Feminist Consciousness: Race and Class

By Amanda Martins, from Brazil

International Women’s Day – Rio, Brazil, 2019

Among the most controversial topics in feminism are the race and class questions, which have motivated many women to develop new theories that encompass multiple realities taking into account region, race, economy and sexuality. Meanwhile others simply abandon the movement because for them it is a “white middle-class” movement. I have been (and still am) studying the trajectory of countless social movements and have come to the conclusion that the stigma of feminism as “white middle-class” is a way of obscuring feminist consciousness of the existence of male supremacy and the necessity of its total destruction for women’s liberation.

There is an irrevocable fact: feminists make mistakes. Not because feminism is counter revolutionary or “white middle-class,” as some people argue, but because it is made up of human beings and human beings err. There is no perfect militant. It is impossible to create a revolutionary front believing that social movements will be therapy groups. Mistakes should not be treated as if they never existed, but rather as a learning guide for not making the same mistakes again. Some feminists haven’t cared about working-class women’s issues; some feminists haven’t taken black women’s issues as equally important as white women’s issues. This has existed until now and needs to be fixed if we really want a global union of women.

However, there’s a double standard in social movements that we need to talk about: the erasing of women’s oppression within the practice and theory of mixed movements in favor of a false camaraderie between men and women who share economic exploitation and racial oppression. This policy may be subtle or not, but it has the same goal of impeding the feminist revolution through distortions and taking away from feminism its main focus: the destruction of male supremacy.

Problems of “Inclusiveness” and Biological Determinism

Some “feminists” nowadays are more worried about inclusivity than the main goal of feminism, which is why feminism has been kidnapped by big capitalists (including pornographers and pimps) and by liberal women who believe they can do everything just because they call themselves feminists. The movement’s main policy has been falsified and distorted to appear more agreeable and “inclusive”, as just a product and an identity, thus damaging real feminists who truly struggle for the liberation of women.

Of course I want to debate and see other feminists discussing (and theorizing) class and race. After all, female oppression coexists in symbiosis with class society and white supremacy is a way of hierarchizing women. The result of all this is how racialized women, especially those in Third World countries, are disproportionately affected and exploited (I am one of them). However, my biggest problem with “inclusion” – apart from the issues I have already raised – is how in its name we are being convinced that we can (and must) support imperialist blacks and imperialist women just because they are black or woman. Inclusion without a revolutionary policy is the worst kind of reformism.

Another big problem the liberal notion of inclusivity brings to feminism is the wrong criticism that the idea that men oppress women is biological determinist or bourgeois or universalist. Based on the fallacious idea that radical feminism is biological determinist, some writers, from liberals to socialists, claim that we believe that men are violent by nature, which also makes women the victims of men, by nature. Radical feminism has always fought against the idea that there is a feminine and masculine essence. This is constantly evidenced in the works of Kathie Sarachild, Carol Hanisch, Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millett and others.

The criticism that radical feminism is biological deterministic becomes even more funny when it comes from defenders of queer theory because there is nothing more biologically deterministic than the idea that gender is in the brain. Denying the idea that women are oppressed and exploited by men is not a misconception, it is a male supremacist policy. As the Brazilian Marxist Rodrigo Silva explains:

What do they all have in common? Or rather, why do all these sectors attack radical feminism? The answer is very simple: to hold the idea of working class unity, all these theories must necessarily mean that working class men do not benefit from the women’s oppression.

So, at bottom, all these theories, if viewed from the point of view of the central polemic in feminism, are variants of liberal feminism. The difference is that instead of just advocating equality in political rights, they are also advocating on labor and social rights in general. That is, it is a struggle for equality (even if it is in socialism) not for liberation (because they would have to answer the question: to free oneself from whom?)

Dividing the Working Class and Dividing Women

One of the main goals of radical feminism is to be a mass movement, and this is impossible without policies for the emancipation of the whole working class. What radical feminists are against is the economic determinism exhibited by some socialists because the relation of capitalism to white male supremacy is very complex and needs a much better solution than the simplistic “equitable distribution of wealth.” If we can not explain the specific ways in which women are exploited and oppressed as women, we can not truly emancipate women.

