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Politics

What is feminism now?

Julie Bishop, the highest-ranking female minister in the Abbott cabinet, recently explained why the word ‘feminist’ was not in her lexicon, in spite of the fact that she is a powerful woman at the top of her field. In the same week, Antony Loewenstein wrote an article for the Guardian arguing that contemporary feminists were too focused on facelifts and George Clooney to bother talking about the real issues – single parents, war, refugees, etc. The biggest problem with the theory Loewenstein proposed, as many commentators said at the time, was his lack of analysis of the corporate media machine that generates and proliferates feminist writing only under particular conditions and with particular caveats. It’s a strange oversight for someone so familiar with the media industry, but perhaps it is a product of that very same click-bait commission mentality: get a guy to write the article about feminists, and get him to tell them they’re doing it wrong.

Still, the convergence of these incidents highlighted, for me, the unresolved contradiction at the heart of the feminist movement. To suggest, as the broad church philosophy does, that everyone’s feminism is valid, skates very close to saying that everyone’s politics are acceptable. But clearly we don’t think that or we wouldn’t be feminists. Bishop doesn’t, either – in fact, she sees feminism as ‘self-victimisation’. As shirking personal responsibility. As weakness. One might think the reason that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist would be obvious: she doesn’t call herself a feminist because she doesn’t believe in the things feminism stands for. But what if she did call herself a feminist? After all, feminism is a broad church, everyone keeps saying, and a broad definition of feminism allows more people to be feminists, including, presumably, the Julie Bishops of the world.

So I want to know: is feminism is an issues-based tool, or is it a comprehensive political theory? Because we can’t have it both ways. If it is the latter, then it needs to provide a way to interpret, understand and respond not simply to the products of culture but to the structures that underpin them: the market, governance, social services and the state, colonisation, globalisation, and democracy. And taking a position on those things has consequences.

If we’re for the economic equality of all women, for example – not some women at the expense of others – then the Right is actually our opposition in this project. That includes right-wing women – even right-wing women who call themselves feminists. In an article in Private Media’s Women’s Agenda, Paula Matthewson demonstrated this point remarkably well, albeit from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Feminists shouldn’t attempt to change the minds of conservative women, Matthewson argued, unless they can show that feminism is not actually going to substantially change the way the world is organised. ‘Women of the Right think differently because they have different core values,’ she wrote. ‘Feminists who keep trying to change these foundation stones of a person’s philosophy and attitudes, by insisting individualist and conservative women embrace the label, are simply wasting their time.’

It’s tempting, perhaps, in the face of that, to argue that feminism is more flexible, that it has a myriad of applications and potential benefits, even for women on the Right. But if feminism is simply a filter one can put on or take off at will, then it is not and will never be a unifying force. It will split and splinter as culture continues to splinter, as people think of themselves less as a community and more as individuals. It will not revolutionise society, it will not generate solidarity or shared values, but will instead become subject to and co-opted by the already existing power brokers as a means to serve their own ends. It will become a tool of the unequal status quo.

In fact, this is already happening. Feminism is a brand now, and we sell it. We sell ourselves through it. It’s the marketing tool of Jezebel and Daily Life and Elle and Women’s Agenda. It’s the handy new value-proposition of a corporate consensus that sells clicks before it sells politics, but sells sells sells as its first priority. We’re the content providers, not the content shapers, no matter how vehement or radical our personal politics, and our media power is as limited by the 800-word column space as the media monolith is constrained by its advertising budget.

Yes, many feminists do appear to talk publicly about Jennifer Lawrence or Beyoncé more often than they do about, say, the wrack and ruin and brutal repression that a handful of (sometimes female) economists and politicians in the US have unleashed on millions in the developing world in the name of ‘freedom’, and this is because sex sells (and that includes sex crime), because celebrities sell, and because to be a feminist is still sufficiently controversial that our opinions on these things sell, too.

