“Independent Women”: Privileged Feminist Ideologies and Ableism (a.k.a. Disablism)
Blogging Against Disablism day will be on Saturday, 1st May. This is the day where all around the world, disabled and non-disabled people will blog about their experiences, observations and thoughts about disability discrimination. In this way, we hope to raise awareness of inequality, promote equality and celebrate the progress we’ve made.
Feminism and the Myth of Independence
Part of my early attraction to feminism was based upon this notion of a mythic “independence.” I yearned for the opportunity to be an “emancipated woman,” à la Emma Goldman, who asserted that,
“Emancipation should make it possible for woman to be human in the truest sense. Everything within her that craves assertion and activity should reach its fullest expression; all artificial barriers should be broken, and the road towards greater freedom cleared of every trace of centuries of submission and slavery.”
It seems like a noble enough goal, and indeed, an important part of the privileged Western feminist ideology is based on the construction of the smart, successful, independent woman; this is especially true of Libertarian/Individual feminisms, Liberal feminisms, Pop feminisms, and Amazon feminisms. Reproductive choice, and women’s liberation discourses also use the language of independence, and a lot of pseudo-feminist, or “Liz Lemonist” cultural products are predicated upon this notion as well, such as Cosmo (“fun, fearless, female”).
Additionally, some of the things that awakened my early sense of “Girl Power,” a precursor to my feminism, also showcased this idea of independence, both financial and personal. Girl Power is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as such:
“Power exercised by girls; spec. a self-reliant attitude among girls and young women manifested in ambition, assertiveness, and individualism.”
Some inspirations included:
- Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women,” (and Charlie’s Angels) and “Survivor” (which interestingly has gender neutral lyrics)
- Jennifer Lopez’s “Love Don’t Cost a Thing“
- The Spice Girls
- The Powerpuff Girls
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
On a larger scale, the ideas of independence and individualism are also foundational to to the construction of a “Western” ideology. From meritocracy to the importance of identity construction, from the binaristic othering of “Eastern” ideologies as “collectivist,” to the speculative fiction trope “fear of assimilation“; the achievement and maintenance of independence is a value that is freely espoused as good in its own right.
In terms of my own personal identity, having minimal ties with my family, I often prided myself on my financial independence, my self-funding of my undergraduate degree, my scholarships, my CV, my transcript, and other individual achievements. These were the markers of my feminism — my reminders that women in the past had worked hard to open doors for women like me — never mind that those same doors weren’t accessible to most people who don’t have white privilege, thin privilege, class privilege, educational privilege, Western privilege, cis privilege, Anglophone/English privilege, blonde privilege, and able privilege. At a previous point, though not anymore, I also had Christian and heterosexual privilege; the only one I was ever missing was male privilege.
My “independence” — my “success” — was reliant upon systems of domination. Therefore I never really was independent, because in constructing this narrative of self-reliance about myself, I denied not only my privileges, but my support networks as well. I denied the fact that in defining my own success as such, I was tacitly approving of the systems of domination from which I benefit.
Independence or the pursuit thereof is a pursuit of privilege; the less that one has to depend on networks and relationships the more “successful” that person is. This is a profoundly ableist notion, in the sense that it constructs any sort of dependency as an obstacle to “success,” and because of the way our society is structured, people who are disabled are neccessarily dependent on various support systems. Additionally, no one is truly independent from eir privileges, networks, and communities, but the social construction of disability as a state of dependence vis-à-vis ablility as a state of independence denies just how interdependent we all are, whether is through exploiting, dominating, or supporting one another.
The Myth Meets the Reality: Making “Success” an Inclusive Goal
In moving beyond the ableist myth of independence, privileged feminisms have the opportunity to create safer spaces for disabled feminists. Moreover, in interrogating this myth, we can open up a larger conversation about privilege in feminism: to what extent does the myth of independence factor in to other systems of domination? How are privileged Western feminisms complicit in maintaining different systems of domination? In redefining our paradigms about what constitutes “success,” how can we combat not just ableism, but other privileges?
What if instead of deriving so much pride from our independence, we took pride in our networks and community memberships? This is not to say that we cannot be proud of both, however, the exaggerated emphasis on independence, emancipation, and liberation in privileged Western feminisms bars important members of our feminist communities from participating fully.
It also leads more privileged feminisms to devalue systems on which a lot of women choose to be and/or are dependent:
- excluding people who have strong ties to religion (ie. Islamic feminists, and Christian womanists),
- excluding people who have strong ties to tradition and community memberships (ie. women who choose to undergo female circumcision, women who choose to wear the niqab),
- excluding people who are actively subjugated by imperialism, racism, and colonialism and thus depend on community systems for survival and resistance (ie. transnational feminists, indigenous feminists),
- and excluding people whose social justice interests are not solely related to gender emancipation, and thus depend on various networks (ie. women of colour, low-income women, immigrant women).
Furthermore, the myth of independence encourages privileged feminists to buy in to capitalist and consumer culture: being a “have” as opposed to a “have not,” and not having to share resources are the yardsticks against which independence is measured, which leads to environmental degradation. Individualism and independence are things that one can buy at the expense of those that are exploited in capitalist relations.
My point here for privileged feminists like myself is this: can be ambitious and assertive without having to pretend that we are self-reliant and independent; no one is really independent. We can be confident and successful without having to pretend that these attributes are totally individual. We can take pride in our accomplishments and still recognise our privileges and the networks/communities that have enabled us to do the things we do. We can re-define the meaning of success beyond the masculinist paradigm of individualism, and create a feminist paradigm of success. In doing so, we can combat priviliged behavior and ableism in our feminist communities.
In conclusion, my questions for you, readers, are:
- What would a feminist paradigm of success look like?
- If we remove all of the oppressive and privileged ideas from the standard definition of success, such as independence, what is left?
- Is there an anti-oppressive way to think about success?
Learn More about Feminism and Able-ism (a.k.a Disablism)
Thank you to the following bloggers/websites for quoting/supporting this post:
“The issue of independence has always been kind of problematic for me as a person with disabilities. I will always be dependent, whether it’s on my parents as it is right now and on my service dog the near future. That’s just how my life works. I need a network, a community or I’m sunk.
These things are true even in a world free from ableism. It’s taken a lot for me to stop hating on myself for not being able to do things people my age are doing and it’s compounded by the fact that I look abled. I still do hate on myself about it, actually.
Anyhow when we talk about independence as the end all be all of human existence, it can be kind of alienating. It’s good to have free to make choices, but even in a prefect world, some of us won’t be free from ties to others.”
. . .
“I’ve felt that individualism has been an incredibly problematic force in feminism in US culture but I’d never thought about the concept of independence or how those two ideas work together to create a shallow, problematic, reductionist brand of feminism that is really alienating.”
And to the folk on Tumblr: