On intersectional and white feminism: the dangers of grand theorising

I came to feminism as a young adult who had experienced domestic abuse, childhood abuse and rape. It was the only theoretical framework that helped me make sense of the world, the oppression I saw around me, and my own experiences. The aha moment of resolute clarity, when I was tutored by outstanding feminist scholars and began reading feminist legal scholars who did not blame or shame me, remains with me. That violence against women was a patriarchal act designed to reinforce male power, and not something invited, instigated or caused by the survivors, was a revolutionary idea, and ran counter to everything I had been taught to that point.

I was taught silence, and to protect the perpetrators, and to blame myself and the women around me for their experiences. The radicalism of not just not blaming women, but allowing them to speak of their experiences, and be believed and treated with compassion, remains for me the central tenet of feminism.

Feminism as a way of viewing and understanding the world is a broad church. It constantly re-examines the evidence, engaging in a process of reflection. Within my own discipline, it was necessary to establish the legitimacy of the feminist perspective as a way of approaching theory and an empirical understanding of the social world, particularly the world of welfare. I have been lucky enough to have been taught by feminist pioneers like Clare Ungerson, who taught us that ‘policy is personal’, particularly with regards to care policy. Fiona Williams was one of the first feminist scholars to teach us about intersectionality: in her case, race, gender and class. One of my own heroines Jenny Morris provided a robust counterpoint to Ungerson’s feminist critique of care, pointing out that disabled women who receive care are women too, and enabled me to think critically about the intersection between disability and feminism in my own research.

In popular culture, intersectional feminism has emerged as a critique of a feminism that does not recognise the impact of race, disability, class, age, sexuality and transphobia on women’s lives. 2018 was popularly held up at the centenary of British women’s right to vote: but that suffrage was only for *some* women, and did not extend to non property-holding women under 30 (ie on the same basis as men’s suffrage) until the Equal Franchise Act ten years later. Marie Stopes’ work on birth control revolutionised many women’s lives: but her passion and research were driven by eugenics and ensuring that certain women – particularly disabled and poorer women – did not have children. Her legacy can still be painfully felt in the enforced sterilisation of women with learning disabilities, for example.

The importance of feminism being a reflective inclusive movement is as significant now as it ever was. Mary Maynard warned explicitly against feminist ‘grand theorising’ – attempting to create a grand theory of everything that would explain the oppression that all women experience. She argued that context mattered, and that no one woman could be the ‘universal woman’ whose experiences could provide an objective rational discourse of feminism. It is with this in mind that I approach recent work on ‘white feminism‘ with caution. This is not feminism that is practised by white women: it is a specific type of feminism in which white women’s privileged racial position is explicitly ignored, or worse, used as a ‘universal feminism’ when it actually reinforcing white privilege and silences women of colour. ‘Unless it’s intersectional, fuck it’ as one angry, eloquent blogger put it.

The most recent example is Mary Beard’s defence of the Oxfam workers in Haiti who were revealed to be purchasing sex from prostitutes.

As she put it: “Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain ‘civilised’ values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in and help out, where most of us would not tread.”

This is a shocking statement. It implies that NOT purchasing sex is the default of ‘civilised’ (ie white) men, and that women in disaster zones (ie black/ethnic minority and poor women) are not ‘civilised’ and as deserving of respect and bodily autonomy as white women. It’s a shockingly racist, privileged thing to say: it is not, by any stretch of the definition, a ‘feminist’ thing to say.

Beard was criticised for her statement, and posted pictures of herself online crying, which drew derision from vocal opponents to ‘white feminism’ who accused her of ‘weaponising the defense of innocence and insincere tears’.

It is this last statement that makes me pause carefully. It is the same accusation levied at other ‘white feminists’ such as Rose McGowan, who exposed Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse and who was attacked by a trans-activist at her book signing.

Telling white women their tears, their emotions, are an unacceptable way of expressing their sense of being upset and threatened, shows an astonishing lack of compassion. Women have routinely been silenced: abuse survivors like McGowan disbelieved, silenced, told to shut up and go away, that their pain is not real, by their abusers, by a systematically oppressive legal infrastructure, by men in positions of power. And this silencing has a worrying echo in this assertion: Being assaulted is horrible. But it’s not the same as experiencing daily, racist microaggressions (not to mention macroaggressions) or living life on the wrong side of white privilege.

