Should I Stay or Should I Go?

August 14, 2008

There is a post up over at Beyond Feminism about so-called “Glamour Feminists”.  This sort of post pushes several of my buttons.  First, I loathe the tendency, particularly prevalent among some radical feminists to decide that they’ve found the “One True Feminism” and all other feminists can therefore be lumped into one group regardless of their differences and belittled with a stupid nickname.   I also hate the tendency to divide these two groups along the lines of the very, very  fine details of their opinions on prostitution or pornography, and furthermore, to caricature the opinions of the so-called “Glamour Feminists”.


 I believe the New Zealand approach to prostitution is the best one; the decriminalisation of sex work (and not the criminalisation of people who buy sex, as in Sweden).  This is not because I think sex work is “fun”, and I actually do think that people who buy sex should be ashamed of themselves.  I think sex work, 90% of the time, is highly exploitative and that sex workers are extremely vulnerable to violence.  I think that decriminalising sex work will provide sex workers with the space to organise resistance to this exploitation.  I believe the Swedish model has just served to drive the sex industry further underground and further endanger sex workers.


You don’t have to agree with me on this – this is a very complicated issue.  But, please do not tell me that I think sex work is “fun”, because I don’t.


What I find particularly upsetting about the discussion at beyond feminism, though, is the radical feminists who are suggesting, in as self-righteous and smug a manner as possible, that what we “Glamour Feminists” really need is to read “Ms Audre Lorde”.


I’ve read Audre Lorde.  Sister/Outsider AND Zami.  But I didn’t stop there.  I’ve read her contemporaries, like Anzaldua and Moraga and Smith and the Combahee River Collective and hooks and their British counterparts like Parmar and Patel and Carby and Amina Mama.  And, given that Lorde was writing 30 years ago, I’ve read women of colour writing today, like Bannerji, and INCITE! and Shohat and Leila Ahmed and Sarah Ahmed and Safia Mirza and Gayatri Spivak, and M. Jacqui Alexander and Mohanty as well as white postcolonial feminists like Anne McClintock.  And that’s just the people I can name off the top of my head.


Reading Audre Lorde is not enough.  Reading ANY of these writers is not enough.  You have to incorporate what you have learned into your activism.  You have to be an anti-racist, anti-capitalist feminist.


Obviously, there are some radical feminists who do just that.  There are also many “non-radical” (for lack of a better term) feminists who do not engage in any kind of anti-racist or anti-capitalist analysis.


However, I tend to get disproportionately upset about orders from white radical feminists to read Audre Lorde because of my personal experience working with white radical feminists.


My time in a white British “radical”* feminist group went a bit like this:


            Me:  I think we should do an action in support of the No Recourse to Public

                        Funds campaign/ in support of incarcerated asylum seekers/

highlighting rape as a tool of sexist AND racist oppression


            Rest of group:  Yes racism is bad.  Let’s do another anti-porn action!


This is a précis of what happened at every meeting for 6 months.  And needless to say, none of those anti-porn actions ever looked at pornography through an anti-racist or anti-capitalist lens.


Like I said, I know it’s not fair to judge all white radical feminists by those women, but my time with that group was so painful and frustrating that I find it hard to be calm and fair about these issues.


The smug advice to read Audre Lorde is particularly frustrating coming from transphobic feminists.  As Emi Koyama (h/t Feministe) discusses in her usual excellent way, transphobia is underpinned by racism.  Believing that there is a unitary female experience open only to those born with female genitals suggests that there is a unitary female experience full-stop.  Which is precisely what Audre Lorde, and Patricia Hill Collins, and all of the women of colour feminists of that generation argued against.


So, I find these discussions frustrating and depressing, exacerbating an already depressive state I’m in a the moment.  And I have to ask myself, should I even bother to engage anymore?  Should I bother to read any of these blogs and comment?


It’s very tempting, and possibly a good deal healthier to refuse to engage.  Return to reading my books and writing in my personal journal, and scraping together the bus fare to go to London once a month for a Feminist Fightback meeting (FemFight are currently doing direct action in support of the striking tubecleaners – an action that DOES address sexism and racism and capitalism all at the same time).  Most of the “radical feminists” on the internet aren’t going to listen to a word I write anyway because they’ve already decided that I’m a “Glamour Feminist” or a “sex pox” or a “sparkle feminist” and therefore can be dismissed.


