This second part of the essay contains many details of graphic violence, including transphobia, homophobia, violence against sex workers, sexual assault, descriptions of medical malpractice, descriptions of slavery, and prison violence. Antiblackness also features prominently as a subject in this analysis, though antisemitism and racism against Latinos are mentioned as well.
Just as lesbianism doesn’t exist without the enforcement and regulation of womanhood itself, something, “Ain’t I a Woman” the publication deals with through its curation of poetry and letters, neither do the wider politics of the women’s movement stand without the decolonial and anti-imperialist struggle of Black organizers. Previously we addressed lesbians and their relation to the wider, mostly straight women’s movement, showing the internal problems of it through the institution of childcare. But to properly criticize the ways people navigate around these problems, we have to relate this magazine to the movement of Black freedom its inspiration, Sojourner Truth, advanced through her own struggle. This requires a chronology of Black thought which would become the backbone of multiple movements, eventually leading to the broader formations of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism, while also laying out the advancements, limitations, and splinters. This will help orient the way we fight for the present and the future with historical context, without which we end up in a game of quips and hot takes that seem correct, but only because at their best it all confirms to our biases. No one wins when someone (or a -chan poster, who knows these days) publishes a hot take about how lesbianism is problematic because its, “man-hating”. But the way to tackle bad discourse on lesbianism or any form of organizing stemming from identity politics isn’t to make an appeal to innateness, which pushes away material social forces and even internal community issues in the name of a suffocating, “safety”. As Socrates observed when answering the question of justice in, “The Republic”, what is to be done in regards to the likely scenario of Roe V. Wade being struck down can be answered when we look to other movements beyond what is generally considered, “the women’s movement”. How they interact with womanhood and reproductive labor has implications for how we consider both that must be carried forward lest future activism slides into regression and even collusion with the right.
For over a century, proponents of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism have struggled with what it means to be Black since the codified but by no means total abolition of slavery in countries like Haiti, Britain, the U.S. and Brazil. Truth herself spoke on human rights and freedom for Black slaves around the U.S., at times at great personal risk, and worked with many slave abolitionists in her day. But during slavery there were many acts of rebellion, including the Nat Turner uprising and Harriet Tubman’s efforts with the Underground Railroad, through which she with other escaped slaves would evade capture from masters and even poor whites. This among slave uprisings like those in Haiti, the West Indies and Jamaica would inspire the politics of Black Nationalism, with Pan-Africanism arising from anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist movements of the 1960s and 70s. In a general sense, Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism share is that by organizing collectively as a Black, one can achieve power and self-determination. The differences lie in whether one agitates domestically one’s own Black community, or internationally through education and agitation around what affects Black people abroad, though there has been overlap.
Whether one’s reach is international or domestic, questions around Blackness can arise when organizing: Is being Black innate condition we are born with, or is it an affect we get from the wider societies and civilizations we live in? Do we constitute a nation or ethnicity based on our occupying a large part of, for example, the American South or favelas of Brazil? And does that count as a community in itself, or does it depend on active struggle around material conditions? Would running our own businesses, creating Black-led spaces and occupying high offices help Black people as an oppressed group gain self-determination and (inter)national consciousness, or are we merely making ourselves accomplices of oppressive, indifferent power structures, or turning that crushing power against each other in a vain, bloody game of one-upmanship that may ultimately grant no one liberation? These are the questions you could raise reading from a general, yet considered by many in discourse to be comprehensive list, of Black thought, which is usually male-dominated and includes figures from W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey to Malcom X, Franz Fanon, Kwame Ture and Dr. King.
But their answers, as wide and complex as they are, can fly over critical nuances experienced by the marginalized within the Black communities, particularly Black women and LGBT people. As W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington debated over the direction Black liberation should take (whether to be respectable capitalists working within the high institutions or radical communists agitating for a new society, to the point of even abstaining from voting within the current system), Claudia Jones would speak directly to the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) in, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman”, urging them look more closely at the labor Black women have done since slavery. In this work she points out that among other things, what would later be termed as Reproductive Labor was done mostly by Black women in her time, mirroring and in some case replicating the labor conditions of slavery through childcare, cooking, laundry and other tasks under the umbrellia housework. When people envision this work, it is as if it is a part of a bygone era, famously portrayed by Hattie McDaniel’s character in the movie adaptation of, “Gone With The Wind”. But as Jones demonstrates this was still a living reality for many Black women, shut out of other forms of employment as a result of Jim Crow laws in the American South,
Inherently connected with the question of job opportunities where the Negro woman is concerned, is the special oppression she faces as Negro, as woman, and as worker. She is the victim of the chauvinist stereotype as to where her place should be. In the film, radio, and press, the Negro woman is not pictured in her real role as breadwinner, mother, and protector of the family, but as a traditional “mammy” who puts the care of children and families of others above her own. This traditional stereotype of the Negro slave mother, which to this day appears in commercial advertisements, must be combatted and rejected as a device of the imperialists to perpetuate the white chauvinist ideology that Negro women are “backward”, “inferior,” and the “natural slaves” of others.
It is this oppression, which many non-Blacks assumed disappeared after the American Civil War, that Jones urged the left to highlight and include in its organization, philosophy and praxis.