A feminism that attempts to silence women who have experienced sexual assault is not a feminism I recognise. A feminism that attempts to assert that women who are relying on ‘white’ privilege – without unpacking ‘whiteness’ or being critical about the privilege of class, for example, that Beard was unquestioningly asserting, or the sexualised privilege that McGowan enjoys as a cis woman over trans women – seems to be attempting a ‘grand theorising’ that does not hold up under empirical or theoretical scrutiny. When women are accused of asserting their ‘white privilege’, and respond by saying but as a working class, Roma, disabled, Jewish etc woman I don’t HAVE ‘white privilege’ they are routinely silenced, and if they react emotionally, accused of weeping ‘white women’s tears’.

We have fought long and hard for our pain to be acknowledged, to be allowed to cry, to not be silenced. As Carol Gilligan points out, this silencing extends to academic enquiry and notions of justice and rationality. Women’s sexuality and emotions, their embodiedness, directly challenges male notions of the superiority of objectivity and rationality in academic enquiry. C Wright Mills attempts to ‘grand theorize’ – to create a meta-theory of social structures and oppression – implicitly and explicitly silenced women’s voices and experiences, by appealing to the rational, objective, justice oriented sociologist.

Women of colour are angry. They have every bloody right to be angry. Systematically oppressed, excluded, racialised, they grow up seeing racism where white folk never do. Just as most men need a sound dose of consciousness raising to see their own gendered privilege, most white, middle class, ablebodied women need some serious consciousness raising about racism, class, ableism and other intersectional divisions. Women of colour are right to be angry that their experiences are ignored, their voices silenced, right to challenge a feminism that isn’t intersectional.

But putting race at the exclusion of other social divisions at the heart, and doing it in a way that silences women’s emotions, bodies and experiences of violence and abuse, is a dangerous game. A blanket accusation of ‘white feminism’ has the effect of Godwin’s law (the idea that as a discussion on the internet grows longer, the likelihood of someone mentioning Hitler or calling someone a Nazi approaches 1: and once that has happened, the argument is over). Being a Nazi is absolutely and a priori an unethical and untenable position to hold, and being a ‘white feminist’ is now approaching that status. Race has become the new ‘grand theory’ that explains everything, and silences dissent and emotion: you are not allowed to cry ‘white tears’.

No-one listens when they are called a Nazi. And recaltrant non intersectional feminists don’t listen when they are called ‘white feminists’. It’s an oversimplified understanding of most situations. Being physically threatened at your own book signing is hardly a situation of privilege.  An accusation of ‘white feminism’ and ‘insincere tears’ leaves very little space for conciousness raising, for compassion, for the ongoing reflection and questioning that makes feminism the vibrant academic and social movement it is. Feminism absolutely should continue to question privilege and seek to become intersectional: but not at the cost of silencing abused women.

Whose Side Are We On? On being an activist academic

In asking whether sociologists should have values or be value-free Howard S Becker famously asked ‘Whose side are we on?’ His conclusions were that we should be on the side of the powerless and oppressed: that as academics, social scientists had a duty to examine social structures and the effect they had on ordinary people.

At the time that was a significant challenge to the academy. Founded on principles of reason and rationality, most disciplines tried to represent themselves as free from moral or political imperatives. Particularly in the wake of World War Two, where German scientists and engineers were co-opted into carrying out science to further Nazi ideals, the independence of the academy from political taint was held to be vital.

However, what Becker was pointing out was that the academy does not exist in social isolation. It is part of the social fabric of a society: educating its elite, informing discourse and policy. We make moral and political choices all the time: in choosing who we educate and how, what we research and what we don’t. To claim moral neutrality in the name of academic independence is simply to hide the fact that we are part of the elite and reinforcing their power.

I work in social policy, specifically around issues of gender, disability and age. Feminism, disability rights and gerontology all have a moral and ethical framework that expects academics to challenge power relations: particularly to challenge misogyny, ableism and ageism. If in our research we do NOT aim to highlight and tackle oppression, then we are accused of being ‘academic parasites’: using people simply for our own reputation and to reinforce our privileged position. Many social science and humanities disciplines expect a critical stance from their academics: to examine and critique the world not just as we see it, but to acknowledge and reflect on our own place in the world we research.

So when I engage in research that involves gender, disability or age I always engage in it as a political process. I am not just interested in analysing the social policies pertinent to women, disabled and older people. I am interested in finding out what social processes oppress them, and how those can be tackled. And I always try to reflect on my own position in that research: not just as an academic, but as a woman, a disabled person and a carer.

