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Bitches of Capitalism: My Speech on International Working Women's Day, March 8

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I was invited by the Chicago Socialist Party to speak about and on International Working Women’s Day, March 8. My thanks to all the organisers, and to the many amazing people who showed up — and stayed — through all my words and those of my co-presenters, Tobita Chow, Erica Nanton, Red Schulte, Zerlina Smith, and Rehmah Sufi.* You can watch a video here; below is the text of the speech.

 

Thank you to everyone for showing up, on a weekday, and to the organisers for inviting me to speak.  

 

Let’s first congratulate ourselves for turning out in such large numbers.

 

I want to talk about three things today — first, the very concept of woman, woman as a category, and I want to do that in a way that does not echo the erasure of trans women and trans people in general. This is 2017, and there are still too many instances of dissension around something even as simple as the “inclusion” of trans women. Second, I want to talk about what it means to engage with capitalism and patriarchy as women, and third, and perhaps most importantly, how to continue to fight as women, or however we identify, without exhausting ourselves in the short run.



As we march and fight today, on International Working Women’s Day, we march not just for the rights of women, but to reclaim feminism itself. There can be no concept of women’s rights, women’s equality, without a concrete sense of what feminism is. This may seem strange to hear because, after all, you might think, aren’t we all feminists here?

 

Well.

 

Some people will tell you that there are multiple feminisms. I’m here to say that, no, there are not. That being said, it’s time for us to end the constant arguments about whether or not feminism can be “trans-inclusive.”  



This is 2017, but throughout the decades, women’s marches have been inflected with and influenced by different and differing ideas of what feminism means. There was a time — and I dearly and hopefully hold on to the past tense here — when queer women were considered outside feminism. There have been times, as recently as this year, when women of colour have had to struggle to make their way as organisers of marches. And even in 2017, there are those who would insist that trans women don’t belong with feminists, simply cannot  be feminists because they are trans women.

 

This is a speech, so let me just come straight to the point here: This is bullshit. There is no place in feminism, in a women’s strike, for those who would exclude any of these groups.

 

Feminism was always queer — do you really think all those women’s gatherings of the past were just about women discussing matters?  We need to stop talking, in such condescending terms, of including trans women in feminism, of a “trans-inclusive” feminism —  because feminism has always been trans.

 

This is 2017 — how we understand the category of “woman,” has fundamentally shifted since even 10 years ago, even five years ago. This is 2017, and we must as women, however we understand that term, understand those shifts as shifts that deepen and strengthen feminism.

 

All that being said: We also have to contend with the simple and brutal fact: That “woman” as a category is still a category targeted with hatred, bigotry, misogyny. In 1997, in one of the most shocking known cases of police brutality, Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant in was picked up, beaten up, and brutally sodomised —  which is to say, raped with a broomstick. This kind of assault continues to happen every day, alongside, of course, the countless rapes of women, trans people, gender nonconforming people, and queers. But I want to point to what it means for men, for the state, for patriarchy and capitalism, to effectively rape a man under such conditions, conditions where it becomes obvious that the intent is not simply to extract physical sexual pleasure but to put a man in his place as a woman.  Which is to say, cis hetero men like Louima — who continue to face this kind of brutality in the prison industrial complex, every day — are treated the way they are, in ways that put them down in the position of the female, in the category of women, precisely because that space of “woman” as we understand it, is considered the dumping ground for the lowest of the low. “Woman” as a category is a space of complete disempowerment, and when the state — patriarchy and capitalism — wants to disempower people, it treats them as women. And that is what sometimes gets missed in a lot of the conversation where different sides complain about, for instance, an emphasis on genitals or even just on the use of the term itself. All of us, every single one of us, cis hetero queer or trans women, cis hetero queer or gender nonconforming people, cis or trans men, non-binary people, however we define ourselves, all of us understand this in quotidian ways, when the first insult a gay man, a trans man, or a woman can encounter is the word “bitch.”

 

We are all in that sense the bitches of capitalism — I mean, mind you, sometimes being someone’s bitch is cool — but you know what I mean. We all know what it means, it is a way to completely destroy any sense of self-worth, to render someone completely abject, completely powerless.  Consider what it means that “woman” can become the category that enables such an annihilation of any sense of self.

 

I want to make that clear before I move on to my next point which is that while we cannot exclude different groups, we also cannot assume, as too many do, that there are multiple feminisms for multiple people. There is no separate feminism in the boardroom as opposed to a feminism for baristas, there is no separate feminism for pro-choicers and feminism for anti-abortionists. No. If feminism is to mean anything, it has to confront and destroy the economic conditions of that exploit and brutalise us. If feminism has to mean something that fundamentally ends capitalist exploitation, it has to fundamentally mean reconceiving what we mean by success, what we mean when we say “equality.” If you’ll forgive me quoting myself, “Feminist principles are not, ultimately, simply about making things better for women. They are about paying attention to gender in order to think about policies that make things better for everyone. So, for instance, a feminism that is simply about ensuring that women at the top get bathrooms with diaper-changing stations means nothing if the women and men who are cleaning those bathrooms — and presumably wiping baby shit from the walls — get neither time off nor the ability to place their children in care while at work. A policy that ensures that female professors get to take a year off after having their babies is useless if the system continues to simply hire adjuncts of all genders — who get no such benefits, no matter how well paid they are — to fill in for them.”

