Forest Green Feminism | Earth-survival radical feminism
Without a viable planet, no oppression really matters; we’ll be dead. Second to Earth’s survival, though, is a future where radical feminism and all its concerns, which are the concerns of women, move forward through the bottleneck of collapse. These issues include but are not limited to patriarchy and male supremacy, white supremacy, classism, the oppression of the disabled.
It’s not that women are helpless pawns, it’s that women are oppressed: the subjugated sex, the sex with all the rules and constraints and expectations for meek conformity. Women are raped (at least one in four is the accepted stat); women face violent abuse (50%), and even death (1300 per year) from the men they love at statistically horrifying rates (http://www.stopdv.org/index.php/statistics/). And when women leave their abusers? That’s where men commit 75% of DV murders. (http://www.domesticabuseshelter.org/infodomesticviolence.htm)
Where is “agency” in all this?
I can tell you where it is – it’s in the minds and the ideals of so-called Third Wave feminists. Take that “agency” out and test it, and it falls flat. It’s no protection, it’s no counterbalance to very real male behavior. The belief that women are things, varying from arm candy to cum dumpsters, is at the core of pornographized culture. And most of the culture is deeply pornographized. We are living in porn culture. If you don’t believe these last three sentences, take a look at Pornhub, and note that in 2017, the site had 81 million views – per DAY, and 800 searches per second. (https://www.pornhub.com/insights/2017-year-in-review) Don’t buy their propaganda, though. In most of the US “lesbian” is the most-searched category, of course by men, but Pornhub quietly attributes the searches to women, and uses the words “MeToo” and “empowered” to preach feminine agency.
“From the “Me too” movement to prominent females the likes of Hillary
Clinton and Nikki Haley on the world stage, women are feeling more
empowered and they have found their voice. This is a sign of things to come.”
Are there men who actually see women as level equals? If you put “separate but” in front of that equality, then sure. Because all of maleness is determined by not-femaleness. Don’t believe me? How often do you, if female, share clothing with your significant other, if male, IN PUBLIC? How often do you wear his shirts to the mall? His shoes? How often does he wear yours?
Male clothing is different from female clothing, and those who overlap, defy the difference without making a spectacle of it, are female. Our notion of sex, male or female, is based on difference. And our notion of sexuality is also based on that difference – for heterosexuals, men are different from women and that is part of what is supposed to create the sexual tension between the sexes. Problem: it’s a hierarchy. Heterosexuality is BASED on dominance and subordination.
Have some hets worked beyond this? Of course we (female partners) have. “But that’s also an issue to deal with in the larger culture.
Sitting in your own home, discussing decisions to be made, voices may be perfectly equal. Say you’ve decided on a paint color for your kitchen. Now go to the paint store together. Even though it’s for a kitchen, considered a female domain, and even though both men and women capably paint walls, chances are the worker at the paint store will focus on the man. Or go buy a car together. It matters not that you’ve done hours of comparison work, have memorized the 0-60 time, wheelbase, engine specs, and trunk capacity for ten comparable cars, and he’s checked out colors he likes, the sales staff will gravitate toward him. Out in the culture, you’re not allowed that equality you think you established at home. He will be treated with deference, as an expert or authority, while you will be adjunct, and ignored. He may not even realize it, because it feels like basic decent treatment to him. And he hasn’t spent a lot of thought, short of egregious things like shoving and swearing, on how you’re treated.
It comes out when discussing plans for your home and he says, “I’m going to …” Or “I did this …” when you know damn good and well that you participated, sometimes did the majority of the work, and will do the same in the future. He also says “My house” and never “Our house” when he’s talking projects. He’s been trained to do this all his life. He has agency; he sees himself happiest as a free individual, able to make decisions without encumbrances from anywhere. It turns out that agency is really a male ideal, and one that has some irksome effects on the females who care about them!
“I’ve seen young women obsess over equally innocuous behavior — and I’m worried about how many of them might spend their lives feeling powerless because of one tiny moment.”
But women aren’t feeling powerless because of a momentary glimpse of a body – the powerlessness comes from realizing, as the author has written earlier in the piece (without any hint of irony):
“While I am certainly aware that men wield power over women in this society, what I find more difficult to accept is that they wield power over me, specifically. I can’t stand that it’s impossible to make myself equal simply by behaving as though that were the case.”
If young women are obsessing, then it’s time to encourage confronting the issue and healing by working through it. We old/er or simply other women have done this, either decades past or we’re still doing it, but from a place where we function, no obsessions.
The powerlessness comes from recognizing the hierarchy, and the fact that women are the Low to men’s High! It’s a completely accurate analysis! We CAN’T wish ourselves into equal power. That’s the point. That’s why it’s Women’s Liberation and not Wishful Agency. Actual feminists want to take down the system, including its hierarchy, and create something different. Not Lean In, not some version of male-defined power with female faces, not women’s equality with men, not even “agency.”
In comparison to male agency, women’s communication is focused on community, connection. We’ve been trained to do this all our lives. People who study communication, especially by sex, find this difference to a striking degree. (See the classic, “You Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Communication.”)
If agency is a male ideal, women using it in dealing with men in a hierarchical setting have little chance of success. Does that make women into children? If it does, it’s patriarchy that created the situation, not me. And not my framing.
If calling out the fraudulent nature of female “agency” infantilizes women, it is the culture that renders women childlike. We need to change the culture. Granted, it’s easier to critique the various writings by women, often claiming feminism as their basis for understanding the issue, than it is to do the work of tearing down the culture. But it’s the culture that is our biggest issue. Its hierarchy. Its individualizing and isolating men, except in devaluing women: arm candy or cum dumpster. No, really, take a gander at Pornhub, or read Suzzan Blac’s blog at http://theviolenceofpornography.blogspot.co.uk/
A more useful analysis starts from recognizing women’s strength in our socialization. It’s not winning in competition or freedom from encumbrance that motivates most of us most deeply. It’s not the individualism of agency that grounds us best. It is in connection with others, and in creating community and then nourishing it, that we find ourselves – in both senses: we end up there, and we find fulfillment there. Genevieve Vaughan has written that humans find their worth in meeting the legitimate needs of others. A more useful analysis would then require men to become and be human. Or at least get out of the way.
So argue with me! If you’re a woman who sees men as almost as helpless before the gods of culture, share and explain your view.
I see male power. I see the opportunities to use it for good, even as men claim it’s not enough, it’s virtually useless! Bull. I see white privilege, another name for power. I see the opportunities to use it for good – and I see my kind dodging responsibility, not wanting to make waves or stand out or be labeled a troublemaker. But, oh, this culture needs trouble from the wave-makers! It needs troublemakers who dare to stand out. Not every single moment, and not without risk assessment – best to live to fight another day, usually. But fight.
There is a group I’d love to attend, on some levels, and so I went to the introductory session with the following thoughts in mind. The journaling group is based on the ideas of its creator, combined with the wisdoms to be found in Dr. Estes’s popular book, Women Who Run With the Wolves. My first comments are my hope of finding other women who want to help women become re-empowered locally, something I share with a dear friend who received the original email notice for the group. Later I refer to the introductory flyer.
We old women have the time, energy, and relative freedom to make effective, lasting change that young women, as well as the middle-aged among us, often do not. We may even have acquired wisdom – especially if we have been marginalized in some way AND have engaged in analyses of our oppressions via existing writings on the topics and in discussions with other women, or people who share those marginalizations.
I want to find the boat-rockers. I want to find women who already have some depth of analysis and who want to strike out against what is wrong based on that deeper understanding of HOW things are wrong. And then, together, I want to work on helping to empower other adult human females so that we can wreak havoc on wrongness, as an effective and caring coalition of women. A sisterhood would be awesome, but that needs to be earned; coalition is good enough for now, I think. You can be who you are, that’s fine. I’m a radical feminist. My political analysis is based on the hierarchies of the castes assigned to people under the existing system. Those are hierarchies by sex, race, class analysis beyond the 1 vs 99% view, and more. Radical means getting to the root of any issue, and one of my strongest motivations is the empowering of all human females so that we can create an effective, and level, counter to the inequities that rule our lives.
