Red Feminism and Incarcerated Women: a Call to Action!

by Taryn Fivek on May 15, 2013

I was told all my life that there is a war against women going on in the U.S., but I never realized until adulthood just how much that message was mediated by capital. The war on women was exemplified by two major issues in my activist childhood: the abortion debate and, to a lesser extent, breast cancer awareness. This is not to say that issues like breast cancer and on-demand abortion aren’t vital issues for women — they are — but they are certainly less offensive and controversial causes to rally around compared to the challenges facing women today.

The issues making up the discourse of contemporary liberal feminism in the U.S. are issues situated in the body. Breast cancer rots our breasts and kills. We focus on body acceptance, on tales of individual empowerment. The right to abortion is considered important because women have a right to control their bodies, within reason. “Keep your laws off my body!” is the pro-choice mantra, along with, “my body, my choice!” In American feminism, every womb is a potential battlefield, every breast a possible traitor. Our bodies might turn against us, and we struggle to have access to weapons to control them.

Body-centered feminism continues with contemporary cause célèbres in American feminist discourse. Arguments about sex work, for instance, often devolve into arguments about whether or not such work is “legitimate” or “empowering”, whatever those words mean. There are also arguments about trans issues, where feminists tear their hair out arguing what is it, exactly, that makes one a woman? But once again, our focus is not as much on the generally violent, painful, and impoverished conditions that transwomen and prostituted women suffer but rather it is directed inward. This new version of feminism become issues rooted in the self and in notions of bodily sovereignty. They are questions of self-identity and choice.

Perhaps this atomized, body-focused view of feminism is what has caused the breakdown in red  feminist organizing. Now we live in a world where “choice” supposedly exists outside of systemic oppression. We have lost our big-picture critique, our call to action. There is nothing that affects the female body more than capitalism. Our bodies are torn to bits under this oppressive system. Our communities, lovers and children are ripped away from us, thrown into prison, impoverished, medicated, wasting away at work. We are imprisoned, made to forget that one voice shouts for nothing – there must be many voices crying out for justice for liberation to be achieved.

Fighting capitalism and racism is part of this battle. When I was a young woman, I was shocked to see anti-abortion propaganda that spoke of a genocide of black babies in America. But it’s a propaganda rooted in uncomfortable facts: white women obtain abortions at a rate of 13.8 per thousand women – for black women, that number is 350% higher. There is a shameful and murmuring history of forced sterilization of women of color in the U.S. This is where a gendered issue intersects with race and class. When we rally for the right to obtain abortion on demand, how often do we rally against the conditions that create such a disparity in abortion rates?

Women are still subject to gendered violence, with some studies showing that lesbians report being physically attacked because of their sexuality twice as much as gay men. Thirty-three percent of women in the military report being raped by male soldiers. Cases such as Steubenville prove we still live in a society where women are routinely, reflexively blamed for being raped. Perhaps this explains why, with one in six women in the U.S. suffering from rape in her lifetime, 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail. This, along with the proliferation of hardcore pornography and the sex trade more generally, creates a culture of terror for women of all backgrounds. While all women are targets of and affected by incredible violence, we again see it correlates most often with class, race and immigration status.

The feminization of poverty is another statistic in the U.S. feminists do not discuss as loudly as we should. After the 2008 crisis, the median wealth of single women of color fell to (sic) $5 against their white counterparts who walked away with a median rate of $42,600. In two-thirds of American families, women are now the main breadwinners. Single-mother households are becoming increasingly prevalent, but this is hardly due to the advancement of feminism. More often than not, the culprit is a growing class divide. The 18.1 million children living in single-mother households are, on average, also more likely to live in poverty, despite the fact that single mothers work longer hours than any other group in the U.S. Still, the U.S. does not have one single day of federally-mandated paid maternity leave.

Fighting for free access to safe and legal abortions and other types of women’s healthcare is vital, but as we can see, the purposeful lack of these elements constitute cogs in a socioeconomic machine that keeps women subjugated to the exaltation of capital. Some are more subjugated than others, but all for a purpose: disciplining and controlling the reproduction of labor, creating a permanent underclass that acts as a reserve army of labor, and facilitating capital accumulation by dispossession.

