The Activist Roots of Black Feminist Theory
Mon, 12/28/2020 – 14:10
The Activist Roots of Black Feminist Theory
Mon, 12/28/2020 – 14:10
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In 1883, still deeply affected by his friend’s death, Friedrich Engels went through stacks of letters, manuscripts, and notes that had been left unfinished at Marx’s house on London’s Maitland Park Road. Among the papers, he found a series of notes on the work of U.S. anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, whose last book, Ancient Society, had been published a few years earlier. The two friends had had several exchanges on the topic, and Engels was excited to organize some ideas. On the basis of Marx’s ethnological notes, Engels developed a historical and materialist analysis of social organizations, specifically related to changes in forms of kinship, the patriarchal family, the institution of marriage, and monogamy. His book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State was published in 1884 and has since been considered essential reading for socialist feminists.
I return to this book later, to point out some of its fundamental contributions as well as some of the controversies it continues to generate. But first it is necessary to consider the general context in which Marx and Engels’ first formulations on the emancipation of women emerged.
Engels wrote about the dual oppression experienced by working women for the first time in The Condition of the Working Class in England, a book published in 1845. It provides readers with a first-hand view of the life of the English working class, their working conditions, the overcrowding they experienced in the cities, and their great hardships, which he viewed as a foundation for the emergence of various socialist movements, from utopian socialism to communism. Engels was 24 years old at the time and, as he explains in the introduction to the 1892 German edition, the perspective of scientific socialism he would later develop on the basis of his collaboration with Marx was only in its initial stages in that work.
The book’s beginning is a wonderful visual metaphor for capitalist society. Engels describes the shock one experiences upon entering London, traveling up the Thames. The traveler is captivated by the extraordinary urban development, the number of buildings, the ships, all the signs of a thriving civilization. However, as one gets off and walks down the narrow streets that lead to the “slums,” one begins to understand that:
These Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilization which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others.1
Engels thus refers to the brutal inequalities created by capitalism, where “all the marvels of civilization” are achieved by crushing a large part of that society — the part that has nothing, the proletariat. Engels’ gaze penetrates even further into working-class neighborhoods, revealing dirty, narrow streets, unheated homes, and food shortages. He then refers in particular to female workers, who were the majority in the textile industry. They worked 10- or 12-hour days, like their male counterparts, but received lower wages. In times of crisis, they were the first to be laid off. And when they returned to their homes, they had to take care of the cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Although Engels does not develop a theory about the role of working-class women in capitalist society in this book, he repeatedly highlights a social phenomenon that affects women in particular. The capitalist social order, in his view, leads to the disintegration of the working-class family, rendering the conditions for its existence impossible:
Thus the social order makes family life almost impossible for the worker. In a comfortless, filthy house, hardly good enough for mere nightly shelter, ill-furnished, often neither rain-tight nor warm, a foul atmosphere filling rooms overcrowded with human beings, no domestic comfort is possible. The husband works the whole day through, perhaps the wife also and the elder children, all in different places; they meet night and morning only, all under perpetual temptation to drink; what family life is possible under such conditions? Yet the working-man cannot escape from the family, must live in the family, and the consequence is a perpetual succession of family troubles, domestic quarrels, most demoralizing for parents and children alike.2
Women between ages 15 and 20 worked in the textile factories, as did large numbers of children. Engels points out that, many times, women workers after giving birth “return to the mill three or four days after confinement” and during their rest hours they run home from work to feed their newborns. While they spend 12 or 13 hours at the mills, the children are left in the care of a relative or a neighbor, or they wander around barefoot. In addition, sexual abuse was rampant in workplaces. According to Engels, “factory servitude, like any other, and to an even higher degree, confers the jus primae noctis [the lord’s right] upon the master. In this respect also the employer is sovereign over the persons and charms of his employees.”3
For this reason, Engels insisted that “the employment of the wife dissolves the family utterly and of necessity, and this dissolution, in our present society, which is based upon the family, brings the most demoralizing consequences for parents as well as children.”4 Today’s society is based on the family, but at the same time breaks it apart; it makes the conditions for its existence impossible. This explosive contradiction has a profound impact on the conditions in which working women and the entire working class live and struggle. This idea, still undeveloped, would be taken up later by Marx and Engels.