Maiden – Mother – Wisewoman (Crone) has issues beyond what the added ‘Prostitute’ brings in. This is age-related, so why not just use Crone? Ageism is inherent, though, if wisdom is solely seen as being gained with age. Even age doesn’t guarantee it! And the age-triad reinforces the errant concept of ‘linear progress,’ where young feminists, except for the especially brave and brilliant, have been coerced to believe that second-wave feminism was not in their best interests, and was actually anti-woman! It was, it is in women’s best interests, as it is female centered. That’s its flaw in the backlash: it refuses to center men.
The focus on motherhood, both a main basis of female oppression and of privileging within the sex-caste hierarchy, is an issue of unnecessary female divide. I say ‘oppression’ because motherhood is our bodily ‘resources, extracted’ by the other sex, and I say ‘privileging’ because any capitulation to patriarchy is rewarded so long as it benefits men. Women who choose not to be mothers at all in this era of global climate catastrophe and human overpopulation should be commended, not marginalized. It could be simply girl, woman, old woman — but why the emphasized division by age, anyway? If it’s focus, name the focus. It might be stated as: Building Self (a major portion of girlhood is drawing or weaving together the characteristics chosen as valuable, creating an honorable and worthwhile Self), Building Family (the gifts of adulthood that women bring include community, connection, and care, which are vital to the creation of one’s own chosen and supportive family), and extending the community outward, or Building Tribe (often older women build across divides).
And why is ‘Prostitute’ an included archetype??? Prostitution is, by definition, female sexual slavery (wherein pornography is the literal depiction of that enslavement). The number of women trafficked into prostitution, often as pre-teen girls, is astronomical. In the US alone the number of girls and women trafficked into this country’s sex trade is roughly 15,000 a year. Worldwide, sex traffickers ‘buy’ or steal almost 2 million children a year. The body-buyers and -abusers are men. It is the ultimate proof of patriarchy — men buy fuckability in human form; under patriarchy men own the right to use others’ (lessers’) bodies for their sexual indulgences. Some countries, legally or otherwise, have sex tourism as a major – if not economically THE major – industry. Thailand and Singapore are “vacation” or “business” destinations most often visited by men, solo or in groups. When businessmen brag about trips to Singapore or Thailand, this is probably what they’re telling you, and getting away with because you don’t know and aren’t encouraged to consider in the current cultural climate of “agency” and acceptance. Now you know.
Awakening the inner artist in every woman, also a time of self-building, makes sense. The warrior in many of us does come out in full force as our immediate obligations to sustaining others’ lives decrease. Women often cannot be frontline activists easily when others are completely dependent on them; women with children feel this deeply, and are released into fighting back overtly, once those children are grown. It may be dangerous to say in this day and age but having children really can limit what women can do communally; maybe that is a lot of the point. Women who settle into culture are also seen as sexual targets up until their early 30s; performance (of “beauty” and of “sexy”) for males is demanded. The freedom of greater age can be a time of community-building, both small and local, and large and bridging customary divides — including race and class and love interests (that which in the negative is Lesbophobia). The wild woman archetype CAN open women to building — fierce and fighting alliances, or coalitions of care, but it can also be co-opted, in this era of more-backlash-than-actual-feminism to mean highly-individualized and individualist goals: being seen as sexy in later years, developing a personal style or look, taking on causes without much analysis. Look at the tremendous boost to the anti-feminist “trans” cult, and the subsequent loss of women’s rights abetted by older women! Or look at the acceptance of pornography and prostitution now seen as “liberated” among so many older women!
During the meeting it became clear that Dr. Estes’s and the group leader’s essentialism, that men and women have very different, roles, goals, and innate personalities, was going to silence my dissenting view. No, I don’t believe that men are innate competitors perfectly fitted to war, football, and sexual aggression aimed at spineless, simpering women. I’m sure to women who are afraid of conflict this might be soothing, another version of ‘it’s not our fault.’ But that is infantilizing, nowhere near a true picture of womanhood, and certainly not covering the range of what many women already are: brave, centered, caring, fierce, loyal builders of connection and community. Some men have shown they are capable of that, but all men are taught to be destroyers, and all women are schooled in valuing men and maleness over other females. That last stuff is culture. I challenge that, always, and in a group where the basis for understanding place, as a woman, is in opposition to this ‘true nature of men,’ I can’t fit.
As I wrote to my friend: I’m just not interested in fawning praise for masculinity, or loyalty to gender. Gender is fake — the social roles each culture enforces upon the two very real sexes are not uniform across cultures, and usually only serve the power structure. I am not a woman who ever fantasized of rape, or who eroticized power differences, men over women. Possibly I’m fairly rare, I don’t really know. But it’s something I never had to confront in myself, or worse, try to unlearn. The whole thing of ‘Ooh, men are innately power-driven and isn’t that SOOO sexy …’ smacks to me of the kind of accepted female subjugation that gets masochism labeled ‘female,’ innately ours. Just no.
I’m glad I attended the introduction. It was comfortable walking in as simply another woman, one among others. I was one of the youngest, too, something I’m not used to, but not by much; we were probably early 60s to late 70s. Seated in the presence of aged women, with agile bodies and active minds, was also comforting. I love my sex; I deeply appreciate women. But the woman who wrote The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football wasn’t praising men, she was critiquing culture. Me, too.
Snowflakes mean ‘specialness.’ Far beyond what Mr. Rogers sang and spoke, people in the US are invested in self, in aggrandizing that self, and in staking space for that self, often in very public ways. A version of Snowflake pairs well with youth, but others as easily accompany age. It’s the “I always knew you were special” of Blade Runner: 2049. It’s the focus in parenting of the Sputnik generation, where students HAD to math best and science finest because Russia HAD to be beaten in the space race and beyond; it’s the birthright of the Gymboree generation. It’s US rugged individualism carried to a petty, obnoxious, all too self-important level, with its basis in group-think. And I did it, too. Maybe I still do, I don’t know. And, of course, it’s wrong.
Two manifestations these days are vegan/vegetarian arrogance, and the cult that allows young men to claim womanhood and, with social approval, punch older feminists who disagree.
This all came up because of a discussion on nutrition. Some of us are aged and experienced, honestly took wrong turns and want to talk about them, and actually care that our miseries don’t repeat unnecessarily. We’ve started offering up articles on nutrition that showcase, usually too simplistically, the results of our deeper and well-considered analyses. If Trump’s given us nothing else he’s provided an escape for us all in claims of “fake news” we can aim at whatever we dislike, in studies and other science. Goddess knows “journalism” has done its part, and science is sold and sealed by corporatocracy. If exposure to education has garnered no other benefit, it has allowed for a critical analysis of studies and philosophies, alike. Feminism is as strong and as accurate as the philosophies of its adherents — and as damned as its backlash is welcomed, culturally.
Remember I led with ‘aged and experienced.’ It’s hard to gather data if you don’t have the time in. And nutrition isn’t, as much as we’d love as a culture to believe, a fast science, leading readily to a quick fix. Dietary changes may feel great, as one toxin is removed, but too often we just replace it with another. Or with deficiency. Most of the adamant vegans and vegetarians are young. Some of the remainder are recent converts. Many of the long-timers have such medical issues logically attributable to vegetarianism that their claims of health ring hollow. And many of us who were vegan or vegetarian for a long while can claim negative health effects clearly linked to our veg eating. I do, and the children I grew within my skin while fully vegetarian also do.
There is nothing quite like looking your child in the eye and admitting that your vegetarian adamance likely caused, or at least contributed to, their neurological damage.
I was that lecturing vegetarian in quality vinyl softball cleats. I was going to save the world through sanctimonious sermons on why killing and eating animals was wrong. Morally, ethically, and nutritionally wrong. I had science and feminism on my side. But mostly I had the righteousness of the many like-minded behind me, the virtue of our being bloodless eaters among those feeding the horrors of industrial farming: dismemberment, disease, and death accrued to them alone. Much later a friend talked of taking younger folks into communities with little money, where the very best of their food was offered to visitors, a gift they really couldn’t afford, only to have it rejected. But the youngers didn’t simply reject the gift, they lectured the givers. Across the vast chasms of race and class, the young white people stepped up and spoke down to those who would share the best of what they had, in kindness and in communal connection. I had done that, in my time.