Marxist feminists understand that women hold the key to productive capacity because they are responsible for reproducing the labor force and maintaining what Silvia Federici and others call the “reproductive commons”. Marxists understand that the oppression of women is not because there is an ephemeral hatred of women in the drinking water. We understand that there are material both causes and material effects.

We should examine where we’re at as a movement through this materialist lens. Issues such as women’s reproductive health are important – but what about reproductive health in a more Marxian sense? As a red fem, I believe that no movement can liberate women without being intrinsically anti-capitalist. We cannot expect to see ourselves liberated under the yoke of capital – some of us might earn extra privileges by selling out our sisters, but as a result we will all remain subjugated. There are many fronts to fight on in our battle for liberation.

Consider the prison system. The rate of incarcerated women has increased an astonishing 646% since 1980. These are women who are often jailed for gendered (and therefore, essentially political)  “crimes” such as resisting domestic violence, prostitution, and resisting feminized poverty. These women are overwhelmingly also victims of gendered abuse.  In Florida, Marissa Alexander was given 20 years for shooting a gun in the air to scare off an abusive husband. Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tonya McDowell were arrested, charged, and given sentences for sending their children to schools in wealthier school districts. Cece McDonald was sentenced to 41 months for defending herself during a racist, homophobic, and transphobic attack. Kim Rivera, a pregnant mother of four, was sentenced to the brig for refusing to participate in the occupation and subjugation of Iraq. She will give birth while incarcerated, as many women do, chained to their hospital beds. Like their imprisoned sisters elsewhere, undocumented migrant women are often raped and sexually assaulted in Immigration and Customs Enforcement “detention centers” and have even less access to legal recourse due to their immigration status. These are just a few cases for illustration; in the United States, 8.3 million children have at least one parent under “correctional supervision”. This and other disruptions of women’s lives – due not only to their gender, but also their race and class – leads to the disruption of their ability to live. It is as if, as Silvia Federici said, capital has determined that certain communities no longer have the right to reproduce themselves.
Women in prison should have access to a wide support network of feminists. We should be there to listen and ask what it is they need. Who is taking care of their children and families? Can we help? Who is filing their appeals? Can we help them get in touch with better advocates? Do they want letters, visitors, books? There should be a network of women and male allies who are ready to listen to these needs and provide support. We can only learn so much from studies and statistics. We must be willing, as so many have been before us, to organize and support each other while educating ourselves to build momentum and implement successful strategies to overthrow capitalism.

My American comrade sisters and I imagine a movement that works to span the distances between women that capital pushes between us. We believe that a good place to start is in working with incarcerated women. These women represent the intersectional oppression of race, class and gender under capital that is so necessary to understand and learn from in order to begin our task at hand. There is no shortage of work to be done, but this requires careful study and strategizing beforehand. It requires dedication and an earnest belief that things can change. It is a project that can help strengthen us as women and as Marxists who are yearning for better lives. We are looking to begin a discussion. If you’re interested please email me and let’s get started.

Taryn Fivek currently lives in New York and contributes to You can follow her on twitter at @manyfestoeditor 


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Pham Binh June 9, 2013 at 10:27 pm

I’d volunteer if I wasn’t (over)committed to pre-existing projects. My first activist campaign as a newly minted ISO member was for a Black guy by the name of John Duval who got a very raw deal by the criminal justice system.

Folks who enjoyed this piece might like this since it touches on some of the same issues:

I really hope we can get more discussion/debate of feminism and related issues with the new site. We haven’t had nearly enough of it.


kelley williams-bolar October 6, 2013 at 4:51 pm

I want to say thank you so much for talking about my (case) situation.I began blogging because it is therapeutic and I started noticing many blogs about my case. I am filled with over whelming gratitude and I give thanks to everyone that signed my petition and spoke on my behalf. I went into a great depression. Many people do know know that my father as well went to jail and he died in prison all for the education of my two daughter’s I will have a autobiography coming soon. Hopefully before the new year. I wish every one well Thank you so much. We are all a family in some form or fashion. Feel free to highlight and stay up to date with my blogs. God bless


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