Liberation from Within: Creating a Culture of Feminist Liberatory Practice
Been thinking about what I said in the “Open Letter”, about feminism being about liberation from within its borders as well as without…and how we get there. Warning: this post is likely to be disjointed and fall into various fractals; I’ve never been good at linear thinking (side note: one of the great joys of my year is attending the annual family reunion in the “wilds of southern Illinois”. See, one of my father’s youngest cousins started putting this on several years ago; he wanted to keep in closer touch to his four siblings and wanted his five kids to have the extended-family experience that he had—which, far from civilization (i.e.: north of I-80), they wouldn’t unless he took more proactive measures (with his siblings living in different states & all). Since all went well, it rapidly expanded into all the first cousins and their kids/grandkids/& etc. Anyway…this gathering is a great source of joy to me because….everyone has the same ADD-influenced communication style. Conversation(s) wind over and around, branching to the side and down winding paths of no end and it flows majically with everyone following/reacting instantly like a school of fish. We can all follow several thoughts/conversations at once. I love it. It seems like that’s the only time I can give free rein; not artificially corral my verbal tendencies like I usually have to in order to be understood….)
Where was I? Oh yeah….transcribing free-flowing thought into some semblance of order. I don’t post very often because…that’s what I feel I have to do. Not gonna do that today, so bear with me.
Something happened to feminism on its way away from women’s liberation and something else more…institutionalized and co-opted. I’m Somebody’s Mother now, and my daughter is almost the same age I was when I marched for the ERA in Grant Park (Chicago). A lot of things have changed since then in terms of organized Feminism, and not for the good. It comes as no surprise to me to read that the Susan G. Komen Foundation will no longer be granting Planned Parenthood monies for breast cancer screening. They and other organizations don’t identify with feminism, just as many women don’t identify as feminist. Let’s take a step back and examine some changes within organizational feminism that may explain this:
- the move into feminism as a professional career path, into 501c3 orgs and/or the rise of the “creative class” (unlike the labor movement, the feminist movement did not define a role for rank-and-file members nor a relationship and responsibilities between the leadership and rank-and-file)
- strong reliance on academia for its spokespeople, ideology(ies) and political leadership to the detriment of the rank-and-file (both in terms of decreasing accessibility to higher education and to the overriding ethos and communication style, as academia is (from my outsider’s perspective) considerably more sexist and classist than say, the building trades
- credentials receiving more respect than the lived experience of women; the relational scripts within the feminist movement have replicated the kyriarchal scripts from outside the movement, exacerbating…
- the replication of that kyriarchy. Institutions are more powerful than individuals. In the absence of formal procedures of questioning those standards and practices, and in the absence of various perspectives/vantage points, the exterior kyriarchy is re-established within feminist movement
In short, the Feminist movement never instituted the structures of consensus; ideology; direction, tactics and/or strategy; establishing leadership; defining goals; delineating responsibilities; delegating duties; ensuring a system of checks/balances regarding power dynamics and accountability; ensuring a smooth transition of power transfer and/or chain of command; education; handling conflict…or any of the other tasks of movement-building that other liberatory movements (civil rights, labor, nationalist/anticolonial, etc.) did in order to be effective at political organizing and changing material reality.
Feminist movement has yet to decide whether feminism is a movement, a philosophy, an aesthetic or what. What are its goals? Who decides? Who knows—there’s no structure for that. Right now, it’s the status quo: what we used to refer to as “patriarchy in a dress” (meaning: only the gender of the leadership has changed, not the outlook or methodology). This is profoundly alienating to many women. It’s why Womanism was created in order to re-emphasize the liberatory values and praxis that wasn’t/isn’t being emphasized in Feminism. Or the identity of mujeristas, at the intersections of feminism, Latin@ struggle and liberation theology. Or…just wholesale abandonment of feminism as a political movement that has any relevance to everyday women (hence, the Komen Foundation knowing that its breaking ties with Planned Parenthood will be met with a yawn from most quarters; its funding won’t be affected).
Communication matters. Not just its substance, but its forms. Every political movement begins with effective communication. (You think it was an accident that of the eight men tried for the the bombing at Haymarket Square, five were writers and/or publishers of newspapers? Bilingual newspapers?) This is currently a weakness in feminist movement, yet one that has the potential to change; effectively, comprehensively, and relatively quickly—and feminist bloggers could lead the way.