I honestly don’t care what anyone eats. Most of my view is based on once caring deeply about what everyone ate, and then finding I was actually quite wrong. Evading killing others is impossible, except in our shielded imaginings. We kill bacteria and viruses simply to continue our own lives. Yes, peppers and cucumbers are delicious, and picking their fruits doesn’t end the plants’ lives. What about carrots? Radishes? Kohlrabi? And who carefully takes their apple core and reintroduces it to Nature, not trash and not compost, but back to the ground to have a fighting chance for rebirth? Factory farming is atrocious. But the atrocities also mount in the growing of, say, wheat: biotic cleansing of the soil is just the beginning. Post-harvest, those huge wheat trucks have large numbers of dead grasshoppers in them. We used to sift them out and then crunch the grains, raw and unprocessed, meaning we gained little to no nutrition; the grasshoppers would probably have been better food. But more to the point of beings with faces, with known mothers and families and connections, vegetarian loyalties stated aloud, there is the harvest of death and dismemberment of ground dwellers. Prairie dogs and ground squirrels and nesting birds are all butchered by the machinery, or poisoned, as once I was required to do, by hand.
I strongly recommend Lierre Keith’s amazing book, The Vegetarian Myth. She is gentle, caring, kind, and honest. Her greatest gift is in offering us reconnection to the cycle of life, to understanding that everything is part of a whole; we skew reality when we part things out. Salmon, bears, rivers, and forests all work together to continue life. Paul Stamets has shown how mycelium and trees interconnect for the benefit of all. The world we inhabit is full of intelligence; individuals are but a part of that. And yet we have inflated the importance of individuals so as to obscure the interconnections between beings. And it’s those interconnections that matter most. They are obscured when we ask, How many humans can live on this planet? And they’re obscured when we tell others to take on our perspectives, without considering there might be other and very useful ways of looking at things that we haven’t yet discovered. They’re obscured when we dismiss kindness and community in the service of self-aggrandizement, fall back on entitlement and the self-righteousness of privilege, primarily of being white and male!
Another problem that seems to tie in well here is that of not wanting to be average. Of not wanting to be just one of many, and finding place and positive interaction there. Some of us enter most easily where we can be seen as leaders. Do we spend the same energy or time being members? This seems especially true among women, where we are groomed to distrust, and to compete with, other women, usually for male approval and attention. Men adhere to hierarchy and find their place, occasionally challenging a rung or two upward, but little more. Women, who understand equality deeply — community and connection seem to flow in our veins — seem to struggle with both hierarchy and being lost in the sea of many. Especially as level members, we lose the ability to keep other women at a distance. In large groups of women the hierarchies create space — in conflict, more-privileged women demand we ignore differences, to focus on commonalities. Unfortunately it’s usually privileged difference that causes conflict to begin with, say white women not realizing (or caring about) their evident racism or het women their Lesbophobia.
I see it as probable evidence of entitlement when groups of women face internal conflict. It’s best to work through it, as it never seems to go away otherwise. And sometimes the entitled even make claims of “identity politics” getting in the way of sisterhood. That, not privilege, or entitlement, or hurtful arrogant ways of speaking or seeing. The phrase has become a stopper, a roadblock to further discussion.
Not ironically to me most of the claims against “identity politics” in my field of vision are being made in white female and Black male writings, two groups that embody “identity politics” like no others! Feminism and Black liberation are the original “identity politics.” What’s missing here is an understanding of the difference between ‘Being identified as a member of a sex or race caste’ and ‘Self-identifying as something you’re clearly not.’ That’s a whole ‘nother post that feeds directly off this one. But it ties up the beginning paragraph, here. Snowflakes are self-important individualists with collectivity only in fighting the object of appropriation, in the case of the “trans” phenomenon, or in signalling the highest of virtues, among the adamant vegan/vegetarian lecturers. Again, I don’t care what you eat. I care how you treat others. I care that we nurture one another to be real, humans, caring and connected. Women are losing rights, and privacy, to men. And while the planet storms and swelters, we quibble lifestyles as we oversimplify issues and hide our eyes at the destruction wreaked by our own choices.
Men aren’t women, women can’t escape oppression by claiming to be men, and vegan or vegetarian eating won’t save the planet. There are too many Snowflakes for this time of global warming, of climate catastrophe. My hope is that we all melt, and join in making real, lasting, effective change.
Back when I was first becoming involved with feminist activists as a collective group, I met a white woman who, by all accounts, was respected in the local First Nations communities. When I asked her what worked, she said, “White people come in wanting to lead, wanting to fix things, sure they know just what to do. But we don’t. We aren’t the experts, they are. And whatever the consequences are to an action? They face them, not us. So I just do what they need me to do, follow their lead, and use my white skin privilege to open doors, get what they can’t.” Others added that she had spent years at this, gaining trust and proving she was worthy of it. She was committed to helping First Nations people, and when she was needed she showed up. Every time. She was aware of the different strains of politics among those she used her privilege for, and she stayed out of the political battles.
I thought she was pretty wise back then. In the next few years I would come across innumerable authors, feminists of Color, who said the same basic things. Yeah, she was really wise.
Across my life as a feminist I saw men claiming to be our allies stepping into the same entitlements as did white women working with — really for — people of Color. I have seen white men (and men of Color, too) come into feminist groups and be allies: most only for a short while, a few for a long time, and a very small few still worthy of the title at this writing. Male privilege is just too comfortable to let it go. I suspect it’s similar for white feminists who work to be allies to people of Color — most of us succumb to the comforts of privilege after a while, and maybe we can be hauled out of our cozy recliner-lined den of entitlement, and maybe we can’t. But if we’re honest we know it’s always there and accessible to us, with a big sign on the door that says Whites Only.
My friend, the one in Part One who had loosely formed an anti-racism group, thought that there were many men who got the man/woman question, as she put it, quite well. I’ve spent a great deal of my activist life in groups where women led because the issues were women’s. I’ve watched men as they wrangled with feminism, with just how empowered women can be and still keep men comfortable — with just how much of a challenge to sex roles and hierarchical “gender” traditions men will actually allow! That’s not feminism. That’s not at all ‘getting’ the man/woman question. It’s expanding the territory women may roam while making sure men still own the perimeter fence. And the electricity that arms it. And the right to keep women within it. Most men fail feminism. (And still try to claim it; see The Illustrative Value of ‘Pro-Feminist’ here.)
I suspect most whites fail anti-racism. At least on the first 30 serious tries. How many of us will persevere to get it and be useful to people of Color? And how much of the giving up will be because we never found anywhere we fit well enough to try more? I understand both sides here. The neophyte comes in with unchecked attitude, unconscious familial biases and a vocabulary to match, and the desire to do good. Three things. The marginalized see the first two, and react to those; survival, and certainly self-respect, have depended on seeing these things. The privileged see the last of the three and react to that.
We had a vocabulary, once, to work through all this. It’s going away: I defend ‘privilege’ even as other feminists roll their eyes and whisper asides to one another. We need this word! And we need to expand it back to where it once was, including its unearned benefits, the things we cannot help (while skin, being of the male sex, born into money), plus those behaviors that show we expect to earn better treatment: our entitled words and actions.
We need the words whose definitions were hashed out in late night meetings between activists who considered the ramifications of every slant, who solidified meanings so that they framed (before framing was a concept) the issue in the necessary way for the richest political meaning. I came in at the end of this era, but participated in some of it. By the 80s when the culturally-comfortable ones wanted to hold onto that comfort, reversals came into play: “reverse sexism,” “reverse racism.” A lot of us — understanding these are themes on a hierarchy and therefore can’t be reversed with any logic to them — opted for re-phrasings: male supremacy, white supremacy.
What is beyond belief to me is that we now have to fight for the word “woman.” If I say woman = adult + human + female I am more likely to be told I am a “hater” than to find agreement. And we now have to fight to show that women-as-women actually matter. We once objected to the phrasing “battered woman” because it passively obfuscated the perpetrator, invariably a man, and focused blame onto the woman who was the victim. Now the mainstream phrase is “domestic violence” and women have become simply “people.” We have lost so much ground.
I recently discovered that in my state, ‘gender’ has erased protections formerly based on who you love, on being Lesbian or gay. Somehow the duo of “sex/gender” is supposed to cover what’s commonly called sexual orientation (het/bi/Lesbian — but we all know it only comes up if it’s judged deviantly not-het!). Lesbian is now somehow subsumed under sex/gender. So, really, which is it, a sex? a gender? Good grief! This is a literal erasure of Lesbians!
