Whose feminism? What waves?

'Other kinds of dreams': Black women's organisations and the politics of transformation, by Julia Sudbury

‘Other kinds of dreams’: Black women’s organisations and the politics of transformation

Writing in the early twenty-first century, in an article exploring the possibilities of a third wave black feminism, Kimberly Springer outlined how the “wave model” in its dominant form drowns out the activism of black women. Writing about the US context, Springer pointed out how the dominant understandings of the 1st wave (suffrage movement), 2nd wave (women’s liberation/women’s rights movements in 60s-70s) and 3rd wave (contemporary feminism) “disregard[ed] the race-based movements before them that served as precursors, or windows of political opportunity, for gender activism” (Springer 2002: 1061). For example, the dominant third wave narrative, she pointed out, tends to dismiss the role of black women in the development of the term itself – noting that Kitchen Table Women of Color Press had plans to publish a book in the late 1980s called ‘The Third Wave’. The book, which unfortunately never came to fruition, “was to describe an antiracist, women-of-color-led feminism for the coming decade” (Springer 1063).

Springer’s critique of the wave model is relevant for thinking also about feminism in Britain. Although following its own unique trajectory, located in a different social and historical context, the wave story here is often told in similar terms: First wave = movements for suffrage, including the suffragettes; second wave = the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 70s. What exactly constitutes the third – and potentially a fourth – wave is perhaps the most disputed. But whatever the definitions, similar to the US version, the wave story seldom accounts for black women’s theory and activism.

I was reminded of Springer’s article this week apropos the New Stateman’s “Rereading the second wave”, a series of posts on so-called ‘second wave’ feminists and their work. Ten out of eleven of the feminists in question are/were white, with only one post about a feminist of colour (Audre Lorde). Now my post is not so much about the NS series in itself. It is after all a rather idiosynchratic list chosen by a group of feminists assembled by the NS and, as the introductory post states, it’s not meant to be definitive – although note the regularity with which this claim is used as a get-out clause when systemic exclusions are pointed out. Aside from the lack of feminists of colour, what stands out to me most is that eight of the so-called ‘second wave’ feminists are/were American (none British). I also wonder how Judith Butler feels about being described as ‘second wave’, but whatever.

What I am interested in is how stories of feminism get told – both within the liberal (in some senses) ‘pro-feminist’ media such as the New Statesman and the Guardian, as well as among contemporary feminists themselves (and these of course overlap) – and how those stories are inflected and defined by white supremacy. I mean, considering the NS list is so idiosynchratic, then why is it still so white? Of course there is a straight-forward, predictable answer to this: most of the contributors to the series are white. But leaving that to one side for a moment – although it is of course part of the problem – is there something inherent in the ‘second wave’ terminology that denotes whiteness? As Springer observed, “The wave model perpetuates the exclusion of women of color from women’s movement history and feminist theorizing” (1063) and this certainly is the overwhelming case when looking at invocations of the “second wave” within many British feminist spaces. It seems to limit the imagination of what histories of women’s activism look like, because the dominant image associated with “second wave” activism is that of white women’s liberationists.

Charting the Journey

Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women

Although she is critical of the ‘wave model’, Springer argues that because it is so embedded within our understandings of feminism, it is still worth working with this model – critiquing it from within and expanding it to include women of colour’s activism (the bulk of her article focuses on the possibilities of a third wave black feminism and how it might engage with more young black women). But others write without using the wave metaphor. Julia Sudbury, for example, in her book on (politically) black women’s activism in post-war Britain does not refer to waves at all – the stories simply don’t fit that way. Neither is her research framed exclusively around the term feminism (Sudbury locates herself as writing from a Womanist perspective).  The fact that many black women have organised for rights and justice without taking on the label ‘feminist’ also needs to be recognised as part of the complexity of women’s activist & feminist histories.

But the wave metaphor is very pervasive within Anglo-American feminist storytelling. Personally, I’m quite averse to using it in my own writing, yet find it difficult to get completely away from doing so. So is Springer right? Is it better to try and work with the wave model, but to critique it and expand it? Or is “second wave” irrevocably bound to the image of a white women? (and this is a two-way process – I often see and hear ‘second wave’ used as derogatory short-hand for white feminism).