Later, as Dr. King and Malcom X had differences on whether to organize with principles of non-violence burrowed from Ghandi and Henry David Thoreau or “By any means necessary”, Angela Davis would provide another piece of Marxist analysis around Black Women’s labor in, “The Black Woman’s Role In The Community of Slaves”. As Fanon advocated for decolonial struggle while documenting the contradictions of post-colonial Africa, Davis would reveal the multi-layered position of the Black woman as an isolated, glorified yet hyper-exploited subject. For Davis, the Black woman is held up as both an exemplary worker and a resource during slavery, placing the Black woman on a pedestal which also served as an auction block and an angle of extra scrutiny as a slave. As a result, Black women were placed under twice the workload, exploitation and in some cases violence of their Black male peers, with social restrictions limiting them for to reproduction while, “liberating” them from traditional views on womenhood to extract more labor from them. On this bedrock would form the American family structure, in which at the center was a monogamous relationship around which the marginalized other would do the domestic maintenance, with land, titles and slaves as property giving it social legitimacy. But slaves were not allowed anything close to a family structure, for slave masters feared rebellion occurring when their, “property” congregated, and Black women had to facilitate rebellion covertly and in isolation from Black men and even their children,
The American brand of slavery strove toward a rigidified disorganization in family, just as it had to proscribe all potential social structures within which black people might forge a collective and conscious existence. Mothers and fathers were brutally separated; children, when they became of age, were branded and frequently severed from their mothers. That the mother was “the only legitimate parent of her child” did not therefore mean that she was even permitted to guide it to maturity…
Where families were allowed to thrive, they were, for the most part, external fabrications serving the designs of an avaricious, profit-seeking slaveholder.
The strong hand of the slave owner dominated the Negro family, which existed at his mercy and often at his own personal instigation. An ex-slave has told of getting married on one plantation: ‘When you married, you had to jump over a broom three times (…)
The designation of the black woman as a matriarch is a cruel misnomer. It is a misnomer because it implies stable kinship structures within which the mother exercises decisive authority. It is cruel because it ignores the profound traumas the black woman must have experienced when she had to surrender her child-bearing to alien and predatory economic interests.Even the broadest construction of the matriarch concept would not render it applicable to the black slave woman. But it should not be inferred that she therefore played no significant role in the community of slaves. Her indispensable efforts to en-sure the survival of her people can hardly be contested. Even if she had done no more, her deeds would still be laudable. But her concern and struggles for physical survival, while clearly important, did not constitute her most outstanding contributions. It will be submitted that by virtue of the brutal force of circumstances, the black woman was assigned the mission of promoting the consciousness and practice of resistance.
In addition to being a more detailed historical and anthropological study into slavery than before, it tackles common assumptions of the American family, along with the many ideas around Black women’s biological traits and personalities, as, “natural” formations restricting them to social roles like providing childcare for white families. It also confronts the myth of slavery as a net benefit for Black women along with the idea a Black matriarchy in the wider Black community, which are used to explain away the then-prevalent absence of fathers in Black households as outgrowths of personal failings and behaviors as opposed to poverty and structural racism limiting the financial security of Black families compared to white families. Even with Davis’s own research poking holes in these assumptions, they were still shared by Davis’s contemporaries and adversaries, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan who drafted, “The Negro Family” in support of this myth. This myth would influence the course of social reforms after the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcom X.
Later would come the women-loving-woman (WLW), lesbian and feminist perspectives of Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and bell hooks. While each have their differences, each would expand the conversation around Black liberation to include Black women through explorations of the personal. Audre Lorde and Alice Walker would each use their creativity to give perspectives on everything from relationships, self-expression, healing from trauma and domestic violence in Walker’s The Color Purple and self-care through Lorde’s poetry and activism, while bell hooks herself would fight on multiple fronts, allying with white women like “Compulsory Heterosexuality” author Adrienne Rich in the women’s movement while fleshing out a Black perspective in the academy alongside Angela Davis. Parallel to these developments, the Combahee River Collective would form, and members like Barbara Smith, today an advocate for decriminalization of sex work, would commit to an ethos of identity politics as a place of agitation, working from the personal yet collective experiences of Black women dissatisfied with the wider woman’s movement’s upper to middle-class, white majority’s perspectives on liberation.
As much as Walker, Smith and Lorde address the woman question through personal politics, answering the Black LGBT question on matters from poverty to the AIDS epidemic would take efforts beyond even those kickstarted by Black cis lesbians. It would take homeless trans women like Marsha P. Johnson, working with the Gay Liberation Front and later Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), to tackle the violence of homelessness and policing against Black and POC LGBT people, in stark contrast to the white and increasingly middle-class dominated wings of gay activism which sympathized with policing. This wave of assimilationism, supported in part by ideological gender-essentialism from cis feminists, derailed organizing efforts for homeless LGBT people, to point of even driving radical trans women like Sylvia Rivera to suicide as writer Ehn Nothing details,
…some feminists have celebrated STAR as an early example of trans women’s participation in feminist organizing, but usually
without acknowledgement of both the history of feminism’s violence against male-assigned-at-birth gender-variant people, or how this violence played out against STAR and Sylvia in particular. While both Sylvia and Marsha noted respectful treatment by lesbians situationally (see the interview with Marsha in this zine and Duberman’s Stonewall), the growing tide of radical feminism and lesbian separatism played out violently against STAR, specifically at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day rally in Washington Square Park. Blocked from speaking and physically attacked by lesbian feminists for parodying womanhood, Sylvia stormed onto the stage, grabbed the mic, and confronted the audience for its whiteness, class privilege, and lack of concern for prisoners. As Sylvia describes it: “I had to battle my way up on stage, and literally get beaten up and punched around by people I thought were my comrades, to get to that microphone. I got to the microphone and I said my piece.” The betrayal, led by lesbian-feminist Jean O’Leary, caused Sylvia to drop out of the movement for decades and attempt suicide.
This work, borne out of the marginalization of trans women by wider society and transphobic feminists, influences not only contemporary trans activists today but also trans women of renown like Laverne Cox and Dominique Jackson. But growing media representation and public awareness of LGBT issues only does so much to dislodge structural bigotries. One particular struggle faced by Black LGBT folk then and today is reaction by conservative Black people towards respectability, assimilation and the idea that being LGBT is only a component of white culture, not of Blackness, a perspective often forwarded by anti-gay religious leaders. And as this fight rages in America, so do parallel struggles in Kenya, Ghana and other African nations where homosexuality was banned during colonization. In these nations the fights for gay rights occur along class and even tribal lines on whether to undo these colonial-era restrictions or impose them as part of a post-colonial national identity. This struggle is dramatized the movie, “Rafiki”, set in Kenya and featuring an explicit Black lesbian relationship in a homophobic town.
