to get these 140 characters to make sense in this tweet,” she muses while confessing that she doesn’t quite feel as equipped to make her claim to feminism as eloquently as other voices in the movement.

The battleground of theory, in other words, has become for so many as fear-inducing as mortal combat.

It’s a problem that has been a strain on ivory-tower feminism for some time now, at least since the expansion of women’s studies departments in the 1970s, which drew together a range of disciplines and critical doctrines.

The institutionalisation of feminism, and the often perplexing language that accompanied this event, tacitly aligned the movement with post-Marxist theory. As a discipline rooted in radical tradition, feminist intellectuals — especially in the American academy — started to rely more and more on postmodern anything-goes-ism to assert its progressive identity.

Nomalanga Mkhize’s provocative contribution, A Conversation with Gogo Ngoatjakumba, levels perhaps the most scathing criticism of the movement’s preoccupation with playing the theory game. Gogo Ngoatjakumba, a practising sangoma and Mkhize’s interviewee, dismisses “the ones who are making theories” as those “who are sipping wine — they get it, but don’t get it”.

She goes on to rebuke the failure of prevailing feminist critique to attend to a meaningful analysis of capitalism: “You cannot do it with this individually driven ‘My Feminism’. We do not want to really confront the true effects of the economy on black people, we are in the belly of the crocodile.”

Ngoatjakumba’s reference to the emergence of so many individual feminisms lays bare our mutual disillusionment with the movement’s often mystifying hybridity, a characteristic that, without meaning to, stands to undermine the coherence of its critical vanguard.

With such a range of semantic stunts to pull, it’s no wonder that we often become tongue-tied in waging an organised assault on capitalist oppression. It also means, of course, that one does not necessarily have to be anticapitalist to feel at home in what ought to be a progressive movement.

What I mean by raising these inconsistencies in feminist theory is not to say that the writing produced in Feminism Is is not thought-provoking or worthwhile. I was completely engrossed in what the contributors had to say and, in some ways, I am just piecing together what the collection as a whole made me feel — an urgency to understand not what feminism is, but how it works. And so, when it seems that words are failing us, we must turn to practice.

The moments in which I was moved in reading Feminism Is happened when the writers demonstrated that theory isn’t always a scary, impenetrable thing made up by an out-of-touch intellectual class to tear us up, until we’re just knots of exposed nerves. Instead they show that theory is in surviving the everyday.

Dela Gwala’s essay on how feminism found her in the midst of trauma is at once an intimate retelling of her struggle and a record of how that vulnerability figures into solidarity. “Rape and its aftermath felt like being unplugged from the matrix,” she writes, explaining that, once presented with the conditions of oppression, she could not unlive what she had learned.

It will be difficult to forget Pumla Dineo Gqola’s A Mothering Feminist’s Life: A Celebration, Meditation and Roll Call. Gqola’s writing is immersive, roping you in with the everydayness of feminist labour.

These painfully relatable junctures make Feminism Is utterly readable but it is still difficult to shake the sense of loss in the collection’s critical distance from the on-the-ground practices of local organisers or the feminism of the workers’ movement.

Perhaps this kind of practical writing is considered too outmoded for this volume, and would be out of place in the thick of some of the beautiful, confusing words it contains.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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