Either way, what is undoubtedly urgent is the need to destabilize the hegemonic whiteness of stories of the feminist past as they are told and re-told within contemporary feminist spaces.

I started writing a whole other part to this post about structural racism, capitalism and publishing, which of course plays a huge role in who gets to write books and become canonised. But I’ll leave that for now, because it’s a somewhat separate point. After all, women of colour did publish extensively in the 1970s and 80s (often collectively through anthologies). Their continued marginalisation from the dominant feminist canon of this time period is not because they weren’t writing, but because of white supremacy.

So if you are unfamiliar with the histories of scholarship by women of colour and black feminists in the 70s, 80s and 90s, here are a few of my suggestions (with a focus on Britain) of writings to seek out:

‘Other kinds of dreams’: Black women’s organisations and the politics of transformation, by Julia Sudbury (Routledge 1998). Sudbury’s PhD thesis on which this book is based on is available open access from Warwick University’s online repository.

Black British Feminism: A Reader, edited by Heidi Safia Mirza (Routledge 1997).

Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women, edited by Shabnam Grewal, Jackie Kay, Liliane Landor, Gail Lewis and Pratibha Parmar (Sheba Feminist Press 1988). Also: Listen to Gail Lewis talking about how this book was marginalised within British Women’s Studies programmes on the Sisterhood and After online archive.

Feminist Review issue 17

Feminist Review issue 17: Many Voices, One Chant

Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain, by Amrit Wilson (Virago Press 1978). You can listen to Amrit Wilson talking about researching this book on the Sisterhood and After online archive. See also Wilson’s more recent Dreams, Questions, Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain (Pluto Press 2006).

Cartographies of Diaspora; Contesting Identities, by Avtar Brah (Routledge 1996).

Feminist Review issue 17: ‘Many Voices, One Chant: Black Feminist Perspectives’ (1984). This might be tricky to get hold of outside of academic libraries (there are also copies in the Feminist Library in London), but you can read Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar’s influential essay “Challenging imperial feminism” online [PDF link].


White feminist stories in The Guardian

Last week, my first journal article was published, titled “White feminist stories: Locating race in representations of feminism in The Guardian” (Feminist Media Studies 2014).

One chapter of my PhD analyses several dozen Guardian and Observer articles about feminism over a number of years, paying close attention to how these articles construct stories of British feminism past and present. Who – in terms of ethnicity and race – is constructed as central or significant within these stories and who is marginal or erased? Where is race and racism located within these narratives?

In this article, I present a close reading of three such Guardian articles about feminist activism from recent years, unpicking the underlying assumptions about British feminism which they rest upon. I focus in particular on three narrative logics which are dominant within this discourse, which present contemporary feminist activism as: 1) a continuation of a white feminist legacy, 2) a unified movement of “like-minded” individuals, and 3) as “diverse” and “happy”.

These narratives erase power differences between women, as well as a multitude of feminist organising in Britain, including Black British feminism. Although the Guardian (as a result of persistent challenge by black and anti-racist feminists) is increasingly representing contemporary feminist activism as diverse and intersectional, the dominant story that it constructs of British feminist history is an overwhelmingly white one, as if feminists of colour have only recently started to exist and organise. The insistence on presenting feminism as an “innocent” movement also leads to a lack of acknowledgement of white feminist racism within British feminist movements.

Although, as I write in the article, challenges to the whiteness of Guardian feminism are continuously made, the resistance to change highlights the continued unequal power relations between white feminists and feminists of colour, and the persistence of whiteness in defining feminism within mainstream liberal media.

You can read the accepted version of the paper here. This is the final version submitted to the publisher, so is more or less the same as the published version, minus copyediting changes and typesetting. The published version of the article is available – behind a paywall – on the Feminist Media Studies website.

How can we feel less innocent?

Let’s start with a story.

Back in the early 1990s, at a conference about law and feminism in the U.S., there was a discussion about prostitution/sex work. A woman who identified as a survivor of prostitution felt that other feminists in the room were dismissing the violence she had experienced, by framing prostitution as work like any other. She ended up leaving the conference.

