Being a feminist for me didn’t come from reading academic theory. It also didn’t come from a hatred of men. It just came about from being a woman in this society and not understanding the way I was treated on a day to day basis; from the casual sexism of school playgrounds to being ignored in meetings as an adult, talked over, patronised and put down. It may sound simplistic, even trivial, but living in a world where women are constantly undermined and under-represented, makes those everyday ‘soft sexisms’ really hard to bear. Often too difficult to prove, often too vague to explain, often too complex to tackle, but always extremely difficult to bear.
These everyday manifestations of a male dominated society are at the thin end of a large social wedge; where the majority of low paid exploited workers are women; where women still take on the majority of care and household responsibilities; one in four women will suffer from domestic violence and one in three are raped. We are bombarded with unhealthy images, which make us hate our own bodies; made to feel guilty for controlling our reproduction; dirty for enjoying sex; and perhaps worst of all, labelled hysterical or monstrous, when we demand our rights.
Faced with this, it’s all too easy to see women as passive victims of society but in doing so we forget that throughout history women have actually been at the forefront of political struggle. We must not fall in to the trap of rendering women and women’s labour invisible. Whether it be the early trade unionists like the Match Girl Strikers of 1888, the suffragettes fighting for their right to vote, women demanding abortion provision, the Women Against Pit Closures, the Wages for Housework Campaign, the Grunwick Strikers and the more recent Gate Gourmet workers, time and time again women have heroically fought to improve their lives, often faced with the most difficult circumstances. The fight for women’s liberation is, and has always been, at the heart of the labour and anti-capitalist movements’ fight for a world in which we can all realise our true potential, living in a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few.
So what is the role now for feminists? Well for most women, it’s not enough simply to get more women into parliament (as New Labour has smugly delivered) or espouse rhetoric supporting increasing women’s representation (which even now the Tories have adopted). Questions about whether or not we should wear high heels and how ‘to have it all’ (being a successful professional, perfect mother and style icon all at the same time) fail to fully deal with the reality of most women’s lives – not least that of the cleaner or nanny employed by these middle class women to ‘free’ them from household drudgery. Admittedly, it is a victory of some kind that this type of feminism is quite prominent in the media now (from columnists to ‘pop’ politics books) – signifying that it is no longer acceptable that issues arising from gender are completely silenced.
Yet we know that the liberal feminist outraged pursuit of legal equality is woefully inadequate. Different people have different access to (and indeed, some explicitly denied) these ‘human rights’. Popularism for these feminists invariably means opportunism. More importantly, whatever value their otherwise often valid and accurate analysis has to offer, is tragically diminished by their illusions in ‘tinkering’ around the edges of society’s structures, changing laws or reforming capitalism to included women. And of course, what this in the end becomes, is to fight to include white middle class women (who indeed are still oppressed in relation to their male counter-parts) in to the system. Why can’t they be rich and powerful too?
This is not to say that engaging in these reformist campaigns is superfluous, when, in fact, they impact greatly on our lives. Only, lessons from history, have shed light on the tendency of certain ‘feminists’ to silence difference through their ‘universalising’ narrative. A story based on their own unrepresentative experience. The ones who get to speak on behalf of us all. To be ‘heard’ loudly and clearly – becoming the columnists, academics, lawyers, journalists (and so forth) – as the establishment accepts them more readily because in many ways they are from the establishment. Feminism in this light becomes alienating and excluding for anyone who can not relate, or indeed have diametrically opposing interests, to this middle class white privilege.
Of course, the conditions created by capitalism create and utilise a myriad of complicated oppressions which divide us. Oppression and exploitation are linked in a whole host of ways – there is always something of the ideological in exploitation and something material in oppression. Arguably capitalism did not just inherit systems of oppression from previous societies but that these systems have actually helped to shape its social manifestation. As a result we socially and personally negotiate complex and unique identities. There is a constant struggle between being defined and defining ourselves. It seems crucial that these processes are engaged with and that we all need to reflect – consciously, sensitively, individually and collectively – on both our own and other’s sense of self (and how we relate to each other). Diversity is a massive resource of our movement and yet it goes to waste as we often reproduce the crushing limitations that oppression inflicts on individual lives.
On the other-hand we want to resist fetishising difference by creating mysterious unknowable others. This can become very unhelpful, as it often leads to pointless competitions about who is more oppressed. Most importantly of all, we need to understand our society in order to change it. Understand what drives these oppressions; what drives everything. It is Marxism that offers us not just a ‘critique’ of the material reality but more importantly a future and a solution. A way forward beyond lifestyle individualism.
We need a type of feminism which is able to address the conditions in which the majority of women live. One that is able to take account of the multiple different oppressions people experience (from race to disability to gender to sexuality and so on) and represent our multiple identities. One that goes beyond a critique of patriarchy but has the capacity to imagine and create a fundamentally different society. It is becoming increasingly clear to many, that we need revolution not reform and only an anti-capitalist feminist movement will be able to truly deliver.
To continue with the debate, please read Is Intersectionality Just Another Form of Identity Politics? written by members of an anti-capitalist feminist collective for self defining woman called Feminist Fightback.