Abolition Feminism keynote – Alison Phipps
I am not an organiser – I am a teacher, a scholar and a survivor. I have been an activist, but in circles very different to these. I came to abolition from the heart of white feminism – the movement against campus sexual violence in the UK. This was powered by extremely angry white feminists, although some of the key student leaders were women of colour (I want to mention Susuana Amoah here, who I worked closely with for many years). From 2006 to 2018 I was heavily involved in the fight to influence mainstream policy and practice. I supported the National Union of Students with the first national survey of violence against women students. I co-authored the NUS report on ‘lad culture’ and joined the subsequent task force. I sat down with pseudo-government bodies such as the Equality Challenge Unit and Universities UK. I co-led a pan-European project developing disclosure training for university staff, and co-created guidance on intersectional training approaches. I co-founded the Changing University Cultures collective, and we worked intensively with four institutions on how their cultures framed bullying, harassment and violence, before realising we were what Audre Lorde would call the master’s tools.
This work started pre-financial crisis, pre-austerity, pre-Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, before the current far-right resurgence and ‘culture wars’, and before Covid-19. All these were radicalising forces for me, as was the financialisation of universities with its constant pressure to expand. During my time as an academic there has been mass casualisation of academic labour and significant cuts to salaries and pensions. This has prompted revived trade union activity – since 2018 we have carried out a series of strikes putting us in company with bus and rail workers, cleaners, teachers, nurses and doctors, postal workers, and others who have also withdrawn their labour.
All this is set against rampant individualism and careerism in the neoliberal university. Activism is commodified as part of scholarly ‘brands’ or consultancies, or co-opted by institutions. There are also growing hierarchies, both within academia as scholars develop their brands, and between us and the administrative and support staff who do the housework of the university and are often neglected and overlooked. This context and political economy informs my post-hoc assessment of campus feminism in the UK, and my move towards abolition.
Since 2006, our campus activism has certainly achieved something. We got our voices heard and we made space for other survivors to speak. We put pressure on university leaders to create policies, commission reports, and implement training. We put the issue on the media agenda. But university policy fixes tended to be what Sara Ahmed would call ‘non performative’ – they did not enact new realities but replaced them, allowing institutions not to do anything else. Our reports were used as answers to themselves; our training programmes were moved online, to be completed with a few clicks. Our research was used to justify ‘evidence-based’ tweaks and ‘best practice’ that stabilised the system. Our ‘naming and shaming’ of individuals often allowed universities to just airbrush out the blemishes. We outsourced our harassers to other universities – the famous ‘pass the harasser’ problem – and may also have dumped them on women in lower-status, lower-paid economic sectors, which is more like NIMBY-ism than radical politics.
I now know that appealing to the university to protect us from violence fundamentally misunderstands what it is. We have become clients of a system we should be trying to dismantle. Abolitionist university studies understands education as key to the capitalist, colonial, modern world-making project. It is a mode of primitive accumulation, which means it hoards credentials and uses them to sort us into stratified economic and social roles. As economic actors, universities are central to flows of dispossession and accumulation. They have been built on indigenous and enclosed common lands and enriched by transatlantic slavery. They are now deep in the rationalities and practices of privatisation, outsourcing, downsizing and casualisation, and have complex financial entanglements, including with the military-industrial complex. How can the institution protect us from violence, when the institution is violence itself? The university cannot save us – it is what Audre Lorde would call the master’s house.
A lot of terrible thinking has happened, and still happens, in this house. But there are also spaces of radical potential – what Moten and Harney call ‘the undercommons’, which means those of us who do not fit the institutional mould and who can create together, if we can find each other and if we can survive. In these spaces, some of us have been quietly discussing our end game. Are we working towards a world where all the ‘bad people’ are excluded or shut away, a world where we alone are safe at the expense of everyone else, or a world without sexual violence? Others are leaning further in to the system – Sharon Cowan and Vanessa Munro identify a ‘criminal justice drift’ (or what Mimi Kim would call a ‘carceral creep’) in UK university responses to sexual violence which emulates the legalistic model of the US. This is regardless of the fact that criminal legal systems the world over have persistently failed to address sexual assault.
In 2017, the viral iteration of #MeToo also leaned into the criminal legal system, despite the best efforts of Tarana Burke and other feminists of colour. Coming so soon after the 2016 Black Lives Matter uprisings prompted by the murders of Philando Castile, Korryn Gaines, Alton Sterling and others, it was hard not to notice the fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of white feminism. We are happy to say ‘Black Lives Matter’, while investing our hopes in the very systems that produce Black demise. It was during #MeToo that I started to write about marginalised groups as collateral damage of the white feminist war machine. I also started to explore continuities between mainstream white feminism, more reactionary forms of trans- and sex worker-exclusionary feminism, and the far-right ideologies that were rapidly gathering pace. The focus on the dangerous Other, the policing of borders and a will to power that we find easy to spot in white men, but which in white feminism is usually exercised by proxy through the punitive state or institution.