That takes us to another question: Is feminism bourgeois and reformist? The history don’t show that to be true, but according to some socialists, yes. Besides feminism being counter-revolutionary, they claim it serves only to divide the men and women of the working class.

As I said above, some feminists make a lot of mistakes in regard to class. In addition to ignoring the existence of class society, many of them actually believe that the main goal of feminism is about some economically privileged women assuming positions of importance in capitalist society. But putting this forth as a fact without taking into account how capitalism appropriates all social movements is to single out feminism in a biased way.

The far-Right attacks on feminism make very explicit the danger that feminism has always represented for Right-wing policies. The backlash against feminists was brutal and reflects in the movement these days. The movement was reformulated to abandon a radical agenda and adopt a liberal and deeply individualistic one. So defining feminism as revisionist, bourgeois or liberal regardless of how the movement was attacked and manipulated is not very different from those who spread lies about communism.

A widely used argument against a union of women to destroy male supremacy is that women do not form a homogeneous category. But no group of people forms a homogeneous category. The working class has two sexes and this has never prevented militants from joining men and women into one common goal. This is a double standard: The difference between men and women in class exploitation is omitted, while differences of race and class among women are not only exalted, but used to relegate male supremacy to a merely cultural role. Male supremacy is not seen as a matrix of domination and submission but merely a prejudice, a bad attitude that men sometimes commit against women because they were taught to do it.

Although working-class men and women share class exploitation, it does not happen in the same way. The very existence of the term “female poverty” shows this. Some 70% of the world’s impoverished population are women, the majority of victims of human trafficking are female (and generally from poor countries), prostitution is composed of a mass of poor women with many illiterate, and housework is disproportionately done by women. Even with a breakthrough in the division of labor in some countries, there is still the idea that domestic work is a woman’s duty, adding more work to women.

Many argue that this is an inherent result of capitalist exploitation. I do not disagree, but not to see that this happens because capitalism coexists with male supremacy is at least a joke. The attempt to turn sex into something neutral within the working class for “proletarian union” only puts working women in big danger because racialized and poor women are oppressed not only by the capitalists, but also by the men of their classes and races. Lack of feminist consciousness leads many women in mixed movements to believe that male supremacy is secondary (or just a bad behavior of individual men) and that women should focus their efforts on oppression and exploitation shared with men. However, this gives room for misogyny to gain strength within movements that should fight against it.

Effects of the Isolation of Women

We know that there is a great deal of psychological and emotional manipulation among militants, but among women this problem is aggravated by the specific way in which we have been oppressed as women. Class society divides people between owners and workers, white supremacy segregates whites and blacks, but male supremacy does not segregate the women from men. On the contrary, it is precisely because women are not separated from men that many have great difficulty seeing themselves oppressed as women. The privilege of class and race is a primary way of maintaining the division among women: it keeps women isolated from each other.

Thus, this differentiated experience of female oppression keeps male supremacy so powerful that we need a specific analysis to drive female liberation! Even though all women are oppressed as women, not all women want the end of class society and white supremacy. As Gerda Lerner said in her revolutionary book, The Creation of Patriarchy:

In class society it is difficult for people who have some power, even if limited and restricted to something, can be seen as private and subordinate. Privileges of race and class serve to demean the woman’s ability to see herself as part of a coherent group, since women differ from all other oppressed groups, occur in all extracts of society. The formation of the group of conscious women has to proceed through different lines. This is the reason why formulations which have been appropriated by other oppressed groups, are so inadequate to explain and conceptualize the subordination of women. …

The connection of the woman with the family structure made development of women’s solidarity and cohesive groups extremely problematic. Each individual woman is attached to her male relative in her original family through links that entail specific obligations.

There is a very clear hierarchy among women and its destruction is necessary for the total emancipation of women, but this is very different from what some militants do by covering up women’s issues and replacing them with a simplistic division of women into white and black, proletarian and bourgeois. It is necessary to understand how this division happens and why and who benefits from this historic disunity among women.

