“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
di Annachiara Ruzzetta
We are all engaged in constructing a world of gender relations. How it is made, what strategies different groups pursue, and with what effects, are all political questions. Men and women are chained to the gender pattern they have inherited. Men too can make political choices for a new world of gender relations. Yet those choices need to be made in the awareness of the complex systems of gender domination that still persist.
Thing is that men and women are part of the same species. We have been conditioned differently and so our gendered pathologies are different. Men have long had a physical and social advantage, allowing them to aggress more forcefully and openly. Women have been systematically oppressed so they have had to hone their skills in subtler - but also impactful - forms of warfare. Feminism as a social, political, and cultural movement arises from the awareness of this substantial and societal difference, which, however, much be valued in order to create a society in which everyone can pursue their very own diversity without fearing for retaliation from the current regime of neoliberal, white-supremacist, imperial-capitalist, cis-hetero-patriarchy. Recently, the history and fight for gender equality has been muddied with a different, negative version of feminism. This term has begun to become tainted by the adjective toxic. But what is toxic feminism? In which occasions feminism can be considered toxic? Before understanding these dilemmas, it is important to first grasp the nature of the complex system of privilege that perpetuates the patriarchal hierarchy and that still triggers demands for gender equality.
Social Inequality and Systematic Intersectional Oppression According to Maussen et al., the term social inequality concerns the unequal distribution of life chances among different people and groups (1). Life chances include both access to resources and formal rights, which have been unequal distributed since time immemorial depending on factors like gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. More specifically, restrictions on civil and social rights are socially determined, depending on the common interpretations and social power relations that are predominant. In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American law professor, coined the term Intersectional feminism and explained it as, “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other”. An intersectional approach shows the way that people’s social identities can overlap, creating compounding experiences of discrimination.
For example, we tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. Therefore, intersectional feminism centres the voices of those experiencing overlapping, concurrent forms of oppression in order to understand the depths of the inequalities and the relationships among them in any given context.
Already in 1981, political activist, philosopher, and author Angela Y. Davis affirmed herself as a pioneer in integrative race, gender and class studies with the publication of Women, Race & Class. The book traced the history of gender consciousness, the origins and legacies of the struggle for equal rights for women, and the particular role of Black and working-class women in the various civil rights movement’s waves in the United States up until the liberation movements of the 1960s. The author used a Marxist feminist class analysis and demonstrated through historical facts and in-depth analysis of gender relations and of the status of Black women and the working class of all races as historically oppressed classes. According to Davis, in the nineteenth century, the incipient industrialisation of the economy was simultaneously eroding white women’s prestige in the home (2). Their social status began to deteriorate accordingly. An ideological consequence of industrial capitalism was the shaping of a more rigorous notion of female inferiority. In fact, when manufacturing moved out of the home and into the factory, the ideology of womanhood began to raise the wife and mother as ideals. So well-situated women began to denounce their unfulfilling domestic lives by defining marriage as a form of slavery. But during the 1830s white women—both housewives and workers—were actively drawn into the abolitionist movement. The loss of their economic importance enabled them to acquire leisure time and become active social reformers. Abolitionism conferred upon these women the opportunity to launch an implicit protest against their oppressive roles at home. They learned how to challenge male supremacy within the anti-slavery movement. They discovered that sexism, which seemed unalterable inside their marriages, could be questioned and fought in the arena of political struggle.
These claims had a tremendous impact on the late twentieth century critical social thought. They blatantly represented the fact that ignoring the systemic and interlocking nature of the complex systems of domination (e.g., sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia or transphobia) had misleading consequences. In fact, when the effects of sexism, for example, are not understood macroscopically as the products of systemic injustices, they are understood microscopically as the exclusive problems of particular womxn* who have made bad choices, have poor attitudes, are too sensitive, or who are overreacting to a random incident. According to Alison Bailey, failure to examine sexism, homophobia, and racism, as harms produced by systematically related forces and barriers means demeaning the agency of the still very present ideology of hetero-patriarchal dominance (3).
In this regard, political activist and writer Chimamanda Adichie claimed that the saying “men rule the world” makes sense only by taking into account physical strength as an essential attribute for survival (4). However, today we live in a world where the person who is more innovative, creative and knowledgeable should be the more qualified to lead. Therefore, it is time to rethink about the way we shape our culture, and we educate our children: it is time to “bridge the gap between genders that has fuelled for years the fire of social inequality” (4). According to the author, men feel threatened by the idea itself of feminism, because of an inherent and socially imposed sense of self-worth that could be diminished and obscured by a womxn’s success (4). Therefore, feminism - in its multiple forms - has almost always carried a negative connotation. However, by avoiding the word “feminist” we ignore the root of the problem: the social discrimination and violence against womxn that have been going on for centuries. Recognising the need for equal civil rights among people who naturally differ from each other in factors that cannot be socially pre-determined, such as the biological sex, is crucial. A feminist does not wish to raise womxn above men, but rather to raise womxn to the same social level that men have always been granted as well as to the monopoly that men have enjoyed for most of human history. Feminisms claim for more social equality in the opportunities to realise goals, ambitions, and expectations. This is why keeping the word feminism free of the negative connotations it has gained over the years is important as long as the masculine, the feminine, the trans, the non-binary are not considered equally.
