The implicit value equations of feminism

This follow-on piece to the workshops and blogs in which I have previously used the concept of “Queering the Value Equation” (see here and here) was originally intended to be a chapter in the book I am currently working on. The working title for the book changed, and with the change in perspective (funny how that is, one loves changes in perspective), this chapter now really didn’t fit in the book any longer, so here it is, for you, my dear readers. And let it be a slight apology that life events have not made the late winter / early spring conducive to writing, and so this blog has not been updated very often.

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Much like workplaces that include women actually become better workplaces and better performing organizations, can inclusion make feminism better for everybody involved? Source: Fotolia

I have recently given a couple of iterations of a presentation I decided to call Queering the Value Equation. I introduced this idea of a queered value equation in the context of ending discrimination in the workplace against LGBT people, but truly, it applies very well to a conversation about girls and women. In its simplest form, in the business world*, a value equation is a very simple decision making tool. Value is defined as the ratio of what you get, to what you give — high value is getting much and giving little, and low value is getting little and giving much.

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My fundamental “unqueered” value equation argument was that, when companies thought about LGBT inclusion, they understood the benefit to them poorly, and they exaggerated if not fabricated the cost. As a result, they approached inclusion from the perception that it offered very poor value, and even if they were not conscious of it, this caused them to drag along, struggle, and as advocates of inclusion (since they advocated for it, even though they perceived its value to be poor), placed them in a defensive, ineffective posture.

That queered value equation, in the context of the LGBT community, looks a little like this:

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In essence, the only reason that (straight) people were advocating for LGBT inclusion in the workplace was because it made them feel good about themselves, or even more particularly, better about than others. That’s fine and good, but it’s a weak business motivation. They perceived, and very clearly the depiction above is meant to make fun of this, some fairly absurd costs associated with inclusion, most of which circle from wanting to include LGBT people without actually understanding us or appreciating the way we think or act. You could see how this applies to women. Indeed, when women were not in many kinds of American workplaces**, and we began the process of changing this, this value equation seemed much the same. Of course water cooler conversations became awkward — many of them were about objectifying women, and it is certainly more awkward (although this seems to stop no one) to objectify us when we are standing right there. There were increased costs — many offices didn’t even have a women’s room, and certainly, those bins for tampons cost, well, a prohibitive amount. And the fun in work was, sometimes, rooted in the idea of the workplace as a man cave, to which a man went to avoid his wife***, and this would certainly be shattered as well.

A concept, dear readers, I wish to consider, is that this problem occurs not only when patriarchy, men, society, consider women, but it exists inside feminism, too. It is at the root of, say, exclusionary movements inside feminism. There is a perception that the “cost,” for instance, of accepting me as a co-advocate, because I am trans, is too high — you know, my “male privilege” and “male energy” polluting the environment like I’m leaching bisphenol A into the water, etc.**** — and the value, is too low, if even existent. Or there is some strange idea that if feminists were to include sex workers in their ranks, we would somehow have to move our meetings to strip clubs, or, I don’t know what. There is a perception that, if we talk about economic marginalization, “we” distract ourselves from “real” women’s issues. And certainly, there is a perception that we want more “women like us” to be part of the sisterhood, and if we don’t have anything in common with other feminists, we think it should be no fun at all.

In my LGBT inclusion work, I argue that the antidote to this is to — substantially — revise the value equation. I argue that, in fact, there are a host of benefits and hardly any costs to LGBT inclusion in the workforce. And, importantly, I argue that one should do it because it delivers benefits, not because it is the “right” thing to do. This is actually really critical. Oh, I like it when people feel good about themselves because they help me. But I also believe that charity as a model is ephemeral and unsustainable. It lasts through the feast and not the famine. And I really do believe that inclusion is something that works. In this same way, we need an inclusive value equation for feminism.

My queered value equation may actually serves as a good starting point.

With respect to ending sexism, although I focus on girls and women, I do talk about men, too, like my blog, “Sexism is Bad for Men, Too” from 2015. But consider some concrete examples. Quantopian did a study of Fortune 1000 companies between 2002 and 2014. The study, summarized by Forbes Magazine, found that women CEOs outperformed the S&P 500 benchmark by a staggering 226% over eight years. Lest you think we just do well in the “big box” (where I, myself play) Forbes also reported results from a Centre for Entrepreneurs study in 2015. The Centre found that women make better entrepreneurs, too, because they are better at managed risk and self-monitoring. Outside of business, a 2015 Washington Post piece summarizes decades of research that shows that putting more women on the police force reduces police brutality. These, and many others, are “mainstream” benefits — not some medal given out by us as feminists.

And like my queered value equation, if the “I” in the equation is men*****, the result actually improves men. I’m not saying that women are just intrinsically better CEOs, for instance. Rather, the systematic differences in performance in this role that are seen when women hold it are relatively underrepresented, because there are few female CEOs, and men do not particularly have to worry that, say, their board will read the results of these studies and fire them in favor of a woman who will outperform them. Because of this, men are incentivized to act “like men” in this role, as well. Imagine, for instance, a situation in which 50% of Fortune 1000 CEOs were women, instead of the <10% in the article. In that situation, while it is still probably unlikely a man would explicitly be fired because replacing him with a woman would improve company performance******, men would be frequently compared to women, his processes to her processes, and his outcomes to her outcomes, and men would likely be strongly motivated to emulate the winning strategies of women (which are probably not, at least not entirely, immutable characteristics of something like our different cognitive architecture or our hormonal milieu).

