Progress Versus Cooptation
in the Radical Feminist Movement
One of the saddest things to me has been the altering and re-writing of the history our magnificent Radical Feminist and Lesbian Feminist movement of the Seventies. Entirely new words have been made up to describe and criticize the politics of that time. I want to ask all Radical Feminists to question everything they have been told, including which ideas and politics they are told “did not work” or were “bad.” Please don’t accept bizarre terms and names for us and our politics that we did not define ourselves.
Those of us who have been around a while know that those opposed to Radical Feminism and Lesbian Feminism make up names to insult and belittle us. “Cis” and “cis-gender” is one example of men simply calling us names. Please don’t accept their definition of us. Please don’t let someone outside of our movement limit us, re-categorize us, and define us out of existence.
Another term that is about re-writing our history in a way to influence our movement now is “intersectionality.” That word was a later academic term that seems to be used to replace our more clear Radical Feminist terms of saying we were against all oppressions and inequality. Please question any academic or bizarre term that is not immediately obvious, and assume it is a reactionary attempt to liberalize or destroy Radical Feminism. And please don’t add to the power of a questionable word by using it, as if it is valid. Whatever is being discussed, there is always a word version that everyone can understand. The quickest way to destroy Radical Feminism is by making it an elitist movement for only the select few.
Yes, there was a complaint in the early Seventies against recognizing and ending racism, anti-Semitism, classism, ageism, ableism and more among us. It was quickly recognized as being a reactionary, right wing style of politics by the privileged (which you can see a variation of in the male right wing still), and was never a part of true Feminism or Radical Feminism.I have been part of the early truly Radical Feminist movement since I was a teenager, in 1970. I was not remotely interested in the pretend “feminism” of the privileged since they did not represent me at all. And they were boring. I was immediately drawn to and identified with the real Radical Feminist Women’s Liberation Movement, however. I read everything I could, much of which is far more radical than much of what I see now being written. I soon joined collectives and began writing articles, working on perhaps the first Lesbian Feminist conference in the world in Berkeley in 1972, published “Dykes and Gorgons,” one of the first Dyke Separatist newspapers in 1973, taught self defense classes for girls and women, etc. I never left our movement/community/culture. I never stopped.
I’ve known from the Eighties that our beloved Radical Feminist movement was being diluted and sold out in a number of ways. I blame the influence of academia and the influx of the combination of sado-masochism, porn, “fun fem” politics, and the genderqueer/GBT movement into our communities.
It wasn’t until I went online that I found out about a whole elitist “feminist”….(I don’t know what word to use — it isn’t a movement, it isn’t a community, it isn’t a culture — it feels like an in-crowd pretending to be radical) something…. that uses in-groupy terms I have never heard before, and so limits who is welcome and who can participate. Any women who comes across this group recognizes immediately that she can join only in an inferior position unless she is one of the rare few where her privilege gets her into a high position. An exclusionary movement is by its nature anti-Feminist. This new “feminism” pretends to be the modern, most evolved version of feminism, but is actually a return to the days before Feminism became real and powerful. Instead of being a new stronger feminism, it is more like the groups of very class and race privileged women who discussed how much of a better deal they could get from men, while still worshipping men and denying the existence of more oppressed women, including those who say no to men. (I’m talking of the media Feminism that was threatened by the “Lavender Menace” or any real radicalism.)
This reactionary politics are destructive and narrowing and segregating of our once enormous, all-embracing Radical Feminist and Lesbian Feminist Women’s Liberation Movement.
So where did the term “intersectionality” come from and why has it usurped clearer language?
Intersectionality is a feminist sociological theory first highlighted by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989). Intersectionality is a methodology of studying “the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relationships and subject formations” (McCall 2005). The theory suggests—and seeks to examine how—various socially and culturally constructed categories such as gender, race, class, disability, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.
Decades after grassroots Radical Feminism recognized that injustice and inequality from patriarchy still exist among us, even when we are women living as separate from males as possible, this bizarre sociological analysis and term was developed, using the exact kind of language that continues those hierarchies.
The first part of fighting injustice is to refuse to accept the names that those who are trying to hurt you use against you.
“Intersectionality” is an academic term. That would explain why the elitist “101” is sometimes added to it to explain it. “101” is used to designate a college or university beginning class. Anyone without the privilege/money to go to college or university might not know this, so they are automatically made to feel that they don’t belong, and are discounted and disqualified from the discussion. Segregation begins, because classism is intrinsic to much of racism. Patriarchy thrives on in-groups, with most on the outside. Radical Feminists should NEVER do that to other Radical Feminists. It is not radical to make anyone feel they are not part of the in-group, It is not radical to HAVE an ingroup.
