Building feminist counter-power

In for the long haul

Nina Power

The older I get, the more I wonder how it is that in a world filled with compassionate, intelligent people, we nevertheless end up with the most venal, corrupt, soul-dead men and women in charge. Is it that most of us are too nice, too socialized into politeness to stand up to the bullies and sadists?

How was it, in particular, not possible to stop Donald Trump? Even those Republicans who thought he might have defended their political interests could surely see 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 organize in secret and make it impossible for him to win the nomination, let alone the election?

In this short essay, I want to address the issue of ‘socialization’ – among other things, how we are instructed, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, to accept our own oppression, and to not ‘make a fuss’.

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. There are many women who do not follow the script, and they are often punished for it. How best can we think about this most secret and insidious form of education?

Women’s liberation: an unfinished revolution

In 1966, Juliet Mitchell, on the cusp of the feminist second wave in the UK, wrote ‘Women: The Longest Revolution’, in which she argued that ‘the liberation of women can only be achieved if all four structures in which they [women] are integrated are transformed – Production, Reproduction, Sexuality and Socialization’.

The liberation of women can only be achieved if all four structures in which they [women] are integrated are transformed – Production, Reproduction, Sexuality and Socialization – Juliet Mitchell

It is only, Mitchell suggests, by looking at women’s economic, social, sexual and political circumstances together that emancipation from both exploitation and oppression could be achieved. How do production, reproduction, sexuality and socialization overlap and intertwine? How are they lived similarly and differently by women of different economic and ethnic backgrounds?

We must be able to think through how women have been brought into the workforce, often for less money and on worse contracts than men, and how capitalism depends both on women’s waged labour (production) but also on the reproduction of the social (everything from the birth of new human beings to looking after and caring for others, to feeding, clothing, educating and ensuring that the workforce is able to sell its labour power).

Sexuality has perhaps been a social success story in many ways since the mid-1960s, particularly the widespread acceptance of same-sex relationships, yet male desire and entitlement continues to dominate female lives in extremely damaging ways. None of Mitchell’s structures has been fully transformed: feminist counter-power still has a long way to go – it is indeed the ‘longest’ revolution.

The category of care, in particular, must become a central feature of our politics. As we debate the possibilities and future of automation, we cannot forget, as the 2011 ILO ‘Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers’, put it, that

‘… domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and of work, and to other abuses of human rights…’

Alongside discussions of automation, we must recognize the gendered and racialized history of care work, and work to revalue (both socially and economically) all the work (paid and unpaid) that goes into keeping human life going.

New feminist militancy

I want to suggest that feminism, not uniquely so among perspectives we might adopt, but in important and specific ways, gives us multiple ways of understanding the reality of the world. What the past few years has shown us, precisely because things are so bad, so monopolized by abusive men – for whom domination over women is part and parcel of cultural, social and political life – is that women will stand and fight when their rights are under siege.

In Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and other Latin American countries, the #NiUnoMenos (‘not one less’) movement against femicide, which began in 2015, following decades of feminist organizing against sex-based violence against women, took to the streets over and over again.

The global Women’s March in January 2017, comprising almost 700 protests worldwide, drew inspiration from this movement, as well as from the horror inspired by the election of the US president of a self-confessed sexual abuser and the legitimate fear of the rollback of women’s reproductive rights. Various women’s strikes, particularly on International Women’s Day (8 March) sought to draw up the economic and social dimensions of both women’s oppression as well as their exploited role as paid and unpaid workers.

There is a new feminist militancy on the streets, across the globe and in the air. The #metoo movement has started to state openly what was always known, and there is no doubt that things will shift and continue to shift (though it should be noted that it originally started in 2006, when US activist Tarana Burke used the phrase to discuss sexual assault and abuse).

Historically, feminism has of course had to interrogate its own starting points and assumptions – what about the relationship between class and sexism? How do the different ‘waves’ of feminism developed in the west map, and not map, onto women’s struggles in other parts of the world? How does socialism relate to women’s emancipation? How are women of colour oppressed not only by social racism but also by racism within the feminist movement?

