An interview with Alexandra Becker, founder of Fourth Wave: London Feminist Activists

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It’s generally accepted that feminism comes in waves, ebbing and flowing in line with progressions in the fight for equality and the resulting backlashes. Early in the 20th century, we had the first wave. In the sixties and seventies, we had the second wave. The third came came during the nineties, and it’s clear to me that a fourth wave is currently upon us. While it’s difficult to define a wave from within it (without the benefit of hindsight), some people are embracing the increase in action and using the momentum to fight for an end to patriarchy. One of these people is a woman named Alexandra Becker.

In March 2015, Alexandra created a group called Fourth Wave: London Feminist Activists. Full disclosure – I’ve been a member of the group since it began, and have watched with amazement as she’s brought together a sizeable sisterhood (with 783 members in the online group, at last count) united in the fight for social justice. I wanted to ask her some questions about Fourth Wave, in the hope it would inspire and enable other Jar Belles to seek a local group or even start their own.

Jade Slaughter: Hey Alexandra!

Alexandra Becker: Oh hey Jade!

So I’d really like to ask you about Fourth Wave: LFA, partly so that readers can see if joining the group (or any group) might be helpful to them, and also in case they wanted to start their own group.

Go for it.

I know that you don’t openly identify yourself as the founder of Fourth Wave, to avoid any hierarchy within the group, but you did create it. What inspired you to start the group?

Oh, it was a mix of things. I had joined a feminist reading group the year before and it was the first time I met other feminists in real life, and it was a really liberating experience. It made such a difference to know there was a place where I could go and people would understand my rants about sexism, and rant about similar things themselves! After a while, I felt that I had done enough reading and thinking about feminism, and was at a point at which I wanted to DO something, but all the activists I knew then were involved only with pro-choice campaigns. While that’s an important issue, it wasn’t really the ONE I was so passionate about that I’d dedicate all my time to it. I had met a few people through the reading group socially, and also a few activists who were part of existing campaigns or groups, and I noticed that a lot of other people were in a similar situation – they wanted to get more active, but didn’t know where to start or what group they could join.

So one Saturday I thought, “Fuck it, I’m doing this”, and started a group on Meetup.

And then it all went from there.

That’s awesome! So you wanted Fourth Wave to avoid being a single-subject group? What other ideas did you have for the group – did you have any aims in mind?

Well, initially the idea was to focus on inviting existing groups with different subjects to visit and tell us what they’re doing, and people would have an entrance route to joining this group or campaign if that was what they were passionate about. Because it’s always easier when you know someone. The second goal of this would’ve been to bring the existing feminist groups a bit more together, to create a network.

But then the group evolved with the people joining, and we became more of an activist group ourselves. We’re still active in different subjects and we’re still open to building connections with other groups, but we’re now more than “just” a feminist meet and greet.

So once you were less of a ‘hub’, as originally planned, and more of a group in your own right, how did you decide about rules? Whether that’s regarding inclusivity of the group, stances on set subjects etc.?

Once we had a few of members who would come to meetings regularly, we sat together and collected all the points that were important to us. Firstly, we wanted to be an open and welcoming space for all – which means we’re open to men, trans people, feminists of all leanings, ages, backgrounds etc. We wanted to make sure we create a space in which it’s safe to ask questions, because we all knew we weren’t “perfect” feminists and are always learning.

We also started out saying we weren’t going to censor any feminist opinions or points of view, and wouldn’t “no platform” anyone (that was before we realised what a loaded term that was). This turned out to be quite a balancing act and eventually led us to a full manifesto review just last month, which means that we have now fairly clear rules on what is welcome and what isn’t.

And we wanted to be active in real life, as opposed to “just” the Internet.

So these and other points built our manifesto, which now accurately describes what we believe in and how we try to run the group. But in addition to that, the way Fourth Wave runs is down to the people in the group, and how we treat each other as members.

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How do you mean?

Well, we’re not robots, so when things get heated it isn’t just “load manifesto” and then we handle a situation accordingly. It’s asking for  commitment from everyone to implement those principles and also sometimes to question ourselves, which can be hard but means we grow as people and as a group.

We’re also constantly trying to stay aware of not becoming too cliquey and making sure we are welcoming to new members, as we know that can be the downfall of an established group.

I’d say it’s a combination of a good manifesto and good people who “execute” it.

You mentioned ‘no platforming’ and trying to strike a balance in keeping the group a welcoming space for people without stifling the learning experience. That’s obviously a bit of a hot topic at the moment, and one which lots of groups are struggling with. Do you think this is the biggest challenge of Fourth Wave? Are there any other challenges which have come up?

I think it’s one of the biggest challenges online, yes. On some topics like inclusion of the transgender community, or sex work, a lot of the debate online has become really toxic and we’ve seen a fair amount of discussions on our Facebook group derail to the point where people have left the group because they didn’t feel it was the right place for them anymore.

It’s has been a really tough one for us for quite some time, because we tried to let discussions happen as openly as possible. Sometimes you can learn so much from “the other side”, even if it’s just reaffirming your position. What we’ve found, though, is that this meant we repeatedly had people who would come to our group and start very heated debates from quite an extremist point of view, particularly with regard to the transgender community. One debate especially got so out of hand that a lot of us felt we had to take a real look at who we want to be as a group and our manifesto, which set off the review I mentioned before. On the whole, I thought it was a really positive experience in the end, and an acknowledgement that even though we always set out to be inclusive there is more to that than just saying it. At the end of the review process we had a new manifesto that was more representative of what we want the Fourth Wave to be about, as well as some very clear rules for what was okay on Facebook. Hopefully, the task of being admin will become a bit less stressful as a result.

