I’ve been thinking a bit about -isms.
There are constant discussions about whether we should reject the term feminism, and this post isn’t about that, because I think a ‘rebranding’ (thanks for that nonsense, Cosmo) would only be a capitulation to patriarchal oppression. The term feminism makes people uncomfortable because it sounds ‘militant’ or has been historically and purposefully denigrated by male-dominated media? Well, then, the uncomfortable will have to live with that, as we feminists live, daily, with a society built on oppressive gender stereotypes and arbitrary segregation along the lines of sex. We will honour the history of our movement by not insulting it with these kinds of discussion.
However, what has been bothering me recently, on an individual level, is the different splintering feminisms. We hear a lot of talk about intersectionality – that is, recognising that individuals are oppressed along multiple axes at the same (gender, race, class, sexuality, disability etc) – and yet, each sect of feminism setting itself against past waves of feminism or current, alternate forms of feminism, is that not achieving the exact opposite of the spirit of intersectionality? Intersectionality is supposed to bring different types of women together to share an appreciation of their different oppressions. It is not supposed to create a hierarchy of those oppressions, but to take account of how each group may need different legal approaches (Crenshaw, who coined intersectionality, is a law professor) – and subsequently, people have applied this to political approaches. But surely all these different sects of feminism divide us further and achieve the opposite of intersectionality? Not only are we at loggerheads with mainstream patriarchal, capitalist, racist society, but with each other. Despite the shared experience of oppression.
Now, I’m not naive – we’re not going to fix this anytime soon. But, to veer off into my personal experience for a moment, all my recent feminist experiences are hugely coloured by a divide, not a solidarity. The media talks a lot about misogynisitic attacks on women daring to air their views online. Most of my attacks come not from men, or non-feminist women, but feminist women. And why? Because I’m not ‘doing feminism right’ according to their particular sect’s definition of it. I’ve been told (and I’m sure plenty of people reading will have had this experience) that I’m not a feminist because I hold xyz view. It doesn’t even matter so much what that view is, because I could hold the opposite view and someone may tell me it’s ‘not feminist.’ I have just done a degree in Gender Studies, I spent most of my free time campaigning or attending events about gender / feminism, I self-define as a feminist, and, you know, I really care. But apparently none of that matters if I disagree strongly with another feminist on how best to alter a certain law to help a certain group of marginalised women. I have been to events recently where feminists have purposefully disrupted events other feminists have worked tirelessly to arrange for the purpose of feminist discussion and, to be honest, all the shouting and attempts to talk over other women just came off as a perfect emulation of how patriarchal spaces treat women who try to speak. Blimey.
This isn’t actually about me, I’m just giving examples to paint a picture for those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of feminist politics. To back away from individuals and their behaviour for a moment, and to think about these different collective feminisms, what I see is individuals being forced to choose one feminism or another, when they might not fully fit into one, because, let’s face it – one approach to a political problem is probably never going to hold all the answers. And again, we’re splintering, instead of pooling resources, energy, and methodologies. What people don’t understand is that this is the very paradox of intersectionality: the more we split people into different groups – those racially oppressed, those oppressed by sex, those oppressed by disablism and then those oppressed by more than one, we have split ourselves into groups that have different, often incompatible needs. It’s not simple. It’s not just, ‘feminism is too white, invite some black feminists along to our next event, done!’ This is why it has its origins in legal theory, and not political theory: it was a contextual, specific response to the US legal system, not necessarily applicable – or certainly not without immense struggle and forethought – to every situation worldwide in feminist politics. But suddenly, people think they can tick a few boxes and achieve it. And they seem to think claiming one feminist label as a riposte to another, ‘evil’ type is achieving something positive too. By my god, talk about simplified!
I’ll give you an example. Radical feminism, for instance, has a brilliant approach to being really hands-on in tackling violence against women, in stepping back from looking solely at individuals and their choices and whether those are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and looking at the bigger picture. Where do those ‘choices’ come from in the first place? How do they come to be seen as ‘choices’? For instance, women do not ‘choose’ freely, with no outside influences, to shave. It is socially conditioned. And ultimately, it is, in most instances, likely to be about the male gaze. However, because radical feminism names gender – here, femininity – as an oppressive means / norm by which that impulse to shave is imposed upon women rather than men, it struggles to agree with trans* / queer politics, which sees gender as an identity to be claimed, not an oppressive force. And yet, you can find radical feminists, of course, who are not opposed to trans* rights (even to women-only space). And they are definitely on board with all the other problems queer feminism claims to fight:
- Racism, imperialism, genocide, and violence
- Strict rules about gender and sexuality that hurt everyone whether male, female, both, or neither
- Blaming and shaming of […] anyone who does not fit a narrow and arbitrary body standard
- Rape culture
- A tendency to claim that democracy and liberal politics fixes all ills, rather than addressing society’s problems
(Definition from queer feminism.com)
So, in fact, we see there is no ‘radical feminism’either, but radical feminisms, which is why people use the term ‘TERF’ (trans-exclusive radical feminism) when they argue against women-only spaces that define ‘woman’ as ‘biological woman’. Essentially, all of it comes down to a disagreement over what gender is. And yes, that is about subjectivity and theory. There isn’t a straightforward answer to what gender is, people have been fighting over that question for decades. So let’s not simplify and pretend our version, and therefore, our feminism, is ‘correct’.
I have no solutions, I’m just one person struggling with being pulled into one part of feminism by certain interests and finding I disagree with other parts of that feminism. Yet having been ‘claimed’ by one section, just the very act of associating with them, leaves me rejected by other parts. I’d quite like to dip between types and expand my views, actually, but that is being withheld from me to a certain degree (I can go to certain events but will have to keep quiet on some of my views so as not to be attacked / potentially thrown out). And I think that says a lot about our politics. Not only is it diluted by not trying to work together, even if we then still feel the need to define ourselves differently, but the politics is defining us, not the other way round.
I went to an event recently and a woman read a poem about rejecting all -isms: socialism, feminism etc. I listened with interest because she was saying that we must go our own way and not feel coerced into joining into pre-defined political spaces. And yet, that is exactly what happens – we try to create our own politics, but the -isms suck us in and define what is and isn’t possible before we know it. Next thing you know it, I am a ‘sex-critical’ feminist and therefore cannot be a ‘queer’ feminist. Really? But I hate body-shaming too, I hate racism, I hate imperialism, ‘free speech’ to defend hate speech, rape culture and violence and pre-determined gender roles and so on. These are not exclusive to queer politics – in fact, it has a renowned history of racism and whiteness. And yet, it is absolutely the case that the divide between these types of feminism feels insurmountable. But, despite its imperfections and arguments, I cannot let go of this movement and stop trying to improve it. It has given me – and us all – too much.
So, yes, I am a proud feminist; feminism should never rebrand. But I want to be free to bridge types of feminism. I will not claim any single label without caveat.