Sunday, January 2, 2011

From the Archives: Feminism or Feminism(s)?

One more, from 2009. This argument is still relevant in light of the somewhat recent controversy in the feminist blogosphere regarding Jessica Valenti's refusal to speak on a panel with an anti-feminist right-winger. Enjoy!


In the feminist blogosphere, I sometimes run across the following argument.

"There isn't one, monolithic feminism. There's always already feminism(s) and there are as many diverse feminism(s) as there are people. Feminism(s) mean different things to different people"

I find this kind of patronizing, for one. This line is always laid down as though it said something profound, but the fact of the matter is that it is a half-baked platitude. It's one thing to take note of the political dynamics of the disagreements and contestations coming from the margins, which were aimed at the (largely) white, liberal, middle-class, straight feminist projects that had come to present themselves as the only game in town. But it is quite another thing to propagate the facile conclusion that feminism really just means whatever individual persons want it to mean.

In fact, you can't really understand what those very contestations and interventions (e.g. from black feminists like Angela Davis and bell hooks, revolutionary lesbians like Monique Wittig, feminists writing the wake of colonialism, deconstructive feminists like Butler, etc.) were about unless you unequivocally reject the idea that feminism can mean whatever certain individuals want it to mean. For if it were true that feminism just is the plurality of existing views, norms, and relations of power regarding gender and sexuality, then there wouldn't be much point at all in contesting the way that mainstream feminists were paving over forms of oppression that didn't form a central part of their own experience. If "feminism" just means whatever individuals want it to mean willy-nilly, then the practice of criticizing white liberal feminism from the margins couldn't be intelligible.

That is to say, according to those who sing the timeless praises of "singularity" as such, difference as such, and pluralism as such, etc. it would appear that bell hooks, Monique Wittig, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, and many others did something seriously wrong. How dare they, you might think, contest or launch political interventions aimed at dismantling certain mainstream feminist theories and practices, when they ought to have left well enough alone and let those myopically white and middle class straight feminists "express their individuality and difference"? How dare they tell those white, middle class feminists what to do! Uh oh, its the 'feminist police'!

This is, of course, preposterous. There is a world of difference between making the totally valid sociological observation on the one hand that there is widespread disagreement about what feminism is and should be committed to doing, and on the other, claiming that there is an endless plurality of things feminism can mean for different people. The latter only obscures the actual concrete political dynamics of what gets to count as feminism by whitewashing important disagreements as simply 'different expressions of plurality'. When Judith Butler wrote Gender Trouble, I doubt very seriously (for more reasons than I can count) that she would have said that she was merely expressing her individuality and adding yet another brand of feminism to the endless shelf of pluralism. Her book caused such a stir because it was a trenchant critique of a certain way of thinking about feminist politics, it expressed disagreements and offered arguments aiming to undermine what others thought feminism entailed.

Notice also, that if the 'endless pluralism' story were right, there would be absolutely no way to identify cynical imposters who called themselves feminists disingenuously. For instance, imagine that Rush Limbaugh decided, without changing anything about himself whatsoever, to simply call himself a "feminist". (This is already happening with Sarah Palin, btw). Could anyone who grasps what the tradition of feminist politics means actually take him at face value? Could we really bear to label his political commitments as 'solidly radical feminist' just because he claims we should? The problem here, of course, is that the 'many feminism(s)'-'endless plurality' story would have no way to contest Limbaugh's claim. For if they were right, they'd have have no reason to want to contest Rush's claims at all. Think about it. He'd simply be expressing what feminism meant to him and proving their point that there really are only feminisms and a wide plurality of views. They'd have no grounds for understanding the politics of what is and is not feminism.

If feminism has to do with liberation from oppression, it cannot mean whatever individual people want it to mean. Meaning is never a matter of individual whim. Pretending that it is, however, is hardly a subversive move, but a thought-act wholly welcomed by contemporary consumer culture. This faux-individualist megalomania is encouraged by existing relations of power, and it is a powerful narrative running through ideological "arguments" about social mobility, debates about redistributive taxation, into the ways that people are encouraged to think of themselves in terms of the various consumer preferences they have, and so on. Buy, buy, buy! Consume, we're told. Give in to your consumerist fantasies and lust after immediately gratifying fixes! And shame on you if you stop to think about what this whole individualist, consumerist picture might amount to... that's to commit the sin of "telling others how to live their lives". "The personal is political" is a feminist slogan. "Everything is personal and nothing may be criticized" is not feminist or radical at all, this is the conservative message of contemporary capitalism.
Banal also is this notion of 'if it feels good do it', 'live and let live', etc. These are not emancipatory anthems, but hackneyed advertisement jingles for the status quo.

