Pushy Feminists

When I talk about “pushy feminists” I might be assumed to be referring to a particular kind of feminist: those who keep pushing their points. The figure of the pushy feminist is in close company with that of the feminist killjoy: those feminists who refuse to let it go; those feminists who insist on being feminists wherever they go; those feminists who are heard as insistent. There is no doubt there are different ways of being feminists and doing feminism and that some feminist styles might be experienced as pushier than others. But I want to think here about “pushy feminists” beyond the restricted notion of feminist kinds.

To persist in being a feminist, often in the face of hostility and violence, is to risk being judged as pushy. We can be shaped by a judgement, even as we react to that judgment by announcing its exteriority. And we are shaped by what we do. When you have to keep pushing, when pushing is what you are doing, perhaps then you do, in a certain way, become pushy. The figure of the “pushy feminist” might be teaching us something about what is involved or what is required in doing feminist work. You might be judged as being pushy. And you might have to become pushy. If you have to push to be a feminist, doing feminist work is often pushy work; you have to push against something that has solidified or hardened over time.

Another way of saying this: you have to push harder when you come up against walls. Feminist work is diversity work in the first sense of how I use this term: the work we have to do when we aim to transform an institution. To work as a feminist at a university requires we work on the university. We have feminist centres and feminist programmes because we do not have feminist universities: that is to say, because sexism, gender inequality and sexual harassment remain structuring of university environments. We have feminist centres and programmes because we need to push hard to get through what has become institutionalised or given. Sexism becomes concrete. A feminist job is thus “a banging your head against a brick wall job.” Our job description is a wall description.

As I have noted in previous blogs posts, institutional walls are generally not perceived unless you come up against them. We are pushing against what does not come into view. This is how: to bring something into view can be understood as pushing a view. You are perceived as being pushy when what you are pushing against is not perceived. I have been noticing recently a kind of incredulity that follows being a feminist at work. There is a murmuring sense of: why is she pushing when there is nothing there? The very perception of feminists as being pushy is what allows the maintenance of walls, those walls of perception that enable some not to register the walls.

When pushing is unevenly distributed as a requirement, pushing becomes a form of political work. I want to turn to an example from my study of diversity. One of the practitioners I interviewed was not called the equality or diversity officer at her university. She was a human resources manager and she had diversity and equality amongst her many duties. The person who had been in this post previously had been called the equity officer. Why the new job title? She explained to me the reason for this decision: “our general manager did not want me to be seen as the equity person.” In On Being Included (2012) I explored the problems of becoming “the equity person,” how it can mean that equity stops and starts with a person. When one person becomes the equity person, other people do not have to become equity people. The logic being used here was that of mainstreaming; equality and diversity were now treated by the university as what all those employed by the university should be doing. There was no longer going to be an officer or an office for equality and diversity; what they were “trying to do was share it across the board.”

Mainstreaming did not work. This practitioner gave no more detail than necessary to convey why it did not work: “we haven’t been able to give as much attention as we would have liked to it.” Unless equality and diversity are made what you attend to, they tend not to be attended to. Many practitioners I spoke to were sceptical of how mainstreaming is used as a cost cutting exercise; a way of not giving resources to support equality and diversity.  As another practitioner described, mainstreaming is used by managers to imply “it doesn’t need people who are experts like us and everything’s ok.  That’s not the case; we know that, particularly on race that’s not the case.” Diversity and equality are not mainstream and that to treat them as if they are mainstream simply means the message will not get through. Without an institutional push, without pushers, nothing happens. Diversity and equality tend to fall of the agenda unless someone forces them onto the agenda, where that someone is usually the diversity or equality practitioner. Of course, as soon as something is “forced” on the agenda, then it is not mainstream. You do not have to force what is mainstreamed.  Mainstreaming thus fails to describe the kind of work that diversity work involves: having to push for, or drive forward, agendas that organizations often say they are for, but are not behind.

