Feminist Theory: Introductory Radical Toolkit

Written By Kanishka Sikri

What is feminist theory? How does it relate to our geopolitical space? To race? To class? To able-bodiedness? To fat v skinny dichotomies? To sexuality? How do we relate feminism, and its multiple branches, to our day-to-day lives? This toolkit provides you with an introduction to theoretical contentions and debates within feminism, and provides a lens to begin looking at the politics of contemporary feminist theory and subsequent critiques.

In order for us to effectively engage in critical discourse and discussion we need to discuss and analyze the points of contention within and between the issues we are discussing. The main reason for doing so is to recognize and accommodate the spectrum that we all exist on. Some of you are absolutely new to any discussion on feminism, race, intersectionality, and prejudice. That’s okay. Some of you are intermediates who have some exposure to these topics but still feel like you could, and want to learn more. That’s also okay. Some of you are knee-deep in critical analysis, and want a space to actively discuss and examine these theories. That is more than okay. Some of you are in the middle of these different planes. Wherever you are, that is okay. Allow yourself to accept whatever you know, and especially what you don’t know. We exist on a spectrum, not as a binary of experts and learners.

This is a critical space for you, no matter where you are at on this spectrum. Given the diversity of you, it is important to highlight, define, and examine the key roots and theories we will be dissecting, as well as the formal language that we utilize in its analysis. So, don’t be scared. This is a safe space for you to learn. For us to learn together.

  • Gender: A sociological construct that attempts to differentiate, oppose, and categorize biological sex into a binary and hierarchy of “men” over “women”; while also attaching specific behaviours, traits, and characteristics to each construct.
  • Gender Roles: The roles that are imposed, disciplined, and deemed “normal” in regards to behaviors expected of gender constructs. For example while commonly used, the normality of purchasing pink for girls and blue for boys is an attempt to assign gender roles and behaviours to distinguish between them.
  • Sex: A biological category that places itself as a binary between either having male or female reproductive organs.
  • Misogyny: Explicit and implicit hatred towards women.
  • Misandry: Explicit and implicit hatred towards men.
  • Misogynoir: Explicit and implicit hatred of black women.

A complicated dynamic in which some communities hold greater manufactured ability in the economic, social and political sense to marginalize and control other communities. Power is not only a physical act, but is made possible through language and discourse. Through male-centered creation and exercise of knowledge, men are able to assert and force certain narratives that work to their benefit. The creation of this discourse is a creation of power. The order of this discourse then produces a specific reality, and excludes the possibility of any other social fabrics from existing. Our current power structure then eliminates the possibility of liberation from being achieved.

Oppression refers to the institutional power to wield control, and consequently is the systematic act of dehumanization, subjugation, and marginalization of specific communities; which is done to benefit the oppressors at the expense of the oppressed. Oppression manifests in a wide range of mediums from women’s reproductive oppression, such as the control of abortion rights, to the continued repression of certain religious groups, such as the Rohingya Muslims in Burma (Myanmar).

It is hard to confine this term into narrow roots, but as a general rule of thumb, it is important to understand this definition to be able to critically examine its discourse. Feminism first originating in the 19th century, as the terms “féminisme” and “féministe” is a broad, interconnected, and vexed term which can be used to describe ideologies, movements, persons, and goals. In its original form, feminism highlighted the struggles towards dismantling the patriarchal society we live in to establish equality and equity for women. Note: we cannot achieve liberation from patriarchy until, and only when, we begin to dismantle the interconnected systems that demand its institution. This includes the deconstruction of our Colonial Capitalist Supremacist Patriarchy as a whole.

Internalized misogyny is an extension of our patriarchal system which produces a wide-held belief within women themselves that they are inferior to men; thus becoming an aspect of their self-identity. It is also important to note that internalization is not a conscious space of being since it is deliberately manufactured and curated within the system we reside. Instead it is an involuntary state predicated on keeping us unaware of our own unconsciousness. Internalized misogyny furthers oppression from an open to a hidden scale, as even when oppressors are not physically involved in the space of the oppressed, their emotional oppression is still being exerted.

