Lately I have been reflecting on this quote of Virginia Woolf: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” Here she points out the deliberate invisibilization of women’s contribution in all areas of human endeavors.
Patriarchy always takes these contributions for granted. For centuries, domestic labor has been invisible and not considered work. It has put beauty over intelligence, even with women of outstanding intelligence. And in terms of knowledge and intellectual production, patriarchy has appropriated women’s ideas and in presenting them as “anonymous,” presents them as it’s own.
Thanks to the feminist reclaiming of history, and proving the accuracy of the premise that “Anonymous is woman,” we have learned of the long list of inventions that were made possible due to women’s ideas who were kept invisible, unnamed, unquoted, and erased; after all, she was “just” a “woman.”
There’s a patriarchal commandment that prevents women from asking for recognition. Women are told that “good women” don’t promote themselves, but are discreet and act with a generous spirit; that to aspire to be visible is vanity, and that our creative ventures should be regarded merely as hobby. We should feel guilty of our success and apologize to the world for having achievements; if we are somehow praised we have to make clear we do everything for others and we are not important. It doesn’t matter if we are anonymous, because what is relevant is the benefit that our knowledge will live on in society…
Thus, being fed such nicely framed manure, we are shaped into the practice of not giving value to our own talents and their expressions.
Patriarchy exploits women at intellectual level with slogans like “Ideas do not belong to anyone.” But this is in fact a lie. Ideas have owners, they come from someone, but we women have been denied the right to claim ownership over them and been socialized to waive such claims for fear of being accused of being “egocentric and selfish.”
If this is already outrageous, when this dynamic appears in feminist spaces aimed at empowering women, it is even more egregious. In my work as a community educator, I hear colleagues and women’s right defenders complaining about the preying and abuse of their knowledge and skills by high profile feminists, gender studies scholars, or women’s rights bureaucrats.
Activists report that they are often asked by feminists doctoral students to share their experiences and empirical knowledge, which is then presented as “results of a research” in which their names are absent. Social workers state that they are asked to create educational material in which they can’t appear as authors,which is then used by other people as their own. Feminist bloggers, meanwhile, say their ideas are reproduced without reference to their blogs as the sources or, quite simply, their articles are copied and pasted, with some quotes here and there, and submitted as academic papers to scholarly journals by others.
These practices are abusive, unethical and patriarchal. When they occur in feminist spaces, they are also a violent and cruel exercise of privilege by women against women, because most of the times, those affected are not in the front line of power and intellectual production; they don’t belong to the academic elite, or have the back up of a big publishing house, or a position of authority in the government, etc.
If we like the ideas of a feminist comrade or an activist, why are we reluctant to give credit to her? Would it be the same with a famous activist? Would it be the same with a man writer? With a thesis supported by a university? Are ideas only recognized based on the privileges and status of those who think them? What’s the point of working to empower women if we resist naming those women? What is the idea of “giving voice” to women who later are left invisible?
Appropriating the ideas of another woman is not only dishonest but also dehumanizing as only people have the right to individuality, to a name and to be named; objects are serialized, generic, anonymous. The damage is not only at professional or intellectual level, but also spiritual and psychic, affecting one’s self-esteem and self-worth.
The democratization of knowledge must include the struggle for greater visibility of women’s intellectual contributions. It demands that feminists redefine what “knowledge” is and analyze critically the privileges and mechanism of power that what we understand as such enables. In the process of democratization of knowledge, no woman should be anonymous and those who are relegated to the backstage of feminist work should come forward.
As women we fight to make our ideas respected and we put effort, dedication, and energy into intellectual and creative work. This deserves to be recognized. It is not something minor; patriarchy could ad must also be dismantled in the small things, because it is the micro reproduction of oppression that holds a larger network of exploitation.
Feminisms are praxis, actual and living, and if not, they are merely propaganda. Transformation of this social world begins with embodying feminism as a counter-culture practice on a daily basis. There is no point in reading all the theories and quoting all the authors if when we have to act, we do not choose an anti-patriarchal action that reflects a political choice for women.
Always, without doubt, we must claim loudly our right to be named. It is not selfishness or excessive ambition. “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman,” and we won’t take it anymore. We live in a misogynistic civilization, organized to silence us and wipe us out: Making us visible to one another is a way to resist.
Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities.