By Jo Reger
For someone who studies the contemporary women’s movement in North America, these are fascinating times of extreme backlash and new mobilizations. Take for instance my home state of Michigan where two female state representatives were censured and forbidden to speak on the house floor for equating anti-abortion legislation to rape (while invoking the word “vagina”) and suggesting that men need to be screened before obtaining vasectomies (see Lisa Leitz’s Daily Disruption post from June 27, 2012 for more on this).
Within days, Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues, flew to the state capital and with the assistance of women legislators performed the monologues to a crowd of between 1,000 and 5,000 (depending on who did the estimating.) The crowd was full of vagina positive signs (two favorites were “Vaginas brought you into this world, Vaginas will vote you out” and “We didn’t come from your rib, you came from our vaginas.”) The event got national (liberal news) coverage from John Stewart and Rachel Maddow to the Huffington Post.
In an interesting twist, the Monday, June 18th reading of the Vagina Monologues followed the Detroit Slutwalk the previous Saturday. The message was similar—being female is powerful—but here it had a pro-slut twist—that is, being a sexual being is powerful. Where the vagina protest focused more on women’s legislative power, the slutwalk concentrated on ending sexual assault along with messages against victim blaming and slut profiling.
For social movement scholars and activists, there are a lot of interesting things about these two protests such as their differences and similarities, the overlap in activists, the equation of woman and female with existence of a vagina, and the use of taboo words to empower women through reclaiming the pejorative. However, to me the most striking is the least present—that is the word “feminist or feminism.” The conversations, news coverage, chants and signs are largely devoid of any mention of feminism yet North American feminism is directly at the root of both of these protests.
At the most basic level for the vagina protests, it is feminism that allows us to have women in legislative positions. But beyond that both of these actions are the result of a mature social movement that has diffused into the culture to such an extent that people engage in actions that have distinct and identifiable roots in feminism, yet see themselves as outside of feminism. In particular, these two protests emerge from a movement that has focused on reclaiming denigrating language (with one source being the Vagina Monologues which swept through popular culture and college campuses in the mid to late 1990s), the consumption and production of “grrrl power,” (with its roots in the Riot Grrrl feminist punk movement also of the 1990s) and the calling out of the sexual double standard (where men are “studs” and women are “sluts”). These are all cultural issues taken up by North American feminists and they have diffused into the culture as evidenced by Michigan legislator Lisa Brown’s comments. The comment that got her in so much trouble could have come straight off of a slutwalk or Take Back the Night protest sign when she said, “I’m flattered you’re all so concerned about my vagina but no means no.”
So, does the invisibility of feminism matter? Does the word “feminist” matter when women and men mobilize for social justice? To fight rape? To save legal and accessible abortions? Mary Katzenstein’s work on the unobtrusive mobilization of feminism in the 1980s tells us the answer might be “no.” She shows how within conservative institutions feminist-minded activists can make change for gender equality. Drawing on this we could argue that these are unobtrusive feminist protests and as a result they are effective and elastic, taking in other protests and drawing on other movements (as Meyer and Whittier argue in their 1994 article on social movement “spillover.”) For example during one slutwalk, the sexual empowerment chants incorporated the Occupy movement with calls for the “99%” to take back slut shaming. These protests also expand and reinvent feminism’s repertoires of tactics. Slutwalks draw on Take Back the Night marches with a poke at the sexual double standard. The vagina protests build on the work of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party with a little of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” anthem thrown in. In sum, even if feminism is not acknowledged in contemporary activism, it is still present and relevant.
The question for me is not—does feminism continue as movement?—but instead—why is feminism invisible in current protest? Invisible is not the same as not present and exploring contemporary feminism provides social movement scholars with some important ideas as to what happens when a movement becomes stereotyped and denigrated. We need to be asking—what does this mean in the overall scheme of social justice movements? On the most basic level, denying the ideology of a movement, such as the gender equality message of feminism, reduces the opportunity for mass mobilization. Invisible feminism makes for a series of individualized protests with limited chances for large or continued collective action. The slutwalks are a good testing ground to see if the global mass mobilizations of 2011 will continue into 2012. This is not to say there is no visible feminism here. You can find signs, leaders, an individuals who use and display feminism as a positive ideology for change but they are outnumbered.
So to return to beginning, this is an interesting time for scholars of women’s movements and North American feminism. The reclaiming of language and promotion of “grrrl” power mixed with sexual empowerment make these the days of vaginas and sluts. As one woman’s t-shirt read at the Vagina Monologues protest, “I’m a slut with a vagina and I vote.” I wonder if she would wear a shirt that added “and I am a feminist”?