OPINION | Juliana Claassens: ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’: The power of feminist memes | News24


Slogans, which in some cases have been turned into feminist memes, represent the words of women who lived very real lives, facing and fighting very real struggles caused by enemies who are very real indeed, writes Juliana Claassens.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is.  I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.

If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.

Well-behaved women rarely make history.

In the run up to this year’s International Women’s Day, which is celebrated annually on 8 March, I found myself thinking of feminist memes. 

It started with buying gifts for my closest feminist friends at Strand Book Store in New York towards the end of my sabbatical. Strand Books, a New York institution in the vicinity of Union Square, has a range of delightful feminist paraphernalia – fridge magnets, coffee mugs, bumper stickers with inspiring quotes of our foremothers which we put up in our offices and pass on to our friends and daughters to inspire, to console, to take courage. 

I ended up buying notebooks with feminist quotes that I had not seen before, including the words of Shirley Anita St Hill Chisholm, seven times elected to the US House of Representatives and the first woman to run for US president in 1972: 

If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.

Another example of a quote that captures women’s resolve never to give up, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” also originates in US polarised politics. The words are attributed to Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republic Senate majority leader who sought to silence the Democratic Senator of Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, on 7 February 2017, on the Senate floor after she was barred from the debate on the confirmability of the attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions.

McConnell infamously said:

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

These words went viral, serving as an excellent example of the meaning of harmful words being turned around to serve as a rallying cry for many women in the past and present who feel slighted and silenced. 

I always start my classes on feminist biblical interpretation with the following two quotes: “Feminism is the Radical Notion that Women are People” and “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute” – the latter attributed to Rebecca West.

But as I was thinking about feminist memes, I realised I know very little of the women who said these words, and also the circumstances that demanded their inspiring words that reach all the way to our context here in South Africa, ending up in my classroom.

For instance, Rebecca West was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield and is a well-known British author, journalist, literary critic, and travel writer who took the name Rebecca West as a pen name based on a play by Henrik Ibsen’s play, Rosmersholm. West’s definition of feminism was made in her 1913 essay “Mr. Chesterton in Hysterics”– a turn of phrase that many decades later still give words to women saying, treat me like a person. Do not sexualise me, do not tread on me. See me as me. For “feminism indeed is the radical notion that women are people.”  

The authorship of this last quote is intriguing. After some searching, I found that these words come from Marie Shear in her May-June 1986 review of the Feminist Dictionary in the New Directions for Women feminist newsletter. They have been erroneously attributed to the editors of this dictionary, Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler. Astounding how words spoken in a scholarly journal can travel the world and become a battle cry for equality, justice, and freedom for all.

READ | OPINION: Does every woman have a well-stocked arsenal of anger?

Finally, a colleague a long time ago gave me a coffee mug featuring the words, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” As I was searching for the origin of this quote, I first found that it had been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, who recently has been brought to the screen in a fantastic performance by Emma Thompson in the ShowTime series The First Lady (together with equally outstanding performances by Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, and Viola Davis as Michelle Obama).

Indeed, in this series, these words fit Eleanor, who, as well as her fellow first ladies in the show, are shown to be irreverent and unruly but certainly made their mark on history! 

However, reading further, I discovered that the real woman behind these words was a Harvard Early American History professor, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who wrote an article as a PhD student on well-behaved or virtuous women from early American history who seldom are featured in history books.

These slogans, and many others, represent the words of women who lived very real lives, facing and fighting very real struggles caused by enemies who are very real indeed.

During this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations with its theme #EmbraceEquity, we contemplate the legacy of women past and present, mainly how women’s words live on long after they have died. As I continue to write and teach and speak this year, more than ever, I am thinking of what we pass on to our students, children, colleagues, and friends: persistence, resistance, and the unflinching commitment to respect and human dignity. 

– Prof Juliana Claassens is Professor of Old Testament and Head of the Gender Unit in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.

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