So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

13 October, 2007

Spoiling Feminism

Over at Daisy's place, there appears to have been some noisy discussion while I was off getting my head shrunk. And one of the comments there included the sentence "I think too many women not being feminists spoils feminism."

And I say to that, oh look, I'm the enemy of womankind again. Which I've been told, on and off, for long enough that I just shrug at it, slide it off, want to quote that last paragraph of "The Personal is Political" back at them, wondering if they ever actually read it -- that last paragraph that says, "Look, women are leaving this movement in droves, and we can't blow that off -- have we ever asked them why? Are we expressing something wrong? Are we missing something important, here, that these supposedly non-political women could tell us?"

Here's my why.

I was raised in a culture of privilege feminism. By which I mean that the majority of the concerns I heard described as feminist were all the preoccupations of the professional classes: good, high-paying white-collar jobs. Wage gap. How do we get our girlchildren into the maths and sciences, into the boardrooms, into the White House.

Basically, I grew up in a culture in which people were presumed more or less immune from violence and poverty, in which higher education was presumed as a given, in which it was taken as automatic that girls would grow into ambitious women who would go forth and change the world, not by activism, but by proving that the glass ceiling was a lie.

And I grew up wondering what was wrong with me, because I had no such ambitions. My earliest fantasy about what I wanted to do, from when I was a kid? I wanted to have a private zoo, a rambling pile of land full of interesting and exotic animals, some place I could spend my time exploring and just being in. I don't remember why I gave up that notion; I suspect it was because I started to contemplate the shit involved. After that, I think I settled on being a writer, which is where, more or less, I have stayed; writing is a strange ambition, and one that I can't fit in my head at the same time as the politics of what it was to be a good, ambitious woman that I was steeped in as a child.

It was still a given that I would go to college, of course. It was pitched to me in terms of, "Well, the breadth of experience will be good for your writing", and I agreed, and planned a physics major because of the tendencies to occasional science fiction. But it was also just ... a given, that this was the world I lived in.

My givens fell apart a bit when I went mad. The first of my friends to have a major break of that sort was hospitalised; when others wanted to go visit her in the hospital and asked the college for help in doing so, the college administration said, "You shouldn't be concerned about that kind of people, you should pay more attention to your studies." That kind of people. The kind of people that couldn't hack it at Wellesley, that Mecca for training the ambitious professional-class women who are going to change the world in politics and by simply proving the glass ceiling is a lie. The kind of people like me. My madness was not something to heal me from, something to nurture me through, something that the great tradition of strong Wellesley women was strong enough to handle; it was proof that I was Not Their Kind, not the strong, independent, good woman ideal of my upbringing.

I dropped out, I temped for a while, spent a few months unemployed, got a secretarial job. My parents wanted me to come home where it was safe; aside from the emotional traumas of their place at that time, I knew that if I slithered back with my snakey tail between my legs, I would have accepted that I was a failure. An irrevocable failure. I fed myself, housed myself, with the largesse of several forgiving people, with the support of others for a bit, but eventually I proved that I was not a failure: victory was simple survival, and I survived. I proved I could. Privilege feminism didn't want me.

Threaded in and behind this was my own wrestling with my sexual assault, something that I could for years not talk to anyone about. Perhaps I was sheltered as a child, but the discussion I had seen about sexual assault was focused on things like, "Some women claim to have been raped by their boyfriends. Is this a real problem? Are these real rapes?" I saw no genuine feminist work on this, no discussions of what it means to consent. And I had been assaulted, by a boyfriend, who stopped with the assault before he reached penetration -- not a rape by any standards, it took me years to acknowledge it as a sexual assault at all, out of this misguided belief that I was somehow diluting the experience of genuine rape, stranger rape, violent rape, by daring to have flashbacks to what was not stranger, not terribly violent (though there was some physical coercion attempted), and not rape. And out of the conviction -- which I still, to some extent, have -- that if I spoke up and claimed my past, my experience, there would be people who would ever thereafter dismiss me as damaged goods, no longer human, merely 'the assault victim'.

