Bernard E. Harcourt | Three Dimensions of Abolition Feminism

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Collective abolition feminist organizing, teaching, and learning bring us together. As scholars, educators, and organizers, we are involved in projects that revolve around prison and police abolition, as we attempt to grow anti-carceral approaches within feminist anti-violence movements.

— Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R Meiners, and Beth E. Richie, Abolition. Feminism. Now. 2022.[1]

As a history of ideology, No Mercy Here demonstrates that the legal cases of black women like Emma Johnson represented a cultural battleground in a contest over gendered and racial constructions of humanity.

— Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here, 2017.[2]

At our seminar on abolition feminism with Sarah Haley, Revolution 12/13, we will explore the long history of feminist abolitionist activism and theory that extends back not only two decades to the turn of the twenty-first century with the collaborative political organizing of INCITE! and Critical Resistance, but much further back, centuries back, to the feminist abolitionist struggle against slavery and the uniquely violent forms which it took against Black women, as well as the forms of resistance going back to the Combahee River battle for instance.

Our discussion will be guided by our reading of both the new collective book, Abolition. Feminism. Now. by Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R Meiners, and Beth E. Richie, and the extraordinary historical research of Sarah Haley on the racial and gendered construction of our punitive society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially connected to convict leasing, chain gangs, and the Milledgeville State Prison Farm in Georgia, in her book, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity.

On my reading of these remarkable texts, there are three interlocking dimensions that come together to give abolition feminism so much momentum today, both in terms of activism and movement work and in terms of critical theory—in other words, in both theory and praxis.

Two of those dimensions are clearly articulated in the work of Davis, Dent, Meiners, and Richie (henceforth, the Collective), and reflected in the very title of their book and of the movement; but there is a third important dimension—a longue durée historical dimension—from Haley’s book No Mercy Here that provides an essential and rich context and a history of ideological formation that grounds abolition feminism today.

Without being too reductionist, one could say that the first dimension, abolition, highlights resistance to state violence against Black men and women and communities more broadly; that the second dimension, feminism, spotlights resistance to interpersonal (most often male) violence against women in everyday life; and that the third dimension, the history of ideology, underscores the unique forms of state violence against women of color. At the same time, although the three dimensions highlight different aspects of the complex—or as Haley says, drawing on Dylan Rodriguez, “regime”—of race-and-gender domination, they combine to form an extremely coherent praxis of non-violent, transformative, visionary movement work. What’s particularly impressive is to see how those dimensions enrich each other—rather than competing with each other. How they work together to create a remarkable whole that is greater than its parts.

First, the abolitionist dimension. The dimension of PIC abolition (abolition of the prison-industrial-complex), which has a long history going back, in the United States, to the formation of Critical Resistance in the late 1990s and globally to prison abolitionist theory and praxis of the 1970s, offers a robust vision that seeks to dismantle the prison, police, juvenile detention, and other institutions of the punitive society, and replace them, and more broadly capitalist society, with positive, supportive, cooperationist forms of governing. The Collective emphasizes that abolition is inextricably linked to anti-racism and anti-capitalism, and in that sense, is tied to the longer arc of Black feminism that goes back to the Combahee River Collective statement from 1977 (which we studied earlier with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at Revolution 4/13). The Collective also emphasizes a robust conception of abolition that is not limited to the negative task of abolishing certain institutions, but also includes the positive task of reconstruction that is articulated in Angela Davis’s book Abolition Democracy and that engages as well the thought and writings of W.E.B. Dubois from Black Reconstruction in America—as we explored last year in the Abolition Democracy 13/13 series.