Privileges are advantages we hold over others, whether that be of resources, opportunities, institutions, or representations. We all hold some type of privilege; it is not a binary but rather a range we fall on and between. It is also important to note, that privilege is environmentally formed – meaning in some geopolitical and social contexts, you may hold more privileges that in other spaces. Privileges are not fixed, but rather, fluid. This leads to the production of the idea that our privileges are a spectrum, from which sometimes we, even without intentional consent, still tacitly hold the upper hand. Let’s use an example in which there are two women: one is Indian and one is White. In this case, yes, both are women, but one is also an Indian woman, a racialized and marginalized individual, thus giving the white woman an upper hand in advantage and privilege. The purpose of this example is to illustrate that our privileges are not fixed, and stagnant beings, but are malleable to the different natural and social environments we are in. More importantly, privileges and intersections of domination are ever changing as our relation to others is changing. What advantages we have, don’t have, and wish to have are contingent upon the ways in which we navigate our social and cultural spaces.

Rape culture is the normalization of men’s sexual violence against women, to a point of inevitable conformity, in which men and women are socialized from birth into a culture that supports the domination of men over women.

Patriarchy refers to the world system which prioritizes and organizes men as superior to women. This is not based on any natural or biological abilities that differentiate the sexes, but are social constructs that utilize othering and gender roles to further assimilate our society into a world that prefers, protects, and advances men. Patriarchy is the root through which individual relations of power between the different sexes can be exercised. It remains the institution through which liberation is halted, controlled, and ultimately, oppressed. The institution of patriarchy is ever changing in different cultural environments, and thus exaggerating specific social norms, gender roles/identities, and sexist patterns depending on the social plane. It is difficult to isolate the effects of patriarchy without dismantling and deconstructing the effects of the Colonial Capitalist Supremacist Patriarchy as a whole. These systems interconnect, support, curate, and defend one another in order to create the reality we know as this one. To achieve liberation, we need to re-conceive the systems themselves.

This type of feminism in blatant form is white supremacy. It highlights perfectly what is produced when we reside at the intersections of our Colonial Capitalist Supremacist Patriarchy. It refers specifically to the goals, aims, and mission of many feminist movements which attempt to advance their own personal narrative as white women, which unsurprisingly is done with and through the continued oppression of women of colour. White feminism constructs itself as outside discussions of race, for “why does everything have to be about race?”, the white woman will ask. Until race is no longer constructed and utilized as a tool to further repress, hinder, and control; until we deconstruct the white narrative as the narrative for all; until we unpack the privilege that accompanies the ability to not see why race is embedded into the structures of our world itself, at that time, and only then, will it not be about race.

Western feminism serves to construct the idea of “third world women” as a homogeneous powerless group who are implicit victims of particular socioeconomic systems. These discourses utilized by Western feminists serve to situate themselves as the center of all analysis, which pushes all other women to a sort of mold around the pre-existing center comprised of generally, white women. Whether this sort of hierarchy genuinely exists in society is debatable, but this is the praxis through which western feminists organize their dissertations of the world, and shape media representations of the “third world”. However, looking at third world women as representations of assumptions produced by hegemonic discourses in Western feminism attributes this false identity as a direct identity of these women, making them an extension of how they compare to the Western world rather than how they actually are. It is also important to note that “third world woman” is placed in quotations because it is reflective of the power dynamics within global discourses that allow for some women to be classified as less than others.

It is incredibly important to analyze the authors behind the waves of feminism. These movements and generalizations of historical movements are incredibly biased in Western interpretations and advancement, not encompassing the exploitation of women of colour by Western feminists in academic circles, societal relationships, power dynamics, and political fabrics. This is not to say that other, primarily people of colour communities were going through the same waves. In fact, much “progress” being achieved during these periods of liberation was done on the backs of women of colour. Let us not silence their voices.

First Wave of Feminism

The first wave refers to the movement of the 19th through early 20th centuries (1848 to 1920) primarily in Europe and the United States.

Key Issues:

  • Women’s suffrage, especially the right to vote
  • Women’s education, specifically for girls
  • Labour protections and better working conditions
  • Laws surrounding marriage and property rights
  • Reproductive rights

Second Wave of Feminism

The second wave was from the 1960’s-1980’s, again primarily in the Global North (Europe and the United States).

Key Issues:

  • Creating awareness about oppressive systems, like the patriarchal and misogynistic institutions governing us
  • Allowing for female voices on topics of marital rape and domestic violence
  • Legalization of abortion and birth control
  • Liberation of women’s reproductive identities

Third Wave of Feminism – 1991 – ?

The third wave of feminism was from the 1990’s to the early 2000’s. It is open for interpretation if we are currently still residing in the third wave of feminism or if we have gone backwards or forwards.

Key Issues:

  • Intersectionality – emphasizing the intersection of multiple discriminations and inequalities (race, class, etc)
  • Calling action on changing media interpretations of women
  • Bridging awareness of gender roles, identity, and orientations

Fourth Wave of Feminism?

