Feminism and anti-capitalism

August 28, 2008

A few days late, but I’ve been busy tending bar for Workers Beer at the Leeds Festival.


Last week, Jess of make/shift posted about anti-capitalist feminism on Feministe.  Zenobia has already posted her response to the article.


I particularly identified with this part of Jess’ article:

I see a lot of people who say they believe in “intersectionality” talk about it kind of like this: Since some women are people of color, and some women are poor, and some women are queer, it’s important for feminism to take an intersectional approach that recognizes the way some women experience sexism and racism, or sexism and economic exploitation, or sexism and homophobia, or other such combinations. And then maybe they’ll go a step further, and say something about how, for women of color, sexism and racism aren’t just two separate forms of oppression experienced simultaneously, but are intertwined in really complicated ways. So, a lot of self-identified supporters of intersectionality will say, if feminism is going to be a movement by and for all women, it needs to look at how all forms of oppression, not just sexism, play out in different women’s lives. And I think that’s all true and good.

But I think a feminist politic of intersectionality goes deeper than that. To me, the really key thing about intersectionality is connecting the above analysis around individuals’ lived experiences to the insight that all systems of power are interconnected. So it’s not just that some individual people experience multiple forms of oppression, or even that all people have some kind of personal relationship with all systems of oppression (for instance, as a white woman, I experience sexism on the oppressed side, and white supremacy on the side of privilege), but also that the systems of power themselves—racism, economic hierarchy, sexism, heteronormativity, ableism, etc.—are working together.

 I found Jess’ story of how she encountered feminism and intersectionality inspiring, but I will own up right now to being one of the “elitists”.  While I come from a progressive family, where even my Dad defines himself as a feminist, my first encounter with issues of race, class, and sexuality within the feminist movement came at university, through reading for Women’s Studies classes.  I was very lucky in that the Women’s Studies department at my undergrad university was interested in intersectionality all year round, rather than just setting aside a week to read Audre Lorde.   



When I first began to read about race and class in the feminist movement, I thought about it very much in the way Jess describes in the first paragraph quoted.  Some women experience racism & sexism together, and their experiences cannot be de-linked from each other.  So, if a feminist movement is to be successful and include as many women as possible, it has to be concerned with racism.


Now, I still think that’s a fairly good argument for intersectional feminism, and I have used it before when giving talks on the subject to highlight the extent to which “mainstream” feminism in the UK can frequently centre the experiences of white-middle-class women.  But I think there are a lot of problems with this argument as well.  First of all, it suggests inclusivity rather than intersectionality (and for the difference between the two, please see this phenomenal essay by brownfemipower.  Seriously, this essay will certainly be required reading in university women’s studies courses 10 years from now; it will certainly be in any courses I teach).  The idea that feminism is trying to include all women rather than really fight all forms of oppression.


Secondly, my experience of this approach is that it was motivated on my part by a combination of a desire to be “right-on” and a subconscious sense of charity.  “Good” feminists were anti-racist and anti-classist.  I wanted to be a good feminist.  Therefore, I should be anti-racist and anti-classist.  Frequently, this involved being interested in movements that I did not see as directly affecting me – support for asylum-seekers, for example (this is before I moved to the UK and had my own fun encounters with immigration law), or support for a union in a call centre in which I worked (I knew this was a temporary job).  This is where the charity came in; while I did not see these issues as affecting me, I felt I should be concerned for other people, and support their struggles.


I don’t want to be too harsh on my younger self, because I do feel that this attitude was better than just ignoring race & class.  Not only did it mean that I did support anti-racist and anti-classist struggles, but it also meant that I kept reading works by anti-racist and anti-capitalist feminists.


The big change for me came when I took Post-Colonialism as part of my Women’s Studies minor, and then did an MA which used postcolonial theory heavily.  Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather was particularly important for me.  Post-colonial theory discusses, among other things, the way in which modern notions of gender, race & class were all forged and shaped in the fire of the industrial revolution, the development of capitalism and European imperialism. 



Take for example ideas about femininity.  Obviously, sexism pre-dates capitalism, and the idea that women should be meek and submissive is very, very old.  But the industrial revolution brought about a number of significant changes in British society.  First, there was suddenly a much larger class of people who could pass on property, which made the regulation of women’s reproductive system (to make your that your son was, in fact, your son) increasingly important.  At the same time, division of labour and the opening of factories meant that working-class women were working, for the first time, in large numbers outside of the home.  And capitalism developed along with liberalism, as individual ownership of property and capitalist trade required certain individual liberties for property owners.  While a lot of advocates of liberalism are really sexist, it’s pretty obvious that the subjection of women (to quote J.S. Mill) is basically not supportable under liberalism, unless you simply deny that women are rational (which is what happened).


So there’s pressure to control middle-class women, which leads to the construction of the Victorian Domestic Goddess trope – after all, she won’t sleep around if she can’t leave the house!!  But there’s tremendous insecurity around this trope, because it contradicts liberalism.  Plus, there’s a large group of women – working-class women – who are contradicting this trope with their everyday lives.  The solution is to construct working-class women as especially licentious and  slatternly, and generally lacking in feminine virtues, “the Other” to the “pure, clean” middle-class mother.  This serves to put pressure on working-class women (and justify the rampant sexual abuse of these women by factory owners – Engels discusses this in The Condition of the Working Class in England), put pressure on middle-class women, and shore up societal insecurities about the role of women.


These insecurities are further pushed aside by the “Othering” of the societies that are being colonised by the British.  Britain is the most advanced society!!  It’s women are the best!! And the most free!!!  Really!!! So, therefore by definition, you are oppressing your women!!!!  Even in the case of, for example some First Nations groups in Canada that actually gave women a voice in how the affairs of the group were run.  In that case, they were oppressing their women by exposing the delicate flowers to the brutality of politics.  A lot of Victorian women bought into this wholeheartedly, it must be said, and adopted the mission of liberating their poor beknighted “sisters” (very junior sisters) from the evils of their “culture”.  And then you get the frankly hilarious accounts of women whose internal organs were slowly being crushed by their corsets feeling very sorry indeed for women who wore “the veil.”


The point is that you can’t sort out sexism from racism from capitalism in the above account.  Being against sexism means dealing with the ways in which racist notions of the colonised peoples served to restrict the behaviour of British women, the behaviour of colonised women, and generally justified colonialism.  It means being against the inherited wealth that requires that women’s bodies be controlled, the capitalist system that denies that work done inside the home is “work” and the whole class system that divides women according to where they work.  It means being against the capitalist system that requires ever expanding resources and markets, requiring the colonising of other countries and the development of an ideological framework to justify this conquest.


Once I realised this, that sexism, racism and capitalism are all irremediably tangled up, my approach to activism changed.  A lot of my actions were the same, but my reasons were different.  Supporting asylum seekers was no longer about trying to be a “good” feminist and showing concern for others; it was based in the understanding that I could my liberation and the liberation of asylum seekers were interconnected.


I should add here that there are still potential pitfalls with this argument.  If you believe that sexism and capitalism are interconnected, you might end up believing that you can end sexism by ending capitalism, or vice versa (I’m looking at you SWP).  Whereas, I believe that you won’t end either without fighting both at the same time.  Similarly, if you recognise that your liberation is tied up with the liberation of others, you might end up seeing everyone as equally oppressed, which for someone like me, could mean ignoring your own privilege. 



These pitfalls, though, are all the result of misunderstanding what the interconnectedness of all oppressions mean.  Ultimately, realising that all oppressions are connected an all must be resisted together creates a space where we can all work together out of genuine solidarity rather than a sense of obligation.

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