My WomanTheory story: Imogen Tyler on Iris Marion Young

Iris_Marion_YoungIris Marion Young (1949-2006) came to talk at Lancaster University at the pivotal feminist conference Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism organised by Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies in 1999. I was a young postgraduate student with a baby in tow, and I was too shy to talk to Iris then, but her work had already changed the way I thought about the world, beginning with her writing on female bodily experience and in particular pregnancy & motherhood in “Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory” (Indiana University Press, 1990). Later I read the amazing “Justice and the Politics of Difference” (Princeton University Press, 1990). Chapter five of “Justice and the Politics of Difference” which is called “The Scaling of Bodies and the Politics of Identity” returns us to the work of Fanon and sparked many of the conceptual, theoretical and political questions which I finally explored in my book “Revolting Subjects”.

In ‘The Scaling of Bodies and the Politics of Identity’, Iris explores the ways in which the concept of abjection can be employed to deepen understanding of practices and experiences of racism, sexism and ‘associated forms of exploitation and marginalization’ (1990: 122). Here are two quotes from this chapter:

“Cultural imperialism consists in a group’s being invisible at the same time that it is marked out and stereotyped. Culturally imperialist groups project their own values and experience, and perspective as normative and universal. Victims of cultural imperialism are thereby rendered invisible as subjects as persons with their own perspective and group-specific experience and interests. At the same time they are marked out, frozen into a being marked as Other, deviant in relation to the dominant norm. The dominant group need not notice their own group being at all; they occupy an unmarked, neutral, apparently universal position, but victims of cultural imperialism cannot forget their group identity because the behaviour and reactions of others call them back to it”. P.123

“Pulses of attraction and aversion modulate all interactions, with specific consequences for experience of the body. When the dominant culture defines some groups as different, as the Other, the members of those groups are imprisoned in their bodies, Dominant discourse defines them in terms of bodily characteristics, and constructs those bodies as ugly, dirty, defiled, impure, contaminated, or sick. Those who experience such an epidermalizing of their world moreover, discover their status by means of the embodied behaviour of others: in their gestures, a certain nervousness that they exhibit, their avoidance of eye contact, the distance they keep”. P123

Perhaps one of the most beautiful and moving essay’s by Iris is “House and Home: Feminist Variations on a Theme”  which rather than reject ‘home-making’ as site of women’s oppression, insists on the ambivalence of values and feelings inscribed in our memories, histories and practices of home.

I think her work is so important and so relevant because she insists on thinking class, sexual politics and racism together as issues of social justice which effect everybody. She is a true intersectional theorist.

The concept of “intersectionality” was developed out of black feminist activism and scholarship as an attempt to negotiate the racism inherent within feminist politics. In 1978, the Boston based Combahee River Collective argued that racial, class-based, and sexual forms of oppression worked together to produce marginality and needed to be thought and fought against together. As they noted in their `Black feminist statement‘: `we see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking’. (1982: 13). Intersectional feminisms emerged which aimed to develop theories which could capture the ways in which social classifications and categories, such as gender, ethnicity, disability, social, class, sexuality and citizenship status work together to reproduce forms of inequality and injustice (see Crenshaw, 1991).  However, intersectionality always risks reproducing the very forms of essentialism which it aims to challenge, by fixing categories and classifications as it marshals them together. Iris’ careful post-structuralist attention to subjectivity and language enables her to beautifully navigate these theoretical and material pit-falls. A beautiful writer.

When I read her work, I get such a strong sense of her person. From a challenging, working class background, briefly taken into state care, Iris was a woman motivated by a political concern with the question of equality–she understood that equality –and the fight against inequalities– was and remains the central issue of our times.

I am indebted to the work of Iris Marion Young, and I encourage everybody to read her.


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