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There are two images from the 2017 global Women’s Marches that stay with me. One, from Athens, focuses on two women holding placards that say: “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance” and “We the People are Greater Than Fear”. The women’s expressions have a quality of restrained but unsurprised anger and grief. Here we are again, they seem to silently say. It’s hardly surprising. For Greek women, this was their third major demonstration of recent years.
The 2008 killing of a 15-year-old Athens student by policemen triggered widespread protests, the underlying causes of which were the global economic crisis, unemployment, disaffected youth, and corruption. The country’s debt crisis two years later led to demonstrations and riots over the government’s planned austerity measures. And this year, Greek women were among a staggering five million people in around six hundred cities who took to the streets to advocate for a broad range of human rights and other issues after the election of US President Donald Trump.
Collective activism of this sort typically follows a catalyst such as a change in government, a radical shift in social or environmental policy, some grave injustice or, as in the case of Greece, a tragic death, which punctures the smooth surface of society, allowing the release of pent-up disquiet, resentment, and anger. Individual activism comes from a different place, often a personal connection. It is as complex as it is various, its history – especially in the late 19th and early 20th century – peppered with extraordinary, visionary, and courageous women.
Political activist and leader of the suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, for instance, was instrumental in the fight for women’s voting rights in Britain in the early 20th century.
Another notable troublemaker of the era, Emma Goldman, wrote on anarchist philosophy, women’s rights and social issues, frequently lecturing to thousands. Born in Russia, she emigrated to the US at age 16, was imprisoned for her political activities, deported to Russia, and even travelled to Spain to support their anarchist revolution. That’s living life large.
While Pankhurst came from a comfortable merchant family, Goldman escaped poverty, an unhappy marriage, and perilous circumstances to be heard. Theirs was a time of social engagement, when reading and attending salons where ideas were discussed were important entertainments.
The seductive and highly developed consumer machine of the 20th century and beyond has significantly reduced the space for such women as well as our interest in their causes. Consumerism affects us personally through its focus on appearance, possessions, and competition, and collectively through its ubiquity and its dilution of social, political, and environmental messages. It’s a pattern that can be seen repeating itself throughout the modern era. For instance, the protest music of the 1960s was quickly transmuted into a sound and ‘look’ (tie-dyed clothing, beads and fringes anyone?) that could be separated from the well of thought and feeling that brought them to life.
But how does the consumer machine benefit from this? Although the fashion world might aim to use their platform to make a socio-political point, it’s a more complicated equation than they might imagine. Consciously or not, they are appropriating some of the edginess and energy of a movement to nuance a brand or product and so broaden their commercial appeal. Gradually, the original message becomes so diluted as to be all but invisible, the product eventually standing in for the idea of action: a symbol empty of substance.
This churning cycle of activism and commercial appropriation is already happening in the wake of the Women’s Marches, with some designers at New York Fashion Week this year emblazoning clothing with slogans such as ‘Girls just want to have fundamental rights’, or revealing new designer ‘pussy’ hats at Milan Fashion Week. The risk is that wearing such products allows the consumer to feel connected to a movement while doing nothing.
Now more than ever we need to be involved. Despite the 20th century being seen as a time of advancement, numerous problems persist: inequality, violence against women, and environmental destruction are becoming more prevalent, social services and labour laws are deteriorating, and most economies were worse off in 2000 than in 1980, writes Francisca de Haan in her book Women’s Activism. From fracking to freedom of speech, education to the environment, there is no shortage of issues where action can make a difference.
Most of us lead such busy and pressured lives that the thought of adding more to the load can feel exhausting. But it turns out that activism has a personal as well as a community benefit. Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that people are inherently political, and that active involvement in society fulfills a basic human need. Studies by psychologists Malte Klar and Tim Kasser in Political Psychology seem to back this up, with people who take action reporting higher levels of personal wellbeing, greater life satisfaction, and more “freedom, competence, and connection to others”. Activism seems to promote mental health.
It means looking beyond ourselves, observing the world around us, and taking action where and when we can. That involvement might occur through lobbying – letters, phone calls, petitions – or marching, performing, organising, or going on strike. There are almost as many reasons for being involved as there are causes. But at their root the common theme is that engagement matters, that it comes from and leads to a sense of connection, responsibility to each other and our planet, and a desire to live with hope rather than helplessness.
And that other Women’s March image that I think of? It shows a gaggle of pink-hatted women of seventy or so standing in a circle, checking their phones, laughing and talking, ferocious with life and caring. They have more energy and collective purpose than any fashionista with a million social media followers. More than 150 years ago celebrated author Herman Melville observed: “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibres connect us with our fellow men.” It’s as true today as it was then.
Perhaps, instead of thinking of activism as something occasional, each of us needs to let loose our inner troublemaker, building action into our daily lives instead of leaving it for times of crisis – to believe, as American novelist Alice Walker does, that “activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet”.