Feminist Infighting poster

For the sake of argument

By Charlotte Raven

“The old Spare Rib ended in an argument – and the new one is beginning with one.”

My daughter Anna always argues back, but she was shocked by the Spare Rib founders arguing about the dots and commas of my proposals for a relaunch. She wondered why they couldn’t help me out, instead of arguing.

I’ve always enjoyed a nice knock-down argument, until recently. By slow increments, I’ve become less attached to arguing and more likely to find myself in the unfamiliar position of being the one thinking: ‘why can’t we just behave like grown ups, and respect each other’s points of view?’

I can’t listen to more than ten minutes of the Today programme before stressing out. I used to love the macho cut and thrust of commons debates, and think it was wimpy of women to complain that they felt excluded. Now I am convinced that this ritualized form of engagement is anti-democratic.

When I was going out with Julie Burchill I wouldn’t debate capital punishment, despite being goaded repeatedly, “what would you do with Hitler then?”

These days it is Twitter I am terrified of.  I don’t want to get into an argument about the finer points of feminist theory with Rod Liddle. Or engage with people who consider their bigotry and hatred a well thought through argument. Why do so many high profile feminists seem to relish twitter spats? And how do they have time between writing, campaigning and looking after the kids to come up with 140 character rebukes to their detractors?

Could I extend this arguing moratorium into my professional life whilst launching a new feminist magazine? Are feminists addicted to arguing?

My deputy editor thinks the idea that that all women teams always turn on each other, like they do on The Apprentice is a myth. (I reminded her that leading her feminist choir had been no picnic). I am not so sure.

Caroline’s Criado Perez’s statement about the reasons for resigning from Twitter is a panagyric to arguing. In many more than 140 characters, she argues with the twitter trolls and the people who presumed to advise her. It is a cri de couer – she knows that arguing with her detractors has fucked up her head, but can’t stop herself from having the last word.

I know what this feels like. During the dispute with the Spare Rib founders, I kept trying to draw a line under it, but only succeeded in stoking it up.  It was an argument without end, conducted by email in the first instance, than with lawyers.  I wanted to convince them that I was a worthy heir of their magazine, the more passionately I argued my case, the more alienated and angry they seemed.

I read an old piece about feminists ‘trashing’ each other that was published in Ms magazine in 1967. The author had never imagined speaking publicly about her experiences, as “I am a firm believer in not moving the movement’s dirty linen in public.”

I was worried that talking about this would create a pleasing spectacle for the anti-feminist forces massed at Derry Street. The Daily Mail loves nothing more than a feminist catfight. Julie Burchill is also a big fan and always makes sure she’s got a ringside seat; her suggestion for our new name was ‘Catfight.’

Trashing is a form of character assassination – an argument against your very being.  Ms Magazine concluded that the people most likely to be trashed were strong characters, accused of being male identified, who were neither maternal nor in need of mothering.

“You are immediately labeled a thrill-seeking opportunist, a ruthless mercenary, out to make her fame and fortune over the dead bodies of selfless sisters who have buried their abilities and sacrificed their ambitions for the greater glory of Feminism. Productivity seems to be the major crime – but if you have the misfortune of being outspoken and articulate, you are also accused of being power-mad, elitist, fascist, and finally the worst epithet of all: a male-identifier.”

Trashing hasn’t gone away; years after the Ms article appeared, I was having a long conversation with one of my feminist friends at Glasonbury. She empathized with me about my Marsha and Rosie problem – she had extensive experience of being trashed by feminist colleagues and the attacks were invariably cloaked in the rhetoric of honest confrontation.

Now Feminist Times is a reality, how can we avoid this phenomenon of Feminist Trashing? Paradoxically, the more successful we are the more likely it is that we’ll be trashed. So maybe it makes more sense to weather it.

I wish for a thicker skin. More realistically, I will try to neutralize the trashers by not arguing back. I don’t want Feminist Times going down in history as another feminist exploit destroyed by feminists.