Now anyone with half a brain, who is not invested in feeling superior to other women, will know that “higher” education gives you skills and privilege, but certainly does not make you smarter. In fact, the self-educated women I know are far smarter than most of the professors I know. However, once someone becomes deeply entrenched in a patriarchal system, they usually identify with it and then defend it. (Notice how doctors rarely break ranks even when their acquiesing means people die?) For one thing, if you want to write well — clear, direct, honest, accessible, and intelligently — you do not write in an academic style. It is elitist and limits your audience, including those whose first language is other than the language you are writing in, which is not good for any political movement. It is also much harder to con and manipulate your audience if your writing is direct. Anyone who has learned the academic style of writing has to unlearn it to not be boring and to sound coherent. But most academics deliberately use it to prove superiority.
Yes, there are a very few excellent Radical Feminist writers who are academics. Generally, they are from class-oppressed backgrounds and had to sense to never learn (or had the sense to later unlearn) convoluted patriarchal academic writing styles. I am not criticizing any woman who has gotten a good academic job. I am criticizing those who are using that privilege to alienate and isolate other women in order to have an elitist, segregated, intrinsically anti-feminist “feminism” that is more like a country club than a political movement or community.
If those elitist standards were in place in the early day of Radical Feminism, there would have been no Radical Feminism because most of our best, clearest thinkers and writers were class-oppressed and often race-oppressed, and most were Lesbians.
Suspicion of upper and middle class culture and their ties to patriarchal culture were intrinsic to early Radical Feminism. Everything we were taught that was absolute truth in patriarchy was treated with suspicion. Every lie and con, from the media to religion to schools to families, were examined and analyzed. There was no automatic worship or revering of the most privileged. Unlike in many of today’s “feminist” writings, blogs, facebook threads, etc., it was understood that Feminists did not laud science and doctors — these were the men who burned the real healers who were witches, these were the men who explained why genocide and slavery were good, because they set Nordic men at the top evolution and everyone else was there for those men to use, and these were the men who tortured and experimented on women (back when lobotomies shock treatments for women were not uncommon, and before the modern time where most women seem to be put on psychiatric drugs). I still am in shock when a “feminist” on a thread lectures about what is fact based on “science” and statistics formulated for pay by male companies. It is so frustrating to feel like we can never go beyond a certain very limited place because we have to keep going over and over the same things that were figured out 40 years ago.
The tragedy is that almost everyone I know who joined our movement after 1980 didn’t learn these basic ideas of Feminism. The most arrogant insist they know those politics even while revealing that they don’t. I have been on discussion threads that were virtually incomprehensible because of the academic language used. When I’ve asked for the discussion to be more accessible, including for those whose first language isn’t English, I’ve been ignored or told to get a dictionary. This is not like any “radical feminism” I have ever known. It’s not even liberal feminism. It’s right wing politics to separate the most privileged from the least privileged.
I was invited to one of these discussion threads (ironically about “privilege”) by someone I later heard described as a “feminist leader.” (My original Radical Feminist movement had no leaders. Radical Lesbian Feminism was anti-leader because it was not Feminist to give your power to others. All women were encouraged to question and think for themselves. Those put into a leadership position tried to reject it. Mistakes were made, but the good intentions were there. There was an amazing warmth and camaraderie. There was community.)
I was new to this new reactionary style of not even pretending to not be elitist. I repeatedly asked the one who started the thread to write in clear and direct, rather than academic language. I wanted everyone I knew to have the chance to participate. She got worse and was supported by the group. I finally asked if they wanted a “community” segregated by racism and classism. They ignored me. I kept thinking of the brilliant Radical Feminists I know who would not feel welcome there or be able to participate. (One later said she watched it all and did feel too intimidated to participate. What a loss. And how dare they do that to her?) Meanwhile, the “leader” said she was “disappointed” in me and told us that she was “tearful.” She continued to harass and bully me until I felt it had become abusive. At the same time that this was unfolding, I was writing to a Radical Feminist friend and told her what was happening. When she heard who the “leader” was, she warned me that that was an ex-lover of hers who had been physically and emotionally abusive to her. She verified what I was feeling by describing her exact style of the manipulation. I tentatively mentioned to the discussion group who my friend was, and was immediately blocked from the thread. No warning, no explanation. I had gotten support from only one woman there, who had been harassed with me. She was also the only other woman who identified as working class.
Do I think that those who were part of that thread really did want a segregated group? I think it was less direct than that and that they did not want to give up showing off their arrogance and class status and privilege, and that that was more important than trying to make it be open to all Radical Feminists. I also saw them doing class bonding with some very unfeminist women there. Their class connection seemed more important than anything else. I believe that they would have been even worse except they were aware that it might make them look bad.
