Creating the world we want to live in now

Speakers at the Writing on the Wall festival’s ‘50 billion shades of feminism’ event in Liverpool last May were asked to reflect on Billion Women Rise. Liz Kelly pondered the tension between purist politics and mass mobilization—and asked whether dancing can be a political act.

First, some ground clearing. My minimal position is that feminism is an understanding that women are oppressed and a commitment to change it: a theory and practice, both of which are in movement.  There are many possibilities and variants, not all of which align with the left or other social movements.  But fifty billion feminisms suggests that we can each craft a personalised version, an idea that sits uneasily with women’s movements, which require collective politics, however fractious.

Billion Women Rise (BWR) marked the 15th anniversary of V-day, the brainchild of playright, poet and survivor of child sexual abuse, Eve Ensler.  For fifteen years across the globe, women have performed her Vagina Monologues on Valentine’s Day to protest violence against women and girls and raise money for women’s organisations. BWR was the audacious idea that in 2013, on February 14th, a billion women would dance to recognise that a billion women and girls have been raped and say, as Ensler does in her enraged poem, that we are ‘over it’.

Ensler is a controversial figure, and I don’t find her easy to like, but that is not the point.  What we need to explore is how she has done feminist politics. Critiques of The Vagina Monologues come from many directions, but the most repeated are that she retains control of the content, and that each performance requires paying a fee to the V-Day Foundation.  I too ranted about this until recently, when I asked myself whether other writers allow anyone and everyone to alter their words. How, once something becomes a global phenomenon, could you create a workable way of vetting and approving new texts? Are they just for single performances or do they become part of an accessible collective library?  And at this festival the question of whether writers should receive royalties when their work is performed must be a live and important one.

So my concern here is whether we hold Eve Ensler – and by analogy other feminists, especially those with a public profile – not just to different, but to unreasonable and unattainable standards.  This then places them in invidious positions, available for ‘trashing’, where any misstep or gap in their politics invalidates what they have done.  This play, flawed as it undoubtedly is, has travelled the globe, been performed in places and spaces where it was a revolutionary and dangerous act for women to say those words: in Afghanistan; by Muslim women in the UK; by survivors of sexual violence.

Ensler was arguably already in this invidious position when she proposed BWR.  Here the most articulated contention has been the mode of action – dancing – with a number of impassioned blogs and a piece in the Huffington Post asking what can dancing have to do with ending VAWG.  I was reminded of that quote from Emma Goldman, ‘if you can’t dance, its not my revolution’ and sought out the original, only to find that she never actually wrote those words.  However, what she did write in her autobiography, Living my Life, is even more relevant.

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did  not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway.  It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.

I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own  business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not  believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and  freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. Iinsisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world–prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. [Living My Life, New York: Knopf, 1934, p. 56]

For Emma Goldman joy and pleasure are not anathema to politics, they must be part of it; we transform spaces and relationships – to others and to our bodies – as we claim and create freedom and liberty now.  Feminism has perhaps understood and enacted this more than other progressive movements and the moments I remember as ‘beautiful and radiant’ were all joyful rebellions, challenging conventions, and two involved dancing!  

  • Dancing without tops at a Women’s Liberation conference in the 1970s.
  • Embracing the base at Greenham Common – after decorating the fence, thousands of women collectively shook the fence down.
  • Trafalgar Square in November 1997, at one of the first November Women’s Action national marches against violence women.  We were freezing, had listened to many stirring speeches and stood in silence with candles remembering women who been killed at the hands of men in the last 12 months.  A sound system them blasted I Will Survive across the square and thousands of women began to dance – both warming ourselves, shifting our mood and taking over the square.

Each was a moment of liberation, embodied not just cerebral.  The charge that BWR was just a moment, that moments do not make movements, neglects the point that those in movement need sustaining moments of joy and collective engagement.How many of you have ‘given up’ a form of politics because it became a trial, a test of your ability to continue despite getting nothing and giving much?  This to me is the lesson of BWR – that in 207 countries countless women, and some men, danced, experienced their bodies strongly, joyfully, collectively – it was a symbolic reversal of the shame and pain which sexual violence imposes.

I was teaching all day on February 14th, on a module about sexual violence.  It was another form of pleasure to be able to show a diverse group of students women dancing in Asia, Africa and Latin America – students from those regions were moved and it gave them an immediate window not just on theory but also the practice of feminism.

This is not the whole story though: one of those students is involved in Million Women Rise – the minority women-led march against violence against women that has happened for six years in London – and now other cities – on the Saturday closest to International Women’s Day.  She had a strong critique of Ensler, and especially her work in the Congo, partly due to working closely with a group of Congolese women living in London. Common Cause UK see the V-day Foundation work  – City of Joy  – as a neo-colonial project, in which Eve Ensler assumes a leadership role and fails to challenge the root of the conflict – control over natural resources, especially the mineral coltan.  At the same time 200 rape survivors in Congo chose to live and work in the City of Joy, and appear to have strong relationships with Ensler.  This is where shades of feminism return to challenge and disquiet us – multiple truths jostle for recognition.

So I am left with a conundrum – how is mass mobilisation possible without some simplification? Is complexity and purity of analysis more important? What use is our rage at injustice if we turn it most viciously on each other? My route through this for the last decade is to work in coalitions, and especially the End Violence Against Women coalition. We come together around the issues we agree on, but do not require more.  We debate issues of contention until we arrive at a consensus – it has taken us four years to develop a position on prostitution, for example, since both the TUC and Amnesty UK are members.

Creating the world we want to live in now has always been part of my feminism, spaces where debate can be impassioned AND respectful, where joy and dancing are not ‘frivolous’ extras, where we can be beautiful, radiant and enraged.  For many Billion Women Rise was such a moment, for others not: the shades of feminism.

See Rahila Gupta’s talk from the same event: