It took me a long time to comprehend the sheer force of will and bravery it took my colleagues to stake a claim to a feminist activist identity in the collective. This revelation came as somewhat of a surprise given that the collective defined itself by a feminist anti-violence standpoint. Like many anti-domestic and sexual violence activist groups that grew out of the women’s liberation movements in Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s, the collective was founded on a second wave feminist approach to gendered violence (Else, 1993; Connolly, 2004). This history was still influential, and the collective continued to express a commitment to feminism in their everyday activism. The collective was also understood to be feminist by our communities and other community sector organizations. As my voluntary work brought me into contact with a wider range of stakeholders, however, I became increasingly aware of the complexities of identifying as a feminist activist in the context of the community sector. There was the possibility of having our charitable status revoked (Elliott, 2016) as well as the fear of losing government funding for claiming a political status of agenda (Grey and Sedgwick, 2013b). Additionally, my colleagues told me stories of other people and organizations not wanting to associate with us on the basis of our political commitments. For example, a private sector organization refused to work with us as we were ‘those bloody feminists’ and we received regular backlash online for our feminist stance. For our aim as a group of anti-violence activists to end gendered violence, productive relationships, access to funding, and influence with the government were important; but so too were our feminist politics and principles.
I have written of those who seek to bring justice to abused women. I have written in anger, and in grief, and in hope. I have written of the one in three women in my homeland of Aotearoa New Zealand who are subjected to violence. I have written of those whose lives and deaths are violently excluded from such statistics. I have written of those who lived and died at the margins of normative ideas of ‘victim’ and ‘woman’. I have written of those who experience layers of injustice from colonization to racism to heterosexism. I have written of the long-standing efforts of feminist anti-violence activists. I have written of those who recognize the institutional failure to protect vulnerable bodies from violence and organize to oppose such injustice. I have written of those women who dedicate their waking hours to creating deep emotional bonds between us. I have written of those women who tell stories of the abused, the dead, the discarded. I have written of those women who are the best of humanity consistently confronted by the worst. I have written of women in all of their glorious complexity.
I am undone by those women.
Core to this book has been my experience working alongside my colleagues in a feminist anti-violence collective. My colleagues were dedicated to supporting those subjected to gendered violence and changing the social conditions which underpin that violence. Although my colleagues had variable relationships with the idea of activism (as I discuss in Parts II and IV), they were, nevertheless, proud bearers of four ongoing commitments to collectivism, feminism, decolonization, and LGBT+ pride.
Kimberley and I were chatting together one lunch time, sitting on opposite sides of the lunch table. She was buoyantly explicating her views on the relationships between gender identity and violence, and I was listening intently, intrigued to hear her latest opinions on the subject. I had the opportunity to work closely with Kim during my time volunteering – assisting her in her work and talking with her regularly in our breaks. She’s a young, educated, self-proclaimed ‘urban Māori’ who loves debating with her colleagues, myself included, about gender identity, violence, race, and politics. Our lunchtime conversation today has been about whether or not it is actually possible to end gendered violence. Kim argues that it isn’t possible, not with contemporary gender identity dualisms. She tells me that until we can imagine a third possible gender, consistently and coherently, there is always going to be a violent fight for the masculine to be dominant over the feminine. She laughs and summarizes: “Basically, every time I think about gender equality, I just think it’s never going to happen.”
Kim then asks me what I’ve been working on recently. I explain that I’ve been doing some reading about violence, particularly thinking about the necessities of violence for forming identities (Bergin and Westwood, 2003) and I’ve been particularly interested in the idea that becoming something involves violently foreclosing the possibilities of other ways of being. Kim is particularly enthusiastic about the idea, linking it to her interests in how making some aspects of violence visible – ‘hypering’ she calls it – invisibilizes other kinds of violence. Hypering the idea that it is possible to end gendered violence invisibilizes the ways that gender inequality perpetuates, she argues.
Recognition and celebration of lesbian identities had been part of the collective since its inception; a trend similar to other long running anti-violence organizations around the world (Arnold and Ake, 2013). The salience of lesbian identities in anti-violence activism, Tia explained to me, was partly due to the positioning of anti-violence activists as “tree-hugging, bra-burning, man-hating lesbians” by hostile communities in the 1970s. The public backlash, however, resulted in the creation of a political space in which the collective was determined to break down discriminatory social norms which limited the full participation of lesbian women in Aotearoa New Zealand. Jen, who had been part of the organization for nearly 30 years, felt liberated by the attention to lesbian identities. Before she became involved in the collective, she told me she knew that she was:
‘Attracted to girls … but my understanding of what a lesbian was, was this hairy, big, truck driver, butchy jeans and boots … and I knew that wasn’t the sort of woman that I wanted to be. Therefore, if I was a lesbian, and I didn’t want to be one of those, then I didn’t know what I was.’
Many years later, Jen was exposed to the possibilities of being a lesbian like she wanted when she joined the collective as a volunteer. She described it as extremely emancipatory, telling me: “I came out as a lesbian about the same time [as I started volunteering]. That was really quite cool because being a lesbian in [the organization] in those days was a very … recognized and celebrated thing.”
