Welcome to my first post for The Hand Mirror! I thought I’d start by interviewing feminist mental health worker and fellow new THM blogger Ruthie_A
First things first: You’re a feminist. What does that mean?
Simply put I think it means liberation.
How did you become a feminist?
My parents were always quite left leaning, so I think I always sort of loosely identified as a feminist for as long as I could remember. Feminism is something I learnt by doing, by placing the importance of people’s personal narratives in the context of societal oppression.
Is there any particular experience that made you a feminist or shaped your ideas about gender?
Turning 13 and hitting puberty. It sounds weird but I pinpoint that as the moment when I started being subjected to a level of scrutiny based on my gender that I had never really witnessed before. I went from being treated like a child to having strangers tell me that most girls my age shave/wear these things/behave that way. I felt like living in a woman’s body meant that I was no longer a person, I was just public property. I had to perform my gender role in these ways or face a barrage of comments about how I’m not doing what ‘most girls’ should and how tragic that apparently was. So I dyed my hair, pierced my nose and read The Beauty Myth. The rest I guess is history.
So Naomi Wolf was a big influence? Are there any other people who influenced your feminist thinking?
She was. Later it was people like Emma Goldman, Judith Butler, Angela Davis and bell hooks. I think a lot of writers like Ursula Le Guin, Sylvia Plath and Margaret Atwood helped. My influences are very typical of women in my generation. Along with philosophers and public intellectuals, I had an array of fictional characters like Buffy and Tank Girl—not to mention, the 90s was an exciting time for women in music, from riot grrrl to more mainstream acts like Meredith Brooks. I think these all helped shape me. Who I look to for inspiration is constantly changing as well.
It’s interesting that fiction writers and fictional characters were such big influences. Why do you think that is?
I’ve always challenged the view that reading non-fiction is somehow the only way a person can learn about social problems. There have definitely been works of fiction that have challenged and changed society’s view, such as To Kill a Mocking Bird, 1984, and everything else they would teach you in high school. I think a lot of theory can be quite inaccessible to people and it is very dry. If fiction can teach people about feminism then so be it. Science fiction was a huge influence on me; I think it has always been able to present problems faced in today’s world in a way that is very imaginative and seems less challenging to people.
This isn’t to say we should disregard theory altogether, but I do feel that has always been a big issue that people wanting to know more about feminism face: if it’s not ‘where do I start?’, it’s ‘what does this all mean anyway?’
You’re also an anarchist—What does that mean, and what does it have to do with feminism?
Everything. Anarchism is a fight for freedom and a fight against oppression that naturally includes the fight against patriarchy. Feminism without anarchism has an internal logic to it. Anarchism without feminism makes absolutely no sense.
Do you think there are particular lessons that feminists can learn from anarchist philosophy?
Absolutely. I think one of the biggest lessons that feminists can learn from anarchist philosophy is that all oppression does intersect and we can’t liberate just one group of people without including others. Anarchist philosophy also stands against the economic oppression of capitalism—I think anti-capitalist thought is very important to feminism because our oppression is deeply chained to capitalism, by way of wage slavery devaluing women’s labour, and a denial of bodily autonomy.
Tell us about some of the feminist projects have you been involved in.
Slutwalk, street outreach work with NZPC, speaking at CLITfest, organising anarcha-feminist hui and women’s self defence workshops. Also I argue with dudebros on the internet. I’m constantly plotting things I could do to strengthen feminist movement within social justice communities—for example I’m thinking of organising public speaking workshops for people whose voices are usually marginalised: transwomen, people of colour, and women (who are not often granted a speaking platform in the social justice movement).
Slutwalk evoked very mixed reactions from women—what do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of it?
I think it’s really important that we have a platform that questions rape culture, that holds perpetrators accountable, and also resists this toxic discourse about women’s sexuality. However I think that slutwalk only spoke for and to a very small number of women, who were predominantly cis, white, able-bodied women.
You’re very outspoken about fighting discrimination against people with mental illnesses. Do you see this as a feminist issue? How so?
It is most definitely a feminist issue. There are a lot of ways that mental illness is specifically gendered. The concept of the ‘hysterical banshee’ who cries without context is still very relevant to how we perceive women in mental distress. For example, stigma against people with borderline personality disorder (a diagnosis predominantly given to women), which you don’t see about diagnoses that are coded as more masculine—for example, John Kirwan and depression.
Other big issues that I have noticed include the recent case with Hugo Schwyzer and his mental health being a big issue with accountability to his abusive past. People fail to see the massive double-standard between a man who’s abusive using a mental illness as a get out of jail free card, and women, often survivors of abuse, who are silenced and disregarded as ‘crazy’.
There’s also a history of the DSM being used as a political weapon against dissenting voices—for example suffragettes and Malcolm X.
You’re also a skeptic. What does that mean? How does skepticism relate to feminism? How do you respond to sexism in the skeptic community?
Being a skeptic means you should be asking questions more than providing answers. It means resisting false dichotomies and questioning what we hold as truths in society. Skepticism isn’t inherently feminist, or not feminist, but can be an important tool for feminist thought—skepticism can call into question the gender essentialism that unfortunately some medical professionals, scientists and religious oligarchies still put forth. Sexism in the skeptic community is a big reason why I still distance myself from that community—I think this happens when you make an issue like skepticism and atheism your sole platform for social change, without giving much thought into the whys, whos, and hows. It’s not just the sexism I take issue with; I believe there are some very problematic white saviour complexes among a lot of skeptics— but that’s another blog post for another time.
What do you think are the primary issues that feminists in Aotearoa face?
I believe that welfare reform is a feminist issue—because of the DPB, but also because women are facing funding cuts affecting access to important services such as healthcare, mental healthcare, support for rape & abuse survivors, and counseling for the LGBTQ community. It’s also very important that we acknowledge the difficulties faced by workers in these services—jobs dominated by working-class women, whose value is consistently undermined by these cutbacks, and who constantly face losing their jobs. Supporting the rights of workers in caregiving industries means supporting quality of care for service users as well.
What can we look forward to reading from you?