Inside feminism, similarly, we need to think about these challenges I’ve been highlighting as signs of inborn error in our value equation. The value equation is not an attempt to commercialize feminism. This is, itself, an important discussion. The authors of the #FemFuture report and others have coined the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (a term that seems to go at least as far back as Ruth Gilmore, Dylan Rodriguez, and others at the initial The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, on my birthday in 2004, more than ten years ago, and before that, goes to a much longer discussion of shadow states and shadow governments. There are important consequences of deferring important, mission critical (if one’s mission is sustainable, ethical society) work to a diffuse network of non-profit organizations relying on donor funding, and, when the state feels like it, grants, much as there are serious consequences for privatizing things like the military, police force, or prison system (not that we’d do that). On the other end, Dan Pelotta, in his 2013 TED Talk, “The way we think about charity is dead wrong,” argues that nonprofits are hampered from efficacy in many situations because they play by a different set of rules than for-profit entities, limiting their access to capital (from a capitalistic / entrepreneurial standpoint, access to capital is the lifeblood of innovation) and limiting their access to great talent or world-class solutions. Both of these arguments are important arguments*******.

However, economics does not just apply to money. Economics is much more broadly an analysis of the way things work (and the ways they don’t work). The value equation isn’t about money, although that is the way it is usually considered. It’s about decisions you make about whatever you value. A slice of your time. Your energy. Your thoughts. Your voice. Your heart or passion. Rather than making a capitalistic argument, I hope, like me, you value at least some of those other things way more than your money. And the value equation is about decisions you make about whatever demands whatever you value — causes, movements, issues, not just how you spend your cash or where you swipe your credit card or tap to pay.

In this light, the value equation is just an attempt to uncover a process that is already happening, of which we are unaware, but, like gravity (or sexism) affects us anyways********. This makes it much like classic feminist analysis tools, such as inverting a gendered statement about the world and examining our reaction to the statement when applied to men in the way it is to women, and to women in the way it is to men. The more we recognize about our current value equation around inclusive, proud feminism, the more we can understand why we are not achieving it, and what we haven’t been ready to admit we believe. The more we create an inclusive value equation for future feminism, the more we can center ourselves on the benefits feminist movement derives from inclusion, which give us robust, sustainable reasons to improve feminism. And like the effects of ending sexism, itself, on men, I believe and intend to demonstrate that an inclusive feminism actually has more, and not less, to offer all girls and women, including the “bluebloods” among our sisterhood (of whom I may be sometimes a one*********) who are frequently most resistant to inclusion and who (when they are motivated to include) do it from a sense of noblesse oblige and not from a perception that it will make feminism better.

*  There are numerous jokes to be made at this point about men liking to measure things, etc.

**  Certainly, we have always worked, and much more often perhaps still than men, have essentially no vacation, ever. For instance (and I love my Teri very much), where we go on vacation, it’s incumbent on me to… make hotel reservations, pull up directions, find lists of sights to see and present them to Teri, go back and find alternate sights to see because I haven’t found what Teri wants, find restaurants Teri will like, and even in our case, do most of the driving. So, I quip, evenwhen we are on vacation I am working. As I take the week off, at the moment, for writing time for this book, I am still responsible for making the meals, grocery shopping, getting issues with the house addressed, cleaning, and so on and so forth.

*** There is an engineering joke in bad taste, although it really is more making fun of engineers than misogynistic, that goes like this: Why should an engineer always have a mistress? Because his wife will think he’s with his mistress, and his mistress will think he’s with his wife, and he can go in the lab and get some work done.

****  Something you should know about me being trans is that I made the least convincing pretend man, ever, and this I think contributed to why no one was particularly surprised when I came out. Teri and I have a game — I tell him, “I could totally be a guy,” and he laughs in my face.

*****  Which, one quips, it is — that’s kind of the whole thing about patriarchy.

******  One does feel the need to point out that, just weeks before I wrote this, Ellen Pao was forced from her role as CEO for an internet darling, Reddit. In her time there, she was well known both for changing company policy in innovative ways that improve diversity, such as eliminating salary negotiation, as well as for reforming Reddit as a service, by eliminating areas, or subreddits, that were perennially used for sexual harrassment. She stepped down after an epic wave of misogynistic trolling against her. Ironically, after a random feminist post, I did some reading through “The Red Pill” on Reddit… and, well, I’m not going to link it. It’s easy to find. Be forewarned.

*******  By way of disclosure, my employment was in the non-profit sector when I wrote this, although I currently own and operate a small, for-profit consulting firm. The NPO world was new to me — as an engineer, I worked in large for-profit companies, mostly publicly traded — Ford, Visteon, Textron. I’ve spent a significant portion of my adult life at universities, too, though, mostly public (the Universities of Michigan and Florida), but also private (the University of Chicago), which operate according to their own philosophy that is not exactly like cause-based non-profit work nor like for-profit enterprise.

********  And feminism is dedicated to the radical notion that sexism is way more endable and way less a basic reality of the universe, than gravity is.

********* I said sometimes, when I wrote this last Fall. Now I hasten to admit, quite often.

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On Being a White Feminist (No, Wait, Please Hear Me Out)

I am a white feminist. You guys*. It’s true. I’ve made the argument before that the idea that I function as a woman of color is at best, problematic and defies any uncritical acceptance. I want to go further, now, and point out that I am a white feminist. This puts me in illustrious company – Amy Schumer, Taylor Swift, that actress** who said something ignorant at an awards show, that other one who said something ignorant at an awards show, that other one who said something ignorant at an awards show. Well, you get the picture. And a pretty one, she is not.

