This is the fourth post in a 6 part series on feminism and disablism written by The Psychology Supercomputer for A Room of our Own
In this fourth post (1,2,3 here) in the series prompted by a discussion of the Telegraph’s “Is modern feminism depressing” web chat I want to explore how coming from a place of individual vs class analysis can account for privilege denial in mainstream feminism. Again, I’m going to focus on disability and chronic illness, but the points will stand for other diverse groups such as Women of Colour and working-class women.
Within mainstream, modern feminism Individualism is THE analysis de jour. Key words such as choice, empowerment and agency abound. But what are the consequences of this type of analysis for less privileged women? It’s all well and good for able-bodied/healthy, white, middle-class women to talk of choice and agency; but what about the rest of us? And why does it matter anyway?
This type of analysis places the emphasis on each individual woman’s choices and agency. It is the type of analysis that allows every choice a woman makes to be a feminist choice. Its popularity is in large part, I believe due to the need to include sex workers within modern feminism. In order to allow sex work to be compatible with feminist ideals, we need to analyse individual women’s reasons for being in that type of work. And so we talk of sexually empowered women, who have agency to choose sex work as any other form of work. They are not being exploited because they choose to be there. And they’re making good money. And they like sex anyway. And on and on.
At the level of the individual woman this analysis works. And if we extend it beyond sex work we can move away from some of the old, damaging stereotypes and connotations of the word “feminist”. Suddenly, we can say that we’re “not all man hating, lesbians, who don’t like sex”. We can enjoy porn with our male (or female) partners. We can wear make-up, and high heels and frilly dresses; and still say that we are “feminists”. It is a comfortable and easy form of feminism. We can demand equality for women and fight for women’s rights, whilst only looking at each other’s individual behaviour.
But, there is a huge and glaring problem with this type of analysis and that is where it puts the blame for oppression. In an individualistic analysis we all have equal ability to overcome our oppressions and if we don’t then it’s our own fault. Because who else is to blame? If I choose to be empowered, and I have agency to make those choices, who can I blame but myself when I fail to make them? Structural oppression becomes meaningless in this analysis, because it is all about how *I* individually overcome it. By its very nature then, the individualistic analysis denies privilege. It denies the differing oppressions faced by women with disability/chronic illness.
On the other hand, class analysis takes a much broader view. It ignores (to some extent) the individual woman’s agency and choices; because it views these as necessarily constrained in some way by structural oppression. No woman can make a free choice within patriarchy, none of us are “empowered” or have “agency” because we have all been socialised to conform to the feminine gender assigned to us. Our wearing of high heels, wearing make-up, frilly dresses, etc all serve to reinforce the stereotypes placed on us by patriarchy. Just because we are aware of the oppression and “choose” to do it anyway, does not make that a “free and empowered choice”. Class analysis has fallen out of favour among many modern feminists, I think mainly because it is associated with old school feminism; with “man hating, lesbian” feminism.
But when examining the issues faced by women with disabilities/chronic illness class analysis is essential. We live not only in a patriarchy, but in a world that is centred around able-bodied healthiness. Many institutions and systems discriminate against those who are considered “less able”. And even without active discrimination, it can be difficult to keep up in a world that doesn’t account for your extra needs. Women with disabilities/chronic illness face extra obstacles that mainstream feminism fails to see and acknowledge when it uses an individual analysis. In order to maintain an individualistic approach to feminism, it is necessary to not face any structural oppression other than patriarchy. This is a VERY privileged position and to continue to push individual over class analysis as modern feminism does, is privilege denial to a massive degree.