Women: The Longest Revolution (Chicago)
Margaret Power, Brit Schulte, Yasmin Nair
Platypus Review #84 | March 2016
On November 4, 2015, the Loyola University Chicago chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel discussion entitled “Women: The Longest Revolution?” The panelists were Margaret Power, professor of History at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the author or editor of several books on Latin American history and the political right; Brit Schulte, a grassroots organizer, founding editor of Red Wedge magazine, and current graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and Yasmin Nair, a Chicago-based writer, academic, and activist in Chicago, co-founder of the Against Equality editorial collective, and volunteer policy director of Gender JUST. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. The full audio recording of the event can be found online at: https://archive.org/details/Women_The_Longest_Revolution_20151104.
Margaret Power: The organizers presented us with some very challenging questions, but, we [the speakers] have already agreed amongst ourselves that we will like and applaud what we all say.
Early socialists (and even some later ones) referred to the oppression of women as “the woman question.” This ontological and discursive framing suggests that the oppression of women exists in isolation from men and is somehow independent from and less important than the more general question of class struggle and revolution. Has anyone ever heard it referred to as “the proletariat question”? One of the thorny realities that Marxists have debated is the relationship between women’s oppression and capitalism and the concomitant connection between the liberation of women and the construction of socialism. Closely related to this discussion is: Which women are we talking about? All women? Or just working-class women?
The oppression of women did not begin with capitalism nor will it automatically end with the construction of socialism. The oppression of women is both intertwined with capitalism and has acquired a reality that transcends it. For much of the history of socialism, the oppression of women has been viewed as a distinct reality that primarily defines the condition of women living in capitalist society. However, that is a false and unhelpful way to understand the oppression of women or, for that matter, the oppression of anyone. Social systems are an integrated whole. In other words, the oppression and exploitation of women in the marketplace, in the home, or in the public sphere more generally is not just about the mistreatment of women or the exploitation of women; it is central to the functioning of capitalism. Women produce and reproduce capitalism in varying degrees depending on their relation to the means of production but capitalism cannot function without women of all classes. Therefore, just as the exploitation of workers is central to the very definition of capitalism, so too is that of women, both in our condition as women and as workers.
Should those who espouse socialism advocate the liberation of all women, or just working-class, poor women? Since the oppression of women expresses itself in so many ways, on so many levels, it is really not possible to end the oppression of working-class women without simultaneously abolishing the oppression of all women as women. The economic exploitation of women is fundamentally, but not exclusively, class-based. For example: The economic exploitation of a woman who works in a factory is radically different from that experienced by the wife of the owner of the factory. However, in a patriarchal society, the exploitation of women—and by this I mean the production and reproduction and acquisition of surplus value through unpaid or underpaid labor—defines women’s reality (not the totality of women’s reality, but just this aspect of it). Unless we fight against the devaluing of women’s labor across the board, as mothers, as wives, as workers, across classes and in multiple situations, we will not achieve the emancipation of any women, including working class women. Socialism is, or should be, defined and practiced as the human quest and need for liberation. Because women’s oppression predates capitalism and has persisted in societies that have attempted (with greater or lesser degrees of success) to construct socialism, one thing we can say for sure is that no economic or social system automatically guarantees the emancipation of women.
It is undeniable that conditions, attitudes, and experiences have changed for women in bourgeois societies. We must acknowledge the gains that the women’s movement has made for women in capitalist societies around the world. But what do these gains mean? How widespread are they? Who has benefitted from them? They mean that the power of organized women and supportive men have wrested some concessions from the capitalist society we live in. However, these achievements have in no way weakened or undermined capitalism as a system. I liken the advances of women to an air mattress: If one portion goes down, another goes up. So, yes, women are now in college earning advanced degrees, but most students are burdened with debt. Yes, many middle class and upper class women have better paid and interesting jobs (like being a professor), but millions of women work in unhealthy, non-union jobs where they lack healthcare, security, a livable wage, and respect. The goal of capitalism is to generate profits, and one way to do so is to incorporate smart, creative, and energetic women into a world once defined and solely inhabited by men. But that is not to say that women’s ability to be attorneys, for example, is just the result of some nefarious scheme to co-opt women into capitalism. That would be ridiculous. Rather, the advances women make in a capitalist society are both positive, since they have made life better for some women, and double-edged, since they have sucked women more into the capitalist system. Instead of “leaning in,” I think we need to lean out.
