Download here. For educational use only.
A materialist feminist approach to women’s oppression destroys the idea that women are a “natural group”: “a racial group of a special kind, a group perceived as natural, a group of men considered as materially specific in their bodies.” What the analysis accomplishes on the level of ideas, practice makes actual at the level of facts: by its very existence, lesbian society destroys the artificial (social) fact constituting women as a “natural group.” A lesbian society pragmatically reveals that the division from men of which women have been the object is a political one and shows that we have been ideologically rebuilt into a “natural group.” In the case of women, ideology goes far since our bodies as well as our minds are the product of this manipulation. We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us. Distorted to such an extent that our deformed body is what they call “natural,” what is supposed to exist as such before oppression. Distorted to such an extent that in the end oppression seems to be a consequence of this “nature” within ourselves (a nature which is only an idea). What a materialist analysis does by reasoning, a lesbian society accomplishes practically: not only is there no natural group “women” (we lesbians are living proof of it), but as individuals as well we question “woman,” which for us, as for Simone de Beauvoir, is only a myth. She said: “one is not born, but becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society: it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.”
However, most of the feminists and lesbian-feminists in America and elsewhere still believe that the basis of women’s oppression is biological as well as historical. Some of them even claim to find their sources in Simone de Beauvoir. The belief in mother right and in a “prehistory” when women create civilization (because of a biological predisposition) while the coarse and brutal men hunted (because of a biological predisposition) is symmetrical with the biologizing interpretation of history produced up to now by the class of men. It is still the same method of finding in women and men a biological explanation of their division, outside of social facts. For me this could never constitute a lesbian approach to women’s oppression, since it assumes that the basis of society or the beginning of society lies in heterosexuality. Matriarchy is no less heterosexual than patriarchy: it is only the sex of the oppressor that changes. Furthermore, not only is this conception still imprisoned in the categories of sex (woman and man), but it holds onto the idea that the capacity to give birth (biology) is what defines a woman. Although practical facts and ways of living contradict this theory in lesbian society, there are lesbians who affirm that “women and men are different species or races (the words are used interchangeably): men are biologically inferior to women; male violence is a biological inevitability…” By doing this, by admitting that there is a “natural” division between women and men, we naturalize history, we assume that “men” and “women” have always existed and will always exist. Not only do we naturalize history, but also consequently we naturalize the social phenomena which express our oppression, making change impossible. For example, instead of seeing giving birth as a forced production, we see it as a “natural,” “biological” process, forgetting that in our societies births are planned (demography), forgetting that we ourselves are programmed to produce children, while this is the only social activity “short of war” that presents such a great danger of death. Thus, as long as we will be “unable to abandon by will or impulse a lifelong and centuries-old commitment to childbearing as the female creative act,” gaining control of the production of children will mean much more than the mere control of the material means of this production: women will have to abstract themselves from the definition “woman” which is imposed upon them.
A materialist feminist approach shows that what we take for the cause or origin of oppression is in fact only the mark imposed by the oppressor: the “myth of woman,” plus its material effects and manifestations in the appropriated consciousness and bodies of women. Thus, this mark does not predate oppression: Colette Guillaumin has shown that before the socioeconomic reality of black slavery, the concept of race did not exist, at least not in its modern meaning, since it was applied to the lineage of families. However, now, race, exactly like sex, is taken as an “immediate given,” a “sensible given,” “physical features,” belonging to a natural order. But what we believe to be a physical and direct perception is only a sophisticated and mythic construction, an “imaginary formation,” which reinterprets physical features (in themselves as neutral as any others but marked by the social system) through the network of relationships in which they are perceived. (They are seen as black therefore they are black; they are seen as women, therefore, they are women. But before being seen that way, they first had to be made that way.) Lesbians should always remember and acknowledge how “unnatural,” compelling, totally oppressive, and destructive being “woman” was for us in the old days before the women’s liberation movement. It was a political constraint, and those who resisted it were accused of not being “real” women. But then we were proud of it, since in the accusation there was already something like a shadow of victory: the avowal by the oppressor that “woman” is not something that goes without saying, since to be one, one has to be a “real” one. We were at the same time accused of wanting to be men. Today this double accusation has been taken up again with enthusiasm in the context of the women’s liberation movement by some feminists and also, alas, by some lesbians whose political goal seems somehow to be becoming more and more “feminine.” To refuse to be a woman, however, does not mean that one has to become a man. Besides, if we take as an example the perfect “butch,” the classic example which provokes the most horror, whom Proust would have called a woman/ man, how is her alienation different from that of someone who wants to became a woman? Tweedledum and Tweedledee. At least for a woman, wanting to become a man proves that she has escaped her initial programming. But even if she would like to, with all her strength, she cannot become a man. For becoming a man would demand from a woman not only a man’s external appearance but his consciousness as well, that is, the consciousness of one who disposes by right of at least two “natural” slaves during his life span. This is impossible, and one feature of lesbian oppression consists precisely of making women out of reach for us, since women belong to men. Thus a lesbian has to be something else, a not-woman, a not-man, a product of society, not a product of nature, for there is no nature in society.
