The impetus that drives social social change is rarely simple logic, it is fuelled by passionate dedication to correcting injustice. As true as this is of any movement, it is particularly true of feminism, because gender issues are so intrinsic to identity and, for many people, trauma.
This is at the centre of the many conflicts inside feminism – with the trans and queer communities, women of colour, women with disabilities, all the marginalised groups denied identity and acceptance. And it gets amplified because we are so often told debate is flawed unless it is a logical, factual discussion. It’s a ludicrous assertion, the fight against injustice has never been a cold intellectual exercise, it’s a deeply emotional one. Passion has always been at the root of change, but male passion is perceived as strength, in women, it is a weakness, used against them to diminish the cause for which they fight – most often by passionately angry men.
To some degree we have internalised that dichotomy and belittle the power of the justified rage that drives our dedication. And in belittling our power, we forget the damage we can do when we turn it on each other.
Trans women are so often injured by a lifetime of denial and rejection, not just of what they want to be, but of who they actually are. There is probably no greater injury you can inflict on the human psyche than denying a person their very existence, it erases the self and leaves nothing in its place to cling to. Exponentially increasing that trauma, trans women suffer disproportionate amounts of physical and sexual brutality. So to expect a dispassionate response from the trans community to anything they perceive (and perception of denial is the reality of it) as further denial of self, is not just unjust, it’s cruel.
And yet, the feminists they are in conflict with are also fighting for recognition of their own identity, and the social, physical, sexual and emotional injuries inflicted by male denial of female autonomy.
Where else could such conflict end, but in rage and pain, and bitter refusal to give an inch to either side?
It’s tragic, because the cause we are fighting for is the same: an end to definitions of gender that damage and limit us all. The internecine battles leave everyone exhausted and hurt, sometimes afraid to discuss further, other times more polarised than ever.
White cis feminists should not presume to speak on behalf of the other communities, but as far as we are able, we listen, understand what little we can without lived experience and accept that there is much about it we will never fully understand. In doing so we need to learn to not just share our space, but to push and shove and make the space bigger, make more room and ensure it is given to a wider variety of voices. This is the responsibility of privilege, and something we are still learning to do, with all the groups we know are ignored, wounded, and dismissed from public debate. We can learn to do it better. There is no end point, just an ongoing journey.
However, those of us who believe that feminism is inclusive, that it must include all women to be an honourable cause, can and do speak for women who have had lives unlike our own. We have to, otherwise we could only ever speak for ourselves, and feminism is not about the individual.
Sometimes the result of that is that we get it wrong. We speak about abortion rights as a women’s issues, because that’s what it is to the vast majority of people who need abortions. People who do not identify as a woman but may still need to access legal, safe abortion feel isolated and ignored.
We speak about the experience of growing up female, the sexualisation and threat that can entail, and women who did not grow up externally identified as female feel isolated and ignored.
We speak about the gender pay gap and lack of representation in positions of power, and women of colour who are almost never represented there (or anywhere else) feel isolated and ignored.
We speak about family violence and women with disabilities and Aboriginal women, who are so disproportionally affected by family violence, feel isolated and ignored.
We speak about vulnerable groups and forget to mention the invisibility of older women, who then feel isolated and ignored.
We speak about intimate relationships between men and women and the queer community feel isolated and ignored.
We speak because we must, but too often we don’t remember all the people without voice. In doing so, we inflict further injury by denying them.
Wishing will not make these denials go away, the desire for a simple problem and a single enemy does not make the complexities of fighting for the liberation of all women less complicated. It just means we need to try harder, think more, learn more, accept getting it wrong and refuse to give in. Shame is a terrible thing, but if we have committed shameful acts, the solution is not to withdraw, it is to change, speak louder about the things we forgot and fight harder in solidarity with the women denied a voice.
Fear of attack from people on our own side, who in turn feel they’ve been injured by friendly fire and are fighting in self-defence, is too common. Advocating for women needs to be inclusive, but it shouldn’t be diminished by fighting our allies or even the fear of inciting anger among them.
The digital space has given us a huge arena for calling people out, all the misogynist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, islamophobic, ableist, ageist dicks are now frequently held to account for their dickishness. As they should be.
But, in our justified rage and pain and fear, we are also too often calling out the people we should be calling in. One good act does not make a saint, nor one bad act a sinner. The allies who, through forgetfulness, thoughtlessness or even ignorance, have, with the best of intentions, inadvertently caused pain should not be cast into the outer darkness. That pain cannot, should not, be dismissed, but well intentioned people, who want to be allies are not the enemy. We don’t need to call them out, we need to call them in.
Other women, other feminists, are not the enemy.
No one has an obligation to educate every idiot keyboard warrior, and I have no hesitation in asserting that I do not owe anyone an explanation or a space to vent hatred, but somewhere between blocking belligerent gobshites and sharing information with someone uninformed but trying to understand, is where we find our allies.
This even extends to the men’s right’s activists, who are acting out their own denial and pain and unhealed injuries. Too often, those injuries have the same source that hurts us all: damage inflicted by gender roles we cannot overcome and force us into lives that wound us. Male bonds of power, anger and violence damage men almost as much as they damage women.
Not all men (#notallmen) are able to understand that, but some are. It’s a slow, often painful process, but all of us have had experiences of men who have gradually come to this understanding and ally themselves with us because they know that change benefits everyone.
More than that, we have known – or been – white feminists, who just didn’t get it, but were willing to learn, to get it wrong, be corrected, and try again, because getting it wrong and learning to do better is far, far more powerful than giving up.
We all need to understand how to be better allies, we owe something to the the people who are starting on their journey, because there was a time someone leaned back and helped us, we need to accept that there are people further on who have something to teach us, and be willing to learn without fear or defensiveness. We need to believe we’re all on the same side. Because we are.