Disability and Representation

Changing the Cultural Conversation

Why This Disabled Woman No Longer Identifies as a Feminist

I became a feminist in 1972. Back then, it was still called “Women’s Lib,” sometimes by other feminists (cringe), and sometimes by anti-feminists (usually with a dismissive sneer). My father described me as being on “a Women’s Lib kick” for wanting to stay unmarried into my 20s, go away to college, and work. Judging by my aims at the time, you can see how early this feminism was.

It pains me to say that I no longer identify as a feminist.

It’s not that I’ve left behind the principles of feminism. Not at all. I’m not dismissing feminism or the feminist movement. I’m not anti-feminist. I’m deeply supportive of the principles of feminism and I will continue to work on behalf of them. But it’s not going to happen inside the movement.

Inside feminism, I’m marginalized at best. Usually, I’m invisible. I can’t stay, because staying is painful.

It took me awhile to figure this out. I was involved in a lot of different kinds of feminist work: agitating and getting in the trenches against rape and domestic violence, doing work in support of women of color and homeless women, campaigning for reproductive choice… you get the idea. I raised my genderqueer kid, who identified as female in childhood, in an all-women’s and girls’ dojo and taught that kid to kick the ass of anyone who messed with them.

But all along, something was missing. Some of it was obvious from the beginning: lots of foregrounding of whiteness, lots of talk about middle-class educated women, lots of talk about being competitive and ambitious and accomplished. I could never understand it. Down at the local Safeway, I’d talk with homeless women panhandling with their kids (sometimes white women and sometimes women of color), and when I’d get home, I’d find letters in the mail from feminist organizations about how middle-class educated white women just couldn’t seem to find their ways into the executive suite. I found it, well, obnoxious, and I used to send off letters telling people so. And much of the time, the response was along the lines of, “What you have to say is SO important. We’re getting there! Just you wait and see!”

The last time I wrote one of those letters was around 1993. For some sense of how far we haven’t come, take a look at Syreeta’s What we don’t talk about when we talk about Mommy Wars and Jessie-Lane Metz’s Ally-Phobia: On the Trayvon Martin Ruling, White Feminism, and the Worst of Best Intentions, both published this month.

So many feminists are still having trouble talking about racism. But truthfully, I’d settle for feminists talking about disability really, really poorly because, at this point, so few feminists consider disability at all.

Now before you jump in and say, “Oh, no, no, Rachel. I’m a feminist and I’M NOT LIKE THAT,” rest assured that I’m aware of feminists who are taking intersectionality seriously. I see you there. I do. But unfortunately, you are way too few and far between.

I spend a lot of time reading intersectional analyses. I used to go into them with a certain amount of glee, thinking, “All right! Finally! Disability is on the table!” I am no longer so naive. When feminism was just about gender, it was bad enough. Single-issue politics have never made a lot of sense to me. How can an experience of gender be divorced from an experience of anything else that comes with being in a human body? I understand the need to focus on gender issues, but that has to be reflected through a number of other prisms. Otherwise, you default to the culturally invisible prism: cis-gendered, able-bodied, normatively sized, middle-class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant women. I am so done with that.

But what really, really drives me to bitter tears and raging inside my head is when people are all INTERSECTIONALITY FOREVER and WE’RE NOT SINGLE ISSUE FEMINISTS and WE’RE INCLUSIVE OF EVERYBODY and they chronically leave out disability from the analysis. And then when I mention the omission, I am met with silence (on a good day) and hostility (on a needlessly crappy one). The result is only more bitter tears and more raging inside my head.

It’s not that we have to all talk about all oppressions all the time. That would make it impossible to write an article or have a conversation and stay on point. But so often, I see the following pattern:

1. Writer composes an intersectional analysis that brings together race, class, and gender.

Okay. We’re good, though I’m still wishing that the analysis will be expanded.

2. Writer mentions that she is aware of multiple other forms of oppression but simply can’t speak to them all without losing the focus of the piece.

Fine. I respect any writer’s need to stay on point.

3. Writer mentions those multiple other forms of oppression, just to show that she is not ignoring other oppressed people. This is how so many of these lists go:

They almost always include sexual orientation.

On a good day, they include transgender people, people of non-normative sizes, and ethnic and religious minorities.

Once in a blue moon, the word genderqueer or non-binary or intersex appears.

If I’m really lucky, I’ll see the word disability. Usually, it disappears into the mist of phrases like “and all other oppressions.”

I get why this is happening. Feminism doesn’t know WTF to do with disability, because disability throws a huge monkey wrench into the gears of the feminist notion that we’re supposed to be strong, independent, and accomplished beings, healthy and full of power. Great! What about the women with disabilities for whom going to the grocery store takes a profound amount of energy? What about women whose bodies are weak? What about women who rely upon others for assistance with basic tasks? What about women in constant pain? What about women incarcerated in nursing homes and mental institutions? Where do they fit into your dream of the strong, independent, accomplished woman?

