What Ruth First’s underthings told me about leadership

Claire Martens
Claire Martens

By Claire Martens

The other day I attended a Ruth First-related event. I sat next to someone from a well-respected organisation, an organisation I won’t mention, but who updated me on some of their women’s programme work in Southern Africa. It was not all good news. She told me that much of their attempts have been thwarted by lack of good leadership, where personal agendas override the general issues, leading to poor mobilisation and a loss of critical mass.


Speakers at the event talked about the feminism of Ruth First, her powerful teachings and her refusal to negate herself in the face of perceptions. This final point came about through a discussion of her clothing. I know that seems benign, but some audience members took offence to the description of her silky underthings. What the speaker was suggesting, however, was that even though Ruth First identified and sympathised with the working class and a racial group not her own, she still remained true to herself and her love of silky underthings, despite peoples’ ideas of how she should act or dress.

That is a side issue, but a teaching which I have taken to heart. We tend to negate our own desires, passions and hobbies when we take on an agenda. When I first identified as a feminist, I used to talk about my love for washing clothes with sarcasm, negating this joyful occupation because it doesn’t seem like something a feminist would do. Bollocks. This untruth about feminism is something I have accepted even before I heard about Ruth’s love of expensive and elegant clothing.

But the real matter which arose from the event was the question of leadership. While I sat there listening to the speakers praise Ruth First, I tried to think of someone who is like her, that I personally know, and who I respect considerably. While at the time it was difficult, partly due to the fact that none that I know have been assassinated recently, I have subsequently come to understand that there are leaders amongst the people I know or know of. They may not be known to others, or may do simple work, but as people they are incredible. I can name many but I think I will name just one. When I think about my own personal feminist leader, I think about Jen Thorpe, who has beaten a path for me to be the feminist I am today.

What I have realised about the feminist movement (or women’s movement) is that is fragmented (in my opinion). Worse, I think that many young women and men don’t identify with it because their perceptions of feminism are messed up. They may be messed up because feminists are not a homogenous group of women (only), but have different passions, agendas and different identities. What feminism requires is a leader who doesn’t have a personal agenda and who identifies that all issues related to women are important. We need a leader who breaks down stereotypes and who never negates what she believes, despite opposition and perceptions. Mostly, we need a leader who has the intelligence and rationality to tackle the issues in a way that does not isolate or fragment an already fragmented movement. We need a leader who doesn’t negate the work of the movement, but gives it a strong identity and ethic.

As Jen will attest, her leadership in this movement has not been easy. The thing about leading is that you become the target for the movement. She recently wrote about the harassment she endured from an online source. All the time that leaders are leading and taking on the burden of being targeted, their support is required for other’s work. People like Jen cannot do it alone. As feminists, we need to make sure that the forcefulness of feminism is supported by a united front. While I think that there are many common issues which we face, I get the feeling that other issues may go unsupported because they do not speak to the core agendas of other feminists. We need to pick our fights. We must not waste our energies. We need to decide on what will really make a difference and go for gold. While I am a great believer in little actions making the world a progressively better place, I also believe that we need to be making bigger changes. We need to be changing the system as a whole. The question for me is who will lead?


1 thought on “What Ruth First’s underthings told me about leadership”

  1. i agree with you about Jen. i admire her work tremendously – and especially her guts and determination, the way she keeps on keeping on in doing it … i don’t know how she maintains her faith and optimism. hard, and often thankless work. so, thanks Jen.


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