Diversity and equality requires offices and officers who keep “pushing,” otherwise things do not happen. We you have to push harder to overcome what has become harder. In my work I have used the example of going the wrong way in a crowd to describe this uneven distribution of effort. We can think with this experience; through this experience. Everyone seems to be going the opposite way than the way you are going. No one person has to push or shove for you to feel the collective momentum of the crowd as pushing and shoving. For you to keep going you have to push harder than any of those who are going the right way. When you are going the wrong way you have to push harder just to proceed.

To push is thus to push against a direction. This is why pushing has a unique kind of temporality as well as affective quality (I would think of pushing as a straining temporality).  When you push you are often pushing for something; a possibility can be what we are pushing for. If you don’t push, it seems, at least sometimes, a possibility is what recedes. For some possibles to become actuals would require more of a push than others. The necessity of pushing is a consequence of what has become hard: the materiality of resistance to transformation under conditions of force. How we have to push (towards a future we might glimpse in front of us) thus depend on histories, on what has become concrete. Pushing (rather like willing) is between tenses.

In my previous post, I described white men as an institution. Brick by brick: a wall is formed. Maybe a brick is a chip off the old block.  Reproduction and paternity are understood by this expression “a chip off the old block” in terms of likeness: like from like. And if a chip comes from a block, a chip might also become a block from which there will come another chip: like to like.

Diversity workers have to chip at that block, or chip off the block.

Chip, chip.

Things splinter.


Institutions can be built out of or through citations. This is one way of thinking about Edward Said’s argument in Orientalism (1970): as a theory of institutionality as citationality, of how Orientalists became experts on the Orient, that place imagined as being over there, through citing each other, creating a network of citations, a loop, one leading to another. When reference becomes chain, a body of work becomes wall.

A wall: what we come up against. I have recently been looking at curricula in cultural studies and have been struck by how many courses are organized around or even as a white male European genealogy. So it seems once the pressure to modify the shape of disciplines is withdrawn it seems they “spring back” very quickly into that old shape. Diversity workers have to keep pushing otherwise things will be quickly reversed to how they were before. Pushing might be necessary to stop a reversal. Even when a new policy is adopted, or new books are put on the syllabus, we know we have to keep pushing for them; an arrival can be precarious. If we don’t keep pushing for some things, even after they have been agreed, they might be dropped quite quickly. In order for some things that have appeared not to disappear we have to keep up the pressure; we have to become pressure points.

This was my experience of Women’s Studies: we had to keep pushing for things to stay up. Women’s Studies as a project is not over until universities cease to be Men’s Studies. But no wonder Women’s Studies has unstable foundations. To build Women’s Studies is to build in an environment that needs to be transformed by Women’s Studies; the point of Women’s Studies is to transform the very ground on which Women’s Studies is built. We have to shake the foundations. But when we shake the foundations, it is harder to stay up.

We have to keep pushing: to keep up, to keep things up. Perhaps we are willing to do this. Or perhaps we become exhausted and we decide to do something else instead. The history of the “spring back” mechanism is impossible to separate from the history of our collective exhaustion. Which is also to say: the very necessity of having to push for some things to be possible can be what makes them (eventually) impossible. If we cannot sustain the labour required for some things to be, they cannot be. Something might not come about or stay about not because we have been prevented from doing it (we might have even been officially encouraged to do it) but when the effort to make that thing come about or stay about is too much to sustain.

Diversity work in the second sense I use it (the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution) also requires pushing. You have to push to be when your being is not accommodated. How is being accommodated? When an arrangement is made to ensure the motility and progression of some, an environment has been built. History has become concrete. In order for others to enter, who as beings have a different set of requirements, they would have to push for a modification of the environment. Some have to push to be accommodated. Given how able-bodied privilege comes to structure a world (both a physical and social world) then people will disabilities have to push to have their own requirements be met. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s work on “misfitting” is very helpful in exploring the consequences of how worlds are built around some bodies.  As she writes: “A misfit occurs when the environment does not sustain the shape and function of the body that enters it. The dynamism between body and world that produces fits or misfits comes at the spatial and temporal points of encounter between dynamic but relatively stable bodies and environments. The built and arranged space through which we navigate our lives tends to offer fits to majority bodies and create misfits with minority forms of embodiment, such as people with disabilities” (2014, np). We have a misfit when there is an incongruous relation of body to thing, or body to world. If you do not fit, you have to pusher harder, and even then, you might not be able to proceed.