But I also believe that feminism sells precisely because there is no consensus on the politics that underpin our movement. Are we for the success of a handful of female CEOs or are we for emancipation from corporate slavery? Because if it’s the latter, then those women at the top of the business ladder won’t serve our interests, and neither will most of the mainstream media. An article may get hundreds of thousands of hits and retweets and Facebook likes, but the average turnout to a feminist demo is still only a few hundred people. Maybe demos aren’t cool any more, but words sure as shit aren’t enough. And yet we let ourselves sink into debates about our own privilege because we are the product of that very same radical free-market doctrine: we are atomised and isolated with little sense of collective experience.

Even intersectionality – a theory developed at the height of the identity politics movement to deal with the multidimensional nature of oppression, and in particular, the confluence of race and gender – suffers from the same affliction. ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,’ is its rallying cry. One way of understanding this call is to interpret it as a reflection on politics past: that any political movement which doesn’t incorporate an understanding of how differences of the body (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.) translate to different experiences of inequality in the world will be subject to the very same shortcomings and blind spots as its predecessors. If intersectionality is a tool for evaluating my own subject-positioning, it can certainly be useful. But it too folds all too neatly into that ideal market construct of the self: the individualist political entity with individual experiences and individual objectives. No solidarity here. And if it is a comprehensive political theory, I find more holes than I do answers. How does intersectional feminism help us respond to, for example, the relentless war profiteering that is driving invasion after invasion in the Middle East? The privatisation of the public service at home? The systemic incarceration of Indigenous women? Our own government allowing unfettered access to the personal data of the entire country to anyone with a civil service salary? What alternatives does it offer? If we can’t answer questions like that, our theory is inadequate.

So my feminism will be comprehensive or it will be bullshit. It will be anti-corporate or it will be bullshit. It will fight for the poor, for the marginalised, for health care, for welfare, for social services, for democracy and self-determination. It will not allow those women to be represented as lazy, undisciplined, weak or undeserving, as the Right would have it, and it will have no truck with anyone who purports to represent women while simultaneously perpetuating brutality, racism, war, greed, and plain old inequality. Because if those women are feminists, and if we accept that their politics represent a legitimate struggle under the feminist umbrella, then what does that make our movement but one which tolerates sweeping injustice in the pursuit of personal advancement?

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Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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Comments

  1. Lucid, punchy, passionate and terrifically argued. And, as always, setting the standard for other OL bloggers to aspire to.

  2. I don’t see how it is possible to oppose capitalism and simultaneously dismiss intersectionality—a lot of what you call “identity politics”, e.g. the systemic marginalisation of women of colour, violence against women, the prison industrial complex, able-ism, etc, are actually resulting effects of capitalism. This is including the discrimination of LGBTQI folk face. It IS exactly intersectionality that people are linking together the various forms of oppression which connect to the bigger destructive force: capitalism. I get what you’re saying, but it is the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that we as a feminist community need to tackle head-on.

    • I think SC’s point is not that we shouldn’t pay attention to “the marginalisation of women of colour, violence against women, the prison industrial complex, able-ism,” I think her point is that intersectionality- focusing as it does on the colliding of different personal identities and the way that affects and shapes experience- may be too individualistic a lens to challenge exactly the things you mention- at least as a primary tool or primary slogan.

      There are theoretical frameworks for talking about these things that don’t prioritise personal experiences and we need to build on them and nurture them.

      I also think your understanding of intersectionality is probably more structurally focused than most understandings and so is perhaps less of the sort of thing that the author is critiquing. For example, you write that the awful things you mention:

      “are actually resulting effects of capitalism.”

      But a lot of supporters of the concept of intersectionality wouldn’t agree with that and don’t recognise the core role capitalism plays in oppression.

      If all that is meant by intersectionality is a focus on the problems of the marginalised, and especially on those who are marginalised in more ways than one, then that’s totally right, but while I don’t want to talk for the author, I think she’s talking about more than just that- she’s talking about a particularly individualistic way of approaching it.

      • But to conflate intersectionality with individualism is missing the point: “identity politics” are only ‘individualist’ when you don’t have many identity markers to mark you in the first place. It’s difficult to cast aside race, sexuality and ability (for example) when they are factors which contribute to one’s marginalisation in a larger societal context.

