12 Nov 2022 A feminism to deactivate the backlash
By Clara Serra
Originally published in Spanish by Jacobin América Latina, translated by Liz Mason-Deese for the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.
Fighting the extreme right today, as well as the precarity and fears that fuel it, requires decidedly committing to a feminism for everyone.
The advance of feminism is one of the most noteworthy political and social events in recent years, with far-reaching effects for leftist projects. Along with major women’s mobilizations that have taken place in different countries during these years, feminism has permeated social life, reaching its most everyday spaces and producing a tectonic movement of common sense.
Feminism’s hegemony has been shown in its capacity to go beyond academia, books, and expert talks, beyond the most activist spaces or political organizations, in short, in its power to become popular and reach the grassroots level. Many more women, from our grandmothers to teenagers of the trap generation, know that feminism is about them. At the same time, along with this accelerated expansion of feminism’s reach, questions increasingly arise about its subject, its limits, of whether or not it is necessary to protect its borders. Feminism has become hegemonic, but, at the same time, the reluctance of certain feminisms to accept a project for the 99%, a “feminism for everyone”, is becoming more and more clear.
Certain current debates – such as the debate between a part of the feminist movement and demands for rights for trans persons –, demonstrate profound ideological fractures and affirm a return to essentialism on the part of some feminist currents. This conservative inertia is part of a broader picture, of a generalized identitarian withdrawal, of a wager on strong and well-defined identities, a logic that is traversing our political struggles and social movements. Political subjects vindicate their specificity to the point of solipsism and essential, metaphysical, and insurmountable differences are multiplied, making us irreversibly foreign to one another.
Assigning supposedly essential and natural subjects to our political causes, assuming that demands exclusively belong to them, and not others, – with the authority to act as their legitimate owners and to deny entrance to others –, runs contrary to the process of mestizaje and multiplication of alliances necessary for the construction of a radically transformative collective project of the majorities.
Feminism, also immersed in these identitarian logics, today is therefore the ambivalent scenario of two different and contrasting inertias. There is a feminism that seeks to integrate others and, thus, has the potential to become one of the most powerful and transformative political and social struggles of the twenty-first century. There is also a feminism submersed in an exclusionary and counter-revolutionary inertia that advances toward a centripetal movement of political contraction. This ambivalence represents a crossroads and, due to everything that is stake, one must take a side.
It is precisely the power over one of the left’s primary fronts in the current historical moment that is at stake in the question of which feminism we defend. We risk the possible atrophy of feminism, its return to the status of a particular and subaltern cause that only interpellates or convenes one part of society.
Others are knocking at the other… are we going to let them in?
As Wendy Brown argues, “the deconstruction of the subject provokes a clear panic in feminism” and the debate over the trans issue highlights to what extent certain feminisms condition the very viability of any feminist political project to a very clear delimitation of the subject and a clear and univocal definition of who are “women”. The current return of certain discourses of biology as a criteria to patrol the borders of the political subject is a symptom of a return to essentialism.
What is certain is that we come from decades in which feminist theory, from different perspectives, subjected the notion of “woman” to critique in order to demonstrate its social construction – “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, in Beauvoir’s words – and, therefore in its profoundly political character. Even Celia Amorós, a referential theorist for many of the most belligerent feminists against the trans laws in the Spanish context, affirmed “with Butler, it must recognized that the construction-deconstruction dialectic of the category of ‘women’ undoubtedly poses problems [and that] that should lead us to recognize the always revisable character of the category’s definition and its problematicity”.
Now, beyond the fact that, in effect, a non-essentialist vision must renounce the pretension of having a definitive delimitation of that concept, the question of the limits of feminism – and thus, its capacity to become a struggle of the 99% – is not fully resolved with the expansion of the woman subject. Of course, faced with the most exclusionary versions, it can be politically powerful to affirm that “trans women are women”, but this should not serve to put exercise another exclusionary logic that makes us incapable of integrating the plurality of subjects that will continue knocking at the door.
Feminism’s encounter with the trans issue raises much deeper questions about our capacity to renounce, as Butler proposes, an identitarian subject. Because, are not all trans people part of the feminist subject? Would feminism exclude trans men from its political subject? Is feminism going to condition trans peoples’ – many of whom do not ascribe to an identitarian gender category as either men or women – access to rights according to to their identification in terms of gender? Will it require (gender) identity cards as a condition to be part of this revolution? In short, is feminism a struggle only for and by women?
In our current context, the trans issue is one of the seams through which the question arises of feminism’s subject and the contradictions of an identitarian feminism come into tension, but, clearly another one of these seams is opening up today over the question of men. And this question is becoming politically important not only because today many men find themselves faced with it, but also because it is a question that some political forces respond to in a reactionary register.
The new extreme rights are recruiting an army of angry men against feminism, which it describes as an exclusionary project that has declared war against half of society. We should not underestimate the fact that this interpellation, despite being Manichaean and deceitful, is worryingly successful; one of the most characteristic features of the new extreme right’s vote is its very high level of masculinization (for example, men make up 76% of Vox’s voters). The question, therefore, is: What feminisms put us in conditions to understand this scenario and fight these intertias? Are the new rights, for the large part, a reaction to women’s demands for equality? Do these years of feminist advances explain the violence with which the reaction has arisen?
