Feminism & the Practice of Exclusion

I’ve been thinking about feminism and exclusion a lot recently.  Over the last 10 years, I’ve taken part in running two feminist groups and have been tangentially involved with several others.  In most cases these groups were made up of predominantly white, middle-class, university-educated, and non-disabled young women.  There were very few women with children involved and older feminists who did communicate with us were often wary about working with younger feminists.  When we talked about these issues within the group, people would say things like, “But we’re really trying!” “What can we do if [insert group] don’t want to come to our events? We’re open to everyone,” and “Well, we have had one or two [insert members of group] coming to events sometimes, so we’re getting somewhere.”

Of course this says something about me and the kind of groups I tend to get involved with, but I think it’s still worth talking about because the experience made me aware of subtle structural ways in which exclusion is practiced.  At no point did we put up posters saying “Mothers not welcome!” or “No disabled feminists!” because these exclusions were implicit in the way we did things.  Without our being aware of actively doing anything to cause the problems, we created a situation in which the experiences of a particular group of women were being centred and, as a consequence, the groups were most accessible to these women.

When your group is predominantly made up people from fairly similar backgrounds, it is very easy for assumptions about women and feminism to be perpetuated and accepted as facts, rather than the culturally specific positions they actually represent.   I think this is part of the reason why our discussion nights sometimes felt more like therapy than consciousness raising.  When you’re in a group and most people there are saying thing like “Yes, yes, I had that experience too” an illusion of homogeneity can be created and it’s easy to start imagining that these experiences are those of women in general, rather than of a specific group of women.

When we asked what kind of things people wanted to talk about, the majority tended to request topics that most impacted or angered them.  This is perfectly understandable, but because most people came from similar backgrounds, they tended to be interested in similar issues and this sense of agreement affirmed assumptions about which issues are the most important ones for feminism.  Hence, our discussions were heavily weighted in favour of the media, porn, lads’ mags, anything to do with sex, beauty and body image issues etc.  Hardly anyone wanted to talk about work, for example, because they didn’t perceive themselves as having much of a problem in this respect, most being either quite high-powered, or expecting to be high-powered in the near future.

Take motherhood as another example.  It’s much easier for women without children to attend meetings, especially meetings in the evenings, than it is for women with children.  This meant that hardly any women with children got involved, which allowed the group to make all kinds of assumptions about feminism and motherhood because there were no mothers present to challenge them.   It also contributed to the illusion of homogeneity – “Wow! We all have the same experience!”   One woman with a child asked if we could hold a few meetings on weekends which would make it much easier for her, and any other women with children on the mailing list, to attend.  But the majority who did not have children did not want to make concessions to the few who did, and so they continued to be effectively excluded.  Because there were no mothers present to challenge what was being said, not having children even started to be touted by some members as a feminist act in itself, setting up a pro-childfree undercurrent which would have made it even more uncomfortable for women with children if they had been able to attend.

I’ve also noticed that a lot of feminist events involve travel or weekends away. In the UK they are concentrated in London. Getting to them requires money, time and a lack of other commitments, which again makes them accessible mainly to a certain group of people, e.g, younger women, students and those with more disposal income.  I remember a meeting once, at which a busy older woman had to patiently explain why it was not possible for her to drop everything and travel to the latest Ladyfest that weekend.

Hardly any women of colour came to our meetings, a phenomenon which was generally regarded as “them” not wanting to come, rather than a consequence of our group being racist.  No one really stopped to ask “Why on earth would women of colour want to come to this group?”  There was also little understanding that women of colour groups have good reason to be wary of white feminists when they come calling.  I have been involved in two feminist organisations in which people suddenly became interested in working with women of colour when it became necessary to show “diversity” on funding applications.  The people concerned were quite offended when they got no response, as if women of colour groups are not aware that white feminists are prone to this kind of thing.