I bring up these contributions by Black and LGBT organizers because I want to highlight the general problem feminist movements have with using Black and LGBT struggle as a reference point for the general struggle of women. Mere comparison to, and adoption of, racism, transphobia and homophobia to the women question as if they are separate issues undercuts how one deals with the women question itself. Black women like Jones, Davis and Lorde would highlight how these problems are interlinked through charting out experiences within wider movements and fleshing out entire frameworks through historical research and writing, and it would take the efforts of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera to demonstrate some of these princples in face of intense stigmatization as trans women and sex workers. But all of this had to be done because even their most radical, white peers ignored these aspects out of indifference or, as we’ll see in Lorde’s correspondence with Mary Daly, blatant racism. But through the differences these organizers work through even within their communities and the broader left, there is a second point I want to make: trying to create a space, let alone lead a movement, for people, “like us” can be a hard, open-ended question. Establishing a movement around these traits, innate or otherwise, can rest on assumptions that everyone with them is someone you can find safety in. But the very identities you organize around aren’t immune to the forces of oppression and inequality that surrounds them, nor are they set in stone, and the sense of community one can have vary by class, disability, or the simple fact that people die eventually. To hold onto these mutable traits in face of changing material conditions risks a movement stagnating or fading away, and in the case of the women’s movement has lead to substantial exclusions of sex workers, trans individuals and even people of color as a rightward shift occurred in response to crime in the late 1970s and 80s.
This doesn’t mean that organizing as a lesbian or a Black person means that you have become the equivalent of Donald Trump or the system that spawned him. Generally, the marginalized organize in part in response to their denial of their personhood, while majoritarian politics often function to regulate and maintain spaces for its own benefit. The recent rise in right-wing politics is that of a political majority reacting to minority gains in civil rights, aided by economic downturns and the logic of scapegoating minorities as the cause of societal decline. The flip-side is that as this very issue of “Ain’t I a Woman” and the subsequent developments of feminist and lesbian movements suggest, even creating a women-only or lesbian-only space wouldn’t end the historical chapter of women’s oppression. Poverty exists in lesbian communities along with ableism and racism. Depending on how a space is structured and what labor is needed to hold it together, the enemy could be at home. And adapting the language and frameworks of racialized struggle in a project of gender or sex-based organization doesn’t disappear these problems. One only needs to examine the collapse of the Stonewall Colony in California, a gay separatist movement using ideas of indigenious identity and blood quantum to build its self-sustaining gay community, along with Lorde’s open letter to Mary Daly, herself a famous proponent of lesbian separatism and transmisogyny in the women’s movement, to see how self-determination can become toxic and even ineffective if built on racism,
When I started reading Gyn/Ecology, I was truly excited by the vision behind your words and nodded my head as you spoke in your First Passage of myth and mystification. Your words on the nature and function of the Goddess, as well as the ways in which her face has been obscured, agreed with what I myself have discovered in my searches through African myth/legend/ religion for the true nature of old female power.
So I wondered, why doesn’t Mary deal with Afrekete as an example? Why are her goddess images only white, western european, judea—christian? Where was Afrekete, Y emanje, Oyo, and Mawulisa? Where were the warrior goddesses of the Vodun, the Dahomeian Amazons and the warrior—women of Dan? Well, I thought, Mary has made a conscious decision to narrow her scope and to deal only with the ecology of western european women.
Then I came to the first three chapters of your Second Passage, and it was obvious that you were dealing with noneuropean women, but only as victims and preyers—upon each other. I began to feel my history and my mythic background distorted by the absence of any images of my foremothers in power. Your inclusion of African genital mutilation was an important and necessary piece in any consideration of female ecology, and too little has been written about it. To imply, however, that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women is to lose sight of the many varied tools of patriarchy. It is to ignore how those tools are used by women without awareness against each other.
To dismiss our Black foremothers may well be to dismiss where european women learned to love. As an African—american woman in white patriarchy, I am used to having my archetypal experience distorted and trivialized, but it is terribly painful to feel it being done by a woman whose knowledge so much touches my own.
While one would be right to look at the work of Alice Walker and the Combahee River Collective as inspirational solutions to these problems, due to them being efforts led by Black women with an intimate, materialist perspective on oppression, their advancements only go so far. While the Combahee River Collective still exists today, it is different from when Barbara Smith was a member, having an anti-sex worker and trans-exclusionary agenda and membership in contrast to Smith’s public endorsement of trans women and sex workers through her lectures and publications. Alice Walker has espoused strong anti-semitic views through her interviews and work, most egregiously in her 2017 poem “It Is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud” and her New York Times interview where she recommended the work of notorious conspiracy theorist David Duke. Her estranged daughter, Rebecca Walker, would advance a theory of third-wave feminism in contrast to her mother’s hardline second-wave perspectives, informed in part by her childhood,
Walker also had to contend with what she perceived to be her mother’s own ambivalence towards having a child. “In a poem … she compares me to various calamities that struck and impeded the lives of other women writers,” she writes. When Rebecca was in her 20s, her mother admitted she “chose” to love her. Such candour hurt. “There is no choice involved in my love for Tenzin,” Rebecca writes in Baby Love. “And if there were some secret place where I wondered and there isn’t, I would never tell him about it.”
Does she understand her mother’s ambivalence? Walker sighs. “The problems began when I did my first book and really raised the issue of dogma in feminist communities. There was a sense I was undermining her work.
“She once told me that because I am lighter-skinned than her I would be treated better, and then the divorce from my father, I think she felt betrayed by whiteness in a certain kind of way, and I represent that whiteness.”
Walker spent a lot of time negotiating the landmines in her relationship with her mother; when she got pregnant, she decided the bond had to be renegotiated or let go: “I hadn’t really come to terms with my relationship with my mother. I was really allowing myself to be wounded again and again, and it wasn’t until I got pregnant that I decided that was no longer necessary. The idea of my vulnerable, defenceless child seeing his mother destabilised by any kind of relationship forced me to stick up for myself in a way I hadn’t been able to.”
