Are We Eliminating or Redefining Limitations?

dear.abby's picture

There are a number of questions that I have worked up which over time have effectively constrained my understanding of the feminist project.  I want to connect my concern regarding access to feminism (or limited access and the factors that create this lack) to my understanding of feminism as a minority project—a project that remains beneath the concern of most women both in the US and across the world. I have been thinking about this “majority” since our class conversation about “trolling” comments on Serendip and the consensus that these are not worth a response—that any response would be not productive. So though there are clearly quite a lot of people—including many female-bodied individuals—who would have unconstructive things to say about our work in Critical Feminist Studies. I would even go so far as so say that (as I have encountered them) there are plenty voices of dissent contained within the Bryn Mawr student body.

This conflict between feminism and the “majority” parallels a general lack of consensus and hence momentum within the body of self defined feminists. This lack of commonality really endangers the notion of feminism as a project constantly working towards action/praxis. With so many differing feminisms each accompanied by various agendas, and each a smaller minority of the minority of people that are self identified feminists in the first place, I sincerely start to doubt the potential contained within the feminist project as it is organized today.

My question of access is definitely one that can be addressed through the work we have done in Critical Feminist Studies. I have definitely found a great disparity in the accessibility of feminist texts within this course. The inaccessibility of texts has a lot to do with whether or not a text comes from within academia. Gayatri Spivaks’ work is nothing if not inaccessible. Yet her work does aim to address a particularly complicated question—a question of agency and access for the subaltern woman. I know that Spivak was included in this course to complicate our understanding of feminism in different geographical locations, especially after our reading of Marjane Satrapi’s very accessible Persepolis.

Though as an individual already interested in the praxis of feminism I wonder how much of a deterrent the inaccessibility of Spivak’s work is to those readers who might be (not yet) interested in feminist praxis. Might the esoteric style and language deter these individuals from reading her work in the first place. The feminist project is a minority one, one faced with a tremendous amount of trepidation and criticism from those outside it (and even from those within). Thus every feminist text that discourages access is one which risks further endangering the possibility of future feminist action. Even further, if the feminist project is predominantly concerned with ending all sexist oppression and oppression generally, then inaccessible writing, as it is inherently exclusionary and thus inherently oppressive, seems to stand outside this project.

Though self identified feminists might have a hard time creating a consensus regarding the aims of the feminist project, I feel confident saying that the feminist project as a whole is concerned with ending oppression. (Now who or how much oppression a feminist is concerned with is debatable, but at the very least someone interested in feminism is concerned with emancipating their self and those in a similar positionality from oppression. Which brings up the question of whether part of the feminist project is grounded in the projection of one’s own self concern onto the situation of other, perhaps very different individuals.) Oppression is always connected to problems of exclusion and limited access, which makes it appear that profoundly inaccessible texts like Spivak’s are intimately linked to structures of oppression. Feminism, as it is related to the world of academia—one of very limited access—can by the same rational, be called into question. Ever since first wave feminism and it’s dependence on differences in class amongst women, the feminist project has had to struggle against the perception that it does not address or involve women that are not of a very particular privileged and educated class. Although the feminist project has broadened to allow for “members” from many different positions in the world, it appears that with this more broad section of potential feminists, there comes a growing need for each breed of feminist to distinguish itself from the rest, thus creating the same exclusionary issue as the first wave, just many times over. How can the feminist project be one of praxis, when it is not one of internal coherence? Can the lack of singular understanding be positive? Maybe the plethora of different subgroups within the feminist project can result in many different versions of praxis feminism, each addressing a different related concern. But what happens when these different projects come into conflict with one another? What then?

bell hooks’ writing is definitely accessible at the level of style, form, and wording. Yet texts like Feminism is for Everybody make such straightforward assertions of what it is and is not to be a feminist that hooks’ meaning becomes almost exclusionary. In class we addressed hooks’ contention that to be a feminist one must support the pro-choice cause. She allows that “a woman can she never choose an abortion while affirming her support of the right of women to choose and still be an advocate of feminist politics” (hooks 6).  So though she is flatly denying the possibility of pro-life advocates to be feminists, she is providing such a person with the ability and agency to maintain their personal conviction and also an interest in the feminist project. Though those advocates are still automatically not a part of what hooks asserts it means to be a feminist.  Feminism is for Everybody is not saying that everyone is a feminist but rather that everyone has the ability to be a feminist, and, further, that it is in everyone’s best interest to be a part of feminist politics as feminist politics aims to end all oppression.

Perhaps these different feminisms within the greater body of the feminist project can decide to sacrifice certain personal convictions for the betterment of feminist politics as bell hooks conceives that those who are personally pro-life can remain so and yet also remain feminsts dedicated to concrete feminist praxis. Some form of consensus is necessary for the forward momentum of the group as a whole. If particular factions are taking the project in opposite directions then it will inevitably either stagnate or fall apart entirely. Though, I have experienced instances when conflict has been generative, the more I examine the feminist project and the personal nature of participation in the feminist project, it becomes apparent that some compromise is necessary in order to create both greater access and a greater impact.

 

Contributing Works:

 

hooks, belle. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. South End Press: Brooklyn, 2000.

 

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. University of Illinois Press: Urbana, 1988.

 

Sites and blogs like News Real Blog (newrealblog.com) and Right Wing News (rightwingnews.com) and sites created or run by David Horowitz and the Freedom Center have been in my mind for some time, and very much demonstrate that feminist advocates are a minority.

Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

Incoherence?

dear.abby--

you raise some thoughtful questions here about the accessibility, direction and coherence of the feminist project, questions that come as a surprise to me, given your last webevent, in which you were advocating for the inclusion, in our discussion, of the points of view of conservative women (like Sarah Palin) who are unlikely to be featured in most gender studies classes.

Moments of interest for me here include those where you call feminism "a minority project," and do so, first, by reflecting on our response to the trolling comments on Serendip, as not worth our response (because not generative of further productive conversation); second by describing Spivak's inaccessible work about the agency and access for the subaltern woman ("inaccessible writing is inherently exclusionary"; "profoundly inaccessible texts like Spivak’s are intimately linked to structures of oppression"); your juxtaposing those problematics, third, against the "straightforward"--but thereby also exclusionary! claims of bell hooks; your asking, fourth, whether the feminist project of ending oppression is compromised by each of us projecting our "own self concern onto the situation of others"; and finally, by your repeated claim that a "lack of consensus" and "coherence" in the movement impedes its forward movement. 

Your event as a whole has a wandering, reflective quality, one that provokes me to question your assertion that "taking the project in opposite directions" means that "it will inevitably either stagnate or fall apart entirely." You  acknowledge, in closing, that you know conflict can be generative (and I know you know this philosophically as well as experientially--think Hegelian dialectics, for starters!). So let's start taking some next steps in the realm of "compromise" you call "necessary both for "greater access and a greater impact."

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