The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not. For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man. This, we lesbians, and nonlesbians as well, knew before the beginning of the lesbian and feminist movement. However, as Andrea Dworkin emphasizes, many lesbians recently “have increasingly tried to transform the very ideology that has enslaved us into a dynamic, religious, psychologically compelling celebration of female biological potential.” Thus, some avenues of the feminist and lesbian movement lead us back to the myth of woman which was created by men especially for us, and with it we sink back into a natural group. Having stood up to fight for a sexless society, we now find ourselves entrapped in the familiar deadlock of “woman is wonderful.” Simone de Beauvoir underlined particularly the false consciousness which consists of selecting among the features of the myth (that women are different form men) those which look good and using them as a definition for women. What the concept “woman is wonderful” accomplishes is that it retains for defining women the best features (best according to whom?) which oppression has granted us, and it does not radically question the categories “man” and “woman,” which are political categories and not natural givens. It puts us in a position of fighting within the class “women” not as the other classes do, for the disappearance of our class, but for the defense of “woman” and its reinforcement. It leads us to develop with complacency “new” theories about our specificity: thus, we call our passivity “nonviolence,” when the main and emergent point for us is to fight our passivity (our fear, rather, a justified one). The ambiguity of the term “feminist” sums up the whole situation. What does “feminist” mean? Feminist is formed with the word “femme,” “woman,” and means: someone who fights for women. For many of us it means someone who fights for women as a class and for the disappearance of this class. For many others it means someone who fights for woman and her defense– for the myth, then, and its reinforcement. But why was the word “feminist” chosen if it retains the least ambiguity? We chose to call ourselves “feminists” ten years ago, not in order to support or reinforce the myth of woman, nor to identify ourselves with the oppressor’s definition of us, but rather to affirm that our movement had a history and to emphasize the political link with the old feminist movement.
It is, then, this movement that we can put in question for the meaning that it gave to feminism. It so happens that feminism in the last century could never resolve its contradictions on the subject of nature/ culture, woman/ society. Women started to fight for themselves as a group and rightly considered that they shared common features as a result of oppression. But for them these features were natural and biological rather than social. They went so far as to adopt the Darwinist theory of evolution. They did not believe like Darwin, however, “that women were less evolved than men, but they did believe that male and female natures had diverged in the course of evolutionary development and that society at large reflected this polarization.” The failure of early feminism was that it only attacked the Darwinist charge of female inferiority, while accepting the foundations of this charge–namely, the view of woman as “unique.” And finally it was women scholars–and not feminists– who scientifically destroyed this theory. But the early feminists had failed to regard history as a dynamic process which develops from conflicts of interests. Furthermore, they still believed as men do that the cause (origin) of their oppression lay within themselves. And therefore after some astonishing victories the feminists of this first front found themselves at an impasse out of a lack of reasons to fight. They upheld the illogical principle of “equality in difference,” an idea now being born again. They fell back into the trap which threatens us once again; the myth of woman.
Thus it is our historical task, and only ours, to define what we call oppression in materialist terms, to make it evident that women are a class, which is to say that the category “woman” as well as the category “man” are political and economic categories not eternal ones. Our fight aims to suppress men as a class, not through a genocidal, but a political struggle. Once the class “men” disappears, “women” as a class will disappear as well, for there are no slaves without masters. Our first task, it seems, is to always thoroughly dissociate “women”(the class within which we fight) and “woman,” the myth. For “woman” does not exist for us: it is only an imaginary formation, while “women” is the product of a social relationship. We felt this strongly when everywhere we refused to be called a “woman’s liberation movement.” Furthermore, we have to destroy the myth inside and outside ourselves. “Woman” is not each one of us, but the political and ideological formation which negates “women” (the product of a relation of exploitation). “Woman” is there to confuse us, to hide the reality “women.” In order to be aware of being a class and to become a class we first have to kill the myth of “woman” including its most seductive aspects (I think about Virginia Woolf when she said the first task of a woman writer is to kill “the angel in the house”). But to become a class we do not have to suppress our individual selves, and since no individual can be reduced to her/his oppression we are also confronted with the historical necessity of constituting ourselves as the individual subjects of our history as well. I believe this is the reason why all these attempts at “new” definitions of woman are blossoming now. What is at stake (and of course not only for women) is an individual definition as well as a class definition. For once one has acknowledged oppression, one needs to know and experience the fact that one can constitute oneself as a subject (as opposed to as object of oppression), that one can become someone in spite of oppression, that one has one’s own identity. There is no possible fight for someone deprived of an identity, no internal motivation for fighting, since, although I can fight only with others, first I fight for myself.
From A Passion for Friends: Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection by Janice G. Raymond (Beacon Press, 1986)
Other women have expressed a sadness of unmet expectations and an inability to connect with the deepest dimensions of the women they would wish for friends. They had expected that a shared feminist vision and reality would create deeper and more caring relationships than those they had experienced in prefeminist friendships. And while they had formed alliances with women over shared political ideals, these same women had not been able to realize deep friendships with their political compeers. Some women even remarked that college friends or friends in other contexts such as the convent or even the army were more caring, respectful, and responsive on a profound existential level than many women they had befriended who shared similar radical feminist ideals.
For general discussion. More from the book here.
This classic essay is available on Carol Hanisch’s website here.
In her 2006 follow-up, Hanisch mentions one of feminism’s biggest challenges.
I wish we could have anticipated all the ways that “The Personal Is Political” and “The Pro-Woman Line” would be revised and misused. Like most of the theory created by the Pro-Woman Line radical feminists, these ideas have been revised or ripped off or even stood on their head and used against their original, radical intent. While it’s necessary that theories take their knocks in the real world, like everything else, many of us have learned that once they leave our hands, they need to be defended against revisionism and misuse.
OUCH. That’s real, sisters. Even as we attempt to move forward, we must vigilantly watch our backs (see: legal erosion of abortion access) and ensure that our theories are not co-opted for anti-feminist purposes (see: trans politics).
I made some highlights and a few simple notes; here’s my annotated version.
