Zillah Eisenstein

My writings, thoughts, and activism.

Renewing Intersectionality

RENEWING INTERSECTIONALITY—from sex and gender and race and class to all things power-filled 

Zillah Eisenstein

June 27, 2011

In part my writing is a type of storytelling.[1]  In part it is analytic narrative.  In part it is historical journey through the multiple anti-racist feminist dialogues of the past four decades, in the U.S. and elsewhere.[2]  Black feminist writers Kimberly Crenshaw, Patricia Williams, Barbara Smith, Judith Scales Trent, and bell hooks, to name just a few, recognized the complex inter-weavings, `double-jeopardy’, `adverse specificity’, ‘multiple status’, the ‘bothness’, and `intersectionality’ of being Black and female, of their race and gender decades ago.  Their thinking and writing about multiple simultaneous intersecting identities has become part of the air I daily breathe.

Because I am poised to see multiple complexities, I cannot help but wonder why there is so little news of our/U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya, while there is so much noise and fuss exposing the sexual lives of the very politicians who make these wars.  The wars rage and people on all sides die daily and Anthony Weiner is forced to resign for sexting with young women.  Wal-Mart denies 1.5 million the shared status they need in order to sue for sex discrimination, while Dominique Strauss-Kahn is charged and arrested for raping a hotel maid.

A possible explanation: Celebrity culture focuses on individuals and does not ponder their interconnectivity.  At this moment in time it then becomes even more difficult to see structural systems of power and their interrelatedness.  No surprise then that the U.S. Supreme Court pretends that the women at Wal-Mart do not suffer discrimination as a sexual class because women are simply individuals who may or may not qualify for promotion or equal pay.  Sex also always has a race and gender.  Multiple identities exist within any moment.

What am I seeing here?  What is silenced?  What can I know, or what do I know here?  I do know that sex is never just sex.  And, sex is also always expressed with and through gender and race and class.  No exposure of a sexual tale is ever simply that because sex, and with it gender is never singly experienced.[3] Women are a sexed class (biological in some sense), and gendered (culturally constructed) along with the other multiple identities which exist—race, sexual preference, class, geographical location, etc.  And this intersectional status also demands that whiteness is recognized and critiqued as a racial category of privilege although it too is constructed through the multiplicities of particular locations.

When sex is discussed as simply itself—even though sex is never ‘simply’ anything— it has already been unhinged and severed from its gendered and racial and class moorings.  It is abstracted from the complexity of its intersectional roots/routes. Gender also invades the understanding of biological sex, but I will push this further fluid context aside for now.[4]

As is already pretty evident, I will be drawing broad strokes which will not seem simply obvious or self-evident.  I will be asking you to connect disconnected moments and events that you might not be readily willing to do in order for you to see newly forming intersections that constitute women’s complex lives.  And I will argue that these intersecting and marbled sites are also embedded in the better known webbed status of sex, gender, race and class.

Maybe I can make my point more succinctly and then leave it to the reader to see if it works. In sum: Early forms of intersectional anti-racist feminist thought focused on the way that sexual class interconnected with race and class. Each was distinct but with overlay.  Now, some four decades later I think that sexual class is understood complexly as embrocated in and with racial, economic class, sexual orientation, both inside and outside, so to speak. There is no simple unity anywhere to be found and yet shared identities exist.

All the noise that criticizes sexual indiscretion—from marital unfaithfulness to rape—may appear to be in the interests of women, but actually is more about regulating and disciplining everyone—male and female alike of all colors, then caring or taking action against sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, action which would be truly in the interests of all women, no matter their differences.

I, along with most of the rest of us have become accustomed to the relentless media creation and depiction of sexual scandal, which always has a race story to tell, even if silent.  The U.S. public has been primed to expect sexual unfaithfulness in our politicians and celebrities.  It is more than interesting how repetitive sexual scandal is.  The repetition is so prevalent that I do not need Gille Deleuze or Jacques Derrida to point it out.[5]

There is a well known line-up of these sex scandals at this juncture.  John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s sexual indiscretions are easy fodder at this point in time. So are Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson’s sexual dalliances.  More recently, Republican and Democrat alike have been outed: from John Ensign, Mark Sanford, Newt Gingrich, Arnold Schwarzenegger, James McGreevey, Larry Craig, and Christopher Lee, to Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, and DSK to Julian Assange of Wikileaks.  Let us also not forget the sordid and saddening publicized story of the repeated sexual abuse and rape of children, alongside papal denial, by priests in the Catholic Church. And, remember to remember our sports heroes, like Tiger Woods and Koby Bryant. And, of course there is the truly unbelievable Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Most of the world is well feted in his ‘in your face’ sex with young girls et al but knows less about his flagrant abuse of all things legal.

This list bespeaks all different sorts of sexual violation and harassment.  Prostitution is not the same thing as rape.  Sexting is not the same thing as physical sexual violation. Differing power-filled moments constitute the meanings of sex and its violations.  Sex between consenting adults is sexual intercourse.  When sex is not agreed to, or coerced, or forced, it is rape.  Nevertheless, amidst all these differing kinds of sex, except for in the case of the violations of Catholic priests, there remains the sharedness of being female, and the definition of womanhood within the hierarchies of racialized misogyny.  So there are similarities, and shared status within the differences. The intersections that define similarity disallow an oversimplified reductionism leading to all or nothing criteria.

Similarity means being alike and different simultaneously.  This nuanced intersection—between alike and different—bespeaks the glue of a sexual class.  Females, no matter how different they are—individually, sexually, racially, economically, geographically, culturally, and on and on, are also intersectionally similar.

