Natalie Gyte on One Billion Rising: Another Feminist FAIL

When many black feminists abandoned the term feminism for what they felt was the more culturally-appropriate womanism…I remained.

While I fully understand and support my sisters who feel that the racism, classism, and general elitism of mainstream feminism indicates the need for a new and much more inclusive movement, I feel all the more responsible for holding feminism accountable and challenging the movement to uphold the lofty ideals that it espouses. Women of color were and have always been an integral part of the feminist movement since its inception. Early pioneering black feminists such as Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth understood and addressed both race and gender in ways that revealed a profound understanding of the intersectionality of oppression. Much of why I still call myself a feminist is in honor of the work that these (and many other women of color) have contributed to this movement. I feel a strong obligation to carry out my feminists foremothers’ call to shape this movement into one that can unflinchingly address issues of privilege and power within its own institution. I do this while holding a very warm regard and ideological affinity for my womanist sisters. The differences between us are largely semantic.

However, there are days when I get so fed up with  feminism’s persistent inability to address its own internalized issues that  I gaze over at the womanist camp longingly and wonder if they have room for one more…

I most recently considered becoming a defector when I read Natalie Gyte’s scathing critique of Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising campaign on Huffington Post. On Valentine’s day, I tweeted in support of One Billion Rising which, according to its website:

Invites  ONE BILLION women and those who love them to WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND an end to this (gender) violence. ONE BILLION RISING will move the earth, activating women and men across every country. V-Day wants the world to see our collective strength, our numbers, our solidarity across borders.

Essentially, One Billion Rising aims to raise awareness about global gender violence by staging simultaneous dance protests around the globe. Women and men are urged to organize demonstrations.

Not long after I tweeted my support of One Billion Rising, one of my favorite followers sent me a link to this article by Natalie Gyte entitled Why I Won’t Support One Billion Rising. Gyte opens the article by briefly explaining what One Billion Rising is and highlighting the quiet reservations that many “grassroots activists” have about the campaign.

The primary issue with One Billion Rising, according to Gyte,  is its refusal to name patriarchy as the root cause of gender violence. She  hypothesizes that this  is due to campaign’s  intentional inclusion of men and the apparent desire to appease them. Gyte then  goes on to use MP Stella Creasy’s (an ardent supporter of One Billion Rising) as an example. At an event where she was speaking about the campaign, Creasy stated that “violence is not a gender issue;  this affects our societies as a whole.”  Gyte cited this as further proof of the campaign’s attempt to jockey for male support and favor  by refusing to cite patriarchy as the culprit.

However, I take several issues with this premise. In interviews about One Billion Rising, Ensler has repeatedly named patriarchy as the root cause of gender violence. One example is this interview with Democracy Now and here on the Women’s Media Center website.

And despite Gyte’s very surface rendering, Creasy’s assertion that violence affects us all is not a denial of gender violence but a sentiment that broadens the conversation.  Men are impacted by violence both as perpetrators and, yes…as victims. In any oppression, there is damage to both the oppressor and the oppressed. There are ramifications for men who carry out violence against women – even if they are not aware enough to detect them. Masculinity that is defined by domination, hyper-aggression, and violence is a grossly stunted and incomplete masculinity to be sure.  Also, when we consider the many young women and men who are victims of homicide here in the streets of the US or who are being sent to die in endless wars abroad, Creasy’s assertions that violence affects us all makes perfect sense.

Gyte’s second issue with One Billion Rising is best summarized by the following:

“In asking women to dance in order to overcome violence and rape, focus is displaced and root causes are overlooked, it completely diverts the world’s attention away from the real issue of gender based violence and rape with a pleasing-to-the-eye coordinated dance. It’s like saying to survivors ‘Ok, you’ve been raped, but you can overcome it if you come together and dance for 20 minutes on Valentine’s Day… Eve Ensler says so…’. It’s patronising and it denies not only the causes of violence, but also the devastating and long lasting effects. Thus, a campaign with unprecedented media fire-power has failed to achieve anything other than to create a façade which will have no effect whatsoever upon the global pandemic which is gender based violence.”

Despite the fact that Gyte is obviously dubious about the both the intention and effectiveness of One Billion Rising, in a subsequent paragraph, she grudgingly acknowledges Ensler’s success at spearheading programs that have proven to be effective:

“The fact is that Eve Ensler’s other charitable organisation, V-Day, has raised money for some effective work on the ground; running educational projects, re-opening refuges and safe houses. These are the activities which have actual effect. However, instead of continuing to focus on and raise money for such essential services, it seemed important to Ensler (or some PR guru at her end) that a high profile, notoriety-gaining campaign be launched. I don’t see why it can’t be enough to do essential grassroots work. Why has such a huge PR campaign, with ‘a message from Eve’ videos plastered everywhere, been necessary?”

It was very clear to me from the beginning that One Billion Rising was not meant to be a program.  It was a campaign. And while campaigns can most certainly be the catalysts for the creation of new programs, a campaign is, essentially, a connected series of operations designed to bring about a particular result. The goal of this campaign, like most campaigns, appears  to be chiefly about raising awareness, gaining support from those who have influence, and finding creative ways to be visible and impactful.

