feminism and me—it's complicated
January 09, 2010
Mary Daly died recently, and that has set me to thinking about my relationship with feminism, since so much of it is wound up in my relationship to religion. My mother was a proto-feminist who taught me that girls could be anything they wanted to be, and made damn sure I went to college, because education was the way to economic independence. At the same time, the religion we belonged to told us we were to be subordinate to male authority and not allowed to teach in church, while at the same time women did the majority of the grunt work in evangelizing from door to door, which was a big part of worship. So we could serve in the trenches, but not at the "altar." And that was different from Catholicism or mainstream Protestantism (or any other religion) how? Women's studies courses and departments were just a gleam in most feminsts' eyes when I was an undergrad, but the college I went to was strongly feminist and had its own radical tradition. That's where I first read Mary Daly and heard her mentioned (I forget by whom) and ran into the idea of God the Mother for the first time. And didn't that rock my world.
At the same time, there was something uncomfortably male-hating about many of the feminists I knew then. There was a strong separatist contingent at the school, and that turned me off. Men were a pain in the ass, but I wasn't by any means sexually attracted to women (I know this may come as a shock to some of you), so what's a girl to do? I distanced myself from the feminists. It didn't change how I acted or dressed or how I felt about sexism (wrong, immoral, vile) or my propensity to call people on it, but I stopped calling myself a feminist.
Then I went to grad school, where I was talked over in class by guys and had my ideas paid attention to only when they were picked up and repeated by men. And that pissed me off enough to reclaim that label. I haven't stopped calling myself a feminist since. Getting jobs outside academe only reinforced that choice. Male behavior is so often institutionally, deliberately, casually, and/or even just unconsciously sexist that it's impossible to live as a self-aware, intelligent, and self-confident woman and not want to call somebody on some kind of stupid sexist shit at least once a day, usually more. Sometimes with a frying pan upside the head. With hot grease in it.
We live in a culture—hell, a world!—that systematically and consciously not only devalues women but, in many cases, actively beats them down and beats them up. In addition to the gap in pay, the lack of support for children and family issues, and the general marginalizing and silencing of women, there's the outright violence. Far too many of my students are living day to day with male partners who threaten their safety and well-being physically or emotionally or psychologically. At least once a semester I deal with a student who is either going into, living in, or coming out of a domestic violence shelter—or who needs to get into one and doesn't realize it yet. Sometimes it's more than one. That movie "Precious"? Ask my students how real that is. Many, many of them have been raped in the past, sometimes more than once. And it's not just my students in their socioeconomic ghetto, it's my friends, as well, rich and poor, educated and not. I can count on one hand the number of my female friends who have not endured some kind of sexual or physical or emotional assault from men. It's enough, really, to make any woman a riot grrrrl, like Hothead Paisan.
But. There's always a but, in any movement. They're never all good, no matter how noble the cause, because people are complicated. And the "but" in my case is the constant rage and utter joylessness in so many feminists. Lately, I'm feeling a little bombarded by it in blogs, books, articles, whatever. Even when there are steps being taken to change people's ideology and awareness, even when there is something positive happening, it never seems to be enough for some folks. It's a bit like the people who are pissed off with Obama for not initiating the changes they wanted instantaneously upon taking office. Here's an example, just a small one:
A comic I read with regularity, "Luann," apparently does not pass muster in this particular instance, even though it has a main character who is a strong, independent female firefighter who fixes her own cars and extricated herself from an abusive relationship to have one with a guy who happens to appreciate her just the way she is—not, incidentally, just because she's beautiful. The writer then goes on to carp about how comics are just not as funny as they used to be. Boohoo.
I really like this comic for precisely the reasons I state above. Toni is a great role model for girls: a fully realized person, and a woman who is strong and self-confident enough to have rescued herself and work in a male dominated field and find a new guy who respects her strengths and abilities. This is not feminist enough how? Taken out of the context of the storyline, this panel isn't a particularly funny comic but I fail to see the outright sexism. In context, it takes on a different meaning, one not particularly insulting at all: Toni's got a better touch with Brad's car and that makes Brad feel inadequate and betrayed by his own possessions. That doesn't mean he feels Toni is inferior in any way. I feel that way every time a tech person can get my computer to do stuff I can't, regardless of the tech person's gender.
And there's more carping at something that is not "enough" in some way: sending special care packages to women soldiers with (gasp!) make-up and Cosmo in them! That the Dove self-esteem campaign actually helps sell Dove products at the same time it raises girls' awareness of the fakeness of advertising! That the Nicholas Kristoff/Cheryl WuDunn book Half the Sky does "more harm than good" by not being a weighty, theory-heavy tome! Jesus, people.
My point is that if you are going to take active offense at everything that is not perfect, or not just the way you think it should be, you will hate everything in the world, including yourself. Lighten the fuck up, and stop the navel-gazing. The suffering of women is not the center of the universe or the source of all injustices or problems in the world. Yes, the world would be a far, far better place if women were respected and valued in equal measure to men. It would also still not be a utopia.
While I happen to agree with Barbara Ehrenreich's thesis that too much positive thinking is akin to brainwashing, I think that applies in the opposite direction as well. Anger can be a very powerful force for good in the world, but on its own, cut loose from compassion or any sense of joy in life, it becomes destructive, self-destructive; coupled with any ideology without the tempering of joy or compassion, it becomes fundamentalist extremism. We've all seen how destructive and dangerous that is, to those who swallow that joyless ideology, to others who refuse to embrace it, and to the movement itself. If we don't use our anger constructively, if we only see what's wrong and not what's right and what's changing, we risk losing people who may support us and yet cannot bear to see everything in the world as a horror show. Every war needs victories and needs to celebrate and enjoy those victories to have the heart to keep fighting. Don't rob people of that.
I keep this Callahan cartoon around to keep me honest in my feminism. Yes, it's a stereotype, but every stereotype exists because somewhere, somebody fits it. Ask yourself, sistah, if it's you, and how much your own attitude is making you miserable—and hindering the movement, too.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.