Both would return to this question, offering some definitions on the need to fight for the emancipation of women, an analysis of the historical origins of oppression and a radical critique of the patriarchal family. In The Holy Family, they take up the ideas of utopian socialist Fourier, who argues that “social progress and changes of period are brought about by virtue of the progress of women toward liberty, and social retrogression occurs as a result of a diminution in the liberty of women.” Many utopian socialists had addressed the oppression of women previously, proposing alternatives on how to overcome it. This tradition had considered matters such as the need to socialize housework, end monogamy, and develop free love, as well as the need to reorganize the architecture of single-family homes, drawing plans of small communitarian societies. These outlines, made by pre-scientific socialists, were quite vague. They did not clearly state how to meet those objectives, or by what social force they could be achieved. The experiences of the Owenite communities in the United States failed to prosper, although, as Engels pointed out in a later book, with Owen’s writings, utopian socialists sowed the first seeds of a future communist society.5
The work of Flora Tristán, a pioneer of socialist feminism, was midway between utopian socialism and scientific socialism. In her book The Workers’ Union (1843), she outlined a proposal for the social and political organization of the working class and, for the first time, addressed the relationship between class and gender. The third chapter of the book was devoted entirely to women, who she referred to as “the last slaves” of French society. Her book called upon workers to consider this question and noted that it is impossible to sustain a project of human emancipation without taking women into account.6
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels reassert the idea that capitalism tends to destroy traditional family ties in the working class by incorporating masses of women and children into the workplace, exploiting all members of the working family equally. But at the same time, they denounce the “double standard” of the bourgeoisie: while they accused communists of wanting to establish the “community of women,” it was they who actually practiced it through adultery (which was socially acceptable only for men) or through prostitution, regarding women as their property.
Lastly, although in Capital there are several references to women’s labor, both in terms of the composition of the industrial reserve army of labor as well as of the brutal exploitation of women’s and children’s labor, the most systematic analysis of the family institution and the causes of women’s oppression would be developed by Engels, as mentioned above, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State continues to be an essential work, despite that Morgan’s studies are now outdated or because of the book’s somewhat schematic view of historical periods. It remains essential, first of all, because it points to the historical origins of women’s oppression, demonstrating that it did not always exist and that it is not natural but rather, is historical and social. In this regard, Engels also engaged in a debate on the work of other socialist theorists, such as Bebel.7 and Kautsky, who had published writings on the subject shortly before and had argued that women’s subordination could be traced to the beginning of human societies, as if it had always existed. Engels did not believe this to be the case; instead, he believed there had been primitive societies that were more egalitarian and even societies based on maternal law, and he sought to highlight this historicity.
Engels established a connection between the emergence of private property, society’s class divisions, and the crystallization of a family institution in which women played a subordinate role. Through the establishment of marriage and monogamy, women and children became “the private property of man.” In this regard, he states:
The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. … In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore of the paternity of the children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.8
In addition, in the preface to the first edition, there is an important passage in which he highlights the relationship between production and reproduction, as the central point from which to consider the question of the family and the role of women in society.
According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other.9
This passage has been cited many times, and also questioned from different theoretical positions. While Engels was still alive, there was a debate between those who defended the struggle for women’s emancipation as a fundamental part of the socialist program and some more conservative sectors within social democratic parties unwilling to accept it. In October 1886, for example, during the Congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany in Gotha, Clara Zetkin made an important speech on the question of working women and socialism. She asserted that the struggle for the emancipation of women was linked to the struggle for socialism, and that it was thus essential to promote socialist agitation among women and their organization into unions. English socialist Belfort Bax, known for his misogynistic positions, harshly criticized the speech.10 In his arguments against Zetkin’s position, Bax attempted to appeal to Engel’s authority, citing his perspective on the matter.
Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter who was very close to Engels, publicly responded to Bax, reaffirming that Engels and Zetkin were in agreement in this regard. Her answer is also quite interesting because it highlights the issue of housework and the double burden borne by working women. She began by pointing out the numbers of working women in several European countries: about 4.5 million in England, 3.7 million in France, 3.5 in Italy, more than 5 million in Germany, and 3.5 million in Austria-Hungary — were more than 20 million women workers in the main European states, who in many cases were the main breadwinners for the elderly, children, or their unemployed husbands. She then referred to the fact that, although many tasks once done in homes had become social work in production, a large volume of work was still done privately in people’s homes. In relation to this controversy, she stated the following:
But besides this factory and other wage-labor the women have also to do their housekeeping work. I know that Belfort Bax or others of his opinion, can point out that the capitalist industrialism has freed the woman of many important functions which were once the duties of a housekeeping women; that she has not any more to knit socks, to sew linen, etc, for the home; and that other housekeeping functions of hers have decreased to a minimum; still, there is some housekeeping yet to do, such as cleaning, washing, cooking, &c. Capitalism has not yet invented housekeeping machinery, and has not at the same time “domesticated” the unemployed husband to such a degree as to make him take care of the house and children, and thus free his wife of a part of her burden. Yes, comrade Belfort Bax, Clara Zetkin had a full right to say, with Engels, that the woman is a “proletarian in the home.” She ought to have rather said that the woman, under our capitalist regime, is a double proletarian — she has two kinds of work to do, the work of a producer in the factory and the work of a housekeeper, wife, and mother in the home. On one hand her muscles and blood are spent for the immediate profit of the capitalist, and on the other for his future profit – in bearing and feeding up a new generation of proletarians. Toil there, toil here!
