Solidarity or a sliding scale of oppression?
By Bronwyn Jennings
The way forward for women's liberation — or even if there is a need to keep fighting for collective liberation — continues to be debated within feminism. In recent years, there has been an increasing tendency for feminists to argue that women can achieve liberation by themselves. This tendency is most clearly expressed in "Do It Yourself feminism" or DIY, which argues that women can overcome their oppression by making personal advances in the workplace, home or government.
This perspective ignores the institutional barriers to women's equal participation in society. It also doesn't explain why the majority of women, most of whom presumably strive for a better deal in these arenas, are still exploited and abused. According to DIY feminism, they're just not "doing it" right.
Feminists influenced by postmodernist theory, or "identity" politics, also advocate an individualistic approach to liberating women. While there are few activists who actually label themselves as postmodern feminists, many aspects of postmodernism permeate women's collectives and organising committees today.
Postmodernists claim that because women come from a variety of backgrounds there is no common experience of women's oppression. This idea is reflected in the argument that no woman can "speak for" other women in oppressed groups that she is not a part of, such as people of colour, ethnic minorities, lesbians, etc.
Postmodernists deny that there is any unified, causal explanation of women's oppression; all "grand narratives" are dead, they say. What remains is each woman's personal experience of oppression — as an indigenous woman, a migrant woman, a lesbian, a worker and so on. The most important thing a woman can do, they say, is to "define" or "redefine" herself as less oppressed. The end result is that strengthening your "identity" becomes more important than collective action to get rid of society's institutions of oppression.
Flowing from this perspective, some feminists get lost in trying to define who are the "most oppressed" women: lesbians are "more" oppressed than straight women, black women are "more" oppressed then white women and so on. The women who are "most" oppressed, they say, have the most "right" to speak.
This emphasis on the differences between women, rather than on what unites them, leads to dividing women on every possible criterion. Ultimately, it reduces all women's experiences to entirely unique, unconnected events and denies women's common experiences of oppression.
More than a century ago, African-American feminist Anna Cooper said: "Let women's claim be as broad in the concrete as in the abstract. We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favouritism, whether sex, race, country or condition. If one link in the chain is broken, the chain is broken." Her words remain true today.
This is not to deny that some women do suffer the burden of multiple oppressions, whether on the basis of their skin colour, class, nationality or sexuality. But rather than using this to splinter and weaken the women's liberation movement, we should build feminist consciousness which has as its goal the liberation of all women and all humanity.
African-American feminist bell hooks explained: "As black women, our struggle for liberation only has significance if it takes place within a feminist movement that has as its fundamental goal the liberation of all people".
Identity politics results in women being separated from one another, unable to identify their common experiences and fight their common enemy, the ruling class which benefits from women's oppression.
Identity politics leaves women unable to build solidarity between women and create a strong, effective feminist movement. It also leaves women unable to build alliances with other oppressed groups.
In short, identity politics leaves women isolated and unable to create change. This is exactly where the ruling class wants us because divided we can be ruled.