by Brenna Bhandar & Denise Ferreira da Silva

A reply to Nancy Fraser


In her recent piece in Com­ment is Free, “How fem­in­ism became capitalism’s hand­maiden — and how to reclaim it” Nancy Fraser draws on her own work in polit­ical the­ory to argue that fem­in­ism at best has been co-​opted by neo­lib­er­al­ism and at worst has been a cap­it­al­ist ven­ture of the neo-​liberal pro­ject. What appears at first glance to be a reasoned self-​reflection, one that takes stock and respons­ib­il­ity for past alli­ances and cel­eb­ra­tions of stra­tegic moves for the bet­ter­ment of women’s lives, at second glance reveals the innate and repet­it­ive myopia of White fem­in­ism to take account, to con­verse and think along with Black and Third World Feminists.

Writ­ing from the early 1970s onwards, these schol­ars and act­iv­ists have sys­tem­at­ic­ally engaged a fem­in­ist cri­tique of not only state cap­it­al­ism, but of a glob­al­ised cap­it­al­ism rooted in colo­nial legacies. These fem­in­isms have not pri­or­it­ised “cul­tural sex­ism” over eco­nomic redis­tri­bu­tion. The lit­er­at­ure is vast, the examples myriad, and thus, it’s all the more tir­ing when White fem­in­ists speak of second-​wave fem­in­ism as if it were the only “fem­in­ism” and use the pro­noun “we” when lament­ing the fail­ures of their struggles. Let us just say there is no such thing as a “fem­in­ism” as the sub­ject of any sen­tence that des­ig­nates the sole pos­i­tion for the critic of pat­ri­archy. For such pos­i­tion has been frac­tured ever since Sojourner Truth said “Ain’t I a woman too?” There is though a fem­in­ist subject-​position, the one Fraser is lament­ing, which has sat very com­fort­ably in the seat of the self-​determined, eman­cip­ated sub­ject. That pos­i­tion, of course, is that which she iden­ti­fies as a con­trib­utor to neo­lib­er­al­ism. But that is no sur­prise, for both her fem­in­ism and neo­lib­er­al­ism share the same lib­eral core that Black and Third World fem­in­ists have iden­ti­fied and exposed since very early in the tra­ject­ory of feminisms.

The work of A.Y. Davis, Audre Lorde, Himani Ban­nerji, Avtar Brah, Selma James, Maria Mies, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Silvia Fed­er­ici, Dorothy Roberts and scores of oth­ers, have shattered the lim­ited and exclu­sion­ary nature of the con­cep­tual frame­works developed by White fem­in­ists in the Eng­lish speak­ing world. These schol­ars and act­iv­ists have cre­ated frame­works of ana­lysis that sim­ul­tan­eously sur­mount a chal­lenge to and provide a dra­matic cor­rect­ive to both Black Marx­ist and anti-​colonial the­ory that failed fun­da­ment­ally to the­or­ise gender and sexu­al­ity, and Marx­ist and social­ist fem­in­ist thought that con­tin­ues to fail, in many ways, to account for race, his­tor­ies of col­on­isa­tion, and the struc­tural inequit­ies between the so-​called developed and devel­op­ing nation states. And yes, Mies, Fed­er­ici, and James are white, but Black and Third World Marx­ist fem­in­isms aspire to polit­ical solid­ar­ity across the col­our line.

The schol­ars we speak of have con­sist­ently developed cri­tiques of cap­it­al­ist forms of prop­erty, exchange, paid and unpaid labour, along with cul­tur­ally embed­ded and struc­tural forms of pat­ri­archal viol­ence. Let’s take the example of rape and viol­ence against women. In the path-​breaking Women Race and Class, A.Y. Davis argued force­fully that many of the most con­tem­por­ary and press­ing polit­ical struggles facing black women are rooted in the par­tic­u­lar types of oppres­sion suffered under slavery. Rape and sexual viol­ence are faced by women of all classes, races and sexu­al­it­ies, as Davis noted, but have a dif­fer­ent valence for black men and women. The myth of the black rap­ist and of the viol­ent hyper­sexual black male caused scores of lynch­ings dur­ing the ante­bel­lum era in Amer­ica. This per­sist­ent racist myth provides explan­at­ory value for the con­tem­por­ary overrep­res­ent­a­tion of black men in pris­ons con­victed of rape, and led to the reluct­ance on the part of African-​American women to become involved in early fem­in­ist act­iv­ism against rape that was focused on law enforce­ment and the judi­cial sys­tem (Davis, 1984). The expro­pri­ation of black labour rooted in the logics of slavery repeats itself in the expro­pri­ation of con­vict labour in the post-​slavery era, and today, in the unfree labour endemic in the prison indus­trial com­plex. (Davis, 2005)

Sexual viol­ence is thus under­stood as some­thing deriv­ing from slavery and col­on­isa­tion, affect­ing both women and men. This his­tory of black women’s bod­ies as com­mod­ity objects to be used, viol­ated at the pleas­ure of white men remains as a psychic, social, racial trace in con­tem­por­ary Amer­ican soci­ety. With respect to Nat­ive Amer­ican and First Nations women, colo­nial era ste­reo­types of the “squaw” con­tinue in con­tem­por­ary racial­ised ima­gin­ar­ies, ren­der­ing Indi­gen­ous women vul­ner­able to forms of sexual viol­ence that are always-​already racial and recall pat­terns of viol­ence that emerged through the dis­pos­ses­sion of their lands, lan­guages, resources and yes, cul­tural prac­tices. (See P. Monture-​Angus, Kim Ander­son, Sherene Razack)

Recent sug­ges­tions that fem­in­ists should turn their gaze towards unpaid work, the work of care, was ana­lysed by Patri­cia Hill Collins in Black Fem­in­ist ThoughtKnow­ledge, Power and Con­scious­ness. She emphas­ises that for African-​American women, work in the home that con­trib­utes to their fam­il­ies’ well-​being can be under­stood by them as a form of res­ist­ance to the social and eco­nomic forces that col­lude to dam­age African-​American chil­dren and fam­il­ies. Black fem­in­ists have also led the wages for house­work cam­paign, chal­len­ging bour­geois norms of the fam­ily eco­nomy. Fol­low­ing A.Y. Davis, we note that White fem­in­ists need to recog­nise when they engage polit­ical strategies that Black and Third World fem­in­ists have already been the­or­ising and prac­tising for a long time.

End­ing oppres­sion, viol­ence against women, viol­ence against men, par­tic­u­larly of the neo-​liberal vari­ety, means embra­cing the his­tor­ical, mater­i­al­ist, anti-​racist thought of Black and Third World Marx­ist fem­in­ists. Are the White fem­in­ists who per­sist in throw­ing in the word “race” or “racism” in their oth­er­wise left-​liberal approaches to fem­in­ism will­fully blind/​deaf? Are they unable to cede the floor to Black fem­in­ism because it would mean the loss of a cer­tain racial priv­ilege? The per­sist­ent claim to uni­ver­sal­ism, which is the core of this White fem­in­ism, renders the exper­i­ences, thoughts and work of Black and Third World fem­in­ists invis­ible, over and over again. Time’s up!

Brenna Bhandar, Senior Lec­turer, SOAS School of Law.
Den­ise Fer­reira da Silva, Pro­fessor, Queen Mary School of Busi­ness and Management.


Original Article here-

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