A Feminist Army

I have been taking some time out to reflect upon the last three years, to process what has happened because, of course, some experiences are difficult to process when they are happening. By some experiences I am referring primarily to the work we have been doing to try and expose the problem of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct within universities. That work is work we share with many others. After I made public the reasons for my resignation, I was overwhelmed by the feminist solidarity and support I received. Each message brought a message home to me, one I have been trying to write about: living a feminist life is about how we connect with and draw upon each other in our shared project of dismantling worlds.

It is slow and painstaking work but, chip by chip, we chip away. In my killjoy survival kit I discuss how feminist killjoys need breaks from killjoying (yes it can be a doing word because it is what we are doing). It can be exhausting doing this kind of work. I have written before about how you become a problem when you expose a problem. But even if you have written about this problem of becoming a problem it does not stop you from becoming a problem all over again.

And so sometimes: we take a break from the work in order to do the work.

Whilst I have been away from my blog, we have chosen a book cover for Living A Feminist Life! You can see the cover here.

The image used on the cover is by the feminist artist Carrie Moyer who is well known for her work in Dyke Action Machine! (DAM!), one of the first queer interventionist public art projects. The image is a contemporary reimagining of the classic feminist symbol of a clenched first bursting through the woman sign (well I like to think of it as bursting). I first discussed this feminist symbol in the conclusion of Willful Subjects (2014). I come back to it in Living a Feminist Life. I come back to the symbol because my book takes up the “call to arms,” with which I ended my earlier work. I wanted to hear the arms in this call, or to hear the arms as calling.

The arm came to matter to me as a figure because of how arms came up in the willfulness archive. I want to share that story of how arms came to matter as a way of exploring what it means to assemble a feminist army.(1)

Living a Feminist Life tells my own story of becoming a feminist. A story always begins before it can be told. To become feminist can often mean looking for company; looking for others who share that becoming. This search for feminist companionship began for me through books; I withdrew into my room with books. It was willful girls who caught my attention. In writing my book Willful Subjects I formalized my pursuit of willful girls into a research trajectory. Once I began to follow the figure of a willful girl, I found she turned up all over the place. It was by following this figure that I came to encounter new texts, ones that had a ghostly familiarity, even if I had not read them before. One of these texts was titled “the Willful Child.” It is a grim story, and a Grimm story. Let me share this story again, for those of you who have not read it before:

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

What a story. The willful child: she has a story to tell. This story can be treated as a teaching tool, as well as a way of teaching us about tools (the rods, the machinery of power). We learn how willfulness is used as an explanation of disobedience: a child disobeys because she is willful, when she is not willing to do what her mother wills her to do. We do not know in the story what it was that the child was not willing to do. Disobedience is not given content because disobedience as such becomes a fault: the child must do whatever her mother wishes. She is not willing, whatever.

What is striking about this story is how willfulness persists even after death: displaced onto an arm, from a body onto a body part. The arm inherits the willfulness of the child insofar as it will not be kept down, insofar as it keeps coming up, acquiring a life of its own, even after the death of the body of which it is a part. Note that the rod, as that which embodies the will of the parent, of the sovereign, is not deemed willful. The rod becomes the means to eliminate willfulness from the child. One will judges the other wills as willful wills. One will assumes the right to eliminate the others.

We might note here how the very judgment of willfulness is a crucial part of the disciplinary apparatus. It is this judgment that allows violence (even murder) to be understood as care as well as discipline. The rod becomes a technique for straightening out the willful child with her wayward arm.

This Grimm story forms part of a tradition of educational writing that Alice Miller (1987) in For Your Own Good calls “poisonous pedagogy,” a tradition that assumes the child as stained by original sin, and which insists on violence as moral correction, as being for the child. Just consider that in this story the only time that the child is at rest is when she is beneath the ground. By implication, when the child gives up or gives up her will, when she stops struggling against those she must obey (her mother, God) when she is willing to obey, she will be at ease.

