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.