Disablism in mainstream feminism by @Psycho_Claire

This is the first post in a 6 part series on feminism and disablism written by The Psychology Supercomputer for A Room of our Own

Last week the Telegraph ran a web debate with the title “Is modern feminism Depressing?” Myself and a small band of other twitter feminists then spent a couple of hours decrying the inherent disablism within mainstream modern feminism. That conversation got me thinking about a series of intersecting issues, which all come back to the same underlying principles. This post is the first in a short series in which I’m going to attempt to unpick some of these issues from a psychological perspective. I want to introduce the concept of cognitive dissonance and how this relates to privilege; I’d like to discuss how trauma affects our interactions, and how we can all be better to each other; I want to talk about how “in-group/out-group” thinking affects feminist discourse; and how a focus on the individual rather than “class analysis” interacts with these issues. My hope is that this will foster further debate and perhaps a little more understanding within the feminist community. But if nothing else I need to get this stuff out of my head, because these ideas are noisy! J


So what got us all so worked up about that title? What’s wrong with asking if feminism is depressing? Well, firstly words are important. They mean specific things and how we use them constitutes how we see the world. Our world views, our understanding of others, our understanding of acts and behaviour is tied up with how we use language. We construct our reality through the words that we use. As feminists we know this; look at how we are over the use of the word “rape”. How many of you cringe when someone says that they were “fraped” or “facebook raped”, when someone else posts a status update on their account. How often do we all protest about “rape jokes”? When it comes to that word, we KNOW. We understand that it shouldn’t ever be minimised, because to minimise the word is to minimise the experience.

So, why, when it comes to another word is this not the case? Depression/depressing are not adjectives to describe a passing low mood; a momentary feeling of sadness. Use disheartened; that’s the right word. Because “depressing” refers to a diagnosed illness; it is a state of constant low mood, with no obvious external cause. It is a debilitating and difficult condition. It should not be minimised. As feminists we need to acknowledge that the words we use MATTER! And we need to be careful about our choice of words. If we can recognise that using “rape” for “frape” is wrong, that using the horrible word “retard” is wrong, then we can sure as hell recognise that using “depressing” in this context was wrong.

Secondly and perhaps, more importantly: the use of language in this way excludes disabled women from the discourse. The minimisation of their experience is off-putting. Many disabled women feel unwelcome in mainstream feminism (as the posts from ROOO week long special show). This is something that mainstream feminism needs to address. But this feeling of exclusion, of minimisation of disability and disabled women extends further than the use of language within mainstream feminism. For example, the dismissing of online activism as “slactivism” is disablist in its very nature. For a large swathe of women, online is the ONLY place they can be active. And that’s not just due to physical disability. I suffer from chronic migraine, these are massively debilitating and I often have time where my only contact with the world beyond my bed is through my iPad. To dismiss my involvement with twitter campaigns as “not as important” as other “real life” activities is unfair in the extreme. The online community is “REAL LIFE” to me; and it is to many, many other women too. We all do what we can with the means that we have.

There is so much talk about “privilege checking” online within mainstream feminism. Cis women, middle class women, white women; constantly called on to check their privilege. Well here is my cry: “able-bodied, non-disabled women: check your damn privilege. Watch your language. And make some room for us disabled feminists.” We have a voice, we have things to say, we can and do contribute so please, stop minimising and excluding us.


The Psychology Supercomputer: I write about Psychology, Science Communication, Women in Science and feminist issues. I also tweet as@psycho_claire.