Take Back The Fight
Organizing Feminism for the Digital Age
When did feminism become a brand, a hashtag, or a campaign slogan?
When did feminism become “something that we can buy or sell, a self-identity or a lifestyle rather than a political orientation through which to organize against the status quo?”
These are the kinds of hard-hitting questions journalist and activist Nora Loreto tackles in her latest book, Take Back the Fight—a book that dares to imagine what a truly liberatory feminist movement might look like and that isn’t afraid to point out where mainstream feminism falls short.
“I was driven to write Take Back the Fight by the desire to understand how feminism ended up here: a word that can be used by politicians and corporations alike who feel little shame about contorting or obscuring feminism to be something that either scores political points or attracts buyers,” Loreto explains in the introduction to her book.
She then goes on to explain the limits of mainstream feminism—the fact that it hasn’t merely fallen short: it has actually caused harm to the women whose life experiences it erases.
“Mainstream feminism in Canada and the United States is white feminism,” she writes. “It’s feminism that seeks to break the glass ceiling but then quickly patches up the hole for the next person to have to break (while leaving the shards on the ground for everyone else).” It’s the kind of feminism “that supports more maternity leave but doesn’t insist that it’s paid.”
In other words, mainstream feminism is feminism for a very select few. “[Mainstream feminism] imagines that the average women is middle aged, white, and middle class, and then sets out to fight for a better world for that woman in particular. When it ignores the diversity and range of womanhood, it also ignores the complex and various ways in which patriarchy, colonialism and racism cause harm to women and will continue to cause harm to women until we force things to change.”
This is a book that will make some women really uncomfortable—and that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. That kind of discomfort is long overdue and it’s a critical first step to actually making things better: to ditching faux feminism in favour of the real deal—the kind of feminism that actually has a hope of challenging the status quo.
“Only a confrontational, radical, and intersectional feminism will have the strength necessary to force the powerful to heed feminist demands,” Loreto explains.
And if feminism isn’t committed to an actual shift in power—well, frankly, what’s the point?
I say, “Bring it on.”
As you can probably tell, I loved this book. I’m looking forward to sharing Take Back The Fight with pretty much every woman I know. If you decide to read it (and I hope you will), I’d love to get together (virtually) to compare notes. Let me know if you’d like to do that. I’m planning to host a virtual discussion about the book in the New Year.
What follows is the text of a conversation that I had with Nora Loreto via email this past week.
ANN DOUGLAS: I’m always fascinated by what makes an author want to write a book on a particular topic at a particular moment. Could you talk about the thinking and/or events that made you want to write this book right now? Also: I was impressed by how much you were able to take into account the impact of the pandemic and other noteworthy events in 2020, including the mass murders in Nova Scotia in April. I’m assuming you made a lot of changes during the editing process. You must have been adding new content until the very last minute, when the book headed off to press! How much last-minute rewriting and rethinking was required?
NORA LORETO: The book was sparked by a Twitter thread! I was reading about the news of the First Annual Canadian Women’s March in January 2018 and I was so annoyed that feminists had decided to mark the anniversary of an American rally rather than commemorate something more local. At the time, we were one week away from the one-year anniversary of the shooting at the Centre culturel islamique de Québec and I was so sad to see that there was more focus on Donald Trump than there was on the gendered impact of far right hatred and gun violence in Canada.
After having written my rant about all this, an editor asked if I would be interested in turning the thread into a book. I had no intention to write so in-depthly about feminism but I had been trying to figure out how to break into mainstream publishing for more than a year, so I said yes, absolutely. That relationship ultimately didn’t work, and after some false starts with two publishers, I landed with Fernwood, and I’m very happy that I did!
The editing process was wild. My first draft, which I thought was pretty good, was torn apart. Two reviewers expressed concerns with how I had written parts, and so I had to go back and really think through how I, as a white woman, could write about an issue that is so plagued by white saviourism in a way that would not reinforce white feminism. I re-wrote big sections and made important changes to structure, right up until February 2020. The book that is out looks pretty similar to that final, February draft. And then, the pandemic hit! I wasn’t satisfied with being silent on the pandemic — I knew that it would transform the world and therefore struggle — so I added what I could: updates about the racialized and gendered impact of COVID-19 in healthcare, how people had experienced isolation and loneliness as a result of lockdown, etc. I also thought it was critical to add the voices of feminists in Nova Scotia who were screaming from the rooftops for police and journalists to understand the NS gunman’s rampage through a gendered lens. I wanted the book to have a long shelf life and it felt important to capture that horrifying moment.
