Identity Politics/ the Politics of Identity

The utopian vision of ‘sisterhood’ – the collecting together of all women under the same political banner – was in part responsible for the burgeoning interest in feminism and the emergent Women’s Liberation Movement. It was inevitably going to come under fire once more women who weren’t white, middle class, heterosexual and university-educated became involved, and the differences between women came to be seen as of equal importance as their similarities. Identity politics was the term used to describe, at times, bitter disputes between different feminist groups:

The rage, the sensitivity, and the overwhelming, omnipresent nature of ‘the enemy’ drove parts of the women’s movement into ideological rigidities, and the movement splintered as it grew. Who could say what was the central issue: equal pay? abortion? the nuclear family? lesbianism? welfare policies? capitalism? Groups formed around particular issues, constituencies and political styles, many sure that they had found the key to women’s liberation. After 1970, women’s liberation groups in all parts of the country suffered painful splits variously defined as politico-feminist, gay/straight, anti-imperialist/radical feminist. (Evans 1979: 225)

As Evans implies, it wasn’t just the individual identity and background of participants that could split the groups and eventually the movement: conflicts about what a feminist identity should mean became just as important, as well as the question of who had the right to decide. At its worst this could lead to some fairly prescriptive opinions, which served to undermine the image of feminism as a broad-based movement.

It could be argued that identity politics is inscribed in the very terms of the emergent Women’s Liberation Movement. If everyone’s opinion is equally valid, who is to mediate between them to form a shared agenda? This open-house policy is aired in the influential British feminist magazine, Shrew:

Everyone is encouraged to have their own ideas about how the movement should be run, and what it is to fight for. Indeed, those without ideas leave, since you cannot survive in W.L. [Women’s Liberation] if you like to be fed your ideas. Argument with others is one good way of strengthening one’s views, and so the ideological battles of W.L. are a reasonably effective alternative to the  doctrinaire methods used by many liberation movements for building up adherence to the ideology. The disadvantage of the W.L. method is that opposing ideas are strengthened as a result of the battles and that a coming together is made more unlikely the more the process snowballs. (Anon 1971: 10)

This is an early defence of the power of forceful debate, although one can imagine that some would retreat, not because they lacked their own ideas, but because those more accomplished at arguing were likely to win the round.

For some groups the politics of identity is about making a direct challenge to the dominance of other interest groups within feminism. So the Combahee River Collective state that ‘[t]his focus upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics.We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression’ (in Nicholson 1997: 65). bell hooks agrees that ‘sisterhood’ as a concept was dominated by the definitions of bourgeois white women and based erroneously on the idea of common oppression – ‘the emphasis on Sisterhood was often seen as the emotional appeal masking the opportunism of manipulative bourgeois white women. It was seen as a cover-up hiding the fact that many women exploit and oppress other women’ (hooks 1986: 127–8). She felt that the inevitable result of identity politics was the configuration of women’s groups whose members had similar backgrounds, so that there would be even less opportunity to frame a realistic challenge to oppression. For hooks and a number of black feminists, racism was intertwined with sexist oppression and if white women weren’t struggling against racism they were denying the terms of their own privileges. Therefore, it is the racist socialisation of white women that needs further scrutiny, in that they otherwise assume they make better leaders and spokespeople for the movement. Lesbian feminists also had to juggle between two oppressed identities and also between a vying sexual identity framed by the discourse of social constructionism versus a ‘biological’ one which suggests a transhistorical lesbian ‘essence’ and underpins the idea of ‘gay pride’ or ‘gay culture’ (see Fuss 1989: 97–112). Not only are they constantly challenging their marginalisation in the women’s movement (since the days when Betty Friedan, founder of the US National Organisation for Women (NOW), dubbed them the ‘Lavender Menace’), their sense of sexual identity is fraught with difficulty.

It does not seem to be the case that there was ever a time when feminism was marked by a consensus, even though it was, and is, common to preface a remark with ‘as a feminist…’ (see Delmar in Mitchell and Oakley 1986: 8–33), but the effects of difference have been interpreted in more or less negative terms as the movement has matured. By the 1980s many felt that identity politics was stifling feminism with people feeling obliged to announce their own identity before making any statement and risking someone more ‘oppressed’ than them denying them the right to speak. Rather than celebrating heterogeneity in the way that the anonymous contributor to Shrew magazine suggests, feminists were more inclined to see the positing of differences as the stumbling blocks to feminism’s future. The worst examples of identity politics were manifested in the fierce fighting and name-calling between the anti-porn and the libertarian anti-censorship lobbies. For Lynne Segal it was the increasingly torturous debates around heterosexuality that ‘produced the final and fundamental rift between feminists at the end of the 1970s and which shattered any potential unity about the nature, direction and goal of feminism’ (Segal 1987: 65).

It wasn’t just the fact of differences between women, but how they were interpreted, used, and how it made people feel that there was a hierarchy of authenticity – a competition whereby some people were seen as more legitimately oppressed than others. What some, like Segal, saw as the closing down of the range of feminist debates also prompted feelings of alienation, that the women’s movement had taken a wrong turning.

Postmodern and post-structuralist theories offer some relief from the endless cycle of identity politics since the idea of an essential identity is regarded as belonging to a past wedded to ‘grand narratives’ of truth and progress. During the 1980s the term ‘woman’ itself came to be seen as part of the problem. From a post-structuralist point of view, diverse women were trying to lay claim to an identity which is never stable in its range of meanings, but always slippery and culturally and historically diverse. For Monique Wittig the radicalism of the lesbian social position is that they can refuse to be a ‘woman’: ‘“Woman” is there to confuse us, to hide the reality, “women”. In order to be aware of being a class and to become a class we first have to kill the myth of “woman” including its most seductive aspects’ (Wittig 1992: 16). Others would argue that heterosexual feminists had much to learn from this perspective – that to refuse to be a ‘woman’ is to deny the dominant discourses that attempt to frame our selves in the interest of a hostile culture. Moreover denying the ‘woman’, as Wittig suggests, involves acknowledging the existence of ‘women’ in all their plurality (many critics would still want ‘woman’ to remain the organising feminist political principle. For Judith Butler, establishing a foundational identity to mobilise feminist politics is actually to restrict the possibilities of new unthought-of identities that feminism might make realities (Butler 1990: 147). In the 1990s, queer theory further challenged the politics of identity by denying the need for fixed sexual identities, identifying ‘queer’ as the badge of the sexual radical. Queer is a way of denying the normalcy of heterosexuality by blurring the gay/straight binary opposition and celebrating the plurality of responses that are made available. It’s playfully disruptive of the old boundaries, yet some feminists remain sceptical of its political reach.

For hooks, as for many other veteran feminists, the perception of identity politics as either avoidable or necessarily negative was second wave feminism’s first mistake: ‘[w]omen do not need to eradicate difference to feel solidarity. We do not need to share common oppression to fight equally to end oppression’ (hooks 1986: 138).

Source: Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan Sage Publications, 2004.

Either Evans (1979) or Echols (1989) gives a flavour of tensions in the early US Women’s Liberation Movement; Segal (1987) at times controversially covers some of these issues from a largely British perspective. Hooks’s (1986) essay is passionately argued and extremely accessible, whereas Butler (1990) and Wittig (1992) cover some of the theoretical ground.


Categories: Feminism, Gender Studies

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