Must read: ‘You saw me covered in blood on a bus. But do you get outraged about all homophobia?’

If you’re on social media, I’m sure you saw the photograph of the two women who experienced a homophobic/misogynist hate crime in London being circulated last week. One of the women, Chris, has written a brilliant, deeply intersectional, piece in the Guardian, challenging the media discourse that centres white, cisgender “victims” and demanding that we care about all forms of homophobia and oppression. What a way to turn an awful experience, and an unwanted platform, into something powerful.

A refrain I’ve heard ad nauseum is “I can’t believe this happened – it’s 2019”. I disagree. This attack and the ensuing media circus are par for the course in 2019. In both my native United States and here in the United Kingdom, it always has been and still is open season on the bodies of (in no specific order) people of colour, indigenous people, transgender people, disabled people, queer people, poor people, women and migrants. I have evaded much of the violence and oppression imposed on so many others by our capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal system because of the privileges I enjoy by dint of my race, health, education, and conventional gender presentation. That has nothing to do with the merit of my character.

You saw me covered in blood on a bus. But do you get outraged about all homophobia?

Classism and Eating Disorders

Fascinating guest post from Eva Rivera at Womanist Musings on Classism and Eating Disorders challenging the idea that anorexia is the preserve of white, middle-class young women and caused by exposure to the “beauty myth”.

The practice of diagnosing and treating eating disorders leaves out those of us who don’t live in or come from upper and middle class families. Treatment is focused on rescuing white middle class women from a damaged and certainly fucked up media. I won’t deny that women are affected by mainstream and unrealistic body images but to treat and care for all of us who are at risk for eating disorders, or any mental illness, we must consider all the intersections of the individual. It makes me wonder who all slips through the cracks. How many of us go untreated for eating disorders because we don’t fit the mold of who is supposed to have this illness? Treatment wasn’t made for us, it was made to recover more valuable bodies. In the face of all this we still find ways to save ourselves and each other but at what cost and how far do we have to go before it’s too late?

I’m white and middle-class but, as a tomboyish lesbian, I’ve never felt that I fit into the mold of who is supposed to have the illness. Because I’m white and middle-class I did get access to some treatment, but the treatment wasn’t adaquate because it wasn’t geared towards the fact that my eating distress was linked to my gender identity issues and experiences of homophobia. It’s taken me years to figure out those links for myself.

I haven’t looked at research into this subject, but I tend to agree with Eva that eating disorders are associated with young, white, “high-achieving” middle-class women, not because working-class and poor women don’t have them, but because the former are more likely to be able to access treatment and to be seen as valuable bodies that are in need of treatment. They are the visible face of eating disorders.

Feminism, Religion & Belief

Some time ago I came across a post about religion on a big important feminist blog.  I can’t remember exactly which one because I didn’t hang around for long, but the blogger, an atheist, was arguing that while it might be possible for a religious woman to be feminist, she couldn’t be a “perfect feminist”.   “Great,” I thought to myself, “the majority of women on the planet excluded from feminist perfection in one fell swoop”.   I didn’t read much further, but I’ve found that this comment has stayed with me ever since.

There are two issues here.  Aside from the question of feminism and religion, the post raised the spectre of the “perfect feminist,” a monster which seems to haunt the minds of a lot of feminists, rattling her chains at them whenever they enjoy a Tarantino movie or feel an urge to wear glittery eye makeup.  If in A Room of One’s Own (1929) Virginia Woolf said that it was imperative for feminism to kill the “Angel in the House” I think it’s now just as important to drive out her younger, slightly more rebellious sister, the perfect feminist.   She has no more existence in reality than the ‘Angel in the House’ ever did, which is not to say she does not have real and pernicious effects.

But I want to talk more about religion and spirituality here.  It seems short-sighted to take up such a dismissive position when most women on the planet are probably members of faith traditions or see themselves as spiritual beings in some sense.  Dismissing religion also situates certain feminists as “enlightened” and others as “waiting to be enlightened” by the already-enlightened ones.   This attitude is unlikely to promote feminist movement.  As La Lubu wrote in an excellent post a while back:

How many times have we been in feminist classrooms and heard, “I think all religions are oppressive to women.” Or seen it on a feminist blog?

What does this statement do? It dismisses religion and feminists who have one. Feminist interpretations of all major world religions are increasing. Here’s a great website where you can find a bibliography for feminist theology and interpretations of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and then some. Why is it acceptable to dismiss the belief systems of these feminists?