They don’t. WE DON’T.

What so many able-bodied feminists don’t get is how profound an experience disability is. I’m not just talking about a profound physical experience. I’m talking about a profound social and political experience. I venture out and I feel like I’m in a separate world, divided from “normal” people by a thin but unmistakeable membrane. In my very friendly and diverse city, I look out and see people of different races and ethnicities walking together on the sidewalk, or shopping, or having lunch. But when I see disabled people, they are usually walking or rolling alone. And if they’re not alone, they’re with a support person or a family member. I rarely see wheelchair users chatting it up with people who walk on two legs. I rarely see cognitively or intellectually disabled people integrated into social settings with nondisabled people. I’m painfully aware of how many people are fine with me as long as I can keep up with their able-bodied standards, and much less fine with me when I actually need something.

So many of you really have no idea of how rampant the discrimination is. You have no idea that disabled women are routinely denied fertility treatments and can be sterilized without their consent. You have no idea that disabled people are at very high risk of losing custody of their children. You have no idea that women with disabilities experience a much higher rate of domestic violence than nondisabled women or that the assault rate for adults with developmental disabilities is 4 to 10 times higher than for people without developmental disabilities. You have no idea that over 25% of people with disabilities live in poverty. You have no idea that the ADA hasn’t solved everything and that disabled people are still kept out of public places, still face discrimination in employment, and are still treated like second-class citizens undeserving of rights.

So many of you aren’t even thinking about disabled people when you casually throw words into your social justice rhetoric like crazy, insane, moronic, idiotic, and lame to describe ideas you do not like.

So many of you have no idea that the civil rights of disabled people are being violated every damned day only because they are disabled.

So many of you have no idea that disability is a civil rights issue AT ALL.

I’ve had people tell me that I should stay inside feminism and fight the good fight. I’ve been told that nothing will change if I leave. I’ve been told that I’m just giving up too soon (although I have trouble believing that 40 years is too soon). But this kind of logic makes no sense to me. The message is, “Stay in a movement in which you’re invisible, and keep talking about how you’re invisible, so that maybe someday, you won’t be invisible.” But that just turns the entire issue on its head. It becomes all about me and what I’m doing, and not about feminism and what it’s doing.

I don’t need to solve the ableism in the movement. It’s not my job. It’s the job of my nondisabled sisters who haven’t begun to address their own their own fears and their own omissions.

I shouldn’t have to remain inside a movement in which I’m nearly invisible as the price of getting people to listen to me. I’m still writing. I’m still speaking up. I haven’t gone anywhere. 

The disability rights movement is decades old. Educate yourselves. Talk to us. Think about us as your audience. Stop ignoring us. That’s all I ask.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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    19 comments already | Leave your own comment

  1. 7/30/2013 | 11:18 pm Permalink

    I live in a very sexist (and extremly racist, xenophobic and with no legal garantees for the diasbled) country. In regards of the feminist movements here it’s American 70s. It’s young, very young, and true grassroot movement started about 8 years ago. I know, because I was the one who started it. I started first very successful online feminist community that gave huge nudge to other initiatives, I started first CR group in the country that produced handful number of feminist activists. Both initiatives as well as other projects I participated in are atill alive and well and without me. Because I’m an autistic woman with number of other issues, and there will be no place for me in the movement that ironically I’ve started. But there is no possibility for me to keep up, because no one would care to accomodate, even direct requests are met with silence. I was automatically left behind, when lots and lots of non-disabled women came and excluded me and they did not even noticed. The turning point was when I asked for rather modest practical help during crisis in the mail list of the group I founded. No avail. They still ask why I stopped work on any projects. I say that I quit feminism long time ago. But they don’t seem believing me, they ask again.

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  2. 7/31/2013 | 11:38 am Permalink

    It’s not clear what lofty social justice goal contemporary feminism stands for. Both in theory and in the community, there is little but status-hoarding. There is no sense of priority, the problems of first-world-upper-middle-class women are blown out of proportion while poor or disabled women (and men) of all races and nationalities are simply ignored, or even more sinisterly, used as rhetorical devices.

    I am sorry, but the problem is more systemic than this lady imagines. It is not that feminists are ignoring her because they aren’t thoughtful enough. It is because that’s what feminism is about. Look at all the rhetoric about the wage gap. Even the government statistics, which were compiled under feminist supervision, show that the wage gap doesn’t affect most women (roughly 90% of the entire working population make the same when you control for profession and work hours). But for the feminist organizations, overcoming the wage gap is like the holy grail. Why? Because feminism is about that lucky 10%.