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You guys, our feminism is WHITE. With just a touch of color over on the far end. Just like this picture. (Source: Unilever)

I don’t actually want to spend this post proving this to you. But let me start with the whitest feminist of my white feminist perspectives. When people say things like, “Can’t we understand that we’re all just people first?” I shut these conversations down, often, particularly recently. I shut them down by pointing out that, precisely because I am a woman, I am messaged in subtle and overt ways, over and over again and since my birth, that I am not a person – that women are not people. The second wave rallying cry, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” was necessary as precisely in that day, because society did not behave in a fashion that suggested it believed this statement, as the phrase Black Lives Matter is necessary in more recent discourse.

This is the whitest thing I have to say, of all the white things I say and all the white things I do – I see myself as a woman first, before all my other identities. This is white feminist precisely because, as I’ve come to be educated, my feminist – even my womanist – sisters of color very rarely see things this way, because race is almost always their most unignorable experience. It isn’t mine. So they’re proudly women, but woman is somewhere lower on their list, most commonly. Often second. In contrast, most of the time, like other white feminists, my race is only relevant in discussing my experience because it privileges and protects me. And like my white sisters, I am more often unaware of it than in any other state. What is important about this is that I am not saying I “pass” for white – I am saying I function as white. These two are not at all the same thing. I benefit from privilege. I did not seek it out.

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You guys, this is how far our sisters of color have to go to correct the bullshit that we too often call feminism.

But back, for a moment, to my white feminist identity. I say I am a woman first, not because I want all sisters to say this, but because this is how I experience the world. I stop, later, and recognize, yes, I do have a race, and that it is indeed part of who I am. And that I have a class – actually, I am aware of my class more often than my race. But even that is a relative rarity, while I am almost never unaware of how being a woman affects my experiences.

I’m not entirely saying I don’t experience racial microaggression***. Occasionally, other white people – like really, really white people – can make a play to erase my privilege. In fact, last night, I had one of these conversations with a white woman. You know the one. It began with. “You’re so exotic. Where are you from? Don’t say Michigan.” But this not only happens less and less, but it seems to be less and less effective at marginalizing me.

Sisters of color, if you are not already fed up with me, have not already stopped reading, please know this (and continue reading, if you’d like). My goal is simple: I want to help us white feminists figure out how to stop being such a pain in the ass. Don’t be nice. You know it’s true. That is precisely what we are. My goal is to help us be the good Sisters we are meant to be, and not the bad Sisters we have been most of the time. My goal is not to celebrate the outsize space we take up in movement, but to help us to a path to actually allow us to address our misbehavior and stop stealing your space.

Back to my fellow white feminists. Okay, so a solid chunk into this screed, how am I going to accomplish this goal, if I have not turned you, too, off? I think I have an answer. Like all very complicated things, it is also very simple.

We are faced with a conundrum. We are rightly called out for our white feminism. We are told to knock it off. In fact, we want to knock it off. Badly. Erm. We want it badly, but we actually instead do it badly. Here’s why. We replace white feminism with white intersectional feminism. Which, unsurprisingly, is crap. What do I mean by this? White feminism is the queen of all single-cause social justice movements. Its one cause is to help white women feel less worthless all the time. You see, we take up outsize space within movement, and we take up even outsize space in racially mixed groups outside movement, but we take up far less space than we are due in polite white society. And we do, actually, feel worthless, like all the time.

This is the conundrum in which we’re stuck, much to the chagrin of our sisters of colors. We are white feminists because of our experience of marginalization. Our experience, in which race is a source of privilege and not marginalization, begins young. We are not born hating women, perhaps. We open our eyes and see our mother (most of us do), and we love her. She is, in fact, nearly everything. But soon, we notice that the world does not love her, does not value her. And perhaps we learn to hate women by first scorning her as the world scorns her, or perhaps we do not learn to hate women until we recognize ourselves in the mirror. But hate women, we do, sooner or later. And as we are nurtured on the mothers’ milk of misogyny, we learn that we are needy. Overly emotional. We are told and told constantly, although it seems like we try to take up no space at all, we are in fact taking up far too much space. We are told that, although it seems we give far more than everything we have to others, we are greedy for withholding our bodies, our hearts, even our smiles. This is, perhaps, why we sit on the edge of chairs even when they are made for only one person. Because we are not worth the space of one person – we can at most be a fraction of a person, and even then we are inevitably too large a fraction. This is, perhaps, why we paint our smiles on twice, once with makeup and once with the falsity of “putting forth one’s best.”

Our feminist experience then, white feminist sisters, is that we learn this state, we become awakened (often by sisters and sometimes even by brothers of color, who have always had our back in a way that we have not had theirs), and then we band together with others of like experience – that is, other white feminists (because, help us though they did, our experience did not feel quite like the experience of our sisters of color, because, in fact, it was not quite the same). So we bond with other white feminists. And we do get as far out of privilege-borne narcissism to realize that their suffering is like ours, and that the means to our own happiness and theirs are inextricably linked. This is our feminist experience – it is not quite like the feminist experience of our sisters of color, many of whom are taught to hate their race even before, and far more thoroughly than, they are taught to hate their sex.

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Kyriarchy, as far as I know, has nothing to do with that annoying 80s song (Source: That annoying 80s artist who sings that annoying 80s song)

Being confronted with the white feminist nature of our white feminism, surprisingly, is precisely where we go most astray. For we are faced, it seems, with two options: White Feminism (capitalizing for the willful practice of foolishness), or intersectionalism. Some of us choose White Feminism. We turn to actively saying things that are destructive. Our feminism becomes a tool of kyriarchy**** and not of liberation. For the rest of us, who would rather die than knowingly put people in chains, the only option we have is intersectionalism. But we don’t know how to stop being white feminists (back to lower case), so we become white intersectional feminists. This, I am arguing, while insidious in its danger, has the possibility of being even more problematic than White Feminism.

