“Who is in that sisterhood?”

So far this semester I have been thinking a lot about steps I can take to make people of different backgrounds and identities feel understood and included, specifically while organizing around sensitive issues such as gender equality. As much as I wish I could buy into the discourse of “before anything we are human” the fact remains that we are all very different humans, and forgetting this fact can sabotage the feminist movement.

Merely focusing on similarities between women erases the very real needs that come from various intersections of identity. A black upper-middle class woman’s feminism may look very different from a white lower-class woman’s feminism. Often times, different feminisms come not from a place of conscious mistrust of other women, but from a reality of survival. When a mainstream movement does not address identity-specific issues, women at less-talked-about intersections of identity (i.e., the differently-abled, the poor, the black, the trans), may feel angry and understandably want to distance themselves from a large movement of feminists to fight their own battles.

The problem with these divisions is, of course that movements are more successful if they have just that, momentum. And momentum comes from a large group of people with similar goals. How do we self-identified feminists find the balance between recognizing difference, while still allying together in the name of social, political, and economic equality for all genders? I do not know the answer to this question, but I really like JeeYeun Lee’s take on this issue in “Beyond Bean Counting” (which I read for my Feminist Methodologies class) when she says: “sisterhood may be global, but who is in that sisterhood?” To me, this quote acts as an important reminder that merely saying we are all united and equal as feminists is not enough. The strongest feminist movement will come out of getting to know the stories of all of the sisters (and brothers and other companions) intimately. Through understanding their needs we can craft a more inclusive and ultimately more effective feminism.

Bridging gaps across different experiences and identities is not easy. It takes time and patience. In the feminist movement I believe that it will come from sitting down with people outside of our circles of comfort and saying “You are a feminist, I am a feminist. We have that in common, but we have different reasons for why we are the way we are. Can you share with me why you are in this fight and how I can be an ally to you?” Sometimes people may not share (and they are, of course, not obligated to) but for the good of the feminist movement it is imperative to ask.

Yes, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “we should all be feminists” and yes as Dionne Farris sings before anything else we are “human.” These are powerful statements that reflect black women speaking their truths. For myself as an academic and a feminist, however, I do not find these inclusive statements to be a good enough framework for intersectional feminism, especially for allies. I fear that they run the risk of lazy unexamined ally-ship or, even worse, of erasing intersections of identities in desperate need of justice within the feminist movement. For true or truer connection in the feminist movement women (and white women specifically) need to talk less about the importance of diversity and intersectionality and do more to show that they see intersectionality as important. Feminists need to ask themselves “who is in this sisterhood?” and think critically about the range of identities that build up the complicated “sisterhood” of feminism. In the feminist movement we are not all the same, but perhaps through diligent and constant self-aware compassion, we can all someday call each other “sisters” and understand the responsibility that comes with that statement.

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2 thoughts on ““Who is in that sisterhood?”

  1. Kate, I really like this post. It brought up a conversation I had with someone about the word diversity. They brought up a strong point that the word diversity reminds them of divide since its dictionary definition talks about difference. Instead she said that the word “inclusion” should be used instead. This brings up the point in your post about “We should all be feminist.” I’m divided (pun not intended) about that. Yes, I agree with Chimamanda but I also agree with you on the grounds of forcing an ally-ship that overlooks the whole point. Having everyone be a feminist is a romantic idea; if everyone is a feminist then a majority of the problem we have economically, socially, and politically will be solved. Yet at the same time we do not want to force everyone into this feminist ship while everyone has different views. We should also remember that there are different categories of feminism. But my main point is that your post is really thought provoking.

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  2. One of the long-standing tenets of many movements for social justice is the appeal to an ideal of universal humanity. Whether it is Josiah Wedgwood’s beautiful plates inscribed with “Am I not Your Sister” which were sold to support abolition in England or the Marriage Equality strategy to show that queer married couples are just the same as straight married couples, there is the underlying hope that creating empathy will create equality. Nice, except…who is controlling the narrative? Once Black women and other women of color start carving out a definition of feminism (whether it appears to be the same word or is a newly coined term like womanism, there is always a backlash from those controlling the narrative. So often I am asked by my white friends, “how can I be an effective ally?” I think Zillah Eisenstein ( who identifies as a white, Jewish, socialist feminist) has the best answer: “Shut up and listen.” I think from your post, Kate, you get that!

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