There is a term that people will use when discussing how the world, or aspects of it, have not lived up to feminism’s promise. The media talks as if all feminists are white women? A failure of feminism. The Left is primarily focused on western women and not third world women? A failure of feminism. Women still make 75 cents to men’s dollar? A failure of feminism. This is a phrase that is largely used to describe how feminism has “failed” when something happens in the world that only partly subscribes to feminist tenets.
Even intelligent feminists, women I have a goodly amount of respect for, will sometimes fall prey to this terminology (just as we all will with regards to something, in some capacity or other- getting free takes constant vigilance). One example, and the quote that has inspired this rant, is from Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Now, I don’t mean to pick on Ms. Klein – I’ve not even read her book in its entirety (I’ve heard very good things about its take on consumerism). And I don’t really disagree with her larger point, I just mean it as an example of this tendency. It also contains a few other associated constructions that chap my ass leading me to also rant about those! Anyways. Here’s the quote:
…what is striking in retrospect is that in the very years when P.C. politics reached their most self-referential peak, the rest of the world was doing something very different: it was looking outward, and expanding. At the moment when the field of vision among most left-wing progressives was shrinking to include only its immediate surroundings, the horizons of global business were growing to encompass the whole globe…In North America, even the fight against free trade was all about protecting Canadian or American workers and resources, not about the possible effects of the trade agreement on Mexico, or the effects other rapid liberalization measures were having in the developing world…In this new globalized context, the victories of identity politics have amounted to a rearranging of the furniture while the house burned down…though girls may indeed rule in North America, they are still sweating in Asia and Latin America, making T-shirts with the “Girls Rule” slogan on them and Nike running shoes that will finally let girls into the game.
This oversight isn’t simply a failure of feminism but a betrayal of the feminist movement’s own founding principles. Although the gender politics that I grew up with in the eighties were concerned almost exclusively with having women equally represented in the structures of power, the relationship between gender and class have [sic] not always been so casually overlooked. Bread and Roses–the rallying cry of the women’s movement–has its origin in a slogan on a banner in the 1912 walkout of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. ‘What the woman who labors wants,’ explained historic organizer Rose Schneiderman in a 1912 speech, ‘is the right to live, not simply exist.’…The young women who grew up reading The Beauty Myth and who saw eating disorders and low self-esteem as the most harmful by-products of the fashion industry, tended to forget those women when we marched on March 8, if we ever knew about them to begin with…The abandonment of the radical economic foundations of the women’s and civil rights movements by the conflation of causes that came to be called political correctness successfully trained a generation of activists in the politics of image, not action.
Now, I largely agree with her here. The fight against free trade did seem to be largely about protecting our own interests. The victories of “identity politics” (oh how I loathe the term) in the west do end up feeling like rearranging the furniture while the global house burns down; gains for us, no change to the desperation and exploitation of them. The mainstream ‘progressive’ dialogue can be quite U.S./western centric, maybe even largely so? There can be a sense of the politics of image rather than action when looking at more recent activism. A lot of people do forget the radical and socialist feminist roots, or simply never heard of them.
But I also have several problems with how she’s discussed this issue. Firstly, who the hell says that “most left wing progressives” are very feminist? Why are they spoken about as if they were interchangeable? I find that this happens rather frequently, that those on the Left are assumed to embody all of the progressive movement. However, Left wing progressives, so-called, are not necessarily feminist at all! In fact, one might successfully argue that left wingers are some the most misogynistic fuckers out there. As such, there is no problem with feminism. There is a problem with most left wing progressives. Just because left wingers aren’t talking about transnational feminist issues DOES NOT MEAN THERE IS NO TRANSNATIONAL FEMINISM. Honest to god, it really just means that they are not fucking listening.
It also sounds like she’s talking about Third Wave feminism in particular, although she doesn’t name it. Now, I don’t know that much about Third Wave feminism; mostly what I know about it is just what I disagree with, lol, rather than the whole package. However, one of my impressions of Third Wave feminism is that it is deeply, consciously concerned with Transnational feminism (that’s not the part I disagree with btw). While I may agree that the most recent trend in feminism has lost much of its radical roots, I would not say it occurs around questions of globalism and intersectionality. Quite the reverse, I would argue that Third Wave feminism is very concerned with those issues. But then, I don’t think that a lot of 3W feminists are in positions where their voices can be heard. They aren’t running progressive papers or magazines, and they aren’t on tv. Occasionally one might be found writing an article somewhere. Mostly they, like us Radical feminists, are on the margins. The fact that many young women might just read The Beauty Myth and not Andrea Dworkin or Robn Morgan is not a “failure of feminism” – it is a failure of those young feminists to do their research, frankly, because no one should ever assume that what the mainstream media shows is all there is to feminism.
I would also disagree that it is a problem with political correctness per se. The problem is not, I believe, wanting to use the proper nomenclature in order to not be an insensitive, exclusive ass (that’s actually what “politically correct” means). The problem is with the ways in which the popular media take an idea (like feminism, like political correctness) and water it down to its most palatable components. Components, I might add, that do not ruffle too many of the feathers on their white, male supremist/supremist-focused heads. This is what most people hear about feminism and other political movements. Unless you are directly involved with an organization or are a student who is studying these issues, most likely you’ve just heard about it on the news, or heard Jon Stewart joke about it. This will not give you a proper idea of what it’s all about. One has to actually go and read a book. Or five. Or ten. Borrow them from the library. You might be surprised what you find in there. You can also sometimes find them in second-hand book stores. For the first 10-15 years I called myself a feminist, I think I bought 3 books brand new. The rest I found by making regular rounds at various second-hand book stores, Salvation Army, Good Will stores in general. The point being that during this period I was also seriously dirt-poor. And this doesn’t even begin to address what research one can do online (also do-able for free at the library).
The point is, we need to educate ourselves as to what the issues are, and as to what the various political analyses argue for and against. One simply cannot rely on common knowledge and common perceptions.
The problem here isn’t the failure of feminism- there were and are feminists decrying these things all over the place- what it is is a failure of mainstream society to embrace feminism fully. The voices are out there, pointing out intersectionality, focusing on transnational feminism, they’re just not being listened to.