Women, and not the divisions between them, should be the focus of discussions about the women’s movement, says Koli Mitra.
Many political words have wildly divergent and sometimes contradictory meanings—socialist, libertarian, communitarian, conservative, liberal, centrist, leftist, fundamentalist, radical, even anarchist—which should be simple and self-explanatory but are not always incontrovertible. Yet, none draws quite the fire for being “inconsistent” or “muddled” as the word “feminist”. But feminism is just as meaningful as any of these terms as an umbrella encompassing different but related ideologies and movements. There are many “feminisms” but they are founded on one very universal idea: that a person’s identity, choices, rights, and value frequently are, but should not be, defined as relative to (or lesser than) others’ simply because that person is a woman.
While accused of being too broadly defined, feminism is also often criticised for being too narrowly focused on women, especially on a particular class of women. In reality one of the most diverse and inclusive movements in the history of social movements, feminism is, perversely, most often criticised for being too esoteric or elitist.
Other movements aren’t usually expected to answer for lacking interest beyond their self-identified constituency. The American civil rights movement, for example, has not always assumed the mantle of equality for all people (sexual minorities or women, for example), but we don’t vilify it for doing its best to achieve some goals for some people. But heaven help the women’s movement for ever missing anything at all. Critics of feminism—like Christina Hoff-Sommers—have excoriated feminists for trying to address educational problems of girls while doing little to fight other educational deficiencies (facing girls and boys alike), completely overlooking the fact that feminism is not an “education” movement, but a movement for gender equality, which happened to be addressing the application of its issue to the context of education.
There are many “feminisms” but they are founded on one very universal idea: that a person’s identity, choices, rights, and value frequently are, but should not be, defined as relative to (or lesser than) others’ simply because that person is a woman.
Despite contrary attacks, feminism has a long history of taking up struggles based in other forms of inequality, sometimes to its own detriment. Often, when any supposedly “holistic” movement progresses to the point of making some gains, it tends to do so in every way other than gender. For example: contrary to popular assertions—again, Hoff-Sommers comes to mind—that feminists have “piggy backed” on the civil rights movement, the women’s movement actually worked alongside the civil rights movement (and the latter was happy to accept organisational and mobilisational support from the latter); but in the end, calls for racial equality are always taken more seriously than calls for gender equality, and the men of the civil rights movement are often content to let it be. The American feminist movement is as old as the movement to abolish slavery; it’s the earliest other social movement to embrace the abolitionist cause. In fact, the 19th century feminists put all gender-related concerns aside to fight for abolition, but when slavery ended in America, only black males got the right to vote. For the first time, the US constitution included an overtly discriminatory reference by sex classification. Pointing this out is not meant to denigrate the experience of slavery. If you assume so, then you forget that half of the slaves were women and you are the one denigrating the experience of slavery by those people who were both slaves and women.
Let’s face it: we take women’s problems less seriously than men’s. Regardless of the cause of the problem and whether it turns of some aspect of a person’s identity, we find it more important when men suffer for it. Even today, gender is one demographic category that is routinely used by regimes around the world to legally discriminate against people and have the global community respond by debating “cultural” sensitivity or relativism instead of calling for sanctions.
Whenever we speak of gender inequality the discussion almost immediately turns to the question of race, class and other layers of discrimination, but when the primary topic of discussion is race or class, no one ever raises the question of gender as an important component. When Kindle framed its topic for this issue, it included the question “Can gender be divorced from class, caste, or race?” It’s a rich and important question, and I applaud Kindle for raising it, but I must draw attention to the fact that when the topic is poverty or ethnic cleansing, no one ever asks if it can be divorced from gender.
When religious or ethnic minorities talk about their struggles, sometimes explicitly using gender-specific language—“a man’s dignity”, “a man’s life”, “a man’s family”—there’s no uproar over how the speaker has excluded women. Even though there’s usually a real possibility that women will be excluded in such movements. In some cases, men of religious minorities even assert a right to oppress women as a part of their religious “freedom”.
Perhaps it’s time to turn the question around and ask: as long as we insist on subordinating the “woman” component to all other factors in identity-based struggles for equality, do we not end up with a raw deal for half the people engaged in that struggle? Ultimately, women who are also ethnic or religious minorities, women who are also poor, women who are also lower caste or members of aboriginal tribes, are the people most affected by the ravages of identity-based oppression. Yet when they pour every bit of energy into the struggles for equality—as defined by any of the other categories—it is very often at the expense of their struggles as women. It is very often the case that the gains of the “group” carves out an exception (often in a tacit, social sense, if not legally or expressly) that allows for continued discrimination against them as women.
As long as we insist on subordinating the “woman” component to all other factors in identity-based struggles for equality, do we not end up with a raw deal for half the people engaged in that struggle?
Worse, the dominant segments of society are only too happy to use their control of the means of mass communication to perpetuate social myths that pit women against one another in their daily struggles instead of showing them working together to chip away at the vast historical bedrock of male privilege, which is the actual source of their problems. The popular narrative is to scapegoat certain women for the problems of others: blame straight women for the problems of lesbians, blame white women for the problems of black women, blame middle-class women for the problems of working-class women, blame “feminists” for the problems of “traditional women”.
