‘We Need A Feminist Theory of Disability’ | Alice Mander on Feminism & Disability – Part I
Edited by Dr. Roberta Francis Watene, Ph.D. and Umi Asaka of the Donald Beasley Institute
“Unable to grasp the importance of Black women’s intersectional experiences, not only courts but feminist and civil rights thinkers as well have treated Black women in ways that deny both the unique compundness of their situation and the centrality of their experiences to the larger classes of women and Blacks”- Kimberlé Crenshaw, 1989.
In 2020, Crenshaw’s demand for an “intersectional” feminist movement has been heard worldwide and has since been extended beyond the experience of black women to include other marginalised communities. However, to say that the work of Crenshaw has been continuously honoured would deny the experience of women of colour, trans women, disabled women, and poor women, who continue to be left out of the feminist conversation. Here in Aotearoa, the proliferation of TERFS (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and Pākeha women’s failure to acknowledge the rightful sovereignty of Māori – are only some of the examples of the work that needs to be done to dismantle all forces of hatred, heteronormativity, whiteness, colonialism, and ableism. Without deconstructing these forces, dangerous masculine dominance will continue to reign.
Throughout my time at University – a place which could perhaps be called a liberal bubble – I have noticed the sheepish nature that some feminists adopt when the topic of disability comes up. The default response seems to be to “shut up and listen” to the disabled girl (that’s me!). This is a self-perpetuating response – I do like to talk, and I do talk about disability… a lot. Centering the voices of those with lived experiences is also key, and something that I myself make an effort to do when it comes to issues that I can’t personally speak to. However, having to remind others of daily ableist microaggressions continually is exhausting, especially when their response is always ‘politely’ saying, “Wow, that’s shit. I’ve never really thought about that.” Sometimes, I just want to slam my fists on the table and yell, “Why can’t you just get angry with me?!” and not feel sheepish for me.
People fail to see disability as a social issue, and to this day, disability is left out of the feminist conversation. I rarely see ‘ability’ or ‘disability’ tacked onto the end of a sentence regarding the ways women face oppression. And yet, the facts are impossible to deny. Men with disabilities are almost twice as likely to have jobs than disabled women. When disabled women do work, they often experience unequal pay and unequal standards of employment. Disabled women have been more likely to experience institutionalisation than disabled men. Disabled women are more likely to become victims of gender-based violence. However, a lack of research in the area means there are few reliable statistics to quantify the issue truly. These issues barely scrape the top of the barrel – there are alarmingly poor diagnostic rates for neurodiverse women and chronic women’s health issues such as endometriosis. This is not to mention the vast array of disproportionate issues that Māori and Pasifika disabled women face, or disabled trans women.
In 1989, disability theorist Susan Wendell claimed that “we need a feminist theory of disability.” Wendell believed that a feminist theory of disability would liberate not only disabled women but also non-disabled women because the theory of disability is “the theory of the oppression of the body by a society and its culture.” Douglas C. Baynton points out that sexism, homophobia, and racism have always worked in conjunction with ableism. Certainly, “treating disabled people unequally has been justified on the basis of their alleged deficient and inferior identities while discriminating against women and minority groups has been legitimized by attributing disability to them.” One only needs to cast one’s mind back to the institutionalisation of ‘hysterical women’ or ‘unwell’ members of the LGBTQI+ community as examples.
The medical model of disability has been imposed upon the ‘other’ to marginalise them throughout history. For instance, many feminists reject the term ‘female’ as a noun- because it minimises a person to their bodily anatomy (sound familiar, disabled folk?). The common experience of being minimised to your bodily functions can be a bridge of understanding between the female and the disabled experience. The female body is often stigmatised, oppressed, and objectified; just as the disabled body is, for different reasons. Understanding this commonality is crucial.
My point is: we cannot understand one form of oppression without understanding all the powers that contribute to it. Feminism is no different. Pākeha women – of which I am one – are part of the issue. Without acknowledging my identity as Pākeha, cis, and financially privileged, my feminism will never be legitimate.
Angela Davis sums the need for intersectionality well:
“As long as I have identified as a feminist, it has been clear to me that any feminism who privileges those who already have privilege is bound to be irrelevant to poor women, working-class women, women of colour, trans women, trans women of colour. If standards for feminism are created by those who have already ascended economic hierarchies and are attempting to make the last climb to the top, how is this relevant to women who are at the very bottom? Revolutionary hope resides precisely among those women who have been abandoned by history and who are now standing up and making their demands heard.”