An interview with Natasha Walter
Q. Could you begin by telling us how you became interested in feminism and women’s rights? Were these concerns you grew up with?
I definitely grew up with feminism. My mother was a feminist so I remember the copies of Spare Rib at home and so on, and she went to Greenham. I’m sure it’s fairly typical that if your mother was interested in feminism you’re not necessarily that interested yourself at an early age because you need to go on your own journey. So I wasn’t necessarily that interested or involved at an early age and, though when I was studying here at Cambridge and Harvard I did bring in some feminist themes and look at some feminist writers, I can’t say that it was necessarily my full passion at that time. I was really more awakened to feminism when I left university and I went out into the working world and I was then very alerted to the very basic inequalities that still exist and so I think my first book, The New Feminism, was very much the book of somebody who’d grown up in quite a privileged way and then was trying to think about why these really grinding inequalities still exist and what we still have to put in place to get to a position of equality. It was quite a hopeful and optimistic book, and then I wrote Living Dolls out of a sense of real anger and ‘where is this equality’ that I thought we were moving towards. So it’s been a journey for me, my feminism.
Q. So when you went to graduate school in the U.S. you weren’t reading the American feminist writers whose work was then emerging?
Thinking back now, I was. I did quite a lot of film studies when I was at Harvard and I was very interested in a lot of the arguments that were erupting at the time about the male gaze and how to resist that. So I was interested but I think that when I left university I didn’t necessarily see it’s relevance and it took me some time to re-embed it.
Q. Do you think that universities can in a sense be a bit of a cocoon from some of these issues?
I really think that. I’ve obviously moved away from academic feminism. If I’m honest, coming back for this week feels quite challenging for me because I haven’t been in this environment and I haven’t had discussions much with academic feminists or about theory, so it’s quite a challenge and I’m quite excited by it; about considering how the experience that I’ve been having now over the last few years fit with the discussions that are going on in the academy.
Q. You touch there on a point about the relationship between theory and practice. At their best, theory and practice inform and fine-tune each other, or the one might challenge and urge a rethinking of the other. As an activist and writer, what has been your experience of the dynamic between theory and activism?
I think it’s a really interesting question and one I’ve been thinking about in the run-up to this week because obviously there is no real dividing line between theory and practice because what we think informs what we do and what we do absolutely informs what we think. There’s no break between what I think and what I do; these things are absolutely intertwined. And yet I think you do see sadly a divide at the moment between some strands of academic theoretical feminism and what’s going on out there in the real world, the challenges that we’re up against. I think often when I’m out there – I do campaigning and activism alongside other activists – there can be quite an impatience at what’s going on at the universities, a sense that academic feminists don’t necessarily get the scale of the challenges we’re facing and I’m sure there’s also an impatience the other way; that people who are tussling with these issues at the university feel why aren’t these great theories really breaking out there. I think it’s really important to build bridges and that’s deep down why I wanted to do this week here and I hope that it can spark, for me at least, a more fertile conversation and understanding.
Q. The pace of academic production is very different to the speed and immediacy of activism. Do you think that this contrast encourages the disjuncture?
Yes. And I think also the audiences are different and the endpoints, the goals that we have in mind might be different. I think it is a problem in feminism and it’s something we should all try to do better because at the end of the day we have a lot of at least similar goals in mind and I think that we could probably learn a lot more from each other than we are at the moment.
Q. The idea of varied yet complementary agendum is interesting. Looking at the list of former holders of the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Women’s Rights serves as a great reminder of the range of issues and approaches that women’s rights encompasses, from economics to law and religion. As the current Visiting Professor, what does the phrase ‘women’s rights’ mean to you?
That’s a really interesting question. I of course looked at the people who had held this professorship before and I want to say above all that it made me feel immensely privileged and slightly overwhelmed that I was going to follow in the footsteps of such incredible women. I think the diversity, the range of disciplines from which people have come to this professorship shows how women’s rights are everything, are everywhere. There isn’t an area of thought or action in the world that isn’t informed by women’s rights. It’s something that’s been brought forward so clearly from second-wave feminism onwards. Feminism produces this kind of paradigm shift when you talk about the world. There’s nothing, from economics to law, as you say, that isn’t informed and changed by a feminist stance.
