To this extent the stymied liberatory potential of reproductive technology is no different to the stymied liberatory potential of any other form of technology. Products and processes are made by the rich, for the rich, liberating those who are, in relative terms, already free. It’s not just that poorer women and women of colour have reduced access to abortion and contraception, or that some members of these groups have endured forced sterilisation, that is, reproductive technology actively used as a means of oppression. Egg donation, IVF, womb transplants and global surrogacy all now mean that wealthy white women can, should they so wish, outsource the very roots of sex-based oppression to their less privileged sisters.
Of course even this only works to a certain degree. Patriarchy remains invested in maintaining a stranglehold on the means of reproduction.
Consider this – if you accept that being biologically female is compatible with having an inner life, you have to apply this universally. Under such conditions no reproductive injustice – denial of abortion or contraception, forced sterilisation, economic coercion regarding having/not having children, disregard of maternal mortality – is justifiable. Forced pregnancy or sterilisation is always barbaric. Therefore, if you are to justify such barbarism where convenient, you must also promote the relative dehumanisation of everyone born with a womb (or a vagina, with the associated assumption that one might just have a womb).
Even if womb transplants and artificial wombs become everyday possibilities, the bodies of those already born with wombs will remain cheaper (providing we continue to place a low value on such people’s lives). It’s entirely plausible to see a world in which reproductive technologies increase the options of the privileged – gestate if you want, rent a surrogate or an artificial womb if you want – while doing nothing to raise the status of the most marginalised.
IVF, the pill, sterilisation, womb transplants and artificial wombs are not inherently anti-female; the problem is that economic and political power lies mostly with men, and with only a small proportion of highly privileged women. Of course the privileged will ask “what’s in it for me?” Of course their priority will be to use these things to their advantage. The priority for feminists needs to be to hang on to these possibilities while continuing to challenge the idea that those who (potentially) gestate are in all other ways inferior beings.
It’s easy to present feminists who want to talk about reproduction as luddites. They “reduce women to their biology, just like men’s rights activists”. Quite obviously we are more than our wombs. There’s a whole thinking, feeling, acting, unique person who just so happens to have been born with a uterus. But we still need to talk about the relationship between our social status and our potential reproductive role, not least because it’s of fundamental importance to a truly intersectional feminism. The regulation of female reproductive bodies has been used to maintain not just gender, but class and racial hierarchies. It needs to end.
QotD: “the term “intersectionality,” coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, refers to the intersection of race and misogyny”
To clarify my earlier post, the term “intersectionality,” coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, refers to the intersection of race and misogyny, and should only be used to refer to the experience of racialized misogyny. It was never meant to be used as an identity (“intersectional feminist”), and should definitely not be used as an identity by White women at all.
Intersectionality theorists also make clear … distinctions between oppression and difference. For them, not all differences are axes of structural social oppression. For example, both intersectionality theorists and poststructuralists speak of “marginalized” peoples. Yet the former [intersectional theorists] anchor this concept in hierarchically structured, group-based inequalities, while poststructuralists often are referring to people whose behaviors lie outside of or transgress social norms. This latter conception of “margins” includes a much broader swath of people where the normative structure rather than structural relations of oppression is determinate.
Indeed, not all countercultural lifestyles and politics reflect the historical, institutionalized oppressions highlighted by intersectionality theorists; even groups such as the Michigan militia or the Ku Klux Klan are marginalized groups in terms of transgressing norms. This is why Collins argues that, when scholars took the postmodern turn, “conceptions of power shifted – talk of tops and bottoms, long associated with hierarchy, were recast as flattened geographies of centers and margins” that “rob the term of oppression of its critical and oppositional importance” (Collins 1998, 129 and 136). Similarly, Kimberlé Crenshaw suggests that such “flattening” of intersectionality results from the absence of a structural and political critique (quoted in Berger and Guidroz 2009, 70).
