Zillah Eisenstein

My writings, thoughts, and activism.

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Abolitionist Socialist Feminism, Radicalizing the Next Revolution

Zillah Eisenstein, Abolitionist Socialist Feminism, Radicalizing the Next Revolution (Monthly Review Press, New York – May, 2019)




“For decades Zillah Eisenstein has been a leading thinker in feminist criticism. She has consistently illustrated for us how addressing economic exploitation and racial domination as well as imperialism are essential to feminist futures. In this book, with stunning clarity, intellectual sharpness, and deep love, she makes the task of freedom-fighting both clear and absolutely compelling. She guides readers through the current morass toward refreshed freedom dreams, deeper solidarity, and both global and local liberation struggles. This is a book for readers across the spectrum of age, identity, and political experience, who sustain hope despite our current despair.”


“This book is stunning in its questions and tone, open and learning, personal and theoretical. It is a gift to us all, one that helps so much in these critical, difficult times.”

Making the Left Transparent

Making the Left TRANSPARENT; an anti-racist feminist friendly critique, again

Zillah Eisenstein

August 2011


These are strange times.  Rupert Murdoch and his media empire are finally exposed for hacking and deception and there is some accounting to be done.  Yet, the final exposure of those who have formerly done the exposing seems a bit cheap to me.  After all, the revelations of wrong-doing remain contained while much of this illegal activity was known before it was officially exposed.  Strangely, the much feared Murdoch who supposedly runs this empire continually nodded off during the congressional hearings investigating his behavior.  Looking quite old and enfeebled his wife, Wendi Deng, no-nonsense formidable sportswoman, businesswoman, and vegan, by the way, stole the day.

Exposing what is already known—like banks steal from ordinary people, and the U.S. Congress is truly broken and ineffectual, and Obama has no clothes so to speak, or more truly, there is no emperor, let alone clothes, barely seems all that significant, if significant assumes that the exposure of wrongful power means that there will be a shifting and formidable changing of it.

Julianne Assange and WikiLeaks also raise the question of the meaningfulness of total exposure or transparency.  State secrets are revealed to the public, but the public already knew much of this horror.  Slavoj Zizek says that WikiLeaks is revolutionary because they make “unknowability” and “deniability” impossible.  This sounds poignant at first and then not.  One can read this leaked/divulged info and still act as though they do not know, or worse yet, that they do not care.  There are too many ways to know things today and too few ways to make knowing matter.  Maybe the more we know, and the freer information is, the less there is that can be done.  Freedom here both reveals and masks totalitarian regimes of power.

It is interesting that amidst this embrace of the new transparency and revelation that Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now program broadcast from London with Zizek and Assange, July 2011, had nary a word about the sexual misconduct/rape charges against Assange.  OK, I can maybe understand if Goodman does not want to give credence to the charges and thinks that what WikiLeaks is doing politically should not be impugned in this way.  But then say that and do not push questions of rape and gender to the sidelines as if they are not intimately political in and of themselves, and with grave consequence.  I assume that sex is always connected to racialized gendered systems of power and as such must be put in view, made transparent—in today’s parlance, as part of the story of power.  Sex should not be reduced to an issue of private, individual indiscretion.

I do not think it makes sense to think of sex without gender; or gender without race.  They are not the same thing.  One’s body has a physiology of sex.  There is the realm of desire that cannot be collapsed with one’s biology or one’s racialized gender. One’s gender is tied to the racial and physical body, and yet they are not the same thing.  But any female body is already ensconced in the gendered and racialized notion of womanhood and femininity no matter what her individual inclinations might be.  So our individual bodies are part of a bigger system that we inhabit and have little choice about in the initial moment of anything. There are constraints no matter how miraculous any individual female whatever her color might be. And the constraints shift and change and are malleable which makes it all the harder to see and know genders in all their elasticity. (Boys and men suffer this too, but this is for another time.)

Where are the transparency and revelation and truth telling when it comes to females in terms of the political reality of patriarchy and misogyny alongside the racial and economic hierarchies that exist?  Why the silence here?  When the `exposure’ of so much else is demanded in these times it is a revelation of sorts that silences remain in revealing the racialized/gendered dimensions of the political field. It is newly troubling that these old silences remain despite the new commitments to full exposure and transparency of power relations. As part of this new obfuscation sexual scandal itself is used—from Dominique Strauss Kahn, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Anthony Weiner—to create great noise and fanfare but as simply understood as personal indiscretions rather than as part of larger structural systems of racialized male privilege.

Sex class is not an abstract political class but an actual one.  It is made up of the huge variety of females in all colors, sizes, wealth, etc. that face into daily life and the world differentiated and othered as such. Put this power-filled reality in clear view.

Because this moment that we inhabit makes a progressive politics almost seem impossible it is more urgent than ever that the silenced/excluded sexed and raced underbelly of global capital be exposed and challenged.  It is becoming clearer that  Obama who is not incompetent is already a failed President, that Boehner revealed the “open secret” that politics as we have known it in the U.S. is done—that Congress and the President are side-stories to the global economy and its misogynist and racialized configurations.  The pretense of power is most often located in decaying arenas that are in decline. And alongside this denial is the continued avoidance of the place of racialized misogyny in the old, and now the newest configurations of global power.


On new proletariats


It is time to begin a new dialogue with the “left”, whoever they may be at this point in time, and progressives more generally, in the hopes of stemming the increasing crisis created by global capitalism today.  I therefore turn to Zizek’s most recent writing in the hopes of opening new transparencies in order to encourage a new radical, anti-capitalist/imperialist activism which is as deeply anti-racist and anti-misogynist. Zizek provides some fabulous starting points for this politics and yet some huge stumbling blocks.  What follows reflects this tension which is obviously not Zizek’s alone.

Zizek calls these “end times” and calls for a new proletariat and with it, a new communism that embraces the full universality of humanity.  I look at these times and say that there is a new polyglot proletariat, or maybe many proletariats that are each polyglot, made up of more girls and women of all colors than ever before alongside the men who have already been there. I am hesitant to try and retrieve the term `proletariat’ because it exists with historical constraints.  Yet, the idea of multiple, many, or plural proletariats undermines a static usage.  I resuscitate `proletariat’, especially for women and girls, with the new and old  forms of labor on the globe alongside the new transnational networks that imbibe from this.

The new proletariats are defined by any kind of labor primarily done by women, from sex workers in all their variety, to migrant female laborers crisscrossing the globe, to women and girls hauling water and gathering wood, to the dagonmei in China’s mind-numbing Ipad factories.  There are various proletariats—and each is polyglot in race and gendered predominantly as female.

These are urgent times defined by suffocating poverty and desperation.  If it is communism that might be an answer as Zizek thinks—a full sharing of the globe’s resources and the ability for all people to thrive—then I think it will have to be specified as an anti-racist, polyversal feminist in the plural, type of new communism.  After all, the so-called enlightenment already posited the `universal’ thing and that did not work out all that well for most people on the globe.

When I read Zizek’s Living in the End Times I kept thinking about what he was not saying. That: food and daily sustenance is the realm relegated to women in most cultures in most histories, in most places today; that fire and with it cooking were necessary to the survival of human beings and yet this site of labor and with it women are almost silenced as such.  It is no small point that so many of the women and girls in the Congo and Rwanda who have been brutally raped and  murdered are/were out gathering firewood.

Girls and women do most of the labor across the globe of every sort—domestic, peasant, migrant, farming, reproductive, consumer, affective, slave, and waged. Birthing—actually called labor—is done exclusively by women. Most of this labor goes unrecognized, and poorly paid, if at all.  And the other side of this enormous fountain of profit making and/or sustenance is sexual harassment, prostitution, rape, and violence.  In sum: the sex class containing women in all their varieties in terms of both labor and sexual violence remains a silenced secret in the age of transparent open secrecy.

Yet, Zizek is on to something.  He writes that global capitalism is unprecedented in unleashing the de-territorialization of new spaces across the globe creating new flows that seem unstoppable.  He writes in a sense of the new normal: capitalism is the prevailing force; excess wealth is a new truth; the fantasy of endless youthfulness exists despite the rapid rise in Alzheimer’s disease.  Hurricanes, global warning, volcanic eruptions are treated as though they were messages from the gods rather than at least in part `man’-made. As such, capitalism functions as a totality for Zizek.  Everything is rearticulated in its form.[1]

But why reduce everything to the relations of capital?  Such a reductionist move creates closure and a false unity that disallows a new proletariat or proletariats. Capital is not totalizing because there really exist multiple forms of labor that are not simply or fully articulated or captured by capital. Zizek disagrees with Dipesh Cahakrabarty who argues that universalism is not the answer because there is always a “patient” and particular translation that is needed.  Zizek sees a “worldless universe” and rejects the “multi-centric world” which denies universal history.[2]

Zizek wants to radicalize the notion of the proletariat beyond Marx’s imagination, beyond history to a new proletariat subject. I want to take this commitment but open it further to specify and contextualize and multiply the proletariats of global capital. Multiple proletariats constitute an incredible force because they share their exploitation and oppression in a punishing and unforgiving system with one another’s specific identities.  Zizek says that the solution is not a multicultural tolerance but a shared struggle for universality.  I agree that the answer is not a corporatist multiculturalism that serves capital rather than the polyglot of peoples of the proletariats, but it is not a universalism that operates in denial of existing misogynist and racist politics.[3]

I agree with Zizek that the more capitalism is normalized a critical and progressive politics is de-normalized. But this is just as true, and maybe more the case for the normalized silencing of racism and patriarchy. For Zizek, capitalism can thrive easily anywhere in this “post-political setting”.  Organic foods and green capitalism are proof of the pudding. He describes new centers of power as “multiple centers of global capitalism” establishing “an emerging multi-centric global order”.[4] But this new order also produces new forms of racism and misogyny and with it new constructions of gender and race as well.  Yet Zizek describes the EU as having feminine qualities and the US, masculine.[5]  Instead he needs to wonder about the new gender constructions needed for the new multi-centric global order. Keep these processes silenced and they have no political efficacy.  The silencing may just be a central reason for Zizek’s so-called “post-political moment”.