The why and wherefore of this comes directly back to how we became feminists – our marginalization histories, and our years of internalized misogyny before we were awakened*****. Sadly, this is the only framework in which we can process the fact that we take up too much space in movement – both in feminist movement and in social justice movement. We do two deeply destructive things in response. They both run deep in us, but for different reasons.

The first, which comes from our marginalization, is that we cover over our need, as we always did before we awakened. We recognize that, in the scheme of things, although we are less privileged than wealthy white men, we are often very privileged. So we place ourselves in a classic old feminine hierarchy, one in which too many of us spent our whole childhood being victimized, deciding whether our pain is of enough merit to voice, and we find that it is not – almost always not. But our silence is precisely what suffocated us before, and it does precisely the same now. And suffocating, dying of asphyxiation, our feminist yearning to survive takes hold, and so even in trying to do this, we lash out. Except now, and precisely because we were holding our breath to try and make space for them (or rather, to try and avoid our habitual stealing of their space) that we lash out at our sisters and brothers in arms. But we know this is wrong, and we hate ourselves all the more for it.

The second thing we do is much like the first, but it comes not from our marginalization but our privilege. We take on the role of Overlady (or Overlord, if your feminism thinks you will be equal when you are a man). I have seen this so many times. White intersectional feminism, unlike intersectional feminism that is not white, is hegemonic in general, like all white feminisms. Its hegemony comes from our whiteness and not our feminism. When she is taught intersectionalism, she “naturally” takes on a conductress role in which she becomes Arbitress of the Intersections. She self-designates her role as deciding who matters more, and who matters less. She silences thus, not just herself, but her sisters as well, for the misguided hope of “giving her voice” to her sisters of color, when indeed, they need not be given her voice so much as she must stop stealing theirs. This, of course, is the prison of internalized and self-policed misogyny in which too many of us were reared – that is, we are leading our white feminist sisters back into precisely the gilded cage from whence we emerged, and we believe it is feminist that we lock them back in the cage and stand guard******.

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This is what that Arbitress role looks like when it is held by a dude. Please overlook the grammatical lapsing in my comment, however, which was originally directed to our new Mayor

It should hopefully have become very clear that she does this because she is white, not because she is a woman or because she is a feminist.

We need, very simply, to stop being white intersectional feminists and engage in a more assertive******* dialogue in which we embrace our feminism but learn to undo our whiteness. Our white feminism tries to say, because race marginalization is so much more onerous a burden on others than gender marginalization is on us, womanhood doesn’t matter. That is not a feminism at all. This is not an assault on our sisters of color – only we white feminists say anything this stupid. Note that our sisters of color who reject the label of feminist call themselves womanists. But we create a feminism that liberates others but does not liberate oneself, and this encapsulates, inevitably, that most unfeminist sentiment of all. If I do not believe I matter, then I cannot truly believe women matter, for I am a woman. I learned this years ago but forget it, time and time again, with surprising alacrity.

I become the proverbial empty pot from which no tea (but much hatred) may be poured. But likewise, a feminism that says that race marginalization is not real, or, astoundingly, says treatment by society is better when one is poor and black in America than rich and white, is just foolishness masquerading as feminism. Of all the intersectional feminisms, only white intersectional feminism would make either claim. The problem is not that we white feminists do not occupy intersecting identities, but that we occupy a great many privileging ones, and the still-profound marginalization we experience is due to just the one or two, having to do with our womanhood and femininity, that are not privileging.

We thus cannot simply drop the white and be intersectional feminists, which would be a simple answer and of great service to our sisters of color if it were possible. We do not know how to do this. We might, someday – this would do so much, if not everything, to stop racism. This is because, and we must learn this, race is entirely about the fact that our whiteness makes us “matter” in the kyriarchical system of racism, and the non-whiteness of others makes them not matter, or at least matter much less. Thus, if we could stop being white******** – that is, not stop having a racial identity, but stop having an hegemonic racial identity, then we should undo racism itself, because it is precisely the hegemonic nature of our racial identity that created and maintains racism.

It is not incidental but paramount in understanding the situation, to realize that white is not a single racial identity but a cluster of racial identities into which groups have been privileged, over time, and it, itself – not our skin color but the in-group powers we are conferred when our skin colors are granted the privilege of whiteness, is the source of the hegemonic systems that hurt us and with which we hurt our sisters and brothers in arms.

This is the non-parallel nature of the system. One does not need to learn to stop being African or Latina. But one must learn to stop being white. It actually does operate much in parallel with the hegemonic nature of manhood, into which one is privileged, and the captive role of womanhood, into which one is cast. Just as we have learned that eliminating sexism, even from ourselves, is no easy task, eliminating whiteness, even from ourselves, will be no easy task. One does not need to learn to stop being a woman. One must learn to stop being a man in the hegemonic identity sense, if one wants not to be a tool of patriarchy. African and woman are not hegemonic identities*********. White and man are. We white feminists have a foot in both worlds. The wealthy white feminist is like the child who leads far and periodically darts back to base to tag up and avoid being thrown out by the pitcher for stealing.