I cannot help wondering if much of the exposure of sexual scandal is more about camouflaging the war on women in the labor force and at Planned Parenthood clinics than it is determined to remedy sexual transgressions. Given global drift, unemployment and recession, and the restructuring of the labor force, women now are a majority of the workers in the U.S. today.  These changes do not speak a new equality but rather create unsettled and unsettling racialized gender relationships that require new forms of surveillance.

Exposing sexual scandal does not necessarily change anything for the better for women. It is a form of regulating and disciplining the new excesses of sexual freedom in cyber porn and twitter-teasing.[6]  With private sex being publicized, public controls are elicited. The stories are too outrageous: supposedly hiking the Appalachian Trail while really seeing his Argentinean girlfriend, the telling of repeated sexual lies in marriages, exposed bodies in cyber-land, the soliciting of prostitutes.  These stories in part tell the machinations of misogyny for the powerful political elite.

My point: ‘Intersectionality’ as a method for seeing and thinking and acting allows for the multiplicity and complexity of the contexts that always define sex.  As a method of thought intersectionality pushes me to always ask about what I am not seeing and what I am unable to see; in order to try and find out what I do not already know.  I use an ‘intersectional’ method to alert me to the multiple relations between sex, gender, class and race and then to take this multiple starting place and contextualize the complexity further in terms of other specified locations of power.  Sexual scandal incorrectly isolates and disconnects sex from its other moorings.  Women are not a homogenous sexual class but they/we are a sexual class that is always connected with other specific and differentiating identities of power, and powerlessness as well.

Again: women do not constitute a homogenous sex class, but they/we are definitely viewed as such, and then denied such standing because of differences within.   Commonality does not require sameness.  In other words women, in all their intersectional diversity and individuality, must be recognized as a sexual class across racial and economic divides, with shared interests in order to be treated with full humanity.  The women in Tahrir Square and in the streets of Tunisia demanded their human rights for themselves and all Egyptians and Tunisians alike. Their female bodies spoke their sexual status while they claimed their ‘poly/universal rights to occupy the public streets.[7] They chose to not be defined simply by their sexual status, but to claim their ‘intersectional’ human rights with their female bodies.

I am sure that I have created some analytic chaos here.  It is a chaos of the multiplicity of individuality across sexed, racial and class and gender lines. I am seeking to enlarge the issue of sexual violations in all their sordid forms—cyber rape, the sexual brutality of rape in Rwanda and Congo, the rape epidemic in U.S. military forces, sexual molestation, sexual harassment, sexual incest, sexual torture—to their intersectional connection with women as sharing a sexual class identity within the structural hierarchies of racialized misogyny.

Female bodies in their sexed, gendered, raced context always intersects with their sexual class identity throughout.  It is not an either/or proposition.  Multiple identities require one to claim their ‘bothness’ as well as their other multiplicities.

Females are a sexual class despite their many many differences. Once you see this, and recognize the power-filled and emptied locations in regard to this, there is a structural, contextual meaning that begs for recognition. As such, no female is ever wholly an individual divorced from this contextual, intersectional location. Whatever the differences of sexual violation or harassment each shares its place in a racialized misogynist differentiation of power which privileges men over women, even though each location of privilege is and must be viewed through a complex set of powerful racialized hierarchies and intersections.

In sum, and in order to begin: Sex class, and with it gender are never homogeneous. Instead I wish to displace the idea that sex class needs any ontological status as “oneness” and rather that today, unlike earlier radical feminism, sex class is to be understood only in terms of its intersectional/overlapping/multiple partialities at its core.  Maybe the term sex class is not retrievable for these purposes, but I think that historical context maybe demands this change.  And, given the recent sexual scandals discussed here I think that my thought resonates.

So, yes, sex class, and raced power, are multiple and heterogeneous, and their heterogeneous meanings give them their shared political import. Intersectional power systems constitute a shared ness which is not a unity, or an oneness, but rather the multiple is a kind of oneness, and there is unity in diversity as Aurobindo Ghose might say. Although feminists have written of “diverse commonality” and “common differences” for years I am looking in this moment to find new articulations of the complex (intersectional) relations that are both internal and external to any understanding of race, sex, class, gender per se.

It also may be the case that women are now more diverse than they/we ever have been given newly formed economic disparities across the globe. That sex and gender and race are each made of intersections that are already embedded in them.  This last point may not be perfectly clear, to me or the reader, but that is in part my point of this writing: to push to the point of what I do not quite know.  I think this is a perfect commitment and methodology to be embraced by anti-racist feminist scholars and activists.



Wikileaks, Empire and Sexual Conquest


I do not want to bury what should be at the forefront of any discussion about WikiLeaks and the sex charges against Julian Assange, and that is a demand by its supporters for the immediate end to the inhumane solitary confinement of Bradley Manning, the 22 year old Army private who is charged with espionage for leaking documents.  I will return here later.  But it also seems urgent to try and find the right words for uncovering the complex relations about Assange and WikiLeaks in terms of the rape charges, between sex and politics, or sex in politics, and how the personal is political.

Mainstream news and many progressive anti-empire politicos give Julian Assange the benefit of the doubt on the rape and/or sexual impropriety charges against him. Ignoring the sex charges filmmaker Michael Moore wrote a good spot-on in-your-face-letter saying why he was posting bail money for Assange.  After criticism for turning a blind-eye to the rape charges Moore then wrote a second letter recognizing the charges, lambasting Sweden for its hypocrisy on the issue, and reclaiming his defense for WikiLeaks as an important whistle blower.

Naomi Wolff then wrote a significant piece naming the horrific politics of rape but in the end assumes that there is nothing actionable in this instance, and that the larger politics trumps all.  Feminists at http://feministing.com like Jessica Valenti take issue with Wolf’s erasure of the sexual and rape charges.  I also take issue with the way Wolff parallels the war rapes in Bosnia, Congo, and Rwanda as a way of dismissing the seriousness of the sexual charges in this instance. Naomi Klein says that “rape is being used in the Assange prosecution in the same way that women’s freedom was used to invade Afghanistan.”  Yes and No.