The next day, there was another discussion, about racism and feminist publishing. A woman of colour argued that everyone needs to challenge their own privileges. At that moment, a white woman said that everyone had failed to challenge themselves the previous day when the woman had felt it necessary to leave. This diverted the discussion away from racism and led to “a fracture” between the white woman and the woman of colour.

Sound like a familiar story? Anyone who’s moved within feminist movements long enough will have their own variations of this story to tell (or quite a few of them!). Conflicts arising from our different perspectives and social positions are pretty endemic.

Going back to the story, the woman of colour was Sherene Razack and the white woman was Mary Lou Fellows, both co-organisers of the conference. In order to reflect on what had happened and to consider how feminists can more productively move beyond this common impasse, they wrote an article together, called “The Race to Innocence: Confronting Hierarchical Relations among Women” (Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, vol 1, 1998).

Fellows and Razack note that during feminist discussions of emotive issues, it is a common move for participants to make claims to their own perceived marginality, in order to ensure their own innocent position. This initiates a process of “competing marginalities” which they call “the race to innocence”.

Drawing on the work of McClintock (1995) and Stoler (1995), they link this desire among western feminists to perceive of ourselves as innocent to historical constructions of respectable womanhood within western society, and the way in which women have historically seen their variously marginal positions as unconnected to each other. The emergence of the middle-class in European society relied upon gendered processes (in addition to imperialism and other social hierarchies), where the middle class ‘lady’ achieved her respectability through her association with the cleanliness of the middle-class home. This could only be achieved through the disavowal and othering of the domestic worker who cleaned the middle class home (and thus knew its dirtiness), and the ‘prostitute’ who was constructed as intimately connected with the ‘degenerate slum’. This illustrates how the middle class lady, in Fellows and Razack’s words:

… achieved and maintained her toehold on respectability through the economic and sexual exploitation of other women, and that exploitation was itself the product of class, gender, and racial hierarchies. (348)

In other words, the middle-class woman was able to secure her (relative) safety from economic and sexual exploitation through complicity in other women’s exploitation. The domestic worker in turn could (although more tenuously) claim her respectability by “demonstrating devotion to duty, restraint of passions, and hard work”, and crucially “a disavowing of prostituted women” (349).

Fellows and Razack suggest that looking at this historical context allows us not only to see clearly how some hierarchical relationships between women have developed, but also how much (some) women’s identities are invested in not feeling connected to or complicit in other women’s oppression (of course, their example is specific to the European context). They argue that this sustains a logic of respectability as dominance:

… each woman fails to see how her own subordination depends on the subordination of another woman. She is thus unable to challenge the structure of domination that is supported by multiple women in various subordinate roles. If, as women, our liberation leaves intact the subordination of other women, then we have not achieved liberation, but only a toehold on respectability. (350)

Concluding their article, Fellows and Razack argue that we have to remind ourselves constantly of the interlocking structures of oppression, and consider always the ways in which we are privileged as well as oppressed. They end with some pertinent questions feminists need to ask themselves in their organising and theorising:

Where have we positioned other women within our strategies for achieving social justice? What do we gain from this positioning? How are we implicated in structures of dominance?

These questions, they argue, may help us learn to distinguish what is an attempt at gaining our “toehold on respectability” versus what is a genuine liberation strategy. Being able to make that distinction requires us to learn how to feel less innocent.

I re-read this article over the weekend, as the latest blow-up in (and beyond) feminist online communities raged – initially over transphobic comments by Suzanne Moore, followed by more transphobic hate speech by Julie Burchill in The Observer. There’s been so much written about this already – much better than I can – so I won’t go into the details, but if you want to find out more, you could always start here, here and here.

