#womantheory: challenging the hegemony of “boy theory” one tweet at a time

#womantheory started as a challenge on twitter to “name three women theorists”. Within hours, my twitter stream was full of the names of great women theorists, thinkers and writers.  See the story of how things erupted here.

#womantheory was born out of frustration at the sexual-citational politics of many social theorists  and also out of the film ‘Women, Art, Revolution‘ (Lynn Hershman Leeson) which we screened at a Feminist Movie Monday event at a community centre Lancaster on Feb 3rd 2013 (one of an ongoing series of free activities in which the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Lancaster organises & facilitates events which are open to a public beyond the University).  Women, Art, Revolution‘  begins with a segment in which Lynn Hershman Leeson asks the question ‘can you name three female artists?’ to  people on the street outside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art–not one person from the art-loving public can name three women artists. For those of us who work in areas such as philosophy, social theory, political theory, the blank faces of those asked’ name three…’ feels strikingly familiar. How very often I have ploughed through a theoretical text without coming across a single citation to a woman or indeed non-white thinker.  In response to ‘Women, Art, Revolution’, and after reading another book the day after the film screening which was about the current global economic crises but which had not a single reference to either a female thinker or to the gender politics of ‘austerity’, or indeed to the world beyond Europe, I was motivated to tweet a challenge: name three women theorists #womantheory. The response was overwhelming. Now @womantheory is morphing into a movement online–and a wordpress site – http://womantheory.wordpress.com/has been set up by Kim Allen which anybody can contribute short posts about the theorists and thinkers who matter to them and why.  I hope that over time womantheory will become an archive, a digital commons, of accounts about the influence of feminist theoretical thought.

My first contribution about the work of Iris Marion Young is reposted here:

Iris Marion Young (1949-2006) came to talk at Lancaster University at the pivotal feminist conference Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism organised by Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies in 1999. I was a young postgraduate student with a baby in tow, and I was too shy to talk to Iris then, but her work had already changed the way I thought about the world, beginning with her writing on female bodily experience and in particular pregnancy & motherhood in “Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory” (Indiana University Press, 1990). Later I read the amazing “Justice and the Politics of Difference” (Princeton University Press, 1990). Chapter five of “Justice and the Politics of Difference” which is called “The Scaling of Bodies and the Politics of Identity” returns us to the work of Fanon and sparked many of the conceptual, theoretical and political questions which I finally explored in my book “Revolting Subjects”.

In ‘The Scaling of Bodies and the Politics of Identity’, Iris explores the ways in which the concept of abjection can be employed to deepen understanding of practices and experiences of racism, sexism and ‘associated forms of exploitation and marginalization’ (1990: 122). Here are two quotes from this chapter:

“Cultural imperialism consists in a group’s being invisible at the same time that it is marked out and stereotyped. Culturally imperialist groups project their own values and experience, and perspective as normative and universal. Victims of cultural imperialism are thereby rendered invisible as subjects as persons with their own perspective and group-specific experience and interests. At the same time they are marked out, frozen into a being marked as Other, deviant in relation to the dominant norm. The dominant group need not notice their own group being at all; they occupy an unmarked, neutral, apparently universal position, but victims of cultural imperialism cannot forget their group identity because the behaviour and reactions of others call them back to it”. P.123

“Pulses of attraction and aversion modulate all interactions, with specific consequences for experience of the body. When the dominant culture defines some groups as different, as the Other, the members of those groups are imprisoned in their bodies, Dominant discourse defines them in terms of bodily characteristics, and constructs those bodies as ugly, dirty, defiled, impure, contaminated, or sick. Those who experience such an epidermalizing of their world moreover, discover their status by means of the embodied behaviour of others: in their gestures, a certain nervousness that they exhibit, their avoidance of eye contact, the distance they keep”. P123

Perhaps one of the most beautiful and moving essays by Iris is “House and Home: Feminist Variations on a Theme”  which rather than reject ‘home-making’ as a necessarily ‘oppressive’ site of female subjugation, insists on the ambivalence of values and feelings inscribed in our memories, histories and practices of home. Iris calls for a feminist politics which might reclaim what is radical about home-making.

I think her work is so important and so relevant because she insists on thinking class, sexual politics and racism together as issues of social justice which effect everybody. She is a true intersectional theorist.

The concept of “intersectionality” was developed out of black feminist activism and scholarship as an attempt to negotiate the racism inherent within feminist politics. In 1978, the Boston based Combahee River Collective argued that racial, class-based, and sexual forms of oppression worked together to produce marginality and needed to be thought and fought against together. As they noted in their `Black feminist statement‘: `we see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking’. (1982: 13). Intersectional feminisms emerged which aimed to develop theories which could capture the ways in which social classifications and categories, such as gender, ethnicity, disability, social, class, sexuality and citizenship status work together to reproduce forms of inequality and injustice (see Crenshaw, 1991).  However, intersectionality always risks reproducing the very forms of existentialism which it aims by fixing the categories as it marshals them together. Iris’ careful attention to subjectivity and language enables her to beautifully navigates these theoretical and material pit-falls.

When I read her work, I get such a strong sense of her person as somebody who is motivated by a political concern with the question of equality–and who understands equality –and the fight against inequalities– as the central issue of our times.

I am indebted to the work of Iris Marion Young, and I encourage everybody to read her.

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