FOR EDUCATIONAL USE ONLY.
lesbian friendship: separations and continua
In recent years, feminist reflections on friendship have given special attention to issues of bonding across racial, class, and other socially constructed boundaries. Sarah Hoagland examines friendship across many kinds of boundaries among lesbians in community with lesbians.’ Maria Lugones and Vicky Spelman have written about cross-cultural bonding in ways that apply equally to non lesbian friendships. 2 In this chapter I take up issues that arise among lesbians when the boundaries between intimate and nonintimate friendships are thrown into question, or perhaps, into chaos. The way such issues used to be posed was in terms of “friends vs. lovers.” And that is how the writer with whom I begin tends to delineate the problems. However, by “lesbian friendship” I mean friendship between lesbians, regardless whether they are, or have been, each other’s lovers.
Can Lesbians be Friends?
Nearly twenty years ago, two letters signed “Margy” were printed in the Lesbian Connection (LC) newsletter, under the heading, “Can Lesbians Be Friends?” Margy posed a number of questions about friendship from a lesbian perspective, including why it is often easier for lesbians to find lovers than to find good friends, how to deal with sexual aspects of friendships so as to preserve the friendship, how to “draw the line” between affection and sex, what can be done to prevent isolation in lesbian couples, and what to do with the difficulties of becoming friends with a lesbian who is “monogamously” coupled. The letters were unusual in their frankness and their refusal to glorify lesbian friendships. Readers who responded in subsequent issues of LC tended to agree with Margy on the difficulties.
Thanks to Noanodyne, I have recently learned that the text of this essay is already online for your reading pleasure! Oh, happy day!
PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ. As published in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, edited by Diane Bell and Renate Klein, Spinifex, 1996.
Please discuss below. I am copying a few comments from the previous post to this one, because they are specifically about C-Mac’s sweet essay.
At the suggestion of rhondda, I have just begun reading Radically Speaking on my Kindle. As such, I have also been tweeting some quotations that I find particularly interesting (holy technology, batwoman, I am hooked!).
Here are a few of my favorites for discussion, if you please. I will update this post with more as I read. Please feel free to leave your own quotations, comments, or questions. I want to INTERACT about READING.
In the introduction to the first issue of the French feminist journal Questions Feministes (1977)—a journal of radical feminist theory—the editors identify their political perspective as radical feminist, recognising that the political struggle they are involved in is that against “the oppression of women by the patriarchal social system” (p. 5). They outline some of the underlying principles of radical feminism: the notion that the social existence of men and women was created rather than being part of their “nature”; the right of women not to be “different” but to be “autonomous”;…
…bandaid reforms, or equality with men in a male-defined society, or “empowering” women to have “self-esteem” while leaving intact a status quo with a perforated ozone layer—all are pseudo-solutions that a radical feminist finds unacceptable;…
I’m thinking about getting myself a Kindle with my tax return (I mean, that interest-free loan I allow the government to take from my paycheck). Something to wean me off of internet feminism, you know?
Anyway, I just was reviewing the feminist theory category of available Kindle books on Amazon and, while I saw a few choice titles, I’m not really feeling inspired.
Do any of you feminists have a Kindle that you use for feminist-theory-reading purposes?
Do you know of other feminist titles that Amazon hasn’t added to this list that I, or other feminists, might enjoy?
Do you recommend another e-reader that has a better variety of feminist themed works than the Kindle does?
Thank you in advance for any thoughts you’re willing to share!!
For educational use only.
by Marilyn Frye
It is a fundamental claim of feminism that women are oppressed. The word “oppression” is a strong word. It repels and attracts. It is dangerous and dangerously fashionable and endangered. It is much misused, and sometimes not innocently.
The statement that women are oppressed is frequently met with the claim that men are oppressed too. We hear that oppressing is oppressive to those who oppress as well as those they oppress. Some men cite as evidence of their oppression their much-advertised inability to cry. It is tough, we are told, to be masculine. When the stresses and frustrations of being a man are cited as evidence that oppressors are oppressed by their oppressing, the word “oppression” is being stretched to meaninglessness; it is treated as though its scope includes any and all human experience of limitation or suffering, no matter the cause, degree or consequence. Once such usage has been put over on us, then if ever we deny that any person or group is oppressed, we seem to imply that we think they never suffer and have no feelings. We are accused of insensitivity; even of bigotry. For women, such accusation is particularly intimidating, since sensitivity is one of the few virtues that has been assigned to us. If we are found insensitive, we may fear we have no redeeming traits at all and perhaps are not real women. Thus are we silenced before we begin: the name of our situation drained of meaning and our guilt mechanisms tripped.
But this is nonsense. Human beings can be miserable without being oppressed, and it is perfectly consistent to deny that a person or group is oppressed without denying that they have feelings or that they suffer.
We need to think clearly about this oppression, and there is much that mitigates against this. I do not want to undertake to prove that women are oppressed (or that men are not), but I want to make clear what is being said when we say it. We need this word, this concept, and we need it to be sharp and sure.
The root of the word “oppression” is the element “press.” The press of the crowd; pressed into military service; to press a pair of pants; printing press; press the button.Presses are used to mold things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk, sometimes to reduce them by squeezing out the gases or liquids in them. Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold. Immobilize. Reduce.
The mundane experience of the oppressed provides another clue. One of the most characteristic and ubiquitous features of the world as experienced by oppressed people is the double bind – situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation. For example, it is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. If we comply, we signal our docility and our acquiescence in our situation. We need not, then, be taken note of. We acquiesce in being made invisible, in our occupying no space. We participate in our own erasure. On the other hand, anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous. This means, at the least, that we may be found “difficult” or unpleasant to work with, which is enough to cost one one’s livelihood; at worst, being seen as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous has been known to result in rape, arrest, beating, and murder. One can only choose to risk one’s preferred form and rate of annihilation.