Many of the leftist progressives speaking/writing on the Assange case along with his lawyers (well of course) dismissed the sex charges as a charade of imperial governments interested in closing down the whistleblower WikiLeaks.  The two young women accusers are described as WikiLeak interns? Frauds? Set-ups? Right-wing activists? CIA plants?  One of the women was described on her website as: a feminist, animal rights activist, member of the Christian left, a long distance runner.  She is also identified as a political secretary and press officer of the Swedish “Brotherhood Movement”, a group of Christians in the Social Democratic Party.  (www.Anorak.co.uk)  On Counterpunch Israel Shamir speaks out against “castrating feminists” in Sweden who are trying to bring Assange down. Keith Obermann while tweeting blows way too hot when he does his usual yelling and rages against the false sex charges. And Larry Flynt donated 50,000 dollars to Assange’s defense on behalf of freedom of speech and against censorship.  The last line of Flynt’s statement reads: “Assange has been hit with dubious criminal charges because his condom failed during a sexual encounter.  Give me a break”.  Hhhmmmm…..

Even Amy Goodman of Democracy Now weighs in with two shows discussing the sexual allegations in the Assange affair.  I say even because Goodman usually has very few women analysts on her show and even less coverage of feminist concerns, across the political spectrum.  So I was glad to see her coverage, and bothered that she could not come up with a progressive feminist who did not sit on either of the polar sides of the debate.  She had Naomi Wolf, speaking for her own position, in defense of Assange and that he should not be hounded and arrested for erroneous sex charges.  On the other side of the debate was anti-rape activist and author, Jaclyn Friedman who took Wolff to task for making light of the sexual allegations and also for perpetuating a rape culture that blames the victim, and does not listen carefully.  Both of them got pushed into their respective “either/or” corners and little was resolved.

One of the hard things about having a useful dialogue about how government secrecy and its exposure is a good thing, and how people who do good things can also be misogynists and/or sexual predators, is that it is almost impossible to not reduce one to the other, or falsely bifurcate them.   And besides the almost impossible task of finding the in-between intersectional space that recognizes a strategy that damages neither commitment, it is also very hard to know what one really knows about any of these happenings, for sure.  This is also a part of the bigger issue of what I/we can really know today, with viral news, and endless blogging and tweeting, and missing/anonymous authors.  Which of us could sustain world exposure of our Facebook page, or webpage, or whatever?

Politicos of many sorts think that the sex charges are a certain type of hoax and even if true that they reveal how imperial states will punish and silence by any means possible.  As Katrin Axelsson of Sweden writes, Sweden is hardly a bastion of women’s rights to their bodies.  It has the highest per capita number of reported rapes in Europe, and conviction rates are notoriously low. Another side to this story is that because Sweden has a strong sense of women’s rights this leads to a supposed over-reporting of rape allegations: 53 rape allegations are reported per 100,000 people.  There are also three gradations of rape in Sweden, the most serious kind involving severe violence, “regular” rape, which could involve a degree of violence, and unlawful coercion, which involves emotional pressure.  These gradations and the meaning of violence have a long controversial history in the U.S. as well as elsewhere.  The making of rape law has been complex and contested, among feminists them/our selves.

According to a Swedish newspaper the Goteborgs-Posten, up to 90 percent of all reported rapes never go to court.  Obviously sex is a messy business. Why this unusual energy to hold Assange accountable?  There is a long history of using rape as a smoke-screen for other politics—like the lynching of Black men in the South in the U.S.  But why assume that these women had a hidden agenda? (www.dailymail.co.uk)  If their charges have been manipulated and used for imperial purposes it does not change the facts that they were misused and sexually violated.  And if they are guilty of a politics other than their sex charges than that too does not erase the misogyny that is present.  It just makes all this messier.

Initiating sex with someone while they sleep and without a condom is a violation of human dignity.  Wondering whether you might have become pregnant or have a STD from the encounter violates you. These rights to one’s body cannot be negotiated.  If sex starts consensually it can still become something else and ugly. Call it what you want. Or as one of Assange’s accusers has supposedly said, he is “a man with an attitude problem towards women”.  Even if the state’s purpose is to silence and inhibit further leaks by Assange, it does not erase his culpability if he has misused these women.

In this instance where Wikileaks exposes the need for transparency and truthfulness of our governments, it remains all the more important to not allow another kind of silence and secrecy about sexual power and conquest.  If Assange is innocent of rape let him publicly reveal and defend what he has done and failed to do. But do not through silence expect progressives and anti-imperial activists and anti-racist feminists to allow the continued cover-up of misogyny in whatever fashion it occurs in the name of a higher good.

Assange has become the celebrity icon representing the many people who make Wikileaks actually work. It is a celebrity world that crowds out the groups of people that do the work and instead chooses to focus on individuals.  Assange is not the same as WikiLeaks the organization. Many celebrity men are not good to women. Assange is looking more like “a normal technie with a website and hard on”.  It appears that Assange is at the very least a misogynist, but whether he is guilty of sexual assault remains to be seen.

And, while we are thinking about individuals, what about Bradley Manning, the 22 year old Army private who stands accused of leaking the classified documents in the first place? Manning early on said that he felt complicit in the inhumane tactics of the Iraq war.  He was sure if the American people knew what was happening that they would do something to stop it.  He felt he had no choice but to put the information he had access to into the public’s hands.  His conditions are described as cruel and inhuman by Glenn Greenwald.  He sits in his cell completely alone. He is totally isolated.