The global market economy continues to undermine what is left of neo-liberal democracies for Zizek, like for most leftist, progressive, anti-capitalists.  With no theorization or recognition of the multiplicity and intersectionality of economic power systems it is easy to call for universalist remedies.  This involves a rejection of the “multi-centric world” of capital, and an embrace of the secular universalist in its challenge. Zizek argues that we are more universal than we think, and are traversed by universalities more than particular identities.

I continue to suspect who Zizek’s “we” fully includes.  I, along with most anti-racist progressive feminists, think that women of all colors and economic classes are particular and universal simultaneously; g/local in our practices and understanding; and a mixing always of the multiplicities of our polyversal humanity.[6]  Believing in a “bothness” that includes many parts seems key here, otherwise Zizek’s universalism because exclusionary and exclusive of the very identities that make us human.

My term polyversal speaks to the way each person is multiple—as in poly—and yet the differentness of each of us is shared across and through—through the versal—of humanity. There is a particularity to universality and therefore an intersectionality to both economic class and capitalism itself.  Economic classes are polyglots of humanity as are sexual classes so we need a language for/of politics that is inclusive without the exclusivity of a singular, homogenous proletariat class, or capitalism for that matter. I do not want an exclusionary universal ism operating still today, especially, when transparency appears to be a pretense of progressive politics.

It might help that Zizek, along with many other radicals and progressives—male and female alike—imagine that bodies—the ones that make up the new proletariats—come in all sexes, genders, races, classes, sizes, ages, and so on.  So when Zizek writes of the way that bodily functions are regularly silenced by daily discourses—be it sweating, or urination or defecation I cannot help notice the exclusion of bleeding.[7]  Huge numbers of women bleed, every month. He obviously imagines male bodies as his universal here.

His obsession with the Freudian sexual unconscious is little help because instead of recognizing the structural and historical resonance of gender he relegates it to the realm of the sexual unconscious. He analyzes repression, rather than oppression when he discusses sexual encounters.  It must be why he almost always uses raunchy sexual tales to make his otherwise political points.


Racialized misogyny as non-transparent


            I love the idea that power-filled lives should be transparent—which means that we—the big `we’ should be able to see through geometrically to the other side; that there should not be hidden realities left to their own mischief; that silences and exclusions should be put in clear view.  As a result life would become more knowable, accountable, and changeable.

Given this, I wonder why Zizek develops his endless dialogues primarily with dead white men in End Times?  Kant, and Rousseau seem to get off Scot free–Kant for his racialized/racist beliefs and Rousseau for his patriarchal and misogynist ones.  Rousseau’s notion of the general will is embraced by Zizek with no recognition that the will of all is made up of citizens, who happen to male and rational, and not female and passionate.

He discusses Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise and never once seems to recognize the gendered inequity that Julie must learn to tame her passion and follow her duty, which is to simply to be a wife and mother.  Instead Zizek reads this as Julie’s move toward a sense of moral good, thinking beyond the individual self. Zizek treats marriage as though it is a renunciation of sexual passion for men and women alike, with no nod to the way sex defines gender, and gender sex in specifically patriarchal forms. Rousseau’s classic fear of women demands a western burqa for them. The renouncing of passion is about reifying gender, on the backs of women.  Where is Zizek’s universal here?

No wonder Zizek believes that this is a post-patriarchal era; with a “post-feminist femininity”.[8]  I have trouble with the term “post”—it makes history and the present too linear and clear-cut.  Instead, I see a political process that is always historical and connected and related.  No moment is utterly left behind; no new moment is wholly new.  But for most Marxist critiques of capitalism, patriarchy passed with feudalism, instead of recognizing that it is rethreaded and modernized alongside capitalism.

For Marx and Engels, and therefore Zizek and many leftists, the bourgeoisie ended patriarchy.  Patriarchal phallogocentrism was supposedly swept away by market individualism and liberal rights. Patriarchy is then either simply law or ideology and erodes as such. Zizek privileges hedonistic hegemony and singularizes it. He writes of “post-patriarchal forms of authority”. [9]

He adopts gendered language with no notion of the politics that this embraces.  He refers to Maoism as feminine whereas Stalinism is masculine.  For him, the “earth is a pale mother”.  And liberal democrats act more feminine than non-liberal democrats who are more masculine. He criticizes France for its regulatory prohibitions of the wearing of the burqa in public, as an act of othering Islam. But nary a critical word of how often French politicians abide the sexual harassment of its women—by DSK and the like—

while contradictorily  speaking on behalf of women’s rights and against the misogyny of Islam.[10]  Gender has no political standing.

Zizek discusses the war in the Congo. Coltan is the prized resource that the rest of the world wants for the production of cell phones and the like. Zizek is rightly sickened by the ethnic warfare while global capitalism is madly at work.  Yet, Zizek is silent on the war rape of countless women and girls as a strategy of political terrorization. Rape has no political salience here for a progressive, leftist politics.  It should. And, it does

Women are a backbone of every proletariat. Although  Zizek notes the early feminist insight that saw the family as part of the mode of production and recognized that the very production of gender was part of the production of human beings themselves, he does not sustain or develop this insight. Instead he plays with women’s bodies and wonders whether rape or seduction is the more problematic.  He decides seduction is. He also criticizes feminism for confusing male authority with violence. And, he does not bother to name or cite the particular referencing.[11] Really, Zizek?

Zizek gives a quick nod to the complex sexual politics of the moment with Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.[12]  But what about some transparency here?  These times that we inhabit demand that progressive male and white dominated politics and political theory needs anti-racist feminisms to mobilize against global capitalism in all its seductive forms. It is only because the times are so dire—and unforgiving— that I have re-entered this dialogue, again.[13]




[1] Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso Press, 2011), pp.265, 284.

[2] Ibid., p. 285.

[3] Ibid., pp. 241, 138

[4] Ibid., pp. 166, 175, 390, 424.

[5] Ibid., pp. 168, 169.

[6] For a full accounting of this term see my Against Empire (London: Zed Press, 2004); and Sexual Decoys (London: Zed Press, 2007).

[7] Zizek, Living in the End Times, p. 260.

[8] Ibid., p. 270.

[9] Ibid., pp. 47, 50, 364.

[10] Ibid., p. 391, 17.

[11] Ibid., pp. 194, 468.

[12] Ibid., pp. 270, 271.

[13] See many of the earliest critiques of Marxism for its lack of feminist analysis in, Zillah Eisenstein, ed., Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979).

Global Wars On/For Women’s Bodies

Alternative titles: Beauty as Distraction and the Global wars on/for female bodies; OR

Newest bodies, avatars, sex scandal and global wars; Savage Beauty, Savage Wars


“El Cuerpo Descifrado”, The Deciphered Body

5th International Congress

Mexico City, October 2011

Zillah Eisenstein


In the war torn globe—imagine living in Afghanistan or Iraq just now; or in tsunami ravaged Japan; or flooded Pakistan; or in 20 percent unemployed Spain; or in the drug war sites in Mexico;  would I be asking about theories of beauty; practices of beautifying; or even the beauty industry?  What is this thing called beauty?  Maybe it is not a thing at all but rather a politics of misogyny that focuses on body surfaces.  Maybe it is a process of diversion—pacification—the nullifying of female political selves.


Beauty—as a myth, as a desire, as an industry—is a perfect decoy for this moment.  It privatizes us to ourselves, thinking that happiness can be found in beauty while commitments to world peace and social justice are abandoned.  Of course, if I am to be fully transparent I must say that any one who is lucky enough to have the calm to wish for things other than essential survival would wish to be beautiful, to have beauty.  I love feeling beautiful.  Aging is hard because I become less beautiful however that it is inscribed.


But what is this thing called beauty.  It is a form of desire for acceptance of and with one’s body. Bodies are terror filled.  They are what make us vulnerable.  Pain and grief and suffering are bodily affairs.  Beautiful bodies are avatars of a sort.  They do not know illness and suffering.  They are not merely ordinary, and they are oppositioned against ugliness.


Beauty is not a dialectically fashioned creation.  It is oppositioned; bi-polar, set up in dichotomous fashion with ‘the’ other who or what is not beautiful.  It is the realm of the unreal, of fantasy/ies; of romance and lightness; of modernity and civilization—NOT horror, and death, and darkness and aggression and savagery.


Beauty positions on the side of silencing; it allows us to think of one side and not the other or others.  Instead of seeing the wholes of which we are a part we see segments; parts, one side.  Beauty as such is exclusionary and silencing of the polyglot of humanity of the multiple proletariats who have no country to call home.


Beauty and the process of beautifying women is an open secret of sorts, and often even an open lie.  The female body is commoditized as a site for profit making while gender and race are encoded through it.  Today women are cut, injected, starved on diets, cut and pasted, denuded, draped, reshaped, and deciphered into avatars that become something other than the human being. These avatars are multicultural and global while they are disembodied.


