Replicating patterns of disbelief at Feminists Unknown

cross-posted from Feminists Unknown

orig, pub. 22.215

When I think of being young I think of being scared. I was scared all the time. I remember lying in bed, listening out for sounds, or watching for faces to change and if one face in particular changed, it wouldn’t change back, not soon enough.

I used to blame my brother. I thought that if he didn’t get hit, I wouldn’t get hit. I thought he caused it all. Then I blamed my mother. I thought that if only she’d let my brother get hit enough for all the hitting to be “done,” it would end and none of it would spill over onto me.

I never blamed the person who did the hitting, obviously. You just don’t. When it comes to blame it has to be women and children first.

When I had a breakdown in my teens I tried to speak about what was wrong. Unfortunately, people who have breakdowns are a bit like rape victims who drank too much, or women who’ve been called TERFs. They are not credible, not to friends, not to doctors, not even police (god knows why I tried the latter, but at least it was only the once – when I think back, my overwhelming feeling is not one of anger but embarrassment, for being so bloody naive). People did want to know “the key” to what was making me distressed but not that key; the answer I gave was incorrect. It felt like being in a dream in which you’re trying to shout and no sound comes out.

Why are there bruises down her back? 

She doesn’t eat enough and she drinks too much. They just appear. 

 “You need to cover up,” my mother said, “it makes us look bad.”

So I stopped talking and carried on drinking. You can’t fight for validation forever, even if that feels like the thing that would make you safest. You swallow it all down and a bit of you won’t be the same but perhaps the rest of you can be preserved.

Ten years later I was sexually assaulted by a stranger when I happened to be extremely drunk (as I often was back then). When I went to the police (I know, stupid) it was the same feeling of opening my mouth and no sound coming out, even though there were words, real words. Not being believed is an empty feeling. You might as well not exist. Another bit of you goes.

These things – physical violence, sexual assault – are more than mere words but it’s the words that hurt too. I don’t believe you can be the worst phrase of all. And sometimes it doesn’t matter whether what they don’t believe you about is an online rumour or a fist in the face.

Over the weekend The Washington Post featured a piece by Michelle Goldberg arguing that feminist writers are “so besieged by online abuse that some have begun to retire.” It offers a great deal of insight into just how hard it is to be a feminist voice in a misogynist world. However, it makes the mistake of treating online abuse and real-life misogyny as either/or, as though female commentators are, as if by magic, in a position to choose:

.. stories today about Internet abuse inevitably elicit cliches about heat and kitchens — demands that women toughen up and grow thicker skin. Punditry and activism, after all, are relatively cushy gigs. […] … the creator of Feministe, Lauren Bruce, no longer has an online presence at all. “I had to completely cut that part off in order to live the rest of my life,” she says. “In order to work, have a nice family and feel like I was emotionally whole, I could not have one foot planted in a toxic stew.”

Many of us have sought refuge from and understanding of real-life abuse within feminism itself. There is no real distinction between those who write about misogyny and those who experience it because most of those writing about it are women. Many of us are still in the “toxic stew” or still recovering from the trauma of having been there. This is why the current backlash against feminists who complain of online abuse is nothing more than misogynist bullshit. It’s the replication of patriarchal patterns of disbelief. Contrary to what some would like to suggest, there are no women to whom you’ve earned the right to say “we don’t believe you, your experience of misogyny is imaginary and you’re not really oppressed.” If a woman says a word is a slur and a threat is a threat, it’s for you to deal with your knee-jerk disbelief, not her “phobia.”

Online rape threats don’t cancel out real-life experience of rape.

Tweets threatening violence don’t cancel out real-life beatings.

The “privilege” of writing about male violence against women doesn’t bring with it the real-life privilege of never having experienced it.

Online misrepresentations and lies don’t cancel out all those times you complained about real-life abuse and no one believed you or, at worse, dismissed your voice as sick, hateful or vindictive.

No-platforming doesn’t replace all those other experiences of being literally left outside.

Using words that misogynists describe as “violence” does not grant you superpowers to fend off actual violence. It doesn’t stop you feeling afraid, not just about what you might read but of what might break your bones.

It’s not just that all this is triggering (although quite obviously it is), it’s that it is the very same dynamic, the same entitlement, the same dehumanisation, the same disbelief when you try to make your case. It’s the same dreamlike speaking without being heard.

When women are disbelieved online or are told that their complaints are motivated by sickness (***phobia) or spite (bigotry), it’s a replication of the way in which people in the “real world” might accuse them of lying about rape or emotional abuse. You’re vindictive, you’re unreliable, you’re not well. And the chances are women have faced not one or the other of these, but both. It’s how male violence sustains itself and online discourse surrounding “mistrustful” or “unaccountable” feminists is seeping back into the real world, endorsing the age-old view that women are pampered princesses who lie about their fears and make up stories just to spite men. It’s a view that hurts all women.

I think it is fairly safe to assume almost every woman who has faced online dismissals of her ideas, false accusations of bigotry and crude acronyms has also been a victim of some form of male violence and/or assault and/or sustained emotional abuse. If speaking out against male violence made us magically immune to male violence then there’d be no need for refuges at all. Just say the sort of things misogynists dismiss as “violence,” become magically privileged and that’s it sorted. Alas, it doesn’t actually happen like that because guess what? Women have been trying that for years.

When you decide that a woman is “too privileged” to talk about feminist approaches to sex, gender and violence, what are your criteria? Were her bruises not dark enough for your liking? Do you need more evidence that she has experienced sexual assault (perhaps a male witness who is a pillar of the community)? Is she just not credible, what with other people telling you she’s a slag/slut /TERF/SWERF/[pick your own one-syllable female credibility eraser]? Would you believe her if you hadn’t seen her hanging out with “the wrong people” and hence asking for it? Is an opinion the short skirt of the internet unless it’s the wrong opinion, in which case it’s all a grey area and she might have provoked it, you never can tell…? What would make her lived experience of misogyny credible: more rapes? more beatings? death? Would you need to be on hand to watch, just to make sure? (Or would you merely interpret the very act of dying as passive-aggression on her part?)

Because if these are your criteria – if you replicate the aftermath of real-life violence in your attitude towards online abuse and public misrepresentation – then you are re-traumatising women due to your own misogynist assumptions regarding female authority and credibility. You have decided that female experience is either/or, helpless victim or privileged bitch who deserves taking down. You can’t imagine that a victim might not base her whole identity around victimhood and could instead have the strength and perspective to discuss the structures that perpetuate it (you might use the word “survivor” yet when women show signs of actual survival, empathy evaporates). Online abuse is not the great equalizer, doling out shit to women who you’ve decided aren’t getting enough misogynist abuse in real life (and the same goes for the harassment and misrepresentation of female academics and feminists speakers. If that’s your idea of activism – spreading shit around and adding to it, rather than trying to clear the whole think up – then you don’t like women. And you’re certainly not speaking truth to power in any way whatsoever).

Despite what men do to women again and again, women are not either utterly crushed or in need of a good crushing. We stand up again. That is, I think, what offends misogynists the most and forces them to create the myth of the real-life-abuse-immune feminist with no right to speak. How can we have done that to you and still you’re able to talk back? You must have been missed off our list. 

No, we weren’t. We were always on your list. You never miss anyone out.

And if you’re the kind of feminist who doesn’t like women who don’t appear sufficiently crushed, you’re no feminist at all. Stop making us swallow your shit.

 

Feminists Unknown: This is a collaborative blog incorporating posts from a number of anonymous posters. It will be focusing primarily on feminism. There is no wrong view on this blog-only individual perspectives. It must remain a safe space for those who post and share. So leave your judgement at the door. Our criticism will be constructive or it will be bullshit.

The Pro-Sexploitation Lobby and Disabled People at Life in the Patriarchal Mix

(cross-posted from Life in the Patriarchal Mix)

An article (A good one) was recently published of which a disabled feminist discusses the Liberals and their use (would it be right to call it abuse?) of disabled people to defend the sexual exploitation of women in favor of disabled men’s libidos.  This is nothing new with Liberals and their pseudo-analysis of “individual freedom”, sacrificing the needs and concerns of a group of  people, normally the oppressed are the targets, for the minute satisfactions of another group, the oppressors. Unfortunately the commentators, I am betting my savings that they are men, do not seem to understand or even argue the author’s main point about her article. These commentors seem to find it perfectly acceptable to abuse women through paid rape as long as the disabled men are happy. I will closely look at the argument that seems to be most popular with these Neo-Liberals.

I know several sex workers, all of whom chose the profession because of the untaxed income and flexible hours.

Unless this John (Yes, I am saying it) can give the names of these women, I will doubt his assertion that women just “choose” to be in the “sex industry” just for the hell of it. I wish this John can prove that women  get paid more for “having sex” with these men and not live in desolate poverty for their entire lives. His argument in his comment doesn’t even address the disableism that is often used to prove the “usefulness” of  prostitution. You cannot say a statement and then argue that it is factual without any evidence to back it up, that you happen to be male does not make your argument true.

If the first thing you think about when you hear “disabled men are not entitled to sex” is “but those women made a choice!” I am sorry but that is “moving the goal-post.” You are arguing that is not even challenging the person making one argument, you are distracting from the main point. The author of the article argues that saying that disabled people (oops, I mean men) have a “right” to sex by using exploited women because we disabled people are just disgusting things that no person would want to love under normal circumstances as the author writes

The assumption that nobody would ever have sex with a disabled person through personal choice is not only inaccurate, it’s also offensive. An infantilised view of disabled people also contributes to the idea that sex with one of us is wrong or weird, adding to the stigma and prejudice that limit our lives.

The author also argues that the assumption that all disabled people (Men, did it again) need is a sexual partner to be fully human is also insulting to the disabled people and places their worth on how “attractive” they should be as romantic partners albeit through a very narrow scope. This assumption about our “attractiveness” also ignores those who are happily married and have children (though personally I am against the institution of marriage), those who have high paying jobs, or are not shut-ins in some institution where they are fed a diet of horrible hospital-style food and medication. It also makes assumptions that if disabled men are given the option to have “paid sex” with women then they wouldn’t feel so dehumanized or think themselves as less than the Able. If they legitimately believe that feeding into the stereotype of disabled people being sexually unattractive and that only the Able can “help” them will end oppression against disabled people then they would need to re-examine their priorities.

Disabled people do not owe it to non-disabled people to exist so that Liberals can use them as a political crutch. It seems odd that disabled people seem to only be brought up by Neo-Liberals if they are of any use to the Liberal’s selfish agenda; a Neo-Liberal can talk up a storm about ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘human rights’ of the able-bodied and able-minded people but not one sound for the disabled. No discussions about access to education, no programs to get disabled people out of poverty, no discussions about the sexual abuse of disabled women and girls, no discussions about the rampant discrimination that disabled people (whether the disability is physical or mental) often have to deal with to work in society. You will never hear that from any Liberal unless it can increase the credibility or make that Liberal seem charitable.

We are not charity cases and we are not objects to be pitied by those who have never had to live our lives. We are not just things to be used to make a case for the exploitation and abuse of women, especially women in the sexploitation industry. We are not some monolithic group who needs the patronizing and dehumanizing words from the Able to make us look human. The Able most certainly DO NOT have a right to take our terms, such as ableism, and use them against the people who are fighting alongside us. The women who are prostituted also do not owe to the disabled men to exist as a mere service, women in general do not owe it to ANY MAN to be sexually subservient to them. Women should not have to sexually “service” men in an “equal” society; quite frankly I find this to be an equal insult to the women who are prostituted, it is a sad state of affairs when women have to coddle a man’s ego (and his boner) merely because the disabled man and if he does not get what he thinks he is entitled to that he is being “discriminated against” or is “being denied his right.”

Women are denied their right to live a life free of violence and hatred every single day, through various factors and these institutions are created up to make sure women stay in that place. You have to ask only a few former “sex workers” to get the full picture and the pattern that this industry and its CEOs (pimps) follow to keep women subservient and dependent. To use the disabled man’s “right to sex” as an argument for her continued servitude only rubs salt on her psychological and physical wounds especially when the possibility that she was abused as a child are likely. Unless these “pro-sex” Liberals are willing to try to not be obtuse when it comes to their real intentions and how they actually view both trafficked women and disabled people then they shouldn’t speak as if they know about the issues that affect disabled people.

Just because the man is disabled that does not mean he should be allowed special privileges to sexually abuse a woman because no woman finds him attractive; the disabled (including myself) already have plenty of issues to deal with and the right to “have sex” with a trafficked woman, who is in dire circumstances and trying to survive in a patriarchal society, is not one of them. It is not the woman’s job to take the blame for everything that happens to disabled and to alleviate that brief moment of discomfort simply because women are raised to serve men’s every whim and desire.

Life in the Patriarchal Matrix I mainly blog about feminism, misogyny, disability and activism.

Talking about gender by @strifejournal

(cross-posted from Trouble & Strife)

At the London Feminist Network’s ‘Feminar’ in May 2010, Debbie Cameron and Joan Scanlon spoke about gender and what it means for radical feminism. What follows is an edited transcript of their remarks. 

Debbie Cameron: The purpose of today’s discussion is to try to cut through some of the theoretical and political confusion which now surrounds the concept of gender, and it’s probably useful to start by asking what’s causing that confusion.

Conversations about ‘gender’ nowadays often run into problems because the people involved are using the same word, to mean somewhat the same thing, but on closer examination they aren’t talking about the same set of issues from the same point of view. For instance, when we launched the T&S Reader at the Edinburgh radical bookfair, some women students came up to us afterwards and said they were very pleased we’d produced the book, but surprised it didn’t have much in it about gender. Actually it’s all about gender in the radical feminist sense–power relations between women and men–so this comment did not make much sense to us. Joan was initially completely baffled by it; I realised what they must be getting at only because I’m still an academic, and in the academy you hear ‘gender’ used this way a lot.

What’s going on here is that during the 1990s, queer theorists and queer activists developed a new way of talking about gender: it did have points of overlap with the older feminist way of talking, but the emphasis was different, the theory behind it was different (basically it was the postmodernist theory of identity associated with the philosopher Judith Butler, though I don’t think Butler herself would say that feminists had no critical analysis of gender), and the politics that came out of it were very different. For people whose ideas were formed either by encounter with academic feminist theory or by involvement in queer politics and activism, that became the meaning of ‘gender’. They believed what they’d been told, that feminists in the 70s and 80s didn’t have a critical analysis of gender, or that they had the wrong analysis because their ideas about gender were ‘essentialist’ rather than ‘social constructionist’.

We don’t believe that, and in a minute we’ll explain why. But first it’s worth doing a general ‘compare and contrast’ on the ‘old’ feminist view of gender and the newer version that came out of 1990s queer theory/politics.

‘Old’ gender ‘New’ gender
What is gender? A system of social/power relations structured by a binary division between ‘men’ and ‘women’. Categorization is usually on the basis of biological sex, but gender as we know it is a social rather than biological thing (e.g. masculinity and femininity are defined differently in different times and places) An aspect of personal/social identity, usually ascribed to you at birth on the basis of biological sex (but this ‘natural’ connection is an illusion—as is the idea that there have to be two genders because there are two sexes)
What’s oppressive about it?  The fact that it’s based on the subordination of one gender (women) by the other (men) The fact that it’s a rigid binary system. It forces every person to identify as either a man or a woman (not neither, both at once, something in between or something else entirely) and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform. (This oppresses both men and women, especially those who don’t fully identify with the prescribed model for their gender)
What would be a radical gender politics?  Feminism: women organize to overthrow male power and thus the entire gender system. (For radical feminists, the ideal number of genders would be… none.) ‘Genderqueer’: women and men reject the binary system, identify as ‘gender outlaws’ (e.g. queer, trans) and demand recognition for a range of gender identities. (From this perspective, the ideal number of genders would be… infinite?)

There are both similarities and differences between the two versions. For both, gender is connected to, but not the same as, sex; for both, gender as we know it is a binary system (there are, basically, two genders); and both approaches would probably agree that gender is about power AND identity, but their emphasis on one or the other differs. They also differ because supporters of the queer version don’t think in terms of men oppressing women, they think gender norms as such are more oppressive than power hierarchy, and want ‘more’ gender rather than less or none.

To make sense of these ideas and decide what you think of them, it’s helpful to understand a bit of history—the history of feminist and sexual radical ideas. There are three main questions we think it’s worth pursuing in more detail:

  1. Is it true that radical feminism is/was ‘essentialist’ in its view of gender?
  2. What is, and what was, the relationship between the politics of gender and sexuality?
  3. What do radical feminism and queer or ‘genderqueer’ politics have in common, and what are the key differences, and what are their respective political goals?

Is/was radical feminism essentialist?

Let’s get one thing out of the way: there are essentialist varieties of feminism, currents of thought in which, for instance, mystical powers are ascribed to the female body or men are believed to be naturally evil,  and some of the women who subscribe to these ideas might use or be given the label ‘radical feminist’.  But if we consider radical feminism as a political tradition which has produced, among other things, a body of feminist texts which have come to be regarded as ‘classics’, it’s surprising (given how often the accusation of essentialism has been made) how consistently un-essentialist their view of gender has been.

As a way of illustrating the point, I’ve put together a few quotations from the writing of women who are generally considered as archetypal radical feminists—along with Simone de Beauvoir, often thought of as the founding foremother of modern ‘second wave’ feminism, which her book The Second Sex (first published in French in 1949) pre-dated by 20 years. Beauvoir was no essentialist, and though she did not use a term equivalent to gender (this still isn’t common in French), she makes many comments which depend on distinguishing the biological from the social aspects of being a woman. One of my favourites, because of its drily sarcastic tone, is this: ‘Every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity’.

One early second wave feminist who has often been castigated for essentialism (because she suggested that the subordination of women must originally have been due to their role in reproduction and nurturance) is Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Yet in fact Firestone did not see a social hierarchy built on sex-difference as natural and inevitable. On the contrary, she states in Dialectic that

just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilegebut of the sex distinction itself:  genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

In the slightly later writing of the French radical materialist feminist Christine Delphy, gender is theorised as nothing but the product of hierarchical power relations; it is not a pre-existing difference on which those relations are then superimposed. Delphy’s is a view which less radical thinkers find extreme, but whatever else anyone thinks of it, it could hardly be less essentialist. As Delphy herself says:

We do not know what the values, individual personality traits or culture of a non-hierarchical society would be like, and we have great difficulty imagining it. ….perhaps we will only be able to think about gender on the day when we can imagine non-gender.

All the writers I have just quoted are women who ‘can (and do) imagine non-gender’. This willingness to think seriously about what for most people, including many feminists, is the unthinkable—that a truly feminist world would not just operate without gender inequalities but actually without gender distinctions—is, we would argue, one of the hallmarks of radical feminism, one of the ways it stands out as ‘radical’.

