'Can We All Be Feminists?' Needs Privileged Women to Hear: Women's Rights Are Human Rights
A new intersectional feminist anthology says we can all be feminists, as long as we're willing to confront our privilege.
Can We All Be Feminists?
June Eric-Udorie, ed.
A few months ago, the provincial legislature in the Canadian province in which I live was rocked by a harassment scandal: elected representatives (both male and female) were filing personal harassment complaints against each other. The scandal, much like the sexual harassment complaints which rocked the federal Canadian parliament as well as other provincial legislatures earlier in the year (and without even getting into the Trump phenomenon in the United States), revealed a lot about a North American political culture which remains confused about how to respond to the fact that its rules and structures remain implicitly grounded in traditional, masculinist political norms at a time when those norms are, slowly and in patchwork fashion, shifting out of public favour.
Amid the varied responses to the situation, a panel discussion was organized, bringing together several prominent women to discuss the ongoing harassment scandal. It was a curious panel, and controversial from some perspectives, because of its composition. In addition to at least one well-respected grassroots community activist, the majority white panel also included a senior university vice-president, who has garnered controversy, at her more than quarter-million dollar salary, for sticking her tongue out at student activists, and for spearheading initiatives to increase tuition fees on already highly indebted students, especially international students. The panel also featured representatives of Equal Voice, a national organization promoting women's involvement in politics. The group is controversial for its "multi-partisan" approach, which means that it praises and promotes parties that run women candidates, regardless of what other policies those parties espouse (including conservative and right-wing parties that oppose or seek to repeal a range of other equity-seeking initiatives).
Questions were posed: Why are women who endorse tuition policies that shut poor, racialized and Indigenous women students out of university, offered a platform representing women's perspectives in the province? Why is an organization led by predominantly white women, which routinely praises parties that oppose women's reproductive rights and support austerity cuts that hurt women above all, invited to be the spokespeople on this issue as well? And perhaps most importantly, Where were the poor and racialized and Indigenous and queer and neuro-atypical and trans women, and those of precarious immigration status, and why were they not invited to speak out about the pervasiveness of harassment in the province's governing structures; structures which impact them probably more dearly and direly than the privileged women on the panel?
These are dilemmas that would probably fit in neatly with the cases presented in Can We All Be Feminists?, a new intersectional feminist anthology which squarely tackles the shortcomings of mainstream (white, privileged) forms of feminism.
There's a certain irony in the not-quite-full-circle through which the relationship between feminism and class has gone over the past century. In the early 20th century, when political debates predominantly focused on issues of class, feminists within socialist, communist, labour and other left-leaning political movements challenged their parties and movements over their failure to address issues of gender, race, sexuality, and other identity categories. The women who raised these issues often were (and still are) criticized, undermined, and sabotaged by other privileged activists in their parties or movements, who saw them as troublemakers and failed to either understand, or sympathize with, their important critique.
Yet today, ironically, it is the very same feminist, trans, anti-racist, and other intersectional movements started by those 'troublemakers', which are reinvigorating the centrality of poverty, privilege and class in our social and political discussions. At a time when socialist and left-leaning parties have largely sold out to neoliberal conservatism, it is the intersectional feminist activists who are most actively bringing class and poverty back into central focus. If the class struggle goes on, it's because anti-colonial, anti-racist feminists have kept it alive, and are breathing strength back into it as never before.
I say 'not-quite-full-circle' because, of course, the feminism that's doing this is a very different feminism from that which emerged on the left over a century ago. This is an anti-colonial, anti-racist feminism, that is informed by the need for intersectionality. The older forms of exclusionary feminism still exist, of course, and sometimes appear to be the dominant form, in no small part because they are more palatable to, and often embraced by, the liberal and even conservative mainstream political parties which dominate electoral politics in most democratic countries. Yet it is the intersectional feminism that is the focus of Can We All Be Feminists?, and which is cleaving most sincerely to the struggle against poverty and privilege.