Maybe it's better now. But I hear stories, sometimes, and I don't think it is.

Around when I was thrown out of the holy halls of privilege feminism for being too fucking crazy, I met my first people who were vehement about being feminists online. This was a singularly unpleasant experience. They were of the "Men can't be feminists" school, as well as of the sort who flock together and back each other up with constant bullying of people who disagreed with them. Many of the people who disagreed with them were men, primarily for the reason that they were raving sexists who insisted that their vehement anti-egalitarianism and misandry couldn't possibly be sexism because their genitalia excluded them from being sexists. No, men were just pigs, and you could tell which men were worthwile by whether or not they agreed with that statement. If a woman argued with that statement as sexist and expressed an unwillingness to put up with this sort of bigotry -- this was me, once -- that would get a "How nice for you" response, with the 'little girl' unspoken. They had no problem with bullying men into silence, of course, because men should know what it feels like to be shut down and repressed. They fangirled each other utterly unabashedly. They disagreed with a transman who said he had no shared understanding of what it means to be discriminated against as a woman. They said men couldn't be feminists, but said the transman could be one if he wanted. (He declined; he said, more or less, "My mother was one of you, and raised me to be a good little feminist of the men-can't-be-feminists school. She's not forgiven me yet for being a man.")

Those feminists are my most profound experience with feeling oppressed as Class Woman. Their standards of femaleness, their standards of behaviour, their expectations, their high-handed bullying tactics with any woman who did not fall into line, not only destroyed my idealism with regard to the concept of feminism, but left me feeling like a complicit collaborator with evil on account of my genitalia. I was left desperately wanting to say, "I'm not with them!" and terrified of doing so because they would descend upon me like a flock of cannibal harpies and try to savage me into submission. Eventually, I was cowed into silence, because I didn't want to spend the resources it would take to respond to their social wave attack, the constant floods of hatred and contempt. Even if I had not been a sensitive and deep-feeling young twenty-something and thus far too inclined to take their ravings personally, I would probably have given up on fighting the good fight eventually.

After my husband (then my fiance) moved up to live with me, I considered quitting my job. I loved parts of the work, and the rest of it was destroying myself. I was no longer able to write. Some of what I needed to do left me with a case of deep horror and utter shame, things that I could not have not done and still gotten the paycheck that kept a roof over my head and food on my table. I got to the point that I would snarl "Shut the fuck up" at the phone under my breath before picking it up and saying, "Cheerful Mandatory Office Greeting!"; I was sure that if I stayed I would start to get them backwards.

I quit my job. And had a second major stress breakdown.

Because at that point, I was Letting A Man Support Me. Privilege feminism didn't want me, but I hadn't given up on wanting privilege feminism, all the values that placed having that professional-class job and an independent income as the greatest good, while letting myself be supported by someone else's finances -- especially if that someone else had a penis -- was the greatest sin. I really believed that, believed that while I was a failure as a woman because I had failed school and could only manage pink-collar employment, believed that quitting my job made me a traitor to feminism, an ungrateful wretch who didn't understand what my foremothers had sacrificed.

I mentioned this once where the harpies could see me, the ones who made me afraid of discussing my experience with feminism, and they told me there was no way anyone could really feel like that. That was a patriarchal lie. Give them the names of the feminists who said that I had such an obligation. Give, give, give, justify your deviance, you are obligated to conform. It was years later that I first encountered other women who would admit to having seen it, saw it discussed in a way that wasn't followed with a knee-jerk, "That never happened" from someone calling themselves a feminist.

I had to give up on trying to be a feminist somewhere around there, because it was the only way that I wasn't destroying myself with complete self-hatred. I was not ambitious enough, not engaged enough, not political enough, not financially independent enough, not driven enough. I started being concerned about different things -- about the social role of motherhood and its ongoing degraded status, about family and community, about the social status of the arts, about the general shit end of the stick that caregivers get -- that were outside the scope of privilege feminism.

