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
identity politics/the politics of identity
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....
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