Another thing I learned from feminists is that good allies, solid allies, matter. It’s tough to fight the battle alone, even for a short time. Sisters (and sometimes brothers) in the struggle make it bearable, even when you’re being pushed back. Having others to laugh with and share activist irony with is indispensable. Laughter is vital. Finding others who share bonds with you, and who share feelings of responsibility to the group and to each other and to honor, itself, is important.
In this era, the unfortunate label Social Justice Warrior (or SJW) sums it up too well: this is someone who doesn’t necessarily believe what is being defended, has absolutely no depth of argument — although the depth of the indignance makes up for it — but rather is signalling his or her virtue to like-minds. Or hive-minds. Critical thought, and the ability to listen to opposing viewpoints, once the hallmarks of a liberal-arts education and of a thriving community, are entirely lost at the university level now. I have even seen activists my (advanced) age advocate for the firing of people who hold opposing views. Job termination for dissent! IF the belief means they cannot do their job appropriately (say a Buddhist as a Baptist minister) or IF they hold that people lower than they are on the hierarchy are acceptable targets for mayhem and murder, that’s different. Please realize that plenty of people in the US Midwest believe that those who practice Wicca should be fired, or worse (and Jews are questionable, too) — this is not a good bandwagon to be chasing.
Unfortunately this era is one of deepening hate, permission to hate and even hurt those who can be Otherized, especially those down the hierarchy. Especially those who are visible to white oppressors like Black people so often are. (And, actually, women: the man behind the Montreal Massacre of 1989 was angry at feminists, and shot women, almost exclusively.) Unlike massacres, though, the mayhem and murder of Black people often goes unreported unless Black people provide video and force the issue. No wonder the police don’t want their actions videotaped, and in many places, including my state, it’s been made illegal to film cops. Which brings up another activist point.
What are we willing to risk? The one time in my life I ever thought about a life that could do more than my own, I realized that there are people — and issues — for which I’d step in front, risk my life to save theirs. The one in question is a friend, a young Black man I got to meet in person at a conference on the East coast. We’d been part of an activist assemblage on the Internet for several years. I mentioned this to him in passing, because it surprised me, too: his future was so incredibly important that I would have stepped in front of him to protect him from an assassin’s bullet to the best of my ability.
While it might be extreme, here, I have a history of stepping in to aid or shield, of quietly hurting bullies in childhood, of stepping into the middle of fists when smaller and female people were getting pounded in adulthood. I don’t necessarily think in these situations, I just do. I don’t want someone to die because I stood by, helpless and ineffectual and afraid. I don’t think I could live with myself. With one young-teen child in the car and someone else driving, I moved to the seat beside her, becoming a human shield to protect her as we were forced to pass a burning vehicle on a busy freeway. I didn’t think of it, I just moved. But I do this with my permission, too. I evaluate later, and I can accept my actions.
What might we risk? At one extreme there is the bullet, or the explosion from a car fire. At the other is uncertainty, not knowing quite How To Get It Right. In between are lesser penalties — going to court for filming police brutality enacted on Black bodies, plus personal failure and looking absurd. I think we can map out the process, prove good intentions over time, and ask for understanding as we work — hard! — to try to understand that which we really can’t but still should try to get. I suspect that part of ‘good intentions’ is talking about risk, and the courage to take it. I can draw a good portion of the map for male supremacy. I can’t for white supremacy. All I can do is work to unlearn the entitlement and unpack the ancestral baggage I bring in with me. And prove beyond any doubt that I do care.
But, honestly, what I need to communicate is a vocabulary that speaks truths and listens before judgment. Can we find this, share this, and even if it means more hammering, can WE be the activists who create the framing this time through? Please understand it will only work if me and mine aren’t made invisible. Or maybe worse, irrelevant.
I asked a sister activist about the local anti-racism group she had loosely brought together, since I hadn’t heard from her in a couple of weeks. Given my immersion in radical feminism, I was surprised when in the course of conversation my friend said ‘the man/woman question’ is well-covered; it’s racism that we aren’t allowed to talk about. But progress is simply not linear, and feminism or women’s liberation, names for ‘the man/woman question,’ has faced repeated resistance, repression. And of course we can’t talk about racism — there I agree! And yet ….
In every surge of movement toward female liberation there has been strong backlash. With the recent death of Playboy empire founder Hugh Hefner, feminists brought out his direct attack on feminism, which was making gains against unfettered male entitlement to women’s bodies, by turning burgeoning female bodily freedom into subordination. And he succeeded — he made submission to male sexual standards the norm. He wrote, “These chicks [feminists] are our natural enemy. It is time to do battle with them,” in a leaked memo. Further, as Gail Dines has explained in detail, he brought pornography out into the mainstream and made it seem acceptable, normal, and necessary for masculinity, for men. Following the announcement of his death, she wrote: “He was the first major pimp who brought porn out of the backstreets onto main street. We will never be able to measure the damage he did by turning porn into a corporate commodity that legitimized and normalized the buying and selling of women’s bodies. He hated women, referred to them as dogs, and made porn ‘respectable’ by surrounding porn images with interviews and articles by well known literary figures.”
Currently feminists are faced with the invisibilizing of women. A book released this summer, called Female Erasure, further details this era’s backlash. From the introduction on the book’s website: “Through researched articles, essays, first-hand experience, story telling, and verse, these voices ignite the national conversation about the politics of gender identity as a backlash to feminist goals of liberation from gender stereotypes, oppression and sexual violence.”
I recently asked friends on social media to consider an article on “domestic violence,” overwhelmingly male on female violence (85 percent female victims to 15 percent male). In it, the first and most detailed case was of a man abused by a woman. Of course it happens, and of course it’s wrong. What concerned me was taking a woman-endangering epidemic and making it about men, first, and people, more generally. My friends on social media understood quickly. When I complained to a local friend, she immediately mentioned, and talked at length about, a man she knew who was abused by his wife, another nod to focusing on the exception, female violence against men. We are simply not allowed to name male violence as male violence, as violence perpetrated by men against women (and children and men, too) — but BY men: MALE VIOLENCE. What is it about those two words together that is so threatening, including to self-described feminists?
We live under a hierarchy of many sets of rungs, and one of the most dangerous is that of sex, male above female. Men kill women; cases of women killing men are rare, and generally mitigated by dire circumstances. Surely it comes, at least partially, from the territory: men are praised for being aggressive, taking charge, pushing others to do what they want (the football adage: “there’s no greater feeling than to be able to move a man from Point A to Point B against his will”), and for being inherently “better” than women — stronger, smarter in matters that count, braver, bolder, natural-born leaders — all of the stereotypes showing that ‘masculinity,’ the male gender role, is hierarchically “above” all the traits foisted onto females as ‘femininity.’ We may argue details, but we live in a patriarchal culture, and even the arguers give themselves away eventually. What isn’t said in the debates, amid the ire and the hilarity, is that men kill generally, and women generally do not. (See also, The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football, accessed October 1, 2017.)
And yet women’s sympathy for men, the oppressor caste, pushes women, the oppressed caste, to pander to men, even to the point of putting them first. No, I don’t think the man/woman question is at all settled. In fact it’s more than unsettled. Definitions have been torqued into meaninglessness, with those that activists hammered out through long discussions on tactics and subtexts replaced by frivolous framings making damning too easy. Take the concept of identity politics. Back in the 60s and 70s, feminism — also called the women’s movement or women’s liberation, and Civil Rights, or Black liberation, and the American Indian Movement, were all acknowledged as identity politics. People who were of a specific group, and who — most importantly — were marginalized by the dominant culture for their membership in such a group which had been identified by the white/ male/ powerful, came together to resist that oppression and fight, unified, for liberation. Identity meant being identified by the power structure and targeted for oppression. I believe it was Combahee that coined the phrase identity politics.
