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WEB EVENT 3: My Feminism Was Never Bound

kwilkinson's picture
Submitted by kwilkinson on Thu, 12/12/2013 - 10:32pm

“In the age of freedom, equality, and new beginnings, revolution emerges as the term for a continuous and inexorable push for the realization of these values against the old regimes that denied them both legitimacy and actuality.”- Wendy Brown

I’m not really sure if feminism has ever been bound—that is to say feminism has not been bound for everyone.  I believe that to assume or believe that all feminists and/or women have been able to infiltrate the framework of feminism… to ignore the deeply embedded racially coded power structure that exist within these confines—is to say that feminism as a whole has in fact been “bound”.  Although this is arguably a privileged viewpoint, I am not attempting to frame feminism in a negative light.  After all, as an inherently political movement it has provided a critical lens that has dismantled (rattled?) the role of women within both public and private spheres.  However it has also required an allegiance to essentialist narratives and ideologies that were imposed by privileged white women to represent ALL women.  Given that first and second waves of feminism were structured to predominately benefit white, (upper) middle class women, feminism “bound” has historically and ideologically marginalized and disenfranchised intersectional identities.

In Wendy Brown’s essay Feminism Unbound:  Revolution, Power, and Politics, she states that academic feminist discourse and Women’s Studies have moved “beyond sex and gender”.  However considering the numerous narratives from class and my own lived experience, my feminism (as many women of color) has always been existed outside of these categories.  Our class, similar to feminist discourse, has not agreed and/or found a current universal definition of feminism, concluding that is incredibly subjective to one’s lived experience.  Although this definition of feminism may seem fragmented, for women of color this has always been the reality when in conversation with mainstream feminist discourse.  I believe that the current state of discourse is due to the rise of intersectional feminism within academia, but also due to the emergence of voices and visibility of women of color in the public sphere.  Although intersectionality is an considered a “new” theory (ha), I believe that its appeal to mainstream feminists—or frankly white women—is due to the dismantlement of essentialists visions of “woman”.  Also, the longing to be recognized for their entire being, instead of the bracketed self, which were the conditions on which first and second wave feminism was based on.

Although feminism’s foundation is rooted in power given it’s mission to “be equal” to men, I believe that power itself is subjective and can be illustrated in various forms of discourse.  After reading Wendy Brown’s essay Feminism Unbound:  Revolution, Mourning, and Politics, I was at first admittedly turned off by her nostalgia for first and second wave feminism due to my own personal bias.  However I believe that her mourning for the loss of revolution (as an active political movement) and intended vision signifies a new beginning.  Brown says, “Thus we have lost the capacity to imagine ourselves in power, self-consigned instead to the rancorous margins in which we are at best a permanent heckle to power” (101).  In addition to this, Brown’s discussion of revolution illuminates two possible purposes it serves:  (1) revolution as a vehicle to gain power over other’s by way of “totalitarian truth’s” (rights) or (2) can it be resistance and defiance against societal norms and expectation?  However, I believe that her argument is made under the assumption that women want the same power—thus believing in the same patriarchal structure:

“Feminist revolution—which was never merely about sexual equality but, rather, carried the promise of remaking gender and sexuality that itself entailed a radical reconfiguration of kinship, sexuality, desire, psyche, and the relation of private to public—went awry somewhat differently. (Brown 105)”

Given differences of lived experience, temporality, and locality—how could this have ever happened?  I believe that this could have only been possible, by way of power feminism—gaining power, but at the expense of other women, which in this case is women of color.

Although Brown’s tone suggests that our revolution is stagnant, I believe that there is power in these margins—considering that I am somewhat of a heckler of feminism by refusing to align myself with a power structure that has yet to recognize my full identity.  That is to say, it is not that my identity is not recognized, but instead there is a false sense of understanding imposed—which attempts to compare and contrast women of color narratives to Western ideology, instead of simply listening.  In our class we have debated where power lies: in silence, narrative, or conversation—although I am still searching for that answer, I believe that power is inherent to the individual IF there is agency. I am still uncomfortable in this silence, but if feminism is to be productive, accommodating, or accessible this does not equate to universal understanding or agreement amongst WOMYN.

As I have stated in class I believe that my voice is one of my most powerful tools, but this semester I have found power in silence—releasing myself of the burden to assert myself within feminist discourse given it’s socio-historical and current mainstream narrative. This is somewhat difficult to articulate, if feminism were to become unbound, white feminists (feminists in general) must move beyond just sex and gender, seeking refugee within the boundless existence of intersectionality.   However this is not be romanticized because it is a harsh reality.  For myself, it is a constant daily battle to be recognized as one’s unencumbered self in the face of an oppressive system that is often times resistant to give legitimacy and validation of marginalized narratives.

