Feminisms and Other Feminisms

Sort of staying with the theme of the last post — I’ve argued for some time that there is no feminist movement any more, but just a lot of different “feminisms,” many of which are at odds with each other. And I haven’t been fully active in any of them for some time, although as you regulars know I am passionate about reproductive rights and equal protection under the law for everybody.

This morning I came across a “radical feminism FAQ” that I found disturbing

Radical feminists are critical of gender itself. We are not gender reformists–we are gender abolitionists. Without the socially constructed gender roles that form the basis of patriarchy, all people would be free to dress, behave, and love others in whatever way they wished, no matter what kind of body they had.

Patriarchy is a caste system which takes humans who are born biologically male or female and turns them into the social classes called men and women. Male people are made into men by socialization into masculinity, which is defined by a psychology based on emotional numbness and a dichotomy of self and other. This is also the psychology required by soldiers, which is why we don’t think you can be a peace activist without being a feminist.

Female socialization in patriarchy is a process of psychologically constraining and breaking girls—otherwise known as “grooming”—to create a class of compliant victims. Femininity is a set of behaviors that are, in essence, ritualized submission.

As I tried to explain to some jerk in the comments in the last post, biological womanhood and cultural womanhood are two very different things that often don’t line up very well. To grow up in the 1950s and 1960s, as I did, was to be conditioned into a kind of cultural bifurcation in which we were locked into rigid gender roles — Friedan’s “feminine mystique” — while at the same time our actual biological functions were to be kept carefully hidden and never talked about.

Yes, we had at least gone beyond the Victorian upper-class ideal of pregnant women confining themselves out of sight once the pregnancy could no longer be kept hidden under clothes. But otherwise our bodies were a mystery even to us, because so much of our experience of ourselves was Not To Be Discussed.

Menstruation was a big one. I was introduced to the subject with a book titled “You’re a Young Lady Now!” that had a picture of a pretty girl in a sweater set and pearls on the cover. There was a lot of filler about dating that managed to not say anything about anything and advice about taking a lot of baths to stay fresh! and clean!, with maybe two pages of actual information about The Monthlies. The subliminal message was that this is a secret among us young ladies that we were supposed to pretend doesn’t actually happen and that we were to manage discretely, preferably by using the product of whatever tampon manufacturer published the booklet.

I’m sure a lot of us as teenagers had the experience of being doubled over with menstrual cramps while sitting in class, but we couldn’t just say that because menstruation was unmentionable in mixed company. So we’d say we had a headache and ask to see the nurse. I don’t know what we would have done if there’d been male nurses back then.

And, of course, while dating we were supposed to package ourselves in a somewhat sexually provocative way while pretending we weren’t really interested. Back in the day it was often assumed we wouldn’t be interested, actually, because young ladies don’t think those things. What we were supposed to do if we were interested was not discussed. But we were supposed to want to get married and have babies, in that order, because we were girls. Just as boys were supposed to want to have sex all the time and were not to blame if they couldn’t control themselves. But the unfortunate young lady who got pregnant out of wedlock was put through unimaginable emotional wringers and basically was screwed for life in several different ways.

Meanwhile, boys were put through their own very negative conditioning. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but the best book I’ve ever read on gender conditioning was written by a man, Sam Keen, and is titled Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. And he discusses the emotional armoring culture requires of men that cuts them off from large parts of themselves. If you have never read it, I still recommend it highly, even though it was first published in 1992.

But here’s the thing — to say that our cultural and social ideas about gender role are screwed up and hurting all of us is not to say gender makes no difference whatsoever. To ignore the very real physical and emotional needs generated by our different roles in the reproduction process is to just put ourselves into a different set of self-denial boxes.

Self-other dichotomies are tricky things that you can’t get rid of by ignoring actual differences. It’s understood in Zen that the only way to liberate oneself from self-other dichotomies is to realize that the individual “self,” or whatever identity we cling to, is an artificial construct without substantive reality.

But while identity is artificial, experience is real (sorta kinda; this gets us into yogacara, which is hairy stuff). And the experience of life as a woman differs in many ways from the experience of life as a man, and it’s not helpful to anybody to pretend otherwise. We have different sorts of physical abilities, which is why there are sex-separated Olympic sports. Pregnancy and childbirth are significant life events that reverberate in every part of one’s being. Just the potential for pregnancy and childbirth can take up a huge part of a woman psyche even if she chooses to avoid them. And I understand the brains of men and women are organized in somewhat different ways, although I’m not sure we fully appreciate why that’s so or how that affects us.

So even though there is a lot about cultural femininity and masculinity that is artificial and limiting, to say there is no difference at all also is artificial and limiting. The ideal, seems to me, is to respect and appreciate real differences while letting go of culturally conditioned ones.