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I make, dear sisters, a sporting analogy (source: Wikimedia)

What is different about this line of sentiment is that it recognizes we cannot fiat our way out of whiteness nor expect others to do so. It allows us to confront the domineering nature of the discursive system our whiteness creates, while continuing our own liberation as women, and reducing gender-based oppression. I am neither asking us to magically stop being white, nor asking us to accept our whiteness as “the way things are.” So in the end, I offer no magic bullet, but rather a turning into the sharp points. I call us as white feminists to do the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do, and learn how to stop being white, and in this way, and this is precisely why I am recognizing my white feminism, I believe we can learn to stop being white feminists and finally become feminists.   

Notes:
* After all, I do say “you guys.” Like, a lot. And like, like, a lot. And it labels me as in group instead of marginalizing me.

** Another post, another time, on why it is not such a feminist victory that we say actor instead of actress, but I will respect the preference of others, and it seems that Delpy uses actress, which is admittedly the term I would also use, were I an actress instead of a provocatrice.

*** And I’m certainly not saying that all my Indian-American feminist sisters are white feminists. Probably most of you don’t feel you are, and the circumstances of my experiencing life in such a white fashion are a complex thing that still remains much shrouded in mystery, even to me.

**** If intersectionalism is the recognition that we operate in intersecting identity spheres that confer on us layers of privilege and marginalization, and that make our experiences, each of us, unique, then kyriarchy is that kissing cousin who reminds us that patriarchy itself is one of intersecting systems of dominance and marginalization that, itself, interacts with other systems, such as racism and classism.

***** Awakened with a kiss, doubtless, this is a white feminist fairy tale, after all, and one reposes gracefully to be woken by kisses in our world. It’s just a fairy tale of the proper, Grimm sort. That is, the fantasy is more warning than pleasant distraction.

******  Right outside the cage door, since someone must be free, after all, and it might as well be me. And we fool ourselves that, because we are in the prison as wardens and not prisoners, we are free, when we can never be free as long as there are prisons.

******* When we teach communication, we teach that there are three principal styles – aggressive, assertive, and passive. A passive style – which is nadir and birthplace of most of us white feminists – is one in which the needs of others matter, but our own needs do not. We know this too well, but our feminism was liberating to us entirely because it exposed this lie, and it will never be a source of liberation for anyone if it returns to it. It is the style of the self-made martyr. An aggressive style – in which our needs matter but those of others do not, is the quintessentially White Feminist style. The white intersectional feminist style tends to be a mixture of the two – passive aggressive. Which you’ve probably been taught is not a compliment.

******** Here I reveal that when I talk about being white, I am entirely talking about privilege, and the harm done to the world because I am given it. I do not aspire to whiteness and claim to have reached it – I find myself stuck in it and am trying to escape it.

********* At the risk of having a ridiculous number of footnotes, there are some rare but notable exceptions to this statement. In the context of exclusionary feminists who operate not in the context of women and men, but in the context of cis women and trans women, woman in their usage becomes a hegemonic identity into which one must be privileged. In general, in this way, Straight is a hegemonic identity and queer identities are generally not, but a like exception in the context of queer women’s culture is when lesbian friends reject a woman whose partner comes out as a trans man, perhaps because he will now have to struggle with having moved into a hegemonic category as a man. I feel like I have to run the risk of footnote perversity and explain this exception, since I was reminded of it by a couple I just met yesterday, who had that latter experience.

Reclaiming the Role of Woman-Identified Woman

As I was sitting in the conference room of APA yesterday, I remember that back at Convention in August in Toronto, I had heard, for the first time, the phrase, “woman-identified woman,” and I had not had a chance to understand its origin.

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The Woman Identified Woman, a pamphlet from 1970, is available archivally to read, at Duke University.

This short piece is worth reading.

It could easily be seen as not only the end of the “lavender menace” controversy within feminism but the beginning of exclusionary radical feminism. I do not think it should be seen that way. It does not translate, perfectly, more than 45 years later. But there is so much truth here.

I have always been a woman. I was not always woman-identified – at times, I still fail to be so. It is the awakening process of feminism that taught me to be a woman-identified woman. It is, in turn, being a woman-identified woman, that gives me any hope that my love, my sexuality, my beauty, or any other part of my self or my experience, may become tools of my liberation and not my oppression.

And yet, it is crucial that I am the only woman who identifies this woman. I am not a women-identified woman, any more than I can be a man- or male-identified woman. And this is where, almost fifty years later, we go farther. We recognize that no woman can define all womankind, and that womankind does not have a corner on marginalization, but rather, we lift women up in solidarity with and alliance with other marginalized groups, and we recognize that both women and people who are not women experience intersecting challenges, and search for a way to be self-identified, just as we Sisters do.

But we continue to recognize that autonomy to create and unmask our own identities, to pursue authenticity, is everything in our journey towards a world without cages.

And in this, I find it so easy to stand in solidarity with these Sisters who spoke before I was born.

A Brief Note on Self-Policing

This brief piece is a response to recent comments by Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, as can be seen here or here, for example. It builds on my call to build an inclusive feminism, as well as to create a culture of calling in, wherever possible (sometimes, it is admittedly not possible). 

DWSPortrait

Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) was the source of recent controversy for blaming the loss of reproductive freedom on women born since Roe v. Wade.

In the spirit of calling Ms. Wasserman-Schultz in, rather than out, her statements really help reiterate the importance of teaching the powerful role of self-policing in patriarchy / kyriararchy processes. The system knows that no one will ever guard the cages in which women are held better than the women themselves. The “system” benefits by pitting women against women, because it frees up its resources to focus on robbing our rights from us.