Eleanor Marx’s response, directly referencing Engels, was undoubtedly forceful. She and Clara Zetkin, as well as other socialist leaders, would subsequently focus on organizing working women and fighting for social and political rights for all women, while continuing to denounce the double burden of housework in the home. Decades later, the experience of the Russian Revolution would be a great social experience in this regard, which would make it possible to take some essential measures: the legalization of abortion and divorce, the recognition of children born out of wedlock, equal pay for women, and the establishment of nurseries, soup kitchens, child care centers and laundries, to take steps towards the socialization of housework. The subsequent regression in this area, particularly during the 1930s, took place in the context of an internal counterrevolution. While a repressive dictatorship was consolidating as a form of government, under Stalin’s leadership, the reactionary ideology according to which women were viewed as “guardians of the home” within the traditional family, began to regain ground. The later policy implemented by Communist Parties of “separating” women’s struggle as if it were a “secondary” issue with respect to the struggle of the working class did not arise from an original misconception of this matter in early Marxist texts, but rather from a conservative revision of Marxism aimed at justifying bureaucratic positions and an economistic interpretation of class issues.11
With second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, other debates regarding Engels’ book reemerged. On the one hand, radical feminist authors such as Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millett defended Engels’ contribution to denaturalizing the family institution and conceptualizing the oppression of women as a social phenomenon. At the same time, however, they criticized historical materialism in general as if it were a kind of “economism.” Shulamith Firestone, for example, goes so far as to propose that a new historical materialism needed to be developed on the basis of sexual class struggle.12 She criticizes an economistic version of Marxism, which she inverts by focusing on the question of sexuality. But by erasing or diminishing the importance of the material and economic phenomena of social relations, Firestone shifts towards an idealistic conception, according to which the possibility of change is limited to cultural movements. On this basis, separatist tendencies developed in the radical feminist movement in the years after that were opposed in a reactionary way to any common struggle between various oppressed sectors of society.
From a different perspective, the same paragraph quote above from “The Pairing Family” chapter of Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was criticized as a source of subsequent errors in that it separated, to an excessive degree, the sphere of production from that of the reproduction of life. This idea that Engels “dualistically” separated the sphere of production from the sphere of reproduction was put forward by the Marxist feminist Lise Vogel in her 1983 book Marxism and the Oppression of Women.13 This critique has been taken up more recently by various authors, such as Susan Ferguson, who develop what they define as a theory of social reproduction.14 In Ferguson’s view, although Engels’ text made fundamental contributions to socialist feminism, the perspective it offers led sectors of the Social Democratic and Communist parties later to argue that women’s “special” struggle could be separated from the struggle of the working class, or even that it needed to be “postponed” until after the revolution.
From my point of view, however, the oft-quoted passage from Engels does not posit such a separation. On the contrary, it establishes a relationship between both spheres and, as Ariane Díaz points out, this is “precisely what is novel about Engels’ analysis; he elevates the problem of the oppression of women to the theoretical level of social production, as part of the core concerns of Marxism.”15 However, it is important to point out that “understanding the relationship between reproduction and production — and highlighting the subordination of the former to the latter under capitalism — is essential for building a strategy of struggle” from a socialist feminist perspective.16
It is true that a more systematic Marxist theorization of housework done by women in the family emerged onlyin the context of second-wave feminist debates in the 1960s and 1970s, when different theoretical positions and political strategies were debated within the feminist movement. However, this does not mean that Marxists had not previously viewed this as an important issue, or that it was presumed that the fight against women’s oppression was limited to achieving democratic demands and a more egalitarian participation in the labor market so women could gain financial independence. Nothing could be further from the truth. These were fundamental issues, but so was the struggle for the socialization of housework, since women were also “proletarians in the home.” And all of these struggles were connected to a socialist strategy to bring an end to capitalism.
Engels himself put forth this perspective in an 1885 letter: “It is my conviction that real equality between men and women can come true only when the exploitation of either by capital has been abolished and private homework has been transformed into a public industry.”17
With regard to Engels’ legacy to socialist feminism, it is important to note that his sharp critique of the patriarchal family and the institution of marriage remains extremely powerful today. On the one hand, it is important given the growth of conservative and “familialist” positions that, in the context of the crisis of neoliberalism and capitalism, suggest that the role of the traditional (patriarchal) family must be uncritically revalidated. Engels reminds us that this institution is neither “natural” nor an “oasis” in the middle of the storm, but is based on economic dependence, permeated by hierarchical relationships, and reproduces social contradictions within it. Gender-based violence can hardly be understood beyond the scope of this patriarchal institution and the idea of the “ownership” of women by their husbands. At the same time, as mentioned above, capitalism degrades the living conditions of the working family — denying millions even the right to a home or a job — while maintaining it as one of the pillars of this society. This creates profound contradictions.
From Engels’ point of view, women will be able to overcome patriarchal oppression only when families and marriage cease to exist as units of compulsory economic dependence, when reproductive work is socialized, and even when “the care and education of the children becomes a public affair.”18 It should be noted that when Engels wrote those words, women still educated their children at home in much of the world; there was no universal public education or kindergarten. Only the women of the bourgeoisie could free themselves completely from part of their childcare work, through the poorly paid labor of working women. Beyond the historical differences, this continues to be a key issue, considering the decline in education and public health as a result of the policies implemented by capitalist governments that do not guarantee kindergartens or free nurseries during the first few months of children’s lives. More recently, we have seen the triple burden borne by many working women who need to help with their children’s virtual education during the pandemic.
