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Challenging patriarchy and other power relations

Feminists lift their sights to capitalism, racism and militarism. Cynthia Cockburn reports from the Feminism in London conference on devising whole-istic feminist strategies of resistance.

The last five years have seen an impressive resurgence of feminist activism in the UK. The London Feminist Network, UK Feminista, Black Feminists, Feminist Fightback, Radfem, Object, the Feminist Library, the F-word - these are a significant presence on the Web, involved in a load of practical campaigns, organizing discussions and staging a presence on the street.

These feminists are mainly below the age of thirty, many of them born since the fall of the Berlin Wall. They're reacting in shock at finding the 'equality' and 'liberation' put about as the birthright of the 21st century woman are little more than a travesty, that the reality dominating their lives is in-your-face patriarchal misogyny in an environment of neoliberal capitalism, more exploitative and greedy year on year. But feminists of this generation know full well that women's rebellion isn't something new. They are aware of regenerating a movement that was set back for a while during the nineties and noughties, the Second Wave feminism of their mothers and grandmothers.

Victoria Showunmi, Betiel Baraka and Sarah Mathewson in a plenary session at the Feminism in London conference 2013. Credit: Cynthia Cockburn

The latest in what has become a more-or-less annual sequence of mass gatherings since 2008, Feminism in London 2013, took place at the Institute of Education on 26th October and drew 750 participants. This conference was notable (in my perception - others might see it differently) for a larger than usual presence, alongside the young majority, of women in their middle and older years. And, whether as cause or effect is not quite clear, the feminist concerns and analyses presented and discussed this year seemed broader and deeper too.

It was not that women's anger against male violence and the objectification and exploitation of women as commodities, a totally necessary rage that has fired up earlier conferences in this series, was lacking this time. Far from it. Sarah Mathewson and Betiel Baraki from Object spoke of the campaign against The Sun's Page 3 and men's magazines. There were sessions on 'choice', on trafficking, pornography, female genital mutilation and labiaplasty. Shabina Begum spoke movingly of acid aggression, showing a disturbing video. But there was also a greater willingness this year to tangle with the other stuff that fills the daily news channels: militarism, militarization and war; austerity, privatisation and welfare cuts; the threatening creep of religious authoritarianism.

One workshop, on antimilitarist feminism, was organised by Rebecca Johnson, of Acronym and  Women in Black. Another workshop, that I was myself involved in staging, took a head-on approach to 'power' with the explicit aim of extending the range of feminist analysis to concerns that are characteristic of the left, of socialism, and of movements against imperialism, nationalism and racism. The title we gave it, hardly a head-turner you'd think, was Challenging Linked Systems of Power: Towards a Whole-istic Feminism. Yet the session proved attractive, with more than 160 women signing up for it.

Laura Schwartz and others strategizing for a 'whole-istic feminism'. Credit: Cynthia Cockburn

We were facilitated by Brigitte Lechner, and beside me on the platform, to give brief introductions on the theme, were Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters, Jenny Nelson of Red Pepper magazine, and Ece Kocabicak of Manchester and Istanbul, who is active in the Socialist Feminist Collective of Turkey. The room was organized into sixteen tables with ten participants at each, and most of the time was devoted to small group discussions around these tables, focused on individual women's experiences of being at the wrong end of power relations, and on devising collective feminist strategies of resistance.

What we tried to do, in providing a starting point for these discussions, was to set out briefly our own perceptions of how power works.  My own take on it went pretty much as follows. All of us - you, me, everyone - as individuals have relationships that are complicated by differences between us.  Man/woman, white/black, owning class/working class. And these distinctions are associated with advantage and disadvantage. In the last few years, we've learned to call these cross-cutting inequalities 'intersectional'.  They 'intersect' in the sense that each difference (in me, from others) affects the way the other differences (in me, from others) are experienced.

But - we don't just do power to each other as individuals. We're positioned in relation to each other by systems of power that go way back in time and span the globe - the capitalist mode of production; the patriarchal gender order; the racist nation-state system. As I see it, power relations like this bear on us in and through, middle-level institutions. Things like multinational corporations; churches, synagogues and mosques; legal systems; traditional family structures. And it's not that one kind of institution does one kind of power. They all do several. That multinational corporation, yes, it's a class system in which the owners of capital exert power over workers and consumers. But it's also a phallocracy, with men in the board room and women at the keyboards. Or, we might further observe, white men in the board room and black, minority and ethnic women at the sewing machines and cash tills.

So, the way I see it -  the several relations of power are intersected at the big systemic level, at the mid-level of institutions and at the individual level of you, me, him, her. That's what we meant in our workshop title by 'linked systems of power'. You can't tease them apart. They work in and through each other, bear on and shape each other.

