Academic Essays: The Roles of Intersectionality, History, Coalitions and Post-modern Thought

book sale loot by ginnerobot, on Flickr

Note: This entry is actually composed of two papers that I was assigned to write over the course of this past year. While academia isn’t for everyone, nor is it essential for engagement with feminism, I think that these essays do a relatively good job of describing the theoretical framework I tend to write from. It’s not exhaustive of course, but hopefully someone out there will find it useful.

Essay 1: Diversity of Feminisms

Works Referenced:
Jaggar, Allison. 2008. “Feminist Postmodernism: Knowledges as Partial, Contingent, and Historically Informed” in Just Methods. Paradigm Press.
Reagon, Bernice. 1983. “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Kitchen Table Press.
Murollo, Priscilla. October 10, 2007. “Rethinking Feminism”: Talk in Portland, ME.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 1992. “Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience” in Destabilizing Theory, eds. Michele Barrett & Ann Phillips. Stanford University Press.

In this week’s readings, the authors discussed and explored the important role of perspective in feminist thought. Explicitly challenged is the idea that there is one true and central Feminism, from which all other strains of feminist subgenres can trace their roots. Murolo provides background to the development of this prominent notion, explaining that 20th century historians erroneously placed Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony at the center of the women’s suffrage movement because of a particularly verbose account of the movement that was written from their perspective (2007: 3). These errors were again repeated when scholars overstressed the weight of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, unfortunately assuming that Friedan was solely  responsible for kindling the flame that would become the wildfire of feminism’s second wave (15). There is something to be said about the influence of bias in historical scholarship, or specifically, the idea that women like Stanton, Anthony, and Friedan stand out because their race and class privilege match the demographics of the average historian (14). While this criticism of the relationship of recorded history and historian bias is important, it is simply one piece of a bigger puzzle.

The underlying issue is perhaps the misconception that there is any single genesis for feminism, or that “Feminism with a capital F” exists at all (14-15). In her explanation of postmodern feminism, Jaggar asserts that feminism as a single truth or comprehensive theory does not and cannot exist. Rather, she explains, “Postmodern feminist researchers cannot pretend to offer one true story, but instead must recognize that many stories may be told, each incorporating a partial truth. They cannot hope to aggregate these partial truths into some comprehensive or impartial theory because more stories will always emerge” [emphasis added] (2008: 345). This is in keeping with postmodern thought about the notion of reality itself, which is not just subjective, but is also co-constructed by researchers and other seekers of knowledge (343). Therefore, the narrative of a central White Women’s Feminism is not simply a racist and xenophobic mistake, it is a jointly epistemological and ontological impossibility.

This tension reasserts itself in Mohanty’s criticisms of the concept of a ubiquitous feminist sisterhood. We cannot overcome the problematic structure of White Women’s Feminism by simply insisting that, even in the absence of a central Feminist command center, that at least we are all joined by a single thread of empathy or shared values or experiences that joins us all together. She writes, “…The insistence that we must easily ‘recognize one another’ indicates what is left unsaid: we must identify with all women. But it is difficult to imagine such a generalized identification predicated on the commonality of women’s interests and goals across very real divisive class and ethnic lines…” (1992: 83). While  the idea that actually, we’re all the same, and we’re all in this together might be comforting (especially to guilt-saddled, rich white women), it is neither pragmatic nor particularly inclusive. As Reagon deftly points out, “There are people who prioritize cutting the line of struggle. And they say the cutting line is this issue, and more than anything we must move on this issue and that’s automatically saying that whatever’s bothering you will be put down if you bring it up” (1983: 509). If and when feminists decide to “cut the line of struggle” at the shared, “universal” experiences of women, an unacceptable proportion of women will find that as a prerequisite to participation, their problems will necessarily either be dismissed or appropriated.

While dispelling the myth of universal womanhood, Reagon emphasizes the utility of joining forces, or as she calls it, forming “coalitions.” She writes, “You don’t go into coalition because you just  like it. The only reason you would consider trying to team up with somebody who could possibly kill you, is because that’s the only way you can figure you can stay alive” (504). In this framework, feminist movements needn’t consist of an expansive group of women who are all united by their inherent commonality. Women can coalesce while still acknowledging their disparate backgrounds, their autonomous interests, and the fact that joining is not predicated by a recruitment or education effort. There is no group that invented Feminism and then invited fringe groups into their clubhouse. Women can and do spontaneously invent their own feminisms which speak specifically to their own experiences. If global feminism is a goal that can be realized, it is better understood as a network of alliances rather than a uniform mass.

While this goal is intellectually accessible, it is difficult in application. Doubtlessly, there are reasons why women of various races, classes, and nations have remained in parallel feminisms rather than reaching out to establish those alliances. I couldn’t help but find myself wincing from time to time as I read Reagon’s sharp observations about white women who will accept black women, as long as those black women are already like them. I was reminded that the solution to bigotry is not to pretend that we’re all the same, but rather to attribute value to members of other groups even when they are not and will never be like us. It is not enough to have one or two black friends who already like all of the same things that I like and believe all of the things I believe and see white people the way that we may want to be seen (“No, of course you’re not part of the problem, it’s those other white people”). Further, it is not sufficient to conceptualize alliances between diverse groups as examples of the advantaged reaching down to “help” the disadvantaged.

