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“No Rent-A-Feminist”: An interview with Catherine Redfern from The F-Word (UK)

Girls and young women
Grassroots media in Europe
Internet & digital divide
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United Kingdom
51° 30' 0.5472" N, 0° 7' 34.4496" W

The F-Word: Contemporary UK Feminism is a phenomenally successful e-zine that has helped rejuvenate feminist networking in Britain and further afield. Red talked to founder Catherine Redfern about the site's history, emerging forms of feminist activism, and her exciting new book Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement, co-written with Kristin Aune (Zed Books, 2010).

You started The F-Word in 2001. What was your motivation?

I was trying to find out what feminist organizations, events and magazines were going on in the UK, but I couldn't find anything. At the same time I was reading American feminist websites and they were really interesting. They had articles, opinions – especially from younger women in their 20s and how they felt about feminism. I was moaning for ages to my partner, saying “Oh I should set up a website, that would be brilliant”. Then I got home one night and he said “I’ve bought you the URL. Just get on with it and stop moaning!” Which was really great! I wanted to make a platform for people who weren’t necessarily academics. Or were just interested in feminism, or wanted to say something.

Was this the same time you were discovering feminism for yourself?

I think I’ve always been a feminist. I was aware that Spare Rib [British women’s liberation magazine] existed since I was a teenager, but only because I got a second hand book. I had never actually seen Spare Rib or anything. There were a couple of books in the library at school when I was a teenager that were published by Spare Rib about being a girl, and they were really inspiring. I remember that I wrote to the address at the back of the book. “Hello, I’m a teenager. Is Spare Rib still published?” And by the time it wasn’t, so I had no response.

I don’t know what it is about moving to London, but I remember getting lots of feminist books from Oxfam bookshop. The Beauty Myth especially was a huge one. I was reading it on the tube, underlining bits and going “Wow! Yes! Yes!” So, it must have been just reading a lot more about feminism and thinking “What is going on actually”, as I hadn’t heard anything. It wasn’t obvious, it wasn’t easy to find.

Can you tell us more about the name "The F-Word"?

I saw it on the front cover of Bust magazine – it had Gloria Steinem with a T-shirt that said “The F-Word”. I thought that was a really clever name for a website because it implied that it was unfashionable and uncool. And also because it’s about words, so it’s about writing as well. In terms of our contributors, the majority of people are just ordinary people, they don’t write for a living. One time, we had an article from a ten year old girl, reviewing girls’ magazines. I never rejected any articles because I felt they weren’t professional enough.

What skills are involved in running The F-Word?

I don’t know if this is necessarily a skill, but I find it very hard to reach a decision around certain things. I often feel like I’m stuck on the fence as I can always see the other point of view. I always think if their viewpoint is reasonable then it should be given, accepted and listened to -- and if people decide to disagree with it. Maybe that’s a thing I have that naturally helped with The F-Word because I would accept a lot of different people’s views and think “I can see how that is a reasonable feminist argument”. And the opposite view would come up and I would be like “I can see how that is a reasonable feminist argument” (laughs). That has good and bad points. Because some people think that you should just pick a side.

When The F-Word started it was pitched as offering voices of young women. The scope then broadened to representing ‘contemporary feminism’, is that right?

At the beginning it was aimed at young feminists because I felt that was an unrepresented area. All the newspaper articles were saying there’s no young feminists anymore, so I thought it was really important to have a space for young feminists to say “We exist!” first of all, and to meet each other and share what we thought. And then as the site got bigger some people complained that prioritizing young women’s voices was exclusive and that the website should be open to everyone to contribute. So we had a massive consultation and there were lots of differing, opposing views. In the end I decided to make it open to everyone.

How did you have a consultation?

I posted an article about it and asked people to comment in. Then I posted some comments on either side of the argument and came to a decision at the end. That’s another thing that I am quite proud of: We’ve always asked for reader’s opinions whenever we’ve made any changes. This creates a sense of ownership, hopefully, by the feminist community. This can also lead to people being angry and critical of the site when they feel like it doesn’t fall in line with their view of feminism. But that’s good in a way because it shows that they feel like they have a stake in it as well, which is really nice.

What role does The F-Word play in UK feminist movements today?

Hopefully it’s a good source of news of what’s going on. The site tries to represent the feminist community. Not even to represent, but to provide a space for differences of opinion. I would like to think that it’s a place where people can put up more thoughtful explorations of issues rather than just getting into blog fights, which are more immediate and flare up, and seem very extreme and in the moment. When we have our features, people can think about things a bit more. It’s like publishing a magazine article really.

Do you see The F-Word as a form of activism?

I’ve become more of the viewpoint that it is activism, because what feminism is trying to do is to make people more open minded and accepting of diversity. You can’t do that through laws as it’s about changing people’s opinions and making them see the feminist way of looking at things, not the sexist way of looking at things. How you can change people’s opinions is by putting out arguments and pointing things out, saying “Look! Look! This is sexist”. People have written to The F-Word and said, “I wasn’t a feminist and now I think I am”. I think people should do what they’re drawn to do, in terms of activism, and they shouldn’t feel like they have to do anything. If they are really interested in writing, they should write, and so on.

Do you think younger feminists today have a different style or priority than different generations?

We’ve grown up in a different cultural environment. Since the 70s the world has got more commercial, and you have the whole thing of Naomi Klein, her book, No Logo, and the stuff she talks about in there about capitalism and companies getting involved in teaching and advertising everywhere you look, and celebrity culture. I think that’s why a lot of younger feminists are really interested in adverts and TV programmes and reviewing song lyrics, because that’s the sea we’re swimming in everyday. I guess that’s one of the main issues. And the sexualization of women and girls in culture as well.

