The cultural historian on the rhetoric of freedom, bossy white women, and the prospects of beating patriarchy by 2040.
Image courtesy PalFest
“As a white, educated, American woman from a middle-class family, I have not suffered the horrors of overt, brutal misogyny. I was never subjected to genital mutilation or sold to a man as his wife or sex slave.” So begins Siri Hustvedt’s essay in the just-published compilation Fifty Shades of Feminism. How do you read those lines? Are they the self-effacement of a woman aware of her own privilege? Or are they a straightforward expression of sisterhood across borders? I confess I read that opening with a slight grimace—one that might not have been there if I hadn’t just digested Sayantani DasGupta’s preceding discussion of “the imperialist use of women’s oppression as justification for political aggression” and how “feminism itself has been used as a weapon against women of the global South.” I suspect, however, that the three editors of the new book would be entirely delighted to know that my thoughts tangled up as I read and re-read the essays.
The project developed in part as a reaction to E. L. James’s stratospherically popular series, which hit the market roughly a half-century after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, and in short order sold more than 70 million copies of a reductionist fantasy. Psychotherapist Susie Orbach told me that the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon echoes a growing—and worrying—essentialism that colors conversations about women. As an antidote, Orbach and Lisa Appignanesi, the former president of PEN English, proposed bringing together multiple voices, stepping away from fantasy and into the complex range of women’s lived experiences. Together with the biographer Rachel Holmes, they managed in the space of weeks to assemble fifty essays by women from different nations, generations, and professions on the particular gradients of feminism that inspire them.
The resulting book is, unsurprisingly, an assorted mix, including Lydia Cacho, Elif Shafak, Jeanette Winterson, Xinran, Ahdaf Soueif, and Shami Chakrabarti. But there are several threads that weave their way in and out from start to finish—the dominant one being women’s relationship to the word “feminism.”
Which other threads catch your eye will probably say much about the particular shade of feminism you’re living with or reacting against. So likely it’s because I’m a Pakistani feminist living in London in 2013 that I was so struck by the number of contributors—Hustvedt is by no means alone—who make reference to the lives of their less fortunate sisters in other demographics. It’s hard to imagine a book about class privilege in which working-class men and women in the UK feel the need to temper their discussions of prejudice with the caveat that it would be worse if they were an eight-year-old in a carpet factory in Afghanistan, or a book on race in the U.S. that continually gestures toward the greater discrimination faced by blacks in apartheid South Africa. And yet, over and over, women (primarily white and living in the west) refer to those who have it worse or, relatedly, say they are living in the best possible place and time to be a woman. It that Sisterhood or Imperialism, or both?
In mid-February, I sat down with Orbach, Appignanesi and Holmes, in a squeezed space of time between planes, trains, and professional commitments to discuss their new book, the freighted meanings attached to the F-word and how its western iterations resonate around the globe. While Appignanesi spoke of her refusal to accept that national borders should prevent women from communicating injustices to one another, Orbach admitted, “It’s hard to position yourself so that you’re not carrying a colonial message.” While elements of this exchange are tinged by the old West and the Rest dilemma, Holmes noted that for the first time in history we have “a situation where the language of feminism is being appropriated to fights wars.” Our conversation, around Orbach’s dining table in London, felt like a beginning, and so a few weeks later Holmes and I picked up the “western feminist” thread over Skype while we were both in the countries of our upbringing, South Africa and Pakistan, respectively.
—Kamila Shamsie for Guernica
Guernica: In Pakistan, there are women who would absolutely define themselves as feminists but who would roll their eyes at the term “western feminism” because to them it represents two things. One is the Western idea that they—the Other—need to be saved, and two is Western feminism’s ties to Imperialism, which has a long history.
Rachel Holmes: We’re talking about Suffragism now.
Guernica: Yes. Go back a hundred years and you see that when the First World War starts, some Suffragettes are pacifists but others are completely gung-ho about the war. Suffragette magazine is suspended at the start of the war, and six to eight months later relaunched with the new title Britannia. You can’t get more Empire than that! You have that a century ago and then you have Laura Bush and Cherie Blair using a certain kind of language of feminism to defend the war in Afghanistan. There you see an overt political agenda, but even if you talk to women whose husbands aren’t running a country you’ll often encounter an attitude of “of course invasion is bad, but we have to liberate the women,” or “look, the women are so much better off as a result.”