Right now, the norms of communication at feminist blogs are weak in regards to cross-cultural and cross-class dialogue, and do not recognize power differentials. Trends I’ve noticed over the years:
- laissez-faire comments and moderation, with “the marketplace of ideas” considered the primary moderating force. Freedom of speech is prioritized over ensuring that marginalized people from within feminism feel the freedom to speak
- pulling rank/listing formal credentials, which implies:
- a nonadversarial relationship to authority
- an individualistic outlook, as opposed to collectivist outlook (which doesn’t lend itself to movement building, which is collective by nature)
- no recognition of or process for determining what dynamics are visible vs. what is invisible
- an implicit acceptance that capitalism provided the framework for feminism to exist, and that feminism cannot survive anywhere other than within a capitalist economic framework
- co-opting of terminology (ex.: reproductive justice, a comprehensive lens for examining issues of women’s health, autonomy and motherhood and acting on these issues in the political arena being reduced to merely replacement terminology for reproductive rights—already reduced to the understanding of “right to abortion” or “right to use birth control”.
Dialogue is a radical act. It is a direct counter to “divide and conquer”. Dialogue enables those positioned differently to come to the mutual understanding and respect necessary to work cohesively. Dialogue is egalitarian by nature; it upends the usual power dynamics. But with that said, not all discussion, not all words, are dialogue. Dialogue requires:
- active listening. Active listening means setting aside assumptions and paying attention to what is being said. It means listening contextually. It means asking questions to insure one is understanding the intended message. It means actually listening, not formulating one’s response during the conversation. It means pausing, reflecting, sitting with one’s thoughts for awhile.
- two-way communication. Giving other people the time to respond and reflect as well. Not “pulling rank” or using one’s exterior authority identifiers to privilege one’s position.
- acknowledging and accepting one another’s defensive measures. “Defensiveness” gets bad press at times when it shouldn’t—defensive mechanisms often result from previous attacks, and it’s important to discern when that may be the case as opposed to reflexive support of/wearing down by kyriarchal standards. Acknowledging and respecting one another’s boundaries is a helpful practice.
- acknowledging and respecting different modes of communication and use of language
- spending the time it takes to build rapport
- sharing resources and social capital
- recognition and transmission of history from multiple sources (ex.: the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 is generally recognized as the birth of feminism in the U.S., but women in the textile factories of New England were organizing strikes over ten years previous—why are their contributions considered irrelevant to feminism? Why aren’t the gruppo anarchico femminile considered part of feminism? Italian/Sicilian women in Illinois Valley coal towns were openly criticizing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (yes, in damn-near those terms) long before suffragists won the right to vote. Why are we erased from the narrative?
I keep coming back to the story Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz told about going to Cuba as part of the Venceremos Brigade; how the people self-segregated along racial lines immediately upon boarding the ship, how living conditions broke down because everyone thought taking care of business was someone else’s job. The Cuban official in charge called a meeting to address this—basically, telling them that revolution was their job, a participatory process. No one else was going to do the work. There was no staff in a revolution. All were workers. It was a wake-up call for the norteamericanos, divided as they were and thinking within the same frameworks they always had as a self-protective measure. Nobody listened at the time. There was suspicion of informants among the Brigade; the womanhunt for Angela Davis was on (her sister Fania participated in this brigade). Theft and fistfights were rampant in the early days after disembarking, when they first went to work in the canefields. But somewhere along the line…things changed. Between the work (alongside with Cubans, many of whom were also unaccustomed to agricultural work and were performing national service), listening to stories of the Cuban revolution from the people who lived it, meeting with guerilla fighters from elsewhere (Guinea, Cape Verde, Brazil, Uruguay, Vietnam) and hearing their perspectives (after telling Lam, a Viet Cong fighter, that she came to Cuba to mentally regroup—figure out who were her friends and who were her enemies, he said, “There are no friends. Be happy if you have few enemies.”), forming educational collectives that would present to the rest of the group (subjects included race/class/gender; imperialism, Marxism, racism, the Vietnam War), touring Cuba, dancing in the evenings, attending lectures, learning about U.S. labor history from Cubans who were inspired by it….there was no conflict on the way back, no shirking of duties. The ship remained clean, and the bunks were desegregated.
Maybe what we need is a Venceremos Brigade for feminism.