Finally, Engels’ critique of the social mechanisms that regulate and impose restrictions on emotional and sexual relationships between human beings makes it possible to imagine a society in which these obstacles can be overcome. It allows us to envision a society in which personal relationships can be freed from the limitations imposed by a society governed by private property and the exploitation of a large part of humanity, so that love, sexuality, and friendship can be rebuilt on new foundations.
First published in Spanish on November 21 in Izquierda Diario in the Spanish State.
Translated by Marisela Trevin.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, “The Great Towns.”|
|2.||↑||Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, “Results.”|
|3.||↑||Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, “Single Branches of Industry: Factory Hands.”|
|5.||↑||Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880). First published serially in the newspaper Vorwarts (Leipzig), the central organ of the Socialist Workers Party of Germany, from 1876 to 1878. First compilation as a book published in 1880 in a French translation by Paul Lafargue.|
|6.||↑||See (Andrea D’Atri, “Flora Tristán: el martillo y la rosa” [Flora Tristán: The Hammer and the Rose], La Izquierda Diario, March 4 2019).|
|7.||↑||Bebel’s book Woman and Socialism was first printed clandestinely in Leipzig and was distributed illegally for several years, under the censorship of anti-socialist laws. By 1895, it had been reprinted 25 times in Germany and also published in English, French, Russian, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Polish, Flemish, Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Czech. It clearly had a significant impact. After the publication of Engels’ book, Bebel reviewed his own work, incorporating Engels’ references to Morgan.|
|8.||↑||Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, chap. II, “The Family,” part 3, “The Pairing Family.”|
|9.||↑||Engels, ibid., Preface to the First Edition.|
|10.||↑||Some time later, in response to John Stuart Mill’s book The Subjection of Women (1869), Bax would write a book provocatively entitled The Legal Subjection of Men (1908) that contains all sorts of assertions against the women’s movement, maintaining that women are the ones who enjoy “privileges” in marriage.|
|11.||↑||Eleanor Marx-Aveling, “The Proletarian in the Home” (1896).|
|12.||↑||Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York: Morrow, 1970).|
|13.||↑||Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983).|
|14.||↑||Susan Ferguson, Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (London: Pluto Press, 2019).|
|15.||↑||Ariane Díaz, “El marxismo y la opresión de la mujer” [Marxism and the Oppression of Women], Ideas de Izquierda, April 28, 2017). And by associating the oppression of women with social phenomena, production and reproduction, the question is released from any biological determination, which naturalizes the subjugation of women.
It is not my intention here to address the entire prolific debate on social reproduction, to which many new contributions have been made in the past few years. For a more detailed analysis of this topic, the reader may refer to several articles in the endnote.[[Andrea D’Atri and Celeste Murillo, “Nosotras, el proletariado” [We, the Proletariat], Ideas de Izquierda, July 22, 2018; Ariane Díaz, “Economía política de la reproducción social I: trabajo y capital” [Political Economy of Social Reproduction I: Labor and Capital], Contrapunt, July 14, 2019; Paula Varela, “¿Existe un feminismo socialista en la actualidad?: Apuntes sobre el movimiento de mujeres, la clase trabajadora y el marxismo hoy” [Is There a Socialist Feminism at Present?: Notes on the Women’s Movement, the Working Class, and Marxism Today], Theomai Journal 39, no. 1 (2019).
|16.||↑||Josefina L. Martínez and Cynthia Luz Burgueño, Patriarcado y capitalismo. Feminismo, clase y diversidad [Patriarchy and Capitalism: Feminism, Class, and Diversity] (Tres Cantos, Spain: Akal, 2019).|
|17.||↑||Engels, Letter to Guillaume-Schack, c. July 5, 1885.|
|18.||↑||Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, chap. II, “The Family,” part 4, “The Monogamous Family.”|
From the appointment of Justice Barrett, to the silencing of Malala Yousafzai’s socialism, and women’s leadership in the military industrial complex, individualistic, representational feminism proves both inaccurate and dangerous.
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The post The Red Herring of Liberal Representational Feminism appeared first on New Politics.
Sen. Lindsey Graham says Amy Coney Barrett shows young women can go anywhere in America “if you are pro-life, if you embrace your religion and you follow traditional family structure.”
The term “traditional family structure” has been used to exclude and denigrate LGBTQ families. pic.twitter.com/bbpvnBdFU7
— Chris Johnson (@chrisjohnson82) October 31, 2020
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told women over the weekend that they can “follow traditional family structure” if they want to be welcome in America.
Graham made the remarks at a campaign stop in Conway, South Carolina on Saturday, where he hyped the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
“You know what I like about Judge Barrett? She’s got everything,” Graham explained to supporters. “She’s just not wicked smart, she’s incredibly good. She embraces her faith.”
“I want every young woman to know that that there’s a place for you in America if you’re pro-life, if you embrace your religion and you follow traditional family structure,” he added, “that you can go anywhere, young lady.”
Ashley Bohrer has provided this important piece of scholarship with her new book, Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism.