Another thing that makes radical feminism stand out is the way it connects gender to sexuality and both to power. Catharine MacKinnon’s writings make the connection particularly strongly, as in the following passage taken from Feminism Unmodified (1987):

The feminist theory of power is that sexuality is gendered as gender is sexualised.  In other words, feminism is a theory of how the eroticization of dominance and submission creates  gender, creates women and man in the social form in which we know them.  Thus the sex difference and dominance-submission dynamic define each other.  The erotic is what defines sex as inequality, hence as meaningful difference. This is, in my view, the social meaning of sexuality, and the distinctly feminist account of gender inequality.

This shows that some well-known radical feminists have taken a non-essentialist view of sexuality as well as gender. Indeed, one of the most radically un- or anti-essentialist accounts of sexuality we can think of—as radical as any queer theorist’s work in rejecting the idea of fixed and finite sexual identities—comes from the radical feminist Susanne Kappeler in her book The Pornography of Representation (1986):

In a political perspective, sexuality, like language, might fall into the category of intersubjective relations:  exchange and communication.  Sexual relations – the dialogue between two subjects – would determine, articulate, a sexuality of the subjects as speech interaction generates communicative roles in the interlocutors.  Sexuality would thus not so much be a question of identity, of a fixed role in the absence of a praxis, but a possibility with the potential of diversity and interchangeability, and a possibility crucially depending on and codetermined by an interlocutor, another subject.

Later on we will explain why we think these radical feminist ideas about gender, sexuality, identity and power actually pose a far more radical challenge to the status quo than the ideas of queer politics.

Joan Scanlon: As Debbie said earlier, I was completely bewildered when the two young women in Edinburgh asked why The Trouble & Strife Reader (2009) didn’t have more in it about gender.  I rang Su Kappeler (see the quotation from her above) and she said:  “The thing is Joan: it’s like what Roland Barthes wrote somewhere, that if you have a guide book to Italy you won’t find Italy in the index – you’ll find Milan, Naples or the Vatican…” So I thought about this, and realised that while this was certainly true, there was something else going on:  it was as if the map of Italy had disappeared (quite useful as a way of connecting Milan, Naples and the Vatican), and instead, the geographical, political and economic reality of Italy had been replaced by a virtual space in which Italy could be a masked ball, a tricolour flag, an ice-cream parlour – or any combination of free floating signifiers.  And so, returning to the concept of gender, I realised that we need reconstruct that map, and that we needed to look at the question historically to make sense of this shift in meaning.

Of course maps change, as political boundaries change – but you won’t get far without one.  We need therefore to look at why feminists adopted the term gender to describe a material reality – the systematic enforcement of male power – and as a tool for political change.  I am going to start with a few definitions, then talk briefly about the history of sexuality, the relationship between gender and sexuality, and how the relationship between those two constructions has changed since the beginning of the last century.  I am also going to look briefly at what feminism has in common with queer politics, and at where the key differences lie.

Definitions: feminism, gender, sexuality

When I was writing something with Liz Kelly in the late 1980s, we decided that with the proliferation of ‘feminisms’ we needed to assert that the term feminism was meaningless if it just meant whatever any individual wanted it to mean.  In other words:  You can’t have a plural without a singular – so we defined feminism simply as “a recognition that women are oppressed, and a commitment to changing that”. Beyond this, you can have any number of differences of opinion about why women are oppressed and any number of differences about strategies for changing that.

In our 1993 tenth anniversary issue of T&S we then asked several women to define radical feminismand the definitions all have this in common:  they take as central that gender is a system of oppression, and that men and women are two socially constructed groups which exist precisely because of the unequal power relationship between them. Also, they all assert that radical feminism is radical because it challenges all relationships of power, including extreme forms such as male violence and the sex industry (which has always been extremely controversial within the women’s movement and an extremely unpopular issue to campaign against). Instead of tinkering around the edges of the question of gender, radical feminism addresses the structural problem which underlies it.

To define gender, therefore, seems a necessary step in understanding the proliferation of meanings which have come about in its now plural usage.  Gender, as radical feminists have always understood it, is a term which describes the systematic oppression of women, as a subordinate group, for the advantage of the dominant group, men.  This is not an abstract concept – it describes the material circumstances of oppression, including institutionalised male power and power within personal relationships – for example, the unequal division of labour, the criminal justice system, motherhood, the family, sexual violence… and so on.  I should say here that very few feminists would argue that gender is not socially constructed;   I think radical feminism is only accused of biological essentialism because it has been so central in the campaign against male violence, and for some reason we are therefore accused of thinking that all men are innately violent – which I have never understood.  If you are involved in a politics of change, it would be fairly pointless to think that anything you were seeking to change was innate or immutable.

If gender is seen, under patriarchy, as emanating from biological sex –  sexuality is essentialised if anything even more – as it is seen to emanate from our very nature, from desires and feelings which are quite outside of our control, even if our sexual behaviour can be regulated by moral and social codes.  And so to conclude with definitions, I will borrow Catherine MacKinnon’s definition of sexualityas ‘a social process which creates, organises, directs, and expresses desire’. Apart from pointing out that this clearly indicates that radical feminists  understand sexuality to be socially constructed, I won’t unpick this further here, as I hope it will become clear from what I go on to say.

A brief history of sexuality:

It is only from around 1870 onwards that medical, scientific and legal discourse began to classify and categorise individuals by sexual type – and produced what historians would now recognise as a specifically homosexual or lesbian identity.    Prior to the late 19th century sexual behaviour was conceived in terms of sin and crime – in terms of sexual acts not sexual identities. In the UK, male homosexuality was criminalised until 1967, and lesbianism, although never illegal, was repressed by other means; it was not an economic option for more than a tiny number of privileged women of independent means until after the Second World War.   Female sexuality has always been controlled by physical coercion, by economic dependence on men, and not least by ideology, and Adrienne Rich’s essay on ‘On Compulsory Heterosexuality’ (1979) shows the range and inventiveness of these means of control.

Gender is one of the ways in which sexuality is most effectively policed:  given the constant reinforcement of the binary gender system as a means of social control, if you step outside of your allocated gender role you are likely to be stigmatised as homosexual, and vice versa.  In other words, if you eschew the rewards of femininity by for example, becoming a plumber, not shaving your legs, telling a man who is harassing you to fuck off – you are likely to be accused of being a lesbian. (A man who does not conform to the conventions of masculinity, and is seen pushing a pram, wears pink, or who doesn’t like football, is equally likely to be accused of being gay.)  And similarly if you actually are a lesbian you are likely to be expected to behave like a man, to exhibit male desire – and heterosexual women are likely to be worried you might fancy them, and are encouraged to avoid women-only spaces in case there is a risk of being pounced on (this may be less true now, but was always an issue regarding women only events when I first got involved in feminism – i.e. that heterosexual women thought that women-only meant lesbian, and therefore assumed that all such spaces/events would be sexualised.)  Anyway, this is partly what Catherine MacKinnon meant when she said that ‘gender is sexualised, and sexuality is gendered’ – in other words, the power difference between men and women is eroticised, and we wouldn’t recognise something as sexual if it wasn’t about power – so anything that is perceived as sexual – such as gay and lesbian identity – is read through that lens, and thus gendered.

Early sexologists played a significant role in creating and consolidating this myth that lesbians were  inherently masculinised women, and homosexual men were innately feminine.  It is also here, in the work of for example Richard von Krafft Ebing, that you first find the idea of a man born into a woman’s body and vice versa.  Although the early sexologists dispelled a lot of other myths about sexual behaviour, and were instrumental in challenging the criminalisation of homosexuality by presenting it as ‘natural’ and innate, in so doing, they also confirmed the idea that sexuality was an essential part of human nature that was either dangerous and needed to be controlled by medical intervention, or a positive force which needed to be liberated from the repressive constraints of civilisation.  They often disagreed with each other, and contradicted themselves, but collectively they created and confirmed the myth that we all have a ‘true sexual identity’, which sexual science can help to reveal.  Some of their writings now read like complete nonsense, but it is impossible to underestimate the significance of these texts on literature and the popular imagination of the time.

Just to give you one example:  Richard von Krafft Ebing (on whose case studies Radclyffe Hall based her characters in the Well of Loneliness) argued that homosexuals were neither mentally ill nor morally depraved – since they suffered from a congenital inversion of the brain during the gestation of the embryo.  Moreover, he was convinced that you could find evidence of masculinity in female ‘inverts’ to confirm the genetic cause of their condition.  Havelock Ellis, who wrote the preface to the Well, agreed with this position, and went on to argue that you could distinguish between true female ‘inverts’ whose nature was permanent and innate, and those women who were attracted to ‘inverts’ because, although they were more womanly, they ‘were not well adapted for childbearing’ and therefore not suited for heterosexual procreative sex.   A more enlightened view was articulated by Edward Carpenter, socialist reformer and utopian philosopher: Carpenter, who used the term Uranian(of the heavens) to describe individuals who were attracted to others of the same sex,  had a more mystical and lyrical view of the whole subject (he is easily ridiculed because he had a kind of cult following and not only made his own sandals but also made them for the rest of his community, who lived in a commune near Sheffield) – but he is in many ways the most radical of them all.  He was much more interested in temperament and sensibility than in outward (biological) signs of deviation from the conventions of masculinity and femininity, and he also believed that those who belonged to ‘the intermediate sex’ could bridge differences of class and race, and be interpreters between men and women, as they shared the characteristics of both.  Economists and politicians of the movement thought Carpenter’s views were sentimental nonsense, but he comes closest of all the sexologists to saying that the gender itself is the problem, and the extremes of the binary gender system are detrimental to the kind of ideal society he imagines.

I’m not going to plough my way through all the sexologists of the 20th century – no doubt you are all more familiar with the laboratory experiments of Masters and Johnson, and the best-selling surveys of sexual behaviour by Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite in the 1950s and 1980s respectively, which rocked the establishment in showing, amongst other things, the diversity of sexual behaviour and prevalence of homosexual desire amongst the heterosexual population at large in the US.  The main point about the later sexologists, what they have in common, is that they made sex the subject of scientific study, and very few of them looked at gender per se, or at the social context and meaning of sexuality.

The relation of gender to sexuality changed in the late 60s and 1970s, largely because of the emergence of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement.  With the rise of feminism, and the publication of numerous key texts such as Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics(1970), lesbianism was no longer seen as a subcategory of male homosexuality, and not just as a sexual identity, but as political identity, within the context of gendered power relations – in other words it was possible to see being a lesbian as about being a woman, challenging heterosexuality as an institution, and challenging power within personal relationships.  I do think of myself as extraordinarily fortunate to have found feminism in the late 1970s (when I was in my early 20s) – as I would otherwise have been completely persuaded that I was an invert, or god forbid, a Uranian, or whatever, if I had been born in an earlier era.  The women’s movement of the late 60s and 70s offered many women an unprecedented opportunity to make sense of their experience as women, theorise about it, and do something about it.

We often forget that thinkers within the gay liberation movement in the early days had much in common with feminism: deconstructing masculinity, questioning the nuclear family, challenging misogyny, and seeking a sexuality of equality.  Although feminists continued to work very much in coalition with gay men, against a common oppression – institutionalised heterosexuality – we also found that our focus on the social construction of sexuality was at odds with the predominant view in the gay movement that sexuality was innate.   For example, in the late 1980s, during the campaign against clause 28 of the local government bill (which banned local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, and ‘pretended’ ie same sex families, in schools) the main argument from within the gay movement was that you couldn’t make someone gay, that gays only represented 10% of the population, that you were born gay, and therefore represented no threat to the establishment.  And of course, as feminists we were arguing the opposite, that you could indeed change your sexuality, and we did indeed seek to be a threat to the establishment. The AIDS epidemic politicised large numbers of gay men around sexuality, defending individual sexual freedom against the repressive politics of the far right, but in resorting once again to a plea for tolerance from the heterosexual world, and a request for inclusion in heterosexual privilege (civil partnerships etc) – which was strategically successful in achieving those goals precisely because they were not perceived as threatening to the liberal establishment –  it is possible that this movement paved the way for a politics which not only challenged heteronormative behaviour, but sought to create a space for all the casualties of gender who fall outside of the binary gender system and outside of a parallel binary conception of sexuality. You may well say that feminism seemed to offer precisely such a politics, and such a space, so it is important to look, therefore, at the differences between feminism and the queer politics.

What radical feminism has in common with queer politics is

  • An understanding that gender and sexuality are socially constructed
  • A recognition that binary gender roles are oppressive
  • An understanding that gender roles are produced through performance, and confirmed by their constant re-enactment
  • A commitment to challenging heteronormative assumptions and practices

The differences between radical feminism and queer politics are

  • Radical feminism is a materialist analysis which argues that gender is not produced merely through discourse and performance, but is a system within which one gender (male) has economic and political power, and the other (female) does not – and the dominant group has an investment in keeping it that way.
  • Radical feminism involves an understanding that you cannot produce (or challenge) the system of gender merely through discourse or individual performance – by adopting certain clothes, language, or even changing your anatomical body.  Outside of certain limited contexts, the dominant culture will still read these gestures according to the dominant social codes – and seek to categorise you as a man or woman.  (In other words, on the tube, in the supermarket, at work, these individual gestures or performative statements will be unintelligible, and quite ineffectual as a challenge to the system of gender).
  • Judith Butler argues that feminism, by asserting that women are a group with common characteristics and interests, has reinforced the binary view of gender, in which masculine and feminine genders are built on male and female bodies.  Feminists do indeed argue that women have a common political interest (rather than exhibiting common characteristics), and that women suffer from a common oppression (which they experience in different ways according to other forms of power relationships, including race and class), and that women’s bodies are the site of much of that oppression – but this is not to argue that the category woman is an undifferentiated category.  It is simply to argue that so long as women are oppressed as women, there is a need for a common political identity, in order to organise effectively to resist that oppression.
  • Radical feminism is committed to changing the gender system, and challenging oppression in all its forms.   We thus have no investment in being outlaws, which comes from a romanticised notion of oppression.  Moreover, feeling oppressed is not the same as being oppressed.  In order to celebrate your identity as an outlaw, you have to have an investment in the system which makes you an outlaw.  Queer seems to me to encompass the most extreme casualties of the gender system, and to create an umbrella which covers those who are unwilling social outlaws (usually from the poorest and most disenfranchised groups in society, with no buffer against social prejudice – i.e. those who are outlawed without choice),  and those for whom playing at being outlaws is a privileged intellectual game rather than a hard lived reality.
  • Queer is by its own definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.  Queer then, demarcates “not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative”. It follows from this that Queer politics has no particular political goals, apart from challenging the dominant normative discourses, and if they change, Queer politics would then have to change its position in opposition to whatever is currently normative.  It’s not clear to me therefore, what its specific political goals are.
  • Queer embraces a wide array of non-normative sexual identities and practices, including some that are heterosexual:: “Sadism and masochism, prostitution, sexual inversion, transgender, bisexuality, asexuality, intersexuality are seen by queer theorists as opportunities for investigations into differences of class, race and ethnicity, and as opportunities to reconfigure understandings of pleasure and desire.” For example, Pat Califia,  in Feminism and Sadomasochism writes about how sadomasochism encourages fluidity, and questions the naturalness of binary dichotomies in society:

The dynamic between a top and a bottom is quite different from the dynamic between men and women, blacks and whites, or upper- and working- class people. That system is unjust because it assigns privileges based on race, gender, and social class. During a S/M encounter, roles are acquired and used in very different ways. If you don’t like being a top or bottom, you switch your keys. Try doing that to your biological sex or your race or your socioeconomic status.

  • This point of view places these scholars of Queer theory in conflict with the radical feminist view that sadomasochism, prostitution and pornography,  are all oppressive practices.
  • Radical feminism argues that all power differences are sexualised, including those constructed through race and ethnicity, class and disability, and that pornography and the sex industry as a whole is one of the clearest and most pernicious manifestations of that – eroticised power difference is the stuff of porn, and this is acted out on real bodies, not in the imagination of the consumer. Moreover, we need to be clear about whose pleasure and desire we are talking about – in an industry based on sexual exploitation and abuse.   S&M was the subject of much heated debate within feminism in the 1980s, and here again, radical feminism saw nothing new or radical about recreating the dominance and subordination dynamic – already prevalent within heterosexuality – within non-heteronormative relationships.  All of these phenomena, embraced as anti-heteronormative – by queer politics, are already embraced by patriarchy, so there’s no great revolution here.  Radical feminists seek not merely to challenge but to dismantle the structures of patriarchy; the challenge that queer offers to the normative culture is a provocation with no political aim to dismantle the normative, on which, by its own definition, it depends for its existence as an oppositional position.  It appears that queer is thus not attempting to seek liberation from the system of gender difference, but simply to take liberties with it.
  • In order to change the social system that creates gender difference as we know it, you have to address the underlying structures that produce and sustain gender difference – and you have to seek to eradicate gender itself.

Without gender, without power difference, sexuality could simply be the expression of desire between equal subjects.  (see Su’s quote in the handout).

At the beginning of this talk, Debbie quoted Shulamith Firestone, and it seems entirely appropriate therefore for me to conclude by returning to a central argument of ‘The Dialectic of Sex’, one which encapsulates the radical feminist approach to gender: ( I paraphrase):  The intellectual and theoretical task of feminism is to understand gender as a system which creates and maintains inequality.  The political task of feminism is to eradicate gender.

Trouble & Strife is a British-based radical feminist magazine. It appeared in print between 1983 and 2002, and is now a blog hosted by WordPress. We publish topical short posts, long-form articles and reviews, some of them illustrated by the feminist cartoonists whose work was a popular feature of the printed magazine. The website also gives visitors free access to a complete archive of our 43 print issues. T&S is edited by an all-women collective. We welcome enquiries from women who want to contribute posts, articles or reviews on topics of interest to a radical feminist readership (please note that we don’t publish fiction, poetry or artwork except if it illustrates an article). Our Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/troubleandstrifemagazine Our Twitter account is @strifejournal.

Tall Girl Feminism at Rosie’s Gap Year

(Cross-posted from Rosie’s Gap Year)

I recently read an article by Ann Friedman called “What It’s Like To Be A Woman Who’s 6’2″” (brought to my attention by all the angsty tall girl blogs I follow). Being a smidge over 6’1″ myself, I sank my teeth into her article faster than it takes for a 5’5″ guy to give me a weird look while I’m nervously browsing the heels in Topshop.
I have been this height since I was around 15, and I’ve always been very self conscious of it. It took me around 4 years to figure out why.
As Friedman wonderfully put it:”Height is associated with masculinity, and women are meant to be petite, if not a lot smaller than men are.”

I think this can be traced back to male dominance and female submission. This hierarchy of power is present everywhere we look. Men are paid more than women, diet culture is a gendered problem, sexual violence is a gendered crime.
But when a woman (particularly a confident woman) is around 5 inches taller than a man, they lose physical power over them, and we are therefore frequently seen as off-putting or intimidating.
Naturally, this is something I have plenty of experience with, and it’s something I come across near enough on a weekly basis.
For example, on the occasion I was brave enough to go out with 3 inch heels on, I receive comments such as…

“Why are you wearing heels when you’re already so tall?”- good question. I bought these heels specifically so guys like you would ask me patronising questions when they realised they weren’t attracted to me.