Women alone will not end capitalism or build socialism. Women need to work together with men to do this. However, it would be a huge mistake for women to think that we will achieve women’s liberation only by building socialism. In order to obtain the emancipation of women, women need to work on many fronts, in mixed-gender and in autonomous women’s organizations. We need independent organizations and spaces from which to articulate our demands, desires, and dreams and to concretize our program for liberation. Women need to lead and participate in all revolutionary and, indeed, in some reformist organizations, but we also need organizations and institutions of our own to ensure that we recognize, express, and obtain when, how, why, and by whom we are being oppressed, and consequently, have the material resources and the solidarity to fight against this.
So far I have spoken as if there is something called “Woman,” but such an entity does not exist. In order to emancipate women we need to recognize the conflicts and fissures that have always existed among and between women and in women’s organizations and movements, differences that result from the various ways that women are oppressed and in fact oppress others, be it racial, ethnic, religious, national, sexual, age, education, class, or able-bodiedness (and the list could continue). Just as women need our own organizational reality independent of men, so too do women who embody different racial, national, sexual, etc. experiences. Far from promoting disunity, it is only when we recognize and respect differences on one hand that we can see our sameness on the other: the basic humanity that unites us (or should unite us in our ideal world). If instead of feeling threatened when, for example, black working-class women create their own organizations we welcome the understanding and strength we will all gain from their empowerment, then can we truly conceive of a socialist society and the emancipation of women, which also includes the emancipation of all humanity.
Brit Schulte: I’m humbled to be in a space that’s encouraging discussion and debate around such a central question—although it is funny to think of my own liberation as a question, so I hope that we can all agree in this space that it’s a declarative. I do think (very much so) that the personal is political and I want to begin in that vein. Speaking as someone who identifies as a queer woman, who is involved with sex work as a way to pay rent, who is dependent on student loans to manage other debts and bills, who is underpaid at her straight job (and without union representation), most of my time is spent selling my labor-power with little to no agency. This obviously doesn’t include all of the unpaid labor that women perform and that I’ve performed for years in a home with a partner who was a man, or the uncompensated labor of community and campus organizing, or the costly free labor that’s needed to pursue academic interests, projects, and studies that I’m sure most of you are familiar with. My male-identifying partners have always made more money than I have even when they were unemployed and on food stamps and assistance. I routinely use theft to get by. I think it’s important to color my laboring reality this way as I bring class analysis and a feminist framework to these comments and to this conversation. These everyday experiences inform my politics of resistance and I think that they are valid.
Now for something more expressly political: The Left as it stands today and as it has stood would have been incapable of anything without women and without femme folks. It’s just patent fact. There have always been women uncompromising in their commitment to the struggle for human liberation. The fact that we don’t know their names or most of their stories the way that we know men’s is a specific sort of violence that’s done to memory.
Alexandra Kollontai, a Russian revolutionary, wrote a brilliant piece called “The Social Basis of the Woman Question” in 1909. It speaks to the question of bourgeois feminism and reformism:
The followers of historical materialism reject the existence of a special woman question, separate from the general social question of our day. Specific economic factors were behind the subordination of women; natural qualities have been a secondary factor in this process. Only the complete disappearance of these factors, only the evolution of those forces, which at some point in the past gave rise to the subjection of women, is able in a fundamental way to influence and change their social position. In other words, women can become truly free and equal, only in a world organized along new social and productive lines.
Kollontai recognizes that we cannot rely on an existing form which relies on the subjection of women to win our liberation. She continues, “each new gain of the working class represents a step leading mankind” —humankind— “towards the kingdom of freedom and social equality: each right that woman wins brings her nearer the defined goal of full emancipation.” In this section she is specifically talking about several predominantly male revolutionaries who are carrying on about throwing all bourgeois feminism out of the door, writing it off as unnecessary, something that is not a part of a true revolutionary proletarian project. Kollontai is saying that if you can actually realize good wins, when people get a taste of what they can achieve as a right, then you can use that to bolster people to move forward to win more.
