Is the F-word Necessary?

by Sonita Sarker

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Flickr/ruminatrix

Is the F-word necessary any more?  And why should democratic socialism be anywhere near it?

This is the Democratic Socialists of America site!  What does the F-word (feminism) have to do with it?  Well, to me, socialism is not only about class in/equities, as is most commonly understood.  It is, yes, in this era of rampant neoliberal capitalism that spreads like an amoeba across the world, also about the exposing of hegemonies.  It always has been.  I promise not to use any more –isms, the three used so far should suffice, and I’ll quickly offer my understanding of ‘hegemonies’ before moving on.

Hegemony, as Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks (1928-1935) used it, indicated not only the “dominant system” but also the overwhelming power such a system exercised by appearing to be the norm, the normal, the normative.  And he was addressing Mussolini’s dictatorship. 

Capitalism and class stratification not only appear to be the norm, but are even normalized so as to seem natural and invisible. The fear and anxiety of political conservatives all over the world about socialism and feminism are not because economic power or social power will be redistributed, but because they expose how capitalism justifies economic inequality and patriarchy justifies social inequality. 

Feminism is most commonly understood to be about gendered and sexualized in/equities.  Feminism is an F-word in areas of the world where it is read as a white, upper-middle-class woman’s experience; elsewhere, it is a fight for the equality of women…across all classes.  To me, its main impact is in naming what once appeared to be normal and invisible—“patriarchy.”  While the root of the term lies in the gendered word “father,” I use it to indicate a system of inequities today that are normalized through practice by all gender identities, not just male-bodied individuals.  Across the world, those who have accepted unequal gender and sexual relations as normal, and/or do not accept that this has negative consequences see patriarchy as a hegemonic structure and process—normal.  Those who see feminism as “just stirring up trouble,” like socialism, will use it like an F-word at the same time as they will advocate for equality. 

Those who think “women’s” battles have been fought, have been won or lost, and have, on the whole, been done with, will hastily dismiss the F-word as being no longer relevant or necessary.  Let alone inequities, the tangible evidence, everywhere, of rising numbers of abuses and exploitations of those who are vulnerable that are normalized as “human nature” or even “aberrations” should be cause for pause.  The intangible, or rather unquantifiable, toll that exploitations and abuses have taken remains to be considered.  Check out the writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emma Goldman, Selma James, and Nellie Wong.

What feminisms, in the plural, have brought are understandings of identities within structures.  What is visible and articulated in the DSA mission is the review and exposure of structures.  What remains invisible and unspoken in the DSA banner, in the intertwined missions of democracy and socialism, and all the focus on structures, is the specificity of the people.  Us. 

Who are we?  Feminisms, across the last centuries, have been bringing to us the idea that race, sexuality, nationality, religion, dis/ability, are simultaneous with gender and class, in each of our identities.  These are not all equal aspects—some create advantages and others do not.  It depends on how we are positioned and perceived in our individual contexts. For instance, how I am racialized may provide me with socioeconomic capital (pun intended) whereas how I am gendered may not.  Moreover, in and through these inequalities, you and I are connected, and our identities are defined in relation to each other. 

I’m not only offering an analogy between feminism and democratic socialism that emphasizes that they have common goals but are parallel movements.  I’m saying that if we recognize this commonality, socialism today cannot be defined without the F-word.

DSA member Sonita Sarker is professor of  women’s, gender and sexuality studies and English at Macalester College. She writes and teaches about feminist and literary theories; cultural globalization as it intersects with nationalism, democracy and imperialism; and “minoritarized” literatures, with a transnational comparative basis in Western Europe and South Asia.


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Introduction to Democratic Socialism

December 05, 2017
· 79 rsvps

Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA, and Peg Strobel, Chicago DSA and national Socialist Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 1.5 hours. 9 pm PM ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing. You need a computer with good internet access to view the PowerPoint slides, but you may participate by audio only.