I kept running into people who insisted that a woman was a fool or a traitor if she didn't call herself a feminist. I tried to argue with a few of them, tried to point out how poisonous the ism could be. "No, if you believe these things, you're a feminist, whether you want to be called that or not", I got, in response to that, a complete papering-over and annihilation of my personal experience. My individuality would be devoured by the ism; I had no independent self. This did not encourage me to reconcile.

A friend reported a conversation on a bus stop or something, when she was out with her daughter. "What do you do?" "I'm her mother." "No, what do you do?" "I'm her mother!" "But aren't you a feminist?" I wasn't alone. But nobody believed me when I said that this happened. It wasn't big-name enough. It wasn't politically prominent enough. Just ordinary people on the bus stop. Ordinary people only have the power to promote hegemonial ideology if that's patriarchy, you see.

I ran into a feminist guy whose feminism was ridiculously parochial, full of, "I need to protect these women from their bad choices." He saw no problem with being nasty to women who chose sex work, casual sex, kink, or multiple relationships; clearly those women were damaged and needed to be saved. He wanted to know what was wrong with me that I enjoyed and appreciated the love and partnership of two wonderful men; I wrote about this before.

A couple of years ago, I met Little Light. Who actually listened to me; for the first time, I felt heard about some of this stuff. For the first time.

And that's why I'm one of those ungrateful bitches who's spoiling feminism.


Anonymous said...

My experiences are really different from yours - different enough that I'd like to say some of the obnoxious things ("you're a feminist whether you know/like it or not") that you've heard before. But I have enormous respect for you and I'm going to refrain. Humanity trumps ideology for me (nearly) every time.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. The radical gender feminists vent blatant man-hating merely want to piss off anyone walking around with a pair of balls and, in their minds, the unthinking female victims who are oppressed by them. It's irrational, it's anti-intellectual and it's immoral. Equal rights are critical, but most men are not oppressors nor are they enablers of the patriarchy anymore than most women, and they don't deserve to be treated like dogs by shrill misandrists (yes, that's a real word -- you radicals have made it well known). You want to know why "feminism" has a bad name? It's because of the radical gender feminists. They've stalled the progress the equity feminists (like me) have made by their hate rhetoric. They could say the same things without hating, and it would have gone over better. No, they've ruined the "f" word and those of us concerned about equal rights need to find a new one.

Notice how the marginalized radicals spew anti-intellectualism to legitimize spouting misandry for virtually anything men do. And pay attention the next time a scientific study is reported that claims a biological difference between the sexes influences gender behavior. It is automatically trashed with a vicious knee jerk, limp sarcasm -- not to mention grossly flawed logic. Since when are feminists as ANTI-SCIENCE as the creationists?!!

Here's an intellectual thought for these womyn: your stereotyping all men as evil or rapists or clueless or dogs or pigs would not be tolerated by any other class were it directed toward them -- blacks, Jews, Hispanics, you name it. Think about it -- you hate approximately three billion people on the planet, far more than Hitler ever professed to hating.

Now the rest of us will need to find a new word because you've defiled ours.

Anonymous said...

There's a reason that the word "Femi-Nazi" was coined, I think, for just such people as you describe. I've been fortunate and not run into very many of those.

My Wellesley experience differed strongly from yours in this regard; Wellesley took care of my first-year roommate when she was very ill and bent over backwards to accomodate her diet issues. They also tried to take care of my other roommate, though I know the Stone Center wasn't fully adequate for it. I'm uncertain as to whether or not she was diagnosed with chemical-imbalance depression while she was there, or over a summer vacation.

I believe I know what event you are referring to in this post, but I wasn't as tightly connected to it, so I didn't get any of the reaction from the college itself.