Many academics are also activists. The campaigns against climate change, to protect endangered species, to prevent domestic abuse, to tackle racism in policing were all founded on academic research, to name but a few. Academics also have a long history of crossing the divide to the third sector –  in my field the Fawcett Society, Inclusion Scotland and the National Carers Organisation have all been led by academics. There is also a long history of academics becoming politicians: Harold Wilson and Enoch Powell were former dons, and over 20 current MPs hold PhDs.

The current ‘impact’ agenda further supports close collaboration between activism and the academy: in the last REF, over 45% of impact case studies from my own discipline involved working with policy makers, and over half the universities entered reported ongoing collaborations with the third sector. Evidence-based policy and practice attempts to use research to inform social policy in proactive ways, and academics are usually very enthusiastic about its possibilities.

However, activism has its dark side, particularly in the age of social media and the resurgence of right-wing politics. As an openly feminist woman in academia I attract the usual misogynistic attacks in mainstream and social media. During the 2014 Scottish referendum I was carrying out independent research funded by the ESRC on what the different outcomes might mean for care policy and gender equality. I found that nations who had better gender equality outcomes, and used social care policies for that purpose, had gender equality enshrined as a national value in their constitutions. As a potentially newly independent country, Scotland could have that, and thereby acquire a powerful lever to effect policy changes. (Of course that alone would not make an independent Scotland a gender equal country and I was careful to stress that too). This finding marked me as a politically motivated independence supporter (I wasn’t) and attracted a fair amount of social media attacks from ‘cyberyoons’ (social media commentators against Scottish independence). Some took the trouble to track down my institution and make a formal complaint – which luckily my institution carefully replied to in my defence. I took it as a mark that I got ‘cybernatted’ almost as often as I got ‘cyberyooned’ that I was getting the balance of academic impartiality about right.

When I recently crossed the divide from activism to politics and ran for election in the 2017 snap general election, representing the Women’s Equality Party, I did so to highlight the gender-blindness of the main political parties. I campaigned on areas I knew about: social care policy, violence against women and women’s political representation. I was stalked, harassed, had frighteningly explicit pieces written about me in newspapers, and one men’s rights activist issued death threats on his website and targeted not just me but also my colleagues and students.

It’s hard to say whether that was because I was a woman, or a feminist, or a politician (all of whom regularly are the victims of hatred on social media). But my political opponents in particular hated that I was drawing on 25 years of research in my campaigning. In one hustings, after I had criticised the ‘dementia tax’ policy of the Conservatives, my opponent shouted at me ‘NO-ONE KNOWS THE SOLUTION TO SOCIAL CARE, NOT EVEN THE SO-CALLED PROFESSOR!’. Actually, I do know A solution based on years of comparative social policy research, and I earned the title ‘Professor’ through my international reputation for my research. But hey, all’s fair in love and war and politics.

Clearly as a society we value academics getting their hands dirty and engaging in the real world. The ESRC funded me specifically to find real world solutions to real world issues to help policy makers prepare for possible constitutional change, not sit in an ivory tower writing academic theories that no-one outside the academy would read or understand. The current REF will apportion 25% of its research funding on the basis of the non-academic impact the research has. We want and need our academics to use their knowledge for the greater good, and sometimes using that knowledge is a consciously political act.

But we need to protect them. If we value their expertise and their independence, we need to ensure that they are able to not just research the risky subjects, but take the risks necessary to get their findings into policy and practice. Academics should never be censured for taking activist or political positions on things they know about.

However, as academics we also have an ethical and moral responsibility to not step outside the boundaries of our research or claim knowledge we don’t have. The current problems with Personal Independence Payments for disabled people can be directly traced to psychological academic theories being misused in a social context. The depiction of Scottish independence supporters as far right nationalists can be directly traced to a misuse of political and historical theory about nationalist movements particularly in the twentieth century. The list goes on.

We should expect protection from our institutions and from society, we should fight for the things we know to be ‘true’ based on our research, we should fight to keep our independent critical stance. No matter what Michael Gove thinks, we need experts now more than ever in tackling some of the complex social issues that face our society. But we should not claim to be experts in everything or to have the ‘right’ answers, or to think that our status as elites gives us permission to ride roughshod over the electorate, or third sector activists, or people who are experts in things as a result of their lived experiences. We should lend our expertise to amplifying their voices: we SHOULD still be on the side of the oppressed. Otherwise we are simply reinforcing our own privilege.