Be young and shut up

A blog about student activism.

Ten pieces of advice for women activists

with 10 comments

Guest post by Laura McKeon, a student soon to graduate from Glasgow University and a non-aligned revolutionary socialist. 

It is hard to believe how much has happened in the last couple of years. The crisis, the cuts and the wave of student protests have brought thousands of new people to our cause. There has been a massive resurgence in youth activity; groups forming, coming together, falling apart. A variety of tactics and a rich diversity of ideologies and priorities have converged uneasily to combat austerity. For many, this sea-change is a long-awaited opportunity to put forward their vision for an alternative. For the younger generation, it is their first contact with resistance. The emergent radical communities have provided fertile ground for new ideas and new hope. In such a vast and multifaceted movement, the experience of each individual is different. Some women joined the Occupy movement and found themselves surrounded by new comrades and new ideas, while others encountered cruelty and sexual assaults. Some long-standing activists have found themselves embraced by wider networks while others have found themselves embroiled in bitter feuds with old friends.

Happiness is the struggle. And the struggle brings us together. Collaboration in a democratic and vibrant environment builds confidence and enables you to take initiative. The more we work together, the more we break down social barriers and develop a consciousness beyond the confines of our own lives. We feel ourselves becoming part of something bigger, we reclaim value for ourselves and our endeavours.

Being inclusive

…Of everyone. A third of people suffer from depression or other mental illnesses. Many initiatives, like the Black Triangle campaign, have emerged which seek to give a voice to those who might not otherwise engage. Occupy London took on the responsibility of ensuring wheelchair access to the camp. Safer Spaces policies are now circulated and discussed widely.

Male activists hold a position of privilege over their female comrades and have dominated the discussion of women’s issues. Many women’s groups have now emerged in which people are discussing these issues. These groups will in turn develop structures of their own, but they represent an important, and hitherto missing, element of the discussion.

The ‘burn-out’ rate

A well-known phenomenon in lefty circles, it is taken to mean a process of becoming less involved or not involved at all – experienced by many activists who find that the responsibilities of their political work have taken their toll. I think it is mistakenly spoken about in reference to feeling overworked but I think it is far more likely that people lose interest when they feel they are no longer effective within the group, that they have lost their voice. Many have given up the struggle because of frustration at their efforts, and some become bitter about their experiences.

Here is my advice to the young woman getting involved in (revolutionary party) politics for the first time:

1: Don’t sleep with that gorgeous revolutionary (unless you’re sure you can trust them).

I know, who am I to tell you who to have sex with? What bothers me is not the incestuous nature of these groups, or the promiscuity. It is the tendency of people’s personal lives to spill over into the political sphere. Self-respect is vital: you have the right to be upset if you think you have been treated badly. His/her ideas about sexual liberation may sound appealing but won’t necessarily be reflected in their treatment of you.  There is always a chance that you could acquire a reputation, or that it will affect your relationship with the group. Unfortunately I believe that this is still the case for women more so than men, although I have seen it happen to both. Personal relationships are more likely to interfere if meetings are often held in informal locations, like a member’s flat.

2: You determine whether someone’s behaviour towards you is inappropriate.

It doesn’t matter how much you idolise someone, and it is difficult not to idolise someone who appears at all times more intelligent than you. If they behave inappropriately towards you, you do not need to take it, regardless of their relationship to you or to the group. Be mindful of inappropriate behaviour towards others, they may be afraid to speak out. Everyone is equally deserving of respect, and everyone is equally responsible for seeing that respect is maintained.

3: Be critical (at the opportune moment).

Some of the most successful women manage to be outspoken while pandering to the egos of their male colleagues. Maybe you’re the self-critical type, and that is not a flaw. Applying a critical attitude to your work and to the group’s will enable it to develop. But pick your moments. However much we enjoy arguing, we have a basic social instinct to respond well to people who agree with us. If you apply too critical an attitude to every project, you will appear unenthusiastic and eventually be excluded.

4: Share your experiences with other women

Women tend to speak quite candidly among themselves about the problems they face but if you do so too often in mixed company, you may become pin-holed as a feminist and thus listened to less. Remember that everyone is moulded by social forces and a different audience requires a different style of persuasion. You may find this is too bitter a pill to swallow. The relationship of the Patriarchy to Capitalism is the subject of an unresolved debate on the left, which has been heavily weighted against patriarchy theory. You are entitled to disagree but it may make you less popular.

5: You are not an idiot.

This isn’t advice exactly but I feel it’s important to remember. You took the step to join a revolutionary party; you are not an idiot. Don’t worry if you haven’t read all the books everyone else seems to have read, and don’t feel that you have to be interested in all the same books as them. Your interests may be different from theirs, but given that everything we do is infused with politics, there is no reason to think yours are less valid.

6: It is a social club.

