The personal is political – living feminist politics by @saramsalem

(cross-posed from Neo-Colonialism and its Discontents)

One of the most difficult parts of my own feminist journey has centred around the inevitable and yet disturbing gap I see between what I believe in and the way I live. In other words, it is one thing to strongly believe in gender justice and feminist politics, and to advocate for both, and another thing to always live according to them. Whether in relationships, friendships, or even just everyday situations, more often than not I find myself acting or thinking in ways that go against what I believe feminism should be. And of course once I interrogate these situations, I understand why – and more often than it, it is because of the way we are socialised into our respective genders. But why is it so difficult to move past this when it comes to gender?

In an attack against Simone de Beauvoir, Pierre Bourdieu wrote the following:

There is not a better example of the symbolic violence that constitutes the traditional (patriarchal) relationship between the sexes than the fact that she will fail to apply her own analysis on relations between the sexes to her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.

Bourdieu not only said this, but also claimed that de Beauvoir had “no original ideas of her own” and simply copied everything Sartre said. In an excellent article on Beauvoir and Bourdieu, Michael Burawoy not only shows that these two claims are untrue, but also that Bourdieu is extremely sexist in the way he attacks de Beauvoir. What I found especially interesting in this article was something on de Beauvoir’s feminism and her own life:

Hers is a more contradictory position in which she dissects masculine domination, yet in her own life finds herself falling into the same traps that she denounces as inauthentic. While she is writing The Second Sex she is having a passionate affair with Nelson Algren that bears all the marks of her analysis of “women in love” – knowing it to be an inauthentic and ultimately futile response to masculine domination. More successful, though never without its tensions, is the “brotherhood” of Sartre! Throughout her life Beauvoir lives out, reflects on, and struggles with the contradictions between her theory and her practice.

De Beauvoir theorises that the reason for this contradiction between theory and practice is that unlike other marginalised groups, women cannot form a unified whole that can rise up against patriarchy. In other words, while other marginalised groups can exist in spaces separate from (to an extent) those who dominate them, this is not the case for women, who “orbit around individual men, complicit in their own subjugation, seeking the best possible partnership on the matrimonial market, subjugated in body and in soul to masculine domination.” As Burawoy writes,

Beauvoir sees masculine domination as a special type of domination that is stronger and deeper than class or racial domination, for the latter occupy spaces from which oppositional identities can be formed.

This struck me because it is something I have sometimes thought – women are so closely tied to individual men that it becomes difficult to think outside of those social relations. And yet, is it true that other marginalised groups do think outside of such relations? Maybe not, but to an extent they are able to exist in material spaces that create a distance between them and those that dominate them. Think of racial or class segregation, although I would question whether this physical separation constitutes a discursive break.

Women being tied to individual men conjures up a more materialist understand of gender, in the sense that this atomisation and individualisation tends to be more pronounced in advanced capitalist societies. Would this be the case everywhere? More importantly, what about societies that do not conceptualise gender relations in such an individualistic manner? And yet – are not all women orbiting around men, and complicit in our own subjugation?

I obviously am still thinking through these questions, but reading this piece yesterday reminded me of the same issue I have had for several years now – the contradiction between theory and practice in my own life, and why this continues. Is there something unique about masculine domination? Or is this a case of a white feminist – de Beauvoir – privileging gender above other marginalisations? And yet we know that “safe spaces” are important. What do these safe spaces look like for women – or do they even exist? De Beauvoir seems to be suggesting they do not because of the nature of heterosexual organisation of society, and therefore: “women orbit around men.” Does this make masculine domination unique or more difficult to eradicate?

Neo-Colonialism and it’s Discontents A blog by Sara Salem on Postcolonialism, Marxism, feminism and other conspiracies. twitter: @saramsalem

3 thoughts on “The personal is political – living feminist politics by @saramsalem”

  1. The issue I have is that I continually try to live by my beliefs, and it gets me into alot of trouble with men- including my own father who has since disowned me because I confronted him on all the sexually inappropriate shit he said to me as a child. In the past, I was homeless for many years. The abuse of my female friends was too much to bear. It seemed that male dominance was (even more) prevalent in street culture. I would, routinely, get myself into trouble with potential rapists and male abusers for both standing up for other women, and myself. I’ve lost lots of male friends, and even some female friends, due to my constant speaking out against male dominance/abuse/sexual tyranny. I’ve been a bystander, I’ve intervened on attacks or attempts to rape- I’ve put myself in the line of fire effectively, for many years now with really no plans to stop. But, if someone were to write a book on what its like to be actively engaged in your feminism, they need to dedicate a whole chapter to the loneliness that comes with it. We must also (never) forget how dangerous men can be both present day and historically. There are so many times where I could have been killed for what I did..and many women (and men) know this when they witness shady behavior. Most people turn a blind eye. I hope that we can continue to be engaged in our own liberation because NO ONE is going to do it for us but ourselves. I promote self protection at all times, but sometimes too- you gotta shake shit up. It makes all of our jobs as feminists alot easier if we continue to stand up against a patriarchal culture, a rape culture, a male dominated society… It takes courage. You have to cultivate courage, and you do so by practice.

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