Hi from Arnhem Land. I’ve been having lots of heated conversations recently about gender politics (amongst other controversial topics such as climate change, fiscal management and religion) lately. Probably, because being this remote leads to conversations churning for hours and hours and hours for want of something to do of a night time. These are just some thoughts I’ve been mulling over recently, especially in light of the explosion of discussion over intersectionality that I’ve seen on the web.
Question One: Is feminism irrelevant?
Short answer I think is “no”. Longer answer is “no, but nuance people”.
People who understand the basic concept of privilege understand that some of us by virtue of our sex, the colour of our skin, our sexuality, our socio-economic background, our size or our ability (amongst other things) have an easier lot than others. And, most of the time we don’t realize it.
You’ve all heard of the invisibility of whiteness, no doubt. As a white person, in a position of both dominance and majority in Australia, I don’t notice white people – I notice non-white people. This is privilege. I don’t walk down the street every day contemplating how people are going to respond to my visible markers of being from Africa or India or the Philippines… I get to blend in with the rest of the pasty crowd that makes up the majority of Sydney’s inner west.
People who understand intersectionality understand that most of us are not simply privileged or oppressed but somewhere in-between.
I’m white, so I’m privileged.
I’m a woman, so I’m not.
I’m educated, so I am.
I come from a wealthy background, so I am.
I’m straight, so I am.
SO – feminism that forgets about intersectionality; feminism like the (incredibly useful at the time) feminism that tore through Australia’s streets after the war and gave white women a voice, shorter hem-lines, the vote and contraception is not the feminism I want to be a part of today (but I’m thankful to its legacy that I benefit from every day).
Feminism that recognises that male privilege exists but so does a whole range of other privileges and not all women have an equal voice, or common demands – that’s a nuanced feminism that is incredibly relevant and incredibly useful. It uses the concept of “allies” to grow a movement of people that are fighting for equality.
I’m white and I’m straight. I cannot claim to know or have lived the experience of a black, queer woman. However, I can be her ally in her quest for equality. But I am not her. I think this is one of the most important lessons we can learn from the way in which oppressed people have been treated by dominant cultures in the past.
Question Two: But aren’t you more worried about global poverty than male expectations of your (lack of) body hair? Or at least the plight of women in countries where they still can’t vote, drive etc.
Yes, I am. But I find this to be a rather weak argument.
Essentially, this is not an argument over the legitimacy of feminism; it’s an argument over priorities. It says – “You should be more concerned with the fact that 70% of the world’s poor are women than the fact your boss tries to touch your arse at work.”
Sure – though mid-fondle, blinding white rage tends to obscure one’s broader world view.
The problem with this argument is that it is akin to saying “We shouldn’t invest any money in our public education system here in Australia because in some countries kids don’t get educated at all”.
Or, more dangerously still “Because women are allowed to drive in Australia, it is an injustice that they can’t drive elsewhere”.
MAYBE. But I’m not one of those women, from those cultures, and those life histories. I don’t know their stories and I certainly can’t tell them.
And this is where privilege is useful. I’m not a cultural relativist, but I am wary of the damage well-intentioned, mostly wealthy white folk have reaped by trying to create same-ness where there is difference. Just because I have one thing, doesn’t necessarily mean you want it, and vice versa.
This argument brings up two problems. One is logic (education example) – most of the time we are more strategically placed and more able to make change within our own contexts and communities. I am more able to fight for equal pay for women here in Australia than I would be fighting for female emancipation in the Middle East. There is nothing wrong with prioritising battles where we are best placed to win them. There is nothing wrong with prioritising one’s own bodily integrity when it comes under threat.
The second problem is one of privilege. If our feminism is intersectional, it respects implicitly that the stories of the women and male allies within the movement are diverse. It respects that our goals may be different. It respects that there cannot be one voice that says it talks for all women. Otherwise we repeat and compound the cycles of oppression (which is what has given feminism a bad rap anyway within the movement).
Question three (which isn’t really a question): Biology means that men and women have different roles and functions in life.
Biology. Anatomy. Fundamental difference. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus etc. etc.
I tend to have a bit of a knee-jerk “you’ve got to be joking” to this one – primarily because it has been used, and continues to be used, by rape sympathisers (he couldn’t control himself, men are made with different sexual urges to women – How offensive to all the non-raping men I know!), it has been used and continues to be used to justify why men can do some jobs and women can’t, it has been used and continues to be used to justify unequal divisions of child-caring and domestic labour.
Thankfully, the anatomical myth that only “boys” and “girls” exist has also well and truly been demolished. Alice Dreger gives a great TED talk on what she calls “atypical sex”. She summates: “as we get farther and farther with our science, we get more and more into a discomforted zone where we have to acknowledge that the simplistic categories [of sex and race] we’ve had are probably overly simplistic.”
There are reams of literature, research and science to support the fact that whilst our sex may be determined by biology (though we now know it’s not as simple as male and female binary); our gender (and the expectations that surround it) most likely is not. Our gender, and the way we perform it, is largely governed by the context in which we find ourselves. Find a gender studies student or read some Judith Butler for discussion on gender performance.
The point is that we’ve seen the destruction biological determinism can cause in the context of race, and I’m not sure it does not cause similar issues when it comes to gender. The biggest issue is when biology is used as a justification to extrapolate from XX or XY or XXX or XYY or any of the other “syndromes” (read: that’s the way the medical discourse construes a-typical chromosomal makeup) some sort of ability.
I’m not exactly sure whether there’s an overarching conclusion to these thoughts, except that I think critical engagement with structures of powers is important and understanding where you are located within those structures is pivotal to engaging respectfully with others. We benefit differently and unequally from structures in our society, and it is only by recognising first that those structures exist that we can avoid repeating the errors of the past, and bring diversity into our movements for change.