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“It's not only steps that keep us out”: mainstream feminism must stop ignoring disabled women

In matters of sex, sexuality and political campaigning, the resurgence of mainstream feminism overlooks disabled women, who are left with the “half-life” of slicing their identity.

Disabled women are being left out by the feminist movement
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I was a disabled feminist around a decade after I knew I was disabled and a feminist. In retrospect, I can only think I wasn’t paying attention. Or perhaps I was and that was the problem. The girls around me were not disabled. At school, or the rooms and streets at the start of adult life. I could, with no obvious contradiction, be different on a daily basis and have very little awareness of difference. When the crowd is big enough, it is easy to get lost in it.

I thought about that a few years later, as feminism made its resurgence in the mainstream agenda, but did so seemingly without the faces and lives of disabled women. I thought about it again as disability rights campaigns began to get attention, but framed as separate and foreign to what matters for women. Could I be disabled on a Monday and a woman on a Tuesday? Slicing an identity has the result of a half-life – and perhaps, crucially, the movements that attempt to improve those lives failing to acknowledge the particular way being unequal in one affects being unequal in another.

This falls both ways. Issues labelled as “disability” – for example, cuts to carers’ allowance – end up rarely being seen as feminist, and feminist campaigns – such as domestic violence – existing without mention of disabled women.

In her excellent piece on being a black feminist, Lola Okolosie describes how white, middle-class and young women are often seen as the ones at the forefront of feminist activity. “The problem is not that these [new wave of] campaigns exist, but that they are given a focus and attention that overshadows other work feminists are engaged with.” If the problem comes for black feminists in having their work overshadowed by (what is viewed as) mainstream feminism, the problem comes for disabled feminists in not having their work or lives seen as feminism. It’s not only steps that keep disabled women out.

“Feminists are grappling with issues that disabled people also face in a different context,” Susan Wendell wrote as far back as the 1980s.

When we don’t acknowledge this – when we see feminism and disability rights as separate campaigns and separate lives – we split a person down the middle, we make political movements that cancel out the lives of certain women and cannot represent every woman. “We need a feminist theory of disability,” Wendell implores. “Both because 16 per cent of women are disabled, and because the oppression of disabled people is closely linked to the cultural oppression of the body.”

Feminist and disability rights are born from a similar cloth. They are battles to acknowledge that oppression doesn’t come from a biological reality but a socially constructed inequality. They are concerned with idealised human bodies. They fight the structures and power that wish to control them; in sex, in work, in reproduction.

For disabled women, sexism and disability meet to mark lives in particular ways. Increased threat of sexual and intimate partner violence. Our forced sterilisation. A workplace that physically excludes us. The denial of our right to sexual support and education. The shaming of our bodies. 

There are conflicts, of course. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson suggests in Feminist Theory, the Body, and the Disabled Figure, it isn’t only that feminist assumptions can fail to take into account disabled women’s situations, it’s that some of the differences that disability provokes can complicate feminism’s understanding of female bodies and the oppression of them.

Caring responsibilities still fall predominantly on women, allowing disability to escape institutions but keeping women in their traditional role and poverty. (What is liberation for the one being cared for can be oppression for the one doing the caring.) Losing the lads’ mags shows us sexual objectification, but for disabled women, the degradation can be a-sexualisation. Are disabled women part of the story or a different story altogether?

The plot never seems more riddled than with abortion, perhaps. Foetuses with abnormalities are routinely held up as “justified” abortion stories, managing to fall into the sexist trap of telling women only some of their choices are acceptable and the ableist trap of using disability as the nightmare consequence.

I went to a conference at the University of Sheffield last week entitled “Gender and Disability: Asking Difficult Questions” (and abortion, in a rare room of a majority disabled women, was mentioned more than any other issue.) The title was apt. These are difficult questions. But I would like to ask them. I would like to say I feel no better seeing pro-choice campaigners use disability as the literal crutch to convince doubters of the rights of women than I do seeing anti-choicers using it to take those rights away. When I defend a woman’s choice over her body on any grounds (including disability), as a disabled woman, I feel the conflict and – at various corners – the anger. At assumptions, at hijacking, at misunderstanding (of both the negatives and positives and complexities) of disabled reality.

