Finding common ground

When Patricia Arquette went up the stairs to accept her Oscar a couple of weeks ago, she used the moment to call the attention of the Academy Awards watching world to the struggles of women in regard to equal pay and general recognition – and while her words fell on open ears with the female audience, parts of the internet weren’t exactly happy about it.

It’s not that equal pay isn’t an important issue anymore or that one shouldn´t use any opportunity to point out the still very much ongoing trouble women face in the work sphere. No, the thing that made people angry is not only what was said on stage, but the way it was clarified behind it: In Arquette’s opinion, it is time for gay people and all the Women of Colour to join in the battle for equal rights for women (White women, that is apparently), because women have fought for them long enough now and it’s time to return the favour. This statement is wrong in all kind of ways.

Firstly, by stating that women have fought for queer people and people of colour, Arquette implies that there aren’t any queer women or Women of Colour that are fighting exactly the same battle as White women are – that women who are queer and/or of colour actually exist and form a big part of the female population.

And that they are much more deeply affected by the gender pay gap than White women are. Secondly, it sounds as if the struggles queer people and People of Colour have been confronted with for decades have long been finished successfully, when they are still very much alive. Moreover, she chooses to ignore all the actual gay people and People of Colour and those who are both that have fought for women’s rights from the very beginning on. I’m well aware that she is neither a scholar nor anyone well known for their feminist activism, but it’s still worth to highlight the implications of her words because they reach an enormous audience and are so characteristic for White feminism nowadays. Women of Colour have been fighting for a place for themselves in the feminist movement for ages andArquette’s statement and the enthusiasm it hit show how long the way to go still is.

Feminism of course cannot be understood without taking a closer look at the society and the structures in which it is placed. We cannot understand the suffragette movements without seeing its context and we surely cannot understand the second wave feminism if we don’t know about the expectations and limitations women had to face all over the world. The liberation movement starting in the 1960s and lasting until the backlash in the early nineties, focused on rethinking the position of women in society, including the role of the mother and reproductive rights. – But it also brought forward ideas about a solidarity between women that would take into consideration the differences between them: Black women and Women of Colour would take a stand and try to make space in the mostly White feminist movements – that is to say movements that were mostly perceived White, as Gloria Steinem recently declared there were indeed a lot of Black women involved but they rarely attained as much visibility as White middle class women. It was mainly Black women in the 1980s advocating for a more inclusive view on feminism. bell hooks’ “Ain’t I a women”, Angela Davis’ “Women Race and Class” or again Audre Lorde’s “Age, Race, Class and Sex” all aim to shift the focus from a singular and homogenous examination of women’s lives to one that includes the variety and complexity of all women. A big goal for all of these writers was to show, as Lorde puts it: “[that] it’s not the differences between people that separate us. It’s rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behaviour and expectation”. Around the same time the concept of triple oppression (through racism, sexism and classism) was developed and later, the term intersectionality was coined. The idea was and still is that trying to understand systematic power through the eyes of White middle class women of the West is a futile undertaking as it leaves us blissfully ignorant of big parts of the social hierarchy and the lines of differentiation and discrimination that separate women through race and class. The most inclusive understanding of the social structure and its power relations can only be reached by looking at the most marginalized people. As stated above, one can not only be a woman, but a Woman of Colour, a queer woman, a woman from the Global South or/ and indigenous woman, disabled woman, woman of various religious backgrounds… – and all these intersections offer insights to the power structure that should be used and valued.

The idea that there had to be a deep understanding of the differences and particularities that come with different positions in the social structure to really connect people and groups of people with one another is also the basis for Chandra Talpede Mohanty’s 1986 essay “Under Western Eyes”. Her goal was to establish the headstone for a transnational feminist movement that offered room for Women of Colour and women of the Global South. Therefore, she tried to shift the focus from the White feminism of the time to a more complex view that included the lives of non-Western women and their realities. To create solidarity between women from different places, different communities, different worlds there has to be a comprehension of their distinction to be able to recreate a sense of community and universality.

When Mohanty then revisited her essay 16 years later in the early 21st century, she found these ideas as relevant as always but since the 1980s the world has changed a whole lot and feminism had to be adapted to the new reality: Today, everything is more interconnected than it has ever been before, the Western and Southern hemispheres are thoroughly entangled with one another, the importance of transnational and supranational institutions like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or the European Union increases, while local players loose their influence. Globalisation, neoliberalism and capitalism are conquering the world piece by piece and have a deep impact on people’s lives everywhere. But especially the negative side effects tend to be much harsher on women than they are on men. Women are more affected by poverty, war and displacement. And in Robin Morgan’s often-cited words: “Women do two thirds of the world’s work, receive ten percent of the world’s income and own two percent of the means of production”. Women are generally less paid than their male counterparts, which makes them ideal employees, especially for unpopular work. They are said to be the engine of globalisation, while suffering more from its devastating side effects. This is why it’s important to understand that critique of capitalism and globalisation has to take place in the feminist movement. It needs to be acknowledged that women’s struggle and anticapitalist struggle are inherently connected with each other as the exploitation of women is facilitating the advancement of globalisation. If we, like Mohanty, understand the latter as a process that unifies different communities and their people to become a global village, then it’s needless to say that feminism has to find ways to deal with the devastating impact this has on women everywhere. If in the 1980s it was important to understand that women around the world had to fight different struggles, there is a necessity of finding out what connections and commonalities are to be made between those struggles today. And what activism that includes these insights can look like.

As Mohanty writes, it’s the lives, experiences and struggles of women and girls in the two-third world that demystify capitalism and its racist and sexist dimensions and which can show the productive and necessary starting point to anti-capitalist activism.

We have to focus on racialized gender to understand how hegemonic neoliberalism affects communities everywhere. While there aren’t any visible and activist women’s movements like in the 1980s to be seen anymore, there are strong movements critical of globalisation spreading all over the world. Young people regardless of their gender are fighting side by side in the Occupy-movements from New York to Nepal. Unfortunately though, there still doesn’t seem to be an understanding of the importance of the women’s struggle in relation to globalisation. All anti-globalisation struggles have to be feminist. And all feminist movements should be anti-globalisation movements as well.

I wish Arquette had used her moment in the spotlight to make a more inclusive statement to unite women from different contexts, different sexual orientations and different communities to emphasize the solidarity between women around the world. Because it’s women like her who enjoy the attention of millions around the world that are in the position to make people listen and probably understand. But all in all instead of opening up discourse, the ignorance of Arquettes words rather shut people out than connect them with each other. And connecting women by building a worldwide solidarity between them is what feminism should be about as well.

L.S.

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