Identity Politics and Ideology

by Elliott batTzedek

This article is excerpted from a much longer essay analyzing the role of Identity Politics in Feminist and Lesbian communities. I wrote this work as part of my MS in Women’s Studies, and was therefore free to combine theory and metaphors from political science, anthropology, and history with a free-flowing form of autobiography. The larger essay, entitled “Suckled at Sarah’s Breast,” is mainly concerned with the creation and defense of boundaries around various identities.

We Are What We Think, or “Jumping Off a Cliff While Claiming Your Security Blanket Is a Parachute”

Here I stand, demanding now to understand social identities as things that are built by someone for some reason and to have my life experiences honored and reflected as part of who I am. I demand both of these so that I can better theorize about how to take down the powers that be. I want this theory to account for how the wider world has shaped me, and to help me understand how to begin to undo the world. No problem–by the time I came into Feminism, the strategy of “the personal is political” was well established. And what an amazing strategy this is; it may, as the struggle goes on, prove to be the single most useful bit of theorizing of this wave of Feminist resistance. Understanding the personal as political created space for challenging unspoken power by asking questions such as “why did this violence/oppression happen to me?” and answering “not because of what I did, but because I’m a member of the social group Female.” Through understanding the personal as shaped by the political, Feminism brought to the surface not only that our identity and experience are intimately linked, but that they are linked through our most intimate connections–love, motherhood, friendship, sex. Feminist theory provided answers, explanations, a way to understand every part of our lives. Feminist groups provided relief, support, a place to finally feel sane, friendship, sisterhood, a community of meaning. But as Feminism developed its own variety of the Identity Politics being shaped in other communities of resistance/activism, “the personal is political” was reversed, and the political became deeply personal. “Feminist” became not just a theory or a strategy, but an internalized identity, a statement about our deepest selves; Feminists entered the realm of geoparadigms, with boundaries to be established and guarded.

The particular variety of geoparadigm Feminism entered was the boundary-marking, “every one wants to be the vanguard,”{1} of the New Left. As Barbara Ryan explains in her article “Ideological Purity and Feminism: The U.S.Women’s Movement from 1966 to 1975”:

Because so many of the early small-group feminists came out of the social-movement activism of the 1960 decade, their radical identification preceded their involvement with feminism. Being radical was not just part of the their definition of themselves as feminists, it was a fundamental aspect of their self-identity.{2}

Because being “Radical” was part of these women’s “true” selves, they acted to protect their sense of themselves by creating ever more minute distinctions between the “not really radical women” and themselves. These distinctions were then guarded with ferocity, although few on the outside could begin to understand what exactly the fighting was about. Ryan quotes, from work by K. Hansen, one socialist feminist activist explaining about this period:

We always had this attitude, which I am now so critical of, which is that socialist feminism is so much better than everything in regular feminism. So any time we came up with something ordinary it didn’t sound good enough. It didn’t have a socialist component to it. How is that different from what the liberals are doing? And so we didn’t do it.{3}

The fighting between Feminist factions was perceived to be about ideological disagreements. But, as my own life experience with Radical Feminist and Separatist groups has led me to believe, and as Ryan argues, the ideological differences were very small, and the differences in strategy were even smaller; everyone put up flyers and held meetings and showed videos and wrote long letters to editors and organized demonstrations and organized speakers’ bureaus and women’s centers and so on.{4} The real differences were more about style and our perceptions of ourselves; as Ryan writes: “On close inspection, the various views of feminist acceptability represented lifestyles most suited to those who advocated them.”{5} Upon historical review (that is, standing safely in one piece on the far side of the chasm), it seems that, as we prepared to jump off of the edge of the known world, the Right Answers which we were entirely convinced were parachutes were, in fact, familiar blankets that made us feel secure but weren’t particularly designed to break falls from such new heights. That so many of us survived the resulting plummet, and made it up the other side anyway, somehow, is a bigger testament to our strength than to the “correctness” of our theory.