In order to defend our oil rights we’re going to have a discussion about the hijab.
Rachel Holmes: We have a very particular problem in this historical moment. We have never before had a situation where the right-wing military of the world’s superpower is going around the world saying we are bringing feminism to liberate you; we’re doing this so you can have women’s basketball teams in Kabul. We have for the first time a situation where the language of feminism is being appropriated to fight wars. In order to defend our oil rights we’re going to have a discussion about the hijab.
Guernica: So what does feminism do? Does it enter a situation of relativism where it says, oh that’s a different world, we’ll just concern ourselves with our own turf, or does it engage with other places, and if so, how?
Rachel Holmes: There are middle-class women who grew up in Europe or the U.S. which, as Doris Lessing would say, ideologically indoctrinated them in elite universities to believe that the west implicitly led the world in progressiveness, even if in a rather tragically flawed way. (But hey, with basic liberal-democratic good intentions.) These are women who act or acted out the final and last phases of what Africans with amused indulgence define as the umlungu auntie complex: bossy white women engaging with black and brown women in the imperative, rather than the questioning and inquisitorial. Mostly they don’t recognize their insensitivity and political confusion. Due to a combination of European parochial cultural ignorance combined with the fact that under western capitalist patriarchy they are themselves second-class citizens, they misrecognize their own power—just like black and brown men misrecognize the imbalance between their powers as colonized or racialized subjects as excusing them from perpetuating oppressive patriarchy.
But if you listen and watch carefully, you will see extremely quickly that this kind of woman is a marked tendency of the post-war generation born in specific parts of Europe and the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s.
North American and Western European cultures are empires in subsidence, caught between the death and decline of the old ways and the emergence of the new.
Guernica: So this is all tied to Anglo-European empires, which had their last hurrah in that time period?
Rachel Holmes: Right. Women born and growing up during the post-colonial era of the 1960s and 1970s respond in a different way because we came to childhood consciousness during the period of decolonization. By the time we got to universities, the concept of the world was being grappled with through postcolonialism, all entwined with economics, politics, and culture, not to mention sexuality.
Guernica: That’s the generation both you and I are part of, but what about the generation that followed—the women now entering their 30s?
Rachel Holmes: “Western feminism,” like “postcolonialism,” is to this generation a feature of the historical past and caught up in the behavior of their well-meaning but slightly out-of-date parents who walk the world in old-fashioned shoes—as parents inevitably do.
Guernica: I take your point on post-colonialism, but I’m not sure today’s twentysomething in London or New York has really moved that far from the parochialism which you describe as being part of the 40s and 50s generation.
Rachel Holmes: I don’t think we should worry unduly about the parochialism of New York and London—this will change once the current cultural guardians of old media (print media, scheduled television, and radio programming) give way to the new. In less than ten years, the production of cultural and critical and artistic and political opinion is going to look, sound, and feel very different—and it’s isn’t going to be dominated by the liberal bulwarks of the current dominant broadcasting and print media leaders in either Britain or the U.S. any more. My northern-hemisphere sisters say I’m overly optimistic about this, but I think if you live in Africa or the Middle East—for example—the emerging pattern of media looks very different.
For my students in South Africa or the Middle East born from the beginning of the 1990s, North American and Western European cultures are empires in subsidence, caught between the death and decline of the old ways and the emergence of the new. They’re simply not imagined as the center of anything, just another part of the conversation, and a part that often needs to catch up.
Guernica: Which brings us back to the end of Empire—not just that of the British and European empires, but also the decline of America, which many of us believe we’re now witnessing.
Rachel Holmes: I hope you mean the decline of a particular phase of America’s history rather than decline of America generally. I would be miserable to think of America as in a terminal decline. It’s the oldest attempt at republican democracy in the world and truly a nation built on the work of immigrants and new opportunity, so I like to think that America will emerge into a new future.
What we’re hearing in what’s left of bossy western feminism is the wagging tail of a dead dog (a bitch, in this case).
