Friday, 18 November 2011

Fem 11 – The Personal - Coming clean with our feelings

This is an account of my own personal feelings at the Fem 11 conference last Saturday. My feelings aren’t “wrong” or “right”, they just are. I’m not holding Fem 11 accountable in any way for what I felt. I just want to share my experience.

I went to Fem 11 with three feminist friends. Me-from-two-years-ago couldn’t be more surprised if she heard this.
This helped with feelings of loneliness, social anxiety and general awkwardness which, I’m happy to report, remained at minimum levels.

I was excited to see so many feminists when we got together for the first session of the day at the Friends Meeting House. And I was even more excited when I saw Sandi Toksvig standing up to speak. *OMG, SANDI TOKSVIG!!!*

Sandi spoke about the differences between the “Right” brain and the “Left” brain, and how this correlates to men thinking with the “right” and women thinking with the “left”. In essence, men and women think differently, and the “male” style of thinking is linear, based on a logical succession of things. Or something like that.

This made me think along the lines I had already been thinking in for the past few weeks. I had been wondering lately whether the “scientific” mode of thinking is somewhat based on the type of thinking that corresponds to the more “autistic” part of the spectrum.

And this was followed by a conversation with a woman who was slightly autistic herself. She told me how she needs to know exactly what is required, in a detailed, logical sequential order.

As the day went on and I heard from other women, a thought began to form in my head. A slightly upsetting thought.

Other women kept talking about how “inspiring” someone’s words have been. And all I kept thinking was… “where are the arguments, the ideas, the facts, the theory, the economy”.

Sandi had said that men are the “thinkers” and women are the “doers”. And the penny dropped.

OH F*CK. I think like a man.

This explains why I am getting nowhere within the feminist movement. While other women want to discuss how they feel empowered by doing this or that, or how someone has “privilege” of some kind or other, I want to discuss the very real fact that THE ECONOMY DETERMINS EVERYTHING.

And nobody listens.

While other feminists want to organise campaigns and conferences, I stop and think “yes, but what exactly do you want to talk about? What are the ideas behind it? How radical is it when we are working for a solution within patriarchal capitalism…”

I want to discuss philosophy… feminists want to talk about how we organise and “do”.

This brought me, understandably, down. It triggered the old and well known feeling of being an “outsider”, ie: “I’m too feminist for the left and to lefty for feminism”. Great.

Oh No, I'm Ugly!

Then there was the fact that I was, after all, in a room with one thousand women. Most of whom were young. And pretty. And white, and blond. And dressed in pretty, feminine dresses and wearing pretty, feminine shoes.
Oh, look at that, the girl sat next to me is about ten, she’s wearing a skirt and eating a salad.

Yes, something had to give. It wasn’t long before a small but loud monster inside me started wailing…


I tried to remind myself that this was a feminist conference and that focusing on prettiness was totally missing the point. Which was a huge mistake, because monsters don’t understand logic or reason.

So off my monster went, quietly wailing inside me “I bet it’s easier to be a feminist when you are white, blond, pretty and feminine and normal and you all probably have boyfriends and I hate you”.

Luckily I was with friends, so I had other people to interact with, which stops you from even hearing your monsters. And that helps a lot.

Oh, Man! When Me?

Last but not least was the now familiar feeling of “omg, I could totally ran a workshop, why am I not giving a workshop, I know so much, I want to give a workshop, I’m ready, why am I not giving a workshop…” Which, in its loudest, angriest form, says “I AM SO MUCH BETTER THAN *HER*, I KNOW SO MUCH MORE, WHY AM I NOT GIVING A WORKSHOP, EVERYONE SUCKS”.

I know this feeling, I am good at spotting it when it shows up. And I’m getting better at dealing with it. Soon I’ll feel confident enough to give workshops and talks. Watch out world!
Feelings within the Feminist Community

Ok, if you have made it to this point (thank you!), I want to say a few words on why the hell I’m bothering talking about my feelings and stuff.

I believe there is a lot of pain in the feminist community. This is entirely understandable! We live in a woman-hating world; we are women. We are bound to feel hurt.

But here’s the thing: we never talk about it. And the thing about pain is, when it goes unacknowledged, it finds another way through.

So at Fem 11, I noticed a lot of anger from the participants. A few of them actually shouted from the audience during the talks. And a few of the questions were dripping in anger and maybe even hate.

And I know this is not “common” because during Marxism it practically never happened. Keep in mind that Marxism brings together the same number of people, and for 5 days at that. And yet I never saw anyone shout at the chair person, or at a member of the audience who can’t stop rumbling (and believe me, there’s an awful lot of rumbling during Marxism).

And I understand anger and hate; really I do. I have just talked about my own!

Instead, it would be far more productive if we started by talking about it.

For example: “I am angry when I see a sexualised ad. It makes me really angry. I feel silenced and insulted; my personal boundaries have been violated. And I’m so pissed off.”

