It’s Dark But It’s Promising, This Marxist Feminist Ground

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Among the searchlights of critical thinking, feminism is one heck of a beam, right?

For a while there, my Women’s Studies classes served up mind-fuck after delicious mind-fuck: teaching me how to pick apart and expose the essencelessness, the cultural and historical contingencies, of so many “natural” or “obvious” patterns. Feminism also gave me a keen eye for harm: especially the kind of harm that results from apparent ‘progress.’ Those invisible, or supposedly inevitable ‘externalities': one group getting saved while another gets screwed. Feminism was like this twin engine for understanding reality: extreme possibility and extreme constraint. Exciting, for sure. Made me feel like I had a good grip on the truth.

But after a while my feminism hit a block. I just didn’t know what to do with it anymore. Jessica Valenti describes the same sense of dissatisfaction with the academic side of things in Full Frontal Feminism:

When I started coming home from grad school with ideas and theories I couldn’t talk to [my mom] about, academic feminism ceased to be truly useful for me.

…[A]cademic feminism isn’t for me. I like activism.

But in activism, too, I ran into trouble. Shining my own critical beam on myself, I found that my activist feminisms tended to screw over some people (especially poor people): either by engendering more harms or creating the mere illusion of material gains where none really existed. (Too many examples to name, but see, for instance, the ongoing history of womanism, or “The Nonprofit Industrial Complex and Trans Resistance” by Rickke Mananzala and Dean Spade, and a related analysis of nonprofit work as gendered by yours truly.)

I’m still wrasslin’ with these problems, and certainly don’t claim knowledge of some sort of pure, perfect, correct feminist activism. But the reason I keep on searching, as thankful as I am for all my experiences, is that I strongly disagree with the idea, also offered in FFF, that

“At the end of the day, no matter what the form, any feminist activism is all good by me.”

I hear this a lot, directly and indirectly, and it’s probably the one idea that’s brought me closest to giving up on my feminism.

Without demonizing each other, I think it’s absolutely vital for us to examine and account for the consequences of our actions. To set aside, without judgment, forms that do not work. To keep on assessing which kinds of action are effective and useful in eradicating patriarchy (especially on a structural level) without trammeling or trampling other groups besides the one to which we-our-own-sweet-self happen to belong! [Interestingly, my dhammic practice has reinforced this idea of examining the “wholesomeness” of my actions: before (what they’re likely to be; the intention), during (how they’re coming out; the implementation), and afterward (what they’ve been; the effects).]

Now, despite what this gigantic lead-in might suggest, my point in this post isn’t to say: Aha! I’ve found the answer! Follow me, winsome feminists, and I’ll lead you into the glorious light of…….Marxism!!!!! :)

Nope. I’m only trying to paint a picture of what’s led me to my present ground. Maybe some of you will identify with that path. That’s the bigger point. Because none of us stays in the exact same place forever.

Besides, the truth is, I don’t feel like I’m ascending into the light. It’s pretty dark in here.

More on that darkness in a minute, but first, what is this Marxist feminist group, anyway? And what do I dig about it?

In brief: it’s an unaffiliated, popular education gig initiated by a dope, talented, 25-year-old Black queer womyn Marxist revolutionary and Oakland substitute history teacher. She theorizes and organizes with a Bay Area group of Marxists called Advance The Struggle. (Awesome blog, that one is.) We’ve had anywhere from fifty to five people in attendance (with an optimal size on the smaller side, for purposes of intimacy and genuine action-capacity), and while it started out as all-genders, these days it’s evolved into a space specifically for self-identifying women and trans folks.* Really fabulous people — teachers and child-rearers and mothers and bike messengers and artists and organizers. We laugh a lot and sometimes cry. There’s always food. (Did I mention this is a study group?)

So far we’ve read “Sex, Race, and Class” by Selma James, selections from Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn, Angela Davis, and Bolivian organizer Domitila, and we’ve screened and discussed the classic film Salt Of The Earth. Next up: Marx’s Wage, Labor and Capital and Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation.

We’ve got three main goals. (1) Engage and understand the texts. (2) Create and theorize a nurturing, feminist pedagogical space; share these pedagogical theories and insights with other Marxist and Leftist popular education groups in the area (i.e. a couple of male-dominated Capital study groups going on now in SF and the East Bay). And (3) Translate the theoretical understandings to working-class actions (i.e. flyering and talking to women in working-class neighborhoods; supporting each other in our organizing work, from reproductive rights actions to low-income tenants’ issues). We’re a committed work-in-progress.