I had a bit of a revelation myself last year when I invited women from my feminist group round to my house for food.  The conversation ranged over a wide area and, after a lot of wine had been consumed, turned unexpectedly to religion.  What became apparent over the next couple of hours was the vital role spirituality played in the lives of almost everyone in the room.  It turned out that we had a devout Quaker, a devout Jewess, a couple of Christians and a couple of pantheists.  What shocked me was that I’d known all of these women for over a year and we had never talked about this factor in our lives. I knew a couple of them were religious, but I didn’t understand what that meant to them and with the others I had no idea.  And none of them knew anything about my beliefs because I’d certainly never said anything on the subject.

But when we did finally talk about it in a state of wine-lubricated openness and acceptance, various pieces of the group jigsaw fell into place.  I understood why people thought the things they did about feminism because I understood where they were coming from in spiritual terms.  It explained a lot and I think it made us more understanding of each other.  The fact that no one had talked about it before showed how wary we all were of possible negative responses (not a perfect feminist after all).

I’ve some to the conclusion that if we leave out the spiritual dimension we lose a lot and it’s not good enough to nominate a few religions as “acceptable to feminists” because religion, spirituality, faith are experienced very deeply in a lot of people’s lives, often in ways that are inextricable from their politics.  I’ll quote La Lubu again:

Reducing a belief system to its male/patriarchal interpretations and dismissing a religion because of a lack of knowledge is bad enough. But dismissing religion also dismisses the spirituality of an adherent. Their connection with the universe and/or their higher power. Take away a person’s religion may take away their source of comfort. It may take away their strategy for dealing with patriarchy and traumatic events. It’s taking away a support system; who has too much support in a world that often victimizes us because of our gender, skin color, or sexuality?

I have spiritual beliefs myself which influence every aspect of the way I live my life, the way I relate to other people, the work I do and the kind of activism I engage in.  You probably wouldn’t know that because I don’t tend to talk about it on this blog,, but this does mean that something important about me is being silenced here.  You can’t fully understand where someone is coming from, unless you know their spiritual/religious/faith context and as long as there is implicit pressure on feminists to remain silent on these subjects we won’t be able to have an honest conversation.

 

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.

Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination

I’ve decided to discuss Patricia Hill Collins’s chapter ‘Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination’ from her book Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, because it gives a good explanation of intersectionality, a theory which I’m sure you’ve seen discussed on feminist blogs.

Intersectionality proposes that we should focus on the ways in which different systems of oppression interlock in peoples’ lives.   The chapter is quite dense and theoretical, but I’ll try and pick out some points which have significant implications for feminism.

Collins begins by emphasising the importance of knowledge in empowering oppressed peoples. She proposes:

Afrocentric feminist thought offers two significant contributions toward furthering our understanding of the important connections among knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. First, Black feminist thought fosters a fundamental paradigmatic shift in how we think about oppression. By embracing a paradigm of race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression, Black feminist thought reconceptualizes the social relations of domination and resistance. Second, Black feminist thought addresses ongoing epistemological debates in feminist theory and in the sociology of knowledge concerning ways of assessing “truth.” Offering subordinate groups new knowledge about their own experiences can be empowering. But revealing new ways of knowing that allow subordinate groups to define their own reality has far greater implications. [Emphasis mine]

I’ve put that sentence in bold because it’s fundamental to intersectionality as a way of thinking about oppression.  Collins argues that, with respect to thinking about oppression, black feminist thought has fostered a ‘paradigmatic shift’ (which basically means a shift in ways of thinking about things) because it ‘rejects additive approaches to oppression.’  This means that it does not start with gender and then add other factors, such as race, class, sexual orientation, disability etc. Intersectionality proposes that these distinctive systems of oppression are part of one overarching structure of domination in which all the systems are dependent on one another.  So, instead of arguing about who experiences the worst oppression, intersectionality focuses attention on how these systems of oppression interconnect in different peoples’ lives.  This approach rejects a phenomenon you may have heard called the “oppression olympics” — endless, circular arguments in which the claiming of ‘most oppressed’ status appears to be what is at stake.  Intersectionality also therefore rejects the idea of grounding feminist theory in the belief that gender oppression is the oldest and most fundamental oppression upon which all the others are based. Collins continues:

Replacing additive models of oppression with interlocking ones creates possibilities for new paradigms. The significance of seeing race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression is that such an approach fosters a paradigmatic shift of thinking inclusively about other oppressions, such as age, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity.