It's perhaps that very concept -- the struggle against privilege – which most clearly defines the collection in Can We All Be Feminists? It's the thread which runs through each of the contributions, whose contributors are as varied in their identities as they are in their individual understandings of feminism. Feminism has grappled with a range of critiques over the past several decades. Racialized feminists have critiqued the dominance of white feminists in public discourse; #SayHerName drew attention to the lack of discussion in the Black Lives Matter movement of the police brutality and murders experienced by Black women; trans activists have grappled with the transphobia rampant in some forms of radical feminism; Islamophobia, class privilege, ableism, and so many other forms of oppression manifest in mainstream feminism as well.
From its failure to challenge border politics to its lack of action on the prison crisis, the mainstream forms of feminism which focus on representation in the legislatures and corporate boardrooms have been strongly criticized as not only failing to address the real concerns of the vast majority of women, but in fact undermining their interests by reifying and validating imperialist, neoliberal, racist and capitalist structures that actively oppress women and other groups. As Charlotte Shane puts it in her contribution, "Ignoring the problems of less advantaged women to secure the rights, and later, the high-profile achievement, of the privileged has been part of feminism's legacy since the beginning."
How are we to make sense of all this, and move forward toward the emancipation and equality of all the varied identities traditionally encompassed yet so often marginalized within feminism, without losing the broad umbrella of feminism itself? Is that even possible?
The contributors to Can We All Be Feminists? are mostly hopeful that it is possible, and their focus on the problem with privilege offers an optimistic approach. Above all, the book is a call for awareness of one's own privilege, both as individuals and as members of whatever broader movement we considers ourselves part of. One can experience tremendous oppression in one context (the workplace, a dark street corner at night) and yet the same person can experience privilege in other contexts (the union, the picket line, the classroom) and wield it, consciously or unconsciously, against others. No one is immune from oppression and the experience of oppression does not immunize one against being an oppressor oneself, the contributors emphasize.
Gabrielle Bellot puts it well in her moving and personal discussion of lauded Nigerian writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's very public and unrepentant transphobia. "When a feminist icon, like Adichie, decides that her high standing in the feminist community allows her to speak glibly on anything proferred to her, she runs the risk of assuming a false sense of universalism, of all-encompassing authority. Success can become its own form of privilege: when we succeed, we begin to think that we can do no wrong. In reality, we need to listen humbly to each other's stories, lest we fall victim to perpetuating single stories ourselves."
Bellot, a trans woman of colour from the Caribbean, is one of the contributors to this powerful collection. Like many of the articles, her contribution, "Borderlands", is as poetic and beautifully written as it is insightful. The authors don't shy away from incisively honest personal reflections on the contradictions they've experienced in their own relationships with feminism, and the ways in which they see their own past behaviour in different lights. The book's gentle emphasis lies in learning from, not guilting over, the mistakes we make in our relationships with others, and not shying away from the many contradictions we sometimes feel and express between our ideals and aspirations and the way we live in the real world. Contradictions are at the heart of this collection, which bravely puts them in central focus. As Bellot puts it, recalling her youth in Dominica, "Even as I was always trying to smile and seem happy, I lived in a tropical winter."
Nicole Dennis-Benn, another contributor from the Caribbean, opens her contribution with a confession of her own. She recalls defending the work of musician and rapist R. Kelly, whose music she loved, "joining the chorus of Black women and men whose sympathy for the young Black girls and the damage done to them wasn't as powerful as their allegiance to the artist and his work." Dennis-Benn's moving contribution reflects on growing up in Jamaica, and on the powerful impact on her of Lady Saw, a Jamaican dancehall artist of the '90s.
The collection ranges in focus from introspective personal pieces, to analyses of popular culture, to trenchant political critiques. Running through all the contributions, however, is the call for all would-be equality seekers to adopt an intersectional feminist analysis. As June Eric-Udorie puts it in her introduction, "When white feminists focus their attention on issues that mostly affect affluent, cisgender, heterosexual, white women like themselves, they fail to address life-or-death issues facing millions of women of color, disabled women, queer women, trans women, poor women, and other marginalized groups… This kind of feminism is not only wrong but also dangerous. Mainstream feminism's lack of an intersectional focus could be a mortal threat to its very existence if a plurality of women and nonbinary folks don't see it as a tool that has the power to change their lives."
Or as Wei Ming Kam puts it in her contribution, "Prioritizing the most vulnerable women and the issues that affect them most is what will make feminism truly comprehensive."
