Motherhood Privilege

I wanted to entitle this piece “Privilege in Oppression Theory: Privilege in Feminism (Or: What You Want to Believe Doesn’t Exist, or is Too Complicated, is Merely Your Denying Your Actual Privilege; No, Really)”.

I’m exceedingly frustrated — as you can probably tell from the snarky, wanted-to title. But for good reason. Male privilege? Sure, feminists get that, even as they also (mostly) get that Black men are incarcerated at an absolutely unjust rate. Men have privilege merely for being male, but it isn’t always luxurious. White privilege? No problem, here, either. Whites have relative ease, and … if nothing else, think about the rate of Black incarceration. Privileging of motherhood? No way! It’s all about MY mother, or MY life — or MY wife — and how horrible the culture is to her.

No one white whines, “My dad died from job-related cancer at his factory job, SO THERE IS NO WHITE PRIVILEGE! And there’s no whining because we’ve mostly stopped saying aloud that Those Jobs, the dangerous working-class ones, should go to Black and brown men. In part, this is because those jobs, often the remaining union ones, pay a near-living wage. Now women and men alike are clamoring for them, in a culture that has produced only service-sector (burger-flipping) jobs, or otherwise-menial jobs requiring multiple degrees.

No feminist, or pro-feminist male, whines, “My brother couldn’t get a job because they kept hiring females instead!” Partly this is because when a job classification has a preponderance of females, it loses status. And for men in western culture, it’s all about status, masculinity, about being seen as ‘not like women.’

In these two areas, most people understand that privilege doesn’t mean A Life of Luxury. Privilege simply means better treatment compared with a reference group. Men are treated better than women; maleness is higher on the hierarchy than is femaleness. Whites are treated better than are people of Color; whiteness is at the top of the racial hierarchy. Privilege simply means better treatment than that other, related group — related via race, sex, etc. This holds, consistently, uniformly, and really, really well until … motherhood. And I really, really want to know why.

I suspect that part of it is that women are still seen as being ‘designed for motherhood.’ Species continuation, as if too few humans were an immediate issue. Still, no matter our politics, motherhood often just feels natural. And right. And personally important — because without motherhood WE, personally, would not be here. Our very lives have depended on motherhood. To question any of it means to question the rightness of our own, very personal, existence! I suspect another part of it is that we are, when we think of humans as a group, still quite lesbophobic. Sure, Some of Our Best Friends Are, but we still don’t think of Them as equal. Or superior! As having excellent, inherent answers to pressing cultural concerns. Like too many people, like female support for patriarchy, like maintenance of the exiting hierarchy of female subordination and all it entails — including the maintenance of femininity. Heterosexuality is complicity. Seeing that is painful, too big a reach for most hets, and too hard to grasp without turning self and beliefs inside out and upside down. Nope, no real questioning of that is going to happen for the vast majority of far-leftists, even radical feminist activists.

Well, tough shit. Some of us are brave in this area, and would like to see others catch up. I remember the feminism of the 70s, where EVERYTHING was questioned. Women were far braver then than the backlash faux-feminists of this era ever dreamed of being. Which is also tough to deal with, for some. Too many women believe the New! Improved! claims of advertising somehow apply to feminism. Coziness, comfort, navel-gazing, a belief that If It Feels Good It Can’t Be Questioned, came into politics in the 80s and settled deeply in the 90s. Single issue ‘activism’ became normalized. Women could unite, never mind worrying about the messiness of race. Fat people could come together, never mind the messiness of hierarchies of sex, sexuality and actual love, race, class, and the rest. ‘Park your differences at the door’ bled from feminism into fat activism and elsewhere, and those of us who were never single issue activists were stunned. (All three of us.) Clearly I’m still pissed. And not likely to get over it. (OK, there are more than three, but not enough more, who get it.)

Part of it, which needs saying, is that it’s cultural, sub-cultural, even racial: for minority groups, and for people of Color, women not reproducing can feel like genocide. So outgroup women and women of Color have a sacred obligation to continue their people, their race(s). Conservatives distraught at the impending white minority classification, and the rise of outgroups, certainly reinforce it, and the world sure doesn’t need more first world, entitled whites. But women as obligatory Breeders of the People is a problem, a feminist problem, a huge problem for proponents of social justice. No one can be used against their own interests for the betterment of the group without damaging the group. In fact, no one who is legitimately marginalized can be claimed as a part of a group without their permission. (Lizard Man and T-Culters don’t qualify as ‘legitimate’ within radical feminism.)

Another issue is that lesbians capitulated to the cult of motherhood in the 80s. I was one of them, a fact that deeply shames me now. But it’s done and what I can do now, all I can do, is support more-marginalized women and call out the truth as best I see it. And that truth, here, is that motherhood is decidedly and clearly privileged.

Elite-caste characteristics are privileged: maleness and whiteness are two good examples of immutable characteristics, decidedly privileged. Another is white patriarchy’s consensus on physical attractiveness, the characteristics of which are rarely amenable to any lasting change. Think weight and body shape and size, coloration, physical features, and especially the smallness, weakness, and general paleness associated with ‘feminine beauty.’

Any conformity to the power-maintenance needs and the power-reinforcing wants of the elite is also privileged. These conformities CAN be changed. They are acceptances of the status quo, demanded by white supremacist patriarchy. Institutionalized inequity in the additional forms of heterosexuality over lesbianism and gay maleness, classism (economic AND subcultural/ worldview-based), and motherhood, fit into this category.

So can we start talking about it, with the understanding that privilege means better treatment compared with a reference group? And that your mother’s awful life, or your own, aren’t the point? And that if you cannot imagine how your mother’s life would have been different had she been lesbian AND resisted the baby-making mandate, or how your own or your wife’s life would have been different, you are denying privilege. No, really.

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Recently I was challenged in private correspondence on my view that motherhood is privileged within patriarchy. My friend insisted that feminism’s framing needs to be women vs. men; male supremacy is the real issue, and what happens between women is minor in comparison. This essay is an attempt to answer the challenge.



First some fundamentals:

Feminism is about, for, and by women and girls. That needs to be understood from the start. While male allies are welcome to consider and express alternate framings and explanations, feminist theory has to be constructed by females. Because only women and girls bear the burden of the oppression. Because the effects all accrue to females, only. This is not debatable; it is basic oppression theory.

A corollary: feminists are female. Period. Radical feminism is inherently trans-critical; men claiming to be women are appropriators. (Liberal feminists are collaborators, which I will explain later.)



Male allies may be called pro-feminists IF feminists find them to be true allies, but this designation is to be decided by women, feminists. Claiming to be an ally is all about intent, not identity. Being an ally is all about consistent behavior and action, not about a man’s right to claim the identity. Feminism may indirectly free or even empower men, but that is not and will never be its point. If the WATM (What About The Men?) whine ever comes up, that man is decidedly not an ally.



Radical feminism is also inherently pornstitution-critical. If a man jokes about pornography or prostitution as an OK, manly endeavor, he is not an ally.

Another corollary: women are born female; ‘woman’ is a word we NEED to explain female + human + adult. If we concede this term, Simone de Beauvoir notwithstanding (she could not have meant that adult human females do not exist), we infantilize all female human beings!

Privilege is always a comparison in treatment between two or more groups. Privilege is a hierarchy — it is reflective of the hierarchy of the power structure. Privilege is not negotiable; it exists, and it is present all the time.

