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“Get The L Out” is a group of *Lesbian and feminist individuals and organizations who oppose the increasingly anti-Lesbian and misogynistic LGBT movement and the erasure of Lesbians.
Angela C. Wild is one of the organizers behind the #GetTheLOut protest, which took place during Pride in London this year. She is a Lesbian feminist activist, a writer, and a political artist based in the UK. Her work focuses particularly on challenging institutions such as compulsory heterosexuality and motherhood; on protecting and creating women-only spaces; and promoting Lesbian* rights and visibility.
MEGHAN MURPHY: Tell me a bit about yourself — when did you first come out as a lesbian and what brought you to lesbian activism?
ANGELA C. WILD: I became a Lesbian feminist in 2013. I use Adrienne Rich’s definition of the term, “Lesbian feminist”: a woman whose feminist politics, consciousness, and sexuality are interlinked and developed together; a woman who sees heterosexuality as an oppressive institution for women. As a woman who was trapped in heterosexuality for a huge part of my life, when I heard about the “cotton ceiling” in 2012, I was outraged and saw it immediately as an assault against Lesbians’ right to sexual boundaries, as well as an assault against every woman’s right to sexual boundaries, as it pushes compulsory heterosexuality on women. My lesbianism and my critique of the trans ideology developed simultaneously and are inherently linked.
MM: You and your group are behind a website called“Get The L Out”— what does that mean? Get the L out of what? What is the message?
AW: “Get the L out of LGBT” is an expression that has been used by Lesbians for some time now. The LGBT community does not represent nor does it advocate for Lesbians. As is always the case, when women organize in mixed groups, men’s issues take priority over women’s issues, men’s voices and concerns are centred, and women’s concerns are dismissed as irrelevant or secondary. Women have witnessed this on the left, in the anarchist movement, in the environmental movement, etc. Unsurprisingly, what is happening today in the LGBT community is no different. When the sexual rights of men who call themselves “transwomen” or Lesbians take priority over the rights of women to define their sexuality then as Lesbians, we have a problem.
MM: Your group argues that “lesbian rights are under attack by the trans movement” and you “encourage lesbians everywhere to leave the LGBT and form their own independent movement, as well as to be vocal and take action against the proposed changes to the GRA.” How do you see lesbian rights as being under attack by the trans movement and why do you oppose proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) in the UK?
AW: We witness Lesbian erasure in our lives and in the lives of Lesbians around us every day. It is very telling that a lot of gay men — including the PinkNews reporter who filmed the protest — are not familiar with the term “Lesbian erasure.” It reveals how unconcerned they are about the issues we face as Lesbians.
Lesbian erasure takes many forms: it can mean lack of representation or negative representation in the media, and it can also mean the denial of historical Lesbian figures in history (the first wave and suffragette movement is full of Lesbians, yet few know this). Today, it means that Lesbians are routinely pressured — via Lesbian dating sites and forums, women’s festivals, Lesbian gatherings — to include men who call themselves “lesbians” in our communities and as sexual partners. It means actual Lesbians are being shamed for not wanting to have relationships with men who call themselves “Lesbians” (this is what trans activists have labelled the “cotton ceiling,” referring to the fact that lesbians reject trans-identified males as intimate/sexual partners).
Today, in the LGBT community, Lesbians cannot openly say that they are not attracted to penises or would not date a “pre-op transwoman,” because this is now considered “transphobic.” Look at what happened to Arielle Scarcella, the Lesbian YouTuber who has been targeted for saying she would not date a “pre-op transwoman.” In the name of “inclusivity” and “progress,” we have reached a stage wherein same sex attraction is called “hate speech” — this is what Pride and London Mayor Sadiq Kahn’s condemning our action communicate very loudly to Lesbians. Reframing females who are attracted to other females as somehow “bigoted” or “hateful” functions as a vicious form of misogyny, because it denies women’s right to have sexual boundaries. It is clear anti-lesbian propaganda enforcing compulsory heterosexuality, under the guise of political correctness.
We also know that “gender non-conforming” girls (what we used to call “tomboys”) are transitioned at an alarming rate in the UK (Transgender Trend and Lesbian Rights Alliance have done crucial work on this issue). As Lesbians who do not perform femininity, and as feminists who campaign against sex stereotypes, we cannot support the social or medical transitioning of women and girls who reject sexist stereotypes. Refusing to look like or behave in a “feminine way” does not make one a boy.
In the UK, the government has begun a consultation process regarding proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Trans activists are campaigning to make it easier for people to “choose their gender,” meaning that a man could simply “self-identify” as a woman in order to legally be considered female, without any process or procedure. It would make legal what is actually already happening in practice today, which is that men calling themselves women are being given access to women-only spaces, all-women shortlists, female prisons (as offenders), women’s toilets, rape crisis centres, transition houses, change rooms, pools, etc…
Fighting these changes is essential, but we also need stronger sex-based protections. We need to maintain the unequivocal rights of women to have our segregated spaces on the basis of our sex, not “gender identity.”
These discussions need to be part of the consultation process, which is why women need to be vocal now. We also need to highlight the fact that Lesbians need to be heard on this issue. Under the UK Equality Act 2010, there is an evident clash of rights between Lesbians (females who are sexually attracted to other females) and so-called “transwomen” (including men who identify as “lesbians”). In this case, the category “sexual orientation” is in direct conflict with the category “gender identity.” Same-sex attraction is a protected category under the law, but if any male person can identify as a woman and as a lesbian, this nullifies the rights of Lesbians to exclude males from our sexual life. Lesbians are attracted to other women on the basis of their sex, not their “gender identity,” yet men claiming to be Lesbians insist we accept them as sexual partners on the basis of their “gender identity.” It is this new definition of “Lesbian” that we reject. Why should the rights of men who identify as “women” supersede the rights of Lesbians?
MM: Your inaugural protest took place at London Pride on July 7th. Can you tell me about that? What did you do and why?
AW: First, I want to say that the group of women who have worked together to make this happen have been activeformany years around this issue. I got involved in 2012, but some of us were aware and active way before that. In the past, we conducted a series of actions, including protesting the 2014 London Dyke March, because the main speakers for a number of years were men (who call themselves “transwomen”). The media took little notice of our protest then, because, in my opinion, no one in the mainstream cares about dykes.
Taking the protest to Pride (which includes both men and women, so naturally is a male-centred event and receives huge media attention) seemed like the obvious thing to do. A number of Lesbians worldwide (New Zealand, Baltimore, San Francisco, and more…) have demonstrated against the increasingly misogynistic GBT movement this year alone. We felt it was important to show that British-based Lesbians were fighting back as well, because this is a global problem. Other women who demonstrated as part of their local marches, carrying signs challenging trans activism and advocating for Lesbians, have been harassed and sometimes beaten.
We decided to not march in the Pride March, because we do not feel part of Pride as its message exclude us. Instead, we decided to confront the parade by standing in front with banners explaining our message and with flyers to distribute to the crowd. The idea was to disrupt and delay the march for long enough for us to be seen. We had a GoPro camera to film our own protest. We have very little access to the media to explain our message, so guerrilla tactics such as this are the only way we found to reach a wider audience. We hadn’t made definite plans in terms of the action, so improvised as we went along.
It is incredible to realize what a huge corporate machine Pride has become, with sponsors and officials all queuing up to show how progressive they are — it is a massive business opportunity for them, so of course Pride has become an incredibly apolitical event. It is also very guarded and regimented, so there is no way we could have obtained a pass to march in the parade given that our pro-women politics are perceived as hate speech. So, a few minutes before the beginning of the march, we just jumped in.
MM: What was the reaction to your protest from others at the march and from the media?
AW: It was very interesting to witness people’s reactions. Many understood the situation and what we were advocating for, and were supportive of what we were doing. This is also true for a number of gay men, who I think begin to realize how inherently homophobic the trans movement really is.
The general media reaction was (unsurprisingly) to condemn the action as anti-trans, because, naturally, stating that Lesbians do not either want or have penises is seen as an attack on men. All these men are completely obsessed with their penises don’t you think?
The main feedback we received after the demonstration came in the form of a huge amount of supportive emails, sent privately by women who say they agree with us but cannot say so publicly. This is very telling and shows that a majority of Lesbians and women, in general, are threatened into compliance by the trans movement or kept silenced by fear. This is the state women and Lesbians are in today. I don’t see any reason to see Pride as a celebration of the progress we supposedly have made.
MM: PinkNewsreports that Pride in London issued a statement “rescinding their earlier positions and issuing an apology to trans attendees, [and] condemning GetTheLOut’s actions.” The statementreads:
“We are sorry.
Yesterday a group of individuals labelled as “Get The L Out!”, who were not a registered parade group, forced their way to the front of the parade to stand on the rainbow flag. Their behaviour was shocking and disgusting, and we condemn it completely.
The lesbian board members at Pride in London made their anger towards the unsanctioned group clear and our organisation as a whole condemns their actions. The protest group showed a level of bigotry, ignorance and hate that is unacceptable.
We reject what this group stands for. They do not share our values, which are about inclusion and respect and support for the most marginalised parts of our community.
We are proud of our trans volunteers, proud of the trans groups that are in our parade, proud of our trans speakers at events and proud of the trans people who take part in our campaigns and proud of those who cheered even louder for them yesterday…
… A comment from Patricia Curtis, Board Member: TransPALS
‘It’s disappointing that anti-trans activists decided to hijack the front of a parade, an insult to all the hardworking staff in the NHS whose place they stole.
But their vile stunt failed. London is a place that doesn’t tolerate hate. The reaction of the crowds to our groups was inspiring. We felt their support and goodwill all the way from Portland Place to Trafalgar Square.’
What do you think about this statement? Can you respond?
AW: It all comes down to this: does society at large and the GBT community accept that women and Lesbians have a fundamental right to sexual boundaries?
It would seem that they don’t.
Today, in 2018, Lesbians who refuse so-called “transwomen” as sexual partners receive death threats and rape threats. The Pride committee called women who state that the penis is a male organ which has nothing to do with Lesbians “bigoted,” “ignorant,” and hateful.” Pride, as part of the GBT community, needs to be held accountable for their complicity with this modern form of rape culture which targets lesbians, specifically.