    Why do you think that those affluent, able, white feminists are so ready to trump up the “you are privileged therefore we dont care what you say” card? Because they are trying to hide their own privilege.

    I was once told by an american colleague precisely the same amount I made for the same job that I was privileged because I am a man and that’s why I am having difficulty “looking down”. Her parents are affluent by anyone’s standards. Mine dont have 20k saved up in the bank. English is her native language and she went to prestigious american universities. I am a middle eastern immigrant who somehow managed to claw his way up in american academia against all odds, all prejudices.

    I used to donate to OXFAM regularly, despite my barely making the ends meet as a grad student. Last year I learned that the feminists in the OXFAM board scold the field agents who diverted equal funds (per victim) to both male and female victims of rape in Kongo. I am speechless. This is not a social justice movement gone awry. It’s evil incarnate.

    I used to be a feminist until recently. About 2 years ago, I actually started looking up the statistics and evidence, instead of just taking the word of feminist organizations for granted. Then I realized that contemporary feminism is a society-wide attempt to further entrench the social status of upper-middle-class women.

    I am sorry that this disabled lady was a pawn in their game and they used her as they used me. But it is never too late to correct a mistake.

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  3. 7/31/2013 | 3:52 pm Permalink

    You are a woman after my own heart. Here is a post a wrote a little while ago on a similar subject. http://www.lowvisionary.com/?p=510 It caused a fuss when I used it to explain why I wasn’t going to the Women’s Studies Conference. More power to you! Shame about the captcha. Access not great.

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    • 7/31/2013 | 5:03 pm Permalink

      Hi Robyn, I’m so sorry about the Captcha. I thought the audio would help without ever testing it. I just did and it’s incomprehensible. Yikes.

      I am going to spend the evening researching alternatives. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. My apologies for unwittingly creating that barrier to access.

      Update: I’ve uninstalled WP-reCaptcha and installed Akismet instead, so the Captcha codes are now gone.

      I love the piece you linked to and your blog looks awesome. I’ve provided a link to it under Writings on the sidebar.

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  4. 7/31/2013 | 6:12 pm Permalink

    You are very right, but please don’t lose all hope. Our rape coalition has done some great collaborative work in the past 3 years (project safe (safety and access for everyone)) and learned from our sisters and brothers in the disability rights community about not only sexual assault, but also advocacy, peer education, relationships and continually holding ourselves accountable to seek truer accessibility and respect. It’s a long journey, but it is happening. Thank you for his perspective and voice.

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  5. 8/1/2013 | 12:19 pm Permalink

    Hi Rachel,

    What puzzles me about your piece is my own experience in the Bay Area, where you went to school, is a network of disabled feminists. Access is something we continue to learn, as the issue about audio to this piece points out. Are you geographically isolated from other disabled feminists? We’re not that rare a breed.

    I hope you find the rich network of radical feminists with disabilities I absolutely know exists. Because I’m part of it. I hope you will choose to so identify as well.

    Wishing you well,

    Barbara Ruth

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    • 8/1/2013 | 12:45 pm Permalink

      Barbara Ruth, my piece wasn’t about disabled feminists. It was about nondisabled feminists who refuse to deal with disability issues. I know there are many disabled feminists out there. It’s that our perspective hasn’t made its way into feminism as a whole.

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      • 8/2/2013 | 5:23 pm Permalink

        Hi Rachel,

        I appreciated so much about your essay. It’s true that feminists and progressives/lefties generally have little or no interest or understanding of disability issues.

        You framed this essay: Why I no longer identify as a feminist. Yet, in talking to Barbara Ruth you use the pronoun “our” to describe the disabled feminist perspective.

        I hope this is a clue that you/we can be angry as hell over the invisibility of disability within the feminist movement and still hold commitment to women and women’s issues. It seems like a useful paradox.

        With Respect,
        Adrienne Lauby

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        • 8/2/2013 | 6:05 pm Permalink

          Yes, indeed, Adrienne. I still hold to feminist principles. I just can’t be part of a movement in which those principles are being violated with regard to women with disabilities.

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  6. 8/2/2013 | 5:35 pm Permalink

    …and it’s getting even worse for the intersection, what with anti-feminists diagnosing themselves with Asperger’s in order to accuse people who don’t like rape culture of being ableist…

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  7. 8/6/2013 | 5:18 pm Permalink

    I don’t usually reply to things. I had a series of strokes in 2009, suffered physical paralysis, but most sadly speech problems & cognitive damage. I understood most of your article & ask that you continue to be vocal for those of us that can’t be vocal

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  8. 8/25/2013 | 7:17 pm Permalink

    I’m sorry, I just want to apologize beforehand because my response to this is going to be emotional. I’m not entirely responding to you, but more the way in which feminists I’ve seen have approached ableism. The anger is not directed at you.