I suppose the work that I do is very directly and recognizably feminist. My last book was about sexism and objectification, pornography and sexism in biological determinism. Interestingly, in the work I do now with refugee women I come up time and time again with people saying to me ‘I don’t get it. Why are you working on women? Why not all asylum seekers?’ People are still struggling to understand why women who cross borders might have specific needs, specific vulnerabilities. They might need protection in different ways from men. We’re not necessarily saying that this is more important or worse, it’s not necessarily about the hierarchy of oppression, but there are specific experiences that women have and specific vulnerabilities. And we are still fighting to get over that very basic point. In the academy people have accepted this but, out there, not at all. We did a recent research report looking at the experience of immigrant women in detention in the UK and an eminent lawyer who I sent it to […] said ‘I just don’t understand why…there’s no differences between men’s experiences and women’s experiences’. I thought it’s extraordinary when we’re talking about women fleeing sexualized violence or gender-based persecution and then when they’re here facing re-sexualization or harassment in detention or through sexualized violence when they’re living destitute and people are still – even female lawyers – struggling to understand why we need to frame this in terms of women’s rights. It’s great that you mentioned women’s rights crossing all these disciplines but out there there’s still a lot of work to be done to show that this is the case.
Q. I’ve been reading Women in Dark Times by Jacqueline Rose. One of the ambitions of that book is to find lessons from the twentieth-century for the feminism(s) of this century. How similar are the questions that we need to address today compared to those of the various iterations of feminism in the later decades of the twentieth-century?
I think it’s unfinished work. I think we’re still struggling with many of the same questions. To be honest, I think we’re still struggling with many of the questions that Mary Wollstonecraft was struggling with, or Olympe de Gouges. We may have refined the way we talk about them but some of the basic issues remain. That’s why I think it’s very important for us as feminists to be aware of our history without being overwhelmed by it. So often a light goes on and we think ‘wow, this is a really great way of looking at it’ or ‘I’ve got an exciting idea’, and you go out and starting doing it and then later you sit down and realize that you’re not the first one to think that way. I think it’s important to draw strength from the thinking and the action that’s gone before.
Q. What are the particular issues from which we can draw strength?
Some of the issues that really erupted in second-wave feminism, about sexual liberation, I think we’re still tussling with. But we can draw strength from how women have really been encouraged since the second wave to talk about their experiences with harassment and violence. That’s been such an important trajectory; that sense of speaking out and giving voice. But I think we’re still struggling with how the survivors are treated, believed, and what we need to put in place in order to respect their experiences and support them. But I think that’s something we can see very clearly, that started in the second wave: women saying ‘no, this is abuse’, and demanding belief and respect. And I think that’s something still ongoing today. If you look at the story coming out today about child exploitation in Oxford or more evidence coming forward about the Jimmy Savile cases – women weren’t believed when they spoke about their abuse or it was dismissed as something they had chosen to be involved in and I think we have to go back to the insights of second-wave feminists to recognize the importance of these experiences.
Q. In terms of looking forward and back, there’s a shift between your two books, a reevaluation; Living Dolls (2010) revisits some of the challenges that The New Feminism (1998) previously considered had already been addressed. What changed in the intervening period, in your thinking or in the world?
I think I was too sanguine, when I wrote The New Feminism, about the idea that I had that sexism, in the sense of everyday sexism – what’s so often seen as quite trivial experiences of sexism – was becoming less important. I think what I came to realize in the intervening years, when we didn’t get this straightforward movement towards equality that I was hoping for, was just how resistant sexism is to change and how we do have to do battle on that cultural ground as well as on the pragmatic economic ground. That was a real shift for me.
Writing Living Dolls was not an easy experience for me, particularly when I was dealing with issues around pornography. I’d grown up with that quite liberal, relaxed idea about pornography and just looking at it and at the impacts of pornography and objectification – particularly on younger men and women – I found quite worrying.
Q. The topic of your upcoming talks here at Cambridge sounds – from the titles at least – in contrast, rather optimistic: ‘From Sexism to Solidarity’ and ‘From Reform to Revolution’.
