​When identity politics and feminism clash


In the Mail & Guardian on December 2 2016, Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela lamented the dilemma of her white friend’s patriarchal oppression and the lack of a “white feminist movement” to take up the struggle. This article deserves a response.

American author Betty Friedan published a book in 1963 called The Feminine Mystique, in which she raised issues similar to those Bongela’s white friend raised — the discontent among middle-class women (called the “problem with no name”) at being unable to address the patriarchal oppression of domestication and childcare. An older generation of women used “mother’s little helper” to cope with this unnamed dread, that is, Valium and other drugs. Bongela’s white friend lamented the fact that most of her friends are on antidepressants.

The publication of The Feminine Mystique is viewed as integral to the development of the second wave of feminism in North America.

The problems that Bongela’s white friend experience are therefore not new, but of course take on their unique forms in the South African context. The leisure and comfort of the white middle class may contribute, but we should not underestimate the psychological effect of guilt about white privilege in the absence of strategies to deal constructively with such privilege.

There seems to be an ahistorical understanding of the development of Western feminism, which Bongela implicitly compares with African feminism.

The radical feminism that spawned the second-wave movement has been severely criticised for essentialising identity (in this case white identity) and ignoring the intersectionality of identities (such as race, class, gender, disability and sexuality).

The essentialisation of identities leads to exclusion. In the case of North America, it led to the exclusion of the black or African-American woman’s experience.

Intersectionality became a theoretical and conceptual critique of essentialism that developed out of black feminist writings.

The use of intersectional identities has been criticised for being “additive” and for neglecting the dynamic relationship of these identities that are co-constitutive of different oppressions in relation to structural inequalities.

During the #EndRapeCulture and #FeesMustFall campaigns, young African intersectional feminists felt so strongly that their campaigns should be intersectional that they coined the slogan “our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” Yet they were often alone in their struggles, as few young white feminists participated in the topless protests and male activists seem to have abandoned women when protesting about gender-based violence.

Bongela seems to formulate her ideas of identity in a hierarchical fashion — something intersectional feminists criticise highly — when she says black women are thrice removed from white men and black men twice removed, with white women not removed. She poses the question: Upon whom does a white woman exercise her power if she has no power in her home? Why is there a question of power here? Power used in this way means domination and overlooks how the intersectional dynamics of identities position us all differently in relation to power.

Another misunderstanding of feminism is to link it to individuals. Bongela names some famous white women, who would not necessarily identify as feminist. Quickly she runs out of names and surmises that white women probably do not talk about gender issues at their dinner parties. Feminism is not only an identity: it is a body of beliefs that many white women, especially in the academic world, have internalised.

Many of these white authors have contributed to the development of a significant body of feminist literature in South Africa, as have black feminist academics and other black feminists who could be called “organic intellectuals”, who are not necessarily in the academy. In the circles in which I move, gender issues most often feature at the dinner table.

And then there are other dinner tables where gender would feature as sexist jokes and remarks. The question is: What do we do about it?

Patriarchal oppression is part of every culture in South Africa. Harmful cultural practices differ and need to be understood as something that undermines the self-expression of women but also the civil liberties of everyone. Bongela’s white friend needs the support and solidarity of other women who understands this type of invisible oppression, not only white women.

Friedan said that, once women in isolated domestic situations started talking to each other, they discovered they all had the same problems. This is how consciousness-raising and solidarity works.

One solution that Bongela’s article proffers is a “white feminist movement”. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of feminist activism and movement formation, and can be linked to a younger generation of feminists’ understanding of feminism only in relation to identity, and not necessarily to its theoretical content or praxis.

It is identity politics that leads to the idea that there should be a white movement for white women and a black movement for black women.

This is a denial of coalition politics and a dangerous route to embark on because the fracturing of identities leads to racialised politics that find solutions for only one group, often to the exclusion of others. A feminist praxis demands of feminists a certain self-reflexivity, to try to understand the position of others.

I find the naming of white women as Beckys (as though we are all the same) quite disturbing. A Becky is a “spoilt, clueless, white women” as well as someone who is sexually promiscuous. This is derogative, insulting and not feminist praxis.

Older feminists, such as myself, observe these intergenerational differences and are often criticised as being conservative, or lacking understanding of younger feminists.

It may be these claims are valid. But there is a need for younger feminists to read more and engage more with feminist theory. In this regard, curriculum changes at universities that incorporate gender analyses into all courses, not only gender courses, are a necessity.

Professor Amanda Gouws is SARChI Chair in Gender Politics at the University of Stellenbosch.

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Amanda Gouws 1
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