Another example: It is common in the United States that women, especially younger women, are in a bind where neither sexual activity nor sexual inactivity is all right. If she is heterosexually active, a woman is open to censure and punishment for being loose, unprincipled or a whore. The “punishment” comes in the form of criticism, snide and embarrassing remarks, being treated as an easy lay by men, scorn from her more restrained female friends. She may have to lie to hide her behavior from her parents. She must juggle the risks of unwanted pregnancy and dangerous contraceptives. On the other hand, if she refrains from heterosexual activity, she is fairly constantly harassed by men who try to persuade her into it and pressure her into it and pressure her to “relax” and “let her hair down”; she is threatened with labels like “frigid,” “uptight,” “man-hater,” “bitch,” and “cocktease.” The same parents who would be disapproving of her sexual activity may be worried by her inactivity because it suggests she is not or will not be popular, or is not sexually normal. She may be charged with lesbianism. If a woman is raped, then if she has been heterosexually active she is subject to the presumption that she liked it (since her activity is presumed to show that she likes sex), and if she has not been heterosexually active, she is subject to the presumption that she liked it (since she is supposedly “repressed and frustrated”). Both heterosexual activity and heterosexual nonactivity are likely to be taken as proof that you wanted to be raped, and hence, of course, weren’t really raped at all. You can’t win. You are caught in a bind, caught between systematically related pressures.
Women are caught like this, too, by networks of forces and barriers that expose one to penalty, loss or contempt whether one works outside the home or not, is on welfare or not, bears children or not, raises children or not, marries or not, stays married or not, is heterosexual, lesbian, both or neither. Economic necessity; confinement to racial and/or sexual job ghettos; sexual harassment; sex discrimination; pressures of competing expectations and judgements about women, wives and mothers (in the society at large, in racial and ethnic subcultures and in one’s own mind); dependence (full or partial) on husbands, parents or the state; commitment to political ideas; loyalties to racial or ethnic or other “minority” groups; the demands of the self-respect and responsibilities to others. Each of these factors exists in complex tension with every other, penalizing or prohibiting all of the apparently available options. And nipping at one’s heels, always, is the endless pack of little things. If one dresses one way, one is subject to the assumption that one is advertising one’s sexual availability; if one dresses another way, one appears to “not care about oneself” or to be “unfeminine.” If one uses “strong language,” one invites categorization as a “lady” – one too delicately constituted to cope with robust speech or the realities to which it presumably refers.
The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped.
Cages. Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would gave trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.
It is now possible to grasp one of the reasons why oppression can be hard to see and recognize: one can study the elements of an oppressive structure with great care and some good will without seeing the structure as a whole, and hence without seeing or being able to understand that one is looking at a cage and that there are people there who are caged, whose motion and mobility are restricted, whose lives are shaped and reduced.
The arresting of vision at a microscopic level yields such common confusion as that about the male door-opening ritual. This ritual, which is remarkably widespread across classes and races, puzzles many people, some of whom do and some of whom do not find it offensive. Look at the scene of the two people approaching a door. The male steps slightly ahead and opens the door. The male holds the door open while the female glides through. Then the male goes through. The door closes after them. “Now how,” one innocently asks, “can those crazy womens libbers say that is oppressive? The guy removed a barrier to the lady’s smooth and unruffled progress.” But each repetition of this ritual has a place in a pattern, in fact in several patterns. One has to shift the level of one’s perception in order to see the whole picture.
The door-opening pretends to be a helpful service, but the helpfulness is false. This can be seen by noting that it will be done whether or not it makes any practical sense. Infirm men and men burdened with packages will open doors for able-bodied women who are free of physical burdens. Men will impose themselves awkwardly and jostle everyone in order to get to the door first. The act is not determined by convenience or grace. Furthermore, these very numerous acts of unneeded or even noisome “help” occur in counter-point to a pattern of men not being helpful in many practical ways in which women might welcome help. What women experience is a world in which gallant princes charming commonly make a fuss about being helpful and providing small services when help and services are of little or no use, but in which there are rarely ingenious and adroit princes at hand when substantial assistance is really wanted either in mundane affairs or in situations of threat, assault or terror. There is no help with the (his) laundry; no help typing a report at 4:00 a.m.; no help in mediating disputes among relatives or children. There is nothing but advice that women should stay indoors after dark, be chaperoned by a man, or when it comes down to it, “lie back and enjoy it.”
The gallant gestures have no practical meaning. Their meaning is symbolic. The door-opening and similar services provided are services which really are needed by people who are for one reason or another incapacitated – unwell, burdened with parcels, etc. So the message is that women are incapable. The detachment of the acts from the concrete realities of what women need and do not need is a vehicle for the message that women’s actual needs and interests are unimportant or irrelevant. Finally, these gestures imitate the behavior of servants toward masters and thus mock women, who are in most respects the servants and caretakers of men. The message of the false helpfulness of male gallantry is female dependence, the invisibility or insignificance of women, and contempt for women.
One cannot see the meanings of these rituals if one’s focus is riveted upon the individual event in all its particularity, including the particularity of the individual man’s present conscious intentions and motives and the individual woman’s conscious perception of the event in the moment. It seems sometimes that people take a deliberately myopic view and fill their eyes with things seen microscopically in order not to see macroscopically. At any rate, whether it is deliberate or not, people can and do fail to see the oppression of women because they fail to see macroscopically and hence fail to see the various elements of the situation as systematically related in larger schemes.