“You know, wearing those things can really scare guys who might be into you.”- I had no idea. Wait right there while I change into my flats and censor myself to make you feel more comfortable. I want to have sex with you, I promise!

“How are you so tall?”- Well, I have this theory called genetics. I’m not sure if it’ll ever catch on, though.

“You’re so tall, do you wanna be a boy or something?”- Yes, random man. My height, which is completely unrelated to my gender identity, means that I want to be a boy. We have known each other for less than 3 minutes, my gender is really none of your business anyway.

A few weeks later, I stumbled upon @meninistphrases (“phrases” meaning gross dudes whining with the odd rape joke thrown in) who published a “Girl Height Chart” which is as follows:

Short Girl- to 5’4
Normal Girl- 5’5 to 5’7
Male Girl- 5’8 and up

According to this, international supermodels such as Karlie Kloss (6’1) and global superstars such as Rihanna (5’9) are in fact not females at all, despite being hailed for their talent and owning their womanhood in male dominated spaces, not to mention making a load of money from it.
Nevertheless, this tweet was favourited over 1’000 times, which may seem like a passive joke to most people, but to for me, to see so many people enjoying a joke based on a prominent insecurity of mine is disheartening to say the least.
Being 6’1 and a half does not make me any less of a woman, and if men feel emasculated because of that, attacking my supposedly ‘masculine’ physical features is no way to react.

Maybe we should start looking at why men feel the need to react in this way, and begin challenging it. For example, we may be able to look to hyper masculinity (the exaggeration of stereotypical male behaviour) with emphasis on strength, sexuality and dominance.
I don’t mean to be a feminist bitch about this (just kidding, I totally do), but behaviour like this is a direct product of the patriarchal and toxic roles set upon the male species.
This kind of degrading activity towards the female form (particularly the acceptance of it) is to keep women compliant in the face of male superiority, and it’s difficult to assert yourself in such a way when a woman is already much taller than you, wearing 4 inch heels and loving herself because of it.

Rosie’s Gap Year: I write about inequality and society from the perspective of an 18 year old feminist in hopes to educate both myself and others.

It feels like my soul has died by @God_loves_women

(cross-posted from God Loves Women)

On Sunday I awoke from a dream and everything changed.  Since then I have barely been able to eat, talking wears me out, even typing these few words is a huge effort.  I have done very little work, the meetings I have had to attend require me to fake being myself which, although possible, is exhausting.  My usually super fast brain has slowed almost to a standstill and in the middle of sentences I will lose the thread of what I’m saying.

I am irritable and my ability to parent has become vastly depleted.  I have become impatient and snap at the littlest thing.  At times I become unable to move or speak and my husband has to physically move me and help me with basic tasks.  By early afternoon I am exhausted and have to sleep.

It feels like my soul has died.  All that’s left is a shell.  All that makes me who I am has been enveloped by deadness.

The dream wasn’t even that bad.  Nothing dramatically awful happened within it.  It involved me being almost physically transported back ten years and spending time with my ex-husband.  And now I am broken.

It turns out it probably wasn’t a dream, but rather a flashback.  A flashback isn’t a nightmare or a memory, it’s like whatever you are seeing is happening in the present.  And the brain and body cannot distinguish between the flashback and reality.  So for all intents and purposes, on Sunday I was transported back ten years to spend an hour with my ex-husband.  And it has messed up my entire life.

Over a year ago I had a similar incident when I was watching a programme and a violent assault suddenly took place on screen.  My brain stopped working on anything but a superficial level for about 6 weeks.  This is what I wrote back then.

I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  I can go for months, over a year without any problems and then, without warning, everything will change.  A friend of mine likened it to someone suffering epilepsy, “it’s like you’re walking across a stage and you know that at some point a trap door may open up underneath you, but you don’t know when.”  Which is basically what it’s like.  The challenge is that PTSD is not socially acceptable.  If it’s not a physical illness, it doesn’t really exist for many people.

Reporting of the recent cases of Oscar Pistorius and Ched Evans have often focussed on the perpetrators’ rights to continue with their lives.  That justice has been served and regardless of our opinions, we must respect the process.  Yet the problem is much greater than individual cases.

What does justice look like for me?  My ex-husband has received no court based consequences for what he did to me.  And even if he had, at most he would have served two and a half years in prison.  The majority of what he did wasn’t even technically illegal.  Still, ten years later and I am still coping with the consequences of his choices to hurt me.  As are my husband and children.

In many ways punishing him won’t change things for me, the trapdoor will still open underneath me, life will still stop when something unpredictable triggers my PTSD symptoms again.  But maybe it would make a difference for the next girl he hurts, maybe it would prevent him having the same access to girls and young women?  Maybe it would change the perception of the impact of abuse and rape on the individual?

Regardless, I am still broken.  There is this deep pain that simmers below all the symptoms and ways in which the trauma affects me; that I will always be broken.  That no matter how many years pass, who I am or what I do; I will still be broken.  And don’t feel you need to rush to reassure me that I’m not broken.  Because to do so denies the impact of abuse and rape.  It breaks people forever.  It smashes and breaks people in a way that cannot be repaired.

In the least awful parts of this week I have some confidence that things will improve.  That I will become myself again.  In the darkest minutes and hours, I wonder if this time the damage will be permanent, if this will be the time when I lose myself forever.  I am going to have a session of something called the Rewind Technique this afternoon, which will hopefully sort some of this out and repair the damage that has been done to my brain by the flashback.

I know I should write something to complete this piece, to bring it to a close, but my brain has shut down again.  So I’ll leave it here for now.

UPDATE TO THIS POST HERE

God loves women: A blog sharing my love of God, the love He has for women and my frustration that the Church often doesn’t realise this (@God_loves_women)

Who owns gender by @StrifeJournal

(Cross-posted from Trouble & Strife)

Delilah Campbell reflects on the deeper meaning of recent conflicts between feminists and transgender activists.

For a couple of weeks in early 2013, it seemed as if you couldn’t open a newspaper, or your Facebook newsfeed, without encountering some new contribution to a war of words that pitted transgender activists and their supporters against allegedly ‘transphobic’ feminists.

It had started when the columnist Suzanne Moore wrote a piece that included a passing reference to ‘Brazilian transsexuals’. Moore began to receive abuse and threats on Twitter, which subsequently escalated to the point that she announced she was closing her account. Then Julie Burchill came to Moore’s defence with a column in the Sunday Observer newspaper, which attacked not only the Twitter trolls, but the trans community in general. Burchill’s contribution was intemperate in both its sentiments and its language—not exactly a surprise, since that’s essentially what editors go to her for. If what you want is balanced commentary on the issues of the day, you don’t commission Julie Burchill. Nevertheless, when the predictable deluge of protests arrived, the Observer decided to remove the piece from its website. The following week’s edition carried a lengthy apology for having published it in the first place. Senior staff, it promised, would be meeting representatives of the trans community for a full discussion of their concerns.

Liberal consensus

This was a notable climbdown by one of the bastions of British liberal journalism. Only a couple of weeks earlier, another such bastion, the Observer‘s sister-paper The Guardian, had published an opinion piece on ‘paedophilia’ (aka the sexual abuse of children), which argued for more understanding and less condemnation. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile affair that was certainly controversial, and plenty of readers found it offensive. But it wasn’t removed from the website, nor followed by a grovelling apology. Evidently it was put in the category of unpopular opinions which have a right to be aired on the principle that ‘comment is free’. But when it comes to offending trans people, it seems the same principle does not apply.

It’s not just the liberal press: a blogger who re-posted Burchill’s piece, along with examples of the abuse Suzanne Moore had received on Twitter, found she had been blocked from accessing her own blog by the overseers of the site that hosted it. Meanwhile, the radical feminist activist and journalist Julie Bindel, whose criticisms of trans take the form of political analysis rather than personal abuse, has for some time been ‘no platformed’ by the National Union of Students—in other words, banned from speaking at events the NUS sponsors, or which take place on its premises.

More generally, if you want to hold a women-only event from which trans women are excluded, you are likely to encounter the objection that this exclusion is illegal discrimination, and also that the analysis which motivates it—the idea that certain aspects of women’s experience or oppression are not shared by trans women—is itself an example of transphobia. Expressed in public, this analysis gets labelled ‘hate-speech’, which there is not only a right but a responsibility to censor.

The expression of sentiments deemed ‘transphobic’ has quickly come to be perceived as one of those ‘red lines’ that speakers and writers may not cross. It’s remarkable, when you think about it: if you ask yourself what other views either may not be expressed on pain of legal sanction, or else are so thoroughly disapproved of that they would rarely if ever be permitted a public airing (and certainly not an unopposed one), you come up with examples like incitement to racial hatred and Holocaust denial. How did it come to be the case that taking issue with trans activists’ analyses of their situation (as Julie Bindel has) or hurling playground insults at trans people (as Julie Burchill did) automatically puts the commentator concerned in the same category as a Nick Griffin or a David Irving?

Silencing their critics, often with the active support of institutions that would normally deplore such illiberal restrictions on free speech, is not the only remarkable achievement the trans activists have to their credit. It’s also remarkable how quickly and easily trans people were added to the list of groups who are legally protected against discrimination, and even more remarkable that what was written into equality law was their own principle of self-definition—if you identify as a man/woman then you are entitled to be recognized as a man/woman. In a very short time, this tiny and previously marginal minority has managed to make trans equality a high profile issue, and support for it part of the liberal consensus.

Here what interests me is not primarily the rights and wrongs of this: rather I want to try to understand it, to analyse the underlying conditions which have enabled trans activists’ arguments to gain so much attention and credibility. Because initially, to be frank, I found it hard to understand why the issue generated such strong feelings, and why feminists were letting themselves get so preoccupied with it. Both the content and the tone of the argument reminded me of the so-called ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, when huge amounts of time and energy were expended debating the rights and wrongs of lesbian sadomasochism and butch/femme relationships. ‘Debating’ is a euphemism: we tore ourselves and each other apart. I don’t want to say that nothing was at stake, but I do think we lost the plot for a while by getting so exercised about it. The trans debate seemed like another case where the agenda was being set by a few very vocal individuals, and where consequently an issue of peripheral importance for most women was getting far more attention from feminists than it deserved.

But as I followed the events described at the beginning of this piece, and read some of the copious discussion that has circulated via social media, I came to the conclusion that what’s going on is not just a debate about trans. There is such a debate, but it’s part of a much larger and more fundamental argument about the nature and meaning of gender, which pits feminists (especially the radical variety) against all kinds of other cultural and political forces. Trans is part of this, but it isn’t the whole story, nor in my view is it the root cause. Actually, I’m inclined to think that the opposite is true: it is the more general shift in mainstream understandings of gender which explains the remarkable success of trans activism.

Turf wars

It is notable that the policing of what can or cannot be said about trans in public is almost invariably directed against women who speak from a feminist, and especially a radical feminist, perspective. It might be thought that trans people have far more powerful adversaries (like religious conservatives, the right-wing press and some members of the medical establishment), and also far more dangerous ones (whatever radical feminists may say about trans people, they aren’t usually a threat to their physical safety). And yet a significant proportion of all the political energy expended by or on behalf of trans activism is expended on opposing and harassing radical feminists.

This has led some commentators to see the conflict as yet another example of the in-fighting and sectarianism that has always afflicted progressive politics—a case of oppressed groups turning on each other when they should be uniting against their common enemy. But in this case I don’t think that’s the explanation. When trans activists identify feminists as the enemy, they are not just being illogical or petty. Some trans activists refer to their feminist opponents as TERFs, meaning ‘trans-exclusive radical feminists’, or ‘trans-exterminating radical feminists’. The epithet is unpleasant, but the acronym is apt: this is very much a turf dispute, with gender as the contested territory.

At its core, the trans struggle is a battle for legitimacy. What activists want to get accepted is not just the claim of trans people for recognition and civil rights, but the whole view of gender and gender oppression on which that claim is based. To win this battle, the trans activists must displace the view of gender and gender oppression which is currently accorded most legitimacy in progressive/liberal circles: the one put forward by feminists since the late 1960s.

Here it might be objected that feminists themselves don’t have a single account of gender. True, and that’s one reason why trans activists target certain feminist currents more consistently than others [1]. But in fact, the two propositions about gender which trans activists are most opposed to are not confined to radical feminism: both go back to what is often regarded as the founding text of all modern feminism, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 classic The Second Sex, and they are still asserted, in some form or other, by almost everyone who claims any kind of feminist allegiance, be it radical, socialist or liberal. The first of these propositions is that gender as we know it is socially constructed rather than ‘natural’; the second is that gender relations are power relations, in which women are structurally unequal to men. On what exactly these statements mean and what they imply for feminist politics there is plenty of internal disagreement, but in themselves they have the status of core feminist beliefs. In the last 15 years, however, these propositions—especially the first one—have become the target of a sustained attack: a multi-pronged attempt to take the turf of gender back from feminism.

Trans activists are currently in the vanguard of this campaign, but they didn’t start the war. Some of its most important battles have been fought not in the arena of organized gender politics, but on the terrain of science, where opposition to feminism, or more exactly to feminist social constructionism, has been spearheaded by a new wave of biological essentialists. The scientists with the highest public profile, men like Stephen Pinker and Simon Baron-Cohen, are politically liberal rather than conservative, and claim to support gender equality and justice: what they oppose is any definition of those things based on the assumption that gender is a social construct. Their goal is to persuade their fellow-liberals that feminism got it wrong about gender, which is not socially constructed but ‘hard-wired’ in the human brain.

This attack on the first feminist proposition (‘gender is constructed’) leads to a reinterpretation of the second (‘gender relations are unequal power relations’). Liberals do not deny that women have suffered and may still suffer unjust treatment in male-dominated societies, but in their account difference takes precedence over power. What feminists denounce as sexism, and explain as the consequence of structural gender inequality, the new essentialists portray as just the inevitable consequence of natural sex-differences.

Meanwhile, in less liberal circles, we’ve seen the rise of a lobby which complains that men and boys are being damaged—miseducated, economically disadvantaged and marginalized within the family—by a society which has based its policies for the last 40 years on the feminist belief that gender is socially constructed: a belief, they say, which has now been discredited by objective scientific evidence. (Some pertinent feminist criticisms of this so-called ‘objective’ science have been aired in T&S: see here for more discussion.)

Another relevant cultural trend is the neo-liberal propensity to equate power and freedom, in their political senses, with personal freedom of choice. Across the political spectrum, it has become commonplace to argue that what really ‘empowers’ people is being able to choose: the more choices we have, and the freer we are to make them, the more powerful we will be. Applied to gender, what this produces is ‘post-feminism’, an ideology which dispenses with the idea of collective politics and instead equates the liberation of women with the exercise of individual agency. The headline in which this argument was once satirized by The Onion—‘women now empowered by anything a woman does’—is not even a parody: this is the attitude which underpins all those statements to the effect that if women choose to be housewives or prostitutes, then who is anyone (read: feminists) to criticize them?

This view has had an impact on the way people understand the idea that gender is socially constructed. To say that something is ‘constructed’ can now be taken as more or less equivalent to saying that in the final analysis it is—or should be—a matter of individual choice. It follows that individuals should be free to choose their own gender identity, and have that choice respected by others. I’ve heard several young (non trans-identified) people make this argument when explaining why they feel so strongly about trans equality: choice to them is sacrosanct, often they see it as ‘what feminism is all about’, and they are genuinely bewildered by the idea that anyone other than a right-wing authoritarian might take issue with an individual’s own definition of who they are.

The gender in transgender

Current trans politics, like feminism, cannot be thought of as an internally unified movement whose members all make exactly the same arguments. But although there are some dissenting voices, in general the views of gender and gender oppression which trans activists promote are strongly marked by the two tendencies just described.

In the first place, the trans account puts little if any emphasis on gender as a power relation in which one group (women) is subordinated to/oppressed by the other (men). In the trans account, gender in the ‘men and women’ sense is primarily a matter of individual identity: individuals have a sovereign right to define their gender, and have it recognized by society, on the basis of who they feel themselves to be. But I said ‘gender in the men and women sense’ because in trans politics, gender is understood in another sense as well: there is an overarching division between ‘cisgendered’ individuals, who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, and ‘transgendered’ individuals, who do not identify with their assigned gender. Even if trans activists recognize the feminist concept of male power and privilege, it is secondary in their thinking to ‘cis’ power and privilege: what is considered to be fundamentally oppressive is the devaluing or non-recognition of ‘trans’ identities in a society which systematically privileges the ‘cis’ majority. Opposition to this takes the form of demanding recognition for ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ as categories, and for the right of any trans person to be treated as a member of the gender group they wish to be identified with.

At this point, though, there is a divergence of views. Some versions of the argument are based on the kind of biological essentialism which I described earlier: the gender with which a person identifies—and thus their status as either ‘cis’ or ‘trans’—is taken to be determined at or before birth. The old story about transsexuals—that they are ‘women trapped in men’s bodies’, or vice-versa—has morphed into a newer version which draws on contemporary neuroscience to argue that everyone has a gendered brain (thanks to a combination of genes and hormonal influences) which may or may not be congruent with their sexed body. In ‘trans’ individuals there is a disconnect between the sex of the body and the gender of the brain.

In other versions we see the influence of the second trend, where the main issue is individual freedom of choice. In some cases this is allied to a sort of postmodernist social utopianism: trans is presented as a radical political gesture, subverting the binary gender system by cutting gender loose from what are usually taken to be its ‘natural’, biological moorings. This opens up the possibility of a society where there will be many genders rather than just two (though no one who makes this argument ever seems to explain why that would be preferable to a society with no genders at all). In other cases, though, choice is presented not as a tactic in some larger struggle to make a better world, but merely as an individual right. People must be allowed to define their own identities, and their definitions must be respected by everyone else. On Twitter recently, in an argument about whether someone with a penis (and no plans to have it removed) could reasonably claim to be a woman, a proponent of this approach suggested that if the person concerned claimed to be a woman then they were a woman by definition, and had an absolute right to be recognized as such. In response, someone else tweeted: ‘I’m a squirrel’. Less Judith Butler, more Alice Through the Looking Glass. 

Proponents of the first, essentialist account are sometimes critical of those who make the second, and ironically their criticism is the same one I would make from a radical feminist perspective: this post-feminist understanding of social constructionism is trivializing and politically vacuous. What trans essentialists think feminists are saying when they say gender is socially constructed is that gender is nothing more than a superficial veneer. They reject this because it is at odds with their experience: it denies the reality of the alienation and discomfort which leads people to identify as trans. This is a reaction feminists ought to be able to understand, since it parallels our own response to the dismissal of issues like sexual harassment as trivial problems which we ought to be able to ‘get over’—we say that’s not how women experience it. But in this case it’s a reaction based on a misreading: for most feminists, ‘socially constructed’ does not imply ‘trivial and superficial’.