But in reality, even superficial critical engagement with our culture and society quickly reveals that we are constantly told how to live our lives, how to think about our bodies, how to think about gender norms, how to dress, how to behave, etc. Feminism is a project aiming to uncover and ruthlessly submit these features of contemporary culture to critique (with a view to overturning them).

Feminism is an unremittingly critical political project. At its best it leaves no cultural, social or political phenomenon uncriticized. But pulling this 'just let women do what they want' line is dishonest. Should feminists condone what Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and the Anita Bryants of the world say? Is Sarah Palin a feminist? Of course not. And we have a name for people who say otherwise: post-feminists.

Feminists who say "just let people believe what they already believe" are no feminists at all. Feminism is supposed to be about criticizing and challenging existing relations of power. It's supposed to be about shredding oppressive norms that have come to appear to many as 'natural'. Anything less is complicit with oppression.


Jack Crow said...

Is a female (and white) corporate officer, climbing the ladder, actually oppressed?

I'm not asking if she's at a disadvantage, if that matters. I'm just wondering if the word "oppression" can apply under some of the circumstances which seem to qualify as such for liberal, white feminists.

Awesome verification word: aboless.

t said...

Sure. Given the way things are, even people like Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton encounter some degree of sexual oppression. We need to be careful of course, about how to explain that and make sense of it politically. But I don't see what the problem is with defending, say, Hilary Clinton from sexist attacks at the same time that you expose her as a ruling class politician who stands for imperialism, neoliberalism and all the rest of it. It's worth defending her from such attacks not so much because of the personal damage it could do to her- but because of what it says about power relations and social norms writ large in our society.

In many cases the degree of sexual oppression one encounters depends on class. If you are a woman in a position of enormous economic power, for example, you may be able to elide certain patriarchal norms in ways that working class women cannot.

Still, the corporate world is extremely sexist and should be criticized as such. Just because you criticize it doesn't mean you have to strive for a "good" corporate world. I want for there to be no corporate world at all. But I'm sure you can see how it would be problematic to leave sexism uncriticized in any sphere- how can you fight for an egalitarian, just society without rooting out and smashing oppression wherever you find it? How can one build a broad mass movement based on soildarity if one refuses to acknowledge the differential oppression some groups are forced to endure?

Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall said...

Wow, I found myself cheering loudly as I worked my way through this post. Some high points for me:

- "which were aimed at the (largely) white, liberal, middle-class, straight feminist projects that had come to present themselves as the only game in town." (you can thank Gloria Steinem and Ms Magazine for this - see below).

- "contesting the way that mainstream feminists were paving over forms of oppression that didn't form a central part of their own experience." (ditto)

- "But in reality, even superficial critical engagement with our culture and society quickly reveals that we are constantly told how to live our lives, how to think about our bodies, how to think about gender norms, how to dress, how to behave, etc. Feminism is a project aiming to uncover and ruthlessly submit these features of contemporary culture to critique."

Re Gloria Steinem: for some reason, it doesn't occur to people that the FBI infiltrated the feminist movement, just as the infiltrated the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement and the student movement. In fact the US intelligence role played America's feminist poster girl Gloria Steinem is still largely invisible. In 1976 Steinem blocked Random House from publishing details about her CIA past (see

Steinem went on to infiltrate the National Organization for Women (which co-founder Betty Friedan publicly confronted her for). She also used Ms Magazine (which was funded by CIA-front foundations) very effectively to create massive divisions between professional and working class feminists and between feminists and progressive men.

More recently evidence has surfaced about an FBI operation she ran to plant so-called "black feminists" in grassroots African American groups to break them up (see I ran across some of these nasties in Seattle, while working to set up an African American Museum. I write about it in my recent memoir: THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY ACT: MEMOIR OF AN AMERICAN REFUGEE ( I currently live in exile in New Zealand.

JM said...

Stuart: So feminism for white women is okay, but in the case of black women, it's some kind of conspiracy to dismantle Male black rights groups? That's rather chauvinist.

Richard said...