Becoming willing to obey would avoid the costs of not being willing. A willing girl, who does not appear in this story, is willing to obey, which is to say, she is willing not to have a will of her own. The willing girl does not appear, but she is the one to whom the story is addressed: the story is a warning of the consequences of not being willing to obey.

Once I noticed this arm, how it came up, it stuck with me. I was struck; even stricken. The arm of the Grimm story is striking in the sense of attracting attention. It is striking because of how it appears. It comes up in a scene of violence. It comes alive after death. The arm is life after death. Before the grim ending, the arm is held up in a moment of suspension. Despite the morbid nature of this story, the arm becomes a signifier of hope; the arm in suspension is still rising.

Willfulness: persistence in the face of having been brought down. We have to reach the arm to carry that spark, to feel the pulse of its fragile life. We catch the arm in that moment of suspension.

So: even after the willful child has been brought down, something, some spark, some kind of energy, persists. The arm gives flesh to this persistence. The arm has to disturb the ground, to reach up, to reach out of the grave, that tomb, that burial.

We can twist the morbid ending into a feminist plot. The arm is at rest not because she has been beaten but in order that she return to her work; so that she can come up again.

A feminist plot: she is waiting when she appears willing. Behind the scenes: she is waiting.

We could thus rethink the Grimm story as an institutional story; institutions can be grim, after all. It is a story that circulates within institutions. It offers a warning, a threat: speak up and you will be beaten. The story is also an invitation to those who are at risk of identification with the wayward arm: an invitation to become the rod as a way of avoiding the consequences of being beaten. Become the rod: too much violence is abbreviated here. But we witness the endless invitations to identify with those who discipline as a way of not being beaten. No wonder: the willful child comes up whenever there is a questioning of institutional will. Whenever, say, she brings up sexism or racism, the willful child quickly comes after her: as if to say, speak up and her fate will be yours. There are many within institutions who cannot afford that fate; there are many who cannot raise their arms in protest even when the will of the institution is exposed as violence. We need to support those who are willing to expose the will of the institution as violence; we need to become our own support system, so that when she speaks up, when she is, as she is, quickly represented as the willful child who deserves her fate, who is beaten because her will is immature and impoverished, she will not be an arm coming up alone; she will not be an arm all on her own.

Perhaps the arm in the Grimm story is also a feminist point. To make a feminist point is to go out on a limb. No wonder the arm keeps coming up. She makes a sore point. She is a sore point. We keep saying it because they keep doing it: assembling the same old bodies, doing the same old things. She keeps coming up because there is so much history to bring up. But when she comes up, this history is what is not revealed. Her arm is spectacular; when she makes these points, she becomes the spectacle. Her soreness becomes the spectacle. And no wonder: what follows her aims to discipline her. And no wonder: what precedes her aims to warn her.

And yet: she persists.

We can think of feminism as a history of persistence. Feminist history is a history of becoming army. Perhaps then: it is not that the child is willful because she disobeys but rather that the child becomes willful in order to disobey. In order to persist with her disobedience, the child becomes her arm. It is not that the arm inherits willfulness from the child. The child inherits willfulness from her arm. Her arm: a willful becoming. She claims her arm as her own. No wonder the arm in the Grimm story appears all alone. This is how the story operates most powerfully as ideology: the implication that disobedience is lonely and unsupported. We can willfully hear the story as a plea: to join arms, to show the arms as joined.

We assemble a feminist army in response to this plea. A feminist army of arms would pulse with shared life and vitality. Feminist arms do not lend their hand to support the familial or the social order. We support those who do not support the reproduction of that order. The arm that keeps coming up might not be willing to do the housework, to maintain his house, to free his time for thought. When women refuse to be helping hands, when we refuse to clean for him, up after him, when we refuse to be his secretary, the keeper of his secrets, his right hand, we become willful subjects.