There is one caveat to privilege, however: marginalized groups CAN be played against each other to further reinforce the dominants’ power. Anyone who prances into the realm of whether women’s oppression, male supremacy, is worse than people of Color’s oppression, white supremacy, is dancing on a foundation of the absurd. Men of Color often claim that racism is The Worst. White feminists often claim that sexism is The Worst. Both are right and both are wrong. Foremost, these claims force women of Color to choose artificially between sides while the sides further marginalize women of Color. But also it’s important to realize that placement on the hierarchy is entirely at the whim and option of those with the most power, anyway. Positioning is flexible, and kept that way in order to garner numbers in stifling uprisings by a marginalized group. Black men can be and have been useful in alignment with the elite white male power structure: think pornography, think prostitution, and the fact of Black male involvement and ties with white dominants in these arenas. White women can be and have been useful in alignment with the elite white male power structure: think of how convenient the myth of the Black welfare queen to the majority of public aid recipients who are white women. Think of how many times white women have placed their own emancipation ahead of Black women’s and Black men’s — from the early days of the anti-slavery and woman suffrage movements right up to mainstream feminism’s unwillingness to confront the prison industrial complex that incarcerates disproportionate numbers of Black men. Or think of how the human rights atrocities against Gaza are ignored in favor of the not-Arab Zionists, even among feminists.

All hierarchies matter. Foremost is the male over female power differential, the thing that women’s liberation seeks to obliterate. But in order to do so, all women must matter. In the current scheme, put forward by my pro-feminist friend, marginalized women are expected to contain their issues and discomforts until some later, post-revolution time, under the banner of sisterhood. But “white women first!” is not a radical rallying cry, nor is any version of ‘privileged women first.’ We have to dismantle the oppressions enacted by women on other women in order to have a valid feminism. We have to examine our presumptions, and our comforts with that which other women don’t have, in order to build a valid feminism. We aren’t there. And men pushing for the continued marginalization of some women are not feminists’ allies.

So let’s jump into the main theme, whether or not motherhood is privileged.

All too often, when motherhood is discussed, it is in terms of how mothers are abused within patriarchy. They are. Mothers are in many ways captives of the system. They are intimidated by threats and acts of violence into support of and complicities with the power structure. They are manipulated and controlled, wills bent and bodies bruised, because of caring for their (and more-powerful men’s) offspring. All this is terribly true and not the point. Motherhood is still privileged.

An outrage! How dare I?

I dare because privilege is about treatment relative to another group. While folks rail about how horribly mothers have it, they are not talking about disprivilege. There is no reference group, except maybe men, the aggressors. The fact of women’s disprivilege in relation to men is not being disputed, though. We know women are oppressed as women, including within their expected roles within the patriarchal scheme. Female oppression does not disprove the privileging of mothers!

Mothers are privileged relative to non-mothers, relative to childless or child-free women. Mothers are rewarded for their complicity in this patriarchal demand, even as they are abused by proximity to their oppressors.

This is an important point: proximity to oppressors always holds some risk. It was easier for men in a household to rape women who were enslaved in the house than those who were less available to male householders, say field enslaved women. The exception to that was if a male householder also claimed rights to access enslaved women in their private quarters. At any rate, proximity does mean an increase in typical and customary violence for the oppressed. A woman who works alone in close proximity with her male employer is at greater risk than would be the average woman among many in his employ. A woman alone on the street at night is in greater danger from male aggressors than is a woman behind locked doors and alone in her own home. A woman who is partnered with a man, or with teen-or-older male children or grandchildren, is in far greater danger of physical and sexual violation than is a woman who lives alone or with other women. This is female oppression by males. Of course it exists.

Somehow this idea of the reference group gets downplayed; folks want to dwell on how mothers are oppressed within patriarchy, and not with how they are privileged relative to non-mothers. Part of this is simply our culture’s disregard for non-mothers! They don’t matter!

Outrageous, daring me! I am going to talk about the dis-privileging of non-mothers. First, let’s consider the privileging:



http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/motherhood.html

There are telling quotes all over, here. One common theme is that motherhood is female-appropriately altruistic:

“The natural state of motherhood is unselfishness. When you become a mother, you are no longer the center of your own universe. You relinquish that position to your children.” — Jessica Lange

Men share knowledge (they don’t possess). Honore de Balzac: “It is only in the act of nursing that a woman realizes her motherhood in visible and tangible fashion; it is a joy of every moment.”

While women hope: that motherhood is “joyful,” enjoyable, “beautiful and significantly life-altering,” “humanizing,” a “glory” or “glorious blessing,” plus “bliss, love and fulfillment,” and of course linked to that other female fulfillment, marriage to a man. (It is heterosexist, it is heteronormative, at its core.)



A few women dissent: Barbara Walters suggests getting a puppy instead, while Rachel Cusk waffles: a woman is “Part martyr, part pioneer” with some women deriving “feelings of heroism, while others experience a sense of exile from the world they knew.” And Emma Goldman is quoted as having said, “Is there indeed anything more terrible, more criminal, than our glorified sacred function of motherhood?” Barbara Ehrenreich weighs in: “Take motherhood: nobody ever thought of putting it on a moral pedestal until some brash feminists pointed out, about a century ago, that the pay is lousy and the career ladder nonexistent.”

 But the problems with the dissent are many. Some waffle, while painfully few question the inherent complicities — that capitalism and its employment hierarchy is a given (the career ladder comment), that service to the patriarchy is still service to all of humankind, and is sacred. Loyalty to the power structure is not radical feminism; it is consistent with liberal feminism.

 But how is motherhood complicit?

First, the aggrandizement of motherhood is really about the favoring of sons — their creation, their nurture, their ultimate elevation into the power structure as high as they can go based on other factors, like race, class, and their own level of conformity. It is the duty of mothers to raise acculturated sons. Rape and male violence (down the hierarchy) are culturally-accepted norms. Mothers are to defend their sons against charges of rape and other forms of violence against ‘lessers,’ usually women but also marginalized men. And mothers do!

When I suggest that women’s loyalties must be to females, foremost, and against their misogynist sons, I get resistance. When I suggest that if a son rapes, is known to have raped, loyalty has to be to his victim, the female being, and he needs disowned, I hear, “How can you say this — he was born from my body, he is my child!?!” I can say it because it is high time our loyalties are to female humans. And I can say it because women defending the outrages done by patriarchy, even in the forms of their own sons, is a significant part of the problem. Patriarchy is maintained by unquestioned allegiances by the many, including the terribly-oppressed. All systems of subjugation can be reinforced this way (and usually are).

Second motherhood is, itself, loyalty to the norms of heterosexuality. I was at the time actually a part of the Great Lesbian Con into Motherhood. Lesbians everywhere were having children, and I wanted in! I read everywhere of women’s biological clocks and discovered I, too, had one! Is there an internal urge to procreate? There may well be, although I’m not convinced there is. Still, any valid urge or instinct is easily manipulable by incessant cultural pressure. Even more so if it’s subtle and proffered by members of your own minority group. The fact is that Lesbian Motherhood was an act of assimilation, complicity by its very nature. And I was a part of it. (Damn me!)

Third, motherhood brings rewards and attention at the expense of childless or child-free women. Women who eschew childbearing are “selfish,” and more. See this for many more:




http://bigthink.com/against-the-new-taboo/23-responses-to-23-awful-statements-made-to-childfree-people

Fourth, if we honestly examine the cultural talk and behavior around it, motherhood brings clear rewards and positive attention, especially at the beginning. Two women I’ve been close to in my lifetime have sought out becoming mothers repeatedly, in great part for the attention and praise it garnered. In a culture that ensures we have soul-holes, spaces in our psyches that leave us pained and vulnerable, self-doubting and searching for relief, two things emerge as solutions. One is finding others who compare unfavorably, and the other is finding ways that the power structure will reward us.

Women use weight in this way. Women will befriend fatter women so that they, themselves, appear thinner and therefore more attractive by fat-phobic cultural standards. And women will attempt to lose weight to gain cultural kudos, acceptance, and ‘desirability’ in the mating scheme. Mating schemes are taken as givens, with heterosexuality (fuckability in the eyes of men) as priority. And sisterhood is trounced in favor of personal gain, as women compete for the elusive fuckability-while-human (not merely being used but also at least marginally valued for her beingness).

An aside: in this Scheme of Het, can a conventionally-attractive woman ever be sure she is seen as a whole being, and not just valued as a Desirable Object? It seems better to not be conventionally-attractive! And yet can a conventionally-non-attractive woman ever be sure she is not being mentally replaced by a Better Object in his mind, that she’s the best he can get in reality but not in fantasy? Why, again, are women ever heterosexual? Add into this the extreme dangers faced routinely by women at the hands of men!

