Radicals in the bedroom: a response to Julian

Julian, who blogs at Radical Profeminist, commenting beneath this post that concluded a series of responses to Factcheckme (FCM), asked this:

I’d prefer to know from the male-men contributors here what you do that is sex and oppressive: and what values get expressed when you do what you do that you call “sex”, because in my experience, men talk a good line about everything, and then when I speak with the women in their lives, I find out a whole other reality–one that becomes entirely apparent, yet is unowned by the men who proclaim themselves sensitive to this or that matter. So the oppressive behaviors hide behind the platitudes and proclamations.

We’d been discussing heterosexual intercourse, you’ll recall, and its feminist implications. The split between those of us who are classic liberal feminists (convinced that individual agency can be exercised even in the face of huge social pressures) and those who are radical feminists (who are far more suspicious of such claims) was on display for all to see. There was the usual name-calling, which went both ways and was uniformly unhelpful. There was the usual misunderstanding of what the name-calling meant, which compounded the unhelpfulness. And despite that, there were some very good comments. Perhaps it’s male privilege, perhaps it’s the nearly indissoluble bond of tenure, or perhaps it’s just that I’ve been having these discussions for 25 years, but I appreciated all the heat, even if it shed only a little light.

As the name of his blog implies, Julian embraces a line of inquiry and an intellectual tradition several steps to the left of my own. I don’t need to agree with his radical analysis to find much that is useful and provocative in his writing. I am not a radical, but as a liberal am made better and more thoughtful by engaging with interlocutors whose views are sharply opposed to mine. Radicals like Julian, Factcheckme, Andrea Dworkin, Robert Jensen, and Andrea Smith are great “cover-pullers”, rousing from slumber those of us who sometimes like to hide from the reality of the oppression all around us. That doesn’t mean that their criticisms are always right, or that their solutions are wise. It does mean that their perspective is useful and deserves to be taken seriously.

I’ve said it many times: part of living out a commitment to justice is consistency between one’s private behavior and one’s public pronouncements. That doesn’t mean that we share every intimate detail of our lives in order to prove that we aren’t hypocrites (we’re all hypocrites to one extent or another). It does mean that we work towards wholeness, where what we say and do and think matches up more often than not.

For feminist men in sexual relationships with women, this commitment to integrating justice and egalitarianism into one’s private life is especially important. We’ve got to make sure we’re not hiding behind “platitudes and proclamations”; Julian is quite right that “talking a good line” and living it out are, sadly, often two very different things. I’ve been candid about my own massive failings in this regard in the past, most obviously about my pattern of sleeping with students enrolled in my classes early on in my teaching career. Of course, at the time I was engaged in this unethical and decidedly un-feminist behavior, I wasn’t also opining that teachers shouldn’t sleep with their students. I wasn’t an out-and-out liar, but I was still abusing my position.

I also have been open about my use of pornography in my younger years, a use that probably met the standard for “addiction.” (I am beyond grateful that the worst of that addiction was prior to the coming of the Internet, which I’m confident would have made recovery harder.) Staying away from pornography and not sleeping (or flirting with) anyone other than my wife are obviously important commitments to me and to those who place their trust in me.

But virtue, including feminist virtue, is as much about what one does as one doesn’t. And Julian is right to suggest that heterosexual feminist men in particular integrate their principles into their sexual lives with their partners. Regarding heterosexual intercourse (PIV), that means more than assuming a degree of responsibility for contraception. Willingness to wear a condom is certainly commendable, but that’s not quite enough. Given that penis-in-vagina intercourse poses a host of risks to women that it doesn’t to men (ranging from pregnancy to a greater chance of contracting STIs to the genuine physical trauma of childbirth), feminist men need to be particularly careful that they aren’t prioritizing intercourse over all other possible sexual activities. Continue reading

Eros and its strange enemies

Monday’s post and yesterday’s post both have had excellent comment threads, for which I’m very grateful. Both posts were written at least partly in response to the work of Factcheckme (FCM), as well as to the ideas of Andrea Dworkin.

