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THINK DIFFERENTLY, SPEAK CLEARLY
By Lorna O’Hara
It’s great to have a space to write where I’m not fenced in by citations and footnotes. As a PhD student I feel like I rarely get the chance to write freely. I feel like every word has to be referenced and that everything I say has to be relevant or “contributing” to some grand theory. It’s refreshing to have somewhere I can let my ideas flow and take shape in my own voice.
Doing a PhD is hard, not only because it’s a mental marathon, but because nobody has a clue what it is you actually do. That’s probably because you don’t really know that yourself either. Then add in a subject like Geography, which can be pretty much anything you want it to be, and you really get a lot of confused looks. Even within Geography I work within a rather marginal field and use feminist methodologies, which challenge the idea of objectivity in favour of lived experience. Whilst what I do is actually a social science, because of what I study, i.e. creative practices and feminist activism, it’s seen as more “arty”. And arty means more feminine. And, of course, feminine means it has less value. This knocks what I do even further down on the “hierarchy” of sciences. In fact, all throughout my brother’s PhD in what is often called the “hard sciences”, my dad always referred to what he did as “work”, whilst referring to what I did as “school”.
A lot of the theories behind feminist methodologies are founded on the idea that research should effect practical change. To me, it makes absolutely no sense to produce knowledge that only the privileged few have access to. To write in a language that makes me, a native speaker of English, have to pull out the dictionary just to understand what’s being said. Too many people write in a way that attempts to cloak what they’re saying in some sort of academic mysticism. As a feminist, that seems completely counter-productive. Challenging the status quo does not mean you have to makes things more complicated for yourself or others. Look at the world we’re in, a world where a known sexual predator is the president of the most powerful country in the world. A world where 1 in 3 women will be sexually harassed in her lifetime. A world where 82% of the world’s wealth belongs to 1% of the world’s population. I feel like a huge part of our problem is that we haven’t been able to get our ideas out of the university and into the streets. We need to change this, but to do that I think we need to communicate better, with each other and with others whose hearts and minds we have yet to win over. We can think differently, but we need to make sure we speak clearly too.
People keep saying that feminism is “so mainstream now” and I suppose that’s a good thing and a bad thing. Sure, I have concerns about it being hijacked by companies to sell products. I mean, just the other day I saw an advertisement on Facebook by Rimmel, who tried to use International Women’s Day as a means to pawn lipstick. Of course, I’m also worried that feminism’s revolutionary political message will become watered down as it increases in popularity. But on the other hand, I don’t think we can hold its potential back by keeping it all to ourselves either. Unfortunately we might have to put up with a few “Feminist” t-shirts being sold by H&M if it means that people may actually be casting off the old stigma around the f-word, which was used for so long to silence our voices and dismiss us.
It’s hard to know if things really are changing. Sometimes I worry that I’m too close to the whole thing, that my research has just pulled me down into some sort of cosy feminist rabbit hole. But I had a bit of a realisation while chatting to my best friend just last week. I was joking about how everything I do now is about or related to feminism: my research, activism, writing, the podcasts I listen to, the books I read for leisure, even the films and TV shows I watch. While I worried that I may have wrapped myself into a little feminist cocoon, I also realised something else. All this feminist media I now have access to would have been unthinkable about ten years ago. Never in my life have I had access to so many platforms that are openly engaging with debates about gender equality. Surely the very existence of all of these things indicates not only a new pinnacle of popularity for feminism, but also a level of accessibility that we’ve never experienced before.
So many voices are now communicating political ideas through a number of mediums, from older forms of media such as TV and film, to social media and podcasts. There are women online and in the media who are carving out new avenues for bringing feminist ideas to a variety of audiences. Not only are women using their voices in new and exciting ways, but there actually seems to be an audience that is ready to hear them too. While some may laugh off the idea of a fourth wave of feminism as just the third wave + Twitter, you can’t deny that the internet has been a game changer. It feels like we’re not just talking about intersectionality and participation any more, but that we’ve actually been given the tools to make those ideas a reality: reaching people from a variety of backgrounds beyond the usual academic and activist circles. Perhaps I’m being a bit too optimistic (although I don’t think I’ve ever been called that in my life), but I truly feel like there’s a new energy in the air. I guess only time will tell if we’re able to harness this new media in a way that brings about true inclusivity and wide-scale change.
Lorna O’Hara is a doctoral student and feminist activist currently living between Berlin and Dublin. Her writing and research focuses on feminist activism and art, in particular similarities/differences between international feminist groups and artistic projects that have a focus on increasing awareness about/changing violence against women and the control of women’s bodies.
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