I have a university seminar on gendered security to thank for one of the biggest epiphanies I’ve had about myself – or rather, about the politics of being me. In the midst of a heated debate about how gender is used to control people’s movements, suddenly it hit me: So much of modern feminism relies on the ideal of female bodies that work as expected. For me and lots of other disabled people, that’s a model we simply don’t fit.
I’m a life-long feminist and disability activist, yet it took until that very moment for me to see that I am not simply a woman and disabled: I am a disabled woman. That well-known feminist rallying call, “the personal is political”, suddenly took on new meaning. I realised that things that had always seemed to me mere facts of life, like inaccessible shops or restaurants that don’t provide a disabled toilet, are obviously exclusionary. And that every time someone is patronising to me, say, or assumes I am unable to read, they are not just making unfounded assumptions about the clinical nature of my disability, they are labelling me as different – as abnormal. Nothing could possibly be more political than applying these labels, not just to me, but to a whole group of people who are consistently devalued and dehumanised.
And feminism showed me how I should respond to this: by asserting my humanity and being proud of my differences. My politics degree exposed me to feminist writing as it isn’t seen in the media: post-colonial feminism, queer feminism, black feminism. This literature was written by women who faced multiple oppressions and found strength in challenging them all; in doing so, they showed me a way forward. Ultimately, feminism allowed me to see that, like being a woman or a person of colour, being disabled is not a condition, it is an identity – and with that knowledge comes a personal power I had never experienced before. I see more clearly now that the problem does not lie in my cerebral palsy but in society’s reaction to it. I sit a little prouder in my wheelchair these days.
Yet it is in this intersection of being a disabled woman that I find myself unsatisfied with the feminism I see all around me; there's not much mention of disability. On many issues that dominate my life, the easy answers of slogan-jumper feminism – in which image-perfect celebrities encourage us to “slay” while hanging out with our “squad” of identikit friends, and where individual female empowerment, rather than a remodelled society, is somehow enough – just don’t cut it.
Feminism taught me to assert my humanity and be proud of my differences. But feminist discourse rarely makes much mention of disability.
As a young woman, I find that questions about body image are never far away. Mainstream feminism tells us to embrace ourselves, to like who we are and our appearances while understanding that they are separate things: We are not defined by what we look like. And of course, in theory I couldn’t agree more. But we still live in a society where, more than anyone else, physically disabled people are defined by the visibility of our impairments. I am willing to bet that every single person I meet notices my wheelchair before they notice my choice of outfit. Honestly, that’s fine, but feminist discourse needs to acknowledge that my body does dictate some of my identity, from how I socialise to the career decisions I make. (Feminism would tell me that I should be able to do any job for which I am qualified, but the reality is I will never be a foreign correspondent or a roving reporter. I simply can’t rove.) Mainstream feminism needs to allow this to be OK, to not be something I feel obliged to fight all day, every day.
We also need to acknowledge the difficulty of liking a body that inherently doesn’t work. While it is true that I have never worried about getting my makeup spot-on, I have quietly agonised over whether a dress accentuates the dodgy curve of my spine. No matter how much I tell myself otherwise, I am trying to blend in and go unnoticed: I am trying to look “less disabled”. What does feminism have to say about that? Where does the mantra of embracing your body go when your hand is stubbornly refusing to answer the phone or do up a button?
Body image discussions are not the only place where my feminist and disabled identities clash. While women have fought long and hard to be simultaneously free of sexualisation and allowed to express their sexuality, disabled people – especially disabled women – have been left behind in an uncomfortable world of infantilisation and fetishism. Let me tell you, this is a skin-crawling place to be. Yet shows such as Channel 4’s The Undateables prove that this idea remains oddly acceptable throughout society, and even I find myself wondering if I’m doomed to choose between eternal celibacy or someone who is turned on by my inability to walk (cue more skin-crawling). This is not an abstract concern; I have witnessed many guys, having chatted to me for a while, return to their friends for a laugh and a high-five – for them, the idea that anyone could really be attracted to a disabled woman is clearly risible.
Most feminists will admit that the sexual revolution remains a work in progress, but I have never heard a single one of them argue for widening it beyond the able-bodied. Even in liberal and open-minded circles, the mixing of disability and sex remains a taboo. Despite having gone to a girls’ school that prided itself on its full-on embrace of feminism, I was never given sex education at all relevant to my situation – all bodies were assumed to operate in the same way. I spent way too long wondering if sex was even a possibility for me, and yet I didn’t raise this with anyone until a drunken and emotional conversation with a close friend when I was 19.
At university, endless conversations about my friends’ romantic lives awkwardly avoided the topic of sex until, eventually, I awkwardly told them that I had just as much interest in sex as they did. There were girls who got it, and I just want to take a moment to say to them: Thank you for understanding – and for introducing me to Ann Summers. For obvious reasons, of course, but also because it was such a perfect acknowledgement that my sexuality was fine with you. I finally felt I was being seen as a real adult, not a tween playing grown-up.
I was never given sex education at all relevant to my situation – all bodies were assumed to operate in the same way.
Feminism seems to struggle with disability because disabled women are subject to stereotypes diametrically opposed to those saddled on our able-bodied counterparts. But this shouldn’t make them any less feminist issues; any false assumption foisted on women should come under the same scrutiny. Nowhere is the difference between attitudes towards able-bodied and disabled women starker than on the subject of motherhood. The other big taboo.
Feminists are rightfully campaigning against the centuries-old idea that women are primarily, if not solely, homemakers and caregivers whose ultimate goal is raising a family. But what about women who are faced with the opposite assumptions: that for us to be mothers is either impossible or wrong? The internet is dotted with stories of the disapproval faced by disabled mums when out with their kids. This must be intensely hurtful; and it is, I confess, something that plays on my mind. Will I be able to have children (especially given the difficulty of finding a partner), and will I get the support I need to care for them? Will they be singled out as different just because I am disabled, and how am I to deal with this?
Many of my able-bodied friends, themselves women in their early twenties, simply do not understand why I worry quite so much about this aspect of our distant futures. “Can you stop panicking about something that may or may not happen in a decade’s time?” they ask, and I guess to some extent they’re right. But I also feel that this confusion comes from a place of privilege: Being well-educated and generally surrounded by liberal-minded types, they can reasonably hope to be able to make their own decisions about their bodies and families. I, and many others, do not have that luxury, and the feminist assertion that we should make our own choices falls flat. Once again, while the mainstream internet feminists are right, they fail to think of the women who do not fit the mould.
I am proud to be a disabled woman. I am also proud to be a feminist. But I wish the latter didn’t force me, often, to ignore the specific challenges posed by the former. I wish that mainstream feminism gave me a baseline from which to confront the issues disabled women face with body image, sexuality, and motherhood – but for now I am trapped in the middle. As I go forward into adult life, I hope I can reconcile this tension and maybe, just maybe, find some answers along the way. For now I am just holding on to the one thing I do know for certain: I am going to make this identity work for me. Thanks, feminism, for that. ●