I know we do this, but we tend to shift the focus on to why it’s wrong. We go from “I feel angry” to “advertising makes money off titillating men, and men want to see women being objectified…”.

And that’s good too, and it has its place. But it may be worth spending a few moments on how something makes us feel as women.

Then, we have to stop and spend a few moments thinking on how something makes us feel as “us”.

For example: “I know that for me, Mary Tracy, seeing pretty feminine blond women makes me upset because it triggers my insecurities and feelings of being too ugly, too brown and unfeminine, and all in all unworthy of being loved”.

See? Coming clean with our feelings might not be easy, but it always helps.


incurable hippie said...

It's an interesting idea. My concern about the suggestion at the end - looking at the emotion without acknowledging the cause - is that it overturns the personal being political, Without that as a frame, then you feeling insecure is made into YOUR problem, something that's wrong with YOU. When we frame it in why it's wrong, it can be liberating to see that these aren't things wrong with you, they are things wrong in the fucked up society we're in.

Just my thoughts and experience, but of course everyone is different.

Mary Tracy said...

Hi incurable hippie. My suggestion assumes that we do focus on acknowledging the cause, ie: patriarchy, capitalism, etc. But we also make room in our busy patriarchy-blaming schedulte to explore how it makes us feel.

And the interesting thing is that we learn even more about the cause by doing this. For instance, "these kind of ads make me angry because they violate my personal space" teaches us that corporations are making use not only of natural resources that belong to all of us, but are also intruding into our own mental, emotional selves, following pretty much the same dynamic of "exploit whatever and whoever is out there".

gorilerof4b said...

I like these personal response posts (I remember your post after the UK Feminista summer school along similar lines), but I do have a few issues with what you've said here Mary.

First, Sandi Toksvig's stuff about male/female brains: while her speech was entertaining, there were many, many quizzical looks when she started generalizing about brains in this way. Have you read any of Cordelia Fine's stuff? Her book 'Delusions of Gender' is a good read and debunks all the guff that is spoken about brains and sex (which she calls 'neurosexism'). So, no, I wouldn't agree that you 'think like a man'. You think like a human, you think like *you*. All this 'men are from mars' stuff is crap and serves to reinforce gender: not something that feminists espouse.

Next, "the economy determines everything". That's a Marxist position and I don't dispute your right to take that position, but to state that it's an undisputed fact is a bit much. I came at feminism from the left too, and at the beginning I assumed that I'd find my 'place' in the movement as a socialist-feminist. But I find Marxist analysis of women's oppression totally unconvincing, and I've been alienated by the misogyny on the left (Assange, anyone?). So it's not fair to say that economic determinism is a 'fact' let alone an undisputed one.

Then you said: "I want to discuss philosophy… feminists want to talk about how we organise and “do”."

I'm a bit aghast at that! Do you mean the feminists at Fem 11 or feminists in general? There is *masses* of feminist philosophy and feminist political theory out there if you want it. True at this conference there was much talk of activism and not so much emphasis on in depth analysis, but that was the nature of the event. A 90 minute seminar as part of an event that brings together a broad range of feminist viewpoints doesn't lend itself to the kind of in-depth explorations you're talking about.

Regarding your point about anger, I was at the Object seminar in the big hall after lunch and the split in the room (along pro-sex industry/anti-sex industry lines) was obvious, and yeah, I picked up on some hostility (dark mutterings, minor heckling) in the audience toward Object's anti-pornstitution stance. There are some massive differences within feminism as there are in the left. I get that your piece here is a personal response, and the anger/hostility you picked up on made you feel uncomfortable, so I'm not at all arguing that your feelings are invalid, but this is worth reflecting on from a feminist perspective because it touches on the fact that anger = unfeminine and as such we (women) are not supposed to *do* anger. But anger is an entirely appropriate response to injustice and oppression (stating obvious).

The stuff about talking about our feeling responses at the end is, I'm afraid, teaching the proverbial grandmother to suck eggs and to explain why I'll leave you with a quote from Catharine MacKinnon, which is rather long (so long that I can't post it all in this one comment!).

gorilerof4b said...

"Feminism is the first theory to emerge from those whose interest it affirms. Its method recapitulates as theory the reality it seeks to capture. As marxist method is dialectical materialism, feminist method is consciousness raising: the collective critical reconstitution of the meaning of women’s social experience, as women live through it. Marxism and feminism on this level posit a different relation between thought and thing, both in terms of the relationship of the analysis itself to the social life it captures and in terms of the participation of thought in the social life it analyzes. To the extent that materialism is scientific it posits and refers to a reality outside thought which it considers to have an objective – that is, a nonsocially perspectival – content. Consciousness raising, by contrast, inquires into an intrinsically social situation, into that mixture of thought and materiality which comprises gender in the broadest sense. It approaches its world through a process that shares its determination: women’s consciousness, not as individual or subjective ideas, but as collective social being. This approach stands inside its own determinations in order to uncover them, just as it criticizes them in order to value them on its own terms – indeed, in order to have its own terms at all. Feminism turns theory itself, the pursuit of a true analysis of social life, into the pursuit of consciousness, and turns an analysis of inequality into a critical embrace of its own determinants. The process is transformative as well as perceptive, since thought and thing are inextricable and reciprocally constitutive of women’s oppression, just as the state as coercion and the state as legitimating ideology are indistinguishable, and for the same reasons. The pursuit of consciousness becomes a form of political practice."

