Nine Women Who Activated My Feminism

In honour of National Women’s Day, I wanted to write something moving and empowering. I wanted to write a piece reflecting on those women who raised their voices against injustice 64 years ago, and those who continue the fight against oppression today.

All I could muster was a sigh into the silence.

Today we are supposed to remember women in action: the beat of more than 20,000 feet marching toward the Union Buildings, the vision of women standing together in solidarity, the rallying cry of Wathint’abafazi, wathint’imbokodo. But how are we to bring this history into focus when our present moment is distorted by screams? How are we to echo the timeless words of protest when they conjure up memories of our bruised and bloodied bodies? It is a brutal irony, of course, that our protest song threatens the abuser with death, uza kufa!, while so many of these murderers walk free. Because we are not rocks, however much we wish we were. When we are beaten, we cry out. We bleed. We die.

Stricken by grief at the endless reports of gender-based violence over the past few months, I found myself turning (as always) to my books. And while they couldn’t give me satisfactory answers to my questions, they did manage to remind me that silence does not serve me. Here, the words of Audre Lorde cascaded through me and disrupted my fear: “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” When I went back to reread her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, another assertion jumped out at me:

And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognise our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, p. 43

For Women’s Day, then, I am taking on this responsibility: To read. To share. To examine the words of others in their pertinence to my life.

These are the women who have torn down the walls of my comfort zone and demanded that I confront the world beyond. They are women who have inspired and motivated me to reach further, speak louder, stand taller, dream fiercer. They are women whose writing has challenged me down to my very core, whose words have set alight the dry tinder there, whose voices have stirred up raging flames that flicker beneath my skin and sear my tongue and light up the darkness behind my eyes.

These are the women who move me to action. I hope some of them move you, too.


09


Caitlin Moran

…who didn’t teach me how to be a feminist, but did teach me how to be a loud, rude feminist that takes up space and stands on tables and WRITES IN ALL CAPS and swears and doesn’t take shit from men.

“Because the purpose of feminism isn’t to make a particular type of woman. The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right ‘types’ of women is what’s screwed feminism for so long – this belief that ‘we’ wouldn’t accept slaggy birds, dim birds, birds that bitch, birds that hire cleaners, birds that stay at home with their kids, birds that have pink Mini Metros with ‘Powered By Fairy Dust!’ bumper stickers, birds in burkas, or birds that like to pretend, in their heads, that they’re married to Zach Braff from Scrubs, and that you sometimes have sex in an ambulance while the rest of the cast watch and, latterly, clap. You know what? Feminism will have all of you.” (How To Be a Woman)


08


Roxane Gay

…who introduced me to the concept of intersectionality and helped me realise that white women doing the bare minimum in writing about race (*cough* The Help *cough*) is nowhere near “bravery”, let alone an accomplishment.

“It surprises me, though it shouldn’t, how short the memories of these politicians are. They forget the brutal lengths women have gone to in order to terminate pregnancies when abortion was illegal or when abortion is unaffordable. […] Women have historically resorted to any means necessary. Women will do this again if we are backed into that terrible corner. This is the responsibility our society has forced on women for hundreds of years. It is a small miracle women do not have short memories about our rights that have always, shamefully, been alienable.” (Bad Feminist)


07


Emily Dickinson

…whose poetry showed me just how powerful words can be, even when the shapes they take seem simplistic.

“But the world is sleeping in ignorance and error, sir, and we must be crowing cocks, and singing larks, and a rising sun to awake her; or else we’ll pull society up to the roots, and plant it in a different place.” (Selected Letters)

"A word is dead
When it is said,
    Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
    That day."

06


Meg Cabot

…who was the reason I fell in love with reading as a shy nine-year-old, and who later showed me that even princesses can write erotica if they want to (shout out to The Princess Diaries, the first book I ever got autographed with my dad grinning beside me, and Ransom My Heart, the first book that made my dad turn bright red when I asked him to buy it for me).

“‘Do one thing every day that frightens you,’ Princess Mia advised her audience. ‘And never think that you can’t make a difference. Even if you’re only sixteen, and everyone is telling you that you’re just a silly teenage girl – don’t let them push you away.'” (Princess Mia)


05


bell hooks

…who taught me the phrase “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”, as well as how to examine my internalised biases, how to tug them up by the roots, and how to plant in their place seeds of compassion, respect, responsibility, knowledge and love.

“I am passionate about everything in my life – first and foremost, passionate about ideas. And that’s a dangerous person to be in this society, not just because I’m a woman, but because it’s such a fundamentally anti-intellectual, anti-critical thinking society.” (Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies)


04


Margaret Atwood

…who showed me that just one voice can destabilise entire historical narratives, and who argues that hope is present even in the most dire situations.

“A word after a word after a word is power.” (The Handmaid’s Tale)


03


Jane Eyre (and, by extension, Charlotte Brontë)

…who was the first character to show me exactly how to leave any space that threatens my integrity and my independence.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.” (Jane Eyre)


02


Toni Morrison

…whose writing has fundamentally changed the way I read, and who challenged me to read beyond myself.

“Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.” (Nobel Lecture)


01


N. K. Jemisin

…whose writing shattered everything I thought I knew about this world; who pushed my imagination to its absolute limits, then further; who wove characters into being and set them loose to haunt my mind and pick at my own narratives.

“But there are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors. They conjure phantoms endlessly, terrified that their victims will someday do back what was done to them – even if, in truth, their victims couldn’t care less about such pettiness and have moved on. Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky. (The Stone Sky)

So here is why I write what I do: We all have futures. We all have pasts. We all have stories. And we all, every single one of us, no matter who we are and no matter what’s been taken from us or what poison we’ve internalised or how hard we’ve had to work to expel it –

– we all get to dream.

N. K. Jemisin

Honourable Mentions

{Kopano Matlwa; Tomi Adeyemi; Angie Thomas; Judith Butler; Margie Orford; Nnedi Okorafor; Octavia Butler; Jhumpa Lahiri; Tsitsi Dangarembga; Nadifa Mohamed; Maaza Mengiste; Audre Lorde}

More Women I Hope To Add To This List In The Future

(Because my reading continually illuminates areas I have overlooked. In particular, this women’s month I am making a concerted effort to read critical literature and popular fiction by trans women of colour and latinx authors. Feel free to leave reading suggestions in the comments below.)

{Julia Serano; Imogen Binnie; Mia McKenzie; Susan Stryker; Janet Mock; Jeanne Cordóva; Gabby Rivera}

4 thoughts on “Nine Women Who Activated My Feminism

  1. Such a wonderful article, I have read some of these women’s works and I look forward to reading the others you have mentioned. Here’s to kick-ass feminism and beyond.

    Liked by 1 person

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