As the cageness of the birdcage is a macroscopic phenomenon, the oppressiveness of the situations in which women live our various and different lives is a macroscopic phenomenon. Neither can be seen from a microscopic perspective. But when you look macroscopically you can see it – a network of forces and barriers which are systematically related and which conspire to the immobilization, reduction and molding of women and the lives we live.
The image of the cage helps convey one aspect of the systematic nature of oppression. Another is the selection of occupants of the cages, and analysis of this aspect also helps account for the invisibility of the oppression of women.
It is as a woman (or as a Chicana/o or as a Black or Asian or lesbian) that one is entrapped.
“Why can’t I go to the park; you let Jimmy go!”
“Because it’s not safe for girls.”
“I want to be a secretary, not a seamstress; I don’t want to learn to make dresses.”
“There’s no work for negroes in that line; learn a skill where you can earn your living.”!
When you question why you are being blocked, why this barrier is in your path, the answer has not to do with individual talent or merit, handicap or failure; it has to do with your membership in some category understood as a “natural” or “physical” category. The “inhabitant” of the “cage” is not an individual but a group, all those of a certain category. If an individual is oppressed, it is in virtue of being a member of a group or category of people that is systematically reduced, molded, immobilized. Thus, to recognize a person as oppressed, one has to see that individual as belonging to a group of a certain sort.
There are many things which can encourage or inhibit perception of someone’s membership in the sort of group or category in question here. In particular, it seems reasonable to suppose that if one of the devices of restriction and definition of the group is that of physical confinement or segregation, the confinement and separation would encourage recognition of the group as a group. This in tum would encourage the macroscopic focus which enables one to recognize oppression and encourages the individuals’ identification and solidarity with other individuals of the group or category. But physical confinement and segregation of the group as a group is not common to all oppressive structures, and when an oppressed group is geographically and demographically dispersed the perception of it as a group is inhibited. There may be little or no thing in the situations of the individuals encouraging the macroscopic focus which would reveal the unity of the structure bearing down on all members of that group. *
(*Coerced assimilation is in fact one of the policies available to an oppressing group in its effort to reduce and/or annihilate another group. This tactic is used by the U.S. government, for instance, on the American Indians.)
A great many people, female and male and of every race and class, simply do not believe that woman is a category of oppressed people, and I think that this is in part because they have been fooled by the dispersal and assimilation of women throughout and into the systems of class and race which organize men. Our simply being dispersed makes it difficult for women to have knowledge of each other and hence difficult to recognize the shape of our common cage. The dispersal and assimilation of women throughout economic classes and races also divides us against each other practically and economically and thus attaches interest to the inability to see: for some, jealousy of their benefits, and for some, resentment of the others’ advantages.
To get past this, it helps to notice that in fact women of all races and classes are together in a ghetto of sorts. There is a women’s place, a sector, which is inhabited by women of all classes and races, and it is not defined by geographical boundaries but by function. The function is the service of men and men’s interests as men define them, which includes the bearing and rearing of children. The details of the service and the working conditions vary by race and class, for men of different races and classes have different interests, perceive their interests differently, and express their needs and demands in different rhetorics, dialects and languages. But there are also some constants.
Whether in lower, middle or upper-class home or work situations, women’s service work always includes personal service (the work of maids, butlers, cooks, personal secretaries),* sexual service (including provision for his genital sexual needs and bearing his children, but also including “being nice,” “being attractive for him,” etc.), and ego service (encouragement, support, praise, attention). Women’s service work also is characterized everywhere by the fatal combination of responsibility and powerlessness: we are held responsible and we hold ourselves responsible for good outcomes for men and children in almost every respect though we have in almost no case power adequate to that project. The details of the subjective experience of this servitude are local. They vary with economic class and race and ethnic tradition as well as the personalities of the men in question. So also are the details of the forces which coerce our tolerance of this servitude particular to the different situations in which different women live and work.
(* At higher class levels women may not do all these kinds of work, but are generally still responsible for hiring and supervising those who do it These services are still, in these cases, women’s responsibility.)
All this is not to say that women do not have, assert and manage sometimes to satisfy our own interests, nor to deny that in some cases and in some respects women’s independent interests do overlap with men’s. But at every race/class level and even across race/class lines men do not serve women as women serve men. “Women’s sphere” maybe understood as the “service sector,” taking the latter expression much more widely and deeply than is usual in discussions of the economy.
It seems to be the human condition that in one degree or another we all suffer frustration and limitation, all encounter unwelcome barriers, and all are damaged and hurt in various ways. Since we are a social species, almost all of our behavior and activities are structured by more than individual inclination and the conditions of the planet and its atmosphere. No human is free of social structures, nor (perhaps) would happiness consist in such freedom. Structure consists of boundaries, limits and barriers; in a structured whole, some motions and changes are possible, and others are not. If one is looking for an excuse to dilute the word ‘oppression’, one can use the fact of social structure as an excuse and say that everyone is oppressed. But if one would rather get clear about what oppression is and is not, one needs to sort out the sufferings, harms and limitations and figure out which are elements of oppression and which are not.
From what I have already said here, it is clear that if one wants to determine whether a particular suffering, harm or limitation is part of someone’s being oppressed, one has to look at it in context in order to tell whether it is an element in an oppressive structure: one has to see if it is part of an enclosing structure of forces and barriers which tends to the immobilization and reduction of a group or category of people. One has to look at how the barrier or force fits with others and to whose benefit or detriment it works. As soon as one looks at examples, it becomes obvious that not everything which frustrates or limits a person is oppressive, and not every harm or damage is due to or contributes to oppression.