Ok, that’s not too difficult to acknowledge, but:

Placing African-American women and other excluded groups in the center of analysis opens up possibilities for a both/and conceptual stance, one in which all groups possess varying amounts of penalty and privilege in one historically created system. In this system, for example, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed [Emphasis mine].

This is important and much more challenging:

Although most individuals have little difficulty identifying their own victimization within some major system of oppression–whether it be by race, social class, religion, physical ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age or gender–they typically fail to see how their thoughts and actions uphold someone else’s subordination […]  In essence, each group identifies the oppression with which it feels most comfortable as being fundamental and classifies all others as being of lesser importance. Oppression is filled with such contradictions because these approaches fail to recognize that a matrix of domination contains few pure victims or oppressors. Each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression which frame everyone’s lives.

Of course it’s much easier to think of ourselves as oppressed than it is to think about the ways in which we are invested in systems of oppression. For example, as a lesbian, a woman and someone with an eating disorder, I have experienced homophobic and sexist oppression and a degree of mental health stigma.   However, I’m also white, I’m not disabled, and from a middle-class background, which means I have access to a lot of privileges and advantages that working-class, disabled people and people of colour are routinely denied.  I’m not subject to racism and I’ve had the advantages of a middle-class upbringing, one of the greatest benefits of which is probably my sense of entitlement to high quality education and a decently paid job. So, while I’m oppressed in certain ways, my identity is invested and perhaps even socially constructed, in relation to the systems which oppress people of colour, disabled people and working-class people.  I am also benefiting from those systems of oppression in various ways.  This doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person, or that my own oppression is any less serious, but it means that I need to de-center my experience of oppression and stop seeing it as the most important experience.

Johnella Butler claims that new methodologies growing from this new paradigm would be “non-hierarchical” and would “refuse primacy to either race, class, gender, or ethnicity, demanding instead a recognition of their matrix-like interaction.” Race, class, and gender may not be the most fundamental or important systems of oppression, but they have most profoundly affected African-American women. One significant dimension of Black feminist thought is its potential to reveal insights about the social relations of domination organized along other axes such as religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age. Investigating Black women’s particular experiences thus promises to reveal much about the more universal process of domination.

A theory which looks at how systems of oppression interlock differently in different peoples’ lives is also very important in helping us to understand why feminism has become so divided.  A person’s experience of the ‘matrix of domination’ will be very different depending on who they are.

If you haven’t already, I would recommend that you read Sojurner Truth’s speech Ain’t I a Woman?. Here, back in 1851, a woman of colour brilliantly deconstructs the notion of essential female experience upon which the contemporary conversation about women’s rights was based. Truth said:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Truth drew attention to the nonsense of talking about “women” as if there is a universal female experience and, perhaps more importantly, made it clear that the concept of “woman” is itself tied up with ideologies of race and class. As Collins continues:

Each individual has a unique personal biography made up of concrete experiences, values, motivations, and emotions. No two individuals occupy the same social space; thus no two biographies are identical. Human ties can be freeing and empowering, as is the case with Black women’s heterosexual love relationships or in the power of motherhood in African-American families and communities.

The same situation can look quite different depending on the consciousness one brings to interpret it.

I’ll try and give a few examples of where the lack of an intersectional approach has caused problems for feminism.  Dominant feminist discourses can be extremely disparaging of the family and organised religion, but some women may find the strength to survive and fight racism and classism in their families and churches.  There is often a very anti-child and anti-motherhood trend within white, Western feminism, which women some women very painful and impossible to relate to.  Moreover, when it comes to reproductive rights, the dominant feminist discourse often tends to focus entirely on abortion because, historically, white, middle-class women are the ones most likely to be denied abortion and they tend to be the ones with the loudest voices in mainstream feminism. But women of colour, poor women and disabled women may have different perspectives on this issue because, historically, they have been forced into abortions and sterilisations, or had their children removed by the state because they are not trusted as mothers, or because their children are not considered as desirable as the children of white, middle-class women.  They may argue for a broader reproductive justice approach that takes their experiences and histories into account.

