backlash · change · emotional labour

Feminism and Emotional Labour Redux

On Friday Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) published a new project called Love, Anonymous. The project is collaborative insofar as a CWILA member approached me with the idea of crowd-sourcing anonymous narratives of gender-based discrimination and violence in the Canadian literary community. The aim of the project–of the anonymity of the narratives–was to stand alongside those people who have experienced such violences and not been able to speak up for various reasons. After all, fall 2014 was a season rife with examples of gender-based micro- and macro-aggressions, and with these aggressions came the usual questions: why didn’t you come forward? What took them so long? Indeed, so many people got so fed up with these questions around access to the agency needed to name and claim one’s own experience that #BeenRapedNeverReported went viral and captured the attention of mainstream media (remember the cover of the Huffington Post?)

I am the Chair of the Board of CWILA, and when I was approached with this project it became my responsibility to bring it to the Board for their input and, ultimately, approval. The next phase of the project involved crafting a call for submissions, which we decided to circulate only amongst CWILA members. We limited the exposure of this call because we felt that membership to CWILA entails being a stakeholder in this new organization’s projects and mandates. We wanted to gauge member interest, and to do so while avoiding as much trolling and backlash as possible. Finally, in crafting the call for submissions we decided that it was imperative to build in the possibility for trust which, let me say, I now know is really difficult to earn in an online setting. To build trust we decided there should be a privacy officer–one named person who did all the receiving, correspondence, and redaction of personal details of all submissions. That person was me. This made sense to me, and to the Board, and to the member with whom I was collaborating on the conception of the project, because in my capacity as Chair I correspond regularly with our membership. I already have a responsibility and fidelity to the well-being of the organization.

Between October and November I received submissions, fielded questions and concerns about the project, and logged about thirty hours of correspondence with participants and CWILA members about the project itself. It took me another month to manage to format the project–not because it was technically challenging, but because I hadn’t accounted for the emotional labour required. Silly, isn’t it? I was ready for the emotional labour we were asking people to volunteer–to put into text–yet I didn’t think about the challenge of reading, responding, and holding stories in trust for other people. True to my word, I didn’t speak to anyone about the details of the project beyond the technical details I am relaying now. I never will. I expected that my training as a textual scholar of narrative, of intersectional feminist theory, would translated here. In some ways I expect that it did, but I realize now that I went into my role in the project with a decidedly academic mindset and forgot to leave room for one of the things we talk about most here on the blog: emotional labour.

On Hook & Eye you’ll find posts about the emotional labour involved in teaching, navigating the job market, applying for grants, and dealing with workplace fuckery challenges. Heck, most of my posts are about emotional labour of one kind or another. As I was working on Love, Anonymous with contributors and concerned members it occurred to me that I tend to write about emotional labour from a position of reporting: Here is how thing X has made me feel. I maintain that this kind of public truth telling is really important, especially for women and other marginalized people working in the academy. Narrative makes things meaningful for other people. (If you don’t believe me, believe Thomas King!) Stories help us navigate our own experiences and relate to, or at least encounter the experiences of others. And, if we work hard and pay close attention, stories can help us see a better way forward.

Here, then, are some observations I have returned to, learned, or been reminded of in the past few months while working on this project:

1) We have taught women not to trust their own experiences. The project has reinforced for me the extraordinary challenge of saying: this happened to me. I was there. This was real.

2) On the whole, we are missing opportunities for sustained intergenerational conversation around Big Issues. I had many people write to me with genuine concern about the project, which you can read about in a bit more detail here. Everyone who wrote to me did so in a spirit of care and generosity and genuineness. They wrote from their own vulnerability and I tried my best to meet them with mine. And almost everyone who took the time to write with concerns identified themselves as being in a generation (or two or three) above mine. Their concerns, generally speaking, had to do with anonymity reifying silence. As I wrote with people of many, many different generations I was struck once again with how generational differences can experience the same public event so dissimilarly. We–and I am speaking very generally about the Hook & Eye readership of people working in the academy when I say “we” here–need to find a way to speak with each other across generations more regularly.

3) The backchannel is alive and well, and until we manage to genuinely address and eradicate inequity it is the most trustworthy way to convey information about safety. This last one gives me such pause for so many reasons. I don’t want to need the backchannel. Talking about it in a public forum makes me worry that I’ll be misunderstood to mean ‘vicious gossip’ rather than ‘careful information sharing.’ And I might be misunderstood, but it needs to be said again: until we deal with systemic inequity the backchannel is a feminist tool.

I’ll leave you with the opening questions of the Love, Anonymous project:

How does a community—one that is dispersed across a country, one that comprises diverse people and experiences—come together to express solidarity? What do solidarity and support look like when the galvanizing issues are so deeply rooted in personal experience as well as systemic injustice? And what can words do to support those people who need it, even or especially when they haven’t been able to ask for support?

Any thoughts, readers? 

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