Given the discussed essentialists narratives of gender expression that are still somewhat embedded in feminism (especially politically), I believe that my vision of feminism “unbound” would be a shift into a more inclusive framework—allowing for coalitions flourish within or outside (both?) affinity groups.  However this possibility is conditional on the basis of difference politics, moving away from Western neo-liberalism tactics of universalism and sameness.  Although there has been much debate on how feminism should move forward, in order to make a more cohesive and inclusive political movement I am hesitant to rely on principles of universalism as a way to illuminate difference.  Judith Butler’s reflection on mourning and death as a universal sight for feminist coalition politics, in order to discuss issues of difference is compelling and academically logical/rational.  However I believe that due to her own lived experience she does not have the emotional capacity to understand societies racialized hierarchy of bodies—and what this potentially does to the psyche of brown bodies.  I do not want to sound dismissive, patronizing, or initiate a “whose struggle is more real” fight, but I believe that death can be a space of unity for her, given the reality that her body holds more value than most in our society—thus reassuring her agency and reinforcing her held power. 


In conclusion, I believe that feminism unbound will emerge during this period of mourning described by Brown.  As we see it has already started, with the rise of intersectional feminism—however I believe that it is important for both white women and women of color to have patience during this shift.  I am not sure if I have any tangible examples of this feminism unbound, but I think that our class was starting to unbind feminism towards the end of our journey with one another.  I believe that in the beginning we use to speak in universal terms, understandably so we did not know each other!  Although I think that there were many factors that played into this shift, I also believe that we used the method of ethnography as a way of relating with one another by sharing lived experiences.  In this process I have learned that intersectional feminism is not simply defined by co-existing layered identities, but also the power that lies within the margins as observers to become better actors in changing the social order. 


Works Cited

Wendy Brown. Chapter 6: "Feminism Unbound: Revolution, Mourning, Politics." Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton University Press, 2005. 98-115.

Judith Butler, Chapter 2: “Violence, Mourning, Politics.” Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.Verso, 2004. 19-49.


Anne Dalke's picture

Relating to One Another

The most important claim you make here, I think--and it's really a very sharp and striking one--is that feminism was never "bound," never integral, coherent, inclusive. From that starting point, of course, the question of "unbinding" it makes no sense. How "unbind" what was never "bound"? Touche, well said, well put.

An impatience with Brown's nostalgia also follows from that position--and suggests to me perhaps another way for you to position yourself in relation to mourning: not being "patient" with it, as you recommend in conclusion, but by replacing it with an understanding of the work of trauma. I just wrote Abby a long response about this, and copy it here. It comes from

a pretty wild and wonderful essay by Christina Zwarg, who regularly teaches a class @ Haverford about Trauma, Reconstruction, and the Literary Event, and who published an essay 10 years ago on "The Work of Trauma: Fuller, Douglass, and Emerson on the Border of Ridicule," Studies in Romanticism, 41, 1, Psychoanalytic (Spring, 2002), pp. 65-88.

Tina starts off her essay w/ this great quote from Emerson's journal--about "one key to the mysteries of the human condition, but one solution to the old knot of Fate, Freedom, & fore knowledge: the propounding, namely, of the double consciousness”-- and then goes on to focus on trauma as a spur to thinking the “unthought” in a host of symbolic systems, a vehicle for questioning the relationship between experience, memory and event. A common characterization of trauma is its bi-polar nature, the undistorted flashback of an event unavailable to normal waking consciousness--and it's this dualism that provides its transformative potential.

Tina compares the “work of mourning”--which emphasizes accepting loss (as inevitable?), with “the work of trauma,” which "fractures narratives of inevitability." There's a temporal and directional difference in the two orientations [this might interest you, given all our conversation about "queering time"]: the first is anchored in past, the second a departure to the future. Tina actually goes so far as to claim that the struggle between the work of mourning and the work of trauma is central to every thinker: the wrenching away of all comforts/protections/limitations of context is an opportunity for critique (and also involves overcoming the fear of the “ridiculous" -- hence her title). The work of trauma is "the move from fear to fright to surprise," decanonizing one set of fears and encouraging the arrival of emergent practices.

(I stop here quoting myself.) I (think that I) am offering this reading as a potential way for you to move out of "heckling" (great word, though!) into a more powerful place. Do you know the work of Gayatri Spivak? In an essay published in 1988, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Spivak asks us to attend to the silence of the subaltern, a person without agency because of social status:

"The subaltern 'occupies the space cut off from the lines of mobility in a colonized country. .. there is something of the non-speakingness in the very notion of the subaltern.' If she were able to make herself heard, she would cease to be the subaltern .... But such speaking is NOT brought about by intellectual attempts to represent the oppressed, or by pretending to let them speak for themselves..." Spivak cautions against "welcoming selective inhabitants of the margin in order to better exclude the margin."

It sounds to me that this is also precisely the caution you are extending here, a caution against the dangers of (so-called) universalism, a caution against being "welcomed to speak from the margins." There is much more to say here about your assertion that Judith Butler is incapable of understanding the racialized hierarchy of bodies (since she says that it is precisely the starting point for her analysis, and addresses this concern throughout her book on Precarious Lives--so I'm curious to know whether you insist that not having an experience means one can never understand it), but I want to end, instead, by saying that

I am very, very glad that you end your essay with a description of your sense of the emergence of a community, in our classroom, in which we learned to attend to one another's particularities--listen to them, hold them, and not try-or-need to make them one (am thinking here of our final exchange about eco-feminism--theoretically supporting of broad accessability, in its abhorrence of speciesism, and/but practically enactable only via an expensive lifestyle...)