And the answer, of course, is at least in part because of the reward system. The privilege. And the comparison groups are lesbians, and asexuals who are willing to claim that. If motherhood is so maligned, why do women continue to reproduce? Again, because of the reward system, the privilege, in comparison to non-mothers, to childless and child-free women.

This is rough, a beginning. More with commentary. Thank you.

Is Gender Really A Hierarchy?

I’ve stumbled across the same line several times in radical feminist spaces: Gender is a hierarchy.

Sex is a hierarchy: male above female, man above woman, boy above girl. But gender, which even WHO, the World Health Organization, defines as masculinity or femininity, is a patriarchal construct much more complex than a simple hierarchy — gender is a system by which patriarchy rewards conformity. Framing gender as a hierarchy too easily leads to men being categorized as more oppressed than women. That’s my thesis here, so please pay attention to this line: Framing gender as a hierarchy too easily leads to men being categorized as more oppressed than women.

Radical feminism takes the stance — inherently — that gender is fake, a construct of patriarchy by and for the benefit of men; gender is invalid. For this reason alone it would seem that framing gender as a hierarchy is a waste of time. But even more, the concept of gender is so complex, and flexible in meanings, that it becomes more than a waste of time — gender reinforces anti-feminism. I’m picky on language. If you know me, you know that. But it’s for one reason alone — political expediency. If we don’t hone our definitions, they get used against us and weaken our movement. We have too few with too much to accomplish. Save energy: Get the definitions of the words we need to work for us, not against us.

Sex and ‘gender’ do overlap. Males are required to be masculine and females feminine: masculine men and feminine women conform to patriarchy’s “gender.” They are BOTH rewarded, even as the hierarchy of sex places men above women. This is an integral part of my thesis — Patriarchy is invested in seeing masculinity as an integral part of being male and femininity of being female, because if these things appear innate and sex-linked then patriarchy’s hand in the definitions remains invisible; it’s just the way it is. I accept here that patriarchy has the power to define words, and unless we have a great deal of energy to spare (we don’t), it’s probably best to use their definitions so long as they don’t damage our movement. In this case they don’t. Masculinity is expected of men, and femininity of women. Gender equals mandated sex roles.

And so what of ‘feminine men’ and ‘masculine women’? They. Don’t. Exist. Neither does “cis,” which is supposed to mean the sex that an individual feels they are, on the inside, conforms to what the culture around them believes them to be. Generally sex gets conflated with gender, so that it’s a matter of one’s “gender identity” being consistent or not, within that artificial “cis.” “Femininity identity” would be a stretch were it that clearly spelled out, and I suspect this is why the sex/gender identity obfuscation is so common — it hides the phoniness of “cis.”

Where individuals don’t conform to the assigned sex roles (a.k.a. ‘gender’), for example M2Ts (male-to-‘transgender’ persons), they may appear to be more oppressed by ‘femininity’ than are those for whom ‘femininity’ is REQUIRED, women. To transgenderists, the hierarchy, based on gender, looks something like this:

The Transgenderist Hierarchy:
MASCULINE men (CIS-gendered)
FEMININE women (CIS-gendered)
MASCULINE women (not-CIS)
FEMININE men (not-CIS)

As soon as you allow for “masculine women,” you give credibility to “gender.” Even more, you’re giving credibility to “feminine men” being MORE oppressed than women.

Nowhere else — except in the appropriation of First Nations identity — have people accepted that a person can “feel” their way into being something they clearly aren’t. Why this generosity only comes up with respect to sex — and to a very marginalized, much-genocided race — is telling. Women (of all races) and People Shoved Onto Reservations are not seen as valid beings, their oppressions not believed to be legitimate or important.

Some feminists have been so generous as to allow ‘woman’ to become a “gender” word, shared with M2Ts; they say “transwomen” for t-cult men. I think it’s due to a misinterpretation of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” At any rate, these generous feminists are giving away our ability to name ourselves. We need a word that means adult human female — SEX, not gender — and ‘woman’ is that word.

Remember that gender is a patriarchal construct created for the benefit and maintenance of male power. So to be comfortable with one’s gender, to be this “cis,” means that a person is either a doormat, if female, or a brick wall, if male. What’s really missing with the emphasis on the imaginary “cis” is that there is no comfort for anyone in gender. There is comfort for men in being the superior sex. To translate: this means that there is no hierarchy of gender, it doesn’t work for gender — gender is imaginary, and even within this imaginary framing it is far too complex to be a simple hierarchy; there is a sex hierarchy, and men are on top. The sex hierarchy looks exactly like this:

MEN and BOYS
WOMEN and GIRLS

Onto the complexity. Within the reality claimed by patriarchy, which owns the arena in which gender plays out, Male = ‘masculine,’ or that male becomes an outcast; Female = ‘feminine,’ likewise. There are four categories still, but I’ve already pointed out that masculine women and feminine men don’t exist, can’t exist, within patriarchy’s definitions. Men are masculine or they’re just not real men; ditto for women and femininity. Nor is there ‘cis’; the nonconformists would simply outcasts, for need of a term. At first I thought the breakdown of the four categories would be more like this:

masculine-enough MEN
unmasculine MEN claiming to be feminine
— claiming female oppression and the right to infiltrate woman-only space
unmasculine MEN
feminine-enough WOMEN
unfeminine WOMEN

But this doesn’t work either! Those “unmasculine” men I listed? They are hyper-masculine in everything but the fetish wear. They grope women, they demand entry into women-only spaces, they accost, they act ever bit of the male entitlement they’ve always known. To quote a brilliant friend, “They play dress-up but they never lose their male power.” And even those symbols of supposed hyper-femininity, the fetishwear (and the breast implants and so forth) are not designed by women for women. They’re designed by men to create hyper-femininity, where femininity is the evidence of oppression. The symbolism of oppression.

Maybe the hierarchy could be more like this:

masculine-enough MEN
masculine MEN claiming to be feminine, fetishizing femininity
— AND claiming female oppression and the right to infiltrate woman-only space
less-masculine MEN (however marginally less so, they’re still potential sex-traitors)
feminine-enough WOMEN
unfeminine WOMEN

There are men who gain incredible amounts of feminist sympathy for being outcasts, who claim to cross gender and to own the word “woman”! These men adore femininity, and why not? It is symbolic of female oppression, which upholds male power and privilege. They are adamant, oppression-furthering conformists: Nothing reinforces patriarchy’s ‘femininity’ like equating breast implants, makeup, stiletto heels and skirts with ‘woman’!

Yet another problem with great magnitude in feminist circles, especially, is that we, as a sex-caste, never quite get past our coerced over-appreciation of men. Men in suits? Men in skirts? Doesn’t seem to matter. Perhaps sometimes we’re flattered into thinking men really do want to be like us, and will appreciate our teaching them to be women. What we really find, if we’re honest with ourselves and one another, is that these men believe they are the better version of us. (I often step back when sisters insist that we should feel for the t-cultists, because, given a very short time, they inevitably find that these are men, with full-scale privilege overwritten in their brains, and they will out themselves as male-supremacists, even in skirts; they believe fully that they are superior to women.) At any rate, men, however ‘trans’gender they may claim to be, face unabashed adulation within feminist and even lesbian communities, all too often.

Sometimes this unabashed adulation happens within institutions. I’ve been sheltered enough so that when my sisters argued that t-culters, men in skirts, were getting backing within university settings, I was thinking Feminism, rather than institutionally-backed privilege. If t-culters, men in skirts, are sanctioned out in the mainstream masculinist world for failure to conform, they are revered within the elite institutions that make up our culture. Those with the institutions of the culture behind them are not oppressed — they’re actually privileged.

