This post was originally published in The RSA journal (Issue 1, 2018) with the title “A critical moment for Feminism”. It argues that to truly challenge the status quo, the MeToo movement should encourage a historical and critical lens to hot button feminist issues such as inclusivity, globalisation and gender identity. Image via the RSA’s Medium pages.
If feminism were an element of nature it would be a mountain. It became prominent on the political and ideological landscape by cracking through the crust of patriarchal thought like an erupting volcano, and, although it differs in form from region to region, feminism exists on all continents. It has peaks, such as the fight for women’s suffrage, the invention of the birth control pill, and women’s armed revolutions in Africa during the continent’s independence struggles.
Contemporary feminism reached its current peak on 21 January 2017, one day after the inauguration of US president Donald Trump. Millions of women and men around the world joined the Women’s March to protest not only Trump’s election, but with the aim of dismantling all systems of oppression. When I returned from marching that day, I posted a social media update saying, “When women start marching like we did today, from Washington to London to all around the globe, you know the rules of the game have changed.”
This is turning out to be true. Not only was 2017 the year of marches, it was also the year that the Merriam-Webster dictionary made ‘feminism’ its Word of the Year, and that TIME magazine gave its Person of the Year award to whistleblowers who exposed sexual harassment. Above all, it was the year a grassroots campaign initiated by an African-American activist, Tarana Burke, went viral under the hashtag MeToo, culminating in nothing short of a feminist awakening.
The point here is not to rerun the incidents that led to MeToo, but to think through what this movement means for where feminism ought to go next. What are the challenges it faces today? What opportunities does the reinvigorated interest in feminism provide? In short, now that the word ‘feminist’ is mainstream, how do we go about truly integrating it into society? To respond to these questions, one must first understand that the mainstream will not automatically become feminist because feminism is mainstream. The second thing to understand is that feminism, a centuries long women’s intellectual tradition, has gained momentum in a time that is markedly anti-intellectual. News and debate have become entertainment and drama with the ultimate aim of evoking strong emotional reactions to meet commercial ends. In times with too little room for reflection and consideration, the big challenge modern feminists face is to take a step back, evaluate the zeitgeist and ask necessary questions. In other words, the challenge for progressive feminism is to encourage critical reflection.
The prevailing popularity of feminism lends an unprecedented political, cultural and economic will to disenfranchising patriarchal systems that disadvantage women. In order to galvanise these inclinations, feminists must ask questions such as: what do they want to have achieved one year from now? What changes do they want policymakers to implement? Depending on location, feminists ought to use the zeitgeist as an impetus to demand that policymakers implement key feminist demands, such as gender-equal education, increase maternity and paternity leave, provide cheaper childcare, reform agriculture, promote environmental sustainability, invest in conflict resolution, and end human trafficking, sexual objectification and violence against women.
There are undeniably unique opportunities to seize the moment, all of which require critical reflection. Through critical reflection, it becomes clear that feminist history has a huge amount to teach about how we got to where we are and how we might move forward. For instance, MeToo, although timely, is better understood when embedded in the compendium of knowledge on sexual assault that feminists have produced over a long period of time. I am thinking, for example, of Catharine MacKinnon, who already in 1979 argued that sexual harassment should be made illegal, seven years before the UK Court of Session would acknowledge that sexual harassment can be a form of sex discrimination. Or French feminist Julia Kristeva’s notion of jouissance, which involves women positioning themselves as subjects in the sexual sphere, as is increasingly happening. Hardly anyone is making these important associations, so a lot of energy is being spent reinventing square wheels.
For decades, feminists have attempted to discover, expose and destroy the dominant ideas and practices that enable ‘rape culture’, a term second wave feminists coined to describe the normalisation of sexual violence and objectification of women in society. Feminists like bell hooks and Michele Wallace have analysed masculinity, power and violence in depth; for example, in books such as The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (hooks) and Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (Wallace). Anita Hill, whose 1981 allegations against then Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas raised awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace, has been writing and lecturing on the topic for decades. Sarah Grimke had already written in her 1837 letters on equality that black women were “employed by the planter, or his friends, to administer their sensual desires”. In other words, feminists have hundreds of years of analysis about how to tackle sexual violence and harassment. The fleeting and fast-paced nature of social media does not easily allow for depth and critical thinking, but without this kind of historical context, MeToo risks becoming an ephemeral event, which is a likely risk when a movement’s pinnacle is a hashtag.
If historical contextualisation is the first opportunity that critical reflections of modern feminism present, the second opportunity is the chance to become truly inclusive. There is no denying that feminism is more diverse than ever before, with a growing discourse considering how race, ethnicity and sexuality affects women. But by inclusive, I do not simply mean ‘intersectional’; that is, I do not simply mean that feminism needs to be cognisant of the multiple oppressions a woman may face by way of her gender, class, race, sexual orientation or gender identity. Rather, the real opportunity is for feminism to become not only intersectional but also — and this truly is unprecedented — globally relevant without losing its dissenting voice. In the past, when feminism has become widespread, it has lost some of its subversive temper, but MeToo has re-radicalised even those feminists who were becoming comfortable with the status quo in all parts of the world, from the UK to China, Nigeria, Egypt and Brazil.
