Feminism and Abolition: A Roadmap of the History and Terminology of Angela Davis’s Speech

Angela Davis art print by Ervina Indarvati. Angela Davis is a political activist, philosopher, and author. She is the author of over fifteen books on class, feminism, race, and the US prison system.

Here is some background on Davis’s speech through terms, history, and statistics to help your reading and understanding of this lengthier text.

Intersectionality: Oxford dictionary defines intersectionality as “The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage; a theoretical approach based on such a premise.” Angela Davis uses “Feminism and Abolition: Theories and Practices for the Twenty-First Century” to point out how every social justice issue is interconnected because of overlapping identities and root causes of race and gender issues. 

The Second Wave of Feminism: A movement beginning in the 1960s that was led by middle class white women and focused exclusively on their liberation. On page 95, Davis discusses how the term “woman” was thrown into question after the movement established a racist exclusivity. Women of color were reluctant to identify with the movement because it wasn’t built to represent them.

School to prison pipeline:  On page 95, Davis warns that “you should be very suspicious because as more youth are rendered disposable, as more youth become a part of surplus populations that can only be managed through imprisonment, the schools that can begin to solve the problems of disposability are being shut down.” Davis is referring to the school to prison pipeline system, which the ACLU defines as “Zero-tolerance” policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules. The use of cops in schools leads to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school.” According to the Justice Policy Institute, black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students. It also disproportionately affects students with a history of poverty, abuse, or neglect. Instead of providing students with resources such as counseling, they are pushed into the juvenile criminal justice system.

Prison industrial complex: The prison industrial complex describes the growth of the US inmate population due to the political influence of private prisons and the resulting economic growth. Big businesses were created to supply goods and services to prisons, such as construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, companies that operate prison food services and medical facilities, correctional officers unions, private probation companies, lawyers, and lobby groups that represent inmates. Inmates are used as cheap or free labor for big corporations. Extensive economic growth has resulted from labor from the incarcerated population. Private prisons benefit from a higher incarceration rate because the more prisoners, the more profit for investors. Although crime has been on the decline since the 1980s, the rate of incarceration has tripled since. This is an example of what Davis describes as capitalist exploitation. 

Nixon and Reagan’s War on Drugs created a permanent class of people who were convicted of minor drug offenses in their youth and struggled to regain education, voter rights, and job opportunities for the rest of their lives. According to the Sentencing Project, black Americans are jailed 5 times the rate of white Americans, and in some states, even 10 times. In 11 states, 1 of every 20 black men has been imprisoned/currently in prison. 

Source: The Sentencing Project. June 14, 2016. Created by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D.

Gender is also amplified in prisons. Davis discusses this on page 99, saying “Male prisons are represented as violent places. But we see, especially by looking at the predicament of trans women, that this violence is often encouraged by the institutions themselves.” 

The uniting thread of Davis’s speech is the abolition of prisons because of the disproportionate effects it has on black, POC, differently abled, and LGBTQ communities that already face discrimination inside and out of prisons. 

Passing privilege: Someone who has a marginalized identity, but can pass for an non-marginalized identity. When discussing race, white passing privilege is when a person of color can pass as white and potentially receive the privileges of being white. When discussing gender, passing privilege can be seen when trans people who look cis and are treated better than those who do not. Angela Davis discusses this on page 100, saying “Why are trans women– and especially black trans women who cannot easily pass– why are they considered so far outside the norm? They are considered outside the norm by almost everyone in society.” Those who do not have passing privilege feel the effects of their several overlapping marginalized identities, especially black trans women. According to the NCTE’s U.S. Transgender Survey, which included more than 28,000 respondents, 47% of all Black respondents reported being denied equal treatment, verbally harassed, and/or physically attacked in the previous year because of being transgender. 80% of trans women killed in the past five years were black, and only 42 percent of the cases resulted in an arrest. 

Gender spectrum: The idea that expresses that gender is a spectrum instead of a binary. Davis discusses the nonbinary structure of gender on page 101, saying “The more closely we examine it, the more we discover that it is embedded in a range of social, political, cultural, and ideological formations. It is not one thing. There is not one definition, and certainly gender cannot now be adequately described as a binary structure with male being one pole and female being at the other.” In the “Gender is Not a Spectrum” article we read earlier this year, author Reilly-Copper argued that gender cannot be a spectrum because it is a social construction that does not take in account an individual’s background or life experiences. Instead of creating new terms and boxes to fit people into, the author argues that we must make the boxes disappear altogether. 

Davis also argues that expression of gender relies on every individual’s background. Every culture experiences gender differently, and it can be influenced by social and political factors, such as a country’s acceptance of non binary identities. Davis’s idea of gender seems to be similar to Reilly-Cooper’s, but still falls under the idea of being a spectrum. 

Internalized misogyny: Internalized misogyny takes the form of sexist behaviors from women targeting other women. 

This is typically a reflection of the environment in which the woman was raised (the degree to which she experienced sexism, her level of education on what sexism looks like), rather than a reflection of her character. The cause of internalized misogyny is the systems men built to oppress women. An example we see of this pretty frequently is how we are taught to compare ourselves to other women and tear them down. 

Davis creates an example when she says,“Now a few years earlier, 1979, a white woman by the name of Sandy Stone was working at the feminist recording company Olivia Records. This woman was broadly attacked by some self-defined lesbians for not really being a woman, and for bringing masculine energy into women’s spaces. As it turns out, Sandy Stone was a trans woman.” The attack upon Sandy Stone is an intersection between internalized misogyny and glaring transphobia. These women were taught that in order to be a woman, you have to be incredibly feminine, which is an idea that was taught to them because of a patriarchal society (sounds corny, but it is true). However, internalized misogyny cannot be used to excuse transphobic behavior because they are not the same at all. 

Lenses: Using perspectives other than one’s own to understand the different sides of an issue. Davis builds an example of identifying an intersectional issue by switching the lenses by which we view it on page 105. She says, “It is true that we cannot begin to think about the abolition of prisons outside of an antiracist context. It is also true that anti prison abolition embraces or should embrace the abolition of gender policing.” Similarly, when we follow the main thread of the speech– the abolition of the aftereffects of the prison industrial complex– we must look at the benefactors of private prisons and the oppressed to understand how this system operates. 

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