Dispatches from the Margins: On Feminist Movement Building

A brief foreword: this post is, as ever, written in the hope that it will enable women to come to a greater place of understanding. After a period of contemplation, I have decided to address the issue of racism at FiLiA 2017 because if it requires women of colour to keep quiet about racism, it’s not sisterhood and never can be. There is potential for better. It is the first in a series of personal reflective essays about feminist movement building.


 

I am tired. So very tired. There are days when I want to withdraw from the feminist movement. There are days when I want to withdraw from life. So far, I have done neither because I’m conscious that it’s a sickness that plants the seeds of suicidality in my mind. And if I have to live in this world, you can be damned certain that I’m going to try and make it a better place for women and girls to inhabit – to firmly grasp the roots of injustice with both hands and pull. While my mental health and participation in the feminist movement may not at first glance appear connected, both are consistently and adversely affected by one common factor: racism.

It is widely acknowledged by feminists that sisterhood is the most sustaining force, what keeps our movement in motion despite the weight of constant struggle. And as women who live our politics, aiming to unite theory and practice in the everyday, that solidarity between women is vital to a feminist’s being in all spheres of her life.

As I have previously written, I believe that racism is one of the greatest barriers to sisterhood between women. Since 2014 I have devoted significant energy and time to removing that barrier by challenging racism within the feminist movement. This has involved using my back as a bridge to bring white women to a place of understanding, guiding white women through the process of unlearning racism, letting my experiences of racism become teachable moments, and – frankly – showing more patience with white women’s casual racism than anyone could reasonably be expected to give. I have tried to make myself and my words a conduit for movement away from racism, movement towards true solidarity between women and girls.

In some ways, this project has been a success. It shows when a white woman has taken the time to critically examine her own racism and altered her behaviour towards women of colour. I’ve run many gentle interventions, large and small, and actually feel really proud of that work when I see a white woman is consciously unlearning racism after our conversations, when I see a change in how she practices her feminism. I don’t do it because white women deserve the Morgan Freeman treatment – members of the dominant class (in this case, white people) aren’t entitled to a unique level of understanding from people of colour. No, I do it for the women of colour whose paths will cross with those white women in feminist organising and other settings. Women of colour deserve so much better from the feminist movement than to be pushed to its margins, just as we are within a mainstream context. And so I tried to build pockets of space where white women could get to grips with basic anti-racist politics without fear of being castigated for asking questions which belied racism (again, it took an extreme degree of patience) or spiralling into defensiveness when that racism was addressed.

I think that racism flourishes because of all the silences that are allowed to grow around it. Race exists as a hierarchy, and white people are invested in upholding that hierarchy in order to retain the socioeconomic power that comes with it – and maintaining the hierarchy of race is partly achieved by making its acknowledgement taboo. Through an extraordinary feat of mental gymnastics, talking about race – in particular the realities of that hierarchy as experienced when your skin happens to be Black or brown – becomes a far greater offence than being complicit in systematic injustice.

Talking about race becomes a transgression, which is politically significant. Both within feminist spaces and in mainstream society we are all, to varying degrees, rewarded for not speaking about race and – by extension – posing no threat to whiteness as an ideology. The shame attached to talking about the dynamic of race acts as a buffer of sorts, a layer cushioning racism from in-depth scrutiny or challenge. If we cannot name or identify racism, how can we oppose it? This layer of silence creates distance between the act of racism and accountability for being racism. It is what protects the ideology behind racism from being unpicked. And so I have crafted contexts in which race may be discussed.

FiLiARecently I delivered a keynote address at FiLiA 2017, sharing my vision of interracial solidarity in the feminist movement with the conference. FiLiA was a complicated experience. For months in advance I had planned to use my time to talk about the radical and often untapped possibilities within sisterhood – but it was only the day before conference that the reality hit: I would be stepping into a predominantly white space to speak about racism, putting myself in a more exposed position than is comfortably occupied as a Black woman. And it was a very white space: I saw more Black women in the student cafeteria upstairs than in the entire conference setting. Vulnerability is a necessary part of the radical honesty that movement building demands, yet there is a fine balance between what it is to be vulnerable in talking about race and exposed to racism. Still, I gave the talk and sent those ideas out to permeate the conference.

Responses to my FiLiA address have been rather overwhelming – mostly in a good way. White women have thanked me for opening their eyes to something they hadn’t previously considered with a bit of Racism 101, shared the ways in which they plan on organising differently, and a few even said that my words changed their lives. Women of colour’s responses have been more layered, coming at the issue from a standpoint so much closer to my own, and profoundly moving. But, in the immediate aftermath, one particular response devastated me.

After the session where I spoke, I attended a panel about body positivity: Flaunting Fearlessness. Fat, disabled, and Black women are the pioneers of the body positivity movement – so their absence on the panel was immediately noticeable. The speakers consisted of four white women in the room and one Asian woman Skyping from Los Angeles: I do not name these women because a public shaming is not my objective. Instead I want to address the impact of the classism, anti-Blackness, and ableism that were woven into the conversation and uncontested by the chair. It was deeply uncomfortable and, more than that, pushed women with little social power to the margins of the movement.  Listening to that panel I grew acutely conscious that they did not view our concerns as women’s concerns, did not perceive our struggles to be women’s struggles. Having spent the morning inviting women to build interracial solidarity at the conference, it was devastating.

Sitting in the audience was acutely painful. I deliberated over whether to say anything, but a friend pointed out that the burden of challenging racism shouldn’t fall to a Black woman. So Siân raised her hand and, with real empathy, invited the panel to consider how the racism projected onto Black children has resulted in them being penalised by their school or having their hair cut off by teachers. She spoke about how money acted as a barrier to so many spaces and experiences that were being described as crucial to body positivity. She addressed the harm done by recreating hierarchies within feminist spaces. She brought up the issue of representation, or lack thereof, on the panel. And Siân, bold and brilliant, was applauded by women across the room. It was the best example of a calling in that I have ever witnessed – a genuine, compassion-filled invitation to connect.

But Siân’s invitation, like mine, was rejected. The panellist who claimed to be part of a movement so inclusive that even her dog belonged in it said “I could talk about race all day, but we can’t make everything about race.” In a society founded upon white supremacist principles, everything is already inherently racialised. To claim that those of us who address the hierarchy of race are responsible for making an issue about race is to miss the point spectacularly. Explaining that to the panel was impossible. Building a bridge was impossible. So I left the session. And I wasn’t the only one.

I left that session in tears, empty and exhausted. I found a quiet place to sit and breathe. I brought the issue to the attention of the FiLiA team, who admitted to having concerns about the Flaunting Fearlessness panel beforehand. And I agreed to help the collective as they take the necessary steps to ensure such a thing never happened at any future FiLiA conference – a point to which I will return. My reason for doing so was the same as my reason for attempting to build interracial solidarity between women in the first place: to improve a feminist space for women of colour. All the while Siân was checking up on me, making sure I didn’t feel alone.

I did not ultimately decide to leave the conference, but neither did I attend any other sessions that day. Instead I ended up sitting on the steps with Liz and letting myself be drawn into a series of comfortable conversations with women – conversations about the gendered expectations of caring, women’s spaces, and the politics of lesbian weddings. Liz Kelly is something of a litmus test for how I will engage (or not engage) with white women in a feminist setting. There are very few white feminists holding my absolute trust, but Liz is one – and so the white women she vouches for are generally among the white women I’m open to connecting with. I will not universalise this experience and say that this is an option for every Black woman: it’s not. But letting Liz’s judgements inform my own is a mechanism that saves me a lot of energy that would otherwise be spent guarding against racism in one form or another.

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Liz has enabled me to occupy a range of predominantly white feminist environments that would otherwise not have been bearable. Siân’s courage in holding space for Black women saved me emotional labour and alienation. As I have previously written, I dislike the concept of allyship because it invariably sinks into something hollow and performative. Instead of allyship, I consider such actions as a manifestation of solidarity between women. Sisterhood is powerful – or it can be, when women are prepared to work to build it.

I value sisterhood with white women, complicated as it is. And I value solidarity with men of colour, though they are similarly complicated by context. The two are not mutually exclusive – actually, in my experience, they fit together because they are both born from living a politics of connection. The Black security guard kept catching my eye as I danced with a group of otherwise white women at the FiLiA party on Saturday night, and every time I’d laugh. Those little moments of shared understanding made me feel seen as surely as Liz or Siân did.

Within my interactions with other women of colour lies the greatest significance. But, for various reasons – all of which relate directly to power – those are the interactions about which I can say least. Most women I will not name, because they have enough to manage without being scrutinised by white women as a result of these words. Some (me included) recede into ourselves in predominantly white feminist environments, too focussed on how best to negotiate the space, too guarded against the very real risk of racism, to be fully connected with what’s going on. This is white women’s loss far more than it is a loss for women of colour. Since becoming part of the feminist movement I have watched many of the brightest and most insightful women I know clam up in spaces that are hostile to them, spaces in which their perspectives would have been of greater relevance and use than anything said by the voices centred. Such is the risk of treating white women’s voices as default.

During both days at conference I took the opportunity to connect with women from various feminist networks and communities – some of them posted about catching up with me on Twitter and Facebook, which is pretty standard of how these things go. And on more than one occasion another woman of colour messaged me privately to indicate which white women I ought to be careful around any why. (When it comes to racism, the receipts will always catch up with you.) The reach of racism in any mixed feminist space is disconcerting. And while it is grim that women of colour are in a position where protecting one another is necessary, it is a wonderful thing to be held by that sisterhood.

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The final product

On the second day of FiLiA I carried a bag of knitting around with me – having a repetitive, constructive action from which something beautiful grows is soothing. I joked to friends that returning for the next day of conference after addressing the issue of racism felt a bit like being Maleficent at Aurora’s christening. Knitting was a way to retreat from those worries and find a sense of calm. Over the lunch break I sat on the steps with a group of friends and knitted, having reached the level of anxiety at which eating food ceases to be a viable option. One of those friends was a woman I first met at the previous conference, when it was still known as Feminism in London – we had both been quiet with one another, feeling out of place (read: conspicuously brown) in that context. Although that same discomfort persisted, we had a frank and gentle conversation about anxiety – I felt seen by her, and hope she felt seen by me too, which can be the greatest gift when you are conscious of being made Other.

Later on, after knitting my way through a panel on specialised women’s services, I felt like food was possible. In the queue I bumped into Rahila Gupta and another woman. We talked about the politics of voice – who is heard, who is ignored. We talked about public speaking, when we preferred to read from notes or speak off the cuff. And Rahila asked for my perspective. It was nothing short of astonishing to me that a woman as brilliant as Rahila Gupta would treat me as a peer. Long before meeting her, I read of Rahila’s work with Southall Black Sisters in archive materials at Glasgow Women’s Library.

That interaction stayed with me all through the day and long after the closing session of FiLiA. Maya Angelou, who was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding contributions to literature, once lamented that “I have written eleven books,maya-angelou-quote but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” As was often the case, her words lit upon a truth – one which I find highly relatable. Part of me suspects that sooner or later it will emerge that my ideas are worthless – all writing opportunities withdrawn, prizes and nominations revoked, and so on. Even being invited to give a keynote by the FiLiA organising team, I did not have a sense that it was legitimate for me to occupy that space and worried that my thoughts on feminist movement building would immediately be discredited. The things I wonder ‘is it legitimate for me to say this?’ are often the things that most desperately need saying. And yet…

Imposter syndrome isn’t uncommon among women of colour. In fact, imposter syndrome is rife within the networks of Black & brown women who make up my peer group. They achieve extraordinary things, build extraordinary spaces, create extraordinary works – and continue to be plagued by self-doubt. That self-doubt is informed by context: it is what happens when we absorb the racism and misogyny thrown our way in this society. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is one of the finest journalists of this generation, yet she too is familiar with imposter syndrome:

“This is the key difference between the imposter syndrome suffered by women of colour and others: the strong forces telling our subconscious that we are undeserving of success and that we don’t belong in the environments we inhabit. We don’t see people who look like us, hear accents like ours, or, necessarily, have role models. Our insecurities over our achievements are the effect of people reacting with shock when they realise how well [we are] doing…”

If the feminist movement is truly concerned with the liberation of all women and girls then we as feminists must ensure that our spaces do not replicate the same old hierarchies, but instead create a viable challenge to those hierarchies. If those spaces happen to be racially mixed, white women have a responsibility to uplift women of colour – to centre our voices instead of pushing us to the margins. White women have a responsibility to actively unlearn their racism. It is the white women who cling to racism that should doubt the legitimacy speaking on feminist politics, not the women of colour whose words are a fundamental challenge to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

In the weeks after FiLiA I was hugely conflicted, but ultimately I stand by my radical vision of sisterhood – one in which true interracial solidarity between women is possible. Whether or not I have the energy to help bring that vision into being is another question altogether.  I am not a well woman. Neither am I a resource for white women to mine. And, in the spirit of honesty, it is far more tempting to devote all that energy to becoming a crochet master – something sustaining, not draining.

Still, I have spoken with Lisa-Marie – the founder of FiLiA – about the conference. To me, the most significant factor is how a white woman responds to racism – will she deny the issue is there, or will she grasp it at the root? Lisa-Marie was adamant that FiLiA is to be a space where women can engage with feminist politics free from racism, classism, ableism, or any other form of prejudice. She fully acknowledges that FiLiA is imperfect in its present form and is determined that the space engages with issues of structural power – which is why I offered Lisa-Marie my perspective on how FiLiA can evolve and gave her permission to check in with me on developments. FiLiA is flawed, but something good can grow there. Perhaps, with enough work, FiLiA will become a place where interracial sisterhood flourishes. Like I said on the stage: “to be a feminist is to be an optimist.”

 

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Binary or Spectrum, Gender is a Hierarchy

A brief foreword: this is the fifth essay in my series on sex, gender, and sexuality. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 are available here on Sister Outrider. With this essay, I challenge the notion that gender can be repurposed as anything other than a hierarchy. This one is dedicated to E, a stellar lesbian and feminist.


 

“It is impossible to name and act against oppression if there are no nameable oppressors.” – Mary Daly

What is Gender?

