“Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.”
– Ti-Grace Atkinson
I was reminded of this essay today, first published in 1976. The author, writing in the middle of the Second Wave of feminist activism, describes in heartbreaking detail the long-lasting psychological damage inflicted on the women at the heart of that movement, by the very relationships that were supposed to nurture and sustain and liberate them. When I first encountered this essay, as an undergraduate with a vague interest in the history of the Second Wave but no direct experience of feminist activism of my own, I read it with a sort of bemused and detached fascination, unable to fathom how women could do this to one another, or what could explain these devastating dynamics. Today, having witnessed the latest round of brutal, relentless trashing of a much loved friend of mine, and having been subject to one myself only yesterday, the familiarity of it all makes it almost too painful to re-read.
There is some small comfort to be had from the realisation that none of this is new: that my generation is not uniquely unhealthy or dysfunctional, that we are not unusually incapable of demonstrating solidarity and sisterhood with one another, that these phenomenal, fearless, fearsome feminists whose writings and activism I admire so much suffered many of the same miseries as I do, and would empathise with my pain. But that is accompanied by a real sadness that in nearly forty years since Joreen’s article was published, we have made so little progress. We are repeating the mistakes of our foremothers. Another generation of bright, committed, impassioned women is being worn down. Being killed by the power of sisterhood.
All of the tendencies that Joreen describes still exist. We still trash women to their faces, as well as behind their backs. We still ostracise. We still denounce. We still give false reports about the horrible things other women have said or done. We still interpret each other uncharitably. We still hold ludicrously unreasonable expectations of each other and use these to justify anger and abuse when they are not met. We still judge one another guilty by association, and see friendships and relationships as a source of taint. We still join in the trashings of women like us, using them as a shield to deflect attention from ourselves. We still secretly whisper our support for today’s target via back channels, but say nothing publicly, for fear of being next in line. We still mask the real brutality of all this behind a veil of ‘legitimate critique’.
Of course now we have a whole host of new avenues through which to express these tendencies. We blog. We reblog. We tweet. We subtweet. We storify. We screenshot. We call out. We pile on. We mobilise our followers. We parody. We doxx. This trashing thing has got a whole lot more real-time, and a whole lot more inescapable. If you’ve been involved in online feminism over the past couple of years, you’ll almost certainly have experienced that surge of panic, the sickening dread and the racing pulse, as your phone explodes and your notifications go into overdrive, message after message tumbling in to tell you what an abominable human being you are. (We’ve developed a new irregular verb to describe what typically happens in the aftermath of these pile-ons: I take a twitter break; you deactivate for self-care; she flounces.)
Like Joreen, I am worried about airing our dirty linen in public – it makes me unhappy to think of the men laughing at us while they watch us tear ourselves apart. We’re all well versed in those sexist stereotypes about cat fights and bitchy women and “don’t you think that women are their own worst enemy?”, and we know that every one of these public trashings plays into and reinforces those stereotypes. But I want to reiterate the point that Joreen made in 1976 – nothing about this is peculiar to feminism. None of this is specific to women’s politics or relationships, and insofar as people think it is, it’s because they’ve accepted those sexist stereotypes, and have learned to dismiss women’s conflicts as hysterical cat fighting, while taking men’s conflicts to be indicative of serious substantive political disagreement. Many of these tendencies are exacerbated by the fact that we are women – our female socialisation often doesn’t prepare us for navigating conflict and disagreement smoothly, and our political marginalisation means we can be inexperienced at political organisation in comparison with men. (On the plus side, at least when we fall out with one another, nations don’t go to war). But the psychological and structural features that cause this political fracturing are present not just in feminist politics, but in leftist and progressive politics in general.
At the level of individual, what you find on the left are people who tend to be motivated by principle and conviction, and who have strong moral commitments underpinning their political stances. And so the kinds of women who are drawn to feminism are the kinds of women who have strong and firm political principles that they are passionately committed to, and that often constitute part of their identity and self-perception. For this reason, they are often unwilling to deviate from these principles in order to compromise with those who disagree with them. Since political principles are a matter of moral conviction and personal identity, many feminists, and leftists in general, would rather walk away from a movement, than water down their principles even slightly by cooperating with people whose principles are even marginally different to their own. This conviction – in conjunction with a large dollop of narcissism of small differences – results in an inevitable slide towards purity politics, as individuals become more concerned with keeping their hands clean and their souls of free of pollution, than actually effecting the real world change they claim to care about. And once your doctrine has become more a matter of personal salvation than a political theory, it becomes easy to see those who disagree with you as not just mistaken, but vicious, evil, dangerous. Denunciation and ostracism are justified, because the non-believer is a threat to the purity of the doctrine and to one’s own identity, and must be contained.