FCM and Dworkin belong broadly to the tradition of radical feminism, and FCM’s community belongs to what is sometimes called women’s nationalism. Radical feminists and liberal feminists famously disagree about many things, and that disagreement tends to be most pointed around issues of sexuality and individual agency. Liberal feminism (the tradition to which I belong) shares common cause with radical feminism on a number of issues, but often breaks with the radical tendency on a host of issues ranging from pornography to transgender identity to the role of men in the feminist movement. Obviously, “liberals” and “radicals” aren’t monolithic; the terms are used differently in different instances, and many feminists feel understandably uncomfortable with being pigeon-holed into one particular tradition. These are useful categories, but need to be employed with caution.

Going back to the early 1980s, liberal feminists have pointed out that many of their radical sisters sometimes seem disturbingly close to the religious right in terms of their views on sexuality. The birth of that criticism may have come in 1981, when Reagan was newly president and the Moral Majority was in its ascendancy. The late Ellen Willis wrote a very influential review of Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women in which she made the case that social conservatives and radical feminists were becoming dangerous bedmates:

…in certain respects the arguments of the two groups are uncomfortably similar. If anti-porn feminists see pornography as a brutal exercise of predatory male sexuality, a form of violence against women (and an incitement to such violence), the right also associates pornography with violence and with rampant male lust broken loose from the saving constraints of God and Family. Nor have conservatives hesitated to borrow feminist rhetoric about the exploitation of women’s bodies.

This peculiar confluence raises the question of whether the current feminist preoccupation with pornography is really an attempt to extend the movement’s critique of sexism – or whether, on the contrary, it is evidence that feminists have been affected by the conservative climate and are unconsciously moving with the cultural tide.

Since at least 1981, that same argument has raged on between the heirs of Willis and Dworkin, and those of us in the liberal tradition have made the same point about the strange similarity between the far right and the radical feminist left. Even arch-conservative Maggie Gallagher (who has done more to fight to ensure a limited and narrow marriage franchise than anyone in America) wrote of her overlap with Dworkin in this touching tribute penned after the latter’s death in 2005:

I received a gift from Andrea, the kind of gift which, intellectually speaking, you can receive only from someone with whom you profoundly disagree. From the opposite ends of the political spectrum, we had each glimpsed a piece of the same truth. Against the backdrop of a pornographic Playboy culture that tried to teach us that sex is just a trivial appetite for pleasure, radical feminist Andrea Dworkin wrote that “sexual intercourse is not intrinsically banal.”

I was not alone! Andrea saw it, too. As I wrote in “Enemies of Eros”: “In sex, persons become male and female, archetypically, exaggeratedly, painfully so. And to us, corseted in modern sexual views, femininity appears incompatible with the personhood of women. … What Dworkin observes is essentially true. Sex is not an act which takes place merely between bodies. Sex is an act which defines, alters, imposes on the personhood of those who engage in it. We wander through the ordinary course of days as persons, desexed, androgynous, and it is in the sexual act in which we receive reassurance that we are not persons, after all, but men and women.”

And as I later learned, to a lesser degree, Andrea Dworkin received the same gift from me. Standing in the local bookstore in Park Slope in Brooklyn (where we both then lived), she thumbed through my first book. “At last, someone who understands my writing!” she shrieked excitedly.

Then she, the infamous feminist, invited me, the unknown young conservative, to tea. I found her soft-spoken, pale, intellectual, anxious, motherly.

Motherly, perhaps, in more ways than one.

Gallagher suggests that she and Dworkin shared a revulsion at the “Playboy culture” that trivializes sexuality. The problem is, of course, is that both Gallagher and Dworkin assumed that a feminism that was sex-positive, that did see sexual liberation as genuinely freeing for women as well as men, wasn’t really distinguishable from the Hugh Hefner philosophy. Dworkin and Gallagher both assumed that a pleasure-centered ethos ultimately meant pleasure for men and misery for women. Both assumed that sex-positive feminists (what FCM calls “fun fems”) are ignorant, deluded, and naive. They both deny women’s agency. They aren’t alone; commenter MsCitrus, who blogs in the radical feminist tradition, wrote yesterday in the thread: “free will,” aka agency, is a load of western individualistic special-snowflake crap. (She’s challenged on that in comments by Lynn and Glendenb.)