We can understand why, of all her limbs, the arm matters. An arm is what allows you to reach, to carry, to hold, to complete certain kinds of tasks. Arms are identified throughout history as the limbs of labor or even the limbs of the laborer. Arms are supposed to be willing to labor. But not all arms. Arlie Hochschild describes how “the factory boy’s arm functioned like a piece of machinery used to produce wallpaper. His employer regarded that arm as an instrument, claimed control over its speed and motions. In this situation, what was the relation between the boy’s arm and his mind? Was his arm in any meaningful sense his own?” ([1983] 2003, 7, emphasis in original). When the laborers’ arms become tools in the creation of wealth, the laborers lose their arms. When they become his arms, the employer’s own arms are freed.

We can hear another sense in which arms are striking. To go on strike is to clench your fist, to refuse to be handy. It is to refuse to work; you are striking against working conditions. When workers refuse to allow their arms to be the master’s tool, they strike. The clenched fist remains a revolutionary sign for labor movements, internationally. The arm in the grim story belongs to this history, too: the arm is a revolutionary limb; a promise of what is to come, of how history is still but not yet done.

A feminist does not lend her hand; she too curls her fist. The clenched fist is a protest against the sign woman (by being in the sign woman) as well as resignifying the hands of feminism as protesting hands. Feminist hands are not helping hands in the sense that they do not help women help. When a hand curls up as a feminist fist, it has a hand in a movement.

Arms remind us too that labor, who works for whom, is a feminist issue. Labor includes reproductive labor: the labor of reproducing life; the labor of reproducing the conditions that enable others to live. Black women and women of color; working-class women; migrant women; women who have worked in the factories, in the fields, at home; women who care for their own children as well as other children; such women have become the arms for other women whose time and energy has been freed. Any feminism that lives up to the promise of that name will not free some women from being arms by employing other women to take their place. Feminism needs to refuse this division of labor, this freeing up of time and energy for some by the employment of the limbs of others. If the freeing up of time and energy depends on other people’s labor, we are simply passing our exhaustion on to others. We can recall bell hooks’s critique of Betty Friedan’s solution to the unhappiness of the housewife, to the “problem that has no name.” hooks notes “she did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions” (2000, 1–2).

When being freed from labor requires others to labor, others are paying the price of your freedom. That is not freedom. A feminist army that gives life and vitality to some women’s arms by taking life and vitality from other women’s arms is reproducing inequality and injustice. That is not freedom. For feminism to become a call to arms, we have to refuse to allow the arms to become dead labor. We have to refuse to support the system that sucks the blood, vitality, and life from the limbs of workers.

We need to hear the arms in the call to arms. A call is also a lament, a passionate expression of grief and sorrow.Willfulness might not only be a protest against violence but a demand for return: a return of the child, a return of her arm. We can begin to understand what is being demanded: a demand for return is also a demand for recognition of the theft of life and vitality from bodies; from arms. It is a demand for reparation.

A call of arms is thus a recall. We can recall Sojourner Truth speaking to the suffragettes, having to insist on being a woman as a black woman and former slave: “Ain’t I a woman,” she says. “Look at me,” she says. “Look at my arm.” It is said that Sojourner Truth, during her insistent speech, “bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power” (cited in Zackodnick 2011, 99). In Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis notes how Truth in pointing to her arm is challenging the “weaker sex” arguments that were being used by those who opposed the suffragette cause. These were arguments that rested on flimsy evidence of flimsy bodies: “that it was ridiculous for women to desire the vote, since they could not even walk over a puddle or get into a carriage without the help of men” (Davis 1983, 61). Sojourner Truth in her speech as it has been recorded by others evokes her own laboring history: “I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me. . . . I have borne thirteen children and seen them most all sold off to slavery” (99). The muscularity of her arm is an inheritance of history; the history of slavery shown in the strength of the arm, the arm required to plow, to plant, to bear the children who end up belonging to the master.