Because most of the members were university-educated, often to postgraduate level, the group soon became rather elitist.  Again, this was not the fault of any one individual, or even a conscious thing, it was down to an inability to see just how specific our experiences were.  It wasn’t even simply a case of simply being university-educated because the subject areas people had studied also tended to be pretty specific.  The group was heavily weighted in favour of the arts, humanities, social sciences and media studies — no doubt because these are subjects in which feminist theory tends to get taught as par for the course.  This doesn’t mean that women from other subject areas or (gasp!) women who did not go to university are not feminists or that they can’t grasp the concepts being discussed, but I can imagine why they might be wary of entering a feminist group of this kind for fear of being judged.

It’s important to remember that elitism is practiced at the level of language. I was at a feminist event in the winter at which a large proportion of people attending had degrees in the humanities.  They were happily talking about “post-feminism” and “third wave” feminism as if these terms are in general use.  After the conversation had gone on for some time, an older woman put up her hand and asked, “But what on earth is post-feminism? I have no idea what you’re talking about”.  Another woman had never heard of third-wave feminism.  These were both women who considered themselves feminists, but had little contact with academia or investment in the internet or academia.  Neither was prepared to accept the notion of “waves” which everyone else seemed to be taking for granted.  Twice I’ve had women tell me at the end of meetings that they didn’t know what was going on half the time because no one stopped to explain the language they were using.  Theoretical terms are just tools and need to be clearly explained, or they can become exclusive (to paraphrase Albert Einstein, if you can’t explain it clearly you don’t understand it yourself!).  These tools should help people understand what’s going on, not become ways of keeping the knowledge limited to one group.

 We didn’t have many disabled women coming to meetings either.  In fact, it wasn’t until a disabled woman got more involved that we realised our meeting venue wasn’t even accessible.  I still wonder to myself how we could have missed such an obvious issue and have to concede it just comes down to sheer ableist privilege.  And it wasn’t just us: when we went to FEM 08 conference, the party afterwards was at a venue some distance from the university, so we had to call a taxi to get there. My friend was using her crutches that day, but if she’d been using her chair we probably would have had to go home because the venue was small with narrow doorways and the way to the disabled toilet was blocked.  After the party, we couldn’t get a taxi because it was late on a Saturday night and no transport was laid on, so my friend had to walk back to our accommodation with the knowledge that she would be in extreme pain the next day.

Also disturbing is the way in which women who challenge the illusion of homogeneity are positioned as “difficult.”  I noticed this in our group when working-class feminists did attend and expressed views which challenged the middle-class comfort zone.  There was a definite feeling that they were making “trouble”, being awkward or “aggressive”, refusing to see “sense,” “sense” being nothing more than the views of the majority of people in the room at that moment.

The sort of exclusions unconsciously practiced in small grassroots groups can have far larger implications. In a sense, they lead logically to a national event like FEM 08 at which a specific kind of feminism was centred, presented as FEMINISM and people who might challenge it were actively excluded as “troublemakers.”   This was what made it possible for Julie Bindel to respond to the one person who asked what she would say to people who disagreed with her with “Tell them to piss off and stop silencing the rest of us.”  I know I harp on about it, but it really bothered me because that one comment seemed to sum up so much that is wrong with feminism at the moment.  Of course there was no “us” and I’m sure plenty of women in the room disagreed with what was being said, but the way it was set up created an illusion of “us” – we’re all feminists and this is what we think because we’re feminists, so anyone who disagrees with “us” is not only not a feminist but is actively attacking “us”. Now, if you’re a feminist writer who regularly gets published in major news outlets and are speaking at a national conference, no one is silencing you – seriously!  But the situation allowed the comment to be made and even get a bit of a clap. If anyone was being silenced at that event it was the people who didn’t dare express dissent, or who were not allowed in.

Anyway, those are my hopefully self-reflexive thoughts on how we can practice feminist exclusions.