In the end, I am much more optimistic than the Gallaghers and the Dworkins about the capacity of individuals to extricate themselves from their acculturation, their programming, their biology itself. I am optimistic (an optimism rooted in experience as much as ideology) about men’s potential to transform, to overcome the “myth of male weakness”; I am equally optimistic about women’s capacity to unlearn the misogynistic toxicity that at times seems to be in the very air we breathe. This doesn’t mean I’m some sort of Ayn Rand disciple who imagines that individuals must do all this work on their own. We do this work in community, with support, with reflection and with a mix of resolve and doubt. But do it we do, and change we do. And we reclaim our sexualities, and we reclaim our relationships, and we remake our world.

Intercourse, suffering, pleasure, and feminism: more on “envelop” v. “penetrate”

I’ve gotten a few emails from readers in the past few days asking me to respond to something else Factcheckme (FCM) discusses on her blog. (See my post immediately below this one for an explanation of the disagreement she and I are having about the role of men in the feminist movement.) Though I don’t think FCM and I could have much of a conversation (a civil exchange requires a mutual recognition of good faith and legitimacy, and she’s made it clear she doesn’t think I possess either), her views are not unique to her and deserve a response.

One of FCM’s tabs is her Intercourse series, a lengthy set of posts exploring her reactions to Andrea Dworkin’s famous book by the same name. As even a casual reader of her blog will realize, FCM takes Dworkin quite literally in her insistence that heterosexual intercourse (penis-in-vagina sex, or PIV) is abusive to women. Women should generally resist PIV, FCM argues; any man who dares claim the label feminist ally for himself must renounce PIV if he wishes to be taken seriously. Refusing intercourse is the proof of one’s seriousness and credibility.

There’s a lot of debate among Dworkin scholars as to whether her work was meant to be taken literally in all instances, or whether she was often engaged in a complex and dazzling rhetorical performance designed to elicit shock and reflection. (I tend to hold the latter view, and I suspect that FCM leans towards the former.) I certainly think that feminists ought to challenge people’s conventional views about heterosexual intercourse. In my women’s history class, for example, I point out that until relatively recently, one of the leading causes of death for women was complications related to childbirth. (In some places at some times, pregnancy and childbirth have been the leading cause of female death.) The overwhelming majority of pregnancies are the consequence of heterosexual intercourse; therefore, it is logical to conclude that heterosexual intercourse has led to the deaths of hundreds of millions of women over human history, as well as to unimaginable pain and discomfort to those who did not die but were merely injured by everything from miscarriages to fistulas to prolapsed uteruses.

Though maternal death is far rarer today in the industrialized West (though troublingly higher here in the States than in Europe), it is still a very real danger in less developed parts of the world. But pregnancy is not the only consequence of PIV that can lead to death. In Africa the AIDS epidemic is primarily carried on through heterosexual intercourse; the vast majority of women who die of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa contracted the virus by having PIV. When fundamentalists speak of AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuals, it’s worth replying that God has punished far more women with death for having PIV with their husbands than he has male homosexuals for having anal sex. And God is said to be a fan of PIV in marriage. Feminists do well to point these things out, and I do so in every class I teach.

(Parenthetically, heterosexual intercourse put me in the emergency room once, as I wrote in this post. There’s no comparison, of course, between the physical danger of PIV for women and for men. But PIV can bring everything from frenular tearing to broken hearts to males as well; to suggest otherwise is to be blind to the reality of male vulnerability. And vulnerability isn’t a zero-sum game.)

It’s also important to note that women’s legal right to resist intercourse with their husbands is very recent, and by no means universally accepted. The first successful prosecutions for marital rape in this country only took place in my lifetime; many traditionalists in many places still find the notion of marital rape itself to be an oxymoron. Empowering women legally and socially and psychologically to say “no” to their partners (including their husbands) is an essential part of the global feminist project.

But of course, there is another side to all of this discussion. As Dworkin’s critics have long pointed out, much of her objection to PIV is rooted less in physiological reality than in the language we use to describe it. I wrote about this last fall, describing an exercise familiar to all my women’s studies’ students. An excerpt follows.