But wait a second. Reading, thinking, and doing some stuff. How is that different from the reading, thinking, and doing of stuff that was already happening in my feminist life before?

It’s a subtle shift, for sure — one that has mostly to do, I would say, with a sense that I am on to something. I’m “getting warmer.” I agree with the Marxism I’ve read so far, here and elsewhere. It seems largely true and useful. The kind of method I was missing. Our organic syllabus prioritizes working-class and poor women; our action is being done by, with, and for working-class women and trans folk. The targets are other than pundits, politicians, or pop culture.

Still, it’s new for me. And that’s what I mean by “dark.” Not un-hopeful; just unfamiliar.

Like in that old story:

Walking home at night, a woman finds her neighbor scouring his front yard on his hands and knees.
“Lost something?” she asks.
“My keys,” says her neighbor. “Help me look?”
For half an hour, they poke through every inch of grass and garden. No keys.
“Are you sure you dropped them here?” the woman asks, frustrated.
“Oh no,” the neighbor replies, “I definitely dropped them in the backyard.”
“Well then what’n the world are we doing out front for?!”
“Because the light here is better.”

I might be feeling my way in the dark — a new, at times intimidating area for me. But I think it’s my best chance of finding those keys.


Relatedly: For a gorgeous piece on a similar question (striking out into unfamiliar territory, looking for a genuine fit), read this piece by Sady Doyle if you haven’t already. The way I interpret it, Sady’s reflecting on looking for her feminism where the light is good — in an online performance of bad-ass, good-side feminist — even when she’s realized she’ll never find it there.

*See comments #9, #10, and maybe more in this thread.

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20 Responses

  1. Comrade Kevin
    Comrade Kevin June 28, 2010 at 3:48 pm |

    It is easy to get caught up in any number of self-limiting universes which manipulate the truth to suit their own ends. All of them start out with good intentions, but eventually they become more concerned with insisting that all who are a part of them much adhere to a legalistic standard of steps and rules to follow. Ultimate reality becomes less important than perpetuating a system.

    Or, as Jesus put it, it’s not what you do to your outsides or take into yourself that matters. It’s what you believe in your heart.

    Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free!

  2. J.
    J. June 28, 2010 at 5:48 pm |

    I consider myself to be Marxist-leaning in some senses, but I’m strongly turned off by Marxism’s history of refusing to admit the existence of any other “basic” types of oppression, or claiming that “all oppression can be distilled to economic oppression, and once that is relieved, then everything else will fall into place of its own accord.” Well, no. We have a million reasons to believe that that would not happen. And many other theorists that I like (e.g., Chomsky) don’t think Marxism can ever be a real solution.

    Of course, I also love new re-readings and re-writings of Marxist (or any) theory by feminist women, so I’m happy to hear about this.

  3. oldlady
    oldlady June 28, 2010 at 6:32 pm |

    I get hopeful when I read posts from wimmin like you. That’s all I need to say.

  4. Marc W.
    Marc W. June 28, 2010 at 6:55 pm |

    Marx was all about the Four Alls. The abolition oppression of all kinds are covered here:

    1. the abolition of all class distinctions
    2. the abolition of all the relations of production on which these lass distinctions rest
    3. the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production
    4. the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.

  5. LJ
    LJ June 28, 2010 at 7:21 pm |

    “Our organic syllabus prioritizes working-class and poor women; our action is being done by, with, and for working-class women and trans folk. The targets are other than pundits, politicians, or pop culture.”


  6. Jadey
    Jadey June 28, 2010 at 7:58 pm |

    I am intrigued by the reflexive analysis of activism as an institution and its function/dysfunction, but before I go further with that I’m really having trouble with the construction you used twice in the post referring to the gender identities of your group’s participants (specifically “self-identifying women and trans folks” and “women and trans folk”). “Trans” seems to be being used very, very broadly here, at the risk of losing real identities within ambiguity, as opposed to recognizing the diversity of identities. It reads to me like a lack of distinction between non-binary folk and binary-but-not-cis people, though I also think that “self-identifying woman” was supposed to capture both trans and cis women, which is good. But if that’s the case, then “trans folk” seems to be excessively general, if it’s not intended to mean all trans people. Otherwise, the practice of referring to trans women as seperately from cis women when being cis or trans is not the relevant aspect of identity being discussed is a problem. The same with as trans men being discussed as separate from cis men or lumped together with cis women or non-binary-identified people.