At the 2015 Oscars, when Patricia Arquette made a plea for everyone—including, specifically, gay men and minority men—to support women’s pay equality, adding that “we have fought for you, now please fight for us”, the response in the media was predictably harsh. Social sites were overrun with posts, from women, no less, expressing the sentiment that “we owe nothing to rich white women.” The assumption was that Arquette was speaking for privileged, straight white women only. Yet, she is a person with a transgender sibling who has been an activist on behalf of sexual and racial minorities and, most importantly, she said absolutely nothing to indicate that she meant “woman” to exclude anyone, anywhere, who defined herself as a woman. It seemed clear to me, at least, that she was appealing to men—particularly to those men who are no stranger to discrimination themselves—to support all women who have supported them in the past. Perhaps her words could have been better chosen to clarify that she was speaking for all women. But why do we always put an additional onus on feminists to “clarify” that their claims are meant to all inclusive? Is it because we expect the “feminine” act of self-effacing—the assertive woman must reassure us that she is really not putting her own interests before anyone else’s? When a black man talks about racial equality, do we chastise him for not specifically mentioning black women or black men of different classes, religions, or sexual identities? Do we assume he meant to exclude them simply because he didn’t “clarify”?
Speaking about the reasons that women of color and women from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds have sometimes resisted the feminist movement, activist Angela Davis said that “[during] the latter 20th century, there were…debates about how to define the category ‘Woman’. There were…struggles over who got included and who was excluded…Many of us considered [the feminist] movement at that time to be too white and especially too middle class, too bourgeoisie.”
While I do think this is historically important, I also find that there has been undue focus on this issue of women’s differences as something fatal to the legitimacy of the feminist movement. For one, the movement has transformed entirely in the last couple of generations, emerging as a collaboration of women with diverse backgrounds and perspectives and problems. The common factor has been their experience of being women in a civilisation that devalues women.
The idea of “exclusion”—and the tacit implication of it being deliberate—is largely imposed from outside. It’s a function of the usual divide-and-rule strategy always employed by the privileged when faced with a challenge to their privilege.
In fact, I would submit that the idea of “exclusion”—and the tacit implication of it being deliberate—is largely imposed from outside. It’s a function of the usual divide-and-rule strategy always employed by the privileged when faced with a challenge to their privilege. Consider how, in the 19th century, the white upper-class establishment in the United States encouraged suspicion and animosity between the urban working-class, Irish-immigrant population and the newly freed black-American populations migrating out of the southern plantations and pouring into the crowded northern cities, competing for the lowest-paying industrial jobs. The captains of media framed the story around the rivalry between these two distressed communities while keeping the exploitative industrialists and sharecropping landlords (former slave-masters) out of the equation altogether.
Although the feminists of the first and second waves were predominantly middle-to-upper-class and white, they need to be considered in light of their own struggle against the dominant male power structure rather than in light of their initial failure to pre-accommodate every nuance of the word “woman” into the way they had defined that struggle. I say “pre-accommodate” because my point is to contextualise (and perhaps forgive) any exclusions that were inadvertent and prior to being informed/enlightened about the distinctions between their struggles and those of women different from themselves. The point is not to excuse any exclusionary practices that continue even after being educated by women of colour, lesbians and transgender women, immigrant women, or any other kind of woman whose experience is informed by a gender-identity attacked by the more powerful segments of the community.
The issue of intra-movement conflict among feminists is sometimes also manufactured and stoked by the media, which loves a “catfight”. I recall the “mommy wars” of the 1990s. I was a young student and an activist (also an individualist and skeptical by nature, about everything, including my own causes). I was very much keyed into the questions plaguing the women’s movement, always looking with an analytical eye to peeling back both the popular narratives and the movement’s own orthodoxies. I also had a mother, aunts, sisters, cousins, friends—and all of their mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins and friends—who were going about their lives and tackling their problems, as influenced by being women. I can honestly say—and I invite any woman old enough to remember the 1990s to contradict me on this—that in real life, I have never encountered a single instance of tension between women because of the way they judged each other’s parenting decisions (especially with regard to becoming “stay-at-home” mothers or continuing to hold jobs after giving birth). But if you believe the “mommy war” stories in the media, these two groups of moms could barely tolerate each other’s existence.
Angela Davis has said that feminism’s strength lies in its capacity for inclusiveness and its constant expansion of the definition of “woman”. I remember her Chicago lecture from two years ago, when she said, “We should think about movements and categories that enlarge and deepen and complicate…our theories and practices of freedom.” I couldn’t agree more. As I get older, I find myself becoming less interested in struggles defined by certain categories of oppression and more interested in the generalised effort for equality. Yet, even with that goal, practical considerations still compel us to address the different ways in which people are marginalised or excluded. When it comes to women, experience tells us that the call for greater “inclusiveness” is sometimes code for subordinating the problems of gender to those of race, class, religion, caste, or even sexual orientation.
Practical considerations still compel us to address the different ways in which people are marginalised or excluded. When it comes to women, experience tells us that the call for greater “inclusiveness” is sometimes code for subordinating the problems of gender to those of race, class, religion, caste, or even sexual orientation.
As such, I contend that to some degree, gender should be addressed apart from race, class or caste; not “divorced” from these, certainly, and not to the extent of pretending these mutually reinforcing factors don’t exist. Yet, gender, like all these other factors, should also be considered in its own right, and not always be saddled with layers of “other” considerations, which always somehow end up dominating and overshadowing the gender issue.
My hope is that, in future, the conversations and the scholarly ponderings would accommodate such individualised attention to different aspects of the struggle for equality, even while the practical “movements” tend more and more to merge into one, holistic—human—endeavour for all women and men.