Who is We?

identities, technology, language - conversations in Glastonbury

This blog interweaves comments - in italics - from the Glastonbury Hatpins to Hashtags event on 7 September 2018 in loose threads with the author’s commentary with the aim of opening spaces for discussion about technology, language and identities

Hatpins to Hashtags is using posters, digital technology and events to encourage feminists to spring off ‘then’ and reflect on now. For suffragists and suffragettes, hatpins were weapons, and hats could shield against pepper sprayed into the face. In 2018 we use hashtags to be heard across social media at the touch of a screen. 

Live, in-the-room, daring conversations are a radical act. There’s no hiding. There’s discomfort. There’s diversity of opinions. Though screens are 2D, nothing is actually 2D. Protest and change is not slick and smooth. We need to be having way more courageous conversations and looking people in the eye. That’s what they had to do then. Now, we can choose.

The posters are and aren’t flat – they are hand-made, un-photoshopped, raw, and on a display stand. And they resonate and provoke debate, level or heated. They are familiar and historical. The issues are now and not now. The women who made them in the twentieth century are speaking to us, and things are different now. The goal is to remove patriarchy. Historic – really? Reclaim the night. The cuts hit women harder. Lesbians need employment rights. Nursery closing. Equal pay now. Rape. End violence against women. Black women will not be intimidated. Women, the cuts and unemployment. No to all deportation.

Technology - oppression or liberation? 

Or both? Design, use of, and access to technology is male dominated. How have things moved? #MeToo has enabled women to speak out and to each other, to create a tidal wave of collective voices. Real change in the making. Twitter has enabled women to identify abuse and speak truth to power. More initiatives like this are an exciting prospect. This is why the digital democracy strand of Hatpins to Hashtags is so important. Opportunities for girls and women to own the technology and find their own language using it and shaping it are few and far between. 

There are less inspiring examples. Have you heard of #grapespotting? I hadn’t. I looked it up. Mature women are photographed without consent in public places wearing purple, and posted on social media. Someone’s entertainment, or feminist empowerment? I cringe at the language and the inference that it is taken for granted that these women may be objectified without debate. A token reference to Jenny Joseph’s poem doesn’t help. But some of the pictures are selfies. So what? There is such a thing as a dominant observer, just like a dominant narrative. It can be questioned too.

A poster in the display shows a woman holding a film camera and another holding sound recording equipment. Women as subject, creator and audience. Many women around the world are still technology-disempowered. Many older people are. But not just older people. To be feminist is to open up to these uncomfortable, complicated identities, and think about how to redress them, what to do, not to snap them in a voiceless freeze frame.

Sharing what’s happening

An event like this is a chance to mix the media – to talk, laugh, eat, disagree, be inspired, be troubled, teach and learn, be disturbed and expanded. Conversation literally means ‘to turn around’. Feminist debate isn’t, I would argue, linear like a chronology. Much like the loose categories the posters are organised into, the themes intersect and rotate, through time and in different contexts. We need to dance with them. If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.

Or perhaps, I will dance. I will dance this revolution. 

A participant shares information about an inspiring initiative in Bristol called TIGER – Teaching Individuals Gender Equality and Respect, which provides a platform for young people to critically explore and overcome gender stereotypes and facilitate discussions on porn and stereotypes. These initiatives are happening and we need to know about them. H2H is providing one possible forum to tell others.

Flexible terms

What remains? What needs to change? Can we open up new language? Can we even discuss the terms? Find alternatives to traditional pronoun use? Ask - what is ‘we’? What is ‘she’? Do you wish to be ‘they’?  Aren’t all these identities a distraction? Not for her. Not for me.That was ignorance, not racism. Not for us. Language is a tool and a limitation, just as hatpins were makeshift, barely visible weapons reinvented from a female dress code that embodied modesty and restriction. But in the room, if we can look each other in the eye and talk, that’s something else. Hashtags used consciously can be megaphones across the world. Used unconsciously they are merely decorations in tweets to followers who are already on your side, or, worse, a way to debunk or destroy dialogue and debate.

And what about ‘sides’? How does anyone live non-binary when language and habitual thought-categories are drenched in binaries? Self, other. Me, not-me. Us, not-us. There’s striving for greater flexibility and fluidity. But there is the opposite trend all around too – retrenchment, the scrawling deeper of boundaries and borders, delineation of territories. On a global scale. On a bodily level. The oppressions of body-shaming replicated and magnified on social media minute by minute, second by second, pushing stereotypical identities at people and forcing them into pre-ordained moulds. Someone can be privileged and oppressed at once. Regression into secure definitions is easier than grappling with and creating a new lexicon, political, technological, linguistic, social. That’s messy and uncertain. 

But feminism is used to dealing with mess and uncertainty. People are constantly learning and unlearning things and it is OK to make mistakes. And there are precedents that come from those earlier feminists that inform what we can do now, whoever we are. I remember this poster: We are the women that men have warned us about. Bitchy, catty, dykey, queer, frigid…the poster-makers shone a light. And in 2018? Queer is re-cast. It is owned and confidently used by many more, against those who would use it oppressively. Dyke - the noun, yes; the adjective - probably not. Frigid? No, it is still a term of abuse to women. Bitchy? Not the adjective, but, in some contexts, the noun is a confident, strong woman.

And terms to describe complex forms of oppression are entering more common usage. What is intersectionality? a woman asks. Another woman explains, another contributes, everyone listens. Social inequality and oppression are due to multiple factors including race, class, gender and sexuality. These intersect in different ways for different people. The word gains a little more texture in the room, more accessibility and democracy, having left its comfortable home in academia. And if things can be described accurately, confidently, by more people, things can be changed. Choosing your own terms is an act of resistance and an act of enabling. Allowing others access to those terms is too. Not only self-enabling. Collective enabling. Bring our own vulnerability and courage and compassion to the conversations.

Me and We

Idolised individualism is in the air we breathe. And it’s polluted. Capitalism is built on notions of individualism, which, when you prod them, turn to dust. But real people talking together, bearing the discomfort of not knowing, not always finding ways to agree, that is substance, something real. Collective voices are powerful. 

The women of the twentieth century had posters and press and their voices. We have those - plus other amazing tools, digital media. The energy of their collective voices, still resonating and joining evolving discussions, can motivate us now.

To own the tools involves education, revised and new narratives about gender and roles and identities, revised language, political action and determination. All of us can listen and attend and hold conversations and and meet in diverse ways that continue to enable forms of protest, speech, expression, creativity and agitation for change. Let’s use everything – conversations, posters, digital technology, our own voices and bodies, our own creativity – to make change and to keep aware. The event in Glastonbury showed inspiring creative work and zines produced in workshops. Voices emerging.

Fiona Hamilton

September 2018