So then the hierarchy might go something like this:

MEN (including those in skirts)
MEN who are potential sex-traitors
Feminine-enough WOMEN
Unfeminine WOMEN

One problem for me is where to put F2Ts, women who claim masculinity (and often act with entitlement, however borrowed it might be). Too often they have ALSO claimed the right to infiltrate woman-only space! And another problem is that with a hierarchy as complicated as this, the places are not fixed, definite or set. Gay men (potential sex traitors) and heterosexual women of the same races and classes can be used one group against the other when patriarchy needs to quell a potential rebellion. Feminine women, as conformists to the sex-role mandate (to ‘gender’) are rewarded by patriarchy! And yet they’re still women, and oppressed as women. But this is another case where places on this hierarchy can change at the whim or discretion of the powerful. There are times when, at least briefly, the middle two locations on the list can flip. Women can be used to quell the uprisings of lesser men, or those lesser men can be used to stifle unity among women (think any of the myriad scenarios where Black women were left out as white women and Black men fought over first rights). Feminine women are certainly used against non-feminine women. And there are the hordes of genderqueers and bois and gays (but the women here are never lesbians, never comfortable with existence among women), who tag along in this po-mo parade of proclaimed gender traitors, too many to rank into a credible hierarchy.

There are men who don’t conform rigidly to masculinity. These men, like ALL men it should be pointed out, still have tremendous MALE privilege and the accompanying sense of entitlement — they are not even close to any central location in between the dichotomous hierarchy of SEX. They can potentially be sex traitors, outcasts of ‘gender’ conformity, and still be allegiant to the hierarchy of sex. While they aren’t necessarily seen as “real” men, more as pawns or tokens, they may be called up to reinforce the hierarchy, when the elite want them to. Think leftist men who talk about feelings, but watch porn. (Or, simply, think leftist men.)

The punishments for sex-role non-conformity are reserved for unfeminine women, primarily, and men who are potential sex-traitors. Think lesbians and gay men, as the most obvious targets. These punishments are delivered by men, overwhelmingly — and for unfeminine women, also by women, handmaids of the patriarchy.

Unfortunately it is easier to pounce and pound upon the more-marginalized, and in the sex-role arena, death threats by transgenderists are legion (see GenderTrender). But these threats aren’t made against those with power — patriarchs. They are instead made against feminists. Women. The oppressed sex-caste. This only serves to undermine the credibility of the transgenderists. They do not want real change, they want easy targets, the more-marginalized, women.

Feminists still protest in earnest that the abuses of the trans are common and cruel. Are men in skirts, so thoroughly protected in the UK now, really seen as lesser when compared to men who opt to not conform to the privilege inherent in masculinity? Foremost, I’d say that the reason the laws protect men in skirts, t-cult members, is not that the culture has generous feelings toward these men (M2Ts), but rather that the whole t-cult line serves to shove women back, down the hierarchy, quite effectively. Elite men are protecting themselves against the real threat, the uprising of women should we ever see ourselves as a class in opposition to men/patriarchy. Gender is certainly not a neat, tidy hierarchy. It’s too complex to be so, and yet there is a solid case to be made that men in skirts who claim t-cult membership are elevated above men who simply don’t conform to the demands of masculinity — even as they are sometimes punished by sex-role enforcers out in the culture.

So why do our sisters, feminist or no, sell us out, seek appeasement and common ground with these appropriators? As in giving away the word, woman? As with using definitions of gender that cloud the fact it really is, simply, sex-roles divided into masculine/feminine? As with the focus on the occasional cultural hostility, and not the institutional adulation and reward? I can only see it as an intent toward kindness, a sort of a Good Girl conditioned reflex — so often I hear ‘inclusion’ and ‘reconciliation.’ As if these had never been tried!

I don’t see it as being so kind-hearted from men, and especially from leftist men. Think of the attacks on DGR for its radical feminist, trans-critical stance. It really looks like an opportunity to get one-up on women, and too many men seem to jump at the chance. I would dearly love to see the same level of indignation, of outrage, of adamance, when women and girls are attacked as I have seen in the past few days from men defending men (in skirts) against women.

If gender is as artificial as are class and race — and they are not innate, they are layered onto our identities — I do NOT wish to abolish class or race. While these may be viewed by much of the left as being as impermanent as gender, they still hold some of the discernability of sex. Sex is male or female (occasionally intersex, which is a different issue entirely). There are differences by sex, whether they are as biological as the ability to menstruate, or not, or as indefinable as in knowing which men will rape, given that it is overwhelmingly men who commit rape, and an astounding number of men who do so.

Class is more than poverty or lack thereof. Class, like race, involves a subculture with a worldview shared across at least regions if not entire similar classes. It’s more-frank speech, not the middle-class language of obfuscation; it’s ‘coarser’ words that represent the nature of working class lives: Greater danger in employment, shorter life expectancy because of it. (We call it plain speak, or plainly spoken, rather than ‘coarser.’ just so you know.) There are also beautiful traditions and visions that would be lost if we were to eschew class for the disprivileged. We who are marginalized ALWAYS have things to teach to those responsible for the world as it is, screwed up as it is. You know that “getting rid of class” would just mean we were expected to ‘rise’ to a class level that many of us would find boring and cold, deceptive and manipulative. Race is at least as replete with traditions and perceptions that have tremendous value to those who have been enriched by them — and which often would deeply benefit the planet! Genuine sustainability has many races, but none of them western-white. Diversity is not just a buzzword from a bygone era. It’s an important reality for those of us who are not among the privileged in all ways, or even in most ways.

We need a real dialog on sex and gender, and on the definitions we choose to use. I do understand that there are places where polite culture wishes to evade the use of the word ‘sex’ because of its cruder interpretations. We could opt to use ‘sex’ for male/female and sexuality for what two people do in intimacy (or one, or three). I hope this, re-edited on July 26th (and now 27th), is a better start. And I really hope to avoid, this time, accusations that I sound pro-trans, or trans apologetic. Seriously? I don’t think so!

The Effects of Confusing Sex and Gender

When we allow the misuse of words, or blur the meanings of words important to our movement, and to radical politics in general, we are weakening our position.

Though sex is biological, legitimately dichotomous except in rare instances of intersex individuals: female or male, gender is entirely contrived. Gender is a construct of, and for the benefit of, patriarchy: masculine or feminine. Even the World Health Organization, hardly a bastion of feminist sensibility, is (sometimes) clearer on sex and gender (see also Note (1)):

“Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define
men and women.

“Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities,
and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and
women.

It’s really ‘men and boys,’ and ‘women and girls,’ in both cases, and sex = male/female while gender = masculine/feminine, for absolute clarity. But the WHO definitions make the correct split, where sex is different from gender entirely. While both sex and gender are hierarchies under patriarchy, because sex is real the hierarchy really matters: female people, for the fact of being female, are oppressed by males.

Often there is a conflation of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ creeping even into grassroots feminist writings. We hear of “The Divine Feminine,” as though that phrase has real meaning, and more importantly, feminist meaning. We read ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ conflated repeatedly. Academia has done much, beyond simply removing feminism from its base, in blurring the movement’s important definitions: we have Gender and Women’s Studies programs. Why on Earth would institutions decide to host programs for ‘Masculine/Feminine and Women’s Studies,’ except that sex and gender are words they have confused? Why is it not still Women’s Studies, or Female Studies, except that men felt excluded and were accommodated by “good” (patriarchally-approved) women? Why are women so willingly generous to men when they are the oppressors, and the issue is our oppression?

Those things that are culturally valued are claimed by men. Again conflating sex and gender, such “mannish” things are considered masculine, in a benevolent-leader kind of way, things like being:

responsible * strong * capable * intelligent * industrious * loyal

reasonable * wise * mature * sincere * benevolent * fair

Those characteristics are recognized as belonging to ‘good’ men, with widespread societal approval, if not necessarily to truly ‘masculine’ men, as judged by manly (not prissily “good”) men. And of course the characteristics said to be of “good” men are as often, sometimes more often, found in women and girls. Honorable and worthy human characteristics are not sexed; they certainly do not belong to the elite sex, male.