But as long as we continued to believe that our theory was us, and was the only answer that would keep us safe and move us along, any disagreement or difference of opinion became an attack on our sense of security and our sense of self. Knowing who was “in” and who was “out” of the “right” groups was vital information, and actions were daily taken to define the boundaries. We produced elaborate position papers that distinguished “our” group from those other “wrong” groups. Group members who disagreed about some point, or who made a lifestyle decision at odds to the group, would be purged in ugly public rituals with a passion to protect against the “danger” they posed; only pollution behavior could begin to explain these. We destroyed relationships and friendships when loyalty to an ideo-identity forced women to choose between their self-definition and those they cared about who didn’t share it, or who had changed their minds on some issue. The ugly demands of ideological purity, the ways women responded to difference as if their lives were at stake and they had the right to use deadly force, never made sense to me until I began to understand that, if my ideology is my identity, I do feel that my life is being threatened. Ideological Purity is still Purity; groups that are defined by ideological boundaries use pollution behavior the way nation states use armies, to guard against danger and infiltration. Pollution rituals protect boundaries by purging those who question the boundaries in any way. Feminist groups, especially self-identified “radical” groups, purged women for a thought, a word, an action, an affection misplaced, or anything that questioned or revealed how the group worked. This wasn’t sane or rational, and it certainly wasn’t radical social action; this was pollution behavior, and it made women distrust ourselves at the deepest levels, doing irreparable damage to the possibility of creating movement. As Barbara Deming, whose work is more wise and loving every time I come back to it, wrote in the essay “Remembering Who We Are”:

Within this movement I had begun for the first time in my life to feel that I was allowed to be openly just the person I really was; to decide for myself who I was; and to act upon this. I had felt encouraged to believe that to take this extraordinary freedom–in the company of other women–was in fact to make the revolution. But this freedom was being taken away again. I had to fear again–we all had to fear–being labelled, being found unfit. I think a great many women experienced this shock. […] each in her own way first experienced sisterhood, and then the sudden fear that she could be told that she was not a sister. The fear that she had better stop trying to use her own eyes and instead try to make sure of saying or doing what a sister “should” say or do. I think as more and more of us received this shock, we began to lose our collective strength.{6}

Collapsing what we think with who we are also created the huge problem within IP of what to do with people who shared our “by birth” category but didn’t share our theoretical stance. What to do, if you were a Black Panther or a Radical Feminist, with an African American or a woman who didn’t understand, didn’t share, or simply didn’t give a damn about your theoretical identity? IP simply couldn’t account for such a thing, so these nay-sayers became “others.” We spoke of them as being traitors to the cause or the race or the gender. We accused them of having “false consciousness” because they didn’t have or want our consciousness. We established the idea that someone could be a woman or an African American or a Jew but not the right kind of these, not a “real X.” We spoke about these “others” as not being evolved enough, adopting this metaphor with all the surety of Western European culture adopting the threat of Darwin’s theory: sure, evolution was real, and white Europeans were the pinnacle and sole purpose of all prior evolution. It never seemed to occur to us that some animals evolved in ways so specific to a single environment that they could not survive in any other place, and that we might be this kind of animal.

By taking on political theory as yet another immutable identity, IP created “right” and “wrong” ways of being a member of any one social group. Within Feminist IP, this both grew from a pre-existing Leftist split between “the vanguard” and “the masses” and drove a wedge that cleaved “Feminists” off from “women.” This split echoed and reinforced the need of the male-power base to divide the group “women” at the very moment this group threatened to rise up and alter every part of society. Susan Douglas very convincingly argues in “Where the Girls Are” that this division, along with the tension between sisterhood and individualism, was manipulated by the media and by Conservative social power to defeat the ERA by casting it as a “cat-fight” between Feminists and “real” women; and once the battle became a competition among women, instead of a struggle by women against men, male power had already won.{7} IP in general, and Feminist IP in particular, treated membership in social groups as inherent identity, and then, having defined identity as what is inherent, proceeded to regard every part of our identity as inherent and immutable. This was such a mistake, one I can only explain clearly as I am leaving: we confused the body with body politic, and we pretended that our answers were inseparable from the problems they addressed. By collapsing theory into identity, we told women who had changed their opinions that they also had to change identities, that they were no longer legitimate citizens of our geo-paradigmatic countries. Women were forced to emigrate, without anyone ever thinking about what was being thrown out in the name of guarding identity.

