Zillah Eisenstein

My writings, thoughts, and activism.

“`Lean in’, `Bow Down’, `Rise Up’; Finding and Opening FeminismS Again”

“`Lean in’, `Bow down’, `Rise Up’;

Finding and Opening FeminismS Again


NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association) meetings in Puerto Rico, November 13-16, 2014.

Zillah Eisenstein

Ithaca, New York

October 20, 2014


So much of what I write here owes itself to almost forty years of dialogue and activism with feminists of every color. Hundreds of books written and read and thousands of actions taken lay the basis for my argument, which makes it collective, and shared and tentative and in debt.



Trigger warning:


When “we” wonder about feminism and what it is and who gets to claim it what are “we” wondering? Does Beyonce popularize feminism? Sexualize it? De-radicalize it? Re-radicalize it? Revolutionize it? Co-opt it? Expand it?

Empty it? And which feminism do “we”/you have in mind? The issue is less whether any individual is or is not “feminist” but what kind of a movement can “we” all build so “we” get to show who “we” complexly are, and what “we” need.


The stakes are really high just now. The world’s brutality is unsustainable for the 99 percent. Endless wars threaten the air, and water and earth and therefore us. Hillary will most likely become the next president of the US and with her feminism will be captured and presented as though it were “one”, in its white and neo-liberal form. Feminists of every other sort—from every class, and color and race and sex and gender and religion—need to form a coalition to build and publicize a more inclusive and revolutionary feminism for us all. This is already in the making and has been for decades. It needs full visibility, as an alternative.


I like Salamishah Tillet’s comment: she wants an “open” but not an “elastic” feminism. And I like Eve Ensler’s statement about revolution: we are dispersed but “we know where we are going”. And Aysha Hidayattullah is compelling: feminism is not a fixed identity but rather a stance of “radical uncertainty”.


A possible beginning:


A lot is in flux here. Today, all borders—nations, races, genders, sexes, classes—are disassembling and reconstituting. And, many forms of patriarchy/ies remain, so there are many feminisms in response. The borders and meanings of feminism shift as structures of power re-constitute themselves. I am looking to create flux, and movement and openness, in order to find a successful assault against the suffering and unhappiness of the newest systems of racist/heterosexist capitalist patriarchy.


I was thinking about this introduction and realize that the usual statement about what I will do and argue does not apply. The process of my thinking is open and in tension with itself and that will not be resolved, nor should it be. Instead the method at the beginning is still at the end.


In these urgent times of perpetual war/s from Ferguson to Gaza, and the crisis of Ebola ravaging Sierra Leone and Liberia, “we” need insurgent feminisms. In these detestable moments of Black devaluation, criminalization and dehumanization Beyonce endorses feminism across the screen of her stage at the Video Music Awards (VMA). While Obama designs his racial initiative, My Brothers Keeper (MBK) for black boys, and not girls, misogyny once again props up the very racism that supposedly is under attack. Patriarchy cannot be allowed to continue to assist racism or capitalism. Let “us” go looking for every sister we can find in this endeavor.


Let “us” unpack the tensions and conflicts about what it means to be a feminist, today, when there is no “one” kind of feminism. Actually, there have always been many kinds of feminism, which has been misrepresented as one, and the one was white western “liberal” feminism; and now, neo-liberal. But there also has been progress. More forms of feminisms are recognized today although the “one” kind often rears its head. Especially when it concerns Beyoncé: she is not, Hillary is.


Let me look backwards here for a moment. In the early 1970’s U.S. feminist theorists worked hard to distinguish the differing kinds of U.S. feminist theory: liberal, socialist, radical, anarchist, Black, lesbian, etc. We taught the categories even though they often bled into each other. By the 1980’s Black feminists especially turned the focus to what the different feminisms shared to find the commonalities. Today feminists need to move to understanding how the “common differences” between women of all colors and classes weave together an intersectional set of new possibilities.