The first stage, like all things I think, is an awareness of the women who are caught within the debate and an inclusion of their voices. The next stage – at least for this difference – is seeing the issue is not simply the way disabled people are included in abortion debates but that concern for reproductive rights is often almost exclusively about abortion.  A full feminist campaign for reproductive rights would go beyond abortion rights to the coerced sterilization of disabled women, the rights of disabled women to raise their children, and the ever-shrinking support for parents of disabled children. There are women experiencing it even if we don’t talk about it.

Importantly, these experiences can be specific to the lives of disabled women but simultaneously touch on wider oppressions marking all of us. I think about our bodies and the hatred and shame of it and the constant discussion of this in all types of feminism. For disability, the figure of the disabled woman “is a cultural third term, a figure constituted by the binary pair of the masculine figure and the feminine figure,” writes Garland Thompson. “… She is not only defined against the masculine figure, but she is imagined as the antithesis of the normative woman as well.”

Sexuality itself is taken. Disabled people generally are excluded from society’s understanding of sexual desires. For disabled women, it can be a life in the crack of two failings: as a woman, you are sexualized, as a disabled figure you are ignored. There is autonomy in neither, of course. There is a particular unique lack of power in at once being a used slut and sexually useless.   

“In the dis/ableist cultures in which we live, disabled people’s sexual selves are seldom acknowledged. We are, almost routinely, ascribed an asexual identity, where we are assumed to lack any sense of sexual feeling and desire,” writes Kirsty Liddiard for the disabled women’s network Sisters of Frida. “We are… deemed sexually inadequate because of the ways in which our distinctive sexual pleasures and practices, and Othered bodies and minds, contradict deep-seated sexual norms.”

This is particularly damning in a sexist culture that seeks to police and shame women generally – holding up a version of sex, in addition to bodies, that is acceptable (and that all other women but you are said to be enjoying).

Tom Shakespeare, in Disabled Sexuality: Toward Rights and Recognition, calls it the “Cosmo conspiracy of great sex”. The (false) idea that all people are having incredible sex, all of the time – a spontaneous, lampshade-swinging jump with no communication, planning, or development. (An idea not unfamiliar to mainstream feminism.)   

Liddiard, who conducted her doctoral research in exploring the relationships between disability, sex, intimacy, and love, found this “conspiracy” was felt particularly by disabled women. While both men and women expressed great frustration at typically ableist (hetero)sexual norms – norms which dictate a fully-functioning, autonomous, mobile, ‘sexy’, strong and supple body for physical, penetrative, goal-orientated and genitally-focused activity – disabled men, for the most part, could negotiate a more empowering sexual role within their sexual lives and build a positive sexual identity.” 

Further, she found this permeated care provision itself. “Disabled men’s greater social and sexual power… ensured greater practical sexual support from attendants, carers, and parents, which enabled better access to sex and sexuality than disabled women,” she says. “In contrast, the majority of disabled women didn’t have the esteem or confidence to negotiate a desired role in sex; nor could they find a route to body confidence and self-love. Many women reported receiving little support within their sexual lives, saying that their desires were often overlooked by the people who provided their care. Most felt unfulfilled, inadequate and frustrated. All of these issues are compounded for LGBTQQI2-S disabled people (particularly disabled trans people).”  

In her description of women subverting the sexuality dictated to them – be it by getting off through having their arms stroked (when common erogenous zones were damaged in spinal injury) or finding pleasure beyond the traditional aim of orgasm entirely – Liddiard paints a picture of women challenging prescriptive ideas of body and sex. Disabled women’s experiences, “emphasise how crucial it is for disabled women – and all women and girls – to reclaim ‘sexy’ from the deeply oppressive ways in which it is proliferated and maintained in our cultures: a mode of sexuality that is considered ‘natural’ but is, in reality, anything but, being routinely learned and relearned; taught, policed, and regulated throughout our lives.”

Disabled women’s experiences reflect the bigger picture of what it is to be a woman in this society – and, in their own right, tell us about other women who also matter. There should not need to be a disabled girl in the room to know they are out there. Different women, merging into the sameness of the dominant crowd. Feminism, in all its parts, will only be richer for noticing them; listening to voices silenced by others and welcoming bodies often excluded. 

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.