Social commentaries

Alice Mander on Disability and Feminism

January 29, 2022

Alice Mander
Alice Mander
Alice sits with her sandled feet on a chaise

“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.”

The disabled experience is an inherent rebellion, for we live against the desire that we should not. No matter how liberal a bubble is, the legitimacy of the disabled existence is thrown around without trepidation or second thought. Philosophical and legal ‘debates’ about eugenics and euthanasia, for instance, inevitably falls into highly insensitive and triggering discussions about the quality of living a disabled life. If feminism is ever to create a safe space for all women, it must acknowledge the history of eugenics, which, unfortunately (silently) rears its ugly head in ‘liberal’ discussions – most notably within euthanasia and abortion.

Don’t worry. I can sense your hesitation in continuing to read on. Correlating eugenics, euthanasia, and abortion is a technique frequently coopted by anti-abortion lobby groups like Family First. It reeks of articles aimed towards shaming people from making a personal choice about their body. It reeks of picket signs outside Family Planning clinics. It reeks of anti-feminism. I get it. I feel the same hesitation writing it. I always feel a need to disclose my belief that child-bearing individuals must have the choice to do as they please with their bodies, and that right is not up for debate. At the same time, however, I viscerally recall being set an assignment in Year 11 science class about prenatal testing. I viscerally remember stumbling across an article entitled, “I wish I had been aborted.” The author had the same condition as me. I recall using it as a legitimate source, a point of discussion with family, friends, and my teacher.

I also still recall the tears in bathroom stalls when my classmates would insensitively defend the ‘liberal’ euthanasia laws of European countries. I recall years of trying to undo my insistence that there was something fundamentally “not good” about me. We disabled people live our lives carrying the hurt, the pain, and the loneliness of existing in a world that rejects us. The only balm for my scars? Learning from disability activists about disability pride. Learning to blame the way society is structured, not myself. With the unlearning and learning came a need to refuse to pit my feminism against my disability pride.

Prenatal screening tests are commonly used to screen for chromosomal abnormalities in the fetus – namely conditions such as Down syndrome. The tests are simple and non-invasive. In Iceland, more than 85% of pregnant people take the prenatal test. Of the tests that suggest there is a chance that the fetus will have Down syndrome, the termination rate is near 100%. In Britain, 90% of women who learn that their child may have Down syndrome terminate their pregnancy. The statistics are undeniable: Down syndrome is effectively eliminated, or well on its way to be, in countries around the world, and Aotearoa New Zealand’s current trajectory is not far off. According to the president of the New Zealand Down Syndrome Association, one in 700 children were once born with Down syndrome in Aotearoa, New Zealand. However, since the introduction of the scans, it has become closer to one in every 1000, and the number is diminishing.

Abortion has finally been decriminalised in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and the Abortion Legislation Bill is currently undergoing Royal Assent, after which it will come into law. The Bill allows for a health practitioner to provide abortion services to a person who is not more than 20 weeks pregnant. If a woman is more than 20 weeks pregnant, an abortion may still be deemed clinically appropriate when considering physical and mental health. It was this decision that caused some anger amongst parents of disabled children, who claimed that Prime Minister Ardern had promised to protect disabled babies by not changing the time periods already set out in the law. Not only are parents concerned about the impact this might have on the disability community, but they also fear that women will be coerced into a termination by male partners who don’t want to have a disabled child.

Historically, Europe and the Western world, by extension, have had a preoccupation with eugenics, and it did not end with the Nazi regime. Interestingly, New Zealand’s Abortion Legislation Bill is not entirely silent on this elephant in the room. Under section 20F, the Bill firmly states that “This Parliament opposes the performance of abortions being sought solely because of a preference for the fetus to be of a particular sex.” However, there is a double standard in that feminists and policy analysts do not name the performance of abortions sought solely due to disability as equally unfavourable. We must acknowledge the story the statistics tell us: we see a eugenics-based genocide against certain disabilities. The inevitable question must be: how can I reconcile my sympathies with concerns about eugenics, with my pro-choice feminist stance?