Right now, there are women of colour in the US being told by white feminists that they should vote for Hilary Clinton because she’s a woman and it’s more important that a woman, rather than a black man, becomes President. This totally ignores black women’s experience of racism and abrogates responsibility for the role white women have played in perpetuating racism. Why should black women necessarily trust a white woman to represent their interests? If this is difficult to understand, please read this post by Karnythia at The Angry Black Woman blog.  Here’s an extract:

I’m a black woman. I’m a feminist that’s voting for Obama. I was on the verge of ceasing to call myself a feminist since it’s become quite obvious that many white feminists think I’m too stupid to notice them saying nigger under their breath after every call for sisterhood. But then it occurred to me that there’s no reason to let them be the face of the feminist movement. So if you want to vote for Hillary because her values align with yours? That’s great. But don’t you dare try to tell WOC how to vote while insinuating that they’re too stupid to think for themselves. And since I know there are young white feminists that can see the elephant in the room? Let me say that I don’t think a vote for Hillary is a vote for racism. But, I do think insisting that a black woman shouldn’t vote for a black man because he’s got a penis is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. If it’s admirable to vote for Hillary based on gender; what’s wrong with voting for Obama based on race? As for the young white women voting for Obama? Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to vote for a woman you disagree with in order to be a “true” feminist.

These are only a few examples of how lacking an interconnected approach to oppression can damage feminism. There are many, many more.

Collins emphasises the importance for oppressed groups of rejecting ‘dimensions of knowledge, whether personal, cultural or institutional, that perpetuate objectification and dehumanization.’

The overarching matrix of domination houses multiple groups, each with varying experiences with penalty and privilege that produce corresponding partial perspectives, situated knowledges, and, for clearly identifiable subordinate groups, subjugated knowledges. No one group has a clear angle of vision. No one group possesses the theory or methodology that allows it to discover the absolute “truth” or, worse yet, proclaim its theories and methodologies as the universal norm evaluating other groups’ experiences. Given that groups are unequal in power in making themselves heard, dominant groups have a vested interest in suppressing the knowledge produced by subordinate group

Sometimes feminists from more dominant groups do have vested interests in suppressing the knowledge produced by subordinate groups. And sometimes they don’t want to listen to what women who have different experiences of oppression are saying because it might challenge their thinking or force a change in their feminist priorities. It will also probably mean that they have to give up things that currently advantage them, e.g., getting more than their fair share of advantageous internships, books deals etc.

So how do we deal with all these competing truths?  Collins rejects the relativist approach of arguing that each group’s thought is equally valid.  Instead, she proposes:

Each group speaks from its own standpoint and shares its own partial, situated knowledge. But because each group perceives its own truth as partial, its knowledge is unfinished. Each group becomes better able to consider other groups’ standpoints without relinquishing the uniqueness of its own standpoint or suppressing other groups’ partial perspectives.

This means that we must all learn to see our experiences as partial, situated in specific contexts, and unfinished.

It also means that no one is always placed at the centre of the analysis or gets to speak for all women.

How do I look? Thoughts on feminism and white, middle-class femininity

Here’s another extremely long Mind the Gap post from my 2006 “working things through” phase, this one from around the time when I realised just how fierce inter-feminist arguments could get.  It was also around this time that I realised that I hadn’t taken account of issues of race and class in relation to feminism.  It’s interesting to me that I admit my feelings of hostility toward more conventionally feminine women (though I frame my hostility here as a feeling of “superiority”, hostility is what it really is) and I’d probably have more to say about that now.

The discussion about feminism and feminine beauty practices which has taken place on feminist blogs recently seems to have become particularly vindictive and counter-productive. I am not going to get into the “can you be a feminist if you engage in feminine beauty practices?” argument here, but just to clarify my position from the beginning, I generally try and stick to Carol Hanisch’s argument in her essay the Personal is Political. The early radical women’s movement took the ‘pro woman’ line that personal problems are political problems: ‘There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for collective solution.’ This means that I do not want to argue about whether individual woman should not wax their legs because I don’t see how that argument makes any difference to present conditions, and I think it serves to divide women into the good sister/bad sister roles we’re all manipulated into occupying. If we sat around at Mind the Gap meetings arguing about who’s the better feminist because she doesn’t shave her legs, we’d never get much done; hell, we probably wouldn’t even have a group, and we probably wouldn’t deserve one.

I do want to say more about this argument, but right now I want to talk about femininity, feminism and class. Recently, the Happy Feminist and Hugo Schwyzer wrote long posts in response to the femininity debates (both contain links to earlier posts on the subject). Hugo’s, in particular, drew heat from feminists who grew up working-class, angry at the white middle-class privilege underscoring the entire discussion.

