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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.