But Audre Lorde would engage, wouldn’t she?  Refusing to engage seems like cowardice.  If I really believe in what I have to say, if I really believe in the transformative power of feminism, then shouldn’t I be encouraging everyone to be an anti-racist, anti-capitalist feminism, to ensure that feminist victories benefit all women and not just a white elite?  I have a sneaking suspicion that any refusal to engage is hiding behind my privilege – I can afford to ignore Eurocentric, “class-blind” feminists precisely because I’m white and middle-class, so my survival is not at stake.


But I’m just so tired and so depressed. 

* Insofar as they identify themselves as radical

11 Responses to “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

  1. Zenobia Says:

    What I find with internet radical feminism is that they tend to ghettoise themselves by definition. No one is good enough to meet their standards – so the only way of giving them any importance is by engaging with them.

    It doesn’t help that in the UK a lot of the most high-profile feminists follow that tendency: I wouldn’t call Greer a radical feminist, but in terms of anti-porn and transphobia, she fits in with that particular trend.

    To be honest, I think there are plenty of us who don’t want any part of that type of feminism. Personally, I try not to engage with it, because it doesn’t have anything in common with what I do anyway – I don’t engage with the local conservative club, so why should I engage with right-wing anti-porn feminists? The problem is probably that they’re intent on this feminist re-enactment thing, on the media exposure, and also they have the benefit of how glamourous their subjects are considered in the media. It’s actually a lot easier to set up an anti-porn campaign and get media attention of it, because it has tits and a few strong brands attached. In fact, really, you could say they’re the glamour feminists: their entire presence and their importance is built on illusion.

    Probably the main problem is that the rest of us aren’t interested in getting our names out there or getting media attention, and also that we tend to assume we’re alone and dispersed and we don’t organise and communicate with each other enough.

    And to be honest, although there was a lot of positive stuff about it, my envolvement in a feminist group was similarly discouraging in many ways, if it wasn’t fashion or porn no one was interested. Basically, it’s just doing what you’d be doing anyway, except because we’re fantastic intelligent aware feminists somehow when we read Closer and Heat it takes on political and cultural significance. Which, in fact, shows not only that we quite enjoy the comforts we have from being oppressed to a certain extent, but also that we’re not that interested in changing. Or rather, they, not we, they’re not interested in changing.

    Really, for your sanity, I’d say don’t engage with them, engage with all the other people instead, because a lot of us feel the same way, and we spend so much time decrying views that are completely ridiculous and not grounded in any kind of reality, when we could be communicating and even organising amongst ourselves – which is maybe where we’re loath to step out of our comfort zones too.

  2. […] Posted in Action by Zenobia on August 18th, 2008 Gwen at High On Rebellion has a post up about how frustrated she is with feminism, particularly ‘radical’ feminism as it […]

  3. Gwen Says:

    I’m currently involved with a feminist group I really like, but they’re based in a different city than me.

    I think you’re right that there are more of us, but that we’re dispersed. I also think you’re right about the lack of media attention. The main reason I started this blog was to raise awareness that there were other kinds of feminism in the UK. But Depression and the Real World intervened, and I’ve barely blogged at all.

    I think actions are more important than words anyway. The feminist group with which I’m currently involved is interested in doing anti-racist and anti-capitalist activism. Hopefully people were hear about it, and feel inspired to do their own, or to join in. I think that has a lot more potential to transform the UK feminist movement than simply blogging, to be honest.

    For my sanity non-engagement is probably best. Especially since I swore up and down that I was going to try to make this blog positive about other feminists. But I can’t help but suspect that the reason non-engagement is even an option for me is because of privilege, in particular my white privilege and cis privilege.

    Also, one of the things that frustrates me the most about “radical” feminists is their absolute refusal to work with anyone who doesn’t adhere rigidly to the party line. I know from experience organising conferences, for example, that Object won’t appear on any panel, or participate in any conference, with anti-censorship feminists. So, I feel that if I refuse to engage, I’m just being hypocritical.

