Intersectionality Feminism as Mexican Standoff

by W.F. Price on January 30, 2014

As the American social hierarchy unravels due to demographic shifts, feminists have begun to lash out at each other in an apparent attempt to establish a new pecking order:

In the summer of 2012, twenty-one feminist bloggers and online activists gathered at Barnard College for a meeting that would soon become infamous. Convened by activists Courtney Martin and Vanessa Valenti, the women came together to talk about ways to leverage institutional and philanthropic support for online feminism. Afterward, Martin and Valenti used the discussion as the basis for a report, “#Femfuture: Online Revolution,” which called on funders to support the largely unpaid work that feminists do on the Internet. “An unfunded online feminist movement isn’t merely a threat to the livelihood of these hard-working activists, but a threat to the larger feminist movement itself,” they wrote.

#Femfuture was earnest and studiously politically correct. An important reason to put resources into online feminism, Martin and Valenti wrote, was to bolster the voices of writers from marginalized communities. “Women of color and other groups are already overlooked for adequate media attention and already struggle disproportionately in this culture of scarcity,” they noted. The pair discussed the way online activism has highlighted the particular injustices suffered by transgender women of color and celebrated the ability of the Internet to hold white feminists accountable for their unwitting displays of racial privilege. “A lot of feminist dialogue online has focused on recognizing the complex ways that privilege shapes our approach to work and community,” they wrote.

The women involved with #Femfuture knew that many would contest at least some of their conclusions. They weren’t prepared, though, for the wave of coruscating anger and contempt that greeted their work. Online, the Barnard group—nine of whom were women of color—was savaged as a cabal of white opportunists. People were upset that the meeting had excluded those who don’t live in New York (Martin and Valenti had no travel budget). There was fury expressed on behalf of everyone—indigenous women, feminist mothers, veterans—whose concerns were not explicitly addressed. Some were outraged that tweets were quoted without the explicit permission of the tweeters. Others were incensed that a report about online feminism left out women who aren’t online. “Where is the space in all of these #femfuture movements for people who don’t have internet access?” tweeted Mikki Kendall, a feminist writer who, months later, would come up with the influential hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen.

Martin was floored. She’s long believed that it’s incumbent on feminists to be open to critique—but the response was so vitriolic, so full of bad faith and stubborn misinformation, that it felt like some sort of Maoist hazing. Kendall, for example, compared #Femfuture to Rebecca Latimer Felton, a viciously racist Southern suffragist who supported lynching because she said it protected white women from rape. “It was really hard to engage in processing real critique because so much of it was couched in an absolute disavowal of my intentions and my person,” Martin says…

This brings to mind the Lord of The Rings trilogy, where one of the orcs, after losing a dispute with another, is thrown into a mob of hungry comrades, torn to pieces and consumed.

Just a few years ago, the feminist blogosphere seemed an insouciant, freewheeling place, revivifying women’s liberation for a new generation. “It felt like there was fun and possibility…a momentum or excitement that was building,” says Anna Holmes, who founded Jezebel, Gawker Media’s influential women’s website, in 2007. In 2011, critic Emily Nussbaum celebrated the feminist blogosphere in New York magazine: “Freed from the boundaries of print, writers could blur the lines between formal and casual writing; between a call to arms, a confession, and a stand-up routine—and this new looseness of form in turn emboldened readers to join in, to take risks in the safety of the shared spotlight.”

The Internet also became a crucial place for feminist organizing. When the breast cancer organization Komen for the Cure decided to defund Planned Parenthood in 2012, the overwhelming online backlash led to a reversal of the policy and the departure of the executive who had pushed it. Last year, Women, Action & the Media and the Everyday Sexism Project spearheaded a successful online campaign to get Facebook to ban pro-rape content.

Yet even as online feminism has proved itself a real force for change, many of the most avid digital feminists will tell you that it’s become toxic. Indeed, there’s a nascent genre of essays by people who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in it—not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists. On January 3, for example, Katherine Cross, a Puerto Rican trans woman working on a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center, wrote about how often she hesitates to publish articles or blog posts out of fear of inadvertently stepping on an ideological land mine and bringing down the wrath of the online enforcers. “I fear being cast suddenly as one of the ‘bad guys’ for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication,” she wrote.

There’s a subtext of racial hostility to this feminist civil war, and although this may seem like envy or sour grapes to the casual observer, there’s a reason for the anger.