In the current of feminism T&S represents, which is radical and materialist, gender is theorized as a consequence of social oppression. Masculinity and femininity are produced through patriarchal social institutions (like marriage), practices (like the division of labour which makes women responsible for housework and childcare) and ideologies (like the idea of women being weak and emotional) which enable one gender to dominate and exploit the other. If these structures did not exist—if there were no gender—biological male/female differences would not be linked in the way they are now to identity and social status. The fact that they do continue to exist, however, and to be perceived by many or most people as ‘natural’ and immutable, is viewed by feminists (not only radical materialists but most feminists in the tradition of Beauvoir) as evidence that what is constructed is not only the external structures of society, but also the internalized feelings, desires and identities that individuals develop through their experience of living within those structures.

Radical feminists, then, would actually agree with the trans activists who say that gender is not just a superficial veneer which is easily stripped away. But they don’t agree that if something is ‘deep’ then it cannot be socially constructed, but must instead be attributed to innate biological characteristics. For feminists, the effects of lived social experience are not trivial, and you cannot transcend them by an individual act of will. Rather you have to change the nature of social experience through collective political action to change society.

The rainbow flag meets the double helix

When I first encountered trans politics, in the 1990s, it was dominated by people who, although their political goals differed from feminism’s, basically shared the feminist view that gender as we knew it was socially constructed, oppressive, and in need of change through collective action. This early version of trans politics was strongly allied with the queer activism of the time, emphasized its political subversiveness, and spoke in the language of queer theory and postmodernism. It still has some adherents today, but over time it has lost ground to the essentialist version that stresses the naturalness and timeless universality of the division between ‘trans’ and ‘cis’, and speaks in two other languages: on one hand, neurobabble (you can’t argue with the gender of my brain), and on the other, identity politics at their most neo-liberal (you can’t argue with my oppression, my account of my oppression, or the individual choices I make to deal with my oppression).

Once again, though, this development is not specific to trans politics. Trans activists are not the first group to have made the journey from radical social critique to essentialism and neoliberal individualism. It is a more general trend, seen not only in some ‘post-feminist’ campaigning by women, but also and perhaps most clearly in the recent history of gay and lesbian activism.

In the heyday of the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements, the view was widely held that sexuality was socially constructed, and indeed relatively plastic: lesbianism, in particular, was presented by some feminists as a political choice. But in the last 20 years this view has largely withered away. Faced with well-organized opponents denouncing their perverted ‘lifestyle choices’, some prominent gay/lesbian activists and organizations began promoting the counter-argument that homosexuals are born, not made. Of course the ‘born that way’ argument had always had its supporters, but today it has hardened into an orthodoxy which you deviate from at your peril. Not long ago the actor Cynthia Nixon, who entered a lesbian relationship fairly late in life, made a comment in an interview which implied that she didn’t think she’d always been a lesbian. She took so much flak from those who thought she was letting the side down, she was forced to issue a ‘clarification’.

Since ‘born that way’ became the orthodox line, there has been more mainstream acceptance of and sympathy for the cause of gay/lesbian equality, as we’ve seen most recently in the success of campaigns for same-sex marriage. Though it is possible this shift in public attitudes would have happened anyway, it seems likely that the shift away from social constructionism helped, by making the demand for gay rights seem less of a political threat. The essentialist argument implies that the straight majority will always be both straight and in the majority, because that’s how nature has arranged things. No one need fear that granting rights to gay people will result in thousands of new ‘converts’ to their ‘lifestyle’: straight people won’t choose to be gay, just as gay people can’t choose to be straight.

If you adopt a social constructionist view of gender and sexuality, then lesbians, gay men and gender non-conformists are a challenge to the status quo: they represent the possibility that there are other ways for everyone to live their lives, and that society does not have to be organized around our current conceptions of what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. By contrast, if you make the essentialist argument that some people are just ‘born different’, then all gay men, lesbians or gender non-conformists represent is the more anodyne proposition that diversity should be respected. This message does not require ‘normal’ people to question who they are, or how society is structured. It just requires them to accept that what’s natural for them may not be natural for everyone. Die-hard bigots won’t be impressed with that argument, but for anyone vaguely liberal it is persuasive, appealing to basic principles of tolerance while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives.

For radical feminists this will never be enough. Radical feminism aspires to be, well, radical. It wants to preserve the possibility that we can not only imagine but actually create a different, better, juster world. The attack on feminist social constructionism is ultimately an attack on that possibility. And when radical feminists take issue with trans activists, I think that is what we need to emphasize. What’s at stake isn’t just what certain individuals put on their birth certificates or whether they are welcome at certain conferences. The real issue is what we think gender politics is about: identity or power, personal choice or structural change, reshuffling the same old cards or radically changing the game.

[1] A more detailed discussion of feminist ideas about gender, which looks at their history and at what is or isn’t shared by different currents within feminism, can be found in Debbie Cameron and Joan Scanlon’s article ‘Talking about gender’.

Trouble & Strife is a British-based radical feminist magazine. It appeared in print between 1983 and 2002, and is now a blog hosted by WordPress. We publish topical short posts, long-form articles and reviews, some of them illustrated by the feminist cartoonists whose work was a popular feature of the printed magazine. The website also gives visitors free access to a complete archive of our 43 print issues. T&S is edited by an all-women collective. We welcome enquiries from women who want to contribute posts, articles or reviews on topics of interest to a radical feminist readership (please note that we don’t publish fiction, poetry or artwork except if it illustrates an article). Our Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/troubleandstrifemagazine Our Twitter account is @strifejournal.

On high heels and stupid choices by @glosswitch

Why do women wear high heels? It’s a question men can ask but feminists can’t. When men ask it they’re being light-hearted and humorous, expressing jovial bafflement at the strange ways of womankind. When feminists ask it they’re being judgemental bullies, dismissing the choice and agency of their Louboutin-loving sisters. So it is that Ally Fogg can get away with writing a piece for the Guardian on why he, Fogg, does not like women wearing heels (I defy any woman to do this without being considered a raging femmephobe – just ask Charlotte Raven).

In said piece, Fogg tells the story of a female friend – a kind of Everywoman in stilettoes – “grumbling about the blisters and bruises being caused by her latest proud purchase”:

I muttered something about taking more care when trying things on in the shop and she looked at me as if I had started speaking fluent Martian. “I’d never not buy a nice pair of shoes just because they didn’t fit!” she exclaimed, then we sat gawping at each other while silent mutual incomprehension calcified the air.

It’s a real Mars and Venus moment, suggesting that when it comes to shoes women are a bit, well, irrational (bless ‘em). Fogg later comments that he is “more attracted to a woman who looks like she can drink me under the table then carry me home, making a sturdy pair of DMs just the ticket”

I live in hope that one day the human race will view high heels with the same horror with which we view foot-binding. Women would be spared innumerable podiatric agonies and men would, I think, just about cope. Until then I shall content myself with the knowledge that I’m right and the rest of the human race is a bit daft.

I can see the good intent here. No one wants women to have ruined feet (unless it’s feminists who are making that point, in which case ruined feet become empowering). But “a bit daft”? Really? Femininity, and the way in which it shapes women’s supposed free choices, is a little more complex than that.

The truth is, I’m really, really sick of women’s “daft” fashion preferences being mocked. Sick, too, of the way in which things which cause women pain – high heels, cosmetic surgery, excessive dieting – are treated as choices which feminists cannot analyse but which men are free to ridicule once the damage is done. For a feminist to say “you can do this but I wish you didn’t have to” is considered a terrible denial of agency. For a man to make light of what femininity does to women is, on the other hand, totally fine. We’d rather be viewed as stupid and irrational (“girly”) than not in control of our own lives. Yet the truth is we’re not in control. We live under patriarchy and we shouldn’t be ashamed of what it makes us do. We don’t make choices in a vacuum. What we should be seeking is not the illusion of agency, but freedom from the hierarchy which dehumanises us to begin with.

Every day women have to make decisions in a world that hates women. Moreover, since the maintenance of such a world requires that everyone pretends the hatred does not exist, it’s no wonder that the rational choices women make can end up seeming foolish. “Silly” women don’t ask for pay rises because they know that they are far more likely than male colleagues to suffer negative consequences.  “Unambitious” women don’t seek promotions because they know that the cost of being seen as a powerful woman can outweigh the benefits. “Vain” women starve themselves or binge and vomit, fully aware of fully aware of the social and financial costs of having “excess” flesh. “Stupid” women stay with men who abuse them, knowing that trying to leave would put them at greater risk of violence. “Daft” women wear shoes that damage their feet because they know that wearing their vulnerability on their sleeve might attract less male hostility. These are all sensible decisions in the circumstances, but they’re also decisions which allow anyone ignorant of misogyny (and plenty of people are) to portray women as their own worst enemies.

Last month the press reported on how Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama have “pared down” wardrobes so they can concentrate on “the important things”. Good for them, but would a woman ever be able to do the same? As we also found out, a male newscaster can wear the same outfit every day for a year and no one even notices. The world does not work like this for women. As Cordelia Fine writes, “the same career entails greater sacrifices for her than for him”, but these are sacrifices we don’t acknowledge. Would a woman going to work dressed like Mark Zuckerberg be seen as ambitious, focussed and unfussy? Or would people be more inclined to see her as at best lazy, at worst unnatural?

Most of the time it’s just easier to play the femininity game so why fight it? Even within feminism a failure to be sufficiently feminine is treated with suspicion, particularly given the trend for replacing the identification of structural oppression with a far woollier, non-challenging accusation of “femmephobia”. From the way some women defend their right to be “a girly girl” and wear #feministheels you’d think that second-wave feminism had forced all women to walk around barefoot in hessian sacks. Websites such as Transadvocate delight in portraying “TERFs” as ageing, short-haired, drab, flat-shoed “ugly” women (basically no different to the “masculine women” of anti-suffragette propaganda a century ago). I’ve seen women complain about “the Birkenstock tendency” of older feminists, a neat way of combining antipathy towards lesbians with a dig about the “wrong” shoes. Basically, if you are a feminist it is far, far easier not to be vilified by the mainstream if you aren’t too butch. This is treated as a form of bravery – look at me! I wear lipstick and dresses and you can’t say I’m not fighting the patriarchy! – but it’s really a piece of piss (I do it all the time and have never once felt the cold, hard grip of femmephobia upon me). Being a “feminine feminist” isn’t a contradiction in terms; it’s not even hypocrisy. It’s just a sensible thing to do given that you’ve got serious battles to fight. Who has time to be mocked for their sandals and accused of bigotry just because she thinks footwear that causes actual physical harm might, you know, be a bad idea?

That said, I don’t think appearing “femme” is always that much of a sacrifice. High heels are a total pain (which is why I rarely wear them) but dresses – particularly stretchy, non-tailored ones – can be pretty convenient. It’s only one item of clothing to worry about and there’s no pesky waistband if you happen to stuff yourself over lunch. Putting on a simple dress is no more effort than putting on a t-shirt and yet no one ever asks “why does Mark Zuckerberg bother with trousers? If he’s so bloody efficient, why doesn’t he just make his top longer, say, down to his knees?” It’s taken as read that men have to dress in whatever a particular culture deems to be a “masculine” way. Unlike women, men are not believed to make “irrational” clothing choices at all. They might occasionally indulge in a little self-pity over the fact that their choices are more restricted but they never actually doanything about it. Whereas women are pressured to be feminine and then mocked for it, men’s complicity in the maintenance of masculinity is rarely questioned. We know that men who present in a feminine way do so at a high cost yet this doesn’t lead us to see “masculine” men as the dress-up dolls that they, too, are being.  We don’t see “masculine” men as foolish because we accept that under patriarchy, it’s safer for a man to present that way. But this is also true for women and femininity.

Men aren’t more practical or less vain than women. They’re just more respected and valued, and their decisions are not subject to constant scrutiny and mockery. They play the gender game just as much as we do only because they’re the winners, no one cares (unless they actively reject masculinity – then they, too, get to fail, and we notice). Women, meanwhile, always are forced to play a game they’re destined to lose and then ridiculed for having taken part at all. Wear heels or don’t wear heels. Ask for equal pay or don’t. Stay with him or leave. Be femme, butch or anything in between. Declare yourself cis, non-binary, agender. Whatever you do, you won’t win and you won’t be permitted to sit it out, and it’s not your footwear – or your choices – that are causing the problem.

 

Victoria Smith  Humourless Mummy, Cuddly Feminist [@glosswitch]

 

Bringing Back the Pillory: The Public Shaming of Feminists by @VABVOX

(Written for A Room of Our Own by Victoria Brownworth)

            If it weren’t for Mary Beard and Nimko Ali, I wouldn’t be writing this.

I wouldn’t be writing it because of fear.

But then there’s Mary Beard and Nimko Ali and actually a host of others, including a gay man, Peter Tatchell, whose work I have long admired, and so I must speak out. Even as my heart is racing. Even as my heart is racing and I just had a heart attack due to stress less than a month ago and am supposed to be avoiding any new stress.

But there’s no avoiding stress if you are a feminist in 2015. Especially if you are a lesbian feminist in 2015.

So my heart races on and I write on.

A few days ago some 130 academics, feminists, activists, gender critical trans women and some gay men signed a short letter objecting to the new McCarthyism taking place all over the West. The letter was about the UK but it could as easily have been written about the US or France or Australia or anywhere where the governments are democratic but political correctness has taken a  fascistic turn.

The letter appeared on Valentine’s Day in The Guardian/The Observer and was titled “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals” and subtitled “Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying.”

The letter was spearheaded by feminist writer and activist Beatrix Campbell. The focus was the no-platforming of a range of feminist voices including the recent controversy over Kate Smurthwaite being cancelled at Goldsmith’s College, London, and talk of Germaine Greer being no-platformed at Cambridge Union.

I’ve been a journalist my entire adult life, so free speech matters to me. Debate matters to me. Hearing alternative voices rather than just the endless chorus from one choir matters to me.

I’ve also been teaching in universities and inner city schools and prisons over the same years I’ve been a journalist. So I have that vantage point as well–of teacher and of witness to learning.

I have long respected the work of Mary Beard. Classics are a love of mine, as they are of most inveterate readers. I followed her on Twitter because, well, Mary Beard, classicist.

I never engaged with her. But after  I read a piece by her in the New Yorker last September about her experiences with trolling and misogyny, I was interested to see what else she had to say.

I first lived in London in the late 1980s at the height of the anti-gay backlash, before many of the current arbiters of who gets to speak and who doesn’t were out of Pampers. My partner was in grad school and I was reporting for a newspaper back in the U.S.

I was there when a scandal broke in London—girls were being mutilated by doctors in service to a tradition, female genital mutilation or FGM. I knew little about the practice except for what I had learned in a women’s studies course a few years earlier in college, but investigative reporters investigate and that is what I did. What I found was, not surprisingly, shocking.

I interviewed many different people for that story–a series of stories as it turned out–including a Somali woman who had been FGM’d and several women trying to protect their daughters from the practice as well as some doctors and other health care workers. The stories I was told–including one of a girl being held down in the basement of a Brixton home and the music turned up loudly while the “job was done” on her have never left me, more than 25 years later.

Which is why Nimko Ali is another reason for my writing this. Because she is, as co-founder of Daughters of Eve and a survivor of FGM,  the voice and face of the Stop FGM movement in the U.K. My respect for her and her work is boundless.

Both Mary Beard and Nimko Ali signed the letter. They signed because they are feminists, because they know about silencing–both historic and present–and because they have themselves often been the unpopular voice, the voice of debate that no one wants to hear.

The backlash over the letter was swift, terrible and painfully predictable. The many women of color on the list were tagged as pawns of white feminists. Gender critical trans women were called tokens. Peter Tatchell was said to have been duped into signing. I read that he had received death threats, although I could not confirm this. But it was Beard who seemed to receive the most repetitive attacks.

In a short response to the furor printed in TLS on February 16, Beard recounted how she’d received sixty messages in an hour’s time from one person. She had finally signed off Twitter sobbing.

Beard was targeted as either senile (she’s 61, the same age as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former PM Tony Blair, French President Francois Hollande, to name but a few) or duped (she’s one of the top classicists in the world, remember) or just, well, vile.

While Beard was getting the public treatment, a slightly less public process obtained–threats and doxxing of other women who had signed the letter or of “known associates” of those women. Columnist Glosswitch left Twitter, fearing for her own safety and that of her children.

The very McCarthyism being objected to in the letter was being conducted full-throttle on Twitter, Facebook and via email.

This has to stop. Really, it does. The silencing of women has reached a level of not-so-subtle violence. Every day there are threats delivered to feminists and lesbians online and off. It’s not just words being bandied about. It’s endless suggestions of what horrifying violence can and should be done to certain feminists and their children. These “words” are stressful at best, terrifying at worst. They can and do leave one sobbing or frightened or feeling as if one can never open one’s mouth in public again without fear.

Yet why are these attacks happening? The assault on Mary Beard and on other signatories is in response to a letter which only says debate must be a cornerstone of the educational process. It says nothing else. (You can read it here: http://gu.com/p/45zvp/tw)

Yet in the current climate for feminists, to even speak about issues like gender or patriarchal dominance, prostitution or sex trafficking, or the silencing and no-platforming of feminist speakers is to be labeled a bigot and to be silenced.

The main point is always and inevitably to silence.

How is that not fascism?

I can’t count the number of times I have silenced myself for fear of reprisals from people who have previously attacked me, slandered me, lied about me, attempted to (and succeeded in) no-platform me. I’ve been targeted by many of the same people who have targeted Mary Beard and Glosswitch. I ended up in the hospital with a sudden heart attack after a particularly grueling series of such attacks.

The question that never gets answered is this: Why is anyone claiming to be a feminist–as all these attackers and purveyors of abusive and sometimes violent language assert they are–why are these people targeting any women, ever?

As I tweeted the morning of the letter when the outrage was everywhere like a bad flu, I disagree with many women and yet I manage not to run round with a roll of tape silencing them night and day.

I can disagree with you and not threaten to kill you and your children or feed you into a woodchipper or sentence you to die in a fire or get ploughed or what any of the other common attacks suggest.

I can just not engage with you.

There can be no debate about whether or not women are oppressed. They are. If you disbelieve it, well, you’re ignoring history and reality. Women are designated second class at birth and they never leave that status regardless of whatever they achieve in life–witness the recent obituary of one of Australia’s most famous writers, Colleen McCullough, who was also a neurophysicist.

As second-class citizens and constant victims of male violence and repression and suppression worldwide, women have a right to speak out about that violence and oppression without suffering further violence and further suppression.

Women are no longer allowed to speak about our own lives without being told that we are insensitive bigots  for talking about our own lived experience. Which is, of course, silencing of the most insidious form and which is the most misogynist of patriarchal tenets–don’t talk about your bodies or your female experience.

It has taken women a millennia to be able to speak about our experience and that experience is broad and complex. Yet the very same people who demand that their life experience not be named or discussed would silence women trying to do the same thing.

