Feminist Allies: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly?

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We welcome a guest post from Columba Achilleos-Sarll and Amy Galvin-Elliott from Warwick. Columba is an ESRC funded PhD student at the University of Warwick in the Politics and International Studies department. Her research lies at the intersection between feminist and postcolonial theory, UK foreign policy and the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. She recently published in the Journal of International Women’s Studies: Reconceptualising Foreign Policy as Gendered, Sexualised and Racialised: Towards a Postcolonial Feminist Foreign Policy (Analysis). Amy is completing her PhD in the History department at the University of Warwick. Her project on female experience of parliamentary spaces is generously funded by the ESRC and is jointly supervised by Warwick and the Parliamentary Archives. Her main research interests include gendered experiences of space and the 19th century political culture of Britain.

This year’s International Feminist Journal of Politics conference (IFJP) provoked serious thought about a question that was posed during a plenary session by Professor. Brooke A. Ackerly from Vanderbilt University: “How can I be a ‘good’ feminist ally, and is it better for me to be a ‘bad’ feminist ally than no ally at all?”

Feminism promotes equality, tolerance, understanding, and facilitates a space for the voices of those otherwise oppressed or marginalised. However, as academics, Ackerly’s question requires us to hold a mirror to our professional selves and ask just how far our work within the academy creates a space for the narratives of marginalised groups? And, where it does, do we allow them to speak for themselves? The very nature of academia serves to ‘legitimise’ certain forms of knowledge production, deciding, based on an assumed authority, whose voices are recorded and whose are not. As feminist scholars operating in and beyond academia, how can we conduct ourselves in a way that makes us a ‘good’ ally? And, what does it even mean to be a ‘good’ ally?

Responses to Professor Ackerly’s question were complex and a thoughtful reminder of how we, as academics and/or activists, position ourselves in relation to others. Perhaps this quote from Panellist Anasuya Sengupta best summarises the tensions around feminist allyship:

The conversation that followed prompted a number of questions: Who is a feminist ally? How are they produced? Where are alliances formed? Who has the power to be a feminist ally? And, what distinguishes a ‘good’ from a ‘bad’ feminist ally?

Historical ‘Kinship Networks’ – Organised Female Alliances

Sisterhood and the formation of feminist alliances are not new phenomena amongst women contesting the status quo. In her analysis of political culture in ‘Well-neighboured Houses’: the Political Networks of Elite Women, 1780-1860’, historian Sarah Richardson elucidates the development of ‘kinship networks’ among eighteenth century British women that enabled them to engage with politics in unofficial spaces outside of UK Parliament. Despite cultural thinking that confined women to the feminised and devalued private and domestic sphere, women were, through the activation of female kinship networks across unofficial domestic spaces, able to begin to engage in politics. Even so, these elite women were oppressors as well as oppressed, and their harnessing of unofficial – or delegitimised, spaces remained a privilege.

Richardson’s framework provides useful tools both for analysing as well as for exploring women’s networks, but the nineteenth century women she historicises are only one of many examples of feminist alliances. The October March of the French Revolution in October 1789 saw a great number of working women march on Versailles from their market stalls to protest against the inflation in prices of bread. In the twentieth century, also emerging from the local market place was the 1947 Abeokuta women’s revolt against the inflation in prices of goods imposed by the colonial government in Nigeria. The history of women seeking out alternative spaces in which to collaborate, and to agitate for political change, continues to endure into the twenty-first century, as the Women’s March of 21 January 2017 in Washington D.C., and the numerous Sister Marches (673 in total, with an estimated 4.9 million marches) that it inspired, reminds us.