Not Accounting For Change, or “Without a Good Accountant, You’ll Never Know How to Find That Loophole, and It’ll Cost You Big Time”

It is a curious thing that Identity Politics couldn’t account for group members who didn’t believe in The Theory, for the vast majority of the residents of IP were immigrants themselves: they had grown up as women, not as Feminists; as Black, not as Black Power, as presumed heterosexual, not as Lesbian Feminist/Separatist. Nearly everyone, in fact, had had a profound change of identity as an adult, had taken on a new world view and culture. But IP, having chosen to go on believing that identity is something inherent, willingly ignored the power and beauty of the reality that people were choosing these theories because of how compelling they were. Women became Feminists because of how Feminism echoed and enlarged their life experience. Feminism seemed strong, and vital, and joining Feminist communities and political struggles brought meaning and satisfaction to their/our lives.

Yet, once the leap from merely “woman” to Feminist had been made, and “Feminist” had become an inherent identity, IP encouraged those who now had The Truth to understand themselves as separate from, and better than, those without The Truth. Instead of encouraging a culture that would continually speak of how and why the change happened, and would always be teaching, IP remained silent on how one became a Feminist, and encouraged a culture of preaching from an extremely self-righteous moral high horse. Feminist activist Robin Morgan, for example, tells the story of one of WITCH’s (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) actions, the disruption of the 1969 Bridal Fair in New York City. This action was classic Radical Feminism, with costumes (black veils), songs (“Here come the slaves”), and chaos (releasing white mice throughout the site). It was also, unfortunately, “classic” in that it attacked and ridiculed the women who were there, for being the kind of women they were, instead of attacking the social control of the institution of Heterosexuality or the obscene profit-making of it all. As Morgan reflected on that action in 1977, it was “a self-indulgent insult to the very women we claimed we wanted to reach.”{8} In a 1983 interview, she added further that “the immaturity of the movement and the arrogance of newly converted activists [were] factors contributing to the demise of some groups.” {9}

Why did IP need to deny that its members had already changed a deep part of their own identity? Because IP had established borders and had its own foundation of power to protect–the idea that identity is inherent. How did it manage both to require that people change in order to join and yet to ignore the reality of these changes? Morgan’s use of the concept of “convert” reveals the strategy: IP relied utterly on people discovering “THE TRUTH;” being instantly, utterly, converted; renouncing who they had been before, and people like they had been before; and setting off with missionary zeal to bring THE TRUTH to the world. IP, a culture that needs strong, rigid borders, but also needs the change from “politically unaware” to “radical,” experienced a contradiction at the heart of its sense of self. Cultures account for such undeniable contradictions through ritual, which, through use of a symbolic process or narrative, contains threats by showing how they are, “underneath it all,” part of the The Truth. Since IP had no explicit religion or rituals of its own, it resorted to the most easily available explanation of change in the culture around it, the Christian conversion narrative. In short, IP rejected explaining the process of conscious change for the grand emotional sweep of the Christian conversion experience.

Or perhaps “mechanism” would be a more accurate term than strategy, for I don’t think advocates of IP consciously used the model of Christian conversion so much as used what was surrounding them without thinking about it, although it may well be that Black Power movements did use it consciously, drawing upon the power of the Black church. Still, I’m sure that general Leftist and Feminist IP never considered that they were all experiencing and reproducing a (central?) Christian ritual, for those who shaped the boundaries of IP tended to be from large urban centers, tended to be middle class or higher, and tended to be from aggressively secular households, including non- or anti-religious Jewish backgrounds. Leftist “radical” theorists have always completely discounted the power and influence of the dominant, Protestant religious culture of the U.S., and never have been able or willing to treat the power of this culture seriously. But certain elements of U.S. religious life affect all of us, and shape how we understand ourselves and our world, no matter what our religious practice, belief, or opposition to these: the cultural power of the Great Revivals that periodically sweep the country; the power of the Conversion Narrative to contain and regulate change/danger (more on this below); and the sin/redemption plot that underlies so much of U.S. life.