Bitch Lab said,

you can see how it’s damn disappointing to hit BlogLandia to find this overweening obsessiveness on issues that matter primarily to white and middle/upper-middle class people — because they don’t have to think about making a living on the edge of poverty. they never had to think about how some women might like to “dress up” becasue for 8 hrs of their lives, they’re wearing a freakin’ uniform. …Hence, it all has to be about gender gender gender gender gender gender gender gender because and centered on that issue because lawd knows we couldn’t possibly, you know, hold more than one concern in our heads at the same time. The luxury of white and class privilege is that you can imagine that you can decide when race and class matter. A lot of other feminists can’t. And worrying about high heels and pink tool belts is so much horse hockey.

Arwen said,

I said it at Happy’s and at Feministe too: to me, the femmy issue is DEEPLY rooted in class, and what may be dis-empowering on gender (heels, for example), may in fact be portraying *economic* power, (not having to work for 10 hours doing assembly line work on one’s feet.) No one really expects their hispanic maid to show up in heels, and if she did, she’d be construed to be trying to use sexuality to advance herself through her employer. Whereas a female lawyer can show up to court in heels, and very few believe she’s trying to sleep with the judge.

My experience with feminine beauty practices has been oppressive. You can read about it here if you’re interested, but now I realise that when I wrote about my experiences, I should have paid a lot more attention to the fact that my own attitudes to feminine practices are deeply class-based. I have not been talking about “femininity,” I have been talking about the specifically white middle-class femininity that affects my life, and which often seems to be taken for granted as a universal experience for all women when white middle-class women speak on the subject. Hence the accusations of class privilege: white middle-class people are all too used to getting to speak for everyone.

When we have fights about waxing for example, are we assuming that all women can afford waxing, that waxing is expected of all women in the same way, and that waxing has the same significance for all women? The way in which women experience, or take part in feminine beauty practices, is enormously tied up with class, race, and also sexuality.

The construction of white middle-class femininity and its practices define my experience of oppression, not least because my own family has, over the last two generations, been in the process of achieving middle-class status. My father comes from a working-class family. His mother was a milliner and later a caterer, his father was a merchant seaman, and he was the first in the family to go to university. My mother’s parents were also both from working-class backgrounds and were obsessed with becoming middle-class. My maternal great grandmother drove herself crazy trying to convince everyone that she was white and middle-class (she was neither, but that’s a story for another day), and so the feminine beauty practices encouraged in my maternal grandmother and mother had a lot to do with the pursuit of a middle-class white identity and with erasing marks of race and working-classness.

Over at the Happy Feminist’s I made a guilty admission to sometimes feeling superior to women who take part in the practices of femininity and Happy noted that she too has had that feeling at times. I know this feeling is wrong headed (see the Personal is Political) but it’s almost a reflex. I’ll be striding along in my boots, see a woman in high heels and think, ‘How can she walk in those things? Doesn’t she know they might damage her legs?’ Then I’ll see a woman in heavy makeup on a bus and think, ‘Why does she waste her time and money!’ Then I mentally slap myself on the wrist for presuming myself to be in a position to judge the actions of other women. As I said above, we try and avoid such arguments at MTG meetings, but occasionally when the wearing of makeup has been mentioned, a number of women (including me) immediately pipe up: “I don’t wear makeup.” Anyone looking at the speakers could not be under any illusion that they are wearing makeup, so why make the statement at all? What effect does the statement have on women in the room who are wearing makeup? I’d hazard a guess that they feel pissed off if they interpret the claim as being about claiming feminist status thanks to their freedom from all that ‘nonsense.’ I will write more on the illusion of freedom from gender norms at some point.

What I didn’t say over at HF’s place is that I worry that my sense of superiority has been enabled by my interpretation of feminist thinking on the subject. No matter how much we claim not to be criticising what other women do when we critique feminine practices, if we’re telling them that they should analyse their behaviour, are we not putting ourselves in the position of authority, taking on the role of she who gets to tell other women what they should do/think? Where does the authority to make this demand on other women come from? Feminism? I was disturbed by HF’s post because I wondered why she felt impelled to explain herself. The comments over there are full of more women justifying their actions and talking about whether femininity can be feminist. Why, I asked myself, are they allowing themselves to be put in the position of she who must explain herself? The aim of HF’s post (correct me if I’m wrong) seems to be to discuss whether taking part in middle-class feminine practices can be compatible with feminist values. I think danger lies down this road too, the danger of setting up yet more standards of good and bad femininity, this time along middle-class feminist lines. Here are the bad practices. Don’t do these or you shouldn’t really call yourself a feminist; if you do them, you will at least have to beat youself up about it reguarly and ‘we’ think you should stop, even though we tolerate you. Here are the practices which are not too oppressive, but remember you’re still not as good a feminist as a woman who rejects feminine practices altogether. Wouldn’t “feminist femininity” just become yet another means to police the behaviour of women? Isn’t the policing of female behaviour what we really should be resisting?