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13 thoughts on “Feminism & the Practice of Exclusion

  1. Hi Anji
    Yes, I get the impression these are all pretty common occurrences.
    There were quite a few horror stories I didn’t include in this post because it was getting too long!
    I think one problem is our tendency, as organisers of groups and events, to deceive ourselves with the idea that our group/event is open to everyone when, if you look closely at the situation, it patently it not. In most cases, one kind of feminist experience is being privileged at the expense of others. We were guilty of this at MtG and the problem is that it leads to a fundamentally dishonest situation.
    Whenever we do activism or put on events we need to sit down first and have an honest discussion about who’s experiences are being centred and why and who is being de-centred and why. Then we need to try and work out how to change the way we’re doing things so that no one feels marginalised, or we need to be upfront and honest about being exclusive and take the consequences.
    But this is the subject for another post really.

  2. It’s really getting to the point where feminism no longer means what it used to. Although to be honest, there were always people like Margaret Sanger, and even relatively right-on people like Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan have had their moments of racism or homophobia. It’s starting to feel like feminism has more often than not been the point where a small group of privileged women notice that people are fighting for their rights, and decide that it’s important. Really, what right do we have to co-opt the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, or even the Southall Black Sisters? Are we really helping these groups by blogging about them, or are we just basking in their glow? It’s like we have to award something the ‘this is feminism!’ badge of honour before we can recognise it as important. Calling ourselves ‘feminist’ is already establishing a distinction between ourselves and other women. So is it surprising that our groups end up being elitist? Why establish that distance?
    And why hold onto that idea of ‘feminism’ when it’s perfectly possible to be more effective by just working with women? A couple of people left the group to concentrate on careers as doctors – they’re doing far more to directly help women than the rest of us who stay behind and talk about what it means to be feminist. Having worked with people who actually nuke people’s breast tumours for a living, they’re helping women a lot more than the people who complain about the pink ribbon campaign being pink. Feminism has been thoroughly co-opted, and the energy we expend trying to get it back could be spent on better things.
    Also, I think that if you’re a feminist, in a way, it’s not in your interest to ‘abolish patriarchy’ or whatever it is we think we’re doing, because once ‘patriarchy’ goes, feminists all disappear. If you’ve invested so much into being a feminist and running feminist groups, you’re probably not going to want that to happen.
    You mention the sense of everyone agreeing and having common goals, and a lot of women being excluded because they upset that balance – and I think the existence of feminism actually depends on that illusion of consensus, and a lot of people have a lot invested in it, and almost depend on it emotionally. What happens to Julie Bindel if there’s no more need for feminism? She vanishes. It’s not like she has anything else, she’s not an especially radical feminist, she’s not a talented woman, she’s not a good writer and she doesn’t have any other skills that other people couldn’t do better. She’d be reduced to writing about that woman on Blue Peter. Not that she’d exactly be out of a job, but all that ‘wow, she says all the things we’re afraid to, she’s so brave!’ stuff would vanish, she certainly wouldn’t have the power to subdue a couple of hundred eager young women, which must be quite a power trip – her and Germaine Greer.
    If you look at it that way, feminism has become just another way for middle-class people to thrive on oppression (and far from the only one). So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when feminist groups are exclusive.

  3. Gosh, I think the answers to all those questions might require a book-length comment! But I will have a think and try and respond to some of them.

  4. Well, and then there’s patriarchy. Supposing we want to ‘smash’ it:
    -why would we group all the various complex problems that women are faced with under one vague term? There’s no way that’s remotely useful in terms of discussing the structural oppression faced by women. Surely, there are as many problems and as many solutions to them as there are women. At least it’s an oversimplification
    -surely it looks suspiciously like an attempt to not look directly at all the problems women face, and creating a pretty elaborate conspiracy theory to avoid them, particularly in the cases when patriarchy seems almost incarnate, or is described as a kind of political regime.
    Assuming, like I did, that it’s not in our interest to ‘smash patriarchy’, because we’d lose our identity, well, that opens a whole other can of worms, and would go a lot of the way towards explaining some of the behaviour we saw in the group, both in terms of people running for their lives after the first meeting, and people staying behind and bitching about everything but avoiding doing anything, and excluding those who would shatter the illusion. We were all ‘wow, it’s so great to be talking to like-minded people about feminism’, but there were some pretty gigantic elephants in the room, and ‘patriarchy’ is obviously what we use to conceal them.
    In a way, you could almost say that feminism as we experienced it in those discussions bears the same relation to women’s struggles as pornography does to sex. No wonder we’re all supposed to be banning porn, then.