If a rich white playboy who lives off income from his investments in South African diamond mines should break a leg in a skiing accident at Aspen and wait in pain in a blizzard for hours before he is rescued, we may assume that in that period he suffers. But the suffering comes to an end; his leg is repaired by the best surgeon money can buy and he is soon recuperating in a lavish suite, sipping Chivas Regal. Nothing in this picture suggests a structure of barriers and forces. He is a member of several oppressor groups and does not suddenly become oppressed because he is injured and in pain. Even if the accident was caused by someone’s malicious negligence, and hence someone can be blamed for it and morally faulted, that person still has not been an agent of oppression.
Consider also the restriction of having to drive one’s vehicle on a certain side of the road. There is no doubt that this restriction is almost unbearably frustrating at times, when one’s lane is not moving and the other lane is clear. There are surely times, even, when abiding by this regulation would have harmful consequences. But the restriction is obviously wholesome for most of us most of the time. The restraint is imposed for our benefit, and does benefit us; its operation tends to encourage our continued motion, not to immobilize us. The limits imposed by traffic regulations are limits most of us would cheerfully impose on ourselves given that we knew others would follow them too. They are part of a structure which shapes our behavior, not to our reduction and immobilization, but rather to the protection of our continued ability to move and act as we will.
Another example: The boundaries of a racial ghetto in an American city serve to some extent to keep white people from going in, as well as to keep ghetto dwellers from going out. A particular white citizen may be frustrated or feel deprived because s/he cannot stroll around there and enjoy the “exotic” aura of a “foreign” culture, or shop for bargains in the ghetto swap shops. In fact, the existence of the ghetto, of racial segregation, does deprive the white person of knowledge and harm her/his character by nurturing unwarranted feelings of superiority. But this does not make the white person in this situation a member of an oppressed race or a person oppressed because of her/his race. One must look at the barrier. It limits the activities and the access of those on both sides of it (though to different degrees). But it is a product of the intention, planning and action of whites for the benefit of whites, to secure and maintain privileges that are available to whites generally, as members of the dominant and privileged group. Though the existence of the barrier has some bad consequences for whites, the barrier does not exist in systematic relationship with other barriers and forces forming a structure oppressive to whites; quite the contrary. It is part of a structure which oppresses the ghetto dwellers and thereby (and by white intention) protects and furthers white interests as dominant white culture understands them. This barrier is not oppressive to whites, even though it is a barrier to whites.
Barriers have different meanings to those on opposite sides of them, even though they are barriers to both. The physical walls of a prison no more dissolve to let an outsider in than to let an insider out, but for the insider they are confining and limiting while to the outsider they may mean protection from what s/he takes to be threats posed by insiders-freedom from harm or anxiety. A set of social and economic barriers and forces separating two groups may be felt, even painfully, by members of both groups and yet may mean confinement to one and liberty and enlargement of opportunity to the other.
The service sector of the wives/mommas/assistants/girls is almost exclusively a woman-only sector; its boundaries not only enclose women but to a very great extent keep men out. Some men sometimes encounter this barrier and experience it as a restriction on their movements, their activities, their control or their choices of “lifestyle.” Thinking they might like the simple nurturant life (which they may imagine to be quite free of stress, alienation and hard work), and feeling deprived since it seems closed to them, they thereupon announce the discovery that they are oppressed, too, by “sex roles.” But that barrier is erected and maintained by men, for the benefit of men. It consists of cultural and economic forces and pressures in a culture and economy controlled by men in which, at every economic level and in all racial and ethnic subcultures, economy, tradition-and even ideologies of liberation-work to keep at least local culture and economy in male control.*
(* Of course this is complicated by race and class. Machismo and “Black manhood” politics seem to help keep Latin or Black men in control of more cash than Latin or Black women control; but these politics seem to me also to ultimately help keep the larger economy in white male control.)
The boundary that sets apart women’s sphere is maintained and promoted by men generally for the benefit of men generally, and men generally do benefit from its existence, even the man who bumps into it and complains of the inconvenience. That barrier is protecting his classification and status as a male, as superior, as having a right to sexual access to a female or females. It protects a kind of citizenship which is superior to that of females of his class and race, his access to a wider range of better paying and higher status work, and his right to prefer unemployment to the degradation of doing lower status or “women’s” work.
If a person’s life or activity is affected by some force or barrier that person encounters, one may not conclude that the person is oppressed simply because the person encounters that barrier or force; nor simply because the encounter is unpleasant, frustrating or painful to that person at that time; nor simply because the existence of the barrier or force, or the processes which maintain or apply it, serve to deprive that person of something of value. One must look at the barrier or force and answer certain questions about it. Who constructs and maintains it? Whose interests are served by its existence? Is it part of a structure which tends to confine, reduce and immobilize some group? Is the individual a member of the confined group? Various forces, barriers and limitations a person may encounter or live with may be part of an oppressive structure or not, and if they are, that person may be on either the oppressed or the oppressor side of it. One cannot tell which by how loudly or how little the person complains.
Many of the restrictions and limitations we live with are more or less internalized and self-monitored, and are part of our adaptations to the requirements and expectations imposed by the needs and tastes and tyrannies of others. I have in mind such things as women’s cramped postures and attenuated strides and men’s restraint of emotional self-expression (except for anger). Who gets what out of the practice of those disciplines, and who imposes what penalties for improper relaxations of them? What are the rewards of this self-discipline?
Can men cry? Yes, in the company of women. If a man cannot cry, it is in the company of men that he cannot cry. It is men, not women, who require this restraint; and men not only require it, they reward it. The man who maintains a steely or tough or laid-back demeanor (all are forms which suggest invulnerability) marks himself as a member of the male community and is esteemed by other men. Consequently, the maintenance of that demeanor contributes to the man’s self-esteem. It is felt as good, and he can feel good about himself. The way this restriction fits into the structures of men’s lives is as one of the socially required behaviors which, if carried off, contribute to their acceptance and respect by significant others and to their own self-esteem. It is to their benefit to practice this discipline.
