What do I want in a feminist movement pt 1
August 20, 2008
Both Winter and Zenobia have recently written posts discussing what they would like to see in a feminist movement. I largely agree with what they’ve said, but I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own, with a brief theoretical digression first.
I’m currently reading Ideology by Terry Eagleton, which I highly recommend. It’s quite shocking how poorly read I am given that I actually am formally “well-educated”. Ideology provides an excellent discussion of the concepts of ideology and false consciousness, and an historical overview of the development of these concepts as well as discussion of the work of prominent thinkers on the subject, like Marx and Gramsci. Also Eagleton’s a great writer – very accessible, and very, very witty.
In Ideology, Eagleton spends a good deal of time on the theories of Georg Lukács, who wrote, among other things, History and Class Consciousness. Lukács argues that the very nature of capitalism tends to reify and divide society. Because of this, bourgeois ideology is incapable of seeing society as a whole – only working-class ideology is able to do this. Because of their position as those oppressed by capitalism, the working-class are able see society in it’s totality, which is why working-class ideology is true, while bourgeois ideology is false.
Now, there are obviously issues with this, like the depicting of bourgeois and working-class ideologies as monolithic and completely separate from each other. But as Eagleton points out, the idea that people who are oppressed by a political ideology understand it better than those who benefit from it, because such an understanding is necessary to their survival, actually makes quite good sense. In progressive/radical/activist circles, it’s generally accepted, for example, that people of colour understand racism better than white people, and correctly identify it where white people are blinded to it.
All of this reminded me of an essay I read years ago by Angela Davis in Women, Culture & Politics in which she argues that feminist campaigns aimed at issues of particular interest to women of colour and poor women should be prioritised over “middle-class” feminist campaigns. At the time, I thought this made a certain amount of sense, insofar as obviously, if sexism affecting women of colour is lessened, this lessens the sexism affecting all women. But I didn’t necessarily understand her claim, and consequently, I disagreed with her. Yes, I thought, issues affecting women of colour should be central to feminism, but so should issues affecting white women. One shouldn’t privilege any group of women in the struggle for feminism.
I believe now that I was wrong, and that Davis is right. Analysing political struggle through the lens of standpoint politics, poor women of colour are forced to struggle against the totality of societal oppression (to borrow from Lukacs again), and against these oppressions as intersecting. Consequently, these struggles are more revolutionary – they involve a more radical transformation of society. Struggles that focus on one specific oppression but are blind to the others have historically resulted in benefits for an elite group within the larger oppressed group, and have also benefited the larger group to a lesser extent, but have not necessarily transformed society to the extent that is necessary. Thus, the suffragette struggle for the vote was, with some honourable exceptions, steeped in classist and imperialist discourse. Women won the vote, at least in significant part, through their support for the First World War. While winning the vote did transform society – it’s no exaggeration to say I probably wouldn’t have had access to the education I’ve had if it weren’t for suffragettes – the primary benefactors were white, middle – and upper- class women. Women have largely divided along party lines in the UK, rather than forming some fourth, revolutionary, party, and today many white middle-class women use their vote to support the incarceration of women asylum seekers, or to cut off benefits for single mothers.
Now, look at the Tube cleaners’ strike. This strike challenges several oppressions – the idea that care work is “naturally” feminine and therefore deserving of low pay; the idea that women of colour in particular are suited to “heavy” care work; the idea that it is acceptable to pay people of colour lower wages; the idea that it is acceptable to exploit immigrants and particularly non-status migrants; the whole validity of the immigration system and the false dichotomy of legal v. illegal immigrants. In the short term, the best case scenario is that the strike will result in better play for the cleaners; but in the long term, this struggle will have chipped away at racism, sexism, xenophobia and capitalism. Furthermore, the tube cleaners’ strike has addressed the way in which all of these systems of oppression work together and depend upon each other.
This is not to say that any view or political struggle that finds support among poor women and/or women of colour should be championed – to use an extreme example, I will continue to disagree with Condoleeza Rice on just about everything. Furthermore poor women of colour, like all women, are not a monolith and will disagree with each other. There are multiple opinions held, for example, on the issue of what to do about prostitution, by women of all classes and all races. I am simply arguing that feminists should give the most time and support to those struggles that entail the most radical transformation of society, and this means supporting those struggles which target various systems of oppression in their totality and intersectionality. Because of the unique position of women who suffer from multiple forms of oppression, they are more likely, because of survival, to understand the intersecting nature of oppression best, and to be on the frontlines of the most revolutionary struggles.