We protested in order to protect our rights and on behalf of all the Lesbians being intimidated, threatened, and silenced. This is what the LGBT “community” is supposed to do. Today, Lesbians are not only not supported by the movement, but actually targeted by it. This is unacceptable and we will not accept it.
MM: It is often claimed that “the Pride movement was begun by trans people.” For example, it is repeated online ad nauseam that “a transwoman threw the first brick” at Stonewall. Is this true?
AW: Here is another obvious example of Lesbian erasure and, in that particular case, black Lesbian erasure. It was a black Lesbian named Stormé DeLarverie who started up the riots. Claire Heuchan recently published a brilliant write up about it: when the police attacked, DeLarverie hit back, then was arrested. Heuchan explains that when Stormé complained about being cuffed too tightly, an officer hit her with a billy club, so she turned to the crowd and yelled, “Why don’t you guys do something?” This launched the Stonewall riots. Historically speaking, transgenderism was not an ideology at the time. Marsha and Sylvia, who are usually credited with starting the riot, were not “transwomen” — they were gay men and drag queens. This really needs to be seen as a patriarchal rewriting of history and erasure of black Lesbians’ significant role in the gay rights movement. The trans movement has not only been claiming gay men and drag queens as “transgender,” but also transing Lesbians in the past, claiming they were really “transmen” (because they were gender non-conforming). The case of Claude Cahun or Radcliff Hall are some of the most obvious example of that trend.
MM: Lesbian feminists have taken up the slogan, “Lesbian not queer.” Why? What does this mean?
AW: “Lesbian” and “queer” have significantly different political connotations. First of all, obviously “Lesbian” refers exclusively to females. Only a woman can be a Lesbian — this is why we do not call ourselves “gay women.” “Gay” and “queer” are used by everyone. Even straight couples call themselves “queer” these days! “Queer” does not mean anything at all, and it certainly does not mean “female who is sexually attracted to other females.”
Queer politics, born from postmodern theory, is in essence anti-feminist. Queer theory claims there is no such thing as the category “woman,” which opened up a path for the trans movement as we know it today. If the category “woman” is seen as politically irrelevant, where does that leave the feminist movement? What are feminists fighting for?
I really like Bit Blair and Ashley Obinwanne’s article about it at After Ellen. They explain that “queer” is a friendly, inclusive, neutral term, whereas “Lesbian” unequivocally means, “I only date women” — “exclusively female only.” That is a political statement in itself. It has a hostile connotation because men hate being excluded from anything (see Marilyn Frye’s notes on separatism and power). A woman calling herself a Lesbian is a political act in and of itself because that means that, by definition, she excludes men, which is forbidden in patriarchy. A Lesbian is a woman who has already said “no” to men’s sexual advances — trans activists who claim to be lesbians are pushing women sexual boundaries. This is rape culture.
MM: What is your advice to lesbians elsewhere — in the US and Canada, for example, where trans activism has similarly taken over and where women who support women-only spaces and who question or criticize violence advocated by trans activists and notions of innate “gender” are branded “bigots” and “TERFs” — in terms of pushing back and defending the rights of women and lesbians?
AW: Apart from raising awareness, this action was taken for women everywhere, to show support for them, to speak on behalf of women who are silenced, and to tell them it can be done. More women have spoken up about the issue of gender identity and trans activism this year than in the last five years. We can win this. I want to see more direct action — this makes us visible and strong, and if we can do it in London, other women can do similar things too where they live and shake things up.
So my advice is this: find like-minded women. That’s the first step. I know it’s tough, but we are everywhere. If you are in a queer environment, leave — this shit is poisonous and it is brainwashing Lesbians. Go online find the radfem community. You will need friends because this is what will keep you sane in this mental environment which forces us to deny the reality we know.
Obviously, disobey. If you support women-only spaces, create those women only-spaces which we are not allowed to have today — even small ones. Have consciousness-raising groups and meet real women in real life — this is the basis of everything. There are a number of spaces that still exist — womyn-only gatherings have happened in France in the last two years, replicated in different parts of Europe this year. Women’s land, I am sure, exists everywhere. Find ones that are near you, go to them, and support them if you can. If you and your group are in a position to create one, do it. This is where the resistance is born in terms of building sisterhood, theory, and activism. It gives us strength and makes us feel as though we are part of a movement– this is why they are forbidden to us.
Trans ideology and trans activism is no different than any male rights movement — it employs the same tactics men use against women to keep us in place: gaslighting, threats of violence, actual violence, shaming, ostracization, economic abuse, name calling, etc. They use these tactics to keep us scared. This is how they maintain power over us. At some point we will collectively need to realize that we need to get past our fear of men, disobey, and take action.
*Lesbian is capitalized for the purposes of this article as per Mary Daly’s usage, in reference to the writer’s “women-identification” and her rejection of “false loyalty towards men and male myths.” (Daly, 1987.)
I can’t remember the exact words, who said it or when, but the general message was: courage isn’t the lack of fear, but doing something even when you’re afraid. I am writing this with lots of fear about a backlash that will almost certainly happen. However, I’ve reached the point where I can’t stay silent any longer and need to muster whatever courage I can and do what I think is right, regardless of the cost.
This past week, a woman I’m proud to call a sister ally, Yuly Chan, was no-platformed by a small group of individuals who appointed themselves judge and jury of acceptable ideas and speech. They claimed Chan was a violent, hateful woman whose political opinions were too dangerous to be shared in a public venue and demanded she be removed from a panel scheduled as part of this weekend’s Vancouver Crossroads conference. Chan had been invited by conference organizers, the Vancouver District and Labour Council (VLDC), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and Organize BC, to speak on behalf of her group, the Chinatown Action Group. The Chinatown Action Group organizes to improve the lives of low-income residents of Vancouver’s Chinatown, many of whom are seniors. She was to speak to the incredibly important work of this group at the conference.
A recently-formed group called the Coalition Against Trans Antagonism (CATA) wrote a letter to the organizers, then an open letter that included a link to a website CATA had built, documenting supposed evidence of Chan as a threat to public safety. Although Chan was not speaking on the panel about debates around gender or prostitution, Organize BC members interrogated Chan about her politics regarding these issues and eventually refused to move ahead with the panel unless she was removed. Instead of condemning the unethical tactics and behaviour of CATA, intended to silence Chan and smear her as a hate-filled oppressor, the organizers cancelled the entire panel, sending a message that the organizers and their supporters were not willing to take a stand to ensure the needs of low-income Chinese residents were heard. As a result, the Chinatown Action Group was no-platformed right along with their representative.
CATA also demanded that the conference organizers issue a public apology for daring to invite Chan to speak about the activism of low-income Chinese residents of Vancouver. They also demanded that a policy be instituted with the guidance and approval of only “trans women and sex workers,” banning anyone “who promote[s] any form of oppressive, supremacist, and fascist ideology from being offered and/or provided a platform at any of VDLC, CUPE, and Organize BC’s future events.” But who decides which ideologies are “oppressive, supremacist, and fascist”? And why, in activist and academic circles, has it become common and acceptable to engage in witch hunts to rid “the community” (that is made up of whom?) of particular political positions that are grounded not in hate or violence, but in a radical feminist analysis (radical meaning “the root”)? Chan, and so many others who question and critique systems of power are being persecuted for having these feminist or critical politics. It is not violent oppressors, supremacists, or fascists that are being silenced and no-platformed in this case and others like it, it is feminists. There are limits, of course, to the idea of “free speech,” but what I am addressing is specifically discourse among activists and academics on the left.
Organize BC privately and publicly apologized to CATA for inviting Yuly Chan to speak on the panel. But I will not apologize for standing next to Chan and the Chinatown Action Group, and next to all people who have been no-platformed, threatened, intimidated, bullied, and even beaten for their political opinions.
What was Chan’s crime? Having a political analysis and sharing it. She is accused of promoting “SWERF/TERF” ideology. “SWERF” stands for “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist,” and “TERF” stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.” These terms are used as insults against women with a radical feminist or class analysis of prostitution and gender. “SWERFs” and “TERFs” are accused of hating, oppressing, harming, and sometimes even killing trans women and sex workers, despite the fact no feminist engages in these practices.
I am of the political opinion that prostitution is a form of male violence that should be abolished. I am also of the political opinion that gender is a social construct and hierarchy that traps and harms women and should also be abolished. Today, these two sentences are enough to mark me as a violent, hate-filled, supremacist/fascist, and have the ability to destroy my reputation, livelihood, and potential academic or employment opportunities now and in the future. I have already been passed over for some opportunities due to my political analysis of prostitution, asked to leave conferences, told I’m not allowed to speak about prostitution when invited to speak about Indigenous research, and threatened with police involvement. I have been intimidated and harassed due only to my politics, not my behaviour. These are only some examples of some of the backlash that I, and other women, have experienced for speaking our opinions. This backlash, however, doesn’t just include no-platforming, but also threats and acts of violence. To many, this may sound unbelievable, as though I am exaggerating. I wish this were the case. I wish I were exaggerating. Unfortunately, this is the reality of activist and academic circles in Canada and elsewhere.
Speaking of academia, in 2016 I was publicly accused online of being an oppressive “SWERF” and “TERF” by a former employee of the Centre for Gender Advocacy at Concordia University, where I am a student. This is the first time I am speaking publicly about this incident, as I have been too afraid to do so since it happened. Although this individual is no longer employed by the Centre for Gender Advocacy, going on instead to become the president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ), this issue has not been resolved. In the public post, I was accused of oppressing sex workers and being “transphobic,” funders and the university were tagged, a quote was attributed to me that I never said, and individuals went on a hunt to dig up evidence of my supposed bigotry. One person attempted to publicly engage in discussion about these allegations against me, which I’m grateful for, but they were not heard. Some faculty members were concerned that a staff person at a student support organization was making these types of public allegations about a student and alerted some in positions of power at the University, but got little, if any, response. The manager of the Centre for Gender Advocacy was made aware of the situation, and I am not aware of anything that was or is being done to resolve and rectify the situation. No one has reached out to me to apologize for the online bullying I had experienced, or to speak about concerns or questions they had about my politics, leading me to believe this type of hostility is directed at me not only by one staff member, but the Centre for Gender Advocacy as an organization. I explored different options myself, but was unable to find a way to formally hold the individual and Centre to account. I attempted to find support at the University, but those I approached refused to speak out against the behaviour of the individual and the Centre.