Are we in the fourth wave of feminism? Differing contentions do exist with some believing we are in the third wave, some believing we are in the fourth wave, and some believing we have reversed back to the second wave of feminism. I believe, rather, we are operating in an intermediary space between these waves. Rise of #MeToo and movements alongside it, are still trying to access the liberation from oppression and patriarchy per the second and third wave. Its goals have still not been met. What makes this wave special, different, and unique, is the way it is practiced. The internet, social media specifically, has connected us in ways we have never been before. It has allowed for the spread of ideas and diffusion to occur at an exponential rate, re: the Arab Springs. This interconnectedness allows movements to unfold globally, but has subsequently led to heavy censorship by corporations and government entities.

Coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, Intersectionality came about to express the dire situation of immigrant, women of colour who were outcasted from both feminist movements, as well as civil rights movements. It explores the way multiple identities conflict and coincide, within and between different systems, whether they be of patriarchy, capitalism, or eurocentrism. This analysis often reveals that social institutions are double, triple, quadruple stacked against those identifying with a multi-minority identity, and that these institutions do not accommodate the complexity that arises when an individual identifies with more than one marginalized group. Intersectionality then, rightly so, refutes the notion that women are homogeneous groups who face the same oppression in any given situation. It is important to note however, that intersectionality is not about highlighting individual differences to create further grounds for isolation but works towards critically understanding these differences and fathoming how they can be positively expressed within our political society.

An example Crenshaw used within her piece was the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy. Clarence Thomas, an American judge, lawyer, and government official was being appointed as an Associate Supreme Court Justice, and during his confirmation trials Anita Hill, a black woman, presented allegations of harassment against him. Yet, like the histories that preceded her, Hill’s allegations were not taken seriously, and Clarence Thomas is still a member of the Supreme Court today, without bearing any repercussions in regards to his actions. Having her identity ripped to pieces, the key aspect of the dismantling of Hill’s accusations was the strict binary of her identity, as either black or as a woman. This was instigated as a consequence of the Civil Rights movement focusing on the narrative of a black man alone, and the Second-Wave feminist movement focusing on the middle-class, white woman trope (Crenshaw, 1299). The question remains – where do women like Hill fit in? Hill is put in in the middle of a complex debate between what part of her identity to focus on, when an obvious yet overlooked answer has always been present – look at all parts of her identity. Through intersectional analysis, Hill’s identity can be seen as a black woman and not just black or as a woman. We do not need to identify parts of who we are to the exclusion of everything else, intersectionality gives us an alternative praxis to work through complex issues at the intersection of race, gender, class, orientation or any other feature of our identities.

The basic premise of feminist standpoint theory is that knowledge is socially situated, and marginalized groups are more aware of power relationships, and are able to critically ask questions and interpret discourses at a more insightful level, than non-marginalized groups. Standpoint theory then broadens over just discussion about situational feminism, and integrates within a broad range of social relations, including, but not limited to, socioeconomic disparities, methodological discussion, and political activism. This theory resonates with many because it addresses the ideological premise that equality can only express itself within a society when we address the exploitation that has led to the negative subjection of communities in the first place. Thus, before addressing complex matters like bridging and sustaining equity, we must address how the marginalized view the word versus how the non-marginalized do. For instance, historically exploited communities recognize that they are already two steps behind all those not marginalized, therefore the same opportunities either do not get presented to our communities, or we do not have the capabilities of obtaining the resources needed to participate in those opportunities. Feminist standpoint theory, as it should, allows us to analyze the discourse that certain communities are not able to engage in economic and social development because the plane they have started at does not equate to the plane that privileged groups start at. This may be a bit confusing, so let me illustrate via an example; as a marginalized woman of colour, I can now recognize that I view an opportunity from the perspective of a marginalized woman, an Indian woman, and an immigrant woman whose community has been degraded, assimilated, and exploited. My insight is different than that of a white woman’s, a brown man’s, and an Indigenous individual’s. My insight is my own. This can even be understood with some simple math. The consistent marginalization and exploitation of my multi-minority identity have left me at negative two for instance, while someone not marginalized starts off at zero. When you add an opportunity to that, say plus one, I go to negative one, and they go to plus one. I will always be two steps behind. To then change that, we must acknowledge the difference between these planes. The difference between perspectives.

Kanishka Sikri

kanishkasikri.com

writer—poet—post-de-colonial theorist—transnational feminist working to dismantle our colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy

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