Discounting the power and influence of religious culture has always limited and hurt us. People who speak of the positive role of spiritual practice in their lives are, within IP, not even the “enemy” so much as a joke, whether they fall into “minority” practices such as meditation or wicca (“New age woo-woo,” says IP) or “traditional” practices such as Christianity or Judaism (“The opiate of the masses, and the inventor of patriarchy, respectively,” IP proclaims). In addition to the utter lack of cultural sensitivity these views expose, by choosing to ignore Protestant/ Fundamentalist power bases in the U.S., IP once again threw away a valuable weapon of resistance–the power to co-opt the “enemy’s” language and symbols. Had we taken time to study the religious aspects of our national culture, we would have been much more prepared for the well-funded and well organized Born-Again backlash. What if we had adopted the sin/redemption narrative with the same expertise as the anti-abortion forces have used our strategies of non-violent (in public anyway) protest tactics, so that we could turn their arguments against them? If our arrogance hadn’t kept us feeling superior to life around us, we might now know as much about the Promise Keepers and their strategic agenda as they know about us, and we might be able to harness their ability to bring men together across race and class lines.

Instead, we’ve entirely discounted, for someone contemplating an attack on a woman’s clinic, the implications of the belief that any “sin” can be wiped away through being “born again in Jesus.” We’ve also, while lecturing to “the mass of women” or “the people,” completely discounted how hard hard lives are, how hard the choices and consequences that people are forced into can be, and the powerful level of relief provided by sinking into offered redemption.{10} How can Feminist understanding, Leftist analysis, compete with that kind of comfort? We can, of course, but because we never bothered to learn the language of the inhabitants of the country we want to recruit, we can barely make ourselves understood. Then we blame “them” for not having enough political intelligence to understand our mumbled words with the accents in all the wrong places. Small wonder that Norma McCorvey, after a hard and often devastating life, turned to the power of conversion and redemption when Feminist sisterhood offered her only lectures and the chance to volunteer. What space was there for her, in the limited “sisterhood” offered by IP, to be comforted for her lost children? And what does it continue to mean to us that not a single Feminist who has offered a written opinion about Norma’s conversion has known anything about the cultural pull of the image of her being dunked backwards into the pool on a hot Texas day?

I know the cultural pull of “seeing the light,” of “being saved,” of “putting your (hard, even impossible) life in the hands of the Lord.” I come from an all-white, all-Protestant, blood of the lamb, four-part harmony country gospel town in southern Illinois. (ok, that isn’t entirely true, there was a small Catholic church on the highway, completely separate from the “real” churches lined up on three sides of the town square). My deep suspicion of using conversion comes not from arrogant ignorance, but from personal experience. Conversion is not just about joining a group or faith; it is a plot, a narrative, which moves people through change in a totally regimented and controlled way, directing their emotional and mental responses. The Conversion Narrative says that a convert’s life was inherently wrong and sinful before finding the one and only Truth and being re-born. The Conversion Narrative offers forgiveness for all “sins” from before the moment of conversion, but does this through a clear break from the past, producing a “new” person who cannot and should not be held accountable for prior actions. It always continues past the moment of conversion to requiring people to “testify” and recruit others to The Truth. It says that those without The Truth are doomed, so that if you love them you have the obligation to shove The Truth down their throats for their own good (including, as in Morgan’s example above, insulting and belittling them). Sometimes, in cultish groups and extreme 12-step programs, the Conversion Narrative dictates that people who haven’t yet accepted The Truth are so dangerous that the convert must break all social and emotional ties to them and interact only with other converts. Conversion allowed Christianity to spread from the followers of a Jewish teacher/rebel to a world power because anyone could join, by finding The Truth in a private, blinding moment of revelation, regardless of their tribe, language, citizenship.{11} Conversion serves any group that wants to recruit from across social/cultural/political boundaries, certainly including Feminism. By relying on the pre-set emotional power and path of the Conversion Narrative while maintaining that it was too evolved for religious experiences, Identity Politics could both have change and not have to account for it; the citizens of Feminist IP could eat their cake without noticing that it had been prepared by those other, not real enough women.