Judith Butler (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Judith Butler has long been credited as one of the architects of the modern gender identity trend we’ve seen sweep the Western world into a bundle of unsolvable brain teasers and word salads. And for good reason. Her 1990 book, Gender Trouble, introduces the now-mainstreamed (academic) concept that gender, sex, and the “category of woman” are “fluid.”
The main conundrum faced by gender identity ideologues today (and, by proxy, women’s rights advocates), which they have refused to respond to in a cohesive way, is that, 1) If there is no concrete definition of “woman,” what is a “woman’s right”? And 2) If a woman is not a material thing, but just a vague idea, why the concerted, often violent effort to insist “transwomen are [literally] women”? What does that mean? What is a woman? And why is it important we “accept transwomen as women” (particularly if there is no such thing)? What are we accepting them as, and how does it improve a male person’s life to be “accepted as a woman”?
The notion of “woman” as a fluid concept and the claim that women’s experiences diverge to such an extent we share no commonalities at all, testing the concept of “womanhood” itself, is an academic argument, introduced by gender theorists like Butler and somehow mainstreamed, now positioned as a grassroots, ground up movement. It is an amazing success story, really. That such inaccessible theory, originated in the ivory tower, has taken hold of so many institutions, as well as those who fashion themselves as “radical” activists, fighting for the downtrodden, is not something I could have predicted. But here we are, in a time where powerful corporations like Twitter have determined that to refer to a male as “he” equates to hate speech, and leftist activists agree (adding to this that women who do commit this sin should probably be punched, and maybe also executed).
Butler is not known for clarity in writing or concept, but is nonetheless referenced more often than any other gender studies scholar, today. As such, New Statesman sought to interview her, in order to follow up on her views on the transgender debate, and those very bad feminists who dare continue to question the legitimacy of gender identity ideology and to insist women’s rights matter.
When asked how far ideas Butler explored in Gender Trouble help explain how the trans rights debate has moved into mainstream culture and politics, she responded with cluelessness typical of someone so seeped in academia they have lost touch with the real world. She insists on referring to women who express concerns about the impact of erasing “woman” as a legal category as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” and further insists this is a “marginal” position that feminists (she apparently sees herself as one) must fight to ensure remain marginal.
One presumes Butler does not see the hypocrisy of advocating to marginalize women in the fight for women’s rights. This lack of self-awareness remains present throughout the interview, offering at least some consistency.
The truth is, of course, that to question the notion that one can go from man to woman in a moment, simply by pronouncement, and that men who identify as transgender should have free, unchallenged access to women’s change rooms, transition houses, sports, and prisons is not, in fact, a “fringe movement.” Rather, there is a loud minority insisting on a fringe position that appears to dominate, thanks to social media manipulation and liberal media cowardice and bolstering.
Butler goes on to claim that concerns around male access to these spaces, expressed recently by Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, exist because “the domain of fantasy is at work.” She believes women have such concerns because they fear “the penis,” and that those with penises might identify as a woman for nefarious purposes — to enter, for example, changing rooms and predate on women and girls.
This is a common trope offered up by gender identity ideologues: that women fear men will use “trans” as a disguise to “trick” women. This misunderstands the feminist position on gender identity, which is not necessarily that trans-identified people are lying, or trying to fool anyone, but that it is simply impossible to change sex. They have, rather, been “fooled” by trans activism itself, into believing it is possible for a male to become female, through faith, insistence, surgery, or clothing choice. There is no “legitimate” transwomen, in that no man can ever become a woman, no matter how badly they want it or believe it. It’s not about trickery or cruelty, it’s about facts. The “fear” is not of trans-identified people or of dishonest men, playing at trans to access women’s spaces. The “fear” is simply of men, regardless of identity.
Butler positions this fear as irrational, as though men have not been the primary source of rape and domestic violence for all of eternity. (Not all men, but yes men.) She believes “The fact that such fantasies pass as public argument is itself cause for worry,” when in fact the cause for worry is that someone who is treated as a prominent and trustworthy thinker and commentator on gender and feminism would engage in such egregious gaslighting. Everyone knows why men and women have separate washrooms and change rooms. And if Butler is going to make such claims, we may as well abolish separate spaces entirely. I wonder if that is something she would advocate for? It is truly the only way her position makes sense.
When questioned on the term “TERF,” consistently and widely used as a slur — a means to attack, marginalize, and silence anyone (whether “radical feminist” or not) who questions gender identity ideology — Butler feigns ignorance, claiming to not be “aware that terf is used as a slur.” It seems unwise to present oneself as so out of touch with this debate, while also claiming expertise on the subject, but perhaps Butler no longer cares about earning credibility. To date, her strategy has been to jargon her way into legitimacy, confusing her readers to the point they assume they are simply not intellectually equipped to understand her genius, so perhaps I should not denigrate her for continuing to use a tried and true method.
Butler’s questions, in response to the interviewer demonstrate that she either truly does not understand what women’s rights advocates are on about or that she is committed to dishonesty, on the assumption she is speaking to people too stupid to see through her fraud.
