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On Aiming High

October 5, 2009

Recently, a friend of mine made a point about activist groups:

“It’s like we aim simultaneously too high and too low – we say “yeah! We want to eradicate sexism, entirely, everywhere“, and when we get asked what we’re going to do to make that happen, we go, “um… well, maybe… if we got a badge-making machine… we could… *mumble mumble mumble*” – and so we fail miserably, whereas if we’d aimed a little bit lower, we might have achieved more.”

Now, there’s a point to be made here, and that point is not “shit, my friend is a concern troll”. Because this idea – that you can simultaneously aim too high and too low – is accurate.

This is not to suggest for one minute that I think that people shouldn’t aim high. That would be silly. But the idea that every feminist has to be working to solve all sexism*, entirely, everywhere, is a pretty problematic one.


It’s problematic firstly because it’s wrong. It’s fairly easy to see why it’s wrong, when you think about it. Feminists are people. Real people, with real lives, and a real (and finite) amout of time, energy and inclination to combat sexism with. Sometimes you have to choose what to focus your energy on. And when you do, you get other people asking you “why are you concentrating on X when Y is so much more important?“. Sometimes, you have to prioritise yourself, and your needs, above anything else – and that anything else includes, funnily enough, trying to eradicate all sexism, entirely, everywhere. As Kirsten has said elsewhere, we are big fans of self-protection here.

And it’s problematic secondly because so many people don’t think about it, and therefore believe it. Even some feminists. And when this happens, scenes like the one my friend described start to seem eerily familiar.


So. Do I want to eradicate sexism, entirely, everywhere? Well, yes, obviously. Just like I want to be such a famous mathematician that secondary-school kids learn my name, and don’t go through life thinking that only men can do Famous Counting Stuff (TM). However. To acheive the latter, I’d have to go back in time, kill Pythagorus and “discover” all those things he did about triangles. Oh, and found a strange secret society that drowned dissenting members. And I’d probably end up being misrepresented as a man, anyway, because who at that time, in that place, would believe that a woman could do anything except pop out babies and manage slaves?

Likewise, to eradicate sexism, entirely, everywhere… well, I don’t even know how I’d begin. Perhaps I’d have to get a badge maker and… *mumble mumble mumble*. Maybe a time machine would come in handy, too.


So I’m prepared to aim a little less high. I’m part-way through fulfilling my aim of going to a good university to get a degree in maths, which at least means that my brother will grow up knowing that women can also count. As for the sexism? I call it out when I see it, and when I have the energy. I write things that might, if I’m lucky, get read by people who don’t immediately discount what I say on the grounds that I’m [your choice of epithet and/or factual statement here]. I campaign in real life sometimes, when I’m not priorising the rest of my real life.

Is that a high aim? For me, yes. Other people have other aims.


Melissa McEwan has been writing at Shakesville for five years today. She aimed, among other things, to create a safe space in the internet – and has got closer to achieving it than possibly anywhere else in the feminist blogosphere. In the spirit of this blog, any other suggestions of safe spaces are, of course, welcome.

Kate Harding writes at Shapely Prose. One of her aims was to one day be paid for what she writes – a big aim considering she writes about Health At Every Size in a society obsessed with The Obesity Crisis (TM), but nevertheless, she is indeed being paid to write these days.

Natalie Bennett formed the first Carnival of Feminists “to build the profile of feminist blogging” in October 2005. It ran to over 70 editions, and after a break of six months, has been revived by Amelia and Lindsay from Female Impersonator.

I’m giving some of the easiest examples. No doubt there are others. Some will be things that I’ll never see online, that will never be reported anywhere.


And all of those aims – the easy to find and the impossible to find, the ones that you look at and think “shit, I’d never have the time/energy/inclination to do that” and the ones you look at and think “well, I do that too” – they’re all valid. They don’t become any less valid because they don’t eradicate all sexism, entirely, everywhere. They don’t even become less valid when people can’t quite reach them. It’s enough to have achieved something. Sometimes, it’s enough just to have tried.



*Many feminists do, of course, work hard to combat other -isms, but not all of them, and not all at the same time, so to keep things simple, I’m referring only to sexism, since by definition, every feminist is concerned with sexism.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2009 7:05 pm

    Rather than kill Pythagorus, can’t you just somehow get Nötherian rings taught in secondary school?

    Because really, Emmy Nöther is awesome.

  2. October 5, 2009 7:17 pm

    Oh, sorry. My mistake. Getting Emmy Nöther in secondary school doesn’t get your name bandied about. Hm. Yeah, I can’t think of anything better than killing Pythagorus either. Maybe you could somehow get long division to be called “The ‘yournamehere’ian method”?

  3. October 5, 2009 8:51 pm

    But then I’d be known as “that bloody woman that invented long division”. It is a conundrum.

  4. October 6, 2009 2:30 am

    I think anyone a child has to learn about will be “that bloody person that invented that remarkably useful tool” to someone.

    At least with long division, your name would come up again when trying to find the greatest common divisor of two polynomials.

  5. October 6, 2009 1:40 pm

    True, true. And I think you’ve proved my point: perhaps aiming to kill Pythagorus and steal his secret society was aiming too high, whereas getting long division to be called “The Rachelian method” is completely realistic and achievable!
    Aims: sometimes they need to be a little lower to be reasonable, is what I have learned from this discussion!

  6. Quercki permalink
    October 6, 2009 7:33 pm

    Here’s a link to my favorite women mathematician, Mary Somerville.
    The article doesn’t stress that no one understood LaPlace until Mary Somerville wrote her pamphlet showing how his work could be used, but the site does have LOTS of biographies of women mathmeticians.

  7. October 6, 2009 10:33 pm

    Hey, Quercki, that’s great! Thanks 🙂
    I seem to have inadvertantly turned this thread into a massive maths geek-fest, but hey, it’s happy, and it’s kind of related!

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