On Finding Solidarity (My story of reading and radicalising: Part I)

No more can I dull my rage
In alcohol and deference
To men’s courts
I will come to my sisters,
Not dutiful,
I will come strong

– Pat Parker (from Womanslaughter)

 

It’s the last new moon before the start of a new decade, and while I haven’t written on my blog for the last few months, today I thought back over the year and realised I wanted to write something about the books I’ve read. I began, but ended up with a two-part essay about what it has meant to me to become a radical feminist over the last four years or so. Given the timing, I decided I’m allowed to publish my reflections.

This first essay is about how I became a radical feminist from around 2013, and what that meant to me up until the end of 2018. It is focussed on the theme of solidarity, and what solidarity means. I really wrote it to serve as backstory to the second essay, which is focussed on spirituality, and which I sat down to write for three reasons – for catharsis (what blogging is meant to be for, after all!), to offer a review of the wonderful books I read in 2019, and to share my hopes for the women’s movement. That essay will make the most sense if it is read after this one.

 

Since 2013, feminist literature has set me alight. It has answered so many questions and settled so much of the unease I lived with before I began to read it, and activated my conscience in a way nothing else could. I began to read  feminist literature – the real stuff – when I met Pala Molisa, a man whose public work is influenced by his mother, the late ni-Vanuatu poet and freedom fighter Grace Molisa. I never met Grace, but she remains a guiding light in my life. Her influence means a great deal to me, and because of that I consider whatever waves my work might make to be a part of her legacy too.

I was involved with the political left when I began to read radical feminism, particularly in protests against militarism and corporate free trade. I wrote my first essays on prostitution and transgenderism in 2015, and the backlash began the following year. It hit hard. I remember having the sense that many people on the left who were transactivists or supportive of prostitution seemed to froth at the mouth at the idea of finding a woman they could label a “SWERF” or a “TERF,” to get stuck into. This was going on in the States and in Canada with gusto, but before I started writing, there wasn’t anyone in New Zealand who made a suitable target. I was the first opportunity local transactivists had to really flex and unleash. So I got a lot of attention from them, and was shaken out the political left – as this happened, I learned a lot about this paradigm and the relationship between women and politics.

I entered the political left in the first place because of my social conscience, and because I was looking for answers about why the world is so unjust, as well as for ways to resist. In her essay Redefining Nonviolence, Andrea Dworkin talks about the role that the left ascribes women of conscience. We are delegated the role of “helpmate”:

Politically committed women often ask the question, “How can we as women support the struggles of other people?” This question as a basis for political analysis and action replicates the very form of our oppression – it keeps us a gender class of helpmates. If we were male workers, or male blacks, or male anybodies – it would be enough for us to delineate the facts of our own oppression; that alone would give our struggle credibility in radical male eyes.

But we are women, and the first fact of our oppression is that we are invisible to our oppressors. The second fact of our oppression is that we have been trained – for centuries and from infancy on – to see through their eyes, and so we are invisible to ourselves.

I had taken risks, and been arrested twice, among people it turned out I could not actually trust, because they saw me as fodder. I needed to learn to make better distinctions between the kind of political risks that make martyrs of women, or rely on a degree of conditioned self-sacrifice on our part – and the kind of political risks that we make on our own terms, in our own interests and based on our own understandings. Dworkin’s work helped me to see the difference.

A recurring theme in Our Blood, my favourite text of Dworkin’s, is that of masochism. “Female masochism is real and must be destroyed,” she writes powerfully (I’ve been lucky to be able to speak more about Dworkin’s influence on me with author Janice Raymond, and with Jennifer Murnan on The Green Flame).

Dworkin’s insistence that women stop behaving in overly accommodating and ultimately self-defeating (“masochistic”) ways, helped me do two things. Firstly, it helped me to purge any remaining inclinations toward taking on a “helpmate” role in my own political life. Transgender ideology itself demonstrates how detrimental it really is when women accept the ideal of self-sacrifice as a basis for our political ideas and actions. In the name of casting our own concerns aside to “help others,” women on the political left are now participating in the rollback of centuries of feminist political gains. The endorsement of transgenderism by women on the political left demonstrates exactly why Dworkin really wanted women to stop being “helpful,” instead of looking out for our own best interests. As it turns out, this willingness to take the shirt off our backs for the sake of anyone who asks for it isn’t even “helpful” – it is as intellectually blinding and politically reckless as it is personally draining.

The second thing Dworkin’s teaching helped me with was to resist any urge to take the backlash I faced personally, as though it was directed at me as an individual. While I have always found the backlash I’ve dealt with to be stressful, and often hurtful, too, Dworkin stopped me from indulging in the response women are conditioned to have when we are criticised, bullied or rejected. We are supposed to respond by ruminating on “what’s wrong with me?” desperately trying to locate some personal defect in order to fix it so we can avoid causing upset and being rejected again. This is the expected response of a “helpmate” who is supposed to live to please others, and never offend by saying No or having ideas of our own.

