Like most men, I suspect one’s support for the feminist cause, however unwavering, has its hot and cold moments. Hot when asked to consider the degree of oppression and disregard with which women’s history and present reality is still so sadly marred. Cooler when the nicely modulated tones of BBC presenters facilitate the plaints of middle class matrons about the lack of females on FTSE 100 company boards. Luckily there is a lot less of that nowadays, partly because of the attention being paid to the more serious matters of FGM and the wider issues of violence against women.
Feminist discourse is richly diverse in subject and intellectual expression as even the briefest inquiry will show. But arguably there is a less substantial thread, and one which goes back at least to the Suffragettes: that of demonstrative manifestations. In the mid-years of 20th century feminism (or Women’s Liberation Movement) bras were burned – in spirit – if not in actual fact. Then, it seemed, women went underground; the more militant allied themselves with more general political protests (Greenham Common and Baader-Meinhof at first, then later, various environmental protests). These two notable campaigns are memorable for the leadership role of women in the execution of their action programmes. The male hegemony still consistently underestimates the significance of women in militant protest. Hence the attention paid to the apparent deception of women activists by undercover police officers, which has attracted oddly old-fashioned opprobrium from both male and female liberals.
So it came as a refreshing change from all the earnest egalitarianism of professional representation and career opportunity, when feminism got more down and dirty in the streets, with events such as Slut Walk. Allied to this arose groups dedicated to the protection of women’s sexuality from exploitation and objectification.
Sex has become a strong social theme of this century’s second decade, too. Amongst other things, people have become more aware of the Roman Catholic church’s role in cases of sexual abuse, and no doubt this new awareness played its part in igniting the Savile case. Thereafter came the arraignment of a generation of media personalities. Now the predominantly female victims wait for their day in court. A multiple-scene drama with Grand Guignol elements, incorporating pornography, rape and every-day sexual harassment has been written and is being publicly enacted on behalf of the feminist cause.
Onto the stage burst Pussy Riot. While BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour earnestly pursued their list of Britain’s 100 Most Powerful Women, three or four Russian punk rockers invaded Moscow’s central cathedral and took on Vladimir Putin. I never rated punk rock as a music form and neither the protest nor its outcome came very high on my list of concerns. So apart from a sigh of ‘well, that’s Russia, what did they expect?’ I thought little of it.
Until, that is, 21st October when I watched BBC4’s Storyville: Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer. The three main protagonists and the ones who were put on trial may have been somewhat obtuse about the risks they ran in staging their protest in an iconic religious place. Or maybe they knew exactly what they were doing. In any event, they emerged as both admirable and likeable. They are obviously grown-ups (at least one of them was married and one had a child) but to an ageing observer they seemed touchingly young and vulnerable.
The film used contemporary video of the protest and film of the trial, coupled with interviews with the protesters, parents (two fathers and one mother) and a husband all of whom seemed both supportive and resigned. The Rioters were clearly saddened but not surprised by their sentences – less than those which had been demanded by the prosecution. Only two of the women were jailed – a fourth member had been released at the time of the performance. The third was freed after a change of lawyer and an apology to the court.
Pussy Riot is not specifically a feminist group: their end-of-trial statements were about the political condition of Russia. They commanded my respect, and deserve that of all observers for their dignity and courage. In that context, they do feminism a great service and incidentally, reclaim the word ‘pussy’ from its exile in euphemism. Curiously, whereas we refer to men dominated by women as ‘henpecked’, in the USA it used to be ‘pussy-whipped’. These young females didn’t seem as though they would want to whip anyone (unless we count Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin). Still, there is clearly a developing appetite for direct action among young women – and the emphasis has rightly to be on ‘young’.
Whilst Pussy Riot’s stars are in prison (and in any case it remains so far a performance group), from the Ukraine (take note of the geographic connection) come Femen, a movement with a track record and international aspirations in protesting against violence to women. They, too, are clearly about dramatic intervention and I suspect we’re seeing the start of a new phase of feminist direct action. ‘Calm down dear’ is not the response I recommend. In any case, it’s already been appropriated by an eponymous Festival of Feminism on now and running until 10th November at the Camden Peoples Theatre. Go visit.