'Feminism Is' Editor Jen Thorpe Gives Us the Lowdown on the F-Word

‘Being a feminist requires bravery, every single day’

Feminism Is is a proudly South African collection of stories edited by writer Jen Thorpe and featuring the narratives of Gugu Mhlungu, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Danielle Bowler and more. Feminism Is debunks, demystifies and redefines what feminism here and now means to the diverse womxn of SA.


What is feminism?

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie believes we should be feminists but what does that mean really?

It seems like a simple enough question but when we look at history, the movement has come a long way since the suffragettes in the 19th century. The First, Second and Third waves have come and gone. The Fourth phase of feminism has risen as resistance to white privilege and the term has a whole new face in 2018.

Is feminism about burning bras and throwing away razors? Is it thinking #MenAreTrash and hating sex? There are many myths and misconceptions about what feminism is (FYI: none of the above) that have made women reject the label because of how feminism has been framed in the media and beyond.

‘Feminism is definitely not a static definition’

Not only are there the tropes of feminists being angry misanthropists who burn piles of underwear, but there’s a lot of pressure to be a ‘good feminist’.

‘This comes up a lot in the essays in the book – there is a lot of online noise around what “ideal feminism” supposedly is or that there’s one type of feminism, which can make it scary to ask questions, scary to make mistakes, and an intimidating topic to engage with,’ says Thorpe.

The truth is, feminism is the belief in social, economic and political equality of all the genders but it’s not a one-size-fits-all model every one is expected to conform to. ‘It’s definitely not a static definition, and more and more often people are talking about feminisms rather than feminism,’ says Thorpe on how dynamic feminism actually is.

Who’s feminism for?

‘I think there’s certainly room to engage with the meaning, and how you live it out in your life practice,’ says Thorpe.

Intersectionality recognises that systems and identities overlap and cannot be separated or isolated from one another. We’re all different and what a cisgendered heterosexual black woman’s feminism looks like will be totally different to a white lesbian transwoman. That’s where the ‘feminisms’ rather than a strict definition and criteria for feminism comes in – it’s about actively supporting equal opportunity, safety and empowerment across the genders, but a recognition that gender is a spectrum and experiences are unique. It’s also about resisting the patriarchal, capitalist white supremacy that create systems of oppression.

‘Feminism is for every single body’

‘As B Camminga says in the collection, feminism is for every single body. It doesn’t matter what your outsides look like, or what your gender is. Feminism seeks to address social and gender inequality, and ultimately a more equal world is better for everyone,’ says Thorpe.

So is feminism a philosophy, movement or agenda? ‘For me, feminism is a lens with which to view the world, to understand the power dynamics and struggles within it, and to draw solidarity from to respond to these issues,’ says Thorpe. At our Cape Town launch for Feminism Is at indie bookstore The Book Lounge, Kathleen Dey from Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust said “Feminism is a toolkit” and I think this accurately describes how it works.’

What happens when feminism isn’t for me?

As time has gone on, we’re teasing out the kinks and navigating a deeper understanding of feminism – what it means for us as individuals, collectively as a movement and why it matters that we care.

But not everyone thinks of feminism as a way of challenging the status quo that normalises discrimination against anybody who isn’t a cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied white dude. The question is, why wouldn’t everybody be on board for equality?

No judgement here, Thorpe unpacks it for us in a way that makes total sense.

‘There are many reasons for people being reluctant to call themselves feminist. The first is that it is a challenge to existing power structures at its core, so the patriarchy has done a good job of trying to brand feminism as negative,’ says Thorpe. ‘The second is that feminism means admitting that there is something wrong with gender relations in the world, even if at this point in time you’re benefitting from things how they are.

‘Once you admit that, it’s difficult to go back to living your life as if there was nothing wrong. It’s like peeling away an onion and seeing that there is not just one issue, but there are layers and layers,’ says Thorpe.

‘Deciding to live feminism, to be feminist, means committing to this way of life and challenging it, which can be an intimidating ask. Being a feminist requires bravery, every single day.’

How can we make feminism more accessible?

But wait… What about the women who don’t necessarily have the language to articulate or unpack feminism for themselves? What about the people with English as a second or third language and those who aren’t versed in Audre Lorde or bell hooks?

Thorpe has an answer as to how we can help redefine what feminism means for everyone.

‘In the collection we have a glossary at the end so that people who read the book can try to engage with some of the terminology that’s used in the collection, but this might not even be enough to make it feel accessible for some people,’ says Thorpe. ‘I think one way to get acquainted with feminism is to read as much as possible, to read the stories of feminists and read their blogs, and to ask questions when you don’t know what’s going on.’

Does it matter if we call ourselves feminists?

Is it enough to stand for gender equality and advocate for our rights without self-identifying or putting it in your Twitter bio so every knows?

‘Absolutely – labels are just labels, it’s the lifestyle and practice that matter. That being said, I think the label of feminism can help open conversations, can help direct people to new reading and ideas, and can give you a toolkit that makes your gender equality work easier,’ says Thorpe.

So you don’t have to stamp *** FEMINIST *** on your forehead, but we do have to ask why identifying as a feminist is such a bad thing.

Cool, but does any of this even make a difference?

The answer is YES.

‘The main thing I want to challenge is the idea that feminism isn’t relevant in South Africa, or that it’s an outdated idea,’ says Thorpe. ‘I think the collection shows just how important it is to keep talking about feminism.’

‘It matters that Millennial women are feminists because Millennials have the best access to information, media and social media than any generation before them has ever had,’ says Thorpe. ‘We need Millennial feminists because we need to hear about the issues that challenge them, for them to document their stories, and for them to introduce the next generation of young women to feminist ideas. I think it’s also important that we don’t lose sight of the need to be feminist, when there is still so much to be done. This isn’t a time for complacency.’

You heard it here, folks. We should all be feminists but no feminist is made alike and there’s no such thing as a ‘good’ feminist or any one way to be one. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, your education level or background.

Feminism is here – and it isn’t going anywhere.

Grab the fiercely femme anthology that unpacks the F-word here.

Read more Real Talk 

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