Performing Protest, Becoming Radical

Taking Judith Butler's premise that we 'perform gender', can we perform protest and become radical?

22nd June 2014 2pm-5pm

The Function Room, The Cock Tavern, 23 Phoenix Road, London, NW11HB


The Onion Discussions Speech! Speech!

a series of Sunday Lunches exploring the creative possibilities of the dinner speech organised by Jack Tan and Elizabeth Porter




SPEECH! SPEECH! is a series of Sunday lunches exploring the creative possibilities of the dinner speech. PERFORMING PROTEST, BECOMING RADICAL takes Judith Butler's premise that we 'perform gender' and become women, and asks whether we can perform protest and become radical?

An experiment in experiencing and speaking other people's words, the three orators performed three feminist speeches from past waves of feminism. The work considered how speech feeds back into our thinking, and whether we can escape our own feedback loops by using someone else's words. It asked whether we can encounter historical performances in a way that sheds light on how we think in the present, and thus what possibilities are opened up for social change.

This work is part of a series of experiments that explore how we encounter new ideas. It explores the personal within the political, to find out if we can become something other than what we are. For this experiment 3 speeches were performed to an audience at the first, second and third courses of a meal. Each speech was taken from the three waves of feminism, allowing the audience to trace the progress, and note the links between those movements. The results are recorded below.


Performer Feedback


Speaker Performer 1, Voice Recording 0.44 minutes

Speaker Performer 2, Voice Recording 1.37 minutes
Speaker Performer 3, Voice Recording 2.15 minutes
Audience Feedback

Record 1

‘In terms of how the speeches made me feel, I found myself more moved by the final speech that was read. I think this is possibly because its radical plight felt more closely familiar than the other two, which presented a sense of historicity, albeit still relevant to today in many ways. With the final speech I thought about the people sitting around the table listening - wondering about the ways in which the speech might ring true for them, how people had individually experienced abuse. With the first two, I thought more about their original reception, the kinds of women who might have attended these speeches, and also I wondered about the extent to which there would have been unanimous agreement. That's a strange thing about a historical speech - it's less easy to dissent to what is being said, because you know what comes after. Any action from a historical speech feels cannier, less passionate, less rabble-rousing, more controlled. I found that I appreciated and was impressed by the first two, whereas the last speech gave more space for impassioned critical reflection.

I realise that all of the above pretty much centres on the context of the speeches rather than the speech content. I suppose in terms of the aim of the feminist speech, to affect, alter, challenge, help shift prejudice and power hierarchy, the age of the women giving the speech, the age of the thoughts within the speech, and the audience (age, gender, sexual orientation) all play a big role. I don't know where feminism is now, whether it should shrink from blatant shows of female sexuality, whether masculinisation is the way, whether knitting could be radical, or whether there is a vestige of Beyonce that might still be salvaged. To this end, I very much appreciated the radical and directional quality of each speech - they acted as pointers, guides, a lesson in female empowerment, without becoming overwhelmed by the above confusion of knitting/masculine/Beyonce. This is also where I think performance plays an important role - the active process of shutting out the din, of saying with precision, clarity and confidence that there is a singular point of interest, guiding an audience in one direction.’

Record 2

‘I thought the speeches were powerful. I have never heard someone give a speech someone else has made in the past before. I think it is a good format for public engagement. I am not sure it moved me towards radicalism but it was thought provoking. What I felt most strongly was how well selected the three speeches were. To hear from three different women, living in different society, using different language, at different points of history, with different personalities. It helped to show how these issues, (the vote, abortion, domestic violence) can all be described as Feminist issues but how that label should not be allowed to marginalize them – how they are vital to everyone, living right across the spectrum. It made me think that the battle is not on each of these fronts but in a shift in attitudes.’

Record 3

‘I thought the readings were great. The variation in period and register was refreshing and I definitely think the pieces being read aloud, performed, helped me engage with them. Normally I take quite a passive role in discussions relating to feminism: I'm not satisfied with the description but they're often academic, inward looking and policed it seems to me... But I also don't seem to have things to say compared to people getting angry around me. Anyway for that reason the informal discussion after each piece, aided by passing food, was nice and helped to break the ice. I left and explained my sense of alienation from organised feminism/activism (though I'm interested and impressed by it in others, I'd be conjuring something I don't have if I weighed in ordinarily). Hearing pieces meant to be heard, to incite, helped to do just that and get through it. Following the pieces hearing how this relates to lived life for me now was what interest me most. So in a way, feeling angry about not being part of something I feel like I should feel personal about, but don't, radicalised me marginally.’

Record 4

“Re the words: it was really good to hear the speech transcripts read out loud, the words brought off the page by the voice etc . I esp enjoyed the Pankhurst speech. The live element with the choice of using 1st, 2nd, 3rd wave feminist speeches gave it a strong archival feel over all. The linear/chronological presentation of the speeches made me think of a ‘building towards’ motion, to the extent that I was maybe expecting a contemporary feminist voice/speech at the end. ie a speech from a contemporary feminist right now.
Re your question about radicalisation –  hearing the speeches in the meal context made me think about confrontation. Esp the difference of the speeches real life initial incendiary moments and the moment when they are re-presented in 2014 at a meal and what that does to the audience and to the speeches. obvs it's a very different context and I think maybe my earlier point about having a contemporary feminist voice might have been a good anchor point, so radicalisation could be discussed/considered a bit more. Re the choice of texts I liked making mental threads about women’s bodies as both a site and source of violence: 1st = the violence women can commit and liberated themselves through politically and socially, 2nd – the violence of women’s experience as reproductive body/form, 3rd - the violence committed to women as a matter of course. Arendt was in my head a lot afterwards.”