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11 thoughts on “For the sake of argument

  1. Cindy

    I have seen a lot of valid arguing among feminists on Twitter, much of it because feminism is so (and has a history of being) so racist and exclusionary. Many have written in detail about the racism and that idea of certain groups of women should not speak up because of perceived damage to the “movement.” The damage is already done with the racism and transphobia (among other problems that are frequently pointed out). Perpetuating the idea that the arguing is damaging or not valid concerns me about the aim of your site. Hope you read up on these issues, if you haven’t already.

  2. Caroline Rose

    So for the sake of not providing sexists, misogynists and anti-feminists proof that feminists are free-thinking individuals and not one big blobby mass sharing a single brain cell, argument is to be avoided?

    I have some other questions for you:

    Would this also include debate, discussion, disagreement and critique?

    How can you discourage argument for the reasons you give without appearing to be censoring by means of a sort of emotional blackmail?

    Should the women’s movement be at all concerned about the Daily Mail’s opinion of feminism?

    And lastly, could labelling debate/discussion/argument among women as ‘cat-fights’ possibly be considered as sexist?

  3. Alison Clarke

    I sympathise with you Charlotte and am curious about the two comments that your piece has so far elicited. To my mind your article was a cry for constructive debate and an end to infighting. Yet the comments seem to have interpreted what you wrote as an attempt to avoid debate/disagreement – the two are completely different things.

    I’ve been around the women’s movement for a long time (I’m 60 next year) and I too have concerns that Feminist Times will be pulled apart by feminists. I think that being aware of the danger will hopefully mean that this fantastic project might actually succeed. Good for you, I say.

  4. Cerinthe

    The other possibility is that the Spare Rib founders might have had a point.

    Spare Rib described itself as the magazine of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It was unashamedly political, examining women’s political situation, and working for women’s interests and freedom.

    This magazine, at least in its first inception, doesn’t appear to have that ambition. Publishing articles defending porn usage or lads mags or using the guise of “taboo” to broadcast blatant misogyny, isn’t in the spirit of Spare Rib. In fact you could argue it is in opposition to what Spare Rib and its readers were working to achieve. So maybe the founders recognised the direction this project was heading, and wanted to keep their original title as far out of it as possible. They had the right to defend their magazine, given they created it and spent years working for it and developing it. It’s a shame you and your daughter don’t respect that basic level of guardianship the Spare Rib founders felt obliged to undertake.

    So if it is the case they were right not to get involved, the discussion becomes more complex than simply feminist infighting. Instead questions arise about what our movement is for, what are our aims, and are politics even something feminists want to engage in any longer. Does a magazine with feminist in the title actually need to work for the political interests of women? It’s understandable to feel attacked when a project you are passionate about is criticised, but there remains the possibility that the criticisms aren’t wrong.

  5. Shona Craven

    Charlotte, I am glad you wrote this piece and am disappointed by the comments. I certainly didn’t interpret your message as arguing=bad, and sympathise with your efforts to spark constructive debate on a broad range of topics. You cannot please all of the people all of the time (and I imagine those who approve of what you’re doing are less likely to sound off in the comments sections, which may give a false and dispriting impression of how things are being received).

    I unsubscribed from a local feminist Facebook group recently because almost every post, regardless of topic, prompted a mud-slinging fight among the members. The ill-feeling seemed to stem from an accusation of transphobia, but I couldn’t get anyone to explain to me exactly what had prompted all the bad feeling. The whole thing seemed like a huge waste of energy, and frankly a bit of an embarrassment.

    I disagree with the commenter who suggested the women’s movement shouldn’t be concerned with the Daily Mail view. Many, many women read the Daily Mail, so rather than accepting feminism as some kind of in-fighting eternal fringe movement perhaps we should be aiming to attract women away from Mail Online and towards this site, instead of becoming easy targets for sneering articles that risk convincing them there’s nothing relevant to them here.