Toxic Feminism: Neo-liberal Feminism and Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminism Throughout the four waves with which analysts like to describe and distinguish between different eras and generations of feminism, the idea of a systematic intersectional oppression has not always been present. The wave metaphor can also be reductive. It suggests that each wave of feminism is a monolith with a single unified agenda, when in fact the history of feminism is a history of different ideas that are always evolving as society does too.
Neoliberal feminism is the most mainstream, seductive, but fatally weakened form of feminism today. It instrumentalises gender equality by reinforcing and extending the same unequal gendered structures and relations. As Naila Kabeer (1994) notes, the Women in Development approach - which calls for women’s inclusion in the processes of modernisation - is rooted in two interconnected sets of assumptions: those of neo-classical economics in which individuals are utility maximisers and economic growth comes from the exercise of individual choice supported by the institutions of private property and the free market; and those of liberal feminism which emphasises women’s capacity for rational thought and action and seeks equality with men in the public sphere (5). Thus, WID identified discrimination against women within the development process, but did not place it in the context of gendered structures of power, or relate unequal gender relations to those of class, race or imperialism. In other words, advocates of neoliberal feminism focus on the idea of personal improvement, on the individual who must ensure that she makes the most of the opportunities available to her. This reasoning, however, downplays the structural barriers to “success”. In doing this, it also fails to contend with hierarchies of privilege among women themselves.
Neoliberal feminism promises freedom, but it just replaces one source of coercion (traditional, patriarchal authority) with another (the market). In this neo-liberal world, women’s disadvantage may be defined less by gender and more by class. Production and the opiate of endless consumption become the ultimate signifiers of female empowerment and personal value. This threatens the feminist promise to better womxn’s lives. A feminism that is a handmaiden to capitalism is not feminism at all. In her Sick Woman Theory, Johanna Hedva maintains that the body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression – particularly our current regime of neoliberal patriarchy - because they carry an historical trauma. According to her, capitalism cannot be responsible for the care of the dysfunctional, unprivileged, undesirable bodies belonging to women, people of color, poor, ill, neuro-atypical, disabled, queer, trans, and genderfluid people because its inherent logic of exploitation requires some to be oppressed and be made politically invisible and culturally illegitimate.
In this regard, intersectional feminisms have been challenged by a current of conservative feminists who refuse transsexualism and trans women as such. They have been defined as Trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs - although they prefer to call themselves “gender critical”. The term originated in the late 2000s but grew out of 1970s radical feminist circles after it became apparent that there needed to be a term to separate radical feminists who supported trans women and those who did not. Gender-critical feminism, at its core, opposes the self-definition of trans people, arguing that anyone born with a vagina is in its own oppressed sex class, while anyone born with a penis is automatically an oppressor. In a TERF world, gender is a system that exists solely to oppress women, which it does through the imposition of femininity on those assigned females at birth. In the past several years, TERFism has fostered fertile recruiting ground in many online spaces. However, the movement more closely resembles an organized hate campaign against a marginalized community.
In any case, feminism since its origins, has highlighted how in reality the idea that women cannot do certain things is not linked to their biological sex, but to roles that have been culturally imposed on them and artificially constructed. So those who argue that a womxn is only linked to her sexual apparatus are in fact applying the same biological reductionism with which women have always been subjected. This is the same rhetoric of the narrowest male chauvinism, i.e. the idea that the body determines the value of a person. Feminism, therefore, can be considered toxic when it fails to take into account the heterogenous realities in which womxn live and operate.
In conclusion, reality is what we make of it. Therefore, it has endless roads. Radicalism is in the history of every social movement. There are activists who step outside these boundaries and engage their targets in a more direct manner. Already in 1969, the militants from the Redstockings movement united themselves to fight back gender oppression and achieve what they defined as “the final liberation from male supremacy” (5). They claimed for a more radical separation between the female class and the male class. Nowadays, the democratisation of the means of information has allowed a wider audience to directly take part into the debate and engage in the forms they ought to be more impactful.
Therefore, the idea of toxic feminism is not a monolith. It means different things to different people. It would be impractical and improper to provide a specific definition of this term, because there will always be cognitive biases playing a role. However, one thing is clear: claiming that feminism is inherently toxic means degrading and neglecting the causes and structural issues that have brought feminism as a social, civil and political movement to arise in the first place. It is a position of denial. As Audre Lorde claimed back in 1984, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. In other words, we cannot disrupt our oppression using the logic that justifies our own oppression. This is why defining feminism as inherently toxic is misleading, contradictory and dangerous. Saying this does not deny the existence of a branch of feminists - although this term is improperly used - that systematically vilifies and demonises their male counterparts as well as other sexual minorities. It means refusing the universalisation aimed at negatively defining womxn rights’ movements and aims at understanding it as it is: an impediment to the feminist cause, a roadblock that prevents women and men alike of any gender, any ethnicity, any class and any life experience from wanting to identify themselves as feminists.
*the term womxn, used especially in intersectional feminism, refers to an alternative spelling of the word “woman” to avoid the suggestion of sexism perceived in the sequences “m-a-n” and “m-e-n”, and to be inclusive of trans and non-binary women
(1) Maussen, M., Hakhverdian, A. (2017). Social and Political Inequality. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam. (2) Davis, A. Y. (1981). Women, Race & Class. United States: Random House Inc. (3) Bailey, A. (1998). Privilege: Expanding on Marilyn Frye's "Oppression". Journal of Social Philosophy. (4) Adichie, C. (2014). We Should All Be Feminists. London: Fourth Estate.
(5) Kabeer, N. (1994). Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought. London: Verso.