Audre Lorde directed her critical attention within movements for justice. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nathifa Greene on Audre Lorde: Dismantling the master’s house

As a black lesbian feminist, Audre Lorde fought both white supremacy in the feminist movement, and misogyny among civil rights campaigners. 

This piece is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays here.


Audre Lorde created space for plurality and differences among Second Wave feminists. The main aim of her work was to expose the false dilemma that forced a choice of one form of oppression over another, or solidarity with only one facet of identity at a time. Throughout her work, Lorde stressed that difference counts as a strength, not weakness, making way for later developments such as intersectionality in black feminism and multiculturalism.

Instead of making sexuality and domestic relationships a lower priority than struggles for civil rights and legal transformation, Lorde argued, there is a common ancestral root that generates racism, sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia, and violence in relationships as well as in the public sphere. This common root is the belief that survival means domination over others, and a belief in superiority. The forms of knowledge that grow out of this common root all display one important feature in common, according to Lorde: “an inability to recognize the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening.”[1]

The dominant white, middle class version of a feminist struggle that Freidan described, in The Feminine Mystique, was only one small sliver of women, which overlooked the specific kinds of experiences that women of other social classes and sexual orientations faced. That insensitivity ended up reinscribing oppression, Lorde argued.

Lorde directed her critical attention within movements for justice. Her critical assessments of feminism were radical, at a time when feminists would sometimes claim that racial solidarity betrayed feminist causes - and men of color would claim that expressions of gender solidarity by women of color betrayed the struggle for racial justice. So where was the place for women who were not white, or middle class, or heterosexual in anti-racist and feminist politics? Lorde pointed out that feminists could be racist and that men involved in antiracist struggle could be misogynist. That kind of zero-sum game thinking, where benefit for one cause only occurs at the expense of another, was perhaps the reason that Lorde claimed “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house”, because aversion to difference is a form that various instances of oppression share in common.

For Lorde, coming of age in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, when apartheid was legal in America, class-conscious New York bohemians nevertheless found sexual difference suspect, “bourgeois and reactionary”[2]. The confines of gendered performance and self-presentation were narrow among gay women. Where could she find solidarity for all parts of herself, as a self-identified Black lesbian poet, in black and socialist circles uptown in Harlem, and gay bars downtown, in Greenwich Village? Choosing one kind of solidarity to the exclusion of another would require an amputation, to fit a procrustean bed.

Lorde's work took a stand against a narrow version of justice for women, and a false solidarity for that narrowly defined political agenda, which would involve a suppression of important parts of herself. However, she never stopped noticing the casual racism she experienced among her queer friends and fellow feminists, as well as sexism and homophobia among black people, within movements for racial justice.

One of her most significant contributions is her exposure of the ways that feminism could fail women of color. Lorde spoke out against patriarchy within movements for racial justice, and psychological as well as physical violence, shedding light on the ways that black women and queer women can be vulnerable to particular forms of violence, especially sexual violence. The divided loyalties of domestic workers, at work earning low wages in the very homes where other women wrestled with “the problem with no name” were not addressed in the feminism of Betty Friedan.

However, because women’s oppression and economic exploitation share a common cause, the argument for greater emphasis on other women’s experiences is a demand for honesty, and openness, rather than an indictment that stops at an accusation, offering nothing more. Lorde valued all forms of love and relationships among women, in deep bonds of love that led her to think of herself a woman-identified woman, pointing out that the tendency to value women as women, not only in relation to men, was the exception rather than the rule. The silence that stifled all kinds of love among women, both sexual and nonsexual, is a similar kind of silence that made it risky for black women to speak out against violence committed by black men. Women of color struggled against gendered oppression, as all women do, but only some women struggled against impunity for violence, as well as exploitative and unsafe working conditions.   

Lorde explored hidden and silenced areas in her essays and speeches. In Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power she broadened the sense of the term “erotic” to embrace its generative power and its whole creative spectrum, beyond preset gender roles. These texts encouraged women to express the full range of human emotion, including anger. In The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, Lorde described the tactics that dismissed, excluded, and silenced the voices of women of color, risking the reinforcement of white supremacy by diverting focus to anger between women, siphoning off the potentially revolutionary power of anger turned against racism, rather than each other. The psychological control of women by other women within feminist movements, because of the proscription against anger, left important issues unaddressed within feminist circles.

Because of her attention to the specific ways that women of color experience oppression, Lorde echoed the late 19th and early 20th century reflections of Anna Julia Cooper, who discussed the restriction of movements for women’s rights to white women. Lorde developed a position that came from a similar place as Sojourner Truth, whose 1851 question “ain’t I a woman?” was still relevant a century later, in an America that condoned and profited from racist exploitation. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote in 1937, the doubly excluded position of black women in America made them “de mule uh de world,” words that domestic workers knew all too well, confined as they were to low paying work deemed unfit for other women to perform.