From this period of my life, instead of asking what I did “wrong” to provoke another person to anger or defensiveness, I began to assess the reaction I got first. I had generally struggled to stand up for myself until this time, when I formed a habit of asking myself the question, “is this an okay way to treat a woman?” and responding in kind. The question brought me perspective. It helped me to do what Mary Daly encouraged women to do when she argued that we need to take back the “power of naming.” In 1893, Daly’s biggest influence, Matilda Joslyn Gage, wrote about the “depressing effect” of “the denial to woman of the right of private judgement and the control of her own actions,” this being connected to “the constant teaching of her greater sinfulness and natural impurity.” I stopped complying with all this.

In situations when the answer to my question was “no,” I would follow it up with another. I would ask myself how I would like to see women respond to whatever had happened. I knew that I wanted women to stop accommodating bullying behaviour from men, for instance, whenever possible. I wanted to see us name abusive behaviour for what it is, too, rather than excusing it or treating it like it is based on innocent misconceptions, or mere opinion. I wanted us to seek accountability so that it’s not so easy for men to harass us all the time, and I wanted us to stop letting anger eat us up from inside while we ask what’s “wrong” with us, and why we feel bad, and how we can fix ourselves. So, I made it my aim to name sexist behaviour for what it was, set boundaries around it, seek accountability, and express healthy anger directly.

This was as much of a battle as it sounds, but the process was central to my politicisation and radicalisation as a feminist. My understanding of what solidarity is started with these lessons – it started with understanding that when a woman is subjected to misogyny, it is happening because she is a woman, and not because of her as an individual, and by responding in kind. This is what Maya Angelou means when she says, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” When we do know what we are doing, we become feminists – but when I radicalised, it was because I learned that standing up for myself, and for women, were inseparable things. I was not in a position to do anything else.

The initial backlash I was subjected to involved a bullying pact made by the community liaison from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, the local sex trade lobby; being banned from the Wellington Zinefest (one of the only forums that would have otherwise been open to me as a grassroots activist), and my workplace was lobbied. Friends of mine were asked to justify their association with me by transactivists. When my workplace was lobbied, the manager confronted me, and began taking disciplinary action without proper explanation. When I approached a lawyer for help, we determined that going to the Employment Court would not be personally or politically helpful. I quit my job for workplace bullying, and could not immediately go on the benefit, so I left my flat to protect my savings and moved home. A transactivist and sex trade lobbyist was hired to take my job, and used the shop name to launch another pile-on against me online a year after I had left.

Being suddenly time-rich, I threw myself into even more research, writing, and activism. I wrote a lot about New Zealand’s sex trade lobby, about the academic and media complicity, the political left, the global women’s movement, the history of patriarchy, and transgenderism in the context of authoritarianism and medical eugenics. I spent time looking for people – women in particular – and brought them into a group I started online on Christmas day in 2016. I held exhibitions – one at Thistle Hall called Too Much Truth: Women’s Global Resistance to Sexploitation, which I worked on from the beginning of 2017 up until October.

Through this work, my writing, and by challenging the promotion of prostitution and transgenderism online – I met more and more people. I am forever glad, too, that I went to WOLF Fest in mid 2016, to meet other feminists. Before that, I knew all of about four people in the country who were sympathetic, and none outside. Now, when New Zealand women wake up to the dangers of transgenderism and prostitution, they make an instantaneous connection to a large real and online feminist community. I didn’t have those connections or that support four years ago. The situation is already so different that people do not realise how alone I was when I started – I had to travel overseas to meet other feminists and discover how they were keeping in touch.

Meeting women was energising, and so was discovering that friends of mine were sympathetic – like Georgina Blackmore, who I knew through our activism against corporate free trade. Feminism gives women a connection that allows certain masks to come off, and that adds strength, richness, and new levels of honesty to friendships. So finding women and bringing them together was exciting – and it made me feel like I could see a future, however far off, in which we would at some point start shifting the culture together, and making room for ourselves to speak and relate openly without having to confront intense persecution with little support.

There were more things that I learned in addition to what Dworkin originally taught me, while I was still working independently. One very important lesson was about the nature of politics itself. I learned early on that people’s political views are not primarily based on underlying ideas, values, or diverse understandings of the world, as I may have thought before. I now understand that above everything else, politics is how people express their loyalties, and relationship to power. Because loyalties and power relations are not based on reason, people also cannot be persuaded into or out of their political views or identifications with power through reasoning, or in the course of a conversation or two. It helps not to expect to change people’s minds, in politics. It is better to notice what people reveal to you about their loyalties and their degree of commitment to those loyalties, and respond to those revelations in a way that fits your own.