When economically privileged white women place ourselves at the center of the feminist universe, we allow ourselves to smugly pretend that alliances are important because they need us. It is uncomfortable, to say the least, to admit that a coalition is necessary because we need each other. I mentioned in class recently that a relative had criticized my interest in feminist activism because, if I was so worried about the conditions for women, why wasn’t I doing anything for the women in the middle east, who are surely suffering more right now? At the time I had answered that I was focusing on things that are happening here because there is still work to be done here. The painfully obvious reality (which of course did not occur to me at the time) is that women overseas have their own feminist movements, to which I likely have nothing special to contribute.

As a foreign woman who knows almost nothing about the culture, the language, or the specific lived experiences of women in any part of the middle east, what value would I bring to their movement? It is absurd to think that somehow, perhaps through virtue of my whiteness or my Americanness or some other aspect of my privilege, I would be qualified to rescue those women with my feminism rather than trusting their abilities to develop and maintain their own resistances. In stark contrast, I watch in awe as each new interview with 16 year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai hits the American press, overwhelmed by her bravery and obvious dedication to women. Why would I, and how could I, believe that her movement needs someone like me more than my movement needs someone like her?

Such humbling themes repeat themselves, ad infinitum, as I examine my attitudes about race, class, and nationality. Even within the confines of the United States, I find myself wondering how to bridge the gap between the parallel feminisms belonging respectively to white women and  to women of color, particularly if those women of color resent white women and don’t want our brand of “help.” While I have never been the sort of person to bemoan the injustice of “reverse racism” (a patently ridiculous term), I have noticed occasional undercurrents of hostility in conversations with some women of color. I have come to accept that sometimes we will have little in common and sometimes they won’t like me, and sometimes their dislike may have some racial influence behind it. And so, unsurprisingly, my response has generally been to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed and back away.

However, my interest in intersectionality and becoming a good ally does not vanish away. Reagon’s argument seems predicated on the assumption that women of color will want to join with white women in pursuit of feminist goals. In my experience, that does not always ring true. Women of color often seem to be justifiably angry and comfortable in their own feminisms.  And so I sit, puzzling over how to make use of an argument predicated on why we should rather than how we can. In this new era, where the why has become more and more firmly established, the how can still seem elusive. What can we do about that? Or, perhaps more importantly, who can do something about that? There seems to be no easy answers, or at least none that I can think of.

 Essay 2: Charlotte Perkins Gilman & Contemporary Perspective

Works Referenced:

West, Candace and Don H. Zimmerman. 1987. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society. 1(2):125-151.

The following are excerpts from Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory, 2nd ed., edited by Scott A. Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles. Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press
Butler, Judith. 2012. “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.” Pp. 602-605
Connell, R.W. 2012. “Change Among the Gatekeepers: Men, Masculinities, and Gender Equality in the Global Arena.” Pp. 590-598
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. 2012. “Women and Economics.” Pp. 198-217

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a pioneer of feminist thought at a time when being a feminist was deeply subversive and alienating. While, by today’s standards, some of Gilman’s ideas may seem obvious or even regressive, she laid a foundation for the great feminist thinkers who would follow her. Academically, Gilman sought to uncover the social patterns and dynamics that fostered the oppression of women while promoting the dominance of men. Biographically, she was a prominent figure in the women’s suffrage movement, in addition to choosing a lifestyle that bore little resemblance to the gendered expectations for a woman in her time (Applerouth & Edles 2012:189). Much has been accomplished in the feminist movement since the publication of her works: women have gained the right to vote, the ability to join the professional workforce, the legal ability to make important choices about reproductive health, and much more. However, even in light of these advances, some of Gilman’s observations between the relationships of men and women still hold true. By comparing her groundbreaking sociological work “Women and Economics” to contemporary pieces by R.W. Connell, Judith Butler, Candace West, and Don Zimmerman, this essay will explore the ways that Gilman’s theories intersect with and diverge from current feminist thought.

An immediate shortcoming in “Women and Economics” lies in Gilman’s inability to see outside her own white, heterosexual, cisgendered experience. Gilman, to her credit, does express frustration at the prospect of all women being lumped into one category, noting “The consensus of public opinion of all time goes to show that characteristics common to the sex have predominated over the characteristics distinctive of the individual,” (2012:210). However, postmodernist feminist authors like Butler take this sentiment much further, going so far as to wonder whether or not women have enough in common to be meaningfully grouped together at all. Butler writes, “The term fails to be exhaustive… because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities,” (2012:603). While this is not necessarily the dominant view in all of today’s feminist works, it is certainly a perspective worth taking into consideration.