    In the end, I left a couple of comments on Beyond Feminism, and it actually turned out OK, insofar as at least one person quasi-defended me (she disagreed with me but acknowledged that I had a point, which is all I ask for) and said person writes an anti-porn blog that is also anti-racist, which I will be reading.

  4. Zenobia Says:

    I know from experience organising conferences, for example, that Object won’t appear on any panel, or participate in any conference, with anti-censorship feminists.

    To be honest, from what I’ve seen of Object – and without wishing to be too controversial – I wouldn’t want them at any event I was organising, I’d be kind of glad for them to keep their distance. I’ll work with most people, often regardless of political views, if we’re walking towards a common goal, but with Object I’d feel like I was working with someone I was at complete cross-purposes with, just for the sake of ideology. I don’t have to agree with everything someone says, but the goals have to be shared. And feminism for its own sake, to me, definitely isn’t a goal.

  5. Zenobia Says:

    *working, not walking towards a common goal. D’oh!

  6. Winter Says:

    There just seems so little analysis of the entitlement underscoring the “we don’t even have to speak or listen to people who disagree with us.” Very few people have that privilege in this world.

    I would be prepared to work on other issues with individuals involved in Object and other anti-porn organisations, but I wouldn’t be prepared to work with the actual organisations, not that they’d work with me either! I am an anti-censorship feminist after all, though not a very glamorous one.

  7. Winter Says:

    I should also say that I know a couple of strongly anti-porn feminists who are also totally anti-censorship because they don’t believe that censorship is the solution to the problem of porn. And from their particular radical feminist perspective, they don’t think you can use male-dominated patriarchal institutions like the law and the government to help women on this issue. In recent years, anti-porn has increasingly come to mean in favour of censorship, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

  8. Gwen Says:

    Winter: Nuance in the definition of “anti-porn feminist” is one of the reasons I disagree so strongly with the whole tendency to label people. I think most mainstream porn is sexist, but I’m also anti-censorship. I also don’t believe that all sexually explicit material is by default sexist. The world is a complicated place; a lot of the time, subtlety and nuance is required. Trying to force people into simplistic dichotomies is not only impossible if you’re going to be honest, but I think it does a lot of damage to feminism, or any activist cause.

    As for Object, I would work with people from Object on any issue on which we agreed. For the conference, we were specifically trying to foster debate by having different groups come and discuss controversial subjects, like pornography. Object refused to show, as did any “anti-porn” feminists, and so the conference was very one-sided.

  9. Zenobia Says:

    I’d work with someone who’d been involved with Object, if we agreed on a common goal, although I would probably tend to be cautious, but then again it’s important to be both cautious and open when choosing who to work with anyway.

    Of course, I’m tending to err on the side of caution at the moment, because it’s so easy for this kind of thing to end up in a room, not daring to disagree with anyone because we’re all feminists, with passive aggression flying all over the place, and no procedure in place to handle that kind of thing, because let’s face it, we tend to be kind of crap at being assertive.

    Procedures themselves seem kind of boring when you’re all radical and feminist and stuff, but they avoid lots of trouble later on, and they probably enable you, at the end of the day, to work with a greater variety of people.

    I mean, if you start out all enthusiastic and expecting to be able to agree with everyone, that’s not going to end in a group hug with wonderful feminist sisters, that’s going to end up with a choice between bitching behind people’s backs and being passive aggressive, or setting up disciplinary procedures, neither of which are particularly great, although the latter is infinitely preferable to the former.

  10. Polly Styrene Says:

    The smug advice to read Audre Lorde is particularly frustrating coming from transphobic feminists. As Emi Koyama (h/t Feministe) discusses in her usual excellent way, transphobia is underpinned by racism. Believing that there is a unitary female experience open only to those born with female genitals suggests that there is a unitary female experience full-stop. Which is precisely what Audre Lorde, and Patricia Hill Collins, and all of the women of colour feminists of that generation argued against.

    Actually it is those people who argue that ‘gender’ is real and objective who are arguing that there is a single unitary female (or more accurately women’s)experience. Because they are saying that there is a state of consciousness of being a ‘woman’ which is common to all ‘women’ and that this state of consciousness is totally unconnected to anything else about that person – eg whether they are born biologically female or male.

