We are a group of activist women from a wide variety of backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Last week, a good number of the left-wing men we work and organise with seriously disappointed us. These men – our friends, our fellow trade unionists, activists, writers, organisers, and artists – shared and commented on a reductive and damaging article written by Frankie Gaffney, which was published in the Irish Times.
We live in a world where our advantages are tangled up with the things that disadvantage us – some of us are working class, some queer, some of us are poor, some of us come from minority ethnic groups or have disabilities or don’t enjoy the security of citizenship. As well, some of us have had a multitude of opportunities in our lives while some of us have had to fight our way through. It is an obligation on all of us to honestly look at our different positions within the structures of oppression and privilege under patriarchal racial capitalism. It is only by acknowledging all these differences that we have any chance of imagining and building a better world that includes us all.
Working-class ‘straight white men’ in Ireland don’t have it easy these days. They never did. They are ignored by a political class that couldn’t care less about them. They should have a say in the decisions that affect their lives, but they often don’t.
However, that doesn’t make them immune to critique. We all have to examine ourselves as oppressor as well as oppressed – because we are all both. The response to the article felt like a silencing to us and we are writing this because we are way past putting up with that. You will see from the names on this letter that we are women who have been in the thick of things. Whether in political parties and organisations, education, trade unions, or grassroots and community-based movements, we are tired of being accused of ‘bourgeois feminism’ and of betraying the struggle when we raise our voices. No campaign in this country could survive without women, without us – our work and energy and knowledge and organising have been instrumental in all the progressive movements in this country. When we say we need to be recognised and respected within our movements, we need you to listen.
The article expressed the view that identity politics is good for nothing except dividing movements, using language and narratives that have been made popular by MRA (Men’s Rights Activist) groups and the alt-right. According to such narratives, straight white men are the new most oppressed group. This ignores the struggles of women and others at the sharp end of misogyny, racism, anti-trans and anti-queer violence. It aims to silence those who will no longer tolerate the violence, abuse and marginalisation we have suffered for so long. These alt-right arguments have been used by people on the left to support the view that women, and feminists in particular, are to blame for the rise of the far right – for instance, for Trump’s election – and for neoliberal capitalism, which is seen as having damaged working class men in particular.
In this version of events, straight white men are made to feel uncomfortable about being ‘born this way’ by social media-fuelled ‘political correctness’. They are too afraid to say what they think or express opinions for fear of online retribution. Men who claim to be silenced in this way might try a week or even a day as a vocal woman or person of colour online and see how they deal with the rape threats and threats of racist violence that follow.
We are not concerned here about one opinion piece by one person. Rather we have all been aware of the increasing trend towards this particular new type of silencing of women from our supposed fellow activists on the left. The arguments mounted here and elsewhere are apparently to criticise some of the worst aspects of ‘call-out culture’, as well as the lean-in type of so-called feminism that disregards class and race. Yet they seem to be used now by some of our left-wing activist comrades as an excuse not to deal with the complexities of gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation in our political organising. These excuses, when accepted, prevent us from seeing clearly the state of our movements – who is taking part in them, who is heard and represented, who is doing the work. These are massive issues that have to do with how we are creating mass movements, which need to be addressed and faced to ensure that people of different classes, races, ethnicities, sexual orientation and gender have not just a voice but leading roles in our struggle. Without this solidarity in working together, we are simply imitating the oppressive structures we want to fight – the structures that say “not now, your life comes second.” It is not the straight white men who are being silenced when this argument is made.
We are working-class women, women of colour, migrant women, trans women, Traveller women, disabled women, queer women, women who are sex workers, women with children, and women who are none of these, active in our communities and committed to an anti-capitalist struggle. We are well aware that a right-wing, neoliberal distortion of feminism and what is called ‘identity politics’ exists. We know this because it erases our experiences and struggles and we resist this erasure through our work as activists every single day. It is distressing and enraging that we also have to fight against the bad faith of fellow activists on the left – mostly men, sometimes women – who, for their own reasons, blur the distinction between this kind of middle-class neoliberal faux-feminism, and a truly radical feminist politics that has class struggle at its very core. This hurts us because it erases and undermines our realities, our suffering, our analyses, and our organising, and gives more strength to the powers that are ranged against us. For many of us, it is heart-breaking to look at some of the men around us and realise that they are nodding in agreement with this erasure of their working class women friends and comrades.
Most of us have grown up learning to appease men. How to give them our space, how to deal with the fact that they dominate any political discussions, that they are paid more, heard more and believed more. However, most of us expect that the men we work with in all the social justice movements we are part of should have at least considered how they are complicit in this domination when they refuse to recognise that it exists. Patriarchy forces men into roles that damage them as well as us. Most of us have men that we love, admire and respect in our lives and for that reason, not only because it damages and diminishes the life experiences of women, we should all be fighting patriarchy together.
Hazel Katherine Larkin
Eilís Ní Fhlannagáin
Aoife FitzGibbon O’Riordan
Stephanie Crowe Taft
Fionnghuala Nic Roibeaird
Clara Rose Thornton IV
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Lisa Keogh Finnegan
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