Safety, in white feminism, is often pursued to the detriment of liberation. And as Mona Eltahawy says: ‘I don’t want to be protected, I want to be free.’ Centering protection rather than freedom makes us cling to men who both reserve the right to abuse and kill us themselves, and use us as a pretext for perpetrating other forms of abuse. In 2021, after Sarah Everard was raped and murdered by serving Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens, mainstream feminist demands called for expanded police powers – the criminalisation of street harassment and for misogyny to become a hate crime. I started to theorise white feminist politics as a macro version of what Susan Griffin called the patriarchal protection racket, which is the threat of stranger rape that pushes us into the arms of the husbands and male partners who are more likely to abuse us.
This is the white feminist cycle – the acts and threats of sexual violence that keep us in our place, that make us docile subjects of capitalism, also drive us into the arms of the carceral state and enable more violence in the service of capitalist accumulation. Fear disciplines us, and then is used by power to discipline or destroy those we are taught to fear. And none of it keeps us safe. Understanding this makes abolition irresistible, as Mariame Kaba would say.
In their book Abolition Feminism Now, Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Beth Richie define abolition feminism as feminism that is ‘actually focused on ending gender violence, in all its forms.’ What does this mean? The phrase ‘all its forms’ recognises that state violence is gender violence, that police violence is violence against women. It acknowledges the pincer movement between interpersonal and state violence that traps us in the system. It also includes the violence of war and occupation, the violence of borders, and violence against the planet.
I theorise heteropatriarchy and racial capitalism as intersecting systems that pivot on sexual violence. It extracts free social reproduction – Gerda Lerner argues that patriarchy developed alongside organised agriculture in the neolithic period, when we began to accumulate rather than merely survive, when groups began warring with each other and when women’s reproductive capacities became an economic resource. Gender violence, in the form of witch-hunting, was also central to the violent imposition of racial capitalism in the Early Modern period. As Silvia Federici shows, women’s power had to be suppressed in order to create, by force, the sphere of unpaid reproductive labour that modern capitalism depends on. Colonial capitalism counterposed widespread acts of sexual violence against indigenous and enslaved people and the concept of the sexually dangerous ‘savage’, as modes of terror and control. The pretext of ‘protecting (white) women’ still constructs communities, cultures and nations as violent to justify border regimes and military-industrial projects, and to dispose of unwanted populations on local, national and global scales.
Expecting these death-making systems to keep us safe is not just futile, not just an attempt to end violence with violence, but a trap set to keep us under control. Racial capitalism requires us to want, to dominate, to outsource and dispose. Sexual violence is central to all these dynamics, and the idea of sexual danger underpins the criminalisation of social problems, the production of disposable classes and the fortification of borders to keep the Others out. Whether knowingly or not, white feminism is an accomplice to this, focused on injury and remedy and deeply attached to what Paula Rojas calls the ‘cops in our heads’. Stuart Hall taught us that authoritarian populism achieves consent through protection, and even on the brink of fascism some white feminists are still appealing to authority to save us. What abolition tells us is that if we want a world free of violence, we need to build it ourselves.
The current mainstreaming of abolition, especially in the academy and the media, tends to erase its roots in Black feminism and other feminisms of colour. Abolition feminism grew out of a long tradition of Black women’s resistance against interlocking oppressions, and a multidimensional approach to sexual violence which reflected the fact that allegations of rape have been tools of white supremacy. From Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s campaigns against lynching, to the work of Rosa Parks and other Civil Rights activists, to the formation of Critical Resistance and INCITE! in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Black feminists fighting sexual violence have refused to ignore the racist use of allegations and imputations of rape, and the role of sexual violence in legitimating death-making institutions such as prisons and police.
Abolition feminism – although it might not have gone by that name – can also claim a lineage from Indigenous and decolonial movements across the world. First Nations and Native American feminists, Latin American, South Asian and African feminists, have combined gender analysis with analysis of colonial violence and genocide. They have theorised how what Lugones calls ‘the coloniality of gender’ was dependent on sexual violence. They have documented how the bodies of Indigenous people were sexually violated by colonisers and also seen as ‘polluted’ with sexual sin and imagined as sexual threats. They have named and opposed the appropriation of feminism for colonial ends – what Spivak calls ‘white men saving brown women from brown men.’ These feminisms situate sexual violence and state violence as one and the same – encapsulated recently by the Chilean feminist slogan ‘the rapist in your path’, echoing an old phrase portraying the police as ‘the friend in your path’, with subversive intent.