I do feel that some feminist thinking enables my superiority complex (intentionally or not), but I also think that it comes from the very white middle-class femininity I like to think I’m resisting. Looking down on other women is absolutely fundamental to white middle-class femininity because it is all about feeling superior to other women. It’s about class, about exerting and expressing one’s economic power through the feminine practices in which you engage and, as such, it is very much about distinguishing oneself from feminine practices associated with women of color, working-class women and poor women.

White middle-class femininity polices the behaviour of all women, but it’s also very much about self-regulation. It presumes there are good and bad, right and wrong, ways of doing feminine. In the UK, middle-class women have words for the ‘wrong’ kind of femininity, words such as ‘common,’ ‘vulgar’ and ‘cheap,’ words which convey the economic nature of the issue. No middle-class woman wants to be accused of looking ‘cheap.’ ‘Trailer park trash’ seems to work in a similar way for people in the US. Middle-class feminine practices are all about appearing a certain way, about cultivating a good (modest, but expensive) look. Yes, you should look feminine, but you should never be ‘obvious’ about it. You are brought up to a horror of wearing ‘too much’ makeup, appearing with obviously dyed hair, in cheap clothing, or having too much of a tan and looking ‘orange.’ The items which signify middle-class femininity are extremely expensive because they are supposed to signify the economic power to buy them in the first place.

I remember being told as a teenager to apply just enough makeup to ‘enhance’ my ‘natural’ looks and no more. It is a discourse tied up with the discourse of female modesty. In the UK, the media regularly presents images of ‘bad’ women who go out and get drunk; they are called ‘ladettes’ and are filmed roaring and screaming, rolling around in the road, flashing their knickers at the camera. They are the women middle-class women are not supposed to identify with because they are doing femininity all wrong.

The argument about whether women should engage in feminine beauty practices, and the insistense that they must analyse their behaviour if they do, makes working class-women and women of color angry because it stinks of privilege, of the power and leisure time to sit at a PC (as I am doing right now) for hours on end and argue about wearing lipstick because you don’t have to throw on a uniform and rush out to a 10 hour shift at the minimum wage job you have to do to feed your kids.

I had a chat with a working-class friend the other day about these issues. I’m not saying my friend speaks for working-class women, but she did have something interesting to say to me about my attitudes. In the community where she grew up, women would save up a little money to treat themselves to the occasional trip to a beauty parlour where they could take a day off relax, spend time with female friends and relatives, and enjoy being taken care of because life involved an awful lot of taking care of other people, including wealthy women and their children. Feminine practices do not mean the same thing to her as they do to me. For the women in her community trips to the beauty parlor represent a treat, time off to socialise, take a break and spend just a bit of the money they earn on themselves for a change.

It strikes me that that the insistence upon self-analysis and self-justification evident on feminist blogs such as the Happy Feminist’s might itself be an inheritance from the white-middle class femininity which demands that women constantly police their gender performance. So, I wonder if the insistence upon analysis of feminine practices is actually informed by the very femininity we claim to be resisting, the femininity that tells us we should analyse and police ourselves and other women for signs of doing it ‘wrong.’

To what extent, then, does the sense of authority, sometimes assumed, and the insistence upon regular self-flagellation for engaging in feminine practices, come from the discourse of white, middle-class femininity which makes a virtue both of feeling superior to other women and self-policing? How have the concerns of white middle-class feminism, including the prioritising of gender performance as an issue, been influenced by the white middle-class femininity which makes gender performance and the analysis of gender performance into such a crucial issue for women? To what extent has white-middle class femininity influenced the white middle-class feminism which tends to dominate the field? Some of us may have given up the feminine practices, but this doesn’t mean we’ve given up all the attitudes, assumptions, norms and ideals we were brought up with. So, we really need to think about where we are coming from and how class and race inform the feminist issues we tend to prioritise.

* I suppose I’m assuming some sort of distinction between feminine practices and feminine identity in this post because feeling that you are a feminine person at the level of your identity does not necessarily mean you engage in any particular feminine practices. For instance, I know women who are not in any way feminine in terms of their identity but shave their legs for various reasons, and also women who say they are feminine but don’t shave. But that’s really a subject for another post.

* For the sake of convenience, I’ve made ‘white middle-class femininity’ sound like something monolithic in this post, when really I see it as a set of norms and ideals which of course are not taken up or experienced in the same way by all middle-class women!