Pragna Patel. Credit: Cynthia Cockburn

What does this say for the women's movement? I'd argue that, yes, we have to struggle against systemic male dominance and men's control of our bodies - as we do in radical feminism. But we need more than that. I asked the room to imagine, for a moment, that I work in a big hotel chain. Our management is pretty much all men (as I described it) and us chamber-maids are all women. We can't get either the management or our trade union to take seriously our demand for protection as room-staff from sexual abuse by male clients. We've got a struggle against patriarchy here, and it's not just the bosses! If the men in our union won't wake up and act against the exploitation of women by the hotel chain, and furthermore the prioritising of male interests in the union, we women may need to set up our own union branch. But then again, the management is trying to put a lot of us workers, men and women, on zero hours contracts. We need solidarity in this classic struggle against capital. And - don't think that's the end of it. We've got another fight coming up, on the race discrimination front. Kitchen cleaning jobs in this hotel are about to be subcontracted out to a company that profits massively from exploiting vulnerable migrant labour from south-east Asia.

So what I need is a strategy of resistance that's feminist, socialist and antiracist. At a minimum!  A women's movement that doesn't perceive and resist all dimensions of oppression and exploitation is no earthly use to me, from my perspective as a hotel employee. Nor is a socialism that isn't feminist and anti-racist. I need a whole-istic movement, a whole-istic feminism.

The government's handling of economic crisis and in particular its swingeing cuts of public sector spending and services is another clear example of the intertwining of capitalist/class and patriarchal/gender systems. Jenny Nelson quoted the Women's Budget Group report that puts forward concrete evidence that women are being disproportionately affected by public sector cuts. Especially as single parents, and often as single pensioners, we have lost much more than men in benefits and service provision. Jenny proposes we confront structural inequalities, wherever they show up. 'Let's connect with existing struggles against the cuts. Let's act in solidarity with one another here, and with women around the world.'

Ece Kocabicak, for her part, stressed that we need to get beyond the idea that it's only the capitalist class that exploits people's labour power, while patriarchy simply does 'oppression'.  Patriarchy is a system of exploitation too, she argues. Men universally exploit women's labour power at home, where women work unpaid day and night to service and care for family members. And, especially in poorer countries, many women are unpaid production workers within the small-and-medium sized farms and other businesses owned by their husbands, fathers or other male relatives. Patriarchal exploitation is systemic, like capitalist exploitation. And the two systems work together, shape each other. As feminists we can't effectively resist one without resisting the other.

Ece Kocabicak (left) and Pragna Patel. Credit: Cynthia Cockburn

Pragna Patel is one of the founders of Southall Black Sisters, a long-lived feminist organization providing refuge and support for women of BME communities surviving domestic violence. SBS, she told us, was doing intersectional politics long before it became a fashionable term. 'It means addressing the ways different and multiple systems of discrimination and oppression intersect to reproduce power and privilege.' The left frequently accuse SBS of fuelling racism by criticizing the patriarchalism of Muslim, Hindu and other communities. They respond that to remain silent would be to collude in their own oppression. 'Instead, we have to find ways of resisting all forms of oppression through a politics of alliance-building and solidarity work that can counter class and gender inequality, racism and other forms of oppression at the same time.'

What we meant, then, by this 'whole-istic' feminism our workshop was designed to imagine, was one capable of responding not just to all phallocratic gender regimes, but to the equally disastrous capitalist mode of production, despoliator of lives and resources; and the imperialising, arrogant, racializing dominations inherent in the nation-state. These globe-spanning systems are each other's environment. Each takes account of the other, responds to it, uses it, shapes it and is shaped by it.

Finn Mackay, in her rousing closing speech to the conference put it in a nutshell. 'There's nothing in politics, in wars, in peace, culture, business, law, or development that does not touch us as women'.  All these places, spaces and processes cry out for feminist resistance. And in each, make no mistake, we need women-only spaces in which to organize. Our whole-istic feminist struggle will benefit not only women-as-women. It will benefit women as workers, women as BME citizens, as disabled, as elderly. It will besides benefit some people who happen to be white - the ones exploited by capitalism and patriarchy. It will benefit some people who are men - the ones most deeply exploited by capitalism and marginalized by racism. And all the better for that.  As Finn said, 'Who wants equality with unequal men?' Or, to quote Pragna again, 'Ultimately the question for feminists is this: can we achieve freedom if other women or men are not free?

About the author

Dr. Cynthia Cockburn is a feminist researcher and writer, honorary professor in Sociology at City University London, and at the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender, University of Warwick. She lives in London. Her new book is Looking to London, published this month by Pluto Press.

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