Remember the 80s?

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.

2 thoughts on “Remember the 80s?

  1. I don’t know if you still write on this blog, but I wanted to respond to this. First, it’s never been just white middle-class women involved in feminism, it has roots in the abolition of slavery, Black women have always been involved, all women have always been involved. Deploring the white middle-class nature of feminism up until a specific few people noticed feminism existed is pretending Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was never born.
    It’s also striking, when reading about the whole Audre Lorde / Mary Daly exchange from the more “intersectional / sex-positive” camp, that you tend to hear something along the lines of “well Audre Lorde certainly told her”, when Lorde’s letter definitely reads more like a slightly disappointed fan letter. The two of them clearly had quite a lot of mutual admiration. Arguably, that’s why Lorde cared enough to be disappointed, it’s not like she was writing letters to every prominent Jesuit scholar.
    Then, as you say, the second-wave feminist movement was not particularly racist. Again, it had strong roots in the US civil rights movement, among other places, Black women have been involved in feminism since day 1 anyway. But it’s important to note more than demographics, and the second-wave feminist position has always been quite tied to for instance Edward Said’s position in Orientalism, they’re very similar, the idea that the oppression of women is the model for all others is very similar to his. Even in the content of feminist work, someone like Simone de Beauvoir is often deplored (by people who’ve barely read her) like “oh she only talked about the experience of white middle-class women”. In the Second Sex, there are great reasons for her to do this (she was a Hegelian and a Marxist, she didn’t focus on bourgeois femininity because she was only interested in white middle-class women), but also there’s her work with Gisèle Hallimi in support of Algerian independence activist Djamilla Boupacha, and her journalistic work. It’s the same for a lot of second-wave feminists, there were a few who were kind of sheltered in their own bubble but they’re not the majority. This is another example of how a pendulum swing towards identity politics has made the central tenets of feminism basically taboo and unsayable. It’s easy to look “inclusive” with demographics, but one can be inclusive and still racist. The central tenets of second-wave feminism were not racist. There were tensions and I think they were well-examined (i.e. Lorde & Daly’s exchange for example), and it seems unfair to pounce on those examinations and go “look! she’s racist!” – it’s not fair to Audre Lorde and her efforts, aside from anything else.
    I’m not a radical feminist, but I feel that radical feminism is the last bastion of something very important, and it’s being marginalised and gradually lost. You guys have been relegated to a position where it’s almost your job to get yelled at by everyone, and it’s the only position from which anyone can say the things you’re saying anymore, and that’s pretty devastating.

  2. weirdward says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment!

    I’ve had a lot of stressful stuff going on irl for the last six months or so, which has rather interfered with my blogging, but I’m glad to know people are still reading and enjoying this space.

    Yes, I agree that one of the most frustrating things about the re-branding of earlier feminist movements as only including white middle class racist women is that is totally erases the fact that women from different races, classes etc. have always been active and effective in the women’s movement.

    And also as you say, that’s not to erase the fact that tensions and difficulties did exist, but to simply deny that those women were there out of a desire to sully the reputations of earlier feminist movements with accusations of racism is engaging in exactly the kind of erasure tactics that the dominant culture uses all the time to dismiss women, poc and other minorities.

    I also really have to wonder how and why post-modern queer feminism and other forms of identity politics are supposedly more inclusive, when actually those ideas came out of a very narrow, western, white, privileged academic tradition, and in some cases were merely re-packaging of earlier revolutionary politics bled dry of their actual revolutionary potential.

    Also again as you say, assuming that these mythical white, middle class feminists were existing in a clueless bubble of privilege ignores the reality that activists from different movements of course encounter each other, learn from each other, help one another in different campaigns. Many first wave feminists in the US were active in the movement to abolish slavery, as just one example.

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