Provisional Notes on Feminism

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we give name to the nameless so it can be thought.
—Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury”

As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics.
—Combahee River Collective

For me to assume that you will not hear me represents not only history, perhaps, but old patterns of relating, sometimes protective and sometimes dysfunctional, which we, as women shaping our future, are in the process of shattering and passing beyond, I hope.
—Audre Lorde, “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”

Writing this from within this penis-bearing, beard-sprouting body feels wrong. A thousand voices are screaming at me to stay in my lane. The history of people like me offering prescriptions to women is long, violent, and ongoing, whether that “like me” refers to African men, black queer men, queer men, or simply men.

Globally, assaults against women are intensifying. Women’s demands to be recognized as full humans—very separate demands from being recognized as equal to men—are being dismissed as unimportant. The demand that women should be recognized as equal to men prioritizes men as the standard—outside the practical claim that women should earn the same as men for the same labor, this demand for equality with men makes little sense for a feminism intent not merely on surviving in the world, but in changing that world.

Hard-won victories are being snatched away and the founding documents of second wave feminism are now as urgent as they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I write this, then, with a sense of urgency created by our current moment, an urgency that compels me to take seriously bell hooks’s claim that feminism is for everyone, but with a deep awareness of how men like me so often attempt to discipline women in the name of feminism.

The Occassion
Three moments occasion this writing. The first is Kenyan, deeply personal, and very wounding. It is a story of ethical failures, patriarchal institutional power, and the risks women take when they dare to tell the truth. The story is not mine to tell, but it fertilizes the ground from which I speak.

Because I cannot tell this story, I turn to stories from related elsewheres: the U.S. and the digital world. I learned about this proxy work from reading James Weldon Johnson, who taught me that imaginative work can create a passage through which to engage difficult pasts and presents without demanding that wounds be reopened. Reading him taught me there are ways to manage difficult, necessary conversations that tell the truth without demanding damaging personal confessions.

I am delaying listing the two proxy occasions—neither one of which is fictional—because, honestly, I’m not looking for a fight.

“Resignation is a feminist issue”
On May 30, 2016, Sara Ahmed announced that she had resigned from her faculty position at Goldsmiths. While she offered very few details about this decision, she noted that the “costs of doing this work have been too high,” referring to her ongoing work on and against sexual harassment. I am no stranger to quit lit; sometimes walking away is the only way to survive. I wish that Ahmed finds the space and time and resources she needs to heal and thrive.

When I read Ahmed’s short blog post, I was arrested by the line, “Resignation is a feminist issue.” It made me uneasy and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Work is a feminist issue.

The work I know best in feminist studies has detailed how women’s domestic work has been undervalued; examined wage gaps between men and women, and the place of race in widening this gap; addressed how patriarchal systems steal women’s labor (the gap between the number of women who work in agriculture in Kenya, for instance, and the number of women who own land); analyzed how moral policing refuses to protect women’s labor (in struggles for sex worker decriminalization and protection, for instance); and demonstrated how hostile work places affect women economically, psychically, and physically.

The little I understand about Ahmed’s resignation comes from these frameworks: women often face hostile work environments that exact economic, psychic, and physical tolls. Some women are forced to leave, though under varying economic circumstances and with a range of economic consequences–for many, leaving plunges them into debt and poverty. Many more women are compelled to stay for a range of economic reasons.

What nagged me about “Resignation is a feminist issue”?

It was a line of reasoning that seemed to read: “I am a feminist. I have resigned. Resignation is a feminist issue.” I write this with the caveat that, often, when one announces such decisions, one needs time to process them and to find the right words, the right sentences, the right paragraphs, or the ones that will be possible. Still. I find myself disturbed by this line of reasoning.

Let me approach it through Lorde, a thinker Ahmed has spent extensive time exploring.

Alexis de Veaux’s biography of Lorde, Warrior Poet, wrestles with the question of what, following Ahmed, can be called living a feminist life. Lorde lived a very human life: she liked sex, she was frequently unfaithful to her partners, and sometimes she was abusive to them. She did not embody feminism: her actions were not feminist because she performed them. She practiced feminism: she embraced feminism as a working, a practice, something one invented in community with others, something one practiced in community with others. We-formation was central to her vision and practice of feminism. It was never an easy we-formation, but radical visions of change are never easy.

Feminist Icons
For many digital feminists, Sara Ahmed is a feminist icon. She is one of the few distinguished feminist scholars who has embraced the digital space, and has made her thinking freely available. Feminism is for everybody (pdf download),  as bell hooks argues, and Ahmed’s feminist practice includes providing free access to her thinking

The feminist icon is a strange figure. Her words and actions are hyper-scrutinized, as though every utterance and practice must incarnate feminism. It is dangerous to be anointed a feminist icon: it is always an impossible standard to meet, and many are waiting to take down the feminist icon. (I use “her” because few he-using and non-binary people are considered feminist icons, though that is changing!)

I value Sara Ahmed’s work. She teaches us to think critically and practically about what it means to practice feminism, about how to pursue living a feminist life. I think writing “Resignation is a feminist issue” was a misstep. One’s commitment to feminist practice does not automatically mark all of one’s actions as feminist.

“I’m With Her”
For me to assume that you will not hear me represents not only history, perhaps, but old patterns of relating, sometimes protective and sometimes dysfunctional, which we, as women shaping our future, are in the process of shattering and passing beyond, I hope.
—Audre Lorde, “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”

Because of U.S. imperialism, because of the aid money the U.S. gives and withholds to manage African economies, because of the weapons it sells to African countries, and because of the military bases it has across Africa, the U.S. election has assumed a weight and significance that I wished it did not have. Empire can afford to ignore the rest of the world but we cannot afford to ignore empire. The U.S. election is globally significant.

