Beyond Identity Politics

November 11, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Lift and Separate,” a review essay in this week’s New Yorker, revisits the question of why feminism is unpopular (at least here in the US). Levy’s article examines Gail Collins’s When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present  and Leslie Sanchez’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Sarah, Michelle, Hilary, and the Shaping of the New American Woman. Collins, we learn, writes of Lindsay van Gelder’s apprehension that  she be remembered only for the invention of bra-burning–although feminist bra burning was in fact mythical. “It’s as if feminism were plagued by a kind of false memory syndrome, ” Levy observes. While feminists were actually dealing with issues like child care and equality in employment, we were portrayed as anarchist incendiaries. As a result, feminism is (ostensibly) over, replaced by a sort of universalized women’s identity politics.

Sanchez’s book, according to Levy, is an articulation of such an identity politics, with Sarah Palin as its standard-bearer:

“‘Most of us are Sarah Palins to one degree or another,’ Sanchez asserts. Palin ‘so very clearly reflected the lifestyle choices, the hard work ethic, and traditional values that so many women admire.'”

Never mind the utter laughability of describing the governor of a state as “traditional,” Levy adds. Younger women of the contentless  identity politics persuasion are happy to benefit from the hard-won equality of women, but they don’t want be associated with the movement that struggled to achieve it.

I wondered if this acceptance of the benefits of feminism while rejecting feminism itself might have spread to younger women scholars of religion as well. A friend, at last weekend’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion–the biggest gathering of religion scholars in the world–was worrying about decreasing numbers attending presentations by the Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection section, one of the AAR ‘s leading sponsors of feminist religious studies scholarship. 

My experience of the meeting, however, was quite the contrary. At practically every session I attended, smart young female scholars of religion used feminist scholarship and theory (as well as postcolonial, queer, critical race, and a wide range of other theories) in their insightful and highly ethical presentations.

I was especially happy to attend fine presentations by a number of  impressive younger Catholic women scholars across a range of subjects and disciplines. Particularly impressive, for me, was a presentation by a Catholic feminist theologian from India, Susan Abraham, now at Harvard Divinity School.

Abraham’s paper was part of a panel on “Rethinking Identity Politics,” a topic that overlaps Ariel Levy’s article quite nicely. Drawing on Alberto Moravia’s The Politics of Difference and Ananda Abeysekara’s The Politics of Postsecular Religion: Mourning Secular Futures,  Abraham addressed the disturbing tendency of “difference” to become commodified, that is, to be swallowed up into more universal and comfortable categories, even by the black and yellow and brown subjects of difference themselves. 

The way to think outside this commodified identity-difference frame, Abraham argues, is to mourn the dead bodies that are disappeared within it. And by this she means not a theoretical, discursive mourning, but an actual, performed mourning.   The voices of the dead are messianic and counter-hegemonic, Abraham tells us. Mourning the dead is the way beyond spurious multiculturalism.

This brings us back to the achievements of the feminist movement–suffrage, equality in employment,and so forth. Ariel admits, at the end of her article, that one of the failures of the women’s movement is that it never secured decent care for the pre-school children of US women. And of course, if such child-care were available, it would have made things better for millions of us.

But there was never any consideration of care for the children of the undocumented women harvesting the food we were eating then (and now) just as there will be no health care for undocumented women and their families forthcoming from the current Democratic administration (with its equally-employed female cabinet secretaries and consultants). The urgent task, young Catholic feminist theologian Susan Abraham tells us, is identifying and mourning the bodies.

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