The fun in feminism

Madeleine Pownall and Wendy Stainton Rogers share their journey in writing A Feminist Companion to Social Psychology, published by Open University Press.

The message blinks, ‘The host will let you in soon’. Zoom bursts into life and we are grinning and waving at each other, ready to get down to business. Over lockdown we spent countless hours like this gossiping, poring over each other’s writing, sharing papers and excitedly bouncing ideas off each other for our book, A Feminist Companion to Social Psychology. We first got together in June 2020 – a marriage arranged by our Series Editors, Hannah, Rose and Sarah, who invited us to write the first in a new series of Feminist Companion books. They thought we might work well as co-authors (how right they were!). There followed many supportive, intriguing, silly and serious calls and emails, and two garden meet ups.

Sussing each other out

We are a pretty unlikely couple. With over 50 years between us, we each bring very different experiences and perspectives to feminist social psychology. One of us is an experienced and popular writer on critical psychology, with a fair few books under her belt. The other (not naming names) is a ‘keen-bean’ PhD student early in her academic career, with a motley repertoire of up-to-the-minute knowhow on ‘what’s hot’ in psychology, running primarily on caffeine, intellectual highs, and enthusiasm.

After a short email exchange, our co-authoring journey officially began in Wendy’s garden on a drizzly June afternoon. Socially distanced and armed with tea, biscuits, hand sanitiser, an empty flipchart page and a pile of post-its and pens, we got to work. We decided that we needed to suss each other out and find out where we were each coming from. For several hours we threw ideas at each other, setting out what mattered to us and hinting at the stories we wanted to tell. As we talked, we shuffled our notes on the chart, taking titles away and replacing them with better ones. We included obscure aspects of feminist theory, fun ideas for interactive activities, the need for feminism to be practical, and building a feminist toolkit to make it happen. As the detailed chart of our chapters began to steadily take shape, we stood back to admire our handiwork. ‘You know what?’, Madeleine beamed, ‘I think we could have real fun with this’.

Finding the fun in feminism
To us, being a feminist is about taking action against gendered violence, challenging injustice, championing gender equity, and calling out misogyny, sexism and gender bias wherever we find it. Being a feminist can, therefore, be pretty miserable at times, and also make you alarmingly unpopular. As Sara Ahmed famously put it, there is often a duty to be a ‘feminist killjoy’ – the person seen as ‘ruining the fun’ by flying the feminist flag. While killjoy-hood is indeed an important part of a feminist consciousness, there is much to be gained, as we discovered over the past year, in finding the fun in feminism. So much so, that this quickly became our motivational motto.

‘Finding the fun’ in being a feminist psychologist does not mean laughing off injustice and shrugging your shoulders at gender inequality. It is about harnessing your energy to find ways to enjoy being feminist by being amused and playful in addressing the serious issues. It can be a tough trick to pull off, but it gets easier over time. As feminists we need to be alert to a multitude of serious, urgent, socio-political issues – such as exposure to constant sexist put downs, sexual harassment and the threat of violence. But we have found that if you can approach issues like this with a kind of wickedly wry suspicion, a leavening of dry feminist wit, and a steely determination to discover and expose where and how the wool is getting pulled over your eyes – then, yes, you can certainly have a lot of fun. Pointing out ludicrous claims of intellectual superiority and calling out mansplaining, bropriation and sealioning (look them up!) can be greatly entertaining. Getting familiar with the bounty of clever feminist research on issues like these sparked many heated and excited conversations that we fed into our book. Being playful allowed us to tackle the meaty issues while also caring for and nurturing our own wellbeing.

Finding the joy in feminism
We believe that there is much joy to be found in feminism too. The beauty of writing a feminist textbook together, supported by a likeminded editorial team, is that we can take so much for granted. As feminists we share a set of unwritten ground rules, based on values of respect, nurture and kindness, and a real commitment to decolonise, dismantle hierarchies and value each other’s strengths and creativity. Importantly, we are both deeply conscious of systemic issues that can make contemporary academia toxic. We have often had to cope with an academic world in which aggressive competition and ‘survival of the fittest’ rule.

We are impressed with our own ability to resist the lure of competition when working together. Competitiveness and individualism are two of the big neoliberal constructs that we actively critique throughout our book, so it felt right to champion resistance in the way we worked together. This was evident from that very first garden meet up. ‘I want to make one thing quite clear,’ Wendy said. ‘I’m not going to play this like some academic diva, posing around and telling you what to do. We’re going to do it together.’ We made hugging gestures (social distancing) and from that moment, we worked on creating an equitable partnership that genuinely championed the values of feminism.

Feminist writing in action
Although it has been fun, it certainly hasn’t been easy. Working with someone you deeply respect (and want to impress) can be tough, particularly with tight deadlines and lots to sort. Our big breakthrough was to agree from the start to ‘expose our soft underbellies’ and avoid ‘hoarding’ what we wrote for fear of criticism. We decided to wholeheartedly embrace ‘bad writing’ and share inadequate, unformed, possibly ridiculous, and certainly wacky writing. In initial drafts, sentences were unfinished, words were out of place, and paragraphs were abandoned mid-flow. In sharing these ‘quick and dirty’ drafts, as we grew to call them, we became comfortable sharing writing as it developed. It didn’t need to be finished. It just needed to be done. Once we established this strategy, we were able to develop a partnership that positively nurtured risk taking, creativity and adventure. ‘This is slightly outrageous, but see what you think,’ read one comment. We toyed with the outrageous throughout our writing, we merrily butchered each other’s paragraphs to create something more playful and interesting, and we added jokes into each other’s work – many of which remained in the final edit!

An important aspect of our partnership is that we each bring a unique flavour to feminism and social psychology. Madeleine brings an understanding of the ‘newer’ goings on in the world of psychology, such as the Open Science movement, concerns about reproducibility of psychology research, and methodological discussions on Academic Twitter. Wendy brings a deeper knowledge of the history of social psychology, the teething pains of feminism and psychology, and a more expansive and impressive feminist vocabulary. We also enjoyed sharing ‘bits of ourselves’. Madeleine introduced Wendy to the wonderful worlds of TikTok and Slam Poetry [see her 2017 article], and Wendy shared gossip about the Founding Fathers and book recommendations (which were often shipped in the post as a ‘well done’ for finishing the latest chapter). This too followed feminist psychology’s value of blurring the personal with the professional, to celebrate that we are whole, messy humans with lives beyond academia.

Feminist psychology has a strong legacy of championing creative and critical approaches to mainstream psychology. In fact, it was founded with an excited sense of possibility and enthusiasm (as Catriona Ida Macleod and colleagues attest to in their 2021 article ‘Celebrating 30 years of Feminism & Psychology’). We have ignited our own versions of that excitement over the past year and have enjoyed the fun and friendship that academic co-writing can inspire.

- Madeleine Pownall is a lecturer and PhD researcher in social psychology at the University of Leeds.
- Wendy Stainton Rogers is a Professor Emerita with the Open University.

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