The arms of the slave belonged to the master, as did the slaves, as the ones who were not supposed to have a will of their own. Any will is a willful will if you are not supposed to have a will of your own. Of course we cannot simply treat the arm evoked here as Truth’s arm. The arm does not provide its own testimony. It was Frances Dana Barker Gage, a leading white feminist, reformer, and abolitionist, who gave us this well-known account of Truth’s speech as well as her “army testimony.” This account is itself a citation: our access to Sojourner Truth’s address is possible only through the testimony of others; to be more specific, through the testimony of white women.We learn from this to be cautious about our capacity to bear witness to the labor and speech of arms in history: we might be able to hear the call of arms only through the mediation of other limbs. This mediation does not mean we cannot hear truth. Patricia Hill Collins notes this lack of access as a “limitation” in her account of Truth’s speech: “Despite this limitation, in that speech Truth reportedly provides an incisive analysis of the definition of the term woman forwarded in the mid-1800s” (2000, 12). Collins thus treats Truth’s speech as an example of an intellectual at work: she shows how Truth deconstructs the category “woman” by exposing the gap between her own embodied experiences as an African American woman and the very category “woman” (12–13).

In different hands, arms can become deconstructive limbs, or intersectional points. Arms can embody how we fail to inhabit a category. Arms can be how we insist on inhabiting a category we are assumed to fail. Arms can throw a category into crisis. The arms go on strike when they refuse to work; when they refuse to participate in their own subordination.  No wonder we must look to the arm, if we are to understand the history of those who rise up against oppression.

Arms: they will keep coming up.

Willfulness: how some rise up by exercising the very limbs that have been shaped by their subordination.

And: it is those women who have to insist on being women, those who have to insist willfully on being part of the feminist movement, sometimes with a show of their arms, who offer the best hope for a feminist revolution.

The arms that built the house are the arms that will bring it down.

(1) The writing that follows is a revised version of parts of chapter 3, “Willfulness and Feminist Subjectivity,” from Living a Feminist Life.


Collins, Patricia Hill (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics  of Empowerment, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

Davis, Angela [1981] (1983). Women, Race and Class. New York: Vintage Books Edition.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. (2003) [1983]. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.

Miller, Alice (1987). For Your Own Good: The Roots of Violence in Child-Rearing. London: Virago Press.

Zackodnik, Teresa (2011). Press, Platform, Pulpit: Black Feminist Publics in the Era of  Reform. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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8 Responses to A Feminist Army

  1. Makere says:

    Reblogged this on Makere's Blog and commented:
    Utterly brilliant.

  2. Tempest says:

    Reblogged this on Tempest.

  3. Sundari Anitha says:

    Dear Sara
    Can I possibly contact you via email – I am editing a book on gbv in university communities and wondered if I could have a word with you.

  4. Benny says:

    Thank you for this, and everything you do. Note that the child never actually dies in the story: she is on the death-bed, then she is lowered into the grave. Institutions bury you alive. You insist on living, you continue to reach out. They strike that reach down. What reaches out is buried.

  5. Benny says:

    Thank you for this and everything you do. Note that the child never actually dies in the story: she is on her death-bed, she is lowered into the grave. Institutions bury you alive. You insist on living, you continue to reach out. They strike that reach down. What reaches out is buried.

    • I think that’s a good point! I often talked of this story when presenting from Willful Subjects, and it is ambiguous, think. Some people felt very much that this was a live burial, that arm comes up because the child was not yet dead, others that the arm raised up was life after death (more like a horror story, of a body that has been killed but keeps coming back to life). By the time of returning to the story, I began to feel that ‘willfulness as a death sentence’ was the moral of the story, so I figured the arm as life after death.

      • Benny says:

        thank you so much. Life and Death are defined top-down here I think. If they say you are dead thats what you are, and what you are treated as, buried. Just like when it is said that pointing out sexism or racism is a dead end, “it doesn’t lead the discussion anywhere”. I think the arm reaches out to blur the boundary between the dead and the living, and that is willfulness as you define it. Troubling the boundaries that others pronounce as vital.

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