One of the first gender studies courses I ever took at Berkeley was an upper-division anthropology course taught by the great Nancy Scheper-Hughes. It was in a class discussion one day (I think in the spring of ‘87) that I heard something that rocked my world. We were discussing Andrea Dworkin’s novel “Ice and Fire” and her (then still-forthcoming, but already publicized) “Intercourse”. I hadn’t read the books at the time (they were optional for the class). One classmate made the case that on a biological level, all heterosexual sex was, if not rape, dangerously close to it. “Look at the language”, my classmate said; “penetrate, enter, and screw make it clear what’s really happening; women are being invaded by men’s penises.” Another classmate responded, “But that’s the fault of the language, not of the biology itself; we could just as easily use words like ‘envelop’, ‘engulf’, ’surround’ and everything would be different.” The discussion raged enthusiastically until the next class irritably barged in and chucked us all out. I was electrified. Continue reading

All on the same team: why fighting for feminism and for men’s authentic liberation is not a zero-sum game

Sometimes, I get lost in the safe and familiar tropes of academic rhetoric, to wit this from my closing paragraph in yesterday’s post:

…men who long to shed the straitjacket would do well to work alongside feminists in common cause to dismantle the institutions that sustain and promote rigid gender rules

To which Lisa Hickey, Tom Matlack’s colleague on the Good Men Project, responded:

that’s the point I want to make to you, Hugo, – and with Tom as well. Is it really that men need to band together to “dismantle institutions that sustain and promote rigid gender rules?” Man, THAT sounds hard. Or is it – instead – to have thoughtful conversations like these where people are allowed to say: “This is my view of the world. Right or wrong, this is what I see. Help me solve the problems we can solve today, here and now, the specific solvable problems that make life better for everyone.”

Lisa’s right. Talk of “dismantling institutions” smacks of airy theorizing in the safe confines of the classroom. It does sound hard, it sounds mysterious, it sounds like too much damn work with too little viable payoff. She’s right that we need to have conversations, and that we need to make ourselves clear in language that connects with real people’s real lives.

One way we fight to give men a new freedom to live outside of the masculine straitjacket is to enlist men in the feminist cause. I know that to many, perhaps Tom and Lisa, that sounds like subordinating men’s legitimate needs to those of their sisters and wives. But it’s not a zero-sum game. The point that feminists have been making is that feminism is a vehicle for human liberation. Women who are empowered are women who have the freedom to say “no”. And women who have the freedom to say “no” are women whose “yes” can more fully be trusted. So many of our unreasonable demands upon men are linked to myths about women’s frailty and vulnerability; the less women require men for their protection, the more women are free to choose men for love and companionship. This doesn’t mean that feminism is a ticket for men to abandon responsibility, but it does mean that feminism offers men the opportunity to be more than a strong, silent meal ticket.

What does this look like in practice? In March 2008, I went to the Women, Action, and Media conference in Cambridge, Mass. I listened to a young pro-feminist man from Canada, Derek, ask a simple question to a group of panelists speaking on women in contemporary journalism. What, Derek wanted to know, could men do to confront the still very much extant “old boy’s network.” I wrote him an answer in the form of a blogpost: Refusing membership in the Boys’ Club: an answer to Derek about what feminist men can do. The post was about the tactics a young male in the corporate world could adopt to stay out of the “boy’s network”. Since Derek was a passionate young feminist, I didn’t need to “sell” him on the reasons why he should want to.

But the thing is, the road to men’s liberation also lies in refusing to play the familiar games. It is the Old Boys’ Network, after all, that fosters the culture of workaholism that makes it nearly impossible for fathers to both climb the corporate ladder and to be involved closely in the lives of their children. It is the Old Boys’ Network that suggests that loyalty to company and career needs to trump loyalty to family and friends. The Old Boys’ Networks — which exist in academic institutions as well as in the corporate and military worlds, as I continue to see over and over again — promise those who join a sense of cameraderie. You get a group of guys to drink with, compete with, talk about football with, complain (at least obliquely) about your wives and girlfriends with. But you rarely get real friends whom you can trust. The Old Boys’ Networks create a culture of competitiveness, quiet desperation, and silent, private addiction. They harm women by reinforcing the glass ceiling, and they harm their male members by codifying a stifling and rigid code of gender conformity.

Refusing to join the Old Boys’ Networks, wherever they are found, is just one example of where men’s liberation and the feminist cause intersect. By forming friendships with both men and women (yes, Virginia, men and women can be real friends without sexual attraction causing disruption), by building non-hierarchical allegiances with people who share one’s commitments to leading a balanced life, by, if nothing else, starting one conversation about the crushing binds of sexist expectations that limit us all — by doing any of this, we begin to transform everything.

