This post is based off a discussion I led this week on ‘Decolonising Feminism’.
When we think of feminism we tend to think of the suffragettes and suffragists asking for the vote and political rights in late 1890s and 1900s Britain. We then follow that up with the 1960s ‘sexual revolution’ which saw issues to do with sexuality, sex and bodies come to the fore and more women remain in the workforce after marriage. And then people talk of 3rd or 4th wave feminism which presumably we’re in now and which has seen ‘intersectionality’ gain ground – a theory which recognises that patriarchy doesn’t operate on its own but with other oppressive forces like white supremacy and capitalism.
This is the trajectory we know and its one we deeply need to reconsider. This trajectory implies that there was no notion of women’s liberation or struggle prior to white British/Western women fighting for it. The notion of ‘waves’ also flattens out and oversimplifies the tensions and multiple voices that have always been asking for justice. Yet this oversimplified and whitewashed narrative is the one we know because it is the one that is propagated in the mainstream. And this is no coincidence. It hasn’t just sprung out of nowhere. This narrative is a direct product of colonialism.
It was part of the project of colonialism – that is the domination of countries predominantly in the global south by those in western Europe – to legitimise violent invasion and restructuring of societies and economies as benevolent and necessary, and this was done primarily through suggesting that the people in those countries did not know how to rule themselves. A big part of this suggestion was the idea that non-Western men were inherently (and variously) brutal patriarchs and irrational sex-driven savages. Consequently, it made sense that only Europe could bring non-Western women liberation.
This narrative obviously hasn’t shifted much since we still consider the idea of gender equality to be a Western one and we still represent foreign interventions and neo-colonial projects as attempts to ‘liberate’ non-white women – and increasingly LGBTQIA+ people.
The central issue with this feminism then is that it is ideologically built on the premise of oppression. Any liberation ideology based in oppression is going to be flawed. The significant flaw of such feminism is that it does not recognise that women are not a universal category. By that I mean that there is not only a binary power difference between men and women, but amongst women too. Women do not universally face the same experiences and that is the central idea which intersectionality aims to address.
It has to be addressed because there has been an assumption of women’s sameness based in the universalisation of a certain kind of woman: a white, middle-class, heterosexual, cis, able-bodied woman. This is clear when you think about the goals we normally associate with feminism: equal pay, more representation in the media and on corporate boards, and political rights for example. These economic and political goals are by no means unimportant but what ‘black feminists’ in the 1960s began to critique for example was the fact that these goals reflected the prioritisation of the issues of a certain kind of woman who feminism was working for.
The privileges of those most dominant in feminist spaces blinded them to those without the same privileges (as privilege often does) and thus essential components of many women’s experiences and oppressions were ignored – racism, transphobia, capitalist oppression etc etc.
A really good example of how this hindered feminist work is to consider what ‘equality’ has meant in feminism. We talk about men and women being generally (economically and politically) ‘equal’ to men now in the West. A lot of this has to do with the fact women are less defined by the marriage relationship and can easily be economically and politically independent of a man and enter the public sphere with few barriers. Working women are the norm now. However, this movement of women into the public sphere has not nearly been matched by men entering the ‘domestic sphere’. Whilst women have taken up the ‘labour’ formerly seen as ‘men’s work’; domestic labour, mothering and reproductive labour have remained as ‘women’s work’. Clearly, equality has been very much framed as ‘getting what men have’ (what very economically privileged white Western straight cis able-bodied men have). And so when we think of equality in this sense we ignore that the privileges and positions of such men rely on the historic oppression and labour of other people.
There is no better example of this than to look at the way that the mismatch of women entering the public sphere without men entering the domestic sphere has created demand for a ‘third person’ in many middle-class households in the West. Generally, a poorer working-class and usually migrant woman of colour will be employed to do the ‘female labour’ of childminding, cooking and cleaning that the other woman’s entry into the public sphere thus depends on. Evidently, privileged women ‘getting what privileged men have’ has been predicated on the labour of poorer women often from former colonies. For these women there has been no move to the ‘public sphere’ because the ‘equality’ searched for by mainstream ‘white feminism’ failed to deal with the reasons behind women’s inequality and instead focused on superficial gains. For example, considering why the labour women traditionally do and did is not valued as labour and thus economically valued at all might have been a better start-point than leaving that assumption unquestioned and just striving for access to the sorts of labour men traditionally did. Striving for the economic and political power held by privileged men with no regards for the oppressive structures that power is predicated upon is senseless.