Other characteristics considered as belonging to men, or as being masculine, aren’t necessarily positive though they are often patriarchally-rewarded; these are the characteristics approved by manly men. They may include being:

aggressive * competitive * single-minded/ relentless * stoic

unmoved by others’ emotion * dominant/ dominating * violent

Patriarchy believes that the feminine counterbalances the masculine in this unequal dichotomy, and so the following characteristics are demanded of those mandated into femininity for this balance, women, including being:

passive * selfless * flighty or frivolous * overly emotional

unstable, easily swayed * deferential * cowardly

In this context it should be clear that “feminine” is NOT ‘that which is inherently characteristic of, or common to, women’! Instead, femininity includes those qualities that reinforce female subordination — characteristics which reinforce female inferiority in comparison to males, under patriarchy.

It is vital for feminists to understand, and to not conflate, ‘sex’ and ‘gender.’ It is only when these words are correctly defined and used that we can begin to see clearly the logic in the arguments of Bev Jo, Linda Strega, and Ruston (2a): that “Butch” is Female without the patriarchal overlay of feminine subordination. Butch is Female in her most vital, empowered, and unobstructed state. Every overlay of femininity that a woman carries with her is an act of complicity against the liberation of women and girls. Every reference to “The Divine Feminine” is an undercutting of feminism, a bolstering of female subordination. Sex is not gender; femininity is not feminist and, in fact, femininity works to actively reinforce female oppression.

Butch is, and long has been, a Lesbian who has, her entire life, evaded choosing femininity; she has never capitulated. A case could most certainly be made that Butch, right down to her Lesbian nature, is the unaltered female — but I’m not going to make it here, not in this writing (do see (2b)). (Also see Bev Jo’s incredible theory, along with Linda Strega’s and Ruston’s, in the book “Dykes-Loving-Dykes,” most of it at Bev Jo’s blog, noted above as (2a).)

So as not to appropriate more-marginalized women’s terms, to acknowledge that it is sometimes possible for women to have level relationships with men (rare, but possible), and to name this non-feminine way of being, any heterosexual, celibate, bisexual or otherwise-non-Lesbian girl or woman who later evades femininity needs a name. We could call her a normal, non-feminine woman (but not a non-fem, since by the definition of Butch she is still Fem, she made that choice once); we could call her a currently femininity evading woman, a CURFEW (I do like the idea of women putting curfews on men so that women may travel safely at night, especially) or a C-FEF for currently-femininity evading feminist. We could call her a virago. This, of course, affects me quite directly, so I would love having a say. And I’m sure there are better names and acronyms.

No matter the name chosen, an unfeminine woman, by definition many of whom here would be (or would have been) involved with men sexually, still deals with men’s patriarchal values internalized. This HAS to affect relationships with men. I would be surprised if most men can even see women without the judgment of standards of femininity. And I would suspect that for most all non-homosexual men, their sexuality depends on access to patriarchally-idealized, or feminine, females. Pornography certainly skews the standard, but femininity is basically as artificial as the porn ideal. Pornography is merely an exaggeration of the fixations on femininity — both idealized female body parts and female subjugation.

If women weren’t declaring subservience via complicity to the feminine ideal, how would non-homosexual men function sexually? Of course some men could function, but I wonder if that still is based on breast (and vagina-use) fetishization or the capacity to “see” femininity where it doesn’t exist, or both. Is her short, curly hair “feminine” in reality, or just to him and the same length and style would easily be seen as being appropriately masculine elsewhere? Large breasts are demanded not only in the porn ideal, but also in the cultural idealized view of heterosexual womanhood, enough so that young women frequently seek silicone-implant surgeries. But, ironically, both large size (often) and implantations (usually) serve to reduce breast and nipple sensitivity (3). To the extent that women find their own breasts to be erogenous zones, the preferred aesthetic serves heterosexual men, not women!

For many women, heterosexual or otherwise, I wonder how much the porn ideal shapes self-estimates of sexual desirability. For all women, I wonder how deeply are the norms of patriarchy internalized, taken then as givens. Certainly body shapes and features typical of women are culturally devalued, even demeaned, separate from breasts and sometimes buttocks. Women’s shoulders are relatively narrow, compared with men’s. But narrow shoulders are not considered attractive, not on either sex; wider shoulders are idealized, even on women, especially if the women are thin and not “too” tall. Long legs, more typical of youth, male or sometimes female, are idealized as is a narrow waist — far more rare for women after childbearing. Suntanned skin — but decidedly white skin! — smooth and hairless, is idealized. In so many characteristics, it’s more likely that a young male will meet them than any woman. And yet this is the “feminine” ideal.(4)

Those men who vary from the customary idealizing still don’t meet women as interesting individuals. Instead they simply skew the preferred characteristics: big butt over smallish hips, red hair over blonde, very long hair, or an exceedingly fat body, even to the point of debilitation. Women are still objects required to meet fuckability standards, though slightly amended ones.

 There is nothing inherently wrong with long hair; for many cultures, it is not sexed at all. The same can be said for natural red hair, a genetic-based component of appearance that is found among males and females, both. And while perfectly healthy women may have large backsides and/ or large breasts, and a lot of body fat, especially breast and fat fetishists too often demand a level of profound disability with their ideals. Pornography has forced female body insecurity to a whole new and more intimate level, with labiaplasty, the reshaping of the vulva to fit the porn aesthetic (and, ironically, ‘decency’ standards, for longer labia have been labeled obscene, while photographing prostituted rape is entirely legal!). Another newer surgery, reminiscent of the Victorian-era removal of women’s lower ribs to fit the wasp-waist ideal, is toe-bone removal. Pins replace toe bones in a woman’s feet so that they will better fit in sky-high stiletto heels; sometimes the last toe of both feet is entirely removed!(5)

Not only are women expected to behave in limiting, self-deprecating ways, we are also expected to surgically alter our bodies to a changeable set of patriarchal ideals. Why are we not fighting back? Why are we, in such large numbers, accommodating patriarchal views of our bodies, our sex? Why are we still so unable, in feminist spaces, to talk about sex and gender within this framing?

Some of us do fight back, and this is good news. For all of the infighting, and the recurring need to challenge faltering allegiance to the core principles of radical feminism, including being trans-critical and insistent upon keeping radical feminism open for all women — and not a white, heterosexual, college-educated and otherwise class privileged women’s movement — some of us do fight back. And some of us fight on very personal fronts — we evade the femininity mandate, even if we fail the more-stringent criteria for “Butch.”

Is it possible to actually talk about this? Or do I need to soft-pedal it further, create even more introductory posts, and find alternative ways to approach it other than simply saying, Sister, are you with us or are you against us?

I will say that I think that for most women, heterosexuality is deeply psychologically damaging, to the point that women cannot see themselves without the male gaze taking over their vision, without the mandate to evaluation by standards of sexiness, a male concept, and without the little girl posing that every clothing-store flyer puts them in.  Child porn is normalized, little girls preferred, but adult women will do IF they play along, grovel at the right times, learn their lesser place.  How can that not wound permanently?

And yet feminists who challenge compulsory (meaning ‘conformity absolutely demanded’) heterosexuality are exactly right — we can function with wounds, we all do, and we can make better choices.  We can honor and emulate those we cannot be — Lifelong Butches. In the sense that the personal is political, I think we also need a way to honor those women who later begin to resist patriarchy, who choose to be unfeminine, uncomplicit in the femininity mandate, unfettered by the patriarchal demand. But this needs to be a discussion, not just my voice so adamant on a rarely-read blog.

Yes, I know it’s more complicated than agreeing to stop the conformity cycle: the shaving, makeup, coiffed ‘do, heels and dresses and skirts, jewelry and scents and accessories, and the concern about taking up space — from body fat monitoring to gestures made demure by their intentional restriction. We are OPPRESSED and this is work, I do know that. And there are COSTS to a woman for not following the femininity mandate, I get that, too. But the costs are rarely immediate, and maybe you need to see it for yourself, if you’re clinging to the femininity mandate. Pick a few sacred capitulations, let them go, and see what happens? And while you’re dropping those several habits of femininity, listen to your internal dialog so that you might hear your judgments and your valuations of other women. And then, just maybe, consider the costs to the women who have NEVER capitulated — and realize they have, in fact, lived on.

