On International Women’s Day, a few dozen students at my school held a rally and speakout for women and girls to share their experiences and why they need feminism. Many of their comments focused on incidents of catcalling, slut-shaming, being harassed or otherwise silenced or objectified. It was a welcome space affording a voice to these students, though few spoke of any overarching concept of ideology and oppression. The speakout was firmly enclosed within the lens of gender and sexism.
Is it what we need for a revolutionary women’s liberation movement? No, but is it totally useless or without any place at all? I’d say no. It's a starting point. Recognizing and adjusting to where people’s priorities and consciousness lie can form a perfectly workable frame for expanding to a view of broader oppression and interlinked issues. If a person’s primary experiences and lens center around gender--or race, or disability, etc.--that in itself isn't, in my opinion and experience, something “real” revolutionaries with “better” analysis should rush to change. Frames of identity do not inexorably produce shallow or restricted conclusions about the world.
This is a line we’ve got to tread carefully. I've been in meetings where “identity politics” becomes such a thorny issue that I hear more people denounce it out of hand than actually consider how to account for and include disparate identities in the broader struggle we’re supposedly working for. An over-emphasis on identities, and the accompanying tokenization, obsequiousness, and sometimes reductionist arguments could understandably obstruct the progress of liberation movements, but refusing to account for nuance, and dismissing concerns rooted in identity, is also an ineffective and exclusive road.
The focus on identity will make or break our movement. It’s a necessary component, but we need to get it right, or it will erode or be used against us.
There are certain obvious pitfalls of the umbrella of often shallow anti-oppression thought known as identity politics: the self-righteousness of attracting token minorities to your group, the setting of quotas for surface-level “diversity” points, the idea of “trickle-down empowerment,” white feminism, the atomized thinking about separate oppressions (“I can't be racist because I'm gay”). There are also divisive and dangerous uses of identity politics employed by right wing or even neonazi forces, e.g. invoking concern for women’s freedoms in order to advocate for a Muslim ban, to “protect” women from Islam.
But the binary narrative on identity--centered or dismissed--has damaging potential either way. If our goal isn't systemic change, we will leave people behind. For instance, prioritizing a reform like closing the wage gap leaves behind those whose oppressive situation isn’t exactly alleviated by that reform alone. Similarly, in the early twentieth century women’s movement, the focus on suffrage left behind (or deliberately excluded) women of color and all others whose liberation required a great deal more than the vote.
The corollary is that if our goal is only systemic change, lacking nuance around identity, we will still leave people behind. This paradigm appears in the argument that class should be the ultimate and solitary lens through which a revolutionary analysis and praxis can emerge, which provides a one-size-fits-all “liberation” that doesn't account for varying situations of oppression and excludes people whose experience of oppression is compounded by and not necessarily founded in their class status.
Women's struggle must be a struggle of all people against sexism and capitalism, and the struggle against capitalism must be women's struggle. Neither should be expected to be totally subsumed by the other. Failure to overcome divides between gender and race and class means those identities can be used to divide us. For instance, class solidarity is undermined when men who are exploited under capitalism are taught to take refuge in the entitlement of their masculinity and/or whiteness, to blame the advancement of women and people of color instead of blaming our dehumanizing economic model. Class oppression is thus reified through sexism and racism.
Capitalism did not create sexism, but utilized it heavily to exploit unpaid female labor. Sexism was logically incorporated into capitalism because the sanctification of property only strengthened the preexisting concept of women as property, thereby deepening gender oppression. These systems work in tandem, but eliminating one will not by default eliminate the other. Women have never lived neatly separated single-issue lives--and the struggle against gender oppression must be more than just a women’s movement, since distilling it to only “women's” issues locks nonbinary people out of the conversation.
A risk of the identity politics approach is that of separating women from other issues and reducing them to gender. War, for instance, is easily a feminist issue but rarely appears in the conversation. Not framing it like that allows for the bizarre contradictions in imperialist arguments about how the US invades other countries to “help” or “free” the women there. How can we talk about women's liberation through war, as though women will somehow be exempted from the casualties of those wars? It's not like our bombs miraculously avoid the women they are liberating. Similarly, when Israel claims to be LGBTQ-friendly, accepting that argument requires abstracting queer rights from the lived experience of occupation, because it isn't as though LGBTQ Palestinians aren't also bombed, or receive better treatment at checkpoints or jails. The rhetoric of identity, placed in a vacuum, can be rendered meaningless and serve to just put a more liberal, progressive face on systems of oppression.
It is necessary to reconcile the importance of identities and specific experiences while putting forth strong political analysis and praxis, based on more than settling for trickle down empowerment or for only changing the face of the same system. And we all have to start somewhere, with whatever background and experiences we bring.
So I would have appreciated if the event at my school had had a broader vision and story to tell about gender oppression, but there is still benefit in just sharing experiences and focusing on upholding and affirming women’s identities. It’s a step in a process of education and realization about our situations in the world. Systemic feminism, intersectional feminism, isn’t everyone’s starting place, but it can--must--be a destination no matter where we begin.
Using a frame explicitly grounded in gender and sexist oppression, radical philosophy like bell hooks’s poses the necessary questions and illustrates the contradictions that push us toward a broader, intersectional, revolutionary feminism. Reform is exposed as fundamentally inadequate when we consider: who are we reforming the system for? Who does “justice” cater to? What counts as progress? To whose level do we want to be made equal? Who gets left behind?