And you have to keep pushing after your needs have apparently been accommodated. For example even when universities have access policies, it is often still left to students with disabilities to find out about those policies; to ask each and every time there is an event about access arrangements, as this important post on the PhDisabled blog points out.  The very effort required to find out about access can end up making events more inaccessible. Access can become inaccessible. When you might have to push harder just to turn up, turning up might be what you are too exhausted to do.

Or sometimes, turning up can be understood as pushing in.  Think of how you can be understood as “pushing your way into a conversation.” Who is judged as pushy depends here on a prior judgement: who is judged as belonging, who is understood as residing somewhere. No wonder: a foreigner is often deemed pushy. Or to be made foreign is to be registered as pushing. You are pushing for something, when you are understood as not having a legitimate claim on something.  Within feminism too, some might be registered as “pushing their way into a conversation.” bell hooks describes in Feminist Theory how “the atmosphere might noticeably change when a woman of color walks into the room” (2010: 56). Perhaps an atmospheric wall is what is created when an arrival is registered as  pushy. And words too become pushy: racism is heard as a pushy word, as foreign to a situation, as what is being forced from the outside in.

You push it; you say it.


It can be situational: in some situations turning up or speaking up is understood or heard as pushing in. And to manage the situation would require you to push against how you are understood or heard. Even within feminism we can end up in this situation.

And once your arrival is registered as pushing, then what? So little room; so little room you might have to be in the room. Even to push against what you are judged as being, would be to fulfil that judgement of being pushy. This is one of the life paradoxes I was concerned with in Willful Subjects (2014): you have to become what you are judged as being. More than that: you have to become what you are judged as being to survive that judgment. So you might have to push against the judgment of being pushy; you might have to do the thing they say you are in response to what they say you are. Thus even if the judgment eventually catches you, even if that is so, even when it is so, it misses so much. It misses you, the history of you becoming you: and it also misses its own sharp edges; its own role in forming what it finds.

And of course, too, so much being is not understood as being pushed. When a chip becomes a block, this becoming is not registered as pushing, even if we know, that some end up where they end up because there has been a push somewhere along the way. Let’s return to the citational apparatus: think of how once we have a body of work, a body can work: how a citational apparatus can allows the easing or smoothing of a travel from one to another; body to body, an easing of a progression.

Cite, white, light, flight.

A system is a pushing as well as pulling mechanism: some are not required to push because the system is doing it on their behalf. There will be no obvious signs of individual strain when an individual does not have to strain. You do not have to promote yourself if you are promoted by virtue of your membership in a social group. A “system push” could be another way of understanding momentum. The more momentum is gathered the more a momentum gathers. You are propelled along if you are going that way; you are propelled along if your body is an agreement with that direction. Once there is a momentum, a direction becomes directive. And then: it is the others who push, those who are going in a different direction, the wrong direction; or those who in aiming to change direction, become obstruction.

Let’s return to our pushy feminists. Of course pushiness becomes a feminist quality! How could it not be so? She is pushy because what she pushes against is not registered as existing; it because the history of being pushed that allows that what to take shape is not registered as having happened (a way of life, a social order; an institutional arrangement). The walls of which I have been writing are precisely about how what is pushed, what hardens in time, over time, is not encountered by those who are going in that direction. You might not encounter those walls because of who you are, or because of what you are not trying to do. Just trying to modify an existent arrangement is to become pushy.

For some to persist in being would require modifying a world: becoming pushy.

A killjoy: willing this becoming.

And of course: we can live, love and learn from pushing.  We can know more about what we are against, when we come up against it.

And my little secret.

I tend to love most those who tend to be most pushy.

And my little hope.

Together we can create a pushy riot.


Ahmed, Sara (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press.

————-(2014). Willful Subjects. Duke University Press.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2014). “The Story of My Work: How I Became Disabled,” Disability Studies Quarterly, 34, 2.

hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.

Said, Edward (1970). Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Thanks to all those who participated in a twitter discussion on being pushy and pushing and to Sarah Franklin for the expression “pushy riot.”

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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