Regardless of your politics, this behaviour is unacceptable. It is not ok to tell lies about people or subject them to political persecution over disagreements. It’s important to note that the Centre houses Missing Justice, an Indigenous solidarity group that hosts the march for murdered and disappeared Indigenous women and girls every year in Montreal. As an Indigenous woman who works on these issues, I was already alienated from Missing Justice when, a number of years ago, non-Indigenous organizers told me to stop speaking and attempted to literally grab a megaphone out of my hand when I was invited to make a statement at their gathering by another Indigenous speaker. My crime was a decolonizing and feminist critical analysis of prostitution and speaking out against men buying sexual access to Indigenous women and girls. In other words, my crime was having a political opinion that differed from the organizers. Rather than attempting to silence an Indigenous woman at an event supposedly held for Indigenous women, a better way forward would have been to publicly acknowledge at the event that my statement does not reflect the organizer’s politics and to encourage those in attendance to learn more about the issue.
Although this incident happened many years ago and the online bullying at Concordia happened two years ago, it continues to severely impact my life as a student in different ways. The message I received from the inaction by the University and the Centre for Gender Advocacy is that it is entirely acceptable to attempt to silence those who are critical of prostitution. I still hear this message today. I feel fear about publicizing these experiences. The very fact that I feel intensely afraid to speak about my own experiences speaks volumes about the climate of activism and academia today.
These incidents are bigger than Yuly Chan and bigger than myself. They have and continue to happen against women with a radical feminist analysis of prostitution and gender. Campaigns are launched against us to silence us, destroy our reputations, paint us as violent, hateful, and oppressive fascists. A 61-year-old woman was even physically assaulted by a young trans-identified male for daring to show up to attend a panel discussing gender and legislation in England.
Regardless of your perspective on prostitution or gender, you have a right to be heard. This means that I may not agree with you and I may challenge your ideas, and you may not agree with me and challenge my ideas, but you have a right to your political analysis and to share that publicly, as do I. Threatening women (for example, tweeting that “TERFS” should be raped or killed), destroying women’s reputations, and compromising women’s incomes is completely unacceptable behaviour. This is not how we build and maintain relationships. Relationships with political allies are incredibly important, but so too are the relationships between political adversaries. These relationships are much more difficult and challenging to navigate, but maintaining good relations means being respectful even to those we may disagree with or dislike. Being respectful can mean you passionately disagree, that you challenge ideas and behaviour — even that you express frustration or anger — but always recognizing the humanity of the person you disagree with. “SWERF” and “TERF” are made up categories of women — they are not accurate descriptors of anyone’s politics, certainly not the politics of feminists. These terms take away the ability of women to name ourselves and describe our own political positions – a situation all too familiar for Indigenous women.
Disagreement is not violence, and I worry about the impacts of the term “violence” being redefined to mean almost anything, rendering it meaningless. Causing offense is not the same as committing violence. Words that question or critique political positions are not violence. Words can call for violence, yes, but being critical of prostitution and gender is not calling for any type of violence. Rather, this is a legitimate critical analysis of systems that impact us all. Words and images can contribute to a culture that devalues some, and for many reasons, encourage, normalize, or passively accept acts of violence, but to say that making a statement others find offensive or that challenges their political analysis equates to literal violence right then and there is inaccurate, and is a means to silence those of us who hold critical feminist opinions. This new definition of “violence” also impacts women who do experience male violence, such as rape, physical assault, murder, or emotional abuse, to name just a few examples.
The name of the conference, “Crossroads,” speaks to our current culture, which silences women deemed dangerous. We are at a crossroads: we can choose to open up dialogue and encourage respectful disagreement and really work to hear from as many as we can who are impacted by an issue — even if the political position is unpopular — or we can choose to let only a few individuals decide that radical political opinions are dangerous, and allow them to dictate the terms of their and other people’s public engagement with those ideas; then silence, threaten, intimidate, and attempt to harm anyone who does not agree with their politics.
Doing nothing is no longer an option — staying silent only gives more power to those who wish to silence women with politics that differ from their own.
I stand with Yuly Chan, the Chinatown Action Group, and all women who have dared to speak up and share their critical perspectives on prostitution and gender. I’m proud to be considered a dangerous woman, as I try to be as dangerous to the patriarchy as possible. As women, we are trained to tolerate, accept, and accommodate patriarchy, racism, capitalism, and colonization.
Too often, activists and academics who claim to be working for justice choose to side with individuals who use bully tactics to shut women that they don’t agree with up. There is nothing new or progressive or inclusive or diverse about telling feminist women to shut up. A strategy grounded in recognizing another’s humanity would include engaging, debating, and disagreeing passionately and respectfully at public events or holding an event to highlight one’s own particular political analysis and engaging in public discussion and advocacy around the issue at hand. Silencing women considered dangerous for having thoughts and sharing them is not how we treat each other when we recognize each other as equals.
I encourage all dangerous women and allies to speak out against the no-platforming and assault on women who express radical feminist opinions or critical ideas about prostitution and gender.
Update 05/06/2018: I want to express my gratitude to those who support a woman’s right to speak and to disagree, but I also want to express my gratitude to the women who have spoken out before me and to those who support me and the right to academic freedom at Concordia and in academia and activist circles generally.
Cherry Smiley is a Nlaka’pamux and Diné feminist who refuses to be silent.
“We have become reluctant to be labelled as moral crusaders in an age when human potential has degenerated to “doing your own thing”. We are conditioned to making bland observations and cynical jokes in response to obscenities of a national scale and perversity of universal magnitude. We are numbed to the point of being at home with cruelty and despair.” – Hilde Hein, 1982
In her 1986 book, A Passion for Friends: Towards a Philosophy of Female Affection, Janice Raymond references Hilde Hein’s work in order to describe a curious phenomenon creeping into parts of the women’s movement during that time. “The tyranny of tolerance,” she argues, “dissuades women from tough-minded thinking, from responsibility for disagreement with others, and from the will to act. Worse, it allows oppressive values to surface without being rebutted.”
Raymond’s observation is full of insight that can (more easily than it should) be applied to feminism today. The totalitarian rule of patriarchy has enforced a particularly noxious stipulation on young women: no value judgements should be made about anything or anyone. Morals are for prudes, and critical engagement is deemed “exclusionary” of various groups or individuals. The term “patriarchy” is bandied around by many as if it is nothing but a strange object that occasionally falls from the sky, constantly mentioned in passing but never quite given the depth of analysis it requires.
The word, “toleration” is derived from the Latin tolerare, meaning “to endure, sustain, suffer” and, quite literally, “to bear.” In patriarchy, women have been groomed into a perpetual state of tolerance. The toleration of male customs, cultures, behaviour, and sexuality has historically been enforced onto women by the laws of male gods, male states, and male family members. From the “witch craze,” where hundreds of thousands of women were publicly tortured and killed for refusing to defer to the authority of the Church, to the often brutal forms of anti-lesbianism directed towards women who choose to have sexual relationships with women rather than with men, persecution is seemingly inevitable for the women who refuse to be tolerant of male rule. Today, tolerance training starts early — young girls are taught to endure the boys who humiliate them in the playground, to turn their gaze away from the online pornography, to close their ears to the misogyny they hear all around them.
Raymond describes tolerance as a passive position. It creates non-action, apathy, and a repressed sensitivity to the injustices done by men to women. In other words, conditioning women and girls to be “tolerant” is not unintentional.
It is not completely surprising, therefore, that women — particularly young women — are reluctant to form their own sense of right and wrong; of discerning what values can be considered feminist and what can not; and of articulating what needs to change, if women are ever to be free from male domination.
This tyranny of tolerance is most evident in what is today referred as “intersectional feminism,” and dominates in many a Western university. Misuse of Crenshaw’s original theory means that this brand of “feminism” more closely reflects a certain type of liberal individualism, which adheres to male dogma under the guise of progressivity and social justice. It is not coincidental that the choices this ideology frames as “feminist” represent, down to the very last stroke of mascara, the tools used by men to colonize women.
Prostitution, now named “sex work” by many student activists and academics, is defiantly presented in this framework as the result of a woman’s personal, empowered choice, despite the reality that most women in prostitution are there through lack of choice. The multi-billion dollar pornography industry records and distributes sadistic acts of misogyny, as well as pedophilia, homophobia, and racism, to millions of men and boys across the world — and yet using the guise of “sex-positivity,” these showreels of abuse are marketed as “feminist” by some, while women who criticize the industry are branded “anti-sex” or “whorephobic.”
It is clear that in order to be accepted into the new feminist gang, one must be tolerant of all systems in which women can (hypothetically) exhibit choice, regardless of the system’s intended purpose. The promotion in some contemporary feminist circles of what Raymond describes as “value freedom” — or as Hein puts it, “doing your own thing” — makes it near impossible to define a set of collective values or assert shared goals due to the desire to appear sensitive to and “respectful” of the opinions of every woman in the group. Maintaining respect towards other women is, of course, important, yet surely this should not come at the cost of being entirely unable to express disagreement about a particular point of view or political stance. Moreover, while it may be relatively easy to oppose values which are obviously patriarchal, the difficulty lies in speaking out against those which are more covert.
Under the popular understanding of “intersectional feminism,” women are told that they have sinned by having “cisgender” privilege, which positions being born female and continuing to call oneself a woman as a privileged position to be in. Crucially, females who hold “cisgender privilege” are said to have the ability to oppress males, if those males have decided that they would prefer not to be identified as such.
The idolized image of the “trans inclusive” feminist in Western identity politics has become a marker for whether a woman is truly apologetic for her female body — apologetic enough to render it meaningless and, in spite of its historical exploitation, objectification, and domination by men, come to view it as a sign of privilege instead. To be a tolerant feminist today is to publicly and endlessly repent for one’s supposed sins — the greatest sin of all being, according to some, in possession of a female body.
Last year, 136 women were killed by men in the UK. On average, one woman was killed every 2.6 days. In India, where the practice of female infanticide is particularly common, the female child population in the age group of zero to six years declined from approximately 79 million in 2001 to 75 million in 2011. Last month, Denmark opened its first sex doll brothel. It markets itself as “the place where all gentlemen are welcome and where girls don’t say no.” In England and Wales alone, 85,000 women are raped per year. This means that today, on average, 10 women will be raped per hour.
