The first time I started speaking out against the injustices done to women, I found myself at a loss. I was 20. I was afraid of stepping on people’s toes. I was afraid of causing chaos and facing issues head on so I found myself “treading carefully.” I recently realised there is a word for what I was doing.
Hmm. Such a big word you know. So what exactly is it?
Respectability politics or the politics of respectability refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as it’s failure to accept difference . The concept was first articulated in 2001 by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920.
Respectability politics is practiced as a way of attempting to consciously set aside and undermine cultural and moral practices thought to be disrespected by wider society, especially in the context of the family and good manner.
One way to challenge respectability politics is reclaiming negative stereotypes associated with minority communities, rather than disassociating from them. This can take place in the form of rebranding words that have been used as insults towards communities.
Rebranding of the derogatory term “ratchet” and “slut” or “whore” has been one way black women specifically have pushed back against respectability politics. Black women who identify as ratchet reclaim the negative stereotypes associated with black culture, such as hyper-sexuality, and instead embrace individualism.
The strategy of reclaiming negative stereotypes has been acknowledged as having potential for black feminine liberation, but has also been criticized for its limitations contained within the confines of the terms that are being reconceptualised for example,
ratchet is associated with heterosexuality, which confines potential to liberate in the context of being ‘ratchet’.
Morden respectability politics for women is farther complicated because of inconsistent societal pressures for women in regards to sexuality. According to Lara Karaian, a Professor from Carleton University, women receive inconsistent messages about what is respectable sexual behavior, which leads to sexual victimization and slut shaming (most often for young girls).
One way in which women can abide by respectability politics is through their clothing. The ways in which women dress are highly indicative of their place and level of respectability within society and a community. Women who dress respectably are more likely to be admitted into social and political institutions compared to women dress like “whores” or “sluts”.
To some scholars, getting married is also an example of respectability politics for women. While being married gives participants access to a variety of benefits like health care and tax benefits, they argue that this also comes with the necessity to abide by bourgeois respectability.
This type of respectability is specific to women, and requires that women “perform a service in the marriage”. These services include satisfying men’s sexual needs and caring for the household.
Today, respectability politics within marriages are challenged but not erased by greater levels of economic and social equality between men and women and that is why most people call me a home breaker because I am radical feminist.