This is not a zero-sum game, people. It’s not empty theorizing in the college seminar. This is real, practical stuff. I am a feminist ally, yes. I am a man who knows first-hand how trying to live up to a masculine ideal brought nothing but ruin and misery into my life and the lives of those who loved me. I do not hate my maleness, but I refuse to be confined by the rules that proscribe a whole set of possibilities to me merely because I have a penis and a prostate. Feminism wasn’t created to liberate me, but liberate me it has, and countless other men as well. When we shatter the glass ceiling for women, when we loose the straps on the masculine straitjacket so that men can be fully human, when we create a world where biology has damn all to do with destiny, then we are all free in the deepest and most meaningful sense. We are all on the same team.

This is everybody’s fight, regardless of color or class or creed. Or chromosome.

“Male feminists are mostly gay”: more on myths of lust and humanity

I’ve posted many times before on the stereotypes male feminists (or, if one prefers, male feminist allies) encounter. Nearly a quarter-century after I first took a women’s studies class, and after more than a decade and a half of teaching the subject, I still regularly encounter the following assumptions:

1. I’m gay
2. I’m straight and sexually predatory, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, using the class to “pick up chicks”.
3. I’m filled with masculine self-loathing, desperately using feminism to get validation from women.

Most male feminist allies encounter at least one, if not all three, of these fairly often. In this post, I’d like to tackle the first stereotype.

The assumption that men who teach women’s studies (or merely express a strong interest in gender work and activism) are gay is a deeply held and pervasive one. Of course, it’s a different stereotype from the other two on the list. There’s something wrong with a man feigning feminism in order to get access to women; there’s something unhealthy about adopting feminism as a strategy for winning approval. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being gay, and by constructing this list, I don’t intend to suggest that there is. (There’s an analogous stereotype about female feminists, that they are lesbians and man-haters, but that’s another topic.)

I don’t mind if folks question my sexual identity. I make it clear that I’m married to a woman and that we have a child together, but I don’t go any further to establish heterosexual bona-fides. I call myself Eira-sexual, and explain why here and here. But there is something about the assumption of homosexuality that troubles me deeply, and that’s the implication that men who are sexually drawn to women are incapable of seeing them as true equals.

The notion that gay men and hetero women are natural allies is deeply held — and reinforced by countless films and television shows. These friendships are indeed often very precious and enduring. But the problem with our discourse about these friendships is that they reinforce a number of assumptions, chief among the the idea that sexism is rooted in heterosexual desire. As many women know well, gay men are perfectly capable of the same degree of sexism as their straight brothers. The problem of misogyny is rooted in something that runs deeper than desire. We can, it turns out, despise what we aren’t attracted to as much as what we are. And while I certainly don’t think my gay brothers are especially sexist, I reject the notion that their queerness gives them any particular insight into or empathy with women’s experience. Those who are acculturated as males will have to overcome a hell of a lot of sexist programming, almost entirely irrespective of the direction of their libidos. Continue reading

“Divided you fall”: the myth of male weakness and young women’s internalized misogyny

I’m thinking once again about the “myth of male weakness” this morning.

Jonah Goldberg has a piece this morning with the whoppingly patronizing title “Where Feminists Get it Right.” (Don’t get excited, folks. Hell remains unfrozen.) Jonah concludes his piece, which largely focuses on the now-familiar yet ever-depressing litany of abuses against women in the less-developed world, with this gem:

Women civilize men. As a general rule, men will only be as civilized as female expectations and demands will allow. “Liberate” men from those expectations, and “Lord of the Flies” logic kicks in. Liberate women from this barbarism, and male decency will soon follow.

Give Jonah credit. He’s not blaming women directly for their failure to civilize men. Rather, he’s blaming certain cultures that fail to give women sufficient authority with which to do their civilizing. But that doesn’t change the basic problem in his argument, based as it is on pseudo-science, Victorian sentimentality about women’s “nature”, and a William Golding novel about pre-pubescent boys.

