We are not all Pussy Riot

Originally published at Feminist Times.

Pussy_Riot_by_Igor_Mukhin-624x416Dressed in brightly coloured tights, dresses and balaclavas, and sticking two fingers up at the establishment, Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot seized the world’s attention last March, for far more than their garish dress-sense.

Their iconoclastic, anti-Putin protest gig, performed in the Russian Orthodox Church, landed two of their members in prison, sparking international outcry.

Pussy Riot’s protest – like the suffragettes’ smashed windows, the 1970 smoke-bombing of Miss World, and the women-only blockades of Greenham Common – shares a spirit of feminist activism that, throughout history, has been brash, rebellious, and radical.

But we are not all Pussy Riot. For the many women contending with mental and physical illness, childcare, poverty and shyness, that kind of direct activism is simply not possible.

Yet feminism today boasts an increasingly diverse range of activists, many of whom are crafting out their own frontlines away from more traditional forms of protest.

Zoë, Clare, Mandy and Wanda are four such feminists; all very different, and spanning two decades in age, but whose voices still so often go unheard. They tell me – a self-confessed fainthearted activist – why the emphasis on marching and blockading can be alienating, and how activism is changing to include women like us.

25-year-old Zoë was “doomed to be political”, with a feminist mum and a Marxist dad. She went on her first march aged 17 but now, eight years later, there are days when she struggles to leave the house.

Zoë suffers from bipolar, agoraphobia and anxiety problems, and is recovering from anorexia – mental illnesses that “can be really devastating” to her everyday life and her activism.

“Sometimes I can’t get out of bed or I have panic attacks if I go outside. Being on public transport or in public spaces can be really, really difficult, so I have people come with me to make it easier,” she says, indicating her boyfriend, who is sitting at the next table and has accompanied her across central London to meet me.

Although Zoë’s mental health has improved thanks to cognitive behavioural therapy, she finds traditional activism difficult: “A lot of the events need you to be more mentally fit than I have been – crowds can be incredibly difficult.”

At the TUC’s March 26 protest, Zoë “freaked out” when she found herself near a group of protesters who were smashing the windows of a Starbucks coffee shop.

“On the one hand you’ve got potentially very violent police, and potentially very violent protests, and you’re somewhere in the middle, trying to cope with the whole thing while having a panic attack,” she explains.

More commonly though, her mental health simply stops her from participating at all: “What normally happens is I get worse before I get there, so it stops me getting places,” she says. “I just become overwhelmed with anxiety about the whole thing and sometimes I won’t even get out of the door.”

Like many women in her position, Zoë has felt frustrated by the emphasis on traditional activism. “There’s an idea that boots on streets activism is where it’s at, and it’s all about a particular style of protest,” she says. “It used to make me feel really awful.”

Finding her own community online changed all that. After building up an online network of more than 2,000 Twitter followers, Zoë co-founded The Fementalists, a collaborative blog for feminist women to discuss their experiences of mental health problems.

“There are a lot of women with mental health problems who are struggling to do traditional activism, which is why we came up with the idea for this blog,” she explains.

Since launching in late May, The Fementalists already has its own following of more than 1,500 Twitter users and posts covering topics from depression and anxiety to bipolar and eating disorders.

“It seems to have really hit a chord. People are feeling unsupported and this is what they’ve been waiting for,” Zoë says.

“It’s about giving women a space to talk about their own mental health conditions and feminism, and how the traditional styles of activism can be quite excluding and difficult.”

Like Zoë, 42-year-old Clare Cochrane has always been political, experiencing her first taste of direct action at the age of 13, when her mum took Clare and some friends to visit Greenham Common women’s peace camp.

“Then, when I was 16, I borrowed my mum’s tent and went a few times on my own,” she reminisces. “There’s nothing like it. It was really inspiring to get to be part of something that amazing and to learn from such amazing women.”

She recalls the excitement of disrupting cruise missile convoys: “Some women would stay at the base and make lots of noise, while other women would go along the route and hold up the convoy,” she says.

However it was a physical disability, rheumatoid arthritis, that put paid to Clare’s days of direct action.

The illness developed 20 years ago, while Clare was involved with activism at Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland, prompting her to give up activism and move abroad to stay with her parents for their support.

“It had a huge impact on my activism,” Clare says. “I stopped doing any for about 12 or 13 years.”

Since returning to the UK Clare has rediscovered activism but had to make huge adjustments, as the illness means her health and mobility fluctuate dramatically.

“I have a lot of periods where I’m just ill and there’s very little I can do so my life’s quite restricted,” she explains. “As I get older, I’m less and less able to do stuff, so I can’t walk very far anymore without being absolutely worn out at the end of it and in pain.”