The personal is indeed political. This isn’t about individual women, though it is about doing the right thing. It’s about women beginning to take responsibility for the effects their actions, behaviors, and words have within the dominant culture, and on other resisting women’s lives. It’s about either complicity or support, because sometimes it really is that damned simple!

I’ve said before, I don’t agree with “if only every …” scenarios. If every woman needed to drop her feminine acquiescence for change to happen, change would never have happened at all — but it has; both positively and negatively, change has come. We can work on moving liberation back toward the positive, toward greater legitimate freedom. But not through coercion, not through the violence of force. And the only way to get to ‘if only every …’ would be through violence; for their own reasons, some will always resist even the most obviously beneficial directive.

If only every woman were Lesbian, patriarchy would end overnight. Probably true, but they’re not — we’re not! And there just might be some small value in staying within the beast to inform those not in it of tactics it intents; and there might be some small value in forcefully challenging the misogyny that masculinity demands. If only every woman would stop giving time, attention and energies to men, patriarchy would dissolve almost immediately. Reasonable, yes, but it’s still not likely to happen. Certainly not without force. What about always giving less than half what a woman has available to give, and then giving the rest, the most, to women and girls? 



And what about those rare few men who do act differently? It is not incumbent upon feminism to change men, not ever. Men are not the issue in feminism. And yet men have the possibility of being allies, and sometimes even more, of doing ‘unmasculine’ things showing that they are not innate. I do believe men are rapists — what happens in war is not an anomaly, and there is a war on women that legitimates rape, anyway. And yet, women talk with one another: there are times when she was tremendously interested in sexual expression, and the man she was with was not — because of his loyalty to and feeling for another woman, because he was not ready, because she was drunk and he didn’t want intimacy under those circumstances. I believe strongly that we live in a rape culture, and I believe that most men, if opportunity exists, will find within themselves some abhorrent motive — and they will rape. And I know that some men don’t. And more importantly, that some men won’t.

I’ve also said that in a normal, tribal society of human-reasonable numbers, a jury of her peers would have no issue with terminating the life of the man who raped her, a woman of the society. Some other time we could explore a better ratio of females-to-males. Many of us are certain that anything like 1:1 is dangerously high for female safety. No woman who reproduces can ever be sure that her son will not rape, or that her daughter will not produce a rapist. We miss terribly, here, in resisting patriarchy. But I have written on this elsewhere, and others within radical feminism frequently further this idea. We understand the danger of males; even more, we can talk about it. Why then do we not see dangers in complicity to the feminine ideal? Why is this never an acceptable topic for feminist discussion?

Still, we do more than miss on resisting the femininity mandate: we so very often support each other, reinforce one another, in bowing to this terribly anti-feminist ideal. Sometimes this insistence toward our sisters’ femininity contains at least some violence: the non-conforming girl or woman is ostracized, and ridiculed when confronted in more-public spaces. And then, think of how often the Ugly Duckling tale, in girl culture, becomes a case of the Ugly one getting her revenge by winning the attentions of males, at her sisters’ expense? We do not ever win when we follow the femininity mandate — hugely, horrifically, we lose! What sanity might we find if we begin to put girls and women ahead of boys and men, in importance in our lives? What freedom might we find if we let at least some of the femininity rituals go? What revolution might at least begin if we were to give to one another the real support of resisting? Real support IN resisting? Are we, can we be, RE-SISTERS? Not if we continue the conflation of sex and gender so that femininity remains quietly reinforced — and by women, demanded.

 

Notes:

(1) WHO gets it basically right, here: http://www.who.int/gender/whatisgender/en/ and
in the text, above, but fails miserably at the site most apt to appear in searches I conducted (4/2013): http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/gender_rights/sexual_health/en/ where sex is defined (acceptably), though gender is not and the two are conflated. And then there is the weird caveat on the incomplete definitions, suggesting they should not be credited to WHO, anyway:



“These working definitions were elaborated as a result of a WHO-convened international technical consultation on sexual health in January 2002, and subsequently revised by a group of experts from different parts of the world.

They are presented here as a contribution to on-going discussions about sexual health, but do not represent an official WHO position, and should not be used or quoted as WHO definitions.”

(2a) These links, from Bev Jo’s blog, represent some of the most amazingly concise and cohesive theory to come out of feminism; the entire blog is (and the book is) well worth reading!
http://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/supporting-butches-supports-all-lesbians/
http://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/22-years-later-2012-butch-update/ and http://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/the-big-sell-out-lesbian-femininity-by-linda-strega/

The blog itself is here: http://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/

(2b) http://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/naturally-lesbian/

(3) https://www.google.com/search?btnG=1&pws=0&q=large+breasts+less+sensitive

(4) ‘As Tom Wolfe describes it in A Man In Full, today’s ideal female is “a boy with breasts.” ‘ http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/SchuchardtHefner.php

“The ideal body is now a boy’s body with breasts.” http://www.nytimes.com/1995/04/02/weekinreview/ideas-trends-put-on-your-best-chest-it-s-time-to-preen.html

(5) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2236039/Off-pinky-How-high-heel-obsessed-women-removing-toes-stiletto-surgery-comfier-fit.html

Heterosexuality and Feminism

Recently in a radical feminist space, someone made a case for intercourse, also called PIV (named for the parts), being a form of trauma-bonding. Intercourse is a specifically heterosexual act, which PIV makes even more clear. Intercourse poses inherent risks for a woman. While it may or may not be inherently hard on a female body, she has to trust that he will be careful enough, and receptive enough to her feedback, that he does not injure her. Each and every time: earned and maintained, this trust. Or his “sex” is actually his “raping” her: sex to him is rape to her and she, justly, is the judge. There is the risk of pregnancy, and of sexually transmitted disease. In reality, she is in bed with his entire sexual history of peopled intimacy. There is also the risk of his releasing into her body whatever toxins he has ingested or absorbed from whatever source, voluntary or unwitting. And she can never know what these toxins are, or what he is willingly imbibing that he doesn’t feel the need to disclose to her! All this accounted for, trauma bonding still seems a bit extreme.

If heterosexuality is coerced under patriarchy, being thin is also coerced. This does not automatically mean that if you’re thin, you’re complicit. Since some women are genetically thin, there is no reason to discount it as a way of being, no reason to fight Nature — to fight one’s own body. Having a privileged attribute does not automatically equal self-change to comply, or complicity. To some extent this even works with heterosexuality. Even intercourse. Dangers and all.

But let’s talk about privilege. There is an inane notion circulating among radical feminists — that if it isn’t delightful it isn’t privilege. Privilege is a about a comparison the powerful make: one group is privileged, or rewarded, at another group’s expense. To be rewarded for being in a group does not imply heaven-on-earth for its members. It simply means they will be treated better than the comparison group. Most of privilege just feels like basic, decent treatment. And if you grew up thinking you deserved basic decent treatment, privilege will not astound you.

We don’t, individually, get to claim or disclaim our privilege. That’s not within our power. Heterosexual women ARE privileged over lesbians in all manner of institutional power dynamics: in the workplace and in seeking employment, in schools, in governmental agencies and law, in medicine and religion. In access — in gaining and in sustaining that access. In social valuation. Under patriarchy, heterosexual women are valued, culturally, well above lesbians, and it is precisely for the complicity, the capitulation, that patriarchy understands it to be, that it is rewarded. Patriarchy also values thinness in women, and it’s roughly the same situation: thinness is seen as a sign of capitulation (whether it is or not).

Continuation of the species does suggest that some women might naturally, willfully reproduce. A Nature that is at least neutral would mean there is some sort of female buy-in to this reproduction thing in general. My childhood on a farm means I’ve witnessed female (other-) animal heterosexual desire. Since I don’t take Nature as innately or always cruel, the fact of some adult female humans being inclined toward heterosexual pairing does not surprise me. But some does not imply all. Even among wolves, generally only the alpha female and male mate (and she is said to dominate mating season and den location); the rest of the pack usually does not produce offspring — they do not mate. Shere Hite found that a mere 30% of women even have the capacity to orgasm during intercourse. Can it be said with any credibility that it’s natural for the remaining 70%? And what of those female animals who resist, and then are raped, even gang-raped, or fight back and stop the rape, injuring the male aggressor — don’t their different experiences factor in?



