A Brief Review of Hay’s Think Like a Feminist

Yesterday marked International Women’s Day and thus my Twitter feed was replete with neoliberal corporate and other ableist governmental discourses about women’s achievements and goals to commemorate the occasion. Several tweets about disabled women by The Disability Justice Network of Ontario and other transformative organizations were a welcome reprieve from the onslaught of nondisabled feminist messaging that in large part conditions the day. The vast gulf between the feminism that nondisabled white women and their allies advance and the feminism movement that the rest of us perform is never more evident than on International Women’s Day.

No disabled feminist philosopher of disability has written more than me about how feminist philosophy and nondisabled feminist philosophers marginalize disabled women (philosophers) and analysis of disability. I’ve written about how (among other things) nondisabled feminist philosophers continue to conduct their work with a reductive and unsophisticated understanding of what disability is, that is, its ontology; how they have ignored the forms of sexual violence and abuse that disabled women confront; how they enact forms of retaliative ableism when challenged about their ableist practices and acts; and how their work on reproductive and other genetic technologies promotes a form of eugenics. Most recently, I wrote about how feminist philosophical writing about the pandemic has failed to address the nursing home-industrial-complex and its material, structural, and economic production of the ableism, ageism, and racism that sustain it.

These and other shortcomings in feminist analysis can be readily identified in Carol Hay’s Think Like A Feminist, a self-consciously ambitious book that nevertheless recapitulates the exclusion of disabled women from (dominant) feminist discourse, while reinstating nondisabled (white) women as the initiators and prophets of the (dominant) feminist agenda and the adjudicators of the content (scope, emphasis, depth) of the feminist archive. Given that the paperback version of Hay’s book was released yesterday, it seems timely to present a few brief remarks about it.

Since I have written a great deal about how the ontological status of disability is understood and represented, let me begin with how Hay conceptualizes disability. The conception of disability that Hay assumes is not explicitly articulated in the book, though how Hay understands disability may become evident to feminist philosophers of disability who read the book. Indeed, the very absence of any argument or explanation of what disability (among other subjecting categories) is and how feminists should understand it throws into relief that, for Hay, feminism and women’s oppression are really, that is, fundamentally, about sex and gender simpliciter. Hence, the book has dozens of pages devoted to explanations of what sex and gender are, how they relate to each other, how feminists have understood and represented them, how the terms have been contested, and so on and so forth. Hay mentions in a couple of places that disability intersects with gender but these claims remain undeveloped in the book.

The absence of an argument or explanation of what disability is—Is it a personal characteristic or attribute of individuals? Is it an identity? Is it a form of oppression? Is it an apparatus?—might seem to suggest that, on Hay’s view, disability is an uncontestable, inert, and philosophically uninteresting state of affairs. Yet the language that Hay uses when she mentions disability suggests that she may have a hunch that disability is not a self-evident natural feature of subjects and, furthermore, that some people regard it as an identity, some people regard it as a systemic form of oppression, etc.; that is, over the course of the book, Hay oscillates between the terms disabled person and person with a disability, between the terms disabled and differently abled and the terms able-bodied and nondisabled. (As an aside: throughout the book, Hay employs ableist language to make various descriptions seem more provocative.)

I won’t go into a detailed discussion or explanation of the divergent assumptions on which these terms rely. I have done so at length elsewhere, including in each of the first three chapters of my book, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. Suffice it to say here however that these terms which Hay takes to be interchangeable invoke distinct and even conflicting conceptions of disability. It is as if Hay, lacking an informed understanding of philosophy of disability, has taken a hit-or-miss approach to the metaphysics of disability, wagering that at least some of these terms will hit the right mark.

In fact, feminist scholarship on disability and indeed scholarship in feminist philosophy of disability is glaringly missing from this book. To be sure, Audre Lorde is quoted at some length, though not in regard to disability or The Cancer Journals. Ableism is parenthetically defined as “discrimination against people with disabilities,” a reductive and tautological definition that provides little insight into a network of force relations that constrains and conditions the lives of at least twenty-five percent of the women in the world today. An example of structural inaccessibility—ramps and elevators!—is used to illustrate the concept of privilege. These cursory appeals are implicitly presented as the epitome of how feminist (philosophical) scholarship should incorporate disability.

Hence, feminist issues are defined in terms of socially privileged nondisabled women’s lives. Rape and sexual violence are discussed absent any mention of the fact that disabled women, especially Black and Indigenous disabled women, are disproportionately victims of them. Issues surrounding women’s reproductive rights are discussed but no mention is made of how disabled women have been prevented from bearing children through forced sterilization and institutionalization; Margaret Sanger is hailed as a progenitor of modern feminism but the fact that she spearheaded a eugenics movement under the rubric of her feminism goes unacknowledged. Time and again, Hay identifies nondisabled feminist authors as the architects of feminism, rendering any discussion of intersectionality and colluding axes of power moot.

Does Hay’s book approximate how feminists think? I believe that Hay’s book does in fact approximate how some feminists think or maybe just how some feminist philosophers think. And that is a problem, because many of these feminist philosophers continue to determine the shape of the feminist philosophy orthodoxy and archive, as well as who is qualified to take up feminist philosophy jobs and why.

As an alternative to Hay’s book, I want to recommend Abolition. Feminism. Now. by Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie. Among other features, this outstanding book encompasses discussions of topics that a feminist treatise on how feminists (should) think must include: collective decision-making; carceral practices and contexts; deinstitutionalization; borders and migration; poverty and homelessness; accountability; mutual aid and collective concern; tenants’ and workers’ rights; and ageism.

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