Women must reconsider what they tolerate, and what they do not. Though intolerant women are labelled “exclusionary,” “phobic,” or “hateful,” men have now systemically oppressed women for centuries, yet still remain tolerated by the majority of us. As women, we must begin to form what Andrea Dworkin calls “a moral intelligence” — an ability to construct our own woman-centred system of values and ethics. Looking back at the trail of violence, colonization, and death left behind by men across the world, there is no reason women should be tolerant of patriarchal dogma; no matter what form it takes.
May Mundt-Leach is a university student from the UK and member of the radical feminist organisation Kvinnorum, which strives to provide women-separatist spaces and gatherings. The opinions expressed here are only representative of her own.
Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra, and Salma Hayek at the 2018 Oscars.
On Sunday night at the Oscars, the big #MeToo moment was brought to us by Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek, and Annabella Sciorra. While these women have been incredibly brave in sharing their stories of abuse and harassment in Hollywood, it seems the industry is still dictating the message.
“This year many spoke their truth and the journey ahead is long but slowly a new path has emerged,” Sciorra said. And while a new path has indeed emerged, as women have banded together to speak out against men’s abuse in numbers I have never witnessed in my lifetime, I’m left wondering where that path will lead us, without a clear understand of the issues at hand.
“The changes we are witnessing is being driven by the powerful sound of new voices, of different voices, of our voices, joining together in a mighty chorus that is finally saying, ‘Time’s up,'” Judd said. “And we work together to make sure the next 90 years empower these limitless possibilities of equality, diversity, inclusion, intersectionality.”
But what is truly powerful about the voices leading #TimesUp and #MeToo was strangely excluded from Judd’s list of “limitless possibilities”: women.
This past year has been made possible only by the feminist movement. Our understanding that sexual assault and sexual harassment are bad things is a direct result of the work women have done to show how men’s power is systemic and how their violence is normalized because women are constructed as less-than-human under patriarchy. Feminists’ work analyzing and articulating sexual objectification underlies what preceded this mass conversation, allowing comments about grabbing women “by the pussy” to be seen as a literal manifestation of that objectification. So to hear three women who took great risks in speaking out about what Harvey Weinstein did to them, in order to contribute to a larger conversation about how men’s dehumanization of women leads to violence and to hold men accountable for behaviour they’ve gotten away with for centuries, because of a system that institutionalizes men’s dominance, without mentioning either women or the feminist movement was shocking to me.
While all good and progressive concepts, neither “equality,” nor “diversity,” nor “inclusion,” nor “intersectionality” will stop men’s violence. None of these vague, gender-neutral terms address the system that offers up women as things to be used and abused by men. Indeed, these terms have been used to usurp the women’s liberation movement, in large part because of their lack of clarity and political investment in ending patriarchy, specifically.
“Diversity,” for example, can easily be (and, consequently, has been) manipulated to defend the idea that simply allowing more diverse people and bodies to be objectified will resolve any problematic aspects of, for example, the beauty industry or sex industry. Hugh Hefner touted himself as a champion of diversity for allowing a black woman to sell his magazines for him, making Jennifer Jackson Miss March in 1965. He was similarly self-congratulatory (and celebrated) for putting trans model Caroline “Tula” Cossey in the magazine in 1991. In an attempt to escape their sexist reputation, American Apparel, a company then-run by a man famous for sexually harassing and exploiting his young female staff, launched “The Next Big Thing,” a contest to find plus-size models.
Clearly, these are not people or companies invested in women’s liberation… Yet, it’s easy for them to pose as allies when we offer up vague, gender-neutral terms to replace more accurate ones. Similar to “diversity” and “equality,” terms like “body acceptance,” “strength,” and “empowerment” have all been co-opted to further sell porn culture and objectification for the same reason: lack of specificity.
What’s so great about the term “feminism” is that it is specific about its focus on women and it’s opposition specifically to patriarchy. Though many attempt to water-down its radical roots and and meaning, the term “feminism” is not in fact about “equality.” Women do not want equal access to misogynist systems, we want an end to those systems.
The notion that “rights” and “equality” for marginalized people will be achieved by fitting them into a patriarchal vision of the world is exactly the problem with these words. “Including” women of colour or women who don’t fit conventional standards of beauty in pornography or other misogynist industries does not address the problems with those industries.
While it is necessary for Hollywood to address it’s white-centric, male-centric blind spots, it’s disappointing to see what is truly a feminist movement erase its roots and radical aims. What’s even worse is that I’m certain this was done in order to avoid making those not on board with the feminist project uncomfortable. In other words, these actresses were likely concerned about alienating men in the room.
But there’s a very good reason that feminism makes men uncomfortable: it centers women, and refuses to cater to male feelings and preferences. For once, we have a movement that is about us and us alone. Altering the language to avoid the uncomfortable feelings men might have about their power being named and challenged strikes me as contrary to our goals.
Feminists have long championed the mantra, “name the problem.” If anything, that is what #MeToo has done. Let’s not stop now.
Reading Renate Klein’s elegantly argued Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation, it’s difficult not to keep repeating to oneself, “How did we get here?”, all the while trying to keep at bay a sense of despair.
“Here” is an allegedly civilized world in which treating a woman’s body as a commodity is regarded in polite liberal circles as not just acceptable but a sign of being progressive. Klein’s analysis of surrogacy focuses on the renting of women’s wombs, what she and others appropriately describe as “reproductive prostitution.” The term reminds us that many liberals also endorse “regular’ prostitution, men’s use of objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure.
How did we get to the point where this reduction of women to bodies is accepted and even celebrated — not only among many men but also many women, even among some feminists?
Klein’s Surrogacy, the third book in the new Spinifex Shorts series, reminds us that these social practices are the core of patriarchy: Men’s claims of ownership and/or control over women’s reproductive power and sexuality. Times have changed in sex/gender politics — largely for the better, because of feminism — but patriarchy has proved remarkably adaptable and resilient. It’s difficult to imagine anyone reading Klein’s book and ignoring a radical feminist critique of these patriarchal practices, yet much of the allegedly civilized world does exactly that — embracing a capitalist liberal/libertarian dogma that focuses on decontextualized choices. From the liberal perspective, when poor and vulnerable women “choose” to rent their bodies in this dangerous and dehumanizing practice, no further analysis is necessary.
Klein will brook none of these evasions. Near the end of the book, she puts it bluntly:
“… New reproductive technologies are used to literally ‘cut up’ real live women into our eggs and wombs, treat us with invasive dangerous hormonal drug cocktails, and, in surrogacy, psychologically manipulate us to believe the myth that gestating a baby without a genetic connection will not cause us to feel any attachment, and hence these ‘surrogate’ babies are not our ‘real’ children. This man-made compartmentalizing ideology creates Test-Tube Women. The idea is that ‘playing God’ (as 1980s critics of reprotechs were wont to say) continues the 6,000 years of patriarchal domination of women in which two points were, and are, central: One, men cannot gestate life and give birth to children (necessary to continue the species Homo sapiens). Two, men as a social group loathe women and our bodies for this power. Conversely, when women ‘fail’ to reproduce, the disdain expressed is stark.”
Klein’s rejection of this compartmentalizing — a function not only of patriarchy but white supremacy and First World imperialism, capitalism, and the worship of high technology — feels like a simple plea for our collective humanity, for seeing each other as fully human and not as things. That Klein’s book is so desperately needed signals how far we are from such basic values.
Klein’s definition of surrogacy reflects those basic values: “Pared down to cold hard facts, surrogacy is the commissioning/buying/renting of a woman into whose womb an embryo is inserted and who thus becomes a ‘breeder’ for a third party.”
Key observations and insights that Klein’s book provides include:
While many people have strong emotional desires to have children, there is no “right” to have a child genetically related to you. The moral claim for surrogacy is an illusion.
The surrogacy medical machine comes with risks for the women who sell eggs and those who carry the fetus, as well for the children born through this method, and there has been little research/testing on the long-term health effects. The health claims of surrogacy are distortions.
Surrogacy routinely involves the exploitation of poorer women, increasingly in the Third World. The political practice of surrogacy is exploitation.
Klein, a co-founder of the Australian feminist press Spinifex that published the book, has decades of experience in teaching and research, with expertise in health/biology and social theory, as well as feminist activism. The breadth and depth of her knowledge and experience is evidenced throughout the book, as she moves easily between technical scientific details, moral philosophy, legislative proposals, and organizing strategy. [Disclaimer: I have published a book with Spinifex, which Klein edited and in that process I acquired firsthand knowledge of her considerable intellectual abilities.]
But most for me, the distinctive feature of the book is Klein’s compassion for people on all sides of the issue. When arguing for political positions we hold passionately, it’s all too easy to valorize our side and demonize opponents. But even when Klein writes with an honest understanding of why some women may be on the other side, she doesn’t hesitate to criticize sharply the profiteers who exploit without concern. I finished the book feeling grateful for the way Klein models a humane approach to debating the subject.
But make no mistake, Klein doesn’t mince words in her analysis, asserting that surrogates “are reduced to incubators, to ovens, to suitcases. And the product child is a tradable commodity who of course has never consented to being a ‘take-away baby’: removed from their birth mother and given to strangers aka ‘intended parents’.” Returning to the parallel between surrogacy and prostitution, she drives home the common features of patriarchal practices:
“… Well regulated sex (or fertility) industries, according to their promoters, create happy hookers (happy surrogates) and happy sex buyers (happy baby buyers). Pimps and brothel owners equal IVF clinics, surrogacy lawyers/brokers, pro-surrogacy advocacy groups, as well as surrogacy/egg ‘donor’ agencies. The difference is that apart from deeply harming women in both industries, the end ‘product’ in prostitution is a ‘faked girlfriend experience’, whereas in surrogacy it is the creation of new human beings: children.”
Klein’s willingness to take on these questions goes a long way to alleviating some of the sense of despair that comes with facing honestly the routine dehumanizing practices of the modern world. But the question lingering just below the surface of almost every page of the book — as well as just below the surface of many of the “normal” activities in our lives in the affluent sectors of the world — remains troubling: How far can people drift from being human animals before we stop being human beings?
