Thursday, January 6, 2011

Patriarchy is the enemy, not men or other women

There is a well-known phrase, "The personal is political." It is often used, but not well understood, and often not used correctly. It is often used to refer to the idea that personal issues become important in political campaigns. (Remember the "values voters" who helped to decided the 2004 presidential election?) The "political" in the phrase actually refers to power and the structures that perpetuate existing power relationships. The "personal" in the phrase refers to problems that women are encountering in their daily lives. Taken as a whole, the phrase is intended to say that women have problems that are personal, such as inequality in the workplace, finding good daycare, imbalances in household chores, and sexual violence, are actually caused by the political system. A blogger, Winter, from the Cardiff Feminist Network explains:

The theory that women are not to blame for their bad situations is crucial here because women have always been told that they are unhappy or faring badly in life because they are stupid, weak, mad, hysterical, having a period, pregnant, frigid, over-sexed, asking for it etc. The personal is political proposes that women are in bad situations because they experience gendered oppression and massive structural inequalities.

"The personal is political" came from an essay of the same name by Carol Hanisch, written in 1969. She was working (at subsistence wages) for the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF) as a community organizer. She was using a technique called "consciousness raising," which involved a group of women discussing their personal problems, realizing that these were problems encountered by other women, and seeing the politics underlying their common problems. Consciousness raising was often perceived as "therapy" or worse, brainwashing women into militancy. Hanisch's essay was a memo back to SCEF defending the use of the technique. Later that year, the memo was published as part of an anthology of feminist writing and given the now-famous title.

There are other ideas in the essay that are not as well remembered, because they are more difficult to embrace. Hanisch also argues that feminism needs to be more tolerant and inclusive of multiple models of how to be women. She wrote:

One more thing: I think we must listen to what so-called apolitical women have to say—not so we can do a better job of organizing them but because together we are a mass movement. I think we who work full-time in the movement tend to become very narrow. What is happening now is that when non-movement women disagree with us, we assume it’s because they are “apolitical,” not because there might be something wrong with our thinking. Women have left the movement in droves. The obvious reasons are that we are tired of being sex slaves and doing shitwork for men whose hypocrisy is so blatant in their political stance of liberation for everybody (else). But there is really a lot more to it than that. I can’t quite articulate it yet. I think “apolitical” women are not in the movement for very good reasons, and as long as we say “you have to think like us and live like us to join the charmed circle,” we will fail. What I am trying to say is that there are things in the consciousness of “apolitical” women (I find them very political) that are as valid as any political consciousness we think we have. We should figure out why many women don’t want to do action. Maybe there is something wrong with the action or something wrong with why we are doing the action or maybe the analysis of why the action is necessary is not clear enough in our minds.

In other words, feminism should be about making space for women to make meaningful choices. Work or not work, have children or not, live collectively or individually, to get breast implants or not, have polygamous marriages or none at all. Feminism is about ensuring that everyone has equal rights as human beings, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. It does not, or should not, impose a certain view of what women should be, e.g. politically active, not wearing make up, bra-burning, and angry. Hanisch takes this view because there are bigger fish to fry: patriarchy.

The groups that I have been in have also not gotten into “alternative life-styles” or what it means to be a “liberated” woman. We came early to the conclusion that all alternatives are bad under present conditions. Whether we live with or without a man, communally or in couples or alone, are married or unmarried, live with other women, go for free love, celibacy or lesbianism, or any combination, there are only good and bad things about each bad situation. There is no “more liberated” way; there are only bad alternatives.

This is part of one of the most important theories we are beginning to articulate. We call it “the pro-woman line.” What it says basically is that women are really neat people. The bad things that are said about us as women are either myths (women are stupid), tactics women use to struggle individually (women are bitches), or are actually things that we want to carry into the new society and want men to share too (women are sensitive, emotional). Women as oppressed people act out of necessity (act dumb in the presence of men), not out of choice. Women have developed great shuffling techniques for their own survival (look pretty and giggle to get or keep a job or man) which should be used when necessary until such time as the power of unity can take its place. Women are smart not to struggle alone (as are blacks and workers). It is no worse to be in the home than in the rat race of the job world. They are both bad. Women, like blacks, workers, must stop blaming ourselves for our “failures.”

As defined by Wikipedia, "Patriarchy is a social system in which the role of the male as the primary authority figure is central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and is dependent on female subordination." Patriarchy is the system that keeps us in our pre-defined roles, because there is no space, no accommodation for difference. To be clear, patriarchy hurts men just as much as it hurts women. There is a poster by Crimethinc., an anarchist art collective, that I love that is based on a poem by Nancy R. Smith, written around the same time as Hanisch's essay.

For every woman who is tired of acting weak when she knows she is strong, there is a man who is tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.

For every woman who is tired of acting dumb, there is a man who is burdened with the constant expectation of "knowing everything."

For every woman who is tired of being called "an emotional female," there is a man who is denied the right to weep and to be gentle.

For every woman who is called unfeminine when she competes, there is a man for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity.

For every woman who is tired of being a sex object, there is a man who must worry about his potency.

For every woman who feels "tied down" by her children, there is a man who is denied the full pleasures of shared parenthood.

For every woman who is denied meaningful employment or equal pay, there is a man who must bear full financial responsibility for another human being.

For every woman who was not taught the intricacies of an automobile, there is a man who was not taught the satisfactions of cooking.

For every woman who takes a step toward her own liberation, there is a man who finds the way to freedom has been made a little easier.

By Nancy R. Smith, copyright 1973

Patriarchy hurts us because it reduces our potential as human beings to live fulfilling lives. Feminism is about changing this social system. But it is of no use to anyone to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, that is, a social system where women are the primary authority figures and men don't have power. Really, patriarchy needs to be replaced with equality. So it's the system that needs to be defeated. (Recall the dialog from Scene 3 of Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Dennis the peasant seeks to reject Arthur as his king. Although farcical, Dennis' view is a feminist one.) To sum up, the only way to not be a good feminist is by maintaining status quo social roles or imposing new ones that limit self-determination. This is not done by defining what "real" feminism looks like and staking out territory, but by finding allies and making changes that benefit men and women equally.

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