Friday, May 04, 2007

The funny thing about feminism

The funny thing about feminism is how many of us assume we have a useful amount of knowledge or even a fair set of working beliefs about it...I know I do. After all, isn't the subject matter close at hand for virtually all of us? Either you are a woman, or you live with one, or you work with one or perhaps your mother is one. What could you not know about women by now that you simply did not want to know? How many buy the venus/mars meme without even reading the book? The strength such works have in the market is in offering a free pass to avoid careful observation and strenuous deliberation. Just for reassurance, pat your round belly full of stereotypes and keep going.

I have one point to make and I will spare the clued in reader from the rest of this post by just stating it: Ideas that get into our heads about "the nature of women" or for those terminally inclined toward the borrowed truthiness of cross-species generalization, "the nature of the female" are often the end of the road for thinking, a "bridge out, Detour" sign behind which feminism sits largely unknown on the opposite shore. The operation of our ducts and glands, different and concrete as they are, do not in any uniform and straight forward way determine what we think or how we value the things, people and experiences in our lives. I think it likely too that if you have tossed your thinking in the narrow box of "the nature of women" you probably also have a category "the nature of men". The very worst excess of this tendency in thought is to fear or hate that which does not fit in your limited categories. Feminism is not about women or even about discovering things none of us yet know about women but rather it is about redressing the calamities and calumnies that arise because of the whys and ways we cling to what we think we know about women. The preservation of advantage or status is the chief and most despicable, if understandable, of the "whys".

The last nudge that moved me to a point where I thought I had an understanding worth writing up occurred when I began reading one of NY Times premium blogs written by Judith Warner. Her subject today was the review of two books on the topic of how women soldiers pictured among the torturers at Abu Ghraib did or did not shatter certain fond notions we harbor of women as gentler and less harmful by nature than men. I have to admit that some of what I say here is a bit repetitive of Warner: to me she makes perfect sense of matters some people willfully twist backwards.

Warner discusses One of the Guys, a collection of essays on the meaning of or the impact of women among those guilty of torturing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The introductory essay there is from Barbara Ehrenriech, who comes in for demerits from Warner and some of the Amazon reviewers for even having a stereotype the events could challenge:
...she admits her shock that women were torturers. Her essay drips with essentialist tendencies, yet I think many would nod their heads in agreement thinking that "women are better than this, women would change the ethos in the military."

I agree with Warner's take on the matter and summarize it as "if inducted into an institution where brutality and the threat of it are what keep order and are the only model for doing business, women will not be any less successful than men: they acclimate to group norms and internalize the power structure just the same". Other essays in that book also concluded that the institution corrupted the persons rather than the persons failed to conform to stereotype.

A second more controversial book is Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers. Warner appreciates the list of myths, particularly that women are innately kinder and gentler, which Barnett and Rivers take to task as "postfeminist essentialism" that "still have a certain hold over a certain kind of boomer-feminist imagination." Not all of the reviewers at the Amazon page agree with that assessment and many say the authors go too far in trying to blur or erase real differences.

The disagreements among the reviewers of "Same Difference" betray the existence of the strong need to have a mastery, an understanding of what the difference, if any, is. Most reviewers are of the opinion that the book downplays real, innate differences...yet here we are looking at pictures of the women torturers from Abu Ghaib demonstrating the absence of a precious difference. The best attitude I can think of is to not assume we know what the patterns are and especially not to assume the person you work with, live with or vote for is entirely an instance of any pattern. I am always wary of answers claimed where they are desperately is not a proper research environment.

I think it would be symptomatic of the misapprehension of feminism to presume that it has "a" prescription and policy on any personal choice, as if the woman would not have a well grounded idea of whether she wanted to be an army officer or have a child. On bearing children, for instance the conservative Christians portray feminists as having an across the board anti-procreation agenda.

Here are two posts by women reflecting on the complex weight of the decision to have a child when indeed a child is wanted but a hundred other devils are in on the deal. Here is an equal number of devils to pester a woman equally sure she wants no child. I consider both of those essays to come from feminist points of view because the deliberations take in social pressures explicitly and subject them to questioning. Both are thinking as if the choice were theirs although they must make it in an unsupportive world.

If the examples of Water Baby's ruminations about her friend and of Amanda's story cause your head to explode by some kind of "it cant be both ways!" logic, then you should know you don't get it and you are probably suffering some form of essentialism. It takes work to be unburdened of the unchallenged tacit model that women are innately this, therefor they can't be that. Women are humans and that, DD will agree with me more than I agree with myself, means that many aspects of their behavior are subject to circumstances and upbringing. The Talmud provides advice to the faithful is favored in many christian sects as well...but not used where it is really needed: "know before whom you stand" is the right attitude in which to behold and connect with any human being. Much as we may need stereotypes to get by in our world, they are nearly the opposite of "thinking" when you are weighing the wishes and ways of another person.
Feminism begins with resistance to stereotyping but that is only the beginning.

This may conclude a spate of commenting and linking posts at Pandagon and Feministe.
I have been on a bit of a "what is this feminism stuff" kick of late. It winds up being, in terms of my reading, my writing and my changed perspectives, rather like taking a course. I have half a mind to offer this post as my term project. In that light, I should thank my teachers, too numerous to credit if we include the commenters I run into but at the very least, Amanda Marcotte, Pam Spaulding and Ilyka at Pandagon and Jill, Zuzu and Piny at Feministe. I will be delighted with a C+. I always get marked down for my split infinities. My hit counter will miss the attention


etbnc said...

GS, I'm glad you decided to keep writing.

And I like the new look of your blog theme, too.

Have you seen this relatively new blog by "Greenpa"? (link) I just found it, and I thought of you immediately. I think you might like it.


GreenSmile said...

Thanks Etbnc,
I really do have a problem and I really should cut back. But being appreciated for my failures is OK too.

And much thanks for Greenpa, I am going to enjoy visiting that cabin.