There is a new complexity to our oneness that is never simply unitary. “We” can come from differing sites to unify with complex identities to end misogyny and its capitalist and racist and heterosexist structures. Feminisms are a plurality of one; and therefore its oneness is always plural and multiple, or what I have termed elsewhere, polyversal. Differences and conflict is always ripe with positive potential. Difference(s) should not pose a dilemma for shared commonality. Each individual woman is also simultaneously part of the collective whole of gender with its specificity: race and sex and class. Women are a sexual class that is never simply that in homogenous form. And this nuanced shared oppression and power writes new notions of revolution.


Or, another start…


When we wonder together about what feminism is, or who is a feminist, what are we really wondering? Who is the “we”? What is feminism? How many feminisms are there? Feminism for whom? Feminism for what? I am still trying to find which queries I think we should be thinking about.


Context always matters. And context bespeaks history in the present. So today there is Sheryl Sandberg with “Lean In”; and Kerry Washington sexual and powerful in the TV hit ,Scandal; Kristen Gillibrand legislating about sex violence in the military and on campuses; Elizabeth Warren with her defiant populism; Sonia Sotomayor defending affirmative action on the Court; journalists Diane Sawyer, Kate Curic, Christine Amanpour, Mellissa Harris-Perry; and, oh yes, Hillary. And, then there are the millions of us who haul water, collect firewood, serve fast food, do home-care, work for a non-living wage, and live more ordinary lives. What to make of all this?


So much has changed. So little has changed. Everything is changed. Not enough has changed. Each is true. What to do?


Women are different and many and a huge number of “us” intersect with each other in productive and endless ways. The more multiply “we” see each other the more possibilities there are for our connection.


One more try…


For radical and progressive feminists who have been working at mobilizing feminism for three or four decades much has changed. The visors of gender, race, sex, and class, though still crucial, need creative revision. This is not about “post” anything but rather about the huge transformations and changes that have further diversified the meaning of each. Some aspects of each have become more fluid, and less rigid; other aspects, not so much. As gender has become more differentiated by class, gender is more fractured. As race has become more diversified by class it needs more specificity. Categories are less homogenous than they once were and yet they also remain static and punishing as such. I often feel constrained by distinct categories that are totally interwoven with each other. This is why openness is a necessity. I am looking for the points of contact between the intersections that let us see new horizons.


And Beyonce? She is a site of possibly new horizons that can be critically and creatively utilized which may or may not be the same as saying that she, or any of us, fully know how to define it, or can. Pussy Riot comes to mind here as well.


This is why risk and courage are desperately needed. Not rigid categories. Not closings. But openness to what new revolutionary possibilities might be. Let “us” be dangerously risky and look for new places to build solidarities that are least readily in view in order to build an inclusive politics against misogyny in its entire militarist, capitalist, racist manifestations.


This gets messy. A coalition may be partial and momentary and not for forever. This means coming together when interests are shared and strategic. The tensions and conflicts of such coalitions always demand forthrightness in the critiques. There may be moments when I am willing to work alongside neo-liberal feminists if enough is shared in the results for enough of “us”.


A progressive and revolutionary feminism needs to commit to ending poverty and inequality of every sort. Gender is present in each iteration of punishment and violence, but it is not singular. Neither is feminisms. And neither does each feminist need to agree on every particular. Coalitions form in and through conflict. I can work with anyone who loves humanity and believes in equality in each and every human dimension. It should not, does not, matter if there are differences between and among us on how to do this.


Ending sexual violence is a site for intersectional mobilization. The “we” of feminist ferment is interdependent today. Yet, sexual violence is the translocal language that binds the differing experiences together, not identically, but coalitionally. The centrality, so to speak, of sexual violence, is not singular but it is critical in location. Sexual violence—knowing our body’s vulnerability—binds the differences together. This does not flatten out sexual violence as the same for all women and peoples. But though distinctly unique they are also polyversally bound together. It is the crosscutting connections from sexual violence that allow for a rare possibility of revolutionary coalescence.