By that, I mean that we are organic creatures, products of evolution like all others, with material bodies that we can’t transcend, no matter how much high-energy technology allows us to manipulate the rest of that material world and insulate ourselves from it. But the more we treat high-tech interventions such as surrogacy as routine and uncontroversial, the compartmentalization continues, making routine the exploitation of vulnerable people and widening the gap between people and the larger living world. Can we be truly human beings, in the moral sense, if we do not accept the limits that are imposed on all creatures by that larger world? Do we lose our own humanity when we lose our creaturely bearings to such a degree that we imagine that we can create life on our own through high-tech manipulation?
This concern is not rooted in science-fiction fears of humans becoming robots or robots taking over the world, but rather is a real concern for today. Yes, humans have long used technology, whether Stone Age or Space Age, but the differences in technology matter. Yes, humans have long tried to control natural processes and reshape ecosystems to our advantage, but that doesn’t mean we cannot ask critical questions about the assumptions behind, and implications of, each of the interventions we may want to attempt.
The fact that it is difficult to draw lines does not mean we abandon the obligation to draw them. For me, some of those lines have long been easy to draw: No decent society is possible if men rent women for sex. Klein’s powerful argument makes it just as clear that no decent society is possible if women are reduced to a womb that carries a fetus for the privileged. Social justice and ecological sustainability come together in one clear mandate: stop surrogacy now.
We talk about intersectionality a lot these days, but what does it really mean to combine our analysis of race, class, and gender? While we know women from all walks of life suffer male violence, how are working class women and women of colour impacted particularly? How does all this play out in Canada, in particular?
I spoke with Daisy Kler to answer some of these questions and more. Daisy is a collective member at Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter and is the founder of South Asian Women Against Male Violence. Daisy has worked at Vancouver Rape Relief for over 18 years. In those years she has played a role in training and maintaining volunteers and as a media spokesperson. She now assists in operating the rape crisis line and transition house. In recent years she was voted one of the 100 most influential Indo-Canadians in British Columbia. Daisy is a proud Punjabi whose paternal grandfather came to work here in 1905. She is rooted in the history of Vancouver’s South Asian immigrants and continues to fight for all women’s equality.
Meghan Murphy: After the racist violence in Charlottesville and a general rise in white nationalist activity in the US, conversations about racism have grown in North America. What has been discussed less is the role that misogyny plays in all this. What connection do you see between white supremacy and male supremacy?
Daisy Kler: First of all, we know the driver in Charlottesville, James Alex, had been charged with assaulting his mother. So there is a direct link between his misogynistic behaviour and racism. He displayed that he’s both a misogynist and a white supremacist. In a larger discussion, male supremacy and white supremacy are premised on very similar ideas: that women and non-whites are inferior. [Those who support systems like patriarchy and white supremacy] use this ideology to justify the unequal power relationships between men and women, and whites and non-whites.
They use this justification to steal Indigenous wealth, to hoard power, and as basis to refuse to share resources, power, or wealth. So, in my mind, male supremacy and white supremacy fit well together.
Combined, they serve as a lethal mix when it comes to Indigenous women and women of colour. If you add class, there are three forces holding women down.
The individual white guy is one power, but his power is reinforced by every institution, because all the power structures are predominantly run by rich, white men. This reinforces the relationship between the two. They are easy bedfellows. And if you think about how women and people of colour are described in derogatory ways, it’s almost exactly the same. We are said to be over-emotional, irrational, dirty, polluted, unclean, not sophisticated, hysterical… You could be describing women or people of colour with those words.
So, in my mind, male supremacy and white supremacy share the same ideology. They are both used to justify men’s unearned power and privilege. On top of that, if you look at male violence against women as an enforcer of women’s inequality, the message conveyed through violence against women is: Stay in your place. You are meant to be kept down — don’t try to get up.
There are grave consequences for women, including death, if they overstep those boundaries.
And this is very similar to what’s going on in America and here in Canada with Indigenous people, if you think about the attacks from white supremacists, but also the attacks from the police or the state.
Meghan: I’m interested in talking about the role that women play in the alt-right. It does appear to be a movement that’s led by white men, but do you think women have any responsibility in terms of the rise of white nationalism in the US in particular?
Daisy: I think one straightforward answer is, yes — every person is responsible for the decisions they make, and obviously women who are joining the alt-right share that responsibility. But, I see it as similar to when women are fronted in the prostitution fight. When you see the pro-sex industry and the pro-pimp industry propping up women as their spokespeople, we have to understand that men are still running the show. Men are still the ones who are benefiting from everything that happens in the sex industry, and this is also true with the alt-right.
Yes, women can be spokespeople in these movements. Yes, they have some agency. But let’s not fool ourselves as to who’s really running the show: white men.
It reminds me of people who play devil’s advocate, which is a serious pet peeve of mine. Lots of white guys do this with me… They’ll say, “Women oppress too.” They will bring up women like Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton to prove that women are responsible for the oppression of women and people of colour. But since I don’t believe in biological determinism, I don’t believe women are born naturally kind or less oppressive, so of course they can play a role in the oppression of others. But it’s limited by the fact that they, too, are oppressed. So they’re not at the top of the hierarchy when it comes to gender, and nor are women of colour when we talk about the race hierarchy. Men still rule the world.
Feminism is a theory and a practice. No one is born into feminism. It’s a political commitment to the liberation of women. Obviously, women in the alt-right and white nationalist groups don’t subscribe to this practice, and should be held accountable for their decisions. At the same time, I think of Dworkin, who argued that you don’t only fight on behalf of the women you like — you fight for the liberation of all women. So, I’m fighting for those women as well.
A question that should inform our feminist analysis on this issue is: Who’s got the power? It’s still the men who are running the show. And eventually, those men who are part of the alt-right will betray their own women — they beat their wives, because there is no race or class of men who don’t perpetuate violence against women. So [the women who subscribe to alt-right beliefs] are facing oppression as well.
Meghan: The trouble with political conversations around both racism and misogyny is that we often centre the US in those conversations. Which makes sense, since the US dominates media in North America and everywhere, really. But it’s frustrating because Canada is different in some ways and has its own particular struggles around racism. How have you seen racism and sexism intersect and play out in Canada specifically? What are some issues specific to Canada that you’d like to see discussed more in public discourse?
Daisy: I think the most notable difference between Canada and the US, in terms of how the intersection of race and sex oppression plays out, is in Canada’s relationship to Aboriginal people, in particular Aboriginal women. Aboriginal populations in the US were decimated far more than in Canada. There’s an uprising happening there as well, but the uprising here is phenomenal. The way Indigenous women have been treated in Canada is a is a stark demonstration of how racism and sexism play out here. We know that Indigenous women are eight times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women. The impunity with which men execute that violence is breathtakingly horrific. If you look at the example of Cindy Gladue, the Aboriginal woman in Alberta who was killed by a john, the level of violence that he used was shocking. But state institutions and the police immediately believed the man when he said he just found her there [having bled to death] and didn’t know what happened. They didn’t even hold him as a suspect until the autopsy report. As Canadians, we have to look at the way the criminal justice system spoke of her as a prostituted woman and as an Aboriginal woman and what this means about us as a society.
I do think that there is some smugness that goes on with Canadians in thinking that we’re so much better than our American counterparts. But we have lots of racist policies. If you look at immigration and if you look at those who are incarcerated in our jails — it’s the same as in the US: Aboriginal people and people of colour. So we are not much better than the US. We uphold the Canadian Charter, and take pride in what it promises. If we look at the experience of Indigenous people, particularly women, we see a uniquely Canadian system of racial and sexual oppression.
Meghan: In Canada, the investigation into the missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women has been ongoing. Have you seen progress in terms of the way the Canadian government and Canadian media are approaching that issue? What are your thoughts on the inquiry so far?
Daisy: First, I want to acknowledge that the only reason there even is an inquiry is because of the tireless efforts of Indigenous women fighting for this, and the work of feminists. The missing and murdered women only came to light because Aboriginal women have struggled to see justice on this issue for the past 20 years. That this inquiry was launched is the achievement of women, in particular Indigenous women.
Having said that, there are some concerns with the inquiry. Some criticism has been covered in the media, but what the media rarely picks up on are feminists’ concerns and criticisms. For example, we can already see that there is no focus on men — who are the perpetrators of this violence — and no discussion on how to hold them accountable. Indeed, the inquiry has no power to hold individual men or institutions accountable for their actions. We also worry about the individual stories of the condition of Aboriginal women’s lives being on public display. Because of this, it ends up being a process in which women’s lives are being scrutinized and pathologized, rather than one that looks at the role of institutional racism, sexism, and violence. We should be looking at all the range of men who have been attacking these women, including the violence perpetrated by Chief and Band Council members, police, johns, pimps, and battering husbands. We’re worried that individual men in these institutions will not face scrutiny as a result of this inquiry.
We also know from Indigenous feminists that the Assembly of First Nations does not represent Indigenous women’s concerns. Indigenous women — in particular, feminists — need to be speaking in their own voices, and they need to be able to articulate their analysis of the problems and solutions. We’re not sure they will be given the opportunity to do this as part of the inquiry.
The Commission can make recommendations, but it cannot compel systemic changes, nor compel individuals to do anything. Merely making recommendations and not being able to demand systemic changes is a weakness to us.
Meghan: You’ve done anti-violence work for a long time now. You know how women of colour are specifically impacted under patriarchy. What have you learned from doing front line work — and anti-violence work in general — about how misogyny and racism connect to harm women of colour?
Daisy: Vancouver Rape Relief has been around as a collective for over 40 years now, working on violence against women. I know from my own experience doing this work that any disadvantage of race and class position further intensifies the already severe gender disadvantage of women. So, it’s worse for women of colour and women who are poor. And if you’re an Indigenous women who is poor, it’s even worse.
What we see is that men will attack women who they see as below them or at the same level as them in the race hierarchy. Because of racism, we have a hierarchy. White men are at the top, and women of colour and Indigenous people are at the bottom. So men will attack within their own race or class position and down. These are general phenomena that we’ve noticed over the years. Obviously, there are exceptions. But what that tells us about perpetrators of violence know we live in a racist and sexist society and use the race and class hierarchy to their advantage.