Consider, by comparison, the discipline of women’s cramped physical postures and attenuated stride. This discipline can be relaxed in the company of women; it generally is at its most strenuous in the company of men. * Like men’s emotional restraint, women’s physical restraint is required by men. But unlike the case of men’s emotional restraint, women’s physical restraint is not rewarded. What do we get for it? Respect and esteem and acceptance? No. They mock us and parody our mincing steps. We look silly, incompetent, weak and generally contemptible. Our exercise of this discipline tends to low esteem and low self-esteem. It does not benefit us. It fits in a network of behaviors through which we constantly announce to others our membership in a lower caste and our unwillingness and/or inability to defend our bodily or moral integrity. It is degrading and part of a pattern of degradation.
Acceptable behavior for both groups, men and women, involves a required restraint that seems in itself silly and perhaps damaging. But the social effect is drastically different. The woman’s restraint is part of a structure oppressive to women; the man’s restraint is part of a structure oppressive to women.
(*Cf., Let’s Take Back OUT Space: “Female” and “Male ” Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures, by Marianne Wex (Frauenliteratureverlag Hermine Fees, West Germany, 1979), especially p. 173. This remarkable book presents literally thousands of candid photographs of women and men, in public, seated, standing and lying down. It vividly demonstrates the very systematic differences in women’s and men’s postures and gestures.)
One is marked for application of oppressive pressures by one’s membership in some group or category. Much of one’s suffering and frustration befalls one partly or largely because one is a member of that category. In the case at hand, it is the category, woman. Being a woman is a major factor in my not having a better job than I do; being a woman selects me as a likely victim of sexual assault or harassment; it is my being a woman that reduces the power of my anger to a proof of my insanity. If a woman has little or no economic or political power, or achieves little of what she wants to achieve a major causal factor in this is that she is a woman. For any woman of any race or economic class, being a woman is significantly attached to whatever disadvantages and deprivations she suffers, be they great or small.
None of this is the case with respect to a person’s being a man. Simply being a man is not what stands between him and a better job; whatever assaults and harassments he is subject to, being male is not what selects him for victimization; being male is not a factor which would make his anger impotent-quite the opposite. If a man has little or no material or political power, or achieves little of what he wants to achieve, his being male is no part of the explanation. Being male is something he has going/or him, even if race or class or age or disability is going against him.
Women are oppressed, as women. Members of certain racial and/or economic groups and classes, both the males and the females, are oppressed as members of those races and/or classes. But men are not oppressed as men.
… and isn’t it strange that any of us should have been confused and mystified about such a simple thing?
1. This example is derived from Daddy Was A Number Runner, by Louise Meriwether (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1970), p.144.
From: Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality (Trumansburg, N.Y.,: The Crossing Press, 1983).
..Some rambling thoughts on a recent trip to New Orleans, and Spender’s “Man Made Language.”
It is my assertion that patriarchy, male dominance over women, is accomplished by the suppression of the female will. I make a distinction between the suppression of female will and the collection, appropriation/diversion of female/creative power, which is more akin to the fuel that patriarchy runs on. But for the creation and maintenance of this current system of human male dominance, it was and is necessary to suppress the female will.
Women live in a constant state of suppressed willpower. It is responsible for some, not all, cases of depression, eating disorders, shopping addiction, anger issues, horizontal and downward-directed vertical attacks (kids, other women, people further down the totem pole racially and class-wise). There is simply no way for the built up energy of existing as a female in patriarchy to be expressed because to express it directly would cause the end of patriarchy. As strong and spirited women know, there is also no way to exist without expressing it. We learn to express will/energy in outlets of all kinds, but the righteous rage that centers in the seat of our wills is never expressed directlyor fully because the suppression of it equals the suppression of righteous freedom necessary to create and maintain patriarchy. This patriarchal reality necessitates a cover up of natural-righteous tendency and flow to exist.
Take the City of New Orleans in Louisiana, which I want to use as a gut level example because the dynamic there is so striking. If a person set out to build a city and locate it in the worst possible location she could find, the crescent just north of where the Mississippi cuts down through the swamps to run into the Gulf of Mexico is the spot. The area is marsh and the entire city is set on an alluvial floodplain- essentially, loose mineral mud that is more or less constantly drenched by the seasonal rise and fall of the Mississippi’s banks. Additionally, the floodplain supersedes its past high levels at regular intervals and so the task of maintaining a civilization in New Orleans is one of living against everything one encounters there. The city is built over top of the Mississippi’s reality and in a constant and absolutely necessary, for its own maintenance, antagonism with that reality.
Patriarchy is exactly this to what is/femaleness. Patriarchy is a construction laid over top of (life, nature, females, balance, what is-pick your word). Patriarchy has built from a base of entitlement/enfranchisement of men and the goal of male satisfaction and happiness to the exclusion of all other interests, a system of distributing credibility from men to other men who support their agendas, a legitimization of knowledge based on that credibility, a codifying of knowledge, and a definition of reality based on that knowledge.
I don’t know what is wrong with dudes yet so I can’t put it into this writing, but what is right inside of women comes out from the inside, exuberant aliveness, statis, harmony even in natural cycles of death and destruction, cyclical and nourishing like the Mississippi flood waters.