With these developments plus observations of legal reforms since the Civil Rights era, Kimberlé Crenshaw would synthesize understandings of Black women’s oppression from Davis and others with a closer look at the laws and measures passed after the protests of the 60s and 70s. With the framework of Intersectionality, she examines contemporary incidents like the experiences of immigrant women in domestic violence shelters post-reform, along with major events like Anita Hill’s publicized 1991 trial where she accused US Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harrassment. While her 1991 paper is very long (though I still recommend reading it), the core of it is expressed in this passage,
Women of color are differently situated in the economic, social, and political worlds. When reform efforts undertaken on behalf of women neglect this fact, women of color are less likely to have their needs met than women who are racially privileged. For example, counselors who provide rape crisis services to women of color report that a significant proportion of the resources allocated to them must be spent handling problems other than rape itself. Meeting these needs often places these counselors at odds with their funding agencies, which allocate funds according to standards of need that are largely white and middle-class. These uniform standards of need ignore the fact that different needs often demand different priorities in terms of resource allocation, and consequently, these standards hinder the ability of counselors to address the needs of nonwhite and poor women. A case in point: women of color occupy positions both physically and culturally marginalized within dominant society, and so information must be targeted directly to them in order to reach them. Accordingly, rape crisis must earmark more resources for basic information dissemination in communities of color than in white ones.
Intersectionality is often invoked as a bane by trans-exclusionary feminists, conservatives and even portions of the self-described, “dirtbag left”, notably online commentators like Sean P. McCarthy and Peter Coffin who characterize it as a distraction from class-based struggle. But not only that distort what she says, it represents a mere fraction of the amount of work Crenshaw does to highlight how even social reforms for the marginalized can leave many slipping through the cracks. The amount of distortions around her work in social media alone has prompted her to clarify and expand throught subsequent speeches and writings, like her article for The Baffler “Race to the Bottom” confronting the mythology of Barack Obama’s presidency and Donald Trump’s then-current one, while taking into account developments of critiques of white supremacy since the 80s,
Critics of white supremacy in the broader academy—working in the tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois and other trailblazing scholars of color—had demonstrated in various disciplinary settings just how notions of scholarly objectivity and other canons of academic professionalism served to rationalize the existing American racial order. Law’s apparent intimacy with that order, however, presented a unique site for an intellectual sit-in. And for those of us advancing critical race theory, the considerable blowback we encountered, from the legal academy to the liberal press, worked to confirm our own intuitions that the voices of mainstream civil rights advocates and liberal university administrators were effectively drowning out more urgent claims on behalf of racial justice and reparations. Without entirely meaning to, we happened upon a crack in the facade of the status quo that provided a fuller vision of a social order “caught in the act” of reforming.
What lessons might we draw from this intellectual odyssey? Chiefly, the precedent of the critical race movement’s broader public reception serves to remind the disenchanted race reformers of the post-Obama age that things have been ever thus. Consider the striking parallels between the alleged post-racial dispensation ushered in by Obama’s election and the impasse that civil rights activism met head-on in the 1980s. Barack Obama’s shattering of the glass ceiling resembles nothing so much in our civic culture as the removal of the “White Only” signs that came down in the 1970s in the last redoubts of the Jim Crow South. And like that undeniable symbolic victory, Obama’s moment of deliverance proved astonishingly short-lived. The continuing battle over racial power simply expanded to a new frontier…
In the same way that the triumph of formal equality did not signify the end of racism, President Obama’s victory did not symbolize its demise in 2008. Now that we’ve begun to live under the race-baiting rule of our first modern white-nationalist president, this point shouldn’t need belaboring. But the unfinished business represented by this sea change needs urgently to be acknowledged and addressed. The luxury of mistaking symbolic breakthroughs at the top of our political order for organized and sustained racial progress throughout is no longer on the table. Our challenge now, as it was in the 1980s, is to preclude efforts to repress the ongoing contestation over racial power. We can’t permit the legacy of post-racialist error that has helped to create the conditions for the white-nationalist risorgimento under Trump to be more of the same faux-enlightened talk of racist barriers definitively overcome. Now is hardly the time to effectively banish all talk of racial injustice to the unincorporated nether reaches of political discourse.
Crenshaw brings attention to limitations of liberal identity politics not just in their assessing material conditions but also in how the application of them through social reforms address them. During the public Anita Hill trial of 1991, she noted a difference in opinion between members of the Black community and white feminist activists. As Jones and Davis would both unearth the silenced minority of Black women through labor and slavery in their works, so would she note the silencing of Black women in discourse around sexual assault. Rather than creating a moral topology of who is most privileged and therefore, “morally bad” from on down as her critics accuse, Crenshaw’s scholarship highlights those hurt and left behind by shallow, totalizing perspectives on marginalized communities. Intersectionality suggests that our understandings of marginalization need to be done with a closer look at the details of how the marginalized actually live, and her scholarship ultimately challenges the idea of a monolithic Black community through scholarship as Lorde, hooks and Walker challenge that narrative through personal writing and critical discourse with white feminists.
