Patricia McFadden: “Through 500 years of colonialism, African women have fought for freedom”

06/08/2021 |

By Capire

Read and listen to this interview with the feminist activist and researcher Patricia McFadden on gendered nationalism and the power of feminism for women’s liberation.

Capire talked to the feminist researcher Patricia McFadden on gendered nationalism and the power of feminism for women’s liberation in Africa. The interview is available in text and audio.

After decades of experience as a feminist researcher and activist, passing through extradition in countries where she lived and worked, such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, today Patricia lives and works in Eswatini, before known as Swaziland. Eswatini is a repressive monarchy. Before 1968, it was a British colony. Vegan and radical ecofeminist, she grows the food she consumes and, from this reality, has built solidarity practices and feminist analysis proposals, such as the notion of contemporarity. To know this trajectory highlights how her analyses mix the personal and the political in the critique of gender nationalism and in the proposals to build and understand radical feminism in Africa.

Feminism is powerful because it is not an event that is just emerging now. It is embedded in the oldest memories of human consciousness about freedom.

First of all, could you tell us about your feminist trajectory? How did it begin?

I used to go with my father from the mountain into a big town called Manzini. My father would buy supplies and I would buy second-hand books from a colonial British woman who sold that for charity. Humanitarianism is built into the colonial project: they took all our resources and then raised money to rescue us by philanthropy. I bought Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, and Jean-Paul Sartre on existentialism. I didn’t understand anything of what Sartre was saying, but I know that Simone impacted my consciousness.

My mother forced me into marriage because I became pregnant. I divorced the man after three months, and promised myself I would never go back into marriage, and I never did. Catholicism is very strong here. Before I went to University, I went to the United States on a program for one year and I met Angela Davis in her books. I also encountered Frantz Fanon’s work – especially Black Skin, white Mask and of course, The Wretched of the Earth – which completely revolutionized my experience with radical Black anticolonial thought.  To this day, I return to the work of Fanon, Cabral, Sankara, and many radical Black male intellectuals whose critiques of colonialism and capitalism provide a crucial foundational base for my thinking – especially about neocolonialism and the persistence of neo-imperialism (so-called globalization)

Then, in my early twenties, I joined the liberation struggle and I embrace nationalism as the collective ideology. For a long time, I was a nationalist feminist, a gendered nationalist. I’m talking about nationalism as an anticolonial resistance, not the European expression of nationalism which informed fascism. But all nationalisms are expressions of ideology that brings large numbers of people together to resist oppressive, dominant, intrusive systems. I was there for a long time, but I was uncomfortable. I was trying to find a way to do critical work and I was often marginal in the community of nationalists.

What are the origins of gendered nationalism, and what are its current expressions?

In the ANC – the South African liberation movement – there was the radical left linked to the Communist Party and the Trade Unions. I was situated in the Trade Union movement which is an ally of the African National Congress. ANC was the umbrella for the trade unions, the youth movements, the women branches, and the communists.

In the mid-1970s, I did my masters in Tanzania at the University of Dar es Salaam, and they had all the literature from Progress Publishers. I couldn’t sleep. I just read voraciously. I had not read Marx’s Capital because it was illegal in Swaziland. It’s only much later that I began to read the work of Black women like bell hooks, which enabled me to take my feminism beyond European feminist conceptualizations. I still embrace all feminism’s that are radical. Part of that embrace was because I began to feel uncomfortable with nationalism restricting me to the struggles of the Black man for freedom from colonialism.

On this continent the persistence of feudalism is devastating for Black women. Because I was not married, I did not have to negotiate intimate heteronormativity and feudalism as an institution within which most African women are situated. For this outsiderness, I am often still treated like a freak. But when I looked around me I could see that all the women I knew were deeply unhappy and terrorized, while everybody was saying that this is marriage, this is love.

My consciousness grew as I became more active in the women’s movement. I was also very deeply influenced by Audre Lorde and by Black lesbian feminism. I insisted to the women’s movement that we had to learn from lesbians, and particularly from Black lesbian feminists. There is a lot of homophobia everywhere in the world, and in the women’s movement this challenge became unsustainable. I also was questioning the role of the UN [United Nations] and the ways in which nationalism was shaping and defining feminism. I don’t call myself an African feminist anymore. I call myself a Black ecofeminist who lives in Africa. I don’t want to associate my feminism with nationalism.

When you talk about the state, the UN and the women’s movement, it can be connected with the current situation of how the UN, together with transnational corporations, are pushing the machine of exploitation with a women empowerment discourse, right?

I was a part of the group of African women who were identified in the 1980s and 90s to have conversations about “women and development”. This particular strategy was led by the Scandinavians, and it’s very interesting that most of us didn’t realize that. The Scandinavians operate very quietly in the capitalist corporate universe. They have a smiling face, and even talk about capitalism with a smiling face. 