Men will use the fact that women face racism from police, the criminal justice system, and all other state systems to attack them. They know that Indigenous women will likely not get a response from the police. Add to the mix a poor Indigenous woman or a prostituted woman, and the odds are even higher that she will not get any kind of response from the police.
White men will say racist things as part of their attack on women of colour and Indigenous women. I’ve heard what men say to women in these contexts, and it’s awful. It’s used this as part of the attack and as part of the degradation and violence. But it’s more insidious than that. Men know that the institutions, criminal justice system, immigration, welfare system are all stacked up against women in general. Add another barrier such as race or class, and they know the systems are against women, and they will use that to their advantage. I had one woman tell me that her partner told her to go ahead and call the police: “Who do you think they’re going to believe? You or me?” He was a white guy and she was a woman of colour. He knew what the score was. So that’s one way men use sex and class to disadvantage women.
As women of colour, we also have to face the accusation of being traitors to our people and to our race if we call out men on their sexism. Men use the experience of racism — that they experience racism from the state — as a way to guilt women of colour and Indigenous women into not using the state and not calling the police. Men will accuse women of using a racist system against them and call her a traitor. So men will exploit women’s solidarity with them on race to excuse their sexist violence. Women of colour and Indigenous women know that more men of colour and Indigenous men are in prison — not because they do more crime, but because the system is stacked against them. So women will often not want to use the police or activate any part of the system because they know that an abusive man likely won’t be getting arrested because he hit her, but because he’s a brown or Indigenous man… And we’re talking about a low number of women who actually want to use the state in the first place.
I founded South Asian Women Against Male Violence for a few reasons. One being that I wanted to hold the men in my own community accountable for the violence that they perpetrate, or that they allow to happen by their silence. But I also wanted to be a voice against the racist backlash on the South Asian community. I could see the media covering male violence within South Asian communities as though we were backward, as though there was something inherently wrong with South Asian men, and I did not want that to go on — not in my name, not as a feminist. I also wanted to be out front as a South Asian woman — vocal, fighting and resisting, to be a model for other South Asian women. Because what violence against women does to all women is tell you to retreat back into the domestic sphere, back into your one-down position. I wanted to form a group that could actively resist that, to hold South Asian men accountable, while also not letting racist stereotypes be perpetuated. There was a spate of attacks on the South Asian community in 2007 and 2008 when I organized the group. I think there were three high-profile cases. One woman was burned to death; one was shot and blinded; another was murdered in her home — all by their husbands. So there was a real media frenzy and the South Asian community was under scrutiny and attack, and I wanted to fight that as a feminist.
Women of colour, Indigenous women, and working class women are constantly having to unfairly split their loyalties in order to reveal [men’s] violence to their community or to the state. They have to make a choice, because they will be accused of turning their backs on their people. As a feminist, I’ve been accused of being “too white” or duped by “white feminists” by men in the South Asian community, in particular (but not only by those men). My response is that white women don’t have a monopoly on the notions of justice, equality, and freedom.
Meghan: To what levels are sexual assault and other forms of male violence against women of colour and working class women ignored or not addressed effectively by the authorities and the courts? What are some cases or examples where these incidences are ignored or not taken seriously because of racism and institutionalized racism.
Daisy: In terms of sexual assault, there are lots of statistics on this. In her research, criminology professor Holly Johnson estimated that 460,000 sexual assaults occur every year in Canada, though the legal data reveals only (roughly) 15,000 are formal complaints or made to the police. Of those, only 2,824 are prosecuted in the court system. Just over half of those result in a guilty verdict. The result is a conviction-to-crime ratio of 0.3 per cent. To put it in simpler terms, 997 assailants out of every 1,000 walk free. That is abysmally low.
As a woman of colour, I think it’s important that we understand that male violence against women is kind of the great equalizer, as all women experience male violence. There is no culture or community that doesn’t. There are some things unique to women of colour and Aboriginal women, but what’s similar to all women and where we have solidarity is that women of every community experience male violence. And no one is getting a good criminal justice response.
Cindy Gladue was a particularly horrific example of how Indigenous women are treated. The police failed to take her death seriously from the beginning. [I read] some of the court documents and how they talked about her as a prostituted Aboriginal woman, as if that made what he did to her okay — as if he bought the right to hurt her in the way that he did, murder her in the way that he did, and as if it was somehow consensual and a mistake that he just carried too far. This was a profoundly important case and it only really came to light because Indigenous women fought back and were on the streets when he was found not guilty.
The arguments, for example, [seemed to state] that she consented to this horrific violence because she was a prostituted woman. They used the words “Indigenous” or “native girl” or “native woman” 26 times, and referred to her as a prostitute 25-26 times. So they were implying all sorts of things. But what they implied the most was that she somehow consented to this violence and that he wasn’t guilty of the horrible racism and misogyny that he perpetrated against her. I also think it revealed the racist and sexist bias within the criminal justice system.
Male violence against women is not addressed effectively by the state or the police. Most women don’t even want to use the police, because they know they will be treated horribly, not believed, or accused of lying. The Ghomeshi trial unfortunately reinforced all those beliefs. This sends a message to all women to not even bother engaging. The good thing about the Gladue case is that it is under appeal and we’re hoping for a better decision.
Meghan: We’ve seen a surge in anti-racist activism in the US and in Canada (though not to the same extent). Black Lives Matter, for example, has brought conversations about racist police violence to the forefront. I wonder if you’ve seen a similar surge in feminist activism? Do you think misogyny and violence against women have been able to galvanize people in the same way that racism has? What is your perspective in terms of how progressives, the left, and liberals address racism versus how they address misogyny and violence against women?
Daisy: My experience with liberals is that they do take racism more seriously than misogyny. I’ll probably catch some heat for saying that, but that has been my experience. Being brown and being a woman, it’s hard to tear the two apart. They’re both parts of who I am. But among white liberal men, I don’t know why they can galvanize themselves towards fighting racism, but not towards sexism in the same way.
I think the women’s movement has the most potential to have a resurgence. I think we’re sort of in one right now. It’s hard to harness the momentum and work as a united force… It certainly seems harder with the many cuts to women’s groups over the last 15 years.
The material conditions of women’s lives are also much harder now — there’s more entrenched poverty and welfare is at an abysmally low rate. I hear you could live on welfare at one point, which is absolutely not true now. The loss of most social safety nets has made it harder for most women to have time for activism. Many women now have two or three jobs to make ends meet, and there’s no housing to speak of. These things have an effect on how women can participate in fighting male supremacy.
Having said that, if you look over the course of five or six years, there’s been quite a surge in feminist activism since the Jian Ghomeshi case, and in terms of public discussion of male violence against women. Even before Ghomeshi there was #BeenRapedNeverReported, #YesAllWomen, the campus activism against sexual assaults, the fightback all over the world against the rape of the woman in India, the uprisings in Poland around abortion, the Brazilian women protesting the rape of the young girl… I think there is a lot of feminist activism right now and the public discussion has been phenomenal. But in terms of new groups forming and being active — other than on social media — it’s a little harder to gauge, certainly after Trump and the Women’s March. That was a great start, and we’ve intensified the discussion of violence against women as a result. I think all those things are indicative of the gains of the women’s movement. They’ve paved the way for these discussions.
We still have a long way to go. If you look at Black Lives Matter’s set of guiding principles, they do say they are fighting misogyny and I believe the local Black Lives Matter (in Vancouver) is led mostly by women. #SayHerName was a specific response to police violence against black women, because women felt that issue was not being given much weight. I think we’re doing pretty well when it comes to accepting feminism and being active. How to harness that as a unified movement is the million dollar question.
Meghan: Do you believe the left is addressing misogyny and male violence specifically in their activism? Do you believe they should be?
Daisy: Yes, I think they should be. The “left” is a very broad term so I’m bound to offend someone from the left in my response, here… I try to be specific, because generalizations prove to be a problem. So I’ll pick some specific examples of what I see as indicative of..
In a routinely delusional world, what is the most dangerous delusion?
Living in the United States, I’m tempted to focus on the delusion that the US is the greatest nation in the history of the world — a claim repeated robotically by politicians of both parties.
In a mass-consumption capitalist society, there’s the delusion that if we only buy more, newer, better products we all will be happier — a claim repeated endlessly in commercial propaganda (commonly known as advertising and marketing).
I’m also white, and so it’s understandable to worry about the delusion that white people are superior to non-white people. And as a man, I reflect on the delusion that institutionalized male dominance is our fate, whether asserted to be divinely commanded or evolutionarily inevitable.
But all these delusions that rationalize hierarchies within the human family, and the resulting injustices that flow from those hierarchies, are less frightening to me than modern humans’ delusion that we are not bound by the laws of physics and chemistry, that humans can live beyond the biophysical limits of the ecosphere.
This delusion is not limited to one country, one group, or one political party, but rather is the unstated assumption of everyday life in the high-energy/high-technology industrial world. This is the delusion that we are — to borrow from the title of a particularly delusional recent book — the god species.
This ideology of human supremacy leads us to believe that our species’ cleverness allows us to ignore the limits placed on all life forms by the larger living world, of which we are but one component. What we once quaintly called “environmentalism” — which too often focused on technical solutions to discrete problems rather than challenging human arrogance and the quest for endless affluence — is no longer adequate to deal with the multiple, cascading ecological crises that define our era: climate destabilization, species extinction, soil erosion, groundwater depletion, toxic waste accumulation, and on and on.
Playing god got us into this trouble, and more of the same won’t get us out.
This inability to accept the limits that come with being part of “nature” — a strange term when used to contrast with “human,” as if humans were somehow not part of the natural world — was on my mind as I read two new books about controversial topics that typically are thought of as social, not ecological, issues: Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body, edited by Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michele Moore, and Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation, by Renate Klein.
Both books offer a feminist critique of the ideology and practices of these movements that herald medical/technological “solutions” to struggles with gender norms and infertility.
Brunskell-Evans’ and Moore’s book brings together researchers, activists, mental health practitioners, and parents who question such practices as puberty suppression to block the development of secondary sex characteristics as treatment for gender dysphoria. Are such disruptions of a child’s development with powerful drugs warranted, given the lack of testing and absence of a clear understanding of the etiology of transgenderism? The authors challenge what has rapidly become the liberal dogma of embracing medicalized approaches to the very real problem of patriarchal gender norms (the demand that boys must act one way and girls another) that constrain our lives.