How is that not fascism?

For me the Guardian letter was about debate–about being able to hear the voices of the silenced. It’s not about whether I agree with those voices or not. I’m actually not a fan of Germaine Greer and have never liked her dismissive treatment of lesbians. But other women think she’s a genius and just because I don’t doesn’t mean I feel the need to silence her. I can certainly provide a different perspective on her work, should I choose to. But I don’t need to silence her.

Nor do I need to silence others I disagree with.

What I do want silenced, however, is the violent speech and slander than abounds and which seems to always emanate from the same quarter. Violence, no matter what its source, is untenable, unacceptable and unconscionable. I won’t engage in it, I won’t promote it and I won’t stand for it.

This public shaming of women for being women must cease. This anti-intellectual bias against honest debate, by which I mean the simple presentation of ideas, whether or not we agree with them, must cease.

Some of us, myself included, have worked incredibly hard to be able to speak about issues that have long been the subject of patriarchal silencing. Rape, lesbian sexuality, women’s bodies, pregnancy, childbirth. I recently wrote here about the death of my child and was flooded with very personal responses from women who had also lost children but who had been unable to speak about it. I have written extensively about the complication of rape for women–lesbians in particular–and have gotten similar responses. The same has been true about my writing about my cancer experience and the cancer experience of other women.

University is where many get their first experience of disparate ideas. It’s where many learn that the world has a side other than the one in which they were raised–be that class, race, ethnicity or gender. All the complainants against the letter are university graduates. Would they be as adept at speaking out without that university experience? Likely not.

So why is debate suddenly anathema? And why, more’s the point, are the voices being silenced and no-platformed, those of women? Why would any woman want to silence another woman given the long history of patriarchal silencing–including stoning and burning at the stake (die in a fire!)–of women?

It’s simple and simplistic to say this is just unfair, although, of course, it is.. It’s unfair to further oppress women of color and lesbians. It’s also unfair to send a don who has worked her whole life to carve a space for women in academia to the corner with a dunce cap to sob herself to sleep after being harangued non-stop for more than 12 hours straight.

Any sentient feminist knows there are hierarchies within feminism. Lesbians and women of color are on the bottom. Straight white women are on the top. That’s a fact, it’s not an attack. So we must work to create a balance where one has previously been missing. But the way to that balance isn’t to silence women we think might possibly have more privilege than other women. It’s to open the door wider, not slam it shut on the heads of those we want to eliminate from the discourse.

In the end, no one benefits from censorship. No one. You can disagree with ideas all you want, but first you must know they exist and what they actually are. People who view themselves as marginalized are the ones who should be least willing to marginalize others.

People who try to shame others never seem to feel any embarrassment or shame themselves–that’s another basic tenet of patriarchy. But the pillorying of women must cease. We spent centuries being publically humiliated solely for being women–for our vaginas and our bleeding and our softness and our second-class-ness. We continue to be whipped and stoned and yes, burned to death, throughout the world simply for being female. That’s a reality you can neither deny nor shout down. Women’s collective history exists. Keeping it from the tender ears of university students benefits no one, but it does, quite definitively, perpetuate the very systems that oppress us all.

 

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural&historical fiction. Her novel, Ordinary Mayhem will be published in February 2015. @VABVOX

Reading Audre Lorde is changing my life by @psycho_claire.

(Cross-posted from The Psychology Supercomputer)

As my interest in feminism has grown, I’ve started reading some of the works of feminist writers. I’ve started slowly and avoided certain topics completely (due to self care), but I’m learning so much. I’ve loved the books I’ve read so far and they’ve all been helpful to me in their own way. But none have spoken to me in the way that Audre Lorde has.

I started reading her “Sister Outsider” just after a trip to visit a friend. Said friend had me read the essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” from this book. And I was hooked! In this particular essay Lorde points out that our silence hasn’t ever protected us from violence, victimisation and ridicule. As women we get those anyway, whether we are silent or whether we “speak”. This essay spoke to me because this is how I view my move into feminism and activism. Through twitter and blogging I found my voice. I am able to speak against injustice where I see it and people respond to my writing. I’ve written not just on my own blog but for other campaigns too, and I continue to do this. It allows me, in some small way, to feel like I am fighting. But more than this, I’m fighting using something I am good at. I LOVE writing. I always have. And because I love it, and have done so much of it (for fun) over the years, I’m pretty good at it. I’m confident about my writing, in a way that I am not always confident about “speaking” in person. So being able to write, to use writing as my voice, as a way to break the silence has been immensely powerful for me. And reading Lorde’s essay felt like a validation of all of those feelings. I feel stronger because I write; I feel empowered because I write; I feel like I’m contributing because I write; I broke my silence because I write.

But, Lorde’s impact on me doesn’t end there. When I got home I went to the uni library and picked up Sister Outsider. I started reading and was blown away by the essay “Poetry is not a Luxury”. In this piece Lorde talks about the power of poetry and how it is not a trivial thing. I was moved almost to tears (I kid you not) by this paragraph:

“For women then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”


When I read those words, they hit me in the chest, took my breath away, and filled my eyes with tears. Here Lorde was putting words to a feeling I’ve had my whole life but never been able to articulate. I’ve always used poetry to cope and process. When I’m dealing with trauma I write poems. When I’m hurting and sad, those feelings express themselves through words on a page. I rarely let people read these poems. They are MINE, for me. A way to deal with my life experiences, to process my pain. The act of writing these poems frees me somehow. Lets me see the hurt and deal with it. It moves it from within me to on the page. Poetry is and always has been my survival tactic. To see that this is true of other women, and to see Lorde articulate it so clearly, changed my life. It moved me, in a way no other piece of writing ever has. It switched something in my head and again, made me feel stronger and more connected to other women.

It was so powerful that I had to share it: I tweeted it. And since then it has sat in my heart and in my head, I’m pretty sure those words have taken up permanent residence inside me. 🙂

After this I was besotted with Lorde and her writing, but sure that her words were done moving me so much. And then she hit me again, with her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”. In this essay Lorde talks about reclaiming “the erotic” as not just referring to sexual behaviours and actions, but as that feeling of love and passion. That these feelings do not just pertain to sex and relationships but to our passions, such as writing, art, to everything:

“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.”


Again, this hit me in the chest. These words gave me permission for my pursuit of my education. For the direction I am trying to push my career. My path is one which follows the erotic in this sense, when I research, teach and write I feel this sense of satisfaction. I KNOW it is what I am supposed to be doing. What I was made for. There have been times when I have felt like this pursuit is selfish. That the sacrifices my family make for this are too much to ask. But these words again freed me. Lorde spoke to me and let me know that what I am doing will make me a stronger, more whole person. And in truth, that to not pursue this sense of satisfaction would be a betrayal of myself.

Like I said, this book is changing my life. Sister Outsider contains so much other wisdom, words about being a black woman, a lesbian, about intersectionality and multiple oppressions. I know it’s a book I will return to again and again throughout my life. If you haven’t read it, DO. It is truly an amazing work. I intend to find EVERYTHING Audre Lorde has ever written, because I have a feeling she has much more to say to me.

To my London friend (you know who you are) THANK-YOU, thank-you for putting this book in my hands.

To the memory of the amazing Audre Lorde I say: Your words changed my world. Thank-you!

 

The Psychology Supercomputer: I write about Psychology, Science Communication, Women in Science and feminist issues. I also tweet as @psycho_claire.

What Came First: Unequal Power Structures or Genitals? by @PonderingLif

(Cross-posted from PonderingLif)

I’m not going to post the link to the blog I’m responding too and I’m not going to pretend to remember having any thoughts about genitalia as a child, my brother had a penis and I must have seen it because we bathed together as small children I’ve seen the standard family photos and that’s about it. It wasn’t until sex education at school that I realised that peeing wasn’t the only reason I was made the way I was, I may have noticed my vagina before then but I’m not certain about that.

It was the emergence of breasts that brought about awareness of female bodies as something that was the ‘other,’. I was the 3rd girl in my year to get them unfortunately the first girl was rather large for a nine year old and she was immediately labelled a slag and the older boys wouldn’t leave her alone, girls and boys were cruel to her just because of a body part that she possessed that they didn’t.I remember being relieved that it wasn’t me, I also remember how confused she was and how upset at times and realising it could be me. Consequently hiding my breasts became part of my life, in PE and in swimming, I hated them and I started to hate being female as I had to hide more bits of me. Then of course as we got older the tide turned and the girls with no breasts and the girls that were large were mocked, picked on and generally treated in ways that expressed only their (sexualised) breasts mattered. I know I’m not alone in feeling like that as a child, teenager and young adult. I wish I could say it was different as a fully matured adult but I can’t ignore my genitals or others because nobody ignores mine (please stop talking to my breasts). Should it be different yes of course it should be, but the truth of the matter is we do make judgements based on genitals.

You might think my last statement is outrageous or simply disagree and that’s fine but my own experience of life shows me that it is true. I am a lone worker, I am a school caretaker and at least once a week I am explaining to a workman “yes I am the Caretaker and I’m a woman (woman can lock up a school shocker)” sometimes I am avoiding them coming on to me,(I’m working leave me alone ffs!) Btw having a man coming on to you when you are alone in a building you can’t leave changes the power dynamics considerably, almost in the way puberty does.  I have in the past hidden in the school, sometimes I’m nervous because their attitude has triggered alarm bells; I am always very aware that I’m alone and I’m vulnerable, they don’t ignore my genitals and I can’t ignore theirs. No this has never happened to me when I’ve been alone with a woman incase you’re wondering.

But then it’s not really about genitals it’s about power and you are assigned power or not according to your genitals,we know that historically men decided this assignment of power because let’s be honest female genitalia is much more powerful,multi functional and beautiful than men’s genitals, the penis afterall is tucked away hidden most of the time and it’s fragile as are the testicles (ask any man), no contest really, maybe that’s why the war on women was started in the first place ‘womb envy’ anyone?

The fact is women and men are socialised differently purely because of their biology and unfortunately women are taught they are weaker, lesser and the other, not the standard unit just a companion piece; this is what is wrong, being different isn’t what is wrong. Feminism for me is about being different but equal, it’s about recognising that the world is set up to suit men and their biology and not mine, this is what needs to change, if we pretend to not see genitalia nothing will ever change it will remain geared up to serve the standard unit, because equal doesn’t mean the same.

 

PonderingLif:  My blog is a mixture of feminist thought on events in my life as well as comments on recent events. It also includes short stories. I’m not sure what specific category you would include me under if you chose to do so. @PonderingLif  facebook page

In the coming year, I have ambitious plans to expand AROOO, including a full professional blog redesign to increase accessibility and optimise sharing of individual bloggers’ writing across multiple social media platforms, as well as publishing feminist reviews of books, radio, television, and film. I also want to expand outside of traditional blogging platforms and start a chat forum. In order to do this, I need to raise £ 3000 so that I can pay the women web designers for their work. The work I do for AROOO is out of love for women and their writing, art, photography and lives. My tech skills simply aren’t adequate to develop AROOO to its full potential. The women involved with AROOO deserve to have their work shared to a larger audience and this requires financial support. This platform will remain non-profit, and advertising free, but the amount of work to redesign the site is substantial. Even one pound makes a huge difference to my ability to support feminist writing by creating a professional platform for feminists by feminists.



Women Only by @PortiaSmart

(Cross-posted from Portia Smart)

Women-only spaces are VITAL for women – all women.

I have attended many feminist gatherings over the last 2 years – some were formal such as conferences and some were informal such as social gatherings. For me feminist gatherings should be for women only because only women can be feminist. However, post modernism and liberalism have developed an uneasy, amorphous, glutinous mass within feminism. Boundaries are blurred and many social groups no longer have the ability to gather without interference from more privileged social groups. I find this incredibly sad, damaging and erasing.

Men have been present at 20% of the feminist gatherings I have attended since 2012 and the impact of men in feminist spaces has been significant. Men silence women – even the “good” ones. Men in feminism fill the space. They infiltrate, dominate, captivate and warp feminism into a movement that is no longer about the liberation of women, but what men want. Karen Ingala Smith wrote about men’s role in feminism perfectly, as did Zeeblebum and it does not include access to women-only spaces.

The most abuse I have ever received online was when I tweeted “men can’t be feminists”. That was all it took to receive misogynistic abuse, death threats, rape threats, images of male violence against women mostly from men. This is no coincidence. Men are socialised to dominate, subordinate, silence and use women. A few men do manage to deconstruct this patriarchal violence and recognise that their role is to help end male supremacy over women and not become leaders or commentators on what feminism is. But the numbers are small. In 2014 we have men writing about the issues that feminism should care about, men telling women that men’s rights should be included in feminism and men leading University Feminist Society groups. This is patriarchy in action.

At the end of my first feminist conference I was crying and in shock. Many mitigating factors were present and days after the realisation hit me – this was the first time in 30 years that I was not on alert. I experienced a level of security that has been absent for most of my life and could only come from being with women. I was accepted for who I am, not what I look like. I was free. Free from wandering hands, suggestive comments, infiltration of personal space. I was free to speak, to be heard and understood. I realised that being in women-only space was so alien to me yet had so much power. Many women at the conference reported similar feelings and all of us knew that we not only wanted women only space, we demanded it.

Women-only spaces aren’t perfect. They aren’t “safe”. But by being free from men, they are a space where we are free to just be. In women-only space we explore our shared and diverse experiences, we challenge each other’s behaviour and beliefs, and we listen to and support each other. We grow in confidence, in strength, in passion. I rarely engage in challenging women outside of women-only space because men are always watching. Men gain power from our fragmentation, our competitiveness, our destruction and I won’t allow them to access this from me. Women-only spaces are the most empowering spaces that I have ever encountered. I believe that it is this that frightens men so much. It is this that we need to protect. The more of us that gather in women-only spaces, the stronger we become. The stronger we are, the greater the chance of stopping men from accessing our spaces, our movement and ourselves.

Men – you have most of the space all of the time. Keep the fuck out of ours.

 

Portia Smart: I write about feminism, politics, male violence and mental health & wellbeing. My blog is women-centred [@PortiaSmart]

In the coming year, I have ambitious plans to expand AROOO, including a full professional blog redesign to increase accessibility and optimise sharing of individual bloggers’ writing across multiple social media platforms, as well as publishing feminist reviews of books, radio, television, and film. I also want to expand outside of traditional blogging platforms and start a chat forum. In order to do this, I need to raise £ 3000 so that I can pay the women web designers for their work. The work I do for AROOO is out of love for women and their writing, art, photography and lives. My tech skills simply aren’t adequate to develop AROOO to its full potential. The women involved with AROOO deserve to have their work shared to a larger audience and this requires financial support. This platform will remain non-profit, and advertising free, but the amount of work to redesign the site is substantial. Even one pound makes a huge difference to my ability to support feminist writing by creating a professional platform for feminists by feminists.



Setting the Tone by @strifejournal

(Cross-posted from Trouble & Strife)

Delilah Campbell ponders Facebook’s new approach to gender

Heinz comes in 57 varieties, grey comes in fifty shades, and gender, according to Facebook, now comes in 51 different forms. The social media giant announced this month that in future, account-holders (at least, those whose language is English) will be able to choose from a menu of 51 terms describing gender identification. Subscribers in the US can already access the new options, which include ‘androgynous’, ‘bigender’, ‘genderfluid’ and ‘intersex’ as well as the more predictable ‘trans’, ‘trans*’, ‘transsexual’ and ‘man’/‘woman’ prefaced by ‘trans’ or ‘cis’.

Cartoon by Cath Jackson - 57 varieties of Facebook genderThis move towards greater diversity and inclusiveness has been hailed as—in the words of one source quoted by the Independent ‘a milestone step to allow countless people to more honestly and accurately represent themselves’. This speaker, described as a ‘human rights activist’, went on to express the hope that others would emulate the example set by Facebook in ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’.

I will pass over the question of what ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’ has to do with human rights, and ask instead if Facebook’s policy, overall, would actually qualify as ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’. To describe identity as ‘multifaceted’ is to acknowledge that gender is only one element of it, and that others are in principle no less important. But Facebook profiles are not constructed on that principle. Gender is the only personal characteristic that has to be specified explicitly, and displayed publicly, on a Facebook page. You do have to give your birthdate, but you can choose to keep it hidden. You are not asked to select a category from a menu of ethnic labels, or social class labels, though ethnicity and class are also facets of identity; and displaying your educational or relationship status is optional rather than compulsory. So, it’s hard to see the new policy as a sign of Facebook’s commitment to making users’ profiles more fully reflective of their multifaceted identities. It’s more a manifestation of the contemporary obsession with gender identity, gender categories and gender distinctions.

It’s also an illustration of another contemporary phenomenon, the power of the drop-down menu. In a world where we are constantly required to fill in online forms, where you can only proceed to the next screen if you click on one of the options provided (not several, not none, not an alternative of your own devising), there is a tendency to take those options as a map of reality. Like the boundaries marked on an actual map, the lines they draw between this category and that become reified, treated as objective facts to which we must try to fit our own subjective experience.

Facebook’s 51 gender labels are a case in point. There is nothing objective about them: they don’t represent a single conceptual scheme or comprise a scientific taxonomy, they just reproduce as many terms as the designers could think of which are currently used by some subset of English-speakers to describe some kind of non-traditional orientation to the traditional male/female binary. The glossaries which various ‘experts’ have hastily produced to explain them suggest that many of the new categories overlap or duplicate one another: ‘androgynous’, ‘bigender’ and ‘genderfluid’, for instance, all denote an identification with both masculinity and femininity. But once they appear as discrete options in a drop-down menu, there’s a good chance people will treat them as definitive, and if necessary create the semantic distinctions that are needed to make them coherent. Just as having the choice of ‘Miss’ ‘Mrs’ and ‘Ms’ has persuaded many English-speakers that ‘Ms’ must denote a distinct category of ‘others’ (older unmarried women, divorced women and lesbians) rather than subsuming (as it was meant to) the previous, marital status-based categories, so asking people to choose between ‘genderfluid’ and ‘bigender’ will prompt them to invent criteria for distinguishing the two. Meanwhile, some people will inevitably feel that the available options exclude them, or fail to represent them fully, and will lobby for new ones to be added. As if any nomenclature, however many terms it included, could possibly capture all the nuances of our lived and felt experience.

Facebook’s new nomenclature certainly doesn’t work for me, because it presupposes that there must be some form of gender that I feel a positive identification with. In fact, as a radical materialist feminist my position is that gender, like ‘race’ and class, is essentially a system of domination and subordination, and as such I am politically opposed to it. While I acknowledge its existence as a material social fact, and accept that it has shaped my own experience and sense of self, I do not identify positively with any form of gender, either actual or imaginable. Being willing to call myself a woman (again, in recognition of a material social fact) does not mean I have a positive identification with femininity. My relationship to both femininity and masculinity is entirely negative. Facebook doesn’t provide any terminology with which I could ‘honestly and accurately represent’ that position. It allows me to list my gender as ‘neither’, or the more arcane ‘neutrois’ (glossed as ‘people who do not identify within the binary gender system’), but the problem with those terms (also ‘gender non-conforming’ and ‘gender variant’) is that in this scheme they all denote identities: they define you as a certain kind of person, rather than as a person (of any kind) who takes a certain political stance.