Beyond ‘Sisters’ who Struggle: Co-conspirators

It is evident from the foregoing that women, and marginalised groups, have long-formed alliances to challenge oppressive structures that have been foisted upon them. This prompts the consideration as to why Professor Ackerly’s question remains so important. These historical examples, and the individuals they concern, are unified by their attempt to use multiple and unofficial spaces to form alliances against mutual sources of intersecting oppressions. That unification emerges from shared – albeit not homogenous, experiences, rather than through the composite, and exclusionary, category of ‘women’. Indeed, as Mohanty (1988) reminds us, sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender, “it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis” and that “beyond sisterhood there is still racism, colonialism and imperialism!” The discussion at IFJP around the challenges feminists face as they endeavour to form alliances across histories, geographies, and cultures was, therefore, pertinent. This prompted questions about what it means, and whether it is possible, to serve as an ally for someone in a different context, whether through scholarship or activism, without reproducing gendered and racialised hierarchies, evoking continuities with imperialism.

The questions of what power relations are produced as a consequence of those alliances are therefore integral to this conversation, and questions feminists must continually revisit. While anyone can serve as a feminist ally or knowledge producer, it is lamentable that some individuals remain more devalued within certain spaces. Azra Causevic, who co-founded LGBTQIA Association Okvir in Bosnia in 2011 – the only women-led LGBTQ organization in the country, highlighted during the plenary:

Allyship should neither assume ‘sisterhood’ nor be conflated with colonial tropes centred on ‘helping’, ‘saving’ or ‘rescuing’ distant others, which put some of us in a privileged position to speak for rather than with others. As the discussion at IFJP revealed, this can sometimes feel more difficult when we think about the question posed by Anasuya Sengupta:

An attendant theme of this IFJP plenary drew attention to the sociology of knowledge production and the conventional, and exclusionary, modes through which knowledge is produced and shared. Azra Causevic made clear that

– highlighting the violent old-new ways that often legitimise certain forms of knowledge. As feminist allies, we must challenge these oppressive hegemonic structures and ensure that our research stretches beyond the canon and is shared in accessible ways.  Panellist Anasuya Sengupta offered some essential advice on how this can be accomplished during a roundtable on indigenous knowledge that had taken place the previous day:

 Art, Activism and the Internet: Alternative Sites of Knowledge Production

Art and activism are full of potential for knowledge sharing and production, and the Internet can provide a powerful medium and a platform for groups that are marginalised by mainstream approaches. For example, Whose Knowledge? is a global campaign to centre the knowledge of marginalised communities on the Internet. In this vein, conference participant Dr Jamie J. Hagen took to Twitter to discuss these alternative spaces, highlighting both opportunities and dangers.

Dr Helen Berents‏ also went on Twitter to share her reflections on this topic, highlighting how allyship in academia can help support diverse knowledge production:

Ergo, as feminist allies we must inhabit, reclaim, and utilise these spaces, and we must do so collaboratively.

Over the two-day conference at IFJP although there were many important conversations being aired around intersectionality, inclusion and solidarity, there was no denying that these discussions were being held in a space that was predominantly white, female, and relatively privileged. It is important therefore to acknowledge that, even in a so-called ‘feminist’ space of collaboration and knowledge sharing, the same behaviours that facilitate marginalisation are in danger of being reproduced even if unintentionally. Professor Persephone Lewis reminded us during the plenary that the very location of the conference at the University of San Francisco was being held on Ohlone territory. When Professor Lewis asked the audience whether they were aware of this fact, only a few could raise their hands – we were not one of them. Lewis called this out:

Professor Lewis continued:

Feminist allies, and feminist alliances, are forged across multiple public and private spaces, and rely on a range of actors in order to challenge business as usual politics, and disrupt dominant structures of power. But those alliances must be more than just inclusive (read: tokenistic) rather they need to be anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-capitalist. Oftentimes, therefore, feminists have to direct their attention away from conventional (read: hostile) centres of power and mobilise in the corridors, on the streets, or through personal relationships in the home. While those mobilisations may appear autonomous or distinct acts of resistance, unrelated from each other, their effects reverberate globally. Indeed, we can learn much from the Irish who travelled home from all over the world last week to vote in Ireland’s landmark abortion referendum. The global solidarity that they have been shown through direct and indirect allies and alliances has been deeply moving.


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