As I sigh at Goldberg’s piece, I think about an email I got from my friend Emily. She recounts a Facebook exchange she had with a female friend of hers, a fellow Christian. Em’s friend posted on her status update that she was “really disappointed w/the female human species.” When Em inquired why, and whether her friend was also disappointed in men, she got this response:

It appears as if men are weaker when it comes to sex, money, power. With that I am realizing that it is the women that should be held at a higher standard because we need to set the tone for our weak counterparts. If women looked at themselves as holy temples and didn’t allow anything less than excellence this may force men to step up their integrity and priorities…

We could go through the gospels, pointing out over and over again the places where Jesus demands that men show self-restraint comparable to that demanded by women. But I’m not just interested in responding to a fellow Christian. Rather, what concerns me here is one of the most troubling aspects of the myth of male weakness: it creates an atmosphere in which both men and women feel justified in policing other women’s behavior.

If men cannot control themselves, and women can, then it is (as Emily’s friend suggests) women’s task to set the limits for men which men cannot set for themselves. All bad male behavior, it quickly follows, is invariably a woman’s fault. We’re all familiar with the loathsome notion that a cheating husband or boyfriend deserves less ire than the woman with whom he cheated. (The “he couldn’t help it, but she ought to have known better because she’s a woman” theory). The end result is a culture of mistrust and hostility among women.

A great many of the young women I work with claim to have trouble liking other women. Call it the “most of my good friends are guys” phenomenon, which is sufficiently common as to merit a word other than “phenomenon”. Many young women — even in feminist spaces — will list the countless ways in which they have felt judged, policed, or betrayed by other women. Many will say things like “I expect men to let me down. But when a woman hurts you, it’s worse because she doesn’t have an excuse.”

The point that feminists try and make in these discussions is that the myth of male weakness is at the very root of this internalized misogyny. The logic is inescapable. The less self-control women believe men have, the less they hold men responsible. The less they hold men responsible, the more responsibility they ascribe to themselves and to other women. The less they believe in men’s capacity to self-regulate, the more hostile they are trained to become to any woman who seems unwilling to engage in the rituals of female self-policing. At its most extreme, every mini-skirt becomes not only a threat to the fragile order women have established for mutual protection, it is perceived as an act of both betrayal and hostility towards one’s sisters. The hisses of “slut”, “whore”, and “bitch” soon follow. Continue reading

Good Girls Marry Doctors: a new project about daughters, feminism and the diaspora

This past weekend I got an email from Josephine Tsui, a Mills and University College London alumna. Josephine and Piyali Bhattacharya have started a web project called Good Girls Marry Doctors, a site for diasporic women from East Asian, South Asian, and other non-Western backgrounds who are working to reconcile their feminism with their family traditions. Josephine and Piyali are putting together an anthology: Retaining Control, Negotiating Roles: South and East Asian Diasporic Women and their Parents, and are looking for submissions. Here’s their call:

Are you a good girl? You know what we mean: you listen to your parents, there’s no gossip about you in the “community.” Or are you a bad girl? Were you caught smoking in high school? Did you marry that white boy against your parents’ wishes?

We ask you to contribute your story to a forthcoming volume: “Mama Says Good Girls Marry Doctors.” This book focuses on the pressures on South and East Asian women who have grown up in North America to be “good girls.” It seeks to collect the stories of such women, and their traumas, victories, and defeats as they face the control that their immigrant parents try to exercise over them in relation to the choice of a partner, or a career, or their freedom. We want to know how negotiating these pressures affects young Asian diasporic women, their relationship to feminism, to their parents and to their partners or siblings.

We do not seek academic essays, but creative non-fiction pieces, narratives, reflections and personal histories and memoirs. You can tell your own story or that of a friend or relative. As Asian women who have experiences such issues ourselves, we want this volume to bring a range of stories out in the open and available to other women who are facing these issues.

More details at their website, and make sure to check out the blog Josephine and Piyali have started.

Josephine kindly notes that she found this post of mine from early 2009 to be particularly helpful: Peer mentoring, young Armenian feminists, and mapping a route out. It was a post of which I was proud at the time, and am happy to say that I’ve had some good success putting young women from that particular culture together to share strategies for negotiating a path to both freedom and cultural preservation. I got some very nasty emails after that post appeared, mostly from young Armenian men (and a few parents) who were incensed at what they saw as a crude assimilationist agenda. (One of the only times I’ve ever received a physical threat serious enough to consider reporting it to campus police came in one of those emails.) I emphasized to them what I emphasized in my post: it’s not cultural betrayal to insist that women’s individual happiness matters. It’s not cultural betrayal to offer support to young women from traditional backgrounds assistance in discerning what of modern feminism they want for their lives — and what they don’t. It’s not ethnocentric to encourage slightly older women who have had some success in mapping a route “out” to mentor younger women who are unsure of the way. If I can quote myself from one of the posts below:

… if feminists can agree on one thing, it’s this: the collective sacrifices of your parents, ancestors, and culture do not trump your own personal right to be happy.