(from Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, 1989)

Mary Tracy said...

Hi gorilerof4b.

My post was really about personal feelings and impressions, so everything I've said should really be taken with a pinch of salt.

Re: Sandi's "female/male brain" thing. I do agree that she may have been leaning a bit too much on biological determinism, (though a difference in way of thinking can always be attributed to socialisation). In fact, the whole "left/right brain" idea has been debunked already. If you are interested in this, I suggest you read "The Master and his Emissary", it is fascinating. (or just listen to one of the talks on the book).
That said, I cannot shake off the feeling that I am somewhat different to other women. It may be a "personal issue thing"; I am exploring different ideas here.

Now, when I said "the economy determines everything" it should really be read as "OMG, THE ECONOMY DETERMINES EVERYTHING ELEVENTY!!!1". That is, a cry of frustration at the cluelessness about basic things like "exploitation" or "commodification" or industry regulation... I could go on. I don't believe that the economy determines everything, but I does determine a fair amount more than most feminists seem to believe. There is a huge gap in knowledge, and people appear asking for things that are impossible given the conditions of the economic system. (I mean "choose better pr0n"? SERIOUSLY???).

Similarly, when I say "I want to discuss philosophy, feminists want to ...", this is also a cry of frustration, not a political statement.
But just to clarify: I was referring to feminists in the mainstream, and feminists in conferences like Fem 11. I am aware that there is a whole lot of feminist philosophy and feminist theory (that's where I got it from), but not in the mainstream. And that pisses me off. Why keep all this knowledge within the confines of the Ivory Towers? We cannot have this gap between what academia knows about feminism and what feminists talk about. I don't want to go through why lap dancing is wrong AGAIN. I want the conversation to move forward. It is entirely possible to have a few workshops aimed at "beginner level" and others aimed at "radical level". And it's practically our duty to bring the "radical" into the mainstream. (not to mention that this may make the conference more appealing to feminists over the age of 30. Just sayin', not every feminist is a student...)

Mary Tracy said...

I have been thinking about this whole "anger=unfeminine" thing for a long time. Every time I say "maybe we don't have to be angry" someone comments and says "OI! ARE YOU SAYING WE WOMEN CAN'T GET ANGRY???".
No. I am saying "WE DON'T HAVE TO IF WE DON'T WANT TO". Anger may very well be the appropriate response to injustice and oppression, but it's also self destructive and exhausting. And I speak entirely from personal experience; I cannot risk having a heart attack every time I write about feminism.

Anger is meant to be a short-lived emotion. It cannot be sustained indefinitely until the Feminist Revolution cometh. I'm thinking on the women who drop off the movement because they cannot blow a gasket every time a misogynist ad appears on the telly.

So what I'm saying is "you don't have to feel angry all the time while being a feminist. you can if you want to, but you don't have to".

Finally, re: sharing our feelings... I am not sure I understand your reference to the grandmother, and I am sure I don't understand much of your MacKinnon quote. But from my experience (admittedly, somewhat limited) of being in feminist gatherings I know that it's only when we open up to how we feel that people get talking. And ironically, it's the one thing that always gets pushed to the margin.

From what I've heard, this is precisely what women's groups in the years of yore would do. They would not sit down and deconstruct patriarchy or plan campaigns, but talk about how they felt as women. I think we should be doing more of that, alongside deconstruction and planning.

londonfeminist said...

Mary Tracy, what you're describing ("talking about how they felt as women") is called consciousness-raising, and there are several consciousness raising groups going in London at least.

As to "I don't want to go through why lapdancing is bad AGAIN" - well, that would be great, but there's a strand of feminist thought which says lapdancing is empowering! Some feminists believe that sex work is a woman's choice. Personally, I don't think the choice is a free one and I would argue against that position - and yes, this argument is circular, and yes, it will probably still be going in 20 more years, but then so is a lot of men's politics. Discerning the line between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor, for example, has been a circular argument in male political circles for a good 400 years.

Mary Tracy said...

Yes, but some of those men eventually moved past the "deserving-undeserving poor" argument and sat down to write about socialism...

Incidentally, during the Marxism conference, if anyone were to stand up and say that "capitalism rocks because it allows a few workers to make lots of money", they would be laughed at and asked what the heck they are doing hanging around with socialists.

I'm getting tired of the feminist movement being so inclusive that it aims to hold an idea and its opposite and try to make it all work. When Object organise their campaigns against lapdancing clubs, I bet my hat that they don't stop every 5 minutes to argue with someone who thinks "lapdancing is teh awesome". Otherwise they would never get anything done.