This leads to me to the idea of men comrades of the Left, which has particular implications for what we now refer to “fuckboys” and mansplaining and manspreading. We should find a way to work these into conversation, too, so we have a space to vent. Mujeres Libres was an organization founded in 1936 during the anarchist struggle in the Spanish Revolution and they had a lot to say about male anarchists that would mansplain within anarchist organizations. I want to share an amazing quote from Lucía Sánchez Saornil. She expresses that the general sentiment was that “All those compañeros, however radical they may be in cafes, unions, and even affinity groups [FAI], seem to drop their costumes as lovers of female liberation at the doors of their homes. Inside, they behave with their compañeras just like common husbands.” That’s something that still rings very true for revolutionary and even just campaign-based organizations of the day. When you are wanting, as a woman, to put an idea forward and you have ten men who have been in the organization for longer (or not even as long) immediately shut you down or create a space that is hostile to actually sharing your ideas and participating fully, it doesn’t exactly lead to a healthy revolutionary candor when you’re organizing at the grassroots level. Mujeres Libres does not get spoken of much in the anarchist tradition which is unfortunate because they were really trying to challenge a lot of this inherent misogyny and sexism with their organizing models.
The Combahee River Collective manifesto absolutely changed the way I interact with people in grassroots organizations. There’s a guerrilla feminist quote that has been memed a million times: “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” That’s a very new but correct way of looking at how we should see the struggle for liberation, specifically women’s liberation, human liberation. The Combahee River Collective Statement was written in 1977 and it’s the first time you see terms like “identity politics” being referenced and expressly labeled as such. Here’s a great quote:
In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving "correct" political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice.
When we ask ourselves, “What has the Left been doing with questions like feminism, women’s liberation, the central women questions,” it is important to look at texts and organizations in which the question wasn’t “How do we engage with that project?” That was the project. It’s important to go back to these texts and these organizations, flawed as they were, to learn some of these lessons and to be able to not have to remake the wheel when you’re in an organizing meeting on your campus or in your community. To be more express with what I mean by intersectionality, here’s another amazing quote from the Combahee River Collective Statement:
We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses.
Is Marxism reductive? I call myself a Marxist-feminist. I like the framework that historical materialism gives me. It allows me to look at a synthesis of events and to see history in a particular way that is not just written by the victor. I think that’s a useful tool. Marxism gets a lot of flak specifically for this allegation of being too class-politics-based, of being reductive, of not centering the question. That allegation looks at Marx as a kind of dogma and that’s not appropriate. You would want Marxism to be a framework like any other that you would use to analyze a particular set of historical events or social conditions, a living document that could change. You could add to it and use it the way you see fit. We shouldn’t see Marxism or use Marxism as this stodgy, dogmatic tome which you just hurl at a problem. I often feel that I’m beating my head against the wall when talking with folks that would say, “Just throw Marxism out because certain people have used it in a reductive way.” Well, don’t talk to those certain people, don’t read those certain things. Marxism is not reductive. People who use it can be.
Yasmin Nair: My remarks will touch mainly upon three issues: the issue of trans representation in politics, the question of gay marriage, and the questions surrounding carceral feminism. My comments are embedded in a critique of neoliberalism and a critique of the neoliberal university in particular. In brief, I define neoliberalism as the relentless privatization of everyday life, and in terms of the larger economic developments, as the movement we have seen over the last 40 or 50 years to privatize the resources that involve our most basic needs (education, health care, schooling, water, etc.) in the United States and in many parts of the world.
The term “radical feminism” has a very particular meaning in trans discourse and is used to refer to a violently transphobic and trans-exclusionary set of discourses and practices. Julie Bindel is one of the most notorious examples. Capitalism thinks about gender in terms of bodies and it sees those bodies in terms of embodiments as “male” and “female.” That is how it determines the value of embodied lives, and of course that leaves out non-binary people entirely, whether trans or cis. There is an easy and simplistic way to think about trans life within feminism and that is to bow to the imperative of representational politics, to simply say that the presence of trans people is an excellent thing, period. We are at a great moment in terms of where trans representation is, but not at a great moment in terms of critically thinking through all of that. Even the slightest critical interrogation of what that representation means is considered transphobic. But if we are to think about gender, embodiment, capitalism, and feminism, we have to ask the same question of what trans actually means with a greater degree of honesty than to simply celebrate the presence of trans.
To use an analogy, the presence of Hillary Clinton is lauded by mainstream feminists as in and of itself the best possible thing. Everywhere people are exhorted to vote for her simply because she is a woman and because it is assumed that we must have a female president no matter what. But as anyone with any serious commitment to Left politics can easily tell, Clinton has been an absolute disaster for us. It has by now been acknowledged that she had been a co-president with Bill Clinton, so we do need to make her responsible for those years of legislation: She has engendered a deeply carceral state, which is to say a state dependent upon punishment, and she is responsible for having created a system of welfare reform that has effectively disenfranchised millions of people—mostly poor, both black and white—and has created conditions that will leave them and succeeding generations in dire poverty.
