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Cherchez la Bonza Femme
18 / 07 / 2013
A Bonza Sheila is a regular section where we pay tribute to a good woman. This month Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper throws the bonza questions at bonza feminist Karen Pickering – writer, presenter, organizer and social commentator. Thanks Karen!
And All Ye Bewt Bonza Sheilas readers please note! To celebrate the first year of Sheilas, we are developing a hard-copy version of the first 12 months of interviews with Bonza Sheilas – a publication which will be available just in time for Christmas.
Subscribe to Sheilas via the ‘Sign-Up’ field to be kept in the loop. Ms Pickering will feature – along with our other Bonza Sheilas – Ita Buttrose, Denise Scott, last month’s Leanne Miller to name just a few. A ripper read.
A Bonza Karen Pickering
You’re a feminist writer and presenter. What’s your earliest sense of being a feminist and was it a gradual awareness or was it sparked by a particular event or circumstance?
I came to feminism pretty late, after spending a long time rebelling against it. I grew up without a mother, went to girls schools that I hated, and generally disdained girlhood and womanhood because I was alienated from positive expressions of it. I finished my first degree at uni basically a socialist, who thought that humanism was a better framework for fixing what was wrong in the world. I’m still a humanist but I learned that feminism is absolutely essential to realising the goals of humanism. Happily and luckily for me, I had brilliant, fierce women in my life who generously and patiently taught me what I needed to know.
Who have been your greatest influences in being a feminist?
There are so many! There are the amazing feminists and friends around me who inspire me every day, the strong women I admire, and the thinkers who help me make sense of patriarchy and the power of feminism against it. Right after high school, a dear friend loaned me The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and begged me to read it, and I didn’t. Not long after, she died suddenly and many years later I finally read it. I still have her copy. It changed my life and I’ve bought dozens of copies to give away to my loved ones since. I’m also evangelical about the American feminist, Molly Lambert.
Where did the idea for Cherchez La Femme come from?
Honestly, I just figured out what kind of event I wished already existed and made it. I realised that the best and most satisfying conversations I had were with other feminists, sitting around the kitchen table or in a pub, and I wanted to extend and share those discussions and ideas with a bigger audience. I was tired of seeing panels of “experts” with all men or a token woman. I was tired of seeing panels about feminism rather than feminist panels, or “women’s issues” sidelined as niche or special interest. I was also sick of seeing talks in stuffy lecture theatres or huge auditoriums. I wanted to have a drink among friends and other feminists, and kick back in the pub for a good, long, rambling chat. So I made CLF as much like that as possible.
Whenever I read classic feminist texts from the second wave, including The Female Eunuch, I was so moved by the descriptions of consciousness-raising groups. You know, women meeting at each others’ houses to talk things out and share their frustrations and desires. I just thought we needed something like that.
Running for over three years, I’ve been so impressed by Cherchez La Femme – not just by the talent of speakers and breadth and depth of discussions, but by the audience itself – so many cool young women! As with the description of yourself, CLF is ‘unashamedly feminist’. Did this level of interest from young women audience members surprise you?
Actually, I’ve noticed the demographic of CLF changing over the last three years. Initially it did trend a bit older, maybe 30-45? And as feminism gained more traction in the mainstream media and shifted to the centre of public life, the audiences got younger. My involvement in SlutWalk was a part of this too, I think. Now I’d say the age group would be more like early twenties to early thirties on average, as well as becoming a more even gender split. When CLF started it was 40 to 50 older women every month. Now it’s 70 or 80 women and men aged 20-40, at a guess.
What’s been one of your favourite moments in running CLF?
So many! I’ve cried onstage before, and many times afterwards, because of the beauty or bravery or clarity of something that was shared. I think Feminism and Fat was my favourite CLF ever. It was a really emotional topic, with an audience that opened up and listened and considered their own relationships with their bodies. It was life-changing for me, and other people I know. I also laugh a lot onstage because my guests are such good talent. Stella Young was a highlight, who had the audience in stitches, and Monica Dux is always hilarious.