Women must be free to make a choice about their bodies. However, feminism needs to recognise that choice never exists in a vacuum. The general census amongst potential parents is that they do not want their future child to experience undue pain and suffering in their life. It is this preconception that many lobby groups have fought against. For instance, in 2016, French courts ruled against an advert made to reassure women that children with chromosomal abnormalities could lead fulfilled lives. The courts ruled that the advert would unnecessarily “disturb the conscience of women” who aborted fetuses who screen positive for certain disabilities. However, the advert is not wrong. In 2011, a survey of 285 people with Down syndrome revealed that 99% of them are happy with their lives, 97% like who they were, and 96% like how they looked. How can women be expected to make an informed choice when they are only given half of the story?

I’m not here to deny that our world makes raising a disabled child difficult. I also know it’s not easy to be a disabled child in an ableist society. Patriarchy is responsible for some of these struggles, as patriarchal society puts pressure on mothers to raise children more than fathers. The patriarchy fails to recognise the need for equitable support, making child-rearing so much more difficult. Moreover, Aotearoa’s health and disability system has significant racial disparities, disproportionately impacting Māori, and Pasifika women. The welfare system is also woefully insufficient, racist, and dysfunctional. How can we possibly claim that women have the freedom of choice when these equity issues continue to be an invisible hand in the process? High abortion rates of disabled fetuses also contribute to a narrative that leads to the aforementioned self-hatred. According to research by Erik Parens and Adrienne Asch, disabled people fear that the discourse surrounding prenatal testing repeats and reinforces the tendency to minimise their identity in relation to their condition. It’s a narrative that slowly and surely chips away at self-worth.

Don’t get me wrong – at the end of the day, I’m glad that abortion has been decriminalised. I don’t think the Bill goes far enough in allowing women to choose what they wish to do with their own bodies without undue pressure or shame. However, I’m a staunch believer in informed choice. Freedom to choose is a lovely notion, but feminism must seek to avoid the neoliberal trap of denying the context we make our decisions in. We cannot forget that in more recent decades, it has been this neoliberal trap that has maintained the patriarchy.

Unfortunately, the conversation surrounding reproductive rights, choice, eugenics, and disability doesn’t end here. It only gets more complicated. According to Marsha Saxton, “There is a key difference between the goals of the reproductive rights movement and the disability rights movement regarding reproductive freedom: the reproductive rights movement emphasizes the right to have an abortion; the disability rights movement, the right not to have an abortion.”

Recently, I took a trip to the gynaecologist (a fun way to spend an hour at 8.30 am on a Friday, let me tell you). While I was going there for an entirely separate issue to fertility, as a disabled woman, future motherhood came up. My Doctor told me that there was a new science that would potentially allow me to erase my condition from my family line genetically. I raised my eyebrows, nodding, impressed because scientifically, it’s a feat. Ethically? I’m not so sure…

Throughout feminist history, the choice not to have a child has been one of the most important focuses of the feminist movement. However, disabled people with child-bearing bodies face different barriers. No one ever looks at us and sees a potential parent. Instead, the thought of us naturally reproducing is considered immoral and cruel. Non-disabled women often report experiencing barriers when they want to undergo tubal ligation – a permanent form of female sterilization. On the other hand, disabled women (and people generally) have undergone forced sterilization since science has allowed it. Yet, it is rarely (if ever) talked about through a mainstream feminist lens.

Sterilizing disabled people exudes more than a whiff of eugenics. It recalls U.S. policies in the 20th Century that led to the sterilization of more than 60,000 people by 1960 and the infamous Nazi “Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases,” in 1933. – The Atlantic 2013

In 1928, the New Zealand parliament almost passed a law that would allow for eugenic sterilisation of the “feeble-minded” or the “unfit.” Thankfully, the law was not passed. However, eugenics-based sterilisation is not a stranger in Aotearoa, New Zealand’s medical history, and it continues to occur around the world. For instance, non-consensual sterilisation of people with intellectual and learning disabilities is still legal in many parts of the United States.

