Inspired by Reni Edo-Lodge’s excellent piece on Feminist Times and the backlash/’debate’ on twitter (I cba to link to it, esp as a lot appears to be ganging up on one woman so fuck ‘impartiality’) I’m going to share my thoughts on this whole ‘shared girlhood’ and ‘common experience of woman-ness’ ideology that’s been going around.
Yes there are many common experiences many women across all backgrounds face; but do we ALL face them? And do we all face them in the same way? No. I am all for solidarity, I think it is vital women can talk about their shared experiences, I feel there is power in what you could call ‘consciousness raising’ BUT when that gets turned into a reluctance to acknowledge all the experiences facing women, especially those that intersect with other oppressions such as race, gender identity, disability and sexuality, it feels less like solidarity and more like being picked on for being the ‘odd one out. those with experiences outside the white-cis-abled-hetero-middle class experience are shouted down and effectively told we’re not ‘normal’ so our experiences ‘don’t count’ towards the magical ‘shared girlhood’. It must also be noted that much of the ‘shared girlhood’ and talk of ‘safe spaces’ has been engineered to specifically exclude trans women and comes from a place of transphobic hate, yet in addition to this there are other issues with the concept of ‘shared female experience’ that exclude many women on the grounds of race, sexuality, disability , class etc.
I’ve been questioning the idea of some universal ‘shared girlhood’ from my personal perspectives due to disability etc for a while and acknowledge that different women experience different things or experience the same things in a different way due to various intersecting oppressions yet not once has it ever, EVER been a case of my ‘denying solidarity’ or whatever crap excuse for being racist, transphobic, disablist gets trotted out. It’s just the way I have experienced things.
In my own experience many of those ‘milestones’ of ‘shared experience’ happened very differently for me. Take periods, which are far from a ‘universal female experience’ anyway, in addition to the whole getting used to this weird new thing happening I had speculation about my health; would I be OK now I had my periods? Was my (as yet undiagnosed) M.E ‘just puberty’ and would it be OK now I’d started menstruating? I remember the overheard whispers about it all adding to the weird psychological stuff going along with all the ‘mysterious illness’ stuff.
Likewise street harassment and sexual harassment has been off and on for me, I have experienced it at times as a white cis woman who can pass as abled, yet I haven’t experienced the years or it happening on a constant level or those early interactions through your teens when you’re discovering sexuality, in my teens when I was supposed to be going out partying and ‘discovering’ boys or girls or whatever I was stuck at home. I have also had periods of being visibly disabled due to using aids such as a stick or wheelchair; believe me you don’t get the same experience if you’re being pushed along by your parents. In fact due to disability a helluva lot of my ‘shared girlhood’ or ‘universal female experience’ has been pretty solitary, I didn’t really enter ‘womanhood’ or whatever you want to call adolescence and early adulthood sharing anything much, a lot of that formative ‘shared experience’ for me consisted of being alone.
In talking about the ‘shared female experience’ we need to acknowledge that a ‘shared experience’ may not be universal and it is likely to be experienced in vastly different ways. We cannot assume a baseline of familiarity that is the same of everyone and discussions and shared spaces that assume this are by their very nature exclusive and unwelcoming, besides the fact that many can’t even access them in the first place for whatever reason. They become vastly more exclusive and unwelcoming when women are harassed, insulted and told they are being ‘divisive’ or that they don’t care about ‘unity’ for questioning the universality of these experiences and demanding their own experiences are allowed space to be shared and discussed too. WE cannot assume that ‘women’s issues’ are universal for all women; for instance I feel a lot of mainstream feminism and discussions around women in work are as relevant to me, a woman who cannot work full time and will probably never have a ‘career’, as a discussion on the merits of what tent is best to pack for an arctic expedition or a discussion on the place of women in the world of sky diving. Yet I have no problem with women discussing these issues as they are relevant to many women, my problem is when certain issues become seen as ‘universal’ when they are not and when other issues get sidelined and when women do want to discuss other issues many make it clear that they DO have a problem with this.
I suppose what I’m trying to suggest is that ‘shared’ does not have to equal ‘the same’ and it is ok if we don’t all share everything. A safe space makes space for different experiences, listens and is willing to face up to the flaws of itself and those within it. It does not insist on silence and repression for the sake of ‘unity’. It does not recreate the hierarchies of the systems it claims to be against. Safe does not mean comfortable, and comfort for those with privilege should not come at the expense of those without, and all of us should be willing to acknowledge that we can be privileged and oppressed at the same time; for example asking that we acknowledge cis privilege does not negate or seek to ignore the oppression suffered by women at the hands of patriarchy, it just acknowledges the oppression of transphobia. I don’t have any instant solutions for a magical pop up safe shared space of wonder, these things take work.