Gender is a fiction created by patriarchy, a hierarchy imposed by men to ensure their dominance over women. The idea of a gender binary was established in order to justify the subordination of women by positioning our oppression by men as a natural state of affairs, the result of how characteristics innately held by men and women manifest. Framing gender as natural not only serves to depoliticise the hierarchy, but uses essentialism in order to convince women that radical resistance to gender – the means of our oppression – is futile. Hopelessness breeds apathy, which undermines social change more effectively than any overt challenge. If abolishing gender (and therefore dismantling patriarchy) is an unobtainable goal, women have no choice but to accept our status as second-class citizens of the world. To treat gender as inherent is to accept a patriarchal blueprint for the design of society.

gender imageGender is a hierarchy that enables men to be dominant and conditions women into subservience. As gender is a fundamental element of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984) it is particularly disconcerting to see elements of queer discourse argue that gender is not only innately held but sacrosanct. Far from being a radical alternative to the status quo, the project of “queering” gender only serves to replicate the standards set by patriarchy through its essentialism. A queer understanding of gender does not challenge patriarchy in any meaningful way – rather than encouraging people to resist the standards set by patriarchy, it offers them a way to embrace it. Queer politics have not challenged traditional gender roles so much as breathed fresh life into them – therein lies the danger.

To argue that gender could or should be “queered” is to lose sight of how gender functions as a system of oppression. Hierarchies cannot, by definition, be assimilated into the politics of liberation. Structural power imbalances cannot be subverted out of existence – reducing gender to a matter of performativity or personal identification denies its practical function as a hierarchy. Any ideology which flagrantly disregards gender as the method of women’s oppression cannot be described as feminist – indeed, as queer ideology remains largely uncritical of the power disparity behind sexual politics, it is anti-woman.

The logic of gender identity is fundamentally flawed, resting on the premise that gender is innately held. As feminists have argued for decades, gender is socially constructed – a fabrication designed to grant men dominion over women. The upbringing of children, 1600-Genderbread-Persongendered even before birth, serves to divide the sexes into a dominant and subservient class. Feminism recognises that biological sex exists while opposing essentialism, opposing the idea that sex dictate who or what we are capable of being as humans. Feminism asserts that our character, qualities, and personality are not defined by whether we are male or female. Conversely, queer theory argues that one set of traits is inherently masculine and another set of traits is inherently feminine, and our identity is dependent on how we align with those traits.

 

Instead of acknowledging that there are multitudes of ways to be a man or a woman, queer theory pigeonholes people into an ever-increasing range of categories organised by stereotype. There is no scientific evidence to support the existence of gendered brains, and claims of inherently gendered brains are the product of neurosexism (Fine, 2010). Yet queer ideology positions gender as an innately held identity, claiming that gender “is what you feel.”

“The manacles of a lifetime of cultural conditioning that has tried to convince me that gender is a biological fact rather than a social construct are more difficult to shake off than I would like.” – Louise O’Neill, I Call Myself A Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty

The Trouble with Gender Identity

Despite its essentialism, the queer understanding of gender has grown increasingly mainstream within progressive and feminist spaces. It is not difficult to understand why. Gender ideology acknowledges that a binary of male and female gender roles are restrictive for individuals, but instead of advocating the extensive work required to dismantle the hierarchy of gender, it offers a far easier solution: an individual opt-out clause that enables people to make peace with patriarchy. To embrace gender ideology is to embrace a narrative of exceptionalism. To embrace gender ideology is to accept that there is a class of people naturally suited to their position within the hierarchy of gender (be it oppressed or oppressor), and a class of people who are exceptions to the traditional rules of gender.

There is a fundamental problem with queer gender ideology. As I have previously written, that problem is misogyny. To claim certain groups are naturally suited to the gender role imposed upon their sex category – “cis” people – is to endorse misogyny. The women categorised as cis, by the logic of gender identity, are inherently suited to being oppressed by men. The whole system of patriarchy is therefore whitewashed by gender ideology, presented as a natural occurrence as opposed to a system of oppression built to grant men dominion over women.

As queer identity politics are built around a narrative of exceptionalism, the power dynamics of sexual politics to be ignored altogether. Through the linguistic twist of “cis”, women’s oppression is reframed as a privilege and therefore the liberation of “cis” women from patriarchal oppression ceases to be a priority. Sexual politics are negated by self-identification, through which membership of a sex class is rendered politically invisible.

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“So many genders and yet we still know, magically, which half of the human race is expected to wipe arses and scrub floors.” – Victoria Smith, @glosswitch

 

Gender is a prison, and I have compassion for everyone constricted by it. It is abhorrent that men are discouraged from empathy, kindness, and creative self-expression.  There is real cruelty in socialising boys into masculinity. That being said, there is a connection between gender ideology and the laundering of male privilege that demands scrutiny.

This issue is exemplified by the case of Ben Hopkins, one half of the punk duo PWR BTTM. Hopkins is biologically male and, as such, was socialised into masculinity. Like a great many famous persons who are biologically male, Hopkins exploited his fame and power to sexually abuse female fans. According to one of his victims, Hopkins is a “known sexual predator who has perpetrated multiple assaults, bullied other people in the queer community, and has made unwanted advances towards underage minors.” What allegedly sets Hopkins apart from a longstanding tradition of powerful male abusers is that he identifies as genderqueer. As such, queer perspective would have it that Hopkins’ actions cannot be considered male violence against women. Queer exceptionalism as it manifests through the logic of gender identity makes it impossible to name or challenge male violence as such.

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Statement from Survivor

Men are taught from birth that they are entitled to women’s time, women’s attention, women’s love, women’s energy, and women’s bodies. Yet, in accordance with the logic of gender ideology, unfortunate yet random as opposed to a likely consequence of the gendered socialisation men receive in patriarchal society. Despite identifying as genderqueer, the sexual violence Hopkins enacted against women with dramatically less social power than him follows perfectly the logic of masculinity. In what sense can a man who carries out the most toxic behaviour rooted in masculinity claim to be queering or resisting gender?

As his actions make clear, Hopkins has not consciously unlearned male socialisation or entitlement to women’s bodies. How Hopkins chooses to identify has little bearing upon the grim reality of the situation. Yet in claiming the label of genderqueer, Hopkins attempted to erase the male privilege from which he continued to benefit. Writing for Feminist Current, Jen Izaakson clearly articulates the paradox of Hopkins claiming to queer gender:

“…Hopkins used glitter, eyeliner, and vintage dresses to demonstrate an understanding of and adherence to queer ideals, to illustrate a rejection of “toxic masculinity” and the gender norms socially ascribed to males. But wearing flowery dresses and lip gloss does not necessarily lead to an actual rejection of the male entitlement and male dominance of men under patriarchy. By centering self-defined identities, individual expression, and performativity, instead of scrutinizing male violence and unequal systems of power, queer discourse has allowed misogyny easy access to the party.”

Similarly, trans activist Cherno Biko (born male) openly confessed to raping a transman (born female) with the fantasy and intention of impregnating them against their will.  Despite having publicly acknowledged committing sexual abuse, Biko was invited to speak on stage at the Women’s March in Washington and served as Co-Chair of the Young Women’s Advisory Council for New York City. This raises questions not only about the apparent lack of accountability for sexual abuse within feminist spaces, but also the extent to which progressive political movements are prepared to overlook instances of violence against women if the perpetrator identifies as transgender or genderqueer.

Acts of violence against women are both cause and consequence of patriarchy, and they are normalised by the logic of gender. Gender ideology disregards the power disparity of sexual politics – a hierarchy instituted through gender itself – and instead considers gender purely as a matter of self-identification. The queer perspective deliberately individualises the issue of identity in order to depoliticise gender, thereby avoiding difficult questions about power and patriarchy.

We are told that gender is a deeply personal matter and therefore, as all good liberals know, not to be scrutinised. Yet research demonstrates that transwomen retained a male pattern regarding criminality following sex reassignment surgery, and that the same was true regarding violent crime.” Given that one in three women will experience male violence in her lifetime, this is no small matter: 96% of people who commit acts of sexual violence are biologically male. The safety of women and girls is never an acceptable price to pay, not even in the name of inclusion. Masculine socialisation plays a demonstrable role in shaping attitude and behaviour – if women cannot name the violence we experience or identify the system that makes it possible, we cannot challenge it.

“When Simone de Beauvoir wrote that a girl is not born a woman but rather becomes one, she did not mean that an individual born into the male sex, socialised into the expectation of the masculine gender, can simply decide to take hormones and maybe have surgery and ‘become a woman’.”Dame Jenni Murray

Through the lens of gender identity, the oppressor may shed his male privilege and claim the status of oppressed. Through the lens of gender identity, the oppressed may also reject the grounds of their oppression by means of self-identification. Gender ideology aims to repurpose a hierarchy as an identity. Unfortunately, one cannot simply opt out of an oppression that is structural and systematic in nature – although queer discourse presents this as a legitimate route to women. Man is the default standard of humanity, with woman relegated to “Other” – defined purely in relation to men (Beauvoir, 1949). Is it no wonder that a growing number of women, dissatisfied by the limitations imposed by the feminine gender role and conscious that self-actualised human beings are more than the hollow stereotype of femininity, cease to identify as women.

Instead of identifying the feminine gender role as the problem, and working to dismantle the hierarchy of gender, women are encouraged to stop identifying as such if they behave or feel as human beings do. Instead of giving women the tools to unlearn internalised misogyny, gender ideology encourages them to disown womanhood and claim to be individual exceptions to the rule of gender. Through positioning full humanity and womanhood as being mutually exclusive, gender ideology invites women to participate in I’m-Not-Like-Other-Girls: Queer Edition.

It is understandable that women are eager to escape the feminine gender role – indeed, women’s liberation from the hierarchy of gender is a core feminist objective. But the feminist movement advocates the liberation of all women from all forms of oppression, not simply the liberation of those who believe their individual oppression through gender is wrong – those who “don’t aspire to any kind of womanhood.”

The Homophobia of Queering Gender

gay liberationDespite talk of queer community, an alliance between members of the LGBT+ alphabet soup, homophobia has always been at the root of queer politics. Queer ideology emerged as backlash to lesbian feminist principles, which advocated radical social change through the transformation of personal lives (Jeffreys, 2003). The political interests of lesbian women and marginalised gay men – primarily the abolition of gender roles – were dismissed within queer spheres. Individualism precluding any concentrated focus on feminist and gay liberation politics, which queer discourse began to describe as old-fashioned, dull, or anti-sex.

In recent years, this derision has escalated into openly anti-gay sentiment. Attempts to erase lesbian women and gay men are now standard practice within a queer setting. In an opinion piece that questions whether lesbian identity can “survive the gender revolution”, Shannon Keating claims that lesbian and gay sexualities are obsolete:

“Against the increasingly colorful backdrop of gender diversity, a binary label like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ starts to feel somewhat stale and stodgy. When there are so many genders out there, is it closed-minded — or worse, harmful and exclusionary — if you identify with a label that implies you’re only attracted to one?”

There is a persistent strain of homophobia within gender ideology. It manifests so regularly because that homophobia is woven into queer gender politics. Same-sex attraction is relentlessly problematised because it acknowledges both the existence of biological sex and its significance in determining the potential for attraction – a contradiction of the claim that gender, not sex, is the defining unit of identity.

Earlier this year Juno Dawson, author of The Gender Games, claimed that being a gay man was merely a “consolation prize” for those unprepared to opt into a life of transwomanhood. Prior to transition, Dawson lived and loved as a gay man – therefore, it is particularly troubling that Dawson proclaimed homosexuality to be anything less than worthy of respect and recognition as legitimate. Dawson positioned life as a gay man as an inferior alternative, a poor substitute, for repressed transwomanhood. When gay men and lesbian women objected to this homophobia, Dawson delivered a non-apology which hit upon a fundamental truth about the politics of gender identity and sexuality: “Lots of trans men and women previously lived as gay men or lesbians prior to transition so I think it’s a really important thing to discuss…”

It is wildly regressive to argue that gay men are really unfulfilled women on the inside. By that logic, only the most straight and toxic of masculinities is authentically male. And if gay men are really straight transwomen, there is no such thing as gay men. Homosexuality has been ‘cured’ – an agenda that traditionally belonged to social conservatives, but can now be found within queer ideology. And it is not coincidence that so many of those who choose to undergo surgical or medical transition are gay men or lesbian women who, upon undertaking transition, live as heterosexuals. In Iran, where same-sex relationships are punishable by death, clerics are prepared to “accept the idea that a person may be trapped in a body of the wrong sex.”

Gender ideology is fundamentally conservative. It is based on the premise that gender roles are absolute, that those who stray from the gender role ascribed to their sex must belong to another category. Lesbian women and gay men defy the gender roles simply by loving someone of the same sex, by deviating from the heteropatriarchal patterns of dominance to create a sexual politics of equality. If we are transitioned into heterosexuality, into compliance with gender roles, we are made to conform to the gender roles mapped out by patriarchy.

Nobody is born in the wrong body. A body cannot, by definition, be wrong. The system of gender, on the other hand, is wrong in every way. Problematising bodies as opposed to the hierarchy which confines them only replicates the destructive ideology at the heart of patriarchy. It is an upside-down approach to the politics of liberation, misguided at best and complicit with patriarchy at worst.

Conclusion

Critiquing gender ideology is strongly discouraged – I suspect this is because the more one explores the queer perspective of gender, the more apparent its misogyny and homophobia become. Once the progressive veneer begins to crack – once it grows clear that gender ideology is at best complacent about patriarchy and the harms patriarchy visits upon women – queer politics become much harder to sell to the general populace.

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And so those feminists who do question gender ideology are branded bigots, the criticisms and those women brave enough to make them rendered illegitimate. Women who question gender ideology are derided as TERFs – we are told time and time again that their only motive in critiquing gender is malice, as opposed to meaningful concern for the well-being of women and girls. To that, I echo the words of Mary Shelley: “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” Any attempt to discourage women from addressing our oppression is deeply suspect.

Gender ideology creates a false dichotomy of people who are innately bound to traditional gender roles and those exceptional few who are not. Gender politics are the most elaborate and harmful example of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Why queer gender when we can abolish it? Why waste energy trying to subvert oppressive practice when we can do away with it altogether?

Woman is a sex class – nothing more, nothing less. Man is a sex class – nothing more, nothing less. To claim the scope of our identity is defined by the gender role pressed onto our sex class is to legitimise the project of patriarchy. As a feminist, as a woman, I reject queer politics and the gender ideology it advocates. Instead, I argue that women and men living outside of the script set by gender – be it the queer or patriarchal classifications – should be embraced as revolutionaries. Only through the abolition of gender can we achieve true liberation.


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1949). The Second Sex.

Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference.

Lynne Harne & Elaine Miller (eds.). (1996). All the Rage: Reasserting Radical Lesbian Feminism.

bell hooks. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics.