In 2019, British courts ordered the forced abortion of a pregnant woman with developmental disabilities and a mood disorder, despite the objections of both the woman and her mother. The mother, who was the primary caregiver for her disabled daughter, promised to assume care of the baby (her grandchild). However, the Judge held that while she was “acutely conscious of the fact that for the State to order a woman to have a termination where it appears that she doesn’t want it is an immense intrusion,” this case was different. The Judge decided to operate in the pregnant woman’s “best interests” and “not on society’s views of termination.” At the background of all of this is Article 16 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 23 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, both of which enshrines the right to have a family as fundamental and universal.

I’m not claiming that these issues have easy answers. They’re nuanced and complicated. But, they are still issues that should be seen as feminist concerns. They directly relate to questions about bodily autonomy and choice. Thus, feminism must be willing to engage with them, no matter how uncomfortable and complicated they are. The Nairobi Principles on Abortion, Prenatal Testing, and Disability may be a good starting place for discussion. The Principles seek to reconcile disability rights with access to safe abortion and the importance of sexual and reproductive rights. They advocate for the giving of neutral and unbiased advice to pregnant people and informed decision making. The Principles seek to affirm bodily autonomy amongst all people who become pregnant – disabled or otherwise. They also aim to recognise ableism and acknowledge the long history of disabled people being targeted by eugenics policies. While the Principles don’t offer all the answers, they are a starting place for conversation. Most importantly, the Nairobi Principles actively seek to include disabled women in conversation and affirm that “there is no incompatibility between guaranteeing access to safe abortion and protecting disability rights.”

Ultimately, feminism must be willing to engage with these difficult conversations. Without discussing issues that directly impact disabled women, feminism will never be a movement for all. We should be able to talk about disability rights issues in liberal spaces without fear of being labeled anti-feminist or anti-abortion. Listening is key. I know that I still have more work to do – anti-racism work, anti-colonialism work, anti-heteronormativity work. I also have anti-ableism work to do. We all must work to dismantle all forces of hatred.

“The disabled body is always seen as a public body. It’s always seen as a spectacle. People think they have the right to look at it, to categorize it, and then to dismiss it and then to look away…” Ju Gosling.

Being a disabled woman and a feminist doesn’t just cause ideological strain. The key to intersectionality is acknowledging the everyday experiences of women who experience oppression from different social forces. Whether through the politicisation of reproductive rights or unwanted sexual contact, we are taught that the female body is a point of violence and public interest. We are taught to protect ourselves, never to walk alone, to wear appropriate clothes, not to drink too much, how to use self-defense, and to carry keys between our fingers.

We are taught to fear body hair, fear menstruation, fear having too big boobs, fear having too small boobs, fear being soft-spoken, fear being bossy, fear being girly, fear being too much of a woman, fear not being enough of a woman. Disabled people are also used to being treated as public property. The medicalisation of disability has meant that it is deemed acceptable, even appropriate, to ask disabled strangers intimate details about their lives.

As Sarah Smith Rainey puts it, “Strangers usually exhibit an amazing level of audacity when confronted publicly with a disability, revealing their beliefs about disability, care, and relationships.” The lack of respect with which the disabled body is treated is dehumanising, to say the least – it douses us with internalised ableism and sets us alight with shame.

I’ll never forget walking with my friend through a train station in Wellington, where a very loud and confident busker was playing. He was a young man who carried himself with the air of someone who thought everyone wanted to hear his voice… you know the type. As we were walking past him, he yelled across the hall at me, “Hey, are you alright?” Immediately I could feel my face flush as the words reverberated around the busy station. I mumbled that I was “fine” and attempted to walk away, wanting the encounter to end. He wasn’t satisfied with that, yelling back, “Were you born that way?” I didn’t have an answer for him, and I didn’t want to answer him. I wanted him to go back to strumming Wonderwall. He didn’t give me a chance to answer anyway, topping off the encounter with an, “I’m sorry. At least you’re still beautiful!” In the space of ten seconds, he made unwanted inquiries and observations about my body – both as a disabled ‘specimen’ and a female ‘object’ of voyeurism. My disabled and female body had become a public interest to the entire train station.