Female Bodies are these incredible things….every one wants a piece of them.  They are always in motion—busy laboring, consuming, warring, loving, creating, changing, doing.  They are power-filled which are why they are sites for constant surveillance, and control, and devastation, and punishment.  Once in a while they are celebrated, but usually in these instances it is an individuals and not as members of the incredible class of people identified as females.


Do not get me wrong….females as a sexual class is not unitary, or the same.  Each female is different from each other in endless ways.  They/we come in all different races, economic classes, genders, sexual choices, sizes, physical ability, cultural uniqueness, religious beliefs, etc.  So are political resilience is that we know how to be unique and similar at the same time.


It is just TOO interesting to me that female bodies and what they do are almost always naturalized and therefore normalized as such for what they do and therefore are given little or no political recognition.  Political means power-filled with consequence.  It means that female bodies do absolutely necessary things for survival.  It is most often females/women as wives, mothers, daughters, sisters who cook and feed, and nurture, and sustains life and the networks necessary for human existence.  No surprise that the history of fire, and cooking as essential to the reproduction of the species is sidelined. Or that food production until it became corporatized and profitable was ignored.  Or that …


Ok, this is my start.  But then/now I need to say that female bodies are changing and are never remaining the same.  Fatness, thinness, botox, change the way female bodies are thought of and ignored and manufactured. Beauty and beautification is an endless hopefulness, always open to newness and incompletion which is unattainable.


Women are militarized for war and neutralized for the cosmetic industry.  They are part of a food economy that creates globesity and then those with money buy diet pills.  Starvation is probably one of the top crises for the globe, and Michelle Obama narrates programs on childhood obesity.  This is an integrated cycle.


Simultaneously women are tortured, raped and killed in the Congo and gender apartheid is practiced in Saudi Arabia.  I have not heard of global boycotts to stand against this apartheid, and instead we are told that Saudi women are not allowed to drive—as though it were some middle class woman’s unnecessary desire.  Women in Afghanistan have been bartered over and over again in the Taliban wars but they are no simple victims.  It is their stance to demand their rights that has the blue Burqa being pulled tighter.  There is no beauty to be seen here, just coverings and missing faces.


The Arab spring makes clear that women in Egypt and Tunisia, and elsewhere expect their rights as human beings, who also happen to be women relegated to a misogynist society.  Women in the U.S. military have exposed rampant sexual violation and harassment in our armed forces—in Afghanistan and Iraq especially—and yet the U.S. government says that “we” must bring women’s equality to these countries.


Female bodies expose the OPEN SECRETS of misogyny which allow and permit the continual invisibility of women’s lives in their structured sexual class derivation.  There is continual struggle to revise and modernize this system so that it remains invisible in new forms.  Beauty narratives are a deep sourcing of this process.


The new technologies allow for new sex/gender and racial formations.  Nothing is as it looks.  So the polyversal class of women can include male bodies today.  And successful women occupy positions which allow them to be decoys for patriarchy.


Drug wars, border wars, militarization, violence operate with and through the bodies of Mexican women.  Migrant women laborers create transnational families where women mother from afar.  They are murdered as punishment.


Sexual scandal and sexual violence are an open secret.  But the secret is that female bodies are always fluid alongside their staticity. They remain the icon, the fantasy of beauty itself.


A new politics is needed for the globe.  Without recognition of the politics emanating from and with female bodies of every kind and sort there can be no democracy for the globe. We need to enter a post-beauty era.  We, the big we, need to be in search of new idealizations—not anorexia, or bulimia, or wars fought with drones, or life filled with avatars. War is not peace. Corruption is not democracy.  And beauty is not life for girls and women or boys and men. Instead we need to dislocate gender and race as systems of power and find a full heterogeneity of desire that is not located in racialized misogyny nor consumerism but rather in a fully just and principled  inclusive desirous humanity of us all.

Audacious Feminisms

Audacious Feminisms: Newest Sexes, Races, Genders and Globes

Keynote address for the Australian National Women’s Studies Association, Adelaide, Australia, June 30, 2010


Prof. Zillah Eisenstein

Audacious for me means `newly new’,[1] innovative, re-scoped, inventive, uncharted, and revolutionary beyond the borders of clear knowledge.  I need to be audacious in order to find my thinking of how racism operates through white privilege on most parts of the globe, of how gender privilege is always simultaneously a system of sexing and racing the meanings of all people of all colors, of how war and militarism is used to mystify the newest forms of hetero-masculinity and racialized gender.  I have been committed to understanding all this for the past four decades, but the world keeps changing, and I am changed, and so the questions and answers must also change.

Audacious is also a historical and contextual choice of term.  President Barack Obama has popularized the phrase audacity and with it “hope” itself.  Or at least he did so while running for president.  Hope is harder to come by just now in the U.S. and especially if you are one of the 40 million or so without a job; or one of the millions of people waiting until 2014 for some of our parsimonious health care reform to kick in.  Even if my sense of hope is under siege, I will not give away the need for audacious thinking, and acting, and especially not by feminists of all sorts, from all over the globe.

If I am to be totally forthcoming I need to say at the start that so much that I ponder today unravels me.  When I think of the slaughter and mayhem and atrocities visited on women’s bodies in particular in Rwanda and Congo; when I ask why a few females are allowed entry into the bastions of male power, so to speak, when previously they were barred from doing so, I have no good answers.  But I am uncomfortable with not having any good answers so I push beyond in my next bit of meditation.

I also need to bring to the fore at the start that war—in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Congo—are very much on my mind.  I am sure that war is always critical to the way life and its meaning is conceptualized and understood.  I am also sure that the massive killing and death in war undermines the value given to life, at the start so to speak.  The suffering of war belies the ability to find words to clarify the pain.  In and alongside war billions of people across the globe suffer hunger and displacement.  It is exactly at this point of pain and need that I locate my politics—especially but not exclusively for girls and women— in this moment.

My anti-racist feminism begins here.  The politics is not exclusionary to females but it always is thinking from the site of female bodies—powerful, laboring, abused, and also defiant.  Some wear veils, others reveal their faces and other body parts, some are tattooed, others not, and on and on in endless variety.  As I rethink and update all the changes that I can purview I wish I had a new name to bespeak the audaciousness at hand. Feminism, even in the plural feminisms, is not new.  And much of what is old here is constraining.  And yet, I have no other word that bespeaks the collective political struggle that I continue to need.  So I am uneasy and doubtful but also equally passionate that we transform the world we inhabit, especially for the girls and women of this globe.

I will meander and ask you to travel with me.  Life could not be more complex and yet few of us are able to wrap our heads around the complexity—about the sexual/ racial/gender/class changes across the globe and the way these sites do not change.  I am reminded of the South African artist William Kentridge as he writes of post-apartheid South Africa. He notes that one of the strangest things about his country is how little has changed; that it is post (apartheid), and also not post at all.  He writes: “In many parts of the country, it hasn’t changed at all. Children in poor rural schools still get a miserable education… It’s also true that the main beneficiaries since the ending of apartheid are white South Africans. No sacrifices have been required.  No one’s lost their beautiful house.”  Yet he says that his compromised society “reflects and nourishes his work”. It makes him “suspicious of certainty” and the “provisionality of the moment”. Because of his world, he values “doubt”.[2]  Doubt makes me look more carefully and to wonder more. We need to wonder.

Why are women’s lives more differentiated today within the structural systems of patriarchy than in earlier historical periods?  Why is this moment of patriarchal privilege more diversely written with women’s bodies of all colors and many classes? Why is there less radical and revolutionary feminist theory and politics at this moment especially in “first-world” countries?  Why do I still use this term patriarchy when so much has changed?

Most women are working overtime doing the labor necessitated by misogyny and they also occupy sites that were once closed to them within this very system of male privilege. But this latter change of females to new sites in the public sphere—presidents, C.E. O’s—has little to do with a re-arranging of structural or collective power.  Women have been or are presidents, and secretary of states and foreign ministers in the U.S., Haiti, Liberia, Argentina, Chile, Jamaica, Germany, France, India, Pakistan, and so forth. Meanwhile 500,000 women die annually in childbirth.  Never mind all the Elizabeth’s who ruled England by birth and marriage right.  This is yet another variation on my theme.

My thoughts today are chaotic and fluid as they should be.  I ask that you move with me from the body to the globe; and the globe to our bodies that are raced, sexed, gendered and so on. Everything is changing and nothing changes. Both of these statements is true, and also not true.  It is also true that either way—changing or not—times are unsettled and unsettling.  Yet, with the uncertainty comes new possibility.

This moment we—the “big we”— inhabit with Obama as president is often called a post-racial moment.  To me it feels more like a post-racial racism, a post-sexual misogyny, a post-gendered patriarchy.  There are new racialized gender and engendered racist formations that keep much of the structural privilege in place while looking wholly new and different than before.  I see no clearly demarcated “post” anything; post is a troubled/troubling term.  Instead I am looking for the “new-old” meanings that are amazingly changed—and not.[3]

This said, there are then many narratives to construct and listen to.  But their naming is part of the process of finding what is new.  Feminisms are both stuck and have moved beyond languages that are both necessary and outmoded.  First and third world exist and yet they exist also as one.  The third world lives in New York City.  Kentucky Fried Chicken is in Kenya. The second world disappeared with the Soviet Union and the revolutions of 1989.  Indigenous feminisms are both constructed by imperial beginnings to start with, and stand against imperial feminisms of all sorts.  In the end I may create a sense of sadness as I reveal the very heartbreak that must be changed.