The Scarecrow of the “White Middle Class”

Some people who criticize feminism for its supposed lack of approach to class and race claim that the feminist movement is universalist and bring to the debate the scarecrow of the “white middle-class.” For me, it is very strange to see people talking about class, while considering the middle class a third class, rather than workers with greater resources than the proletariat. The middle class composes a category of even more alienated workers because they truly believe that they are closer to the bourgeoisie than to the proletariat and the result is that they support anti-working class policies because they do not believe they will be affected by them.

The question of the universalism of women’s experiences in feminist analysis also needs to be harshly criticized, but we need to know what is being postulated as universalism. Women from all over the world share the experience of unpaid domestic work, sexual harassment, rape and prostitution. Exploitation and oppression do not occur in the same way for all women, of course, just as being a worker here in Brazil is a different experience of being a worker in Switzerland. Though the root of our oppressed situation is the same, the differences between the sexes, the regions, and sexuality create diverse oppressive experiences.

Again there is an almost invisible double standard in this issue when people say that the issues addressed by radical feminism are “too American” for Brazilian women like me. Radical feminism has a specific focus on how women’s reproductive work is appropriated, controlled and made invisable – and how is that not a question for Brazilian women? In Brazil, they want to ban abortion even in cases of rape! If radical feminism can not be applied in Brazil because it is “too American,” then the Black movement in the United States should also be seen as “too American” because racism is structured differently in Brazil and the U.S.

By this logic, Marxism itself could be dismissed as “white middle-class.” Each theory and analysis must respect the contexts. Since one of the most basic premises of radical feminism is to theorize based on one’s own experiences, the very criticism that radical feminism despises anti-racism and class struggle is empty. As a black Brazilian woman I can not take the American context as a guide to action here, but I can take the analyzes and insights made by people from other countries and develop a theory appropriate to my own country. This is what countless Marxists around the world have done.

Many Marxists put forth a biased class analysis to inhibit women’s efforts to overthrow male supremacy, while they understand white supremacy to be one of the most brutal ways in which black and white workers are separated and hierarchized. By failing to applying this logic to women, they promote the idea that all white women enjoy economic privileges. Conversely, while male supremacy is distorted into a merely ideological field in order to conceal and protect male supremacy within revolutionary movements, the same pattern is not applied to white supremacy. If a white woman who lives in a white supremacist society is racist, it is treated as a moral failure, that is as an individual impulse that an individual white woman has in being racist.

Also curious is that the black movement may not give a damn about black women and that is not even considered a problem. Black women who stand up against the misogyny of black men are accused of practicing the famous “white feminism”. When a black woman is also aware that her freedom depends on patriarchal chains being destroyed in all aspects, she is accused of adopting “white middle-class” policies, which shows us again how that term doesn’t make any sense.

Dividing Feminism

Plus, there is a very strong reason why I dislike the terms “white feminism,” “corporate feminism,” “liberal feminism.” This is because every mistake or revisionism suffered by feminism must not be transformed into a kind of feminism that removes the politics of movement and creates the idea that there is a feminist movement for each type of feminist. This is so serious that nowadays that there are women who call themselves feminists and are against abortion or in favor of prostitution and pornography.

The term “white feminism” is also used and manipulated by “intersectional” white women who are unwilling to take racism seriously. These women see racism as a personal fault (and this is how racism is often approached within feminism). They believe that by agreeing with everything that is said by a black woman, they will stop being racist. Racists to these women are just those white women whom they disagree with (and these accusations constantly fall into the lap of radical feminism).

There is also the idea that only feminism must embrace all the problems of our society. When the black movement makes the women’s question secondary, it is not seen as a masculinist policy because black women and black men share racial oppression. Even when they use the experiences of a black man to approach racism universally, this is not seen with the same wicked eyes as when the experiences of the white woman are placed as a guide to understand the situation of women around the world.