I chose these very optimistic titles, but what I’m partly doing is asking the questions about whether can we move from this situation of feeling rather overwhelmed and bogged down by the sexism around us to a situation where we can build alliances and have faith in our own potential to create change. I wanted to think through some things myself about what kind of changes we are asking for. Even the tiniest change is so hard to get in any way at all, and yet, is that all? Is it just a very small change? Is it just getting money for one refuge? Is it one policy change so that women aren’t locked up here for so long if they come here to seek asylum? I don’t know. That may be it, and that would be great, but I wonder if we can’t also think again about what else might be on the horizon, whether those small changes do come together, will ever come together into something bigger.
Q. What does this ‘solidarity’ look like?
I’m talking quite personally in a way because over the past five years I’ve been involved in activism of various kinds and I’ve been watching other women become active who weren’t before and I’ve found it very energizing and hopeful. What you see at the moment is different kinds of solidarity, and sometimes I think it can be quite transient and contingent. I’m thinking about something like the ‘No More Page 3 Campaign’ where you see hundreds of thousands of women signing a petition but they’re all coming to it from completely different starting points and we don’t really no what those starting points are. Some might come from the position of ‘I really don’t like any nakedness anywhere and I don’t want my kids, my family to see any of that stuff’. Others are saying ‘I’m absolutely fine with nakedness and pornography but I don’t like the way that it looks so unequal in The Sun, the way that it’s just women and not men’, or you might have people signing because they think that this is just one aspect of a patriarchy that is holding women down and denying them agency in so many other ways […] So, I think there’s a huge spectrum and yet at the moment of signing there is a sought of solidarity that’s created, which Lucy-Anne Holmes to her credit has managed to turn into something really pragmatic, humorous, unthreatening, and has forced The Sun to take action.
Then you’ve got more difficult forms of solidarity where people are coming together across quite challenging dividing lines in terms of ethnicity or privilege and deciding to try to work on something side by side. and quite a lot of things might get thrown up in the process but they manage to hold alliances for the sake of particular policy changes, so if you look at let’s say the work that’s been done on FGM you may get some quite uncomfortable bedfellows in the room because they’re trying to work towards policy change in terms of education and funding and so on. People aren’t at all coming from the same standpoint and yet they are managing to push through some changes. So, I think the sorts of solidarity we’re seeing are very different and I want to kind of shine a light on them and ask what we think about them, what we can draw from them.
Q. The two narratives you’ve sketched present slightly different obstacles. With the first, the challenge is that if people are coming from all different angles, a particular issue might give coherence to their diverse beliefs but why or how remain together after that? In the second narrative, you have a policy that unites people in a more ongoing way, but there a risk of splitting off, returning to factionalisms.
That’s what I want to look at more in the second lecture. Reform is hard and challenging but people do come together to create the small reforms. If we’re looking for something bigger, a lot of these alliances splinter and fade away. When we’re speaking about the need to end detention we often have to say this doesn’t impact immigration controls. You can have strong immigration controls and yet still put an end to detention. If you’re moving to a demand where you’re saying these immigration controls are hurting women and we need to move towards a situation where borders don’t divide us in these ways and where people aren’t divested of rights because they have a different nationality then you’ll find a lot of the alliances that you’ve built up are not there anymore. So I think this is a big question and I suppose I think, but you may disagree, that people working in theoretical feminism often have the luxury of being purer, being able to annunciate more revolutionary demands whereas those people working elsewhere often feel ‘that’s not going to work, but we could create some small change if we build these alliances’.
Q. I suppose that this ‘purer’ narrative can nonetheless serve as a helpful draw towards which to work.
That’s exactly what I believe. I feel irritated when I see some of the greater, purer feminists kind of scorning the women who are working through existing political structures and international agencies and so on. Because I think that’s all very well but we need to get some changes going now! And that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. That’s what I want to think about in the second lecture. To say we can take these little steps but still think there’s a bigger goal.
Q. How does this play out in your work at Women for Refugee Women (WRW)? Is the aim systemic change or smaller scale policy reform?
