Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Nightmare That Was Patriarchy

Last Tuesday was International Women’s Day. Again. And everyone was busy writing about what feminism means today and why we still need it. Again. Just like last year, and the year before that. And the year before that.
I’m beginning to feel like Jack Skellington here. 

It is par for the course of the incessant apologizing that feminism has been reduced to. From a wild, angry beast demanding, yes, demanding, that women be recognized as full human beings to a shy little twittering shadow meekly repeating the words “pay gap”, “inequality”, etc, in the vague hope that enough passers by will take its words seriously.
And guess what. Nobody takes the words of Little Feminism seriously. Not even feminists themselves.
Feminism was a phoenix. It carried on its back to promise to save mankind from itself by converting it to humankind. And it got things done. Now, it cannot even keep the advances it has made.
To a certain extent it is unfair to blame feminism for losing its power. Arguably this has been the fate of nearly all progressive political movements since the 90s. It’s important to remember this. It’s not that “feminism failed” because, as the media likes to remind us every so often, “we got it all” or “women like to be oppressed”. The reality is that “we” of the Leftist persuasion have all failed. That spreads the guilt around a bit more.

So, what can we do to bring back feminism from its current place as a cowering, grovelling, compromising little thing to the real threat to the status quo? Here’s what I propose.

a) Bring back “class”, the “material”, “nature”, the “body”. Class used to be at the core of Feminism. Feminism never was about making the lives of well off women that extra bit better. It was about liberating women, ending oppression, all those nice things. And the ultimate measure of oppression is how bad the most oppressed members of a society have it, not how good the least oppressed members of a society have it just because they are women and we are feminists. A bit more on this here
On the more radical spectrum, the whole of Patriarchy can be seen as an attack on “Nature” and the “body”. People’s lives are determined by their biology, and their interaction with the natural world. An attack on women’s reproductive rights is an attack on the female body. And an attack to the female body is an attack to the human body. This is it, in a nutshell.

b) Kill “identity politics”. It is “a politics that stresses strong collective group identities as the basis of political analysis and action”. That beast should have never seen the light of day. In other words people a) choose an identity for themselves and then b) fight oppression from that particular identity. The fight against injustice then becomes a plight to have your identity accepted. Something to get you starting here and here.
It is not how you identify yourself, it’s how you are oppressed. And it’s not how “you” are oppressed, but rather how “we all” are oppressed. Either “we are all in this together” or this is not a political movement.

c) Kill “empowerment”. Empowerment, whatever its links to feminism, has been thoroughly co-opted by the Right, or rather “Business”. There is nothing new about this; the Right has been stealing the language of the Left to use it for their own ends since forever. Last week The Guardian published a shameful “debate” between a woman p0rnographer claiming that “p0rn empowers women” and Gail Dines, a university professor. The p0rnographer has clearly co-opted the language of feminism to promote her “product”. And it rings true because, hey, p0rnography has empowered at least one woman: her. But that’s it. The empowering of one woman at the expense of other women is not “empowering”, it’s merely climbing up the social hierarchy in the only way the system allows: by pushing other women down. This is not social change. That p0rnographer may have a right to say what she wants (and I would dispute that), but so do we. Concepts like “feminism” and “empowerment” belong to us, the people who are fighting for social change. And they are not there to be co-opted by greedy unscrupulous scoundrel trying to make money out of selling stuff. 
There is no “empowerment”. Nothing “empowers” women as individuals while simultaneously empowering “women”. Something that empowers one woman by oppressing others cannot, by definition, be “empowering women”. 
If you have no socio-political power, for instance if you are a poor woman, no amount of “stuff” or individual actions will change that. And if you do have socio-political power, if you are, say, the Queen, you are not likely to go around chasing “stuff”.

d) Embrace the “wacko”. Don’t be afraid to read seriously strange theories. Even if they seem “mad”, at the very least they will expand your mind. Don’t be scared of “radicals” like, say, Dworkin. You don’t have to agree with them in order to read what they said.  

e) Think and Question. Feminism used to be so rich in theory. When you take a look at the feminism of the 70s the level of complexity of the theories they discussed in those days is absolutely mind boggling. They would question everything and from every angle possible. Compare that with the level of discussions we have today on this glorious internet. Endless arguments of who’s got more privilege than whom, who wins the oppression Olympics, and what is feminist and what isn’t. Oh, and what “Feminism means to me” and “why I do this and why it is an expression of my feminism”. This level of discourse is an insult to our intelligence, not to mention a cold slap in the face of the feminists of previous decades who actually knew their stuff. They left their words. So go and read them.

Now. How about we get busy transforming this movement into the the force pushing for social change it once was?


kathy said...

Great piece. You've hit the main nerve centers of feminism's demise. I would add to the part re: thinking and questioning:
don't be afraid to question hard and fast beliefs, even of radical feminism: push our theories, let's figure out what the conditions are of patriarchy today-- how is capitalism and patriarchy working together very specifically to subordinate women to men. check out my blog: (Dialectical spin)
and- also I would add: let's figure out how to organize ourselves to start organizing others, to organize ourselves into a movement: strategy, maybe think tanks of some sort. Strategy, we need strategy -long term, not just short term tactics like creating events or direct actions (that too, but we need long term)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mary! I especially like this quote: "Something that empowers one woman by oppressing others cannot, by definition, be “empowering" women. If you have no socio-political power, for instance if you are a poor woman, no amount of “stuff” or individual actions will change that." C. Fury

Mary Tracy said...

Awww, thank you guys for reading and commenting. I thought nobody had noticed this post :P

Kathy, I agree. Strategy, long term or short them, is seriously lacking. Everyone wants things to change but nobody has a clue as to how to bring change about.