When a woman lashes out at other women – young women in this case (even as young as me, since Roe v. Wade has been in place all my life) – it is not a random act of relational aggression. It is a design of the system. I should like to see Ms. Wasserman-Schultz learn this. I should like to see every woman learn this.

Self-policing is part of what makes these processes like patriarchy so insidious and so difficult to eradicate. A crucial thing for us all to understand is that, because we were born in cages, we do not know fully what the freedom we are creating looks like. None of us has ever seen a world in which women matter – a world truly free of misogyny. We have never seen a world without the cages we are trying to destroy, even when we have broken free temporarily from them. And far more powerful than the bars of the cage is the belief by many caged people – women in our case – that there is no cage, or worse, that the cage is where we belong.

When Ms. Wasserman-Shultz understands this, she will understand that, even when it is true that women are enforcing the patriarchy (which is not at all true of the entire class of women who are under 43 years of age, but in this case, is true of her, herself), we need to educate them, precisely because we believe that women (and every other marginalized group) deserve to be free. And irrespective of everything else (e.g., if she is asked or choses to step down), it is my hope that we all do exactly this for her, and for anyone else who makes these kinds of missteps.

In Search of Sexually Empowering Feminism

Okay, you guys, I swear this is not an XO Jane Unpopular Opinion piece, but I am not a sex-positive feminist.

This idea Marilyn was talking about, the difference between being sexy and being objectified - t's really deep.

This idea Marilyn was talking about, the difference between being sexy and being objectified – it’s really deep.

Oh, I like sex. I like being sexy. I like it when my fiancé calls me sexy*. But I don’t like being reduced to the role of an object, even if I play object roles. And I don’t like being a tool, especially not of the patriarchy. And I am not a sex-positive feminist.

It wasn’t a typo.

So I gave a local training to a family health center, today, and the idea of sex-positive messaging came up, unfortunately advocated for, blindly, by a university nursing professor. Her advocacy of this issue is wrong for one of the most basic reasons I oppose sex-positive feminism – because her embrace of it is uncritical. No feminist – no woman – no person – should be uncritical. Not about sex, and honestly, not about anything. It isn’t safe. Not in a world of criss-crossing power structures and systems of oppression. To make blanket assumptions that sexuality is safe in the sense of its relationship with power has deadly consequences, particularly for women, every day.

This is a question we ask critically, not an assumption we make. And sex being free doesn't mean free for (men to do the) taking. Source: Hiphoptumblr

This is a question we ask critically, not an assumption we make. And sex being free doesn’t mean free for (men to do the) taking. Source: Hiphoptumblr

I want to outline the reasons why I am a sexually empowering feminist, but I am not a sex-positive feminist. I’m not the first one to talk about something like this. In 2012, a feminist from the UK, Lisa Downing (Prof. LD) coined the idea of sex critical feminism. She was writing in response to Fifty Shades of Grey, which many revile as terrible writing, but far more importantly, many feminists and others call out as being not about lust but about sexual victimization (the BDSM community took exception, also). Downing wasn’t the only one. Whether they banded behind the sex critical term** or not, these authors talked about some major themes – how sex positivity feels to them as victims of sexual violence, because it is uncritical, and because it pits women against each other. And yes, XO Jane Unpopular Opinion got on the bandwagon, too***.

  1. Sex is at the very root of sexism. Sex and things related to sex, like pregnancy, abortion, rape, victimization, trafficking, are, of all the spaces in which we fight, the space in which we are most literally fighting over a woman’s body, whether we are feminists who are there to help her stand tall, or tools of the system that are there to violate her. To consider sexuality in an “empowering” way that does not recognize that sex has deep intersections with power structures and systems of coercion that keep the Patriarchy in place is unacceptably ignorant. Now, there’s that much ballyhooed over-simplification of second wave feminism, right? All sex is rape? What was really going on in the Second Wave that is important for us not to forget is that feminists were asking radical questions about how sex could be ethical. They did not blindly assume sex was ethical – rather, one of their most radical questions of all was to ask, “What if it isn’t and cannot ever be?” These questions inform conversations like the question of how living in the gender binary can be ethical, and they remain very relevant today, as exemplified by news like Bill Cosby’s serial raping, women being criminalized for miscarriage, the absurdism of “legitimate rape.” Sex positivity just forgets or washes over all of this. Sure, it recognizes that rape is an act of violence. Sure, it advocates for explicit consent. But again, the idea that men not raping anybody and asking for explicit consent before having sex, just those two things, makes sex ethical, is completely ridiculous.

    I don't mean to call out this radio program, and I just found this doing a Google search, but this is a good example of how the messaging of the

    I don’t mean to call out this radio program, and I just found this doing a Google search, but this is a good example of how the messaging of the “sex positive” movement is often objectifying to women (Source: CKUT)

  2. Sex-positivity all too often sells sexual messaging that is masculocentric. Now this gets into bones of contention among feminists, and I disagree with some women I respect mightily. But for most women, we cannot be truly sexually empowered if we are pretending to be men. And yet, too often, sex-positive messaging is like the “shrink it and pink it” of athletic wear. So sex-positivity forces us to talk a masculine game. If a woman stomps her fist and demands orgasm, that’s increasingly cool, and some very visible women are doing that – Amy Schemer, Nicki Minaj, and others, and this conversation is increasingly going global. That’s cool – I applaud that. But, if a woman – even a woman who has and enjoys many orgasms – says that her enjoyment of sex isn’t centered on orgasm, she is immediately viewed with suspicion, and admonished to demand orgasm from men like these model women. She is never asked: “Okay, then, orgasm isn’t the be all and end all for you. Cool. So how can I make sex more pleasurable for you? What gives you value in sex?” Why isn’t she? Why don’t we believe, in this era of sex positivity, and sex positivity that is supposedly feminist, that a woman could have a viewpoint on her own sexuality? But just like past eras of sexuality where it was a liberating idea that a woman could be on top in heterosex****, all it does is take a man’s conception of what sex should be and put it on women. That isn’t empowering to me.