Audre Lorde. (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.

Cherríe Moraga & Gloria E. Anzaldúa (eds.). (1981). This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.

Bonnie J. Morris. (2016). The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture.

Victoria Pepe (ed.). (2015). I Call Myself A Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. More Radical with Age.

 

 

Loud and United – Reflections of a Black Feminist on the Road

Dedicated to my mother, Angela, without whom this adventure would have been impossible. Thank you, mum – for getting me to the airport and for encouraging me to spread my wings.


The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. – Gloria Steinem

Before

At the beginning of this year – the first lived without the guidance of my grandfather – I challenged myself to two things: more travel and more adventure. The writer’s life is typically one of books and ideas, and although writing has the power to transport both author and audience to extraordinary places, across the vast expanses of human imagination, I sometimes wonder if I use writing as an excuse to retreat from the world and into myself. By inclination I crave routine and solitude, neither of which can be depended upon in the great unknown. That is, perhaps, why it is so important to push myself outside of the comfort zone so easily constructed around the familiar and open myself to new experiences. Through the unexpected, the unpredictable, we grow and learn more about ourselves in the process. When static, we too often see what we expect to see as opposed to what’s really there in front of us.

20170607_142308Feminist theory is meaningless without the ability to put it into practice. And life, though it can at times be daunting, requires living. So I am on a plane to Brussels for Loud and United, an event which marks twenty years of the Observatory on Violence Against Women. The Observatory was created to put political pressure upon governments across Europe to eradicate male violence against women and girls.

Loud and United is split into two parts: a symposium in which experts, politicians, and activists discuss the realities of male violence against women, and a march through the streets of Brussels to protest that violence. Loud and United is the perfect balance of words and deeds, what Audre Lorde described as the transformation of silence into language and action. In coming together, naming the agent, and resisting the insidious idea that male violence is a ‘natural’ part of women’s lives, we resist the very foundations of patriarchy. I want to be part of that resistance. And it doesn’t hurt that Gloria Steinem is to give the keynotes address.

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This isn’t my first trip to Brussels – last September I was there for what turned out to be the greatest adventure of my life so far: Young Feminist Summer School. Fifty women from across Europe came together to exchange activist experiences and learn from each other’s feminist perspectives. Sharing space and time with my AGORA sisters developed my understanding of the relationship between feminist theory and practice like nothing else, radically altering my approach to feminist organising. Being part of that group blew away the cynicism that threatened to take root in me, dealt with the weariness that came from challenging racism within the feminist movement, and restored my belief that anything is possible when women work together. AGORA also imparted a degree of self-confidence, a sense of my work being legitimate and having a place within the context of the feminist movement.

Attending Young Feminist Summer School changed so much for the better. And I almost didn’t go – partly out of the panic that stems from chronic anxiety, partly due to a heavy bout of Imposter Syndrome, and partly because my grandfather was dying. On the final day of Summer School, I received a call to say that he couldn’t be released from hospital until I had been taught to feed him through a tube – which I did for the final month of his life. It was a difficult time. Becca, one of my AGORA sisters, introduced me to spoon theory during Summer School – a disability metaphor coined by Christine Miserandino to explain the extra limitations capping the available energy to spend on the day to day tasks that make up everyday life. And now, almost a year on, I have even less spoons within reach. In caring for my grandfather I ceased caring for myself, which created something of a spoon deficit.

I have taken leave of absence from university owing to depression, scaled back professional and social responsibilities, and entered a kind of hibernation period to focus on my health. I have set three rules to live by: 1) go to therapy 2) volunteer at the Women’s Library at least one day every week 3) look after yourself properly. It’s a cliché, a bourgeois twenty-something going to Europe to find herself, but I will not apologise for that. After Young Feminist Summer School I can think of no better place to look for that bold young woman with a radical spirit than the city of Brussels, no better point to reconnect with my politics and the passion behind them than Loud and United.  People living with debilitating illnesses and disabilities are expected to justify every last speck of joy, but I am going to grab it with both hands and without apology.

When the plane touches down in Brussels, I begin to feel hopeful. Armed with enthusiasm and a basic grasp of the French language, I set off to board the shuttle bus to the city centre. I spend the journey alternating between staring at the lush expanses of green fields and blue sky and reading Gloria Steinem’s most recent book, My Life on the 20170614_174803Road. Steinem’s reflections are thoughtful, and something about the way she connects physical movement through the world with a development of ideas strikes a chord. What I like most about Steinem’s writing is that from her early essays to recent reflections delivered in her eighties, she doesn’t pretend to know everything and is therefore always open to learning and improving her own feminist praxis. If there were such a thing as total and definitive understanding of the feminist movement, Gloria Steinem would have more right to claim it than most. But there isn’t. Feminism is a socio-political movement propelled by women’s actions and ideas – it’s a continuously ongoing process, not a destination. Its progress is best marked not only in the accordance of women’s rights, but in the development of surrounding ideas and attitudes.

Ilaria, a fellow graduate of Young Feminist Summer School, is waiting for me at the bus stop. She introduces me to her girlfriend Michela and we work out how best to communicate. Ilaria and her girlfriend moved to Brussels from Italy last September, which – being a total homebody – I find incredibly brave. Michela speaks French with a little bit of English. I speak English with a little bit of French. We meet somewhere in the middle, with Ilaria translating what Michela and I cannot. As they guide me back to their flat, I feel none of the anxiety of being away from home alone. Because I am not alone.

We drop my luggage off at the Tetris House, affectionately termed as everything has an exact space, to head out for dinner and drinks. As we walk, I am struck by the beautiful art nouveau design of the buildings. Ilaria fills me in on the area’s history. She and Michela live in the most diverse part of Brussels – half of the population is white, and half of the population is people of colour. Houses that were once the pied-à-terre of Belgium’s upper classes are now flats occupied, more often than not, by migrant families. It’s the first port of call for people from all around the world when they first move Brussels. Sure enough, as we meander through the city I see a gorgeous spectrum of brown skin. It is nothing short of divine to feel so inconspicuous.

Belgian fries are in a league of their own, so we get chips for dinner. Mine are accompanied by a falafel wrap, which makes going abroad and getting chippy for tea seem acceptably cosmopolitan. The greatest difference between Brussels and Glasgow is how each city’s inhabitants occupy public space. In the cobblestone courtyards, the pavements are full of tables and chairs set out by nearby bars. To my surprise, Ilaria says that we can sit outside a pub of our choice and eat our meal there. She and Michela choose from a long list of fancy beers – one Belgian treat I decline owing to an unapologetically femme taste in drinks.

At the bar, there are five fridges full of craft beers. They are as mysterious to me as the rules of any sport that isn’t Quidditch. I search for a fruit cider, the closest acceptable approximation to beer. The bartender takes pity on me and comes over to help. He laughs, not unkindly, when I explain what I’m looking for and says that they don’t stock any such thing. I struggle to understand the Flemmish accent to his French. When he realises that not only do I speak English, but that I am Scottish, the bartender is delighted. “Glasgow? I love Glasgow,” he tells me. “That city is CRAZY!” He pantomimes the sort of argument that is characteristic of the city, mimicking those interactions that walk the fine line between masculine bonhomie and pure aggression. It involves a lot of gesticulation and “FUCK YOU!”  That’s Glasgow alright. Perhaps out of kindness, perhaps out of the fear that he has given offence, the bartender pours me what can only be described as a triple gin and tonic. He moves the gin to a pint glass upon realising that both ice and tonic will not fit. Fortunately, Glasgow has taught me how to hold my drink.

Back at the table, we discuss lesbian politics and culture. Ilaria and Michela moved to Brussels because it’s a better place to be a lesbian couple than Italy. Life away from Catholic homophobia and social conservatism is happier. Scotland isn’t perfect but, by comparison, I feel fortunate. Two leaders of Scottish political parties are lesbian. Holyrood is “the gayest parliament in the world.” Not bad at all.

We talk about our first forays into lesbian culture – how much the shows with even a couple of lesbian characters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or even solid lesbian subtext (Xena) had meant to us all growing up. We all watched The L Word. There were so many sex scenes in it that I would wait until my grandparents went to church before watching an episode on Netflix lest they overhear. Needless to say, feast days and holidays of obligation (extra church on days other than Sunday) were always welcome – thanks be to God! Michela thinks this is hilarious. She watched Sugar Rush when it first aired, despite not having much English, and would watch programmes in any language provided there were lesbian characters. The lengths to which lesbians will go to see ourselves represented in the media know no bounds.

On the way to the bar, I had spotted people drinking what looked like irn-bru in wine glasses. Ilaria told me that it was, in fact, aperol spritz and suggested we have some next. She asks what’s in irn-bru. Aside from sugar and colour, I haven’t the faintest idea. Does anybody? For a time irn-bru was banned in America, which says a lot about the ingredients in Scotland’s other national drink. At first I’m not convinced by aperol spritz. Michela taps an inch down the glass and reassures me that by this point in the drink, the taste will improve. She’s right.

During

Having been anxious about Loud and United since the moment my plane tickets were booked, I feel remarkably at ease with the world on the day. Ilaria can’t make it, has to go to work first thing in the morning. Michela makes a delicious breakfast and we head out. In the lobby we pass two older women, and Michela pauses to talk to them. I assume they are neighbours, perhaps another lesbian couple, and feel glad for Ilaria and Michela. Older lesbians make the world a better place. But when she joins me on the street, Michela explains that the women go from door to door trying to convert people to Christianity. When Michela told them that she’s a lesbian, they responded that God would still love her. For a split second I wonder if it’s truly a love-thy-neighbour Christianity being advocated here, but Michela explains the catch: God is prepared to love lesbians provided we don’t have sex with women. Neither of us can keep a straight face. I asked Michela what she said to that. She replies, with a mischievous grin: “No way. I love sex with women.” Our laughter carries throughout the street. In this we are agreed. I’ll take lesbian sex over God’s love on any day ending in y.

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Michela guides me through the metro and leaves me at Grand-Place.  The square is even more beautiful than I had remembered, a magnificent display of gilt and Gothic architecture. Spotting a security guard, I explain that I’m here to help the European Women’s Lobby set up for their event. He doesn’t let me in, says the EWL aren’t here yet, and so I sit at the edge of the square and scribble away in a notebook until another volunteer arrives. With a confidence that is uniquely American, she talks security into hallletting us inside. The EWL are nowhere to be seen, so we explore the building and marvel over the opulence of Brussels. The room is extraordinary. Wooden walls panelled with richly painted murals, a high ceiling supported by ornately carved beams, and even pews lining the back – it looks more like a church than a feminist meeting space. There is something delicious about repurposing places that symbolise male wealth and power for women’s liberation. The meeting space in Glasgow Women’s Library, where we recently held an all-female literary festival, used to be a gentlemen’s reading room.

When the EWL team arrives, I am filled with relief. We set up signs and flags, put out badges, organise seat reservations, and arrange a selection of literature about the European Women’s Lobby’s projects – tasks that are comforting in their familiarity after three years of volunteering at the Women’s Library. Believing passionately in feminist documentation, I snap pictures as we go. I take a photo of Disrupting the Continuum of Violence Against Women and Girls and text it to Liz Kelly.

Liz theorised the continuum, radically altering the way male violence is framed and conceptualised not only within feminist theory but support and prevention work. I think she’ll be pleased by the way her work is being applied but, more than that, I think she’ll enjoy “disrupting.” It’s a good word. Disruption is very Liz: being so thoroughly radical in her feminism has created a boldness in her this is catching. Being radical in my own feminism lends me a certain courage, too – not once do I question my right to be at Loud and United, or the legitimacy of being there.

As soon as we are ready, the doors open. Two hundred and fifty women from around the world enter the hall, united by a commitment to ending male violence. Edith Schratzberger-Vécsei, President of the European Women’s Lobby, gives the opening address. She talks of how habituated to male violence societies across the world have become, invites us to “disrupt an ancient system” in dismantling patriarchy. “All the forms of violence that we’ll be discussing today have one goal: to silence women.” It is fitting, then, that we should be loud as well as united.

The first panel is HERstory. Women’s organisations from across Europe share their expertise in resisting male violence against women. The agent is named. The root cause 20170608_135151is addressed. Biljana Nastovska is exactly right in her assessment of patriarchy: “violence against women is a manifestation of unequal power relations between women and men. Violence against women is not accidental, but structural and political.” There is something profoundly moving about witnessing the women of the Observatory’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls, the passion of their belief in this cause. Vanja Macanovic explains why she works for the Observatory: “As long as one woman is raped or beaten, prostituted or trafficked, the European Women’s Lobby Observatory will be there to fight it.” Her words, so resolutely spoken, have a superhero quality about them.

I wish that frontline workers in women’s organisations were celebrated and valourised the same way Wonder Woman is – while Diana Prince provides a symbol of hope, the work the women’s sector do is very real. In Britain, 85% of women aged 18-24 have experienced street harassment. 45% have experienced it in a form of unwanted touching. And when women of colour resist street harassment, we get racist abuse too. The support and prevention work done in the women’s sector is vital. It makes this world a better place. The Swedish MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt neatly sums up the endemic of male violence against women: “when we talk about gender-based violence, it is violence because you are a woman.” In every society, we are punished and abused simply for having been born female.

The second panel is Inspiring Initiatives by Women’s Rights Activists. Inspiring is right. The organisations represented are La Maison des Femmes, Sexual Violence Centre Cork, Lilies of the Street, and Women’s Tribunal. These women stare unflinchingly at the very worst of male violence in order to support women through it, enduring in the hope of creating a world in which male violence is eliminated. The words of Mary Crilly (Sexual Violence Centre Cork) in particular stand out. She talks candidly about the rage she feels against male violence, how the horror of male violence weighs upon her, and feeling burnt out as a result. Mary acknowledges how high the cost can be. And then Mary describes why she keeps going, why every woman in the room must keep going too. She says “at some point in your life someone will come to you and say ‘this happened to me’. If you are open to hearing it, they will tell you.” I think of that telling. I think of being told. Mary is right when she says that meeting such a disclosure with empathy is one of the most important things any of us will ever accomplish.

The mechanism of violence is what destroys women, controls women, keeps women in their so-called place. If we want to end male violence against women, we must think of the most vulnerable and leave no woman behind. – Salome Mbugua

Next, we hear testimonies of women who have survived male violence. Witnessing this panel is an extraordinary privilege. Monica Weissel Alvarez speaks with radical honesty about her experience of intimate partner violence. The total absence of institutional support she received – Monica’s helplessness to escape her abuser, being “trapped in circles of domination” – is devastating to hear about. Alisha Watts recounts her experience of online grooming, of how she was isolated and exploited by her abuser. As Alisha’s voice trembles, I am in awe of her courage – the bravery required to share something so raw and painful in front of two hundred and fifty people in the hope of helping other women and girls. That iconic Maggie Kuhn quote springs to mind: “Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes.”

