Gender is complicated by race and class
Few of feminism’s ideals have been reached, writes Helen Grange
FEMINISM is a loaded word, and for women of my generation, it conjures up a cobweb of emotions linked to the many calls to action that have been acted on, but just as many that have not. Stretching back to women’s rights to vote for reproductive rights through to the call for equal opportunity and pay in the workplace, feminism for me is referenced in Western social history, but experienced in a country where very few of its ideals have been reached, far less so for women less privileged than me.
So this book is important, not only to get an understanding of what feminism actually means in the modern context (and believe me, your eyes will be opened), but also to appreciate, as veteran journalist-editor Ferial Haffajee observes in her contribution, “there is a long road to freedom, given that one in two South Africans lives in poverty, and that most of those compatriots are black women.”
That said, I found a big chunk of this book quite inaccessible to the reader, falling into that old feminism trap of navel gazing and being overly intellectual, with some of the contributions making no headway at all on the all important question: what is the path forward for women living in a patriarchal society?
The anecdotal stories of growing up in a South Africa that is changing shape slowly to conform to global gender standards are the most valuable and compelling reads, and that’s where my interest was naturally engaged. Predictably, these tend to be the contributions of professional storytellers (journalists) rather than those with an academic bent, and there are enough of them to make this book a good buy.
Haffajee, for one, talks about the “triple burden” of being born black, a woman, and working class in apartheid South Africa, relating it to her own mother Ayesha, who raised her family in Bosmont, west of Johannesburg.
“It refers to the unending day of the working-class woman, caught in the bind of apartheid capitalism’s cruel structure of low wages, apartheid group areas that required extended commutes to work and back, and patriarchy ... She had dreamed of being an accountant or a doctor, and had the acumen to do either, but the three systems as experienced by our family did not allow it.”
Haffajee learnt her feminism from icons like Lilian Ngoyi, Frene Ginwala, Winnie Mandela, Helen Joseph, Charlotte Maxeke, Lydia Kompe, Aninka Claassens, Pregs Govender, Miriam Makeba.
Today, feminism is expressed and shaped by a younger generation, who she admits, “sometimes make me profoundly uneasy.”
“I’ve landed on their wrong side – when I questioned where the non-racialism was in a #BlackWomenOnly movement, I got scalded by the shade visited on me on social media.
“Sometimes I find the language of the new feminism alienating in how insider and intellectual it is compared with the more embracing, experiential feminism I grew up in.”
Well said. This problem is reiterated in a different way by Nomalanga Mkhize, a history lecturer in the Eastern Cape. “I have a suspicion that ‘feminism’, as a political term and as a framework for theorising, has largely become a preoccupation of the contemporary global literati scene, with very little political value and practical purchase beyond the literati publics,” she writes.
Thus the realities of everyday women are not grappled with, and I get the sense that in most of these writers is a yearning for something that replaces ‘feminism’ and excises its less relevant thinking. This is particularly the case among black women, who are justifiably angry, much angrier than their white counterparts.
For Owethu Makhatini, businesswoman, writer and speaker, the vehicle that best expresses her feminism is “womanism”, which she explains is just for black women.
“Black women face the double whammy of racism and sexism on a daily basis. This makes it necessary to question traditionally white feminism as a default, and to define what blackness and womanhood mean outside of this,” she writes, adding that “womanism as a lived practice means a constant, almost daily unlearning of internalised misogyny, racism, sexism and respectability politics.”
Hearteningly, white feminist and journalist Rebecca Davis is on the same page. As Davis notes, it’s now broadly accepted that one cannot address gender in South Africa without also addressing race and class. Which of course “drastically complicates” feminism as a political movement in South Africa.
“I have long wondered whether it is possible, or even desirable, to talk of a coherent feminist movement in a country like South Africa. When my prospects as a white woman are still so much more favourable than those of a black man, what does feminism mean?” she says, making example of the gender pay gap which in South Africa tends to be more about pay disparity based on racial lines than a “gender gap” per se.
So again, where to from here? You’ll find the conversations and musings in this book food for deep thought, and if nothing else, they will show you how important it is to consider this question.
In most of these writings is a yearning for something that replaces ‘feminism’ and excises its less relevant thinking.
Feminism: South Africans Speak their Truth Edited by Jen Thorpe (Kwela Books)