Sexual violence whether in the NFL (National Football League), domestic life, gaming, war, and/or rape, binds a formidable location of resistance. The redress is not for retribution or punishment but forgiveness, reconciliation and justice. We can radicalize and revolutionize our notions of anti-racist, anti-hetero-patriarchal feminisms.


I am wondering about the connection/relationship between the popularizations of some feminisms, the mainstreaming in a sense of sexual and domestic violence (NFL, campus rape, etc.), and the continued silencing of women’s needs/the lack of substantial initiatives for structural gender and racial change. The complexity is exactly what must be confronted and utilized.




Icons and Feminisms


This writing remains in tension with itself. I often think, “on the one hand” and then I write, “on the other hand”. The querying, wondering, and searching is messy. None of this is simply about Beyonce or Hillary, or any one individual, and yet, it is, a bit. Beyonce graces the covers of multiple magazines with her perfect beauty, shakes her booty, drops a video record on I-tunes that sells one million copies in the first weekend, and sings, and dances as a “feminist”. Debate follows.


Meanwhile, Hillary traveled the country speaking about her new book Hard Choices and began her 2016 campaign. Many women are excited. They say it is her time; that finally the glass ceiling will be broken. There is little debate whether she is feminist or not. It is assumed. There is little wonder whether her kind of feminism matters enough to most of us. Revolutionary change seems impossible.


But maybe it is past time. There are now several female presidents in South America and Africa. The US is not in the forefront. And, nation states are dysfunctional against the sway of global capital and its misogynist wars. Has not Obama at least taught us this in this so-called post-racial moment? Post-racial while Blacks say “Hands up! Don’t Shoot”? Post-feminist while women of color are and remain the poor and migrants of the globe?


Hillary’s neo-liberal, imperial feminism does not work for most women in the US or abroad. Feminism promised to the many, by the few does not work well enough. Trickle down feminism does not work. And yet there may be fragments here for “us” to use. And Beyonce? Can something beyond the glitz be mobilized here?


Take note. The right wing of Fox News hate both Hillary and Beyonce. When they trash Hillary for her criticism of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision that allows corporations religious exemptions to not pay for contraceptives they accuse her of aggrandizing herself with “Beyonce voters”. These are the young (black) sex crazed girls who want contraceptives and should not have them. Racism is in full press here while they identify Beyonce voters as poor black young women dependent on government to pay for their promiscuity. Conditional coalitional feminism anyone?


Beyonce “Leaning-In”


Beyonce is rich and famous and driven and successful. She is a “celebrity feminist” or maybe simply a feminist who is a celebrity. Celebrity ties you to power discourses rather than “liberatory” ones. Powerful women have power so it is important to think about how and for whom they use it. The firing of New York Times editor Jill Abramson is point in fact. Her dismissal resonated the most for powerful and white women. This kind of power feminism is about feminism for rich and powerful women that affect most of “us” whatever the color very little. Yet, it also does a bit. Revolutionary feminism needs to bring most of “us” with it.


Beyonce is Black—though light skinned and often blonde—and female. She lives in the heart of empire. Her positionality as a global celebrity is imperial. Yet, she individually symbolizes a challenge to structural racism as an exception. And, she remains Black, even if stylized white. She is rich and powerful, but also still Black and female. So what is a feminist to do?


The troubled history of racism and class privilege tied to feminism in the U.S. bespeaks the exclusivity of feminist practices even though there have always been women of (other)color feminists. Troubled as the term feminism is, it is also the only term that speaks to the collective struggle by women—whoever they have been–for themselves.


I wonder, does it help to specify Beyonce as a Black liberal or neo-liberal feminist who is committed to opportunity, and individual autonomy and power for any woman who wants it? What about the “s” in feminisms? Does feminist always need a series of adjectives to clarify?