“Poor men act like this toward women because of capitalism,” some say. “Black men do so because of racism,” say others, but few of them think of bringing women’s issues into class or race theories. Just as “gender inequality” hinders the union between men and women against racism and capitalism, poor and racialized women are oppressed by men. That is, if poor and racialized women are most affected by our exploitative society (and this argument is used against feminism because it would be insufficient to emancipate these women), why should differences between men and women be ignored in favor of false camaraderie? And here is another double standard, because to say “white women do so because they were taught to do so” does not seem to be a convincing excuse for racism. I gain nothing by protecting racism from white women, nor do I gain anything by protecting misogyny from black and poor men. But it is by examining these attitudes that I realize that many of the criticisms of feminism are hypocritical and the need for a feminist conscience is urgent!

Under the flag of a false camaraderie, women avoid the debate about paternal abandonment because to discuss it is necessary to talk about male violence. Male violence becomes “gender violence,” “violence against women,” “repetition of the dominant ideology.” How will women and men fight side by side if we even need to silence our oppression as women?

It is curious that to defend male supremacy, the very differences among women become exalted and gain extreme superficiality in the debates. A great example of this is how some black women like to show data on how black women suffer more than white women, so racism is far more important than sexism. But at least here in Brazil, the biggest victims of domestic violence, rape, and maternal death are black women – and are not all these issues connected with the fact that black women are women?

Catherine Mackinnon wrote in From Practice to Theory (or What is a White Woman, Anyway?):

“This does not mean that your race is irrelevant and that does not mean that your injuries can be understood outside the racial context. Instead, it means that “sex” is the reality of the experiences of all women, including your own. It is a compound unit rather than a unitary whole divided, so that every woman, in her own way, is all women.”

Another issue where class analysis is distorted is when abortion is analyzed and viewed only from a class perspective, which ignores male supremacy. The argument that rich women abort and poor women die is very common. And this is true, but what few seem to care about is that it is men who can not get pregnant, so it is not men who bear the burden of a unwanted pregnancy. Within this perspective where class and race analysis is constantly manipulated to protect male supremacy, abortion is even considered a form of black genocideIf black women and black men are “equal,” why are black men afraid of the reproductive autonomy of black women?

More than White Supremacy

One more great example of how the analysis of class and race is used to divide women in a reactionary way is the last American election. Some black militants were quick to blame white women for the Trump win, assuming white women voted for Trump as a mere sign of their commitment to white supremacy. I am not innocent, I know there are white women who not only support white supremacy, but also promote ardent policies in favor of it. But these same militants ignore that there is much more reason to vote for someone like Trump than hatred of a race. The white American and the Brazilian working classes share many similarities, one of the most glaring is how easily they are deceived by the idea that black people are to blame for their poor living conditions, that black people and immigrants steal their jobs.

And it’s funny how black militants ignore black people from the Third World like me. After all, if Hillary Clinton had won, for us Brazilians she’s just another imperialist in the power of the most powerful nation on the planet. How can they evoke class analysis in a debate and forget about imperialism? Or is the critique of imperialism only debated when it is convenient?

• • •

Feminist consciousness has brought me a very hard and sad reality about race and class. Our differentiated oppression puts us in a situation of greater vulnerability, where even women militants are unaware of how women are oppressed while demanding that a feminist consciousness prevail in the midst of so many attacks of who should be a comrade. Feminist consciousness has shown me how women still have far to go to advance in the “women’s question.” To treat these issues as secondary or worse as “white middle-class issues” is to signal to men that we do not care about ourselves.

Women! Hiding the male supremacy of the men of your races and classes will not protect you!

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6 comments for “Feminist Consciousness: Race and Class

  1. Editors
    May 15, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    I just gave a cursory read to your article and I am overwhelmed. The author examines so many issues related to feminism, solidarity and a way to do it better. Every one of her issues struck me immediatly as the truth I have been looking for. I will (first) give a thorough read and the distribute as widely and possible.
    THANKS
    Claire O’Connor
    Minnesota

    • Mandy
      May 15, 2019 at 5:39 pm

      Hey, thank you so much! I am very happy to know that my article has caused you so many feelings. Several times I have seen these complex topics treated in a simplistic way and this offended me as a black women of the Third World. I am also very thankful to Meeting Ground that offered me the opportunity to bring these issues seriously and I hope that this will serve for new practices and theories.

