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.

22 thoughts on “Feminisms and Other Feminisms

  1. Maha: Your last paragraph says it all and I’m in that fight with you. I remember watching Joseph Campbell being interviewed by Bill Moyers and he said: “Women are the life-givers”. In Chinese medicine, the uterus is called “the golden palace”. I think that is very appropriate. Carrying and nurturing a future human being in one’s body is a sacred and holy experience. It is time it is being given the respect it deserves. Even after a baby is born, the mother will protect it with her life. This is true of animal mothers also. Rudyard Kipling said: “The female of the species is more deadly than the male”. I think we all know not to disturb a bear, lion, wolf or even a goose with babies. Women are awesome and I’m glad I have had the experience to be one.

  2. How can something so complicated, be so simple?
    And how can something so simple, be so complicated?

    As a male, I can’t – and don’t – speak for women.
    All I can do, is support every woman in her fight for respect and equality.

    Too many men feel that they need to speak to and for women. And usually, it’s to speak down to them.

    All I can say to women, is that you have my full respect and support regarding reproductive independence, equal pay, and all other issues that you deem to be important to you and your gender.

    Too many men look at the mother in the Duggar family, and see a heroine – their ideal.

    And way too many of them are intimidated by women like the ones in “Sex and the City.”

    A woman should have every freedom that a man feels he’s entitled to. And if that means you choose to have 20+ children, or have lots of sex and fun in NY City, then you should be able to choose either one without being ostracized.

    YOU make YOUR choice(s).
    We accept that in men.
    It’s not too much to expect that we accept that in women.

    I hope I made myself clear, and didn’t come across as some jerk.
    And if I did, then tell me where I went astray.
    I’m coachable.

  3. I appreciate this post, Maha. I have been a feminist since I was aware of anything, and was a charter subscriber to Ms. magazine. What you say rings true to me. When I had an abortion I could not stand the thought of my husband accompanying me–it would have made it All About Him. So I did it alone.

    By the way, I have long thought that abortion is a sin because only women can be guilty of it.

  4. I may be wrong, but I think it was Robin Morgan who said: “The oppression of women is the model for all other oppressions.” I remember reading that quote in college and having one of those gigantic-light-bulb moments that one never forgets.

    We on the Left are very sensitive to homophobia and racial injustice these days, with damn good reason. But we seem sometimes to have convinced ourselves that misogyny, gender inequality, sexism and all its other hydra-heads either don’t exist anymore or exist only in the imagination of– what are we called now?– “ciswomen.” The very idea that someone would try to silence the magnificent Martha Plimpton (see previous post) tells me that something is seriously effed-up somewhere. We are really tired of being told what to think and how to express ourselves.

  5. I realized just recently that becoming an older woman did not remove me from this sexist world we live in. I just recently had some heart problems; but, it took the medical establishment over a year of the start up of the symptoms to determine that diagnosis. The reason is because women have different symptoms of heart problems than men and the medical community has not recognized this fact yet. As to Maha’s last paragraph, I am a woman who has never given birth and dealt with all it’s messiness. I benefited from the woman’s movement because I was able to choose to not have children and not have a severe stigma put upon me. I did, however, go through the menstrual cramps from my second period in the ninth grade up to my last period at about 54. I did my best to hide my cramps until I was about 45. After that, I think I dared my employer to fire me for it and I would sue them. But, employers knew better in those days.

  6. I just wanted to apologize if my comment in the last thread came across as mansplaining. The male/female vs man/woman dichotomy is just something I picked up in a classroom, and the real world, as you have pointed out, is much more complicated. It just stuck in my brain as a useful way of disentangling biological issues from social ones.

    I agree with what you are saying in this post and the last one, that they cannot be entirely disentangled, and that although reproduction is a biological enterprise, the way women are brought up to think about it is often integral to their concept of “womanhood”. I also agree that this is a point men who transition can’t always appreciate, or wish away. Having said that, I doubt any of the trans people that I have met over the years would have told you that their experiences mirror those of a person born female, or that they have more right to the word “woman”. The idea that the word “vagina” is exclusionary is new to me.

    I also want to clarify that I generally don’t refer to women as “females”, unless I am contrasting the word with “males”. I confess I never really noticed that the term as a noun has become popular with misogynists.

  7. This post and the previous one have been instructive in so many ways. It’s been a good time to sit back and listen to so many insights.

    I found myself thinking about the term, “respect,” and remembering something one of my political friends said in passing. She said, “if you really respect someone, you’ll struggle with them.” I always took that to mean that you will listen to their argument and present your own, rather than offering the logical equivalent of “Whatever.”

    It may sound condescending, but sometimes, circumstances and experiences overwhelm a persons capacity for reason, and there really is no point in pursuing any understanding until the fog clears. Especially when the fog may also have affected our own reasoning. So, patience is always an important element.

    This article brought me back to some of the issues that were floating around when my wife was studying to be a midwife. So, when time allows, I know that she will enjoy these two posts. When I asked her about “Of Woman Born” she replied, “That’s a classic,” and found a copy within ten feet of our computer. So, pretty obviously, a lot of women have truly shared experiences and ideas. They are “on the same page,” if you can forgive using a trivial cliche. Certainly, their struggle and discourse would serve as a useful model for other groups of people looking for some truth.

    I hope that this doesn’t seem offhanded, but, this article appeared on NPR yesterday and it resonated with some of the discussion. It regards how menstruation and attitudes towards it, present a significant barrier to the education of young women in some countries.