What I do want to think about were some of the ways in which the debate played out. Moore’s refusal to take on board criticism was based on a claim to marginality on the basis of being a working-class raised woman, and a disavowal of trans women’s claim to justice. She failed to see, in her original insensitive comment, how her choice of language was part of a transphobic discourse, and how she was therefore complicit within a system which disavows trans women as the ‘other’ of ‘real’ women. Additionally, she claimed herself as the innocent victim in the debate because she received abusive and bullying tweets (I don’t doubt this, by the way – Twitter can be scary when things go viral), and a lot of the subsequent mainstream media coverage positioned her as the innocent victim of a ‘Twitter mob’.

Thinking more widely about how feminists engage in these kinds of arguments online, I do think the description of the process as a “race to innocence” is useful. Even among those of us who argue for the importance of an intersectional feminism, and who aim to be aware of our privilege, there seems to be a correct way to act and to respond to situations such as this, which seems at least partly connected to a desire to be the ‘right kind’ of feminist, on the ‘right side’ of the debate. And this process involves defining ourselves against the ‘wrong kind’ of feminist.

One critique I do want to make of the Fellows and Razack piece is that as much as they talk about hierarchies between women, they seem to flatten these out somewhat in their discussion of contemporary feminist communities – as if we all have equal amounts of privilege and dis-privilege in our competing claims to marginality. I don’t think this is what they mean, but I guess that is something that I would like to spell out a bit more explicitly: some people are more privileged than others within feminist communities (and sometimes this is context-dependent), and so saying that “we all need to acknowledge our privileges” can be another way of silencing those who are most marginalised. So in this particular debate, where trans women specifically, and trans people more generally, were under attack, to tell trans women to consider the ways in which they are privileged, is an oppressive tactic. But what about those who were privileged within this discussion – i.e. cis people – whatever their stance in the debate?

There is, I think, a common tenet among feminists who take an intersectional approach that those of us who are privileged in a particular situation should not remain silent, because to do so is to be complicit. So to witness a cis feminist say something transphobic and to not call them up on it, is to be complicit in transphobia. I don’t disagree with this at all. However, what happens online is that you get a couple of people speaking up, and then suddenly it goes on Twitter and 500 people are piling on (if not more, in this case). How many of the people who tweeted Moore in an aggressive way were cis people who participated in this collective calling out because they felt that to remain silent was a non-innocent position? How much is this action about retaining an identity as the ‘right kind’ of feminist? What other ways might there have been to act?

I am not saying that problematic and oppressive actions should not be taken to task – I believe they should. But when this is done in a way which is geared towards ‘ex-communicating’ another feminist – the ‘disavowal’ which Fellows and Razack write about – we are making a claim to our own innocence which is dependent on the othering of the ‘bad feminist’.

And, you know, to be honest, I’m perfectly happy to ex-communicate some people from feminism (if I believed that feminism is some kind of club, that is, which it isn’t). But I guess the questions I’m trying to reach towards here are: How much are contemporary feminist communities in Britain invested in notions of innocence? And what effects do these have on our abilities to organise towards social justice for everyone? How can we learn to feel less innocent? What might be possible if we did?

Playing with Pinterest

Pinterest makes me feel like a kid again, back when I was always cutting pictures out of magazines and assembling them for various purposes. When I heard about it, I set up an account and started playing around with random pretty pictures (another great procrastination tool!).

But coming across the LSE Review of Books Pinterest account – with pinboards on subjects like ‘Gender Studies’ and ‘Politics: Protests and Revolutions’ – started me on a new train of thought in terms of potential uses of Pinterest. As Deborah Lupton wrote on the Impact of Social Sciences blog in June, Pinterest as a visual curation platform has “the potential to be a very useful tool for sociological research and teaching (as well as for other academics in the humanities and social sciences)“.

So I started thinking about possible ways in which I could use visual curation in my research. Today, working on pulling together a thesis chapter on representations of feminism within popular media discourse, I was going back to look at lots of online articles which I have analysed from The Guardian and The Observer. And the thought occurred to me that here was something that Pinterest could potentially come in useful for. While my focus is on analysing the text of these articles (I’m looking specifically at how they represent British feminism in relation to issues of race), the images are also interesting. So I decided to create a Pinterest pinboard, more as an experiment than anything else.