This isn’t to say that Intersectionality is a magic spell that once you master, will make you a good person or a better activist. Sex workers and prison organizers alike have noted the problems in accessing issues of exploitation and oppression through the lens of the legal system as though it is neutral. Sex worker’s efforts, suppressed as they are by policing and censorship, highlight differences between stated principles of freedom of speech by the state and the enforcement of the opposite through measures of the FOSTA/SESTA bill, which is broadly said to be a bulwark against prostitution and which both Trump and Vice-President elect Kamala Harris have endorsed, but has since plunged sex workers into more dangerous conditions with the closure of websites like Backpage and the shuttering of modes of communication through criminalization, with dark implications for marginalized activists and organizers,
Congress ignored warnings from sex workers, survivors of trafficking, and sex working survivors on what the human impact of this bill would be. Subsequent community-based research proves that this bill has not only done nothing to address human trafficking,, but has pushed communities into increased vulnerability as well. Now, amidst a pandemic, when online communication is particularly important, legislators are attempting to pass more bills that amend § 230, threatening to destroy the affordances for open discourse that § 230 facilitated…
In Hacking//Hustling’s Legal Literacy Panel, Lorelei Lee points out that everyone breaks the law and that we mistakenly think that criminalization is about behavior, rather than which communities are being policed. They go on to say, “the way that information gets used against you that isn’t really cognizable in the law, but once they have your information and have you on their radar, they use that information to get more information, to follow you, to trace your contacts, and [this happens] in multiple different contexts.” We see this in predictive policing and risk-assessment technologies that are often deployed without community knowledge, consent, or understanding. These technologies are used to determine what your future behavior might be based on where you live and “perpetuate criminalization through racial and gender bias.”
Even when you are not breaking the law, characteristics about you or your behavior are used as a proxy by law enforcement and platforms. In the U.S., we see this when Black trans women are arrested on sex working charges for occupying public spaces, when condoms are used as evidence of prostitution. In India, we see this with Aadhaar, India’s unique biometric identification programming, where transgender women have limited job opportunities other than sex work, so Aadhaar uses transgender women as a proxy for whore. With the current global uprisings against the police murder of Black people across the country, we see very concretley how social media can follow us offline—sometimes with deadly consequences. Just recently, there have been reports of protesters getting arrested for organizing or even demonstrating in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Police and government agents were able to identify these protestors by tracking where they bought their clothing (one protestor in Philadelphia was tracked through Etsy, for example) and running protesters social media livestreams and photos through facial recognition algorithms.
Prison activists, through strikes, awareness campaigns and social media, have noted Harris’s own legacy of brutal prison and policing policies as a California senator, while contending with Trump’s intensification of racist anti-immigration policies inherited from the Bush and Obama administrations. Working with immigration activists, they also point to severe restrictions that prisoners have, particularly with women and their restrictions from medical care. One horrifying bit of recent news is ICE performing hysterectomies on immigrants, in an attempt to cover up incidents of sexual assault within its concentration camps. This echos past American eugenics polices which have sterilized thousands of Black and Latino people, including Black activists like Fannie Lou Hamer who would later testify to politicians and the public alike about her experiences in the Jim Crow American South,
In 1961, Fannie Lou Hamer underwent surgery to remove a small cyst in her stomach, only to find upon waking that she’d also been given a hysterectomy without her consent. According to PBS, this type of forced sterilization was so common at the time that it became referred to as a “Mississippi appendectomy,” a term coined by Hamer herself. On June 8, 1964, Hamer testified before a panel in Washington, DC, that at the North Sunflower County Hospital, “six out of the ten Negro women that go to the hospital are sterilized with the tubes tied.”
Forced sterilizations have a dark history and an equally dark present in the United States. Indiana passed the first forced sterilization law in 1907, and while they hit their peak in the 1930s and 1940s, targeting those deemed to be “criminals” and “unfit,” by the 1950s, sterilization laws started targeting welfare recipients as well.
Inspired in part by George Jackson’s biographical, “Prison Letters”, advocated for by Davis in the 60s, along with movies like Ava DuVernay’s, “13th”, prison activists highlight the dehumanizing conditions that prisoners get in the name of, “touch of crime” measures, in practice harsher on Black and Latino people than whites. Women face harsh and inhumane conditions in addition to low pay for prison labor (this year’s California wildfires were fought in part by prisoners with little to no protective equipment and little), and poor healthcare. Cis women in prison are not allowed toiletries like tampons or soap, and are at risk for recidivism due to general isolation and lack of instutional support after their sentence. Trans women are frequently misgendered and along with LGB prisoners face structural bigotry leading to murder in captivity. Kamala Harris in particular has been under fire for her record with LGBT people, including taking part in orders to deny incarcerated trans women healthcare as part of their sentence. Harris has worked to distance herself from these and other decisions by appealing to a sense of pragmatism, while making promises to do better as an elected official. But decisions like this are part of a personal history of upholding oppressive legal conditions in the face of criticism and even federal orders, the consequences of which take more than speeches to fix,
Despite a straightforward directive from the Supreme Court to identify prisoners for release over a two-year period, upholding a 2009 ruling that mandated the same action over the same timeline, the state spent the majority of that period seesawing back and forth between dubious legal filings and flagrant disregard. By early 2013, it became clear that the state had no intention to comply, leading to a series of surprisingly combative exchanges…
Harris, of course, was acting on behalf of the state’s governor, who preceded her as state AG and was notorious for his posture on this issue as well. But she might have chosen not to defy the Supreme Court. Her legal work, in particular, not only drew ire from the court—it also raised eyebrows among observers. “Defiance of the federal court order requiring the reduction of the California prisoner population is reminiscent of the Southern governors of the 1950s declaring their defiance of federal court desegregation orders,” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley Law School, told NPR at the time. “Both were misguided efforts to undermine enforcement of the Constitution.” Added Barry Krisberg, longtime president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, “The legal arguments that the state is putting forward make no sense.”
Meanwhile, The Atlantic was even more unsparing of Harris’s behavior in the case, writing that her “court filings are largely void of dispositive facts and unworthy of a first-year associate, much less the chief lawyer of our nation’s most populous state.” According to writer Andrew Cohen, Harris’s behavior may have even put her in breach of California’s legal and ethical standards, which forbid filing a motion “for an improper purpose, such as to harass or cause unnecessary delay.”
