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.
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. For instance, through historical documentation of the white man as a site for objective knowledge creation and production, white men are able to assert, define, and (re)manufacture certain narratives that enable them power. The creation of this discourse is then 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.
Oppression refers to the institutional power to wield control, discipline, and punishment; 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.
A 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 our self-identity. It is important to note that internalization is not a conscious space of being since it is deliberately manufactured and curated through socialization from birth—it is then an involuntary state predicated on keeping us unaware, asleep, and disembedded from 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—and physical manifestation that the emotional brings into real space—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. We can then understand them as 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 and demands the domination of men over women.
Patriarchy refers to our experienced structure 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. While patriarchy as a transnational structure is universally sound, it is expressed and felt materially diversely in different cultural environments, and thus exaggerating specific norms, gender roles/identities, and sexist patterns depending on the geo-political-social plane. Patriarchy—as a structure—is the root through which individual relations of power between the different sexes can be exercised. Patriarchy however, has not existed as a sole oppressor for women’s liberation but works concurrently within a colonial capitalist supremacist patriarchy, in which they support, embed, and defend one another. It is difficult, near impossible to eradicate the consequences of each individual system, without understanding the way they are relationally conceived. To achieve liberation, we must re-design structures as to no longer embed injustices as we build wider and larger.
This type of feminism in blatant form is white supremacy. 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 through and by 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. 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.
Coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality came about to express the dire situation of immigrant, women of colour who were outcasted from both feminist movements and civil rights movements. It explores the way multiple identities conflict and coincide, within and between different systems, whether they be of patriarchy, capitalism, or orientalism. 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 physical and symbolic space. 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, and regional demarcation.
The basic premise of feminist standpoint theory is that knowledge is socially situated. It attends to the ideological discourse that liberation 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, three, or four steps behind their oppressors therefore, the same opportunities either do not get presented to our communities, or we do not have access to resources needed to participate in those opportunities. Feminist standpoint theory, as it should, allows us to analyze 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 my oppressor 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.