Similarly, we have to consider the conditions in which trans identities are made possible and question the extent to which the presence of very beautiful and perfect trans people like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock either enable or disable a critique of capitalism itself. Now, yes, they do both for instance question the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). But what does a trans feminism that takes into account the presence of the PIC, the medical industrial complex, and much more actually look like? And what do we do with trans feminism beyond representation? How do we think about, for instance, Caitlyn Jenner and what it means to be a wealthy trans person who has access to the medical-industrial complex? How do we relate that to feminism and questions around issues of access to, for instance, abortion, which is a medical procedure which we are continually denied? The Left is failing on abortion when it praises Pope Francis. The mainstream feminists have completely failed on abortion. Abortion needs to be accessible to everyone without question. But we’ve constantly slipped back on that. We’re not connecting materialist economic questions around women’s access to questions of what trans people have faced and continue to face. So when we talk about trans people having to do sex work we discuss it in very pathological terms: "isn’t it awful that…” or “trans people are killed because they are targeted for being trans.” Well, yes and no, because being trans in the United States also means not having access to a whole lot of things including housing, having to negotiate existences on the streets. That’s what makes you vulnerable to being killed. It’s not that they’re targeted only because they are trans; the system is making them a target. So trans issues are at one and the same time being made visible and extraordinarily representational while a whole lot of other very complicated issues around plain economics or material realities are being shut out.
This brings us back inevitably to the question of marriage, of feminism’s historical concern with marriage and with the role of women within the institution of marriage, which Juliet Mitchell talks about constantly. In a context where gay marriage is now a legislative triumph, it is assumed that ours is a better and more inclusive society because people can now get gay-married, that somehow marriage has changed fundamentally. So let me state very simply at the outset, in case there is any doubt about my position: Gay marriage and support for it among the Left in the U.S. and much of the world increasingly represents the abject failure of the Left to think strenuously and seriously about feminism and the role of marriage. Marriage remains a patriarchal institution and, more importantly, has become a way for a global and increasingly neoliberal economy to flex its muscles and to expand the power of the state to coerce people into unwilling relationships—mostly with itself. There is no subverting gay marriage.
There is a serious aftermath to the legalization of gay marriage. Gay marriage actually enables a privatization of resources; some have called it the handmaiden to neoliberalism. The proof is in this: Several private and public employers and increasingly many more (including the University of Illinois at Chicago) have now mandated that anyone who wants their partner to remain on their health insurance must now marry. This applies to gay and straight couples. The logic is simple: Because everyone can now get married everyone must get married. The extension of that logic is even more brutal: Marry or die. The question of feminism is relevant here and not just because straight couples are affected. What gay marriage teaches us is that gender has always been subordinated to these questions around marriage, and in a state without a guaranteed income and without healthcare, for instance, marriage is another way for the state to create more dependency. That’s how the effects of gay marriage are to extend the neoliberal state. We have to consider what I think of as a necessary element of the feminist revolution: dismantling the necessity of marriage, making sure that marriage is not a price you pay, literally, with your life. It is absolutely no coincidence that Britain’s National Health Service is facing attacks and attrition even as its conservative government is embracing gay marriage. The Left has capitulated throughout in that regard.
My last set of comments have to do with carceral feminism and the impact that it has on feminism at large, and on a very particular brand of feminism emerging within and from the neoliberal university. I come at this as a prison abolitionist. The prison-industrial complex (PIC) looms large in both obvious and unseen ways as a backdrop of feminism today. Feminism has increasingly over the last few decades actually taken on “carcereality” as a primary mode of being. The most prominent campaigns against violence like the one around campus sexual assaults that we see today tend to focus on imprisonment and sentencing as the best solution. One of the best books on this is Kristin Bumiller’s In an Abusive State: How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement against Sexual Violence. Bumiller talks about the ways in which the prison state, social service agencies, and domestic violence agencies that were in some part meant to protect women and their dependents are now being used to police, surveil, and incarcerate people, among them countless men and trans people. This contradiction has brought about what scholars like Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet Halley refer to as carceral feminism or governmental feminism, the idea that feminism functions most efficiently when it can be aided and abetted by enforcing the law and by enforcing the most punitive methods. In the Violence Against Women Act, for instance, it is mandated that the first response in domestic violence situations be arrest and imprisonment. It is conventional these days to think about carceral feminism as the binding, foundational response to the crisis of feminism.
