Simone, bronze sculpture.
© Rose Gibbs

Hierarchies and Empowerment

Rose Gibbs

If feminism’s aims and means are infiltrating and recreating the hierarchal structures that are responsible for women’s subordination in the first place, what kind of equality is this collection of movements really talking about? And why, given that the current structures and hierarchies are so clearly flawed, would any of us want to be part of them in the first place? In the cultural sphere, what does endorsement from its commercial ventures actually mean? Shouldn’t both artists and feminists be trying to find ways to circumnavigate the capitalist chokehold on culture, and in so doing, make a new space that could be the place for a radical shift of focus?

There seems to be a current belief that whatever women do, just so long as they are women – of all and any kinds – that it is naturally ‘Feminist’. The movement is being colonised by capitalism: suddenly recognised for its edginess, it becomes a publicity stunt for singers and actors as a means by which to sell products. Used by politicians, it becomes a way to win votes, or as part of the dubious set of arguments set forth as excuses to invade other countries. In the art world, audiences are asked to suspend their disbelief and trust the spurious claims made by bizarrely worded press releases. As long as an activity is done under the auspices of feminism, it is deemed acceptable. Feminism’s use as a tool for self-reflection, a means by which these individuals assess their complicity in the status quo and call themselves to account, is notably absent.

Radical black politics, as noted by the writer Emma Dabiri during a panel discussion at the ICA in January, were destroyed and replaced with black capitalism through violent and often illegal COINTEL programs during the 1960-70s. The prevailing myth, produced by the FBI’s propaganda machine, suggested that the Black Panther Party poised “the greatest threat to the internal security”. In fact, their work was organised around and directed towards ‘the survival programs’. The survival programs implemented practical solutions to community needs, the first step of which was to explain to people their constitutional rights. The most successful and well known of their activities was the ‘Free Breakfast For School Children Program’. These programs, among other similar ones, were designed to provide a survival kit for the community. They would function in an interim period until revolutionary emancipation could be achieved. As Cornel West explains in Black Prophetic Fire (2014), the programs “combined bread-and-butter issues of everyday people with deep democratic empowerment in the face of an oppressive status quo...The revolutionary politics of the Black Panther Party linked the catastrophic conditions of local Black communities to economic inequality in America and colonial or neocolonial realities in the capitalist world-system”.

The ability to look at the oppression of black communities holistically, and to attend to these needs practically, was key to the movement’s success. This was a radical politics that sought alternatives to the existing structures that maintained the status quo. It is this kind of holistic approach that feminists and feminist organisations should adopt if they are serious about their goals. If it is emancipation from oppression that we want, this will be the only way to achieve it. Perhaps it might also ensure that feminism spoke for more than just white middle class privilege. By working practically with the issues at hand, rather than trying to fit ourselves into a system that does not reward merit, we could create spaces for culture that offered something radically new.

It is this newness that both art and activism seek. Through drawing attention to something that may have been overlooked or deemed unimportant, new ways of seeing or taking action can be found. Both art and activism provide a site for resistance. However, the politics of political art is often rendered impotent and consumable within the context of the gallery space. Art subordinated to politics makes a non-sense of both. Where so much of what we do in the world is directed towards tangible outcomes, the strength of art lies in that the artist need not always have a ‘telos’ in mind. Here, political analysis becomes a useful way to assess art practices, to think about how much is taken for granted, and as a tool to help unearth the ways in which we have been shaped by hegemonic ideologies. It can be a way to question methodologies, and remind us that art is not simply a product-based activity to be quickly monetised by investors and speculators.

If women’s success and parity with the powerful relies on their collusion with patriarchal systems, they will leave the world much the way they found it. They will continue to conform to stringent gender norms, their bodies will continue to be scrutinised, and their behaviour moderated to fit prescribed roles. Even if half the power elite were women, they would have only gained a patriarchal power and potentially caused the subordination of others. Women will not have achieved the true equality and liberation for which feminism fights.

Feminists should be mindful of the tendency to recreate or infiltrate hierarchies – the very systems one would imagine an ideology committed to equality might seek to undermine. These problems are not new, and certainly those who take the time to look back at the good work done by our forebears will have learnt that there are ways and means round these knotty problems that we imbibe from the world around us. The co-founder of The Black Panther Party, Huey Newton, created a platform for the women’s movement and the gay rights movement of the 1970s. We should encourage support in much the same way, by holding ourselves to account, noting the ways we perpetuate sexism, and finding ways to work in solidarity with other marginalised groups in order to create a truly liberated future.

Rose Gibbs is an activist, artist and writer.