When I (re)entered the community sector in Aotearoa New Zealand as both academic and activist, I was met with a community sector facing immense contemporary challenges for survival. My initial discussions with community members, as I have mentioned in Part I, highlighted a growing despair at the lack of ‘bite’ of the sector and concern for the ways it had become subservient to the power of neoliberalism. Nevertheless, there was still a strong sense that activism continued to be a vital dimension of the community sector and without some form of activism or advocacy that the community sector was failing to live up to its social promise. In both my conversations with people in different parts of the sector and in the collective, I observed that being part of the community sector was also a deeply cherished aspect of the self. Activist identity was often intimately interconnected with the community sector, but the influence of neoliberalism on the sector had caused many of my participants and colleagues to question whether this sense of ‘activist’ was lost. The community sector, including the collective, was grappling with a possible loss of radical social change and outsider activism.
During my conversations with a broad range of community sector activists, before I started volunteering with the collective, I eagerly gathered their perspectives about the community sector and its role in social change. Most of the issues raised by my participants seemed familiar to those I’d already encountered in the academic literature. My participants enthusiastically told me about the immeasurable and positive contributions the community sector made by supporting communities across our country.
Some four months into my voluntary work with the collective, I found out that all staff members were to attend a series of workshops together to help us work better as a team. I was almost absurdly enthusiastic about the workshops and the possibility of getting to see all my colleagues discuss the purpose of their work together. My eagerness for attending this event was rather unusual for me, given that under any other circumstances I would have been mutinous if someone had tried to get me to attend one of these events. My colleagues were slightly sickened at my enthusiasm; at lunch the day before the event, it turned out I was the only one excited at the prospect of the afternoon. Emily was appalled she had to attend and was desperately attempting to come up with excuses not to go. Even Ava, who usually took these sorts of things seriously, expressed to me that she was apathetic about attending because she didn’t see the purpose behind it. I assumed this was being driven by Jen, but when I chatted to her about it, she didn’t seem to want to attend either. The impetus behind this event therefore remained a bit of a mystery.
At 11 o’clock we piled into hired vans to be taken to our destination. I climbed into the back seat with Gracie, Kimberley, and Zoey. Gracie was carrying a giant A3 notebook; an accidentally humorous contrast to my tiny ethnographer’s notebook which I was holding in my hands. Gracie told me that the coordinators of these workshops had tried to charge her an extra $30 to supply one.
In my discussion of two of the ways we can understand the role of the body in anti-violence activism, I have highlighted that a heightened awareness of our bodily vulnerability unsettles our gendered identities. I now want to explore how the unsettling of identities was taken in a radical direction by my colleagues: understanding women as vulnerable bodies. The formulation of women as vulnerable bodies, characterized by an inherent corporeal vulnerability to violence, proved to be an extremely unsettling formulation, not only for me and my colleagues, but for other women and non-binary folk who came into contact with this formulation when I shared early iterations of this work with the collective, at conferences and in other academic settings. In particular, this formulation seemed unsettling as it appeared to run counter to the decades of activism that emphasized women’s empowerment and work towards the celebration of women’s bodies as powerful and agentic. The centricity of bodily vulnerability to anti-violence activism for the women I worked with, however, was a striking and salient theme and one that reverberated with activists working on other issues.
In my attempts to come to terms with the implications of my colleagues’ formulation of women as vulnerable bodies and the importance of this formulation for anti-violence activism, I found Butler’s conceptualization of vulnerability insightful. Butler (2011b: 200) outlines vulnerability as having a twofold meaning:
Vulnerability includes all the various ways in which we are moved, entered, touched, or ways that ideas and others make an impression upon us … [vulnerability] is also a way of indicating one’s dependency on another, a set of institutions, or a circumambient world to be well, to be safe, to be acknowledged.
How can we reimagine the relationship between academia and activism to provide new opportunities for social change?
Based on an ethnography with an anti-violence feminist collective, this vibrant and vital book develops an interdisciplinary approach to activism and activist research, helping us reimagine the role of scholarship in the fight against social inequality.
With its reflections on novel tools that can be utilized in the fight for social justice, this book will be a valuable resource for academics in critical management studies, sociology, gender studies, and social work as well as practitioners and policymakers across the social services sector.
If I were to turn left when I exited my apartment in the morning, I would meander my way down the hill, through the central business district, past parliament and the high court, and end up at the business school building of my university where my office was located, the primary site of my academic work. If I were to turn right when I exited my apartment in the morning, I would wander down the other side of the hill, through the main shopping precinct, past the bars and restaurants, and almost leave the central city by the time I reached my other office, the site of my activist work as part of a feminist anti-violence collective. Sometimes I would travel between the two halfway through the day, dragging my tired body from one end of the city to the other. During this period, I was both ‘academic’ and ‘activist’. I was undertaking a research project about social change in anti-violence activism. As part of this research, I was a ‘voluntary ethnographer’; a researcher embedded in the community organization I was studying, contributing to the social justice cause alongside my colleagues at the same time as conducting my research. My life was a state of constant transition between these worlds.
I had plenty of time to reflect during my regular transitions. I would think about anti-violence activism and the stories of violence I heard throughout the day. I would think about different theoretical approaches to domestic violence, flicking through pages of books or scrolling through journal articles in my mind. Sometimes these thoughts would bleed into one another.