This weekend I joined around 500 other activists at the (3rd?) UK Feminista Summer School in Birmingham, where I was speaking about austerity & Birmingham Women’s Campaign on a panel about feminism & economics.
The main media coverage is predictably centered on the fightback against normalisation of porn, but inside Summer School the main recurring issue people were talking about was intersectionality. For anyone reading this unfamiliar with the concept (which you may well be as as discussed it doesn’t get talked about much in the mainstream press), intersectionality is the concept of multi-interaction between different forms of oppression – for example, the way in which ethnicity, class and gender may all impact on the life of a working class black woman, meaning a fight against just racism, Capitalism or the Patriarchy is incomplete and unwinnable. More specifically in the context of mainstream feminist spaces like UK Feminista, when we talk about intersectionality we are talking about the need for other equality battles to be central to feminism.
For disabled activist Emma Round (pictured above), who was running sessions on disability, language & power, and Feminism, disability & activism, intersectionality means getting disabled women’s issues (alongside those of other oppressed groups) onto the agenda – looking for common issues like reproductive health but also activists coming together to support one another’s protest.
This idea was further expressed by Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters, who have been leading the fight against the racist immigration vans in London, in the panel on Race, Feminism & Activism. For her, there is a strong need for what she calls a politics of solidarity – different oppressed groups standing together to fight whilst recognising their different forms of privilege.
Elsewhere in a packed out workshop on class, where I was speaking about the cuts to education which have removed the support for adult ed my family have benefited on and where my students are being hammered with loans and fees, the issue of privilege was an issue of hot discussion, in terms of the need for those with privilege to understand when they are asked to listen and amplify others rather than speaking on their behalf. Class (and specifically the fight against capitalism) is central to feminism for me, but we hit a lot of muddy water when we look at the differences between economic and cultural definition. For example, am I working class because for a large period of my teen years my family existed on disability benefits and because I am a part time worker on less than £10K with a (currently) unwaged partner, kids, and lots of debt? Or am I middle class because I am educated and know the language of power that that brings? Arguably, a narrow localised focus on culture & class misses out the international capitalist picture in terms of privilege anyway, so this should always come into any discussion on what it means for feminism.
In the panel I was speaking on we were asked to talk about what we think a Feminist Economy should look like. I was keen to get the message across that while we seem to have a new generation (or at least energy burst) of feminists doing valuable work on the body, I think this dominates the way in which mainstream feminism is constructed too much – for me, Feminism absolutely has to be about capitalism, and specifically at the moment the fight against austerity should be at the heart of the work we do. I went through some statistics on the impact austerity is having on women in terms of employment, employment rights and access to services – an impact which is all the greater for black and disabled women. I don’t believe that a capitalist feminist economy is possible, in the same way that I don’t think there could ever be a feminist future under capitalism. For me to fully defeat any inequality we have to defeat all inequality. I went on to speak about the fledgling Birmingham Women’s Campaign – here in the West Mids, unemployment continues to rise, foodbanks and youth unemployment are at a national high, and millions of pounds worth of cuts are being made to vital services, and vital referral services being farmed out to G4S. Camille Kumar from Imkaan (who gave an incredible count of the issues BME domestic violence services are facing) told me afterwards that in Birmingham there is no longer any funding being given to the sole BME DV provider.
The session finished with a call to arms for demonstrations calling on Tesco to lose the lads mags. I think that given the ongoing discussions at these events there has generally been a move forward in terms of recognising intersectionality, though still lots of listening, sharing and learning to do. I really hope that this generation of newly charged political activists can take up the class fight as central – the energy, sense of justice, and desire to fight is strong, and just what we need in the trades unions.