Reflections on a Year of Dangerous Women: Speaking Out, Listening, Resisting and Persisting!

On March 8 2016, Peta Freestone, Jo Shaw, and colleagues at Edinburgh University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), launched an ambitious collective endeavour using social media to ask the question: ‘What is a dangerous woman?’ The project aimed to post a blog a day from International Women’s Day (IWD) 2016 to IWD 2017 in answer to that question. 365 days and more than 400 posts later the project has succeeded beyond all expectations – and grown a new global online community.

At a celebratory event in Edinburgh on March 8 2017 to mark the end of the project, FIONA MACKAY, a contributor, and a member of the Dangerous Women Project advisory board, shared her reflections on what a year of the Dangerous Women project has meant to her. Here is her talk:

I’m honoured to have been asked to reflect on this year of the Dangerous Women Project and what I have taken from it.

It seems a world ago, doesn’t it? Since this unruly, ambitious, cacophonous, moving, and magnificent project burst onto the scene and we began our collective deliberations on what it means to be a Dangerous Woman.

We set out on this journey before Brexit, before Trump. Before trends in the UK, Europe and the States knocked askew the axes of our worlds – seemingly putting women’s rights as well as our pussies up for grabs again.

We set out on this journey before a highly competent and highly qualified woman lost out to a misogynist, racist, extremist, TV-reality guy for the most powerful job in the world. Before ‘Nasty Woman’ became a badge of honour. Before arbitrary travel bans. Before we apparently threw the citizenship rights of Europeans, resident in the UK, under the bus. Before renewed culture wars over who gets to pee in which bathroom. And before pussy hats became the symbol of a new global resistance (joining, of course, all those other ongoing resistances – the ones that have never gone away – in the global north, the global south, and the spaces in between, struggling for justice, autonomy, rights, freedom from violence, recognition, equality).

From poems collectively created by women in refuges, to heart-stopping spoken word performances; from the recovery of women writers, activists, scientists and artists from the past, and the recounting of their lives and achievements, to countless creative, political and academic re-imaginings of what it means to be a dangerous woman today, the project has, I think, taken the messy realities of complexity and difference seriously.

I’ve only got a few minutes to address the question: What is a Dangerous Woman? So I’ll be brief. For me voice is central. Most of the posts, to one degree or another, address voice: women’s voices; giving voice to ideas, dreams, fears, controversies; speaking up to bear witness, holding to account.

Make no mistake: women speaking out – especially in public spaces – is still an act of cultural and political defiance, an act that marks the speaker out as a dangerous woman. Authoritative speech in public remains deeply entangled with the making, the marking, and the demonstration of powerful forms of masculinity.

And, the reaction to women speaking up? It can often take the form of ‘male din’, male din as reaction to the unwelcome incursion of women into male space – physical or virtual. The presence of voices and bodies ‘out of place’ can disrupt and breach institutional and cultural norms, and subsequently provoke seemingly extreme responses. We don’t need to look very far – to the House of Commons, for example – to see how women and other newcomers (such as male BME parliamentarians) are treated as ‘space invaders’ (to use the nicely turned phrase coined by social theorist Nirmal Puwar); where men sometimes heckle women so loudly that they drown them out as part of the playground politics of Westminster.

And, of course, there are well-documented reactions to ‘space invaders’ in other institutional arenas (for example, the military) that are more egregious, harmful – lethal. In the virtual world, too, whilst we see ‘networked’ or ‘hashtag’ feminism growing as a powerful social force, we also hear daily reports of the threats and abuse meted out to women who seek a public voice in the twitterverse and the blogosphere.

But we continue to speak out, not least because we also know that, as Audre Lorde put it:

“Your silence will not protect you”

Well, I’ve finally posted a blog for Dangerous Women. It’s based on an interview I did in the early Summer of 2016 with the US democracy theorist and feminist activist Jenny Mansbridge. And I worried about how relevant our conversation would seem in these more dangerous times. But I found her ideas still urgently relevant, and I want to highlight three:

  1. The need to celebrate, promote and harness our moments of common cause – whilst, of course, remaining clear sighted about our differences and attendant power inequalities. The need is for intersectional alliances. And this leads me to think that we need to ask hard questions about how we move forward in these dangerous times; hard questions about complexity and dissent: how do we make our narratives and our claims more intelligible (to the other side/s, to the world beyond) without erasing difference? This has, of course, always been a productive tension. And it is worth remembering that, empirically, there is a long history of strong women’s coalitions across difference, often in alliance with other social justice actors at both a local grassroots level and at the transnational level.
  2. Drawing upon her experiences, including the failure of the mobilisation to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment of the US Constitution in the 1980s, Jenny Mansbridge argues that listening is a crucial value and strategy for feminists in their struggle for change. Listening is needed to address what she calls the polarising dynamics of deafness. Tricky. But urgent. Even more so in these times when social media and other spaces are balkanized by ideology and issue-interests. We must find ways to move beyond our own media and social media bubbles and echo chambers.
  3. Thirdly, we have to understand activism – not only as public acts of witness and protest, of the creative re-imaginings of cultural codes, of interventions and provocations – but also through the everyday talk and daily practice through which “ordinary” women – from different political standpoints or none, and in all their intersectional complexity – make sense of their everyday lives; ‘make their everyday lives more equal, and stay alive, and not go under’. And we must also acknowledge the potential costs of those everyday acts of autonomy, justice, personhood. These are dangerous women indeed.

To finish up then, and go back to the question: what is a dangerous woman? I think the Republican politician, and Majority Leader of the US Senate, Mitch McConnell has gifted us a great working definition (and the rebellious Senator Elizabeth Warren whom he tried to silence has provided us with a great role model). To paraphrase him, a dangerous woman is someone who:

“was warned … was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

So where does all this leave leave us? The last word goes to the great, late Audre Lorde:

“Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.”

Dangerous Women, Keep Persisting! Thanks for listening.

You can read Fiona’s blog post: Jane Mansbridge – a Quietly Dangerous Woman (for dangerous times) here

Note: As the project comes to a close, the organisers are asking for responses by March 15 to one last question for a collective post: ‘What has a year of the Dangerous Women meant for you?’ Further information here:

References

Lorde, Audre (1980) The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books.

Lorde, Audre (1984) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press

Mansbridge, Jane (1986) Why We Lost the ERA. University of Chicago Press

Puwar, Nirmal (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Berg Publishers

 

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About genderpol

The blog of the Gender Politics Research Group, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh - and friends
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