The final panellist to speak is Fiona Broadfoot, who became an abolitionist campaigner upon exiting the sex industry. Nothing on this earth could have prepared me for hearing Fiona’s story. She was groomed into prostitution at fifteen and spent eleven years in the sex trade.

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Of that time, Fiona says “I was at immediate risk of extreme sexual violence and abuse. I lost my identity and what little self-confidence I had. Rape became an occupational hazard.” She repressed the trauma by telling herself it was a job like any other. At 17, Fiona told herself “innocent women will be raped if I don’t do this.” Fiona begins to cry while sharing her story, for which she makes no apology: “it’s a sign I’m a healthy human. I used to distance myself and display no emotion.” It’s only then that I notice the tears on my own face, notice that women all around the room are in tears too. There is no shame in crying. I never want to become the kind of person who can look at such injustice and remain unmoved.

As with Monica’s story, it is devastating on two levels: that Fiona experienced this violence, and that institutional misogyny meant structures that should have helped her worked against her. Fiona’s pimp was on first name terms with the Vice Squad. She was criminalised and he was not. When she tried to rebuild her life, Fiona was kicked out of her college course due to having been arrested for prostitution. Afterwards, she returned to prostitution. Fiona’s words will stay with me for the rest of my life, as will her strength and dignity. Even with so much cause to be angry at the world, Fiona spends her life trying to make it a better place for the girls who live in it. I am determined to follow her example, to emulate Fiona’s generosity of spirit. Getting called SWERF (sex-worker exclusionary radical feminist) on Twitter is a tiny, tiny price to pay for standing beside Fiona and all the women in her position, of which there are many. Although not all women survive the sex industry. The mortality rate of women in prostitution is up to forty times above the average. Between 60 and 80% of women in prostitution experience regular physical and sexual abuse by men. The sex industry isn’t revolutionary or liberating, but a manifestation of patriarchy and capitalism. It is time to end demand, to end men’s belief they are entitled to sexually access women’s bodies.

After the Stories of Survivors of Male Violence panel, I am emotionally exhausted. And so I fulfil that millennial stereotype and check my phone for a bit, retreating into the world of WhatsApp and Twitter. Liz has replied, asking if the continuum was referenced in the EWL literature. I read through the pamphlet, find no direct reference to Liz or her research, and write back to tell her. This is a difficulty within feminist theorising. Good Loud United Badgesfeminist practice involves sharing ideas and making information as widely accessible as possible. Radical feminism can challenge ownership and institutional power as following patterns of male dominance. But there is something inherently radical about acknowledging women’s work, the development of women’s ideas over time and who made it possible. As Virginia Woolf observed, “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Making women’s ideas invisible, treating them as common knowledge rather than giving credit, only serves to further the erasure of women in public life. The continuum is a widely known concept. Upon seeing the pamphlet, I thought immediately of Liz’s work. But if I hadn’t read Surviving Sexual Violence (Kelly), hadn’t known where the continuum came from, making that connection would be impossible. Other women could read the pamphlet without being able to trace the idea back to its source.

Referencing women’s ideas is a revolutionary act. It is a form of resistance to say that a woman made this, a woman did this, a woman thought this. And so I reference Liz publicly, Tweeting about the use of her theory in Disrupting the Continuum of Violence Against Women and Girls. Liz responds to my Tweet, saying that she loves this use of her work but believes as feminists we have a responsibility to acknowledge one another. The European Women’s Lobby get back to her immediately and positively. I’m confident they will add the appropriate references to the publication, and glad to have nudged them in the right direction. Acknowledging women’s ideas is at the heart of my life with Glasgow Women’s Library.

It’s just as well I do check Twitter. My friend Pauline has Tweeted her astonishment at finding me here, so far from Scotland. I fizz with excitement at the thought of Pauline here in this room. Sure enough, her Tweets pepper #LoudUnited. We make plans to meet up after the symposium. This will be the first time I have met Pauline in person, though we have been friends for over a year. We met through radical feminist Twitter. My favourite thing about Twitter is that it has the power to connect women around the world, that it hosts such a fertile ground for feminist discourse.

As the panel changes over for the final time, a woman sat in the row in front turns to face me. She asks “are you Claire? Do you write Sister Outrider?” Guilty as charged. I nod. She recognised me from Twitter, says that my writing is exciting and that she is glad to have met me. After she turns back to face the front, I mull over her words. It’s not totally uncommon to be recognised at home, buying books or visiting libraries. Those are settings in which I am expected, places where I have worked. But this is a continent away from those contexts. Although my writing has been translated, I could not have predicted that anyone would connect me to it. It is in parts disconcerting and thrilling. I vow not to let myself develop an inflated sense of self-importance, regardless of how far my writing ever reaches.

And then in walks Gloria Steinem, a masterclass in humility from which a good few writers could learn. Her presence is assured yet unobtrusive, though heads swivel. Nothing about the way Gloria conducts herself is designed to monopolise attention. She sits in the second row awaiting introduction whilst Twitter explodes with her arrival.

When Gloria takes the stage, there is heartfelt applause. She holds up one fist in a feminist salute, just like in that iconic photograph of her with Dorothy Pitman-Hughes. It

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Gloria Steinem addresses Loud and United

was Gloria’s commitment to joint speaking tours with Black women, her approach to interracial solidarity between women, that drew me to her work. And now the woman whose words have come to me through books, videos, and podcasts is speaking to this audience directly. She highlights that the women in this room have overcome boundaries of difference to come together in support of women’s liberation. Observing that patriarchy is under five thousand years old, that it was not universal and is not permanent, she creates a feeling of optimism. It is possible in that moment to imagine that a better future is within reach, a world free from male violence.

Although the word intersectionality (Crenshaw) is never explicitly used, the principles are there in what Gloria says. She talks of race and class and caste alongside gender, about how all hierarchies are interconnected, sharing her theory of supremacy crimes: acts of violence and domination committed not for material gain, but with a view to maintaining the privileges that come with being at the top of a hierarchy. Gloria credits Black Lives Matter as being “a brave and important movement” and goes on to discuss the crimes of George Zimmerman. Before he murdered Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman’s history was littered with acts of violence against women. In her view, these are both forms of supremacy crime. “Supremacy crimes are related. One predicts another.”

Next comes the part I have been silently dreading: the march. At risk of confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about keyboard warriors and slacktivism, I hate going to protests. It’s not a question of if I will experience an anxiety attack, but rather how many. The crush of people, the noise, the difficulty in getting away – these are difficult. Discursive activism is what comes naturally. Earlier this year I went on the Women’s March in London to protest Trump’s inauguration and the erosion of women’s rights. It was powerful to be part of that resistance. It was also terrifying. I put on an oversized pair of sunglasses and prayed that Liz – so bold and determined – wouldn’t notice that I was crying. There was a point when I wanted to ask her if we could go to one side while I closed my eyes and did a breathing exercise, but in the rush I just couldn’t find the words. So I didn’t talk to her for whole stretches of time, lost in my own panic. Liz tried to steer us through the crowds as quickly as possible. Afterwards, knowing what it cost, she told me that I did a brave thing in marching. Liz is a good friend. But today I am here alone, une femme seule. I make a beeline for Joanna, the EWL Secretary-General, and decide to keep a member of the team within sight at all times. So radical.

On the way out of the building, I hand Gloria a Glasgow Women’s Library badge. It’s one of my creations – badge-making is one of the many unexpected skills I have picked up at GWL. Another is confidence. I ask Gloria to sign her book for me, and she obliges. Joanna takes a picture of us together. And for the first time in memory I don’t look at the image wondering whether I look sufficiently thin or pretty. I look truly happy, and that is enough.

The protest is in turns brilliant and scary. Provided I keep the EWL team in sight, the panic is manageable. As we march, we chant: “Sol-sol-sol! Solidarité avec des femmes du monde entire!” Solidarity with women of the entire world. This, I believe in wholeheartedly. Loud and United feels like a fitting description of the group. People stop to listen to our message, to watch the protest go past. The crowd is dotted with pussy hats and feminist banners. We are a force to be reckoned with. A shout goes up: “keep your rosaries away from my ovaries!”

A stage is waiting in the middle of the square. Various women’s organisations wave banners and lead chants. Balloons are blown up. T-shirts and badges are handed out. On the other side of the square, women draw the Venus symbol in purple chalk. In the middle, they lay flowers in memory of all the women killed by male violence. A feeling of harmony between women makes alright simply to occupy this space.

IMG_20170609_224917_653Wielding an impressive megaphone, Joanna takes the stage to introduce Gloria. Perhaps it is my imagination, but Gloria seems more at ease in the midst of a protest than behind a lectern. She observes a truth that is obvious to women of colour yet often disregarded within mainstream feminist spaces: “Sexism and racism go together. You can’t fight one without the other.” The Black women beside me cheer, and I do too. It feels good to have the connection between racism and misogyny acknowledged, highlighted by a woman who is arguably the world’s most recognisable living feminist. There is always that danger in feminist space that white will be treated as the standard unit of womanhood.

Girls line the front of the stage holding up the Loud and United banner. It is moving to see the future of feminism standing before a woman who is emblematic of the second wave, the past and the future woven together in the present. The smallest girl raises her fist like Gloria. When the rally is over, Gloria gestures to the girl’s father who lifts her onto the stage. I love this *picture. It captures the joy, the hope, and the solidarity of the day.

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(*Image shared with the express permission of the child’s parent. Not to be recirculated.)

As the rally disbands, two young women sat smoking on the stage call me over. Both recognise the Glasgow Women’s Library logo on my tote bag. One of their friends was an ERASMUS exchange student in Edinburgh and frequently travelled through to GWL. Many women in and around Glasgow consider the Library a home away from home, a peaceful place to work or while away the hours. It’s nice to think of that Women’s Library joy sending ripples across the continent, of international connections between women.

After

Following the buzz of the protest, it is a relief to sit and chat with my AGORA sisters: Ilaria, Ahinara, and Aurelie. Ahinara has a Spanish translation of Gloria’s book, which I 20170609_224529admire. We get drinks and snacks from a nearby supermarket and listen to a salsa band play live music. It feels good to simply be in that moment. Michela joins us when she finishes work, and I finally get to chat to Pauline in person. We talk about the power of radical feminist Twitter, how online misogyny works to silence women, and anonymity on social media. Wary of threats and violence, Pauline doesn’t share her name or location on Twitter. This layer of privacy enables her to maintain a distance between life online and offline. Men tend to exploit anonymity, use it as a shield from consequence when sending abuse, whereas women often use anonymity as a way of protecting ourselves from abuse. To an extent I regret not creating a separate Twitter account for Sister Outrider and remaining anonymous, but at first it never occurred to me that more than a dozen people would actually bother to read this blog.

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As ever, I am astonished by the energy of my AGORA sisters. Ahinara goes to do more work, and Aurélie departs for a feminist meeting. The rest of us wander through Brussels in search of food. Over dinner we discuss how male violence shapes the very fabric of society. More importantly, we discuss forms of resistance. There is a slight irony to sipping a neon blue cocktail named after Walter White, a character who typifies Toxic Masculinity: Nice Guy™ edition, as the conversation unfolds. Pauline tells us of a case in which a violent father used his last weekend of unsupervised visitation rights to murder his two children and commit suicide in order to punish his wife for ending their marriage. Their bodies, well-hidden, were found by chance. He had intended for her to spend the rest of her life wondering what happened to her missing children. It’s a harrowing story, not an isolated incident but part of the pattern of male violence. Sometimes I think the company of other women – their understanding and encouragement – is the only thing that makes life under patriarchy bearable. That, and good food.

Before she goes, Pauline invites me to come for a visit in her home country. I accept. In the style of Shonda, this is my year of yes – no more turning down adventures or opportunities. Radical feminist Twitter is a brilliant community, connecting women around the world. It’s filled with challenges and complexities, but also women looking to share and develop their ideas. It’s also a good place to make friends. My generation were warned about stranger danger online, yet there are few things I delight in more than meeting radical feminists from Twitter in person. There is something wonderful about being together with someone that has shared space and ideas with you. Bridging the gap between community space online and offline isn’t always practical, but it can be wonderful.

 

Ilaria and Michela take my for my first authentic Belgian waffle, which tastes like heaven, and tour of the Brussels gay scene, which feels like home. In both aesthetic and atmosphere, the bar we gravitate towards reminds me of nothing so much as Delmonica’s, though no doves hang from the ceiling. But first they give me a tour of LGBT 20170609_224229art around the area. For Pride, a crossing is made into a rainbow. In the alley beside Rainbow House, there are gorgeous protest murals as tall as the surrounding buildings. It’s touching to witness this art as resistance, touching that Ilaria and Michela thought to show it to me. There is a popular saying in radical lesbian circles: “A day without lesbians is like a day without sunshine.” Ilaria and Michela remind me of the truth in those words. We discuss lesbian culture over cocktails, including mounting tension between lesbian and queer politics. Like every lesbian I know back home, Ilaria is frustrated that LGBT spaces are dominated by gay men. Still, there is something undeniably wholesome about seeing men sharing tender gestures – holding hands, cuddling on benches, and kissing one another on the mouth in greeting. It’s a refreshing change from the brutality of conventional masculinity.

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“I hope you realise that what you see in porn is not real life lesbian sex! It’s just girls having sex the way men would want them to…”

The next morning, I’m up early – a little fuzzy after the previous night’s antics, but filled with purpose. Pierrette has invited me to join an abolitionist meeting she is facilitating with young activists from across Europe. During Young Feminist Summer School Pierrette ran a workshop on prostitution, the sex industry, and why the European Women’s Lobby endorses the Nordic Model called Whose Choice? – I was impressed by how she conducted that session and am keen to see what other forms her work takes. Like so many great things, the meeting happens in a library. Stickers on the spines of books make books about women, sexual politics, and gender easy to find.

