This post builds on my discussion about the history of -isms in feminism and the history of appropriation in feminism. Today, we’re plunging into a problem that is a direct outgrowth of these trends: The tendency for certain experiences, people, and concerns to be centered in feminist discussions. It is this tendency that led to the reactionary formation of intersectional feminism, among many other things, and feminism still has a long way to go when it comes to addressing it.
To put it bluntly, feminism is primarily concerned with issues that are pressing to white, middle class, cisgendered, nondisabled, heterosexual women. The voices of these women dominate the movement, and as a result, so do their concerns.
(Patriarchy is often identified as the primary concern in mainstream feminism, while other feminists are more interesting in challenging kyriarchy, a series of interconnected power systems that combine to create multiple oppressed classes.)
It’s not just that feminism ignores issues that are of pressing concern to people who fall outside this dominant group, like disability rights for disabled feminists. It’s that there are assumptions made about how issues like reproductive rights, work, and families should be approached. These assumptions are rooted in the experiences of the dominant members of the feminist movement, and as a result, some feminist discussions become downright alienating to people who are not members of the dominant group.
There’s an attitude that can be seen in some areas of feminism that because ‘we are all women,’ we all share common concerns and values. Well, for starters, we aren’t all women. I’m not a woman, but I am a feminist. And, secondly, remember how I discussed the fact that groups of people are not hegemonic hiveminds of people who all think the same? Well, the same applies to women. When you’re talking about half of the world’s population, there are kind of bound to be some differing experiences, identities, beliefs, and priorities. Reducing feminism to ‘women’s issues’ has the effect of cutting a lot of people out of feminism when only issues that pertain to certain people are covered.
(Some people find the use of the women’s symbol to represent feminism alienating, as it cuts out people of nonbinary gender or no gender as well as men interested in working in solidarity with feminists.)
Let us take, for one example, the discussion about reproductive rights in feminism.
For people with disabilities, reproductive rights is about a lot more than the right to access an abortion.
We have to consider the history of forcible sterilization of people like us. Abortion for disability. Denial of reproductive rights to people with disabilities. Lack of access to sexual education for disabled teens. Inability to access medical care. Statements that people like us should never have been born. Assumptions on the parts of medical professionals and caregivers that we are not sexually active. Decisions to judge us unfit parents and take our children away on the basis of our disability status.
So, for many, the conversation gets rather complex. There’s some serious nuance to weigh and consider. Yet, the reproductive rights narrative is dominated by women in a particular position. It ignores not just the disability issues embedded in the reproductive rights movement, but the racialized history of the reproductive rights movement, and the classism embedded in a lot of early discussions about reproductive rights. Ableism, racism, and classism are still present in discussions and narratives about reproductive rights.
When we attempt to bring these issues up, to bring nuance into the conversation and challenge dominant narratives, we are crudely told to wait our turn. Or we are informed that we are just supporting anti-reproductive rights advocates, that we are being ‘divisive,’ that ‘your issues’ are not as important as ‘the core issue’ even though, for us, they are core issues. We’re told that we are pawns of the anti-abortion movement when we attempt to discuss the tangled history of reproductive rights and disability, race, class. We are denied all agency and autonomy.
This domination of narratives with one narrative, one story, one set of concerns, is an incredibly destructive dynamic in feminism. And it plays out in discussions about pop culture in a major way.
When people in nondominant groups challenge much-beloved popular culture, they encounter a lot of opposition. They are told that the good messages in the pop culture outweigh the bad, that people can’t be expected to get everything perfect, that they are just looking for something to be offended by, that they are dragging in side issues, that they are being buzzkills. Bringing in new perspectives can be a dangerous and loaded act when it comes to discussing things that people hold near and dear.
The centering of certain voices and experiences is a function of privilege. The only way to counter that is to do what Bitch is doing by having people like me guest blog for them: To get nondominant voices into public spaces to start talking, and to support us so that we don’t get shouted down.