    I don’t know exactly what construction would be more clear here (although I have run across this kind of problematic phrasing before) and I know that the language itself is slanted to cissexism/ciscentrism, but maybe an editorial note could make this clearer.

  7. Jadey
    Jadey June 29, 2010 at 8:40 am |

    Hi, kloncke,

    Thanks for engaging me on this question. I want to make it clear up front that I am a cis woman, so while I have a vested interest in this, I am not talking from my own lived experiences, and I don’t want to project the image that I am. As well, I have never been involved with an organization that has a service policy geared toward a specific sex/gender identity and which is making use of actual physical space (as opposed to internet space, which is a bit easier to come by), so I have also never personally dealt with this as a policy issue.

    That being said, I think it’s important to note that the policing and defining of gender and of womanhood is a loaded gun for feminism. I’m not opposed to the making of spaces for specific groups based on shared facets of their identities, but IME the people who tend to most need access to safe(r) and supportive spaces are usually the least likely to be afforded it. Women-only spaces should be open to trans and cis women, but the language used to designate these spaces should not other trans women as a “special kind of woman”. Non-binary identified people (and this is a diverse group itself, as you noted, which can include people who are genderqueer, bigendered, multigendered, and other gender identities – but not necessarily all intersex people, some of whom identify on the binary) are especially likely not to have spaces of their own because they are not often recognized or understood as a group, and therefore end up having to share someone else’s space. The same can go for trans men, who tend to only be able to access women’s spaces, because there is a lack of spaces for trans men and because they are not welcome in men’s spaces.

    If I were to make some basic suggestions, it would go like this, in no particular order:

    -Being trans and being gender non-conforming are not the same.
    -Being trans and being non-binary identified are not the same (although some trans people identify as non-binary).
    -Being trans and being a man/a woman are not different (although not all trans people identify as being men or women).
    -Being intersex and being trans, non-binary, or non-gender conforming are not the same (although some intersex people may also have some or all of those identities).
    -The content of people’s pants and/or chromosomes does not matter.
    -There is no general female socialization experience or definition of womanhood. Class, race, nationality, religion, ability status – all of these identity facets will make a difference, just as much as being trans or cis, or binary or non-binary, will make a difference.
    -If you want to be welcoming, do not erase identities (e.g., blanket references to “trans folk” when not actually referring to all trans-identified people) *and* do not ‘other’ identities when you acknowledge them (e.g., “women and trans women”). There’s a difference between being inclusive and subsuming real identities into an enormous “Misc.” category.
    -Don’t treat trans men as “men lite”. Trans men’s lives and experiences are important, but there is a huge issue within feminism for trans men to be cast as “acceptable men because they are actually women”.
    -Avoid the use of the words “thing” or “it”. Even if you aren’t intending to directly refer to a person with either of those words, even in close proximity it can come across that way.

    If you have not already read Vivian Namaste’s Invisible Lives and Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, then I would highly recommend them.

  8. vladthegayimpaler
    vladthegayimpaler June 29, 2010 at 10:29 am |

    hi girls!!
    quick intro: my name is “vlad the gay impaler.” sound crazy? i know! but this is what it means. vlad the impaler was a prince from transalvania who may be the basis for the character of Count Dracula. he would terrorize his enemies by carving huge rods into pointy instruments upon which he would toss peoples bodies, impaling them. i invert this very violent masculinist image as a weapon against masculo-hetero-binary-ism.

    so anyways… please continue reading. this is a serious post, even though i choose a name-label that is kinda outside the norm.

    Kloncke said:

    “What it is a discussion about: (a) problems we may encounter with relativism in feminism, (b) questions we ask ourselves about whether or not our feminism is actually, effectively undermining heteropatriarchy, (Do we have good tools for assessing this? Like what?), and (c) how those questions may have led us to re-evaluate or shift directions in our feminist praxis.”

    i hope this isnt overly critical or that it isnt banned from being posted for being mean or something, but…

    Jadye’s comment represents exactly what limits feminism as theory and practice, namely, commitment to the notion that categorization and labeling are the first priority forms of practice, before which we cannot procede to any other project. this is confused with theory and this “theory” is confused with practice:

    “But if that’s the case, then “trans folk” seems to be excessively general, if it’s not intended to mean all trans people. Otherwise, the practice of referring to trans women as seperately from cis women when being cis or trans is not the relevant aspect of identity being discussed is a problem.”

    i might be making undue assumptions, but Kloncke’s description of the new “dark ground” she is treading, is stimulating because of its practicality and undermining of relativism. it would seem that this practicality and objectivism comes from the marxist flavor.