Consider what identity politics has become: an individualistic claim with no basis in fact necessary. Of course it’s easy to slam the concept — it’s fakery, buffoonery, false. Lesbians can have penises, some people are identifying out of sex (male/ female) and claiming to be one of a variety of genders — or none at all. Except that Lesbians are women, adult + human + female, who love women, and gender, the societal role assigned by sex, is itself a hierarchy of masculine over feminine. It doesn’t matter how creatively “genders” can be made to multiply, the hierarchy — and the artificiality — remains. To eliminate the problems with gender, again, societal roles, abolish those roles. Abolish gender. Let people wear whatever they wish, and do whatever they wish in life, so long as it doesn’t transgress the boundaries of others. But that is an unfortunate facet of gender as it’s framed these days — the whole purpose is transgression of specifically female boundaries, either to get into female spaces (bepenised people) or opt out of female oppression (vulva-possessing people). The problem with THIS version of identity politics is that existing people, women, or adult + human + female people, are being shoved out of female spaces. And we can’t talk about that. Lately those who try lose jobs and can’t get their research approved.
But it goes beyond mere changes to definitions. There is hugemoney behind the whole “trans” movement, and there were laws passed quietly that I suspect most people don’t know exist. (Transcript.)
And we still can’t talk about racism. Not really talk.
In the discussion on the anti-racism group, I relayed a situation where I had invited a local, a leader and effective organizer, and a truly solid citizen gentleman of Color to a meeting downtown. When he walked in, this powerful, effective, solid citizen looked terribly uncomfortable — as though he felt unsafe. I spoke with him immediately, welcomed him, and he settled in at the margins, but only there. My friend was moved, and uncomfortable, by the retelling. (Good; we need to know, and only the uncomfortable change things.) When I worked for a fairly large company in the Pacific Northwest I invited a coworker to play on their volleyball league in a nearby public park. But ‘nearby’ to me was north of downtown to her — and no one of her ancestry ventured (safely) north of downtown. She was gracious to explain it; she didn’t owe me that at all. Not surprisingly, I’ve never forgotten it.
We still don’t talk about racism. And we don’t talk about a lot of things that fall into the general category of oppression theory which, when taken together accomplish two valid goals. They allow us to see commonalities enough to form, at least, coalitions, making we who are oppressed the vast majority. And they allow us to see ourselves honestly, as oppressed, yes, but also as oppressor — in other situations.
Black men are horribly oppressed, just look at prisons and the number of men shot by police who get away with it — and still have male privilege, can still act as oppressor against ALL women, to at least some extent. White women are deeply oppressed by men within patriarchy — from the sexual assaults most of us have endured to sex trafficking, and being beaten or killed within relationships of legitimized “love” — and yet also have very real and very brutal power over Black men. So often these two groups hold onto how they are oppressed, and what we really can’t talk about is how they/ we also function as oppressors. If we can see ourselves as both it gives us common ground for listening without immediate defense (#NOTALLMEN, #NOTALLWHITEWOMEN). And it allows for both groups to evade demand for the loyalty of Black women, a situation that hasn’t changed a great deal across history.
Privilege is decent treatment compared to a logical reference group. There are too many ways to be privileged, and to have been soothingly sold into believing the rightness of the decent treatment, for any of us to have no culturally-endowed and somewhat internalized urge to oppress another group. Yes, that’s a long sentence; read it again if it isn’t clear. In short, we’re all in both camps: oppressed, yes, for being seen as having membership in marginalized groups, and also oppressor. Privileged for some things, group membership characteristics, marginalized for others. All conformity to the elite’s standards equals privileging. Any self-comfort within that conformity leads to normalizing that privileging and to the inability to see its effect on those down the hierarchy.
When I spoke of privilege, my friend challenged me on making it about personal issues, where I’d previously said that privilege is based on group membership — as determined by the dominants. For decades feminism has held that the personal is political. Until very recently no one has ever claimed that the personal is the whole of politics. Keeping the focus on identity as ‘out-group membership bestowed by the power structure’ should help, here.
Another landmine is in wanting to see everyone as ‘just people,’ making differences more palatable to the privileged. Where we have privilege we really need to sort it out ourselves, with checks back to the marginalized to be sure we’re not derailing our own education. Difference is usually sacred, valued by the marginalized group. I speak at a local conference every year, and while the room is generally packed, only one or two people who know me come to hear what I have to say. Only one friend, advanced-degreed and a deeply political thinker, has come to hear and support me; she’s never missed a talk. Never has a conference organizer sat in on my presentation. Not once in four years. Every year I speak about how differences are valued by the marginalized. Not only am I working class, I’m actively challenging the comforts of privilege within the existing hierarchy.
We want change. We just don’t want to have to talk about it. And we’d rather not have to do the work, to be challenged, to take risks and actually sometimes fail — and look stupid, and be humiliated, and all of that. I agree it’s not fun! But it’s so very necessary to the creation of change. It still has to be done. We have to be willing to do the work.
Part of doing the work is to be willing to go beyond talk of unearned privilege, things we can’t change, and dig into our own privileged behavior. We discussed perfection, and we agreed that perfect is the enemy of progress. Sometimes it feels like there is a really tight line we must walk as activists, and if we misspeak we will be hammered for it. I understand this; I also understand that we privileged are often used to being right, and to having extensive freedoms — to use and even to appropriate. So when we say a word, or worse, claim a word, that we shouldn’t, the response can feel intense beyond reason. I would ask that we look at it from our experience of the other side, of having someone simply ooze privilege out into the conversation where we look to our own, wondering who the hell has to clean that up. And someone does, and because that stinks so badly and has such dangerous implications if left untreated, the response is also a warning: DON’T go there again!
My love, in an anti-racism discussion, used “Voodoo” as a negative, and was immediately called on it by the leader of the group. Gently and with some adamance. Having lived with political-me for decades, he was accepting of the correction, and took the education as valuable. (Notice I’m telling on someone else’s privilege misstep, not my own? We always have to be able to take what we give; I’m working on it!) I was impressed with the scenario as it played out. Yes, there were small gasps in the audience, and spines suddenly straightened, preparation for the battle between the tall, elegant Black man and the big, working-class white man that would ensue. And didn’t. Modeling of how to call and respond given, I think, beautifully. Bravely, on the part of the leader of the group — the room held many white people, including working-class men who are presumed to be the enemy of anti-racism, and here were seriously untested. And honorably on the part of the white folks who stiffened for the likely battle before them — but neither escalated the situation nor stepped in to align sides.
Can we reside here for a while — can we really talk about white supremacy? Can we talk without demanding either perfection or tolerance of the inexcusable?
This is already too long. In the next post I will cover what I understand to be the basics of oppression theory, things I learned through reading hundreds of books, primarily by Lesbians of Color, during the harassment days I endured in the mid-80s. Your ideas on oppression theory basics are welcome!
(All above links accessed September 30, 2017, unless otherwise noted.)
The meeting is beginning, the room is almost full, and someone slides in front of me and sits between my acquaintance, a retired professor from the college, and me. I smell a touch of perfume, enough to make me lean away. I see the large, bright fuchsia purse slide past my face, and the clutch of notebooks and a phone. I see butt-length waved black hair that looks like a wig, brown skin, and when the clever sweater of the dress ensemble is shed, the biceps of testosterone fueling.
I’d been warned that my longtime acquaintance, Lesley, seen last at the Black Lives Matter march in mid-summer, was now appearing everywhere in drag –- heavy makeup, wigs, heels, and always –- that marker delineating the women from the boys, clear proof of XX status –- skirts. I’m joking. No, really I’m trying to cover rage. Because the other thing I’d heard was there’s a beloved “transgender” considering getting into politics. I never made the connection to the young, obviously gay man who was so great a volunteer, and so good with those who depended on him.
Why rage? Because the two left-wing political men in that room, the professor who’d run for local government and the one currently running for a top city position, greeted Lesley with bright smiles I’d never seen them give to a woman candidate. And they wouldn’t; this is different: this is a comrade who gets them major brownie points, a “transgender”! And a “transgender” who looks like a pretty, young Black woman. Sort of. Double bonus points! And eye candy, to boot. How can I explain this without being completely crude? They were both, these white men, fairly giddy.
And they will never understand my side of it. They are, after all, supporting a WOMAN! But they’re not. They’re supporting an appropriator, and an attention-seeker, too. Female, woman, girl, she, her, these are my words. These are the only words I have to name my sex, and my sex is the basis for my oppression, so they are the very language of my naming and explaining my oppression, OUR oppression, girls’ and women’s oppression. Steal those words, and our oppression is obliterated, completely. Hand our oppression to someone who has NOT lived as a girl, has NOT been molested and raped as a girl and as a young woman, who has not been chased down a dark country road by drunken teenage boys knowing their bodies are stronger and running away is the only defense … and it erases the hells we have endured.