Western feminists express anxiety about whether they can “express” or “articulate” what they believe. They frame this as a crisis of liberalism or freedom of expression, but actually it isn’t. It’s just the effect of learning to live the difference rather than express toleration for it from a distance, and to learn the new language of global politics and culture where America and Europe are no longer the center of the known, progressive world.
I guess it must be scary for some people used to thinking of themselves as the center of what is fast becoming the old world, now in terminal decline and fall. It’s much less scary for those of us brought up on what we constantly had banged into our heads were the peripheries. But now we have the upside of never having the handicap of experiencing this center of the known world privilege, and we don’t have the problem of unlearning or unfeeling it.
So I think “western feminism” and “postcolonialism” are epochs that are now past that we can learn from, but not mistake as still dominant, unless we make them so by continuing to invoke them. What we’re hearing in what’s left of bossy western feminism is the wagging tail of a dead dog (a bitch, in this case)—or what Raymond Williams called the residual.
Late capitalism seems to have made us believe we can have it all, without giving up on anything… I don’t believe people born after the economic downturn of the first decade of the twenty-first century now fueling a global recession will be prey to this fantasy.
But notice the big old banana slip that I’ve allowed to happen in my reflection on your question. When I hear “western,” I think of the Obamas, I think of Condi Rice, Alice Walker, Zadie Smith, Patricia Scotland, Shami Chakrabarti, Rosa Parks, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Jackie Kay. I think of the western feminist thinkers who shaped me intellectually: Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Gayatri Spivak. I think Zeinab Badawi and Christiane Amanpour. But I often suspect that when feminist women say “western” in the context you’re talking about it’s a politically polite, middle-class-media-popular-intellectual way of meaning or implying “white.” So it slips a race category in under the guise of a geopolitical, economic, and cultural construct, and muddles up categories that are in fact separate—itself a classic liberal move. It’s about differences between and among the attitudes and voices of white, brown, and black women—and I mean, in Fanon’s way—white, brown, and black on the inside, not just the outside. We should name it, and not hide behind nice, well-educated, middle-class (people like me still call them bourgeois!) manners. Also, I know middle-class western feminists who are black on the outside but white on the inside—and vice versa. We don’t talk enough about this in the north, but we talk about it in South Africa all the time. Black feminist women in South Africa are really up front categorical about which of their sisters—white or black—are white or black on the inside. You know what I mean.
Guernica: Let me be less well-mannered then, and call you on your earlier generational comments which make it sound as though things are turning sunnier by the decade. We’ve moved from the Empire aunties to our post-colonial cousins and now we have our “exiting the parochial world” nieces. You don’t really think the world of “western” (I’m now putting quotation marks around it) feminism is on a relentless up-tempo trajectory as it moves forward through time, do you?
Rachel Holmes: Of course not. We lost fifty years of progress when we backed down from radical feminism in the mid-eighties. I am absolutely certain of that. First of all, that (politically disastrous) backing down was tied to the general decline of the left in the west, the unraveling of confidence in experiments in socialist economies and—in short—the rise of the world victory of late twentieth-century global capitalism.
More specifically to feminists ourselves, perhaps we weren’t ready or prepared for the fight that was needed: it was too scary, too demanding, required too much of us. Couldn’t there, perhaps, be a way that we could have our cake, eat it, and not get fat? Elaine Showalter (white, western feminist) reminds us in this collection that “having it all” was never among the personal goals of feminist thought, any more than it was promised by other social revolutions. Late capitalism seems to have made us believe we can have it all, without giving up on anything, especially the gratification of our own success and happiness and good names. I don’t believe people born after the economic downturn of the first decade of the twenty-first century now fueling a global recession will be prey to this fantasy. Economic realities won’t allow it. They’re going to have to pool resources and work together of necessity in a way that wealthier times protected us from. It’s all connected—I get really sad when we talk about feminism as if it is somehow athwart or separate from global economic, and political realities. Poverty causes suffering; it also causes greater ingenuity and imagination. People who have less to lose are braver. I suspect we’re—and by that “we,” I mean “we” the middle-class educated intelligentsia—are just a little lazy because we are more than a little spoiled by the comforts we have—our gilded cage is in many ways quite comfortable.
