Credit: Ammar Abu Bakr/TNI State of Power report 2018. It should have been impossible for Donald Trump to become president of the United States. Even those Republicans who thought he might have defended their political interests surely saw what a terrible idea it would be to have him in charge of anything, be it his Twitter account or the nuclear codes. Why did they not organise in secret and make it impossible for him to win the nomination, let alone the election?
We need to talk about ‘socialisation’, and how we are instructed, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, to accept our own oppression, and to not ‘make a fuss’. And it is feminism that teaches us best how to analyse this, because historically it is women who have been taught to play this mediating role, to smooth over disagreement, to flatter and to acquiesce.
In 1966, Juliet Mitchell, on the cusp of the feminist ‘second wave’ in the UK, wrote ‘Women: The Longest Revolution’, arguing that “the liberation of women can only be achieved if all four structures in which they are integrated are transformed – Production, Reproduction, Sexuality and Socialisation.” In other words: we must address economic, social, sexual and political circumstances together.
Today, none of the structures Mitchell identified has been fully transformed: feminist counter-power still has a long way to go. Women have been brought into the workforce, but often for less money and on worse contracts than men. Labour caring for children, family members and others continues to be undervalued, and largely invisible, though it's essential to keeping human life going.
Credit: TitiNicola/Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons. (CC BY-SA 4.0). Some rights reserved. Though there is a new feminist militancy on the streets. The #NiUnaMenos (‘not one less’) movement against femicide has spread across Latin America over the last two years. The January 2017 global Women’s March, comprising almost 700 protests worldwide, drew inspiration from this movement. Various women’s strikes have also taken place, protesting the oppression of women as paid and unpaid workers.
The internet has proven itself to be an increasingly interesting tool in the development of feminist consciousness. It has helped popularise terms such as ‘intersectionality’ – to describe and analyse how sexism, racism, class, and other oppressions are intertwined and simultaneous.
It has also proven itself to be a useful tool for feminist organising. The #metoo campaign on social media, for instance, has powerfully revealed the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse by men in powerful positions. Though, of course, online spaces can see fierce disagreement, hostility and disingenuousness too.
So what about ‘socialisation’ today? It strikes me, as someone who grew up in the UK in the 1980s, and was a teenager in the 1990s, that the pressure to conform to gender roles and stereotypes has only grown exponentially. There were, of course, dolls and kitchen sets in my childhood, but refusing them in favour of other toys was much more of an option than it seems to be now.
'There were, of course, dolls and kitchen sets in my childhood, but refusing them in favour of other toys was much more of an option than it seems to be now.'
We might blame the market, which can profit by promoting gender stereotypes. Certainly, this has to be part of it. But something also seems to have been lost: the ‘second wave’ feminist victory that disrupted the idea that sex determined gender, and argued that expectations and impositions placed on ‘male’ and ‘female’ bodies are wholly social – and, as such, can be changed.
This clearly revolutionary idea suggested that girls can refuse to be decorative and submissive; boys can refuse to be aggressive and domineering. Both should like whatever they like, wear whatever they want, play however they want. This feminist idea had so filtered down to become something of a common thought and practice.
It is thus a key example of feminist counter-power; a move towards liberation from gender stereotypes. But for every feminist victory, there is an extreme pushback. In recent years, gender stereotypes seem to be pushed on us at every turn, and those who break with such norms may be punished with ostracism, threats and violence.
Women are still socialised into making sure men’s feelings aren’t hurt, trying to smooth over difficult social situations. And not wanting to be seen as ‘difficult’ makes it harder for women to stand up against harassment. Similarly, men feeling entitled to women’s time and affection is still more-or-less ubiquitous.
Credit: TitiNicola/Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons. (CC BY-SA 4.0). Some rights reserved. #Metoo has made this explicit, and there is an enormous sense of solidarity in the campaign, undermining the shame that women are taught to internalise whenever something unwanted happens to them, and awaking some men to the sheer scale of abuse and attempts to manipulate women into silence and acquiescence.
For a long time, many people seemed to see feminism as an outdated, completed project. Various subtle (and not-so-subtle) campaigns were waged to get young women to identify as non- or even anti-feminists. But feminism is rising again.
Women and girls can see through those who adopt ‘feminism’ as their slogan for politics that are warmongering (claiming to ‘liberate’ women overseas), consumerist (seeing buying things as emancipation), or corporate (suggesting that women must only ‘lean in’ to be taken seriously under capitalism).
We have different life experiences in terms of class and race, but virtually every woman has had an experience of sexism, whether it’s being treated as less important than men, shouted at, sexualised, harassed, or worse. This unites women, and even though it’s a ‘negative’ unity, it can still become a source of great power.
'Virtually every woman has had an experience of sexism, whether it’s being treated as less important than men, shouted at, sexualised, harassed, or worse.'
So much harmful treatment depends upon the inculcation of shame in the person being mistreated. Feminist counter-power can turn this around and force confrontation. And the more we stand up against bullies and harassment in our personal lives, the less we will tolerate them in our political lives too.
It should have been impossible for Trump, also accused of sexually harassing a number of women, to be elected. We must make it impossible in the future for those who do such these things to ever to be in charge of other people.
We must not use our opponents’ techniques of violence and coercion, but instead draw on our strength and wisdom that come from being kept back and treated badly. We know our enemy better than he knows us; this is just one of our many strengths.
* This is an edited version of an essay first published in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2018 report.