Are you ranting? No, I'm dancing

Where have all the young feminists gone? Clare Rudebeck meets the next generation at Ladyfest in Bristol, a 'female empowerment' event where it's OK to shave your legs and wear fishnets - just as long as your shimmying is up to scratch
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The Independent Online

If you were walking around Bristol on a recent Thursday night, you may have paused to wonder why some of the city's most famous male statues were decked out in women's clothes. Cary Grant, arguably the city's most glamorous son and the centrepiece of its Millennium Square, wore a floaty nightie. The poet Thomas Chatterton became a bride. Edward VII sported traditional "housewife" garb for the whole of the following day.

If you were walking around Bristol on a recent Thursday night, you may have paused to wonder why some of the city's most famous male statues were decked out in women's clothes. Cary Grant, arguably the city's most glamorous son and the centrepiece of its Millennium Square, wore a floaty nightie. The poet Thomas Chatterton became a bride. Edward VII sported traditional "housewife" garb for the whole of the following day.

"There are almost no statues of women in Bristol," says Nat Baird, 24, a library assistant, who took part in the makeovers. "I think there's one of Queen Victoria and one of a mermaid. We wanted to draw attention to that."

"Should we be talking about this?" interjects a fellow feminist.

"Oh, yeah," says Baird. "The police have already taken our details."

Who, these days, would get into trouble with the police for the sake of feminism? The ideology's latest obituaries were written as recently as last month, when a study by the Equal Opportunities Commission found, to the surprise of no one, that the concept was considered by most women to be "outmoded", "negative" and "man-hating".

The feminist old guard rallied to its defence, but not even they claimed that there existed such a thing as a young feminist. That breed of political animal is generally believed to have crawled off and died at the end of the Eighties, taking their dungarees and donkey jackets with them.

But here they are: young, sane and proclaiming their commitment to the feminist cause. In fact, these young women, sitting in the bowels of an independent cinema in Bristol, are in the middle of putting on a feminist festival called Ladyfest. The week-long event featured female-dominated bands, workshops in dressmaking, dancing and bicycle maintenance, and films about feminist pornography, sex workers and women's experiences of cancer. Sunday's highlight was a "knit-in" in the park.

They say they are angry. And they are obviously relieved to find people who feel the same way. Being a young feminist sounds a lonely business. After one of the films, Baird tells me, a woman in the audience stood up and said: "I never knew there were any feminists in Bristol."

There are strong overtones of a group therapy session. Several of the women I met confided that they are finding the courage to admit to their feminist beliefs for the first time. Now that they have found each other, they are growing in confidence.

The first Ladyfest was held in Washington state in the United States in 2000. The following year, five such festivals were held, most of them in America. This year, there will be at least 15 Ladyfests in cities around the world, including Jakarta, Melbourne and Hamburg. Ladyfest Manchester takes place next week. It may not be a revolution, but it's certainly a kick in the teeth for feminism's gravediggers.

So who are these young radicals? Despite its many achievements, feminism has always been immune to popularity. Admitting to other "isms", even alcoholism, is in many ways more socially acceptable. Saying that you can't live without the bottle, after all, is not akin to saying that you are a hairy-legged, saggy-breasted, man-hating, almost-definitely-lesbian weirdo. So are these women outsiders beyond caring about what the world thinks of them? Are they normal?

A quick survey of the shoes being worn by festival-goers reveals one pair of yellow stilettos, two pairs of baseball boots, a lot of flip-flops, several snazzy trainers and a battered old pair of Green Flash plimsolls. You can tell a lot about a woman from her shoes, of course, and these girls definitely want to be comfortable. However, like their shoes, they are an eclectic bunch.

Above the footwear, there are some hairy legs. Follicles, it seems, are still a feminist issue. Lisa Brook, 25, another member of the Ladyfest Bristol organising committee, has thought long and hard about the issue. "I'd never questioned why I shaved my legs before I became a feminist," she says. "After that, I didn't shave for years and I loved the way I looked." However, today her legs are smooth and encased in fishnet tights. "Now I know I'm happy with them hairy, I feel I can make the choice to shave them," she says.

It's time for the first workshop of the afternoon: dancing. Inside a small theatre, our teachers, a dance group called The Actionettes, are waiting. They specialise in early Sixties routines. This involves wearing a shift dress, standing in a line and doing synchronised movements. There is quite a lot of shimmying.

It seems an odd choice for a feminist festival. The image of womanhood on stage is bright-eyed and clean cut. They look like unemancipated good girls. Alice bands, big smiles and nice legs feature prominently.

"Come and join us up on stage!" they coo at their audience. The audience do as they are asked. Soon everyone is shimmying in time to the music. Their choice of backing track is more apt: "These boots are made for walking/ And that's just what they'll do/ One of these days these boots are gonna/ Walk all over you."