    On a lighter note, in trying to learn French, I came across an expression that can be used to indicate when a woman was having her period.

    “The British have arrived.”

    • “The British have arrived.” Har. As a Celt I’d change that to “The English have arrived.”

      “Of Woman Born” is a book that ought to be assigned reading in higher education, at least. It’s brilliantly written, but when I read it I sometimes had to put it down and walk away, because many things it described were just too sad. So much unnecessary suffering. Since I read it I’ve come to think that the first measure of a decent civilization is the consideration given to maternity and new babies. I can’t say we measure up all that well.

  8. As I recall, he was quoting someone else, whose name escapes me, but, in the same series that grannyeagle mentioned, Joe Campbell, noted the observation that “men may make history, but women ARE history.” Although, I suspect this view might have its element of oppression, as good as it sounds.

    In discussing Yin and Yang, he noted that with too much Yang, “one will think that he is enlightened.” The wise ones knew about “manplaining.”

  9. As a man who is married to a very strong woman, an equal and sometimes more than my equal, I agree with ya Maha…After experiencing Man’s child birthing Point of View, I would not get pregnant and have a baby because I wouldn’t have the courage to face childbirth…We have had our arguments, and after Forty years of Blissful Marriage, I have yet to win any argument…oh there were a couple of times I was lead to believe I “won” one..but that is another matter….The first nine months of our lives, all a guy wants to to do is get out of the womb..then we spend the rest of our lives trying to get back in….

  10. Great article until you mentioned Steph Curry. Then it all went to hell for me. His father, Dell, is six months younger than me. The idea that someone my age could be a grandfather with a 27 year old son, is just to much…….. I need to go get a discount coffee at Mickey Dee’s and then go yell at the neighbor’s kids……..at least my pacemaker and cataracts are ok.

  11. These trans women you’re having a problem look to me as though they’re still acting a lot like men.

  12. I’d have posted what I’m about to say in the previous thread, for it is on the theme of identity, but that one’s gotten a bit long…

    Jenner transgresses gender boundaries, Dolezal transgresses race boundaries, and gender and race are big deals in America; but our nation’s big-daddy-o injustice centers on class.

    Therefore I wish to share with you my own identity dysphoria. It is an issue that I have struggled with my entire life, but only now can identify; and so I come out now, to you, dear Mahabloggers.

    You see, I am a billionaire in a thousandaire’s body.

    Inwardly, I am monstrously rich, but the banks only acknowledge one millionth of what is rightfully mine. That’s their fault, not mine. It’s how the Man conspires to keep me down.

    If only I could access the money that I feel I should have, then I would be buying legislatures and financing brilliant cultural innovations and re-engineering entire economies. I would be making a much bigger difference in the world than I do now.

    Please do not make light of my misfortune. It has caused real suffering for myself and for those I love. I would gladly make the transition, despite the trouble of doing so, but alas there are no effective therapies, or competent specialists, addressing my condition.

    I have long struggled with this privately, but I suspect that I am far from alone in this. If any of you also suffer from econo-dysphoria, then please come out too. In solidarity there is strength.

    What’s that? You say that I’m joking? That I’m not really that rich? So is gender negotiable, and race is almost negotiable, but class is not negotiable at all? Is the thickness of one’s wallet more genuine than the color of one’s skin, the shape of one’s genitalia, or the contents of one’s character?

    Well then, that just goes to show you what this culture really thinks is real!

  13. Radical feminism is one of those things… I think it’s frequently wrong, but nevertheless valuable. Some folks *should* try to tear everything apart, and maybe provide fertile grounds for thinking in ways we wouldn’t have without ’em.

    That probably sounds condescending as hell to radical feminists, of course. But then, they might consider me “frequently wrong and not all that valuable” so I can pretend to moral superiority. That and $2.50 will get you a double shot of espresso with whipped cream at Starbucks.

    • The radical feminists strike me as an example of the tendency to free oneself from one ideological box by climbing into another ideological box. People with a strongly ideological mindset can’t seem to function without an ideological interface. Just being with things as-they-are is incomprehensible to them.

  14. Re-reading my above comment and feel the need to amend and clarify: These Trans-women you’re having a problem with look to me as though they’re still acting very much like men; They walk into a room full of women expecting to lead the group, and talking when they should listen.

    • petrilli — “They walk into a room full of women expecting to lead the group, and talking when they should listen.” That’s exactly how they strike me, too.

  15. I have an insane desire to make this issue more complicated. Since Caitlyn did not give up her “package” does that make her a hermaphrodite? Hermaphrodites do exist in nature in some snails and some fish. Perhaps if we humans fool around enough with experimenting, we can invent a new gender.
    This all boils down to hormones; that is what makes this whole transgender thing possible. What did these people do in ancient times? Did they just suffer in silence?
    As Maha has said, it takes more than just a female body to be a woman and it takes more than a male body to make a man. The times, they are a-changin’ and the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

  16. Maha: I looked up “Of Woman Born” on Amazon. There are 2 with that title but different authors. Which one are you recommending?

  17. Technically a hermaphrodite has both male & female genitalia?

    OK, if our IT dept is tracking my posts at work (even though I am on break), I am SO fired for typing the sentence above!

  18. joan: Technically a hermaphrodite has both male & female reproductive organs. So maybe Caitlyn has a womb, we don’t really know. Anyway, I wasn’t being serious, just trying to cause trouble.

Comments are closed.