I consider myself a feminist because I believe in the core principle of feminism – for men and women to be equal. However, many of my fellow disabled people do not identify as feminists because the wider women’s rights movement has consistently excluded disabled women. Many of the gains that nondisabled women have made over the years conveniently have not reached disabled women. Many of the stereotypes that nondisabled women have fought against are stereotypes that don’t apply to disabled women – because we’re considered less than “real women.” Over time, I’ve grown more and more uneasy about the large gaps between disabled women and the wider feminist movement.
Take employment, for instance. While the employment situation for nondisabled women is grim when compared to nondisabled men, the situation becomes even more alarming when you look at the statistics for disabled women in the workforce. While 66.1% of nondisabled women were employed as of January 2015, only 24.2% of disabled women were employed as of the same date. In general, the unemployment rate for disabled people is over twice that for nondisabled people. That is a massive, disturbing gap.
Those statistics don’t even address unequal wages. Due to a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act called section 14(c), disabled people are one of the only groups that employers can pay less than the federal minimum wage. Groups like Goodwill can legally pay disabled workers only pennies per hour. Yet I only hear about this issue in disability circles, not in feminist circles, because the problems of disabled people aren’t considered a feminist issue.
Then there is the issue of objectification. Both nondisabled and disabled women are objectified by the larger society, but in very different ways. Nondisabled women are objectified into the embodiment of sex. They exist to please men. Sex sells. Therefore, women on TV and in advertising parade around scantily clad, photoshopped to represent the ideal thin, beautiful woman. However, disabled women, especially those with visible disabilities, are never even given the chance to achieve that sexual standard. Instead, we are reduced to scare tactics or inspirations, sometimes used in conjunction with each other.
The goal of objectification is for nondisabled women to be desirable. Women should want to be her, and men should want to fuck her. However, the goal of objectification for disabled people, especially disabled women, is the opposite. Disabled people are presented as cute and childlike objects of pity. We are eternally nonsexual. Disabled people are only represented so that nondisabled people will feel a tug at their heartstrings and say “There but for the grace of God go I!” Disabled people are the boogeyman in your closet, the person you’re afraid to see and afraid to become, so you’re forced to donate money to assuage your fears.
When we manage to achieve something quite ordinary, inspiration is used as a distancing tactic; nondisabled people can feel confident that they have nothing in common with us while having their daily dose of “feel-good” content. We are seen as something other than ordinary human beings. After many years of this kind of discourse, you may see how we start to yearn for the ordinary objectification of nondisabled women. But achieving “normal” objectification, of course, is not the answer. The idea that we should aspire to be sexually defined, thin, stereotypically beautiful women leads to shows like Push Girls (featuring five conventionally gorgeous women who just happen to use sleek, slim manual wheelchairs) being hailed as “a fresh take on women,” instead of the usual sexist content – except now with disabled women in the mix.
Sadly, meeting the beauty standard is the only way that any woman, disabled or not, will be taken seriously. The beauty standard may be unattainable for most nondisabled women, but it can be especially unattainable for disabled women. Those of us with involuntary movements, whose bodies do things that may not be seen as tasteful or dignified, are forever doomed to the status of ugly in the eyes of society. So are fat women and elderly women, many of whom are also disabled. Many of us have disabilities that can make “performing” as conventionally attractive exhausting at best – and impossible at worst. I will not waste my already limited energy on carefully applying makeup so that society just might find me worthy of being a person.
As I typed the last paragraph, a perfect example came across my TV screen. On The Big Bang Theory, socially awkward Raj and Stuart look for people to talk to in a mall food court in order to increase their confidence. Though Raj declares that they’ll “work…up to pretty girls,” their decisions on who to talk to are still dependent on who fits the bill of societal attractiveness.
Stuart asks Raj “What about that old lady with the walker?”
Raj considers. “That depends,” he replies. “On any level, do you think she’s hot?”
After a split second of indecision, the two conclude “We’ll find someone else,” and the audience laughs. The joke is dependent on the fact that an old lady with a walker – a disabled woman – does not fit conventional beauty standards and, as such, is unworthy of conversation. This scene combines ageism with ableism in a very troubling way and, once again, plays disability for laughs. (As a side note, I may not be an old lady, but I do have a walker, and I think you’ll find that I am very worth talking to!)
The idea that women are valued based on their conformity to a sexual standard determined by men is oppressive to all women, not just young, thin, able-bodied women. I don’t point out the struggles of disabled women to belittle or dismiss the struggles of nondisabled women, but to highlight how disabled women, despite the limited progress of the feminist movement in securing more realistic depictions of women, are still subject to the same degrading treatment. And yet mainstream feminists are some of the first to promote this degradation, even as they simultaneously call it out when it’s applied to themselves. As mainstream feminism continues to (slowly) advance, disabled women are being left in the Dark Ages. While I can think of at least a handful of women politicians, I can only think of one openly disabled woman politician – Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who is an amputee. And it’s telling that our only visibly disabled president was white, male, and very economically privileged.
Feminism must be intersectional or it’s simply hypocritical. Disabled people are the world’s largest minority, and it is certainly foolish to alienate a group that could be powerful partners in the quest for social justice.
We’re women, too. Let’s work together.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a woman with long brown hair sitting in a wheelchair on a beach with sand and surf. Her back is to the camera, her arms are outstretched, and she is making a “V” sign with both of her hands.]