Kam's essay, "The Machinery of Disbelief," offers a magnificent analysis of UK immigration policies (with reflections on other countries like the US and Canada as well). She weaves masterfully between the personal and the systemic, using as point of departure her own same-sex partner's efforts to get a family visa.
Her well-researched essay demonstrates the inherent cruelty of UK immigration policies, and the ways in which they act with added violence against women, but it also underscores a broader message of the collection – that feminist movements need to challenge border and immigration policies more seriously than they have. Again, by premising advocacy work on the experience of women who enjoy secure citizenship or immigration status, feminist organizations wind up neglecting all those who do not enjoy such benefits.
As Sandhya Sharma, one of the directors of Safety4Sisters, a Manchester-based grassroots feminist and anti-racist migrant women's rights organization, tells Kam, "If you work with the most disadvantaged, you will automatically be able to provide a service for all people. If you only work with those people who are deemed to have rights, you will only provide a partial service."
Charlotte Shane, in her contribution, criticizes the poor attention being paid by mainstream feminism to the prison crisis. More than simply a matter of reform, she offers a reminder that feminism is about transforming existing political realities, not simply tweaking them. "When activists speak out against police and prisons, people immediately demand that they offer a replacement apparatus, but it is an impossible demand," she writes. "The transformation needs to be more profound than a simple swap."
She cites prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba, emphasizing that moving away from the flawed prison system requires transforming our relationships with each other. "Many feminists, though, have lost their foremother's radical vision of changing everything," Shane observes. "Instead, they are ready to work within the tight confines of an ineffective system, and they endorse and invest in a de facto police state."
It's a point that's explored in additional detail in Evette Dionne's contribution on "Intersectionality and the Black Lives Matter Movement."
"The greater narrative still centers Black men at the expense of those who are equally vulnerable, and the brunt of the work to center Black women victims still falls primarily on Black feminists," Dionne writes. "As intersectionality becomes a buzzword, white feminists must turn inward to figure out what has allowed them to build comfort with police officers, and who that comfort has come at the expense of. They must grapple with how their whiteness shields them from state-sanctioned violence, and how they can use that access to power and privilege to raise awareness and work to dismantle systems that target Black people and people of color."
Shane criticizes politically hollow movements like 'lean in' feminism and efforts to simply achieve equity through numerical representation. In corporate capitalism, she points out, this means feminists become complicit in facilitating the ravages of austerity and neoliberalism.
"By assuming that having more women is better, period, we relinquish the opportunity to question what it is the corporation does (read: who it harms and how it harms them), what's inherently good about climbing to the top of any hierarchy, or how it socially benefits all women for one particular woman to earn an obscene amount of money… neoliberal feminism, white feminism, corporate feminism – [whatever] it's called, its priority is to help a small number of people further consolidate power and money without rocking the proverbial boat."
Not only do such forms of feminism fail to improve the lives of most women, Shane writes, but it actively undermines them, by justifying and reinforcing systems of oppression – capitalism, imperialism, racism, ableism, etc. – that harm women. She suggests some more appropriate names for this type of feminism: sabotage feminism, or no-wave feminism.
The contributions span a broad gamut of experiences. Selina Thompson offers a beautifully written, at times near-poetic polemic on fat feminism. She underscores the need for intersectional feminism to acknowledge the needs, issues and demands of fat activism, but also for fat activism to recognize the varied forms of oppression that individuals encounter. "I had stumbled into the mess that is the fat worker, or rather the fat person who would work but is defeated at every turn," she writes. "The person who negotiates uniforms that don't fit, and has to hope that they will not go up against a fatphobic interviewer. I'm thinking about how this works when somebody is fat and unemployed for long periods of time. I am thinking about the assumption that a fat body is a sick body, that a fat body will cost an employer money, and how this becomes a reason not to hire – and how tenuous the legal protections for fat people are."
She notes that many of the oppressions fat people experience stem from capitalism, and reiterates the need for feminism to be anti-capitalist if it truly seeks to tackle the root of the problem. Again, this is a call for profound transformation, not just minor reforms. "I demand a fat liberation that destroys the concepts of beauty and success: It is not enough to simply bring fat into the fold," she writes. "Fat aspiration has as much capacity to harm as thin aspiration if not examined."