    It really is entirely too much fifty shades of rape. Source: Women's Aid and Refuge 24H Helpline

    It really is entirely too much fifty shades of rape. Source: Women’s Aid and Refuge 24H Helpline

  3. If you’d been traumatized, you might feel differently. Sex positive messaging also has a tendency to celebrate sexuality in a way that is deeply inconsiderate of trauma survivors. Worse yet, sex positivity and the demands to conform to this view that the “movement” places on women place sexually empowered women like me at odds with survivors who do not feel safe with sexuality, when in reality we are sisters and we need to be lifting each other up.
  4. Why doesn’t anyone think about the aces & aros? Sex-positive messaging (and I’ve made this mistake, too, although I do know better, and I need to knock it off) does not recognize that there are some people – including some, but not all asexual and aromantic people, who may not want to have sex, and who may not need to enjoy sex. Sex positivity not only doesn’t recognize that not all people are sexual, it writes over the narratives of the marginalized with the majority’s narrative. That’s so not cool.
  5. The Sexual Revolution All Over Again. And here’s the rub that women know all too well. The sexual revolution was this proclaimed attempt to free our sexualities. But what it did for heterosexual women is primarily create a set of rules to maximize our bodies’ availability***** to men. While the sexual revolution seemed appealing to many women at the time, in the long term, it was deeply problematic for us, and it leaves us a legacy yet today. Look at online dating and “hookup culture” – Tindr was created by two guys (and from the looks of it, not nice guys). The idea that women can either be sidelined by some other woman who is more willing than they are, or they can play the man’s game on the man’s rulebook, is a fool’s choice. Even for women who do legitimately find value or meaning in hookup culture, it’s vital that we understand that we are participating in a game that plays by rules that are deeply patriarchal in their design.

* And Teri is quite the Prince when it comes to tolerating the dissonance between the fact that I love my sexuality yet question its ethicality.

** Notice I used “sexually empowering” instead of sex critical. This is not because I don’t respect Downing’s work – I do, immensely. Rather, I think the name sex critical is problematic. Unlike some of our most radical sisters of the second wave, I see sexuality as something that fulfills a deep, human need for many (but not all) people. Being sex critical to me implies that doubt of the second wave that sexuality can even be ethical. I’m committed to the idea that we can make it more ethical, and I’m committed to the idea that anyone can be sexually empowered, whether they are sexual or not, whether they have sex or not.

*** I kid, I kid, I love XO Jane, I totally click through and read all the articles. And although I disagree sometimes, I love the idea that women can have opinions different than mine.

**** Straight people and their sexual practices are so quaint.

***** I was going to say, our sexual availability, but the reality is that it wasn’t and too often isn’t ours, and it’s not us but our bodies that society wants – this is ultimately the entire concern critically conscious women, even women like me who love sex, have about sex positivity.

I Am A Radical Feminist (And Proud of It!)

Yes, you heard me rightly.

I think this needs saying. There are two historical meanings of the term radical in the context of radical feminism. Actually, Merriam-Webster lists three, although their first and second definitions are closely related (I’ll ignore definition four, or at least leave it to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).

TMNT

Radical, dude!

The classical meaning of the term, and the first two entries in Merriam-Webster, goes back to the etymology. A radical approach is one that goes back to the very roots or origin of something. The other, of course, increasingly in vogue in the last twenty years, is the use of radical as a synonym for extremist. Although I don’t personally know any feminists who really hate men (I know many who hate things men do), and I don’t know any people who are really feminist separatists, who want to live off in some female-assigned-at-birth fantasy land (although there is such a fantasy land near here),

There are radical feminisms of both kinds. I want to dedicate this post to pointing out that the former is the more important use of the term, and that the idea of feminism being radical is so important, that we must absolutely not cede the concept of radical feminism to the makers of exclusionary movements, and we must continue to stand up as radical feminists, to own this term, to love it, and to make (by the former definition) feminism that is far more, not less, radical.

To be sure, when second wave feminists began calling themselves radical (1967 is commonly cited for the inception of the term), they existed over a broad range. Some of them were shockingly (for the time) open about how they found men beautiful and appealing. Others argued that patriarchy prevented even the possibility of an ethical sexual relationship between women and men, and that notions like romantic and sexual orientations must be entirely revamped to provide any possibility of ethical comity. (This is most commonly attributed to MacKinnon, and sometimes to Dworkin, but as snopes.com points out, neither said anything like “all sex is rape,” and both were really, to me, insightful in analyzing the ethics of sexuality, particularly heterosexuality). To be fair, a few of them were openly suspicious of not just men, but of anyone assigned male at birth. Germaine Greer went farther than most, and in those days, was openly cruel to transgender people, and particularly trans women; she still has not really set the record straight, although recently her position has been more complex (and more confusing to some, although to me, having already said I think we should cut back on using the term transphobia, somewhat open to discussion). But again, others felt strongly and articulated clearly that feminism had a role in making the world not only better for cis women, but for everyone (Steinem and Firestone, notably — I think a careful read of Steinem’s work over the course of her life makes it hard to believe she was ever much of an exclusionist, but she has been far more explicit about this recently). Finally, still others seemed to vacillate (my reading of Naomi Wolf is this way). There was even room for some philosophies that tread a surreal line between comical and profound (if you haven’t read Vamps & Tramps or other early Paglia … it’s an experience, for sure).

