There are three things I wish I’d known when I became a feminist.
Firstly, it doesn’t matter how you dress. (Wear what you want! Fashion should be a pleasure, not a chore.)
Secondly, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit*. (Flavia Dzodan.)
And third, a surprising number of well-known feminists – media-friendly, intelligent women – are abusive. They are prejudiced against vulnerable people, particularly trans women and sex workers. And by having a blind spot the size of Australia, mainstream feminist discourse manages to paint these feminists as victims of uppity minorities.
The power dynamic is positively dystopian.
Recently, an open letter appeared in the Observer, complaining of “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic””.
The letter is bollocks, for reasons that have been beautifully expressed elsewhere** and can be summed up thus:
– Feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite lies that she was no-platformed by a university for her views on sex work, Muslim women and trans issues.
– Prominent academics and journalists, including several feminists, then use a national paper to collectively complain about being silenced: JeSuisSmurthwaite.
– Media storm ensues, with a huge backlash from trans people and sex workers.
– Ultimately, many of the signatories will profit from this mess, mostly by writing paid thinkpieces on free speech. They will then use their platform to continue accusing marginalised women of being ‘trolls’ and ‘bullies’.
– At least three of the signatories crying victimhood are white, cis feminists who have previously, unapologetically expressed virulently transphobic, whorephobic views.***
– These feminists are abusive.
For several years, I thought that talking about abuse by women (including the power dynamics between feminist communities) would be letting the side down. To discuss it would be to invite sexism, to perpetuate negative stereotypes of women and feminists as bitchy harpies. Of course, this reflects my position as a white, cis woman: this discomfort with seeing any woman in a bad light. I reasoned that although abuse by women was awful, it wasn’t a structural problem; that women hating each other must be ultimately down to patriarchy, and internalised misogyny. If it weren’t for that, we would all get along, as Feminist God intended us to.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied.
2013 brought more answers. After reading through the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen****, I researched. I read about slave owners’ wives. I read about violence committed by white women against women of colour, particularly black women. I researched modern-day violence against disabled women, which is often committed by female carers, and violence against trans women and non-binary people.
The ‘sisterhood’ narrative ignores structural violence, power structures and everyday labour relations between women. It ignores the propensity of some people with a little bit of power to kick down, hard.
Take a cleaner at my university: she’s a working-class Latina woman, paid below minimum wage, working long hours at an institition where I pay astronomical fees to study. ‘Sisterhood’ denotes fairness; sadly, our connection is unequal and unfair.
Relations between women are rarely simple in any context, though. Western society encourages women to compete with each other for jobs, promotions, and male attention. Mainstream media like the Daily Mail devalues relations between women, gleefully reporting on celebrity ‘cat fights’ and churning out endless misogynistic pieces.
Despite all this negativity, the complexity of our relations has space for beautiful female friendships. Despite background differences, women are capable of loving each other as firmly as a rock and as deeply as the ocean, cultivating relationships that span lifetimes. Words can’t describe how I treasure my female friends; I simply can’t imagine connecting with men the same way.
It’s important to remember women’s agency – that we are so much more than victims of sexism, pushed into competition. We have always been more.
But conversely, if we invalidate abuse by women, we ignore our own agency; we overlook our capability to do both great and terrible things, on our own terms, and our accountability for our actions.
Generalising that some women are mean to each other purely because of ‘internalised misogyny’, and refusing to open the conversation to abuse by women, is to invalidate that abuse, and to ignore the fact that some women are actively participating in racist, bigoted, patriarchal power structures.
This invalidation also oversimplifies the motives and prejudices of abusive women, who can target people of all ages and genders. It devalues the experiences of children, elderly people and disabled people of any gender who are abused by female carers, and their right to be taken seriously. It devalues the legal and moral accountability of those carers. It detracts from the fact that abuse can be physical, sexual, and emotional. And it overlooks our agency, making us all sound like passive sock puppets for the patriarchy.
In reality, women – especially powerful women – are capable of doing horrible things for all kinds of reasons, just like men.
Women of any background can be predatory, bigoted bullies. Some abusers insinuate themselves into feminist spaces, or marginal spaces for vulnerable women, where they use popularity and charisma to manipulate others. And their gender is no excuse.
White cis feminists in particular are capable of being horrifically bigoted and violent: look at radical feminist Cathy Brennan, who uses her high-profile job and her brand of feminism to attack young trans women.
Abuse must be seen in the context it happens in. It does no good to derail specific conversations about misogyny and structural violence against women (as men’s rights activists do) to point out that some men are abused, too. This is disrespectful and counterproductive.
But feminists still can’t overlook abusive, oppressive behaviour because it doesn’t fit a simplistic narrative of Women Oppressed By Patriarchy. Ignorance does us no favours.
As feminists (and, to my fellow white cis middle-class feminists – this absolutely applies to you):
– We need to talk about unacceptable behaviour by people of all backgrounds within feminist groups*****, including bullying and exclusionary behaviour. We must confront bigotry, whether it’s in our feminist circles or dripping from the mouths of feminist media ‘spokeswomen’.
– We need to talk about calling out other women on unacceptable behaviour, which we would not let a man get away with.
– We need to talk about white feminists feeling inappropriately entitled to tell women of colour what to do.******
– We need to be able to discuss abuse by women – friends, girlfriends, mothers, carers, and teachers – without feeling this is somehow unfeminist or disloyal. We need to see this abuse as serious, without victim blaming or ridicule.
– We need to validate and listen to people who have been abused by women, in any way. It is possible to do this without devaluing all relationships between women, or putting women down.
– It is possible to support girls and women, whilst also accepting that some women and girls can be abusive.
Being human is hard. Working together is hard. But deciding that we have to cover for our mates’ behaviour, or deny the validity of abuse, is not the way forward.
Some white middle-class cis feminists seem to think of sisterhood as ‘feminists must all broadly agree, and present a united front’. Those who dissent are told they are holding back the movement. In many cases, it’s the ones most vulnerable to violence – trans women in particular – who are accused of causing intra-community strife. This is a terribly unfair weight to bear.
My own concept of sisterhood is that no one should expect sisters to agree on every point, or even to like each other. In the end, though, sisters must confront their differences if they want to live in the same house. But perhaps that’s too simplistic an analogy.
Still: we need dialogue. To me, false unity is not sisterhood.
And if it is, then I want nothing to do with it.
Links to articles and blogs
*Dzodan, Flavia. “Tiger Beatdown.” › MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT! Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
**Brown, Sarah. “Whatever This Nonsense Letter Is Complaining About, It Is Not Censorship.” Sarah Brown’s Blog. N.p., 14 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
“UnCommon Sense.” : Open Letter to Mary Beard. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
“You Are Oppressing Us!” Feministkilljoys. 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
***Kirk-Robinson, Zoe. “Criado-Perez Gets Cisgenderism Spectacularly Wrong.” Web.
“At Long Last, TERFs, Have You No Sense of Decency?” The Other Sarah. 16 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
****Byng, Rhonesha. “#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen Creator, Mikki Kendal, Speaks About Women Of Color, Feminism (VIDEO).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
***** “Sex Essentialism: TERF Patriarchy and Smelly Vaginas.” The TransAdvocate. N.p., 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
***** Kendall, Mikki. “Jessica Williams Doesn’t Need Your Permission: How White Feminists Hurt Everyone by Trying to Lead Women of Colour.” Bustle. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.