From One Survivor to Another

April 25, 2012

Why feminism hasn’t taken on disability issues yet

1. Mainstream feminism hasn’t even accepted race as a factor for analysis yet.

We are still having race problems; the Slutwalk sign fiasco is notable. Mainstream feminists like Naomi Wolf and Jessica Valenti getting away with barely mentioning intersectionality (or non-white authors) in their work is another. Or, you can just open up the pages of Ms. Magazine and see how very white it is. When Women of Color are mentioned, we are tokenized or have colonial and racist ideas projected onto us. Two decades ago, Elizabeth Spelman’s Inessential Woman critiqued mainstream feminism for hoisting sexism over all other oppressions, and even suggesting that it was the “root” or precursor to all other oppression. That was in 1988, and people still think this is the truth.

If feminism can’t even handle racism against Black people— a racism that has been consistently studied and tracked, and which has an overarching narrative in the West, then it’s no surprise that it can’t handle disability, which has no overarching narrative and which has only come to public awareness and study in recent decades. Feminism can barely handle a rigorous analysis of oppression against Latin@, Asian, and Middle Eastern peoples as they intersect with sexism. Even fewer people have questioned colonialism or even know what it is; one example of this is how there are still white feminists out there who see the hijab as something “oppressive” and Muslim women as people in need of their “rescue”.

2. Mainstream feminism has not accepted class as a factor either. 

In fact, it has an investment in ignoring class analysis. 

The commodification of feminism has turned it into middle class, white women’s activism. This is why talks about contraception and abortion focus exclusively on “rights”, without much discussion on being able to actually afford those rights (for more on this, see Andrea Smith’s Conquest). This is why there is almost no push for food stamps and other welfare programs in mainstream feminism, despite study after study showing how poverty has disproportionately affected Women of Color and their children. If mainstream feminism was concerned about class, it would be pushing to free the disproportionate number of imprisoned Women of Color, or finding ways to fund and support survivors of domestic abuse and sexual abuse, with specific emphasis on more marginalized groups. Instead, these fronts are conspicuously silent.

With the commodification of feminism, white feminists have written about the dangers of sexism without ever having to question their own privilege and how that protects them from many of the things WoC have to deal with. Some of them have even gone as far as to piggyback on the work of other Women of Color, using their ideas verbatim without credit, and profiting hugely from it. Mainstream media publications like Jezebel will question sexism while simultaneously refusing to “believe in” trigger warnings. Others like Shakesville talk about how women are not “crazy” without ever questioning why “crazy” is a bad thing to be called in the first place.

3. Mainstream feminism is still invested in the gender binary.

Full stop. Many prominent feminists are still openly transmisogynistic. Others still have the idea that biology is destiny. If feminism can’t get past an either-or western dualism, then it definitely can’t handle intersectional analysis of disability, which often does not present clear choices.

4. Mainstream feminism is not teaching history in a critical way.

Women’s Studies as a whole is still dominated by a white, middle-class, thin, able-bodied, neurotypical, and cisgender analysis. The majority of WST students also fall into this worldview. These students (and casual feminists) are never taught about the racism, cissexism, and heterosexism throughout the history of feminism, much less “privilege” as a concept. Reading lists are still overwhemingly white and middle class— many of these students haven’t even heard the word “intersectional”.

The wave model for feminism is also problematic, in that it prizes physical activism— activism that was only possible for (educated) white women who did not have children, or who had enough money to get someone else (read: Women of Color) to take care of their kids for them. This capitalistic model of success and failure completely ignores analysis, thought, and the mundane but necessary background work that made these things possible. It also prizes a western-centric historical view without acknowledging work done by others.

5. Disability, unlike other oppressions, lacks unifying factors.

There is no underlying dynamic which influences all disability experiences. Disabled people themselves are split along lines of class, race, gender expression, and sexuality. Even the other, “less complicated” axes like race and class are still infinitely complex. But disability is a huge range of experience that even disabled people don’t understand completely. You could be disabled in one way but never understand how another person with a disability experiences the world.

On the outside, ableism is regularly joked about as a non-existent axis of oppression, while inside, we form our own disability hierarchies and try to judge who has a “legitimate” disability and who doesn’t. A middle class white, cisgender woman with a disability experiences a very different reality from a poor Black trans woman with a disability. We have also been raised to believe that things like race and gender take priority over other identities.

In mainstream feminism, where an individualistic, capitalistic, success-based ideology is touted as the way to go, there is no room for people who literally cannot work. There’s no room for disability when women— that is, able-bodied and neurotypical white women— are supposed to be succeeding in the same way that men do. 

My Conclusion: If you are a person who deals with disability issues, don’t rely on feminism for it. It’s not going to happen for a long time.

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