Even years of advocacy for domestic violence survivors has not stopped women from being punished disproportionately, facing jail-time and death penalties even for self-defense. This was the case for Aileen Wuornos, whose status as a sex worker and a lesbian drew ire from the right and sensationalism from the media but little material support from respectable feminist or LGBT organizations. And she would not be alone in having to face stigma and social exclusion to death, with trans women facing untold amounts of violence worldwide, particularly in Brazil and the U.S.. With these burgeoning structures upholding carcerialism as the solution to social problems, activists like @jaybeware take to Twitter, often at risk of being banned, to highlight the cruelty of prisons while supporting letter writing campaigns and strikes, advocating for incarcerated people’s rights, and arguing for the abolition of prisons, with an explicit Marxist politics elaborated there and through the podcast, “Millennials Are Killing Capitalism”, which he co-hosts.
Through advocacy and testimony, organizers past and present brush up against the very intense surveillance and methods of suppression which seen at anti-police uprisings in the U.S., Britain and Nigeria, and as people fighting against police brutality link it to race and class, so do sex workers and prison activists link their criminalization link their struggles to the wider fight against misogyny. But despite their links to reproductive justice, sex workers and prisoners are often left on their own, isolated and even excluded from discourse around violence against women as if they are separate or irrelevant topics. Thus the radical actions of Black activists and allies have pushed discourse towards challenging the legitimacy of the state while exposing the weaknesses of social reforms with a fervor unseen since the 1960s. In addressing the Black woman question, the protests and dedications for Black women like Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor show that the police, far from being a protector of women as, “tough on crime” advocates would claim, victimizes Black women and women of color. Prison activists and sex workers have been fighting from the sidelines to highlight this violence against other criminalized women as well, using organizational tactics on the street along with social media to criticize the state’s tendency to disappear social problems through prohibition and solitary confinement. In turn, they advocate for decriminalization and rehabilitative social programs in place of jails and probation.
As organizers challenge the state on police violence, which has been used enforces the restrictions on abortion rights in right wing states around the world, there’s still an open the question of how to cultivate spaces for self-care and community. Mutual aid efforts have flourished since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, already existing in part due to growing homeowner/healthcare needs in worsening economic conditions since the 2008 recession. But even in countries with state healthcare like Britain, trans people still have to take to crowdfunding campaigns to get their needs meet, facing poverty and hostile living conditions otherwise. Members of the LGBT community since the 60s have taken it upon themselves to do communal housing and living arrangements, where other LGBT people can live together and share expenses. This effort can mean a huge difference for lesbians and trans women who are overwhelmingly represented in homelessness and murder statistics worldwide.
But even if your intentions are pure, engaging in a collective housing project means directly confronting biases in addition to accessibility and labor in living spaces. As observed with the earlier commentary about the wider women’s movement and childcare in the first part of this essay, these matters can’t just be brushed aside with rhetoric of unity or kicked down the road until a revolution happens. There are practical questions of who will be assigned what tasks, when to rotate, house meetings, budgeting, descalation and other matters, which can brush up against prejudices. Unresolved, these prejudices can cause a collective to splinter, stagnate or collapse break down. The Stonewall Colony began as a project which welcomed the marginalized, but had the problem of a mostly-white cadre fetishizing the very decolonial struggles it took inspiration from, thus reproducing colonalist logics (the name says it all, doesn’t it?) like other American radical movements throughout the 60s and 70s.
Likewise, public slogans like, “Trans women are women” or, “Immigrants are welcome here!” are good counters to transmisogyny and white supremacy, but the day-to-day realities of living with others, on top of the prejudices that can exist in even the most outwardly welcoming of spaces, have to be resolved for these spaces to be sustainable long-term. Assigning household tasks has to be done with a sensitivity towards each housemate’s skills and limitations, while also being sure not to silo or overload any one person with all of the work. This can be a flexible, long period of constant re-negotiation even in a principled, radical household, so flexible that even people have voiced disagreements with Sarah Schulmann on the grounds of her not being a psychologist,
The problem with Sarah Schulman’s work ‘Conflict is Not Abuse’ is she doesn’t have a background in any sociological or psychological field and hasn’t researched or interviewed people who know how humans socialise and interact, especially in regards to the in-group and out-group theories.
She does raise some interesting perspectives in the work, yet it really needs to be read as her lay subjective perspective on the topic and not as ‘the truth’ as she wants us to believe.
That’s the entire post. Please don’t harass that author (their Medium page is dead anyway). Leave the cyber-bullying to me.
Firstly, does one need to be a doctor to learn how to run a house meeting? These fields have a spotty record with antiblackness and homophobia, to give just two examples, and their observations reverberate through law for better and worse. A federal court in the U.S. just upheld conversion therapy as a free-speech issue in the face of evidence of it leading to depression and suicide in LGBT youth,
Grant, who authored the opinion, found that the bans restrict speech on the basis of content and viewpoint, triggering strict scrutiny. Thus, the laws must be “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest.”
Grant then announced that shielding LGBTQ minors from “conversion therapy” is not a compelling interest under the First Amendment. Boca Raton, Palm Beach County, and multiple advocacy groups provided the court with studies documenting the harm that “conversion therapy” inflicts on children. Grant rejected this evidence as speculative. “When examined closely,” she wrote, “these documents offer assertions rather than evidence,” citing a “lack of empirical studies.” Grant concluded that America’s medical associations were really trying to impose their own pro-LGBTQ views on counselors, writing that “professional societies’ opposition to speech” cannot justify “censorship” of anti-LGBTQ therapists.
But as awful as this decision is, conversion therapy has origins in legitimized forms of therapy, specifically from Applied Behavior Analysis with autistic children. This line of therapy has been criticized by autistic advocates not just for itsorigins in Nazi ideology but also for fostering the same conditions of abuse you see dramatized in media like, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and, “Girl Interrupted”. Simply looking to science as a guide for a better, more efficient society is naive at best, at worst leads one to advocate for outright genocide instead of fixing the very structures that condemn millions to poverty. Science isn’t immune to the very societies one fallaciously says they’re here to, “guide”, and can reinforce biases which are then codified into law under industrial society. Say what you will about Foucault’s historical cherry-picking, at least he makes the observation that science and law don’t come from the peak of Mount Sinai, but develop with society for specific uses and, as the main argument of History of Sexuality goes, with specific agendas of reproduction and restriction. This isn’t to say that science is just something that works if only we believe in it enough, like Tinkerbell’s fairy dust. But this viewpoint people hold of law and science as edicts from which all progress and society flow is a road which leads to atrocities if one ignores the very humanities that medium post dismisses.
