Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women: Global Women's Issues and Knowledge - Vol. 3

By Cheris Kramarae; Dale Spender | Go to book overview

I

IDENTITY POLITICS

Identity politics came to prominence in the 1960s and has remained influential. The term refers to an intersection of group identity and politics, which can lead to social change. Identity politics arises when oppression becomes the focus of a strong separate group identity around which support, political analysis, and action are developed, and it has thus been associated particularly with less powerful groups such as women, lesbians, gay men, people of color, other ethnic minorities, and religious minorities. Identity politics has been a subject of debate within and beyond feminism, as in the consciousness-raising discussion groups of the 1960s and 1970s, which focused on personal experience and personal identity and reflected the slogan “The personal is political.”


Background

Long before the term identity politics was coined, identity was used to rally political opposition to the status quo. The early nineteenth-century labor movements were engaged in identity politics, because “worker” was an identity that implied solidarity and rights; women and men in colonized countries used national identity to resist their colonizers; women suffragists organized politically around the identity “woman.” Other activists, of course, also used “woman” as an identity; a famous example is Sojourner Truth's question “Ain't I a woman?” in a speech she gave in 1851. Truth, an African-American who was a former slave, represents the ways in which racism excluded blacks from the category of “women”-an identity she and others worked to reclaim.

The term identity politics is often used pejoritively to imply a sterile, exclusionary politics that bases group solidarity on the characteristics that lead to oppression and thus precludes any joint political organization with people who do not share those traits-even though they may have other traits in common with the oppressed group. On this view, identity politics fragments political action. In many societies, however, identity politics has empowered marginalized groups and has been progressive at least in the sense of involving collective struggles, discrediting categorization imposed by outsiders, insisting on definitions formulated within the group, and increasing the groups visibility in categories where its members have been obscured.

Thus identity politics is a somewhat contradictory concept. On the one hand, it can perpetuate the status quo by treating social categories as natural, static, and based on characteristics unique to a group-that is, by being essentialist. On the other hand, it can disrupt the status quo by providing a basis for new political definitions and new struggles. Not surprisingly, then, identity politics has generated controversy about whether it is or is not progressive or even theoretically defensible.


Identity Politics and Feminism: Issues and Problems

Identity politics has benefited feminism by providing an impetus for a shift away from the assumption that the concerns of white, heterosexual, middle-class feminists are relevant to all women. This focus on differences among women has inspired theoretical interest in “difference” as such and in questions about subjectivity; as a result, the concerns of feminism have been broadened to include several dimensions of differentiation, and this has been empowering for many women (Brah, 1996; Sudbury, 1998; Walby, 2000). Still, a major problem with identity politics is that it can be progressive only if this shift leads to a shift in power relations. Also, in stressing the group, identity politics tends to omit discourses on the personal or particular and the col-

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Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women: Global Women's Issues and Knowledge - Vol. 3
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Alphabetical List of Articles vii
  • Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women 1095
  • I 1097
  • References and Further Reading 1099
  • References and Further Reading 1120
  • References and Further Reading 1156
  • J 1163
  • K 1179
  • L 1187
  • References and Further Reading 1202
  • References and Further Reading 1226
  • References and Further Reading 1267
  • References and Further Reading 1295
  • M 1297
  • References and Further Reading 1313
  • References and Further Reading 1387
  • N 1429
  • O 1473
  • P 1485
  • References and Further Reading 1536
  • References and Further Reading 1573
  • References 1577
  • References and Further Reading 1629
  • References and Further Reading 1663
  • References and Further Reading 1682
  • References and Further Reading 1711
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