Liberal feminism initially excluded Black women, given their enslaved status and racist notions of citizan. Black women did not have white or “woman’s” rights. They were outside the purview of the liberal and patriarchal and racist claim for equality of opportunity; or its more recent neo-liberal fashioned framing of “opportunity”. The “equality” part of opportunity has been dropped.


Too much of mainstreamed, official feminism assumes a white privilege. But women of color feminists have been and are important critics. Many feminist constructions that were initially white derived have been deepened and remade. These new feminisms are at the heart of revolutionary promise.

Just by being present Beyonce shifts, unsettles, and subverts the singular discourse. She does not need to do the rest for us.


As an artist she creates the outrage she wants—she tramples on the notion of submissiveness by using her sexualized body, objectified or not, to rattle and roll. Her 2014 Grammy performance was in your/our face: she has it all, husband, child and her “own” body to do what she wants with.


Because Beyonce is Black and uses her body to speak the language of freedom rather than chattel slavery and its systematic use of rape she mobilizes a yearning for justice. So when Black women are doing feminism “we” all need creative visors to explore it.


And she puts Black women’s bodies in the bold for “all” of us. As Jessica Marie Johnson says from a somewhat different context, we—need to be in “kinship with the defiant and brazen behavior of black women, girls, and queer people of color”. She insists on connecting to “what is intimate, tactile, messy, and ecstatic…we must get into these bodies. We cannot shy away from them. They take up space. They bend and break. They dance. They curse. They Lust. They fight. They live. And they die”.[1]


I am also remembering Sarah Baartman, an enslaved woman in Cape Town, South Africa, taken/stolen to England to be put on display for her “freak” body. She was called the Hottentot Venus. Not until 2002 were her remains returned to South Africa, at Nelson Mandela’s request after reading Diana Ferrus’s poem “for Sarah Baartman”.[2]


No gate-keeping—new subversions


Beyonce joined Gloria Steinem, Madonna and Bishop Desmond Tutu at the pop concert in London, May, 2013 in order to “empower women across the planet”. They were raising money to fund hundreds of projects supporting women and girls in more than 70 countries.


Beyonce writes for the Maria Shriver report that focuses on “the tens of millions of financially insecure women in America” that “gender equality is myth” at this point. She writes that women are more than 50 percent of the population and more than 50 percent of the votes, so that “we must demand that we all receive 100 percent of the opportunities”.[3] Her focus is on opportunity as a woman’s right.


In her songs and her documentary, “Life is but a Dream” Beyonce focuses continually on herself: her desire to distinguish/separate from her father, her wish to become a great businesswoman; her drive to attain reputation and to free herself from the relentlessness of perfection: owning herself, being herself, owning her own company. There is little vision of a collective self bigger than her—she is her struggle. Becoming a mother and wife and celebrity power broker. I watched her documentary the day after Pete Seeger died. His music was filled with the world and its shared struggles. I wondered about Beyonce’s world.


Beyonce openly embraces and articulates much of mainstream or official (liberal) feminism, applauding opportunity and independence, especially economically, for all women. But given who she is, Black women are at the center this time around. So it is a different liberalism than earlier. Its racial exclusiveness is disarranged. And, although she speaks and writes primarily of a feminism that is about economic opportunity, she presents herself sexually, over and over again.


One might also say, as I offer earlier, that Beyonce is simply a black neo-liberal feminist consumed with her own private success. But she also says “I need my sisters”. She performs a song called “Girls Nation”, touting that girls run the world. She is pre-occupied by her“self” but maybe not. She “leans in” hard. And, yet, she brings millions of girls with her.


Opportunity as a quest does not problematize the systemic choices that are available nor does it require access to these choices. So “rights” as such remain tied to capitalism’s inequities even if Beyonce unsettles its racist and sexist roots. Yet, her fierce demand for sexual expression is radically unsettling to patriarchy, even if you do not like the form it takes. Existing political namings of feminisms are unhinged as well. This is good even if unclearly so.