In response to the claim that “TERF” is a slur, she asks, “What name self-declared feminists who wish to exclude transwomen from women’s spaces would be called? If they do favour exclusion, why not call them exclusionary?” Easy: we do not wish to “exclude transwomen from women’s spaces,” per se. We wish to exclude men from women’s spaces, as we always have. Nothing has changed — this is not some new, radical concept. The “trans” affix is a misnomer, intended to present longstanding, basic facts and feminist work as bigoted, rather than the status quo.
Butler goes on to ask, “If they understand themselves as belonging to that strain of radical feminism that opposes gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists?” It is unclear if she is talking, here, about actual sex reassignment surgery or simply identifying as the opposite sex, but either way, to question whether or not attempting to change sex under the law or as an individual is a productive pursuit is not inherently a radical feminist position. Most ethical humans might wonder whether endless experimental surgeries that often have lifelong complications will enable individuals to live their best lives. Similarly, most ethical humans would not support men’s unchallenged access to women’s spaces. Radical feminism is a particular analysis of the world and of power relations radical feminists believe should be upended. Most people in the world do not identify with or share radical feminist analysis, yet still understand why men should stay out of women’s change rooms, and why telling people hormones and invasive surgeries will solve all their problems is a bad idea. (I should be clear that I am not invested in stopping adults from having cosmetic surgeries, if they wish, but I do believe trans-identified people are not being properly informed about complications, dangers, and physical realities related to “transition.”)
Butler goes on to conflate sex with gender, the most basic confusion underlying the trans debate, pointing out that “Feminism has always been committed to the proposition that the social meanings of what it is to be a man or a woman are not yet settled” and that “It would be a disaster for feminism to return either to a strictly biological understanding of gender or to reduce social conduct to a body part or to impose fearful fantasies, their own anxieties, on trans women…”
It feels strange to have to explain the meaning of “gender” to a gender theorist, and point out that what feminists have been arguing for the past century has been that one’s biological sex should not determine one’s interest in masculine or feminine stereotypes or roles, but here we are. I can only assume Butler has plugged her ears like a child every time women like me have explained, patiently, that “sex” refers to one’s body and biology, and “gender” refers to the social roles imposed on or assumed based on one’s sex. We have argued that one’s affinity for femininity, for example, does not make a woman, and that the only thing that makes a woman is the fact she is female. Rather, it is gender identity activists who have insisted that identification with regressive, sexist, gender roles and stereotypes is what defines a man or woman. That is to say, that preferring femininity to masculinity actually determines one’s biology. Butler is arguing against herself.
She asks if we need to have “a settled idea of women, or of any gender, in order to advance feminist goals,” to which I would say, obviously. The only reason feminism exists is to advocate on behalf of women (not on behalf of gender, i.e. “femininity,” Judith — I caught that, not to worry). If there are no women (that is to say: adult, human, females), there is no feminism. And perhaps when women’s rights around the world have been resolved, and male violence against women has ended, feminism will cease to be necessary. But one cannot on one hand claim to be in support feminism while also claiming there is no such thing as women.
We are indeed “living in anti-intellectual times,” as Butler tells the interviewer, but she is in large part responsible. She both does not understand her own arguments, nor does she care about making them understandable to the public. She refuses to engage in good faith or to operate within material reality. She denies the violent threats faced by women labelled “TERF,” quickly diverting the topic back to the “abuse against trans people and their allies that happens online and in person,” as though one wrong makes a right, or simply disappears the need to discuss one wrong. She announces: “We should also make sure we have a large picture of where that is happening, who is most profoundly affected, and whether it is tolerated by those who should be opposing it,” but refuses to do that herself, as it is women — one half of the world — most profoundly affected by this attack on women’s rights and spaces, and it is women who challenge this who are subjected to the most vitriol. Butler adds, “It won’t do to say that threats against some people are tolerable but against others are intolerable,” but has literally done just this. She seems proudly unconcerned with what women face, despite the fact that women are subjected to more violence in a day, globally, than trans-identified people are in a year. And despite the fact trans activism is celebrated on social media and has been institutionalized across health, education, and mainstream media, while those who question are vilified.
It is amazing to me that a respected scholar could be so deeply confused as to fail to even understand her own claims and arguments, but I suppose this is a testament to the situation of fields like gender studies, wherein scholars have their heads shoved so far up one another’s asses, they no longer feel required to think. All they need is an endless circle jerk of positive reinforcement to continue to receive funding and keep their jobs. Usefulness and rationality be damned — if we all participate in the charade, there is no threat. Indeed, this has been the tactic of trans activists as well, for whom “no debate” has become a mantra, saving them from the humiliation of having to defend their own statements.
Butler must know her career depends on her continuing this farce, and trusts no one will call her on it. She can hang on until she retires, financially secure and perhaps, therefore, content with her lack of integrity and investment in leading a duplicitous life.
Had it not been for this interview, I may have forgotten what a fraud she is, so I suppose we can thank her for reminding us.
The post Judith Butler resurfaces to remind the world she is a fraud appeared first on Feminist Current.