Though from my point of view Facebook’s approach to gender is more or less apolitical, the company evidently wants to be seen as a champion of progressive attitudes. The spokesperson quoted in the Independent presented the new policy as part of the company’s commitment to equality and diversity, as well as a sign of its openness to concerns expressed by users (in this case, LGBT groups who campaigned for new terminology). However, anything Facebook does in the area of user profiling is liable to be interpreted in the light of our knowledge that its money is made by selling data to advertisers. I always assumed that the real reason why your profile had to specify whether you were male or female was the importance accorded to that information by Facebook’s real customers, the marketeers. Some commentators have suggested that the new gender nomenclature will serve their purposes even more effectively: by getting people to define themselves in less blandly generic terms (or as one comment put it, ‘finding 50 more ways to violate my privacy’), Facebook can help businesses to target a more specific market niche.

On that point, I’m slightly sceptical: it’s hard to see how this confusing set of labels could be mapped onto the consumer preferences that are of interest to the niche-marketers. Are there products which appeal more to the ‘gender variant’ than the ‘gender non-conforming’, or services for the ‘androgynous’ as opposed to the ‘bigendered’? If you identify as bigendered, will that just mean you get a double helping of spam?Cartoon by Cath Jackson - 57 varieties of Facebook gender

Yet at a deeper level I do think the revamping of Facebook’s gender options shows the influence of consumerism on what is now thought of as ‘political’ action—the idea is that people are empowered by having as much choice as possible, and that minorities in particular are empowered by the public validation of their choices. ‘Put my preferred gender identity label on your drop-down menu so that I can display it in my profile’ is the kind of political language that Facebook understands, but in the real world, arguably, the effect is pretty trivial. (How often does anyone even look at what genders their Facebook friends have specified?) Other political demands, for instance that Facebook should stop hosting pages which promote violence against women, have not been so easily accommodated (though they have sometimes been successful when accompanied by actions that threatened the site’s advertising revenue).

If Facebook had wanted to do something really radical, it could surely have gone for the simpler option of taking gender off the menu altogether. Instead of requiring every user to select a label from a predefined set of options, it could have said it was going to let individuals make their own decisions about how to define and present themselves—permitting them not only to use their own preferred terms, but also to decide how far to foreground their gender in their profiles.

I’d just as soon leave it in the background myself; but since that is apparently unthinkable, I’m considering setting up a Facebook group to lobby for some additional menu options—some boxes a radical feminist could tick, like ‘gender indifferent’, ‘gender resistant’, ‘gender hostile’ and ‘nowadays when I hear the word “gender” I reach for my medication’. Anyone want to join?

Cartoons by Cath Jackson

 

Trouble & Strife is a British-based radical feminist magazine. It appeared in print between 1983 and 2002, and is now a blog hosted by WordPress. We publish topical short posts, long-form articles and reviews, some of them illustrated by the feminist cartoonists whose work was a popular feature of the printed magazine. The website also gives visitors free access to a complete archive of our 43 print issues. T&S is edited by an all-women collective. We welcome enquiries from women who want to contribute posts, articles or reviews on topics of interest to a radical feminist readership (please note that we don’t publish fiction, poetry or artwork except if it illustrates an article). Our Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/troubleandstrifemagazine Our Twitter account is @strifejournal.

 

In the coming year, I have ambitious plans to expand AROOO, including a full professional blog redesign to increase accessibility and optimise sharing of individual bloggers’ writing across multiple social media platforms, as well as publishing feminist reviews of books, radio, television, and film. I also want to expand outside of traditional blogging platforms and start a chat forum. In order to do this, I need to raise £ 3000 so that I can pay the women web designers for their work. The work I do for AROOO is out of love for women and their writing, art, photography and lives. My tech skills simply aren’t adequate to develop AROOO to its full potential. The women involved with AROOO deserve to have their work shared to a larger audience and this requires financial support. This platform will remain non-profit, and advertising free, but the amount of work to redesign the site is substantial. Even one pound makes a huge difference to my ability to support feminist writing by creating a professional platform for feminists by feminists.



FEMINIST T-SHIRTS, CALL-OUTS AND COMMODIFICATION by @boudledidge

(Cross-posted from We Mixed Our Drinks)bc

 

 

 

At the beginning of the year I made a resolution of sorts, to distance myself from the sort of feminism that only actually mentions a feminist campaign or organisation when it’s tearing it down. There’s nothing wrong with critique and highlighting issues within reason, but by the end of last year I’d become thoroughly bored with performative call-outs as a primary form of engagement. This has had its plus points: for one thing I haven’t had to spend most of my precious little free time telling everyone how I’m not here for this sort of feminism and not here for herbrand of feminism, thanks very much. And one debate I haven’t had to wade into recently has been the one surrounding ELLE‘s next step on its mission to bring a reinvigorated feminism to the readers of glossy magazines.
It is definitely a good few years since I first wrote about my discomfort with the commodified ‘trendy feminism’ campaigns that women’s magazines have run, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment, in the last five years or so. Here’s one disclaimer: I do appreciate ELLE‘s commitment to focusing on women’s issues in recent years; they’ve managed to do it better than other women’s magazines (putting aside that whole thing with the ‘rebrand’ of feminism. But I get it. I know they can’t exactly take a crap on consumerism; I’m just not going to say I’m comfortable with it). But I haven’t been able to force myself to care all that much about the magazine’s new partnership with Whistles and the Fawcett Society and, it seems, various attractive famous men (another disclaimer: I own an original Fawcett Society ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt, as I’ve supported its work for the last eight years).
It’s nothing we haven’t been through before. Feminist merchandise at £45 a time (£85 if you want a sweatshirt), unavailable any bigger than a size 16. The publicity opportunities for politicians and celebrities and the ‘outrage’ that David Cameron wouldn’t wear one. We know that there are some redeeming factors – well-known public figures at least claiming to support gender equality; exposure to people who might not otherwise think very much about feminism or think it’s something they can be a part of. If it changes anyone’s life and makes them a feminist or somewhere, somehow, improves a woman’s life, then, I will concede, fair enough. In the spirit of the times, online news outlets have shown us image galleries of people wearing these t-shirts and proclaimed that Benedict Cumberbatch being our ally ‘is everything‘. So far, so predictable.
Things took an interesting turn on Saturday night, when Twitter got wind of the Mail on Sunday‘s front-page exposé of exploitative conditions in the factory where the t-shirts have been made. One worker is quoted as saying: ‘How can this T-shirt be a symbol of feminism? These politicians say that they support equality for all, but we are not equal.’ The Fawcett Society was absolutely on the ball with crisis management and quick to issue a statement saying it had been assured by Whistles that the factory producing the t-shirts complied with the highest ethical, sustainable and environmental standards possible. I don’t doubt that this was a key consideration for Fawcett, and as we’ve seen, Whistles and ELLE have subsequently issued statements to the same effect. Ensuring standards are met isn’t always easy and the garment industry is a minefield in this respect.
Much has been said about the credentials of all involved in the campaign and in the Mail on Sunday‘s exposé. Politicians taking part in publicity stunts – how much do they know about how their clothes are made? The investigative journalism tearing down a very public feminist campaign, published by a newspaper with absolutely no previous form for supporting gender equality or migrant workers. What I haven’t been able to get behind, though, is the smug trashing of Fawcett, ELLE, and anyone who’s supported their campaign and bought a t-shirt. It’s a sad state of affairs when the first sign of interest in either ethical working conditions or marginalised women from the Mail comes at the expense of feminism, and the glee with which the whole thing has been reported needs nothing but contempt. What it doesn’t need is to be held up, alongside the screengrabbed tweets of Fawcett supporters and well-known names, as ‘everything that is wrong with feminism’, a stick to beat the same old women about the same old things in the same tedious fashion. Nobody wins.
ELLE and Whistles have received a trashing, despite their best intentions. The Fawcett Society has, as far as I’ve seen, gained some support for its professional handling of the situation – yet has clearly still received a trashing. The Mail on Sunday has jumped at the opportunity to take part in the same tedious progressive/left/feminism-bashing they’ve been doing for years. And I’m betting it won’t devote much time to covering exploitation of women and migrant workers overseas in the future, because clickbait misogyny and xenophobia will always be much higher on its agenda. Women working in factories in Mauritius are still working in the same conditions. The garment industry won’t get an overhaul any time soon – and certainly not thanks to the sort of people on Twitter who, as ever, will keep on posting screenshots of Things Well-Known Feminist Campaigners Have Said and devoting hours at a time to sneering at them. Politicians will continue to display a dubious grasp of what ‘improving women’s lives’ means. No-one will ever mistake David Cameron for a feminist.
So: no victories. Feminism got commodified, celebrities got column inches, activists got called out, and the majority of women in the UK remained completely untouched by whatever it was trying to achieve. Good job, everyone. I’m continuing to support the Fawcett Society because I believe it is a real force for good. I genuinely hope that this whole situation is resolved for the best and that all involved are able to make it clear that they did their utmost to ensure ethical production. But if awareness-raising initiatives can’t make a break with consumerism and celebrity PR opportunities, then I can’t help thinking that we’ll see something similar happen again. The co-option of feminist activism into profits for t-shirt manufacturers has been much discussed in the wake of #YesAllWomen and more recently, FCKH8’s ‘Potty-mouthed princesses’ video. Women in the movement can’t prevent this sort of thing from happening, but campaigners can be smarter about how they hope to engage women with feminism.
We Mixed Our Drinks I write about feminism, politics, the media and Christianity, with the odd post about something else completely unrelated thrown in. My politics are left-wing, I happily call myself a feminist and am also an evangelical Christian (n.b. evangelicalism is not the same as fundamentalism, fact fans). Building a bridge between feminism and Christianity is important to me; people from both camps often view the other with suspicion although I firmly believe that the two are compatible. I am passionate about gender equality in the church [@boudledidge]

 

A Christmas Homily: On Being a Radical Christian AND a Radical Feminist by @VABVOX

A Christmas Homily: On Being a Radical Christian AND a Radical Feminist

by Victoria A. Brown worth

When I was a girl in Catholic school, I was told the early Christians spoke in code in order to protect themselves from arrest or being thrown into the lion’s den. Part of the code was to draw half a fish in the dirt. If the other person were a Christian, they would draw the rest of the fish and conversation could ensue without fear.

As a radical feminist who is also a Catholic and a Christian, I often feel the same way: The lion’s den of social media doesn’t compare with being eaten by actual lions, but it can feel quite brutal. Having been attacked by dozens of atheists at a time, I can attest to how exhausting these assaults can be.

I have also witnessed Muslim women I know–all of whom wear hijab–being badgered by both atheists and progressives telling them their religion is retrogressive and violent and abusive to women.

These attacks on religious women, nearly always by men, are often framed as atheist  mansplaining: “Don’t you know your religion oppresses women?”

A curious counterpoint follows these attacks: women direct message me with their confessions of being closet Christians–afraid even to state it publicly, instead drawing their half of the fish in my DM after seeing me affirm my own Christian beliefs. This happened most recently last week when a young woman I know–an outspoken feminist in real life–asked me how I was able to reconcile my feminism and my Catholicism.

“Teach me how to do this!” she implored.

My answer may seem simplistic, but if you have a belief system, there should never be a conflict. There is none for me–I believe strongly in most radical feminist tenets and I believe in most tenets of Catholicism. (Note, I say most.)

I get attacked just as often for being a radical feminist as I do for being a radical Christian. What is unsurprising is that those attacks are almost wholly from the same quarters: atheist men and liberal feminist women.

Both groups cite their concern for my mental health as well as my mental acuity. Am I, I have been asked, “insane” or “retarded”?

There is also concern about my lack of knowledge of the world and my own place in it, a marginalizing tactic straight out of Patriarchy 101.

The perception that only the ignorant believe in God is itself ignorant–and, I might add, classist, sexist and racist given that the overwhelming majority of the world’s believers are women of color. The perspective promulgated by atheists that atheism is somehow more evolved than belief in God is as offensive as it is inaccurate, ignoring as it does the vast array of scientists who also believe in God, from Galileo to Einstein to Hawking. Atheism is its own belief system, with its purveyors every bit as strident as any fundamentalist.

I was raised in a Socialist Catholic household by parents who were civil rights workers. In addition to the leaders of the black civil rights movement, my mentors were women who conflated their religious beliefs with their leftist politics, among them Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Simone Weil and my patron saints, Teresa of Avila and Joan of Arc.

For me, feminism and Catholicism and leftist activism were always inextricably bound. Growing up in the era of Liberation Theology, I was fortunate to have models of feminist theologians from whom I learned a new way of viewing my own faith, starting with the work of the 19th century abolitionist women and their suffragist cohorts. But by the time I was in college, I had discovered–or rather, dis-covered–the work of Mary Daly and Sheila Collins, Rosemary Radford Reuther and all the many women in Latin America, nuns and lay women alike, who were melding their faith and their feminism.

These women validated the unarticulated reality that I had experienced as a girl in Catholic school: that women were the backbone of the Church. That women were the backbone of spirituality. That the activism of the female saints was not only just as impactful as that of their male peers, but in many respects they were the foremothers/foresisters of modern feminism.

Watching my parents civil rights work, much of which was inextricably bound to our parish and to the churches of the black men and women we (well, I was a small child, but our family) were working with and for clarified for me how integral God was to the work being done.

There is no writing by Martin Luther King, Jr. that doesn’t invoke Christ. Concomitantly the work of Malcolm X, often held up as King’s more radical brother in the battle for black equality in the U.S., was a follower of Islam.

For many, God propelled us into activism. For me personally, it was those female saints and Christ himself that made me a radical Christian feminist. Wooed by the literal fight in Joan of Arc and her refusal to bow to patriarchal mores, wooed by the refusal of St. Cecilia to become a concubine, wooed by the brilliant mystical writings of St. Teresa of Avila, I was certain that women played as keen a role in God’s plan as the male apostles whose names I seemed incapable of remembering past Peter and John.

As I delved deeper into the concept of feminist theology in college, meeting Mary Daly and interviewing her for the college radio station where I had the first lesbian feminist radio program in the U.S. for an hour on Sunday mornings, I saw that God was as much the divine feminine as the “He” we had been taught in catechism class. As Daly said, “Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb – the most active and dynamic of all.”

If our internalization of God–particularly for those of us who are radical feminists intent on smashing the patriarchy–is in activism, then how could feminism not be an outgrowth of faith? The synthesis of God and the work of making the world a livable place for women and girls, men and boys, was inextricable–Daly showed me that feminism did not requite that I  expunge it from my heart or my intellect. Rather she showed me that the two worked in tandem, each propelling the other–and me–forward into action, into the heart of the fray as Joan of Arc had done.

Activism drove me and Christ was my ultimate mentor. Jesus’s exquisite knowledge that the end of his activist journey was a slow, hideous and painful death from which he could not escape spurred me forward: if Christ could do this, how could I do less? How could I not fight every battle presented to me, work ceaselessly for a better world, a more equitable place, follow the dictates Christ presented in the Sermon on the Mount–a revolutionary treatise if ever there were one.

Following Christ means giving up a great deal. But following radical feminism demands the same. The over-arching thing that must be relinquished–the thing that contradicts every MRA, lib fem or atheist gunner–is ignorance. You can no longer ignore what is set in front of you. You cannot ignore the chasms between rich and poor, men and women, color of privilege and color of oppression. You cannot pretend.

Now perhaps in a fundamentalist religion or a male-centered feminism, ignorance is an imperative. If one acknowledges that we are all equal–which is the basic tenet of both radical Christianity/liberation theology Catholicism and radical feminism–then you cannot stand on the sidelines of either your faith or your feminism. You cannot ignore that people are dying in your very own city of starvation in the clear and abundant bounty of Western society. You cannot ignore that one billion women worldwide are victims of male violence. You cannot ignore the plight of the poor, the disabled, the oppressed. You have to be in not for a penny but for many, many pounds. You have to give up your life in service to your beliefs and you can never, ever take time off, because the criticality demands of your radicalism that you be invested 24/7. You can’t shrug off this rapist or that rapacious politician. You can’t flip past the photo of spikes being put in doorways to keep the homeless from sleeping there. You can’t pretend that FGM is a cultural thing that (white) Westerners should ignore.

You cannot ever stop fighting for what is right because you are not, as the atheists and MRAs and lib fems say, ignorant. You are ignorance’s obverse: you are keenly, hyper-vigilantly aware and you can never unsee all that is cruel and inhumane and immoral anywhere ever again. Mother Teresa explicated this clearly, “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

I have always believed that God is love and I have always believed that feminism is love. How could those two loves not heal the world the way they have healed me?

Two weeks ago I had some surgery. It seemed to go well, but an infection set in almost immediately, hidden under the healing wound, showing little sign to either me in my own body or to my doctors. It spread rapidly and by Dec. 17 I was gravely ill. By Dec. 18, death was knocking. On Dec. 19 I had emergency surgery. Today, as I write this on Christmas Eve Day, I am home from the hospital and I am alive.

I am not saying that I prayed to be saved–although I did, madly–and I was saved, because millions pray every day to be saved from things as painful and horrible as what I experienced and are not saved. What I am saying is being on the brink of death yet again, I am reminded of the value of life, of the value of all that is left to be accomplished and that the purpose of our lives on this earth–whether we believe in an afterlife as I do, or not–is to work as diligently as we can to give to those who do not have what we have, to seek justice for those of us (including ourselves) who have been marginalized, to make a space for equity and equality for everyone, to end male violence. Mother Teresa said, “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.”

There is often no more “humble” work than feminism. But those of us who are feminists–true feminists–do it always and unflinchingly because lives depend on it. We cannot walk away. That work of feminism, or the work Mother Teresa spoke of, is how I put faith and feminism together in the same place.

No doubt some will come away from this saying I haven’t addressed individual issues that are fraught in both the Church and radical feminism. Perhaps not. But I reiterate that I said at the outset I didn’t believe in every tenet of either my religion or my feminism. But I believe in the construct of both my faith and my feminism. I believe that both work in a truly intersectional way to bolster my activism.

Every Sunday when I attend Mass, I am re-infused with activism–compelled to leave and do the work Christ set me here to do: save lives. Of women, of girls. Save men from their own violence. Save the marginalized from suffering and bigotry and oppression. This is my answer to the question of how do I meld my faith in God and my faith in feminism–through the example of Christ and the radical feminist theologians his pro-feminist activism spawned. The answer for me is the women who came before me, God and feminism inextricably bound together in their hearts and in their work. My admiration for all they achieved is immeasurable, as is my desire to follow in their footsteps. And those of their mentor, Christ.