I think the many concerns you bring up as being ignored or dismissed by so-called feminists are perfectly valid things to be concerned with as part of feminism. *shrugs* If you prefer to think of yourself as spoiling feminism, that's up to you, but as far as I'm concerned, it sounds to me like you've got a handle on some very pressing issues that affect women as a whole.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Devastating -- the issue for me about those obnoxious things is that I'm not not using the word because of some of the pissy little petulances that a lot of netfems want to present ("We're not taking away your makeup, honey"), but because trying to live up to that word was destroying me. It tried to eat my heart, and, y'know, I prefer to reserve heart-eating for dead bad people.

Alhandra -- check out the post I linked to at the top of the thing, have a look at the comments there. I don't "prefer to think of myself" that way, it's just one of those things that no matter what, some asshole will rant at me about, so at this point I just shrug and say, y'know, fine, you want me to be your enemy? I'm obliging, I'm friendly, I can accomodate your needs in this fashion. It's no big hardship.

I can't make it stop. So I may as well just let the folks who think I'm some sort of vile being whose existence should be obliterated (one way or another) mark me up as yet another enemy, because they're sure as sunrise enemies of me and mine. I'd be happier to, y'know, play it mellow, live and let live, work on fixing things rather than annihilating the insufficiently conformist, but I'm the sort of crazy bint who won't out with a tearful story of horrifying abuse to justify being kinky, so what could I possibly have to offer to Teh Movement?

Bah. Humbug.

Anonymous said...

[This post + Dev's comment] caused me to consider: most times I've seen or heard the phrase "you're a feminist whether you know/like it or not", it could have been constructively replaced with something along the lines of "the values you're espousing are entirely compatible with the way I see feminism".

When not, it could generally have been more accurately replaced with "You're a woman, so what you do reflects to some extent on women's role in society, and thereby, all women." Which is approximately as true for women as it is for many other groups - gays, straights, african-americans, christians, truck drivers, left-handed folks, people who wear trenchcoats - perhaps more than for some, less than for others. The question of "to what extent should this reflecting-on-a-grouping thing influence one's actions in life?" is a deep one(*) that can spawn respectful debate or (more often, I fear) vicious flame wars.

Interestingly, I don't think I've ever seen the phrase used in the sense of "You're a person, and part of a society including women, so your actions and attitudes affect women's role in society and the perceptions thereof".


(*) = Whether I mean 'touching on deep philosophy' or 'a Lovecraftian horror' is left to the judgement of the reader.

Trinity said...

"[This post + Dev's comment] caused me to consider: most times I've seen or heard the phrase "you're a feminist whether you know/like it or not", it could have been constructively replaced with something along the lines of "the values you're espousing are entirely compatible with the way I see feminism"."

YES. I so wish people would just say THAT instead.

Geerte said...

I remember a discussion on a forum where someone professed to believing in equality, but choosing to be a SAHM. She got ripped to pieces but a few feminists who were furious at her setting back the cause and betraying feminism, while the rest of us marveled at the fact that apparently "freedom to choose" meant "freedom to choose as we tell you to".

I don't actively identify as a feminist, though I strongly identify with goals of equality between men and women. I fully intend to work after I have children, and who knows, my boyfriend might even end up staying home with the kids - ideally, we'd both work 50%, so we can split child care between the two of us. I grew up with the assumption that men and women's roles are not set in stone, and whatever works for the couple in question is great. My mother tried hard to raise a feminist daughter, but if I'm happier as a stay-at-home mom, she'd support that choice.


S.L. Bond said...

I'm glad I read the comments before commenting... I've revised my original response (But this sounds just like feminism! You're a feminist!) to "the values you're espousing are entirely compatible with the way I see feminism"

My experience with feminism has been really, really different from yours. I, too, was raised in a family where higher education was a given, and my mothers' feminism isn't a sensitive as it should be to the realities of people of color and people in poverty and transgender folks. The point, thought, is that my mother, under the influence of her mother (a doctor), went a got a PhD, but realized halfway through she preferred parenting to publishing and became a stay-at-home mom instead of a professor. She taught me that feminism is about treating people like whole, complex, and varied creatures, instead of like pre-programmed robots; your experience of feminism sounds to me to be the perfect opposite of that.

