Interdisciplinary Feminism: Why Building Alliances is CriticalCherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Commentary I March 16th, 2016
In a previous article entitled Feminism is Not Just for Academics: Overcoming Disconnect and Division , I explained that the roots of feminism are not grounded in academia and theory, but through the collective action of working-class women; concluding with:
To be fair, it needs to be reiterated that academic feminism serves it purpose and is simply one avenue of feminism which one may choose to travel down. Overall, feminism is an empowering framework from which a person may understand, critique, and change the world, while defining their place in it. Central to the tenets of feminism is the matter of choice. Feminists should be free to self-identify as feminists, and should also be allowed to carve out their own path within feminism, whether it is in an academic career in women's studies or working within the realm of social justice activism and women's rights organizing. Feminism must remain inclusive and should not be dominated by any sub-group.
An oversimplification of the words of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian writer, politician, political theorist, philosopher, sociologist, linguist, and founding member of the Communist Party of Italy, in which he called for "traditional intellectuals," who are representative of today's academics, to join with the "organic intellectuals" from the working class to effect social change, best describes the path forward that feminism should choose.
In the 2014 article, If We Want Feminism to Have a Real Impact, Then Let's Stop Teaching So Much Theory , Elizabeth Sergan echoed my critiques:
For three years, I taught feminist theory to undergraduates while working on my Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. There was a time when Berkeley was the epicenter of radical feminism: In the 1970s, women's rights activists regularlystormed campus buildings , demanding birth control, abortion, self-defense classes, and childcare. But when I started teaching in 2007, nothing particularly radical was happening anymore.
Far from being sites of activism and empowerment, Berkeley's Women's Studies classes were weighed down by theory and jargon. Using departmental guidelines, I crafted a syllabus that was meant to help my students think critically about gender, but what that really meant is that we spent our days wrestling with dense and difficult texts, parsing the works of Gayatri Spivak, Monique Wittig, and Judith Butler. We devoted inordinate amounts of time to asking whether gender and sexuality were social constructs, rather than biological facts. We casually threw around words like "subalterneity," "essentialism," and "phallogocentrism" as if they really meant something.
In keeping with these sentiments, I would like to further explain why interdisciplinary feminism, organizing and coalition-building outside of the halls of academia are imperative to identifying, calling out, and combatting gender-racial-sexuality-based discrimination; and working towards more inclusive and equal societies.
In order to be Intersectional, feminism must be Interdisciplinary
The case for intersectionality, what it is, how it can be applied in practice, and so on, has been discussed in women's studies and in feminist circles for almost three decades. Therefore, it should be well understood, but unfortunately that is not always the case. There are constant examples where it is not even considered, particularly when it comes to Western/white feminists. The backlash to Viola Davis's statements about women of color and opportunities in film and television, made during her win at the 2015 Emmy Award, is a recent example of this.
However, having intersectional approaches to feminism and women's rights activism is not enough. These approaches should also be interdisciplinary--and actually do more than just theorize and debate what issues are of importance to women; and actually include women working outside of academia in these conversations. Women do not live our lives in a bubble, and many continue to primarily work outside of the home (because being a stay-at-home mother is actually a class-based privilege for many who depend on two household incomes), and it is outside of the home that they are bombarded with various types of discrimination and prejudice. Discrimination and prejudice that feminist should be aware of and finding ways to mitigate. Thus, engaging women across multiple disciplines, and realizing that the vast majority of disciplines remain male-dominated; is critical.
For example, in the fashion industry, which has been problematic for many reasons-- including racial and cultural insensitivity, appropriation, and representation-- the majority of the prestigious or well known fashion houses were begun and continue to be led by men, and truth be told white men. Just consider: Versace, Gucci, Isaac Mizhari, Ralph Lauren, Zac Posen, Roberto Cavalli, Alexander McQueen, and so on.
The same can be seen in education, where women often hit a glass ceiling. For instance, university presidents in the United States continue to be overwhelmingly white men over age 60. The American Council on Education released a 2012 report on this, and it continues to be an issue discussed by others (seehere and here). However, it is not just at the university level. Globally, while women are the overwhelming majority of those who work in education at the primary and secondary level, men continue to dominate positions as school principals. (For examples of these discussions see here -UK, and here- South Africa).
Although women are continuing to make strides in government, with a number of women having served as heads of state. Unfortunately, women continue to be underrepresented in governments around the world, with only 21.9% of national parliamentarians were female as of December 1, 2014. In the article Disproportionate Representation: A Look at Women Leadership in Congress, I discussed this disproportionate representation in great detail. The issue is extremely dire in the United States, where there has never been a woman head of state, and when looking at the 2015 Congress women held only 19.4% of the 535 seats.