When Beyonce performs she is sexy and fearless and taunting. She says: Come get me if you can. And you cannot. She most often authorizes her sexuality with her heterosexist marriage to Jay Z. Yet, her sexual prowess is at her core, even if she also paraded her pregnant body, and then later, her daughter, Blue Ivy as her identity. She moves beyond the usual polarization and truncation of sex and feminism and motherhood even if she sometimes returns to it.

Beyonce engages in the feminist struggle for control of our bodies with her own—against sexual and racial violence and for reproductive justice. And she lets Chimamanda Adichie speak for her as a feminist. Beyonce sings and dances with Adichie in a voice over speaking her feminism. Adichie unapologetically declares her feminism—and her anger about gender injustice. We have no choice but to fix it. Rejecting the idea that feminism is un-African Adichie claims it as her own.


And Beyonce uses feminism as she will while others do what they want with her as a feminist. Laverne Cox, the transgender actress of Orange is the New Black, helped publicize trans woman CeCe McDonald’s incarceration for killing a man who brutally attacked her. When Ce Ce was released after serving 19 months of her 41-month prison term, she asked for Beyonce’s new video release as her “freedom” music.


And then Chanel Carroll chose to make a you-tube rendition of Beyonce’s “Partition”, as “Tuition” which criticizes Sallie Mae and the trillion-dollar problem of student debt. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWjug3wgmzE Feminisms can expand from any site.


The reduction of feminism to individualist female empowerment can operate as a seductive decoy. Empowerment assumes the structures that are already in power and in place. But new liberatory imaginings from and with sexually ungendered free bodies of color can emerge in unlikely places. And these imaginings need to be recognized.




Sheryl Sandberg and Ban-Bossy


In the weeks leading up to the 10-year anniversary of the 2003 war in Iraq there was precious little said about actual women’s rights in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Syria. Media venues and screens of all sorts were instead discussing feminist dilemmas in the US—from Sheryl Sandberg’s need for powerful women to lean in and ban the word bossy; to whether women—that fantasmatic unspecified category of oneness–can “have it all”, or “not”. Yet, most women in our jobs and lives cannot do what we must do to make a living and care for our loved ones without working beyond our limits—standing firm, and stirring things up. Most women—especially those who live in war-torn countries already “lean in” to their lives with no choice but to do so.


These are messy times “we” live in. Wars are said to end and they really do not and the war/s on women across the globe—from Congo, to Egypt, to Afghanistan, to the US Republican party—are not counted amongst them anyway. Women are directed to lean in—meaning to stay at the table and persevere—to get top leadership roles, while most women here and elsewhere have no chance for the top rungs of power. Do not be confused by the fact that Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hillary—who leans in readily—speaks on behalf of women’s rights while getting none for most of us.


It is problematic that Sandberg readily claims to be a feminist, without qualifying that her kind of feminism is corporatist and way too exclusionary. Her notion of “true equality” requires more women to be at the top—in leadership positions in government and the corporate structure. She believes that these women can change the world for the rest of women, and men as well. But, so far, they have not done so in meaningful ways. Be reminded of Madeleine Albright’s famous statement when asked about US sanctions against Iraq that endangered the lives of 100’s of thousands of children. She said: “I am willing to the pay the price”.


Beyonce is no Sandberg. Her color configures her differently not to mention her celebrity status. Her seat, at any table begins a restructuring of racism and with it white privileged patriarchy, and maybe even capitalism if most women are explicitly included in the blueprint of change. For millions of girls, especially girls of color, Beyonce represents triumph. She is above the fray. She is so beautiful and powerful they feel she is invincible and this soothes them, especially if their own life is hard.[4]


Few people would criticize Sandberg’s feminist wish that her/our children find happiness and passion in whatever desires they choose. So let me extend this view beyond her “blind-spots” and dialogue from there. She invites us to “keep talking” (www.leanin.org) and not end the conversation too quickly. I will continue, but differently.