But what a waste of a chance to help build a movement which could involve and include all women. Especially now, when those who are poverty class are increasing at a rapid rate, it’s even more important to be never use exclusionary language. Not to mention, I want the warmth, intelligence, kindness, humor, and love that I know is part of poverty class culture and is rare in colder class-privileged cultures. I often think that, with a few wonderful exceptions, the class-privileged are just not too bright or interesting. For one thing, most of them do believe they are better than the rest of us and they don’t even notice that they are not. If they have some feminist politics, they try to hide their feeling of superiority, but it does still show. Again, there are wonderful exceptions, so there is no excuse.
Someone wants to bully or silence you? They just use their privilege without shame or accountability. And most witnesses let it happen because those with the most privilege are the most valued.
“Reverse discrimination” and “reverse hierarchies” do not exist. It is a right wing idea, as is “oppression olympics” — as if talking about being oppressed ever got any woman anything other than worse treatment. I cannot believe that women who claim to be feminists are using such right wing language as “oppression olympics” and “reverse hierarchies.” Where does any Feminist who dares to talk about the oppression in her life and how she feels marginalized and patronized in a discussion with more privileged women get anything other than ridicule, patronizing, and banning? The treatment is so bad that most Radical Feminists have learned to just keep quiet about their lives and experiences, and the most privileged dominate and bully. And that is exactly what I believe these women want. It’s the country club mentality. How dare someone who they are oppressing talk about her meaningless life? (Of course, even the right wing has learned to have a few oppressed tokens, so mascots can be useful — as long as they obey.)
Yes, a very few individuals have bullied other Feminists by calling them oppressors. From what I’ve seen, it’s been around 2% compared to the arrogant bullying I’ve seen from those using privilege. Ironically, it’s class-privileged feminists who I’ve seen doing the most bullying about the issue of what we eat. I have dear vegan and vegetarian friends who never bully anyone, but that is the issue that I have seen be the most divisive and destructive for decades to our Radical Feminist movement, with class and race-privileged women (primarily) being the ones who are harassing and attacking other Radical Feminists over what we eat. I believe that using what is virtually the cult politics of aggressive veganism and vegetarianism to shame, ridicule, and lecture other Feminists is a way that a group of extremely privileged people with some awareness of politics can justify bullying other people. It is so bad that I have read self-defined “radical feminists” glory in seeing the video of a disabled Radical Lesbian Feminist — Lierre Keith — being physically attacked by a group of men at the Anarchist Book Fair because she dares to speak out about how having been a vegan for twenty years destroyed her health. Again, not all vegans and vegetarians are like this, but this issue has done tremendous damage in our Radical Feminist community. So where is the criticism about this division that I see with “intersectionality?”
The other criticism of talking about differences in privilege and oppression among us is that it will somehow divide us and get us to ally with men rather than . Where did that come from? I never saw that being said in the early Seventies. We were discussing differences among us as women and Lesbians. It is the NOT discussing of differences that is a way for women to ally with men they share privilege with, especially if part of that privilege is substantial rewards they get from male family and ex-husbands.
By the way, I’m a Lesbian Separatist and my political writing is rarely about men. My focus is on Lesbians and women as a movement, community, and culture. Every Radical Lesbian Feminist I know is working towards us having a truly diverse and inclusionary Radical Feminist movement. Saying that sharing support or daring to talk about racism or classism or other issues of oppression that divide us is to ally with men is simply a tactic to shut us up.
The charge that acknowledging differences in privilege and power fractionalize us is the opposite of the truth. When we first began doing that in the Seventies, we created an open, welcoming, and truly diverse and strong Radical Feminist movement. I can’t think of any other movement where there was such a variety of women and where the poorest to the ruling class (family background) became lovers and friends. Nowadays, our “women’s” community feels much more deliberately segregated. Then, many Lesbians from rich backgrounds did not seem to feel as superior as now. And as a political movement, when you attack and humiliate and drive off the most oppressed, you end up with a weak gang of bullies who inevitably end up at each others’ throats.
If you really want to see what divides and “fractionalizes” us, notice how often classism is used to silence other women. Instead of just disagreeing in arguments, the class-privileged will use patronizing and parental language to attempt to humiliate and infantilize the class oppressed Radical Feminist. An example is to tell them that their politics or ideas are “absurd” or “ridiculous” or to be even more insulting. Notice when a discussion is respectful, as if between equals, and notice when tricks are used to dominate and prevent equality.
So, do we want a Radical Feminist movement that welcomes all females to be part of it, or do we want a segregated “movement” that consists only of the most privileged women and the few more oppressed women they keep as mascots? The last is not Radical Feminism and is far closer to right wing male politics.