Getting back to feminism — it was Sigmund Freud who said “anatomy is destiny,” and Freud was far from being a feminist. This morphed into “biology is destiny,” and feminists have long said that biology is not destiny, particularly when thinking in terms of careers. But anatomy does shape experience, and it’s our experience of life that matters. Not role playing; not identity. Those things are artificial. Experience is not artificial, and it has a lot to do with how we understand ourselves.

Consider race. Racial differences are social constructs that have no physiological reality. But because whites and non-whites in our culture have radically different life experiences as a result of culture, sometimes we might as well be living in different worlds. The stubborn refusal of many whites to understand and appreciate this reality of experience perpetuates our divisions. Even more so, to deny that men and women have different experiences of life because of our anatomies is not going to help any of us.

Back in the day patriarchy defined everything about women as inferior, and this included our roles as child-bearers and nurturers. I remember an early issue of Ms. magazine, ca. early 1970s, that featured a cover photo of a young man cuddling a baby. The idea that fathers should play a role in the care of their own children was radically crazy at the time, and conservatives went ballistic about it. Now, weirdly, conservatives and misogynists have embraced fatherhood (or, in the case of misogynists, an idea of fatherhood) and have gotten the notion that feminists are against fatherhood, which certainly was never true. It was 1970s-era feminists who made joint custody the norm instead of some weird newfangled thing, for example.

I’m not sure if young people today appreciate that for a long time the Patriarchy took childbirth away from us. Not that men could give birth, of course. But in the 19th century the male medical establishment got in its collective head that childbirth was too important to be left to women and their female midwives. It was to be brought into hospitals where men with medical training could manage it. Never mind that maternal death rates soared in those hospitals, where puerperal fever was rampant and spread from one woman to another by the doctors themselves.

(Suggested reading: Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich [1976] , one of the most gut-wrenching books I ever read, details how the war between patriarchy and maternity go back to ancient times.)

General anesthesia, while sometimes merciful, robbed a few generations of women of the experience of childbirth and put infants at risk. By the 1950s physicians had settled on a “safer” drug that didn’t block the pain but rendered women incapable of taking part in or remembering childbirth. As Sylvia Plath wryly noted in The Bell Jar, “it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent.”

The early natural childbirth movement was embraced by many women, but it was quickly joined by something called the Bradley Method, or “Husband-coached” childbirth, which effectively put the husband in charge of his wife’s labor. Soon some women felt they were being pressured by their husbands and doctors to avoid anesthesia when they really wanted it. Betty Friedan took a jaundiced view of natural childbirth in The Feminine Mystique, probably for that reason. (I want to add that I had both of my babies “naturally” and wouldn’t have missed that experience for the world. But some women have a harder time of it.)

(See also “The Masculinization Project of Hospital Birth Practices and Hollywood Comedies” by Shira Segal, which reviews the whole father’s part in childbirth as a culture thing. Interesting stuff.)

But I digress. The point is that women have had to fight even to take childbirth itself back from the Patriarchy. And in the larger scheme of things, it’s been a fight to have the different reproductive roles of men and women to be honored and respected, not judged inferior or superior. The experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood — when freely chosen — are empowering, not demeaning.

And parenting should not be ghettoized into some female thing that goes on out of sight of the Mighty Male Breadwinners, which is what had happened to it by early in the 20th century. Rather, parenting ought to be respected by our culture, and it should not be thought demeaning to men to fully engage in taking care of children.

And so today, NBA star Stephen Curry can take his adorable little daughter to press conferences and not be thought less of a man. We’re making progress. Fifty years ago if an athlete had done that it would have been the beginning of the end of his career, I suspect.

Going back to the beginning of this very long post, it seems utterly unhelpful to me to deny that there are real gender differences that ought to be respected and honored. And going back to the last post, this is why I take issue with trans women who want to define “womanhood” purely as a cultural role unrelated to reproduction. This actually is taking us in the opposite direction of feminism as I have always understood feminism.

And for those who want to define uterus-owners as “females” instead of “women,” I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that “female” as a noun is the preferred term used by genuine misogynists when referring to women. Many misogynists avoid using the word “woman.” It’s kind of a tell of a woman-hater if he uses “females” as a noun when most people would say “women.” In some contexts “female,” especially as a noun, has long been a kind of gender equivalent to “Negro.” That’s not true in all contexts, of course.

But “womanhood” to me is the centered and intimate experience of being that part of the species that gives birth (although one doesn’t have to give birth to be a woman), with all the messiness that goes with it, and I’m not conceding the word. I have no problem with trans women taking on a cultural identity as women, but I am opposed to defining “womanhood” as being purely social and cultural. As I said, this is a fight engaged in for too long to be abandoned now.