So here it is. I won’t go into any analysis of the images – but would be interested to hear any thoughts on this collection, in relation to the themes of British feminism and ‘race’. Some related words in my analysis: diversity, inclusive/exclusive, multiculturalism, whiteness… Seeing all these images together for the first time certainly makes me realise there’s a lot more to say!

White feminism and predictable journalism

Feminism is not All White

I wanted to highlight this post on the Black Feminist blog, written in response to a recent Guardian article about feminist activists in Britain (‘Feminists hail explosion in new grassroots groups’).

As Adunni Adams points out, the Guardian article in question completely fails to highlight any activism by anyone else than young white and privileged women and men:

I assumed the inclusion of the phrase ‘feminists who do not fit easily into stereotypical moulds’ would lead to some mention of those organisations which do not fit into the white, middle-class heterosexual stronghold which has come to typify the feminist movement. As I continued reading, I assumed the scope of the article would include the Black, Working-Class, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender feminist organisations, most of which are not new, and most of which have so far managed to escape the attention of commentators on feminism.

The announcement that something (or anything) is happening at the grassroots level of the feminist movement – not to mention the fact that the movement has caught the attention of the mainstream media – could, and should, have reflected the true strength of the movement in its depth, dynamism and diversity at all levels.

The author of the original Guardian article, has responded in the comments section, saying she didn’t have enough time to find people, nobody put themselves forward to be interviewed, and that she didn’t have enough space to cover everything – including as part of her defense links to articles she has written about ‘BME’ women’s issues. Anyone familiar with histories of racism and anti-racist challenges within white-dominated feminist movements will know such arguments form a familiar refrain which evades accountability.

Part of my research has included looking at 50+ articles in The Guardian (and its Sunday version The Observer) on the topic of feminism, looking specifically for race. From this I can say, without doubt, that this article is not an unfortunate anomaly. White, privileged feminism is the norm within the Guardian’s coverage of feminism. Although occasional feminists of colour are included, the representation of British feminist activism past and present is overwhelmingly white.

Here’s some examples from over the years (and I could have added more) – notice the patterns?

Feminism today: While we were shopping… (2002)

University challenge (2007)

How far have we come in 80 years? (2008)

Time for a good scrap about what our feminism really is (2009)

Forty years of women’s liberation (2010)

Feminism is back and we want to finish the revolution, say activists (2011)

Avtar Brah, Feminist Review, and feminism in Britain

The journal Feminist Review recently published its 100th issue, which focused and reflected on the work of Avtar Brah, it’s longest standing collective member.

Brah, the author of the influential Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities, speaks in the below interview about what has been the key to Feminist Review‘s success, noting in particular the journal’s commitment to linking theory and practice, academia and activism, as well as its interdisciplinarity and the diversity of experiences and perspectives represented within its pages and in the collective.

I would add to that the collective’s commitment to making process and accountability visible. There have been fierce disagreements within the collective over the last 32 years (the journal started in 1979), in particular around race, and I believe the journal has survived and been strengthened through this only because of the collective members’ willingness to question and reflect openly and accountably on those connections between the personal and the political, theory and practice (of course the collective members have also changed over time). This, I would argue, is another important aspect of how the journal has stayed relevant and is today one of the most significant sites of intersectional, anti-racist feminist theorising in Britain.

Also of note, one of the articles in FR 100 is Nirmal Puwar’s ‘Mediations on the Making of Aaj Kaal’, about the community education film making project directed by Avtar Brah in 1990, in which a group of South Asian elders in Southall made a documentary about their lives. This film is now available to watch on darkmatter, along with a short version of Puwar’s article. Among the topics discussed are the violent clashes between police and protesters against the National Front in Southall in 1979.

Puwar notes two reasons in particular for which this project is notable:

Firstly, in terms of the methodological processes, it was forged in a reflexive project, attentive to the dynamics and practices of telling and listening with film. This was many years ahead of what has now become the burgeoning field of visual sociology.  Secondly, the film offers a different enunciation of British post-war social scenes and transnational public spheres. Stories are told and performed by tellers who are usually off the radar in the crafting of histories of racism and anti-racist struggle from Southall.

Head over to darkmatter to watch.