The Scandinavians were behind the slaving industry for two to three hundred years, because they built the ships that were moving Africans to the so-called “New World.” The Scandinavians quietly invested and created corporations that have plundered Africa. They practice coloniality in subtle ways, under the radar. They were the ones who led this project of gender appropriation and of watering down the initial meaning of gender, taking all the politics and the fire out of the notion.

Feminists always create new languages. The normative language is inadequate to say what we want to say and to do what we want to do. If you look at the origins of the notion of gender, it comes out of the struggles of European women to find words to speak to our experience of hierarchy, exploitation and subordination. Virginia Woolf speaks to this need for a feminist lexicon, in A Room of One’s Own. The challenge was to craft a tool that would enable us to dissect the reality of patriarchy and explain relations of power in new ways which the normative male language was not allowing us to do. We talked about sex but we didn’t have a term that articulated gendered power relations.

Soon the notion of gender was appropriated and feminist passion, energy and ideology were systematically removed. It has become part of UN and State speak. In Africa, gender mainstreaming was institutionalized through Women in Development, Women and Gender, or Gender and Development.

This dis-embedded gender as a thinking heuristic tool out of feminist epistemology and into liberal and then neoliberal paradigms, non-threatening and technocratic, without any real political impact on women’s lives. This liberalization of gender also occurred in the academy, where you get “women and gender studies”, not “women and feminist studies”. I personally don’t even speak about gender anymore. When I speak about gender, I speak about it as a thinking tool, as feminists had initially articulated it. I position it within feminist epistemology and then it becomes a radical thinking tool.

They did this with class also. If you look at the history of class as a concept coming out of Marx’s epistemology, the Europeans and Americans removed class from Marxism and from Left discourses and redefined it as a structuralist notion. C. Wright Mills, a very famous American sociologist, made his entire career by sabotaging the meaning of the term “class”, americanizing and depoliticizing it. This is what the right wing does. Now they’re even taking the term “ecology” and speaking of corporate ecosystems, the ecology of business, and describing entrepreneurship is an ecosystem.

Do you see this movement of depoliticizing concepts also with race?

Yes. We have a perfect example in South Africa. We know for 400 years that race was used as a deliberate mechanism of violence and exclusion. In 1994, the nationalists negotiated a settlement with the racists and, suddenly, race lost its historical characteristics as the means by which Black people were excluded, vilified, demonized, slaved and terrorized. Suddenly, if you say that this is a Black space, only for Black people, they call you a racist. They have deconstructed the notion and the history of racism. The history of exploitation has been completely displaced in South Africa, and history as a required subject is not taught in schools. This is astounding. 

Whites who continue to benefit from racism as institutionalized privilege don’t call themselves white Africans, but call us Black Africans. It’s so astounding the ways in which neoliberalism depoliticizes and erases our histories of resistance. It disowns us from the legacies that we should be protecting and mobilizing with to continue the struggle.

At last, we would like to hear you about women’s participation in the anti-colonial struggles, and if  that is recovery of the feminist past of African women.

Part of contemporarity is also to retrieve the journeys that we’ve traveled as African women wherever we are. This conversation has been happening now and then in this region. I participated in a conversation with a group of women at the Nelson Mandela University where we spoke about the recovery of memory coming out of resistance struggles and the retrieval of the imaginations and courage of women who resisted. In an on-line conference at Penn State held recently, we talked about what we are calling “feminism” today; and that it is an expression of all the struggles that women across the universe have engaged in.

We are the ones who initiate the energy of resistance and struggle for freedom and justice, because we are the first enslaved in the heteronormative family unit and we fight against patriarchy from the very beginning. By the time we encountered colonialism, we knew this monster because we had been fighting it for a very long time.

This is why feminism is so powerful: because it is not an event that is just emerging now. It is embedded in the oldest memories of human consciousness about freedom. We are born with this instinct to be free and then begin the struggle to resist the attempts to appropriate our freedom, which we experience through the marking of our bodies and the commodification of our bodies. Feminism has to be grounded in an understanding that we, African women, have fought for our freedom in the last 500 years of racism and colonialism.

We can breed, we can labor, we are creative, we are the first mathematicians, the first scientists, the first agriculturalists, we are a treasure trove. In the moment of male awareness about how amazing and central women are in the creation of surplus and the re-creation of human productivity, then arises the notion of power, exercised through the ownership of women’s bodies.

The heterosexual family unit is the site of ownership, surveillance, discipline and incarceration for women, while appropriating our ideas and recycling them, and using them to keep us excluded from the larger trajectory of the human journey. That moment of resistance against patriarchy is the foundation stone of feminism and retrieving those narratives is crucial to sustaining feminism as a personal and political mantra and lived reality.

The Liberation movement was an opportunity for us to break out of a long history of fighting individually because we couldn’t enter the public, a male-dominated space. Then, we finally could bring our legacies of resistance to the public anti-colonial struggle. Now we must consolidate our feminism as the culmination of struggles to regain our freedom as complete and autonomous human beings.

Interview conducted by Tica Moreno and Bianca Pessoa
Edition and proofreading by Helena Zelic

Related articles