This “woman,” with his fake hair tossed and fluffed and then grabbed to maintain its attachment, repeatedly, and with his knuckles cracked every several minutes throughout the meeting, and his cutesy little sweater off then on then off, always with a polite “Excuse me,” and his fussing in his purse for phone and notebooks and pen, purse up, purse down, is not a woman. But he is definitely satisfied with remaining the center of attention. In quieter moments he clears his throat –- a somber low tone not at all like his pitched speaking voice.
And I could abide the attention-seeking behavior, the noises, the movement , if this were someone not appropriating my sex, my oppression, and not staking the terrain of my eventual divide with the shallow-thinking political men who pride themselves in pushing this new-found oppression, women be damned, with his heels and mascara. These are the markers of femininity, not womanhood. I AM a woman, clearly so, as I sit there as my real self, short hair, button down shirt and jeans, flat shoes, and as always, makeup free. These are the markers of this authentic woman. But they don’t flatter liberal men, and they don’t titillate –- there is nothing in here that suggests sexual availability or feeds male fantasy, and yet ….
No, I mean this seriously! What does a short skirt say? Possibly access? What effect do high heels have on how someone walks? They cause a sway of the hips –- that is their actual purpose! To be noticed, to distract, to re-focus the male mind. Signalling sexual accessibility –- skin exposure, vulnerability and lack of any real ability to resist — and seeking male attention and approval is femininity.
For a decade I adored this young man, talked him up to others, reveled in his awards and accomplishments. For a decade I never guessed we’d be on the opposite side of the “transgender” issue –- never guessed he’d seek to mutilate his perfectly functional gay-boy and gay-man body, and never guessed the liberal men I knew would applaud his conversion to privileged normality: female-seeks-male instead of remaining gay. (Or is ‘privileged normality’ redundant?)
So as I’m readying to leave he turns to me and says something about, “I wasn’t sure you remembered me.” With the closest thing to a poker face that I can find, I tell him calmly that yes, I remember him. And I leave.
And I’m away from the building, alone, before I begin to swear aloud: JFC, I saw you no more than seven months ago! And while at the podium to address the city government you gave your name. Of course I remember you. I simply want to find the way to say, I liked you better before you appropriated my sex, my oppression, and pondered butchering your healthy body. I suspect your attention-seeking behaviors are clues you’re not really that happy, or perhaps you’re just a narcissist. Either way you’ve drawn a line, drawn me on the other side, in support of the war against women that is “gender.” I can’t wish you anything more than a return to sanity; you’ll always know that I believe your life matters. White privilege means you don’t have to worry about mine, but that male privilege is something else, and it doesn’t go away when you don a skirt, mascara and heels. ….
People still discussing the 2016 US election cycle five days later are deeply divided. It isn’t simply division by sex, because so many (white, heterosexual) women voted for Trump. And it isn’t simply division by a belief that women matter, because I am still arguing with male colleagues on the left, whom I truly believe care about women and women’s issues (just how much is the debate point, because the male left and the male right sound too much alike). The divide might best be framed as one between those who are female and who believe that all women’s lives matter, and those who can’t claim both.
That debate point: how ready are men in the US to see women as equals in status and worth? The logical conclusion from this election, for so very many women, is that men hate us even more than we suspected, and if we are multiply-oppressed (via race, class, being Lesbian, etc.) we are likely even more damned and despised. I used to think “women’s equality” was a low bar, and now I’m looking at it from the underside.
I saw equality as a low bar of achievement because I’d understood it to mean “equality with men” or being “as good as men, LIKE men.” Given the rapes and molestations and other sexualized and non-sexualized violence, and the love of hierarchy enacted the world over by men, equality didn’t appear much of a goal. It seemed even a step or two downward.
But this “equality” is maybe better framed as men seeing women as equals, since men hold the power under patriarchy. And they simply do not. This “equality” is a plea: the low bar I once derided is not even within our reach; we must beg for access. This is not what we felt a week ago, some relative autonomy giving way to shock over the horrifying possibilities of our futures. Instead, our country voted for the candidate who bragged about being a sexual predator, and somehow both women and men found him an acceptable candidate.
Seriously, we are positioned under patriarchy to have to beg men for levelness. Whereas we were set to at least have a woman as president, whatever her flaws, and to use populist pressure to shift her to the left, we found ourselves enduring brutal abuses of her, of other women, of girls, and of men of Color and of marginalized ethnicities and religions. And it increased throughout the campaign. Still, we thought, this country is not going to accept the misogyny and racism and hate outright — we’ve come too far, and have too much in place already, right?
One word: pornography. Pornography set the stage for women being seen as incompatible with leadership. Over the last decades our culture’s view of women has become one of utility (fuckable/ not fuckable) to men, rather than as individual beings in their own right or a collective and marginalized sex-caste. We feel this occasionally (or often) as we pass groups of men or overhear their banter, but many of us have been able to keep it on the periphery of our lives. Unless we’ve recently been raped or sexually harassed, of course. And now pornography has brought us a “First Lady” that a number of American men have seen naked, enjoyed seeing naked. We know because they have begun to brag about it on social media. Her oiled-body nude photos have made the rounds recently on Facebook, and men who are generally respectful of women have stepped aside in their support and cracked brotherly jokes about those photos. We have a new standard for American women, and it is one of objectification and subjugation — in short, hell.
And so we have women who understood that Hillary at least meant holding off the descent into hell, and who are now terrified for their lives. Because eating and shelter are not optional, because marginalization has gone from dangerous to deadly. And we have women who are traumatized by her opponent’s flagrant abuses played over and over in the media, and legitimized by the vote — women who have sobbed for days and who show all the classic PTSD signs, and if functional, only barely. We haven’t even admitted to ourselves the likely increase in the rape rate, in intimate violence against women and girls — except the rare cases where it has hit the news and social media.
Have we admitted to ourselves the likely increase in violence against women and girls as an outcome of the 2016 election?
Maybe the saddest thing of all is watching women on the left claim there was never any real difference between the candidates, or that it’s acceptable to hold Hillary to an absolutely impossible standard when no man has ever — EVER! — been held to the same. And yes, I would say that women who are still Hillary-bashing do not fit my side of the divide, where women’s lives truly matter. They refuse to see the damage that is possible. Worse, they appear to refuse to care.
Some of this is the baggage of racism, of classism, but some of it, I think, is borne of privilege, of the need to feel better-than in the face of despair. I want to help nurture discussion and deeper communication between women, especially, and leftists, overall. But we will have to face the issues honestly as we work to lessen the damage to the most-marginalized. Here I do mean poverty-class women, Lesbians, race- and ethnicity-marginalized women, and disabled women first.
We can set the agenda on the issues later. Right now we need to heal ourselves, become aware of those things we need that we are most likely to lose, and then settle ourselves for the long conversations. At least that’s what I see.
I’ve successfully moved from next-day depression to a sort of numbness on Thursday, to anger with resolve starting the Friday after the travesty that is the 2016 election. I’m interested in hearing how other women are doing, especially those of us in the US, but also women in countries that will be impacted by this presidency. Which seems to be most other countries, given US behavior.
I know of many, many women and no small number of men, who cried all day Wednesday, some of whom were still tearful on Thursday. And Friday. We grieve, we work to heal all that is broken. And there is so much broken. From here:
Trust. Young Black women look at me in daylight much the same way that women look at men on deserted streets at night, and this alone breaks my very soul to pieces. Gray-headed white het-married woman sans college degree, very much working class, the demographic of hate, among women.
The future. Parts of Canada are thirty degrees warmer now in November, setting records 20 degrees (Fahrenheit, thankfully, and not Celsius) above the previous records.
The gains of social justice. From Black and women’s voting rights to rights to bodily sovereignty also called abortion rights to Lesbian and gay marriage to Title-freaking-IX to something nearer to decency for desperate immigrants, rights we’ve fought so damned hard for are up in the air.
How can we grieve all of this at once?