The noted Dr. Atul Gawande writes of solitary confinement as a form of torture for humans; citing that people’s brains actually atrophy with no interaction; that people become disoriented, psychotic, and lost to themselves and the world under these conditions.  With all the talk about exposure and transparency, why do so few people even know Manning’s name?

WikiLeaks exposed the barbarity of acts in the Iraq war.  It is now time to make sure that this exposure leads to a lens on the way that the U.S. military and its government now countenances barbarous treatment of those who question its motives and expose its policies.  Early on when WikiLeaks was exposing state secrets in China it had the approval of western elites.  According to an editorial in the Indian Economic and Political Weekly, it even received an award from the Economist in 2008 for its doings.

Good that WikiLeaks has been successful in unraveling the secrecy of imperial acts. Good that it has put governments on alert in terms of their accountability to the people of the globe.  But if this is supposed to be truly offering transparency about the doings of the power, then the misogyny of empire, by both those for and against it must also be exposed, interrogated, and held accountable—by both individuals and the states that surveil them.

As a progressive anti-imperial, anti-racist feminist I do not want to hush the complexity and intersectionality here. Yet it is difficult to speak against misogyny in this instance without seeming to undermine the larger political commitments of WikiLeaks.  Both the sex of politics and the sexual conquest of empire need exposure.   Even though I cannot yet find the perfect words further dialogue with these incomplete thoughts will allow us to find the new non-misogynist anti imperial politics for the 21st century.

To Sweden: Charge Assange with sexual assault, or drop the case.  To the U.S.: Treat Bradley Manning humanely and end his solitary confinement and stop your assault on WikiLeaks and its supporters.  To the rest of us: demand that sexual conquest in all its many forms becomes a part of the new transparency.



Sex-Class and Wal-Mart


Betty Dukes is the woman whose name leads the class action suit, Dukes v. Wal-Mart.[8]  She was a customer service manager who was demoted after being charged with misconduct for asking a colleague to open a cash register with a one-cent transaction so she could get some change.  Dukes says it is a common practice.  Yet, she received a severe reprimand with a demotion for doing so; a punishment that she felt was quite severe and partially motivated by her race.

Betty Dukes is Black.  When her complaints against her supervisor were ignored she sought legal advice.  This initial inquiry formed the start of a wider complaint—of sexual discrimination at Wal-Mart, that in the end sought remedy for all women.  It is important to remember that some of the first sexual discrimination cases in the 1970’s were brought by Black women, several who were initially told that they could not have remedy for both racial and sexual discrimination simultaneously and that they would have to choose one.  They chose, strategically, to go forth as a sexual class, across their racial differences, then too.[9]

The Supreme Court had to decide if the 1.5 million women who were working at Wal-Mart, or had worked there,  constituted a (legal) class of people who shared enough in common to stand together as “one” in a sexual discrimination suit.  Most observers of the Court expected a no vote because the Court is conservative and very pro-corporate.  It is interesting that few have observed that the Court is also pro-misogyny.  It should not be lost on anyone that the 5-4 decision primarily split along gender lines.  The 3 female justices, plus one male wrote a dissenting opinion. They write that these 1.5 million females share enough similarities to produce common “discriminatory outcomes.”[10]  These predominantly female dissenting voices criticize the Court for only looking for and therefore only seeing dissimilarities.

Women are constituted with significant likenesses because they share being female, and share how this `truth’ of femaleness is used to differentiate them and then discriminate.  This is what happens at Wal-Mart—where sexual discrimination takes the form of lower pay, etc., and therefore should not be denied as a “glue” that holds this shared group of women together.  The intersections of differing race, and class, education, location of job, training, etc. obviously bespeak enormous variety, but within this variety also exists a similar set of discriminatory practices that create a likeness of discriminatory treatment even if they are not the same violations.  Much like the related sexual violations and sexual violence discussed above, these differences at Wal-Mart do not deny, but rather express a structural and shared set of grievances no matter how differently.

The women at Wal-Mart claim that local managers exercise discriminatory discretion over their pay and promotions, in favor of men.  They claim a disparate impact on them as women across the board.  The Court found for Wal-Mart, and against women, saying that Wal-Mart is too big and diverse with over 3,400 stores, for women workers to claim a similar status within.  Each store has at least forty departments and has up to 500 positions.  The Court argues that there is too much variety and not enough commonality—that these women have not “suffered the same injury”.  The Court also found no evidence of explicit discrimination, especially given that Wal-Mart has a stated policy of non-discrimination. The Court ignores much of the evidence of discriminatory policies as “anecdotal” rather than proven, and rejects statistical evidence as non-specific.[11]

The Dukes v. Wal-Mart decision reflects the precarious status and lack of recognition of women as a sexual class.  There is a serious conundrum here.  If the Court sees women as simply individuals occupying differing job sites with no shared likeness even as a result of their possible secondary status as simply women workers, sexual class status cannot and will not be found.  Without a recognition—rather than a reduction to—of women’s sexual class identity, only differences among and between women can be seen. By default no sexual and common/shared/glue can exist.  This is why the context of the intersectional is so necessary—a recognition of similar status allows for differences and the differences do not deny the glue that binds them together. For the dissenting voices on the Court: “Women fill 70 percent of the hourly jobs in Wal-Mart and make up 33 percent of management employees. The managers are disproportionately men, who use a corporate culture that perpetuates gender stereotypes.”[12]

Multiple and complex variety define women’s situation as shared and alike in a misogynist and patriarchal economy.  The “fact” that some few women were managers and other great numbers were greeters at Wal-Mart does bespeak the “fact” that egregious limits on women’s choices in the corporation exist.  These women’s shared lives intersect with the multiple power-filled processes also defining their lives.  It is important to recognize this complex intersectionality because it denies the homogeneity of individual women and also then denies the necessity of homogeneity to establish the presence of sexual classes, as negating humanitarian/non-discriminatory treatment.