  6. Freddi Greenmantle

    thick skin needed, and an understanding that argument is a seductive tempt
    ing waste of time. Our words are powerful and will be heard, even if we whisper. The women’s voice will be clearer now, we do not need to shout, …becoming embroiled in petty word-fighting will just result in loss of our energy which we do need to be able fight the real injustice in the world and on our doorstep.

  7. Ramiie

    Why shouldn’t porn usage discussed openly by feminists. Porn is a key feminist issue. Women use porn. Its a fact. They use it as consumers and creators. Not all do it voluntarily, but a jobs a job. No one wants to grow up to be a street cleaner..but do they (street cleaners) not do a vital function in society, and are paid well for it? And they are valued by millions who see intrinsic worth in what they do.

    Feminism next big step is to take the bible..that patriachial tool- out of women’s sexual business.

  8. Chloe Dawson

    There’s a lot of pettiness in feminism and a lot of policing of one another – calling each other out for showing too much privilege or whatever. There are ‘rules’ for debating online that you can learn – keep it short and sharp, don’t get personal, laugh at trolls and know when to step out. You also have to enjoy the cut and thrust a bit. If not, it’s best not to maintain a dignified silence and not get drawn into it.

  9. taris

    Feedback from Cerinthe…I really appreciated this comment.
    I avidly bought Spare Rib and was distraught when it ended. However with hindsight I would rather a good thing ended than that what it stood for be corrupted.
    Actually one of the wonderful things about the 80′s Women’s Movement was the diversity…you could be a socialist feminist, a revolutionary feminist, a separatist feminist, a lesbian feminist. Can other women remind me of the other categories that emerged? An anti nuclear feminist, a black feminist, a working class femininist. It all seemed to be about budding. From its academic core and starting point of call to join, from wherever we were, so many women did just that and we came together at International Conferences in London (which brilliantly seem to be happening now along more regional bases). Many of us had vastly different perspectives from the outset. Mine changed enormously through listening to the polemics. I was so grateful for the sharing which went on and the delighting in the experience of women-led and women only activities. It was the power of separatism which seemed to be the greatest strength of the Women’s Movement then that seems to be a little absent now perhaps. The Meets not Tweets might help to bring opportunities for the ‘consciousness-raising experience’? – so central to the Movement and where we came to understand one another. For one thing the assertion of separatism got men really anxious, concerned even, and WANTING to be helpful even insistent on doing the washing up!! It also seemed to be the best way to get male attention (if that interested you) as the more men were sidelined the more they wanted to try and get in…bit like horse herds…the anti-social ones temporarily excluded because of their behaviour being the ones most anxious to adjust appropriately inorder to be accepted.
    I would love to hear contributions from collective members of Spare Rib who might feel moved to comment on their experience of spearheading and reflecting the Women’d Movement at that time and what values women writing then would like to see going forward.

  10. Julia

    Re trashing, I find it fascinating to hear your U.K. perspective. I was trashed when I was working hard for a feminist newspaper in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. Jo Freeman (aka Joreen) who wrote the trashing article in Ms. around 1976 made 3 points re feminist trashing. First, in a recent interview that trashing is how women traditionally argue who are teenagers/20s. Freeman said teenage boys/young men fight with their fists while teenager girls/young women fight via trashing, so 1960s/1970s women carried over the traditional method of trashing as a method of conflict within groups. Second, in her 1976 article Freeman analyzes trashing happens in socalled radical groups with “structurelessness” and fuzzy long-range objectives as “feminist revolution’ (liberal feminist groups with elected officers and limited reform objectives don’t seem to trash). Third, other women have analyzed that trashing happens when women get no/little rewards monetary or other for hard work. This triple analysis seems to make sense, and one can build a social structure of a feminist group to limit trashing (i.e. fair play rules). Further, I think that women traditionally do “trash” to gain power in a women’s group and to isolate “threats,” so one can psychologically protect oneself. Also I don’t do Twitter though I recognize how feminists have been using it against Robin Thicke brilliantly. Good luck with your magazine.


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