If hetness is seen as a form of capitulation by the oppressor elite, then why do we accommodate them? Why are some women heterosexual? The reasons are undoubtedly many, and somewhat varied, and that should be another essay. Beyond cause, though, we need to look at what the effects of heterosexuality for feminists really are. We need to understand that to be het means to miss the mark of one form of loyalty to girls and women: we have pledged time, energies and a certain amount of loyalty to our oppressors. This is reality. Having sons only further reduces the loyalty available for women and girls, and having sons within a rape culture endangers loyalty to females terribly.

I also think we heterosexual-privileged women need to consider our credibility. We should be subject to the same kind of ‘disregard of expertise’ that prostituted women still within the clutches of the sex industry receive. When your very life, down to the continuation of your breathing, depends on spinning the institution in the most positive light, you cannot be objective, or honest. Self-preservation also means that certain truths remain hidden, even from oneself, so that terrible realities don’t become unendurable, overwhelming. In the eyes of the culture that both demands and rewards it, to be a “wife” is a form of prostitution, of sexual servicing availability. To be a heterosexual woman but not a wife merely means the form of payment varies some. To be a woman who has sex with men means to be someone who is violated, penetrated, fucked. This is the only option the patriarchal mind can envision.

What, then, does it mean for a heterosexual feminist to say, “I love intercourse”? What exactly does she love and for what reasons? And what are the real political implications of that announcement in a culture where PIV is both compelled and viewed as capitulation? In a culture where woman-loving is always devalued under patriarchy’s terms of power?

Does it mean she’s delighted to a fuckable object? To be chosen thus? To be overtaken, penetrated like an enemy line, the demarcation the vulva in this war against women? I doubt it! And yet too often this is what intercourse, called “sex,” means to men.

Does it mean she has experienced intercourse as an integral part of “lovemaking,” where he has met and held her eyes, carefully, bridging across their separate humanness, to show her how much he values her, loves her, cares about her, puts her needs on par with his own? Does it mean she rejoices in the delights of her animal body and the intimate joys she finds in sharing it with a beloved other?

Does it mean she is backing feminist minds away from the idea of trauma bonding, and telling us all that it needn’t be so for those of us who are willing to risk the perils and live among men?

Does it mean that the sensations of intercourse, separate from its cultural or sexed meanings are pleasurable to her? Where, then, to put the cultural and sexed valuations, and the hierarchy that puts woman-loving far beneath man-loving, within the patriarchal frame? Can we really ever be separate from the effects of these? And what does it mean to lesbians, already culturally devalued, when we state our allegiance so openly to the oppressor class? It can’t be positive.

So what, then do we do? We work for women, we work for the empowerment of girls. We work for female physical and mental health and safety and nourishment and nurture. We work to grow the bonds across difference that know can be created, and we work to sustain them — we listen, especially carefully, to those women over whom we wield very real power in our privilege, and we learn and then we do (whatever needs doing). We give more to women and girls than we do to men and boys, and we hope this is enough to help build a woman-affirming feminism.

Femininity, Butch, and Feminism – 1

Part 1.  Lesbian Feminism in the 70s and 80s

Spokane, WA:  When I was 13, I watched a talk show on television featuring a panel of Lesbians.  The women were varied in appearance; all were articulate and self-confident, reasonable and interesting.  With the experience of decades, I now understand that these shows exist within a scripted framework to either positively or negatively — in the extreme — offer up the panel and its identity to the audience.  Challenges and contradictions hide behind the glow of approval, or become the focus, proof of wrongness, in the case of disapproval.  But this was an excellent representation in many aspects, especially race as I recall, and for 1969 or ’70 it was phenomenal.  And I absorbed it all with the utter fascination of a very young teen who had lived her early years in an economically-impoverished, multicultural neighborhood.  So when my mother came home from shopping, I explained all I had seen and heard to her as we put away the groceries.  My enthusiasm made her uncomfortable, but, I reasoned, she hadn’t seen the show.  What could her experiences with Lesbians have been, anyway?  She must simply be uneducated, I decided.

As she kicked me out of her house, six years later, I learned her understanding of Lesbianism.  She had worked with a couple in an office setting, a very feminine woman and a very masculine woman, and apparently they fought all the time.  Since her first husband had raped her (perfectly legal) and had beaten her (fortunately not legal), and she had remarried twice more, she was capable of avoiding group-blame based on the actions of a few.  That generosity did not extend to Lesbians.  She wrote me a cold good-bye note shortly afterward that included a warning on how I would surely become a middle-aged Lesbian hunting young girls if I stayed on my chosen path.  To her credit, she saw it as a choice; sadly, I could never communicate adequately to convince her how wonderful a choice it was.  Goddess knows — and very much to her horror — I tried!

Pullman, WA:  The Lesbian world was truly wonderful.  Before the fateful eviction, I had just completed my freshman year of college in a town with another college across the state line a few miles distant:  two state schools with their usual complement of Lesbians, all so very close!  There were sports rivalries between the institutions, followed by completely amicable parties, some of which I was allowed to attend.  I continued absorbing the culture, and its histories, and its norms.

In the mid-70s, in the area where I lived, Lesbians had adopted a certain dress and specific symbols for identification.  But it was much more than a style, it was a defiant stand against the prescriptions of heterosexual womanhood.  We were dykes then.  We dressed in that neutral zone, comfortable and easily mobile, tomboyish, athletic — whether we really were or not.  Rings, necklaces, and the occasional earrings were, if anything, symbolic — the labrys, star and crescent (via the Greek Diana), interlocking women’s symbols, and the occasional lambda were icons I was carefully taught to recognize as Lesbian, or Lesbian-inclusive.

Seattle, WA:  Without money, education became an impossible dream; I moved to the largest city in the state.  Carolyn Heilbrun’s Toward a Recognition of Androgyny was published, and the concept of androgyny batted about, and yet there was something uncomfortable in it.  Didn’t disavowing the feminine also serve to marginalize women?  We could be who we were, daring to defy, but expecting this of all females seemed particularly demanding, anti-choice, even misogynistic.  On one hand, what was fair?  And on the other, how would we truly value females without succumbing to reverence for man-made artificiality?  How could we tell the difference?  And, despite our concern for equity, why did it seem that non-Lesbian women weren’t even trying?  Overlaying this daring, tangled, honorable Lesbian uncertainty were the concepts of butch and femme.  These were framed as old-fashioned roles played out by Lesbians who did not understand themselves separately from the heterosexual world; they were unfortunate caricatures of a past that feminism helped us all to transcend.

The large company where I worked held annual dress-up days.  They called it Western Days, and held a company-wide ‘western’ cookout in one of the large parking lots adjacent to the main four-story structure.  Some of us used it as an opportunity to make political statements.  The sharp and funny temporary worker in the personnel department who came costumed as a Southern belle was summarily let go (she was Black).  I showed up to work attired in varied costumes over those many summer events, but the most memorable was the year another company Lesbian and I came as caricatures of heterosexuality, as ‘Butch and (f)Emmy.’  We found a top hat, beard, pocket watch and coat-tailed suit jacket for my friend, and I wore a ragged dress, bonnet, bruises, and baby-doll stuffed apron, and walked with my head down several steps behind her, barefoot, of course.  (It’s eerie how perfectly the greens and browns of conventional eye shadow mimic bruises.)  The executive secretaries, primarily women in their 40s and 50s and all notably heterosexual, roared with laughter as we entered the gathering space.  All others seemed bewildered.  We one-lined to anyone who persisted in questioning us that we were parodying heterosexuals’ roles, not ours.