Don’t listen to people who tell you about the need for professionalism and revolutionary discipline within the group. They are usually the ones whose social circles are made up entirely of other socialists. If you want to be included in the discussions, the surest way is to socialise with the rest of the group. It doesn’t mean you have to get along with everyone but activist communities are both political and social arenas. Having a good relationship with the people you work with is key to being kept up to speed with what’s going on. It’s also no fun attending meetings with a bunch of strangers.

7. Speak up.

Radical politics is a theatre and confidence is key. Not everyone is a charismatic orator but you shouldn’t let that stop you from making your contribution. Don’t be dismayed if people are unresponsive to the things you say: they may just not have been listening. Just think of other ways to express yourself. If it isn’t working, speak louder. And gesticulate wildly!

8: Do your own research.

Don’t let anyone tell you what to think. People will try to tell you what books to read, what websites to visit and how to use social media. Make up your own mind. Don’t worry if your research leads you to disagree with other members of the group: whether you’re right or wrong, open discussions can only move the group forward.

9: Know your rights.

You may find yourself regularly in confrontational situations with the police. Make sure that you know the risks before you take part in actions or demonstrations. Set your own boundaries for what you are prepared to do or not to do. In the heat of the moment, people can do strange things. You will find yourself cast in the role of masked warrior, and at other times, damsel in distress. But don’t let anyone tell you what to do. Look out for others, and don’t put them in danger. If you decide that it is worthwhile to put yourself in danger of arrest, be prepared for what happens next. The police will always harass protesters and we shouldn’t fear them but knowing what to expect will make it less frightening when they come knocking on your door. Remember that the police are bullies and they will treat you worse if you are female, non-white, disabled…

10: Take it easy.

Unless you have an obsessive character or fantastic organisational skills, you cannot sustain the level of manic enthusiasm necessary for whole-scale involvement. Identify what you want to achieve in the group and the key skills you want to develop. If you feel that your involvement has started to make your life harder, don’t be afraid to take time out. You may find people listen to you less when you return but it’s the price you pay for looking after yourself first.

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Written by CakeCakeCakeCakeCake

May 12, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses

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  1. Actually I do think it’s problematic to tell all female activists that they shouldn’t sleep with other political activists incase they ‘get a reputation’. Alot of people merge their personal lives with their political lives, living on protest sites etc. Do these people suddenly have to stop having romantic/sexual relationships because of this? Yes, personal relationships can cause rifts within political groups but so can lots of other things and it certainly doesn’t mean that people should stop hooking up with eachother.

    I also take issue with the following: “It doesn’t matter how much you idolise someone, and it is difficult not to idolise someone who appears at all times more intelligent than you.” This makes out that female activists are always in awe of their male counterparts and paints them as passive individuals who can’t think for themselves because they’re too busy gawping at ‘gorgeous revolutionaries’.

    Also, binary gender all over this post.

    jb

    May 12, 2012 at 6:36 pm

  2. I’m speaking from six years of personal experience. I didnt specify gender in the one you mentioned: read it over. It happens to both, but believe me, it happens. I was always made to feel that I was less intelligent than certain men in the group. In a chauvanistic environment, you are encouraged to believe that. I guess that makes me a ‘passive individual who can’t think for themselves’? That’s certainly what I was made to feel at the time. I’m trying to write a post that recognises that we are emotional beings, and that we need to look after ourselves. A lot of it will apply to men and women, but someone else can write one for the men. Also speaking from personal experience, I think women in Glasgow should think long and hard before ‘going to live on protest sites’ given the complete failure of some to provide equal and safe environments.

    Laura McKeon

    May 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm

  3. Another way to phrase it would’ve been ‘people are shit and some can’t be trusted’ – I don’t think Laura was slut-shaming I think she was actually blaming awful scumbags. The ‘reputation’ thing kinda made me uncomfortable but it’s other people’s fault for doing that not the person who’s slept with a few people.

    Kate Harris

    May 13, 2012 at 2:16 pm

  4. well a rather informative piece mixed with a wry personal account. a quick ready reckoner to discern if something is good advice is to decide if the opposite stands as bad or deeply negative advice: sleep with everybody- shut up – you’re an idiot- it isn’t a social club- don’t relax.
    so, positive advice from McKeon.
    Speak up! it’s true very few people are charismatic speechifyers, even the ones who are – too often selling lowpappalowrum by the gallon. that’s not so bad a problem on the left, where you have to watch out for occasional purveyors of soaring highpappalowrum instead ( sometimes greatly exceeding healthy dB limits ), which is all the more reason to do one’s own research and speak up.
    accusations of gendery binaryness sound possibly too sensational for an article that raises some of the issues around emitting or receiving that exact phenomenon? or indeed argues against? there are some tacit references to ploidy, and indeed more explicit references to chauvanism, which is fair enough ( it exists), but i can’t read any them as essential or divisive anymore than can read them as fantastic.
    but… maybe i can’t read… actually litotes is deeply annoying, so we can all read then.
    in short; useful caveats, a welcome perspective, and positive advice, cheers!

    frankietherat

    May 13, 2012 at 6:01 pm

  5. okay so firstly I would like to say that I don’t need you to show me your ‘activist credentials’ to back up your ‘argument’ [stating 6 years experience].