Klein marshals research and the testimony of surrogates to point out that another liberal dogma — affluent individuals have a right to “rent a womb” so they may have a child genetically related to them — involves considerable risks for the surrogate mother (sometimes referred to as the “gestational carrier”). The author’s assessment is blunt, but well supported: modern surrogacy is a form of exploitation of women and trafficking in babies.
Both books demonstrate the enduring relevance of the radical branch of feminism that highlights men’s attempts to control and exploit women’s reproductive power and sexuality as a key feature of men’s dominance in patriarchal societies. And both are critical of the naive celebration of high-tech medicine to deal with issues that stem from patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms.
Those radical feminist challenges dovetail with a radical ecological critique that reminds us that being alive — being a carbon-based creature that exists within the limits of the ecosphere — means that we should be skeptical of claims that we can magically transcend those limits. The high-energy, high-tech, human-defined world in which we live can lull us into believing that we are like gods in our ability to shape the world, and to shape our own bodies.
Of course, drugs, surgery, and medical techniques routinely save lives and improve our lives, in ways that are “unnatural” in some sense. To highlight these questions does not mean that lines are easy to draw between what is appropriate and what is ill-advised. But we invite serious miscalculations when we embrace without critical self-reflection the assumption that we can manipulate our human-centered worlds without concern for the limits of the larger living world.
Many of us have experienced this in end-of-life care decisions for ourselves or loved ones. When are high-tech medical interventions that prolong life without concern for quality of life a mistake? I have had long conversations with friends and family about where the line should be drawn, not only to make my own views clear but to search for collective understanding. The fact that the line is hard to draw, and even harder to face when arriving at it, doesn’t make the question any less relevant. The fact that there is no obvious and easy answer doesn’t mean we can avoid the question.
Elective cosmetic surgery is perhaps the best example of the culture’s rejection of limits. All living things eventually die, and human appearance changes as we age, yet many people search for ways to stave off that aging or to change their appearance for other non-medical reasons. In 2017, Americans spent more than $15 billion on cosmetic procedures (surgical and nonsurgical), 91 per cent of which were performed on women. The two most common surgical procedures are liposuction and breast augmentation. Although some people who get liposuction are overweight, it is not a treatment for obesity, and breast augmentation is rarely related to physical health. These procedures typically are chosen by people seeking to conform to social norms about appearance.
With this humility about high-tech human intervention in mind, how should we understand the experience of feeling at odds with gender norms? How should we reconcile the physical inability to bear children with the desire to have children? There are no obvious or easy answers, but I believe that as a culture we are better served by starting with the recognition that we are not gods, that we cannot endlessly manipulate the world without risking unintended consequences for self and others. How does the rejection of limits impede our ability to first examine and then resist the impositions of patriarchy, to find new understandings of sex/gender and new social relationships for caring for children?
At the planetary level, we have considerable evidence that our faux-god attempts to dominate the ecosphere — which started most dramatically with the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago and intensified with the exploitation of fossil fuels — now make the future of a large-scale human population uncertain. The lesson some of us take from that is to turn away from the “technological fundamentalism” that leads us to see all problems as having high-energy/high-tech solutions and consider different ways of living within the biophysical limits of the planet.
That same perspective is compelling on the level of these questions around gender and fertility. Here’s a sensible place to start: We should step back from the hyper-individualism of neoliberal ideology and examine more deeply how the institutionalized male dominance of patriarchy has shaped our collective thinking about gender and identity, and about women’s status and parenting. Such reflection reveals that the liberal ideology on transgenderism and surrogacy embraces the technological fundamentalism that embraces medical and market “solutions” rather than enhancing the sense of integrity that we seek.
Integrity is a key concept here because of its two meanings — adherence to moral principles and the state of being whole. We strive to act with integrity, and to maintain the integrity of both the living body and the larger living world. In hierarchical systems that reward domination, such as patriarchy, freedom comes to be understood only at the ability to control, others and the world around us. Andrea Dworkin captures this struggle when she writes:
“Being an object — living in the realm of male objectification — is abject submission, an abdication of the freedom and integrity of the body, its privacy, its uniqueness, its worth in and of itself because it is the human body of a human being.”
Freedom in patriarchy is granted only to those in control, and that control turns other living things into objects, destroying the possibility of integrity-as-moral-principles and integrity-as-wholeness. Real freedom is not found in the quest to escape limits but in deepening our understanding of our place in a world with limits.
We are told that mental health problems are on the rise in the Western world, particularly among young women. Supposedly, these issues will only be exacerbated if “left untreated.”
In an article at The Guardian, clinical psychologist Nihara Krause states that during 2014-2015 only 20 per cent of those who “needed help” in the UK received it. By “help,” Krause means “therapy.” Experts like Krause say this increase in “mental health issues” is related to issues such as financial difficulties, homelessness, pressure to perform (in school and on social media), and (in the case of women) severe insecurities about our bodies. Despite knowing this, psychology does not exist or function to address these issues and the systemic reasons behind them — the oppression of the poor, racialized, and female, for example. Rather, therapy aims only to address each individual’s emotional reaction to their circumstances. It can make you wonder what good psychology actually does for society at large, and for women, in particular.
During a workshop at a women’s gathering I attended this summer in France, Sheila Jeffreys argued that psychology individualizes the effects of patriarchy and separates women from each other. This once common feminist analysis was completely new to me, and I realized, as I discussed it with other young women (most of us in our 20s), that I had been living in a bubble wherein psychology was never questioned.
I’m not the only one. In response to our friends’ struggles, women are quick to suggest therapy to deal with issues like lack of self-esteem, distress in social situations, habits of self-harming, relationship problems, or difficulty accepting their female body — all issues that are impacted by living under patriarchy, as can be inferred from the sex discrepancy in, for example, self-mutilation and anxiety. “Seek therapy” has become a standard piece of advice. The words, “You need help” are accepted as well-meaning and sound, when directed at friend and foe alike. What “help” refers to is understood by all, since alternatives are generally not offered.
We don’t question whether or not therapy is useful, but even psychologists acknowledge that it is impossible to prove which (if any) kind of therapy is the most effective. An author at Psychology Today writes:
“We cannot even agree what a ‘successful’ result should be. Symptom relief? Personality change? Improved relationships? Better ability to love and work? Personal growth and fulfillment? All of the above?”
What do these things even mean, outside of a psychology framework? And how would you determine and measure the results? Personal growth, improvement, realization, actualization, and empowerment sound like noble aims, so we are understanding and encouraging when women name them as “personal goals.” We are all exhausted, stressed out, depleted, depressed, and distressed, and so can relate to and empathize with women experiencing the same. But, as feminists, we know patriarchy exists and that we face various forms of oppression in this world, so why don’t we question the oft-repeated advice, “Take care of yourself first,” when a sister expresses her troubles, and instead say, “Let’s help one another.”
Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the oppressor’s book, and it is working against us. In her 1975 book, Psychotherapy: The Hazardous Cure, Dorothy Tennov detailed what therapy truly is, in terms of a profession and study, demonstrating how difficult it is to prove that it’s helpful at all, at a time when psychology was gaining traction. Many of her concerns for the continued normalization of psychotherapy have come true, as it has become more and more socially accepted for women to see therapists, and become therapists themselves. But the destigmatization of therapy is not a positive for the feminist movement. As Tennov concluded:
“There is no question that the person who goes to a psychotherapist and learns to adapt to a situation, to adjust herself, is less likely to apply pressure outward in an attempt to bring about change in society. Psychotherapy is a distraction from other pressures.”
We have been taught, through the normalization of therapy, to individualize our struggles and look inward, rather than outward. Therapy works to prevent us from connecting with one another. It isolates us — each of us is appointed our own therapist, who teaches us how to cope with our “issues” privately. We learn we must take care of ourselves, and work on our personalities in order to better cope with the world around us, before we can act. What therapy doesn’t teach us is that women’s anger is justified, that our suffering is real, and that what we often describe as “mental health issues” are mostly caused — or greatly exacerbated — by structural oppression. Psychology pretends that the solution to — or “treatment” for — our problems is in improving our attitudes and ability to cope, instead of tackling the problems together.
Writing for The Conversation, Zoë Krupka explains that therapists are taught to look to blame at least part of the problem their clients are facing on the clients themselves. Because they cannot dismantle systematic oppression or empower their clients in a genuine sense (that is to say, by giving them actual power in society) in private sessions, therapists have to find issues to resolve within their client. In cases of male violence, for example, the terms “trauma-bonding,” “co-dependency,” and “Stockholm syndrome” all exist to place some blame on the victim (the woman), while the existence of “anger management” exists as apologist propaganda for the perpetrator (the man). “This contributes to women’s disempowerment and to our overall inability to see the violent forest for the trees,” Krupka writes.
There are many examples of how psychology has infiltrated our vocabularies and shaped discourse, for example the idea that women may suffer from “internalized” misogyny or homophobia, rather than speaking about these issues as being a result of external, systemic prejudice and hatred. It has also influenced how we approach friendships and relationships with other women. Venting to a friend is sometimes described as “therapeutic,” and women will often say they played “armchair therapist” when consoling, advising, and listening to their friends. Good therapists are described as being empathetic, attentive, and, most of all, people we trust and can speak openly to without being judged. These are all qualities one would hope describes a good friend, but we have been taught that we are not enough, and that there are “professionals” who are simply better at empathy than us. When our friends and loved ones are deeply upset, we support them in seeking “professional help,” as if a one-sided arrangement, wherein a stranger — detached from their everyday lives, in a position of power over them, and paid for — will be better able to care for them than we would be. We don’t trust ourselves to care for our own because there is an alternative “professional” option.