This was the way I was thinking and working when, by mid-2018, the group I started had grown to include about fifty people. I had enjoyed the group a lot, but I left at that point, because I was still working pretty much independently (and sometimes alongside Charlie Montague or Chelsea Geddes) and I wanted to have smaller and more focused conversations (I did not leave due to disagreement, as has been claimed by someone who is seeking to discredit me but was not there at the time.)

At some point while I was still in this group, a conversation had started about the creation of a public front. I put up a handbrake, because I didn’t think we would be ready for that until more women were prepared to speak out publicly and stand alongside one another to brave the backlash. So it was after I left that this public lobby was established, called Speak Up For Women. I remember writing to the woman who had first suggested something of the sort, acknowledging that I’d held back the project, congratulating her, and saying that it must have been a good thing that I left.

Yet from my own perspective, and despite some victories, what has happened since has been a bit of a nightmare. I had spoken out from 2015, researched intensively, been targeted by the trans and sex trade lobbies, rejected by large numbers of people I had trusted, left my job for workplace bullying, been denied a voice from every media outlet I could approach, banned from community events, and harrassed endlessly with threats, defamation, parody social media accounts and whatever else. I had articles deleted from Scoop, an interview with Radio New Zealand “lost,” and had found organisations like NetSafe, the Human Rights Commission and the Media Council either unhelpful or complicit. In the meantime, I had done everything in my power to find and create a community myself – it was the only thing to do in the face of a situation in which a woman could be punished so freely and severely just for saying, at base, that women are female and prostitution is wrong. Then, when that community decided to create a public front, they believed it would be in their best interests to dissociate from me.

From the outset, this organisation has minimised, hidden or denied its relationship to me and my work. Soon after establishing, they told a journalist that I was unaffiliated with them, aside from supporting them on Twitter. When I was drafting an article I’d been encouraged to submit to a newspaper by a columnist, I asked this lobby for comment, in order to support them – and they refused on the grounds that it would serve as “proof that we had spoken.” When they were blacklisted by postering company Phantom Billstickers, as I had been – they purposefully omitted to mention my precedent on their press release, telling me that my case was “irrelevant.” They did encourage me to help distribute promotional flyers for events, and so forth – but on the condition I would accept a “helpmate” role. They believed that by creating this division, they could avoid facing the same backlash I had. I think this was a naïve expectation, but it is one that many women do indulge in the beginning.

I moved further from the group because while they claimed to me that their decisions were tactical, based on a “pragmatic” approach, and being a “single issue campaign,” it became more and more clear to me that the difference was actually political, and that it was a matter of loyalties. They would invite Labour Party politician Louisa Wall, who had tried to make lesbian feminists unwelcome at the Pride Parades, to speak at their second public event, and they would eventually work with and proudly broadcast a relationship with David Seymour, the leader of New Zealand’s libertarian party. But they still would not name or associate with me for any reason. While I believe that women and feminist groups should be able to speak with whomever they like in politics (Natasha Chart makes this argument beautifully), it became clear to me that this group’s decision to work with high-powered misogynists whilst keeping me under the rug, and to accept disagreement with high-powered misogynists too, but frame any disagreement I expressed (for instance on the addition of gender identity into New Zealand’s Human Rights Act) as an “attack”, was a double standard that amounted to an expression of loyalties, not tactics.

Relaying all of this is also not an “attack.” It is a record of events, put down plainly, to tell a story that has personal and political significance. Here, I also want to express how confronting it was for me to be cast out of (or to exit, however you want to see it) the political left, to work for years to find solidarity and community, and build trust with like minded people – only to be treated, again, as someone whose life, work, and mistreatment doesn’t matter. This time, like the last, I had to drop tools and stop working in the same way – bringing women together at my own expense only to have them dissociate from me, made me feel like a sitting duck. (One of the sagest pieces of wisdom offered me came from my friend who said, “In my original profession we have a saying: don’t be the damn fool who says it the first time.”) I stopped what I was doing, and started digging deeper, looking for new answers, and new energy.

The treasures of my excavations are what I really want to share, and they’re here, in part two.

Hayv Kahraman, Migrant 3, oil on wood panel, 2009 (detail)

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1 thought on “On Finding Solidarity (My story of reading and radicalising: Part I)”

  1. Wow. I realized when I was fairly young that there was no place for me in the organized left as it was riddled with misogyny, hierarchy, elitism. I was passionate and I was working-class, two things that doomed me. One was not supposed to speak one’s mind in anything but the most banal, inoffensive, middle-class language, and one was supposed to go along with group-think.

    My perception is that you possess an overarching analysis which many people, including so-called feminists, may find discomforting, and I don’t know about New Zealand culture, but in the U.S. one is not supposed to make other people uncomfortable (interesting, considering how uncomfortable my entire culture makes me!). Whereas I believe that U.S. citizens need to be made EXTREMELY uncomfortable in their passive, unquestioning acceptance of death culture predatory patriarchal capitalism.

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