Is there anyone who lives in the world as a woman and a feminist who does not accept that there is such a thing as gendered oppression? That men, considered as a class, are involved or complicit in the doing down of women, considered as a class?
One of the things most self-defined radical feminists often seem to assume is that if they do not say this forcefully and often, no one else will notice this important truth. Indeed, they are so concerned to make the point that they end up ignoring, or treating as side issues, many other sorts of oppression, which many other women who are both radical and feminist take just as seriously as part of their feminist analysis and their feminist praxis. What is stigmatised as ‘liberal’ or ‘fun’ feminism is often nothing of the sort; it is a feminism committed to radical thought and action, which recognises multiple sources of the oppression of women, and tries to opt for a complexity and nuance that make effective action more, rather than less, possible.
The trouble with a statement like “men oppress women” is not that it is untrue. It is that it is a schematic and not a map; certainly not a detailed description of the territory or a universally reliable portrayal of how you get to your destination.
Often, a good schematic is all you need; the London tube map is a case in point. Yet, if you rely on it, you will rapidly find that some stations represented as closely adjacent are anything but and vice versa, or involve using lifts and tunnels for interchanges that take more time than expected. You need the schematic for some purposes and a reliable map for others; sometimes you need to just know the territory in order to find a hack, to find the actual quickest way.
We live in a society where oppression based on sex and gender is only one of an intersecting set of oppressions and discriminations. Class, race, sexuality, disability (both obvious and invisible), nationality, immigration status, and whether the sex you are assigned at birth correctly models your identity – these affect people in a variety of ways, and the policies and strategies we adopt have to reflect those complexities.
It is often destructive for, say, educated white middle class women to create policies on sex work without considering how they impact the lives of working class women of colour dealing with mental health issues or possible deportation. Ironically, protecting other women from exploitation by pimps and johns is not much help if it puts them in harm’s way from the equally male-dominated police, justice and immigration systems. A woman working in the financial services industry may unwittingly do vast harm to the interests of poorer women who need loans or mortgages – harm that has in part to do with the gender biases of banking, but also has to do with predatory late capitalism.
Almost all institutions, businesses and organs of the state are run by men, and to that extent are part of gender oppression – but those men are also mostly members of the locally dominant ethnic and religious group, are economically upper class, pass as straight and are able-bodied. Their gender is always relevant, but a struggle based on gender alone is not useful. There is a ‘liberal feminism’ worth fighting, and it is the one which regards gender and sex as so central that quite cosmetic changes will solve all our problems – you do not, for example, reform late capitalism by putting more women in boardrooms or the Cabinet, to be “the new boss, same as the old boss“.
Indeed, one of the things that has enabled capitalism to survive so many of the crises Marx, Lenin, Luxembourg and Goldman described and predicted is that it is endlessly self regenerating and adaptive; the ruling class has maintained a degree of identities through revolution and technological and demographic change by recruiting and co-opting.
A lot of the ‘radical feminist’ problem with trans women like me is based on a simplistic biological determinism – as if gender were purely socially constructed and yet, at the same time, a desire to oppress were written in our genes. Apart from the fact that this makes no logical sense, it ignores the fact that gender is a word with many overlapping meanings across a spectrum of usage, and that the biology of sex is by no means as simplistically binary as some people find it convenient to claim.
A real radicalism, to which feminism is central but which does not ignore the struggle for liberation from other oppressions, has to be suspicious of simple sloganistic formulae. The kyriarchy have proved endlessly supple and adaptive – able not only to survive but to continue to dominate; the struggle to overthrow it has to be at least as smart and perceptive.
Roz Kaveney is a member of the Feminist Times Editorial Board. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.
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