In the first two parts of this series, I talked a bit about some of the things that has been holding feminism back from being able to speak to the fact of gender variance. In part one, I mentioned the way that a considerable amount of feminist theory, radical feminism in particular, based itself on a binary dialectic, with a male oppressor class and a female slave class. Not unlike how marxism reduced all oppressions and social ills to consequences of the tension between the bourgois (property owners) and proletariat (workers), and envisioned a world where everything would just be dandy if we could get rid of private property, considerable swathes of feminism imagined a world where patriarchy was the defining oppression, all others simply consequences of it, and everything, perhaps, would be just dandy if we could just get rid of gender.
Obviously, such a utopian vision reads a lot more like a nightmarish, brutal dystopia to me. The world they propose creating in their Rad-Fem 2012 conferences, a world where gender transition is outlawed and called a “human rights violation”, is a world I would fight as hard as possible to prevent being realized.
And in part two I talked a bit about the degree to which much of feminism, again radical feminism in particular, has staked far far far too much on an absolutist, social-constructivist view of gender. This is a vision fundamentally at odds with the evidence, and if feminism as a whole can’t learn to resolve the “nature vs. nurture” debate (a debate trans-feminism got over years ago) then it’s going to doom itself to becoming discredited and irrelevent. Which isn’t good for anyone, given the degree to which we all depend on the sustained presence of a strong feminist movement.
But these problems don’t simply create an inability for feminism to address the needs of people who don’t fit into a cissexist, binary vision of gender and sex. They’ve furthermore steered feminism into a dead-end alley, careening at top speed towards a great big brick wall marked “intersectionality”.
The question of intersectionality has for a very long time been central to the evolutions feminism has gone through over the course of the 20th century. There has been a constant tendency within feminism for the movement’s goals and focus to be defined by the most privileged women within it, and for those most privileged women to have the strongest and most vocal voices.
This is true of all social movements. The black civil rights movement ended up having issues with sexism and homophobia, the gay rights movement ended up having issues with sexism, racism, ableism and transphobia, and even trans-feminism has a tendency for the strongest voices to be heard the loudest, even when speaking issues that the less privileged have been discussing for years. I talked a little bit about that on Wednesday.
A question that’s been bothering me a whole lot lately, especially considering how much of the things I’ve been thinking about lately are inextricably tied to intersectional oppressions, like the distribution of violence and risk, is the degree to which my relative prominence in trans-feminism, and my rare ability to reach a cisgender audience, is simply a byproduct of my other privileges. My being white, able-bodied, binary-identified, relatively gender-conforming, etc. And while I’m by no means middle-class, I certainly “pass” as such.
I always did. It’s part of how I managed to sustain a heroin addiction for three years without ever landing a criminal record. Smile at the cops. Let them think you’re just a harmless middle-class white kid slumming it, and be safely on your way.
Feminism, though, in speaking to such a broad population, and such a defining aspect of our lives (there is virtually no one out of this entire planet’s seven billion inhabitants, who has not ended up a participant in the political dynamics of gender), faced considerable pressure to address the needs of women other than the white, the middle-class, the heterosexual, the nuclear familied (is that a word? familied? I like it!). And over time, those pressures played out. Divisions occurred. Adaptations. Evolutions. Different waves were marked.
The third wave in particular was marked by an attempt to deal with the “problem” of intersectionality. It had other elements too, such as shifting to a conception of patriarchy as a distributed, emergent system of relationships, rather than a bottom-down, deliberate effort to control and subjugate women (though the latter does sometimes occur, of course). But where the third wave failed was in attempting to fit intersectional oppressions into the frameworks of feminism, rather than attempting to simply locate feminism in a larger, cooperative project of working against oppression itself.
Trans people aren’t the only group hated and abhorred by radical feminists. Sex workers come to mind, too. And the “lib-fems” and “fun-fems”. I’d also love to take a look at the distributions of race, ability and economic class if they successfully throw one of these conferences.