Educated women prove the real existence of patriarchal inequality: their sexual difference is the only difference from the other geezers in power.
Guernica: Say more about pooling resources and working together of necessity.
Rachel Holmes: If we recognized and organized ourselves, temporarily, as a global class defined as “women” and combined strategically and efficiently and seriously across continents into a political, economic, and cultural movement for a defined period of one generation, we could beat patriarchy by 2040. And just as with slavery, the decent men—sons, brothers, lovers, husbands, fathers, grandfathers—would support and fight alongside, with, for, and amongst us, seeing their own equality and emancipation as conditional upon ours. We’d have to agree to be a temporary coalition of unequal, uneasy, and very varied partners—holding a cease-fire on our many and varied differences in order to achieve defined goals. And we really have to stop waving our identity flags and badges in each other’s faces at every opportunity we have for more serious political and cultural engagement and collective action.
But I also want to put in a point of analysis that critics of white feminists on the grounds of their racial privilege need to be attentive to. Educated, ergo middle-class, white western feminists are the women who show exactly what all women are up against. Because the only barrier for a well-educated, assertive, hard working, talented, middle-class white woman is the fact that she’s a woman. All the other barriers have been removed. Let me speak about myself. I am middle-class. My father was working-class. He was a working-class Yorkshireman who left school at fourteen and ran away to sea. He was an amazing autodidact. Taught himself everything. He put absolutely everything he had into educating me. From where he was born to where I am now traverses class. My mother and father removed every barrier they could to create opportunity for me—but they could not remove the barrier of my being a girl. I know that I am as good and often better than the same man for the job; I also know that I have during my career been paid less than men doing the same job as me. And it’s not only the pay gap, but all the other gaps and that glass ceiling that gives you a bloody headache as you keep hitting your head on it over time. This is what Marx and Engels understood by the way. They said that educated women prove the real existence of patriarchal inequality: their sexual difference is the only difference from the other geezers in power.
Guernica: I’m increasingly aware of the absurdity of this situation where I’m sitting here trying to get you to talk about white, middle-class, first-world feminism when I know from previous conversations that for you the most significant feminist icon of the recent past, the one who we have the most to learn from, has come from Pakistan—I mean Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for insisting on her right, as a girl, to be educated and also for her insistence on speaking out loud and clear against the Taliban.
Rachel Holmes: We only need to look to the leadership example of Malala Yousafzai to see how gutless we are. We are bought off one by one with little privileges, small platforms, and a place with a few crumbs—perhaps even a whole muffin if we are really charming—at the existing table. Touchingly, we persuade ourselves that we can change things from within, by quiet diplomacy. Change from within, quiet diplomacy, assimilation… now where I have heard this before? Ah yes, all the classic techniques of imperialism and colonization. Go figure.
The truth is there have always been Malalas. Think of the American teenage slaves who signed up to fight for the Union. Think of the ‘76 youth generation of South Africa, fourteen-year-old girls and boys who said to their elders “enough is enough” and forced the fight against apartheid into a more radical position to secure freedom for everyone’s future. What they didn’t have that Malala and we do is the technological revolution—the digital world, internet, and social network platforms that instantaneously spread the word and connect people—that speeds up the process of global awareness so it can be listened to, thought about, discussed, debated, acted on, rallied around. Used properly and strategically, these are powerful tools for change—just as the printing press was. I think we’ve run out of excuses and must recognize our complacency for what it is.
We don’t have to like each other, or even wholly understand each other. We have to understand enough to work together despite our differences. Men worked that out centuries ago, and they’re still doing it; men created themselves as a strategic, transnational class. Patriarchy is the most successful global movement, based on a coalition of many differences, in world history. And they don’t care a damn whether they are seen as “good,” “bad,” “aggressive,” “nasty,” “confrontational,” “war-mongering”—in fact, these are positive values amongst them. They bury their differences for as long as and in all the ways that enable them to maintain economic, cultural, and social preeminence. That’s why they’re still the top dogs the world over, and we’re either fluffy puppies or bitches. Feminism needs a new international, and a newly defined, program and strategy. You want to help organize?
To contact Guernica or Rachel Holmes, please write here.