But, this variation in feminist voices needs to be understood in the context of re-analyzing the world that made patriarchy from the roots in an honestly radical way, to figure out how to end the patriarchy. Moreover, while all these struggles for equality are the same struggle, I do feel we should not spend the bulk of our time making a villain of someone for fighting a different part of the equality struggle than the one that affects us at a given moment.

In careful reading of some of the authors I mention above, it is clear that, many times, their intent was to provoke theoretically, rather than demonize a group of people. Other times, I believe they were acting legitimately from fear, ignorance, or uncertainty, and from the memories of their own suffering (“hurt people hurt people“). But these women were spelunkers, lamps bound to their foreheads, crawling through the crevices and tunnels underpinning patriarchal society, having no idea what they might find or what it might mean. In the history of any new science or philosophy, as its principles are elucidated, their implications are not immediately understood, and claims that, in hindsight, seem erroneous or incompatible with the theory are made, being rejected later as the process continues. That is, the vagary of these early radical feminist views, to me, is just like the vagary of the early moments of new theories in physical science, new principles in software design, or other area of the design of science and technology.

Dworkin-IntercourseAt times, I was/am scared of Andrea Dworkin. I may be the only trans woman you’ll ever hear say this, but I was also strongly influenced by her way of thinking and her way of relating to the world, even if I disagree with some of her conclusions

Before I was aware of the latter use of the term radical, I used to call what evolved next, as the second wave slowed down, as a sort of “land grab” feminism (it has also been called cultural feminism and sometimes “difference” feminism falls into this space, too, when it is not called radical feminism in usurpment of the prior radical feminism). At the time, I didn’t know to articulate that the problem for me most centrally was that my own experience as a woman-in-becoming was being excluded. Nor did I really understand that, to the extent that I have any business talking about the concerns of or advocating for the needs of men, I was doing it as an outsider (because, in those days, I although my heart knew it, I, again, did not have the words to articulate that I was not, had never been a man). But what bothered me is that the feminism that succeeded radical feminism and ultimately stole its birthright was pragmatic in scary ways – willing to sacrifice ideology not just when no alternative was present, but at the drop of a hat, and willing to accept any intellectually odious approach or position if it benefited even one woman, even when it came at the cost of another woman (this cold be benefiting cis women at the cost of trans women, but most commonly, in the US, it was benefiting white women at the cost of black and Latino women).

This feminism was not honest. Rather, it was ready to be deceptive if it might prove beneficial. The old radical feminists were developing a science and a philosophy, and a technology derived from that science and philosophy. The new radical feminists were cobbling together bad technological solutions, because they did not care to understand or value the science or the philosophy.

smash-patriarchy

If there is a reason feminism is associated with monstrosity (outside of the primary reason, which is that it is a tool the patriarchy and the status quo use to stop us), it’s this dishonesty, this unwillingness to follow guiding principles like creating a more just society. Smashing the patriarchy, in contrast, is not monstrosity at all

My feeling is that the results have been disastrous. We did not pass the ERA, because of stupid things, like believing that sex segregated bathrooms were more important to preserve and enshrine than the equality of women and men. (For those of you who are feminists and physical scientists, what this reminds me most of is the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox…. sadly, nearly 40 years later, the horror of the bathroom is again being used to dehumanize trans people) Feminism became irrelevant to modern life, and we spent the intervening years in stupid arguments that ranged intellectually all the way from “is Ally McBeal a feminist?” to “Is Miley Cyrus a feminist?” instead of talking about how we empower women and build a world where our stories as women matter, get told, are heard.

Behind the scenes, on the other hand, a slightly more complex story was evolving than this “woe for the death of feminism.” Shulamith Firestone, that genius who wrote one text decades ago and largely disappeared from public conversation, I believe, understood many of the intersectional aspects of feminism from her place as a middle-class, white, cis woman. Over the coming decades, bell hooks went far farther, and alongside other women, extended this story to integrate the narratives of the poor and oppressed ethnic minorities, long blind spots of feminism, and later yet, inclusionary queer theorists extended this story to sexual and gender minorities, but largely extending the same story told by Firestone and Steinem that the true feminism was the one that took everyone’s right to personhood seriously. In my mind, as these dies coalesced into the so-called “fourth wave” (which really became an extension of the best of the second wave), the long dark night without a relevant feminism finally broke, and dawn shone, and didn’t it feel good to be alive and to be woman?

So, in the newest lexicon, I endorse the intersectionalism of bell hooks and others, and the trans-feminism of Julia Serano and others. In spirit, I find kinship with most of the people who call themselves part of the “fourth wave” of feminism, as well as most of those placed in the fourth wave by others’ attributions. I endorse these types of feminism as the most radical feminism available to me. I will do my small part (if our gifts were measured by capitalization, bell hooks would be in all caps and I would be in lower case subscript!) to extend it, and to make it more radical yet, and most likely, because we’re nowhere near done figuring this out, there will be other terms for the most radical, and most honest kind of feminism that comes to exist, and when I see it, I’ll join it. I bet Steinem and hooks will too, and if she were here to do so, so would Firestone.

And someday, maybe, just maybe, our descendants, genetic and spiritual, won’t even need to call it feminism anymore, because the radical notion that women are people will seem as worthy of question as the radical notion that the world is a globe.