    In all honestly, I feel sick of the tunnel vision I see. Maybe someday we can move past that, but for the time being I really don’t care if someone describes their day as crazy (describing someone else as crazy, less so) or if someone says the traffic was insane. What I want is for people to actually give a shit about the conditions of our lives in a way that would make an appreciable difference to me and other disabled people, right here, right now. I’m so sick of feminists who think that yelling at other people over minute language issues is the peak of their anti-ableism activism. It means shit to me if me & other disabled people are still facing the most basic access of care issues. It means shit to me if those same feminists stay dead silent about politics of medication and treatment, accessibility, and quality of life for us. It means shit to me if those same women would look at me in shock or disdain if I was symptomatic in front of them. It means shit to me if those same feminists hold discussions where they call people like me monsters, while simultaneously telling off others for i had a crazy day!

    Especially if these same feminists are outright hostile to people who may use these words unknowingly, some of whom may be disabled (and may find hostility and lack of explanation even more draining or confusing because of that). I understand hostility in situations born of frustration and oppression, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying it’s a shallow ally at best who shouts on your behalf and appropriates your anger without any deep understanding of the issues. Of course, this gets even more complicated when you come to the issues of intercommunity disabilities and the fact that even other disabled people can speak over and have a shallow understanding of disabilities they don’t experience.
    You do mention other things, and honestly, again, this isn’t a reproach as much as a response in general to my experience and frustration talking about disability in feminist spaces online. I’ve had less problems offline, probably because my activism and support circles have been filled primarily by people who are disabled themselves. I feel your frustration, but I want to stress the importance of teaching allies to listen louder than they speak.

    Also, as a disabled lesbian women, I get the point you’re trying to make about the level of activism against other oppressions, but all the same I find it someone frustrating when other disabled women seem to use lgbtq oppression as a token example of how badly off disabled people are. I know. I am one. But lgbtq acceptance is much more superficial than it may appear and it can get frustrating to be an Example. This isn’t a reproof, just food for thought.

    Thank you for the article.

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    • 8/26/2013 | 1:45 pm Permalink

      Hi Melonary, thank you so much for your comments. I totally hear you about superficial attention to issues, and I needed to be clearer in the piece about my feelings on that. I do not think that feminism does a very good job with LGBTQ issues, or really with any issues that don’t fit the white cis able-bodied straight middle-class paradigm. And it wasn’t my intention to use other oppressions as a foil for how badly disabled people have it in feminism. If my piece ended up sounding that way, it’s something for me to look at in my writing and in my work in general.

      One of the things I was trying to get across was the difference between feminism addressing issues really poorly (i.e. just paying lip service) and feminism not addressing them at all. I sometimes wish that feminism would address disability really poorly, because it would at least mean that feminism sees us as an identity group with its own civil rights movement. Instead, feminism sees us the way that society in general sees us — as just a bunch of individuals with icky bodies whom no one wants to look at or deal with. Personally, I find it easier to talk to someone who addresses me by my name (even if everything that comes after the mention of my name is unbelievably ignorant) than it is to talk to someone who ignores me as though I don’t exist. But I think I will need to do some work on making it much clearer that a) paying lip service and ignoring people altogether both cause substantial suffering, and b) saying that one is better or worse than the other is extremely problematic. In general, I try to stay away from binaries and hierarchies, but they creep in and it’s something for me to reflect on.

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  9. 8/25/2013 | 7:26 pm Permalink

    Also I think I may have misread on the first reading, but if you’re white (apologies if I’m wrong) you may also want to consider the paragraph I wrote regarding lgbtq rights in relation to race as well. Honestly, it’s jarring and tiring as a disabled woman with intersecting oppressions to be used as an Example by other disabled people.

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  10. 2/13/2014 | 1:53 am Permalink

    Most irksome thing to me is, it isn’t just the largely “I’m alright jack” white feminists, anyone with three or less oppressions and a load of being not oppressed tends to ignore us/act like we don’t exist at best and be actively hostile to our existence at worst.

    Weird thing is I’ve noticed they also spend an awful lot of time pointing fingers at each other and complaining about how everyone else does that.

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  11. 3/25/2014 | 6:22 pm Permalink

    And for the love of God, feminist never talk about the poor men that are not always doing well… just a point.. I know it’s off topic.. but why can’t we all just be human and have compassion for each other ?

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  13. #SolidarityIsForTheAbleBodied, and Feminism's Ableism Problem

    […] Yet, these occurrences of sexual violence against people with disabilities are rarely discussed in the majority of well-established feminists outlets and blogs—statistics living in the shadows of the “intersectional understanding of feminism,” said Lovelace—despite the large network of disability activists and feminists with disabilities doing the work. It’s this exclusion that triggered disability rights activist Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg to disassociate from the feminist movement. […]

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