There are three meanings of identity politics.
1. developing group consciousness, organizing, and developing analysis and political strategy from your own situation.
2. group identity as the decisive factor in agreeing with positions or supporting political candidates.
3. group identity recognition as either a collective or individual right; based on the criteria determined by that collective or individual and deferred to by others.
In the CRPD negotiations, identity politics in the sense of #1 and #2 to create a workable structure for decision-making in the disability community (steering committee based primarily on constituencies) and to speak for ourselves and take the major role as authorities about our own human rights, politicizing our subjective agency against structural oppression that treated us as passive and spoken-for by family members or service providers.
This was a foot in the door, it did not substitute for analysis. (Analysis is also part of #1, we made bridges of the analysis developed by the various disability movements, to the UN human rights and non-discrimination framework, to situate ourselves in relation to that framework and indicate where discrimination existed and what forms it took, and how to redress it.)
I have been putting forward the idea that women as the female sex need to claim our identities (plural because it includes the identities of subgroups of women, such as lesbians) in the sense of #1 and #2, and perhaps in the collective sense of #3.
The disagreement between women’s-liberation feminists (feminists fighting for the liberation of the female sex from systematic male domination and exploitation) and the transgender movement boils down to:
– a disagreement about the categorization of women as being based on sex (biological and political, responding to sex-based oppression), or being based on gender (as a cultural or psychological phenomenon)
– a disagreement about collective vs individual authority about membership in the category of women
In my view women have to claim our collective identity as the female sex, and all related identities such as lesbian that meet the criteria of being sex-based and politically relevant to women’s liberation from male domination and exploitation, in order to combat the invisibilization of women and of an analysis of sex-based oppression in intersectional movements. We have to name ourselves, otherwise we allow opponents of women’s liberation to name us and dismember our identities.
This does not mean accepting the negative aspects of identity politics that amount to making identity the end goal of political advocacy, or making it a proxy for analysis that is used to shut down argument.
If we don’t recognize that identity is the root of what is being contested, and that we have a stake in it, we are left with either analysis that doesn’t have a driving political force, or with a focus on biology that has led too many feminists to align themselves with reactionary Christian theocrats who oppose the concept of gender as distinct from biology from the standpoint of their agenda to maintain patriarchal rule.
Context: in the left (socialist), and in feminism, we sometimes hear opposition to ‘identity politics’ as dividing the movement. This gets used against the left and against feminism also; e.g. I remember when two other lesbian feminists and I wanted to create a ‘Women’s Collective’ of the ex-psychiatric inmate organization ‘Project Release’ a woman in the group spoke vehemently against it, saying it was divisive. Against this, we have identity politics that was put forward by Barbara Smith as a way to organize with other Black women to create a politics based on their situation, which later became understood as ‘intersectionality’ (coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw). The two concepts are not identical, intersectionality is more focused on analysis and different kinds of representativity, but they are related.
The religious reactionaries and others associated with the political right (‘conservatives’) decry identity politics which they take to be any standpoint that disagrees with the existing political, economic and social order. They oppose workers’ movements (class consciousness), feminism (consciousness of sex-based oppression), certainly racial justice and national liberation movements; they deride affirmative action especially and consider it a kind of charity instead of what it really is, a reparation of past and present structural disadvantage. (Affirmative action alone is never enough, there has to be real structural change, which takes into account race and class at the same time, as figures in the Black liberation movement including Martin Luther King, and more recently Michelle Alexander, have promoted.)
Reactionaries also use terms like ‘special rights’ for anyone whose rights they disagree with, such as lesbians, gay men and bisexuals as well as transgender and other gender nonconforming people. They oppose any recognition of these groups as having equal rights with everyone else as ‘identity politics’. Their opposition is not the same as gender-critical feminism which opposes only the categorization of people as male or female based on individual gender identity rather than the biological and political category of sex.
Feminists and others who talk about identity politics, whether in support or opposition, need to understand the different meanings and the context and to be clear about what it is that they oppose or support.