Gyte’s dismissal of the importance of these elements  in creating change seems short-sighted. Social change comes about through the understanding of and an appreciation for a multi-faceted approach. Within this holistic paradigm, grassroots activism, legislative reform, protests, demonstrations, programs, and media campaigns all have their place. Also, as a person who has created a youth arts and social change organization, I am a passionate advocate for art as as a powerful tool for personal and social transformation. I have literally seen my students initiate their own healing process by addressing their personal traumas through song, poetry, and dance. I have seen them evolve into community leaders through their involvement with community art. Despite Gyte’s implication that there is little value in this kind of creative catharsis, there is research that that tells a much different story. And even if it were true that the arts are ineffective in this regard,  Gyte (by her own admission) acknowledges that this is only one aspect of Ensler’s work, which has included successes.

The last, and in my opinion the most troubling aspect of Gyte’s critique of One Billion Rising lies in the intersection of race and class. Gyte asserts that many women of color take issue with the campaign and even goes so far as to quote two women (one Congolese and one Iranian) who refer to the campaign as “insulting” and “neo-colonial.”  Gyte evokes the white savior concept when analyzing Ensler’s work and the cherry-picking of these two women to act as spokespeople smacks of tokenism.  It feels like Gyte uses the Congolese and Iranian women as tokens and mouthpieces for her own issues with the campaign….and Ensler. She goes on to state:

“Eve Ensler has reportedly spent much time in the DRC in the build-up to Valentines Day. I really wonder under what premise she is there? What goes through her mind?  Does she think that her shared experiences of abuse make her a kindred spirit to Congolese women? That her presence will bring about comfort? Change? Does she really have such an inflated sense of ego that she simply must jet set around, visiting One Billion Rising hubs?”

Did I happen to mention that Gyte is white? Oh, I didn’t?  Oh, how the plot thickens. She also works for the London based Women’s Resource Centre which “provides services to and campaigns on behalf of some of the most marginalised communities of women.”

Wouldn’t it be safe to say that this is truly the ironies of all ironies? A white woman who works for an organization (headed by an equally white woman) that works on behalf of marginalized communities of women deciding to write an article on behalf of women of color criticizing another white woman and her organization for…wait for it….attempting to speak for women of color/marginalized women? Gyte’s writing of this particular article does not posit her as a “passive voice” as she claims but does firmly place her in the very space that she is critiquing. I simply couldn’t read this article without being put off by the blatantly personal tone and the rampant hypocrisy.

Let me be frank, the White Savior concept is very real.  It has been written about and discussed extensively. Most recently, I wrote about it in reference to the Kony 2012 movement in a previous blog post. But I take issue with Gyte evoking it in this context not only because of  her own racial and economic social location but also because I think One Billion Rising is different than Kony 2012 in a number of  ways.

For one, Gyte’s assertion that despite Ensler’s shared experience of abuse, she could never be a “kindred spirit” to Congolese women is a false one. True, Ensler is not African. But she is a woman and one who has experienced gender violence….just like women everywhere. In that way, there is a shared oppression that could create a bonding with all other women – yes, including those of color…surprise.
Yes, racially, Ensler is able to move within the framework of power and privilege, but Ensler’s social location when it comes to to gender posits her within the same space as these Congolese women. Bonding can and should occur in these spaces.

And yes, I know that there are some women who take issue with this campaign. I think many of those issues are valid. I think One Billion Rising, like any initiative, could benefit from some constructive criticism. But Gyte’s criticism felt anything but constructive.  It’s also important to know that are many women of color and economically disadvantaged women who not only support this movement and have organized around it, but who were also involved in the planning and implementation of it. I look at One Billion Rising and see diversity along race, class, national origin, class, orientation and belief systems. And while there is always definitely room for improvement and critique, I think feminism does itself a great disservice when every attempt is met with cynicism and when we refuse to talk about the ways in which race, power, and privilege intersect with competition and personality clashes. How envy can seriously distort our perceptions and taint our work.

The future of feminism rests upon its ability to address these internal issues with integrity and honesty. When I look at young women, I see many of us espousing principles and living lives that are very feminist, but refusing to adopt the label. When I ask other women why they stop short of calling themselves feminists, most of them cite feminism’s rigidity, its inability to wrestle its  own racism, classism (and other isms) into submission, making “men” and not “patriarchy” the enemy,  and the co-opting of the same patriarchal approaches that we claim to be against. The inability of Gyte to see her own issues while projecting them on to  another woman colleague  is typical of mainstream feminism. It is this blindness that drives women away – women of color, younger women, economically disadvantaged women – basically, any woman who lives outside the very white and affluent construct still being upheld by the current feminist movement.

For the time being, I will continue to identify as a feminist, primarily because I’ve always appreciated a good fight. But I’m going to seriously need us to get it together ASAP because that womanist camp is looking more and more inviting by the minute.

Until next time…