    If you say that a state of ‘womanhood’ exists regardless of any outside factors and is natural, inherent and unchangeable (which is exactly what transactivists DO say), this is like saying that there is natural, inherent and unchangeable state of being ‘black’.

    In other words that the reason black people suffer discrimination is because they are inherently different. Not because society has decided to classify a group of people by the colour of their skin and treat them differently. But because there is something fundamental about them which is different.

    Audre Lorde by contrast pointed out that the experience of, for example a middle class, white heterosexual woman is very different from that of a poor, black lesbian. Which is not the same thing at all really.

    Although transwomen do undoubtedly experience misogyny if they ‘pass’ as female (if not they experience homophobia as they are seen by society at large as gay men, whatever their sexual preference) what so called ‘transphobic’ feminists argue is that the experience of someone who ‘becomes’ a ‘woman’ is not the same as someone who has experienced being treated as ‘woman’ by society from birth.

    Similarly, if a white woman were to somehow convincingly alter her appearance so that she appeared black at the age of 40 would we argue that her life experience was the same as someone who is born black? Does Jade Goody (who is in fact mixed race but appears ‘white) have the right to enter a space for black women when the world at large sees her as white. Think about it.

  11. Gwen Says:


    Have you read the Koyama article? It’s really good, and expresses coherently something I’d sort of realised years ago but was unable to express. I do think there’s a reason that, on average, the most transphobic feminist groups are also the ones that are the least interested in anti-racist and anti-capitalist feminism, ie. activism on migration controls, worker’s rights, etc. I mean, everyone says they’re against racism, but I’m talking about the actual activism people do. Perhaps this is not your experience, but I quit the abovementioned radical feminist group because combination of transphobia and appalling Eurocentrism was getting too much to bear.

    I have never heard any transperson argue that womanhood was some sort of immutable quality; in fact, that’s the exact opposite of what most transpeople argue. So it would be good if you could actually cite some names of transpeople that you’ve personally read who say that. I say this because alot of people I’ve met who hate queer theory and are against transinclusion haven’t actually read any of that theory; they’ve read critiques by radical feminists that have badly distorted the original argument.

    No one I’ve met has ever come up with a definition of womanhood that fits 100% of the time; it may not be possible. Transwomen are saying that biological sex and one’s internal sense of “being a woman” are not necessarily directly linked. That’s not the same thing as saying it’s immutable or unchangeing. They are saying that they “feel” like a woman, but that it’s a personal feeling, and their view of what “womanhood” means is not necessarily the same as everybody else’s. I know that Lisa at Questioning Transphobia, for example, has never argued that her experience of womanhood is the same as a woman of colour’s; in fact, Lisa is really good about acknowledging her white privilege.

    Audre Lorde WAS arguing that there is no unitary experience of womanhood, and that differences among women is a source of creativity and as such a positive thing. There’s a reason that a trans* community centre in New York is named after her.

    If we accept that women need to organise autonomously because we need a “safe space” from male privilege (to the extent that such a thing can ever exist), then actually, anyone who experiences sexism and needs such a space is welcome. Including transwomen. And yes, Jade Goody would be welcome in a women-of-colour only space (or at least, she would be if it wasn’t for her appalling politics). The president of the “United Sisters of Colour” club at my highschool was a mixed race girl with fair skin and red hair. But she identified as a woman of colour, her father was Black, and no one questioned her right to be there. I’ve met other women of colour who could “pass” as white, but they’ve all strongly identified as women of colour for organising purposes, and have always been accepted as such. I know that all of these women also grew up with racialised bullying and were deeply affected by racism within society.

    Arguing that you need to have been a “woman” since birth does make womanhood into a unitary experience. Or in other words -what do Audre and I actually have in common at the end of the day, other than a vagina? We don’t even have similar experiences of sexism, necessarily, as they’ve been mediated through our race, sexuality, class, etc. Having both been women from birth doesn’t actually mean too much in this case – I might actually have more in common with a white middle-class transwoman. You are attributing a unifying quality to a bodily organ.

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