Between the Grassroots and Power Platforms: The Gap Between Marginalised Women and the Feminist Movement

by Dawn M. Sanders

“They are in their own little academic world. An elite community, they don’t reflect, embrace and understand…” a single mum representing WinVisible (Women with Visible and Invisible Disabilities). Glimpsing into the past and the origins of the feminist movement, has its motivations and agendas begun to understand those less able to fight for equality in today’s society? As early feminists like Millicent Fawcett and the Pankhursts laid foundations to a movement weathering the last century, it was recognised early on from the suffragists to the suffragettes and their respective unions, class played a significant role in giving women agency to promote ‘the cause’.

Sheffield's Women of Steel
Photo by Dave Richardson

In showcasing Sheffield’s women of steel, it would have been telling to speak to a survivor to gauge if women in the industry felt a part of the feminist cause, but there was not the opportunity. Fast forwarding to modern times and tribulations, a diversifying society and rising inequalities, has the movement diversified along with societal worries and expanding concerns? There must be countless writings addressing that the movement is not, and cannot be, about gender alone. Traci P. Baxley and Jenyne Henry Boston’s “(In) Visible Presence”, draws attention to the position of women of colour and other marginalising factors, yet upon viewing its preview, can one from outside the academic bubble, connect with the book and its language? The notion of marginalised women, spans class, race, sexual orientation and additional needs/challenges – seen or unseen.

In a three-way conversation with 2 women from WinVisible (Women with Visible and Invisible Disabilities) Claire Glasman and a single mother with mental health conditions (wishing to remain anonymous) as well as Didi Rossi, representing Queer Strike: a grassroots organisation campaigning for the rights of lesbian, bi-sexual, trans-gender or Queer women, had much to say. The anonymous contributor said: “They are in their own little academic world – an elite community, they don’t reflect, embrace and understand…” She spoke of her personal experience when having her daughter as a single mother and immigrant and the harsh/cold reception she received from hospital staff. Ms. Glasman said, some women’s groups claim to understand the concerns of women of colour and women with disabilities, but the actual grasp of the concerns of these marginalised groups are very limited. She said: “When women with disabilities participate, we want to address everything, we don’t just want to have input on whether or not the meeting is accessible or issues which ‘we’ might be interested in.” She spoke of women needing to access support from social care to enable them to lead more independent lives, but feminist groups didn’t address this. In bridging the gap between marginalised women and mainstream feminism, Ms. Glasman said: “I think the first thing is people getting together against austerity, because the loss of benefits, social care and support services have really pushed us down.” She stressed: “If marginalised women are to realise their dreams, they will need to access the resources being taken.”

WinVisible, Women with Visible & Invisible Disabilities
Photo by WinVisible

Having additional needs, must amount to more than just accessing benefits or social care – particularly for those who can or want to work? Lilian McCarthy, a then 56-year-old retired Department of Work and Pensions admin worker, who is totally blind said: “Women still have to prove themselves much more than men and anyone with a disability feels they have to work much harder to prove themselves worthy.” Therefore, when women with additional needs actually make it to the workplace, they often face double stigma. Ms. McCarthy knew of women with additional needs, struggling with colleagues who refused to relate to them. For example, in the tearoom, while others are talking amongst themselves, the ‘different woman’ often sits alone.

At Labour fringe, Momentum: The World Transformed conference in Liverpool, September, 2016, several women spoke in workshops, such as We Should All Be Feminists. Highlighting women’s campaigns at the grassroots frontline, speakers from a wide spectrum of initiatives addressed marginalised women and beyond. Ms. Rossi added to the wide consensus of those who spoke: “Quite often most women in the feminist movement are white, I know that has been changing recently, but they’re often professionals or academics and most of the world is not academic – not having access to that high level of education.” She spoke of how sex workers and asylum-seekers within the networks, have been shunned by establishment feminists.

In the above link, one Sarah Grey articulates an open letter to Gloria Steinem, a Hillary Clinton supporter in the run up to the 2016 US presidential election. Although she claims to advocate for equality, in taking a closer look at Steinem’s path – scaling the higher echelons of power and influence, has she become out-of-touch? Resonating Ms. Grey’s letter Ms. Rossi said: “They use power relations to represent us, yet when they step into parliament, will they represent the needs of working-class women, women of colour, women with disabilities – all of us on the frontline?” Women obtained the vote in 1928 in the UK, won the right to abortions (mostly) and have become leaders. Yet, there is still stigma, existing pay gaps and, miles to go before ‘all women’ are equal within feminism…

Editor’s Note: This article was written in 2016 when I was a student journalist, but 5 years on, the song remains the same.

© 2021

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Caroline

    I found this article thought-provoking and also shocking that sex workers and asylum-seekers have been shunned by establishment feminists.

  2. Debi

    I found this article thought provoking and appreciate that it openly addresses points that I haven’t really heard talked about elsewhere before. Contestant critique of movements is what society needs to keep things in check and moving forward. Also interesting that it was actually written five years ago but it could have been written today!

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