    whats wrong about honing in on labels to make everyone comfortable? to a limited extent its good. refer to women as women, not ladies or girls, for example. but there’s a threshold that we cross that begins to exclude the general population who DO (sorry to say) identify as one of the two main genders.

    and this is for a reason: capitalist division of labor was formed along a gender binary. the two great fields of labor were re-productive and “productive” labor.

    something i wonder about that marxist feminists could consider studying, is when the queer identities started to become public, what was the connnection to the process of production? like, we know that women’s identities went through massive shifts during WWII in the US, on the basis not of the apparition of a “feminine mystique” but, rather, on the basis of what we might call a “productive physique” (my term, thanks). women’s bodies entered the violent crashing world of heavy industry for the first time (they had been in light industry factories and fields before). for the first time they encroached on men’s work, their very presence in the factory (economic base) being an act cultural defiance (superstructure). remember what brought them into the factory in the first place was capital’s demand (base). looked at this way, we see how the “superstructure” is integrated into the “base.” they exist as discrete categories, but in a dialectical sense, unity of opposites. thats a digression.

    okay, so what were the broader ramifications for gender: did this mega shift in the world of (compulsorily) hetero women have shockwaves throughout society, forcing shifts in masculinity, making cracks in the shell of the superstructure-within-the-base (my term, thank you) from which gay and trans and the rest of our diverse gender queer world could emerge into the light of day? was this gender revolution rooted in shifts in the process of production, in the changing demands for labor in industry?

    and this question brings me back to the reading group Kloncke talks about and Jadey questions. im assuming that most of the people there are women from birth and that most of them identify as such. probably about equal thirds of hetero, bi, and lesbian. im assuming that there are 1 or 2 trans folks. im just making that assumption. what do the bi and lesbian women do for a living? where do the trans women fit in the gendered division of labor? other than sex work, what are the major fields of employment for trans folks (or any of these other categories jadey mentions) in general?

    looking at the role of women in industry during wwII and how it revolutionized gender relations by rooting those gender relations within relations of production, are we blinding ourselves via relativistic label-obsessed “practice”, to a very profound and relevant process of reorganization of the workforce along NEW gender lines that coincide with a NEW division of labor and NEW industries?

    the answer could teach us something about the future of capitalist development and our resistance to it.

  9. Lucy
    Lucy June 29, 2010 at 10:46 am |

    But someone brought up that a big part of our project together is analyzing the ways that gender education/socialization prevents and limits women’s participation in various Marxist political activities. So for those of us who were raised with this patriarchal gender education (as a “girl”), but currently don’t identify as “women” (whether gender-queer, transmen, or other public identities), we still wanted to make this space welcoming on that level.

    The second sentence does not proceed from the first. Why does a space for women need to include those who are not women? Not to mention the incredibly cissexist assumption in being raised with “this patriarchal gender education” = “girl” when including trans men. Plus, it also includes the transphobic trope that one’s imagined upbringing overrides everything else. Thus trans men are included in women’s space for their “girlhoods” while trans women are excluded for their “boyhoods” while the male privilege that is given to trans men is ignored as is the lack of male privilege for trans women. See “womyn-born-womyn” and so on.

    The decision needs to be made if a space is for women, and therefore one should ask what men and other non-women are doing in it, or for all those who suffer oppression, in which case one should ask why there is a focus on women in particular.

  10. vlad
    vlad June 29, 2010 at 9:00 pm |

    kloncke, thanks for keeping my post up. i know it was a bit brash, and may tread close to disobeying the damma guidlines you present for us. i re-read them and like them a lot. i am reflecting on the vibe behind my post and dont like a lot of it. thanks for being patient, i am a student in a many many ways.

    loncke countered my comment about a “threshold” of language where the accomodation of marginalized groups can alienate those that are not marginalized so much. that was a stupid comment. apologies to everyone.

    but is it not true that the division of labor, which is at the root of the binary gender order imposed violently by the state and others, is a male-female division of labor, and that it is still to this day heterosexual based? that is, not only is there mens and women’s work, but this work is also alligned with father and mother roles. women do almost all house and child related work, while men do almost all managing type work. these correlate to heterosexual mother and father roles.

    so as important as it is to accomodate transexuals and other queers, the bulk of our analysis ought to be on the groups upon which the patriarchal capitalist division of labor is predicated. that is, assuming that we percieve the overthrowing of capitalism as the most important dimension to true sexual liberation.

    unless, of course, we can successfully analyze the relationship between queers of all kinds and the social relations underpinning capitalism, and demonstrate their locus within the system of commodity production. this shouldnt be too hard, but i see too little of this focus amongst the majority of queer activists and feminists for that matter. the best have been the likes of Silvia Federicci who analyzes women’s role in the capitalist divsion of labor, but predominantly women in heterosexual “traditional” roles, eg, as mothers.

