Saturday, April 6, 2013

Getting past the frivolous talk about feminism

Because we've been subjected to some pretty frivolous commentary lately about what is/is not feminist/sexist, I decided to dust this one off from the archives and repost it. When I linked to it on twitter last night, I suggested that after reading it, you might want to make a guess about who I think is more feminist...Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. 

I have to say that in the last few years I've grown a bit disheartened with the feminist movement in this country. Its not that my beliefs about the need to challenge patriarchy have diminished. Its that I think the cause of feminism has been relegated to issues that, while important, don't speak to the depths of my concerns. In other words, we're spending all of our energies fighting for reproductive and economic equality and forgetting all the ways that our entire ethos and culture are based on patriarchy. Years ago a blogger named keres put it this way:
And I would argue that to dismantle partriarchy you would need to dismantle society in it's totality, and start over. It's no good just letting women in as "pseudo men" to societal structures so long formed by and to men's wants and desires.

Our societies are not "OK", except for the sexism, racism, heterosexism, ablism, etc. Our societies are intrinsically those things - they cannot be removed without a complete revisioning of the social compact. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, in an apartriachal society would look, sound, or feel even remotely the same as to what we have now.
In dismantling patriarchy, we have to see a deeper essence of how it affects us and what an embrace - rather than a rejection - of the feminine would mean. To illustrate a bit of that, here's Alice Walker talking about the Swa people of the Amazon in her book We Are The Ones We've Been Waiting For.
They tell us that in their society men and women are considered equal but very different. Man, they say, has a destructive nature: it is his job therefore to cut down trees when firewood or canoes are needed. His job also to hunt down and kill animals when there is need for more protein. His job to make war, when that becomes a necessity. The woman's nature is thought to be nurturing and conserving. Therefore, her role is to care for the home and garden, the domesticated animals and the children. She inspires the men. But perhaps her most important duty is to tell the men when to stop.

It is the woman who says: Stop. We have enough firewood and canoes, don't cut down any more trees. Stop. We have enough meat; don't kill any more animals. Stop. This war is stupid and using up too many of our resources. Stop. Perkins says that when the Swa are brought to this culture they observe that it is almost completely masculine. That the men have cut down so many trees and built so many excessively tall buildings that the forest itself is dying; they have built roads without end and killed animals without number. When, ask the Swa, are the women going to say Stop?

Indeed. When are the women, and the Feminine within women and men, going to say Stop?
I don't use this to idealize the Swa culture. I'm happy that in ours, gender roles have become a bit more fluid. But I agree with the Swa when they say our culture, at it's roots, is almost completely masculine.

The passage from Walker's book reminded me of the work of Riane Eisler, who is best known for her book The Chalice and the Blade. In it, she posits that we are living in a "dominator" (blade) society since the end of the Neolithic agrarian age and that prior to that time, archeology shows a more "partnership" (chalice) model for most cultures. She says:
The underlying problem is not men as a sex. The root of the problem lies in a social system in which the power of the blade is idealized - in which both men and women are taught to equate true masculinity with violence and dominance and to see men who do not conform to this ideal as too soft or effeminate.
The ethos of our patriarchy then is this idea of dominance as the way to power. We're seeing this run amok these days in how our current political situation is described. The whole idea of compromise is the essence of partnership and is inconceivable to someone dedicated to dominance...the blade is idealized.

In order for dominance to be effective, it must be rooted in fear and insecurity. People are seen as opponents (or worse yet - enemies) to be defeated and subjugated. The blade is the weapon of choice.

And so the flames of fear and insecurity are fanned while threats/hostages are made/taken in an attempt to subjugate the opposition. Any reaction other than to fight back on those terms is viewed as capitulation and derided as "weak," "pussy," and not "manly enough."

Those are the terms on which so much of our political situation are labeled and understood. All of this rests on the idea of a hierarchy of power with those at the top calling the shots and anyone who wants to take them on having to remove them in an endless game of "king of the hill."