Back when second wave feminism really began to rise to power in the 80s, it was overwhelmingly a white women’s movement. It wasn’t explicitly supremacist, but the hierarchy was undeniable. White feminist radicals infiltrated social services throughout the land, including in inner cities, monopolizing what soon became a thriving industry. While white women had always been heavily involved in social welfare, in the earlier days they tended to be Christian and quite conservative by today’s standards, even if their contemporaries would have thought of them as liberal. The new feminist contingent was not bound by these dated patriarchal conventions. Soon, they began monopolizing their charges, often taking young nonwhite women as lesbian lovers. Whenever there’s a big power differential, as there is between social workers and the people who rely on them, abuses happen. It’s inevitable, no matter what ideology the authorities ascribe to. So there was something akin to the Catholic abuse scandals going on in women’s shelters and the like, only it was women taking advantage of women rather men taking advantage of boys.

This resulted in some strange outcomes that Americans in general are not aware of, but black feminists surely are. Today, lesbianism is highest among low-income black women. I suspect this is a cultural artifact of widespread exploitation of poor black women by lesbians in the 80s and 90s combined with the unavailability of black men. In fact, not having men to rely on has forced a lot of black women to rely on other women as surrogate husbands. In many cases, these were older white lesbians. You can probably guess who had the upper hand in these relationships.

“I actually think there’s a subset of black women who really do get off on white women being prostrate,” Cooper says. “It’s about feeling disempowered and always feeling at the mercy of white authority, and wanting to feel like for once the things you’re saying are being given credibility and authority. And to have white folks do that is powerful, particularly in a world where white women often deploy power against black women in ways that are really problematic.”

Preening displays of white feminist abjection, however, are not the same as respect. “What’s disgusting and disturbing to me is that I see some of the more intellectually dishonest arguments put forth by women of color being legitimized and performed by white feminists, who seem to be in some sort of competition to exhibit how intersectional they are,” says Jezebel founder Holmes, who is black. “There are these Olympian attempts on the part of white feminists to underscore and display their ally-ship in a way that feels gross and dishonest and, yes, patronizing.”

This reached an absurd peak during the tempest over #Femfuture. Jamia Wilson was one of the black women involved in the Barnard meeting, and she has since become part of the four-woman leadership team for the #Femfuture project, which continues to work on ways to make online feminism financially sustainable. She watched incredulously as white women joined in the pile-on about #Femfuture’s alleged racial insensitivity. One self-described white feminist tweeted at her to explain that no women of color had been at the Barnard meeting “and that I needed to be educated about that,” Wilson recalls. Somehow, activists who prided themselves on their racial enlightenment “were whitesplaining me about racism,” she adds, laughing.

But it isn’t entirely a racial issue (although I suspect that’s the most important one) at work here. Now that transsexuals have managed to gain a foothold in this grievance racket, there’s a movement afoot to abolish the sanctity of the vagina.

In a revolution-eats-its-own irony, some online feminists have even deemed the word “vagina” problematic. In January, the actress and activist Martha Plimpton tweeted about a benefit for Texas abortion funds called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas,” sponsored by A Is For, a reproductive rights organization she’s involved with. Plimpton was surprised when some offended Internet feminists urged people to stay away, arguing that emphasizing “vaginas” hurts trans men who don’t want their reproductive organs coded as female. “Given the constant genital policing, you can’t expect trans folks to feel included by an event title focused on a policed, binary genital,” tweeted @DrJaneChi, an abortion and transgender health provider. (She mentioned “internal genitals” as an alternative.) When Plimpton insisted that she would continue to say “vagina,” her feed filled up with indignation. “So you’re really committed to doubling down on using a term that you’ve been told many times is exclusionary & harmful?” asked one self-described intersectional feminist blogger.

Plimpton takes intersectionality seriously—A Is For is hosting a series of discussions on the subject this year—but she was flummoxed by this purist, arcane form. “I’m not going to stop using the word ‘vagina’ for anybody, whether it’s Glenn Beck or Mike Huckabee or somebody on Twitter who feels it creates a dysphoric response,” she tells me. “I can’t do that and still advocate for reproductive freedom. It’s just not a realistic thing to expect.”

I guess this leaves Eve Ensler up a creek. Well, she’s already at retirement age, so the imminent demise of the cis-normative Vagina Monologues may not make much difference at this point.

This “intersectionality” will be the demise of feminism as a powerful, cohesive force. Intersectionality is essentially multiculturalism on crack, and will prove to be impossible to manage. While feminism will always exist in one form or another, when it ceases to benefit a majority of women it will find itself largely ignored or avoided by most women. And as the US becomes a pluralist country there will be no clear majority, and no clear winners from a generic “feminism.” Instead, there will be a thousand little feminisms, each for one particular group of women, and each hostile to the others.

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