The Court found that the women at Wal-Mart did not have enough in common to be treated as a sexual/legal class.  This is similar—although not the same— to the way that the sexual scandals I mentioned at the start of this discussion are treated individually and disconnectedly.  Rather, I see a more integrated/intersectional narrative.  As such, the exposure to one sexual indiscretion/violation after the other becomes indicative, in part, of women’s treatment as a sexual class in a structural system of heterosexual misogyny defined by racism and class exploitation. These are not simply individuated, singular problems or violations.  If all the differing kinds of sexual abuses/assaults were seen as contiguous with the reality that women constitute an aggrieved sexual class, then fundamental structural changes recognizing women’s dignity would be on the agenda alongside, or possibly instead of a simple dismissal of a politician from office.  Such an understanding of sexual politics was necessary for rape to finally be understood and treated as a war-crime.

The Wal-Mart case is not about sexual harassment or violation but about sexual discrimination.  I might even say it is more about gender discrimination—the cultural and political interpretative domain which relegates women, because they are female to a secondary status as workers—lesser pay, lesser advancement, lesser choices. The Court is well known for using sex(ual) and gender interchangeably—as though there is no difference between being a female—as sexually/biologically defined; and being a woman—the cultural political interpretation of the meaning(s) of female.  Although there is much interplay and slippage between being a female and being a woman, they are not one and the same.  This becomes incredibly significant when one is trying to recognize the class status of females of all colors, as women.

The Court and media should not get to reduce gender to sex; and womanhood to femaleness without recognizing the place of misogyny in constructing woman’s status as a sexual class.  This political and cultural context is erased and made invisible in order to obfuscate the ‘fact’ that there is a politics to sex and that sex and gender are as personal as they are political.  If this ‘fact’ is recognized in its intersectional meanings, then it becomes clear that an anti-racist feminist politics should be the remedy at Wal-Mart.  All its workers—across racial and gender lines would benefit.


The Women in Tahrir Square


A fresh wind blows from North Africa.  People across the globe await the full expression of this Arab spring. After the toppling of Mubarak the people of Egypt voted in a referendum, of sorts, on whether to say yes to limited reforms of the constitution, or to say no, and push towards more consequential democratic changes.  There was overwhelming approval to accept the limited constitutional changes. An election follows soon.  What emerges from all this is yet to unfold.

Also at the time of this writing, the world awaits news of whether a total nuclear disaster will be averted in Japan, and whether the slaughter of rebels in Libya will abate or worsen as the U.N. endorsed bombing of Gaddafi continues. Homelessness in Haiti and Pakistan proceed relentlessly after their own earthquake, and floods. The world is uneasy and precarious.

Amidst all this I wonder how to think newly about democracy and its many meanings and undemocratic misuses, as well as the many meanings of feminisms, and their (sometimes) misuses of women’s rights discourse.  I will muse a bit about this wondering and hoping that I might end up somewhere other than where I have begun.

I have recently returned from meeting my long time friend Nawal el Saadawi in New York City.  She spoke at the Brecht Forum along with others, and I made comments. She had arrived a few days before from Cairo.  She was still filled with the fullness and radiance—despite her fatigue—of the dethroning of Mubarak from Tahrir Square.  She had loved the camaraderie of making a revolution that coalesced on January 25, 2011.  She loved the breaking down of all divides—the walls dividing people in their homes from each other and the public square; the divides of Christian and Muslim, and woman and man, and rich and poor, young and old.  She described how all people with their broad band of humanity, across class and every other divide stood together, against their police state and for democracy.  It was definitely a revolution defined by and through people’s intersectional selves.

When Nawal was asked by the audience at the Forum what she thought would be helpful for the people of the U.S. to do to assist Egypt, she replied: “make your own revolution.  A revolution in your country, to build a real democracy, would help everyone across the globe, not just Egypt”.  When she was asked about the women in Tahrir square she said they/we were fighting for democracy for everyone.  We were not there with a singular focus but we were all there together as part of humanity. “We are/were here as women, but we are speaking out for everyone.”  This was not viewed as a feminist moment, so to speak, but rather “women demanding what every Egyptian want”. Humanity is defined by an intersectional solidarity across sexual, racial and class divides.

She said several times that women were equal to men in this political struggle.  In the initial struggle to dismiss Mubarak there was no sexual harassment. There was no groping of women to be felt or seen either.[13]  But, just days later on March 9, Women’s International Day, the assembling of a Million Woman March was a disappointment. Few women showed up to demonstrate, and those who did were bullied and taunted.  Several Egyptian women say that this was not the time to advance any one group’s rights over those of another. Maybe.  Maybe not.  At the very least there is a problem of what women’s rights will mean in the new Egypt and how women can go forward as a sexual class with grievances that also embraces a wider intersectional camaraderie with men.

On this day of the women’s march, harassment and ridicule were back with a vengeance and needed to be addressed. As well, no woman was chosen to be on the 10 member committee that was appointed to revise the constitution; and one of the amendments requires that the next president cannot be married to a non-Egyptian woman–that assumes that the next president will be a man, and needs a wife, unless they are allowing gay marriage.  Many Egyptians said that they cannot endorse such an amendment.  Yet the referendum agreed to all the amendments. Some women’s rights activists have become suspicious that the new “national umbrella they rallied under, whose slogan was democracy, equality and freedom for all Egyptians, may be leaving them out”. [14]  Yet it would be very wrong to think that nothing or little had/s changed.

