I was recently lucky enough to hear Helen Steven and Ellen Moxley speak to the Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship on the subject of activism. They have been extremely active over many years in the peace movement in Scotland, protesting against nuclear weapons. Hearing about their work is inspirational, but also sometimes daunting: some movements demand this kind of public protest, and if you’re after nuclear disarmament, equal rights to marry or work, or to raise awareness generally, then it is indispensable.
However, not all issues are best fought on the big stage. The personal is political, says an old feminist slogan, and that gives a hope that we can take action for our causes at a very immediate level. Taking it that we are concerned, for example, about the representation of people in fiction, we’d probably be laughed off the streets if we went to wave banners outside the BBC or a publishing company, but we can quietly and powerfully choose to watch programs and read books which do better. I’m following Verb Noire and 50 Books By POC at the moment, partly because I’ve been looking for good white women characters for much longer (and for gay male characters, mostly white of course, since I discovered slash fanfiction in my teens).
Several feminist blogs have recently posted about an advert for yet another product selling women hairlessness as the way to be beautiful. This morning, then, I took a feminist action in the shower: I didn’t shave. It’s easy for me to dismiss this (I didn’t shave because I’m lazy, because I’ve never shaved, because I always cut myself…) but it only takes the continuation of advertising like this (or the continued existence of young men like a former intimate acquaintance of mine who thought he’d like to have sex with me again but only once I’d trimmed a bit down there), to keep this in the realm of feminist actions. Something similar applies to the make-up I never wear.
Slightly more actively, reading, raising my own awareness so that I am more able to challenge problematic behaviour and speech by others, seems passive (I’m just checking my email, just skimming Google Reader, just sitting back and absorbing the words of others), but is actually a vital part of not only my development as a better human being, but as a better activist and ally.
Obviously, big actions are still important. I have every respect for the people who go on protest marches, who make banners, who stand in the streets and make their voices heard. Sometimes I even have energy to join them, one way or another, and the pile of standard replies from Members of Parliament on my desk is a reminder that I will write letters or sign petitions in support of all sorts of causes: people seeking sanctuary, transsexual people in Oxfordshire, a national 24 hour helpline for victims of rape and sexual assault. (My ability to do so, and more especially my confidence that this is a thing worth doing, is of course a consequence of my race and class privilege.) But day to day, when I have revision to do and essays to write and my mind would rather be on paper-making or sewing or enjoying the sunshine, it helps to remember that the reading is important and rejecting the norms is worthwhile.