Feminisms put female bodies in the bold.  Female bodies, in whatever cultural/racial/class form they take are seen as a location, or the location of power and powerlessness. Women are bound and gagged because they have potential power.  Women are beaten/raped/mutilated because of the same.  If women’s bodies were not a site of power, they would not be the battlefield that they are.  The struggle over abortion in many countries often comes down to protecting the last bastion of control of women’s bodies. This struggle over the legal standing of abortion stymied the unification struggles between East and West Germany and their new constitution.  Abortion remained an unresolved contestation in the recent battles over health care reform in the U.S.  Reproductive rights and self-determination of one’s female body remains central to all the newest re-formations of misogyny.  If one could, one would just need to ask any female black slave about her body and her punishment due to its power as property.

But female bodies today are also so diversely embodied with multiple meanings and differentiations that it is harder to see the homogeneity, for a lack of a better term, which remains.  On the one hand there are Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, President Ellen Shirleaf in Liberia, defense ministers in Spain and France, and female soldiers at Abu Ghraib.  On the other hand there are poor migrant women laborers, female flower growers in Honduras, mutilated girls and women in Rwanda, indigenous women depicted as mother earth, black women and their children described as obese.

It is interesting to read an advisory report dealing with human rights in the context of counter terrorism that describes gender as a social rather than a biological construct. The report states: “Gender is not synonymous with women but rather encompasses the social responsibilities that underlie how women’s and men’s roles, functions and responsibilities, including in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, are defined and understood.”[4]  I would agree in part.  And then there is still the female body however complexly and fluidly it is constructed.



Whose Woman’s Nation?


Maria Shriver authors and distributes a report, “A Woman’s Nation”, September, 2009.  At this moment women in the U.S. were poised to become the majority in the labor force, outnumbering men.  I wonder immediately upon hearing this whether this means that white women, especially white married women, have now entered the labor in new numbers, just meeting black and Latina married and unmarried women who are already there.  When Shriver says that there is now an “emergence of working women as primary breadwinners” I assume she means white women here[5]. And it remains unclear whether breadwinner means anything in terms of economic gains. As well, just because more women are in the labor force than men, does not mean that women have gained equal access in this market to the better paying jobs, nor does it mean that these women earn equal wages to men, nor does it say anything about a living or a fair wage.

There are more women in the labor force than ever before in the U.S.  outpacing men, but this says little about equality nor is it indicative of a re-arrangement of  power.  It says more about the recession of 2009 and the disproportionate loss of jobs that men, especially working class men held.  These jobs are gone, for these men and women alike..  Think auto industry, anyone?  The U.S. is no “woman’s nation” in my mind.  Instead it is a nation that is upping the ante for women who now must add wage-labor to their responsibilities if it was not already part of their package before-hand.

These changes are not about feminisms or about women’s rights, or about women’s empowerment, even if women use these changes to empower themselves as individuals. All this change (and not) of women laborers is about women becoming the largest part of the new working classes. Young Chinese women, who are actually described more accurately as girls aged 14-17, make up the new millions of workers in export factories in China.  These “dagonmei” workers hardly have power, or equality for that matter, with men in China, or women across the globe that buy the products of the global factories, but do not have to work in them.  There are also the Chinese women in the auto factories, just this week that are newly demanding higher wages and the right to form a union. They appear to be the backbone of this new class of workers. There are also immigrant women—from the Philippines and the Caribbean—creating a union for women working as nannies in New York.

Yet again, there is more female network nightly news anchors in the U.S. than ever before. Why not, given it is the old way of getting news.  Never mind that fewer and fewer people watch the nightly evening news.  It seems in part that as the old sites of power diminish in significance they newly become inhabited by females and people of all colors.  One could think similarly of governments and nation-states.  Given the erosion of state power against global and trans-national corporations, females will more readily be admitted to these former sites of power.

Although there are many women of all colors with important positions in the Obama administration most women’s lives are not eased by this fact.  These appointments have had no affect, if affect means that this impacts women’s lives with greater access to day care or health care or abortion facilities. Besides, people from within the administration say that a culture of male privilege remains. It is said that he feels most comfortable around men, and they remain who he plays golf with and who is in his inner decision making circle.  The White House remains a man’s world and yet fluid—

Obama is a modern man, with “amazing” Michelle as his wife.  Barack says it is “bunk” that the all male basketball game means anything. But the fact that he thinks it is “bunk” is the problem.  Why? Because women’s lives are not just or fair; because misogyny still exists with and without basketball

Modernized misogyny is still misogynist.  The privileging of masculinity exists today but with much more economically diverse and diversified forms/expressions.  Chattel slavery created all blacks homogeneously as poor, even if there were distinctions of privilege from the manor to the field.  Being black today is more economically diversified than in the past.  This is true of gender privilege as well.  The once traditional white heterosexual married family now exists in much more various forms: single parent families, blended families, gay families, black and Hispanic and Asian families.

Amidst the fluidity there is also continuity.  Females continue to birth the next generation across the globe; they are still breeders of a fashion even if very differently so from the black slave female. But other than bodily sexual reproduction there is much variety in what gender means—it is both static and fluid simultaneously.   Older structural forms of patriarchal control have been modernized through class and racial differentiations while much else also remains the same—in terms of birthing and rearing children.  The laws of gender and racial apartheid have been challenged and changed while new economic class relations take their place.  New hierarchies form between white middle class women who hire poor and working class women of all colors; and middle class women of other colors hire poor and working class who are otherwise like them.

In the U.S Elena Kagan while waiting to be confirmed by the senate as the next Supreme Court justice was assumed to be gay, given that she is not married and has no children. Heterosexist patriarchy still reigns, no matter when she is confirmed.  Without a husband and children, she is suspect.  There is much speculation as to whether she has had to give up a personal life, assuming that a personal life requires a husband and children, in order to achieve her new status.  There is lots of chatter whether high achieving (white) women need to remain childless, and have given up too much by doing so.  It also remains true that for the 80 percent of women with children, the higher realms are effectively closed to them.[6]

Four in ten mothers in the U.S. are primary breadwinners and upwards of eighty percent of women contribute significantly to the economic well being of their households.[7]  Yet, women remain poor despite all their hard work, and one’s color plays a huge role here still.  In the U.S at present the median wealth for single black woman is $100, for a single Hispanic woman is $120, and for single white women, $41,000.

Let me sum up for a moment: the fact that women are working hard and located in new arenas does not mean women has gained more power, if power means ease with justice in their lives.  More women in the labor force, whatever their color, does not shift the structural privileges of masculinity although it can make patriarchal inequalities look very different.  So although Maria Shriver calls the U.S. a “woman’s nation”, it is hardly that.  Most women of all colors are working more and harder and in new locations but this just simply means that females are working harder.  And, it is also true, that females across the globe have always done a majority of the cooking, and collecting of wood and hauling of water, and whatever else needs to be done to sustain themselves and their loved ones.

Women in Eastern Europe before the revolutions of 1989 already carried these burdens of the labor force and their triple days of labor.  Women in most African nations have carried more than their share of life’s burdens. Women in China were said to hold up half the sky during Mao’s reign.  Women filled the munitions factories during WWII in the U.S. and England.

Yet, still, most women are not paid as equals.  They are not promoted as equals either. And yet there is something new here.  What is new is that this labor is being put more in view, and some females are also doing newly paid labor. Misogyny has more egalitarian looking forms today without the equality. There is a more diverse range of jobs that females of all colors hold today.  This level of differentiation and diversity defines the present global economy.  I continue to wonder why this newest form of patriarchy exists and to who’s benefit other than corporate greed and its masculinist privileging.  It is not to the benefit of most women or many men across the globe.

The media exposure of women’s labor force participation, however racialized and ignorant it is, bespeaks a shifting of the authoritative discourses of a newer form of misogyny.  This also compels the Obama administration via Hillary Clinton to commit to making women’s rights a central aspect of U.S. foreign policy, whatever this might mean. There is something very old and worn in this new directive: the World Bank has promoted investing in women in poor nations for at least three decades.[8] They have long argued that an investment in women is an investment in their families and the nation.  This is hardly innovative or revolutionary feminisms at work as women become the bulwark, once again, for family and nation building.  In bringing this directive to the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy at this point in time bespeaks the intimate needs of a privatized globe run by corporate/masculinist greed.  It needs women’s labor in all its forms—old and new, more than ever before.


Changing Racial and Gender Masks


Moments and time matter when I am talking/thinking about the newest happenings and changes.  The very idea of “new” means it is in the present moment, but then quickly moves out of the present, requiring a “newest” yet again.  For my thinking just now I keep looking for the “newest” happening and yet try to see these events as part of larger contexts that contain the “new-old”.  These larger contexts explain, at least somewhat, how moments appear and explode as though they come from nowhere.  Because gender and white privilege are never singular in content they cannot be understood in singular fashion.  These moments which appear to be un-rooted and disconnected can be found to be connected back to female bodies.

I meander away from women’s body and their many forms of labor to the sexing and regulation of these bodies.  I am looking for connections that are not readily in view and yet let us think newly. Discourses meld together to form new exposures.  The recent sex abuse scandal of the Catholic Church reminds me to never forget the physical/sexual body and the deep secrets that spill out over and over again—whether in the Catholic Church or the mass rapes in the Congo or in juvenile detention centers throughout the U.S.  These are scandalous and heartbreaking abuses of young people—male and female—and their (sexual) bodies.

This story of sexual abuse is global. The pope and much of the Vatican turned a blind eye. The church as a whole was complicit in shielding the perpetrators through silence and avoidance.  Scandalous priests were allowed cover and protection.  Few guilty perpetrators have been held accountable for their actions. Yet, just last week, the pope took no time at all in immediately excommunicating a devout nun who assisted in obtaining an abortion for a woman in dire need.