This long history shapes abolition feminism’s relationship to time. Late capitalism is full of haste, pressure for productivity and demands for instant fixes off the shelf. Abolition feminism encourages us to locate ourselves in deep time, understanding that it took centuries to build racial capitalism and it might take just as long, or longer, to dismantle it and build something better. I recently heard the phrase ‘cathedral politics’ – which is perhaps too ostentatious, too teleological and too finite as a metaphor for abolition. But it is a way of describing careful, steady work towards a future we almost certainly will not live to see. I spent part of my childhood in Bristol, a city with a cathedral that was started in 1218 and not finished until 1905. I find this idea strangely hopeful – it means we can build something amazing, if we all do our own small part.
Sarah Lamble says abolition is about what we build in the here and now to make the future possible. It is ‘an ongoing and everyday practice, a political philosophy and a way of life.’ And locating our better worlds in deep time does not mean we cannot change this world for the better in the meantime – we absolutely, urgently, must. Our meantime is a time of political and economic crisis, and although modes of social control are reasserting themselves in all kinds of ways, there are also opportunities everywhere. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, structures change in crisis times – this can occur through major uprisings and through what Molly Ackhurst calls ‘everyday disruptions’, which are just as powerful and which help us to prefigure the future now.
On a recent visit to Durham Cathedral (which took over 400 years to finish), I lit a candle for my grandmother who died during the pandemic. In her 98 years of life, Beatrice Annie Walker had seen drastic changes in the world, for the worse and for the better. While we build cathedrals for our descendents, we must light candles for each other – abolition is both a future-tense and a present-tense politics of care. Care is not easy in our narcissistic, stingy late capitalist culture – and for white feminists, being asked to care may evoke the compelled care we have historically opposed. The white feminist movements I have been part of have tended to eschew care – ‘nasty women’ are fuelled by rage. Rage on behalf of the self, which often seeks revenge, is perhaps seen as feminist because in the bourgeois nuclear family, the female self is diminished and denied.
In racial capitalism, care can be violence because it is compelled, forced, outsourced and unevenly distributed, and withheld from those who need it most. But care is also at the heart of the alternatives we need. Flick and Fab describe how the Covid pandemic prompted a revaluation of care and caring labour. And although our ‘claps for carers’ were mostly performative, there is ongoing solidarity with striking nurses, refuse, rail and postal workers and others that we need to hang on to and build. This extends out from the heart of abolition feminism, which is care for survivors and care for our incarcerated comrades – there is no conflict here, and not just because so many incarcerated people are survivors themselves.
Care is done for and with other people. As Mariame Kaba says, ‘everything worthwhile is done with other people.’ At this point I want to return to the political economy of the campus, which works against collectivity and care in a number of ways. I work in an environment in which, instead of looking after each other, we are encouraged to compete to become figureheads and stars. In the social sciences and humanities this often involves inserting ourselves into grassroots spaces and extracting knowledge to advance and enrich ourselves. I can see this happening as abolition moves further into the mainstream, and we have to guard against it.
In reality, the role of the scholar is quite simple – Ruth Wilson Gilmore recently encapsulated it when she said we are here to learn how things work and share that learning in the best way we can. It is also just as important for us to leverage our institutional connections to support grassroots organising with funding and resources, which spaces like this can help facilitate. Through our teaching and curricula, we can create the preconditions for organising to take place. If it is possible to have a pedagogic agenda in the neoliberal university, this will come from the undercommons. And if universities and students had no role to play in radical movements, the right wing would not be attacking us so consistently and so well. But we are just one part of a much larger struggle.
As part of a larger struggle, we can be more confident of our place. We do not have to either have all the answers or solve all the problems – all we have to do is our part. I often worry that I am not doing enough – I occupy a fraught space between the narcissism and grandiosity of both whiteness and academia and the self-doubt and compulsive caring of someone with a background of abuse. I want to end with something I find quite reassuring, which is the first stanza of Revolutionary Letter #2 by feminist poet Diane di Prima.
The value of an individual life a credo they taught us
to instill fear, and inaction, ‘you only live once’
a fog on our eyes, we are
endless as the sea, not separate, we die
a million times a day, we are born
a million times, each breath life and death:
get up. put on your shoes, get
started, someone will finish.
And I am going to finish there.
About the Author
Alison Phipps is a scholar, teacher, activist and survivor. She has been active in the movement against sexual violence in universities since 2006, and in 2020 published a book called ‘Me, Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism’ which described some of her misgivings about this movement and about white feminism in general. She turned to abolition because of the limitations and failures of her own activism, and considers herself a student of abolition feminism. In 2021, and with Nikki Godden-Rasul and Tina Sikka, she set up the Abolition Feminism for Ending Sexual Violence collective at Newcastle University, where she is currently Professor of Sociology.
Alison presented this keynote a the Abolition Feminism: Breaking Free from the Master’s Tools 2 half-day workshop 15.9.22 – 16.9.22.