December 11, 2011

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE SHOES (profanity alert):

As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes (Jenny Turner, 12/15/11, London Review of Books)

'Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism ... perhaps we should say no more about it': Simone de Beauvoir, at the very beginning of The Second Sex (1949). 'The subject is irritating, especially to women.' Long before they were shouting 'Ban the Bunny' and dressing up as butchers, feminists were annoying people, not just misogynists and sexists, but the very people you'd think would like them best. It was true in suffragette days, as it was during Women's Liberation in the 1960s and 1970s, and it's very much a problem for what boosters have been calling 'the third wave' since the early 1990s. We know the angry squiggles that signify this irritation - the hairy-legged Millie Tant man-hater, Mrs Banks in the Disney Mary Poppins, a suffragette too busy to care for her children. And it's obvious how useful such stereotypes have been in neutralising the threat felt in the wider culture. But these caricatures obscure a real problem: a confusion between self and other, identity and difference, that you might charitably view as an unfortunate side-effect of being of and for and by women, all at once; or, less charitably, as narcissistic self-absorption.

It's true that women, as a gender, have been systemically disadvantaged through history, but they aren't the only ones: economic exploitation is also systemic and coercive, and so is race. And feminists need to engage with all of this, with class and race, land enclosure and industrialisation, colonialism and the slave trade, if only out of solidarity with the less privileged sisters. And yet, the strange thing is how often they haven't: Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed votes for freedmen; Betty Friedan made the epoch-defining suggestion that middle-class American women should dump the housework on 'full-time help'. There are so many examples of this sort that it would be funny if it weren't such a waste.

Not that the white middle-class brigade like being on the same side as one another. There's always a tension between all of us being sisterly, all equal under the sight of the patriarchal male oppressor, and the fact that we aren't really sisters, or equal, or even friends. We despise one another for being posh and privileged, we loathe one another for being stupid oiks. We hate the tall poppies for being show-offs, we can't bear the crabs in the bucket that pinch us back. All this produces the ineffable whiff so often sensed in feminist emanations, those anxious, jargon-filled, overpolite topnotes with their undertow of envy and rancour, that perpetual sharp-elbowed jostle for the moral high ground.

Looked at one way - in the manner of Joan Didion, for example, in her harsh, oddly clouded but startlingly acute essay of 1972 on the Women's Movement - the idea of feminism is obviously Marxist, being about the 'invention', as Didion put it, 'of women as a "class"', a total transformation of all relationships, led by the group most exploited by relations in their current form. So why did the libbers so seldom say so? Well, some came to the movement as Marxists, and did. Sheila Rowbotham wrote that 'the so-called women's question is a whole-people question' in Women's Liberation and the New Politics (1969); then in 1976 Barbara Ehrenreich stressed that 'there is no way to understand sexism as it acts on our lives without putting it in the historical context of capitalism.' Others shoved the categories in great handfuls through the blender: 'sex-class' must 'in a temporary dictatorship' seize 'control of reproduction' according to Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1970).

More prevalent, however, was what Didion called a 'studied resistance to the possibility of political ideas' - who, in any case, ever heard of a radical-feminist movement taking its understanding of historical change from a man? The entire Marxist tradition was repressed, leaving a weird sinkhole that quickly filled up with the most dreadful rubbish: wise wounds, herstory, nature goddesses, raped and defiled; sisters under the skin, flayed and joined, like the Human Centipede, in a single biomass; the fractal spread of male sexual violence, men f[***] women replicated at every level of interaction, as through a stick of rock.

And so Women's Liberation started trying to build a man-free, women-only tradition of its own. Thus consciousness-raising, or what was sometimes called the 'rap group', groups of women sitting around, analysing the frustrations of their lives according to their new feminist principles, gradually systematising their discoveries. And thus that brilliant slogan, from the New York Radical Women in 1969, that the personal is political, an insight so caustic it burned through generations of mystical nonsense - a woman's place is in the home, she was obviously asking for it dressed like that. But it also corroded lots of useful boundaries and distinctions, between public life and personal burble, real questions and pop-quiz trivia, political demands and problems and individual whims. 'Psychic hardpan' was Didion's name for this. A movement that started out wanting complete transformation of all relations was floundering, up against the banality of what so many women actually seemed to want.

Since the traditional role and near universal archetype of woman is as the loving partner and nurturing mother then it was only natural for the reaction against womanhood to be centered around monstrous selfishness.

Posted by at December 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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