While the papal sex abuse scandal was unraveling I saw the film Precious which received rave reviews from white reviewers as it exposed, yet once again, the story of a young black girl who is raped and sexually abused repeatedly by both her crack addicted mother and her negligent father.  Sex, race and gender are all in play here and in very old forms.  Black motherhood, black teenager, black father are all depicted as troubled. Meanwhile Sandra Bullock receives the Oscar for best actress in the film, Blindside which is a (true) story about a white woman who embraces a black teenager who has been abandoned by his crack-addicted mother. This is also an old story. Motherhood is still all the rage and the good kind is rich and white.  These stories run parallel with the changing nature and character of female life in all its colors and newnesses.

There are always new happenings to think about. Caster Semenya, the South African runner is castigated for feigning her sex as female but running like a man, with testesterone levels to prove it.  A young black female basketball player Brittney Griner plays her heart out for Baylor in the NCAA playoffs but punches an opponent in the face and it is called unwomanly and not nice.  Griner agrees and says there is no excuse for what she has done—and says it will never happen again.  I watched the replay on You Tube at least five times to see the punch and it looked pretty much like a visceral reaction to being pushed hard.  But no matter; women’s sports are supposed to be different than men’s, and not.

Let me add to the iconography of where my mind has recently traveled. Alongside the narratives and films and sports mentioned I was reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and also Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. [9]  Henrietta Lacks was a black woman living in the segregated world of the 1950’s in the U.S.  She was a poor black female in a white racist world of medicine. She died of cervical cancer on an all black ward in Johns Hopkins Hospital.  She died a terribly painful and frightening death.  Despite the racial segregation, or some might say because of it, her cells were harvested from her body and they became immortal—they reproduced themselves in the lab like no other cells could do before.  Today her cells which are known as—HeLa cells—are used in research in laboratories  across the globe.

The book, written by Rebecca Skloot, a white woman, was supposed to tell the story about Henrietta, to give voice to the forgotten woman who was the origin of these cells. But the story we are provided tells instead the story of the family she left behind and this family is depicted by the narrative of drug addiction, prison, and lack of education.  By default, Henrietta is constructed and remains within this black portrait, so to speak: uneducated, ignorant, and so forth. There is little mention of the way racism and sexism was written into the science and its methods at the time Henrietta lived. There is little sense of political context; of how racism affects all aspects of life and how white privilege and gender hierarchy intersects with her cells.

I saw glimpses of a different story. Henrietta seemed incredibly important to her family and was its backbone until her death. Her death caused a family crisis that was only exacerbated by the racist meanness of the times. And yet racism had its boundaries: Henrietta’s cells were harvested for the entire white world to benefit from even though she was segregated as a black woman.  Although her life was defined through legalized racial apartheid, and her “rights” to her cells, the use of her cells ignored and negated these racist borders.

In The New Jim Crow I read how today more blacks are in prison in the U.S. then makes any kind of logical/democratic sense. Prisons and felon status set aside and segregate blacks like in the days similar to Jim Crow laws.  The status of felon, which is so readily attached to young black men, stays with them for life and denies them the citizen/civil rights won earlier.  I want to hear of the black females that are defined in and by this new felon status. This newly formed racism also segregates and punishes black women as felons, and mothers and wives as well. After all, the new Jim Crow definitely has a story of Jane Crow. The newest story necessitates a telling of the webbed relations of sex and gender with racism, a story often ignored in discussions of chattel slavery as well.


Racializing Gender for Imperial Militaries


Females are more present in the U.S. military than ever before. Disproportionate numbers of these females are colored and not white. But also let us not forget that millions of women were militarized—even though not part of the military per se— during World War II as they stocked the munitions and bomb factories throughout Europe and the U.S. as well. Actually, 6 million workers, a majority of them women, were injured during WW II in these factories; and 64,000 died throughout the war.  This information is not new, but I know it newly.

Like elsewhere, although most women in Iraq have gravely suffered from the war, some Iraqi women have advanced with the U.S. occupation.  Women’s businesses have grown, and some of the rights of urban women under Saddam Hussein have been renewed. Yet a majority of women have lost loved ones, lost their homes, exist within a troubled economy, and suffer the daily travails of war.  Meanwhile, women in the U.S. have become much more necessary to the military effort, especially in combat arenas.

U.S. military women have also become a new liaison with Afghan women in Afghanistan.  U.S. females allow the U.S. to be “culturally sensitive” to female practices, and U.S females are often said to be more culturally astute.  They talk with Afghan women, assist in medical procedures, and build bridges—the way women are assumed to be able to do, but in this instance, from once male defined sites. U.S. women wear their camouflage and Afghan women their veil.  And neither customary meaning of gender is what they are assumed to be—these are not simple opposites of a clear divide. Female marines spark curiosity by Afghan women as they look for physical proof that they are female, while male marines resist and challenge the newly sexed militarism.[10]

U.N. peace keeping forces also have a new face. Indian women now make up a large part of the newest U.N.’s peace-keeping force in Liberia. The women whom are a special U. N. police unit from India live two lives: they guard the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and patrol the streets with their guns and then go back to their barracks where they video conference with their children at home. The sergeant in charge of the unit calls these women “my men”.[11]

Chechen women have become the newest wave of suicide bombers in the war between Chechnya and Moscow. They make up 40 percent of the bombers.  They kill and maim in defense of themselves and their families.  Often called Black Widows these females have often lost a husband or a brother to the war and they embrace Chechen separatism.

Iraqi women have also become suicide bombers.  They are harder to search given the gender rules that protect and set aside the Muslim woman’s body.  Then they break the rules and throw or carry the bomb.  Gender and its borders, and the female body itself are not simply what it/they might seem.

Sgt. Maj. Teresa King is the first woman in the U.S. to command an Army drill sergeant school. She teaches those who will teach all the others on how to become a soldier. She is eighth of twelve children of a sharecropper.  In this job she has important influence over the basic training of every enlisted soldier.  She oversees the training of all drill sergeants training.  And every enlisted soldier will have this introduction to the army, with a black female in charge. She drives a black Corvette and has vanity plates reading “no slack”.[12]  Her newly achieved status has little to do with the majority of women in the army.  They remain discriminated against and at risk.

Changes at the top of any hierarchy matter greatly and also matter little for most of the women in the military, or the larger society as well.  In 2008 Ann Dunwoody was the first U.S. woman to be promoted to a four-star general, the army’s highest rank. She is head of the Army Materiel Command, in charge of weapons, equipment and uniforms in the army. There are 21 female generals, most of them one-star.  I keep wondering how these changes camouflage the basic misogyny of war and militarism more generally.  I am thinking that this diversification of gender is necessary to the newest distributions and necessities of women’s labor in all its present forms.  The privatized nation-state demands a more fluid and diverse practice of racialized gender and engendered racism within public spaces.  It now matters much less what the sex of the individual is performing the meanings of gender and race.

This same process of diversification applies to other sites as well: Presidents, Secretary of States, or Supreme Court Justices.  These were sex-segregated realms.  Most of the realms were protected through an understood sexual apartheid, rather than a legal one.  But either way, there have been significant shifts away from established legal apartheid and inequality toward a more nuanced economic and racialized set of hierarchies.

Although women are barred from joining combat branches like the infantry and Special Forces, very often quiet circumvention of military policy has them in full combat mode. In Iraq and Afghanistan females end up wherever they are needed, like bomb disposal and intelligence. Necessity and history define gender here.  The Iraq insurgency “elevated” U.S. military women to new sites by “obliterating conventional battle lines…Commanders were forced to stretch gender boundaries, or in a few cases, erase them altogether.”[13]   Females do battle in all its forms—patrolling streets with machine guns, steering gunners on vehicles, disposing of explosives and so on.

Under these circumstances and needs, pregnancy is not seen as something a woman should allow to happen.  For a short while a new army policy was initiated that would have court –marshaled and possibly jailed any female who became pregnant and any male soldier responsible for the impregnation.  This prohibition was initially introduced by Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo III. He defended the controversial policy this way: “My female soldiers are absolutely invaluable….with their male counterparts, they fly helicopters, run my satellite communications, repair just about everything, re-fuel and re-arm aircraft in remote locations, are brilliant and creative intelligence analysts…I am going to do everything I can to keep my combat power.”[14]  Nevertheless, these incredibly competent women are reminded of their tenuous gender status as they remain victims of rape and harassment.

More than 160,000 women have been deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  One in ten U.S. soldiers in Iraq is female.  They have done a yeoman’s duty—they have experienced lethal attacks, devastating trauma and wounding, and death.  These same women have faced sexual assault and harassment by their fellow soldiers and officers.  They return home traumatized by the wars on all their entire being.  Their bodies and their minds suffer deeply.  One-third of female soldiers seeking health care from the V.A. said they had been raped, and of these women, 14 percent say they were gang raped.  Female soldiers suffer PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) at twice the rate of male soldiers.[15]

In 2008 there were 2,923 reports of sexual assaults among active duty troops worldwide. In Iraq and Afghanistan the complaints have shot up by 26 percent.  Forty- one percent of female veterans seen at the Veterans Affairs hospital in the Los Angeles area report being victims of sexual assault while serving in the military.[16]

Most female soldiers who are also moms feel conflicted between their work that takes them away from their children, and their children’s needs.  There is no assist for them in this realm.  Women are court-martialed if they do not show up for duty, and showing up means that they need 24 hour day-care coverage, while deployed overseas.  This is no easy matter.  More than 100,000 female soldiers who have been in Iraq and Afghanistan are mothers, which is about half the number that has been deployed. The vast majority is primary caregivers and a third is single mothers.[17]  New families and new genders appear to be historical necessity.  But these new genders still remain ordered, even if chaotically, in hierarchical masculinist fashion.