This professionalization of empathy and care has deeply affected the feminist movement, as rape crisis centres and battered women’s shelters become increasingly staffed by those with the ability to get degrees, rather than by regular women — including those who have been victims of male violence and may have sought help at these shelters themselves. Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter (VRRWS), Canada’s longest standing rape crisis center, still operates through a peer counselling model and as a collective. The trend of professionalization of anti-violence work has impaired our ability to help and act as feminists, as Pauline Funston, for VRRWS, explains:
“Now we see ‘clients’ and provide a ‘service,’ a clear indication of the dilution of feminist principles and practice. The battered women who come to the transition houses now sees us as other rather than the same as they are…
… The erosion of feminist standards towards professionalism is costing battered women their dignity, autonomy, and their right to participate in the feminist movement.
… We are reduced to becoming another social service which then individualizes the battered woman’s experience and works against political change for her and all women.”
Therapy opposes collective feminist action both by determining some of us are unfit to support other women if we don’t have degrees, and also by claiming we are unfit mentally — in need of therapy ourselves. It places the burden of overcoming the effects of patriarchy, along with the blame for it, onto us as individuals. I myself was often told by therapists, when I expressed how powerless I felt in terms of my ability to improve the situation of women in our society, that I could not focus on trying to save the world until I first saved myself. I was in too fragile a mental state to make any difference, they said. I couldn’t be an activist without damaging myself in the process. Just as our foremothers were labelled hysterical, we are taught that we are too mentally unwell or unstable to be effective activists. We learn that we suffer from things like social anxiety, depression, various phobias, bipolarity, and trauma that we need to personally overcome and heal from, through professional “help,” before we can focus on organizing and changing anything beyond ourselves.
In the past, women learned through consciousness raising that they were not alone, and this was a source of strength. Their anger was not debilitating, their sadness was not a character flaw, and their fear was not a diagnosis. Their “problems” were not only personal, but broad, and affected all of womankind. It was through meeting and sharing with other women, in person, that women were able to shed light on and name things like patriarchy, male supremacy, misogyny, racism, anti-lesbianism, abuse, poverty, and oppression, instead of “depression,” “mental illness,” “internalized self-hatred,” and “stress.”
Even young women who scoff at the idea that “self-empowerment” can be found in makeup and clothing still fall for the idea that we can empower ourselves through therapy and self-care. Instead of using our pain and our anger, we have to assimilate with the mentally stable status quo. As if there were a state within patriarchy for women that is more natural and logical than upset and rebellion.
The idea that we must first heal ourselves before we can act to our full extent is as fallacious as the idea that we must first “love ourselves” in order to be loved by others. As they watched the lesbian and feminist community get swallowed by psychobabble, Celia Kitzinger and Rachel Perkins, in their 1993 book, Changing Our Minds, wrote:
“Psychology claims that ‘loving ourselves’ is an essential prerequisite to loving others, and to effective political work. We cannot believe this claim…
Loving others, and being effective politically, is not something you magically become able to do once you ‘truly love yourself.’ Rather, you learn how to love in theprocess of loving, how to engage politically through political engagement.” [emphasis theirs]
This message remains just as important today, as the notion of psychology has gone largely unchallenged by modern feminists.
In order to move forward, we have to rid ourselves of the idea that we need mental health “professionals” to be our friends and allies, and that a different attitude and mindset is what will enable us to bring patriarchy to its knees. Systemic oppression is not addressed by learning to cope with it, by processing it with a paid professional, or by becoming that professional. It needs to be dismantled as an institution, through unrelenting organized feminist action open for all women, as does the institution of psychology which traps us in our own minds, isolated from each other, and structural analysis.
Ironically, it is often a mental block that hinders so many young women from being effective feminists. But that block is not anxiety, depression, or stress — rather, it is the idea that our emotions and problems are personal, and to be overcome on our own. We have to let go of the idea that the wrong is with us, and not with the world. We have to reach out and organize in real life, help each other, be supportive and understanding, listening and empathetic, tolerant and kind, but also firm and truthful. We must understand that we are all hurt, frustrated, and angry — and that this is not something we have to deal with alone.
I urge young feminists who feel powerless and frustrated to meet each other in real life. Look for established feminist groups in your city or area to join, women’s shelters to volunteer in, reading circles, book clubs, self-defence classes — and if you can’t find any, start your own group. Be each other’s support network and strength, show up to rallies and demonstrations in groups; make signs, slogans, stickers, and pamphlets to distribute together; organize activities and protests. I strongly encourage having ties to older women, in order to learn from their experience and knowledge, though it is equally important to act independently as a new generation of feminists and form our own networks. I was able to find friends and eventually form a feminist organization, aimed at facilitating women-separatist spaces, through radical feminist forums on Facebook and blogs on Tumblr. Dare to take the next step and meet up in real life. Join the organizations and groups you’ve been eyeing forever. Push yourself to go out and meet new women.
Our goals should not be self-empowerment or self-improvement, but the liberation of womankind.
To those who may feel defensive, let me say that, as someone who was diagnosed with “clinical depression” for a decade, and saw eight different therapists during this period (a new one each time it returned): since quitting therapy and becoming an activist, using my emotions for this cause, and finding friends within this movement — true sisters — I have never felt better, mentally.
Tove Happonen is a Swedish activist, a member in the feminist organization Kvinnofronten and a co-founder of the radical feminist organization Kvinnorum, which strives to facilitate women-separatist spaces and gatherings. The opinions expressed here are only representative of her own.
“I’m not surprised,” women say, in response to the flood of revelations of sexual “misconduct” by men, especially men in positions of power.
But none of us — women or men — should be surprised, because the United States is a patriarchal society and in patriarchy men routinely claim the right to own or control women’s bodies for reproduction and sexual pleasure. Men — liberal and conservative — know that just as well as women.
In such a society, conservative and liberal men will often disagree in public about the conditions under which they can rightly claim ownership. Conservative men argue for control of women within the heterosexual family. Liberal men argue for more expansive access to women. In public, the policy debates about reproductive rights and sexual access rage on. In private, conservative and liberal men claim their “right” to do as they please, which is why women sometimes find it difficult to tell conservative and liberal men apart when it comes to behavior.
What kind of world has that produced? A sexually corrosive pop culture (both in dating practices and mediated images), with expanding sexual exploitation industries (primarily prostitution and pornography), and routine sexual intrusion (the spectrum from sexual harassment to sexual assault). Women are routinely objectified in pop culture, reducing complex human beings to body parts for male pleasure. Men routinely buy and sell those objectified bodies for sexual pleasure, in person and on screens. And when men believe they can take those bodies without challenge, some men do just that.
Male or female, we should not be surprised when in a patriarchal society — a society based on institutionalized male dominance — men exercise that dominance. Of course patriarchy is not static nor unidimensional, nor is it the only system of illegitimate authority. Patriarchy in 2017 is not exactly the same as in 1917; patriarchy in the United States is not the same as patriarchy in Saudi Arabia. Race, class, religion, and nation affect how patriarchy plays out in a specific time and place.
Patriarchy also is not immune to challenge. Feminism makes gains, patriarchy pushes back, and the struggle continues. Women advance in business, politics, and education, and men assert their control over women’s bodies where they can get away with it.
Radical feminism is the term for that component of the second wave of feminism (in the United States, the phase of the movement that emerged in the 1960s) that most directly confronts men’s sexual exploitation of women. In the three decades that I have been involved in radical feminist projects, this analysis has become more useful than ever in explaining an increasingly corrosive society, the mainstreaming of sexual exploitation, and the epidemic levels of sexual intrusion.
Yet both conservatives and liberals routinely dismiss radical feminism as dangerous, out of date, irrelevant. Why would an analysis that offers a compelling explanation of social trends be ignored? My experience suggests that it’s precisely because of the power of the radical feminist analysis that it is avoided. U.S. society is unwilling, or unable, to confront the pathology of patriarchy, a system of illegitimate authority woven so deeply into the fabric of everyday life that many people are afraid of naming it, let alone confronting it.
I remember clearly my first exposure to radical feminist ideas, when I was 30 years old, in the late 1980s. I knew that the women making these arguments, specifically about men’s exploitation of women in and through pornography, had to be crazy — because if they weren’t crazy, I not only would have to rethink what I had learned about the sex/gender system in patriarchy but also change my own behavior. But radical feminism wore me down — with evidence and compelling arguments, along with an undeniable emotional honesty. Once I let myself listen carefully, radical feminism not only explained the oppression of girls and women but also helped me understand why I had never felt I could live up to the pathological standards of masculinity in patriarchy.
I had been taught that feminism — especially radical feminism — was a threat to men. I came to understand that it is a gift to us. Not the kind of gift that makes one feel warm and fuzzy but instead challenges us to be better than our patriarchal culture asks of us, to reject patriarchy’s glorification of control, conquest, and aggression.
I’m about to turn 60, and the half of my life lived with a feminist analysis has not always been easy, nor have I magically overcome all my flaws. But radical feminism allowed me to stop worrying about how to be a “real man” and start figuring out how to be a decent person.
In 2003, Andrea Dworkin wrote, “The world was sleeping and Kate Millett woke it up.” Indeed, Kate Millett was a game changer. In 1970, she published Sexual Politics, which catapulted her to fame, both in and out of the feminist movement. The New York Times called the book “the Bible of Women’s Liberation”, and her publisher, Doubleday, said it was one of the ten most important books they published in the 20th century. In it, Kate argued that male supremacy relies on “the acceptance of a value system which is not biological.” Indeed, her arguments underpin our understanding of feminism today: that “sex is a status category with political implications” and that society, as we know it, is founded on a lie “that insists that gender stereotypes are natural rather than cultural.” Sexual Politics destroyed the idea that social sex roles were determined by biology. Gender, Kate argued, was socially determined, ideologically reinforced by a system of male dominance called “patriarchy.”
An unforgettable feminist icon who paved the way for the rest of us, Kate died on September 6th, while in Paris with her spouse, Sophie Keir. It would have been her 83rd birthday on September 14th.
I spoke with Kate’s longtime friend, Eleanor Pam, about Kate’s life and work, over the phone from her home in New York.
Eleanor Pam was an early feminist pioneer and joined the National Organization For Women in 1966 with Kate Millett where, together, they founded and led NOW’s first Education Committee. She is currently the President of the Veteran Feminists of America, an organization of women who pioneered the modern American women’s movement. Eleanor is also a passionate advocate for women in prison who exposes and speaks out against gender discrimination, guard brutality, sexual harassment, and rape in the Corrections and Criminal Justice systems.