        • I’m not conflating intersectionality and individualism, and I’m certainly not suggesting we ignore race, ability, sexuality etc as markers of difference of experience.

          Rather, I’m arguing that intersectionality as it is commonly practiced is subject to being adapted to suit the status quo, which is individualist; capitalist. As in, I see this particular theoretical framework, when put into practice, regularly co-opted by the forces that are perpetuating the inequality in the first place.

          • I do think that there are faults with intersectionality as it is currently practiced. I would, however, like to offer a few corrections:

            1. origins of intersectionality should NOT traced to the height of identity politics. In fact, it was Marxist and socialist feminists who first used the concept when their campaigns were confronted by women of colour as wanting and limited.

            2. Works by people like Sheila Rowbotham (particularly Beyond the Fragments), bell hooks, Angela Davis, are as intersectional as they are steeped in a materialist, revolutionary analysis.

            Conflating intersectionality with a very limited body of theory, does everyone very little justice.

          • What are some examples of instances where intersectionality has been co-opted by the status quo?

      • It’s also funny that you mention that “there are theoretical frameworks for talking about these things that don’t prioritise personal experiences”, because it is personal experience (i.e. the lived experiences of women living in a patriarchal world) that eventuated in the birth of feminism.

      • It’s also funny that you mention that “there are theoretical frameworks for talking about these things that don’t prioritise personal experiences”, because it was precisely personal experience (i.e. the lived experiences of women living in a patriarchal world) that eventuated in the birth of feminism.

  3. You can’t put every single feminism into one box. We need to accept that feminism has different faces and to try and subsume it into one particular brand is to dangerously preach a universal feminism for all women, which has been the case so far with white feminism.

  4. Yes, I’ve been wondering about what feminism is, means, to different sectional interests and groups, given that it has been given airplay here at OL of late, and sort of wondered about the usefulness of the term if it means different things to different people and different interest groups, but appears an elusive signifier which can’t be pinned down: or if it is pinned down, problems and conflicts immediately arise which splinter feminism further. Take pre-industrial capitalism, for instance, a time of strict patriarchal rule, yet the sun / moon binary opposition, which in ancient times was a symbol of male and female equality, two opposing but interacting and mutually dependent forces of creation, were symbols which retained their ancient meanings, apparently. Didn’t change the status quo though, of course. What am I saying at bottom? Don’t know really, maybe suggesting that feminism is yet to be found, if ever, that perhaps the struggle is everything, and that “broad church” doesn’t cover it for me, as it was John Howard’s favourite descriptor of the Liberal Party.

      • Really? No sporting, social group, union, political party etc. that I have ever been party to has ever been united under the pursuit of one goal. The teleological descriptor is the spin at work, and the leader who preaches the spin has already made up the envelope, while minions busily bash down heads which keep popping up beyond the parameters of the supposed united front. Cynical, I know, but that’s politics for you.

        • Having made that last point, I can appreciate the desire for unity and direction within feminist ranks, and can sort of remember, perhaps, when feminism was united in its opposition to what was called male chauvinism, before splintering into such groups as lesbian separatists and SCUM (society for cutting up men) etc. From the division within feminist ranks evidenced in the comments thread here, it would seem that there are a lot of SCUOWs disrupting your broad church push (societies for cutting up other women). The acronym, fittingly enough, being unpronounceable.

  5. Ah, yes. Those pesky women of colour demanding their non-white experiences be acknowledged. Ruining feminism!

    I wasn’t aware that while we women of colour are busy organizing against police brutality, racial profiling, imprisonment of our refugee brothers and sisters, lower wages, constant attacks on racial discrimination laws, we also had to provide solutions for white feminism problems.

    Thanks for letting us know.

    • “Ah, yes. Those pesky women of colour demanding their non-white experiences be acknowledged. Ruining feminism!”

