Feminism for the 99% and the Compulsion to Repeat: Reflections on Gender, Labor, and Language
Feminist politics and movement making has a history of compulsively repeating, reinforcing, and reconstructing systematic forms of exclusion, as well as shallow calls for inclusion. Women of color feminisms, transnational feminism, transfeminism, and feminist disability studies have all, in different ways and through various methodologies, critiqued and reframed the ways in which the category "woman" is invoked and politically deployed in relation to race, class, sexuality, gender identity, dis/ability, mental health, capital, neo-colonial rule, and the nation-state form.1 These critiques contest the dominant interpretations of the category “woman” within feminist thought and political organization in order to conceive a feminist politics that is truly liberatory. The March 8 International Women's Strike was not only a strike against women's visible and invisible labor, but it was also an international call for the reinvigoration of a radical feminism for the 99% (referred to by some, and in the rest of this piece, as F99).
F99 is a feminism that employs the concept of neoliberalism as a site of critical inquiry out of which sustained interventions can emerge that not only address redistribution, but also pursue structural transformation. F99 is a corrective for the lean-in, corporate, Hillary Clinton, #ImWithHer, imperial feminism that continues to dominate the political-social landscape in the U.S.
Is F99 radical in some of its demands? Yes. F99 demands “an end to gender violence, reproductive justice for all, labor rights, full social provisioning, an anti-racist and anti-imperialist feminism, and environmental justice for all.” F99 is most radical in its stance on labor and social provisioning, demanding a socialist appraisal of the ways in which current economic arrangements depend on the free labor of women to reproduce the harmful policies and principles of neoliberalism. F99 exacts an insurgent stance against borders, prisons, and the colonization of Palestine.
Does F99 engage with a critical trans politics? No. Dean Spade articulates critical trans politics as the resistance to violent gender norms and their collusion with other norms that produce institutional security for some populations and vulnerability for others. Because of rules that govern gender classification on identification documents, the sex segregation of spaces like bathrooms, prisons, and shelters, and the limited accessibility of gender-confirming healthcare, many trans people’s lives are “administratively impossible.” As Dean Spade writes in Normal Life, “trans people are told by the law, state agencies, private discriminators, and our families that we are impossible people who cannot exist, cannot be seen, cannot be classified, and cannot fit anywhere.” Critical trans politics is thus an oppositional stance against “industrial complexes”, including militarization, criminal punishment, medicalized health, and psychiatric diagnosis that destructively order all our lives.While police violence, prison abolition, wealth redistribution, access to healthcare, and ending immigration enforcement are key political battles for trans people, the F99 movement does not critically engage with the expansiveness of a broad-based trans politics. What follows are some cursory thoughts on how F99 positions itself in relation to trans justice.
Labor was a key term for the March 8 strike, as was gender. But then there was the conflation, and therefore confusion of terms. The strike was a strike against feminized labor and social reproductive labor, a lot of which is done by queer and trans people, poor people, black and brown people, immigrants, incarcerated people, and disabled people of all genders. While the strike acknowledged that social reproductive labor sustains the political economy and is performed by the most marginalized communities, the strike’s platform also used the category “woman” as a stable something in opposition to some other category: man. As soon as this binary opposition is secured, the scope of social reproductive labor and the diverse populations that perform it are elided. In a piece collectively written by several of the main strike organizers, the authors state, “the idea is to mobilize women, including trans women, and all who support them in an international day of struggle.” Beneath the surface of the language, “including trans women,” is a tacit exclusion of non-binary, gender non-conforming, intersex, and trans men as well as the specific forms of material relief that the most marginalized trans people require. The inclusion of trans women excludes many trans people, even as it aims to include us. In a subsequent piece written by strike organizers, the authors write, “cis and trans women across the world can join hands and strike together.” This language points to a clear misunderstanding of the expansiveness of trans experience and struggle because it forces a separation between trans women and non-binary, gender non-conforming, and trans men, and precludes the elaboration of a broader politics that challenges the violent administrative gender norms mobilized by "industrial complexes" in order to severely limit the life chances of gender transgressive people. Did “cis and trans women” join hands to strike together on March 8? While the New York rally included trans activists Octavia Leona Kohner White and Shagaysia Diamond with the Red Umbrella project, a scan of the strike endorsements suggests that the collectives and organizations that are built upon trans justice and critical trans politics did not participate in the strike call. Organizations that are doing political work around preventing and dismantling trans poverty, criminalization, deportation, and death did not endorse the March 8 strike. These organizations include, Audre Lorde Project (ALP), TGI Justice, Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC), Black & Pink, and Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP). If the purpose of the F99 movement is to develop a politics that examines the social, political, cultural, and ideological formations embedded in the concept of gender, then organizing around the category “women” undermines the purported scope of the movement. Subsequent strikes and political actions organized by F99 should center the dismantling of mechanisms of subjugation, such as violent gender norms, as opposed to a fraught and politically limited category.