Gilman’s writings about the sex-relation between men and women makes explicit assumptions about universal heterosexuality. Gilman writes,”The immediately acting cause of sex attraction is sex-distinction. The more widely the sexes are differentiated, the more forcibly they are attracted to each other. The more highly developed becomes the distinction of sex in either organism, the more intense is its attraction for the other,” (2012:205). Setting aside for the moment the fact that this does not even accurately describe all heterosexuals, this viewpoint typifies Butler’s concept of the “heterosexual matrix” wherein the allegedly dichotomous biological characteristics of men and women are understood primarily in the context of heterosexual relationships and attractions (Applerouth & Edles 2012:600). This concept is echoed by West & Zimmerman, who write,

Assortative mating practices among heterosexual couples afford still further means to create and maintain differences between women and men. For example, even though size, strength, and age tend to be normally distributed among females and males (with considerable overlap between them), selective pairing ensures couples in which boys and men are visibly bigger, stronger, and older (1987:138).

Outside the heterosexual framework, Gilman’s argument does not stand up very well on its own, thusly preventing it from being accurately generalizable.

At times, Gilman seems to subscribe to a view of sex and gender that is uncomfortably deterministic. Throughout her work, she describes men as generally being plagued by “belligerence” and “the tendency to fight,” in contrast to women who are supposedly gifted with “maternal passion” and “modesty,” (2012:208). This perspective is curious, considering the fact that Gilman herself clearly and openly did not possess an abundance of maternal passion for her own child (Applerouth & Edles 2012:189). In contrast, Connell writes about the ability of men to rise above their negative stereotypes, noting that advances in research have dismantled the problematic idea “that men cannot change their ways, that ‘boys will be boys,’ that rape, war, sexism, domestic violence, aggression, and self-centeredness are natural to men,” (2012:595). While Gilman may have been interested in promoting women as being superior to men (Applerouth & Edles 2012:191), today’s feminist movements seek to eliminate gender inequality altogether.

Despite having some ideas that are worthy of criticism by today’s standards, there is also a great deal of overlap between Gilman’s theories and contemporary theory. Like many of today’s feminist scholars, Gilman is quick to identify and criticize the tendency of society to manufacture artificial sex differences where none actually exist. Gilman writes, “In our steady insistence on proclaiming sex distinction we have grown to consider most human attributes as masculine attributes, for the simple reason that they were allowed to men and forbidden to women,” (2012:210). In so doing, she aptly notes that these manufactured “differences” serve the purpose of reinforcing the power structure. West & Zimmerman echo this viewpoint, writing, “If, in doing gender, men are also doing dominance and women are doing deference, the resultant social order, which supposedly reflects ‘natural differences,’ is a powerful reinforcer and legitimator of hierarchical arrangements,” (1987:144). Through the enactment of these attitudes, gender inequality is bolstered daily on an interactional level.

Gilman was particularly bothered by the systematic gender division of babies and children. She contends that, because boys and girls have the same needs, gender socialization at a young age is particularly egregious. At this stage, Gilman characterizes young girls as already being victims of oppression, while young boys are essentially permitted to play and do as they wish (2012:211). West & Zimmerman express similar concerns, noting that boys are encouraged to engage in empowering play while girls are essentially groomed to become “ornamental objects.” What’s more, children learn in no uncertain terms that participation in this gender system is not optional (1987:141). Gilman laments the fact that “One of the first things we force upon the child’s dawning consciousness is that he is a boy or that she is a girl, and that, therefore, each must regard everything from a different point of view,” (2012:211).

One of the major themes of “Women and Economics” is the idea that gender inequality is not only bad for women, it’s also bad for the human race as a whole. Because women, composing approximately half of the world, were not allowed at that time to engage in creative professional pursuits, the potential progress of humanity was severely inhibited. On page 217, she writes,

“Woman has been checked, starved, aborted in human growth; and the swelling forces of race development have been driven back in each generation to work in her through sex-functions alone. This is the way in which the sexuo-economic relation has operated in our species, checking race-development in half of us, and stimulating sex-development in both.”

Despite not focusing on that exact issue, Connell enumerates many other ways that the negative effects of gender inequality branch out beyond just women. She writes, “If we look separately at each of the substructures of gender, we find a pattern of advantages for men but also a linked pattern of disadvantages or toxicity,” (2012:593). Connell explains that the disadvantages not only coexist with the advantages of male dominance, but are actually direct products of it. For example, “Men cannot be the beneficiaries of women’s domestic labor and ’emotion work’ without many of them losing intimate connections, for instance, with young children,” (Connell 2012:594). Whether discussing the good of society as a whole or the specific benefits of individuals, it is clear that Gilman and Connell are in agreement that the achievement of feminist goals is in the interest of both men and women.

In summary, many of the specific topics that compose Gilman’s work are less relevant today than they would have been in her time. Women in the United States have long since been able to participate in the work force, but with that entry came a host of new problems to address pertaining to evolving gender inequality. Additionally, Gilman’s troubling use of biological determinism coupled with her narrow scope of feminist issues gives cause for due criticism. With that being said, Gilman’s contributions to feminism were quite extraordinary for her place in history. Many of Gilman’s concepts, while not always fully developed, provide a thoughtful jumping off point for new feminist theories and research. Though her work is far from perfect, much of it is still useful today.


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