‘And what does the gift of feminism consist of if not a certain bundle of ways of thinking historically, ways of seeing, ways of hoping?’
This opening to Lola Olufemi’s ‘Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power’, a quote from Vikki Bell, is an eloquent epitome of all that feminism seeks to be and should be. The statement amounts to a challenge to the idiom of politics: “how do we see ourselves? How do we see ourselves in relation to others? How do we see the movement for change?” (Rowbotham, 1981). Ultimately, how do we resist capitalist society? Taken correctly, feminism is the ultimate challenge to the idiom of politics. Yet the iterations of feminism that have heretofore infiltrated the political discourse, specifically the discourse on justice, have been parasitic on the very sexism and injustice that it purports to oppose. A radical, intersectional feminism, rather than being parasitic on structural injustice, can deconstruct and reconstruct those very problematic structures. That is why I propose it as the ultimate canon – a canon for academia, for activism and for the politics of leadership.
Let us first consider in more detail where previous iterations of feminism have failed. Neoliberal feminism, an iteration that focuses on what women can attain within free-market and capitalistic structures, has had the most success at infiltrating our political discourse; if anything, this only speaks to the structures that govern us for it has been a feminism founded upon elitism, exclusion and whiteness. Masquerading as progress, it has created space for only an upper echelon of women to attain power, without questioning why those power structures only create space for an elite few. In UK education, a typical gathering of 100 professors would include only 2 BAME women (Universities UK, 2019). In business, only 17% of SME employers were led by women (Devine & Foley, 2020) – the percentage led by BAME women being infinitesimally smaller. The breadth of feminism having been aforementioned, looking at the position of ethnic minorities can also be indicative of feminist progress; the evidence is testament to a lack of it. In June 2020, black employees held just 1.5% of management roles in the UK.
Of course, a multiplicity of factors produces these statistics, but they are demonstrative of the fact that much of the injustice feminism seeks to eradicate still persists in a huge way and this can be at least partially attributed to the shortcomings of feminism thus far. The limited progress that has been made by neoliberal feminism is a testament to the fact that a feminism that seeks to attain power and material progress, rather than question the actual structures of power, can achieve only partial and selective successes. These selective successes can make the acquiescence to current structures of domination more psychologically seamless (Tolentino, 2019) for these successes often achieve a high profile, thus halting further progress. As Lola Olufemi notes, “a feminism that seeks power rather than questioning it is not concerned with justice” (Olufemi, 2020) – justice as a destination will only be reached with a total challenge to power structures.
Cue a more radical feminism. A feminism that does challenge constituent power structures rather than just their outcomes is one that can facilitate the necessary extent of change. To do so however, we must reposition it from a constituent of subjugated knowledge forms and from the peripheral of political activism and place it squarely in the centre: the centre of academia, of activism and of political leadership structures.
First, we must address academia. Spaces for education are the site of the establishment and enforcement of epistemic hierarchies. Heretofore, the canon has been composed of bodies of knowledge that propagate the current structures of domination – that produced by the white male elite – and radical feminism has been framed as a peripheral body of knowledge. The effect of this is that the mode of thinking bred by educational spaces tends towards acquiescence with existent hierarchies (hooks, 2003), as bell hooks explores extensively in her work. This is further articulated by Assata Shakur: “schools are a reflection of the society that created them. Nobody is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.” (Shakur, 1987) If we wish to restructure power in society, it begins in the classroom. Centring radical feminist theory will do much to dismantle defunct and corrupt intellectual hierarchies who remain complicit, and in many cases active, in epistemic violence. This can then be translated into our political ecology.
In our activism, especially for political and social justice, the lessons from radical feminism are abundant. Most obviously, radical feminism adheres strongly to a maxim of liberation as an empty rhetorical device until our most oppressed people are liberated, having been spearheaded by the black women who have been and remain the most oppressed in society. This pertains to movements for the lives of oppressed peoples all over the world, whose current positions expose liberation as having no innate content in our current society. Furthermore, as Olufemi articulates, true liberation is an extension of freedom beyond oneself (Olufemi, 2020). Radical feminism’s narrative is one that encourages altruism in one’s activism; there has been a deficit in this altruism up until now, a deficit propagated by a grossly individualistic capitalist society. This brings us to a further merit of radical feminism in activism; it is inherently intersectional and unwieldy. An appreciation of complex intersectionality is integral for raising consciousness about the extent of structural change necessary; as articulated by Angela Davis, “as long as we inhabit a capitalist democracy, a future of racial equality, gender equality, economic equality will elude us.” (Davis, 1981) Radical feminism recognises the underpinning of inequalities and injustices by capitalistic structures and values. Until we operationalise that realisation, any change we achieve will be only partial and temporary.
Finally, radical feminism can redefine our idiom of politics, and specifically the politics of leadership. Too often, radical women’s movements are subordinated to the left, assuming that the left has more to offer the women’s movement than the women’s movement have to offer the left. Sectional movements, exemplified by the women’s movement, that harbour features of participatory democracy have previously been largely cast aside by the left (Wainright, 1981). This has led to grassroots organisation being subsumed in state structures (Olufemi, 2020). A mode of political leadership on the left more receptive to the wisdom of revolutionary organisations is more likely to create a successful socialist movement. Revolutionary organisations in recent history have exemplified prefigurative forms of leadership, successfully exposing the state’s evils and inadequacies. Examples in the UK include the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Examples further afield include the Working Peoples’ Alliance in Guyana, of which the iconic Andaiye was a key leader.
The underestimation of radical feminist movements as organisational and leadership models is born chiefly from the peripheral position they occupy in the organisational canon for politics. This begins in education. Elevating radical feminism from the position of subjugated knowledge will enable a new intellectual hierarchy to infiltrate society and inform our politics. It truly begins in the classroom.
Radical feminism as a canon, educationally and politically, can facilitate the significant, structural change that we must seek. Too often are ‘radical’ ideas rejected principally for harbouring that very label. Too often pessimism successfully masquerades as rationalism. However, as Arundhati Roy said, “another world is not only possible, she’s on the way and on a quiet day if you listen very carefully, you can hear her breathe.” (Roy, 2014 ) Let’s help her on her way.
Andaiye, 2020. The Point Is To Change the World. s.l.: Pluto Press.
Business in the Community, 2020. Race at the Top: Revisited , s.l.: Business in the Community.
Davis, A., 1981. Women, Race & Class. s.l.:Penguin Random House .
Devine, B. F. & Foley , N., 2020. Women and the Economy, s.l.: House of Commons Library.
Hooks, b., 2003. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. s.l.: Psychology Press.
Olufemi, L., 2020. Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power. s.l.:Pluto Press.
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Tolentino, J., 2019. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. s.l.:Penguin Random House .
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Wainright, H., 1981. Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the making of Socialism. s.l.:Alyson Publications.