Clare talks with all the passion and conviction you might expect of a Greenham veteran, but several times has to stop for breath or to find the right words.

“It’s a chronic, lifelong illness, so I have to be aware that if I’m going to put lots and lots of energy into a campaign then I have to do less other stuff.”

This means pacing herself, allowing for recovery time, and completely rules out spontaneity.

Nevertheless, activism remains one of her top priorities: “I don’t do any less activism, I do less other stuff!” she laughs, when I ask how she balances living with the illness.

Even so, it’s been a hard shift to make: “I can’t do direct action anymore – I couldn’t do lying down in roads or locking myself to things, so I have to focus on doing the organising,” she says.

“It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s very painful and difficult, if that’s where you heart is,” she adds.

“With disability comes loss, and, inevitably, you end up grieving for the things you can’t do. It takes a while to find new skills to start doing a different kind of activism.”

Most notably, Clare has brought activism within her own limitations by founding Oxford Reclaim The Night in 2007, after she moved to the town. Although she’d always loved the London marches, Clare found the length of the march and the travelling involved exhausting.

Her first attempt at travelling from Oxford to London for a Reclaim The Night march “nearly killed me”, so she formed a creative collective of feminists and set up a much shorter march closer to home.

“It’s probably a walk you can do in 25 minutes, but we stretch it out to 45 by stopping along the way to sing feminist songs,” she says.

Mandy*, just two years her junior, couldn’t be more different. While Clare spent her teenage years blocking cruise missile convoys at Greenham Common, Mandy was so shy as a teenager that she “always preferred to keep quiet in the background rather than speak up and be noticed.”

Although motherhood has boosted the 40-year-old’s confidence, she still prefers to speak to me by email and text message, and says, “I never have and can never see myself going on a march!”

Shyness affects Mandy’s feminism on a number of levels, making her cautious about openly identifying as a feminist because of how that might be perceived.

“If you are naturally shy, when you are put in a confrontational situation, it is actually very damaging and difficult,” she says. “So to even openly talk about feminism isn’t something I always do.”

Like Zoë, Mandy has found that Twitter provides a safe and supportive space for her to explore and keep up with feminist issues. But even online Mandy has faced criticism for opening up about her wariness to identify as a feminist.

“There seems to be a general feeling that unless you speak up and proudly shout out that you are a feminist, you ought not to call yourself a feminist,” Mandy says, describing a recent confrontation on the subject.

“Some may argue that I’m an armchair feminist – that’s it’s little action, just words – but I feel there are other ways to get involved in feminism,” she says.

“I feel very strongly that instilling the right values in my children from a young age can have a solid foundation for behaviours later in life,” she explains.

A stay-at-home mother of three, who also works part-time with autistic children, Mandy strives to raise her two sons to respect women and girls, in the hope that they will grow up aware of, and intolerant of, inequality.

“Likewise, I think it imperative that my daughter is aware of inequality and doesn’t ever feel that she is in some way inadequate to her brothers by virtue of being a girl,” she says.

“I think there is an importance in recognising that activism isn’t all about shouting and marching.”

The same is true of Wanda Wyporska, the equalities officer at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), who spoke to me in a personal capacity.

As a trade unionist, Wanda is used to physical protests being seen as the “truest” form of activism, but she believes it’s important to use everybody’s different skills in a way they feel comfortable.

On a personal level, Wanda goes on fewer marches since having her son, now three and a half years old.

“It may sound a little bit precious, but I’m not willing to presume that what I believe in is necessarily what he believes in,” she says.

“If there were a march to bring back dinosaurs, then I’m sure he’d be at the front of it,” she laughs.

More generally, there are a host of reasons why mothers have long struggled to participate in direct activism, from childcare to event logistics.

“How long is it? Will they be able to walk? Will they end up on your shoulders? Are you going to have to take a buggy? The things you have to start thinking about are just endless,” Wanda says.

“I have nothing but praise for women who do that, but my own personal thing is that I just don’t really fancy it,” she adds.

As a former journalist, Wanda prefers to keep her activism to what she knows best: “I’m not very good at standing on the street shaking a tin, but I can write articles, I can use social media, and I can think about how to set up a campaign and how to reach people,” she says.

For her, activists now have more tools at their disposal than ever before, so there’s a role for everybody: “There are hundreds of ways in which we can get involved, and I don’t think one way’s any better than another,” she says.

“There’s a time for getting out onto the streets and taking direct action, and there are some people who are great with a megaphone.”

Others, like Mandy and Zoë would “run a million miles away from shouting into a megaphone”, but are striving to make their voices heard elsewhere.

For today’s feminists, there must also a time for putting down the megaphones and just listening to those who are breaking out of the mould.

*Not her real name

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