Often we are told that ending demand is impossible, that in this world men will inevitably buy sexual access to women’s bodies. Proponents of the sex industry commonly fall back on the defence that “it has always been this way”, positioning opposition to the prostitution of women as naïve. Similarly, social conservatives tell us that male dominance over women is part of the natural order. Both rely on a sense of hopelessness at the scale of the problem to discourage feminists from pursuing social change. Yet this network of activists demonstrate such commitment to ending demand that I can’t help feeling hopeful, even if it is an uphill struggle. They care. That’s such a simple thing to say, but it’s true. They care. And how one views the sex industry does ultimately boil down to a question of empathy. To feel empathy with women, one must recognise us as fully human. And it is impossible to simultaneously feel empathy with women and view our bodies as sexual objects which money entitles men to access.

20170609_225123A narrative of “choice” is often used to whitewash the structural power imbalances upon which the sex industry depends. According to research, “poverty, family loss, homelessness, drug addiction and a history of physical and sexual abuse combine to make young women vulnerable to entering prostitution.” Consideration of choice without analysis of context is meaningless when discussing the realities of women – and they are overwhelmingly women – prostituted as part of the sex industry. When we talk about choice in relation to prostitution, it is important to scrutinise the choice of the men who buy sex. We must question why so many men feel entitled to sex with women, why they consider sexual access to our bodies an inalienable right. This meeting is one of those rare occasions in life when I am truly happy to see that men are part of the group, giving wholehearted opposition to the sex industry. After all, demand will not end until men’s attitudes towards women change.

Mid-way through the session, Gloria Steinem makes a surprise appearance. I don’t notice her straight away, having returned from the bathroom, although she is sitting directly in front of me. Gloria fits into the group quite naturally. She participates in but does not dominant the conversation between activists and experts, making the odd suggestion when useful. I like that her public profile hasn’t distracted Gloria from feminist activism and organising. The way she occupies group space, present and unassuming, is true to good feminist practice. Though I could happily spend all day learning from this group – not simply what they say, but how they say it – I must resume my own life on the road.

As I leave the room, Hanuka presses a copy of her book into my hands. Big City Violets is a diary of her time as a social worker, filled with difficult truths and delicate line drawings, which makes this gift all the more personal. I begin to read it on the journey home, until the turbulence grows too much. Even then it stays in my thoughts. Writing can be cathartic, a way of giving voice to painful things that are hard to express and making sure they no longer go unseen. Hanuka’s book shows a cycle of trafficking and prostitution and drug addiction and violence, a cycle that decimates women’s lives. Not only did Hanuka contain those truths within herself, she put them out into the world. So the seeds of liberation are planted.

Exhaustion catches up with me as I zig-zag through passport control. I wonder what Brexit will mean for determining airport lines, how we will queue – such a British worry. But dividing people by whose passport is EU and whose isn’t becomes redundant. Both trips to Brussels filled me with an appreciation for the European Union, in particular all the social good it has made possible. A familiar feeling of horror sets in as I consider anew the consequences of Brexit. What good are the politics of isolation?

Airports are terrible places for grief. I think it’s because the world is filtered into a binary of home and elsewhere, the familiar and the unknown. A part of me cannot help but expect that my grandfather will be there waiting for me, as he so often was, eager to hear what I have achieved during the course of my absence from our home. I remember his delight as I stepped onto the ward last September – the promise of home I brought to him, as he so often brought to me. I remember the scratchy blue wool of his jumper against my cheek. But my mother is waiting for me, has driven over an hour to collect me. There’s work to do at the Women’s Library, on Sister Outrider, and in so many other spaces. I have stories to share and truths to tell. Coming back is not always easy, and neither is continuing. But if we do not return from one adventure then we cannot begin the next.


Bibliography

Kat Banyard. (2016). Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. (1989). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color

Gail Dines. (2010). Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality

Liz Kelly. (1988). Surviving Sexual Violence

Hanukah Lohrengel. (2016). Big City Violets

Audre Lorde. (1977). The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

Christine Miserandino. (2003). The Spoon Theory

Rachel Moran. (2013). Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution

Gloria Steinem. (2015). My Life on the Road

Grasping Things at the Root: On Young Women & Radical Feminism

A brief foreword: a number of young women have contacted me in the last year, writing to ask about what it is like to be publicly radical in my feminism. That young women embrace radical feminism makes me optimistic for the future. That young women are too scared to be open about their radical feminism is utterly grim. And so this post is dedicated to every young woman bold enough to ask questions and challenge answers.

Update: this post has since been translated into French.


 

Why does radical feminism get so much bad press?

Radical feminism isn’t popular. That’s not exactly a secret – Pat Robertson’s infamous Holy Cow! Too Funny!!!!!!claim that the feminist agenda “…encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians” has set the tone for mainstream discussions of radical feminism. While Robertson’s perspective on radical feminism verges upon parody, his misogyny served with a side of blatant lesbophobia, it has also served to frame radical feminism as suspect.

If radical feminism can be written off as something sinister or dismissed as the butt of a joke, none of the difficult questions about the patriarchal structuring of society need to be answered – subsequently, power need not be redistributed, and members of the oppressor classes are saved from any challenging self-reflection. Rendering radical feminism monstrous is a highly effective way of shutting down meaningful political change, of maintaining the status quo. It is, therefore, predictable that the socially conservative right are opposed to radical feminism.

What’s often more difficult to anticipate is the venom directed towards radical feminism thought by the progressive left, which is assumed to support the politics of social justice. For women to achieve that justice, we must be liberated from patriarchy – including the constraints of gender, which is both a cause and consequence of male dominance. Yet, when one considers why that hostility emerged, it becomes sadly predictable.

Two factors enabled the left to legitimise its opposition to radical feminism. Firstly, the way in which liberation politics have been atomised by neoliberalism and replaced by the politics of choice (Walter). Personal choice, not political context, has become the preferred unit of feminist analysis. Therefore, critical analysis of personal choice – as advocated by radical feminism – has become a matter of contention despite its necessity in driving meaningful social change. The second factor is the gradual mainstreaming of a queer approach to gender. Instead of considering gender as a hierarchy to be opposed and abolished, queer politics position it as a form of identity, a part to be performed or subverted. This approach ultimately depoliticises gender, which is far from subversive, disregarding its role in maintaining women’s oppression by men. Feminists who are critical of gender are treated as the enemy, not gender in itself.

As a result, we find ourselves in a context where radical feminism is reviled across the political spectrum. On social media it feels as though radical feminists are just as likely to be abused by self-proclaimed queer feminists as we are men’s rights activists – the main difference between the two groups is that MRAs are honest about the fact they hate women.

Young women in particular are discouraged from taking up the mantle of radical feminism. We have been raised on a diet of hollow buzzwords like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’, taught to pursue equality instead of liberation. From the ‘90s onwards, feminism has been presented as a brand accessed through commercialism and slogans instead of a social movement with the objective of dismantling white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks).

guerilla girlaThe third wave of feminism was marketed as a playful alternative to the seriousness of the second wave, which is routinely misrepresented as joyless and dour. Manifestations of women’s oppression, such as the sex industry, were repackaged as harmless choices with the potential to empower (Murphy). If young women are not prepared to accept pole dancing and prostitution as a harmless bit of fun, we risk being tarred by the same boring brush as the second wave; we are denied the label of “cool girl” and all the perks that come with remaining unchallenging to patriarchy. It is no coincidence that “pearl-clutching” and “prude”, accusations commonly directed towards radical feminists, are loaded with ageist misogyny – if radical feminists are presumed to be older women, the logic of patriarchy dictates that radical feminism must be boring and irrelevant. Both the desire for male approval that is drilled into girls from birth and the tacit threat of being associated with older women are used to keep young women from identifying with radical feminism.

Liberal feminism has gained mainstream appeal precisely because it doesn’t threaten the status quo. If the powerful are comfortable with a particular form of feminism – liberal feminism, corporate “lean in” feminism, sex-positive feminism – it is because that feminism presents no challenge to the hierarchies from which their power stems. Such feminism can offer no meaningful social change and is therefore incapable of benefiting any oppressed class.

What are the negative consequences of being openly radical?

The backlash to being openly radical is the least fortunate element of it. I won’t lie: in the beginning, that can be intimidating. With time that fear will fade, if not dissipate. You will stop thinking “I couldn’t possibly say that” and start wondering “why didn’t I say that sooner?” The truth demands to be told, regardless of whether or not it happens to be convenient. Backlash and abuse directed towards radical feminists is a silencing tactic, plain and simple. Whether it comes from the conservative right or queer feminist left, that backlash (Faludi) is a means of silencing dissenting women’s voices. This realisation is freeing, both on a personal and political level. Personally, the good opinion of misogynists is of little value. Politically, it becomes clear that speaking out is an act of resistance. You will simply stop caring.

It takes energy, carrying the hatred people direct towards you – at some point you will realise that you’re not obliged to shoulder that burden and give yourself permission to set it down. Spend that energy on yourself instead. Read a book. Play an instrument. Talk with your mum. Do your nails. Binge-watch The Walking Dead. The time you spend worrying what people say about you, worrying if people like you, is a precious resource that cannot be recovered. Do not give them the gift of your worry – it is exactly what they want. Evict haters from your headspace.

You’re scared of being called a TERF. Let’s be real. That fear of being branded a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is why so many feminists are afraid to be openly radical, are increasingly unwilling to acknowledge gender as a hierarchy. And that’s alright to feel that fear – it’s meant to be scary. However, the fear needs to be put into perspective. The first time I was ever called “TERF” was for sharing a petition opposing female genital mutilation on Twitter. And when I pointed out that girls were at risk of FGM precisely because they were born female in patriarchy, that the girls who are cut are often of colour, often living within the global south (Spivak) – not exactly enjoying a wealth of cis privilege – the accusations only continued.

It spreads like wildfire. Because I did not repent for sharing that petition, because I did not condemn other women to save myself in the court of public opinion, it went on. That I am a lesbian (a woman who experiences same-sex attraction, i.e. disinterested in sex involving a penis) has only fanned the flames. My name can now be found on various shit lists and auto-block tools across the internet, which is pretty funny. Sometimes you do just have to laugh – it’s the only way to stay sane.

What’s less amusing is being told that I am dangerous. There is an insidious idea that any feminist who queries or critiques a queer perspective on gender is some sort of menace to society. Women who have devoted their adult lives to ending male violence against women are now described, without a trace of irony, as being violent. On a political level, it’s disturbing that disagreement over the nature of gender is positioned as violence within feminist discourse. There is an undeniably Orwellian quality to those opposing violence being described as violent, a double-speak perfected by queer politics. Framing gender-critical feminists as violent erases the reality that men perpetrate the overwhelming majority of violence against trans people and, in doing so, removes any possibility for men to be held accountable for that violence. Men are not blamed for their deeds, no matter how much harm they cause, whereas women are often brutally targeted for our ideas – in this respect, queer discourse mirrors the standards set by patriarchy.

Radical feminism is commonly treated as being synonymous with or indicative of transphobia, which is deeply misleading. The word transphobia implies a revulsion or disgust that simply is not there in radical feminism. I want all people identifying as trans to be safe from harm, persecution, and discrimination. I want all people identifying as trans to be treated with respect and dignity. And I do not know another radical feminist who would argue for anything less. Although radical and queer perspectives on gender are conflicting, this does not stem from bigotry on the part of the former. Abolishing the hierarchy of gender has always been a key aim of radical feminism, a necessary step in liberating women from our oppression by men.

As is often the case with structural analysis, it is necessary to think in terms of the oppressor class and the oppressed class. Under patriarchy, the male sex is the oppressor and the female sex the oppressed – that oppression is material in basis, reliant on the exploitation of female biology. It is impossible to articulate the means of women’s oppression without acknowledging the role played by biology and considering gender as a hierarchy – deprived of the language to articulate our oppression, language which queer politics deems violent or bigoted, it is impossible for women to resist our oppression. Therein sits the tension.

joan jettUltimately, getting called names on the internet is a cost I am more than willing to pay if it is the price required to oppose violence against women and girls. Were it otherwise, I would be unable to call myself a feminist.

Did I choose to be ‘out’ as radical?

At no point did I make a decision to be publicly radical. Even in its most basic form, my feminism understood that ‘sex positivity’ and porn culture were repackaging women’s exploitation as ‘empowering’, that endless talk about choice only served to obscure the context in which those choices are made. I also recall being puzzled by the words sex and gender being used interchangeably in contemporary discourse – the former is a biological category, the latter is a social construction fabricated to enable the oppression of women by men. Seeing gender treated as an amusing provocation or, worse, something innate in our minds, was deeply disconcerting – after all, if gender is natural or inherent, so too is patriarchy. I was conscious that my views were considered old-fashioned but, although it was slightly isolating, not troubled by the tension between me and what I now know to be liberal feminism.

It was only through finding radical feminist Twitter that I realised plenty of International-Feminism-01contemporary feminists thought with the same framework, that these ideas did not exist solely in books that had been written some twenty years before I was born. I do not say this to disparage the feminism of the 1970s, but rather to point out that there was an almost wishful nostalgia to my conceptualisation of that era and the politics it embodied. The second wave felt impossibly far away – thinking about it was like thinking of a party for which you are already decades too late. It felt like that feminism, of radical ideas and action, was gone. Now I realise that is exactly what young women are conditioned to think in the hope that we will grow complacent and accept our oppression instead of challenging it at the root.

Having grown up and developed my ideas, it now seems unlikely I would have found a place had I been of that context – as lesbian feminists go, I am fairly apolitical with regard to sexuality: I’m still not convinced it is possible to choose to be a lesbian, do not know that I would choose to be a lesbian even if the option had been there (there is an undeniable appeal to being slightly more ‘of’ than Other), and oppose the notion that bisexual women are being half-hearted in their feminist praxis because they will not ‘become’ lesbians. Yet, I would not have found my way into those conversations without radical feminist Twitter.

As my political consciousness was catalysed by radical feminist Twitter, a community that continues to challenge and delight me, it seemed natural to participate in that discourse publicly. I was more concerned about developing my ideas – learning from and, later on, teaching other women – than any potential reaction. Perhaps naïvely, I had not fully considered the convenience of closeting my politics. Being connected to radical feminist discourse, engaging with its ideas and the women behind them, was always the priority. I did not initially consider the possibility of acquiring public profile, and now consider it as a largely unfortunate by-product of my participation in feminist discourse as opposed to something worth maintaining in its own right – perhaps why I do not self-censor for the sake of popularity.

Are there professional consequences for being a radical feminist?