Sheryl says that she was always called bossy as a child because she was strong and directed. Hence, her and the Lean-In.Org “Ban Bossy” campaign. Beyonce joined in and says of the “Ban Bossy” campaign—that “I’m not bossy”, “I’m the Boss”. Former Iraq war hawk and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice also joined the campaign. Hhhmmmm.


And continuing…



So what is a girl or woman or feminist to think? Not enough is said about the militarist imperial stance of the US that triggers and continues gender violence across the globe. Women in Iraq, and Afghanistan and Egypt are standing up, but against patriarchal practices that US policy enforces, even if sometimes unwittingly.


These complex relations and their related exclusionary gender and racist silences seem to continually appear. Pope Francis—is hailed, as a friend of the poor. He is lauded for his dedication to a simple life and a concern with poverty. But he has a fraught history with Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez Kirchner over the right of women to free contraception. It seems that the Pope is no friend to women’s “rights” whether they are poor or not. Little is said of his exclusionary doctrine, so it remains silenced—like much gender violence and inequality alongside the wars for women’s rights.


The old reform/revolution dichotomy needs an update.[5] When you are dealing with sex and gender and race threaded through capitalism the clear dichotomy does not hold. It depends which streams of power are under challenge. And, if it is sex or gender or race none of the existing choices work. All political language is set up for or against capitalism; not for or against racist/heterosexist capitalist patriarchy. Conservatives, liberals, neo-liberals, socialists, communists—each is defined in relation to the (capitalist) market. One is either for it or against it. When the root is intersectional—heterosexist, classist, racist, and engendered—the divide between reform and revolution is more complex and fluid.


So revise for revolutionary change. If you are starting with the fe/male body and its race and gender and her rights, and her labor, and her freedom—you need new political imagination. “We” need a multi-plexed agenda of/for reparations and the abolition of engendered capitalist racism.


“We” need a new imaginary for revolution because without it “we” are caught/captured in the nexus of neoliberalism itself.  Given the hyper individualism of neo liberalism—the protector of capitalist racist hetero-patriarchy–the coalitions built with our intersectional selves is truly a best hope.


“We” do not need more women in the power slots that already exist. “We” need a different non-hierarchical formulation of power—one that is not rooted in gender violence towards women of every color across the globe. Sexual violence appears to be the “mother” violence existing everywhere—in each race, class, gender, and country. And, most importantly, it is a differentiated site that binds all the differences together.


Without a mobilized inclusive movement it does not matter enough who is declared a feminist, or not. So “we” should get rid of the gatekeepers. This is a moment when new formulations and generous embrace is necessary and can happen. Then, let us look to every possible location.


Michelle Obama spoke at Maya Angelou’s memorial. She embraced Maya’s Black womanhood—her self-confidence about her self, and her body, and her beauty and her mind. Michelle said that she might not be able to fill her shoes, but she could walk in her path. Oprah Winfrey spoke as well. “We” all saw gorgeous strong powerful women speaking together.


“I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me”.

And, to be reminded

“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise.”


Let “us” keep rising and mobilizing and radicalizing ourselves, together. Revolutionary commitments and acts will sally forth from here. There is no choice but to imagine what seems impossible just now—building a massive movement of coalitions to stop all forms of violence—against our bodies, our nations, our globe. I am listing every kind of justice I want to see in my head while humming “Pretty Hurts” defiantly.






[1] Jessica Marie Johnson, “My OAH Tribute: Stephanie M. H. Camp and Deborah Gray White”, april 18, 2014

[2] Lucille Davie, “Sarah Baartman, at rest at last”, History and Heritage

[3] See: The shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.

[4] Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, “How Sweet It Is to be Loved by You: The BeyHive”, March 17, 2014, NPR.org

[5] See:Osagyeto Sekou, “The Mater’s House is Burning: bell hooks, Cornel West and the Tyranny of Neoliberalism”, Truthout, may 19, 2014; and Britney Cooper, “On bell, Beyonce, and Bullshit”, Crunk Feminist Collective, may 20, 2014.


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