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What does a (disabled) feminist [poet] look like?

January 28, 2010

As part of their preview of their upcoming This Is What a Feminist [Poet] Looks Like Forum, the experimental poetics blog, Delirious hem has posted a provocative piece about feminism and disability from poet Jennifer Bartlett. In it, she notes several areas in which feminism has failed to advocate for women with disabilities:

Sometimes, I feel like the community has forgotten us! Despite wonderful strides toward inclusion in many areas of feminism, disability is often the overlooked element. The issues of women with disabilities are among the most extreme cases of female abuse in the United States. So, it is shocking to that the pages of MS. Magazine are not full of issues such as forced sterilization or the fact that some women with disabilities have their children forcefully taken away at birth. Many people do still do not know about abusive institutions, such as Willowbrook, which were the norm as late as the 1980’s. The unemployment rate for women with disabilities remains at a steady 70% or more.

It is important to remember when criticizing the mainstream feminist movement for such shortcomings that feminism did not create these problems. The kyriarchy and power structures that place women with disabilities at a particular disadvantage were there long before feminism. That does not mean, however, that feminism should not be held responsible for failures to address these issues. To create a truly liberatory movement, we who identify as feminists must constantly reevaluate ourselves and our actions to see if we are doing enough for all women.

Jennifer goes on to ask three questions about disabilities and feminism.

1. Where have you seen mainstream Feminism and disability intersect in positive ways?

When feminism works to make certain that caretakers (who are most often women) have sufficient resources, it helps those in their care (though of course it’s problematic when, as often happens, the focus is only on the needs of the caretaker rather than on the person who needs care). When feminism challenges beauty norms that are particularly difficult and often impossible for women with disabilities to conform to, it improves the lives of women with disabilities. For women with my particular disability, Asperger’s, it helps when feminism protests expectations that women will play the role of emotionally perceptive nurturers; on the other hand, the strands of feminism which proclaim women better skilled at building relationships make my life more difficult by reinforcing expectations I cannot meet. Feminisms that focus on helping women who live in poverty, whether they are in overdeveloped or developing nations, end up improving the conditions of many disabled women’s lives, though whether or not these feminisms count as mainstream is subject to debate.

2. If you do believe disability has been glossed over in feminist culture? If so, why do you thing this has happened?

For mainstream feminists who are looking to get a piece of the pie rather than to change it into something more nutritious, disability is the last thing they want to be associated with. To put it more generously, women often feel that in order to be treated as fully human let alone to succeed professionally they need to prove that they are more skilled and more generally able than men. Even I have felt this way, and I have a disability! Our whole society is ableist, so it should be no surprise when feminists are too; when your status and rights are threatened, it is also unfortunately common to look for status by differentiating yourself from other disadvantaged groups.

3. What can both disabled and non-disabled feminists do to make disability more prominent, resulting in better understanding, job opportunities, and birthing/abortion rights?

The first step for temporarily able-bodied feminists is to start promoting the voices of disabled feminists. That means that larger feminist blogs need to invite disabled feminists to contribute and that non-disabled feminists need to link to work by disabled feminists, for example the blog FWD (feminists with disabilities) for a way forward. In the original post, Jennifer mentions that

women with disabilities are consistently absent from women-only poetry conferences, journals, and anthologies that champion diversity. When popular feminist journals do write about people with disabilities, they often use outdated, offensive language; confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound, and, my personal favorite, ‘the disabled.’

Non-disabled feminists who put together these conferences, journals, and anthologies need to actively seek out disabled contributors and make sure that events and publications are accessible for people with disabilities. Accessibility is particularly an issue when it comes to conferences: whether wheelchair users can access the room is one of the more obvious potential issues. Will the lighting cause headaches or other issues? How can a deaf person participate when talks are given?

At the same time, when we can, disabled feminists need to speak and write our stories together in many forms: poetry, fiction, memoir, dance, song, film… We need have our own gatherings and publications and maybe even to take a page from second-wave feminism with consciousness-raising groups, since so many of us have spent years denying that our differences are disabilities. Learning about the social model of disability and how other women applied it to their own stories changed the way I understand the arc of my life in the way I’ve heard other women describe their discovery of feminism.

So what do you think? How would you answer Jennifer Bartlett’s three questions?

You can see other answers at Sarah Sarai’s My 3,000 Loving Arms (parts one, two, and three) and at Falling Off My Pedestal.

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  1. Maguire permalink
    January 28, 2010 11:43 pm

    This was a very eye opening article – Thank you! I have to admit that when thinking of minority groups, the thought never crossed my mind about women with disabilities as being so low on the totem pole, yet if when one puts into perspective how the far the feminist movement still has to go, it makes sense that women with disabilities would have an even greater struggle.

    I would like to share an interview series of professional women in online journalism.
    The interviews were conducted by the University of Iowa Gender and Mass Media class this past fall, and offer a great deal of perspective on the future of journalism and women within the field.


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