But as I've talked about before, dominance is only one kind of power. There is also the power of partnership. It rests on the principle of "power with" instead of "power over." The feminine in all of us (both men and women) knows of this power, it just needs to be remembered and reawakened. Its the kind of power Marge Piercy talks about in her poem For Strong Women.
A strong woman is a woman who craves love
like oxygen or she turns blue choking.
A strong woman is a woman who loves
strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly
terrified and has strong needs. A strong woman is strong
in words, in action, in connection, in feeling;
she is not strong as a stone but as a wolf
suckling her young. Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.
What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make
each other. Until we are all strong together,
a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid.
(emphasis mine)


  1. As an example of partnership vs dominance, during the 2008 primary, President Obama revived the slogan "Yes We Can." The Clinton camp responded with "Yes She Can."


  2. As a I read your post Michelle Obama kept popping into my head; She for me exemplifies a complete woman in every sense of it. She's smart, insightful, thoughtful, wise, strong, confident, capable, independent of thought and doing, but she's also fun, funny, vulnerable, feminine, sweet, fashionable and even silly when she needs to be.

    She loves being a wife adored and doted on by her husband and a great mum as much as she loves being accomplished and taken seriously as a professional. But she won't let the latter define her or the pursuit of it strangle or weigh her down.

    Impact is not measured by what happens at women focused conferences, roundtables or pushing and force-feeding everyone the inevitability and presidential candidacy of one hand-picked woman on whom the others are supposed to hang their dreams. Whether they are even inspired by or can relate to her or not.

    Impact is what happens in small rooms or on street corners in neighborhoods, commuter trains, church and grocery store aisles or even in rush hour traffic when a car breaks down. Impact is what happens when a First Lady opts to visit with kids in a school populated by mostly indigent student and instantly connects with them. Returning many months later to follow up and to take them to visit the grandest university in the country to help them imagine themselves enrolling and graduating from there. And assuring them that no matter how intimidating, they too belong there.

    Impact is when a hug is so warm, so tight and so sincere, the girls, many of whom haven't been hugged in a while, feel the heart and soul of the hugger and respond to it. They talk about how she relates well to them, she's human and makes them feel like there isn't too much of a gap between them.

    The false choices the feminist movement offer are silly which is probably why they've refused to acknowledge or embrace Michelle Obama only referencing her to demand she do their bidding, to criticize, admonish and to contemptuously demean.

    For her part, Mrs Obama has refused to notice. And if she's noticed, she's not letting on. She just keeps on living her golden life on her own terms, impacting and inspiring young girls and women in the most natural and unscripted and most enduring of ways. She adheres to a sisterhood that not only requires that her mentees excel and bond with other women in a positive way that contradicts the idea that women aren't nice to each other, she always asks that they reach back and pull others up too.

    I think I'd rather subscribe to Mrs Obama's version of womanism. One never feels deprived or live in great regret for never having it all. There's just something really great about living life that way.

    1. C. I love your comment. This a great description of FLOTUS, Michelle Obama.

    2. Couldn't agree more with your comment C. Mrs Obama has quietly redefined feminism in my opinion. She's true to herself and won't let anyone co-opt her mind and her vision for herself and her family. A very honest, evolved and modern woman and like you say, very complete in the best way. She makes it okay to be a woman in the traditional sense and yet also to be all the other things strong, brilliant, independent and a mate and equal to her husband. She makes it okay to not always be superwoman. She shows the world that superwoman does need days off too, that superwoman gets tired, has emotional needs and also nurses similar doubts as do the rest of us about personal and professional choices made for herself and in her role as wife and mother. It does not take away from her greatness in the least, but only makes her human in a wonderfully relatable way and even more impressive.

      It's refreshing to see a woman in her position who is so candid and open and and has never had the need to ban questions or tried to control an interview process. She answers all questions asked of her (even those that make her cringe), brilliantly, effortlessly, thoughtfully and with great dignity and wit. No airs about her and yes she is very sweet and for all the strength she exudes, a real softie too.

      I was very touched to hear Barbara Walters tell of how she'd interviewed Mrs Obama and her husband for a Christmas special at the White House when Bo the dog was still quite young. Bo hadn't quite learned to respond to all his commands and Barbara had quipped about Bo not being a very smart dog.

      After Barbara returned to New York she got a phone call from the White Housing with a request. Barbara was expecting to be asked to scrap a segment or to remove anything unflattering about either the president or Mrs Obama. But no, it was a simple request from Mrs Obama asking if Walters would please edit out the bit where Barbara said that Bo the dog wasn't smart! As a a dog lover, I was very touched.

      Thanks also for the link to the BBC video, it was great to watch.