In time to the music, the 40 or so women on stage are figuratively trampling the men in their life. They seem to be enjoying it. But I don't think I've uncovered a secret training camp for feminist assassins. In fact, I'm struggling to see what this has to do with feminism at all.

"It's an exuberant, positive gathering," says Lisa Brook. "It's non-competitive. It's all about inclusion. Everyone - well, nearly everyone - can get to grips with the steps."

Uh huh. Looking back at the stage, the workshop does seem to be having a wonderful effect on everyone involved. With each shake of the hips, the smiles get wider. The girls nod encouragingly at each other. Soon, group hysteria is setting in.

There's nothing like female bonding, of course. But you can get that at a sleepover. It's not exactly radical, or even necessarily feminist. As soon as I arrived, these young women were telling me they were angry: angry enough to flirt with breaking the law. But what is it they're so cross about?

There's little mystery about why so few young women become feminists. Getting wolf-whistled at in the street or condescended to by a male boss may be annoying, but few women would lose sleep over it. There are more important issues to worry about. Even Susan Sontag admitted this month that she had "forgotten" to write about women's issues for many years. Presumably that was because she had more pressing things on her mind.

The organisers of Ladyfest Bristol describe the festival as "a positive outlet for our anger in response to cowardly and insidious sexism that exists in our everyday life". What on earth do they mean? "Well, men and women should be equals," says Brook, "but, in most societies, that's not how things turn out."

Is she talking about British society? "It's not just about being harassed in the street. It's about the way women are made to view themselves: the way they feel about their bodies, their lack of confidence in themselves, the feeling that they've got to apologise for doing what they want to do, the feeling that their voice isn't valid," she says.

It's an opinion shared by many of the women at the festival. It's not that they think men are out to oppress them. When I ask the organisers of Manchester's Ladyfest when they last encountered overt, slap-you-on-the-bottom sexism, I am greeted with blank faces.

Everyone is keen to stress that they don't hate men. They are men on the organising committee for Ladyfest Bristol. What they are angry about is much more significant and much less obvious than a pinched bum.

"What really makes me angry is when feminism is sold back to you by advertisers, but it's been twisted and made to mean something completely different," says Humey Saeed, 23. "There was an advert for razors that told you to 'unleash the goddess within you' by shaving your legs - as if the only thing slowing your liberation was your own body hair."

To some, this may sound petty. But to many women at the festival, discovering feminism does seem to have had a real impact on their existence. Two women independently volunteer that the movement has "changed their lives". Lisa Brook is one of them. "I'd been quite depressed as a teenager," she says. "Puberty is always a terrible time for girls. I thought that I was fat. I had a very negative self-image. It wasn't that I was abused or badly treated; I just didn't feel like I had anything valuable to say. But then I got into feminism and a door opened."

She has since become a film-maker. In fact, many of the women at the festival wanted to get into the creative professions but, for whatever reason, had been frustrated. I asked a handful what their jobs were: secretary, librarian, social-work student, librarian and unemployed, were the answers. The festival had given them the opportunity to perform with their bands, or to display their artwork, or simply to voice their opinions. Many people also talked about getting over their dislike of their bodies. "When I looked at photographs of myself, I hated myself. I think that's quite common with women," says Paulette Ragan, 33, a staff nurse, who was running a Ladyfest workshop called the Body Image Sewing Circle. The workshop involves dressmaking. Participants were encouraged to bring their "ideas and patterns and learn about body image for all-size ladies". Empowerment through sewing? Again, it doesn't sound promising.

Why dressmaking? "What dress size are you?" Ragan counters. "Oh, erm, I'm kind of one size on the top and another on the bottom," I respond, illustrating her point. "Very few people fit perfectly into the industrial sizes available in the shops," she says. "But if you make your own clothes, you can make something that fits you. A good fit equals empowerment."

Through this ad hoc mixture of sewing, singing, comic-making, dancing and discussions, Ladyfest Bristol has gathered together and given confidence to perhaps 70 women. Not bad. The movement certainly has the ability to draw in young women who would never have associated themselves with feminism before. Camilla Stacey, 30, another member of the organising committee, describes herself as "a new convert". And through organising the festival's art exhibitions, she has found something she is good at. "It's something I've been looking for for 30 years," she says.

But there is one stumbling-block. If this movement is going to survive, they are going to have to sort out feminism's terrible self-image. Even Paulette Ragan, the organiser of the body-image workshop, is at pains not to be associated with the word. "I hate that word!" she says. "It's all burning your bra and shaven-headed lesbians."

Ladyfest Manchester 2003 runs from 4 to 7 September: information at www.ladyfestmanchester.org

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