    And secondly I would like to say that I think the problem with the article is that it is based on personal experience but instead of reflecting on that it is telling other women activists what you think they should do. It would come across a whole lot better if you were not writing in such an assumptive way, making the assumption that all activists who identify as female have had the same experiences as you. I can assure you they have not.

    I was not directing the comment about ‘passive individuals’ at you, merely trying to show how your writing comes across to other readers.

    Do I agree that alot of activist scenes are male dominated and often chauvanistic? Definately, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s okay to address all ‘women activists’ in this way.

    I also would agree that protest sites, not just in Glasgow but all over the world have had problematic gender issues and definatly issues with creating safe spaces. That doesn’t mean we should stop creating them or trying to educate people who are already living their about these issues so that we can create something better. But yes, in light of certain events I would also say that it is important for people of all genders to exercise caution in these spaces.

    Also, yeah I stand by the binary gender thing and would also state that I think this post is pretty heterosexist too as although you do state “his/her ideas about sexual liberation” which shows that you are aware of queer relationships, the fact that you have titled this piece to “women activists” and talk about the people they have romantic/sexual relationships with as an ‘other’ of that shows that you are really talking to women about men.

    jb

    May 14, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    • right, i think you misread my intention. i stand by my assertion that you are more likely to be treated in this way (and i don’t want to focus on the sex thing because thats only a tiny part of it) if you’re a woman. that’s the society we live in.

      i was trying to write something a bit tongue in cheek. obviously, the reason i’m no longer involved in this kind of politics is because i was unable to follow my own advice. because it is unreasonable advice for anyone to have to follow. another way of putting all of the above would be: work with all of them, but don’t join them.

      unless you have thicker skin than me, of course. if you do, well done. but not everyone does.

      Laura McKeon

      May 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm

  6. @frankietherat – “sleep with everybody- shut up – you’re an idiot- it isn’t a social club- don’t relax.” – ahahaha, that is *so* much like the subtexts of many womens’ first involvement in activism.

    Great post, Laura.

    On the sexual relationships and heteronormativity thing, a good many lesbian collectives were ruined by women who felt pressurised to sleep with more experienced activists, there was a desire to “prove” lesbian credentials – especially for political lesbians, they then felt used, while the “natural” lesbians felt that they had been duped. Sleeping with other activists is always problematic, regardless of the genders involved.

    Yet there is also another dimension to hetero relationships, in that men tend to be privilaged within the activist scene and a woman known to be sleeping with one a male activist starts to be seen as an appendage, rather than an activist in her own right, especially where he is the more well known or older of the two, The “reputation” to be wary of is not that of the slut (sluts are fine creatures), but of the little woman.

    I didn’t read the “six years of activism” as credentials so much as life experience. I particularly liked four – this is why women only spaces are so critical. It is important that women have a place to discuss their experiences within the movement as well as in wider society. Society reflects its values back at activist communities, who imbibe all the sexism, racism and hetero-normativity that is “out there”, it is ridiculous to think that it is all just left at the door when you come into a radical space – challenging the kyriarchy is a 24/7 job and its important that there is space to critique what is going on within the community as well as out in the wider world.

    mhairi

    May 16, 2012 at 11:18 pm

  7. Really don’t agree with point number 1 and certainly does seem a bitslut shaming whatever your intentions. :S If people, especially men treat people they are in relationships with badly thats their problem not whoever they act so to. It effects women more than men as men are oft the ones being bastards for obvious reasons If people turn who you sleep with into a reputation and let that effect politics thats their problem. Lots of men are shit as we all sadly know whether self proclaimed (pro) feminists or revolutionaries or not. As you say it is a social club and who isn’t going to trust people slightly more if they have better sexual politics. Personal lives not spilling over into political activity does seem highly unlikely and quite problematic.

    S

    May 17, 2012 at 2:32 am

  8. holy smoke, now to gain approval we have to read up on some authorized queer theorists?? but what ones?

    no matter how much it’s defended, i do kinda worry about the gender binary and heterosexist critique of this piece. if a point doesn’t work then bin it i say, don’t expand and try convolute some way to reinforce it. sure, anyone who knows what a hat is knows that extant humans have refreshingly low dimorphism and that sometimes we construct an elaborate gender ruse to somehow try fudge over it all; nothing new there, it’s as old as bulls**t. so who’s falling for it here? laura? don’t think so.
    and if we miss anything on the way to getting the point, we also know, because we’re not idiots, that dna couldn’t give a flying fig about sexes and a lot of the seemingly nominal assumptions behind terms like ‘homosexual’ ‘heterosexual’ ( never mind gender) are themselves tremendously restrictive. we know all that.
    but in now lamenting a title; ‘advice to women’ just because it includes the word ‘women’ increasingly suggests you simply find that not including male-man-men in the title of a piece is both inflamatory and politically larcenous… what gives?

    laura, thick skin is great – but a much overrated virtue.

    frankietherat

    May 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm


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