We’re all well aware that online discourse around feminism/s lately has heated up around varying definitions of what feminism is and should be. One of the most persistent areas of debate has been whether “intersectionality,” or a multi-issue politic, is spreading feminism too thin. I don’t want to repeat the many and strong arguments that have already been made against the premise that a singular focus on women’s oppression would make for a more effective feminism—a premise I think is not merely flawed, but blatantly racist/classist/heteronormative/ableist and otherwise absurd. But, after reading the comments in several threads here about capitalism and individualism over the past week or so, I do want to spend some words on what a feminism of liberation might look like.
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.
Take, for instance, violence against women. While self-identified feminists earnestly question whether this or that is or should be or isn’t really a feminist issue, I don’t think anyone would really question that violence against women is properly, unequivocally, a feminist concern. I also don’t know how we could even try to understand, let alone resist and transform, a culture of widespread violence against women without looking at a culture of general violence, a culture that uses violence to maintain hierarchies of all forms. How could we think about, let alone challenge and offer alternatives to, violence of any kind without looking at how violence (of all forms and against women specifically) is connected to militarism and colonialism, which are connected to the spread and global imposition of both white supremacy and neoliberal capitalism, which … I could go in a slew of different directions with this.
Which is why I believe we must simultaneously challenge all forms of unjust power to achieve any kind of liberation. Which is why I’d like to believe pro-capitalist feminism is an oxymoron.
Capitalism is a huge part of how/why the world has been colonized. Antiracist feminism must be anticolonial feminism must be a feminism that resists capitalism — not just because the effects of capitalism are damaging to individual women, but because capitalism, as a system of power, is connected to sexism, to racism, to …
None of what I wrote up there is some unique insight of mine. It’s all stuff I’ve learned –- from experience, from observation, and, very significantly, from the work of feminist activists/artists/thinkers/scholars/writers who have gone before me. Over generations and across borders, feminists of color and a few allies have developed a language and way of thinking about how systems of power are interconnected. For instance:
In 1986, the Combahee River Collective wrote, “We are…trying…to address a whole range of oppressions … If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
bell hooks’ insistent, decades-long use of the phrase ”white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
2003’s Feminism Without Borders, in which Chandra Talpade Mohanty wrote: “I firmly believe an antiracist feminist framework, anchored in decolonization and committed to an anticapitalist critique, is necessary.” (Do check out the entire book if you haven’t already, but quickly, see how she connects anticapitalist feminism to a resistance to U.S.-centric feminism: “a protocapitalist or ‘free market’ feminism is symptomatic of the ‘americanization’ of definitions of feminism’.)
And quite recently, Sudy introduced many of us to the concept of kyriarchy.
Those are just a few examples. I could not have written any of what I wrote in the first section of this post without having encountered the profound work of everyone quoted above as well as Andrea Smith, Angela Davis, Vandana Shiva, Patricia Hill Collins, and so, so many others.
It is not because I believe gender oppression underlies or trumps other forms of oppression that I work within the context of feminism. It is not because, as someone the world reads as a “woman” within a binary and patriarchal gender system, “women’s” issues are the issues that are closest to my heart and experience that I work within the context of feminism.
It is because Audre Lorde, the Combahee River Collective, bell hooks, Cherie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, INCITE!, and so many others did this work, built this language, nurtured this vision of challenging all forms of unjust power within the context of feminism that I work within the context of feminism. They and so many others have, in their different ways, created a flexible and shifting and many-sided framework — and a beautifully complex legacy — of multi-issue work toward liberation. They have offered visions of liberation that do not ask any of us to leave any pieces of ourselves behind to participate in building something new, visions that will not uncritically support one piece of the scaffolding of oppressive power while trying to take apart another. The Combahee River Collective, again:
“Our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
To those who are about to say I am calling for an elitist, or academic, feminism, by suggesting we should know and be mindful of the people who have built these arguments, in words, before us, a little bit about me and how I encountered these feminisms:
I don’t have a college degree, and I’ve never taken a women’s studies class. I did take one ethnic-studies class at a community college in the late ’90s, and we did read one bell hooks book together — but I’d already encountered hooks a few years before.