When I have said on my blog that there is more than one "feminism", my emphasis has been upon recognizing the interrelationship between feminism, anti-imperialism and more egalitarian left perspectives generally, whether they be Marxist, Leninist, anarchist or anti-authoritarian. And, it is precisely this interrelationship that has been deliberately concealed by the mainstream characterization of it, which tends to reduce it to a form of self-actualization through participation in the market (which now, of course, even reaches into the sexual realm), as addressed by Nina Power.

Feminism presents the left with an opportunity to rediscover its radical, egalitarian origins, and thereby reinvigorate itself. Without effectively incorporating the oppression of women into its ideological values (and not just through lip service), I don't think the left has much of a future.

t said...

I agree with everything you say, Richard.

In a sociological sense, I agree that there are, in fact, different strands of feminist thought. Like the Left writ large, I agree that there is a wide range of views which I am relatively sympathetic to. But insofar as those views are at odds with each other, and insofar as you can't be neutral on a moving train, I think we should be clear where we stand and why and justify ourselves to allies in a comradely fashion.

I guess my beef is with the "metaphysical" claim that "feminism" can (and does, in fact) mean whatever individuals want it to mean. When Jessica Valenti refused to sit on a panel with a right-winger posing as a feminist, it was a political move- she didn't want to honor the notion that right-wing politics had a legitimate claim to being identified as feminist. I support that modest refusal to re-define feminism in such a way that it cozies up to oppression. Some (confused) people on the internet decided to criticize Valenti for not being sufficiently "tolerant", for "policing" what is and is not feminism. In their view, she had ran afoul of the timeless platitude that the meaning of "feminism" is "in the eye of the beholder". Just to be clear- it is this kind of view that I reject.

JM said...

Ironically too, Power and Valentti have had a feud going on:

Jack Crow said...

I just don't see how the word "oppression" can reasonably used in a sentence with "Hillary Clinton" unless it starts like this, "Contributing to the continuing oppression of the world's poor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton..."

Not all cases of sexist discrimination are oppressive. And assuming that Hillary Clinton has faced challenges to her ascendancy on the basis of gender alone (a reasonable assumption), this does not mean she was oppressed.

She has power. Real, incredibly comprehensive, expansive damned power. Backed by the might of the empire and capitalist America.

She's the oppressor. Not the oppressed.

Only in a topsy turvy world of make believe can we honestly describe one of the primary oppressors, and a long standing architect of the present world order, an "oppressed" person just because she faces some gender bias in the halls of power. Bias alone is not a signifier of oppression.

That's just as bad as describing Oprah or Carly Fiorina as oppressed, because more men ascend to heights in their fields, than women.

By definition, "oppression" must exclude people like Clinton, Fiorina, Whitman or Oprah - or it's a word without meaning.

t said...

I don't think so. I think the problem is that you want an all-or-nothing approach to "oppressed", whereas I think any plausible account of oppression would have to allow for degrees.

Take Barack Obama. We live in a racist (white supremacist) society- which is to say, we live in a society in which people are assigned to races and some are subordinated to others in various ways by those considered white. That doesn't mean that racial oppression is the only axis of oppression- far from it. But it's a sociological fact about our society.

Now, in a sense I'm completely in agreement- Obama is not on the side of the oppressed and exploited. He is the leader of the most powerful imperialist, capitalist country in the world.

Yet, when he is attacked by racists as not really being American, being whatever (insert racist jab here)... it is the task of those on the Left to challenge and confront those racist attacks. Why? Because the Left stands for the liberation of all oppressed and exploited peoples- because the Left stands for egalitarianism.

Now, you might retort, who cares about Obama, he's not really oppressed at all. In a sense this is true- with all of the power that comes along with being President, he surely doesn't have to deal with the more banal, day-to-day oppression of most people of color, nor does he have to sell his labor to a capitalist.

But the point of challenging racist attacks on Obama is not so much that we need to defend Obama the person. It's more that we need to challenge what such racist attacks say about our society. Because if they make them about Obama, they're sure to make them about others. How can anyone think that building a free society is possible as long as racists can publicly spout their tripe and receive no pushback?

The same goes even for Right-wingers. I'm sure you can gather that I am no fan of Sarah Palin. But the problem with her isn't that she's a woman. The problem is that her politics are straight reactionary. So, I won't stand for someone impugning her for the mere reason that she's a woman- not because I care about her well-being in particular- but because I don't think the oppression of women is something leftists or socialists can tolerate.

What does it say about a society when sexist or racist attacks (even on bourgeois women or people of color) are tolerated and commonplace? Is that the society we're supposed to be fighting for?