I’d like us to think more critically about sexual assault campaigns on campuses and about concepts like rape culture and sexual assault that have proliferated on campuses. All of that ties into a surveillance state. Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress project, for instance, was very popular. But the minute the Obama administration passed the legislation that said “from now on we’re going to be really tough on sexual assault,” what happened instantly? Universities had to start reporting statistics and data to the state. The concept of rape culture is very popular. But I’m extremely critical of the term. It tends to turn sexual vulnerability and rape into a kind of blanket-form thing that simply oppresses us and which we can’t really navigate through any kind of systemic means. "Rape culture" has become a way to mobilize a state of paranoia and extreme vulnerability and then to invoke over and over again the carceral state: “if you want to avoid rape culture here are the things you must do,” or “rape culture exists, therefore...” The prison industrial complex is not just prisons; it is the cameras and emergency telephones that you have on campuses like Loyola. It is also the culture of paranoia and fear that women are constantly asked to dwell within, as opposed to thinking more broadly about how exactly sexual assault comes about and the vulnerability of the neoliberal subject. In a recent essay on sex work Melissa Gira Grant writes that “this ground is soaked with blood.” When we ask these questions around feminism and vulnerability and who gets represented and who doesn’t, we have to consider that the ground we are walking on is already soaked with blood.
A recent article by Laura Kipnis looked at how universities and students have responded to sexual assault on campus. Kipnis’s thesis is that university administrations win in these situations: They expand their power and oversight, tapping into the paranoia that Yasmin described. Students are being taught to look to university administrations to solve problems as opposed to each other, to always “go up” instead of horizontal. How do you create a response to sexual assault that moves beyond that?
YN: Fredrik deBoer wrote a good essay about what he would call the infantilization of the student body. Every year you have a freshmen class, mostly between 17 and 19 years old, many of whom have never learned how to negotiate sexual relationships. We live in America where you’re not supposed to discuss sex or have sexual education in schools. They’re thrust into a campus environment which is completely different, away from their parents, neighborhoods, and communities. You put this vat of people in this cauldron of intense sexuality, longings, encounters, etc., and you don’t show them how to negotiate that other than some sort of mandatory Powerpoint lecture with horrible skits on their first day on campus.
There’s a class element to all of this: mostly these situations happen at universities like Northwestern, University of Illinois at Chicago, etc. A lot of times what happens between people is something that’s not even recognized by them. In one case a person was told "you raped me", and he genuinely said "I did? I had no idea," because what is defined as rape now is also a matter of a problematic set of legislative dictates: “This means non-consent, therefore non consent means rape.” When people I know tried to negotiate a different response that would not ruin people’s lives when accusations are made the university came down on that really hard. There are economic and legislative reasons for that: funders, donors, the PIC, the threat of losing federal Title IX funding. So there’s a structural element to all of this.
BS: Title IX is the perfect microcosm of carceral feminism, taking away agency from people, specifically survivors, and putting it in the hands of the police and your campus administrators, people who report their statistics to a federal government agency because they rely on that money. All you are to them at the end of the day is a dollar sign. They are not on your side. They certainly weren't on my side when I was raped at my undergraduate university and they weren’t on the side of a number of other people who have had all kinds of experiences happen to them via campus police and campus administrators. This does not get solved by any of these current institutions. There’s nothing transformative about it, nothing that actually builds community and supports survivors. These are things we have to imagine, we have to build. Yasmin is absolutely correct on this. Our bodies are going to constantly come in conflict with one another, we're going to be confrontational, so how do you negotiate these things in a way that doesn't involve institutions that are proven to be racist and classist and sexist?
Margaret, you wrote a book on how women in Chile ended up opposing socialism and supporting the Right. What was it about the politics of the Chilean workers movement that made it the Left in the first place? What would they have had to do politically in order to have gotten more Chilean women on board, and what are the possibilities for such a politics today?