For me personally, the most important outcome of the review was a commitment to being an intersectional feminist group, standing against the oppression of all people regardless of race, religion, sex, gender, disability, sexuality, age, and class, and recognising the ways these factors interact with each other.

Also, online feminism really has never been our focus, which is why we always invite people to meet us and have discussions face to face. We do know that the Facebook group is important for people though – some can’t make it to meetings and others really like the exchange of feminist information in that format, so the new rules should help to keep that going but also let us shut things down, if they get out of hand.

The main challenge, I’d say, is to make sure to keep things rolling – finding the energy and the courage to do the things we’re passionate about.

That balance does sound difficult – I think the feminist movement as a whole is struggling with a lot of the same issues. Do you have any regrets concerning Fourth Wave? Either over how things like that have been handled in the past, or even anything about the group in its earliest stages? For instance, is there anything you’d go back and do differently if you could?

For me personally, the only regret is that we didn’t start it earlier. We still get a lot of members who tell us, “That’s what I’ve been looking for for soooo long!” A lot of us are in the same boat with regards to seeking activism rather than just discussion. As a group, some of the things I’ve mentioned regarding the manifesto and the online group have been tricky – we started off with good intentions but maybe a bit naively, so there has been a lot to learn. But then on the positive side, we’ve only been around for less than a year and we’ve done so much!

Slight regret is that we could’ve done even more – we had a lot of good ideas that weren’t realised because we either lost the courage or just didn’t keep up with them, such as a campaign against street harassment this summer, for example, which never went anywhere. There’s always 2016, though!

In some cases we’d plan something then see other groups do something really similar, which is a bit of a “damn” moment, but it shows that the same issues often affect us all, and they always did it really well so it’s all for the greater good. Think we’re growing more confident now and have more experience, so we’ll follow our hunches more often this year.

It always takes a group a while to get going, and you’ve only been around for a year – so there’s plenty of time! What would you say is the group’s greatest achievement so far, or the thing you’re most proud of?

Ah, loads! Firstly, the group itself and how it’s evolved and keeps evolving. You can really see it become something greater than we even expected. I’m also really proud of our members and to see them becoming stronger and more confident, both in their feminism and their personal and professional lives.

In terms of things we’ve done, I’m MASSIVELY proud of Feminist Solidarity Fest, which was an idea that came out of one of our first meetings. Think we underestimated the amount of effort it would take to pull it off, but then it all worked so well. We had great guests, speakers and workshops, and so many more people coming to join us for the day than we had hoped for!

I’m also proud that we struck a balance between social events – which are important to build the group and can be a good entry point for newcomers – and activism. For example, we have worked a fair bit with other activist groups, particularly Class War Women’s Death Brigade, on protesting the Jack the Ripper museum and will continue campaigning in various ways until that awful place is shut down. We’ve also continued to support events and protests by other groups and campaigns and are making some great connections there.

So in terms of single things – definitely Feminist Solidarity Fest and our Jack The Ripper protests.

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Feminist Solidarity Fest
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Fourth Wave protest the Ripper Museum

That’s great! I know we’ve had articles on the Jar Belles blog about those events, and I’m sure we’ll keep people in the know with your future actions too. Speaking of the future – do you have an ultimate goal for the group? Or any shorter term, smaller goals?

Well, obviously to see patriarchy collapse and know we’ve done our tiny bit to crush it! Definitely the ultimate goal for me, and I hope the Fourth Wave will keep going in different incarnations for however long that will take.

In terms of shorter term goals…

It’s more difficult to say because we’re not a single-subject group. A a pro-choice group could have the goal of seeing a specific law changed, for example. We have a lot of interests and a lot of different subjects we are involved in, and some of them arise from the members who join us and their passions, so it’s hard to say what we will do in 2016 and what our goals are in precise terms.

We have a few things up our sleeves but I’m sure more will come up throughout the year.

Overarching goal is to see the group thrive and stay alive, to keep learning more and to make sure it can provide an activist home to a lot of awesome feminists.

We look forward to seeing how your members influence the group in the future then, and what Fourth Wave will achieve! For feminists who don’t live in London, or who feel that Fourth Wave isn’t quite right for them, what tips would you give for starting your own feminist group?

Just do it.

If you don’t feel there’s a group out there for you but you want to be active – hang up flyers at your uni or any community space you use or set up a Meetup group. Anything to get the word out initially to the people you think might be interested is good. And then set a date and meet!

Start small and don’t be impatient – things will evolve on their own and you don’t have to have it all figured out right at the beginning. In terms of practical tips, set a regular meeting date – that way people can schedule their time in advance and you have more of a chance of getting people come back regularly. Once you have a few people together, start plotting! Think about what annoys you or what you want to see changed and then get involved. Again, start small – you don’t have to do the biggest direct action that will get all the press out right away, and if there are other activists in your area who are also involved in feminism – or any activism really – don’t be shy about reaching out to them. You can really learn a lot from groups with more experience and sometimes that’s just a few practical things, like a good free accessible place where you can meet.

Aaaaaand-

Be brave!

Thanks very much, Alexandra – both for the tips and for your time!

It’s been a pleasure – much love to our friends over at The Jar Belles!

Find out more about Fourth Wave: London Feminist Activists at www.fourthwave.co.uk. You can also contact them via email, Twitter and Facebook.

–  Jade Slaughter is editor of The Jar Belles and has written for The F Word, Parallel and Litro magazines. Follow her on Twitter: @msjadeslaughter.