I heard Nawal interviewed on Al Jazeera before coming to the U.S. saying that Egypt must make itself ready for a woman president. She also believes that women’s rights cannot be met in a vacuum and that they must always be tied to the related concerns of class and anti-imperial politics.  In this sense Nawal el Saadawi although a woman’s activist and fierce fighter for the rights and dignity of women does not abide a feminism that pretends to speak on behalf of all women (and men) while mobilizing to protect the interests of a few (women) within a racialized patriarchal global capitalist economy.  I am already getting ahead of myself because all of these issues—women’s rights, and feminisms of all sorts, and the interconnections of women’s oppression across the globe—have been contested and conflict ridden for many decades.

Egyptian feminisms existed long before feminisms in the U.S.  And yet when Hillary Clinton claims the mantel for fighting for women’s rights in the soon to be new Egypt she effaces the on the ground women’s activists there whether that is her intent or not.  Forget that the U.S. had no problem with the punishing sexual subjugation of women during Mubarak’s ruthless reign, and supposedly cares now.  Forget that the bombs dropped on Afghanistan and Iraq was initially wrapped in the language of protecting women from the Taliban, and for their women’s rights.  Forget that so many women in Egypt and Tunisia and Jordan first say for the U.S. to recognize and fix Palestine before speaking on behalf, or for them.  Forget that Tahrir Square was populated with many revolutionary women without the assist of the U.S. or the state department’s brand of its feminism.

I am thinking that the language of democracy and women’s rights is both universal and also fractious.  The people of Tunisia and Egypt demand/ed and continue t demand democracy but I do not think this necessarily means, or should, or can mean capitalist/western patriarchal (and racialized) democracy.  Democracy parades with enormous authority and validity and yet its history in its capitalist misogynist and racialized forms is less than libratory for a majority of its people.

I keep struggling to find political narratives that allow for the new nuances in the ways women’s struggles for recognition take shape and form.  I wish to try and write new and vigorous thoughts about the female voices that demand a really inclusive universal/polyversality in North Africa–and how this might relocate/redirect Hillary’s “war for women’s rights” to a non-imperial politics.  These moments in North Africa, must be fully grasped in terms of the new historical elements of protest and demand that are made with a cacophony of intersectional female voices.

I wonder, again, how feminism(s) are being rewritten in defiance of its imperial misuses. There is a deep contradiction in our administration demanding the recognition of women’s rights in the new Egypt while being less than vigorous in demanding full equality for all women here at home.  The latest U.S. labor statistics show that women continue to earn just 75 cents to a man’s dollar—despite the fact that women are a majority of the labor force today.  If Obama stands for democracy and women’s rights let him speak out more forcefully against the right wing assault against women’s reproductive rights, access to abortion and health care right here in the U.S.  After all, just about everyone will say that they support women’s rights without ever clarifying which women’s rights they have in mind, and which women they extend these rights to.

The trick here is that woman’s rights as an idea has tremendous saliency across the globe among women with all sorts of democratic commitments.  Its power is that “women’s rights” means something to everyone, and yet not the same thing, much like the term democracy itself. “Women’s rights” is more or less accepted as a universal recognition of women’s equality because women were, and still very often are, excluded from civic universalism.  And, even though inclusion–like the acceptance that a president could be female in Egypt is insufficient for democracy, it cannot be ignored as an acceptable possibility.  This universal/polyversal wish for all people’s dignity embraces males and females with their subtle cadences, and yet civic universalism has never actually included women at its core

It is incredible that the U.S. supported the Mubarak dictatorship for years and then withdrew support from him in order to stand with the revolution, in the name of democracy, and now, women’s rights as well. The presumption of U.S. democratic commitments is a bit galling here— almost as galling as the fact that the tear gas cans were “made in the U.S.”.  I am with comedian Jon Stewart, who wondered why any country in their right mind would advertise the fact that they make tear gas.

Given the competing meanings of both democracy, and women rights, I am hesitant to think that the Egyptian protestor’s meaning of democracy is necessarily the same as Obama’s.  Tunisia’s rebellion started as a demand for a lowering of food prices and for much needed jobs.  In Yemen, there were also massive demonstrations demanding food prices be lowered.  It is interesting that these demands– the rights to food and to a job—are so easily translated into the language of “democracy”.  This translation is an elision of sorts—giving the pretense that a patriarchal capitalist version of democracy works for everyone in the same way.

The cost of food has sky-rocketed especially for poor nations.  Unemployment, especially of the youth in these countries is mind-numbing.  About 40 percent of Egyptians eke out a living of about two dollars a day. Current estimates are that food prices are at 17 percent inflation.  According to Ellen Brown high food prices which have created a global food crisis reflect the egregious speculating by Goldman Sachs with no concern for the cost of wheat and rice, the staples for the poor of the world. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, calls this “a silent mass murder”.[15]

The reason that singular identities—women rights, gay rights, the rights of the poor—have been amassed into a popular uprising and movement just may be because hunger, and its remedy, food trumps everything. What we are seeing is what Samir Amin might call “the “awakening of the South” in a struggle against the imperial order of capital.  Amin might put these movements in the category of a “second wave of the awakening of the peoples, nations, and states of the peripheries of the 21st century”.[16]  There are mental and political leaps here–but the language of (bourgeois patriarchal) democracy cloaks the revolutionary commitments that must exist.

There is little talk of a working and middle class revolt in North Africa; or a transnational movement demanding the right to food, and an end to the exploitation of the land and labor of third world countries.  This would be a clairvoyant indictment of global capitalism and its particular patriarchal and racialized formulation of democracy.  Instead the world watches Tunisia, and Yemen and Egypt and the media narrative is of democracy’s oneness.

A new wind is blowing from Egypt. Let it be a wind that even women everywhere can breathe.  Let us listen to the female voices that bespeak an intersectional poly/universal community that excludes no one. Women and men were in the streets together in these protest movements across North Africa.  Egyptian women organized the food distribution and the garbage collection, and the public discipline, and the peaceful strategies. Nawal states: “women and men are in the streets as equals now.  We are in the revolution completely.  Of course if you know the history of revolutions you find that after the revolution, often men take over and women’s rights are ignored.  In order to keep our rights after the revolution, women must be united. We must have our women’s union again.  We cannot fight individually.”

