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Excerpted From: I. India Thusi, Feminist Scripts for Punishment: the Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women's Liberation in Mass Incarceration. By Aya Gruber. Oakland, C.a.: University of California Press. 2020. Pp. Xii, 288. $29.95, 134 Harvard Law Review 2449 (May 2021) (Book Review) (188 Footnotes) (Full Document)
In her new book, The Feminist War on Crime, Professor Aya Gruber provides a critique of feminists, who have sought political vindication through a governance of punishment. Professor Elizabeth Bernstein coined the term “carceral feminism” to describe the feminist commitment to “a law and order agenda and ... a drift from the welfare state to the carceral state as the enforcement apparatus for feminist goals.” While feminist movements have expanded the opportunities available to women and girls, too often their means for achieving these accomplishments have been paved on a path of the privileges of feminist elites. These privileges are immune from the pressures of multiple forms of subordination that form the interstitial web of inequality that many other women encounter. These other women are also Other women, in that they are often outsiders in American society, not just because they are women, but also because they are women of color, poor, immigrant, less educated, disabled, and/or queer. The positionality of these Other women is important because they often have personal experiences that make engagement with the state apparatus for punishment undesirable. As Professor Beth Richie documents, Black feminists advanced the concerns of the Other women through their activism for state responses that address the systemic, material conditions that make women vulnerable to violence, rather than through engagement with the technologies of punishment. Other women have experienced state violence, either through the inherited trauma that runs in their blood from the violence against their ancestors, or through their daily experiences of everyday subordination within their communities. White, elite feminists have often missed their perspectives. Or, at times, they have outright demeaned their perspectives (p. 56). Either way, the path to gender equality has had an unsettling entanglement with carcerality. And the logics of punishment and imprisonment have informed feminist demands for reforms. This feminist fascination with the carceral is the subject of Gruber's book.
The Feminist War on Crime is a call to action to millennial feminists to define a new, anti-essentialist feminist script that rejects incarceration, embraces abolitionism, and seeks to improve the lives of all women (pp. 5, 192). Gruber offers the insight that prisons are no solution to domestic violence or sexual crimes. While people often wonder about the dangerous few when confronted with abolitionist arguments like hers, radical feminists of color have long been adopting alternatives for addressing gender-based violence without expanding the reach of state violence. Groups like INCITE!, Survived & Punished, Mijente, the Movement for Black Lives, and Critical Resistance adopt an intersectional approach to gender-based violence that acknowledges the related harm of state violence. They seek accountability for violence against women without depending upon incarceration. Feminists should more broadly embrace their strategies and techniques.
This Book Review proceeds in three parts. Part I describes the mainstream feminist approach to punishment through a discussion of the feminist script for punishment, which furthers a dominant narrative that promotes prosecution and incarceration as remedies for gender-based harms. Part II describes the harms of this feminist script, which has relied on racialized conceptions of victim, perpetrator, and punishment to expand the reach of punishment for gender-based crimes. Part III embraces Gruber's call for feminists to reframe feminism and begins a discussion of how feminists can reject the feminist script for punishment in favor of a feminist script for healing and abolition. It discusses the activism and organizing of radical feminists of color of yesteryear and today. Part III articulates a path forward for feminists that addresses Gruber's critiques of the current feminist war on crime. Gruber asks feminists to adopt a “neofeminist” approach that will “shift the winds so that feminism sails in the direction of greater justice” for everyone. We can find such an approach in the work of these activists.
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The Feminist War on Crime is a timely call for feminists to reckon with the harms of the criminal institutions they helped to build. Ultimately, Gruber is asking for a new wave of feminism that prioritizes material gains for all women over expressive protection for the elite few. Sending messages about what feminism will tolerate should not be confused with improving the lives of all women. Punishing people who are painted as villains taps into the retributivist impulses in this society. But these retributivist impulses are inextricably connected with racism, classism, and ableism. The very color of blame is painted on Black faces, and the carceral feminist agenda has benefited from the White supremacy within the criminal legal system. By tapping into society's urge to protect White female fragility and the concomitant desire to punish Black or Brown male criminality, feminism has been a co-conspirator in the mass incarceration and mass criminalization agendas. The key lesson from Gruber's book is that instead of punishing our way into good governance, feminists should define new modes for accountability and devote energy toward the provision of resources that actually improve the lives of women. As Gruber argues, now is the time for millennial feminists to move away from punishment (p. 192).
Furthermore, it is time for vanguard feminists to consider how they have directly or indirectly contributed to the logics of the feminist script for punishment. More experienced feminists should be willing to consider the harms of their past work and be responsible for how their work may have contributed to the punitiveness of the system. It is not enough to adopt a superficial racial analysis of inclusion that does not deeply engage with the intersectional framework that Black feminists and other feminists of color have been developing. Shallow references to diversity and inclusion, and footnotes about intersectionality and “feminists of color” are also inadequate. I believe that seasoned feminists and feminist organizations should be willing to engage with the work of groups like INCITE! and Survived & Punished. They should be open to reorienting their arguments and strategies in ways that might feel uncomfortable. They should change their existing priorities, so as to accommodate new frameworks and forms of engaging in feminist advocacy that truly lead to a feminism that is also diverse and inclusive in substance, not just in symbols and through the deployment of relevant catchphrases and website imagery. This new feminism requires an openness to prioritizing intersectionality, rather than shallow mentions of a commitment to antiracism in response to accusations of racism. These vanguard feminists, and feminist organizations, should plan to make reparations for the harms that the feminist script for punishment has inflicted upon marginalized communities by furthering a new feminism that reimagines care, accountability, and possibility.
Associate Professor of Law, Delaware Law School.
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