How can we come together to heal our communities? How do we give to those communities, and more specifically to one another, and still nourish and nurture ourselves? If we can’t function then activism is over. So — how do we heal ourselves? What steps do we take? For ourselves, and then for the most-marginalized, and for all who are marginalized, among us?
I wanted to entitle this piece “Privilege in Oppression Theory: Privilege in Feminism (Or: What You Want to Believe Doesn’t Exist, or is Too Complicated, is Merely Your Denying Your Actual Privilege; No, Really)”.
I’m exceedingly frustrated — as you can probably tell from the snarky, wanted-to title. But for good reason. Male privilege? Sure, feminists get that, even as they also (mostly) get that Black men are incarcerated at an absolutely unjust rate. Men have privilege merely for being male, but it isn’t always luxurious. White privilege? No problem, here, either. Whites have relative ease, and … if nothing else, think about the rate of Black incarceration. Privileging of motherhood? No way! It’s all about MY mother, or MY life — or MY wife — and how horrible the culture is to her.
No one white whines, “My dad died from job-related cancer at his factory job, SO THERE IS NO WHITE PRIVILEGE! And there’s no whining because we’ve mostly stopped saying aloud that Those Jobs, the dangerous working-class ones, should go to Black and brown men. In part, this is because those jobs, often the remaining union ones, pay a near-living wage. Now women and men alike are clamoring for them, in a culture that has produced only service-sector (burger-flipping) jobs, or otherwise-menial jobs requiring multiple degrees.
No feminist, or pro-feminist male, whines, “My brother couldn’t get a job because they kept hiring females instead!” Partly this is because when a job classification has a preponderance of females, it loses status. And for men in western culture, it’s all about status, masculinity, about being seen as ‘not like women.’
In these two areas, most people understand that privilege doesn’t mean A Life of Luxury. Privilege simply means better treatment compared with a reference group. Men are treated better than women; maleness is higher on the hierarchy than is femaleness. Whites are treated better than are people of Color; whiteness is at the top of the racial hierarchy. Privilege simply means better treatment than that other, related group — related via race, sex, etc. This holds, consistently, uniformly, and really, really well until … motherhood. And I really, really want to know why.
I suspect that part of it is that women are still seen as being ‘designed for motherhood.’ Species continuation, as if too few humans were an immediate issue. Still, no matter our politics, motherhood often just feels natural. And right. And personally important — because without motherhood WE, personally, would not be here. Our very lives have depended on motherhood. To question any of it means to question the rightness of our own, very personal, existence! I suspect another part of it is that we are, when we think of humans as a group, still quite lesbophobic. Sure, Some of Our Best Friends Are, but we still don’t think of Them as equal. Or superior! As having excellent, inherent answers to pressing cultural concerns. Like too many people, like female support for patriarchy, like maintenance of the exiting hierarchy of female subordination and all it entails — including the maintenance of femininity. Heterosexuality is complicity. Seeing that is painful, too big a reach for most hets, and too hard to grasp without turning self and beliefs inside out and upside down. Nope, no real questioning of that is going to happen for the vast majority of far-leftists, even radical feminist activists.
Well, tough shit. Some of us are brave in this area, and would like to see others catch up. I remember the feminism of the 70s, where EVERYTHING was questioned. Women were far braver then than the backlash faux-feminists of this era ever dreamed of being. Which is also tough to deal with, for some. Too many women believe the New! Improved! claims of advertising somehow apply to feminism. Coziness, comfort, navel-gazing, a belief that If It Feels Good It Can’t Be Questioned, came into politics in the 80s and settled deeply in the 90s. Single issue ‘activism’ became normalized. Women could unite, never mind worrying about the messiness of race. Fat people could come together, never mind the messiness of hierarchies of sex, sexuality and actual love, race, class, and the rest. ‘Park your differences at the door’ bled from feminism into fat activism and elsewhere, and those of us who were never single issue activists were stunned. (All three of us.) Clearly I’m still pissed. And not likely to get over it. (OK, there are more than three, but not enough more, who get it.)
Part of it, which needs saying, is that it’s cultural, sub-cultural, even racial: for minority groups, and for people of Color, women not reproducing can feel like genocide. So outgroup women and women of Color have a sacred obligation to continue their people, their race(s). Conservatives distraught at the impending white minority classification, and the rise of outgroups, certainly reinforce it, and the world sure doesn’t need more first world, entitled whites. But women as obligatory Breeders of the People is a problem, a feminist problem, a huge problem for proponents of social justice. No one can be used against their own interests for the betterment of the group without damaging the group. In fact, no one who is legitimately marginalized can be claimed as a part of a group without their permission. (Lizard Man and T-Culters don’t qualify as ‘legitimate’ within radical feminism.)
Another issue is that lesbians capitulated to the cult of motherhood in the 80s. I was one of them, a fact that deeply shames me now. But it’s done and what I can do now, all I can do, is support more-marginalized women and call out the truth as best I see it. And that truth, here, is that motherhood is decidedly and clearly privileged.
Elite-caste characteristics are privileged: maleness and whiteness are two good examples of immutable characteristics, decidedly privileged. Another is white patriarchy’s consensus on physical attractiveness, the characteristics of which are rarely amenable to any lasting change. Think weight and body shape and size, coloration, physical features, and especially the smallness, weakness, and general paleness associated with ‘feminine beauty.’
Any conformity to the power-maintenance needs and the power-reinforcing wants of the elite is also privileged. These conformities CAN be changed. They are acceptances of the status quo, demanded by white supremacist patriarchy. Institutionalized inequity in the additional forms of heterosexuality over lesbianism and gay maleness, classism (economic AND subcultural/ worldview-based), and motherhood, fit into this category.
So can we start talking about it, with the understanding that privilege means better treatment compared with a reference group? And that your mother’s awful life, or your own, aren’t the point? And that if you cannot imagine how your mother’s life would have been different had she been lesbian AND resisted the baby-making mandate, or how your own or your wife’s life would have been different, you are denying privilege. No, really.
None of my arguments seemed to be registering, and what I was receiving in response sounded like part of some other conversation, not the one I was trying to have. In exasperation I said it felt like I was discussing nutrition and others were talking about dinner, recipes, some specific meal, rather than looking at the what and why of eating.
I had said that suicide is selfish. What I was hearing in response was personalized. Focus on individuals’ pain and how wrong I was to judge others, along with certainty that I must never have felt serious depression myself. And platitudes — that we can never know anyone else’s pain. And that mental disorders are shrouded in a mystique that leaves them beyond discussion.
What I see is culture, father culture (to correct Daniel Quinn’s error). The culture of the fathers is brutally hierarchical, competitive, devaluing and unforgiving, and judgmental in a way that I am not. But I don’t blame others for missing the difference — there is no other way to judge, according to culture! Steeping in the culture, commonly called childhood, leaves us all full of soul holes, traumas endured, physical and psychological violations experienced, and no way to frame it all except on the given hierarchy. Soul holes are filled by taking shots down the hierarchy; that’s all we are allowed.
We face traumas individually, yes, but one of the most healing things is to realize at a gut level that you are one among many others who faced the same kind of thing — it isn’t you, it’s them. And they were wrong.
I can remember the 70s (and before) and feminists’ budding awareness that a huge number of women were on anti-depressants. We began to understand that depression came from oppression, significantly if not entirely. We also learned to consider that depression just might be anger turned inward: when women could not lash back at their tormentors, or find other effective outlets, their rage would be expressed in self-hate and self-harm.
And then came the 80s, and feminist insights were usurped for more profitable endeavors. One example of this is the psychologization of disordered eating. Whereas women were beginning to recognize culture’s cruelty in forcing women to be a specific size (thin) and shape (buxom, long-legged), along came the psych industry to profit from women’s pain. That huge numbers of women entered the medicalized and psychologized disordered eating professions made little difference; the framing was patriarchal. Culturally women’s coerced appearance obsession was backed by the porn industry, something liberal feminism refused to challenge. There is a too thin and a too fat within disordered eating standards. All women are expected to be able to conform to a thin ideal. This is one area where diversity is expressly forbidden. Any woman who does not conform is seen as having a defect in her eating — by definition. And the industry controls the definitions involving weight, while the populace believes them. Women do not strive to be whole and happy within their natural bodies, no; women strive to appear correct. (There is nothing healthy in being controlled by an external aesthetic standard whether its medicalized aesthetics or pornography’s.)