  11. Queen Emily
    Queen Emily June 29, 2010 at 10:10 pm |

    I disagree with quite a lot of what you’ve said in your two comments, Vlad.

    Most notably, I think you’re basically working from the problematic assumption of binarist heterosexuality as the primary antagonism of capitalist society. I don’t think that’s necessarily always and only a good starting premise for progressive politics, and certainly it’s been the source of a great many evils in Marxist, feminist *and* queer politics, theories and communities.

    Angela Davis recently had this to say when asked about Judith Butler’s refusal of a Pride award in Berlin:

    I’ve come to believe that when we win victories in movement struggles, that what do is we change the whole terrain of struggle. So we don’t simply add on. We don’t add on women to black people, we don’t add on LGBT people to women and to Black people, we don’t add on trans people and so forth. Each time we win a significant victory it requires us to revisit the whole terrain of struggle.

    I think she makes an excellent point. And that brings me to one of the things that you said in your first comment. Namely this:

    “okay, so what were the broader ramifications for gender: did this mega shift in the world of (compulsorily) hetero women have shockwaves throughout society, forcing shifts in masculinity, making cracks in the shell of the superstructure-within-the-base (my term, thank you) from which gay and trans and the rest of our diverse gender queer world could emerge into the light of day? was this gender revolution rooted in shifts in the process of production, in the changing demands for labor in industry?”

    Again, I see no necessary reason to a priori assume that the relations between cis het men and women necessarily produced gay/queer/trans/genderqueer etc identities. It bothers me mostly because cisheteronormative power is evacuated in this telling – trans people have put under a microscope so many times, literally dissected to find out why were are trans. I’m not sure what we have to gain from a Marxist interrogation of this question as opposed to the countless other models that have been proposed by cis people. How is the terrain of struggle changed by this?

    And lastly, re: trans people’s place in labour. I’m not sure we necessarily have much of one. The unemployment stats I’ve seen have been between 30 and 75% unemployment among trans people, depending on region and sample size. A New York trans group called Make the Road published a study a couple of weeks ago that found amongst other things that 50% of their respondents had *never* been employed post-transition.

    I guess my point is, a great many of us are pretty much either living off the kindness of family and friends, or in the institutional maze of homeless shelters, prison etc. I guess you might call it lumpenproletariat, but mostly I’d just call it fucked.

  12. sophonisba
    sophonisba June 29, 2010 at 11:23 pm |

    The second sentence does not proceed from the first. Why does a space for women need to include those who are not women?

    Indirection leads to imprecision. It has this need because as described, it’s not a space for women. It’s a space for anyone and everyone except cisgendered men with no queer identity. It would be lot easier to note who is excluded than to make a long, careful-yet-inevitably gruesomely-hierarchical laundry list of cis women – trans women – genderqueer people – trans men – afterthoughts.

    Some would say that directly excluding the people you mean to exclude is in all ways superior to indirectly insulting the people you mean to include.

  13. Dominique
    Dominique June 30, 2010 at 11:15 pm |

    @J. Re “all oppression can be distilled to economic oppression” – I think this isn’t necessarily completely off the mark in the sense that when we discriminate for any reason, the consequences are often economic for those against whom we discriminate. Of course, the answer there is to level the non-economic playing field so the economic one will follow, whereas Marxism posits the opposite. Manifestations of not only nationalist but often racist sentiment in East-bloc countries prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain (and afterwards) demonstrated that the superstructure doesn’t always emanate from the infrastracture, or at least not as much in a linear fashion, and with as much of a linear solution, as Marx posited. I agree with you there.

  14. Dominique
    Dominique June 30, 2010 at 11:23 pm |

    I said “of course the answer is to level the non-economic playing field so the economic one will follow”, but of course Marxist theory argues that human history has always created underclasses. These underclasses have been economic in nature. I suppose a “true” Marxist would argue that if you try to level the non-economic playing field (superstructure) before you level the economic one (infrastructure), you will not succeed in genuinely changing relations of power and wealth. It could become a tautology if one argues that the leveling of the superstructure is in fact actually a leveling of the infrastructure.

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