In 2016, the former corporate leader and TV show host Donald Trump became US president. In the night that his victory was announced, previous Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leader David Duke described the event as one of the most exciting nights of my life. A year later, the FBI revealed that hate crimes increased for a second consecutive year, with attacks targeting Muslim and Jewish people as well as the LGBTQ community.
Corporate leaders and right-wing leaders are legitimized through German sociologist Max Weber’s l’idée fixe of the so-called charismatic leader. The grant certifier of the Kaiser’s Wilhelminian Empire, Max Weber, not only legitimized corporate leaders but also domination. Soon, Weber’s charismatic leaders mutate into Managerialism’s favorite hobby-horse, the transformational leader, even though Weber also thought there are visionary, authentic, spiritual, and wise leaders.
Over the last four decades, business schools and an ever compliant business press have done everything in their ideological and broadcasting powers to cement the l’idée fixe that business organizations need leaders, corporate apparatchiks, and of course, the heroic CEO. Since leadership does not come naturally, it had to be socially constructed. In the case of corporate leaders, the ideology of leadership is largely managerially constructed in business schools. Despite rafts of business professorships, management leadership journals, leadership conferences, MBA degrees, thousands of articles in the business press, and in semi-scholarly outlets like the Harvard Business Review, the fact remains that there is no core universal truth of leadership to be discovered.
Still, the ideology of corporate leaders remains a very good business even when it mostly sells taken for granted ideas – often presented as leadership theories. In the real world of corporate leaders, they are more often than not defined through two key elements. Firstly, almost universally, they are men, and secondly, corporate leaders tend to be white. Rarely is this made part of the business school curriculum apart from an elective run as a Friday night class. This is done so that business schools can claim, “oh, we cover this”. Almost all business school professors just don’t write on white supremacy because writing about supremacy is painful, and might even point the finger at themselves. Business school professors are – more often than not – white, middle-aged men, more or less mirroring the world of management.
Ever since management writer Henri Fayol’s rather militaristic “chain-of-command”, Frederick Taylor’s authoritarian management ideas, and Alfred Chandler’s “field units”, the idea that militaristic leaders mirror corporate leaders have taken hold and has been re-told ever since in management, business school, and its ideological pamphlets called academic journals. In standard business school writing, is not at all surprising to find highly ideological passages like these,
The English would undoubtedly have lost the battle of Agincourt if they had underestimated the importance of the leadership factor. Any astute observer of organizations will notice that CEOs have a considerable impact on their companies.
This is the love-song of a white man for the militaristic, corporate, and above all-male, leader. This is designed to legitimize the white supremacy and masculinity of corporate CEOs of which, in 2018, just 27 of the Fortune 500 were women (barely 5.4%), and just three were black men (0.6%) – not women. From Bezos to Musk to Zuckerberg to Gates, and on it goes, corporate power means the power of the white man. To legitimize their domination, business school professor and the corporate business press sells the need for corporate leaders as common sense, as normal, and even as natural. Ex-CEO Donald Trump just represents a slightly more extreme version of macho-management.
Like Donald Trump, Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg, Gates, Branson & Co have all but transmuted into celebrity CEOs reinforcing the domination assuring ideology of patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism – now sold as globalization. To legitimize this even further, token-females like Sheryl Sandberg have been wheeled out, occasionally that is. It is conservative feminism recast in terms of Hayek’s neoliberalism. This is individual advancement – not social progress. Almost self-evidently, the false promises of feminine corporate leadership had to remain unfulfilled.
In the conflict of feminism against Marx and the ever-alluring question: will women feminize and thereby humanize the workplace or will the power of capitalism, companies, and corporations force women to become just like male CEOs, Marx won hands down. In other words, female CEOs operate like just men taking on the ruthless traits of the corporation and corporate capitalism. Just as Maggie Thatcher caused the death of men in an isolated, if not desolated, place called the Falklands Island to get re-elected. It worked – they died, and she got re-elected.
Like business schools, corporations like to present themselves as an inclusive place with lovely pictures on their websites showing a diversity of people and, of course, plenty of smiling women. Often, it is not much more than visual branding. In reality, it deliberately over-represents the diversity found in corporate management and the average business school. Still, the image of a colorful happy face aids the false picture of inclusion and even progressiveness. More often than not, corporate apparatchiks interpret diversity through the logic of capital, focusing on how companies and corporations can use people of color to further their corporate agenda.
The very same corporate agenda is secured when the media reports of – yet another – business scandal. In cementing the “bad apply” ideology, these reports tend to focus on an individual CEO while never questioning the system of corporate apparatchiks, CEOs, and corporate capitalism. Instead, a glorification of heroic leadership takes place. During corporate scandals, the media sacrifice one in order to save the many. Beyond that, scandals are used to show that the system is working and business ethics – a contradiction in terms – is here to do two things: it identifies the bad apples, and it assures the continuation of the “nothing wrong with the system” ideology. This is the raison d’être of business ethics as much as of corporate social responsibility.