If there are legitimate flaws with Schulman’s, “conflict is not abuse”, its that of having too broad of a framework around conflict to concretely deal with matters of racism and sexism. In this regard one could read Schulman’s plea as a condescending bit of advice to cool down a bit. But that doesn’t we should consider the ways we may or may not be working with our peers in good faith. Its true that LGBT relationships and scenes can be messy, but keeping a community alive demands dedication and a baseline of reciprocity along with solidarity and guiding principles. As Lorde laid out the particulars of intimate spaces in her writing, so Schulman tries to do within communities. Given that our knowledge of human behavior and societies are still developing, one can’t fault these authors for not having the most air-tight prescriptions on how to behave around people.
But with these interpersonal concerns in the household, there are other practical matters blurring the lines between community and households. With a growing eviction and foreclosure crisis due to a lack of stimulus and a depreciation of social programs under neoliberal states, what would be effective support from Mutual Aid and co-housing can be dwarfed by growing expenses and worsening circumstances. The effects of climate change and weakened environmental have already begun to devastate homes in Latin America, most notably with the destruction of the Amazon in Bolsonaro’s Brazil for short-term American and domestic economic interests. Worse, as seen in the sex worker’s struggle since FOSTA/SESTA, not everyone is allowed to get the benefits that would come from simply asking for help from social media, with some getting outright banned or subject to harassment campaigns which limits their reach. No gay household is an island. Conditions like these push many beyond the comforts of social circles into mass protests and strikes, with quite a few taking a further step of joining or creating an organization to sustain the energy around community issues.
Having an organizational structure is only part of how to fight these problems head on. Examining the history of organizing within LGBT communities sometimes shows that victory can be a matter of simply having enough people on your side to overwhelm the opposition. But no one tactic or even structure works for every situation. While it is said that organizational structures are needed for strikes to be successful, assuming the terms of success have been properly defined, treating people well and responding to their needs is as important in an org as it would be among roommates, despite the degrees of separation which magnify as organizations get larger. The dissolution of the ISO (International Socialist Organization) in response to a growing scandal where members were sexually assaulted and leaders colluded to sweep these incidents under the rug while protecting perpetrators, is an ugly example of how not to address problems within one’s ranks while fighting for a common good,
Why did the ISO implode so quickly, especially when the new leadership took many of the right steps to deal with the grenade that was dropped in their laps?
The ousting of the SC old guard was years in the making. Rising frustration, anger, and resentment at all levels of the organization finally boiled over and ISO members looked forward to something of a fresh start and a new way of doing things coming out of the February convention. Instead they were forced to deal with the worst scandal in the group’s history — a shocking rape and six-year-long cover up perpetrated by the members of the new SC from two out of three reform platforms…
The 2013 SC’s cover-up was the straw that broke the ISO’s back but it was objective conditions — principally the rise of #MeToo and the rebirth of the American socialist movement inside the “graveyard of social movements” i.e. the Democratic Party — that caused the ISO’s membership to question and eventually reject old methods, old habits, and old leaders. Reforming the way the Steering Committee was chosen allowed Joe Richard to ascend to the top of the ISO which in turn triggered someone to blow the whistle on him. People quit in droves when the new and improved ISO — more democratic, more outward, more struggle-oriented— quickly turned out to be steeped in scandal and iniquity.
Ideology can only mask structural problems for so long before trust is eroded, and can undo an organization before it even begins to address how to restructure society for the common good. But even if one has solid methods of accountability with zero-tolerance for sexual assault and bigotry, outside the organization are pressing matters of pragmatism along with long-term goals. The many differences and failures of multiple Black-led organizations, some taking paths of street action and mutual aid while others pursue electorialism and social reform, demonstrates how even movements united around tragedy and material conditions can drift,
Let it be said clearly: the George Floyd Rebellion is the new criterion to which all theories and politics must be held to account. Not to tenure demands, not to academic journals, not to a community of so-called scholars, but the fire and heat of the proletarian struggle. They must answer to the demands of riots, strikes, occupations, blockades, insurrections, war, and revolution. And in this regard, it must be admitted that the results have so far been a disaster. Black Marxism, Afro-pessimism, Black Anarchism, and Black Feminism have all been put to the test in this uprising, and all have failed. These theories have had little to no meaningful impact on the Black proletariat. In certain cases, they have even enhanced their careers by lending their voice to counter-insurgent NGOs who are only too happy to pay an honorarium…
The Black proletariat faces job competition, housing competition, and the struggle for other scarce resources against other proletarians. The respective middle classes promise to secure these goodies as long as Black proletarians continue to vote for Black politicians, Latinx proletarians vote for Latinx politicians, and so on. Although this logic is a dead end for proletarian multi-racial solidarity, it serves short term aims that are often difficult to ignore for dispossessed folks. In this way, the fragile unity forged in moments of revolt are dissolved back into the separated social relationships of everyday life. Proletarians occasionally build solidarity with each other on a daily level, but on the whole they lack the mechanisms or institutions in racial capitalism to develop this unity. This is why attacks on the infrastructure of capitalism are so key and why new spaces of social reproduction are vital.
Addressing these problems, within and beyond one’s identity, takes resilience, compassion, accountability and even vulnerability. To survive and do good in these times takes more than just expressing the most radical politics or being among the most politically pure. Ultimately, relying on either without significant and flexible organizational tactics risks stagnation or being co-opted away from addressing the problems of your community into being a mere spokesperson as your community is devastated. As it turns out, moving between the spaces of self-care, community involvement, and mass struggle for reproductive rights is a lot more complicated than assessing whether one is a part of the least-threatening demographic, and building a politics around it.