It depends on what you do. Countless radical feminists have been reported to their employers for differentiating between sex and gender. Being openly radical when you work in the women’s sector carries a particular risk. Similarly, women who are academics or hold some form of institutional power are in a delicate position, faced with the dilemma of jeopardising a career or speaking out. I know dozens of radical feminists who achieve more social good for other women by saying nothing explicitly radical whilst doing the most extraordinary, necessary work. None of that work would be possible if those women chose to die on the hill of gender politics. A direct result of that would be other women losing out – from literacy classes to policy on male violence, there would be very real consequences if covertly radical women lost their positions. There are times when staying quiet is the smarter option, particularly in conversations about gender politics, and I will not condemn women who make that tactical decision.

My career is freelance – in this respect, being directly accountable only to myself is useful. That being said, a freelance career is dependent on organisations being willing to commission my writing or workshops. Becoming a pariah is fairly counterproductive in that respect. At points people have contacted (or at least threatened to contact) places where I study, volunteer, and write. Nothing has ever come of it. Why? Their accusations are false. I have nothing to hide about feminism – there is no shameful secret at the heart of my sexual politics. I will only ever say what I believe in, what I can back up with evidence, what a substantial body of feminist theory supports.

Being able to speak with conviction and follow through when questioned is crucial. Those qualities are also what appeal to the people and organisations who hire me. A recurring theme with commissions: at least one person within the organisation has covertly voiced support for my radical feminism. Radical feminism is less of an anathema than we are made to believe.

I am commissioned to produce work that I believe in. Nothing my detractors have said or done changes that fact. To quote Beyoncé, the best revenge is your paper.

How do non-radical feminists react?

Badly. Not always, but often. Some of the most rewarding and thought-provoking engagements are with women who are not radical feminists yet engage in good faith. Unfortunately, those interactions are in the minority.

Abuse from strangers, while it can be frightening, is something to which I have grown habituated. I report it to the relevant authorities and move on. Following the most concentrated period of abuse I have endured, it was not the threats that weighed on my mind, but the responses of queer and liberal feminists. A number openly celebrated my abuse and its consequences. Theirs is the type of feminism that is opposed to racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. up until the point those prejudices damage someone whose politics do not align with their own. That was disconcerting. Be prepared for those moments. Be prepared to lose false friends, too.

It’s a strange position to be in. If the label TERF has ever been applied to you, it strips away something of your humanity in the eyes of the wider public. You are no longer viewed as a worthy recipient of empathy or even basic human decency. This isn’t surprising, because TERF is often used in conjunction with violent threats and graphic descriptions of abuse. It legitimises violence against women.

TERF functions something like “witch” in The Crucible. Only by condemning other women can you avoid that condemnation yourself. There is a frantic edge behind the panic it spreads. There are plenty of feminists who will be prepared to monster you to save their own reputations. They are not worth your respect, let alone the time it would take to puzzle out their motives.

It is also worth considering the responses of feminists who are not publicly radical. Women routinely tell me that I am saying what they believe, express gratitude that I speak out, tell me that my words resonate. And this is gratifying, yes, but it is also isolating. An almost supernatural courage is projected onto openly radical women, an exceptionalism that is often used by other women to justify their silence. Glosswitch often speaks about this phenomenon, and she is right – it would be far more rewarding if the women who offer private support would publicly claim their own radical politics instead, provided they are in a position to do so.


 

Bibliography

bell hooks. (2004). The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

Susan Faludi. (1991). Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women

Feminist Current

Miranda Kiraly  & Meagan Tyler (eds.). (2015). Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism

Gayatri Spivak. (1987). In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics

Natasha Walter. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

Hibo Wardere. (2016). Cut: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today

 

 

 

But Some of Us are Brave – Questions on Race and Feminism

Since starting Sister Outrider, I have received questions about race and feminism on a regular basis. Now I’m going to take those questions and answer them publicly – all queries will be dealt with anonymously, so you have nothing to lose by asking. Anything asked in good faith will be answered in kind, so email your questions to me at SisterOutrider@outlook.com. This first Q&A was a delight to conduct – with the thought and the honesty women put into their questions, how could it be anything else? So please don’t be shy.


 

Question: What are the main differences in UK and US feminism based on race?

First off, it’s important to state that my life, and subsequently my activism, has all been lived and carried out in the context of the UK – I’m Scottish. I’m also Black and, as a result, will restrict my observations to that because it is both my lane and my area of expertise. Although the majority of Black feminist theory and activism influencing my own work was and continues to be North American, that’s not the same as having the experience of activism in an American setting. In fact, I’d be fascinated to hear what Black women across the pond would make of this same question… But here is my answer:

Although discussion about race in the feminist movement is far from perfect in the USA, in many ways it strikes me as being more open. Maybe that has something to do with British repressiveness. Irrespective of whether white women engage with what their Black sisters have to say in the States, historical racism is more difficult to sweep under the carpet because slavery took place on American soil. It’s much harder to deny. On numerous occasions, white feminist women have informed me – without a trace of irony – that racism is “all over there”, in the American feminist movement. They speak as though women of all races are listened to and prioritised equally within our branch of the movement, and feign a sort of colour-blindness on the understanding that we’re all sisters together. This approach is in keeping with how Britain as a whole treats racism, completely overlooking Britain’s own colonial legacy; how much wealth was generated from slavery; the racial hierarchy used to justify imperialist expansionism; how that wealth and that world view shape today’s political landscape, even within the feminist movement. As a result, white women can be quite disingenuous when talking about race.

In other ways, I think it’s very similar. The problems that African-American feminists talk about relating to race and feminism are almost entirely the problems that Black feminists face in Britain, too. On a daily basis, I see Black women from the UK and the US dealing with the same racism from white women. That shared experience is, in part, why Black feminist texts originating in the States are influential to Black feminist praxis in the UK.

Question: How can non-Black feminists begin to understand the experiences of Black women?

For white women: By listening to us, engaging with what we are telling you, and reflecting on it. By looking at the dynamic of race with the same critical eyes you turn towards examining the dynamic of gender. By accepting that Black womanhood is an entirely plural thing, meaning that our experiences vary due to factors such as class, sexuality, disability, and where we are situated by geopolitics. By ceasing to conceptualise Blackness as something distinct to, separate from, womanhood. By understanding that – no matter how well intentioned – claiming our experiences mirror those of white women is ultimately deeply unhelpful, as it erases a significant part of our reality.

For non-Black women of colour: Though our experiences are not the same, the road to solidarity between us is a smoother. Acknowledging those differences and amplifying one another’s voices is the way to continue paving it, to develop mutual understanding.

Question: Beyond listening to our sisters of colour, are there any practical and direct actions that white women can take with race and feminism? Or any recommendations on books/articles/movies etc. that you feel have covered this subject in an honest and useful way?

Listening is only the first part of a process. Be open to learning, honestly exploring what we say, and even changing your perspective. Think critically about which voices you listen to and value within the feminist movement, which feminist writers you read, which feminist thinkers influence your praxis – what is prioritised and what is not. Since whiteness is treated like a neutral standard, even within the feminist movement, it can be very easy to fall into a pattern of engaging with only white women’s words and ideas. I know I was once guilty of this. You can break that cycle by actively seek out writing by women of colour. After a time, it will become second nature. In addition to challenging racist assumptions, reading our work also makes it more difficult for white women to dismiss us as a subgroup of womanhood, to categorise us as Other and, subsequently, less relevant to the feminist movement.

When interacting with women of colour, remain mindful of the dynamic of race – the difference in structural power, how that manifests. A key problem is that when women of colour voice our experiences, articulate how race intersects with sex, white women speak over us. For example: “That doesn’t happen/I’ve never noticed that.” White women position their own experiences as objective, accepted as standard within feminist dialogue, yet treat what women of colour have to say about race as subjective – based more in our skewed perception than in the material reality of structural inequalities. So often, white women would rather contradict us rather than confront the possibility of their own racism. By applying the same critical thinking to racism as misogyny, actively exploring the resultant ideas even when it becomes uncomfortable, white women can support women of colour.

The first piece of writing I recommend is the conversation between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. It can be found in Sister Outsider, a collection of Lorde’s essays, reflections, and speeches. This is described as an interview but, in truth, it’s more of a dialogue – a mutual process. Lorde and Rich were both radically lesbian women, sharing not only a great deal of common ground, but a mutual affinity: they explored each other’s ideas fully, shared an honesty that made their negotiation of race authentic. To put it plainly, they got each other. That relationship demonstrates the best of possibilities for relationships between Black and white feminist women. That Lorde spoke so openly on the subject of race, about how her Blackness shaped her experiences, to Rich – a white woman – indicates a rare ease between them. Throughout that exchange, it is also clear that Rich is conscious of where her whiteness positions her in relation to Lorde.

To a large extent I think it was enabled by their adherence to lesbian ethics. Although lesbian feminism is frequently treated with derision, lesbophobic stereotyping used as a foil to reassure young women that fighting for equality will not, in fact, result in them becoming ugly, angry man-haters, I think it has a lot to offer the contemporary feminist movement. Particularly with regard to race and interracial solidarity between women, a lesbian approach is so far ahead of most other forms of feminist praxis – queer feminism included. With this answer, it would be impossible (and somewhat dishonest) to ignore that my meaningful connections with white women are predominantly between me and white lesbians. That’s out of step with fashionable thinking, of course, but it is the deepest truth I have to offer.

I would also recommend the work of bell hooks, starting with Feminism is for Everybody. She writes in a way that is both direct and accessible about interracial dynamics in feminism, discomfort, and how to achieve sustainable solidarity. Another important work to consider is Angela Davis’ autobiography – in her struggle against all forms of structural oppression, Davis worked alongside people of both sexes, people of all colours and creeds. That she was receptive to this is attributed to the influence of her mother, Sallye Davis, who taught a young Angela the importance of marginalised groups being able to unite. In terms of fiction, the writings of Zadie Smith, Helen Oyeyemi, and Jackie Kay all offer a great deal of insight into how race works in practical and social terms.

Question: What is your view on political Blackness?

The idea has been a part of British activism since the 1970s at least, so I’m slightly puzzled as to why this has only just become a controversy. Initially, political Blackness was used in much the same sense that people of colour is used now – an umbrella term to denote solidarity based on shared experience resulting from where we are positioned by race.

I first encountered the term with my research into Black British feminist activism that took place during the early 1980s. When I met with my supervisor to discuss my placement, she asked – as a number of Black groups I encountered were in fact women of colour – if the scope of my research included political Blackness. I explained that I wanted to focus specifically on Black women’s work. To her credit, she (a white woman) did not try to persuade me otherwise and simply reminded me to outline the parameters of my research, including a justification of how and why I shaped them. That was that. Although bemused by the term on occasion, sometimes concerned by its implications, I was mainly impressed by what women of colour achieved together. Wrongly, I assumed it had faded from the activist lexicon over time and so did not give its subsequent use a great deal of thought. I had imagined it was like when an old person says coloured instead of Black – disquieting, but not representative of how things are typically described: an unfortunate throwback.

Although I fully support interracial solidarity between people of colour, the term political Blackness glosses over nuances that need to be fully explored for that solidarity to exist. It conceals anti-Black racism. It erases the cultures and identities of non-Black people of colour. The idea of political Blackness also makes me uncomfortable, because Blackness isn’t something I can opt in and out of – it’s an inherent part of me that shapes every aspect of my life, overtly political or not. If we flipped it and had Black people describing ourselves as politically Asian, that would be both ludicrous and deeply inappropriate. Black people have no right to claim the experiences or identities of Asian people as our own, for any purpose. The end doesn’t justify the means, especially not when we can use unifying terms like people of colour to describe ourselves collectively.

As is the case with colourism, this is one of those subjects that white journalists are going to write poorly informed think-pieces about that only serve to muddy the water. This is a discussion that needs to take place between people of colour – a conversation that is vital, but cannot be used by whites to undermine our solidarity or collective political action.

Question: Should we [women of colour] take a global approach? Join forces? How do you see feminism creating that bridge?

Absolutely! A global feminist movement is essential to driving any meaningful cultural shift away from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Feminism is capable of creating that bridge, of connecting all women, but to do so it must cease prioritising white, middle-class, and corporate women above their less privileged sisters – actively challenge all forms of oppression beyond gender. Quite a lot of Black feminist theory provides a blueprint for this. I would recommend starting with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, We Should All be Feminists, which has also been adapted into a short book. It’s very accessible, but deals with complex themes – structural inequality, feminism in a global context, how different prejudices can overlap. The work of Chandra Talpade Mohanty is also essential when considering visions of global feminism.

Question: How do I talk to white people about intersectionality? How do I make them understand that teaching on women’s leadership entirely through the white lens doesn’t deal with people of colour’s experiences? That there are people coming from a different social environment?

That’s an excellent question, and one that I’m still grappling with. If a white person has never before been expected to consider their own privilege in relation to a person of colour, to explore the idea that their reality is cushioned by a layer or privilege that comes at the expense of another, it can be a very difficult conversation. Rather than engage with what you are saying, quite a lot of white people will reframe the discussion as personal attack, making their hurt feelings the centre of that conversation. Initiating this dialogue has the unfortunate side-effect of providing you with a masterclass on white fragility – by the time it’s through, you’ll be an expert in how that works. Yet, despite how tiring gets explaining that those hurt feelings are a luxury compared to life under structural, systematic racism, it is vital that we speak out. I respect you for taking a stand, sister.

If there is a perfect method, I am yet to find it, but this is how I talk to white people about intersectionality. Initially, I avoid using words like ‘privilege’ or ‘oppression’ in order to keep them from going on the defensive – that all comes into play once you establish a dialogue with them. Find some mutual ground and work with them from there. With white women, I talk with them about our experiences of misogyny until we have an understanding of sorts and then link in how racism overlaps with that in relation to sexual harassment (white men’s assumption that Black women are hypersexual savages), gendered perceptions of my emotions (being written off as an Angry Black Woman), etc. Mostly that works. With men of colour, I reverse that process and transition from our shared experience of racism to my co-existing experiences of racism and sexism. With white men, it can be more difficult because there is less common understanding of oppression. In queer spaces, it varies. Some gay white men are open to that discussion, capable of applying the logic of their own situation to yours. Other white gay men are utterly convinced that nobody has ever been more oppressed than they are, and nothing you can say will change that level of irrational belief. It’s difficult.

Being personal will help with conversations on power and privilege. It demonstrates the practical application of intersectionality, and makes it seem more relevant – an approachable concept rather than abstract feminist jargon. It also makes the whole thing seem more human.

Ain’t I a Woman? Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: this essay is the third in a series on race and racism in the feminist movement, in which I explore the pitfalls of feminist theory treating white womanhood as the normative standard. Part 1 can be accessed here, part 2 here.