As Claire Heuchan, who blogs at Sister Outrider, recently put the relationship between racism and feminism:

‘Being stuck between men of colour and white women is like being trapped between a rock and a hard place – women of colour are encouraged to accept misogyny or racism as our lot in life and liberation politics, depending upon which group we’re aligned with. Men of colour are quick to assure us that whatever misogyny they subject us to is small fry in comparison to the harms white supremacy acts upon women of colour. White women fall over themselves in the rush to claim that racism is a minor issue compared to the real threat of patriarchy.’

‘Intersectionality’ has become a popular way, particularly online, of attempting to analyse the way in which multiple oppressions overlap – taken up from the work of US lawyer and university professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who pointed out, as Heuchan does too, that racism and sexism must be understood as intertwined and simultaneous, if they are to be understood at all:

‘Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains. Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.’

The internet has proved an increasingly interesting tool in the development of feminist consciousness, not only for popularizing terms such as ‘intersectionality’, but also for organizing feminist activism. It can also, as many people will have experienced, be a place of fierce disagreement, hostility and disingenuousness. Recognizing aggression in ourselves and others is an endless task, offline or on.

The work of thinking through the ways in which racist violence, of the kinds identified by Black Lives Matter, relates to sexist violence in all its complexity, is increasingly taking place. But nothing will change unless white people recognize their role in perpetuating racism in all aspects of life: socially, economically, politically.

Making the links: feminism, socialization and loss

What I want to focus on here, bearing in mind the importance of not separating feminism from anti-racist and other anti-oppression struggles, is one aspect (socialization) of Mitchell’s four-part structure and plan for a women’s liberation movement worthy of the name (recall: production, reproduction, sexuality and socialization). Although Mitchell’s article was published more than half a century ago, it remains an utterly clear account of the themes and challenges that confront feminism in the twenty-first century.

So, what is socialization today? How does it relate to feminism and what we might call a ‘feminist counter-power’ recognizable in the global marches, strikes and protests?

The socialization of girls and boys is a matter of great anxiety for parents and teachers alike, and it is made all the more difficult in the face of the all-pervasive presence of advertising, gender stereotypes, images of ‘beautiful’ people, and the social pressure to conform to particular roles and norms on the basis of sex.

Pink girls aisle at US store

Pink girls aisle at US store

It strikes me, as someone who grew up in the 1980s and was a teenager in the 1990s, that the pressure to conform to gender roles and stereotypes has grown exponentially. I remember very few ‘pink’ objects in my childhood, although there were of course dolls and kitchen sets, but refusing them in favour of much more interesting toys and books was much more of an option than it seems to be now.

Cynically, we might say that ‘gender’ is merely a symptom of the market, which can profit by promoting gender stereotypes. Certainly, this has to be part of it. But I also think something has been lost, and what we lost, or are losing, was actually a feminist victory, and one of the great successes of the ‘second wave’.

By analysing the way in which gender was imposed on those bodies sexed as male and female, second-wave feminism made it possible to break with the idea that sex determined gender. In other words, that, while biology is a fact, the expectations and impositions placed on bodies called ‘male’ and ‘female’ were wholly social, and, as such, could be changed. Girls and boys could and should like whatever they like, wear whatever they want, play however they want.

This idea is very clearly revolutionary, as it suggests that girls can refuse to be decorative, submissive and so on, and boys can refuse to be aggressive and domineering. It means, in principle, that boys and girls can grow up to work in whichever job they like, have whatever hobbies they like, be whoever they like.

The fact that this feminist idea had so filtered down to become something of a common thought and practice makes it a key example of feminist counter-power and a genuine shift towards the liberation from gender stereotypes.

Socialization is a very hard thing to shift, however, and for every feminist victory there is an extreme pushback

Socialization is a very hard thing to shift, however, and for every feminist victory there is an extreme pushback, as we have witnessed in recent years, for example, where gender stereotypes seem to be pushed on us at every turn.

Upsetting as it is to realise, the way girls and women are still socialized into making sure men’s feelings aren’t hurt, and into trying to smooth over difficult social situations, surely contributed to the very slow process of exposing male abuse under the #metoo movement. Not wanting to be seen as ‘difficult’ makes it harder for girls and women to stand up against harassment.

Similarly, boys and men being encouraged to feel entitled to women’s time and affection, even where it is clearly unwanted, is still a more-or-less ubiquitous dimension of masculinity. Those men and women who break with these gendered norms are often punished for it with ostracism, threats and violence. But we should stand up for ‘masculine’ women and ‘feminine’ men, with a view to eventually de-gendering likes, hobbies and employment.