It was true enough, compared with hets.  But the egalitarianism, the comfortable levelness between women within Lesbianism, while true in some senses, was terribly incomplete.  Not only did Lesbianism not always address its white members’ racism, its more-elite members’ classism and its fat oppression, the claim to a status levelness between simply-dykey women would be challenged, too — but from pressure outside the movement rather than from within.  Our distance from heterosexual norms was a pendulum swing, not a lasting change.

By the early 1980s, a variety of backlashes had quieted the initial deep feminisms of the dyke community I knew and loved.  Teresa Trull had released an album with her heavily made-up face on its cover, the advent of the lipstick lesbian for some of us.  And the already-uneasy alliance with gay men was further strained by their demand that Lesbians accept and defend their subculture’s sadomasochism and pornography.  True to the pattern Sheila Jeffreys explains so well in her books, patriarchy’s sexologists came in and remade the overt Lesbian image to better mesh with the boys’ world.  The community meetings and open discussion groups, from those associated with local colleges right down to open raps at the Lesbian Resource Center, became recruitment zones for the new malequeer agenda.  The femininity question was evaded, as was exploitation, and the guidelines simplified:  if it led to orgasm, it was righteous.  The masculinist hedonism of the 60s, transcended by feminism through the early 80s, returned with a vengeance as the potential of feminism was — and has continued to be — co-opted by the fun-first factions.  Read Sheila Jeffreys (try The Spinster and Her Enemies, 1986, for an excellent starting point, from 1800 to 1930); this is our history over and again.

Femininity, Butch, and Feminism – 2

Part 2.  Finding and Forging Alliances

Bremerton, WA:  So what do you do when your community implodes?  What happens when every effort to return beloved spaces back to sanity fails?  What happens when you find you cannot control any part of your surroundings, and you’re left with the agony of unquelled frustration?  You move.  You turn inward, to save yourself as best you can.  Your salvation becomes your entire identity, and others either validate it … or they undermine your very being.  So it seems.  I became vegetarian in the very early 80s, and would continue to be so, until my health undeniably began to fail a decade later.  Much in my life changed in that decade, though never my commitment to the community of women, or my belief that Lesbianism held the potential for a deeper feminism.  I just hadn’t found that space.  Vegetarianism had messed me up terribly.  I was moodily unstable, paralyzed with panic attacks, and these were exacerbated by a very hostile work environment.  I’ve wondered, when people have chided me for leaving Lesbians behind, would you have wished me on a sister?

The Midwest:  I was still in an uneasy truce between my body’s nutritional needs and my political compassions when I became interested in local foods and joined a farm group on-line.  I had mentioned vegetarianism positively, and another member gently pointed me toward the work of Weston Price.  I read until all hours of the night, and into the next days, alternately fascinated with his findings and appalled at his cruelty toward those he considered misshapen, defective; he was most assuredly condemning of fat people, as well.  I hated hated him; I found his research to be invaluable.

Still searching for a politics that fit, and which would allow for the inclusion of fat activism and an unwavering belief in the potential for Lesbianism to shape femalehood positively, I found the writings of deep ecologist Derrick Jensen, and his sometimes-publicist, Lierre Keith.  Lierre wrote The Vegetarian Myth.  It was in defending Lierre from those applauding the cayenne-laced ‘pie’ attack in March of 2010 that I came to meet, in print, another author named Bev Jo.  And it was through further correspondence with Bev Jo that I came to understand an entirely different conceptualization of ‘Butch.’

Imagine a girlchild, growing up aware enough of herself to never take on the role, the trappings of femininity.  To never succumb to the demand to be remade a girl, or woman, in the unlevel gaze of the surrounding patriarchy.  Into this hierarchy she is born, but never conforms, never capitulates, never succumbs.  She is Butch.  Butch is how we females can be, would be, without the overwriting of patriarchy upon our souls and bodies and minds.  It takes tremendous courage to defy the patriarchal pressure to show sex-role conformity.  Acknowledging this courage does not diminish the fact that other females do succumb for varied reasons, including logical and honorable reasons, including sheer survival.  Acknowledging the special resilience and determination required to maintain one’s identity as Butch does not lessen the value of other females; it only serves to point out that some are incredibly brave, and that bravery has value for all of us — that courage is inspiration for all of us.  She may shine, the courageous Butch, and it doesn’t diminish our braveries in other areas; we can honor hers.

So what do we do?  Societally, we mock her as masculine, as an imitation of men, plural, rather than a vibrant demonstration of woman, singular.  Of woman, untainted.  We ascribe to her all the characteristics considered male, for if she isn’t demonstrably female, she must be male.  Within feminism, we have still never managed to carve out serious space that might be androgyny — that might be heteropatriarchally role-free.  And it is this failure of feminism that concerns me.  We have never made ourselves address what really is ‘femininity.’

I started to read dictionary definitions, and the sociology and psychology literature on “gender identity,” which is where ‘femininity’ resides in the view of the dominant culture.  It was terribly depressing.  Take this, for example, published in the Encyclopedia of Sociology, Revised Edition:

Burke and Tully’s (1977) work found that children with cross-sex identities (boys who thought of themselves in ways similar to the way most girls thought of themselves and vice versa) were more likely than children with gender-appropriate identities: 1) to have engaged in gender-inappropriate behavior, 2) to have been warned about engaging in gender-inappropriate behavior, and 3) to have been called names like “tomboy,” “sissy” or “homo.” Not surprisingly, boys and girls with cross-sex gender identities were more likely to have low self-esteem.  (http://wat2146.ucr.edu/Papers/00b.pdf)

In Cordelia Fine’s  A Mind of Its Own, a book on brains and bias, she offers studies that show that “gender non-conforming” women often have their work sabotaged by their conformist cohorts.  (Page 192; Norton:  2006.)

In the last decade or so, our culture has allowed the sexologists of Jeffreys’ writings (see Unpacking Queer Politics, 2003) to create the definitions by which too many of us live.  Sex, now renamed gender, has become something we play with, take on or leave off, or change daily like the equally-trivial socks or underwear, without regard to the overarching hierarchy on which sex, renamed gender, is established.  Too often within feminism, it is the sacred thing of which we do not speak, still giving credence to the sexology view, since we are in no grand way fighting it.  Porn, violence against women, other misogynies?  Sure we fight back.  But asking ourselves about what femininity means, pondering the widespread acceptance of our culturally-appropriate female role (in appearance:  shaving legs and armpits, wearing make-up, coloring and curling and otherwise coifing our hair, and wearing crippling footwear and fragile fabrics in styles to enhance — or just show — curves and skin; in behaviors:  carefully considering male feelings foremost, deference, passivity, unshakeable friendliness, helping others, easily hurt, weaker) — these questions are disallowed.  Even within feminism.  These are labeled divisive, and we are urged not to go here!

Now I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the self-righteous, with those who are certain they have the entire picture.  And I don’t particularly care where they are on the hierarchy; to claim to have a better picture due to firsthand experience is logical, but to claim to own the whole view is foolish.  Yes, women are encouraged to hem and haw, to make tentative assertions rather than certain, assured statements.  And yet for anything but a person’s own experience, I often find these statements overdone.  What if others have a different but ultimately useful view?  What if others become silenced by this overstatement?  Those more-marginalized, by race or class or other oppressions, are less likely to speak across the assurance of those they perceive as more-elite, as oppressors, true.  But it’s also likely when people aren’t all that far apart on the hierarchy.  What I’m searching for is a gentler feminism that begins from a position of care, whose demands begin from there, from an expectation that we are in this together.

And since so many of us have never fully examined our own beliefs — or have even allowed the sexologists of Jeffreys’ writings to frame our view — the discussion of femininity becomes convoluted — and sensitive and contradictory.  The majority idea seems to be that Butches are aggressive, masculine and dominant, and therefore should be cast in the role duality as privileged.  Bev makes the case quite well that the privilege belongs to those who are more-conforming, and since women’s patriarchally-proper role is to be the feminine offsetting the masculine of sex duality, it is Femmes who fare better, culturally.  While femininity insures the low to his higher, the frivolous to his importance, it is also the rewarded way of being, in relation to his ability to reward.