Third Wave Feminism’s Unhappy Marriage of Poststructuralism and Intersectionality Theory, Susan Archer Mann, University of New Orleans
QotD: “‘Intersectional’ is not a discrete branch of feminism, it is a mode of analysis that can and must be employed by all schools of feminist thought”
“Intersectional” is not a discrete branch of feminism, it is a mode of analysis that can and must be employed by all schools of feminist thought to examine how intersecting and compounding axis of oppression change the experience oppression for women at those intersections. It is a way for feminists to identify what are universal facets of female oppression, but more importantly, it is a way for women who are privileged on one or many axis (race, class, sexual orientation. ability) to ensure that their feminist praxis does not further marginalize ther sisters.
As privileged women (ESPECIALLY white women, as intersectionality was originally theorized by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw as a way to examine the compounding oppression of misogyny and racism in the lives of women of color) we can not and should not declare ourselves to be “intersectional feminists” any more than males should declare themselves allies to feminism or straight people allies to the LGBT community. It is not a title one can give to themselves, but a mode of analysis that must be constantly employed in our feminist praxis in ALL branches of feminism.
There were two articles on CiF last month that wrote about intersectionality in a way that was thoughtful and intelligent.
The first is from Lola Okolosie, writing about her mother as a black woman, an immigrant, and a victim of domestic violence:
Through the work of feminists looking at race, class, disability, sexuality and nationality, I came to understand my mother as a person who was, as we all are, constructed by social and cultural forces beyond her control. My jumbled-up feelings and ideas found full voice in the work of literary and academic black feminists: women like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and Kimberlé Crenshaw showed the meaningless of separating sexuality, class, race and gender oppression when they simultaneously affect the lives of black women. What a relief it was to discover that in “feminism” you could find a place that collated all the experiences of women like my mother – women who were, and continue to be, routinely ignored by the dominant feminist movement.
Critically, black feminism is championing a more nuanced understanding of how oppression and privilege operate. We, all of us, must understand that at the level of the individual, we can at differing points occupy positions of privilege. I am a black woman from a working-class background. I also have qualifications from elite universities that mean I am able to access a career, friendships and a lifestyle my 18-year-old self would never have imagined. When and where I experience privilege or oppression changes from day to day, hour to hour.
Though women who live in the “real world” – ie outside academia – may not bandy the word intersectionality, it nevertheless speaks to our lives within it. This is not to deny that power can be invested in language and that for some the term is perhaps alienating. It would be great if we had a word already in existence that conveys the complex and complicated nature of oppression. We do not. The language that we currently use serves to compartmentalise inequalities. It won’t do. I am less interested in whether feminists choose to use the word or replace it with (no less academic) phrases such as multiple oppressions. What is of greater concern is how we work to empower women whose lives are impacted by a number of inequalities.
The second is Eleanor Robertson, an Australian writer (as her writing is Australia-focused, I’m not actually sure who she is referring to as the ‘popular feminists’ refusing an intersectional analysis):
Crenshaw coined the term as an explanation of why black and immigrant women’s experiences ended up being ignored by both feminism and the anti-racist movement. Her original paper contains dozens of stories detailing how domestic violence and rape crisis facilities had serious trouble helping these women because their cases were “too complicated”. Those were immigrant women who were too afraid of deportation to use legal redress against their abusive husbands, women who spoke a language other than English and weren’t given access to an interpreter, or staff who had no idea how to handle a victim whose cultural background forbid her to acknowledge an abuser within her family for fear of damaging the family’s honour.
These examples reveal an emergent feature of many more institutions than rape crisis centres in the 1980s. The problem is not that the individual women who ran these centres were racist, but that the entire structure tended to produce outcomes that were much worse for women of colour – and that’s something we can see playing out over and over within feminism and women’s services. Unless feminism goes hard down the road of recognising and including women from many differing backgrounds, the path of least resistance is for it to work mostly on behalf of women who are already relatively privileged.
So there you go, this is what intersectionality is when it’s done properly, acknowledging that women who are oppressed along multiple axis will have a harder time of it that middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual white women.
‘Intersectionality’ has been seriously misused, particularly by liberal feminists: to make feminism be about anything and everything other than women; to claim that ‘everybody oppresses everybody’; to try to ‘prove’ that such a thing as ‘woman privilege’ exists; and to try to claim that there is no commonality at all among women’s experiences. So it is certainly refreshing to see intersectionality being used correctly within the mainstream, liberal press.