 

Throughout the rich and varied body of feminist theory, within every facet of feminist activism, the rights of women are a central concern – and that is all to the good.  Whether the issue relates to women’s bodily autonomy, socio-economic standing, or political representation, challenging the secondary position women occupy in society is fundamental to feminist theory and practice alike. Yet the question of which women are prioritised within feminism and why cannot be easily dismissed – hierarchies are established and maintained, even under the politics of liberation. Given the feminist movement’s flawed relationship with race, it is a question that requires thorough consideration before it can be answered honestly.

In 1851, an emancipated slave by the name of Sojourner Truth addressed the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention and posed the following question: ain’t I a woman?  That Truth’s speech was distorted by the white gaze in the process of transcription, her dialect roughened and reshaped to fit the popular image of Negro then held by the public imagination – a Southern slave – does not detract from the power of her words. Truth provided one of the earliest and most meaningful deconstructions of womanhood found within feminist theory, unpicking the racism and misogyny defining the cult of true womanhood. Truth was a staunch advocate for the human rights of all women, irrespective of race, and Black men. Her critique of the normative standard of woman remains relevant to this very day.

Feminism has an ongoing problem with race. The movement did not form inside a social vacuum, separate and distinct from white supremacy – indeed, many among its earliest American campaigners became staunch supporters of white superiority when it appeared that Black men would receive the right to vote before white women.

“White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” – Carrie Chapman Catt, 1859-1947 (Founder of the League of Women Voters)

White women made use of racism, exploited racist assumptions, for their own benefit (Davis, 1981). That is an unavoidable truth. White racism is an undeniable part of feminist history, has continually influenced the development of feminist theory, and can be traced directly from early to contemporary feminist discourse.

Mary Wollstonecraft drew numerous unfortunate comparisons between the plight of white women, often with a degree of material and class privilege, and that of their enslaved Black sisters. Wollstonecraft was an abolitionist, a pioneering feminist thinker, yet her otherwise rigorous challenge to the dominant social order was undermined by the polemic slavery analogy (Ferguson, 1992). The argument is of course made that Wollstonecraft was a product of her time, that within her context she was a revolutionary. Except that with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft unwittingly set a pattern of behaviour that continues to manifest in feminist praxis: a failure to acknowledge how women are positioned by race.

The Feminine Mystique, a book frequently credited with catalysing the second wave of feminism, relied on both racist and classist assumptions. In her study of “the problem that has no name”, Betty Friedan completely overlooked that women of colour and working class women worked outside of the home out of sheer necessity, treating the white, middle-class and college educated woman’s experience as standard (hooks, 1982). In Against Our Will, a book that revolutionised the understanding of rape, Susan Brownmiller exploited racist assumptions of a bestial Black masculinity, the flip-side of which is a hypersexual Black femininity (Davis, 1981) – small wonder that women of colour were alienated by popular feminist thought. Although a great deal of radical feminist thought operated on what would now be considered an intersectional basis, writing from the second wave often treated white womanhood as normative, and women of colour were routinely marginalised within feminist activism (Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1981. Hull, Scott, & Smith, 1982).

Little changed with the third wave of feminism – if anything, emphasis on the individual circumvented any meaningful analysis of structural racism. Even as intersectionality has come to shape recent developments in the feminist movement, white women routinely use it as a means of virtue signalling. Intersectionality is often treated as a way of paying lip service to women of colour without meaningfully exploring any factor shaping our realities beyond the hierarchy of gender. Numerous feminist books published within the last five years have a token chapter (if we’re lucky…) devoted to the intersection of race and sex. To give an example, in a chapter of Everyday Sexism (2014) Laura Bates explored “double discrimination”, her phrase for co-existence of multiple forms of oppression. Though she acknowledged the ways in which women of colour are fetishised as a sexual Other, our experiences were framed as niche, irregular.

White feminists also have an unfortunate habit of discussing racism and sexism as two entirely separate forms of discrimination, which do not meet in a common site and are therefore not worthy of joint consideration. Emer O’Toole’s otherwise stellar analysis of gender roles in Girls Will Be Girls (2013) is undermined by the casual erasure of women of colour resulting from the following phrase: “people of colour or women.” This is, of course, a false dichotomy that positions white womanhood as standard.

Treating white womanhood as normative not only serves to marginalise women of colour within the feminist movement, but positions our needs as secondary to those of white women, propagating the hierarchy of race within feminism. Considering white womanhood as normative defines who is valued as a source of knowledge relating to women’s experiences, and who is not. It shapes the criteria for who is heard within the feminist movement, and who is overlooked by default. If the concerns of white women become simply the concerns of women, then race – conveniently – ceases to be a feminist issue. Women of colour critiquing racism can therefore be dismissed as threats to feminist unity, accused of “trashing” white women when we critique their racism. The racialised depiction of passion, particularly common in the Angry Black Woman trope (Harris-Perry, 2011), automatically invalidates any attempt women of colour to address racism. This is why women of colour are so frequently subject to tone policing in feminist discourse. Silencing criticisms of their own racism enables white feminists to avoid the challenge of uncomfortable self-reflection – they justify doing so by claiming that they act in the name of sisterhood.

However, as Mohanty says, “…sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.” White women disregarding and speaking over women of colour are not enacting sisterhood, but rather undermining it through exploiting the hierarchy of race. Contrary to the derailments used to silence women of colour in feminism, it is white racism that stands between the feminist movement and interracial solidarity. In addressing that racism, women of colour seek to overcome the ultimate barrier between women.

I will conclude by encouraging white feminists to apply the same tools of analysis they use in critiquing misogyny to their own racism, to the racism of other white women – to speak out when they see it. When discussing race with women of colour, I advise white women to consider their expectations of men when discussing misogyny – to draw the parallel of oppressor class and oppressed class, and apply those principles to their own conduct. Whether or not white women are aware of it, they are positioned at an advantage over women of colour – the only way they will learn more about it is by listening to our voices, acknowledging our perspectives, and reflecting on what we have to say.

I would also add that there is no shame in making a genuine attempt to improve and getting it wrong. Responding with white defensiveness and attempting to silence a woman of colour is, however, reprehensible. In my relationships with white feminist women, there is a clear distinction: those who are prepared to learn when it comes to race, and those who are not. The former group I trust and value as my sisters. The latter group I’m too wary of for true solidarity to be a possibility. I do not ask for perfection – who does? – but simply that you try.


Bibliography

Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class.

Ferguson, Moira. (1992). Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery. IN: Feminist Review, No. 42.

Harris-Perry, Melissa. (2011). Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

hooks, bell. (1982). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

eds. Hull, Gloria, Scott, Patricia Bell, & Smith, Barbara. (1982). But Some of Us are Brave.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.

eds. Moraga, Cherríe & Anzaldúa, Gloria. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back.

Smith, Barbara. (1998). The Truth that Never Hurts.

The Outsider Within: Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: this essay is the second in a series on race and racism in the feminist movement. It is a work of personal reflection. No individuals, organisations, or events are/will be named or directly identified. My objective is neither to call out nor to heap praise on any woman, but rather to highlight some realities of interracial dynamics between women in feminism.


 

The personal is political. So goes the rallying cry of second wave feminism, a perspective which has characterised a significant body of feminist theory. It is for this reason that I have decided to share a reflection upon my experience as a Black woman within the movement. There is a theory within Black feminism that being an outsider on the grounds of both race and sex positions Black women as watchers, gives us particular insight into dominant power structures and the means by which they manifest (Hill Collins, 2000). With this in mind, I aim to live up to the standards set by my foremothers and improve this movement for the women of colour who will follow after me.

Feminism is for everybody – so says bell hooks. (Note: hooks is not arguing that the movement should prioritise men, or any other dominant class, but rather be fully inclusive on grounds of race, class, and sexuality.) This text was critical in my development of a Black radical feminism, the moment when black became Black. Feminism is for Everybody outlined the importance of acknowledging race and class alongside sex if white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is to be dismantled, and provided a blueprint for true interracial solidarity between women. Here, hooks posited that sisterhood can exist between women of colour and white women provided that race is acknowledged as a hierarchy, racism as a system of power, from which white women benefit. If white women continue to deny the privilege of whiteness, disregarding countless testimonies delivered by women of colour, we have no reason to trust them as political allies – this is hooks’ perspective, and one with which I agree wholeheartedly.

Interracial solidarity between women is possible. I know. I have experienced it. But I have also learned that it is so rare, the alternative so uncomfortable, that I will never condemn another woman of colour for claiming otherwise. This solidarity is by no means guaranteed – in my opinion, it is safer never to expect it – but it is powerful when it goes right.

The first place I experienced true interracial solidarity within the movement is the women’s organisation where I volunteer. The values and praxis of this organisation are intersectional in the purest sense – it is a place for women of colour, working class women, lesbian and bi women, women with disabilities. Women negotiating marginalised identities are not treated like tokens, or a box to be ticked off for funding purposes: we are at the heart of the organisation. The longer I am there, the more I appreciate this. The longer I am there, the more uncommon I realise this situation actually is. It is a place where I can sit around a table working with white women and know that they do not view my Blackness as an easy method of virtue-signalling, something to be displayed when convenient and disregarded when it is not. Difference isn’t fetishised or ignored, but acknowledged and treated accordingly – exactly the criteria outlined by hooks. These are women who live their feminist principles, and I am proud to work alongside them.

It is worth observing that the majority of white women with whom I share solidarity are significantly older than me, and/or lesbian, and/or working class. As to why these women tend to be older, feminism was significantly more radical when they started down the path of activism, which undoubtedly shaped their perspective on structural oppression. Radically feminist politics added depth to their structural analysis, to the extent that bypassing race became both extremely difficult to justify and intellectually dishonest.

It is easy to answer the lesbian part of this dynamic – in her novel The Night Watch, Sarah Waters postulated that lesbians tend to show one another “gallantry” on the grounds that nobody else will and, broadly speaking, I think that she is right. In some cases these are women who fought Section 28 – it’s reasonable to imagine they now watch the babydykes flourish and consider it an achievement. Having experienced considerable marginalisation themselves, these women are more likely to be conscious of the marginalisation experienced by others – how intersectionality is supposed to, but does not always, work.

Why I find easier kinship with white working class women is also clear. They are consciously unlearning racism as I (a Black middle class woman) am consciously unlearning classism. As multiple works of feminist scholarship have argued, race and class are inextricably linked by dominant structures of power. Neither Black nor working class features in the rosy picture of life in the UK as painted by the Little Britain mentality. We both belong to the parts of society rendered other, over there, not quite People Like the hegemonic ‘Us’. White working class women have engaged with my activism and shown me extraordinary kindness in a way that, to my thinking, exemplifies sisterhood.

These women have shown me every personal and professional consideration. They have encouraged my work, amplified my voice, and listened closely to what I have to say. They are my sisters. They have my trust. And they are the exception to the rule of white racism.

Participating in feminist movement as a Black woman is, frankly, difficult. That’s not because of the MRAs and right-wing racists who are routinely overwhelmed by the urge to call me nigger, suggest that I “go back to Africa” (FYI: impossible – to my regret, I’ve never actually visited that continent, and they are never willing to follow through by funding my plane tickets…), make some allusion to slavery or the Ku Klux Klan in the hope of causing me discomfort, etc. These people are irrelevant. Over time, I have grown desensitised to such attacks. No, what makes my participation in feminism difficult is witnessing and experiencing the racism of white women I had previously considered allies – women who understand misogyny on a structural level, yet turn a blind eye to racism. They have been responsible for every one of the numerous points at which I have wanted to leave the movement, to distance myself from what I know to be a vital cause.

Whenever I discuss race, the result is the same. White, self-proclaimed feminist women have sworn at me, spoken over me, questioned my feminist credentials, mocked me, made thinly-veiled racist jokes, and – most bizarrely – policed my race. So quickly, white defensiveness evolves into white cruelty. I will not give examples. I will not include screencaps, or name and shame the culprits. What I will say is that it happens regularly enough that I am automatically on guard with white feminist women, just waiting for the microaggressions to begin. And they do.

Some white feminists even feel compelled to set little tests, which I can pass only by demonising Black men and prioritising sex over race in my analysis. I can’t even indulge in that petty internet pastime of commenting on Kanye West’s antics without some white woman showing up in my mentions, expecting me to a) monster Black masculinity b) stop listening to his music c) distance myself from Black culture in the name of sisterhood. If I critique the misogynoir directed towards Black women in the music industry, such as Nicki Minaj, the response is similarly predictable. White women gloss over the way Nicki repeatedly encourages her female fans to focus on their education and never depend upon a man, they ignore the message behind her music and the way it uplifts Black womanhood – they only want to critique the sexuality of her image. Bonus points if Taylor Swift is held up in contrast as a good role model for girls.

And then there are the white women who view associating with me as a fast-track to cookies. “I can’t be racist: I have a Black friend!” On multiple occasions, white feminists have tagged me in their Twitter arguments with racists, often exposing me to graphic images and racist language in the process. They do this with less thought towards me than Ash Ketchum ever showed a Pokémon he sent into battle. They do it in the belief that I will fight on their behalf, use my voice to provide them with the moral high ground. I will not. Images of white violence against Black people are deeply unsettling. That entitlement towards my intellectual labour is an act of contempt. It is dehumanising, accompanied by a real disregard for my wellbeing.

It is impossible to feel solidarity with women who expect me to downplay and ignore my Blackness and its political implications for their comfort.I cannot feel sisterhood with women who expect me to stay silent because it’s “just race”, dismissing a system of oppression that continues to shape my life as “a distraction”. There is no room for trust on my side when I am constantly deflecting racism. When I talk about race and feminism with other women of colour, they know. They instinctively get it. There is no need to explain, and that is a wonderful thing in a world where garden variety bigots and white feminists alike are directing racism our way.

Yet, I cannot bring myself to give up on the vision of a united feminist movement. The white women with whom I share solidarity have all worked to achieve that level of consciousness. They show that racism does not have to be a barrier between women if we are all committed to challenging white supremacy. In Angela Davis’ autobiography, there is a particularly touching passage in which she reveals her mother’s commitment to interracial solidarity in the struggle against all forms of oppression. Sallye Davis’ generosity of spirit, the strength she showed in having kept such hope alive, are inspirational.

If I am willing to remain an optimist, it is because I believe in a feminist movement built upon true solidarity – one in which “all women” means “all women”, not an insistence that white women are prioritised. It’s not here today, but it can be. When white women are ready to put in the work, I will be prepared to call them sister.