That said, if MeToo brings women together on a global scale, the anti-globalisation public sentiment that is largely to thank for Donald Trump’s election, Brexit and the rise of ultra-right parties in Europe, threatens to push women apart. However warranted the criticism of neoliberal globalisation may be, feminists need to tread carefully onto an isolationist, jingoistic territory. When we look at feminism from both a historical and inclusive perspective, it becomes clear that borders have never offered women enough protection. By contrast, some of the greatest feminist victories have been achieved when women transcended borders to organise transnationally. These kinds of collaborations laid the foundations for organisations such as The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 1915; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a crucial political instrument for feminist change that is effectively an international bill of rights for women and was adopted by the UN in 1979; and the Join me on the Bridge event in 2010, which saw women from Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda congregate on the bridge connecting their countries, showing they could build hope following war.
Moreover, without a global view, Eurocentric biases in feminism result in a failure to learn from female victories in other regions. The majority of top leaders in politics are non-Western, for example, and the two majority-female parliaments that exist are outside of the west: in Rwanda and Bolivia. In fact, it is unlikely that there would be a Women’s March and a consequent MeToo in the first place, as the march was inspired by a Latin American women’s movement, Ni Una Menos.
Elite western women’s domination of feminist discourse has led to the pathologisation of other women through a false universalism such as, the endless analogies between women and people of African descent that suggest the latter are different somehow, or the failure to include capitalist critiques in feminist analyses. There are important exceptions such as Kate Raworth’s 2017 book Doughnut Economics or Christine Delphy’s Separate and Dominate, both of which view their subject matter through a global lens, but by and large there are numerous blind spots.
One last key feminist area missing thoughtful reflection is gender identity, specifically the divide between trans women and so called ‘TERFs’ (trans exclusionary radical feminists). The present discussion about gender identity is simplistic, with one side reluctant to acknowledge the problematic but nevertheless undeniable role that biological difference has in shaping womanhood, and the other equally intransigent about the fact that connecting womanhood primarily with the reproductive organs alone is elemental. Propelled by a culture of sensationalism, the divide has resulted in a disturbing surge of transphobia as well as unacceptable abuse of feminists accused of being TERFs. Yet, when viewed in a historical context, it becomes clear that the divide is neither new nor insoluble. The debates go back at least as far as critiques of biological determinism — the idea that physiological differences between women and men determine their social roles. They can be seen in classic books such as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) and Nigerian feminist Oyeronke Oyewumi’s The Invention of Women (1997), which could be contrasted to Canadian-American radical feminist Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970) or Catherine Achelonu’s Motherism, books which at least in part are biologically determinist. Arguably, they go even further back to Enlightenment-era feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who saw womanhood as a social construct, compared with cultural feminists in the 1800s, such as Margaret Fuller, who thought women to be innately different. The point is that modern feminists are not the first to quarrel over a ‘gynocentric’ woman-centred approach. On the one hand, feminists have argued through recent history that women are biologically different to men and that their differences should make the basis of a progressive feminist politics, and, on the other that womanhood is a social construct and that malleable gender roles should therefore make the basis of a progressive feminist politics.
Neither school of thought is entirely right or wrong; female physiology does shape women’s experiences to a significant extent, but it is also possible to be a woman without being biologically female. Trans women are women, if with experiences that are unique to them. Furthermore, some of the crucial feminist voices in history are trans women. Take for example, Lucy Hicks Anderson, who fought for marriage equality in the US in the 1940s or Raewyn Connell, one of the leading feminist theorists of our times.
I started by saying that if feminism were an element of nature it would be a mountain. Here is a sobering fact about the world’s highest mountain: Everest is also the world’s highest graveyard. Of the more than 4,000 climbers who have reached the 8,800m summit since the first ascent in 1953, many of the nearly 300 who did not make it home perished in the area above 8,000m called the Death Zone. Many of them died while descending Everest — often after having reached the summit — merely because of a loss of coordination, confusion and a lack of judgement caused by extreme fatigue.
Descending the feminist peak after the initial surge of awareness and action that came with MeToo, feminists are now faced with the task of making sure change happens throughout society. If current discussions are not treated mindfully, there is a risk of entering a metaphorical Death Zone, characterised by confusion, a loss of coordination, and a lack of judgement. The only way to progress is with a clear view of the situation. Disagreement and disappointment is an inevitable part of this journey downward, but to quote the late rapper Tupac Shakur, “Out of anger comes controversy, out of controversy comes conversation, out of conversation comes action.” If feminists encourage critical reflection they will turn anger and controversy into conversation, and conversation into action.