The Trouble with Mainstream Feminism

Alison Phipps' new book 'Me, Not You' is a powerful critique of mainstream feminism, arguing for a politics founded on collective struggle and liberation.

International Women’s Day of 2020 was a poignant intersection of struggles and paths. The collapse of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign to head the Democratic Party in the USA taught America that it will not get its woman president yet, and at the same time, other voices, to the left of Warren, had questioned her positioning as the most feminist candidate in the upcoming presidential election. Several days after IWD, Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for sexual violence against a range of women in Hollywood. IWD itself is experienced by many as a contradiction between a mantle of progressive politics and exploitative, corporate organizations furthering their financial causes in the name of ‘feminism’. 

In this heightened climate intervenes Allison Phipps. Me, Not You is a critique of mainstream feminism and its omissions and consequent inflicted oppressions. What is mainstream feminism? Most broadly, to Phipps, this is white feminism; the concept of political whiteness sits at the heart of the argument. Part of the work that the book does is create connections between other forms of violence and oppression such as trans-exclusionary feminism, anti-sex work feminism, race-blind feminism, and class- blind feminism. The book’s title, puns on the metoo movement, which uses a phrase originally coined by the black feminist Tarana Burke, which was appropriated by Hollywood stars who received front pages in magazines without Burke being acknowledged or honored in any way. But Me, Not You serves a broader analytical move for Phipps. All the above mentioned shifts within mainstream feminism create a new form of performative feminism. ‘Me, not you feminism’, as elucidated powerfully by Phipps, is the feminism of the singular, white, fragile suffering subject, who becomes a singular and quintessential political category, subsuming and erasing all others. 

This tendency leads to lack of structural critique at the heart of mainstream feminism. Focusing on sex as binary and constitutive of all experiences means that capitalism, racism and colonialism are subsumed, at best, forgotten at worst, when analysing women’s oppression. Feminism based on ‘me, not you’ assumes that the Woman Question trumps all other questions. Phipps makes a forceful genealogy from first wave feminists who argued for the vote in order to exclude others—notably, people of colour – from the electorate, to second and third wave activists and to recent struggles. The underpinning ideology here is political whiteness, defined by Phipps as ‘the systemic privileging of bourgeois women’s white wounds at the expense of others. Its obsession with threat is both sexualised and racialised, because of the role of colonialism in co-constructing of race and sexuality. And in keeping with the nihilism of white supremacy, threats have to be eradicated in any way possible’.

Our current culture fetishises the singular, suffering body, and crushes all other bodies on whose labour it relies. The anger of the few underwriting the oppression of the many has been politicised, which has led to the shift of right wing politics to the centre-stage, arguing that those whose rights have been wronged by minorities protesting their oppression are the true victims of our time. Phipps draws vital connections between centring the white cis body as the only subject of feminism and movements that continue to re-enforce the binary of sex, from anti-abortion organisations such as Hands Across the Isle, to Women’s Liberation Front, which collaborated with Evangelical and anti-abortion group Focus on Family. Self-styled trans exclusionary feminists have collaborated with a variety of forces on the right, from anti-abortion and evangelical groups, and have also received support from the far right. Perhaps one of the most important lessons for all to learn here is that one can be both the victim and the oppressor; indeed, white women still suffer violence, that is indisputable. But the placing of the white suffering body as the only possible political subject necessarily either co-opts or erases the suffering of anyone else.

Moving to reflection on where the book finds us now, in the words of another feminist – what is to be done? Me, Not You argues that we, as feminists, are standing at a crossroads. We need to reflect on how white women, either as the quintessential victims or pushed to the top as leaders, are meant to subsume all struggles and oppressions under their figure. Another possibility which emerges from the book is to shift from ‘me, not you’ to Not Me, Us. The future of feminism, then, depends on a radical re-drafting of our imaginaries, solidarities of care, ‘abolition feminism’ (to revisit Angela Davis), and a re-alignment of social relationships to overcome all oppressions. That will be done collectively, not only while being attentive to how different forms of oppressions interlink and marginalise, but also to how they can teach us to learn lessons from liberation struggles towards justice for all. Moving to another world, in which we think and work as ‘we’, a feminist intersectional world, is possible. It is up to us to choose which path to take.