My financial-aid package at a pricey liberal-arts college had fallen through, and having been raised by a single mom who was scared of debt – no credit cards for her – and hadn’t gone through the college system herself, the idea of going into debt for school wasn’t one that made sense to me. So I was eighteen, very partially employed, and living for an aimless few months with my best friend at her mom’s place.
Her mom had just ended the last in a series of abusive relationships, and she was hell-bent on figuring out how to become financially secure on her own so that she wouldn’t be tempted to rely on a guy financially ever again. She’d decided, in her mid-40s with a frenetic house full of kids (her own as well as assorted occasional hangers-on like myself), to go back to school and become an elementary-school teacher. She was working her way through, and when she realized I was hanging out longer than the few days I’d initially anticipated, she sat me down and explained how, if she was gonna let my aimless and close-to-penniless little late-adolescent self stay there rent-free, eating food and using electricity and all that, in addition to helping with childcare and cooking and cleaning and such around the house, I was gonna help her with school.
Working, managing and sustaining household, and parenting her own kids and others’ on top of being in school was a huge juggle, and she was pretty damn resourceful and creative in figuring out how to make it work. She realized quickly that while the readings she was supposed to do for her classes were interesting and important, she simply didn’t have enough hours in the day to get through them all. So, while I was rambling around her house most of the day, I was gonna do some of that reading for her. Then, while I helped her make dinner for all the other kids at night, I was gonna tell her what I read, and we’d talk through it. She’d ask me all sorts of clarifying questions, make sure I explained things in detail, challenge me to figure out which were the really important parts for her to grasp for her class and emphasize those, etc.
Wonderfully, she was learning to be a teacher in a program that focused on anti-oppression education, so the first book she gave me was Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class. Lounging in the sun on this woman’s front porch one afternoon, I read about forced sterilizations of women of color in U.S. history. History, and the world, and the country I was born a citizen in, have never looked the same to me since.
I read bell hooks and Paulo Freire this way, too – reading by myself through sunny afternoons, talking through what I’d read with a way overstretched mom/student/teacher/thinker each evening as we cooked huge pots of curried cauliflower with rice and other large, affordable dishes for a big household.
This woman also taught me how to shop on a budget — which ingredients would go furthest while still providing nutrients; which meals could be made in one pot with minimal time for prep and cleanup. And she taught me and my best friend/her daughter, in the months I lived with her, how and why to establish good credit — because she didn’t want us staying in abusive relationships for way too long, as she had, too many times, because she didn’t have any credit of her own so who’d even want to look at her rental application if she tried to move out and get an apartment for herself and the kids? She taught me a lot about how to read critically, and about antiracist feminism, as she enlisted me to help her get her schoolwork done. And she also taught me a lot about how to make do and take care of oneself and one’s dependents, no matter how limited resources may be. She did these things simultaneously, as we talked about Angela Davis while cooking a good and cheap dinner, because she knew that you can learn about how to survive and take care of yourself within an unjust system without pretending that system is going to take care of you, is okay.)
And so I was surprised and disturbed — despite all I’ve witnessed of the persistent, and sad, politics of white and class privilege among people who call themselves feminists — to see such a lack of critical analysis around “capitalism” and “individualism” in the comments on some recent threads here. I realize that both terms were being tossed around with a rather significant lack of definition. But still, I felt like I was watching, and occasionally participating in, a conversation that bewilderingly sidestepped feminist — and even general progressive — takes on economic hierarchy and economic justice. As jessilikewhoa wrote in one of those conversations
i dont see how it can be possible to have gender equality in a culture built on a system of inequality, call it cognitive dissonance or whatever, but i just cant grasp how that could even be possible.
Why was that such a rare voice? What does feminism, or sexism, mean in a vacuum?
And what is that pro-capitalist, individualist notion of feminism aiming for? More Carly Fiorinas and Madeline Albrights? More women participating in — profiting from — the endgame rush to climate chaos fueled by global capitalism?
Again, I get stuck: So many people have already made this critique. Is it that it’s not being circulated, heard, widely enough? Is it that the people defending a pro-capitalist feminism have heard those critiques and simply disagree? But if it’s that, why are they not even substantively engaging with, responding to, addressing those arguments?
