Is a feminist debate an oxymoron?

Last week’s “Is the work of feminism just beginning” debate at the Cambridge Union deeply resonated with me – not necessarily because of *what* was being discussed, but *how* it was being discussed. The unspoken rules of the prestigious Cambridge Union were turned on their head, put to the side, and made obsolete. Ignoring the offensive and inane contributions of the Fathers 4 Justice speaker, the rest of the speakers – on both sides – engaged in something that was more of a conversation than a debate.

Rather than engaging in a rapid-fire of snide, sarcastic and hostile banter, the women speakers  would pause to ask questions of each other, to clear up misunderstandings  rather than wilfully create them, and to acknowledge personal experience in the formation of truths. The three speakers arguing that feminism’s work is not just beginning were quite divided in their arguments, making it easy for the debate to meander into a more meaningful and nuanced discussion rather than a black and white debate format. Yet in similar situations where the opposing battlegrounds were not so clearly defined, I have seen many Union debates degenerate into rhetorical sparring, ignoring the substance of the debate for the technicalities of the motion. I found it exciting that Zohra Moosa invited a response from her “opponent” after she addressed her point- smiling at her rather than sneering. Bonnie Greer expressed her respect for Erin Pizzey “regardless of what side of the debate she was on”, and Erin asked Zohra, Bonnie and Sarah to clarify what they meant by feminism, and what they meant by patriarchy. I had never really seen anything like it in any of the debates I have attended at the Union- firm disagreement and strong ideas, but without the need for sarcasm or machismo.

I do not believe that this mode of interaction came out of a naïve ignorance of the rules of the game, or an inherent tendency for feminists to be “everything nice”. At a debate several years before I had seen Germaine Greer hold up the unspoken rules of Union debating  for inspection, mock them thoroughly, and then with an “anything that you do I can do better” sneer, she donned the mantle of old boys’ debate and absolutely destroyed her opponent. At last week’s feminist debate, the speakers made a choice to set the terms of the debate themselves. It was a radical deviation from normal Union debates, and according to the rules and conventions of traditional debating, the style would have been judged as a shortcoming. But it followed the essence of the argument- our work is only just beginning, because for too long  we have been trying to play your game, rather than you playing ours.

The work of feminism is just beginning because the disjoint between the nominal (and largely legislative) achievements of the feminist movements and the actual social attitudes and institutions remains so great. These shortcomings are not purely due to the superficiality of change, but also to its cooptation. The language of feminism- liberation, empowerment, choice- has been so thoroughly co-opted and monopolised that there is very little space left for progress. When liberation is framed in terms of Sex & the City, pole-dancing and Sarah Palin (which all conveniently pay lip-service to empowerment while failing to challenge the social or economic status quo), the discourse around gender equality has become so oppressive that we find ourselves believing anti-feminist mythologies and making apologies for our feminism: “I’m not *that* (separatist, bra-burning, femi-nazi) kind of feminist”, we find ourselves saying. How have we forgotten that patriarchal discourse translates a value for women-only spaces into separatism, a critique of the “beauty” industry as bra-burning and having the guts to speak out about sexism as being a “femi-Nazi”? I feel that what happened at the Union debate was that the women speakers created a space within that hegemony, and used that space to dismantle the social norms of masculinism. Despite the gentleness with which it happened, it was a radical act, and one necessary to initiate a critical analysis of gender power relations alongside more confrontational actions.

I have been drawn to feminist organising because of the attitudes exemplified by the feminism debate at the Union. I have found that women’s groups are more of ten than not spaces where listening happens as much as talking. It is normal for participants to seek common ground, and understanding where a person you disagree with is coming from is seen as an important part of the discussion- and not simply so you can convince them better. It is undeniable that there are many ongoing debates within the feminist movement- issues of pornography, prostitution and gender deconstruction, to name a few, have triggered virulent disagreement among feminists. Many of these debates have been anything but empathetic, and I think that the successful demonisation and fracturing of the feminist movement by a patriarchal discourse have a lot to do with the accusations hurled in these disagreements. As feminists continue to thrash out the difficult questions of feminist activism, debates like the one at the Union remind me of one of the powers of the feminist movement- in addition to the strength of our arguments and the sharpness of our speech, there is also an ability to listen to each other.


  1. John

    I wouldn’t say one of the powers of feminism *is* an ability to listen, I’d say one of its power is that it *can have* such an ability. In just the same way that feminism is not about being angry and anti-men, but at the same time, through the cooption of the movement which you describe, it *can be* about this. I think the distinction is important because any attempt to define feminism as one particular thing, whether it’s a positive or negative thing, is ultimately useless, because not everyone will agree, and you end up alienating certain people.

    On the other hand, it’s certainly important to stress feminism’s perceptive, empathetic and open qualities (as long as you don’t claim that these are what feminism inherently *is*) – so well done for this great article!

    • Cas

      @John: I don’t think that having an “ability to listen” is going to alienate anyone, and I don’t think that being angry is necessarily a “negative” thing as you suggest. I also disagree in general with your comment in that I think things like placing value in lived experience *is* fundamental to feminism, not something which arises out of it.

      • John

        Exactly, and precisely because lived experience is so central, feminism means many different things to many different people. I don’t think placing value on lived experience is a definition for feminism, I think it’s an inherent premise from which different feminisms emerge. I think this is compatible with my point that it’s useless to try to define one true feminism. Not too long ago many people would have said that war on men and political lesbiansm (etc) were fundamental to feminism. I happen to think such a view is sexist and homophobic, and that it has no place in the movement. Their view was based in the value they attached to their experiences just as much as mine. Not all feminists think listening to others and sensible debate are important values. I don’t think it’s up to us to decide which people do the right feminism and which do it wrong, though it’s important to have one’s own opinion, of course!!

        And just to clarify – I certainly don’t think anger is a negative quality! (Though some undoubtedly do…)

  2. Ray Filar

    I completely agree with you. Also the other thing I noticed was that for the first time at any union debate I’ve been to the people standing up to speak were overwhelmingly women, and a sizeable number were women of colour. Just goes to show, doesn’t it.

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