 

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her novel, Ordinary Mayhem will be published in February 2015. Her book Erasure: Silencing Lesbians will be published in June 2015.@VABVOX

 

I’m No Heroine: On Feminism and Strength by Gappy Tales

Originally published: 05.02.14

I have been thinking a lot lately about online identity. As in how we put ourselves across to others through our writing, and the ways in which that can be received and interpreted.

It was a short exchange over Twitter that started me thinking. A #saysomethingnice hashtag was floating around and I had tweeted an online friend to tell her that I thought she was kind and funny, and that I really liked her. She had replied back saying:

“Well then I think you are strong, amazing, defiant and kickass! I am rather envious of you. x”

Which was lovely and made me smile, of course. But perhaps more confusedly than anything because the truth was that I just did not recognise myself in those words at all. Strong? Amazing? Kickass???No, not me. And then a realisation hit me and I thought, my god, is that really the impression I give of myself with my words? Because honestly, it just isn’t true.

And then I got to thinking of a much wider picture, of how feminists are often regarded as “strong” women; stronger and braver somehow than supposed “other” women. I don’t necessarily think that’s true either, nor do I think the idea particularly empowering – not for anyone. We are all of us just women getting by, having a lot of the same experiences, interpreting and reacting to them in our own way. When you are a woman living in a world that does not value women equally, simply learning to survive and thrive as best you can is brave enough.

Defining ourselves as feminists and writing, however passionately, about feminist principles cannot ever make us impervious to the daily grind of male supremacy. Indeed, I think sometimes it is because we are so affected that we become so inspired. We empathise with – and are angry on behalf of – all women yes, but the anger is generated from within our own selves as a reaction to our own lives and experiences. The personal is political after all.

So if I am enraged by the incessant body fascism depicted in glossy magazines, then please know that this is always at least partly informed by the fact that after birthing and feeding three children, I find my own stretched skin so hard to accept without judgement.

And if you read me railing against street harrassment and shouting about the right of women to go about their business without being subjected to the endless staring, cat-calls and intimidation that occur daily in our public spaces, then understand too that the last time I walked alone down a dark street, I was approached by a strange man whose low muttered obscenities frightened me so much I ran straight out into the road to get away from him and was almost mown down by an on coming car in the process.

Know that feminism for me is neither an abstract concept, nor an academic exercise. I can intellectualise and deconstruct and pick apart patriarchy’s every premise, but I will still suffer the same pains and indignities of having been born female in a mans world along with everyone else. My feminism is born of lived experience. Really, it was the only rational response.

And of course it isn’t just me. In fact I was reading an article by Helen Lewis in the New Statesman recently – the article was about intersectionality, but it was this passage that jumped out at me:

“Here are some of the things I know that the kind of feminists regularly decried for their privilege have had to deal with, in private: eating disorder relapses; rape; the stalking of their children; redundancy; clinical depression; the sectioning of a family member; an anxiety disorder that made every train ride and theatre trip an agony. (Yes, one of those descriptions is me.)”

There are none of us immune to that daily grind. Even those feminists who might be considered some of the most successful, celebrated and widely read. Outspoken, vocal feminists in the public eye. Surely they must be the strongest of the strong? But take a peek below the surface and what you discover are ordinary women who can still struggle right along with everyone else.

And no, I do not mean to imply that being in receipt of privilege does not have a significant bearing on a womans life experiences (from a purely personal perspective I cannot remember the last time I could afford to go to the theatre for a start), and nor do I wish to paint women as hapless victims. Certainly not. My intention is simply to draw focus on our common humanity, our common experience, our common strength, our… commonality.

Because there are no “strong” women as set apart from “weaker” women. Feminism is for everybody. The words I write and the values that I hold true do not make me inherently more powerful than anyone else. And with that I’ll leave you with Ani di Franco who invariably says it better than I ever could…

 

Jeni Harvey: Writer, feminist, mother. Likes cake, hates Jeremy Clarkson. These are my principles – if you don’t like them, I have others. @GappyTales or Huff Post

We need to talk about the process by @strifejournal

(Cross-posted from Trouble & Strife)

In a diverse political movement there will inevitably be arguments and disagreements, but how should feminists deal with internal conflict?  Emma Stonebridge thinks it’s time for a new conversation about the way we conduct our conversations. 

I’m at a feminist conference, in a room full of women (and a sprinkling of men). We are listening to a talk about the Everyday Sexism project, which gives girls and women a platform to share experiences of being harassed and bullied. The atmosphere is supportive, and the room feels united.

Later, the mood changes. Another speaker is interrupted from the floor by a woman who tells her to stop talking because what she’s saying is offensive. The chair asks the interrupter to let the speaker finish, and eventually she does. In the discussion, a few people criticize the manner of her intervention, but no one disputes her right to voice her objections, and she is given space to explain them. There is no resolution: the room feels divided.

Afterwards, the speaker discovers that some people at the conference are shunning her. If she tries to speak to them they turn away in silence. She also finds that people have made comments on Twitter: they have tweeted that she is racist, transphobic, whorephobic. Her feelings—shock, anger, distress—remind her of what the earlier speaker said about women’s reactions to everyday sexism. But the people who have attacked her are not sexist men. Like the speaker herself, they are feminist women.

If you spend time in feminist forums, the outlines of this conflict will probably be familiar. And if you’ve been a feminist for long enough, your reaction might be, ‘what’s new?’ There has always been conflict among feminists, and there have always been occasions when it got ugly. For some of us, the incident at the conference brought back memories of a similar conflict that erupted at a lesbian summer school in 1988. That also began when one woman accused others of holding views that could not be tolerated in a feminist space, and it escalated to the point of nearly derailing the whole event.

But I do think something has changed since the 1980s, and this is how I would (crudely) summarize it. Things that used to happen rarely have become much more common. Behaviour that used to be disapproved of, or seen as a problem, has become more acceptable. Conflicts that once involved a closed and relatively small community, interacting face-to-face, are now conducted in more open and public forums. And we no longer seem to talk about these things in the same way feminists once did.

Process

When I first became involved in feminism there was a lot of talk about ‘process’, meaning the way things were done in feminist groups. This was treated as a political issue in its own right: our practice was meant to embody our theoretical commitment to egalitarian and non-hierarchical relationships. Feminist groups did not have leaders or elected officers; decisions were made collectively, and not by majority vote. This way of working required attention to group process. If the aim was to ensure that everyone’s views were heard, that tasks were divided fairly and decisions were made by consensus, then you had to have ground-rules for conducting your interactions.

One rule I remember being strictly applied was that you did not interrupt other women, tell them to be quiet or use insulting language to/about them. That kind of ‘unsisterly’ behaviour was strongly disapproved of. Some groups also had turn-taking rules (e.g. that you went around the room, or that each woman could only make a certain number of contributions), which were meant to stop the discussion being dominated by the most confident and verbally articulate women. And many groups had a rule that women’s accounts of their personal experience should be listened to without judging, criticizing or arguing.

Later commentators have criticized these ways of doing things, both for practical reasons—old-style feminist process could be ponderous, and that sometimes got in the way of effective campaigning—and more theoretical ones. One criticism, which was made by some feminists even at the time, was that in practice the rules did not eliminate inequality and hierarchy. In her classic early 1970s article ‘The tyranny of structurelessness’, Jo Freeman argued the absence of formal power structures in feminist groups just left the way open for informal, unaccountable ones to emerge, often based on women’s personal friendships.

Another criticism that has often been made is that the old norms (like being supportive, not arguing or criticizing, etc.) made it difficult to challenge the group consensus. Since that consensus typically reflected the experiences and views of the most privileged women—white, middle class, able-bodied and heterosexual—it tended to exclude other women’s perspectives, and block their efforts to draw attention to (what we would now call) intersecting oppressions.

The reality I remember was more complex and variable than these later criticisms imply. I do recall being in groups where differences–between working class and middle class women, lesbians and straight women, mothers and non-mothers–generated friction and resentment that went largely unaddressed. But I also remember groups where we could discuss our differences openly and constructively. Typically these were groups where women had got to know each other well, and developed high levels of personal trust.

Like most things, old-style feminist process had good points and bad points. And like all things, it was a product of its time. If it hadn’t changed significantly in the past 30 years that in itself would be a problem. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, reflect critically on the way we do things now. What does feminist process look like in the second decade of the 21st century? And what do we think it should look like?

The medium and the message

Feminism, like everything else, has been profoundly affected by the advent of digital technology. Today a lot of campaigning and political discussion happens online; even local groups which hold regular meetings may have more interaction via Facebook than face-to-face. The positive advantages of new technology, like speed, convenience and wide reach, are obvious. But our increasing reliance on digital media has other, perhaps less obvious, implications for the way we relate to one another.

Compared to most situations where people communicate face-to-face, online forums are ‘low trust’ environments, where it is prudent to conduct yourself with caution, and approach others with a degree of suspicion. In a medium which enables instant communication with an unlimited number of people located anywhere in the world, you can never know for sure exactly who you are interacting with. It’s not just that people could be lurking silently on the periphery of a discussion (and their motives could be malicious—they could be sharing sensitive information, or gathering intelligence for an anti-feminist campaign). Even when you’re aware of their presence, you will often know no more about them than they have chosen to reveal. And that might not be the truth: it might even be a deliberate pack of lies.

In a low-trust environment, we are less inclined to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty by giving each other the benefit of the doubt. And digital communication is prone to ambiguity, not only because of the lack of shared context, but also because it is text-based, reliant on the written word. Online exchanges may appear ‘conversational’, but they lack some key features of spoken conversation, where a great deal of the meaning, and almost all the emotional nuance, depends on subtle inflections of the voice, along with (in face-to-face settings) eye contact, facial expressions and body language. Without those cues it is harder to read people’s feelings, and easy to misinterpret their intentions. When this happens, the nature of the medium makes it more likely that people will respond aggressively. When our interlocutors are at a distance we have fewer inhibitions about making angry and abusive comments.

The main strategy which has been developed to manage these conditions is moderation: contributions to a site are monitored, and may be removed (or not approved for posting in the first place) if they do not meet ‘community standards’. What those standards are is variable: some online communities only remove contributions if they might be in breach of the law, while others are more interventionist. In feminist groups, moderation policies often include an explicit commitment to political values such as equality, inclusiveness and intersectionality. Some state that contributions will be removed if they are deemed to be at odds with those values (e.g. if they are sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic or transphobic). Maybe this is what feminist process looks like today: instead of unwritten rules regulating face-to-face discussion, we now have written-down policies regulating its digital equivalent.

But there are differences between the old and the new approach. Online moderation is a defensive strategy, designed for conditions where trust is low: the emphasis in most policies falls more on what will not be tolerated than on what will be positively encouraged. The old feminist rules did include some prohibitions (e.g. ‘no interruptions’), but they were less defensive in their overall conception because they were designed for an environment where there was less scope for deception and thus less reason to doubt others’ motives. Face-to-face groups were less likely to be confronted by interlopers who only came to meetings to disrupt the discussion and abuse other participants. Online this ‘trolling’ is so common that sanctions are needed to deal with it.

Another difference is that old-style feminist process involved rules which were mostly unwritten, and therefore subject to ongoing discussion and negotiation. Online moderation is more ‘top-down’, in that there’s a written policy enforced by a small subset of group members. Others may have been consulted when the policy was being developed, but many will have joined the group when the rules were already in place. A large proportion of the people who use a forum have probably never even looked at its moderation policy, just as most people don’t read through all the terms and conditions when they set up an account on Twitter or PayPal.

There’s also a difference which does not arise directly from the nature of the medium, but seems to have more to do with changes in our political assumptions. Old-style feminist process focused mainly on regulating the manner in which exchanges were conducted: some ways of interacting, like interrupting or using insulting language, were treated as unacceptable regardless of what point was being made. By contrast, the kinds of rules which are common in today’s online forums are less concerned about the form of contributions and more concerned with their political content. The specification that, say, racist or transphobic comments will not be tolerated covers not only cases where someone makes insulting comments or uses offensive language about a certain person or group of people, but also cases where someone advances, in civil language, a political argument that is judged to be racist/transphobic. Conversely, the rule does not apply to cases where someone responds to a comment they consider racist/transphobic by ‘calling out’ the person who made it, even if the form this takes is an angry personal attack couched in offensive/insulting language.

This tolerance, under certain circumstances, for ways of behaving that used to be considered problematic, was also apparent in the incident at the conference (which was, of course, an offline event, though it also prompted discussion online). The perceived offensiveness of what the speaker said was considered by some people to justify tactics like interrupting to demand her silence, and then publicly shunning and shaming her. Not everyone endorsed this: some women intervened to voice their disapproval, and one or two of them explicitly invoked the older feminist idea of ‘sisterly’ behaviour. However, the people who used the disputed tactics clearly felt they were defending a more important political principle.

(Anti-) social media

So far I’ve been talking about closed groups, where feminists can make their own rules. But a lot of feminist interaction also happens on social media sites which are open and unregulated (or at least, not regulated by feminists). The immediacy and the wide reach of social media make them powerful tools: in some areas (especially campaigning) that is a positive benefit, but their power can also have more negative consequences.

Earlier I mentioned the 1980s summer school which became embroiled in conflict. Afterwards, many women felt a need to reflect on what had happened, and the organizers created a space where they could share their feelings about it. In those days that meant a physical space and a face-to-face discussion among women who had all been there. Today, by contrast, discussions of this kind often take place on social media, where they can be carried on in ‘real time’ (tracking the events as they unfold from moment to moment), and where contributions can be seen, passed on and responded to by many people who did not actually witness the events in question.

This is what happened at the conference, where some people aired their reactions to the conflict on Twitter—a platform which takes the usual lack of shared context to an extreme by limiting single messages to 140 characters. If you read a tweet telling you that someone you don’t know, at an event you are not attending, has just made an offensive comment, you will be unable to evaluate that judgment fully, because the tweet does not (and in 140 characters, cannot) make clear what was said or what the circumstances were. In addition, if the author is live tweeting it is likely that what is being shared is a judgment made instantly in the heat of the moment. Twitter thrives on these quick, clear-cut judgments, and it also makes it easy for them to spread as people retweet them, reply to them, and post them on other websites. If enough people get involved, this can create the online equivalent of an angry mob, publicly attacking the objects of its displeasure on the basis of limited, minimally contextualized and often second or third-hand information. Not only are arguments taken into a wider public arena before those involved have had time to process their own responses, but also before there has been any discussion with others in the immediate context. That kind of discussion is a reality check, which may reveal that your own interpretation of events is not shared by everyone who experienced them. Even if it does not change your basic position, it makes you aware that there are other perspectives.

Researchers studying online communication networks have found that they reduce exposure to multiple perspectives on the same event or issue. That might seem counter-intuitive: the community of Twitter-users is larger and more diverse than any conference or meeting, so in theory it should also offer a wider spectrum of views. In practice, however, we navigate the vastness of cyberspace by being highly selective about who we connect with. At a meeting or a conference we do not get to pick our interlocutors: we don’t know in advance what opinions might be expressed, and we can’t just block those we disagree with. Online we have more control: most of us build networks of, and then mostly interact with, other people whose views are close to ours (we also tend, in a world awash with information, to select mainly those sources which reflect, endorse and amplify our pre-existing opinions—and then share the ones we like so our friends will have the same points of reference).

The technical term for this is ‘homophily’, meaning a preference for similarity or sameness. Some political scientists believe the growth of homophilous communication networks online is contributing to an increasing polarization of (mainstream) political debate. If most interaction takes place within self-selected communities of the like-minded, each community’s members will be constantly reinforced in their beliefs, and over time this increases the political distance between them.

Of course there is a place for communities where we know our beliefs are shared. But if we accept that feminist politics requires not only community building but also coalition building, which in turn requires dialogue between different positions, that might raise questions about the way we use social media as political spaces. Is what goes on in those spaces really dialogue, or is it more like a series of parallel monologues?

How to shut down dialogue

It could be argued that the conference participants who took to Twitter were opting out of political dialogue—bypassing the discussion in the room (where more than one perspective was represented) and addressing themselves instead to an online community whose agreement/approval they could count on. One piece of evidence for that interpretation is the vocabulary they used. ‘Whorephobic’, for instance, is a term that condenses a whole set of arguments around sex and sex work/prostitution, and embodies a particular position on that issue. That kind of shorthand does not promote dialogue, but rather entrenches division: its function is to affirm the goodness and rightness of your own position by contrasting it with the badness and wrongness of the position taken by some other group of feminists. Meanwhile, those other feminists are in their own corner of the virtual universe, having their own self-affirming conversation using their own in-group shorthand. These parallel monologues do not only entrench the basic political disagreements, but also people’s assumptions about what those they disagree with believe and why. And some of those assumptions are inaccurate: they would be harder to maintain if we did not spend more time talking about each other than to each other.

Another problem with parallel monologues is that the same terms may be used in different ways by different feminist communities: when they do interact they may be talking at cross-purposes because they are implicitly operating with different definitions of key words or concepts. Reading Debbie Cameron’s recent T&S piece on ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’, I found myself thinking that these terms are a case in point. What happened at the conference was an illustration: when the woman who interrupted the speaker was invited to elaborate on her objections, she explained that in her view it was oppressive for any woman who could not claim a certain identity or experience to express an opinion about it, or formulate an analysis of it, which conflicted with the one the group in question preferred. If you hadn’t been involved in sex work you should defer to the analysis made by women who had. If you were not a Muslim you should not talk about issues like the wearing of hijab, except to offer your support for the position taken by Muslim women themselves. For her, any failure to observe this principle was grounds for the charge of ‘whorephobia’ or ‘racism’.

But once the principle is made explicit, it becomes obvious that there’s a problem with it: it presupposes that everyone who shares the same identity or experience will subscribe to the same political argument, whereas in fact that is not the case. There are Muslim feminists who support the right of women to wear hijab and other Muslim feminists who oppose the practice. There are women with experience of the sex industry who defend it, and others who campaign against it. Which position should feminists who don’t share these identities treat as authoritative? How can anyone, of any identity, arrive at a considered position on any issue if it is defined as oppressive to have to listen to more than one point of view? And who decides which views are acceptable and which should be ‘no platformed’? Is this a new version of Jo Freeman’s ‘tyranny of structurelessness’?

It can certainly feel tyrannical sometimes. In some of the online forums I belong to, a fair number of participants are young women who have never been in a feminist group before. They don’t yet have a firm position on everything; sometimes they show a lack of awareness about issues which have not been part of their life experience, or ask questions about arguments that others are taking for granted. And sometimes they get called out for this. Their responses are usually apologetic, but some comment that they feel intimidated. Others just stop contributing. I find this frustrating, because it seems as if we are not making space for the development of ideas which is part of the process of becoming a feminist (and for that matter of continuing to be one).