““Ideas are always communally wrought, not privately owned,” Mohanty wrote in Feminism without Borders. The kind of discussion that can happen on blogs has such exciting potential in documenting feminist discourse and new ideas as they are communally wrought, real-time, across many borders. Yet I worry that there is also a tendency in these spaces toward a decontextualized, unanchored, unaccountable, disconnected kind of discourse. We have certainly seen evidence of that in a certain widely discussed case of appropriation.
I read and sometimes participate in these unfolding feminist-blogosphere conversations and I start to get preoccupied with questions about media consumption and production, forgotten histories, unacknowledged/marginalized work …
Why, in these recent threads, so little engagement with, or even acknowledgment of, vast bodies of work and conversation around feminism and (anti)capitalism?
Why do feminist communities keep having the same conversations over and over about privilege and power and different visions of feminism, with so little engagement with the conversations that have happened before? The insights and lessons that have already been offered? The brilliant conversations happening in other spaces right now?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be having new conversations, or learning our own lessons. But I do feel bewildered and disoriented at what sometimes seems to me a new-new-new, me-me-me approach to media making, which produces texts and conversations that feel disconnected from larger feminist and other progressive/radical-Left conversations, past and present, online and offline.
I wonder in what senses the feminist blogosphere itself is connected to, substantively in relationship with, offline feminist communities. I understand, of course, that it varies from blog to blog, community to community, but sitting here I wonder:
Are the conversations around capitalism here representative of, or similar to, the conversations happening in feminist communities doing offline work in the U.S.? Elsewhere? Is this how most self-identified feminists are defining feminism? (I am provoked to ask this in part because they are not at all similar to conversations I’m having with feminists offline—which is why I was so surprised by what looked like so many sighs of relief that folks could stop pretending that as feminists they had any commitment to resisting, or even questioning, capitalism.)
The feminists I am listening to — past and present; in print, in conversation, at work, and elsewhere — are trying to call into being new visions, whole new ways of being in the world. And I do believe that entails being critical of dominant systems — questioning how they work and and why they exist … I do not believe we will see liberation via uncritical, sigh-of-relief acceptance of dominant systems such as capitalism because we have the privilege of being able to (partially) move on up within them.
And I would argue that those of us who can move up, who have privilege within and can play the game of oppressive systems and sometimes win – we are not the ones whose visions should be leading, or at the center of, liberatory feminist discourse or action. People who see better how all of these systems of power work because they are not mystified by privilege — they’re holding the visions that we most need to encounter, hear, nurture, and center.
I cannot envision a liberation-oriented, social-justice feminism that does not challenge class hierarchy and economic exploitation. And I don’t believe there can be a pro-capitalist challenge to economic domination because I believe capitalism, even “regulated capitalism,” is rooted in economic hierarchy and exploitation — as well as a focus on money/the financial bottom line as some kind of ultimate determinant that will solve and resolve everything else. The planet, society, cultures, people—all are more complicated than that. Capitalism, for all its supporting myths of individuality and freedom, is a blunt system that ignores, excuses, fails to integrate way too much.
This is not to suggest that there is any one “right way” to resist capitalism in our everyday lives, or one “right way” to deal with money (“Enough: The Personal Politics of Resisting Capitalism certainly points to all kinds of different ideas and approaches), but I do think that resisting capitalism, globally, is integral to antiracist, progressive, social-justice feminisms — that is, the only kinds of feminism I think have a chance of liberating anyone/everyone, and the only kinds of feminism I want to have anything to do with.
By titling this post “toward a liberationist feminism,” I do not mean to suggest that I am calling toward that direction myself. What I mean is that I am walking, working, along a path that has been described and cared for by many before me, and that is now being tended and walked along by many more, and, while I am a guest in this space, I want to point toward that path. Some parts of it have been long well-tended, and I think we’d all do well to familiarize, or re-familiarize, ourselves with those — appreciating their details, enjoying (learning from and critiquing and sitting with) them sometimes in solitude and sometimes together, and each doing some of the tending work that needs to be done. It is a long and winding path, not linear, with stops and starts and cleared mainways and brushy offshoots. And while some parts have been well tended, others remain to be noticed, understood.
Walking, working — and caring for the places we walk and work — are long and sometimes slow processes. And I think that’s a good thing. Which is why I don’t think a week-ish later is too late for this post, and why I want to actively resist the high-speed modes of production and consumption of media and all else that would suggest it is too late, or too slow.
Hoping we can walk together sometime,