MP: The right is very powerful and has a tremendous amount of appeal in the world; we on the Left need to understand what that appeal is. My first book was about why a majority of the women in Chile opposed Allende and supported the Pinochet dictatorship. That happened in part because of the failures of the Left to actually understand women’s situation. The so-called Marxist Left prioritized the male workers, the proletariat, and ignored women's reality; this left this huge open space for the Christian Democrats (which were Christian centrist parties) and various political organizations on the right to organize women. Chile under Allende opened for many people the possibility of a profound transformation of society. Popular Unity gave people dignity for the first time, people who had been told they were workers or peasants. But as Mujeres Libres described, you had men who were completely revolutionary outside but at home they ordered women around completely. Where’s the revolution? Where’s the transformation?
I was friends with a lot of Left women and they had interpreted feminism based on what the male party leadership said it was: a northern US/European bourgeois movement whose sole raisond’être was to divide the working class. This meant that what feminist women really did was go around sleeping with men, meaning your boyfriend or husband. This was a distortion of what feminism was all about. It undercut women’s ability to organize as women and to critically analyze some real problems. But then all of these women went into exile, some in the United States but mainly in Europe, and they became transformed by the feminist movement. Then they raised one of the main slogans of the feminist movement in Chile during the years when they were fighting against Pinochet: “Democracy in the streets, and in the home.” It was incredibly revolutionary to be calling for democracy in the home because democracy in the home means an end to patriarchy. Women pushed back and challenged the Left in Chile.
That’s the only reason Michelle Bachelet won the presidency. She’s a socialist, an agnostic, a single mother. She was a political prisoner and was tortured. I’m not saying she’s a perfect president—there have been a lot of criticisms—but the fact that she was elected was important because she spoke directly to women about women’s condition as women. Therefore women voted for her. There was this myth in Chile that women are conservative and backward. Of course you’re going to have those politics if women aren’t leading. Unless women have their own organizations, who will be defining our reality and our struggles for us?
When I was becoming radicalized I had a mentor who considered herself a feminist. We disagreed over the question of men. She believed that a man could not be a feminist—but he could be an ally. I found that to be a very self-defeating approach. Within feminist discourse I sometimes hear this pessimism about what men can be, about male sexuality. ‘Rape culture’ expresses this paranoia about the “true agenda” of men to some extent. What is the role of men in the movement?
BS: I wish we had a movement!
MP: A movement, wouldn’t that be nice! But of course men can be feminists because feminism is an idea or way of being, a way of thinking about things. If we don’t think men can be feminists, what are we saying? I think white people can not be racist. I think everyone can change. I was once a Young Republican! I’m coming at this more optimistically. I think men have to play a role. If we can’t build organizations now in which male domination is not only challenged but also eliminated, in which men actually understand why it’s so critical that they not be the way that so much of society teaches them to be, how can we produce a change in the future?
BS: I absolutely hate the term ally. I would much prefer an accomplice to an ally. ‘Ally’ is imbued with passivity: “I stand with you,” and then you get to just stand, you don’t have to get dirty. It’s essential to demand that people become your accomplices in a project of human liberation. That said, I work with a lot of dicks, both literally and figuratively. Fighting for space is a constant struggle. Why is it an argument that we’re still having within various organizations, that you actually have to demand leadership roles for women, for queer folk, for people who are not “naturally,” in this society, seen as leaders, for people who are not able to assume those roles because of whatever system of—I shudder to use the term privilege, but privilege—that benefits some folks? So, would I prefer to see more women and femme folk leading organizations? Absolutely, but they’re doing that. Those organizations exist and you can support them: There’s an amazing new group called Assata’s Daughters, a kind of Afro-futuristic Black-girl-magic project. We also need to think about forms of organization. A hierarchical movement is necessarily patriarchal. Horizontality is necessary.
I use the term ‘rape culture’ to describe a myriad of expressions of a deep violent misogyny that exists specifically towards women but also towards gender-non-conforming bodies. Expanding what we mean when we say rape is incredibly important, especially in a society that says women are always victim. I agree with Yasmin’s point about the way in which people utilize these feminist sloganeerings to invoke the state, to invoke the police. The case of Tiawanda Moore is one of many examples of the way in which the Chicago Police Department is an institution of systematic sexual violence and rape, an example that easily identifiable, in my estimation, as part of a rape culture. That stems from a deeply patriarchal, but also capitalist, racist society; Chicago is a microcosm of that. If you do only one thing after this panel, read everything Mariame Kaba has written. You can find her on twitter @prisonculture.
