In her recent piece in Comment is Free, “How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it” Nancy Fraser draws on her own work in political theory to argue that feminism at best has been co-opted by neoliberalism and at worst has been a capitalist venture of the neo-liberal project. What appears at first glance to be a reasoned self-reflection, one that takes stock and responsibility for past alliances and celebrations of strategic moves for the betterment of women’s lives, at second glance reveals the innate and repetitive myopia of White feminism to take account, to converse and think along with Black and Third World Feminists.
Writing from the early 1970s onwards, these scholars and activists have systematically engaged a feminist critique of not only state capitalism, but of a globalised capitalism rooted in colonial legacies. These feminisms have not prioritised “cultural sexism” over economic redistribution. The literature is vast, the examples myriad, and thus, it’s all the more tiring when White feminists speak of second-wave feminism as if it were the only “feminism” and use the pronoun “we” when lamenting the failures of their struggles. Let us just say there is no such thing as a “feminism” as the subject of any sentence that designates the sole position for the critic of patriarchy. For such position has been fractured ever since Sojourner Truth said “Ain’t I a woman too?” There is though a feminist subject-position, the one Fraser is lamenting, which has sat very comfortably in the seat of the self-determined, emancipated subject. That position, of course, is that which she identifies as a contributor to neoliberalism. But that is no surprise, for both her feminism and neoliberalism share the same liberal core that Black and Third World feminists have identified and exposed since very early in the trajectory of feminisms.
The work of A.Y. Davis, Audre Lorde, Himani Bannerji, Avtar Brah, Selma James, Maria Mies, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Silvia Federici, Dorothy Roberts and scores of others, have shattered the limited and exclusionary nature of the conceptual frameworks developed by White feminists in the English speaking world. These scholars and activists have created frameworks of analysis that simultaneously surmount a challenge to and provide a dramatic corrective to both Black Marxist and anti-colonial theory that failed fundamentally to theorise gender and sexuality, and Marxist and socialist feminist thought that continues to fail, in many ways, to account for race, histories of colonisation, and the structural inequities between the so-called developed and developing nation states. And yes, Mies, Federici, and James are white, but Black and Third World Marxist feminisms aspire to political solidarity across the colour line.
The scholars we speak of have consistently developed critiques of capitalist forms of property, exchange, paid and unpaid labour, along with culturally embedded and structural forms of patriarchal violence. Let’s take the example of rape and violence against women. In the path-breaking Women Race and Class, A.Y. Davis argued forcefully that many of the most contemporary and pressing political struggles facing black women are rooted in the particular types of oppression suffered under slavery. Rape and sexual violence are faced by women of all classes, races and sexualities, as Davis noted, but have a different valence for black men and women. The myth of the black rapist and of the violent hypersexual black male caused scores of lynchings during the antebellum era in America. This persistent racist myth provides explanatory value for the contemporary overrepresentation of black men in prisons convicted of rape, and led to the reluctance on the part of African-American women to become involved in early feminist activism against rape that was focused on law enforcement and the judicial system (Davis, 1984). The expropriation of black labour rooted in the logics of slavery repeats itself in the expropriation of convict labour in the post-slavery era, and today, in the unfree labour endemic in the prison industrial complex. (Davis, 2005)
Sexual violence is thus understood as something deriving from slavery and colonisation, affecting both women and men. This history of black women’s bodies as commodity objects to be used, violated at the pleasure of white men remains as a psychic, social, racial trace in contemporary American society. With respect to Native American and First Nations women, colonial era stereotypes of the “squaw” continue in contemporary racialised imaginaries, rendering Indigenous women vulnerable to forms of sexual violence that are always-already racial and recall patterns of violence that emerged through the dispossession of their lands, languages, resources and yes, cultural practices. (See P. Monture-Angus, Kim Anderson, Sherene Razack)
Recent suggestions that feminists should turn their gaze towards unpaid work, the work of care, was analysed by Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Power and Consciousness. She emphasises that for African-American women, work in the home that contributes to their families’ well-being can be understood by them as a form of resistance to the social and economic forces that collude to damage African-American children and families. Black feminists have also led the wages for housework campaign, challenging bourgeois norms of the family economy. Following A.Y. Davis, we note that White feminists need to recognise when they engage political strategies that Black and Third World feminists have already been theorising and practising for a long time.
Ending oppression, violence against women, violence against men, particularly of the neo-liberal variety, means embracing the historical, materialist, anti-racist thought of Black and Third World Marxist feminists. Are the White feminists who persist in throwing in the word “race” or “racism” in their otherwise left-liberal approaches to feminism willfully blind/deaf? Are they unable to cede the floor to Black feminism because it would mean the loss of a certain racial privilege? The persistent claim to universalism, which is the core of this White feminism, renders the experiences, thoughts and work of Black and Third World feminists invisible, over and over again. Time’s up!
Brenna Bhandar, Senior Lecturer, SOAS School of Law.
Denise Ferreira da Silva, Professor, Queen Mary School of Business and Management.