So what if the residents of New Orleans succeeded in suppressing the Mississippi’s flood cycles so they could live on dry land with no fear of flooding or interruption of their lives? That water doesn’t just go away, because it doesn’t come from nowhere. Water would continue to be produced, even if its rise and spread over the Mississippi’s banks was suppressed. It would go other places. And if it was suppressed there, where would it go? what would happen if no water were allowed to drench the earth in any area because we, humans, had other things to do and we couldn’t afford to let the natural water cycles of earth complete?
I’m not going to go off because now everyone has a mental picture. It’s the same with patriarchal suppression of female will. Buried deep, that willpower turns some women to steel. It can make us inflexible, controlling, bitter and brittle, dry on the outside, dry without love, from the things we’ve experienced and not been able to process or express or even fully experience because our experience was already decided and defined, as was its acceptable expression, long before it happened to us. Our willpower should be the deciding factor in what we do with our lives, but instead it is buried. Choices are predecided, and enough has been written for us all to be able to understand the illusory nature of female choice within patriarchy.
But being embittered indicates a real violation unless women’s capacity to judge their experiences has already been stigmatized, making our own judgments and yes, impulses, already dead on arrival when we move through experiences in our lives, or they happen to us. We know that reality is defined at the expense of female credibility, but how does the stigmatization of female credibility negatively affect our desire to express our will?
Having a constructed reality that demoralizes women constantly is a major factor in creating depression and resistance to expression of the will at great personal cost by women. Many women feel resistant to expressing their emotional will because they realize or intrinsically grasp the fact that expressing discontent with the status quo a la male dominance is to those around them a signal for social correctives. This is built into patriarchy, and manifests as personal detriment and stigmatization to the women who dare to express it. Ridicule, shaming on various levels and from various angles, ostracization, judgment, diagnosis, and social isolation are a few of the results. At the very least, we have seen in the last 30 years that if a woman is really going to criticize patriarchy, she had better be socially adept, cute, feminine, happy, or have a capitalist agenda attached to her complaints. Or at least wear a skirt. When women’s wills truly diverge from the feminine appearance, behavior, and socialization mandates not only in word but in deed, our credibility and enfranchisement, our inclusion in reality, even in sanity, declines in direct proportion.
Levels of willpower expression move generally from subtle body language indicators to verbal expressions of pleasure/displeasure/intention/requests to physical and energetic movement towards goals and objectives. It is much more tolerable for a woman to speak out about things that she objects to regarding patriarchy than to actively stop participating in those things. Discharging aggression in speech and thought about feminist issues without taking the willpower to the level of action can actually be good for patriarchy. In an abusive relationship, as long as there is a dialogue going about the abuse, the abuse is likely to continue. It’s when the victim stops dialoguing and starts making behavior changes that the situation tends to escalate or the cycle be broken (depending).
from “Man-Made Language,” by Dale Spender:
“When modern feminists first began to be suspicious of the methods which had been used to construct knowledge, they were often cautiously critical. Reared in a culture which would have us believe in the absolute nature of “objective facts,” it was sometimes too much to comprehend in a short space of time the nature and the extent of the hoax which had been perpetrated…the patriarchal criteria of credibility, when placed under feminist scrutiny, began to emerge as yet another set of male meanings, another male encoded dogma no more or less credible than its religious predecessor.” (p.60)
We know that reality is defined by those in power. How is credibility related to reality, and to the right to define reality for ourselves and also for those around us or far away- those who coexist?
Credibility is defined as the quality of being believable or trustworthy. As the quality or capacity or power to elicit belief. Because the socio-human reality is a construction (i.e. we are doing things that go above and beyond our survival and stasis with our surroundings, we have created a constructed purpose and social/other environment for ourselves) it goes without saying that to elicit belief from other people is to garner the social resource to author future proceedings. Authoritative control over the future is the essence of constructing the social reality that humans live in= culture, “civilization,”…patriarchy. Being credible is a stake in controlling one’s experience.
Let’s take one of the subtleties of Spender’s above statement- that knowledge is a construction. I agree with this on such a gut level. Being a believer that “knowledge,” “rationality,” “logic,” are all thinly veiled synonyms for a constructed misogynist philisophical backdrop to the implementation of abuse of women in the pursuit of male satisfaction and pleasure, I am interested in how the construction of knowledge relates to the authority to define reality. It seems a fairly obvious statement that men dispense credibility in patriarchy, that credibility legitimates information as “knowledge,” and that those who “know” define reality.
“Michael Young defines knowledge as ‘available sets of meaning,’ and the knowledge which we have inherited has been constructed mostly by males in their attempt to provide meaning for their existence…if women are to have their own voice and not just to echo men, then new cerebration, a new way of knowing is required.” (p.59)
In thinking about the ways in which men have codified, commodified and put conditions on credibility, knowledge and reality, I have a few questions:
-How would/will women derive our knowledge?
-How will women define knowledge?
-How will women codify knowledge? Would we be interested in codifying the human experience in order to have a common language of experiental definition? Or would we be content with the diversity of individual experience?
-If women defined social reality as men now do, I wonder if our internal knowing would influence our will, and we could allow that will to influence our definition of knowledge, credibility, and reality?
-Would a female defined existence necessarily need to seek to codify credibility as men have? Or are women capable of the kind of respect that needs no standard to define a reality for everyone? Are we able to see the arrogance and inherent power-over that is present in that kind of existence?
-Further-would we be able to recognize the hubris in attempting to legitimate, socially or experientially, someone else’s credibility with regards to their own experience? Would we be able to see that there is no need to codify reality or knowledge unless there is a shared agenda that excludes certain experience to remain legitimate?
-What does the structure of patriarchal social criteria for credibility and its stigmatizing/corrective systems look like? I will probably pick up here in the next essay.