Still, the issue of underrepresentation, glass ceilings, and other discriminatory issues have become well known and thoroughly discussed in fields such as: STEM, film and television--both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, radio and broadcast media--where male (and conservative) voices such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage continue to dominate, and also the construction and automotive industries, as well as in corporate America. Consider the sad sick reality that major news outlets---whether print or television--continue to turn mainly to male sources for their take on the economy, politics, the criminal justice system, the military, as well as topics that are deemed to be women's issues (abortion, birth control, Planned parenthood, etc). When you look at the majority of those who work in these industries, particularly in positions of leadership, it truly seems like "It's a man's world". And a closer look will reveal that there is a representation of women of color in the news media, and the highly public departure of Melissa Harris-Perry from her show on MSNBC, exemplifies that problem.
Women who experience marginalization and discrimination in these different sectors do not have the time, or perhaps the desire to think about theory, nor are they readily able to reach across disciplines to uncover and discuss these common themes of oppression; but this shouldn't discredit them as feminists or experts on gender relations. They have an intimate understanding of workplace sexism, disproportionate representation in leadership, and other ways in which women are discriminated against in their fields. Who else would be better qualified to discuss these issues, and offer solutions and strategies to address them, than those who have a clear understanding of and experience dealing with the various problems?
Why is it often only academic "feminist" who are brought in as political pundits and commentators, regardless of the issue or field that is being discussed? Why are there not more women who are clinicians and biomedical researchers asked to discuss underrepresentation in the STEM field? I have actually attended conferences where speakers have presented their research on the topic, but (1) they have never worked in the STEM field or (2) none of their co-panelist/presenters had work in the STEM field either.
Also, why are women working in fields where men greatly dominate, like the automotive industry, called upon to discuss not only workplace discrimination, but other labor issues?
Then there are those instances where women who did not major in gender studies (or attended any university for that matter) are marginalized or silenced, by other feminists, as if their observations and experiences, are lacking legitimacy. These are the women who may not know about the various waves of (Western) feminism, but understand the need for women's health research funding, have been subjected to police profiling and/or brutality, are screenwriters who may be coping with having their scripts rejected, because they refuse to develop stereotypical characters (damsel in distress, loud & crude Black woman, sassy Latina, submissive and unopinionated Asian), and are actively joining protest movements to counteract it, or are mothers living in food-insecure communities. These women are no less feminist than those who can readily quote bell hooks or Gloria Steinham, and they should be provided spaces and platforms to speak as "experts".
Practicing an intersectional and multidisciplinary feminism requires being inclusive, and recognizing that the experts are often those who have lived experiences and insights to share.
Grassroots feminism across disciplines is critical, not only in post-colonial nations working to remove the yoke colonialism and deeply-embedded patriarchy, but even in the West; particularly in the US where extremist religious, sexist, and bigoted attitudes are prevailing. There are the constant attacks on rights to abortion and other reproductive rights, attacks on voting rights, environmental justice issues--such as lead poisoning of the water supply in Flint Michigan and the gas leak in Porter Ranch California, located in Los Angeles country-- that directly impact women and families, as well as the threat of environmental degradation brought along by the XL keystone pipeline or fracking; which is actually supported by Hillary Clinton, the DNC's front runner, who we---women, feminist---are told that we should vote for, simply because she is a woman. To truly understand the problem with that line of thinking, I would suggest reading my articleDisproportionate Representation, andHillary's Woman Problem, as well as Why Hillary Clinton Doesn't Deserve the Black Vote: From the crime bill to welfare reform, policies Bill Clinton enacted-and Hillary Clinton supported-decimated black America.
There are even questions about what constitutes legitimate rape, as well as as seething epidemic of campus rape. Additionally, there continues to be an issue of the exploitation and devaluing of the lives of women of color, which is seen with the case of Daniel Holtzclaw and his predatory rape and molestation of only Black women, the unlawful arrest and untimely death of Sandra Bland, the need for campaigns such as #WhatAboutOurDaughters and #SayHerName to highlight state sanctioned violence against Black women and other women of color, and the continued media silence on an epidemic in indigenous communities--of rape and disappearance of Native American women.
Ensuring that these issues and others that impact the lives, health, and wellbeing of women and girl are raised and addressed will require not only an intersectional approach to feminism, but one that is interdisciplinary. One that calls on the testimonies and expertise of women from across various disciplines, who can coalesce around their shared and varied experiences with sexism, misogyny, misogynoir, colorism, racism, homophobia, ableism, ageism.