A great thing about the revolutions in North Africa is that it tells us that surprises can happen, and change is about more than hope. So I remain committed to thinking in newly authentic and independent ways about women’s intersectional voices articulating a non-capitalist anti-racist, anti-misogynist democracy.

I am a bit hesitant about this process because we must think theoretically—meaning that we must think while recognizing the intersectional structured connections between points and sites of power.  But conceptual thinking requires concepts that are helpful and also constraining.  When we are looking to see structures we may see them in ways that they do not exactly exist in this moment.  I do not think I can see creatively without a framing of what I see and I also know the framing must be viewed skeptically in order to be useful.  Feminisms must embrace universal humanity at the same time that it/they point to the specifically misogynist forms of women and girls daily lives.

The cultural flows mix and remix.  Each culture has its own practices and yet they exist in g/local fashion.  As such we must negotiate the new feminisms and women’s activisms for democracy.  Does it matter if Egypt has a female president?  Or is what matters that women should never be excluded from any possibility?  After all, it has not helped democracy in my mind that the U.S. Afghan and Iraq wars were/are overseen by female secretary of states: Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and, Hillary Clinton.  President Karzai allows new restrictions on Afghan women daily under the auspices of Taliban pressure, while Afghan women are promised that they will not be bartered.  But they are.

Newsweek’s recent cover advertises “Hillary’s War”—and how she is fighting for women’s rights and against glass ceilings for women everywhere.  They call this “the Hillary doctrine” that focuses and challenges on the antidemocratic forces limiting women’s and girls lives across the globe.[17]  I do not mean to impugn Hillary’s motives or her personal commitments to women’s rights although I do mean to deeply criticize and condemn the policies she oversees that run counter to bettering a majority of women’s and men’s lives in North Africa and elsewhere. I do not think that an imperial form of women’s rights is what the women in Tunisia or Egypt have in mind.

In Beijing, 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, sponsored by the United Nations Hillary Clinton declared that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights”.  Although many women and women’s rights activists across the globe would agree, this statement has muddied the waters since.  So let us hear from the women of Tunisia, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt what they want this to mean for themselves.  Maybe there is a new wind blowing for all of us here too.  I am reminded of Nawal again: make a revolution in the U.S. and help the whole globe by doing so.


Sexual Assault(s), AGAIN


Just about every woman, and actually a lot of men that I know cannot believe, and of course also can sadly believe, the stupid arrogance of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the now former head of the International Monetary Fund, and Arnold Schwarzenegger also former action hero and Governor of California. Each, and both, along with Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich et al, are attached to charges of one form of sexual harassment and violation—ogling, groping, rape, assault—and then covering it up.

People like me, the less than powerful players/rulers of the world continue to ponder how so-called fabulously successful men supposedly risk everything for a moment of sexual domination.

How many times do these violations need to happen before one thinks that this is not simply about individual indiscretions but about the racialized misogynistic structuring of power itself?  Masculinist gender as the world has come to know it is most often performed by males although I do not adhere to biological determinism in any form.  Females can abuse sex and power as well, as in the case of sexual humiliation by women of Muslim men at Abu Ghraib prison. Yet it is also true that all the people named above are male.  These particular men in these particular instances express masculinist power over females who have less racial and class and individual privilege.

These instances— DSK’s reported sexual assault and rape of a hotel “maid”, and Schwarzenegger’s fathering of a child with a domestic worker in his household—bespeak power-filled sexual violations whatever the nuanced levels of so-called consent might be in the second instance.  I cannot help but think of Black slave women who historically had no legal rights to their bodies and were so often raped and used as breeders rather than mothers with rights to their children or to themselves. Or female working class poor women who are often expected to deliver sexual favors in order to keep their jobs.  The Sojitel hotel worker that DSK is charged with sexually assaulting is a Black Muslim single mother from Guinea, West Africa.  She is reported to wear a hijab which readily identifies her as Muslim. She is cleaning a $3000 a day hotel room that DSK stays in, while she lives in the Bronx.  The woman identified in the Schwarzenegger charges is Hispanic.  It is a leap, but not an erroneous one to be reminded of the hundred of thousands of war-rapes both historically and today in places like Rwanda and Congo, not to mention the “rape epidemic” in U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.  What gives here?

DSK has been described as a “chimpanzee in heat”, and a new claim made by a hotel “maid” in Mexico alongside several other reports of sexual violation by women in France could all too easily allow an ‘exceptionalist’ individual viewing and analysis of this particular moment.  Although most men do not act like DSK, most men are not the singularly most powerful banker in the world. What about thinking that: the more powerful the man, the more illicit the sex. In this world where the extremes of economic inequality are ruthlessly punishing for way too many of its inhabitants it is not surprising that sexual encounters spill out into public spaces where today’s privileges of power are the most grotesque.  This is not to deny the ordinariness of much sexual assault when class disparity and racism may not be evidently in play, yet the sexual spillage into public/political spaces also may bespeak the particular crassness of this historical time.

The French are said to be rethinking the private/public divide so that its political officials be queried and assessed in terms of their private (sexual) practices.  Simone de Beauvoir in her famous The Second Sex (1948) was thinking/writing about this a long time ago.  And, feminists of all sorts and colors in countries across the globe have been thinking and acting for decades on the recognition that “the personal is political”, and that there is a complex intersectional “politics of sex”.

In the end, each of these men involved in sexual scandal says that it is their fault, their poor judgment.  DSK actually retorts that “he loves women”.  A little less love and a bit more respect and rights would do nicely. And more than anything—why not acknowledge that sex is power-filled and political and structured into gender, and race and class relations and not simply a personal indiscretion? The problem may be expressed through individual males but it has structural requisites that also create triggers and justifications.