In fact it is the attempt to adhere to unnatural standards that creates the disorders to begin with! For all, anorexics and bulimics alike, the disorder starts with self-semi-starvation. Anorexics continue it; bulimics hold to a cycle that is inevitably starve-binge-purge — the starving comes first, and purge is merely another form of it, a form of underfeeding.
So what does make people healthy, including psychologically healthy?
We are taught to look toward acquisition, power and prestige, and control over our and others’ lives, to find our fulfillment as human beings. Things and admiration are the stated goals. Yet these do not work for us.
In essence, meeting others’ legitimate needs is what gives our lives fulfillment. It is the human connection that is fostered by the gift economy, by meeting needs, that fills soul holes. (See Genevieve Vaughan’s book gifted on-line called For-Giving, linked below; see also the link to the talk by Charles Eisenstein, below.) But without a hierarchal culture, our capitalist patriarchy, there would be no soul holes. We have plenty.
My children’s generation, those who attended Gymboree and who were told incessantly that they were special, often have an overt entitlement. Whatever they do is supposed to be enough to rate praise and positive attention. They may be worse than other ages, but tell anyone, warmly, that they are among the common people, or that they are average, and watch the response! To some extent we are all programmed to see ourselves as exceptional. Older generations have the cult of the rugged individualist to live up to. But of course not everyone can be exceptional, above average, positively uncommon. And within this programming there is much manipulation (see the documentary film, The Century of the Self, linked below).
We really aren’t isolated selves, or rugged individuals, or even beings who are happiest when in conflict and competition with our peers. We are happiest in connected interaction with others. We are not islands, and no one is likely to be the only one ever to have gone through something — there was always someone else before who endured it — and usually thousands of such someones! If we aren’t exceptional, if we are part of a caste of humans who have been made to endure atrocities or at least significant pain, then we can pull together to resist. This should be good news!
Even as a child of the 70s, I’m aware that oppression isn’t necessarily the sole or inevitable cause of serious depression. I think it’s significant, but people are complex, and one size rarely fits most all. There are physiological origins, too. And selfish isn’t always wrong, to use a term of judgment. Sometimes being ‘self’-ish is necessary, especially in a capitalist patriarchy. Women often have no one else who will put them first. And sometimes being selfish is simply the last option. All I’m saying is that as a beginning point, it’s not conducive to filling soul holes or to making people want to continue to exist.
All people have some privilege available to them in their lives, and that privilege could be used — in the only useful way for privilege to be used — to aid those without it. For every horribly pained but privileged white man, there are women and children whose lives are atrociously oppressed, and who could benefit from his sharing what he’s been given, unearned. For every horribly pained but privileged white woman, there are other women, marginalized women, and girlchildren whose lives are infinitely more oppressed.
Now do privileged people have an obligation to use it to benefit those without? In the knee-jerk individualist stance, no, of course not. But is that the best way of looking at it? Same answer.
When we live as isolated beings in competition with one another, we lose. Generally we know this. So then why do we defend it as inevitable? The simple answer is that we have been groomed to see things in terms of rights. Our rights end where another’s begins. In this framing, we are inherently separate and in conflict with one another, practicing survival of the fittest. In reality though, cooperation is more the norm of Nature than is competition. And separation doesn’t make us happier. So what we know is in conflict with what we defend.
Because of this, I think some of the anger at my attempts to de-mythologize suicide (and to some extent psychology) aren’t necessarily aimed at me but are frustration from inherent contradictions.
When we live as beings within a connected, sane, and life-serving community, then we win. Those of us who have looked at studies on tribal people pre-civilization or separate from civilization have seen this valid form of ‘winning.’ More suspect it. In a community where lives are valued, intertwined and fulfilled, wouldn’t you expect to see some responsibility to others beyond individual rights?
Two incredible sources that have pulled me into this kind of reframing beyond Gen Vaughan’s words of community and connection are Barbara Alice Mann’s talk on WINGS, and David Abram’s books, The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal. They’re worth some perusal, I think.
I have been called judgmental for my views. I would answer this criticism by saying thank you. Our human world seems to currently lack critical thinking, and judgment is a part of that. I would rather think critically than perpetuate the bland non-judgmentalness that has so many thinking they’re each one exceptional and better than the rest.
I have been called a traitor to the ideals of community. Again, we get nowhere with all-accepting kindness — it simply reinforces the status quo, maintaining the hierarchy and its brutalities.
And I have been called unkind, even heartless. I do care — about individuals and their very personal stories, about a culture that leaves gaping soul holes. AND I am adamant about not excusing the privileged as they minimize their very real abilities to alleviate at least some of the oppression of others. There is responsibility to be found in being given something you didn’t earn, and truly don’t deserve over and above those without who have done nothing but be chosen for oppression. There is a duty.
Robin Williams was a white man with an excess of privilege and of power; he had resources beyond most people’s imaginings. I have been said to be equating money with happiness, which is absurd. I am talking about privilege, which often includes wealth; clearly privilege does not buy happiness, either. But sharing it actually might — it is through meeting the legitimate needs of others that humans find real fulfillment. It is through community and the connections created within it that humans thrive.
Suicide is selfish. To squander luxuries, and the chance to equalize them into the provision of basic necessities, is entitled. To wallow internally in pains known when the breadth and depth of others’ pains, external, are not known, is entitled. To not try, when trying could mean so very much, is entitled. To be embedded in the role of Victim, to individualize depression as Victim, to never even begin to examine one’s privilege as well or to take responsibility for it — to be the perpetual Victim — is a sign of our times, our culture, our adamant isolation. And a block to trying for change.
But that is all I ask — to try. To not squander what others don’t receive. To hear above one’s own pain to understand those of others. Again, selfish isn’t always wrong. But dishonest selfishness probably is. I would prefer that we be honest about what we do know, including that there is a mystique shielding mental illness so that its inhabitants are above reproach. Recently someone told me about a rapist, but partially excused him because he didn’t take his medication!
Another thing we don’t allow ourselves to readily know in this culture is that sometimes damage is too much to survive whole. Those who deal with childhood sexual assault do know this, and often try to tell it: girls who were sexually abused long and early may never, ever possess a healthy normal sexuality. They may always see themselves as Objects meant to please the masters, and may be proactive (probably grasping at the only sense of control available to them), seemingly seductive, making the first moves in an inevitable ritual.
There are other ways to be damaged beyond healing, and it may be kindness to not resist the end of such suffering. I don’t actually want the ominous responsibility of deciding this. I am willing to take on the burden of calling out the bullshit when privileged people are given passes, for whatever reasons. What I want is discussion beyond the platitudes, the accusations, and the personalizing of what needs to be a genuine discussion on how we view humankind in community and as individuals. I care deeply about individuals who have been hurt in this discussion; if it’s too much then ignore it, but if possible let’s walk through it. I want to change the framing, not you.
I’m not an outsider in this discussion. My childhood was hell; I was emotionally abandoned at 18 moths of age — after molestation, “damaged goods” was the explanation — then poisoned and starved, and left out to die (porch, door locked behind me, trike, concrete steps, broken ribs and a nose that bled for 48 hours as recorded in my baby book). There was more, but that’s enough. I have chop mark scars on my arms from when I practiced with a knife, hoping that bleeding would release some of the agony and angst, or at least teach me to do better, more, next time. I have hours lost on bridges when homeless and young; I took risks that should have been seen as practice as well. I don’t know why I survived, why I found other frames, why I moved onto more solid ground. I do know the words that came to me, unbidden, were: “and suicide is silence, the ultimate family loyalty.”
I don’t face depression to any great degree these days, but when I do I take it as a sign my body (or psyche) is trying to heal. I am aware that there is much out there that I don’t have to endure (and some I do). I have cut all ties to my family of origin. And I have decades of activism past, and ongoing, with moments of sheer joy in the sharing of the work. Those do help sustain me. So does being old — knowing I AM going to die and it won’t be my choice when, most likely, since I am resisting oppression and wanting to eke out all the living I can to do so.
I’ve listed and refuted the accusations against me. If you can’t find new ones, don’t respond. Better yet, if you can find framings that don’t absolve the privileged of responsibility, let’s talk.
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