These newest patriarchal maneuvers mean that women enter sites once closed to them.  But for the ordinary woman, the working class women of all colors, the females who bear children and rear them in whatever new arrangements they can create this is just another necessary job, in its newest form. Male privilege is re-wired and keeps women’s labor intact:—the labors become additive rather than liberating.

Overvaluing the public sphere of labor and politics keeps the focus on these newest opportunities and not on the labor already being done and assigned to women. The more privatized our globe becomes the more labor there is for the majority of globe to do.  With less public responsibility borne by nations, women, and now even many men, are working in more diverse gender patterns and for less money than before.

I am out for an early morning jog and I see three men pushing baby carriages.  I wonder whether their partners are off at their jobs.  After all, in the recession/depression of 2009 men lost 80 percent of the jobs.  Their jobs are gone for good.  White men, especially working class ones, are described as angry.  There should be little surprise here.  This is what gender fluidity looks like.  Females can do any job and for less money while males are losing ground with some of them moving toward the non-paid labor of the home.  That is, unless, you are black and poor, and then you are at risk for being incarcerated or labeled a felon.  There is no equivalency in the mobility of labor across sexual and gender divides because misogyny and racism continue to define the choices differently.  And, a male worker, whatever his color, will still earn women’s wages if he is doing a classically woman’s job.

Many of the changes due to the economy—national and global—mean that patriarchy looks different and it is different. And, a different kind of misogyny is still misogynistic. Just like newly different forms of global capitalism, is still capitalist.


Gender Bending with theGlobe 

               Gender and race—if one can even speak of these constructs in and of themselves in any separate and singular way—are always in the process of being defined.  They are not givens but potentials in that their meanings shift, and bend, and sometimes maybe even break apart within and alongside their more seemingly unchanging `nature’.  Although gender and race are treated as static, which assumes that they are biological categories more often than not, their meanings meander continuously given the needs of economies, state formations and their militarist needs, and other historical moments.  
               By now there are many scholars and political activists who take note of this fluidity and changeability, and yet the categories also remain in place, with static and unchangeable resonance. This ‘two-ness’ as W.E.B. Dubois might say—fluidity and unchangeability—is at the heart of racialized gender today.  It is just possible that we live at a critical juncture—where these changing constructions of racialized gender and engendered race— hold out new possibility for the ultimate destabilization of race and gender as they have been traditionally established.
               The edges of racial identity have become more blurred.[18] With interracial marriage, and mixings of races that are already blends of themselves through extraordinary histories of exchange and imperial acts, race has multiple meanings.  My point is not that there is no race, or that white privilege is not incredibly powerful for those who have it, and punishing to those who do not.  Rather, I wish to explore the newest shifts and meanings of race and gender in order to see if there are radically new constructions and possibilities for them.
        I am wondering if white privilege and gender are significantly and uniquely different than what they were in earlier form.  In other words, that maybe this is a key historical moment that might actually alter the practices of gender and race so that former constructions of each are undermined and challenged in fundamentally unknown ways.  As such, this may be a revolutionary or radical moment where former gender and racial hierarchies are potentially destabilized.  Revolutionary does not necessarily mean progressive, or radically democratic.  But the possibility remains.  An astro-physicist might call this a moment of “singularity”—“a state in which things become so radically different that the old rules break down and we know virtually nothing.”[19]
               If this is a unique moment to realign and reconfigure the domains of racialized gender and engendered race it can only be done with recognition of their structural, and not merely individualist meaning. Barack and Hillary have both relocated and redefined the sites that a Black man and a white woman can occupy.  This may appear to be fundamental and structural change, and it may actually be so, but it is not self-evident that it is.  
               The more gender bends the more it also loosens its clarity.  It just may be that my notion of a sexual decoy—that the female body should not be simply read as one and the same with the culturally gendered body— is too clear-cut and constricting because gender can have too many meanings.[20] The more women are in the military and act as political operatives the more this becomes part of the changed expression of gender itself.  The clarity of decoy status—that a female body should not automatically be presumed to be one and the same with a gendered woman—assumes that a female is tied to a static unchanging traditional conception of what a woman’s gender is in the first place.  The sexual decoy may simply be a newest form of gender expression. Gender is simply what it becomes.
               Nations do not remain as they once were either.  Countries are carved anew and the global economy disregards national borders whenever it is beneficial to do so.  I think that global capital disregards gender and racial borders in similar ways.  Women and girls provide the labor for the new global markets while renegotiating former familial and national borders. Global capital’s greed has led to an economic crisis of unknown proportion along with an undermining of earlier patriarchal familial forms. 
               The greed stops at nothing, even at the cost of its own exposure. Global capital now undermines systems of patriarchal gender and racialized misogyny by its endless search for the cheapest labor. This endless search for profits—be it oil or girl’s and women’s labor—reveal the many colors of the globe, which destabilizes earlier notions of white privilege for its more modern, `newest’ form.   
               Global capitalism’s gender undermines the structural requisites of earlier forms of patriarchy itself.   The excesses of global capital have undermined patriarchal gender as it has been established through clear-cut public/private divides and has as a result created new viable and complex varieties of gender/s. These changes and tensions impugn earlier mutual dependencies between capitalism and misogyny.  As such, gender exists in traditional patriarchal ways and it is also transforming misogyny in its more homogenous standardized form.
               Women are able to distance themselves from the more traditional aspects of patriarchy, as they become wage earners, and sometimes earn higher salaries.  Women who live within more traditional forms of patriarchy, given their poverty, find it harder to escape the burdens of patriarchal labor.  Wealthy women have been able to alleviate the more punishing aspects of misogyny, and continue to do so with even greater effect.  This is often done through their dumping the more punishing responsibilities for domestic labor on poorer women.   
               The labor of the globe is disproportionately people of color, especially women and girls.  But the colors of women vary enormously, depending on place and geographical location.  There are many more women of color in the middle classes today in China, Chile, Spain, etc. than in earlier history. This complex nexus of economic class cuts through and within colors, races, and cultures forming a newer racialized gendering of the global economy. 
               The global working class was never predominantly white, but rather colored men. Today it is predominantly colored girls and women.  It is the migrant and displaced labor of women and girls of color doing the “international transfer of care”: domestic work, nursing, nannies, etc.[21] The care related occupations develop with the growth of new middle classes. And yet these new workers are part of the continual migrant populations of displaced peoples, exiles, undocumented workers, traffickers, and so on.  There are 175 million people living outside their country of birth and approximately 49 percent of them are women and girls.  And of the 25 million persons internally displaced, 70 percent are women.[22] 
               There is an internal class hierarchy for women—as a gendered construct. In Shenzhen, China there is a full imprint of global capitalism.  There is an urban professional class of young women who now work for transnational companies.  These women are known as “white collar beauties” and they hire poor rural women to do their former domestic jobs.  At the same time, these urban professional women are being re-feminized from the so-called de-femininized heritage of Mao.[23]
               There has been much attention paid to the way that global capital disregards national boundaries and reconstructs new global economic formations.  I wish to point towards how global capital now also ignores and undermines the pre-existing borders of race and gender in new form.  Gender and race and the way they connect and define each other are destabilized by the hunt for girls and women’s labor. This search pulls women into the paid labor force and public workspace while realigning their private and public spheres.  The clear-cut divide between home and work is undermined by new global formations.  
               As women traverse both realms, sometimes freely, other times as enforced, the borderlines of established patriarchal gender morph.  As such, gender fluidity and its bending underpin the newest globe. Global capital re-genders and maybe un-genders labor while re-sexing it.  This does not mean that greater equality exists for women and girls, but it means that there is more sexual fluidity.          
               New forms of genders and their practices allow more flexibility that challenges the privileging of sexual hierarchy and sexual differentiation.  Although many women have more choices today than their mothers did there are also greater economic inequalities and therefore greater burdens to bear.  Because class divisions differentiate genders and races they appear to have more diversity, and possibly fluidity
               Do not misunderstand my querying here.  I do not think patriarchy or white privilege or misogyny will wither away due to the assaults of global capitalism. I rather think that global capitalism destabilizes genders and races as we have known them, and will do its best to reformulate them for its new/est needs.  I rather point to several other important claims: that the new fluidity and diversity within the constructs of gender and race should not be misinterpreted as though they mean civil and women’s rights have been achieved; that existing constructs of racism and sexism need new political conceptualization; that these new complexities prove that race and gender are endlessly malleable and therefore open to all kinds of new regressive and progressive possibility; that gender and race are both newly punishing, and not.
               In sum: countries are more racially diverse and mixed than they used to be during colonialism, when the mother country often remained white. Today, a country like the U.S. is richly colored and racially diverse with people from all over the globe.  As well, gender today is also more differentiated and complex.  More economic differences exist within engendered misogyny.  Although women have always inhabited countries, in a way that multiple races have not, the spaces women occupy have become more differentiated in labor markets.  
               All this said the incredible pluralism of choice that challenges the glass ceilings remains possible for a precious few.  And in this sense, radically plural genders and races continue to be embedded in white privilege and misogynist hierarchy for the masses of poor people across the globe. Yet, alongside these limitations, I also continue to look to find and see the newest racialized gender and gendered racial formations for their possibilities to enliven a politics of a newly radical democracy.



What is a woman, anyway? And who needs to know?