Second, the feminist dimension. This is not always present in #defund and abolitionist discourse. This second dimension highlights the need to assure the safety of women, non-binary, queer, and transgender persons from the violence mostly of men and from the harms of heteropatriarchy. Abolitionist feminism underscores the dual tasks of ensuring the welfare and safety of women, while at the same time, not reverting to the punitive mechanisms of the state. In the genealogy that the Collective traces, this second dimension is constituted by movements and organizations like INCITE! and others that oppose carceral feminism. As the Collective explains, the struggle to end violence against women took on a carceral turn toward criminal law enforcement (mandatory arrest and no-drop policies, for instance) during the latter part of the twentieth century. As they explain, the effort of the Collective and abolitionist feminist activism is to end violence against women without recourse to the police or prisons—to find a different paradigm than the “criminal justice system” as a way to end violence against women. This coming together of anti-violence and anti-prisons/police creates a unique form of activism.

But there is also a third dimension represented by the historical research of Sarah Haley—a dimension with its own distinctiveness. In her work, Haley meticulously explains the ideological construction of our punitive society by focusing on the forms of punishment meted out to Black women at the turn of the twentieth century in the state of Georgia, the practices of convict leasing and the chain gang. Haley shows us the ideological groundwork that founds our contemporary understandings and prejudices regarding the human condition. Haley writes that she is trying to explain “the necessity of violence against black women’s bodies in the maintenance of white supremacy as an ideological, economic and political order during a period of rapid historical transition.”[3]

This third dimension grounds the other two by providing the historical arc, trajectory, and context for the struggle of abolitionist feminism. It also provides the urgency and necessity. Of course, that urgency and necessity is evident in the Collective’s book and in the more recent and pervasive history of violence against women and police killings—the contemporary context that gave rise to the extraordinary movement for black lives and the protests during the summer of 2020. What Sarah Haley’s work does is expose the depth of the hegemonic structures of belief that entrench ideologies of anti-blackness and heteropatriarchy. Haley’s work not only underscores the urgency of abolitionist feminism, but also highlights how difficult the task is, given the pervasive ideological constructs over the longue durée that have produced contemporary society.

Collectively, these books, in their three-dimensionality, make clear that their vision of abolitionist feminism, though sympathetic with other critiques of racialized mass incarceration, is more radical than others and is inextricably linked to an anti-capitalist and anti-heteropatriarchal vision and activism. This comes through, for instance, in the Collective’s engagement with Michelle Alexander and Ava DuVernay, where they emphasize that the problems of racialized mass incarceration cannot be solved “by conventional and domestic civil rights activism” but that they will necessarily entail “disturbing larger global frameworks of power such as capitalism and heteropatriarchy.”[4]

The Collective frames its intervention as what it calls a “critical genealogy” rather than a manifesto. In part, this is because the manifesto, to a certain extent, is the original INCITE!-Critical Resistance statement from 2001 that is included as an appendix to the book at pages 175 to 181. That text does serve as a manifesto, with specific calls on social justice movements to think through the abolitionist feminist lens. The critical genealogy points back to that earlier text—but it also points forward. In an open, inviting, and engaging manner, the Collective hopes to create more dialogue, more praxis, more reflection. “The goal of our collective writing,” the authors conclude, is “to expand dialogue, practice, reflection, and more.”[5]

Haley’s historical research amplifies the first two dimensions of interlocking systems of state and interpersonal violence by exposing the ideological construction—gendered and racialized—of our world and our present reality. Haley offers a “history of ideology” and shows in minute detail, through the archives of punishment, how those punitive forms contributed to “the construction of racially determined and defined gendered subject positions during the long historical era in which segregation took hold.”[6]

It’s a privilege to have Sarah Haley join us at Revolution 12/13 to discuss and reflect on abolition feminism.

Welcome to Revolution 12/13!


[1] Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R Meiners, and Beth E. Richie, Abolition. Feminism. Now. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022), 10.

[2] Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 7.

[3] Haley, No Mercy Here, 7.

[4] Davis, Dent, Meiners, and Richie, Abolition. Feminism. Now., 61.

[5] Davis, Dent, Meiners, and Richie, Abolition. Feminism. Now., xiv.

[6] Haley, No Mercy Here, 7.