      On what basis do you think Stephanie argues that? The only paragraph that addresses intersectionality says:

      “Even intersectionality – a theory developed at the height of the identity politics movement to deal with the multidimensional nature of oppression, and in particular, the confluence of race and gender – suffers from the same affliction. ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,’ is its rallying cry. One way of understanding this call is to interpret it as a reflection on politics past: that any political movement which doesn’t incorporate an understanding of how differences of the body (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.) translate to different experiences of inequality in the world will be subject to the very same shortcomings and blind spots as its predecessors. If intersectionality is a tool for evaluating my own subject-positioning, it can certainly be useful. But it too folds all too neatly into that ideal market construct of the self: the individualist political entity with individual experiences and individual objectives. No solidarity here. And if it is a comprehensive political theory, I find more holes than I do answers. How does intersectional feminism help us respond to, for example, the relentless war profiteering that is driving invasion after invasion in the Middle East? The privatisation of the public service at home? The systemic incarceration of Indigenous women? Our own government allowing unfettered access to the personal data of the entire country to anyone with a civil service salary? What alternatives does it offer? If we can’t answer questions like that, our theory is inadequate.”

      Why does merely posing questions about the limitations of intersectionality as a framework entail a white feminism?

    • LOL I know right. I want these anti-intersectional whingers to simply understand that intersectionality is about community. Intersectionality is also fundamental for e.g. when issues of sexual and intimate partner violence come up so that a white, middle class woman perspective is decentred and women of colour are not left out in the cold when it comes to housing, rape crisis centres etc.

      A feminist and disability rights activist made a great point online yesterday that the idea of paying men less wages as an equal pay solution as suggested by Professional Feminist, Valenti is bullshit because white, disabled men earn 22c out of the dollar which white, able-bodied cis men are paid.

      Campaigns need to be based on intersectionality. It’s not women of colour’s fault or any other marginalised person’s fault who has an intersectional approach if these so-called materialists are too obtuse to understand what intersectionality is.

  6. LOL, I don’t know how she got from Julie Bishop to women of colour…including riffing off Flavia’s words.

    Women of colour – the materialist’s bourgeois problem.

  7. I’m getting a bit of stick for this (which is fine) so I’m not sure whether attempting to clarify will help or hinder, but maybe it will be worth an attempt regardless.

    IMO intersectionality theory is not the only way to work an anti-racist, queer-aware etc. dimension/recognition into the framework of your political practice. It is just that – a theory – and I don’t believe you need to be an intersectional feminist to be an effective anti-racist and anti-sexist activist. Perhaps you do believe this, in which case that’s a political disagreement we won’t solve here.

    As a materialist theoretical underpinning for a) explaining how oppression works and b) providing a concrete way forward, though, I find intersectionality theory problematic and unstable, and when put into practice I also find it regularly co-opted by the same forces that feminism gets co-opted by, eg. the market, individualism, self-promotion. I certainly don’t see it rooted to a materialist/revolutionary analysis in these contexts, but perhaps we move in different circles.

    This is not the same as thinking it did not and does not make an important contribution to feminist thought, nor does it invalidate excellent feminist work that gets done by intersectional feminists. It does make a unified project very hard, though. Surely that’s a hurdle worth addressing.

  8. Thanks Steph for your provocation. Reading the article and the comments, I have a couple of questions. Isn’t intersectionality precisely the mechanism by which we can understand the complexities of the relationships between oppressions, class, race, sex, and so on, to reach a clearer notion of what feminism might be as a liberating idea? My understanding – from reading Audre Lorde and bell hooks and others, the first feminists who in fact really spoke to me at a crisis-ridden juncture of my life – is that these feminisms are indeed revolutionary politics, in the wider senses of the words. If these feminisms are distorted in some mass market versions, that doesn’t mean that intersectionality itself is the problem.