Some related posts of mine:

Some lengthy thoughts on feminism, traditional families, contingent happiness and daring to disappoint

Dating to Disappoint: the Bulworth Solution

Dare to Disappoint: Cheering on Sandra Tsing Loh

“Kindly Remembrance”: of faith, ancestors, and debts to the past; a long post in response to Daisy B.

Claiming the name

I got a message on Facebook from Delia, asking a familiar question:

I’ve got a good friend of mine, a man, who is absolutely supportive of feminist causes. But he really dislikes the word feminist, and prefers to call himself (and me) an “egalitarian”. To him, “feminist” sounds too exclusionary. I’ve tried to give him a good answer as to why focusing on women matters, but am not having much luck. Perhaps you could respond?

First off, let me recommend the indispensable Feminism 101 blog, a wonderful resource for answering all sorts of questions about feminism. Delia’s friend’s problem is addressed in this pithy answer, and it’s well worth the read.

I think it’s vital to “claim the name” of “feminist”. As the Feminism 101 site explains, refusing to use the term in favor of more general words like “egalitarian” obscures the reality of misogyny. While there’s nothing wrong with a commitment to egalitarianism as a principle, to use it to title an ideological perspective implies a false equivalence between the sexism that is directed towards men and that towards women. If someone were to say, “Oh, I believe blacks should be equal to whites, but I don’t feel comfortable calling myself an ‘anti-racist’; I’d rather just be an ‘equalist'”, we’d hear the statement for what it was: a refusal, probably motivated more by ignorance than malice, to accept the reality that black oppression in American history far outpaces that of whites.

As it says at Feminism 101, these are not mutually exclusive terms. One can be a feminist and believe in egalitarian principles. One can be a feminist and a Christian; one can be a feminist and a Republican, or a Democrat, or a defiant independent. To claim the name of feminism doesn’t mean rejecting all other names; it means, simply, that one acknowledges the reality of misogyny and one commits, in whatever way one can, to struggling against that ugly reality.

I call myself a feminist. I was once wont to call myself a “pro-feminist”, largely because in the 1980s, when I first began to do academic feminism, there was considerably more skepticism about men doing this work than there is today. As I’ve written before, younger feminists are much more willing to accept — and demand — men’s full participation in anti-sexist activism. A new generation of men has grown up, sons of mothers (and occasionally, fathers) who were steeped in feminism. The notion that a “man simply can’t get it” seems to be one that divides many feminists generationally, with those under 30 particularly unlikely to believe that essentialist view.

Men don’t get cookies merely for calling themselves feminists. But it is important that we do, at least as long as we are willing to strive to match our life to our language. We send a message that this disease of misogyny has done damage to us all, but especially to mothers and daughters, sisters and wives, partners and pupils and professional acquaintances. When we call ourselves feminists, we remind ourselves and others that the belief in the inferiority of women is the Great Crime. We renounce our complicity with that crime, and pledge — imperfectly — to work to build a world beyond misogyny. But we can’t build that world if we don’t accurately identify that which we fight for, and that which we fight against.

A long way from the summit: some thoughts on feminism, women in politics, and the new Leslie Sanchez book

It’s been a year since the most exciting election in my memory (and, according to my septuagenerian mother, a certified political junkie, of hers as well.) The books and documentaries about the 2008 presidential campaign have arrived full force in the market place. One focuses on the trio of women who helped define this extraordinary moment in very recent history: You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe by Leslie Sanchez, a Republican activist and CNN contributor. Sanchez looks at the way the media and the nation itself responded to Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Obama — and what those responses say about the state of feminism at the tail end of the first decade of the 21st century.

(Other feminist bloggers have already reviewed YCALWM, including Clarissa, Amelia at Equal Writes, and Stacyx.)