Although she believed in the idea of a common cause, Lorde always stressed the importance of admitting difference within feminist circles. She also explored the affective space to disagree, carving out spaces where white middle class feminists did not belong at the center.


Nathifa Greene is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Stony Brook University (State University of New York) in the US.

[1] (1978/1984) “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving.” Reprinted in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Crossing Press p.45

[2] (1982) Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography. New York: Random House. p.149

Show Hide image

The 7 brilliant arguments Theresa May once made against Brexit

Just in case you missed them. 

“Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public,” the Prime Minister Theresa May told the Conservative party conference in October. “They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient.

“They find the fact that more than seventeen million votes decided to leave the European Union simply bewildering.”

Of course, there was a time not that long ago, when May too found the idea of Brexit pretty bewildering herself. Nicknamed “submarine” during the EU referendum campaign for her low-key support for Remain, she nonetheless had made up her mind it was the right thing to do. 

In a recording obtained by The Guardian, she told an audience at Goldman Sachs that “the economic arguments are clear”. She continued: 

“I think being part of a 500m trading bloc is significant for us. I think one of the issues is a lot of people invest here in the UK because it’s the UK in Europe. 

“I think if we were not in Europe, there would be firms and companies who would be looking to say do they need actually to develop a mainland European presence rather than a UK presence.

But if that hasn’t convinced you, luckily May also made a public case for Remain on 25 April 2016. Here are some of her best points:

1. There’s no such thing as total sovereignty

At conference in October, May said Britain was leaving “to become, once more, a fully sovereign and independent country”. 

But in April, she said that “no country or empire in world history has ever been totally sovereign”. Nation states, she said, have to make a trade off between agreeing to cede some sovereignty “in a controlled way” to prevent a greater loss of sovereignty in an uncontrolled way, such as “military conflict or economic decline”. 

2. It's safer to Remain

In her conference speech, May said she wanted a Brexit deal to include “co-operation on law enforcement and counter-terrorism”. 

In April, though, the then-Home secretary thought it would be a lot simpler just to stay in the EU. She predicted that while a Brexit Britain would still share intelligence, “that does not mean we would be as safe as if we remain”.

For example, May helpfully pointed out, a Britain outside the EU would have no access to the European Arrest Warrant, which allowed her department to extradite more than 5,000 people from Britain to Europe in the last five years. 

She also distinguished between the EU’s freedom of movement rules, and border checks, declaring: “Some people say the EU does not make us more secure because it does not allow us to control our border. But that is not true.”

3. Rules are better than no rules

At conference, May said Brexit would mean “our laws made not in Brussels but in Westminster”. Anyone who believed they were a “citizen of the world” was in fact “a citizen of nowhere”. 

Back in April, she had a more nuanced view. She said Europe had “stumbled its way to war in 1914” because of the “ambiguity of nations’ commitments to one another”. 

She declared: “Nobody should want an end to a rules-based international system.” Although, she did add that reconciling these international systems with democratic government was “one of the great challenges of this century”. 

4. It could break up the UK

In her speech at conference, May took aim at the Scottish Nationalist Party when she blamed “divisive nationalists” for threatening to drive the UK apart. 

When she spoke in April, though, it seemed she might be talking about a different set of nationalists. “If Brexit isn’t fatal to the European Union, we might find that it is fatal to the Union with Scotland,” she warned. 

Scots are more likely to be in favour of the EU than voters in England and Wales, she noted: 

“I do not want the people of Scotland to think that English Eurosceptics put their dislike of Brussels ahead of our bond with Edinburgh and Glasgow. I do not want the European Union to cause the destruction of an older and much more precious Union, the Union between England and Scotland.”

5. Brexit endangers Britain’s financial services industry

In her conference speech, May described London as “the world’s leading financial capital”. 

But according to May circa April 2016, it might not be for much longer. She warned that outside the EU: “There would be little we could do to stop discriminatory policies being introduced, and London’s position as the world’s leading financial centre would be in danger.”

6. Negotiating trade deals won’t be easy

May is a believer in free trade – her conference speech was peppered with references to it – and she has appointed Liam Fox as International Trade secretary to broker new deals.

And she knows how hard that will be. In her April speech, she noted Britain would have to replace 36 existing trade agreements with non-EU countries: “While we could certainly negotiate our own trade agreements, there would be no guarantee that they would be on terms as good as we enjoy now.”

7. Nor is staying in the single market

Even in April, May was clear she thought Britain could survive Brexit, but she was not sure whether it would do so better off.

As she put it: 

"The reality is that we do not know on what terms we would win access to the single market.  We do know that in a negotiation we would need to make concessions in order to access it, and those concessions could well be about accepting EU regulations, over which we would have no say, making financial contributions, just as we do now, accepting free movement rules, just as we do now, or quite possibly all three combined.  

"It is not clear why other EU member states would give Britain a better deal than they themselves enjoy."

Couldn't agree more, Prime Minister. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.