YN: I like to think in terms of patriarchy and masculinity more than questions around men. Whether it’s two men or two women, gay marriage still reproduces the patriarchy through the way it plugs into the economy. There’s also the question of masculinity and how people are raised and compelled to enact and act upon their instincts. That’s actually something we see in the queer community a lot-- investment in masculinity, investment in femininity-- and those are problems. There’s an “interesting” new book called The Feminist Utopia Project, a collection of 57 essays asking what a feminist utopia looks like. The book barely asks anything about socialism and it barely references feminists prior to 1995. The emphasis is on how feminism can help women and feminists of all genders feel better; this is the utopia they imagine. The question for us has to be: How do we create a better world? One essay about sports claims that if you just had more women in sports there would be much less violence and exploitation. What are you talking about? Including women in the arena of sports is not going to make sports less exploitative or less violent. We need an understanding of violent and patriarchal modes of being, which are terrible for society. So obviously I disagree with the idea that you can’t have men in feminism, but the bigger question is: What do we do with traditional masculinity and patriarchy and how do we move away from those modes of being? That’s a different and more fundamental question. Who or what is a man? Who or what is a woman?
The tradition of socialism focuses on labor, which relates to the question of marriage as domestic labor for women...
YN: And to marriage as sex work, in the traditional representation!
...so what is unique to feminine labor? I work in a cafe in the service industry. The general labor force is becoming more feminized. Is that the case only on a metaphorical level? Does it have something to do with feminine labor as such?
YN: The concept of emotional labor explains why working as a barista is becoming increasingly feminized.
BS: It’s not coincidental and it’s certainly not just metaphorical. You can devalue the labor of women, femme folk, queer folk, folks of varying degrees of ability and different ethnic backgrounds, who are constantly pushed into service industry positions. You can pay them less. You can get rid of people. They’ll call it the ‘pinking’ of industries as well, which is insulting. During Occupy some essays were written on the idea of the precariat as opposed to the proletariat. I’m not so much in agreement with the idea but the reality of service industry work is a constantly revolving door.
This is a good moment to talk about social reproduction theory. Tithi Bhattacharya puts forward the idea of uncompensated, emotional labor within the home and then the actual social reproduction that goes into creating another workforce: bearing children, cleaning, cooking, managing domestic spaces. The care-giving role feeds into feminized labor. It’s not paid. It’s devalued. On questions around women entering the workforce I also want to recommend Angela Davis’s book Women, Race and Class.
YN: The crisis of 2008 was supposedly also a crisis for men who were suddenly unable to sustain their families on what little money they were making. Masculinity is woven into capitalism in terms of the family.
Ruth Bader-Ginsburg once said that true equality won’t be achieved until the U.S. Supreme Court is all female. This engaged mainstream feminists who considered that unequal for men. What do you think about gender equity and how does it relate to the commodification of women?
BS: The biggest problem is that the Supreme Court exists, that the courts exist. The way we try to negotiate relationships via property is the problem. It strikes me as odd that the solution would be to improve an already deeply flawed property-based Supreme Court as opposed to actually just improving people’s lives. In terms of gender equity, just including women on, say, a decision-making panel doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t all be fascist women.
MP: The call for gender equity is basically saying that the structure is OK; we just need to have equal numbers. This structure has been set up to reflect both the capitalist system and the patriarchal system; that’s the antithesis of what we should strive for. I do not think that feminism means getting women to be more like men. Men have set things up in a pretty nasty way. Why would women want to be part of that? For me, feminism is about transforming society, not about slotting women into it.
Like a lot of sex workers I went into it for the money and the agency. Do you think there’s a space for sex work in the ideal socialist utopia?
BS: If people wouldn’t participate in sexual activities that look like they do now, I would only imagine that you would have the kind of agency and fulfillment, the kind of radical and enthusiastic consent that would inform practices that would make you feel whole, that would make you feel complete as a person. Or you would be able to abstain from any sexual activity at all and not feel like it was a necessary part of your experience. It’s a really lovely question to think about. But the sex industry is still by and large controlled and dominated by the male fantasy. There’s amazing feminist porn. I’m a very sex-positive person. People should do what they want to do. But we can’t pretend we can have sex outside of the world that we live in. The world that we live in is wrong and hurts. The way in which we interact with other people’s bodies is a constant negotiation.