Has The F-Word helped shaped your career?

It’s never been a career career. I’ve always had a totally unconnected job. The F-Word is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life so far. I’m really proud of it. If I wanted to become a well known feminist in the media, I had a lot of opportunities to do that. Because when you’re in that role you get a lot of emails saying “Come on our TV programme tomorrow”, do this, do that. But I didn’t actually want to do that, because I didn’t want to be a Rent-A-Feminist. Not that there is anything wrong with anyone who does do those things, not at all, but sometimes it feels that way to me! And I’m quite media shy as well, I like to be behind the scenes. Obviously I am writing this book now, and if I hadn’t done The F-Word there is no way I would have been able to do that. The F-Word was my qualification for being able to write a book.

Can you tell us more about your new book, Reclaiming the F Word?

It’s co-written with Kristin Aune, my friend from the London 3rd Wave group. The book is an overview of what issues are important to feminists today – a very broad range of topics, ranging from issues to do with the body (abortion, body image, childbirth, contraception, Female Genital Mutilation), all the way through to sex/sexuality and relationships, the workplace, the home, politics, religion, popular culture and finally feminism itself.

The issues that concern us today are not totally new issues. In fact some of the old issues have actually got a lot worse: the pressures on women to conform to beauty ideals are more extreme; the conviction rate for rape has reduced to appalling levels. The rights we thought we'd mostly won, like abortion, are increasingly under threat of being taken away.

But some issues are coming more to the forefront as the context we’re living in has changed. For example, we've also included feminism and religion in our book, since religion is increasingly a topic of public debate and religious women are routinely stereotyped and used in political debates. So we discuss religious and non-religious/athiest feminists and their activism. In the West we live in an increasingly commercialized environment than in the past. Climate change will affect women around the world in a very serious way; they're more likely to die in floods, for example. Globalization has meant that we need to consider working conditions of workers in factories (mostly women) that make clothes exported to the West, and we have the huge power of the global sex industry to contend with. Women's health globally is a huge issue; more women are infected with HIV in some countries and die in childbirth.

But we also highlight what feminists are doing, so half of the book is about activism. We’re not saying “These are the issues. Isn’t life awful”. We’re saying “Aren’t these feminists awesome and inspirational because they’re doing this stuff”. And we’ve done a survey of feminists with about 1,300 responses. We asked them loads of questions about themselves. I think it’s one of the biggest surveys of feminists that have been done. So we focused on the new forms of feminist activism that have come about in the last ten years, in terms of who we sent our survey to. But in terms of the book, it’s also trying to give a broader view of everything.

Can you say something about the new forms of feminist activism that have emerged over the past 10 years?

When we say they are ‘new’ we don’t necessarily mean that they are completely new, innovative ways of doing feminist activism. We are describing new groups, events and organizations that have formed, such as in the UK, London Feminist Network, FEM conferences, Ladyfest festivals, Million Women Rise marches, local groups (e.g. Sheffield Fems, Manifesta) etc.

Some of the things these groups - which we are calling ‘new’ groups – are doing, is in fact reinventions of older forms. The reinvention of the Reclaim The Night marches is an example of that. Recently I had a conversation with a younger feminist from the London Feminist Network who wanted to set up a traditional consciousness-raising group. So there is a definite interest in using ways of working from the past.

However, having said that, we also have new formats in which this networking and activism takes place. The major one is the internet. Although it’s important to recognize of course that not everyone has access to the internet, and that’s a major form of exclusion for some people, it has been a really important factor in the resurgence of feminism that we’re seeing now. It means we can network very quickly and ideas are shared with a greater number of people. I think that the internet can - and is - acting as a form of consciousness-raising. We see it in the emails we get from people who feel like their eyes have been opened after reading blogs and feminist websites like ours. So we have feminist blogs on every conceivable topic such as Muslimah Media Watch, Feminists With Disabilities, feminist science fiction, feminist dads, feminist music geeks, sceptical feminism…. so I guess it’s the element of self-publishing and reaching a larger audience for issues and points of view that might not get picked up on in the mainstream media.

Can I ask about the process of writing? As two people writing, how do you do that?

We have a topic per chapter. And then we split that chapter in half and each write a bit, so one would write about the activist side and one about the issues. And then we’d swap them over and make amendments. That tends to work better than each doing a chapter on our own because it gets too big and you get really bogged down in it all. So we just keep swapping backwards and forwards and tweaking each other. Then it gradually smoothes out so it reads seamlessly. Kristin is really great to work with. Hopefully we complement each other.

The F-Word is massively popular right now. Do you think mainstream media are also taking feminist issues on board?

Some of them. But there were still articles this year saying, “Young women don’t care about feminism. We asked a few young women who passed us in the street and they didn’t care”. But did they ever ask older women who passed them in the street? You never have an article going “Older women don’t care about feminism”. They just assume that older women were feminists; like 99 % were feminists and 1 % of younger women are feminists. It’s weird. There’s a mixture of ages involved in feminism, and especially in the newer forms, younger women are driving that forward.

Why do you think there's an invisibility of younger feminists in the public sphere?

It might be because the media have this stereotype of what a feminist is. If you match that stereotype then they dismiss you because you match the stereotype. If you don’t match the stereotype then they dismiss you because you don’t match the stereotype. So you can’t win. They have this assumption that young women don’t care, that they’re apathetic. You get that story all over the place. But our research shows that younger feminists are really active in feminism. We hope to put an end to that stereotype once and for all!

Thanks for the interview Catherine. Please support these awesome ladies by picking up a copy of their book!

Catherine Redfern
Red Chidgey
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