Bibliography

Davis, Angela. (1974). An Autobiography.

hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

Hill Collins, (2000). Black Feminist Thought.

Smith, Barbara. (1998).  The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom.

Waters, Sarah. (2006). The Night Watch.

Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: This is the first in a series of blog posts on race and racism in the feminist movement. It is not a feel-good piece. Equally, it is not a reprimand. It is a wake-up call – one which I hope will be answered.


 

Solidarity between women is vital for liberation. If the feminist movement is to succeed, feminist principles must be applied in deed as well as in word. Although intersectionality is used as a buzzword in contemporary activism, in many ways we have deviated from Crenshaw’s intended purpose: bringing marginalised voices from the periphery to the centre of the feminist movement by highlighting the coexistence of oppressions. White women with liberal politics routinely describe themselves as being intersectional feminists before proceeding to speak over and disregard those women negotiating marginalised identities of race, class, and sexuality in addition to sex. Intersectionality as virtue-signalling is diametrically opposed to intersectional praxis. The theory did not emerge in order to aid white women in their search for cookies – it was developed predominantly by Black feminists with a view to giving women of colour voice.

White feminists of all stripes are falling down at the intersection of race. Liberal feminists frequently fail to consider racism in terms of structural power. Radical feminists are often unwilling to apply the same principles of structural analysis to oppression rooted in race as in sex.

White women who are self-proclaimed feminists have a habit of expecting women of colour to choose between identities of race and sex, to prioritise challenging misogyny over opposing racism, in the name of sisterhood. Classic Black feminist texts dating from the early 1970s onwards detail this phenomenon, and precious little about interracial dynamics between women have changed since their publication. What white women often fail to consider is that, for women of colour, race and sex are inextricably linked in how we experience the world, how we are situated within structures of power. Yet discussion of race is often treated like a derailment from the Real Feminist Issues (i.e. those relating directly to white women), the implication being that women of colour are at most a sub-group within the movement.


Regardless of how their feminist politics manifest, the question of race is one that is not so easily answered, or even acknowledged, by many white women. Through both feminist theory and activism, women develop a structural understanding of the patriarchal hierarchy and where we are positioned within that system. Techniques such as consciousness raising and collective organisation have enabled women to connect the personal with the political – and it is deeply personal. Within feminism, women become fully aware of how we are marginalised by patriarchy. White women rightly consider themselves to belong to the oppressed class in terms of sex. Being aware of the implications carried by belonging to the dominant class, white women are therefore discomfited by the notion of being the oppressing party in the hierarchy of race (hooks, 2000). This brings us to our first fallacy:

‘Making it about race divides women.’


Time and time again, this line is used by white women to circumnavigate any meaningful discussion of race, to avoid the discomfiting possibility of having to confront the spectre of their own racism. This argument suggests that the effort of feminist women would be best concentrated on challenging sex-based oppression at the exclusion of all other manifestations of prejudice. In adopting such a narrow approach to activism, such women preclude the possibility of tacking misogyny’s root cause: white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984). Sole focus on misogyny is, ultimately, ineffective. Selective structural analysis will only take us so far. Racism and classism, like misogyny, are pillars of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, upholding and perpetuating dominant power structures. Patriarchy cannot be dismantled whilst the other vectors in the matrix of domination (Hill Collins) remain in place. Such laissez-faire politics and activism lack the depth, rigour, and ethical consistency required to drive a cultural shift towards liberation. They also beg the question: what sort of feminism looks on, indifferent, when injustice thrives?

No, talking about race does not divide women. It is racism that does that – specifically, the racism white women direct towards women of colour, the racism that white women observe and fail to challenge because, ultimately, they benefit from it. Whether intentional or casually delivered, that racism has the same result: it completely undermines the possibility of solidarity between women of colour and white women. White women’s unwillingness to explore the subject of race, to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from white supremacy, makes mutual trust impossible.

‘But white women don’t benefit from white supremacy.’

To argue that misogyny is the primary agent in all women’s oppression is to assume that the category of ‘woman’ overlaps entirely with ‘white’ and ‘middle class’, which plainly isn’t the case. The hierarchy of race has as much bearing on the lived experiences of women of colour as the hierarchy of gender. When roughly 70% of British people in jobs paying the national minimum wage are women, it is evident that class plays a pivotal role in the lives of working class women.

Frequently white women complain about brocialism – the tendency of leftist men to remain mysteriously incapable of noticing how the hierarchy of social class is mirrored by that of gender. This is a valid critique, a necessary critique. It is also a critique that is entirely applicable to white, self-proclaimed feminist women unwilling to engage with anti-racist politics. Even as they experience classism and/or lesbophobia, white women continue to benefit from their whiteness.

According to the Fawcett Society, the gender pay gap for full-time employees sits at 13.9%. BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people with GCSEs are paid 11% less than our white counterparts, a deficit that rises to 23% among graduates. In addition, BAME graduates are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than white graduates. Women of colour face a double jeopardy of sorts, our labour undervalued both on grounds of race and sex. Zora Neale Hurston once described Black women as the “mule uh de world”, an observation that is spot on when applied to the wage gap. BAME women are also more likely to be asked about our plans relating to marriage and pregnancy by prospective employers than white women. White women are objectified by men, the result of misogyny. Women of colour are objectified, Othered, fetishised, and treated like hypersexual savages by men, the result of misogyny and racism. BAME and migrant women also “experience a disproportionate rate of domestic homicide.”

Even if you are not prepared to listen to what women of colour have to say about racism, the facts and figures bear out.

‘Women are stronger when we all stand together.’

Yes. Sisterhood is a powerful, sustaining force. But expecting women of colour to remain silent on the subject of race for the sake of white comfort is not sisterhood – quite the opposite. Sisterhood cannot exist so long as white women continue to ignore the hierarchy of race whilst simultaneously expecting women of colour to devote our energies solely to helping them gain equality with white men.This paradigm is exploitative, a toxic manifestation of white entitlement within the feminist movement.

For sisterhood to exist between women of colour and white women, we must have an honest conversation about race within the feminist movement. White privilege must be acknowledged and opposed by white women. Whiteness must cease to be treated as the normative standard of womanhood within feminist politics. The same logic that is applied to critiquing misogyny must be applied to unlearning racism. Issues facing women of colour must be considered a priority, not a distraction to be dealt with after the revolution. Women of colour must cease to be treated like a box-ticking exercise and instead acknowledged for what we are, what we have always been: essential to the feminist movement.

All this is imperative if we are to achieve true solidarity – and that is possible. As things stand, the onus is on white women to reach out and repair any rift that occurs on the basis of race. Ultimately, it will bring us all closer to liberation.


 

Bibliography

Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class.

Grewal, Shabnam, ed. (1988). Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women. 

Hill Collins, Patricia. (2000). Black Feminist Thought.

hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

Lorde, Audre. (1984). Sister Outsider.

Wallace, Michele. (1978). Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman.

 

 

 

 

 

White people critiquing “White Feminism” perpetuate white privilege

Update (12/02/17): the ongoing popularity of this essay is a pleasant surprise. My first blog post has been accessed around the world, translated into Portuguese and German, and republished by a variety of feminist resources.


If you are involved in feminist discourse online, the chances are that you will have noticed a particular phrase becoming increasingly common: White Feminism. Sometimes, a trademark logo will even be added for emphasis. The term White Feminism has become shorthand for certain failings within the feminist movement; of women with a particular degree of privilege failing to listen to their more marginalised sisters; of women with a particular degree of privilege speaking over those sisters; of women with a particular degree of privilege centering the movement around issues falling within their own range of experience. Originally, the term White Feminism was used by Women of Colour to address racism within the feminist movement – a necessary and valid critique.

Although white women are at a personal and political disadvantage due to the existing social order being built upon misogyny, they are also the beneficiaries of institutional racism – whether or not they want to be. Even white women with firmly anti-racist politics cannot opt out of benefiting from white privilege, from white women receiving greater (albeit lacking) media visibility than their BME sisters, to a wider wage gap for Women of Colour, to a significantly increased likelihood of police violence shaping the lived reality of Black women. That is how white privilege works. We live in a culture steeped in racism, with a great deal of our country’s wealth stemming from the slave trade. Much like misogyny, it takes much time and conscious thought to unlearn racism. It’s a learning process from which we never fully graduate. Women of Colour challenging racism from within the feminism movement give us all an opportunity to consciously disengage with behaviour rewarded by the white supremacist patriarchy.

However, the phrase White Feminism is no longer being used exclusively by Women of Colour to challenge the racism that we face. Recently, it has become de rigueur for white feminists to dismiss other white feminists with whom they disagree as embodying White Feminism. White people have started calling out other white people for… whiteness. I shit you not. In a recent piece for Vice magazine, somewhat ironically, Paris Lees laments that “White Feminists have the biggest media platforms…”. Artist Molly Crabapple, with both media platform and sizeable income (unless bigging up Samsung was an act of charity), tweeted to dismiss the views of “fancy white ladies” on the grounds of privilege. But, from where I’m sitting, both Paris and Molly look pretty comfortable.

Instead of amplifying the voices of Women of Colour, or using their platform to highlight the intersection between race and gender, a number of liberal white feminists have hijacked a critique of racism in order to bolster their own image as progressives – as the right sort of feminist, not a White Feminist. But co-opting Women of Colour’s analysis of racism within the feminist movement is exactly the kind of behaviour the phrase “White Feminism” was created to prevent. White people critiquing “White Feminism” perpetuate white privilege. Prioritising their own image above the anti-racist struggle led by Women of Colour is at best narcissistic, at worst racist. These actions support the notion that the racism faced by Women of Colour is a side-issue, not a main concern, within the feminist movement.

White women using “White Feminism” as a stick with which to beat each other, and not a prompt to consider their own racism, is peak whiteness in action. In the rush to “launder privilege“, white feminists become the dreaded White Feminist by misappropriating the words of their marginalised sisters for personal gain.

Say Hello to Sister Outrider

Whether you know of me through Twitter, Tumblr, or even (gasp!) in real life, one thing will have become clear as you listen to my increasingly radical perspective: I am a feminist. Why create this blog? you ask. You’re already on social media. You’re already an activist. Well, Twitter has a character limit, which makes it difficult to discuss the finer points of feminist discourse. Treating the personal as political is essential in challenging any system of oppression*. It can also lead to discomfort when conversation gets close to the bone – that discomfort is necessary, and should be handled sensitively, which isn’t always possible with the economy of language required for Twitter.

As for Tumblr… Have you ever actually used Tumblr? I’m in my twenties. It’s high time for me to get a grown-up blog. And real life? Much as I’d love to spend an hour or two discussing how best to dismantle the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy**, it doesn’t go down too well at dinner parties (unless the guests are all feminists, in which case I applaud the company you keep). Which brings us to blogging.

In recent years, since the rise of third wave feminism, radical beliefs have fallen out of fashion. At best, radical feminism is presented as being outdated – at worst, full of bigotry and extremism. Radical feminists are attacked by social conservatives and liberal feminists alike and, not so long ago, I bought it. I didn’t want to be lumped in with the prudes of yesteryear by either side, so I parroted narratives of agency and empowerment. And then I looked behind the curtain. I started to wonder about the context in which the all-important choice is made, whether more choices are open to some women than others and on what basis. I began to wonder why so many self-proclaimed intersectional feminists – in this instance, white women – are so eager to assume that marginalised women have the same range of opportunities in deciding which choice to make.

And – holy internalised misogyny, Batman! – it occurred to me that the premise of women losing relevance as we gain in years is fundamentally sexist, that in believing it I was doing the patriarchy’s work for it. I realised that I had fallen for the oldest trick in the book and dismissed the wisdom of older women. (More on this subject to follow.) Liberal feminism raised more questions than it answered. I wondered where my own feminism fit on the spectrum, if not within the third wave.

According to Wikipedia, that trusty source of information:

Radical feminists seek to abolish patriarchy by challenging existing social norms and institutions, rather than through a purely political process. This includes challenging traditional gender roles, opposing the sexual objectification of women, and raising public awareness about rape and violence against women.

Nothing objectionable there. In fact, this definition stretched to include the key tenets of my own feminism. But, as popular belief would have it, radical feminism is for privileged white women. One text often used to illustrate the exclusionary nature of second wave feminism is Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Certainly, “the problem that has no name”*** was predominantly faced by white, college-educated women with a degree of material privilege – not, for example, poor women and/or Women of Colour without the perceived luxury of being able to stay home rather than work. That didn’t make the “problem” any less of a problem for the women trapped by domesticity. Equally, Friedan’s assumption that white and middle class is the normative standard for women is grossly simplistic. This is where positionality comes in handy. And yes, Friedan’s comments about the “lavender menace” were very much lesbophobic. (In this respect, she shares common ground with contemporary feminist thought – again, more to follow.)

I don’t deny that Betty Friedan was problematic, to use the popular phrase. However, she was but one author in an entire socio-political movement. Radical feminism, like any other sphere of activism, consists of many voices. And, contrary to stereotyping, those voices stem from a broad range of identities and perspectives. Angela Davis, central to the Black Power movement, is radically feminist****. Adrienne Rich, lesbian poet, is radically feminist*****. Shulamith Firestone, a Jewish-Canadian revolutionary, was radically feminist******. bell hooks, beloved by feminists of all stripes, is radically feminist*******. Audre Lorde, Black lesbian poet and essayist, was radically feminist********. And there are many more such women.

Radical feminist voices are not heard in spite of differences of race, sexuality, or class. If anything, radical feminist voices are heard because of these differences – because they are acknowledged. Liberal feminism skims the surface of the problem. Radical feminism goes to the root and addresses it at a structural level. It critiques the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy in which we live, around which dominant social hierarchies have been built. Radical feminism examines the different ways in which we are touched by oppression, how identities including and in addition to gender shape our experiences of it.

Only through finding these radical feminist texts – the writings of women who are as much outsiders as me – did I begin to feel a sense of true belonging in the feminist movement. It was through engaging with other radical feminists, talking to these women as sisters, that I began to feel heard. And now it’s time for me to use my voice.


*Carol Hanisch, (1969). The Personal is Political. Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation

**bell hooks, (2004). The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Washington Square Press

***Betty Friedan, (1963). The Feminine Mystique. Penguin

****Angela Davis, (1983). Women, Race and Class. Vintage

*****Adrienne Rich, (1975). Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose. W. W. Norton & Company

******Shulamith Firestone, (1970). The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. Verso

*******bell hooks, (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. South End Press

********Audre Lorde, (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ten Speed Press