I love the word “feminism”. It winks and blinks at me so seductively. Feminist. Feminist theory. I want it. It has given me so much, including ways of thinking that have been very liberating. But some years ago, I gradually started finding it hard to call myself a feminist.
I grew up in the British community in Montevideo and Buenos Aires in the 1950s. My mother and her friends seemed embittered and dissatisfied. They had regular tea parties where the main topic of conversation was complaining about their maids. They resented the impoverished women who worked and lived with them, and endlessly chewed over how lazy, stupid and possibly dishonest they were. There was no common cause there.
I did not want to be like the women I knew. I announced that I wanted to be a boy. I played rugby, climbed trees and smoked. I wanted to be magnificent. I wanted to be an artist. I tore up the papers for the life I was meant to have by running away with an unemployed, working-class actor – and then running away from him too. By the time I was 20 I found myself marooned, wandering about Europe, barefoot, alone and puzzled with my baby son on my hip. It was a bumpy ride, but I never regretted my refusal to follow the destiny mapped out for me, even though I had no idea what to replace it with.
It was then, when I was 21 and a single mother, that I read Germaine Greer’s book The Female Eunuch. Greer argued fiercely that women were drained of life, “cut off from their capacity for action” and turned into eunuchs by deadly suburban marriages held up as the ultimate fulfillment. I knew exactly what she meant. The Female Eunuch tapped into my rage at the patriarchy, at the narrow prospects I had been offered. For a long time I was very mean to some very nice men because I was so afraid of being swallowed up by matrimony. But I never joined consciousness-raising groups: perhaps unfairly I thought they were another way for privileged women to navel-gaze and complain about their lot.
My misgivings did not end there. “Most of the women in the world are still afraid, still hungry, still mute and loaded by religion with all kinds of fetters, masked, muzzled, mutilated and beaten,” wrote Greer in her foreword to the twenty-first anniversary edition of The Female Eunuch. Really? To this day I can’t believe any woman wants to be dismissed as such a poor thing. I also resented the victim label. I didn’t feel I had no agency, plus I knew deep inside myself that it was not all about gender.
I also had other things on my mind. Books are not a substitute for experience, but some texts can tell you what you know but cannot fully see. At 17 I had read Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and it had shone a light on my world. I knew immediately that I was one of the hated settlers whose “belly is always full of good things”. I would never forget the shanty towns I saw out of the train window as it sped from Retiro station in Buenos Aires towards the white suburbs where I lived: “a world without spaciousness,” as Fanon called them, “a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light.”
I lurched into the Trotskyist left in my late twenties and early thirties, and eventually that narrowly class-based politics (where the word ‘feminist’ was always preceded with ‘bourgeois’ and the truly disenfranchised were dismissed as ‘lumpen’) ended up being wearisome. So I stopped joining things and calling myself anything, but stayed radical and did whatever I could – trying to tell the best truth I could, giving a voice to those nobody listens to. I made films in Leeds about post-industrial communities challenging the sentimental notion that victimised workers were living in a sad vacuum, longing for the return of coal mining or factory work. I observed that there was a thriving, mostly criminal economy and I loved the inventiveness of these women and men and their refusal to lie down and roll over, despite the often violent consequences of that life.
Those who benefit from the insane ways of international capitalism are a tiny minority of (mainly) white men. The rest of us can argue about who suffers most, but what’s the point of that? Obscene poverty and oppression exist in the countries that supply us with the stuff we toy with and throw away. We unleash violence on other countries, then turn away the refugees who come to us for help. Close to home, young black men in the metropolis are thrown away, encouraged to kill each other and locked up in vast numbers when they do – let alone all the poor young men we send off to be killed and to kill others who have done nothing to them. It seems to me that their lives are valued far less than ours as women.
There were feminists who voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 because she was a woman – a woman who destroyed working-class communities. There are still women who will vote for the violently hawkish Hillary Clinton because she has a vagina.
In 2013 I received an award at the Women in Film and Television ceremony. In our goody bags were a hardback copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and some Mac make-up. The book was given to us because a young woman was being honoured for writing the screenplay for this retrograde rubbish. This is the inevitable logic of concentrating on gender to the exclusion of everything else.
Race and class. Class and race. Sexual identity and class. Race and sexual identity. These remain my obsessions and I continue to explore them in my work, because that is what I can do.
Something new and better is in the air. All kinds of new movements, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter, are vibrant and alive. This was crystallised for me at an evening event at my Utopia installation at the Roundhouse in the summer of 2015, when a group of brilliant young women from the activist group Sisters Uncut took to the microphone. They were diverse, they were loud, they were furious and there was something glorious about them that lifted the spirits. They were – and are – about power and entitlement, not victimhood.
I love this new wave. “Intersectional feminism” sounds wonderful. Maybe I can start calling myself a feminist again.
Penny Woolcock is an award-winning British filmmaker, opera director and screenwriter, best known for documentaries including ‘From the Sea to the Land Beyond’ and ‘One Mile Away’. Last year, she took over London’s Roundhouse for her Utopia project, which explored inequality, consumerism, housing, gentrification, education and crime.
Image from Tina Takes a Break (Penny Woolcock, 2001)