There is a lot of talk at present about what it means to qualify as a woman, especially if you are running in and competing in an athletic race. Caster Semenya, the South African runner, has been said to have too much testosterone and internal testes and no ovaries and uterus.  As such, her female status is in question. This querying of sex categorizations is much older and broader than this present controversy about athletics.  Sigmund Freud asked and wondered about it.  So did Simone de Beauvoir.

While others are wondering if Caster Semenya can qualify as female, which is also tied up with notions of being a woman, I wonder if Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton should be tested for their testosterone levels. Hillary started her run for the presidency making clear she was not running as a woman, but because of her experience.  And then she went to extraordinary lengths to prove that she could be a hard and tough commander-in-chief, just like a man.  Condi Rice authorized the dropping of bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan despite high civilian casualties.  She watched along with Bush and Cheney while black women and children were pummeled by hurricane Katrina.

Biologists, like Anne Fausto Sterling in her book Sexing the Body, have addressed this issue of sex categorization and its clarity. According to Fausto-Sterling, “labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision”; actual physical bodies blur clear boundaries.  She argues that the state and legal system may have an interest in maintaining that there are only two sexes, but that “our collective biological bodies do not.” She continues: “masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits”; that the “two party system” of sex is a social construction”; that male and female “stand on extreme ends of a biological continuum” with many other kinds of bodies which are a “complex mix of anatomical components.” As such, our sexual bodies are “indeterminate” and therefore “policed” to become male and female.

It then follows that biology, as well as gender, is bio-political; and the more gender is challenged, the more rigidly sex is constructed as either male or female.  This extends to hormones themselves; which Fausto-Sterling says are identified as though they were sexually determinant, but rather are simply part of an already “gendered discourse of scientists.” Citing Frank Lillie, Fausto-Sterling states that there is “no such biological entity as sex”, but rather it is merely a name for our impressions about sexual differences.  Sex is not fact here.  It is random acts of science that name male hormones androgens and female hormones estrogen.[24]

According to Joanne Meyerowitz there are “overlapping sexes”; possibly a universal bisexuality. Men and women have male and female hormones—“all women had elements of the male and all men elements of the female.” As such, it is scientifically inaccurate to “classify people as fully male or female.”[25]  In this sense, biology is not simply innate or genetically determined.  Nancy Krieger and George Davey Smith write that “societal conditions shape the expression of biological traits”; that there are “linkages between bodily constitution and the body politics”.[26]  New constructs of sexes and genders reflect this fluidity.  Krieger argues further that transgender, transsexual and intersexual blur the established boundaries between and within the gender/sex dichotomy.  Gender influences biological traits and sex linked biological characteristics can affect gender.[27]

Similarly Susan Oyama queries the nature/nurture divide and says that each is partly constructed by and through the other. She rejects the notion of biology as an innate category and instead argues that innate and acquired are complexly intertwined—that genes are complexly interactional and change as a result of context. “Bodies and minds are constructed, not transmitted.” As such, nature is a product and a process; “nature is not transmitted but constructed.” The biological/sexual body includes our whole selves “which includes the social worlds in which we are made.” Oyama asks us to reject the “disciplinary imperialism” of “genetic control.”[28]

It is then crucial to understand that gender impinges on how we see and name the sexual body; and the sexual body is used to justify the very notion of gender.  Gender even defines the sexed body and the sexed body constructs gender.  There are several sexes, and more than two.  And there are more than two genders.  Yet the language of two-ness dominates.  This means that both sex and gender are part of the most intimate constructions of our political world.

It is often thought that sexuality—as in biological sex and sexual preference–is more stable, or static, and predefined, than gender.  But I wonder whether gender—as in the cultural construction of masculine and feminine–is not more static and contrived and more resistant to change.[29]  In this way, gender rigidifies sex. Gender regulates sex and sexual preference as much, if not more, than the other way around. This is not to overdraw the distinctness of sex and gender but rather to query whether the body and its sexuality is not more ambiguous and multiple and diverse than the constructs of gender allow.  Or put slightly differently: that gender exists to control sex and its variability. Gender makes biological sex and sexuality static and rigid.  The point: neither sex nor gender are simply essentialist or constructed. Rather, they are a complex relational mix.  But, given this, the sexual body is probably more fluid than its gendered meaning.  Yet, the biological body—meaning both the so-called `natural body’ and its given hetero-sexual proclivities–is normalized as a justification for the cultural meanings of men and women.  In sum: gender colonizes sex.

I disagree with Peggy Orenstein’s depiction of the problem in “What makes a Woman a Woman?” when she says “biology, at least to some degree, is destiny.”[30] For me, biology matters but is not destiny.  I do not depict nature and nurture in dichotomous form.  Nature is nurtured, and nurture natured.  Women are not simply socially constructed or biologically determined.  We are always both our bodies and their surroundings; bodies reflect cultures and cultures define bodies.  There is no separation that allows clear borders even though people insist as though there were.

Orenstein says that breast cancer was an assault to her femininity.  Fine, but my breast cancer was not for me.  Years later, I have no female body parts left—given that vaginas do not appear declarative–and I do not wonder who I am, or whether I am still female or a woman.  Technically, biologically, I am not female according to established and narrow criteria.  Culturally I am a defiant and insurgent woman that means that I don’t care what others think I am.  Do not get me wrong.  I love jewelry and beautiful clothes, and complete decadent sensuality.  I just do not care how you choose to categorize it.

What is the central need of sexual assignment?  The distinctions are being found to be more arbitrary than reasoned. This simply means that any categorization of biological sex could be drawn differently and according to differently agreed upon standards.  This is not about right and wrong but about how differences destroy the very clarity needed for such judgments.

This gets me back to the title query.  Who needs to know what any of us are? And why?  If we each are human with a sexuality, then we remain curious and multiple rather than singular and bordered. There are cyber bodies, and legal bodies and breast cancer bodies, and AIDS bodies, and pregnant bodies, and gendered bodies, and war bodies, and tortured bodies, and on and on.

Judith Butler has long argued that gender is made-up, performed, plastic, improvised, and multiple.  Enforced gender categorization is tied to an “anatomical essentialism” when there is no simple original form of the copy.  She thinks that many so-called men can do femininity better than she can. A universal notion of gender can be a form of cultural imperialism—so we need to pluralize our understanding of both cultures and their genders.  If gender dysphoria and sexual minorities can be embraced and recognized in the human community then Butler says we most focus on the possible.  “For those who are still looking to become possible, possibility is a necessity.”[31]

The idea that here are two biological sexes is then in and of itself a political limitation/regulation that depends on a formulation of gender as two-ness too.  Sexual and gender classifications are regulatory and by and large stand in defiance of the fluidity and changeability of sexual and gender identities.  Sex is assigned at birth; but through a gendered biological visor.  According to Paisley Currah this denies chromosomal ambiguity, gonadal ambiguity, gender pluralism and sexual indeterminacy.[32]

But there is no adequate language to embrace this complexity so we recreate gender while debunking it: female lesbians, female men, etc.   Sexual and gender indeterminacy needs to become a part of a radically pluralized sex/gender system allowing for a democratic sexual life that is freely chosen.  The presumption however of essentialist biological/innate gender categories still remains firmly in place even when they are scrutinized. Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University explains that women are underrepresented in tenured science positions at top universities because of “intrinsic aptitude” sounding awfully close to innate differences; as though scientists are born, and not made.[33]

Language that flexes with radically plural definitions and meanings is what I search for.  And the level playing field will be made out of this cacophony, not the fantasized notion of two types.


On Audaciously New Anti-Racist Feminisms

It is crucial at this historical moment to stand clearly against imperial feminisms that do not recognize the laboring masses of females and males of all colors across the globe. This means that I stand in total opposition to the aggrandizement of the few—even if they are women and of all colors—if their lives stand on the backs of the rest of us.  It means that a language of women’s rights is no longer, if it ever was, enough to imagine with because these rights are at their heart remain exclusionary and unjust.

I am compelled but also cautious of Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s stance that “women’s rights are the cause of our time”.[34]  Although much of their focus on the sexual exploitation—rape, violence towards, and trafficking of women and girls—is needed it is also wanting today. Rights discourse continues to cover over the structural webs of power that require built-in exploitation and oppression that remain extra-legal.

And, the division of women as victim in the 3rd world and victimless in the 1st perpetuates its own form of prejudice and ignorance.  As well, these travesties against women stand alongside and with the violation and devastation of women in war-torn countries across the globe, where the U. S. is often the aggressor.  And there are few women’s rights to be had, or for that matter anyone’s rights, in war.

Many more women today have become the newest safety net that was once often provided by governments.  With neo-liberal privatization regulating the globe females are often times the only ones addressing the every-day challenges and burdens people face daily.  It is the usual that women manage the food, water and other environmental sources in ghetto and slum and all kind of communities.  Women remain and have newly become an essential part of the globe’s infrastructure. Their very bodies and their labor create crucial aspects of the global economic infrastructure.  Their familial and cultural networks create whatever sustainability may exist.

Women are also disproportionately the globe’s migrants, refugees and displaced persons.  They remain and have become both—the most necessary and sustaining component of the global economy while suffering its injustices the most profoundly. As a result, the globe is in the midst of a de-balancing of the sexual division of labor that has been rooted in engendered public and private spatial divides.  As global capital has undermined nations and families women have blasted through the established and traditional gendered boundaries.

This newest reformulation of the patriarchal globe may require corporate interests to invest and sustain in this newly forming gendered structure.  As such, women’s “rights” may be the newest requirements of capital to ease the pressures of the privatized globe.  Just do not confuse women’s rights with women’s empowerment or liberation. Or, as one in the same with the many extraordinary feminisms that females across the globe are creating.