This combines with more structural features of the situation in which the leftist finds herself – namely, the fact that the system is so thoroughly unjust, the problems are so seemingly insurmountable and the change she wants to enact in the world seems so profoundly impossible to realise, that a form of despair and despondency sets in. Victory is so intangible and beyond the leftist’s grasp, given that the change desired is nothing less that the complete reshaping of the political and social landscape. As feminists, we want to end male violence against women, eliminate the exploitation of female labour, and abolish oppressive gender norms. These goals are a long way out of our reach, and victories often feel few and far between, so there’s not much opportunity for celebration, or the sense of satisfaction and gratification at a battle won. But while we can’t win the war against the patriarchy, we stand a reasonable shot of winning the battle against our friends. And whether we win those battles or not, we will certainly get a response of some kind; while the patriarchy remains unmoved by our raging against it, picking a fight with our sister over some small disagreement is guaranteed to elicit some kind of a reaction. No surprise then, that landing punches on our sister is a more satisfying and appealing option than continuing to flail helplessly and unnoticed at our mutual enemy.
So the result is that those on the left are frequently drawn to infighting and trashing, rather than working together to try to defeat their common enemy. And built into progressive politics is an ostensible justification for singling out a target, in the form of a deep commitment to egalitarianism and an inherent dislike of power and authority. One of the characteristic features of leftist political ideologies is a commitment to the equal distribution of power and the dismantling of established hierarchies, and feminism is no different in this respect – challenging male power over women, as well as challenging the power dynamics of race and class within our own movement, is essential feminist activism. But an implication of this egalitarianism and rejection of hierarchy is a creeping suspicion of any individual who obtains status or success outside of the movement. Any person of the left who manages to achieve some political influence thus instantly becomes a valid target for a trashing, because their influence (or ‘platform’) is seen as the kind of privilege the movement is dedicated to dismantling. For women, this is exacerbated by sexist stereotypes about the powerful woman: she is uppity, she is a ball-breaker, she is unfeminine and unfuckable.
So the upshot of all this is that any woman who demonstrates some talent and ambition and determination and tries to wield some power and influence in what is still a man’s world might as well be drawing a bullseye on her back. She is fair game for a trashing, because she has done what other women have not managed to do, and scratched out a little place for herself in this male-dominated environment. Nothing else can explain why so much more feminist vitriol is directed towards the handful of women with power and influence in the media or academia, than the men who hold the bulk of the power and the privilege. Never mind that she uses her position to help other women advance. Never mind that she acknowledges the role that luck and privilege played in her success. The woman with power and influence is fair game for a trashing, and will be accused of trampling on others on her way to the top, regardless of whether or not this is actually true. And in doing this, we are implicitly telling women that it is unfeminist to be successful, to hold power and influence, even if you might use that power and influence to advance feminist causes – the most feminist thing you can do is sit down and shut up. But the consequence of this is not the breaking down of established power. The consequence of this is that men keep hold of it.
I don’t have any solutions to any of this. I think these features explain why leftist movements in general are prone to internal conflict, fracturing and dissolution, and are part of the reason those on the left tear themselves to shreds, while those on the right just get on and consolidate their power. I also think that as feminists we are right to challenge established power relations and hierarchies, and to keep holding up our theories and our activism to critical scrutiny and reflection. But forty years after our feminist foremothers first wrote about this, we are still tearing each other apart, and our common enemy rejoices as we do. Clever, kind, compassionate women are being broken by this battle, and we will lose our brightest and best voices, as very few such women have the stomach for the endless, relentless trashing and character assassination from those on their own side.
Like Joreen, I’ve experienced this enough times that it’s damaged me psychologically, wounding me as a person and undermining my capacities as a feminist. Whether or not this is typical, I don’t know, but I’ve been the target of it enough times in the past that it now hurts me less when it’s directed at me personally; the thing that really hurts me now, the thing that causes me to shed tears of anger and frustration, is seeing it happen to the women I love. I’m not writing this to try to elicit sympathy and compassion. Nor am I about to end with a trite and simplistic call for solidarity and cohesion in our fractured movement. My guess is that you either feel the attraction of those kinds of ideas or you don’t; and if you don’t, no amount of anguished, despondent blogging is going to change your mind on that. I want to believe that despite our many differences and the multiplicity of experiences we all bring to the table, there is enough commonality among women to make us a coherent political class capable of working together and forming some community amongst ourselves.
If you don’t feel that about me, I respect your right to organise without me, and wish you well. But for my part, I hereby make the following pledges:
- I will not participate in trashings, no matter how little I like the woman being targeted, or how much I disagree with her politics
- I will assume good faith on the part of other women and interpret their position charitably
- I will celebrate when a woman achieves success of any kind – and if I really can’t bring myself to celebrate, I will keep my disappointment to myself
- I will put the welfare of women and the progress of our shared goals above my personal purity
I expect this post will make me unpopular. Let my trashing commence!