 

And I also want to emphasise that feminism cannot be about feelings, about how good or bad we feel. Have you noticed how gendered presentations and panels are these days? Have you noticed that women are constantly the ones who are required to stand up and say, “I am a victim, I am a mother, I am woman who has suffered x, y, or z?” Have you noticed that it’s almost mandatory for women — and women only — these days, to keep talking about who they are and what they’re going through and how they feel about it? Women are constantly asked to talk about how they feel, because getting them to talk about how they feel is the best way to get them to stop thinking about what they need and demand. We talk endlessly about self-care but we’ve forgotten that it’s capitalism that’s causing the stress in the first place, that it’s capitalism that causes our bones to ache so much that we need to soak in a hot tub surrounded by lavender and blood orange candles that we can’t afford anyway.  Feminism has become co-opted as a movement centred around feelings, instead of politics and economics.

 

The point of today’s strike, the point of women refusing to work, to exchange their labour for the shitty or mediocre wages so many are paid, is not to infiltrate capitalism, to change the mind of capitalism, to simply make it pay better, but to fundamentally force people, including ourselves, to imagine and reimagine and imagine again feminism as a set of practices and demands that change the conditions of existence for everyone. A feminism that does that is a feminism that, for instance, understands abortion rights as economic rights. We have, for too long, allowed liberals to co-opt the discourse and politics of abortion by declaring that women deserve abortion rights because it’s a “difficult and traumatic decision for so many.” Again, No. (I’ll be saying NO a lot today.) No. When you deny the unconditional, unquestioned right to abortion to half the population of the world, you are denying them their basic economic and political lives.

 

We’re all talking about refugees these days, and we’re all so delighted when Pope Francis, who represents an institution — no, excuse me, a corporation — that denies abortion rights, washes the feet of refugees. Oh, lovely. But think about what it means to be a female migrant, crossing borders “illegally” or trying to leave one life for another, and to not have control over your own body, to constantly be faced with the threat or reality of sexual assault or even with the demands of partners and husbands, to not be able to decide whether or not to terminate an abortion or even to have the means of access to reproductive control. This is what I mean by feminism needing to always centre itself around the economic and the political, and to think about feelings as secondary.

 

So, yes, yes, you’re thinking — all of this is fine, so where do I or we go from here?

I’m going to talk now about the simplest ways to move forward and I’m going to do it by, once again, situating gender and feminism at the centre. We’ve all been really busy these last few months. But some of us, as we keep trying to remind people, have been at all this for a really, really long time. We’ve watched Democrat presidents boast about bombing countries, about their drone power. We’ve seen the immigration battle fail because, I will remind you, a Democrat president in 1994 and 1996 introduced draconian new immigration “reform” that effectively meant that millions of people were instantly criminalised and forced to become undocumented. And now, this, all this. You know what I’m referring to. Look where we are.



So it’s exhausting, and we have a long way to go. How many of you are exhausted? How many of are sometimes so exhausted you’re not sure if you’re tired or sick? How many of you live in fear and stress all the time?

But all this, these kinds of marches come in and they serve, temporarily, to lift our spirits and to make us feel like we have a chance at creating a different world. We’re all marching and meeting, sometimes every week.

BUT —  and this brings me back to my point about the category of woman — who is doing the work of all this? Who is organising the meetings? Who is answering the emails? Who is picking up the trash in the meeting rooms after the big important meetings? My comrades and I organise events and meetings and potlucks all the time, and we always have a hard time getting women to attend. It’s not because they don’t want to, but because they simply can’t, because they’re taking care of sick pets, sick children, ailing parents, their friends. In the world of organising towards a better future, we neglect to see, or we simply ignore, the fact that the work of world-making, the hard unseen labour behind the scenes, is usually done by women. Now, I have to tell you — this event has been an exception — thanks to Nate and Ed — but I can’t tell you how often I’ve emailed and emailed the menfolk in charge of some event, and not received a response and then, of course, had to go hunting for the woman who is not “in charge,” mind you —  because we all know only the menfolk can actually be in charge — but I’ve had to go hunting for the woman who will get back to me.

 

On that note, I want to give shout-outs to four women in Chicago who continue to inspire me, and continue to be models for continuing the hard work of critique and analysis that’s also embedded in on-the-ground activism: Rozalinda Borcila, Sharlyn Grace, Mariame Kaba (now in New York, her home, but always of Chicago as well), and Holly Krig. Each of them has been tirelessly involved in furthering action and analysis around the intersections of immigration, the prison industrial complex, and feminism.

 

If we are going to move forward towards a revolution, we have to re-imagine and rethink how we conceive of the category of woman but we also have to look at how our own organising falls into gendered patterns. The men are seen as the thinkers and the intellectuals and the women are the ones making the calls, sending the emails, and wiping everyone’s butts. This has got to change. However you identify yourself, look at the group you’re a part of and look at how labour is being distributed.

 

And, most of all, we need to take our organising and our actions to the streets and to meetings and to face to face contact. We need to stop thinking social media as a platform and think of it instead as simply a tool — there’s no need to be luddites. We are so busy being woke, we are no longer awake to each other and to what we need to do to change the world.

 

But, most of all, again: We need to start dreaming big. As my friend and comrade Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore puts it, “Our dreams have become so small.”  We are not, on this day or any other, demanding inclusion and representation in capitalism, we are seeking an end to exploitation. I will end with a quote from an anonymous queer pamphlet from the 1980s, in the wake of the AIDS crisis: “There are two things we know about the coming revolution. The first is that we will get our asses kicked. The second is that we will win.”

 

Thank you.

 

*Please note that this was a speech, not a delivered paper, and so has the texture and feel of the former; please do not write to ask me why I did not insert an extensive history of Emma Goldman or feminism through the ages.

 

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