Trinity said...

Daisy Bond:

I think there are all kinds of experiences one can have "with feminism." There are a lot of people who use the idea of false consciousness or colluding with patriarchy to cut down other women. That was my experience really from the beginning. My first experience was being told by a college professor that I was an enemy of feminism for saying "I read MacKinnon and I'm not convinced there is a patriarchy. Who are these men controlling everything. What are they doing? What does it mean?"

I was told that I was raised by male academics, that I thought Plato wrote better than Susan Bordo because I didn't consider women thinkers as important or as skilled at writing as men. I got told that the movement was sorry to lose me, as I was "bright."

It's very alienating. And then there are women like you who are just raised to think women are spiffy, and that's "feminism", without all this policing of what women do and how they feel and if they get too much out of "masculinist" thinking or tradition. It makes it difficult to communicate at all, because the non-feminists are saying "we don't like being treated this way" and the feminists are saying "you just said you like the status quo!"

and nothing happens.

S.L. Bond said...

I hear you, Trinity. It's very clearly wrong for so-called feminists (or anyone) to behave that way. It remains, for now, outside of my personal experience, but I believe you and others that it happens, and it's pretty evil, I think, to abuse something that could be so useful and helpful and good.

Kim said...

Holy God.
This post is BRILLIANT and speaks to many parts of me! I'm coming back to read it again in a few hours(just woke up and found you via Trinity).

Juliet Kemp said...

I like "the values you're espousing are entirely compatible with the way I see feminism".

I have seen/encountered some of the very negative feminism that you're talking about here. I fully agree that it sucks.

I do think that it's a bad thing that women are pushed out of identifying as feminist by this sort of experience. It makes me quite angry - at the people doing the pushing, I mean.

woman fed up with haters said:
most men are not oppressors nor are they enablers of the patriarchy anymore than most women

See, I think this is true inasmuch as I don't think that most men are out there *deliberately* doing these things. I do think that most men are doing this to at least some extent unconsciously. I think that most women are, too. We've all been raised in an unequal society, and that cannot help but have an effect on us. Even if we put significant effort into getting past it. (The same argument holds for racism, of course; and other inequalities.)

That doesn't in any way justify the hating. And it doesn't justify "men did X to us, so we'll do X to men". And there are of course a whole stack of ways in which the inequality damages men as well as women. Equality is a thing to be pursued and worked for by everyone.

(And that's without even getting into the issues around such binary gender identity, anyway.)

Trinity said...

"it's pretty evil, I think, to abuse something that could be so useful and helpful and good."

YES. that's what's such as shame. feminism is not evil. it's done a lot of good and I believe it will continue to. but it also can get used in scary, icky, nasty ways.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Dalandra/Chabas -- that sort of thing is one of the things that I notice and react to, too, with bafflement on one level and this sort of deepseated memory of guilt on another, because of the whole "Maybe they're right, maybe being a feminist means that I ..." Up until I hit myself with the Clue Fish and go, y'know, someone who's opposed to women like me isn't much of a friend to me, whatever they claim as a label.

To all others, thanks for dropping by. (I think this is the post with the most different commenters I've ever had ...)

Anonymous said...

Great post. I've had the same experience with that baffled feeling of "well, maybe I *am* a feminist because I believe in X, but then I also think Y and do Z, and all these feminists over here believe in Q, which I think is totally wrong..."