Margaret, you raised the idea that women’s liberation and the transcendence of capitalism should not necessarily be equated. What then would the transition from capitalism to socialism mean to you concretely? With Sanders campaign in mind, many people tend to understand many things under “socialism,” from mid-twentieth century social democracy to the Trotskyist or Bolshevik understanding of dictatorship of the proletariat. We actually don't know what either socialism or women’s liberation would mean because we haven't achieved either yet.
MP: To just have socialism doesn't automatically ipso facto mean you’re going to have women's liberation. What do I think socialism would be? It’s all so hypothetical. We have to talk about what capitalism is, what neoliberalism is all about. We have to present to people the idea that there are real alternatives, that this is a system based on the dehumanization of everybody. How can you say, for example, that people have to pay for water? We need to point out the contradictions that exist in our society. But I do think we need to avoid labels, to avoid saying, “This is Marxism, that is not Marxism.” The more concrete and direct thing is to say, “This is wrong and this shouldn’t be happening and something else could be coming into existence.”
I’m not particularly into electoral politics. I’m sure there’s some positive stuff coming from Bernie Sanders's campaign but I think he’ll generate enthusiasm that will probably shift into Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Having said that, what does it mean that people are responding to Bernie Sanders? That does create a political opening of people saying that they realize something is fundamentally wrong in this country. The Sanders campaign appears to be the option either most available to them or clearest to them. Those of us who define ourselves as socialists have to point out the weaknesses in a program that supports militarism and in a foreign policy that supports military aid to Israel. That is a fundamental crime. How can you call yourself a socialist and say we should support Israel or any occupying nation around the world?
Surveys have been finding that the younger generation is much more open to or supportive of socialism. Since you are younger than I am, do you find that to be true?
I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem telling someone my own age I’m a socialist; even people who disagree are generally open to the idea of discussing it.
MP: I wonder how much that’s because socialism doesn’t mean that much to people or doesn’t appear to be a threat.
The failure of the Left in the United States means that in a sense no one knows what socialism means, or even what capitalism means. I don’t think my peers could define either of those terms.
MP: You say the failure of the socialist movement around the world means that people don’t know what socialism means but I don’t think we can divorce the failure of the socialist movement from the power of capitalism. The failures of the socialist movement aren’t just internal to the socialist movement; they’re very much related to the power of capitalism and imperialism to penetrate, distort, and defeat socialism materially, politically, and socially.
It’s interesting to consider the question of whether the Left failed or whether capitalism simply defeated socialism in light of feminist politics and gender. As Margaret described, by the mid-twentieth century, many viewed socialism as an economic program that would address the concerns of the white unionized working class; socialists could accuse feminists of taking up a bourgeois politics that threatened to split their movement, but their own class-based politics didn’t seem to have a compelling approach to understanding and overcoming gender. How did it get to that point? The socialism over which the Pankhurst sisters split during the First World War or the experiments in alternative domestic arrangements during the early years of the Russian Revolution indicate a more vibrant socialism, one that had not calcified into a “male” politics. Some would blame Stalinism more than capitalism for these ideological problems on the Left.
MP: You can’t disassociate capitalism from socialism. The two are dialectically related. All attempts to create a socialist society have taken place in a world in which everybody grew up in a capitalist society; they were exposed to capitalist economic relationships. Mario Roberto Santucho, a guerrilla leader in Argentina, wrote an important pamphlet in which he argued that socialism is morality. I know morality is not exactly in vogue but we have to reassert the fact that socialism is a moral system, fundamentally about treating people with dignity and respect and fairness and justice. That is not how you’re taught to treat people when you grow up in a capitalist society. I can espouse these ideas about socialism, but does that mean, in every aspect of my life all the time, I’m this model person? No! I grew up in and live in a society that’s constantly telling me not to be that way. We can’t transform society overnight. It’s very, very difficult, especially when you consider the attacks and assaults that capitalism or imperialism unleash against societies that attempt to build socialism.
It's too easy to say it's just Stalinism. It's too easy to say it's just internal failures. We can come up with a perfect way to do something, but then once we start to do it you know we will have problems. Men in the audience talked more than women during this conversation. I don’t think the men shouldn’t have talked, but aren’t we repeating some of the gender dynamics internally here? We may have these great ideas but sometimes we just go off running in our gendered traditions and practices—and this is a microcosm of that. How do we change? |P
Transcribed by Alston Boyd, Jack Calder, Tomas Carey, Phidias Christodoulides, Erin Hagood, Ashley Li, Hansong Li, and Clint Montgomery.