There were also an incredible number of typos! When you’re trying to get the politics as right as possible, and when your final days editing are done with two six-year-olds at home full time, you miss a lot of typos, and even add some. I did manage to root out “asexual assault” in time though.
ANN DOUGLAS: Your book has moved me to want to do what I can to help support the birth of an unapologetically radical and intersectional feminist movement here in Canada. I’m thinking of taking a two-pronged approach: (1) supporting the work of groups that are already actively engaged in advocating for the most oppressed women in Canada; and (2) getting women I know excited about supporting this work, too—which might mean hosting a “teach in” where my friends and I could work through some of the ideas in your book and identify local opportunities for action. Do you have any words of wisdom to offer—either words of encouragement or cautionary words? (My goal is to make things better, not worse.)
NORA LORETO: I think that as white women, we need to see our role as supportive - doing a lot of the grunt work to help organize and also ensuring that we create opportunities for education among other white feminists. There is an incredible appetite for this right now and teach-ins, book clubs, private DM groups, group chats – they’re all very important to give feminists a space to learn and grow. Everyone who has the energy and resources to coordinate something like this absolutely should!
We have to actively resist white supremacy in these spaces. This isn’t easy, as white supremacy is everywhere – and especially will be present if a group is majority white, talking about feminism. Using texts and analyses rooted in Black or Indigenous feminisms to form our understanding of struggle is critical, as is understanding that leftwing activism in North America is radical and effective literally because of centuries of organizing by Black and Indigenous activists, especially feminists.
When it comes to whatever the spark is to organize something, white women need to provide support and encouragement, and avoid taking leadership roles, especially if in the early stages there are no accountability measures to determine how a leader is chosen. And, to never assume that you’re the first person to think of something. But as you say – there are organizations that are already doing wonderful work. So be in touch with them and ask: how can I help? What can I do? If your skill is writing, are there factsheets that they need updated? If your skill is graphic design, offer to do some design! If you aren’t sure if you have skills they need, ask! There are organizations who are always in search of help.
ANN DOUGLAS: Do you have any thoughts about where a reinvigorated feminist social movement could find its funding? Obviously, there are perils to being too reliant on government (the fickleness of the funding cycle; the very real possibility of having your agenda watered down by people in power). Do you think it might be possible to create a coalition of socially progressive organizations with the resources and commitment to support feminist movement building? Or is this a movement that needs to be funded through the donations of individual women? Or do you think we need some sort of hybrid model?
NORA LORETO: I think that the only way forward for a radical feminist thing (network, coalition, roundtable, organization etc.) is for it to be independent of government funding. I do think it would be possible to undertake something that was funded through a combination of union and personal donations, especially if anchored by a group that had more or less stable funding. Funding is one of those issues that may be more obvious once an initial meeting were to be called and once you see who is around the (proverbial) table with what resources.
ANN DOUGLAS: So, looking forward, would you say that you’re hopeful and optimistic about the possibilities for making change (because so many people are rethinking so many things right now) or are your expectations a little more muted (because so many people in power are also spending a lot of time thinking about what they can do to maintain a grip on the status quo or even accelerate the neoliberal agenda)? Or does it vary from moment to moment (depending on what has shown up in the news cycle on a particular day)?
NORA LORETO: Overall, I’m very hopeful. The last thirty years of neoliberalism society has stretched and stretched and stretched and I think that the pandemic will finally cause it to snap back. Organizing during the Harper years was so difficult – it seemed like nothing we did could change his mind. Then, we got Justin Trudeau, who became PM in a very different time than Harper’s first year (2006 versus 2015), and still, all the Real Change we were offered never materialized. The pandemic has been so hard, and it will get even harder for the next four months, but we can see the way out of it, and that gives me a lot of hope.
But beyond hope, what makes me optimistic is that there is an incredible mass awakening among people to radical politics. The pandemic is a time of massive change. When we emerge from this, people will have energy to put these politics to use, I’m sure of it. That excites me, but is also a reminder that we need to develop clear, radical demands now to do what we can to fight against what is perhaps more likely (but not inevitable) which will be a brutal right-wing backlash to pandemic spending. People will be eager for action so those of us with organizing experience will have to help new activists on the path of organizing and building to make sure that everyone’s energy is put to effective use!
— Ann Douglas, December 2020