These kinds of interactions aren’t uncommon for disabled women, to the point that walking down busy streets at nights in front of drunken men puts my fight or flight mode up immediately. One of the worst parts of ableist and sexist encounters like this is my reaction – I apologise. I apologise to the person with me who witnessed the encounter, or I have to fight every inch of myself not to. I don’t think this is unusual for women, especially women who face intersecting points of oppression. But why do we do it? Is it because our existence has been questioned and interrogated to such a fact that the mere act of taking space and – God forbid, being a point of discomfort in that space – is reason enough for our continual apology for it? Feminism has worked hard to allow women to take up space, apologising for it feels inherently anti-feminist. After every apology comes guilt. I feel shame for not being stronger, shame for not being sharper, shame for not being a good feminist.

But, if we’re so conditioned to be ashamed of our disabled bodies, being a ‘kick-ass feminist’ is pretty difficult. Traditional notions of how to present as a ‘feminist’ lack nuance and intersectionality. Why? White, straight, non-disabled, and cis women have an inherent advantage in performing feminist notions of ‘empowered womanhood.’ For instance, during the second wave of feminism (and still to this day), self-grooming and cosmetics were seen as anti-feminist and an oppressive daily ritual. However, not all women have the privilege of presenting in radical ways that challenge gender norms. For instance, as a non-binary writer, Jacob Tobia says, “passing” as cis-gendered comes with a lot of privilege. Trans women are more likely to be subjected to violence for not presenting in a typically feminist way. The gender binary is so deeply entrenched within our society that when someone does not perform their gender ‘properly,’ they can be subject to harm.

When it comes to disabled women, sexualisation may have different connotations than it does for non-disabled women. In a 2017 Buzzfeed article, Lucy Webster wrote that “feminism seems to struggle with a disability because disabled women are subject to stereotypes diametrically opposed to those saddled on our non-disabled counterparts.” Objectifying women involves minimising her to her sexuality and child-bearing properties. Objectifying disabled people involves infantilising and medicalising them, turning them into an asexual and undesirable creature. A lot of feminism has been about reclaiming the male gaze. But, disabled women make a good point – what if we never had the gaze in the first place?

The busker in the train station went from minimising me to a disabled body, unworthy of humane treatment, to acknowledging my sexuality as a woman. He said his final comment as a way of consoling me for the first – thinking that sexualising me would make me feel better about his macabre sympathy for my disability. I had never really thought about this before, but, honestly and ashamedly, it sometimes works. The internally ableist part of me continually dreads the thought of being seen as a disabled, non-sexual creature. I catch myself thinking that if I want to impress that attractive guy, I have to overperform traditional womanhood to outshine my disability. I have to look good 100% of the time. I have to look as though I put the perfect amount of feminine effort into my appearance. For the love of God, I have to flirt and demonstrate empowering sexuality and femininity to ultimately outweigh my awkwardly disabled body. The feminist within me screams in protest, but it’s an undeniable and unconscious truth. How can I reconcile my distaste for the male gaze when I’m continually performing for it to avoid the often worse ableist gaze?

To be genuinely intersectional, feminism must acknowledge the lived experience of different and all women. You may have noticed a trend throughout this article: feminism is ultimately a movement about choice.

The choice to not have a child.

The choice to not have sexual interaction.

The choice to present in a way that challenges gender stereotypes.

However, sometimes the mainstream framing of this ‘choice’ is not so relevant to disabled people. A lot of disabled people’s choices are ignored entirely.

The choice to have a child.

The choice to be sexual.

The choice to be authentically ourselves without ableist presuppositions.

The feminist movement must acknowledge that these choices are as equally valid as the more traditionally feminist ones, and it should advocate for the protection of both. It is so important for women from privileged communities to make space for women from marginalised communities so that they can speak their truth about how feminism is not representing their community. Speaking out against mainstream feminism is daunting. But, it is only through intersectionality that we will reach radical change. In the words of Bell Hooks, we must continue to talk back:

“Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of ‘talking back’ that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject- the liberated voice.”