The problem is largely in the lingering existence of those basic, limited theoretical premises. If, for instance, patriarchy is the fundamental oppression, then intersectionality will always take a back seat to the gender dynamic, regardless of whatever complications and power differentials are in play. Take an interaction between a black man and a white woman. Who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed? A parapalegic man and an able-bodied woman. A man on the dole and the woman at the ministry who decides whether or not he gets his check. A sex worker and her client. A trans woman and a cis woman.
One of the most common arguments I hear from MRAs is something like “If you’re for equality, why do you call it feminism then? Feminism is for female-supremacy! Why not call it equalism?” My response is always pretty simple. We don’t need to tackle every human rights issue all at the same time. It’s okay to have particular areas of focus. And given the way power is distributed along the lines of gender in our culture, the way that although oppositional sexism hurts men too women are positioned as the “lower” status within that opposition binary, it totally, completely makes sense to prioritize addressing misogyny and how sexism impacts women (albeit with the intent to help guys out too while we at it, since ideally we’ll also be dismantling all the stupid structures that lead to the splash damage harming men).
It’s okay for gay and lesbian people to sometimes focus on issues that affect them specifically, without also having to work on trans rights issues. And it’s okay for black civil rights activists to sometimes focus on issues affecting them specifically without having to always include every other oppressed racial minority at the same time.
That’s all okay.
We could envision a world of social justice activism defined by a whole bunch of different movements, each with their own priorities and areas of focus, such that they can better narrow down their goals and determine the ideal strategies for meeting those goals, but at the same time existing in cooperation. Listening to one another. Not undermining one another. And being totally ready to drop their focus and work together whenever and wherever the issues and goals start to overlap.
That would be an awesome world.
But we’re just not there. Not yet anyway. But I think we can get there!
However, that won’t ever happen so long as we continue to act like the only reason to consider a given cause important enough to act on is to consider it definitively important, so important it eclipses other issues. It seems that simply saying “this is one of several important things that we, as a society, need to work on” isn’t enough for many people to feel happy with. Or happy investing themselves in. It always has to be “OMG THIS IS LIKE TOTALLY FUCKING THE MOST IMPORTANT SHIT IN THE HISTORY OF THE GODDAMN COSMOS EVERYONE STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND PROTEST THIS SHIT RIGHT THE FUCK NOW!!!”
But if we’re all competing for attention, and refusing to work with the rather obvious truth that, yeah, there’s more than one kind of oppression at play, more than one problem to deal with (and we can’t ALL deal with ALL of them ALL the time) we’re going to be stuck in a situation of actively undermining one another’s efforts. Theories become entrenched. Interpretations become distorted. Someone who is very obviously being oppressed within the grander cultural framework is seen as the “oppressor”, the “enemy”, simply because you can’t accept that there are other forces at work in addition to those you’ve most invested yourselves in.
I don’t want to be part of any feminism that refuses to acknowledge there’s more than one means by which an individual may be oppressed or marginalized. And I certainly don’t want to be part of any feminism that refuses to acknowledge more than one form of gender-based oppression.
What I’d love to see is a feminism with a degree of humility. To stop looking at everything exclusively through the lens of established feminist theory. To be willing to accept realities the theory hasn’t yet accounted for. To be willing to accept other axes of oppression. And most of all, to start working towards finding how feminism can fit into the larger project of social justice activism, as a much-needed aspect of a whole that’s goals aren’t simply feminist goals, but human ones. A feminism that sees itself as a piece of a puzzle. The branch of activism that’s there to look at how gender plays out in oppressive ways and find ways to make it a play out a little more compassionately, tolerantly, fairly, openly. A feminism that can interlock with other pieces of the puzzle whenever it’s needed.
A feminism that is willing to let go of a premise when it stops working. A feminism that can admit when it got something wrong. A feminism that, rather than imposing its view of gender and the world on everyone else, tries to make some room for as many such views and genders and worlds as possible. A feminism that can bloody well cooperate with other types of activism, and acknowledge other oppressions. And perhaps most importantly, a feminism that considers people, their lives, their experiences and their choices, more important than theory, camps, branches and politics.
Feminism is needed. Feminism is essential to moving forward as a species. But only if feminism itself is capable of moving forward.