The policy demand that we have at WRW is an end to detention for women who seek asylum. That obviously isn’t going to be enough for many people who say it has to be an end for detention overall, but it’s a huge thing for a charity that wants to work alongside the political establishment to have a demand to end the detention of women seeking asylum. And then we have the smaller demands, such as end the terrible conditions in detention or end the detention of pregnant and other particularly vulnerable women. Alongside that we have goals such as a campaign through which more refugee women will be encouraged or empowered to work as advocates. Or more sectors of the mainstream media will be empowered to understand what women are going through. So I think there are lots of different levels that we can work on to try to build from one thing to the other, week-by-week, year-by-year, but hopefully always remembering that there’s a bigger picture.
Q. I’m reminded of the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who talks about ‘the danger of a single story’; the risk that a single narrative about a people can create stereotypes that are not necessarily untrue, but are at least incomplete. ‘They make one story become the only story’, she says. Do current media portrayals of women refugees, already few and far between, run that risk?
Absolutely. For the workshop that I’m doing on Wednesday with the Cambridge Feminist Society I put down as the title ‘how do we tell women’s stories and yet do justice to their real complexity’. Which I don’t think we can at WRW. We work with women to tell portions of their story and aspects of their stories but we also try to create spaces that refugee women themselves lead and in which they can choose what stories they want to tell and how they want to tell them. For me that is intrinsic and vital to the work that we do. It functions alongside a women going forward to be a case study for the media, with all that entails, and which I think can be quite violating and intimidating for her. I think journalists are often very insensitive about the way they use the case studies and it’s something we have to be very mindful of and sensitive about.
At the London Refugee Women’s Forum (a grassroots group that WRW supports) 10 women created a poem together, but spoken by different people each time, so that they don’t have to say ‘this is my story’ or ‘her story’ but ‘these are some of our stories’. It’s them choosing to tell the stories that they want to tell.
Another campaign that we support is a quilt that women refugees have made together with Women’s Institute members. […] It’s a piece of craft with messages stitched on for women in detention and it’s meant to be symbolic of Yarl’s Wood. There are 400 squares for the 400 women who are detained there. It’s symbolic of their solidarity, of being knitted together. It’s been to Yarl’s Wood and it’s come out. When we enable that space and we take it to festivals for people to stitch in their messages, it’s not as though we have a specific campaign goal, and yet somehow it sparks a sense of solidarity, of empathy for the women who made it and the women they are in solidarity with. So we do this work alongside running quite a targeted campaign. In this work the women are agents. They speak their own stories and create their own artwork.
Q. Doris Sommer, a professor at Harvard, uses the concept of ‘wiggle room’ to describe cultural performances as political experience in the spaces between ‘standard politics’ and sometimes slow-moving policy agendum. You were talking about poetry and quilting, and you produced a play (Motherland). Do you sense that we need not only a diversity of voices but also varied ways of telling those stories?
Absolutely. And that’s not something we want to control. We want to work with other organizations to make sure that it comes through. That said, of course, wiggle room – which is such a good word – for refugee women is so curtailed. It just makes us so furious everyday. These are women who have no right to work […] The way that the state treats refugee women makes it so hard for us work as equals. It’s a constant struggle to try and create spaces where we can work as equals.
Q. Finally, to a different kind of institution: the university. What responsibility do universities, as spaces of knowledge production and dissemination and centres of higher education, have to women’s rights and to overcoming sexism?
I feel I’m not the right person to speak about this because I’m not in a university and I don’t like to say ‘this is what students or faculty should be doing’ but I do feel we all have the responsibility. I was at this university 25 years ago and then it was very hostile, I felt, to women faculty. I picked that up from the women I was being taught by. I really hope that’s changed. I’m sure that it has changed a lot. Obviously I’ve heard a lot, particularly through work like The Everyday Sexism Project, about the issues that students still face in universities in terms of harassment and I really hope that this university is taking steps on that, and I understand that it is. But I’d like to hear more this week about what people here think about it.
Q. What can university-aged men and women do to be change-makers?
I think there’s so much that all of us can do in our everyday life. If we’re talking about a kind of sexist culture in universities then I think all women and men have to find ways to challenge it and support others who are challenging it, and to try to create spaces that are always safe for women. Universities aren’t separate from the world. Everything that effects women outside universities effects women also in universities. We feel very privileged when we’re inside, but we are all still part of the same nexus.
Previous Humanitas Visiting Professors in Women’s right were:
For more information about Natasha Walter’s forthcoming lecture, please visit www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/25903.