Please do not think that those of us asking for a re-dress against misogyny think that all sexual violation is the same; or that there are not gradations and complexities to the realm of sexual violation, or that racism and class privilege is in play in the same way in all these instances.  It does not matter enough that there have been huge gains for some women across the globe.  Sexual harassment also remains a constant and is persistent—through groping eyes and hands that are punishing for too many women in most places. And, rape devastates whenever it occurs.

It is important to hold individuals accountable where they are guilty, but we must also hold the structural requisites that exploit and oppress accountable as well.  Sexual assaults have extra-legal dimensions that must be reckoned with if the differentiations of power among women are to be addressed.  With the added recognition of the interplay with racial and class inequalities sexual violence—against any human being—

will have less sustenance—wherever and however it takes place.

The richness and the necessity of anti-racist feminist thinking and politics demands a continual renewal of the understanding of intersectional/complex sexual classes that are inclusive of all humanity.  Instead the women of the world are offered up Christine Lagarde, France’s first female finance minister to become the new director of the International Monetary Fund.

Something More to Think About


I started this piece saying that I look to find answers to what I do not already know.  I do not know exactly what I think about Christine Lagarde’s new appointment.  But I am pretty sure this is not a good thing for most women—of all our colors, and classes, and sexualities across the globe.  Why?

The IMF as the pinnacle of power of free market capitalism has pillaged the poorer countries of the globe while also allowing Dominique Strauss-Kahn to prey on people, especially women, who he has power over. His actions, as well as the charges against him have created discomfort for the IMF.  The IMF now clearly wishes to move forward, and beyond this problematic media exposure. What better way to do so than to appoint a female, and a powerful and competent one at that to quiet the unrest?  This might be seen by some at the IMF as a fair trade: a white five feet ten inches woman to silence the charges of sexual plunder at the IMF and at the same time holding onto to western privilege and dominance while doing so. China, India and Brazil were thinking it was their turn.

If I might allude to an earlier point: I think no one should assume that by switching the sex, you necessarily have switched the gender politics.  Misogyny can be in play with females in charge.  I would like to know how Lagarde intends to address and  change the misogynist and sexual and gendered practices of theeconomic racism of the IMF.  Do not use a (white) female body to cover over and mask racist and imperial politics as usual. Most of the people of the globe do not need a sexual decoy.  We need an anti-racist, anti-global capitalist feminist politics.

Instead I wake up this morning, July 1, 2011 to breaking news that the prosecutorial case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is crumbling and that his accuser is caught in a web of lies that undermine her claims and credibility.  Although I deeply believe in the presumption of innocence, and the importance of the burden of proof, I also wonder who would not falter under the unusual scrutiny that this hotel housekeeper has undergone. At the time of DSK’s arrest supporters of the U.S. legal system crowed that even a poor and unknown woman can bring charges against a rich and powerful man.  Bring charges perhaps, but win her day in court—probably not.   Her credibility has become the newest fodder for the tabloids. I continue to wonder about his credibility.  This is not over.  The question is whose intersectional stories will be heard and found true.

[1] Thanks to several friends for reading and commenting and helping me think about the ideas that follow: Miriam Brody, Carla Golden, and Sarah Eisenstein Stumbar.

[2] The anti-racist feminist literature of the last 40 years is massive. A few representative titles are: Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003); Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches, Men Without Beards (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2005); Uma Narayan, Dislocating Cultures (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[3] This relationship has been the focus of a myriad of feminist writers for decades.  For an overview and in-depth discussion of sex/gender see: Zillah Eisenstein, Sexual Decoys, gender, race and war (London: Zed Press, 2007), especially chapter 1.

[4] Anne Fausto Sterling, Sexing the Body(New York: Basic Books, 2000).

[5] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968); and Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

[6] See Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended (New York: Picador, 2003) for a classic discussion of the disciplining of sex.

[7] I use the term polyversal to embrace the importance of recognizing the specificities and differences that are encompassed in the notion of uni-versal.  I interrogate the uni status of humanity as such, and pluralize it at its core. Poly-versal embraces diversity at the core of what unites across and through the supposed oneness of humanity.  Eisenstein, Against Empire, Feminisms, Racism and the West (London: Zed Press, 2004). Pp.197-201.

[8] Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes et al., No. 10-277, Argued March 29, 2011, Decided June 20, 2011.

[9] See: Zillah Eisenstein, The Female Body and the Law for a detailed discussion of the Court decisions articulating the limits of sexual discrimination, especially chapters 3, 4, 5.

[10] Wal-Mar v. Dukes et al, p. 11

[11]   564 U.S.—– 2011. Ginsburg opinion, pp. 9, 17.

[12] Ibid., 7, 11.

[13] Elizabeth Rubin, “The Feminists in the Middle of Tahrir Square”, Newsweek, March 14, 2011, p. 68.

[14] Basma Atassi, “The New Egypt: Leaving Women Behind”, March 8, 2011,  http://english.aljazeera.net

[15] Ellen Brown, “The Egyptian Tinderbox: How Banks and Investors are Starving the Third World”, February 2, 2011, at www.webofdebt.com/articles/egyptian_tinderbox.php

[16] Samir Amin,  “The Trajectory of Historical Capitalism and Marxism’s Tricontinental Vocation”, Monthly Review, vol.62, no.9 (February, 2011), p. 17.

[17] “Hillary’s War”, Newsweek, March 14, 2011, p. 46.  Also see my many writings of the last two decades about Hillary Clinton, especially, my most recent in The Audacity of Races and Genders, A Personal and Global Story of the Obama Election (London: Zed Press, 2009).

Comments are closed.