  5. Calling ourselves ‘feminist’ is already establishing a distinction between ourselves and other women. So is it surprising that our groups end up being elitist? Why establish that distance?
    I think most (or at least a lot of) women who call themselves ‘feminists’ define their reasons for doing so in positive rather than negative terms. They would say they call themselves feminists because they positively want to work for women’s rights, or something along those lines, not because they want (at least consciously) to distance themselves from other women. And lots of women do exactly that. I know women for whom calling themselves ‘feminist’ has led logically to working for Women’s Aid, in rape crisis centres, for refugee groups, in medicine, all kinds of things. One of the doctors you mentioned in your comment is totally committed to feminism and that’s part of the reason she wants to be psychiatrist. She wants to use her perspective to try and change the way the mental health system disadvantages women. If you said to her that calling herself a feminist distanced her from other women, I think she’d just be confused because she sees it has encouraging her to work for other women. Obviously, you don’t have to be a feminist to do any of these things, but for some women it is an important motivation in their lives and I think that’s valid.
    However, I do agree that there is a serious problem in the way people use feminist terms to distance themselves from other (implicitly less enlightened) women because there is a strong undercurrent of this in feminism and it needs to be thoroughly challenged. And it’s not just in differentiating yourself from all those non-feminist women, we know that it goes on all the time within feminism. I’ve met women who call themselves ‘radical feminists’ meaning that they focus on structural oppression and want to fundamentally change the sex/gender system (which is fine by me), but I’ve also met women who call themselves ‘radical feminist’ meaning basically that they think they are better feminists than everyone else, say more scary things and get to vet who they work with. I’m also concerned about the way the term ‘third wave feminism’ is being used in some quarters to suggest a kind of enlightenment discourse – We know better than those silly old second wavers! We’ve sorted out their mistakes now! Yeah, like hell you have!
    I think some of the most impressive self-identified feminists I’ve met are the ones who don’t make a big song and dance about being a feminist and see using the term as a motivation to just get on with the work that needs to be done. I was very impressed by the women I met from the Older Feminist Network. While I’m sure I would disagree with some of their politics, they definitely understood feminism in pretty simple terms as meaning working for women and some of them had dedicated their entire lives to that end.

  6. Well, and then there’s patriarchy. Supposing we want to ‘smash’ it
    Heidi Hartmann defines patriarchy as “a set of social relations between men, which have a material base, and which, though hierarchical, establish or create interdependence and solidarity among men that enable them to dominate women.” So by that definition dismantling patriarchy would be about changing social relations.
    I try to be careful how I use the term, though, as I’m not sure it’s always helpful, particularly when it becomes “THE Patriarchy” – some kind of scary monolith/monster thing out to get women, or alternatively, some annoying man in your life.
    I actually much prefer Gayle Rubin’s ‘sex/gender’ system because that can be much more specific to different women’s oppression. While we can assume that there is a sex/gender system in place everywhere, it won’t necessarily be the same everywhere and it might be totally different. The sex/gender system in the UK is not the same as in Japan. This term also presumes that change can take place. There is no reason to assume a sex/gender system won’t change, while smashing patriarchy sounds like an almost impossible task.

