MRAs on the internet have a lot to say about feminism, but they ain’t shit. You know who actually produced valuable criticism of the movement? Actual feminists. And they’ve been doing it for a while. Back in the 1980s, the deep sense of exclusion felt by African-American women culminated in an alternate gender movement called “Womanism.” One of the names that often comes up in discussions about Womanism is Audre Lorde.
These were the words Lorde would use for herself. She recognized that multiplicities existed both between people and within them too, and refused to deny expression to each part of herself. Lorde was born in New York, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement steeped in African-American identity. As a queer black woman, she came to the feminist movement with concerns that were very different from her heterosexual white fellows, and her acute awareness of this difference informed a lot of her politics. One of Lorde’s most enduring proclamations (made during a feminist conference in New York, has been “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The statement went on to become the title of a text that is as powerful as it is concise. We’re always tempted to give people a taste of their own medicine, but this is exactly what Lorde warns against in her counter-metaphor.
Lorde was smack in the middle of the second-wave feminist movement, which was all about rescuing typically feminine traits from patriarchal devaluation, and much of her work does centre on ‘women-identified-women.’ But there was an important difference between Lorde and her feminist peers – her insistence ‘woman’ was not a monolithic category.
“It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences,” she says, while speaking at one of those arrogant academic events. In ‘The Master’s Tools,’ as well as other writing, Lorde invokes difference. A lot. Long before the term “third wave feminism” was in popular circulation, she urged the movement to also address ageism, ableism, homophobia, classism, racism, and cissexism – both in the world, as well as within its own ranks.
Lorde was super woke about the pitfalls of a feminist politics that was produced exclusively by white women. By the ‘80s, feminism had formally moved into its hundredth year (if you take the suffragettes as a reference point), but the material was still the same. Sure ideas about performance, and fluidity, and economic independence, and abortion and all of that was newly evolving, but all of it was so focused on the social, political and economic experiences of white women, that it did little for women of colour – and also tended to forget (deliberately?) the disabled women, lesbian and trans women, poor women, immigrant women, women of non-Christian faiths and more.
White feminism slowly started reproducing many of the aggressions characteristic of the hegemonic male-dominated system. The statement “We’re all women, why do you want to talk about race?” was dangerously modelled along the lines of “We’re all people, why do you want to talk about gender?” And both were used to discourage any challenges to status quo.
Lorde knew that the universalization of women was a dangerous falsehood. And it pays for us to remember that, because when universalization sets white as default, our movement are accused of being a ‘western import,’ and are seen as inapplicable to our respective contexts.
“What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” Asks Lorde. And her answer – surprise, surprise! – is that there’s a lot of self-congratulatory action. Just like LGBTQ activists have stated repeatedly that marriage equality is not the end-goal of queer politics, so too did Lorde argue that a few token women in positions of power did not signal the death knell of the patriarchy.
It’s important to remember the differences that exist between women, especially the differences created by colonialism, slavery, or segregation. Even today, the internet – feminism’s new favourite tool – is flooded with articles that ask “Have You Considered Womanism?” because the problems that existed three decades ago still confront black womanhood, as well as women of multiple other non-Caucasian ethnicities.
Feminism will not become the intersectional theory or praxis it intends to be, if it refuses to learn from such breakaway movements as womanism. It can no longer view ‘gender’ as the only channel through which oppression is extended. Lorde’s text highlights, for example, how poverty and racial discrimination combine to keep so many black women out of feminist spaces such as the conference. The idea is to close the gaps that exist between diverse women, in addition to closing the gap between genders. How can all women present themselves as a united front against the patriarchy, when race, class, age, and sexuality leave them so deeply divided?
The narrowness of white, corporatized, airbrushed feminism does not and cannot represent the interests, needs and struggles of all women, and is invested, instead in making the movement palatable for the very people opposed to it. “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Lorde reminds us. “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Lorde’s is among those works that tried to strengthen the movement from within, to widen the scope of feminism, to say no woman left behind. It is important for rich feminists, white feminists, english-speaking feminists, upper-caste feminists, and all women to take a cue from Lorde and examine their privileges, and how they themselves contribute to the oppression of other women. Lorde was pushing for a community of women who would give each other a leg-up. And if that isn’t the most radical way for women to fight the patriarchy, I don’t know what is.