Photo of June Eric-Udorie courtesy of Penguin Publishing
The collection doesn't shy away from controversy. One of the most provocative and challenging contributions comes from Irish activist Emer O'Toole, discussing the state of abortion rights access in Ireland (at the time of writing, a national referendum on abortion rights was looming; pro-choice advocates subsequently won that referendum with an overwhelming 66 percent support in favour of repealing the Irish abortion ban). O'Toole, writing in advance of that referendum, raised an issue of far broader scope: "might we achieve feminist ends through less-than-feminist means?"
She used as her example the successful efforts by LGBTQ activists in Ireland to secure marriage equality rights in the country's 2015 referendum on the subject. She explains that their campaign was based on careful opinion polling, from which they made strategic decisions to engage in what O'Toole describes as a pro-gay-marriage campaign that was "strategically homophobic." For instance, they avoided references to children, they avoided using images of gay couples as well as conspicuously gay spokespersons. Sympathy with the parents of gay people seemed to poll well, so they focused on that. They deliberately steered away from the militancy of 1970s and '80s style queer activism, and maintained a very strategic and at times low profile – what O'Toole refers to as "strategies of subterfuge." While militant activists would disdain that sort of campaign, O'Toole says there's a telling consideration worth reflecting on: they won. She wonders whether there are lessons there for feminism.
"There's a difficult logic that dictates that sometimes the best feminist tactic is to be no feminist at all," she writes.
The notion would seem to run counter to much of the rest of the anthology, which is about asserting presence in a world where white liberal feminism is still visibly predominant. Yet O'Toole reminds us that there's more than just principles at stake: policies have life-or-death consequences.
"We can ignore that reality and speak from our hearts with an intersectional feminist message, centering the importance of reproductive rights to women's full participation in society," she writes. "It would feel good…But we might lose. And the stakes are high."
In the case of the abortion debate, she points to the potential for sympathy from men concerned about their wives' health and safety. "In Catholic Ireland, men have the power. If right now abortion needs to be not about women and trans folk, not about class, not about race, not about ability, but about men, let's make it about men."
She offers a moniker for this approach: 'functional intersectional feminism."
"[A] functional intersectional feminism must fight against the idea that strategic thinking makes us impure; it must acknowledge that neglecting to highlight intersectional narratives is in some very specific cases justified, that appealing to the needs of the most marginalized may sometimes hurt our cause, while appealing to the fears of the powerful may help it," she writes.
There's a lot to think about in these essays, whether one agrees with them all or not.
The collection contains fifteen essays, all of them offering thoughtful and incisive analyses written in masterfully beautiful prose. Frances Ryan discusses ableism ("It's not only steps that shut disabled women out of feminism"), Eishar Kuar writes from her location in the UK Punjabi diaspora, Zoe Samudzi grapples with her changing relationship with a Zimbabwean cultural background ("Tradition, I'd later realize, isn't a single history…it's almost entirely dependent upon who's recalling it"), and Mariya Karimjee reflects on her Pakistani cultural background and how it shaped her friendships and imbrication in contemporary politics. Aisha Gani discusses the issues raised by the victory of 33-year old Muslim woman Nadiya Hussain in The Great British Bake Off; Juliet Jacques discusses gender dysphoria and media representations of trans life, and Soofiya Andry reflects on body politics as well -- on the dichotomies of safe and dangerous, good and bad, unruly and conforming bodies. Brit Bennett and Caitlin Cruz both reflect on the role of religion in their lives, and its complicated relationship to their other identities. Afua Hirsch dissects the music videos of Taylor Swift, as point of departure in a powerful critique of appropriation and imperialist feminism.
Can We All Be Feminists? is a superb collection, and a stirring call for an intersectional feminism at a time when it is more urgently needed than ever before. It's an excellent point of departure for those wondering what intersectional feminism is, but offers equally provocative and profound reflections for feminists, scholars and activists at any stage of their relationship with feminism. At a time when feminism is, paradoxically, both more widely accepted than ever before yet also more intensely contested than ever before, this collection offers a vital intervention in the fraught discussion and a beautifully written source of inspiration as well.