As a registered Republican and liberal feminist who longs to see a return to progressive values within the GOP (the party of Millicent Fenwick, a political hero of mine), I’ve admired Leslie Sanchez as a sensible voice for inclusion and moderation within a party that has far too few such voices. Hers is a welcome perspective, and the fairness with which she treats both Clinton and Palin is perhaps the book’s strongest suit.

Sanchez, no supporter of Hillary, explores the pivotal question of why so many younger women saw a vote for Barack Obama as a far more revolutionary act than a vote for the first of their sex to have a serious shot at winning the presidency. She suggests that Clinton tied herself too closely to older white feminists, commonly identified with the Second Wave, and lost a generational connection with younger voters. Sanchez is right about this, I think; there’s no question that the gap between Second and Third Wavers (represented by women over and under 45) about Clinton was a significant one, much covered in the press and lamented in the feminist blogosphere. But Sanchez, whose feminist credentials are slight at best, is too dismissive when she talks about the “brashness and tired agendas of the women’s rights advocates (backing Clinton”. It wasn’t the agenda that was wrong — it was the generational disconnect that doomed the junior senator from New York. Continue reading

Privilege conceals itself from those who possess it: of feminist epistemology, marriage, and “standpoint theory.”

The discussion below this post has grown heated, with the topic of debate being less the original post itself and more feminist epistemology and what is sometimes called “standpoint theory.” SamSeaborn quotes Elizabeth Andersen, who writes:

Feminist standpoint theory claims an epistemic privilege over the character of gender relations, and of social and psychological phenomena in which gender is implicated, on behalf of the standpoint of women.

Sam wants to know how that impacts my marriage (which I labeled as “feminist”), but he also seems to be asking how this “standpoint theory” affects the role of male allies in feminist settings. Though he kindly takes me at my word when I note that I don’t go through my married life with an apology for being male always on my lips, he wonders how a male feminist cannot help but defer to what, according to Andersen, is the “epistemic privilege” of a woman’s perspective. Sam gets a vigorous, and to my mind, very effective response, from commenters Oldfeminist and Mythago, and I recommend folks check out the whole thread.

I may be the son of two philosophers, and I may have done a graduate field in medieval scholasticism many moons ago, but I am no theorist. Phrases like “epistemic privilege” make my head hurt, and I must bite back the urge to plead, “But I am a bear of very little brain.” I’ve labored through Cixous and Irigaray and Butler because they’re important and necessary, but feminist theory ain’t my bag. I defer to the many wonderful folks in the blogosphere whose intellectual capacities exceed my own, and whose talent for explicating in plain English the difficult philosophical nuances of feminist theory is infinitely greater than mine.

That said, I do have some thoughts on standpoint theory and its practical application.

Epistemology is the study of how we know things. In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it’s reasonable to assume that each person’s knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status. Class and sex and race and faith are some of — but surely not the only — prisms through which we see and interpret the world. Patriarchy, the complex system through which male identity is privileged in an extraordinary number of ways, impacts everyone. Yes, as the famous phrase notes, it “hurts men too.” But one particular thing that patriarchy does is warp our understanding of everything around us, particularly things like power dynamics, sexuality, and how we communicate with one another. Feminists point out the deeply obvious: the class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself. This “greater awareness” is the epistemic privilege to which Andersen refers.

Epistemic privilege means that in a heterosexual relationship, it is generally — though not universally — the case that the woman will see gender-based power imbalances more clearly than will her boyfriend or her husband. This isn’t because of “feminine intuition”, it’s because folks in an historically oppressed class are always required to be more aware of power dynamics than those who belong to the dominant group. The same epistemic privilege can occur in race and class relations, regardless of the sex of the people involved.

Obvious example: rape and parking lots. Both men and women are cognizant of the reality of rape, and most understand that it is men who generally do the raping and women who are generally the ones attacked. But because of his privilege, a man can walk into a parking lot by himself at night and forget about rape, because his maleness affords him the luxury of remaining unobservant of the possibility of sexual danger. A woman walking alone in a parking lot at night will have a different experience, rooted in her vulnerability as a member of a class targeted for sexual violence. Not only is she more vulnerable, but her very understanding of the issue is superior to that of a man walking in the parking lot. He has the privileged luxury of ignorance; she’s forced to reflect, constantly, on rape and its threat to her. That means that when the discussion of women’s vulnerability to assault comes up, women ought to enjoy “epistemic privilege” in the conversation. Continue reading