Art & Culture

Political penwomanship

Breanne Fahs unpacks the history of feminist manifesto writing and explains why we need it more than ever in light of a global shift to the right.

Feminist manifestos exploded onto the scene from 1967 to 1971, a period marked by rampant sexism, emerging feminist resistance, consciousness-raising, and collective organising. Building on the momentum of the civil rights movement, the feminist revolts of the late 1960s paved the way for decades of feminist activism that followed. The validation of women’s anger in the late 1960s—a cultural zeitgeist moment that recognised women as, finally, fed up and truly enraged— made it possible for women to push back against cultural pressures for politeness and respectability.

Instead, they fumed and ranted, scuffled and shouted, locked arms and marched. The sort of feminism found in early manifestos featured a starkly different brand of feminism from the more likeable, friendly, and benign one we have come to know today in institutions like education, government, and corporate leadership. Second-wave feminist manifestos honoured a sweaty, frothing, high-stakes feminist anger that swept through the writing. Their words burn and simmer even today, giving them an unexpected freshness.

 

And so feminism and its explosive anger have borne many fruits, owed in large part to feminism’s politics of disruption. Women today have access to domestic violence shelters and federally supported (albeit often unpaid) family leave time. Women have far more financial rights than previous generations, particularly with regard to loans, inheritances, and owning businesses. Women’s studies programs, though dwindling in numbers, offer an abundance of courses on a wide range of topics such as gender, race, class, sexuality, identity, politics, bodies, technology, communication, and human rights.

As of writing, abortion is still legal (though in jeopardy) in the United States, and abortion rights have expanded throughout the world. Women have more control than previous generations over their reproductive decisions and parenting options. A huge shift toward gender equality for domestic work and parenting labor has begun. Increasing numbers of museum exhibitions and cultural events feature feminist politics and ideologies. Sexual freedoms have expanded, even as new challenges present themselves. Record numbers of women now represent us in both state-level and federal-level governmental offices. The percentage of women in the workforce and in higher education consistently has increased.

 

And yet, as if living out in real-time Jeanette Winterson’s claim that “I seem to have run in a great circle, and met myself again on the starting line,” we have returned again to a period of cultural reckoning. On the one hand, we better understand the necessity of collective movements and intermovement solidarity; people march side by side with those who have different stakes in the game and have vastly different perspectives and reasons for anger.

Within universities, we now study all sorts of social identities and bodies in academic fields—queer studies, ethnic studies, women and gender studies, American studies, disability studies, and fat studies are becoming more firmly entrenched within the academy. People who once stood on the sidelines are jumping into the fray, escorting women into Planned Parenthood clinics, organising with their neighbours against police brutality, reading anarchist and anticapitalist books, fighting back against transphobic policies and politics, seeking political office or new positions of power, and making revolutionary art in their basements.

 

Many of the oppressive conditions faced by second-wave feminist activists now seem laughably outdated and happily “in the past.” On the other hand, the reinvigoration of misogyny and racism as institutionalised practices has sounded new alarm bells. An eerily familiar set of conditions has now presented itself, dominated by financial precarity, tense gender relations, racialised violence, rampant homophobia, public and unapologetic victim-blaming, and ever-worsening class inequalities. We have met ourselves again on the starting line, once again up against the behemoths of greedy capitalism, selfish conservativism, anti-intellectual masculinity, and increasingly dire conditions for nearly all oppressed people.

Feminist manifestos are a necessity in times of great social stress. How else are we to make sense of our own anger, our sense of confusion and implosion, our imminent feelings of doom and stifled possibilities? The urgency of manifestos—that clear sense that they sit right on the cutting edge— leaves a palpable feeling that the ink has yet to dry, that we are, as Julian Hanna writes, on the “bleeding edge” of things. Regardless of when they were written, manifestos pulsate with newness and freshness. They pry open the eyes we would rather shut, forcing us to reckon with the scummy, dirty, awful truths we would rather not face. And if ever there was a time for a collection of feminist manifestos, if ever it felt necessary to compile documents that celebrate women’s rage, now is that time.

The above is adapted from the introduction of Burn It Down! Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution, released 24 March via Verso Books.

26 February 2020