Privilege Within The Feminist Space
A subject very close to my heart is how to use privilege to build, not destroy.
Feminism has improved the collective status of women globally – but that is only true by aggregating the monumentally larger improvement to some women’s lives to hide the fact that thus far feminism has not shared its victories equitably.
In fact, when the first feminist movement's victories were achieved, and some women began to enjoy the opportunities this afforded, this glow obscured the experiences of women who remained excluded. There were women whose life circumstances didn't allow them to enjoy those freedoms.
The victories of the first two waves of feminism were monumental if we consider women as an amorphous homogeneous group. The right to vote, participate economically, liberation of contraception and abortion, and laws enshrined to support women with children who wanted to work were staggeringly hard-fought achievements that benefit me – that benefit all women (to varying degrees) to this day.
But if we unpack it further - were these victories shared fairly among women who aren’t homogenous, whose identities are richer and more complex than simply ‘woman’?
Consider the laws designed to support women with children to work. Did any women come off worse through this, and was this possibility even considered in its design? What if legislators used this new law to reduce social security payments for single-parents - who don’t work in order to raise their children - as a way of reducing the social security spend and encouraging economic participation?
Who are overwhelmingly overrepresented in single parent households? Women. Women from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds and non-whites are represented at a higher rate in this metric. So, here is a feminist victory that could actually make life worse for a woman. Consider a poor, single mother forced back into the labour market because her social security was cut – it’s likely she will have 1 or 2 low-skilled, low-paying jobs probably at a great distance from her home, often using up much of her wage to pay someone else to care for her children. Not to mention that her ability to find work might also be hampered by further systemic discrimination, such as if she were a woman of colour (who are routinely paid less than white women) and/or had a disability.
Let’s also take a look at the liberalisation of contraception. This is without a doubt a crucial victory for feminists – but perversely it has stalled continual progress in the security of women’s full sexual autonomy. Since the introduction of the pill, medical science has done some pretty rad things and gains are made every day, yet the oral contraceptive pill survives relatively unchanged.
This pill, while it might deliver on its promise of reliably stopping conception, comes at a huge cost that women know too well. The weight gain, acne, emotional upheavals, depression, irritability ad infinitum are some of the lovely side effects you can expect on the pill.
In addition, men became less responsible (yes it’s possible) as the expectation was women would be wholly responsible for her contraception, even though we all know it takes two to tango. We have been hearing about this mythical ‘male contraceptive pill’ for years, but unsurprisingly, it hasn't garnered much interest or support from most men, who still do not view it as their problem or responsibility.
The successes of the first two waves of feminism should not be minimised and there is no doubt that, for the most part, women fighting for them intended that all women would benefit as a result.
But these victories were won inside a political structure designed to keep the majority of the population, not just women, disempowered. The levers available to you, or the opportunity to be at the table when laws are written, are strictly controlled by the powerful few.
Everything has a cost - and that cost is that some women were worse off through feminism’s collective action.
Understandably then, the third wave of feminism started to question whether a homogeneous feminist singular force was the right way to improve the lives of all women.
And so the idea of intersectionality started to gain favour in feminist discourse. The complex nature of identity, belonging, power and autonomy, as well as race, class, economic status, sexuality, able-bodiedness, migrant status, physical shape, cultural norms, and societal expectations were now discussed in relation to the feminist agenda.
And in this beautiful complexity came disagreements.
Privileged feminists - seeing their previous victories as proof that their feminism was the right sort -began to dominate: in politics, in the media, in our shared language. This was seem as a more palatable form of feminism (read: palatable to men) and so had more influence in the political space.
Furthermore, there are many men out there who think feminism is done. Feminism won what it wanted by securing equal rights for women by law (in Western democracies).
Again, the lives, experiences, and stories of those excluded from this group were silenced.
This shift of how feminists identify, collaborate and seek to effect change has highlighted that feminism is not simply outward looking (in terms of how to improve the world for women) but it is necessarily inward looking.
Changing the structures and institutions designed to oppress women makes the world better – but the inward work of feminism is where all women, regardless of their diversity, can start to heal.
|I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own." - Audrey Lorde|
This is my call to action, as the third wave rolls into the fourth and we see the invisible becoming visible: what are you willing to do as a privileged feminist to help other women unshackle themselves?
I have begun to see that my greatest contribution to feminism might be the daring act of listening and really hearing about the experiences of others, even when it made me uncomfortable.
I can only speak for myself but these are my commitments to the cause. I urge you to create your own:
- I will listen and really hear the experiences of others who are not like me. And I will keep listening even when I am uncomfortable or I am called out as being complicit in their oppression.
- I will seek ways to create safe spaces for women where opposing views can be discussed from the starting point of agreement of common ground. Differences on particular issues should not divide feminists.
- I will consistently check my privilege and internalised misogyny in my thoughts, behaviours, and political pursuits. I will take responsibility where I might use this to benefit myself, whether intentionally or not, and ask those affected by it how to rectify it.
- I will include anyone who wants to identify as a feminist into the club – it’s not exclusive and there is only one hurdle to cross: If you believe that feminism is, at its root, the idea that women are human beings, and you live faithfully by that, then you are welcome.
- I will repeat daily – I am not the epicentre of the female experience but my experiences are as valid as everyone else’s.
- I will seek ways to engage politically that don’t rely on the current structures and institutions.
It is time that privileged feminists step down, shut up and begin to redistribute the goods they have to the previously voiceless. Women are not an amorphous homogeneous group. Let’s use privilege to build, not destroy. I promise feminism will be all the richer for it.
By: Rachael Thurston