  2. Editors
    May 20, 2019 at 8:16 am

    This is such a great essay, in more than one respect. First, the “feminists make mistakes” is exactly the way I have been thinking about socialism in recent years. We know that socialist revolutions and socialist governments have made mistakes and that they have paid for them, and are paying for them today. It was always easy for example for Trotskyists to blame Stalinists and for “reformists” to blame “revolutionists” when there were problems, and when the socialist bloc collapsed 30 years ago it was believed by some to be fatal to socialism as an idea.

    Some years ago I decided to accept that all of the revolutionary governments did the best they could with what they had in their own particular situations and contexts. Of course, mistakes were made, some of them historic and difficult to comprehend. But as Amanda said about feminism’s mistakes, there were national, racial, sexual, and social class forces at work, in every case. The recent resurgence of socialism as an idea here in the US, especially that of the “safe” social democracies of Scandinavia, reminds us that socialism really isn’t “dead” and that requires us to take a long, hard look at why Sweden is “good” while Venezuelan socialism is “suspect” (issues of race, class, and geography will be fundamental here).

    Second, social class and “economic determinism” have been seen, in both feminist and socialist theory and practice, far too often as the place(s) to begin and to end, even as we knew that race, national origin, religion, and sex complicated matters in every time and place. Amanda’s discussion here of the ways in which all these forces interact and affect each other may just bring us to new understandings, and fewer recriminations, about our backgrounds and our assumptions about each other. Maybe the sexual division of labor can now be seen as equally important as the social division of labor. Since it was the dispersal of humans throughout the inhabitable earth that gave rise to different races (here understood as a mixture of national origin, skin color, religion, and stage of development) and then our “economic development” that brought us all into close contact, the long historical separation of human groups can take its place alongside the “one human family” rhetoric that blurs distinctions as often as it clears them up.

    Pete Healey

    • Mandy
      May 24, 2019 at 2:10 pm

      Hi, Pete! Yes, theoretical failures are very common and can happen for a variety of reasons, not just because the person who committed it has supremacist tendencies. And I believe that the romanticization of militants aggravates this situation, especially in virtual militancy. People do not feel that they are discussing and debating ideas, they seem to only come together to extol some theoreticians, militants or revolutionaries who enjoy it very much. Well, this attitude does not get us anywhere, it only creates people with big egos, blind into the real world. Within socialism I see fervent discussions about past mistakes. Some socialists fail to admit that socialism, as well as any theory and practice, are constantly evolving and reviewing old mistakes is the best way to improve deficiencies. For many, socialism is only a way of blindly worshiping Marx, Engels Lenin, Stalin and Mao, rather than organizing the liberation of the workers. Some others even accept that there have been errors in socialist theory and practice, but seek a scapegoat (sometimes Stalin, sometimes Trotsky) to blame a single person for everything that went wrong.

      You mentioned the situation in Venezuela. It’s a very controversial topic in the left. The Brazilian far-right has used and abused the situation of Venezuela to manipulate Brazilian workers. We are living a moment of deep despair and knowing that the neighboring country is experiencing this crisis also motivated the vote of Brazilians in the current president (which is a worsened version of Trump). Brazilian leftists are divided on this issue. There are those who argue that socialism never existed in Venezuela, some say that there is a truly democratic country and others realized that the far-right of Brazil was using the situation to create an anti socialist and xenophobic feeling in Brazilian workers. It is obvious that there is an interest of capitalists in putting socialism as a failure. For example, the Brazilian media, which serves only the ruling class, did not say anything about Argentina’s economic crisis, because the country adopted a neoliberal policy (I even talked about it with relatives sometimes when Venezuela became the main subject) but people did not care about Argentina (just because it was not advantageous for the media to show it). And it is in that vacuum where the right gains strength.