  7. I think most (or at least a lot of) women who call themselves ‘feminists’ define their reasons for doing so in positive rather than negative terms. They would say they call themselves feminists because they positively want to work for women’s rights, or something along those lines, not because they want (at least consciously) to distance themselves from other women. And lots of women do exactly that. I know women for whom calling themselves ‘feminist’ has led logically to working for Women’s Aid, in rape crisis centres, for refugee groups, in medicine, all kinds of things.
    Yes, and I think that’s perfectly valid. I don’t think the decision to distance ourselves from other women is conscious, I think it would be highly illogical for anyone to go ‘how can I distance myself from other women? I know! I’ll be a feminist!’. I think it’s more the process of deciding you’re a feminist and deciding what to do about it that’s flawed. ‘I’m feminist so I’ll become a doctor and try to have a positive effect on the health system’, that’s fine (although arguably you could give the ‘feminist’ part of that any name and it would be the same thing). Deciding you’re a feminist and putting on the feminist hat and showing it off to everyone, on the other hand, is a different matter. Although arguably, even calling yourself ‘pro-women’ or saying you want to ‘help women’ kind of linguistically sets you apart from the ‘women’ category, which is what I’m arguing calling yourself a feminist does, which leads to what you said here:
    However, I do agree that there is a serious problem in the way people use feminist terms to distance themselves from other (implicitly less enlightened) women because there is a strong undercurrent of this in feminism and it needs to be thoroughly challenged.
    I guess rejecting the ‘feminist’ category is one way of challenging that, as is positioning feminism in its cultural and historical context. Too often it’s taken as this kind of universal thing, that everyone who has ever stood up for women’s rights should be called a feminist. But it’s a lot more specific than that. I think we need to see that, for various reasons, it makes sense for some of us to call ourselves feminists, mainly for cultural and for personal reasons, and to be quite specific about the reasons for that, and not just see it as ‘because we’re right goddammit!’. Then there was that T-shirt I posted on my old blog, if you remember, that defined a feminist as ‘a compassionate, beautiful, powerful woman’, implication being that feminists can walk on water in order to heal dying swans, which is getting ridiculous, not to mention incredibly over-defensive. And then there’s the whole subculture aspect which makes me want to just run a million miles in the other direction.
    I’m also concerned about the way the term ‘third wave feminism’ is being used in some quarters to suggest a kind of enlightenment discourse – We know better than those silly old second wavers! We’ve sorted out their mistakes now! Yeah, like hell you have!
    Yeah, right, I think we’re about due for the fifth wave now.
    Heidi Hartmann defines patriarchy as “a set of social relations between men, which have a material base, and which, though hierarchical, establish or create interdependence and solidarity among men that enable them to dominate women.” So by that definition dismantling patriarchy would be about changing social relations.
    Yeah, I don’t have a problem with that at all, as part of a larger agenda.
    There is no reason to assume a sex/gender system won’t change, while smashing patriarchy sounds like an almost impossible task.
    Exactly, and my theory is that it’s deliberately impossible, precisely because there are all these things we could be changing that are quite specific, whereas ‘smashing patriarchy’ is almost completely nonsensical, or at least very vague. It doesn’t mean anything, which leads me to suspect that a lot of this noise is conducive to upholding the status quo rather than changing it, and there’s something quite deliberate about this. I think our experience with the group kind of upholds that, in that the people who were interested in making positive changes ended up either leaving, or some of us sectioned ourselves off into an action group.
    Also, all this ‘I’m trying I’m trying nnnnggggggnngnngnn!’ noise around including what we see as ‘minority groups’ (in fact, everyone who isn’t white, middle-class, etc.). And recently Brownfemipower posted this quote from Andrea Smith about how (I paraphrase from memory)big feminist organisations end up paying WOC to shout at them. And the whole concept of being an ‘ally’ – I didn’t touch the Carnival of Allies with a barge pole, in the end, because I think we like to keep WOC and other carefully chosen groups shouting at us to make us feel like we’re trying. Add that to the fairly disturbing faintly sado-masochistic reaction I’ve encountered myself when calling people out on their racism or classism, and I think a lot of it is about cultivating a nice comfy rut rather than effecting social change.
    How often have you seen blogs with some news story about women’s labour rights (or lack thereof) with three comments saying ‘oh my god, that’s so awful, too bad we can’t do anything’, followed by a post about baby lipstick for the extremely rich where everyone’s ‘oh damn that Patriarchy! Let’s all go smash him!’
    Actually, that seems almost like we really love those backlash stereotypes – I mean, we draw enough attention to them. This way of thinking just leads to less action on things that matter, and more sitting around carrying out symbolic castrations of that bastard Patriarchy. I mean, a lot of feminist events, I know loads of work goes into them, but they certainly come across that way to the outside world. And then when you get to the implication that you have to be smarter than average to be feminist, we’re getting into the same territory as a lot of Louis Theroux’s documentary subjects.
    Also, the scope of feminism goes from socialist feminism to euro-centric faintly fascist cultfem stuff, which makes it seem a little depoliticised.