But using Conversion comes at a high price. For starters, there is the arrogance and idiocy of claiming to have The Truth. Then there is the strength of the Conversion Narrative, which sucks people in and directs their thoughts even as they claim their experience will be different, in much the same way that the social power of The Wedding pushes women to do things they swore they would never do, such as raising their dress, revealing a garter, pulling it down and throwing it to a crowd of hooting men. Conversion contains the potential danger of changing identity or identity groups by channeling people from one group to the other without ever questioning the boundaries of the groups; the convert changes without the danger or power of crashing through borders. Conversion is also a way to limit the threat of change by reducing it to an entirely private matter between the convert and God/The Truth. Imagine the difference between a group of people where each individual found the answer in a private way and a group of people who can quite clearly speak about why they chose this group, what answers and comfort it brings. Group members share a deep bond in both cases, but think about the implications for social change (and Feminist pedagogy) within the former: if women come to Feminism only after they have a personal “ah-ha!” moment, how can we possibly get large numbers of women (and men) involved in Feminist work? By simply waiting quietly in meeting rooms for those converted by their personal revelation to come find us? As a teacher, watching students have “ah-ha!” moments is extremely rewarding, but counting on a student’s ability/willingness to have a revelation is far less reliable than being able to show clear reasons and clear emotional rewards. Feminism was lucky in the 1960’s and early 1970’s; it was a time when masses of women did have revelations and come join{12}. But if we are to build a movement which is sustainable, not one that pops up for a decade every half century, we need answers and communities that sustain people.{13} We need to learn to account for how our identities change, to explain what choices we’ve made, and why, and what we’ve lost and gained and why we think and feel that it matters. To do this, of course, we must first be willing to account for the fact that people do change, that identities do change, that what we think is not the same as who we are, that our experiences shape us and bond us together, that we are not set in unalterable meaning at birth, that even what seems most fixed–skin color, sexual organs, age–can be radically reshaped by creating new meanings. To do this will mean to leave the strategic base of Identity Politics. To claim that we are who we are, unalterably, and that we are therefore entitled to civil rights can in fact get us civil rights. But is an equal, or somewhat less unequal, place in this civilization going to repair the world? Identity Politics creates a powerful argument for how to become civilized. From here and now, standing on my unmapped bridge, what I want is to be wild.


  • Phrase from a personal conversation with my editor, cheer-leader, external self-esteem, and beloved nudge, women’s historian Mari Trine.
  • Ryan, pp. 242-243.
  • Ryan, p. 250.
  • Ryan, p. 244.
  • Ryan, p. 252.
  • Barbara Deming, “Remembering Who We Are” in We Are All Part of One Another: A Barbara Deming Reader, edited by Jane Meyerding with a foreword by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1984), p. 291.
  • Susan J. Douglas, “The ERA as Catfight” in Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, (New York: Random House, Times Books, 1995), pp. 221-244.
  • Robin Morgan, Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist, (New York: Random House, 1977), p. 74.
  • Ryan, p. 249.
  • For a recent essay on what the secular Left has lost by ridiculing the role of religious belief in U.S. life, see Michael Kazin’s “The Politics of Devotion,” in The Nation, April 6, 1998, pp. 16-19.
  • And Christianity did this at a time in western history when identity was completely connected to where you were born, who your parents were, and what gods they worshipped (which were, of course, completely interdependent as well.) For a historical overview of this time from a Jewish perspective, see Shaye J.D. Cohen “Conversion to Judaism in Historical Perspective: From Biblical Israel to Postbiblical Judaism,” Conservative Judaism, vol. 36(4) (Summer 1983): 31-45.
  • Certainly the CR groups were responsible for creating a space for such revelatory, transforming moments to occur. I don’t yet know what to say about this, or what useful lessons we pull from them, in part because they were gone by the time I found my revelation in books. More study and writing about them is vitally necessary.
  • One example–the Islamic Fundamentalists came to so much power in Egypt in part because they went into the devastating poverty of urban areas and set up free schools, free clinics, and access to housing, food, and clothing. They didn’t just sit in the desert, waiting for the converts to come find them.

Copyright is held by the author, Elliott BatTzedek. All rights reserved. Used by permission.