‘Deeds not Words’: Report on ‘Women and Activism’ Day Event, 2018

Undergraduate student Aimee Gilkes reports on her experience of taking part in the Centre for Gender Studies’s Day Event, ‘Women and Activism: Past and Present’

To mark this year’s International Women’s Day, the Centre for Gender Studies in Wales, in conjunction with Archif Menywod Cymru/ Women’s Archive Wales, hosted an event at the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay. Entitled “Women and Activism: past and present”, the event was held to mark 100 years since the partial enfranchisement of women; as well as to celebrate the life of Ursula Masson and twenty years of the archive.                                               

Beginning with a lecture by Dr Elin Jones, the event included talks from members of AMC/WAW and a panel on women’s activism between the 1960s and 1990s. To hear the stories of women (and men!) who had travelled around the country collecting material which would ensure the woman’s place in Welsh history; who had started shelters for vulnerable women; formed human barricades at Greenham, and everything in between, was nothing short of awe-inspiring.                                                                                                                       

I was asked to participate in the final roundtable ‘Activism Now’ alongside Bethan Sayed AM and MA student Leah Ellis. Part of this discussion, chaired by Professor Diana Wallace, included each of us giving an account of our experience with activism, and what sparked our interest in gender politics, as well as the direction in which we think women’s activism is headed. What followed was a lively question and answer session about everything from the gendering of children’s clothing to representations of women in video games.                                               

What became evident during this discussion was how, though the challenges facing young women may have changed in nature – particularly with regards to the influence of social media - fundamentally, we are still tackling the same issues. For example, the gender pay gap remains an obstacle for women in the work place, even in supposedly forward-thinking Western democracies. Women are still vulnerable to sexual harassment, as highlighted by the MeToo movement - which not only drew attention to systematic harassment in the entertainment industry, but also encouraged women from all walks of life to come forward and tell their own stories.                             

The way in which Fourth Wave feminism differs, however, from the waves which precede it, is its emphasis on intersectionality. Intersectionality examines the ways in which different modes of oppression intersect - such as discrimination based on gender, race, class, sexual orientation, religion and ability – and how this affects a person’s quality of life. After the discussion concluded, I spoke with a member of another panel who asked whether I thought the debate around intersectionality was helpful to the very people it seeks to liberate. This is a question I have often asked myself, as well as other members of the student movement. If intersectionality remains a purely academic concept, rather than a social tool, then no. If it is only discussed, debated and dissected in an academic environment – which is still out of reach for many of the people intersectionality seeks to integrate – then no.              

Intersectionality is a concept that we can and should commit ourselves to: that all women deserve to tell their stories and have their voices heard. Those of us with a more privileged position in society must know when it is and isn’t appropriate to insert ourselves into certain conversations; when it is our responsibility to simply listen and learn, before acting as one progressive movement. To return to a phrase used by some of the women this event was held to commemorate – we need deeds, not words.