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A workshop on ‘Challenging Linked Systems of Power’ was a welcome addition to the Feminism in London Conference 2013, which in the past has been criticised for an over-emphasis on pornography and the sex industry as the sole cause of women’s oppression. The workshop aimed to address the ways in which patriarchy, racism and capitalism intersect, shape and prop each other up. Participants were asked to think about strategies for building a feminist movement which could challenge all these systems of oppression. Over 160 people attended this workshop which, with tickets priced at £25 each, suggests a considerable degree of interest in feminism today.
The idea of ‘intersectional’ feminism (as it is most commonly called) is not new. The term was first coined in the 1970s by Black feminists in the United States, for whom the need to fight against racism and class oppression as well as sexism was not something simply to be argued at an abstract level, but an absolute necessity in their everyday struggle for emancipation. Since then, the idea of intersectionality has been largely embraced within academic feminism (despite differing critical perspectives on its usefulness as a term). Yet in Britain, the idea that feminists need to think about class and race as well as gender unfortunately remains something of a rarity and indeed a novelty within mainstream women’s activism.
This workshop was extremely well-organised with lots of time for the ‘audience’ to discuss these ideas amongst ourselves. The four speakers (Cynthia Cockburn, Pragna Patel, Jenny Nelson and Ece Kocabicak) opened with a very useful overview of women’s oppression in Britain and the world today, which they argued has to be understood within the wider contexts of austerity, the dismantling of the welfare state, right-wing religious fundamentalism, global capitalism and men’s patriarchal exploitation of women’s labour, rather than via a simple recourse to the idea of ‘patriarchy’. Perhaps Pragna Patel’s speech best summed it up: ‘Systems of oppression work in and through each other… we need to ask ourselves “Can we achieve freedom if other women and other men are not free?”’
We were then divided into small groups to discuss. The women who made up my group provided an interesting insight into the different kinds of people and perspectives the workshop had attracted. We consisted of 4 Norwegian Radical Feminists in their sixties; one member of Shoreditch Women’s Institute; one woman who had never thought about feminism until two years ago when she began to work in the male-dominated IT industry; someone involved in Oxford People’s Assembly; and one libertarian communist (me). In the short space of time available we discussed: objectification and pornography, sexism in trade unions, disablism in social movements, and the pros and cons of women-only organising. Other groups, reporting back on their discussions, raised issues such as the under representation of women in the media, anti-sexist education schools, male support for feminism, the Icelandic Women’s Party, whether sexism had increased in the last 30 years, and ‘creeping sexism disguised as religion’.
What struck me most about this workshop was the complete disjunct between the complex intersecting issues the speakers had initially raised, and the response from the participants. The workshop had asked us to think about the role of race and class within both women’s oppression and the feminist movement itself. The response had been to talk only about gender and women’s rights in a very one-dimensional manner. Indeed, more than one participant complained that ‘women’ often took a back-seat to attempts to address racism in both progressive movements and educational institutions.
I don’t want to dismiss what were undoubtedly probably quite varied discussions which took place in different groups, and it should be noted that we had limited time and that only 6 out of 16 groups fed back to the rest of us. However, I still think it is significant that a room full of such a large and (to some extent) diverse group of people, still found it so difficult to talk about race and class in relation to our feminism.
During the occupation of The Women’s Library in London on International Women’s Day 2013, a large banner was hung up in the window declaring ‘Our Feminism Will Be Intersectional or it Will Be Bullshit’*, quoting feminist blogger Flavia Dzodan . Since we started out as a collective, Feminist Fightback has tried to take an intersectional approach. For us, this means not just thinking about intersectionality as a kind of enhanced form of identity politics (‘some women are Black, some women are lesbians, we are all different…’). We are aware of the dangers of an ‘add diversity and stir’ approach, which can simply lead to wishing for more Black and working-class women to be involved without actually changing the kind of politics we are practicing.
This has led us, for example, to campaign for ‘reproductive justice’ rather than ‘abortion rights’. Again borrowing from Black feminist arguments of the 1970s and 80s, we think that for women to have a real ‘choice’ whether or not to have a child, she needs not only access to abortion but also free health care, contraception, housing, childcare and income support. And we need to be aware that while some women (usually white and middle-class) are pressured into reproducing, other women (usually black and/or working-class and/or disabled) have often been denied the right to have and raise children.
Putting intersectional feminism into ‘practice’ is not always easy. Campaigning organisations (especially the not-for-profit sector which so much of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 80s got channelled into) tend to favour single-issue campaigns which generate short and simple messages. The pressure on anti-cuts movements to defend what we have in the face of the government’s wrecking-ball, means we are wary of diverting limited time and energy into talking about the way women, Black, disabled and LGBT people are often disciplined and mistreated by the very institutions and welfare-services on which we disproportionately depend.
Nevertheless, it is clear to us in Feminist Fightback that we need to build a feminism which seeks to recognise difference and respond to the diverse needs of women by challenging linked systems of oppression, or we fail to achieve liberation for any of us. If we want our movement to be big enough to win then it needs to be built by many different kinds of women, not just a microscopic minority of middle-class white women in the global north. For me, intersectional feminism is not a choice but a necessity.
*This slogan, now widely taken up by sections of the English-speaking feminist movement, was first coined in an article by Flavia Dzodan on the blog TigerBeatDown.