To address these questions, we need to go beyond the identitarianism in which some feminist perspectives are encased. Under the frameworks of a feminism that is always on the defensive with the blurring of its identitarian subject – that is, of women –, questions relating to masculinity tend to be understood as a matter that is foreign to them and completely the responsibility of others. This misunderstanding, often defended as a victory, is, in reality, a major renunciation. It means abandoning a social problem that feminism is precisely in conditions to analyse with clarity and to address effectively.
The temptation of an essentialist vision even includes naturalizing the masculine reaction, taking it for granted, not needing to even explain it, turning it into an inevitable fact. And thus we could end up asking ourselves, with satisfaction: To what are extent are all those men who vote for Vox not the automatic consequence of the fact that we are dethroning them? The dogs bark, it means we are moving forward. The male reaction that we are seeing today thus, could even be evidence of how much we are progressing.
However, these types of perspectives are dangerously uncritical and close the door on the possibility of raising other questions: What is happening to men today? What masculine malaise is being politicized by the extreme right? What things are we not naming? How can we convince men? How can we help them change? What feminism can deactivate the reaction?
(Also) a question of class
The thickening and essentialization of women’s identity has led, as we know, to feminist perspectives that are are unable to understand how gender also intersects with class or race. Us feminists who are opposed to the essentialists view of certain feminisms question the tendency to homogenize or excessively equate all women, and call for the need to fracture the woman subject precisely to render visible the differences and inequalities that traverse us.
The other side of the coin, and a crucial part of any intersectional perspective, is to also question the excessive homogenization of men and highlight the hierarchies and relations of domination and inequality that also exist in the territory of masculinity. Bell hooks is one of the voices that has most forcefully argued that a feminism with a class perspective cannot only think of men as winners and that it is problematic to sustain the idea that men, all of them privileged in respect to women, equalized among each other by patriarchy, equally participate in their political, economic, and social superiority. “Women with class privilege have been the only group who have perpetuated the notion that men are all-powerful, because often the men in their families were powerful”.
In fact, if reflecting on masculinity from a feminist perspective is politically transformative, it is precisely because it can show us not so much the successes as the failures and gaps that men are doomed to in a capitalist and patriarchal system. As bell hooks says, the narrative that dominance over women always leads to privileges, successes, and benefits for men is precisely functional for masculine indoctrination that, to recruit men, must hide all the failures and discomforts that a patriarchal society throws at them.
Thus, “the idea that men had control, power, and were satisfied with their lives before the contemporary feminist movement is not true”. Patriarchy generates loneliness, silence, miscommunication, violence, suicides, and deaths in the male population and feminism must politicize all of these ills in a transformative register. If it does not, the extreme right will. How is it possible that reactionary voices are the ones that speak of the high rates of male suicides, fatal traffic accidents, or violent deaths suffered by men? How can it be that the ills that precisely the patriarchy generates for men are used as an argument against feminism and not in its favour?
Moving beyond from identitarian frameworks implies, therefore, thinking that men’s current malaise is not (or at least not primarily) an effect of feminism’s advances. It is reactionary forces employ this myth, which should give us a clue about the extent to which we should not buy into it. Michael Kimmel suggests that to understand the emergence of racist, homophobic, and sexist reactionary projects, we must trace the masculine myths in a society in which economic precarity has made it especially impossible for me to be able to fulfil the imperatives of traditional masculinity.
The role of the male bread winner has been undermined by economic forces that either expel men (and women) from the labour market or condemn us to precarity. What type of failure are those who have been educated to be heads of household who guarantee their family’s protection and stability doomed to? Is it possible to continue being a true man in a context of generalized impoverishment of the population, unemployment, and constant threat of the loss of social status? Kimmel’s thesis is that the new US-American extreme rights, a prelude to Trump’s victory, were able able to politicize that masculine frustration, a feature of our late capitalist societies, directing it toward scapegoats: feminist women, LGBTQ people, or migrant persons.
The question, then, is what feminist frameworks and discourses do we need in order to target those who are truly responsible. Faced with those who seek false culprits, a crucial task lies ahead of us. And it does not include considering masculine malaise as outside our movement, and even less so taking it for granted or even celebrating it as a collateral effect that proves our successes, without understanding it – which, of course, is not the same as justifying it – and endowing it with meaning. Politicizing masculine discontent against those on the top, changing sides, and making a feminism a struggle in which men and women fight together both against gender mandates and their violence and against capitalism and its violence is one of the main challenges for any political project that seeks to successfully confront the emergence of the extreme right.
A Structural Perspective
The refusal of certain feminisms to incorporate men supposedly has to do with fear that it will blur inequalities. It seems as if the incorporation of men as objects of patriarchy – who are also subsumed and trapped in gender mandates – would relativize their responsibility in the domination that they exercise and would inevitably suppose an underestimation of their privileges. These frameworks, however, draw a paralysing disjunctive: we are either objects of power or we have responsibility and agency. In this way, to be objects of a patriarchal structure – a position that would be reserved for women – we must be passive victims of its mandates. To be responsible agents – a position exclusively reserved for men – we must be pure subjects, absolved from structures and free of any domination. But is this necessarily true? Are men agents of patriarchy but not its victims? Do men, as external artifices, invent patriarchy, or rather, are they part of that system, products of it who remain trapped inside it?