    I’m a bit troubled by the easy conflation of personal experience, identity politics and individualism. The fact that they are often portrayed as the same doesn’t mean that they are. One of the truly revolutionary aspects of feminism is, in fact, how it insists on the relationship between personal experience and wider politics. The personal, that area of life routinely assigned to the feminine, routinely derided as trivial when compared to the significance of the public sphere, can be the site of critical political energies. The dismissal of this massive area of human experience as irrelevant, even hostile, to any collective or structural understanding of social forces can create huge blind spots, and worse, negate the potencies that feminisms have to offer. I think it explains the entrenched and surprising sexism that still exists in much of the Left. Many inspiring thinkers fold their personal and individual experiences into their wider understandings: often it’s the furnace of their politics. I’m not sure a lot of what is called identity politics really is identity politics, if by that you mean a politics entirely focused on identity, and I suspect it’s often used as a label to delegitimise uncomfortable discussion about race, sex and even sometimes class. Which might be where some of the protests here are coming from.

    • “a label to delegitimise uncomfortable discussion about race, sex and even sometimes class.”

      I was going to comment on this piece but I feel your response is exactly what I wanted to express.

  9. The point to me made is, I feel, that capital has demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate, an ability to fold in subversive discourses and narratives into its own logic system. To, in a sense, use anti-patriarchy, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist energy as the resource that allows its own ongoing expansionist dynamic to perpetuate. This is, I would suggest, a playing out of colonial expansionism within the cultural realm. So, a truly radical emancipatory politics must necessarily militantly engage in actions that work to dismantle capital itself. Feminism, I suppose, must also be anti-capitalist, otherwise it will never meet the goals championed by intersectionality.

  10. “Isms, in my opinion, are not good.
    A person should not believe in an ism, he (she) should believe in himself (herself).
    I quote John Lennon, — I don’t believe in ‘Beatles’, I just believe in me. —
    Good point there.
    After all, he was the Walrus. (pretty sure he was a boy walrus)
    I could be the Walrus, I’d still have to bum rides off of people.”
    — FERRIS BEULLER

  11. Getting rid of ‘isms’ and ‘ists’ risks having no general frameworks or defined positions for explaining and understanding life.

    Some history: until the early seventies we mainly called ourselves women’s liberationists. Like ‘communism’ and ‘crippled’ this became a dirty word, especially for bourgeois/reformist women seeking suffrage and equal pay like reforms, so anti-capitalist radicals, like me, and lesbians et al. all hung unto calling ourselves women’s liberationists right through the 1970s (as Gough rewarded the feminists and spurned the women’s liberationists). This got us free from all the tangles explicated in this discussion. Being WL meant radical, anti-system, anarchist, socialist — in short, all the good things in life.

    For many years it was easy. I said ‘I would be dead rather than call myself a feminist — I’m a women’s liberationist.’ And everyone who had any idea about political movements knew what I meant.

    Then a whole generation of women, who had no understanding of what any of this might mean, grew into the discourse so that gradually I referred to myself ambiguously as a feminist or woman’s liberationist — depending on how much time I had to explain terms and histories…

    the point is I don’t think we women will get anywhere in terms of liberation unless we have an anti-capitalist revolution. I don’t think us socialists will get anywhere unless we liberate males and females from the reproduction of gender through male/female roles re children. We’ve hardly gotten anywhere in this crucial area.

    Essentially capitalism as a system was predisposed us to take on board reforms so women could work. Indeed the irony is that whereas in the 50s most families — which were generally a bit larger than nowadays — had one breadwinner and now they have two. I don’t think being able to work like a man is a great expression of liberation. And women’s liberationists kept making those points but the media didn’t pick up on them often. When they did it was to split and to divide women and make us as a movement look stupid.

    From my perspective equal wages aren’t key strategically but I was interested to read The Age article on the weekend — http://www.theage.com.au/national/rich-man-poor-woman-the-gender-wealth-gap-widens-20141108-11igay.html — which shows we’ve slipped back to where we were 20 years ago.

    Happy to be a women’s liberationist and keep fighting — ‘until the last chains fall …’

  12. At last a writer–Anitra Nelson–explains succinctly the history of the 1960s to 1970s women’s liberation movement from which’feminism’ emerged.
    There seem to me to be innumerable ‘feminisms’ today, but, as far as I’m aware, there was only one twentieth-century women’s liberation movement, and at root there still is one, even if it’s subdued today.

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