All of this isn’t to say that organizing as a lesbian is inherently bad. Nor are having a pro-Black politics ineffectual because people disagree, or that talking about your problems as an LGBT person or a person of color distracts from big issues like poverty. Keeping class consciousness at the forefront is one thing, but to ignore how oppression is codified and even broadly supported through sexism, racism and queerphobia would mean ignoring whole swaths of history as irrelevant, undercutting your own efforts at organizing in the real world. At the same time, history is littered with the remains of prior organizing efforts to these problems rooted in the personal, even those which lead to Rode v. Wade or center women. That some of these efforts have burned out or faded away while the victories gained by them are at risk of being reversed doesn’t mean we should ignore taking the forms oppression takes. Instead the current situation demands a wide, critical historical perspective synthesizing these lessons of the past with an eye towards the future.
Within the current reaction against reproductive rights and the subsequent one against LGBT rights, there’s a layer of entitlement to the labor of an Other which permeates the conservative imagination around childcare. Amy Coney Barrett was pushed for nomination into the Supreme Court with the goal of dealing a death blow to a decades-old court decision for abortion rights, serving a general agenda towards regulating womanhood and disappearing everyone else who doesn’t fit these regulations. On this, the far-right under Bolsonaro, Orbán and other international far-right leaders is taking direct inspiration from the U.S.. But the women’s movement persists because even with the fierce organization and victories of the left, there are still unanswered questions around women’s contributions to not just these movements but also their rights. There have been earlier efforts to answer the woman question on a systemic level, from the efforts of the Suffragetes with Susan B. Anthony after the abolition of slavery, to those of educated thinkers like Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kolontai, both of whom would work directly with Valdimir Lenin to craft the post-revolution USSR. But it would take Black women speaking up for themselves while joining organizations like the CPUSA to expose the shallowness of contemporary assumptions around women’s labor, while adding their specific, contemporary struggles as Black women to highlight how class oppression is broadly supported and justified with racism.
Such work, further propelled by the efforts of Black women like Jones and Davis, would form an important backbone of Black women’s resistance further in the 20th Century, and would create significant advances and political projects even as their support by the white majority women’s movement ranged from tentative to exclusionary. While highlighting the specific oppression of women is important when it comes to fighting for Rode v. Wade and reproductive healthcare worldwide, sidelining the realities of Black people, people of color and LGBT communities in favor of a general narrative around women’s oppression does a disservice to everyone in the end. As Black women and LGBT organizers have highlighted for decades, what are nightmare scenarios for the progressive minority of whites is a living reality for the majority of everyone else, and abortion rights are shaped around this. Around Black’s people’s colonization and LGBT people’s exclusion from everyday life are vast structures around work, family, class, laws and even who deserves to live or die. These structure were in place during the AIDS epidemic under Reagan, justifying leaving millions to die of what was deemed a, “punishment” for homosexual behavior, and are currently in place during the COVID-19 pandemic under Trump’s America and Bolsonaro’s Brazil. But having effective politics for reproductive rights takes more than simply naming yourself after mythical images of Black people’s struggle. And active solidarity means you can never rest on the political purity of your peers or your space as long as structural problems exist.
Highlighting the ethos of second-wave feminist works like, “Ain’t I A Woman”, and the developments around them, exposes an important gap around how people organize around work, specifically women’s work, and what that means for the right to have an abortion. It demonstrates that this work isn’t intrinsic, but rather a consequence of a wider society consigning an entire group of people to a specific type of work. It only seems natural because we don’t see the structures which hold it up and the paths that lead to it. But because it wasn’t discussed with this detail and perspective beforehand, the results within second-wave feminist works like, “Ain’t I A Woman” can raw and pointed, yet limited and show weaknesses in how one organizes around the idea of sex/gender-based oppression. There is also the additional danger of the expressed sentiments therein, like treating male children as calcified vectors of sex-based oppression and behavior. The germ of assumptions like these has unfortunately served as a bedrock for a later turn towards gender essentialism and transphobia within the women’s movement, and the consequences of this breakdown are still with us today. They affect how activists and organizers face contemporary problems like an overwhelmingly right-wing supreme court, or the mass transfer of wealth away from the masses to the wealthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, by turning the gaze away from the structures behind these problems towards ideas of the innateness of their participants. This combined with efforts towards representation of women in high places instead of advocacy for structural changes has sidelined community agitation and further defanged already declining radical politics. If there’s proof that having a woman in a high office does not mean positive change for all women, Amy Coney Barrett is it. Likewise, Black-led movements have had to face their own reckonings through general membership and directions from revolution to reformism for centuries since slave uprisings from the Americas and Britain to colonized Africa and the West Indies. Through decolonial struggles, interpersonal dynamics and reckoning with prejudices prove to be just as important in households as they are in leading marches and drafting revolutionary social programs. And without material support and programs for their cadre, principled Black organizers struggle to face the very real and pragmatic needs of their communities.
Even with these problems, examining historical contexts of women’s organizing like what we see archived in JSTOR illuminates hard questions about how to organize around contemporary issues. It can expose our natural assumptions around common good as those which should be clarified or discarded, as much as some of these sentiments may fall into radical politics of the past and present. Working through these contradictions within your own spaces, online or offline, can do more good than just simply plucking out historical moments to confirm to your biases, as white supremacists do whether protesting Black Lives Matter or getting elected President. Even with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in office, the resistance will need to go on for even longer than it has under Trump. If Biden chooses not to readjust the very structure of the courts in response to Trump’s appointments in a bid for peace with a hostile right, and if current catastrophes by war, austerity, anti-immigration policies and evironmental devastation continue, activism will need more than just faith in our institutions. Fighting for reproductive rights and ensuring that our victories are permanent means fighting for more than new leaders, it means fighting for a new society with a new bottom line.
Special thanks goes to my supporters on Patreon and my girlfriend for not only looking over this essay, but giving encouragement and constructive feedback. I hope this series has given you a lot to think about. Thank you for reading.
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