Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Web Event #3: Unbinding Feminist Intentions

vhiggins's picture

Unbinding Feminist Intentions


As a young black woman in America, I have had my fair share of troubles with accepting feminism. Author bell hooks, in ‘Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics’, defines feminism as an all-encompassing ‘movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression (hooks, p.1).” However, as I have previously understood it, through social discourse and mass media portrayals, feminism arose from a reaction of well-to-do white women to the oppressive patriarchal system that confined them to the household. So, as a result, these women sought and gained equality in the working world of their well-to-do counterparts.

According to hooks, however, feminists initially concerned themselves with women’s liberation from the oppressive, sexist, and violent domination of the patriarchy. However, it became polarized by a division between reformist thinkers, who wanted to alter the existing system to include more rights for women, and revolutionary thinkers, who wanted to overthrow the system and terminate the patriarchy entirely.

hooks highlights that the accomplishments of feminist advances have, for the most part, resolved the issues of upper-class white women at the cost of further marginalizing not only women of color, but also poor working-class women of all colors, distancing itself from its fundamental revolutionary vision. In my mind, feminism manifested itself as the original form of ‘power feminism’, a term that usually holds a negative connotation in that it characterizes the phenomena of a woman gaining capital and status on the backs of other women.  Not only was the liberation of this selective group of women granted at the expense of other women, but it was also achieved at the expense of black men. hooks writes,

‘We can never forget that white women began to assert their need for freedom after civil rights, just at the point when racial discrimination was ending and black people, especially black males, might have attained equality in the workforce with white men (hooks, p. 4).’

Knowing this, I am naturally more inclined to align myself with the collective struggle of my own brothers and sisters, rather than identify as a participant in a feminist movement that had a hand in the further disenfranchisement of my people by playing into the same white supremacist patriarchy it sought to overthrow.

It is hard to deny that America is a country characterized by widespread and growing cultural hegemony, a country within which almost all forms of societal existence are modeled in the image of its ruling class. As ‘others’ within this society, people of color are subjected to the pursuit of these Western ideals of living, whether it is through reinforcement of European beauty standards or the continued support of ‘Christianity’ (in this case, the existence of the black church in general, and its widespread support from black communities), within which even the Divine model a European image. These examples only represent a small fraction of the ways in which people of color find their love of self being cast aside in the name of a collective, societal existence. In recognizing this, I do not necessarily wish to jump at the opportunity to be included in an unbound feminism, a sort of hegemony of its own, as my inclusion would come at the cost of the last and very basic aspect of life that I hold onto, my self-identity. The defense of my identity can best be characterized by Doris Sommer in her book ‘Proceed with Caution,’ which reads

 “The ‘strategies of containment’ that claim our attention here would defend cultural difference as a value in itself. It is what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls the differend, the stubborn residue that survives on the margins of normalizing discourses. Acknowledging that residue is the precondition for democratic negotiations. Difference safeguards particularist identities against seamless assimilation, a word that rhymes with neutralization and sometimes also with physical annihilation. (Sommer, xiii)”

The phenomenon Sommer describes is that of particularist, minority writers and their refusal to disclose certain aspects of cultural difference in their texts, unyielding to being understood universally. According to Sommer, not allowing their texts to be universally accessible by setting limits on foreign readers’ understandability is an effort to exert agency over their cultural difference. Reading minority texts requires not a full absorbed understanding of the text and its author but rather it requires that when confronted by cultural limits set within the text, readers accept them and retain a distance by way of respecting the cultural difference between reader and subject/writer.

