Intersectionality, Activist Organising and Sisters Uncut

Dr Armine Ishkanian and Anita Peña Saavedra

Dead women can’t vote” shouted the Sisters Uncut activists who stormed the red carpet at the Suffragette film premiere in London on 7 October 2015. The activists’ aim was to highlight how, despite the advances in women’s rights in the UK since the time-period depicted in the film, much remains to be done to address gender inequalities and especially the unequal impacts of austerity cuts on women experiencing domestic violence. Sisters Uncut is a direct action group fighting cuts to domestic and sexual violence services in the UK. It was formed by domestic violence survivors and sector workers in 2014, and now has a network of groups across the country. Within the wider anti-austerity movement, Sister Uncut is the only group to explicitly adopt intersectionality as a goal and paradigm of practice.

In our recently published article in The Sociological Review, we examine both the micro-level organisational dynamics and macro-level mobilisation strategies used by Sisters Uncut activists. The findings in the article are the result of a research collaboration in which we used techniques associated with the Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology. Our starting point in the research was that if we are to understand how movements contest existing power relations and social inequalities, we must not only focus on their public actions, but also examine how they acknowledge and address inequalities within their own spaces as these can affect both the cohesion and viability of movements as well as their ability to achieve wider aims. Over the course of our research, which was conducted from October 2016-September 2017, we examined how Sisters Uncut activists recognise and address inequalities in organisational spaces, how they translate intersectionality into practice, and the challenges they face in enacting this form of politics, which we call intersectional prefiguration.

We argue that intersectional prefiguration should be seen as a form of radical democratic politics in that it acknowledges inequalities and relations of domination and seeks to challenge them, both in organisational spaces and society. We maintain that enacting intersectional prefiguration is predicated on actors developing a collective identity, embracing a commitment to organising intersectionally, and adopting specific organisational methodologies through which to put it into practice. We show how for the activists in Sisters Uncut, the practice of intersectional prefiguration, means and ends were seen as interconnected and how changes at the level of policy and society were viewed as indivisibly linked to the changes at the individual and organisational levels. We maintain that as a radical, democratic politics intersectional prefiguration consists of actors’ acknowledging and making visible existing inequalities so as to change their own actions, group practices, and to challenge structures of power and oppression in society. While recognising the emancipatory and transformative potential of intersectional prefiguration, we also discuss how it can and does produce its own hierarchies and forms of disciplinary power, indicating the necessity for continuous and iterative action.

Our work is located at the crossroads of and contributes to both the sociology of social movements and intersectionality. It contributes to social movement theories of action and the literature on collective identity, boundary making, agency, and emotions. Specifically, by examining how activists develop a collective identity and enact intersectionality as a social movement strategy, we aim to contribute to our understanding of how normative ideas, in this case intersectionality, are translated into practice and the ways in which emotions, norms, and cultural understandings shape social relations and political action. Furthermore, we acknowledge that while intersectionality has become a core concern in feminist studies and an area of sociological inquiry, it as yet remains on the margins of social movement studies.

In the article we recognize that social relations are manifested in different historical configurations and note that while intersectionality has increasingly gained prominence in US academic and activist circles it has not been widely embraced by anti-austerity activists in Britain. It was beyond the scope of this article to examine why intersectionality has as yet little purchase in Britain, though we recognize this as an important area of inquiry. But in analysing the politics and dynamics of Sisters Uncut as well as the wider anti-austerity movement in Britain, our own research and that of other scholars, has illustrated the persistence of misogyny, racism, and other forms of identity-based marginalisation. Such exclusionary tendencies and the persistence of inequalities within movements which oppose inequality, means it is important for us to continue to ask questions of how movements can counter inequalities in society if they allow for exclusionary practices to persist and shape their demands, organisational dynamics, and repertoires of action.

We do not claim that intersectional prefiguration is a perfect methodology, but argue that it offers the possibility for democratising political participation in movements through making hierarchies and inequalities visible and legible, thereby providing opportunities for tackling them. Our research focused on Sisters Uncut, but our findings have wider relevance to scholars of social movements and intersectionality and can help advance our understandings of the ways in which movements, prefigurative and otherwise, drive social change and transformative politics and the challenges they face in this process.

Lastly, a word about our methodology. As an academic and activist, we learned in this research process that intersectionality is an ongoing process and a challenge. From the start, we committed to working in a non-hierarchical manner and did this by acknowledging our positionalities and the inherent power dynamics in the research endeavour. Throughout the process, we engaged in constant discussion and reflection of our findings and analysis, which involved the deconstruction of privileges and the self-awareness of the effect of these privileges on the research process.

Dr. Armine Ishkanian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics (LSE) and an associate member of the LSE International Inequalities Institute. She tweets at @Armish15

Armine will be talking about this article at the LSE Festival on Saturday 2nd March 2019, alongside an activist from Sisters Uncut (Dr Aviah Sarah Day).

Anita Peña Saavedra is latina feminist activist, is a member of the Atlantic Fellows for social and economic equity of the LSE International Inequalities Institute. She tweets at @anpenasaavedra.

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