Trans people are affected by gender violence, reproductive justice, labor rights, and the demand for social provisioning, but F99’s platform critically does not articulate the institutional violence of administrative gender classification systems that are foundational in trans people’s lives, especially trans people that are most marginalized in the context of neoliberalism. The institutional violence of administrative gender classification systems, such as identity documentation, sex-segregated facilities, and access to trans specific and intersex healthcare, such as gender affirming services and HIV/AIDs care, are absent from F99’s demands. These gender classification systems severely limit labor options for trans people making displacement, dislocation, vulnerability, psychological stress, and premature death the conditions of many trans and intersex people's lives. Although F99’s platform against gender violence is expansive, because the platform centers its politics on the category “woman,” the specific forms of transphobic violence experienced by trans people are disavowed. The violence targeted at non-binary, gender non-conforming, intersex, and trans men is rendered invisible, and although trans women are included in the platform as women, the platform fails to articulate trans women’s specific experiences of transmisogynist violence. These blind spots were visible at the NYC International Women’s strike rally in Washington Square because no one spoke about the recent murders of Jaquarrius Holland, Chyna Gibson, Ciara McElveen, Mesha Caldwell, Keke Collier, Jojo Striker, and Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow—all trans women of color killed in 2017. On Monday, March 6 the Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC) held a rally to honor these women and call for people, especially cis people, to make meaningful and actionable commitments to the lives of Black trans women and all trans women of color. Moving forward, F99 should take heed from the March 8 Gender Strike in San Francisco, which called for a strike against “all forms of gender domination” – and marched to shut down the city’s ICE headquarters.
I want to see F99 make serious commitments to all trans people in prisons, on parole, in immigration detention centers, psychiatric facilities, drug treatment centers, shelters, group homes, and on public assistance. I want F99 to take leadership from trans people that are most impacted by administrative forms of violence perpetrated by public welfare systems, criminal punishment systems, psychiatric diagnostic systems, and immigration enforcement systems. To dismantle abusive systems involves providing support to communities that are most impacted by multiple systems of subjugation, while simultaneously working to eradicate those systems. If F99 is truly committed to the work of dismantling systemic forms of institutionalized subjugation, then it is imperative for the movement to refine its gender analysis and strengthen its coalition work through a critical trans politics.
I am ambivalent about the politics of F99. Ambivalence motivates a critical stance of contrariness and works as a guiding force for analyzing the blind spots in a political social movement that aims to dismantle systemic forms of subjection. This piece is a plea for listening to ambivalence and exploring its contours in thinking and speaking. I specifically listen to my ambivalence through and against the complicated political-historical relationships between different feminisms and the broad based politics that emerge from the experiences of trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and intersex people. As a practice, ambivalence generates a dynamic movement between contradictions in thinking and speaking, and locates openings for growth and change. Ambivalence can help us all listen to the blind spots in institutions and political frameworks, so that truly liberatory goals are pursued.
Daniel Polyak is a lecturer in Women and Gender Studies at Hunter College. In addition to teaching at Hunter, he also lectures in Philosophy at Marymount Manhattan College. He is currently pursuing psychoanalytic training at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis (NPAP). And he works collaboratively with parole-eligible people serving life sentences in NYS prisons as they prepare for release.
1. See the work of Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Maria Lugones, Gloria Anzaldua, Andrea Smith, Mariame Kaba, The Combahee River Collective, Grace Kwungwon Hong, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, M. Jacqui Alexander, Chandra Mohanty, Valerie Amos, Pratibha Parmar, Lila Abu-Lughod, Emi Koyama, Julia Serano, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), Viviane K. Namaste, Susan Stryker, Kate Bornstein, Dean Spade, The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), Talia Mae Bettcher, Juliet Jacques, Alison Kafer, Susan Wendell, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Jackie Orr, Eli Clare.