So, how do we collectively organize against the harm done to women? Although men are also often very violent to each other, feminism’s focus must primarily be on the rights and protection of girls and women. And, lest we believe that straight abusive men don’t know who they’re targeting, they do not, as many have pointed out, attempt the same things with men. They know very well what it is to target women on the basis of sex, and will often use physical and social intimidation (threats) to coerce and manipulate women into compliance.

#metoo founder Tarana Burke leaves survivor march in Los Angeles. Photo credit:

#metoo founder Tarana Burke leaves survivor march in Los Angeles. Photo credit:

I think it is important to note that feminism does not see women as victims, but precisely the opposite, despite cries in some quarters that #metoo is an attempt to reduce women to passive, desire-less beings. On the contrary, it is feminism that sees an end to the sex-based victimization of girls and women, so that they may live more freely, and be sexual beings on their own terms.

What #metoo has done is to make explicit the global ubiquity of men’s sexual harassment and abuse of women. There is a sense of enormous solidarity in the campaign, a collective undermining of the shame women are taught to internalize whenever something unwanted happens to them.

Where men were shocked, perhaps some of them will remain awake to the reality of many men’s attitudes to and treatment of women. Perhaps some of them will intervene to stop it in their lives and when they see it happening (though, of course, much harassment is deliberately done precisely where no-one else is there to see it). It could change workplaces as much as anti-sexual harassment legislation ever did.

The sheer scale of abuse, and the attempts to blackmail, sue and manipulate women into keeping quiet explain a great deal of female silence and acquiescence – you will be crushed if you reveal it.

But no more.

Everything that damages women, that restricts their freedom, can be stopped with feminist counter-power – and all the many different forms this takes. Female foeticide, forced marriage, rape, sexual assault and everyday sexism can all be stopped. If we can imagine an end to something, we can also imagine how it is we might get there.

Protecting women’s rights: an endless struggle

Protecting rights is a perpetual project. Those in charge, those who like and are the status quo, will never shift without an endless struggle.

When women’s refuges are being closed, groups such as Sisters Uncut are there to fight for women’s rights. But we can never rely on others to do what we could also do ourselves.

I think that feminism was long seen as outdated, a completed project. I think various subtle (and not-so-subtle) campaigns were waged to get young women to identify as non- or anti-feminists.

But feminism is on the ascendency again, and women and girls can see through the positions that adopt ‘feminism’ as their slogan but whose politics are war-mongering (the type of right-wing liberal ‘feminism’ that claims to desire to liberate women overseas), consumerist (the ‘feminism’ that sees buying things as emancipation, and that market ‘choice’ is paramount), or corporate (the ‘feminism’ that suggests women must ‘lean in’ to be taken seriously by capitalism).

Drawing power from a ‘negative’ unity

Feminist counter-power can build upon the quality of the public discussion regarding #metoo. While girls and women have different experiences of life in terms of class and ethnicity (though there are, of course, intense patterns there too), virtually every woman has had an experience of sexism, whether being treated as less important than men, shouted at, sexualized, harassed, or worse.

There is something that unites women, and even though it is a ‘negative’ unity – in that what links women is their poor treatment and hierarchical placement as the ‘second sex’ – it can nevertheless become a source of great unity and power, once it is recognized. So much harmful treatment depends upon the inculcation of shame in the person being mistreated.

Feminist counter-power can turn this shame around and force confrontation. The better we get at standing up against bullying and harassment in our personal life, the less we will tolerate it in political life.

It should have been impossible for Trump to be elected after his admission of sexual harassment, and after many women came forward to speak out against his offensive behaviour.

We must make it impossible in future for those who do such things ever to be in charge of everyone else. Not through violence and coercion, which are the techniques our opponents use, but with reserves of strength and wisdom that come from being kept back and treated badly. We know our enemies better than they know us, and that is just one of our many strengths.


Nina Power is a cultural critic, social theorist, philosopher and translator. She is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University and the author of One-Dimensional Woman. Nina received her PhD in Philosophy from Middlesex University, and has a wide range of interests, including philosophy, film, art, feminism and politics.


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