  8. Also,
    no one likes being de-centred and from their perspective they rightfully pissed.
    lovely typo! Brought on quite an unprofessional workplace giggle when I finally noticed it.

  9. But it’s a lot more specific than that. I think we need to see that, for various reasons, it makes sense for some of us to call ourselves feminists, mainly for cultural and for personal reasons, and to be quite specific about the reasons for that, and not just see it as ‘because we’re right goddammit!’.
    Well yes. There is way too much “We’re feminists because we’re clever” stuff going around these days.
    I don’t think it is essential to hold onto the word ‘feminism’ in order to continue the work. Evidently, millions of women around the world work for other women without calling themselves ‘feminists.’ But language takes a long time to change and people hang onto generally accepted terms for the purposes of communication, so I think it’ll be quite a while before ‘feminism’ falls out of use. It probably won’t change unless the majority of people interested in stopping gendered oppression decide that the term is no longer useful, move onto something else and the rest gradually follow suit. People will probably still need some kind of shared terminology though, partly because we like to have terms to rally under – even if they are always inadequate and to some extent illusory. I do prefer the old term ‘women’s liberation’ because I feel it more accurately describes my politics and I suppose I could use it instead of ‘feminist,’ but just in terms of practical communication, it has been rendered archaic and people would probably think I was an oddball for using it.
    Then there was that T-shirt I posted on my old blog, if you remember, that defined a feminist as ‘a compassionate, beautiful, powerful woman’, implication being that feminists can walk on water in order to heal dying swans, which is getting ridiculous, not to mention incredibly over-defensive.
    That is both hysterical and disturbing.

  10. Also, all this ‘I’m trying I’m trying nnnnggggggnngnngnn!’ noise around including what we see as ‘minority groups’ (in fact, everyone who isn’t white, middle-class, etc.).
    We often do seem to expect special treatment for saying that we’re “tryingnnnnggggggnngnngnn,” which doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing anything.

  11. Speaking of which, I hope no one has been injured by the giant tumbleweed released by my last message to the group.

  12. I don’t think it is essential to hold onto the word ‘feminism’ in order to continue the work. Evidently, millions of women around the world work for other women without calling themselves ‘feminists.’ But language takes a long time to change and people hang onto generally accepted terms for the purposes of communication, so I think it’ll be quite a while before ‘feminism’ falls out of use. It probably won’t change unless the majority of people interested in stopping gendered oppression decide that the term is no longer useful, move onto something else and the rest gradually follow suit. People will probably still need some kind of shared terminology though, partly because we like to have terms to rally under – even if they are always inadequate and to some extent illusory. I do prefer the old term ‘women’s liberation’ because I feel it more accurately describes my politics and I suppose I could use it instead of ‘feminist,’ but just in terms of practical communication, it has been rendered archaic and people would probably think I was an oddball for using it.
    Well, yeah, I’m also slightly concerned that by making a big noise about how we shouldn’t use it I’m giving it just as much importance as people who insist that it’s incredibly important to use it, if not more so. After all, a cute little bonsai with flowers is nice, so that’s important, but a giant tumbleweed that is going to kill and crush us all, that’s a matter of life and death.
    Speaking of giant tumbleweeds, I wouldn’t worry about injuring anyone, I think everyone ran away when they saw the word ‘disability’.

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