Women’s rights, in the past, are often times identified with Western, or liberal feminist agendas.  But with all the flux and differentiation and chaos in females’ lives, no singular notion of feminism or “rights” for that matter will do. Nor is it how many feminists understand the complexity of their own lives.

A group of trans people—travestis, transgenders, transsexuals—who identify as feminist but say they do not consider themselves to be “new subjects for feminism”.  Instead they say they are feminists, “each one in her own way and after her own fashion”.  They seek to challenge the differing ways in which patriarchy “oppresses every single person, female subject or male subject, who does not fit into its normative parameters of privilege.” [35] They push the borders of feminism because their sexualities and their races demand this.

With so many class and racial and gendered formations and practices of female bodies, feminisms must recognize the entirety of these complexities while also embracing doubt.  Given historical and cultural changes, especially in the global economy, revisions and re-articulations of feminisms are necessitated.  Feminisms cannot remain static or bound by the ‘west’ if they are to re-address all people’s humanity.

The Somali Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets stuck doing just this: she falsely oppositions Islam and feminism because of the misogynist practices of her own radically patriarchal Somali Muslim family. But there are many Islams, and there is as many Islamic feminisms as there are “wests”.  She believes that the only hope for Muslim women is the western form of feminism, and she assumes there is just one kind of this.[36]

Women in Zimbabwe, and Rwanda, and Congo can teach people everywhere that females can stand against war, militarism, rape and devastation, to build peaceful communities despite the horrific suffering of the most despicable atrocities. These African women’s movements for reconciliation and rebuilding their countries have much to teach about the miraculous possibility of rebirth. The reality that survivors of the Rwandan genocide say that there is no choice but to reconcile—even if one cannot forget one must forgive— demands much from the rest of us.[37]

Indigenous feminisms from parts of the world both far and near demand that economic and racial inequalities be recognized and redressed. For some this means that public resources cannot be privatized and land resources and basic food security must be self-governing. It means that the earth is sacred and must be protected as such. Multicultural, multilingual and multiracial life is embedded in the very idea of being female.

The Lipan-Apache women live along the Texas/Mexico border which is a zone of conflict defined by militarization, militarism, border walls, repression, dispossession and security technology.  They think the territorial conflict between the U.S. and Mexico ranks similarly with the Israeli/Palestinian divide.  Both regions are militarized along a bordered wall.

Texas has the highest percentage of medically uninsured children in the nation, and is dead last in the percentage of residents with high school diplomas.  It has America’s dirtiest air.  It sentences the most prison inmates to death. No surprise that these Lipan-Apache women wish for safe potable water, usable housing, medical care, education and an end to gender violence.  Margo Tamez is founder of the Indigenous Peoples laws which “give primacy to indigenous egalitarian systems, as opposed to Euro-American derived, assimilated and socialized hierarchical structures and institutions”.[38]

These indigenous visions must frame feminisms in order that imperial power is displaced by the needs of people with their ears close to the ground, and their eyes towards the sky. These feminisms cross fertilize environmental protection with peace and economic justice while respecting ancestral lands, water, and air.  Such knowledge from indigenous beginnings deepens and complexifies our world view.  It demands that we look for new knowledge for living justly.  And living justly requires that we protect each other in birth and death while insuring the health of the land, food, water and air.

Let me return to the importance of doubt….and the necessity of risking everything to change this world filled with too much sorrow.  I continue to believe that women of all colors will commit to this struggle because there is less and less choice not to.  And, as more and more people are included by feminisms—as sexuality, and genders, and races and classes redefine their many meanings—feminisms may well be the inclusive politics for almost everyone.[39]


A momentary Postscript


I finished, or thought I had finished this writing yesterday.  But then last evening I was reminded, yet again, how high the stakes are just now in relation to anything called feminism.  Ross Douthat, in his “No Mystique About Feminism” in the New York Times writes that it is a victory for feminism that so many Republican women, and Conservative Republican women, at that, won in the primaries last Tuesday.  Sarah Palin embraces these women as “mama grizzlies” and hails their “emerging feminist identity”.  And Douthat hails what he sees as a big umbrella of fractious interests within feminism as a triumph of the women’s movement.[40]  But, this conservative business oriented and anti-abortion/reproductive rights Republican women are no cause for celebration.  Feminists that do not embrace the full egalitarianism of all peoples, and recognize the structural constraints limiting their lives are a diversion, not a completion of feminist vision.

The issue is not about whether Sarah Palin—or any right-wing female is a feminist or not.  How could Palin not be a feminist in some limited sense given that she has Title IX to thank for her fabulous athletic body?   This is however about creating new feminisms for this moment and not allowing right-wing females to parade as women’s rights activists.  The stakes could not be higher for the entire globe that the most radically democratic feminisms imaginable become key players in this struggle for a just world.





[1] See my The Audacity of Races and Genders; A Personal and Global Story of the Obama Election (London: Zed Books, 2009).

[2] Quoted in, Calvin Tomkins, “Lines of Resistance”, The New Yorker, January 18, 2010, p.59.

[3] For a full accounting of the idea “new-old” see my Global Obscenities; Patriarchy, Capitalism and the Lure of Cyberfantasy  (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

[4] “New U.N. Report Pushes Gender as a Social Construct not based in Nature”, www.c-fam.org/publications/id.1452/pub_detail.asp


[5] Maria Shriver, “The Shriver Report”, A study by the Center for American Progress, found at http://awomansnation.com/awn.php


[6] Lisa Belkin, “Judging Women”, New York Times Magazine,  May 23, 2010, p. 12.

[7] Katha Pollitt, “Working Women: Strength in Numbers”, The Nation, vol. 259, no. 16, p. 10

[8] Mark Landler, “A New Gender Agenda, an interview with Hillary Clinton”, New York Times Magazine, August 23, 2009, pp. 41-43.  Also see the rest of the magazine for many discussions of women’s rights as the major cause of this time.

[9] Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010); and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: The New Press, 2010).

[10] Elisabeth Mumiller, “In Camouflage Or Afghan Veil, A Fragile Bond”, New York Times, May 30, 2010, p. A1.

[11] Doreen Carvajal, “Women Put Own Stamp on Mission in Liberia”, New York Times, March 23, 2010, p. A12.

[12] James Dao, “Drill Sergeant at Heart, She Ascends to a top Spot in the Army”,  New York Times, September, 22, 2009, p. A1.

[13] Lizette Alvarez,  “G.I. Jane Stealthily Breaks the Combat Barrier”, New York Times, August 16, 2009, p. A1.

[14] Yana Kunichoff, “Women Soldiers in Iraq Who Become Pregnant Face Court-Martial”, December, 2009. See: http://www.truthout.org/1221097

[15] Sara Corbett, “The Women’s War”, New York Times Magazine, March 18, 2007), pp. 41-72

[17] Lizette Alvarez, “Wartime Soldier, Conflicted Mom”, New York Times, , September 27, 2009, p. A. 1.

[18] Sam Roberts, “A Nation of None and all of the Above”, The New York Times , August 17, 2008, p.wk6.

[19] P.W. Singer, Wired for War, (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), p. 102.

[20] See my Sexual Decoys, Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy (London: Zed Press, 2007), especially chapters 1 and 2, for a full discussion of my use of the term, sexual decoy.

[21] Robyn Magalit Rodriquez, “The Labor Brokerage State and the Globalization of Filipina Care Workers”, Signs, vol. 33, no. 4 (Summer, 2008), p. 795.

[22] Adele Jones, “A Silent but Mighty River: The Costs of Women’s Economic Migration”, Signs, vol. 33, no. 4 (Summer, 2008), pp. 761, 762.

[23] Zhongxin Sun, “Worker, Woman, Mother: Redefining Urban Chinese Women’s Identity Via Motherhood and the Global Workplace”, Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 14, no. 1 (2008), pp. 7-33.

[24] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 3, 31, 32, 40, 54, 177, 179, 188.

[25] Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed (Cambridge: Harvard university Press, 2002), p. 28

[26] Nancy Krieger and George Davey Smith, “Bodies Count and Body Counts: Social Epidemiology and Embodying Inequality”, Epidemiologic Reviews, vol. 26, 2004, pp. 92, 93.

[27] Nancy Krieger, “Genders, Sexes, and Health”, International Journal of Epidemiology , vol. 32 (2003), p. 652.

[28] Susan Oyama, Evolutions Eye (Durham University Press, 2000), pp. 3, 18, 22, 28, 29, 48, 191.

[29] Although this has been a central query for feminist theory for over two decades now I particularly wish to address this issue in terms of its relevance for my viewing of sex and gender decoys.

[30]  New York Times Magazine, Sept. 13, 2009, pp. 11-12.


[31] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 1, 7, 9, 31, 213.

[32] Paisley Currah, “The Transgender Rights Imaginary”, The Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law , vol. 705 (Spring, 2003), pp.705-720.

[33] Lawrence Summers, “Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversitfying the Science and Engineerig Workforce”, January 14, 2005, available at: www. president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.htm

[34] Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009).

[35] From the Trans-Feminists Statement, delivered at the Latin American Feminist Encuentro at http://ar.mujer.yahoo.com/cocina/

[36] Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nomad (New York: Free Press, 2010).

[37] Jean Hatzfeld, The Antelope’s Strategy (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007).

[38] Lipan Apache Women Defense documents.  See: http://lipanapachecommunitydefense.blogspot.com


[39] This makes me think of bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2000).

[40] Ross Douthat, “No Mystique About Feminism”, The New York Times, June 14, 2010, p. A21.

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).