It is also worth noting that the view of power considered in ‘mainstream’ feminism is one which suggests a ‘single’ balance with men on one side and women on the other. However, we have to reconsider that too in light of the fact that just as not all women are the same, neither are all men. For example a black man and a white woman occupy different positions of power in regards to each other at the same time. The man has patriarchal power over the woman but the white woman has the advantage of her race privileging her. If we considered this further it becomes obvious that saying singularly that ‘men oppress women’ ignores certain other dynamics at play. Such rhetoric has for example led to situations where executive boards are celebrated for their gender diversity and yet every single member of the board is white… Failing to acknowledge that race and other identities impact people’s lives and relations to others is what causes these sorts of superficial successes.
We must reconceive of feminism then.
Part of reconceiving is to decentre the ‘woman’ who has been the subject of feminism for so long: Western, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis, middle-class. I’m not just calling for some people to do this, I’m calling for people who fit that description to also decentre themselves. When we all do this we get to reconsider what ‘equality’ for women is when not all women are equal to one another. This conundrum of inequality leads to the fact that perhaps equality isn’t what we should strive for but justice – and justice comes only through liberation from unjust oppressive structures which are interlinked. However when we think of ‘liberation’ that too comes with caveats. Who gets to define liberation and must it always look one way? In reconceiving of feminism our goal cannot be undefined or universal ideas of liberation but multiple specific and contextual goals which cross boundaries and understand that women’s number one priorities are not always the same. Sometimes it will be access to jobs and sometimes it will be safety from war. Sometimes it will be homelessness and sometimes it will be escaping home. It can feel confusing at times to us because we universalise what it means to be a woman or what patriarchy is, but we therefore need to reopen the question and ask it before answering.
We could call this decolonising feminism too because notions of ‘equality’ and ‘liberation’ are often colonially informed. Colonial power was about marginalising and subordinating others not only physically but through ideas and narratives which legitimised this domination and made it ‘commensensical’. Consequently we need to think about how we ‘know’ non-white and non-Western people and anyone ‘unlike’ ‘us’ and how we can therefore know what their liberation looks like. We need to think about whether we know them at all or whether we only know of them through representations and descriptions channeled through others and thus filled with assumptions that have histories.
Secondly, colonial power was capitalist and patriarchal and violent so when we consider patriarchy we need to consider capitalist violence too. Too often we forget about capitalism when we think about patriarchy because as I said before – privilege blinds us – but that severely undermines feminism’s scope and ignores the neo-colonial global force that is capitalism and that is one of the most violent arms of patriarchy right now. If we consider groups of ‘indigenous’ women involved in grassroots movements against capitalist projects across the world right now, they’re fighting against their displacement and endangerment, and the destruction of land. Such movements are completely ignored by feminists in the West and would not even be deemed feminism yet if we consider it, the liberation and safety and security of these women is bound up with this movement and thus it is their number one priority and struggle. Using specific case studies to highlight the intricacies of power globally helps to reveal such things then and also our complicity in them.
The same needs to be said of other intersections and I should make clear that my suggestion is not that we all get involved in everyone’s struggles but that we recognise and value and support them however they may require us to. Unity is less relevant than solidarity and allyship since unity just means flattening and ignoring the inequalities amongst women whilst allyship means thinking of active ways in which to use privilege to amplify and platform the struggles and aims of others.
Finally, in reconceiving or decolonising feminism we must also reconsider gender itself. Having outlined how not all women are the same automatically destabilises the category ‘woman’ because it tells us that being a woman doesn’t mean one universal or knowable thing. This is the same with being a man because to occupy a gendered category has and always has had different meanings depending on location and time. For example to be ‘a man’ as a working-class man in Victorian London meant something different to being ‘a man’ as a middle-class man in 1980s Leeds, for example. The traits and characteristics and roles associated with being a man or a woman have never been fixed or stable and thus what it means to be a gender depends on so many other factors and identities.
With this being the case then the certainties we can have about ‘being’ a gender and a gender binary or ideas about sexuality become unstable. I believe such destabilisation is a good thing. It makes us question why things are the way they are rather than taking things for granted. For feminism to question even the basis of such issues does bear relevance and helps us to be more critical when we think about what liberation is.
But finally, on top of thinking and considering our feminisms and goals we must act. Feminism must be a practice of decentering ourselves and not just an idea. It must involve engagement and listening to others who define their own agendas. It must involve considering our own moments of liberation and asking whether in this we are not just oppressing someone else and thus perpetuating an oppressive cycle. We must retire from a feminism which suggests that even if some women are harmed by it it is good enough. We must ask what such feminism is really asking us to be complicit in. We must consider how other movements are directly a part of feminism and not just ‘additional extras’ – such as anti-racism, anti-capitalism and decolniality. Through doing this we can begin to do more than just ‘getting what (some) men have’; we can begin to imagine what freedom might taste like.