Feminism without women

The title of this blog post is a reference to Tania Modleski’s 1991 book [1] which has a pointed retort to the postmodernist turn in feminism and its impact on solidarity and political mobilising. The retort had a more specific aim; in 1988, Denise Riley had published Am I That Name? [2], a sort of feminist embrace of postmodernism as a way of exposing the fiction that is ‘women’ as a stable category of analysis.

Riley uses Sojourner Truth’s speech ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ to propose a new refrain, ‘Ain’t I a fluctuating identity?’ as to remind us that:

We can’t bracket off either Woman, whose capital letter has long alerted us to her dangers, or the more modest lower case ‘woman’, while leaving unexamined the ordinary, innocent sounding ‘women’. […] ‘women’ is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories which themselves change; ‘women’ is a volatile collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned, so that the apparent continuity of the subject of ‘women’ isn’t to be relied on.

Modleski finds this type of ‘feminism without women’ quite simply alarming because doing away with label of ‘woman’ for oneself is a strategy available only to privileged feminists whose lives are relatively unconstrained by their womanhood. More troubling is the very use of Sojourner Truth’s personhood and question and respond to it in the negative, for the sake of anti-essentialist feminism.

Sojourner Truth’s refrain ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ has, in her time, two answers. Yes; because as a woman under slavery, her woman-identified female body is exploited for the purpose of breeding. No; because as a black woman under slavery, hers is a womanhood negated in an ideology in which ‘woman’ archetypically means a respectable white woman. Rather than have the privilege to ‘fluctuate’ between identities, the sexist racism of slavery overdetermines Sojourner Truth and women like her. So what makes a white feminist’s anti-essentialist feminism different from a slaver’s construction of black women? Modleski does not mince her words:

Given the doubleness of response required by the question as it is posed by a black woman and an ex-slave, it seems to me politically irresponsible for (white) feminism to refuse to grant to Sojourner Truth the status of a woman, for it would then be in complicity with the racist patriarchal system Sojourner Truth was protesting and that has denied, and in important ways continues to deny, this status to the black female (in this respect, excluding women from a contested category on the grounds that there is no category may well be the latest ruse of white middle-class feminism).

We can see versions of Riley’s ‘feminism without women’ in the current calls for the abolition of gender currently percolating British feminist spaces. In other instances of this crisis of ‘women’, (cis)-gender is the target; it hurts, constrains, and does not reflect ‘me’. Honestly, I don’t know how not recognising or eliminating gender can make the world better for women.

Gender is not just something you can identify in and of yourself, but is a taxonomic and biopolitical strategy to organise society. For the poststructurally-inclined, gender is not something ‘out there’ but is an unfinished process of becoming. To abolish gender, you’re going to need to overturn personal naming convention, but also normative sartorial codes, and other things we not only take for granted but may also be innocuous in themselves or are a source of reaffirmation for those marginalised from the trappings of privilege.

More recently, we see another manifestation of feminism without women. In contrast to postmodern pontificating, it now seems that feminism can proceed without actual women altogether. Worthy of a place in The Onion, the Icelandic minister for Foreign Affairs has announced to the United Nations that he has a rather good idea of hosting a major conference on feminism, gender equality, and sexual violence, but for men only. The ‘barbershop’ conference is meant to bring men and boys ‘to the table on gender equality in a positive way’, says the enlightened minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson.

Emma Watson’s HeForShe and the problematic implications of such a campaign (one of which is the White Knight approach to men’s ‘feminism’) can be attributed to the mainstreaming of men’s Very Important role in combating sexism and misogyny. So Very Important are they that not only are men expected at the frontline with women, but they may dispose of women altogether if they wished and get kudos for it.

We currently live in strange times, a time when people are prone to ponder whether a female celeb is a feminist or whether or not make-up or a cupcake is feminist. Many men would love to call themselves feminist and enlist themselves as feminist warriors (‘At last, real equality!’). But if being a feminist accrues the prestige of being modern, progressive, liberal, and generally decent, who would not want to be one?

Men can be involved in feminism, but as auxiliaries rather than its arbiters, legitimising feminism because it ‘needs’ men. Victoria Smith aka Glosswitch who is also suspicious of this ‘feminism without women’ part deux that HeForShe risks becoming perfectly captures my squeamishness about men’s uncritical enthusiasm to be feminists too:

I don’t want my sons to be feminists when they grow up. I want them to be men who have the courage and humanity to challenge masculinity, right here, right now. If women need a movement to say “I’m human”, they don’t need men jumping on board to say “yay, I’m human, too”. We know that already and men know it, too.

Reference

[1] Modleski, Tania (1991) Feminism Without Women, London: Routledge, pp.20-22

[2] Riley, Denise (1988) Am I That Name? London: MacMillan: pp. 1-2

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