      As leftists, we need to see the situation in Venezuela as “workers are being exploited in the most brutal ways,” instead of “socialism is perfect and if it is not perfect then it is not socialism.” And I agree with you that all the revolutionaries did everything they could in their respective contexts. What remains for us are the teachings. We must also learn from our own mistakes, without guilt.

      In the case of Feminism, I find it even more complex. There is this whole question of not being able to deal with past mistakes, plus the situation of Feminism is aggravated because women are in all extracts of society and have not been oppressed as a people and the idea that women are naturally more understanding and empathic is much rooted in women too. This idea that women are naturally more understanding and empathic is the apex of biological determinism but if it serves to bring about some change for women without undermining male supremacy, the same people who use the “biological determinism” argument will support this contradiction without hesitation.

      And among the major errors of feminist theory, we have the issue of racism. What we have learned is that the white suffragists were all racist and betrayers. In the so-called “second wave feminism,” we have also learned that all white militant women of that time were racist and promoted policies for white middle-class women only. But history has shown us how much more complex the situation is these assumptions suppose (There was a radical wing of suffragism that also fought for the abolition of enslavement. Elizabeth and Susan even drew inspiration from the way of life of Iroquois women. And I discovered so many incredible black women who were in Radical Feminism and the anti-racist and anticapitalist policies of the movement). I am shocked at how people actually believe that white women living in a deeply segregated country like the United States in those two epochs I quoted would be immune to racism. But when the issue of women is discussed in the labor and anti-racist movement, social contexts are always respected, often even manipulated so as not to discuss the sexism of some militant and theoretical men.

      The historical context argument is not applied to women because a maternal attitude towards them is already expected in relation to racism and class exploitation. I have the feeling that many people are shocked not by the fact that a Feminist reproduces racist and bourgeois values ​​like anyone in our currently society. People get shocked to see a woman deviating from her social role as a caregiver. And it is within this complicated context that racism within Feminism is approached as a moral failure of an individual white woman. This approach does not improve the situation of women of color in and out of the movement and still disrupts Feminism. This is because, within Feminism, it becomes much more important not to be read as “racist” than to actually fight against racism. White women anti-radical feminism act like this. For them, racism is a moral problem of white women they don’t like. This attitude is even more racist because it erases women of color who are radical feminists and also use racism itself to promote themselves as good and pure.

      I believe we need the consubstantiality analysis. This analysis, unlike intersectionality, does not make hierarchy of oppression and sees class as the dividing line of society. (Usually in intersectional analysis, class is treated as a form of prejudice rather than exploitation).

      This reply got so big, sorry! And I’m really thankful for contribute so much!

  3. Kathy Scarbrough
    May 20, 2019 at 8:37 am

    Thank you Amanda for this insightful piece. I keep thinking about this perspective, “The working class has two sexes and this has never prevented militants from joining men and women into one common goal. This is a double standard: The difference between men and women in class exploitation is omitted, while differences of race and class among women are not only exalted, but used to relegate male supremacy to a merely cultural role.”

    So true but so rarely admitted.

    • Mandy
      May 24, 2019 at 2:39 pm

      I always see complaints from other women about how bad feminism is and does not represent their interests, that only communism emancipates women, that race is so much more important than sex … And all these comments made me realize that this bad impression about Feminism is nurtured by the interests of militant men who want to keep male supremacy intact. Black women learn how horrible and racist the “white feminists” were, but only recently have I discovered that some black men considered black women’s access to safe abortion as a form of black genocide. That is, these men used psychological manipulation based on a common (racial) oppression to keep black women sexually subordinated!

      This is very serious, but why is it little discussed? Exactly, to deny the existence of male supremacy. And it is very sad how women secondarize their own interests in favor of this false camaraderie with men. Many of them truly believe that it is through silence and the denial of female oppression that men and women will build strong and healthy bonds together. This is a kind of alienation that we, as radical feminists, can not afford to continue.

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