Daria Yudacufski and her daughter at the Women's March in Los Angeles in January 2017. Credit: Daria Yudacufski. All rights reserved.
The #metoo movement. Massive Women’s Marches. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford giving a testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee that – at least for those of us who take sexual violence seriously – begged the question, will people who violently exercise power continue to be the enforcers of so-called justice? The Kavanaugh confirmation answered, awfully, “Yes.”
It may feel like a huge feminist upsurge just hit a brick wall. But feminism is much bigger than this moment. Feminism is vast and various. In fact feminisms are multiple.
Some of them are focused on one moment or one issue or one narrow conception of women. But the feminisms we need to end sexual and every other form of violence are those that actively involve and embrace many people and many issues.
About 40 years ago, the Combahee River Collective, a group of Black feminists, posited that: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.”
It’s no coincidence that this quote appears in the opening pages of two new books: Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene A. Carruthers and Feminisms in Motion: Voices for Justice, Liberation, and Transformation, which the two of us have co-edited.
The 1977 Combahee River Collective statement is a beacon for those of us who practice intersectional feminism, a term coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in the late 1980s that articulated what women of color have been saying forever: systems of domination – including racism, sexism, ableism, heteronormativity and economic exploitation – are interlocking. Change or transformation will grow from an understanding of the interconnectedness of all aspects of our identities, lives, and struggles.
With considerable pain and anxiety, we are experiencing and witnessing what the opposite of interconnectedness looks like. A society based on hierarchy and separateness is what produced a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that positioned survivors of traumatic assault in opposition to the nation’s supposed ultimate arbiters of justice. Children in tears after being separated from their parents at national borders. Men wielding (or desperately hanging on to) economic, political, and other forms of power through sexual violence, gun violence, war, or all of the above. Police violence, especially targeted against Black people. Growing economic inequality, the devastating effects of which are visible all around us.
As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in 1970 in her book On Violence: “Those who hold power and feel it slipping from their hands have always found it difficult to resist the temptation of substituting violence for it.” Yet at the same time, other ways of being are happening, and growing. Movements mindful of the connections between different systems of violence have been working toward transformations for a long while, with the understanding that this work is neither simple nor quick.
Many of us know that #metoo didn’t just pop into the world in 2017; it was founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke to support survivors and end sexual violence. To offer another example, a Bay Area–based organization called Generation Five has spent the last decade working to end child sexual abuse within the next five generations. They use an approach called ‘transformative justice’ which focuses on healing and the agency of survivors, accountability and change for people who do harm, and transformation of the social conditions that perpetuate violence.
We’re not going to end sexual violence by looking at it in a vacuum or punishing a few extreme individual perpetrators through a patriarchal criminal-legal system that upholds white supremacy. Sexual violence, like all forms of violence, is rooted in hierarchy, disconnection, and the dehumanization of the other; in separateness and fear.
The simple – but not so simple – alternative is wholeness, connection and love.
When we envision a world without sexual violence we have to envision a world in which we have done – and continue to do -the deep, complex work of healing and learning together. We need to learn how to relate in ways that are not rooted in domination; how to honor bodies and value difference. We need to co-create and practice a kind of justice that recognizes, faces, and deals with harm honestly and in all its complexity.
A couple of weeks ago we were lucky enough to see the premiere of joyUs justUs, a new work by the Los Angeles-based dance-theatre company CONTRA-TIEMPO that celebrates “joy as the ultimate expression of resistance.” An ensemble of different bodies spoke, sang and danced, calling for a gorgeously multifarious kind of justice and freedom that rings with love.
Holistic and expansive visions that transcend the reductive, polarized discourse that dominates national newsfeeds are already here. Queer- and women-of-color-centered intersectional feminisms have, for generations, been connecting the personal and the political, the intimate and the public, and the critical and the creative; embracing difference; calling for healing and transformation; and cultivating a way of living together in which the safety or freedom or wealth of some are not predicated on the denial of those same things to others.
Intersectional-feminist history offers many beacons for those who question whether a focus on marginalized identities has divided or otherwise weakened the Left. In the mid-nineteenth century, a black woman named Sojourner Truth challenged both white women and black men by insisting that the struggles for women’s suffrage, black male suffrage, and the abolition of slavery should be linked, calling out at a women’s rights convention in 1851, “Ain’t I a woman?” She knew these struggles were interconnected because they were in her life. Few people looking back on that period admire the supposedly strategic choices of the abolitionists or women’s suffragists who effectively said, ‘my issue first.’
In 1983, the Chicana lesbian feminist writer and activist Cherríe Moraga introduced her book Loving in the War Years with a poem in which two lovers are imprisoned together, facing certain death. One of them sees a slight possibility for escape if she goes it alone, but realizes there is no way to escape together. Will she try to make her way toward freedom, leaving her lover behind? She considers it, but then, Moraga writes,
“Immediately I understand that we must, at all costs, remain with each other. Even unto death. That it is our being together that makes the pain, even our dying, human.”
Intersectional feminism is the exact opposite of ‘divisive.’ It’s a vast vision of wholeness rooted in the lived experiences of those who are directly affected by multiple systems of violence. Developed over many generations, mostly by women of color, multi-issue feminisms make connections that allow us to challenge injustice at its interlocking roots – in order to build a world where everyone can be free.