Fightback 2014 Educational Conference: Gender and Women’s Liberation Panel

 gender liberation panel

Sionainn Byrnes, member of Fightback and UC FemSoc.

For many socialist organisations, the task of orienting, and indeed incorporating the struggle for gender equality – and women’s liberation, in particular – has proved both ideologically and practically fraught. A lack of meaningful dialogue, and the dominant perception of a universal (masculine) working class, has meant that the productive overlap between the two – admittedly diverse – positions has remained largely unexplored. Yet, within New Zealand (and around the world) we are witnessing the radical regeneration of both socialist and feminist perspectives – intersectional consciousnesses taking root in our communities, and on our campuses, for example. Fittingly, the 2014 Fightback Educational Conference, perhaps resulting from a mixture of serendipity, and a concerted effort on Fightback’s behalf to commit to a socialist feminist ethic, strongly emphasized the shared elements, and interconnectedness, of the oppressions experienced by the working classes, women, and LGBQT+ communities under capitalism.

Not to be outshone by the empowering and inspiring opening speech by MANA President Annette Sykes, Kassie Hartendorp, Daphne Lawless, and Teresia Teaiwa delivered what I would call the most engaging panel of the weekend: ‘Gender and Women’s Liberation'”, served as a broad, but much needed, introduction to both socialism and feminism, and highlighted the positive overlap between the two perspectives. Kassie convincingly demonstrated the ways in which each position could ‘illuminate the blind spots of the other’ – socialism offering a lens to analyse and redress class issues within various feminist movements, and feminism as a means of connecting to, and engaging with, the unique oppressions experienced by women and non-binary individuals under a capitalist system.

Daphne’s presentation, ‘Gender Diversity and Capitalism’, expanded on this introduction, and moved into the realm of gender policing, and the commodification of gender under capitalism. In illustrating the ways in which capitalism controls the expression of gender through the production and consumption of acceptable male and female identities (in the form of various products – cosmetics, food, and clothing being obvious examples), Daphne exposed the means by which capitalism is implicated in the oppression of women, and the overwhelming suppression of those individuals on the non-binary gender spectrum. Daphne argued that gender, like all commodities, is sold to us within a capitalist framework. Daphne also connected the struggle for transgendered actualization to capitalist structures by underlining the centrality of gender realignment surgery to trans* recognition and legitimacy within Western culture. This showed us how this kind of actualization is financially inaccessible to many people, and thus discriminatory on a class level, and how blatantly uncomfortable our overarching system of organization is with individuals who do not conform to the male/female binary. Daphne further critiqued the prevalent ‘lean in’ brand of capitalist feminism espoused by individuals such as Sheryl Sandberg.

Finally, in ‘Gender and Decolonisation’, Teresia, a poet and senior lecturer in Pacific Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, discussed the continued imperialism evident within mainstream feminist movements. Teresia used the recent ‘# Bring Back Our Girls’ hash tag as an example of the way that Western feminism co-opts, universalises, and erases the struggles of ethnic and indigenous women. Looking to the power in language, Teresia questioned who and what ‘our’ girls really means, and explained the difference between standing in solidarity as an ally with women around the globe, as opposed to moderating and speaking for these women, their movements, and their issues. Turning her attention to the Pacific, Teresia described thoughtfully the effect that Western feminism is having on indigenous women’s movements, preventing the imagination and implementation of unique and culturally appropriate feminist positions. Teresia’s talk gave attendees, particularly those of a feminist persuasion, much to think about in terms of the way that they pursue and frame struggles for gender equality and women’s liberation – considerations that are particularly relevant to the nascent formation of a so-called ‘Fourth Wave’ of feminism.

The ‘Gender and Women’s Liberation’ panel was, ultimately, a timely reminder of the need for an intersectional socialist movement – one that incorporates, respects, and engages with the unique experiences of men, women, and non-binary individuals under capitalism. It reflected Fightback’s recent commitment to a socialist feminist ethic, and laid the foundations for a radical socialist feminist consciousness within New Zealand.


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