No. I’m afraid this isn’t going to be a post about leotards, sweatbands or legwarmers. This is going to be a walk down feminist memory lane, examining some forgotten activism, out of print books, and what that means for our perception of second wave feminism.
More specifically. In this post, I’d like to take a brief look at that oft-cited criticism of second wave feminism – that it was a movement of privileged, white, heterosexual women that failed to adequately take into account the perspectives of working class women, women of colour, etc, and that it therefore was, essentially, a failed experiment that had to make way for this apparently wonderful ‘intersectional’ third wave approach that we have now.
Well. Obviously this fails to take into account the fact that many of the prominent leaders of second wave feminism were neither white nor heterosexual; that there were white radical lesbian feminists like Mary Daly and Adrienne Rich and Luce Irigaray; that there were radical lesbian feminists of colour like Audre Lorde; that there were Black U.S. feminists like Angela Davis and bell hooks.
BUT – nevertheless – let’s just go with this accusation for a moment and pretend that it must be seriously examined. And, as a test case, let’s look at what was happening with feminist activism around the issue of female genital mutilation in the 1980s.
In the 1980s, a number of African feminists began trying to raise awareness about this issue and to agitate for change. Several of them wrote books, some of which were published or re-published in translation, by western feminist presses. Examples include the following:
Raqiya Haji Dualeh Abdalla. Sisters in Affliction: Circumcision and Infibulation of Women in Africa. London, Zed Press, 1982.
Asma El Dareer. Woman, Why Do You Weep? Circumcision and Its Consequences. London, Zed Press, 1982.
Nawal El Saadawi. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. Trans. Sherif Hetata. Boston, Beacon Press, 1982.
Awa Thiam. Black Sisters, Speak Out: Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair. London, Pluto Press, 1986.
This, it would seem, is a perfect example of an ‘intersectional’ approach. White western feminists used their influence and their resources to help local African feminists articulate and raise awareness about an issue that was (and still is) of great importance to them, and which has a massive effect on the lives of millions of women and girls worldwide. Those early alliances had the potential to do great good in challenging female genital mutilation, curbing the practice and perhaps even bringing it to an end.
But was this praised as a success of international feminist cooperation? Most certainly it was not! Western feminists were accused of ‘forcing’ their western thinking onto feminists of colour, and African feminists were accused of being ‘brainwashed’ by the bad white women who were encouraging them to give up their cultural traditions (ie FGM) in favour of white imperialism.
Apparently, so the story goes, all those African women were perfectly happy with FGM until those arrogant white feminists came along and told them otherwise. As if. It completely overlooks the fact that the literature which emerged was written by local African feminists who had been observing for years the damage done by FGM, and who could see the potential of using the feminist movement to bring international attention to what was happening.
Characterising the situation in this way also reduces African feminists to naive and child-like simpletons who are not smart enough to see through the supposed manipulations of white women who desire to impose western cultural hegemony. An attitude which, by the way, is underwritten by some fairly nasty racist stereotyping.
Over the next ten years, many of the African feminists who had started out as outspoken critics of FGM were forced to rescind their position – not by white feminists – but by local male led African ‘human rights’ and political groups who were deeply threatened at the thought of un-mutilated women and girls. African women were forced to concede that FGM was necessary as part of a project to preserve African culture against outside threats, which, unsurprisingly, included western feminism.
And so we have the phenomenon of the magically moving goal posts. First of all, second wave feminists were discredited on account of being TOO white TOO western TOO heterosexual. But the moment white feminists attempted to work with feminists of colour from a different cultural background on an issue of mutual concern, they became cultural imperialists who were out to destroy an entire way of life.
Funny that. Meanwhile, who was benefiting from all of this destruction and discrediting and the continuing practice of female genital mutilation? It couldn’t be men could it……?
If you would like to read more on the subject, then I highly recommend this book, which charts the development of the issues I have touched on here:
Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar. Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Binding of Women. New York, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993.