Undeterred from business scandals, leadership fantasies continue to be perpetrated by corporations, the media, and business schools. Everyone is it, and everyone is a winner. Corporations and good corporate leadership are shown to be needed and good. Business schools run business ethics classes to show that corporations are good. They receive full-fee paying MBA students and employ business professors. The business press receives advertising from corporations and even from business schools that often function look-a-likes of corporations. Finally, business school professors and deans can fly business class and meet important clients in the business lounge and for business lunches. It is an ingenious set up that severs all those who are part of it – not the precariat and not the women toiling away in outsourced sweatshops in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, business schools sell all this as ethical leadership or even more fashionable: as ethical stewardship.
The key to all this is that the faith is in the heroic leader. Of course, this also includes The White Man’s Burden, as presented by Rudyard Kipling, author of the Jungle Book. This is the image of the white savior bringing civilization to non-whites. Much of this reaches deep into popular culture with Harrison Ford (the white leader) freeing enslaved and non-white children in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Bill Gates and Warren Buffett carry the same ideology forward. Two old white men are saving non-white African children from the misery the white man has brought to Africa with highlights like the slave trade, also known as the Triangle of Death. Like Harrison Ford, corporate leaders like Gates and Buffett, as well as Donald Trump, are well aware of the power of impression management. This is not really all that new. Historically, Robber Barons, like John D. Rockefeller, turned to philanthropy to save their reputation – it worked rather well. The Rockefeller Foundation is well known – Rockefeller’s Ludlow Massacre is mostly forgotten. Propaganda works. In the world of corporate propaganda – now called public relations, the center for sustainable leadership is by no means the height of all this.
Corporate PR ideologically underpins the masculine ideal of corporate leadership, cementing a Euro-American dominated culture designed to present domination not only as eternal but also as inherently good. One of the most common ideologies found in business schools, for example, is the l’idée fixe that the world had always had leaders. In her insightful book, Redeeming Leadership, Helena Liu, for example, argues that,
the typical business school degree reinforces imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal ideologies equipping graduates with the hegemonic values they then identify and reproduce in their everyday lives at work and beyond.
The quote shows how Managerialism works. Trained in business schools, corporate apparatchiks and managerial leaders run corporations with the dehumanizing gaze of a dominator. Their entire system enforces the hierarchical “Class Ceiling” legitimized through the worker-leader ideal. It conjures up fantasies of a society in which everyone can rise to the top – just look at Zuckerberg – and the fata morgana of a fair workplace based on meritocracy where ability prevails and where the old boys club no longer runs the show.
In reality, these workplaces are still run by corporate apparatchiks glorifying the ideal of the business conquest in which the male CEO is in control of “his” business organization. On the other side of the coin are those structurally disadvantaged and defined as non-dominant groups, the subordinates, underlings, or simply a human resource – a resource just like cattle, an apparatus, or implement. When non-white underlings highlight white power in management and the self-assign privileges of the corporate apparatchiks, they will be accused of “play the race card”.
What works in management works in management studies just as well where so-called “leadership studies” have mutated into a preferred playground for white, middle-aged business school professors. Being part of the boys club and being friends with the gatekeepers of academic journals – known as editors – they, again, get preferential treatment in so-called ‘prestigious journals‘.
These journals tell anyone to think outside the box but exist inside a tidily controlled box. In many cases, these are nothing but the outlets of the ever same. They publish the same meaningless trivialities in various versions over ten years. This is called “having an established track record”. It adds very little to scientific advancement, which is no longer the point anyway. The point is individual advancement – the next job or the next promotion. Candidates for university promotion often face managerialist committees staffed all those who have never had an original thought in their entire academic existence. Failing scholarly and worse, failing intellectually, they become corporate apparatchiks hooked on Impact Fetishism (output rather than sense) like being addicted to crack cocaine.
Here, another white, middle-aged gatekeeper assesses a candidate’s academic work. It is, most likely, a person put into place because of admin credentials. The appointment to a selection committee comes via other corporate apparatchiks – this time, they are university apparatchiks. In business schools, both are highly similar. The dress code, the managerialist language, the superior behavior, etc. mirror those found in the average business class lounge and almost any corporate office. These are the engineers of structural violence. They smile in your face and tell you how much they support empowerment.
“Despite the celebratory and celebrated language around female empowerment, emerging ideals of female leadership bear a similar imperialist heritage to masculine leadership models”, writes Helena Liu. The irony is that much of this is often implicit or structural violence. It has become naturalized. In business schools, it is assumed to be natural. The same goes for management in universities.
Leadership, structural violence, and domination are normalized and unquestioned just as the denial of the fact that managerial leadership not only means followers, subordinates, and underlings, but it also means the exclusion of democracy. Still, every manager of corporate affairs and even those inside universities and business schools will tell you that we live in a democracy. This marks yet another Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda.
Set against that are four options for resistance against the structural violence that governs university and corporate leadership. It all starts with decolonizing one’s mind or what might also be called “A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense – Find your inner Chomsky“. Secondly, find non-abusive and non-violent ways of relating to other people while trying to escape the pathological nightmare of Managerialism that governs our workplaces. Thirdly, re-imaging social meaning beyond the myths of leadership; and fourthly, read Helena Liu’s exquisite book “Redeeming Leadership” published by Bristol University Press.