I’m a feminist editor – but what does that even mean?

| November 29, 2021

I’ve been working as a writer and editor (in the English language) for almost twenty years within the global feminist ecosystem. I love writing about feminist issues, but especially enjoy exploring and documenting feminist praxis. These are processes and practices that are deliberately political and crafted so they disrupt harmful norms and contribute to the transformative change we seek. They represent the feminist principle that how we do things is just as important as why we are doing them. They are attentive to power imbalances and strive to disrupt them, and they are human-centred, collaborative and caring, inviting people to bring their authentic selves to the table.

Feminist editing is one of these practices. Even small language shifts can contribute to cultural change, and editors are important cogs in the machine.

As a writer, I’ve written in diverse styles – from academic to editorial – and developed my own style along the way by weaving elements together. As a reader, I feel most alive when I sense the heart in a piece and the place where it’s from. All of this has made me a curious editor. I’m curious about how language (in my case, English) is owned and used, and whose voices are being prioritised. Being embedded within and working with a dominant colonial language, I’ve learned how easy it can be to dismiss or quash a beautiful voice at the flick of the editorial wrist.

I’ve edited the work of many different authors – most of them using English as a second, third, fourth (or more!) language, which I have a profound respect for. I’ve also worked with different types of organisations – some of them not identifying as feminist at all. I’ve seen some especially rigid style guides – 50+ pages of “how we write” – that are so detailed they make your head spin. I’ve also witnessed the English grammar police in online spaces who take great pleasure in pointing out other people’s transgressions – often to detract from the salient and confronting point the author is making.

As the parent of a teenager, I find this language rigidity and ‘policing’ so interesting. Teenagers teach me daily how the English language is evolving (and how it’s impossible to hold on to archaic structures of the past). If my teenager has taught me anything about language, it’s to learn like the trees – how to bend and sway in the wind[1].

And so this leads us to feminist communications (yes, I started this sentence with ‘And’ and you can’t stop me).

Feminist communications

Feminist communications are not new. Inclusive language is not new. If you’re not comfortable working to ensure language is inclusive of all people and not perpetuating discrimination and oppression, then you are living in the past. LGBTQIA+ movements have led the way in this respect alongside racial justice movements, working to self determine how they define, claim and re-claim language that better represents their communities and challenges inequalities.

Pacific feminist Noelene Nabulivou says: “all people, all human rights, everywhere”. For me, this simple concept of inclusivity is why feminism inspires, and what it embodies. To this end, feminist communications are strategic and political in delivering this message through what is being said, how it is being said, and critically, who is saying it.

Feminist communications prioritise and amplify marginalised voices and strive to identify, disrupt and transform dominant, oppressive narratives and norms. It’s about shifting power to make our communities and planet more equitable, sustainable, safer and fair. Language is power and language justice is gaining momentum – the “cultivation of multilingual spaces that encourage voices from many different linguistic backgrounds to be heard in their native language”.

But what does this have to do with editing?

Feminist editing

Editing a research report with multiple contributors, from a large, international organisation requires a very different approach to editing an opinion piece by a single author or a blog by a small feminist organisation. But as a rule, feminist editing ensures the language being used is inclusive and does not reinforce oppression. A simple example is avoiding gender binaries and respecting and validating people’s identities. You might find this article helpful.

But it’s more than inclusivity. It’s also my vision as a feminist editor to ensure the piece is a direct and true expression of the author(s), which includes resisting the urge to ‘correct’ non-native English unless it truly interferes with clarity and makes it difficult to understand. Spelling is important for understanding (and for the record, I do not mean UK vs US English), but sentence construction and even the choice of words and turn of phrase can be quite diverse if you allow it. And when you allow it, you open thought doors. Doors that invite deeper thinking and exploration of a language you thought you knew, but you never really quite grasp. It’s English, but in another dimension (I see some of you nodding your head now).

Feminist editing is also intergenerational work. That comment I made earlier about teenagers? It’s not just an amusing reference. Young people communicate differently and have an excellent grasp of contemporary language. Constantly ‘correcting’ them so they fit into older generations’ framings of English is essentially silencing their voices and ways of expressing themselves and their stories.

My own, unwritten, style guide is to be flexible and organic to receive these different interpretations of the English language, to accept authors’ diverse language journeys, and to find beauty in the way that people translate complex concepts and feelings into words – especially authors who are fluent in multiple languages. As a person who is only fluent in English, I hold an immense and deep respect for people who operate in multiple languages. I especially love when languages mix to create a unique message that may not be ‘correct’ in English terms, but is completely understandable, beautiful, and broadens your horizon.

Why diminish and dilute this art through a rigid framework that is unaccepting of nuance? English itself is constantly evolving. There’s a reason the Oxford English Dictionary is online and regularly updated. For example, their October 21 update added almost 100 new words, sub-entries, and revisions.

How is this approach feminist, you ask? Well, let’s go back to my earlier comment about feminism’s goal of shifting power. English is a colonial language. Feminism is about the transformation of power structures to dismantle patriarchal and other intersecting systems of oppression with the intent to build an equitable and thriving planet for all. To me, the constant ‘policing’ of non-native English-speaking (or young) writers is an occupation of their thought processes and lived realities in order to make them conform and express their ideas and knowledges in a particular way. This is just another way to oppress, or at the very least, dismiss. It closes all of us off to the possibilities of understanding each other in multidimensional ways, and of challenging deeply entrenched norms that make people feel their contributions are ‘less than’ if they aren’t ‘perfect’.

So as a feminist editor, my message to all the English language editors and ‘grammar police’ out there is to ease up on the reins a little. Learn, like the trees (and the teenagers), to bend and sway. You’ll be contributing to the building of a more equitable, interesting and beautiful future.

[1] Borrowing from Ani Difranco’s Angry Anymore, 1999.