I think there will always be feminists trying to exclude certain women (sex workers, kinky people, SAHMs), and there will always be feminists who make me feel icky about claiming the same label (gender essentialists, capitalists, anti-porn/-sex feminists). Which basically has led me to the conclusion that feminism as a label has very little to offer me, and as a movement not a whole lot more. I still describe myself as a feminist, but my reasons for doing so are a lot different, now; it's more of a descriptive term than an identity. I guess I just want to stake out my little corner, to acknowledge that while I probably disagree with the vast majority of feminists out there on several points, and while my "feminist goals" are considerably different than most feminists', I still recognize that sexism infuses our daily lives, and that it needs to be fought.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully it's clear from our interaction elsewhere that I enjoy and respect you and don't consider you an "enemy" in any context, etc. I mean, this is just me, right? :-)

I'm familiar with radical feminism and I think it serves a useful purpose even though I often disagree with its claims. (I am not anti-capitalist. I think ideas like presuming non-consent for sex are crazy. And so on.) I feel I'm able to read it and kind of "get around" the craziest parts to understand the meat of where they're coming from. I find it a useful perspective.

I hate gender essentialism of any kind, and when I see it among feminists I hate it as much as I do anywhere else. I don't see it among feminists that much, though.

The whole "choice" thing (in general, not referring to abortions) is tricky. I actually don't think feminism is about women doing what they want even if what they want is supporting nasty cultural structures like the patriarchy. ("I took my husband's name because it made me comfortable. Isn't feminism all about choices?" No, it's not.)

That's not to say that people shouldn't have the right to make choices, or that they ought to be cast out of polite/feminist/intellectual/any society because of them. But a lot of the choices that we make are culturally constrained, and recognizing that is a good thing.

To me, radical feminism is a lens for looking at the world. You shouldn't wear it all the time, but it can be useful to peer through it at least occasionally and see what jumps out. Regular plain jane feminism is kind of a no-brainer (again, to me) if you don't get too caught up in what individual people or groups are saying about it or you.

But what's really important is thinking about thriving and living ethically. Gender in the culture is one of the ethical issues modern people should deal with in whatever way is most profitable for them.

(God, I sound like a lecturing asshole in this post. I swear I am really not one. Above all I just fucking love people.)

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Dev -- mostly I'm kinda confused by the slightly defensive introductions. ;)

I'm limited in a particular way: I am not capable of considering someone who says that someone like me should not exist to be an ally. No matter that they say they're doing it for my own good; dressing Apep up in ruffles and putting makeup on him doesn't make him my friend.

And I don't believe them when they say it's not me they want to obliterate, just that-thing-I-do, whether that-thing is working at home and doing the housekeeping, or not going back to school, or being kinky, or being nonmonogamous, or following my religion, or any of those things. These people who want to go "Love the sinner, hate the sin" on me over my whatever that doesn't fit their particular dogma (feminist or otherwise) don't seem to grasp that they're not latching onto some trivial hobby or fashion statement that can be discarded if sufficiently politicised.

I want other people's political out of my personal, mostly. I'm not their dancing monkey, and I'm not their waif in need of rescuing.

And that gets derided, frequently, as "choosing to support patriarchy" or similar stuff like that, because the only space in the theory for people like me is "the traitor".

And y'know, I didn't choose that. But I have to live with it.

Anonymous said...

Dev -- mostly I'm kinda confused by the slightly defensive introductions. ;)

It's just because I'm weird and think that if I argue with people they will hate my guts and stuff. And I like you and don't want you to hate me. (See? Crazy, I tell you.)

Trinity said...

"I am not capable of considering someone who says that someone like me should not exist to be an ally. No matter that they say they're doing it for my own good; dressing Apep up in ruffles and putting makeup on him doesn't make him my friend."


"And I don't believe them when they say it's not me they want to obliterate, just that-thing-I-do, whether that-thing is working at home and doing the housekeeping, or not going back to school, or being kinky, or being nonmonogamous, or following my religion, or any of those things."

Yeah, THAT. It's like the social constructionism stuff I'm mentioning at SM-F. I don't think people are actually using social constructionism to argue for anything. I think they're using it as a way to claim "But I wasn't attacking YOU, because there are no such thing as fixed identities!"

and well, the first half of that sentence remains untrue regardless of the second. If someone gaybashes a gay guy, they're not attacking the social construction of homosexuality when they hit his head with a fucking pipe, dammit.