Identitarianism causes an invasion of the moral and a regression in the political: it needs pure victims, as purely innocent as purely impotent, and pure victimizers, as essentially guilty as apparently powerful. There is, therefore, an exacerbation of men’s individual agency – to the detriment of the weight of the structural – and a paralysing passive victimization of women, who are deprived of responsibility and, therefore, also of any room for action.
Increasingly popular identitarian discourses tend to produce a depoliticizing effect to the extent that what disappears is the structural effect of patriarchy as a system of domination. That it is a system or structure means, precisely, that all the subjects who are part of it are subject/subjugated to that system, subsumed, produced by it, and therefore, men are objects of domination as much as women. The radical nature of feminism as a social theory lies fundamentally in that issue: the analysis of an enormously powerful and insidious social system of which we all are a part. Men are beneficiaries of certain privileges and, at the same time, objects of structural determination. Women, primarily condemned by a structure of social inequality, can also participate in maintaining the gender imperatives that patriarchal society imposes.
Contemporary feminisms that are focused on protecting and patrolling the borders of their political subject and need to densify a strong identity of “women” are contributing to an essentialist sanctification of the victim – a “victimist” politics, in Wendy Brown’s words –, in which the political subjects (women, who supposedly are the only victims of patriarchy) are invested with the truth, purity, and goodness, but devoid of any margin of emancipation. They also open the door to contemporary discourses about masculinity that restore an implausible subject, assisted by a classically masculine and neoliberal autonomy, self-sufficiency, and radical independence.
If holding men responsible means turning them into subjects outside of the structure and absolved from the system of domination, we will be, paradoxically, dissolving the power of gender, the importance of patriarchy, and its structural character.
Collective Emancipation or Disputing Freedom Once Again
One of the challenges for the left in the twenty-first century, both against the emerging extreme rights and against the neoliberal imaginary, is to reconquer the idea of freedom. Thus, another question is to what extent one of the main fronts of political struggle today – feminism – can be in conditions to successfully engage this dispute. Or, in other words, what feminism is capable of resignifying the notion of freedom beyond neoliberal frameworks.
The issue is that feminisms trapped in identity deploy discourses of grievance – centred on the pain and harm suffered by victims, who are only part of society – and not collective freedom. According to this centring of a politics of the aggrieved victim become a political subject, it is considered incompatible to denounce male privileges and, at the same time, say that feminism has good things to offer men and that also struggles against the servitudes that oppress them. And it is precisely those feminist discourses that always emphasize the privileges that men have to lose, but never the freedoms that men have to gain, that assume frameworks shared with the reaction: either them [women] or us [men]. This zero-sum logic, in which if some win it is always at the cost of others losing, it part of the ideological corpus that sustains patriarchy. But, additionally, it is line with a very limited and negative idea of freedom that redraws it within the frameworks of neoliberalism.
The dispute over the idea of freedom is possible from feminisms, but only if we go beyond essentialist and identitarian frameworks. There we can find a more ambitious and revolutionary idea: that freedom for some requires freedom for others, and vice-versa. And, again, only in this way can the emancipation promised by feminism be understood, by understanding patriarchy as a structural problem. If the feminist struggle has to confront a gender system that indoctrinates male and female subjects differently, and prescribes different behaviours and social destinies according to gender, to what extent can it combat that system of oppression without fighting all gender mandates? Could women free themselves from the gender and patriarchy system if men are not also freed? Could men be more free without fighting inequality with us?
There is nothing more mobilizing and transformative than involving all of us in a political project in which overturning inequalities means wagering on our own freedom together. It is in that framework in which the discourses of the extreme right cannot recruit men against women and that allows us to escape liberal logics that always understand the freedom of some as limiting the freedom of others. It is in these perspectives in which discourses about masculinity can mean an important step forward in transforming our society.
But we can only advance along that path with a politics that gives up taking refuge in the comfortable identity that guarantees us a feminism only of and for women. Fighting the extreme right today, as well as precarity and the fears that it fuels, requires decidedly wagering on a feminism for everyone, a popular and radical feminism.
Clara Serra Sánchez is a Spanish philosopher, politician and author specializing in feminism.
 bell hooks, Feminism is for Everyone (Pluto Press, 2000).
 Wendy Brown, Estados del agravio. Poder y libertad en la modernidad tardía (Lengua de trapo, 2019).
 Celia Amorós, La gran diferencia y sus pequeñas consecuencias para las luchas de las mujeres (Cátedra, 2005).
 bell hooks, The Will to Change (Atria Books, 2004).
 Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men (Nation Books, 2013).
 This idea is excellently explained by Pierre Bourdieu in Masculine Domination (Stanford University Press, 2002).
Image: Flickr: Sally T. Buck