Online moderation policies can be blunt instruments, making no distinction between offensive comments which are deliberately provocative, those which give offence unintentionally because they’re naive or clumsily expressed, and those which reflect real political divisions. I sometimes wonder what would happen if, as an experiment, we made a rule that participants in a discussion had to explain the basis for their disagreements or their feelings of offence as clearly as possible without using pejorative terms which are always going to be heard as personal attacks. This wouldn’t mean no one could object to anyone else’s contribution, it would just mean they had to do it differently. What makes calling out intimidating is not just the fact that it’s critical. No one enjoys being criticized, especially in public, but it’s especially hard to deal with—or learn from—when it’s framed in such loaded terms.

But vocabulary isn’t the only thing that can make feminist forums feel intimidating. In some of them, especially online, the style and tone of interaction owes almost nothing to the old ideal of co-operative and supportive exchange. It is closer to the mode of discourse which is typical of political discussion in non-feminist online forums: combative, polemical, full of righteous indignation, with no sparing of feelings or mincing of words. This style can be exhilarating to read: many of the radical feminist bloggers I like make entertaining use of it. Nevertheless there are things about it that bother me. There’s one expression in particular that sums up the problem I have with it: ‘end of.’ As in, ‘end of story’. As in, ‘this argument is over because I say so’. As in, ‘You’re wrong, I’m right and I am shutting you down’.

What bothers me about this isn’t the fact of disagreement, it’s the manner of expression. I’m not saying feminists should refrain from raising problems or drawing attention to divisions. Nor am I suggesting it’s never legitimate for one feminist to criticize another. If anything I think we need more conversations about the things we don’t agree on; but we also need to think about how we have those conversations.

Means, ends and the practice of our politics

Recently, I happened to be re-reading a second wave classic: the statement made by the Black feminist Combahee River Collective in 1977. And I was struck by a passage on the subject of feminist process:

In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving ‘correct’ political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a non-hierarchal distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism, and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our politics.

The language may have dated, but the point still speaks to me.

Trouble & Strife is a British-based radical feminist magazine. It appeared in print between 1983 and 2002, and is now a blog hosted by WordPress. We publish topical short posts, long-form articles and reviews, some of them illustrated by the feminist cartoonists whose work was a popular feature of the printed magazine. The website also gives visitors free access to a complete archive of our 43 print issues. T&S is edited by an all-women collective. We welcome enquiries from women who want to contribute posts, articles or reviews on topics of interest to a radical feminist readership (please note that we don’t publish fiction, poetry or artwork except if it illustrates an article). Our Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/troubleandstrifemagazine Our Twitter account is @strifejournal.

So you think you’re a Feminist huh? by @jaynemanfredi

(Cross-posted from The Road to Emmaus)
I am a woman.  I am in my mid-thirties.  I’m married.  I’m a mother.  I’m a Christian.
I’m also a Feminist.
Or am i?
A month ago my answer would have been a resounding ‘Yes!’ Of course I’m a Feminist.  I believe in equality don’t i? I believe that I’m just as good and able and capable as a man don’t i? I believe I shouldn’t be oppressed just because I’m a woman; that I should have equal rights, be it pay or opportunity or whatever.
Don’t I?
Curious by nature and believing absolutely that knowledge is power (and having a daughter who is now old enough to ask very searching questions) I’ve taken some time lately to really explore this issue like I’ve never bothered to before.  I’ve read, I’ve discussed and I’ve asked questions. In fact, I’ve started to question everything.  The result has been unexpected and shocking. Not since the night I became a Christian have I experienced such a seismic shift in my own perspective and world view.
The key, over-riding conclusion I have come to is this:
I’m not actually a Feminist.  I’m not even close. In fact, I have betrayed my sex and myself on many, many occasions. How could this have happened? When did I not adhere to my own set of principles? When did I not live out the things I believe in? Why can I not stand up and call myself a Feminist?
Here’s a few reasons why:
When I’ve gossiped about other women and privately labelled them as being ‘slutty,’ because of the length of their skirt or the amount of make-up they wear.
When, as a younger woman, I felt flattered to be whistled at by a gang of workmen…and slightly disappointed when they ignored me.

When I secretly resented another woman for being thinner and more beautiful than myself…or when I felt superior because I was the one who was considered more attractive.
When I told my boss I was pregnant in an apologetic tone.
When I scheduled my ante-natal appointments after work in an attempt to be thought better of by my boss and work colleagues (Ultimately, I wasn’t.)
When I jokingly told my husband to stop acting like a ‘girl’ when a spider fell on him in the shower.
When I’ve allowed a car mechanic/ gas fitter/ washing machine repair man/ etc, to talk over my head to address my husband (who is clueless about such things by the way) rather than speaking directly to me.
When I’ve labelled a woman as foolish for marrying a man who is a known cheat…she should know better, after all.
When men have stared freely at my breasts and I’ve been too embarrassed to reproach them.
When I’ve apologised for being ‘just a mum’ and have denigrated my position in my family because my work isn’t paid work.
When I’ve subconsciously judged other women for how they look.
When I’ve consciously judged other women for how they look.
When I have consistently reduced myself to being just a face and a body and have pointlessly chased a standard of exterior feminine perfection, largely defined and found desirous by men.
When I’ve mutely submitted to being groped.
When I’ve sat idly by for thirty-five years and not done one single thing of any substance or real meaning to further the Feminist cause, whilst at the same time blithely enjoying the benefits available to me thanks to the hard work and toil of thousands of Sisters who came down this road ahead of me.
For all these reasons, and perhaps many more, I struggle to call myself a Feminist and keep a straight face.
Some of these examples are indicative of larger flaws in my character, and trust me: God and I are working on it.  But these examples show more than my fallibility as a woman and a human being; they show how ill-equipped I am and society still is to embrace true equality as a concept, never mind as a reality.  Sadly, I’m still very much enslaved to this patriarchal society that we all inhabit. The blindfold may have been removed, but the shackles still remain very much in place.  I feel anything but free.
So I’m not a Feminist.
Not yet.
But I’m bloody well going to be.

 

The Road to Emmaus: I’m a Christian Blogger who is new to Feminism, Christianity AND blogging. My blog: Him, me, them, us. I’m on Twitter: @jaynemanfredi

Are you all about that bass? at I was a high school feminist,

(Cross-posted from I was a high school feminist)

Okay. So by now you’ve obviously seen the video for “All About That Bass” or at least heard the song on the radio.

In her video, Meghan Trainor sings that she’s “all about that bass” – a metaphor that I thought was pretty clever, as it points out that the “heavier” part of music is also the part that’s important in order for the music to have a good beat or be danceable. I’m not sure if that’s a common comparison, but I’d never heard it before. Yay for metaphors!

bassscreencap

As she sings about the fact that boys like heavier girls and about feeling good about herself, she and her non-skinny backup dancers dance happily in pastel-colored clothing.

Like many viral sensations that also carry a message, responses to the video followed a pretty familiar pattern from “OMG best thing ever!” to “Stop acting like the video is so great – it’s really problematic!”

I didn’t really have any strong opinions on the topic until I saw a response video titled “All about that bass (body positive version)”. By changing some of the lyrics, the artist attempted to “correct” the parts of the original song that many people had seen as less-than-positive.

bassbodypos

And while a lot of the criticisms of the original video are valid, I’m just not sure if they all need correcting.

To be clear, I am NOT writing a defense of the original video, which does have some pretty significant problems: namely, its use of AAVE and use of black women as props.

For a really thorough takedown of the race issues inherent in the video, including Trainor’s appropriation of the word “booty” and her objectification of black women, check out Jenny Trout’s article “I am not all about that bass”.

Further, it would have been more in line with the song’s purported message to include women with body types that could actually be called fat, and not just “not skinny”.

But, as Meghan Trainor herself has said, she is not a feminist. And at the end of the day, the purpose of the song and video are to make money.

What I do want to talk about here is some of the criticisms of the video that I’ve seen, specifically the “body positive” version that I linked to above.

For instance, the original song specifically celebrates heavier girls, saying that their bodies are “better” than thin girls’ bodies, so in the “body positive” version, the singer changes the lyrics to reflect that all bodies are beautiful.

Now, I do agree that putting down any body type is not terribly feminist. As this article points out, songs like Trainor’s aren’t about loving yourself unconditionally as much as they are about “shifting the ideal” from skinny to heavier, while retaining the exclusivity of such an ideal.

“Skinny bitch”: problematic or not?

However, when the majority of media messages that we receive every day celebrate thin women and deride heavier ones, is it really that harmful to have one song that turns the tables on the assumption that thinner is better?

This was the slogan of a Special K cereal campaign. Ads in the campaign featured answers like "joy," "optimism," and "grace." The fact that we're surrounded by assumptions like this in our everyday lives makes me wonder if the "heavy girls are better" message of Trainor's video is really all that problematic.

I mean, think about the media messages we see every day, where the fat girl in the TV show is a weirdo, loser, or funny sidekick who’s the good-natured butt of jokes. Diet ads promote the idea that women are happier after they’ve lost weight, more attractive, and more successful in life and love. Hell, studies even show that thin women earn more money than their heavier counterparts.

You can use all the quotation marks you want, but the message here is still crystal clear.

In the midst of a cultural environment that can treat heavier women this badly, is it really worth criticizing one song for celebrating their bodies?

The same thing goes for one of the other complaints about the original lyrics, which sing about how men prefer girls who are a little heavier. A lot of people argued that a truly body-positive song would not perpetuate the message that you are only beautiful or valuable if a man desires you.

And yes, of COURSE I agree with that! There are SO many things wrong with the idea that a woman’s self-worth should be based on her attractiveness to men. It’s patriarchal, heteronormative, and a whole slew of other words that are too long for me to think of before a second cup of coffee.

But again, in a world where girls have already internalized the message that being found attractive by men is something to be proud of, but that fat girls don’t get to be attractive, one song claiming the opposite might not be the worst thing ever.

I guess my main problem with the response video, where a thin girl sings about how all bodies are equally pretty, was that it felt like it was totally dismissing the point of the original video.

It’s like in elementary school when you’d have field day or something; the kids who won events would get blue ribbons, but everyone would get a green “participation” ribbon. I freaking hated those green ribbons. Because they felt like a patronizing pat on the head when there were still kids getting blue ribbons. They felt like a reminder that you weren’t ACTUALLY any good at running.

And to me, replying to “Fat women are gorgeous!” with “You mean ALL women are gorgeous” sometimes feels like you’re taking away someone’s attempt to feel like they finally got a blue ribbon.

What’s your take?

Wait til your Dad gets home! Why God as a father-figure is a problem by @jaynemanfredi

(Cross-posted from The Road to Emmaus)

The phone rings:

“Hello?”
“Hi Dad. It’s me.”
“Oh…hello.”
“Is Mum there?”
“Yes.”
“Can I speak to her?”
“Yes…I’ll put her on.”
“Ok…bye.”
“Bye.”

This is just about the only one-to-one conversation that my Dad and I have with each other since I moved out of home. Admittedly, my Dad is something of a relic from a forgotten era, and still views the telephone with bemused suspicion, but looking back, I don’t think conversations were actually all that fulsome when I was still living under his roof.  Introverted and quiet by choice, for decades he has moved silently from his arm-chair, to his bike, to work, and then home again, to return to his arm-chair and the sanctuary provided by his newspaper.
He’s just not much of a talker, but then again, he’s never needed to be. Since the age of seventeen, he’s been with my mother, and honestly, she can talk enough for both of them. She was – and still is – the conduit between my Dad and I.  If I need a shelf putting up ( my husband and I are complete DIY morons) then I ask Mum…and she TELLS Dad to come and do it.  Any familial news, trivial or earth-shattering, we tell Mum and in due course, she passes it on. This is our status-quo, and if I ever attempted to bypass her and go directly to Dad, she would probably feel quite put out, because that’s just not how things are done in our family.

Dad the Father

It’s not that my Dad is a non-entity; quite the opposite in fact.  Because he is so taciturn, when he does say something everybody pays attention, unlike those of us who probably talk too much and have our superfluous conversation tuned out frequently.  Growing up, he played the role of traditional Dad; he went out to work and my Mum kept house and looked after my brother and I.  If we were naughty (which was regularly) we were often threatened with that old chestnut, “just you wait until your father gets home!” To which my brother and I would snigger, knowing full well that upon hearing of our crimes, his reaction would be something along the lines of, “Oh well…don’t do it again then,” before retreating behind his paper.  In our house, my mother was the true disciplinarian.  She punished us if we needed it; she was the one we went to if we were hurt, or scared, or lonely or bored,
or whatever.  She took care of our needs, which were many and varied.  As a child, she was my whole world, and in many ways she still is.

God the Father

I don’t want to denigrate Dads, least of all my own; it’s just that my relationship with my Mum is so much more all encompassing and in many ways, more vital to my daily happiness.  Trying therefore to get my head around a God who is my Father, has often not been helpful to me in building and deepening my relationship with Him.  If I’m upset and need a calming arm around my shoulder, it is to my mother who I inevitably turn.  If I have a problem and desperately need advice, my mother is my first port of call.  My Dad loves me, and I know on an instinctive level that if I were to go to him
in any of the above scenarios, he would do his very best to comfort and help me.  Unfortunately, the
inter-change would be so excruciatingly embarrassing for both of us that I’d never consider putting
him through it. You perhaps see now why I have a hang-up in this area; it has the potential for creating rather awkward prayer moments.

God the Mother

Some nights, my prayer to God might be a request to embrace me with His love; to commit me to his tender loving care; to nurture my burgeoning faith and feed my hungry soul.  And really, aren’t many of these words adjectives commonly reserved for Mothers? Let’s indulge in the stereotype for a moment and consider who it is in our society who commonly does the nurturing and feeding and caring; whose love leans towards the tender side? It is mothers whom we more often than not turn to to meet these needs. Which makes me wonder why we don’t focus more often on this clearly feminine aspect of God’s character, or rather, why we give these characteristics a male hook to hang them on.

Problematic labels

The God of my childhood most definitely was a dominant male Father-figure, in the most traditional sense. This was the God of Sunday school, with an Old Testament bias and a concentration on judgment, punishment and repentance.  This then was my Christian heritage/ baggage that I had to unpack when I first started to seriously consider becoming a Christian as an adult.  It is an issue which continues to impede me on my journey of faith, for it is inconceivable to me that I should desire a personal relationship with a God who, quite frankly, terrified me as a child of four.  While my Dad is actually a pussy cat by comparison, the Father label then just doesn’t cut it for me. But then ultimately, nor does the word Mother.

In the name of the Parent? 

In an ideal world parents would be the perfect double act.  They ought to complement one another and share out the duty of care and responsibility equally.  One parent might have a particularly gentle touch when it’s needed, the other might be adept at standing firm; one might be a good listener; the other might be just the person to go to for advice.
I want to envision a God who epitomises all these qualities, and I want my vision to have no gender bias. This image of God would encapsulate the strengths and weaknesses of both sexes, for weren’t we all made in His image, men andwomen? For me, this is a view of God that is far broader than I ever imagined as a child and it’s one that I wouldn’t mind forming a relationship with.
So for any any problems I have, I’ll be offering them up to Him/Her.
For putting up shelves, I’ll still be asking my Dad.

If you’ve got any thoughts on this, please do share them with me.  I’d particularly be grateful for any suggestions of reading material that might help me on my way. Thanks for reading.

The Road to Emmaus: I’m a Christian Blogger who is new to Feminism, Christianity AND blogging. My blog: Him, me, them, us. I’m on Twitter: @jaynemanfredi

The Feminine Mystique Redux by @LUBottom

(cross-posted from BottomFace)

In 1963 Betty Friedan wrote the movement provoking book The Feminine Mystique. Forty-nine years on women have seen many changes for the better. Women are leaving the home and have access to careers. They have more options than motherhood and indeed are choosing to start families later. Many women receive university educations, and have an increasing role in politics.

Yet, we can ask if life for women has changed as much as it should have?

All those years ago Friedan pondered, “Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question– ‘Is this all?”

Numerous sources suggest the situation has little changed for many women. Almost 50 years on and women are spending more time with their children than they were during the second-wave feminist movement. The Family and Parenting Institute asserts that in 2002 mothers were actually spending three times more time with their children than in 1972.  The CoupleConnection.netsuggests that women spend more than two and a half hours per day doing household chores compared to an hour by men. The British Attitudes Survey suggests this is not simply down to a woman’s working hours, showing that women in part-time work are just as likely to spend as much time on housework whether they work part-time or are not in paid employment.

The way in which women are seen as “chief, cook and bottle washer” is consistently evident within advertising. A recent advert for the cleaning product Flash showed the last few decades of adverts condensed into one.  In each advert it was a woman who was shown to be responsible for all housework duties. We’re reminded of Friedan’s statement, “No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor.”Men apparently are only allowed to appear in advertisements for cleaning products for the purposes of dramatic irony, the point being that we all know men cannot really perform such tasks!

The slogan for the frozen food shop “That’s why mum’s go to Iceland” is one amongst many examples of everyday sexism. Perhaps the most surprising thing about ASDA’s recent Christmas advertising campaign is that their sexist advert, showing all household duties as women’s work, actually resulted in an uproar.

Friedan remarked, “In almost every professional field, in business and in the arts and sciences, women are still treated as second-class citizens. It would be a great service to tell girls who plan to work in society to expect this subtle, uncomfortable discrimination–tell them not to be quiet, and hope it will go away, but fight it. A girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex, but neither should she “adjust” to prejudice and discrimination” We can celebrate that women now achieve academically. Indeed, in 2010 women were more likely to find a graduate position than men. Why then, is it, that we still see a gender pay gap? The Fawcett Society predicts that there is still a 14.9% difference between the amount women and men are paid for the same job and the situation is at risk ofworsening as women are pushed from the public to the private sector, where the gender pay gap is over 20%.

Friedan was discomfited by the world she saw around her when she said, “When she stopped conforming to the conventional picture of femininity she finally began to enjoy being a woman.”  Yet now women are fetishising the world of femininity which Betty Friedan sought to expose as a prison for women. A quick search on Google will reveal the extent to which women seek to emulate the fashions of the overtly feminine 1950s housewife.  Recently shops like Next have dedicated whole lines to selling retro kitchenware and the moniker “domestic goddess” is well known in our vernacular. It is as if women have decided to idealise their own oppressions. Feminists have siezed burleque and pole dancing as signs of empowerment, and whilst one should be careful not to oppress women’s rights to make their own choices, one could also be forgiven for agreeing that there is little distinction between what one woman sees as empowerment and the other oppression. Almost 50 years on from The Feminine Mystique should there not be less focus upon a woman’s sexual capital?

The term post-feminism suggests that the movement is over. The reality is far different. The feminist movement still rages on in various guises. One in four women still experiences sexual violence, one in four women will experience domestic violence. The glass ceiling is still firmly in place and women make up only one-eighth of our current cabinet. With such little change women must continue to fight until true equality has eventually been achieved.

 

bottomfacedotcom: proud owner of lady parts: Writes, makes vulvas, swears. Past caring. Home ed. Parent of child w/ ASD ADHD. Has ME & FMS. Lucy tweets at @LUBBottom. She also has an etsy page: Little Shop of Vulvas