In unbinding feminism, it needs to be confronted with these same limits within its particular fight with patriarchy. It is my natural inclination to hold on to what necessarily constitutes my being, what makes up who I am, and it should be a limit of feminism to respect my desire to keep hold of myself and all of my intersections. I have yet to be confronted with a proposal of unbound feminism that does not require that I transcend what most immediately constitutes my position in this world for the sake of collectivity and universalism, intentionally solicited or not. This does not mean that there can be no solidarity among us, among all women, but in the particular task of ending patriarchal oppression, it has to be acknowledged and respected that the ways in which we are oppressed by the same force are fundamentally different. The truth is that there are many heads of the same beast that oppress us all; white women, women of color, men of color, queer folk of all colors, poor women, and poor men are ALL oppressed by the different manifestations of the patriarchy that have its reaches on the base of gender, race, and class; a beast that is bigger and more powerful than any single movement on its own. Once this is realized, that there need to be multiple movements on every level against the existing patriarchy, feminism can free itself from its self-given responsibility to liberate all peoples from domination, and feminists can call for help. Feminist movements against gender inequalities and sexism, aligned with movements against racism, movements against classism, any and all intersectional movements, and speaking globally, a movement against globalization and neoliberal economics, ON EVERY LEVEL, will collectively gain the revolutionary power that could free us from the (white supremacist) patriarchy and all of its manifestations. This way, everyone is able to hold closely their differing identities and everything that matters to them, while still involving themselves in a fight transcendent of cultural difference. In this way, the responsibility of global deliverance from patriarchal oppression does not rest solely on feminism; instead, any and all of those who have been oppressed can collectively force their revolutionary hands in true solidarity.  

Yes, I realize that I propose to ‘unbind’ feminism by subjecting it to limits, by binding it, but these limits are needed and will benefit the movement in that it can focus more intensively on its specific role in ending patriarchal oppression. There can be restored a sense of agency over the feminist manifesto, one that does not impose on any group’s identity, allowing all agents to identify interchangeably with the cause of any and every movement. In this collectivity, we will find our solidarity, and thus, our power.

*To make things clear, feminism is theoretically admirable, and I do fully recognize the advancements of gender equality in the work place, the increasing awareness of problems of violence, and the encouragement of women to exert agency over and self-love of their bodies and selves, as amazing achievements. However, it is of the manifestation of feminism historically, mostly of the women and men of color that suffered at the expense of first wave feminists that I cannot identify with.


Works Cited

Brown, Wendy. Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton University Press, 2005.

hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. South End Press, 2000.

Sommer, Doris. Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.



Anne Dalke's picture

unbinding = binding?

I take your point that mainstream feminism has been power feminism, all along; I take also your point that “unbound feminism” constitutes a form of hegemony of its own, one that requires setting aside racial self-identity.

I resonate to your wry observation that feminism need not take on the responsibility to “liberate all peoples,” but rather call for help from various groups, in forming a coalition in which “everyone is able to hold closely their differing identities.” I hear, throughout, a direct pushback to Judith Butler’s claim to “get beyond” identity politics (though you don’t actually name or quote her); this pushback is well grounded in the discriminatory history of American feminism. And I think Doris Sommer serves you well as a source who speaks to the need to safeguard particulatist identities against seamless assimilation, a refusal to being understood universally.

All good.

My two questions for you are really aimed @ the philosophy major: they both have to do with logic and clarity of language. First, you claim that you will “unbind feminism by subjecting it to limits, by binding it.” That sounds clever, but I don’t get it. I get it that you want to free feminism from the need/desire to liberate everyone—that might constitute an unbinding. But how is unbinding =binding? Say more.

Secondly, I want to challenge you on your reliance on the “natural,” as in “I am ‘naturally’ more inclined to align myself with the collective struggle of my own brothers and sisters….It is my ‘natural’ inclination to hold on to what necessarily constitutes my being.” So…how do you understand “the natural”? What can you presume-- and/or how can you argue that something--is “natural”?  A year ago I published  a little essay on “Querying the ‘Natural.’” It’s actually about pedagogy--about rethinking “classroom ecologies”--so not obviously related to your project here, but in it we quote an environmental theorist, Timothy Morton, who observes that

"saying that something is unnatural is saying that it does not conform to a norm, so 'normal' that it is built into the very fabric of things as they are….'nature'…has the force of law…against which deviation is measured….Thinking, when it becomes ideological, tends to fixate on concepts rather than doing what is 'natural' to thought, namely, dissolving whatever has taken form….not stopping at a particular concretization of its object…

I think you have stopped there, and I’d urge you to keep on going, beyond what seems “natural,” or @ least beyond that claim that some actions/thoughts are.