Because of patriarchy, Hillary Clinton has been subjected to intensely misogynist attacks, from Republicans and Democrats and Independents, and the entire range of the political spectrum. All the people I know who identify as feminist have recognized the misogynist nature of these attacks. Indeed, if there has been a collective feminist response to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it has been to push back against the misogyny leveled against her.

Substantive critiques have been leveled against Hillary Clinton by some feminists, many focusing on her record on anti-blackness (the infamous “superpredator” comment and the world it helped to build) and her stance on U.S. imperialism and military aggression. These substantive critiques  are grounded on well articulated feminist critiques of the patriarchal, militarized state. Yet, these critiques have been dismissed by some Clinton supporters as irrelevant: the symbolic value of having a woman president trumps Hillary Clinton’s record and her policy positions on U.S. imperialism and military aggression.

I will not link to one particularly tone deaf position that said, “We are the U.S.—we can’t do nothing.”

One way to manage fissures within feminism has been to argue that there are many feminisms: white feminism, black feminism, African feminism, liberal feminism, lesbian feminism, socialist feminism, woman of color feminism, twitter feminism, tumblr feminism, and academic feminism, for instance.

You get your feminism
You get your feminism
You get your feminism
Everyone gets an individualized feminism.

What, then, is the ethical demand that a we-formation called feminism can stage?

Learning from Sara Ahmed, I would like to think about shapes. One way to approach feminism is to imagine the socio-political (here, you can add the economic, the historical, the religious, and whatever else—I use socio-political as a shorthand) as a circle: at the center is patriarchy and women are at the margins. In one model, the practice of feminism is to de-center patriarchy by moving women from the margins to the center. Equality would mean sitting at the same table as men. The structure of the circle remains intact. (I would distinguish this model of moving women to the center from centering women’s voices and concerns–the logic of the circle cannot be sustained when women’s concerns are centered.)

However, other logics come into play: the structure of the circle can only remain intact so long as there’s a margin made up of the dispossessed. As this has played out across multiple places around the world, a group of elite women, have made it to the center. But this movement to the center has done little, if anything, to advance feminist causes (to address violence against women; to address the wage gap; to provide women with safe healthcare; to decriminalize sex work; to address women’s exclusion from leadership roles in religious institutions).

While the model of the margin and the center is useful for explaining existing power structures, I think the practice of politics often associated with it, one based on gaining equality with men, keeps the racialized, working class, and poor dispossessed at the margin.

I have been thinking about intersectionality—and the intersection—as another type of feminist shape. In an ideal world, no one lives at an intersection. Here I’m thinking in a very ordinary way about how roads are constructed and how traffic flows. One might be delayed or obstructed a, but the logic of the intersection is perpetual motion. It is to manage different trajectories that meet occasionally. Unlike in the center-margin model, the goal is never to get to and stay at the intersection. The intersection can be a place of shared resources, a place of gathering energy, a place of poetry. Here, variegated feminists (black, lesbian, twitter) assume those adjectives as the grounds from which they approach and engage the intersection, not as positions splintered from an originary fiction of feminism. To tell the narrative of this kind of feminism requires re-thinking the standard narrative that once there was a white feminism that splintered as it encountered difference. That narrative is damaging.

Still using this model of the intersection, intersectionality is not a fixed position where identities accumulate, but a feminist practice based on a we-formation attentive to geo-history. The opening lines to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s foundational essay on intersectionality get at what I’m trying to articulate:

Over the last two decades, women have organized against the almost routine violence that shapes their lives. Drawing from the strength of shared experience [at the intersection created by shared experience] women have recognized that the political demands of millions speak more powerfully than the pleas of a few isolated voices.

Crenshaw discusses intersectionality as what Hortense Spillers describes as a “locus of confounded identities,” and my rather clumsy metaphor of the intersection risks missing how feminists get there, how long they can afford to stay there, and how long they can afford not to stay there (if you stay with roads—some walk, some bike, some drive, some hitchhike, some crawl, some use crutches, some use wheelchairs, some require assistance to move, some are agoraphobic and cannot make it there).

Yet, it’s worth asking how to think of intersectionality as a feminist practice. Following Lorde, learning how to listen is key.

We find ourselves having to repeat and relearn the same old lessons over and over that our mothers did because we do not pass on what we have learned, or because we are unable to listen. For instance, how many times has this all been said before?—Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”

Difference means many things, chief among them is learning how to listen. Listening is the intersection from which ethical demands can be made. If we all arrive to feminism from different grounds, as we must, we arrive as those who are willing to listen. A we is only possible through listening at the intersection.

Arriving at the intersection is always risky. In the difficult feminist practice of learning how to share space provisionally—remember the intersection is not a location one can ever inhabit, simply a point of contact and passage from which encounters produce ethical demands—a we-formation emerges, energies are amassed, trajectories directed. It might be that one’s passage from one space to another is shifted by an encounter at the intersection. One might direct energies toward a cause that had not previously entered one’s orbit. You might work toward a specific project, organize toward a specific goal, and then, having learned to listen and to work toward something previously outside your orbit, you find your orbit shifting. You open yourself to the risk of shifting directions, of re-mapping trajectories, of following risky paths.

“I’m with her” is an inadequate and damaging response to the ethical feminist demand that one listen. It generates geography as velvet rope and misunderstands the difficult feminist practice of difference. I have wondered about a practice that names itself as feminist and supports U.S. imperialism and militarization. Where the proliferating menu of feminisms suggests that one can choose to do one’s own thing, the model of feminist practice I learn from Lorde insists on the difficult work of we-formation, the difficult work of difference. Feminist practice is collective practice. It must be if it is to create radical change.

I offer the final words to the Combahee River Collective:

In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving “correct” political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice.

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