Lola Olufemi | The problem with “accessible” feminism

The word “accessible” is thrown around a lot. When people use it to refer to activism in Cambridge (The Women’s Campaign, the BME Campaign) one of the main criticisms they level against those involved is centred on this idea. The campaigns have a reputation for being “unfriendly” “not widely supported” or even, “getting things wrong.” More people do not engage with them because their fear of making a mistake on a Facebook discussion page outweighs their investment in the issues they claim to support.

It is perhaps an unspoken truth that many (white, middle class, cis) people have silently felt locked out of these activist spaces because they resent not being able to exist in them uncritically.  By this I mean, a lot of these people’s engagements with feminism stop when things become “difficult.” When they are asked to move past the realm of overt displays of gendered discrimination, of sharing articles about blue and pink boxes, interviewers asking sexist questions and Donald Trump’s position on women’s issues. These are all worthy of attention of course but when they are asked to consider subtler more complex issues: sex work, the gendered effects of migration and war, borders,  how “power feminism” (the desire to get women into boardrooms) often depends upon the labour of racialised migrant women who provide childcare – It is then I am often met with the claim that the campaign’s concerns, practices or terminology are “inaccessible.” These issues are too clunky for consideration, they get stuck in your throat if you try and swallow them.

Instead of facing the complexity of these feminist issues head on, many hide away under the guise of “accessibility” and “political correctness.” They claim they feel “stifled” or that they are “not given the space to learn” because online interactions become fraught when intersectional issues are brought up. If your engagement with feminism or feminist spaces stops because somebody’s tone becomes too “aggressive” for you… what is the extent of your commitment to practising the kind of feminism that liberates “all” women? If you can be so easily dissuaded from a space because you do not understand what is being discussed, and refuse to use the tools that you employ weekly for your essays to find out, how important are the lives of marginalised women to you? The claim of accessibility is an important one but when I see it misused by those who have the means and the privilege to educate themselves or challenge their thinking, I can only assume that what they really mean is “I don’t care that much.” I want everything explained to me as nicely as possible, I do not want to be made to think about feminism especially because it is supposed to be so simple. Accessibility matters for those who need it most – by that I mean working class women and non-binary people for whom academic feminism is alienating and perhaps doesn’t speak to their experiences in the same way that a well-written article or blog could (I am one of them.) Those who are living with the real world consequences of the things we discuss in femsoc on a Tuesday night whilst drinking free wine. Feeling sad about being challenged or corrected because your intentions were good does not help these people. What separates those who are invested in practicing feminism that is truly meaningful from those who are merely performing their interest is the ability to learn and relearn, to listen and change their ideas. To hear the voices and critiques of marginalized women and change their feminism accordingly.

Another gripe I have with the the claim of “inaccessible” feminism is how it robs those already on the fringes of mainstream feminist discourse, of their anger. If the response to a heated defence of why race and gender are inseperable, criticisms of Emma Watson or Taylor Swift, is “the language of intersectionality makes this space inaccessible for me” “I don’t understand why I have to think about race when all I want to talk about is gender” then, as a white woman, what you are signalling to other white women is that you have a certain ownership over feminist space and praxis. It is a position that is not only intellectually dishonest, but lazy. It is, in itself, a form of violence – by silencing dissent or criticism of mainstream/white feminism, what you communicate to the most marginalised women is that their demands for recognition are somehow a step too far. If thinking about intersectionality kills your enthusiasm for feminism, then what you are suggesting is that I am a nuisance.

I want to kill fluffy, flowery, insubstantial feminism just like Woolf asked us to kill the Angel in the House. I want it gone. It is of no use to anyone. I would also like to kill the myth that feminism is simple. Feminism is not simple – recognising how structures constrain women and how oppressions are linked to capitalism and austerity can be a lot to wrap your head around. That means that if you care about the plight of migrant women, you must care about and advocate for the rights of sex workers. If you care about BME women, you must be critical of the “power feminism” that relies on the unpaid labour of BME women. You must be committed to thinking critically about how concepts created and coined by black women “radical self-care” “intersectionality” are packaged back to us and sold for profit. You must credit women of colour for their tireless work in the feminist movement. You must be invested in feminist history. You must be less concerned with asking “Is X a feminist thing to do?” more concerned with asking how women in the most ostracised professions are paid, treated and represented. This is not the same as saying “You must read a certain number of books about feminism and then you will receive a ‘good’ feminist badge.” It could be as simple as reflecting on how the articles that you like, share, and post might resonate with women who are not rich, white, able bodied, neurotypical. Would the message be the same? Put simply, you must care about the lives of women and non-binary people who do not look like you.

I am not purporting to have all the answers. But I am very tired of going to femsocs that discuss ‘controversial’ topics like sex work without a nuanced understanding of how anti-sex work rhetoric, whether it be theoretical or otherwise, kills women. I am tired of those who claim to be interested in feminism relying on trans-exclusionary theorists or gently spouting TERF (Trans exclusionary radical feminist) ideas. Our seeming silence on the mistreatment of trans women and non-binary people in our feminist spaces is also something that needs to be addressed in a meaningful way. I know that the university-wide feminism that I wish to practice should take into account how all the differing aspects of my identity shape my experience of womanhood. I want others who do not share my experiences to recognise me and others like me, lift up our voices, at the very least attempt to radically rethink their spaces (feminist socs, events) so that they are, yes, accessible and welcoming environments for all women and non-binary people. I want clunky, complicated issues to be at the forefront of any feminism we claim to practice.

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6 thoughts on “Lola Olufemi | The problem with “accessible” feminism

  1. It isn’t that people find “clunky, complicated” feminism hard to stomach because they find it difficult or “inaccessible.” For the most part, we’re just sick and tired of people with massive chips on their shoulders laying into white, cis people with personal attacks because you dare question their orthodoxy. You have no right to claim to have complexity in your position if that “complexity” can’t deal with simple questions like “why should feminism criticize capitalism” without trundling into an ad-hominem filled, unintelligible, badly pseudo-Marxist rant that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of basic economics.

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  2. Thank you for your good words; I have felt this frequently in my own FemSoc as a non-binary person. I was wondering if you’d contribute a view on a difficult question I’ve been struggling with — engagement in feminist self-critique versus spoons and/or emotional energy. This has been a serious blockade to my reading as a mentally ill person and I have conflicting feelings on whether I should be forgiving of myself or pushing myself to unlearn my own harmful behaviours.

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