At the last CLF – on Feminism and Crime – you mentioned how you were such a feminist ‘nerd’ that you sometimes imagined ‘fantasy’ legislative changes that would have great impacts for women. Care to share an example?!
I have a lot of friends who proudly identify as nerds, geeks and dorks because they love their particular obsession so much. So I’m a feminist dork. I geek out over the possibilities for feminist action, activism, policy and legislative change. This means I read about Scandinavia a lot. I’d love to see the kinds of blanket reforms that these countries have in favour of women’s rights, like paid parental leave, laws surrounding sexual integrity and assault, reproductive rights, violence against women, gender-neutral language and gender mainstreaming. That last one is key – a term coined by the United Nations in 1997, describes the incorporation of the gender equality perspective into the work of government agencies at all levels. The idea is that gender equality is not a separate, isolated issue but a continual process. To create equality, the concept of equality must be taken into account when resources are distributed, norms are created and decisions are taken. This is basically the greatest thing ever and is what I would immediately adopt if I was in charge.
What’s your involvement in Slutwalk?
I’m part of the original organising team that brought SlutWalk toAustralia, by organising the Melbourne march a few weeks after the first SlutWalk inToronto. The team has changed over the years and continues to be full of completely brilliant and hardworking activists who want to keep the SlutWalk movement alive inMelbourne.
What’s your response to people (and some feminists) who say they don’t believe the word ‘Slut’ should be re-claimed (or arguable ‘claimed’) by women in this movement?
SlutWalk was criticised from all angles and parts of the political spectrum and yet still commands a big support base, which goes to show not only that feminism is diverse and complex but that there’s plenty of energy and space for different kinds of action. If you really hate SlutWalk then I’d warmly encourage you to build your own responses to violence against women and put your energy there. You could use your time focusing on what’s wrong with our action or you could develop actions you think are better. More feminism for everyone! SlutWalk has a great relationship with both Reclaim the Night and Melbourne Feminist Action, two collectives that offer alternatives to the SlutWalk approach, because we all share the same belief that violence against women must be stopped and that feminists are working hard to prevent it.
Why do you think Slutwalk resonated with so many women – around the world and locally?
Because women are tired of hearing that they are to blame for the violence done to them. I think feminists were galvanised by the energy that spread globally around the issue of victim blaming and slut shaming that accompanies most public discussions of sexual assault, domestic violence and even child sexual abuse. The SlutWalk message that the only way to stop rape is to stop rapists resonates with both women and men, because we know that most men will not hurt women, but that some men repeatedly do. The societies we live in license this violence in subtle ways, and often blame victims for the acts of the perpetrator. Having a huge, open discussion about this in the public sphere is the first step to changing these attitudes.
I’ve made connections with SlutWalk organisers all around the world, from Canada to India to Mexico to Singapore to Britain to China. Here in Australia, it’s enabled me to talk with women from teenagers through to great grandmothers, all with different reasons for supporting the movement. We get the most unbelievable letters from people, including survivors of rape who say that until SlutWalk they blamed themselves. I was one of those women. SlutWalk stands with survivors and says you are not blame for what a rapist has done to you. That matters a great deal.
What’s the secret to engaging with young women on feminist issues (or with feminism itself)?
Listen to them. Don’t talk down to them. Don’t lecture or criticise or make sweeping generalisations about their “generation” or yours. Create spaces in which they feel safe and secure in expressing their problems with feminism (or what they think it is). Work with them towards solutions and the possibility of action and change – don’t tell them what to think or do! You know the same way you engage successfully with adults!
Thank you Karen Pickering for being totally bonza! To find out when the next Cherchez la Femme is on, “like” the page on Facebook.
Karen Pickering is a feminist presenter and writer based in Melbourne.
She is the creator and host of Cherchez la Femme, a monthly talkshow of popular culture and current affairs from an unapologetically feminist angle (aka Feminism in the Pub).
She is an organiser of SlutWalk Melbourne and an educator around gender, sex, feminism, violence against women, media literacy and community building.
Visit Karen’s website.