On stepping outside

How would women talk if they knew men weren’t listening? This is something I’ve been considering a lot of late. How much is what we say to each other a performance on behalf of men? And if a woman speaks out of earshot of any man, does she really make a sound?

It isn’t true that men never listen to women. They do, all the time. When we say to men “you don’t listen” perhaps what we really mean is “you might use my words to judge me but they will never change your view of yourself”. It is not that our words are not heard, but that they don’t function in the way they are supposed to. All too often, there is no real dialogue. The listener takes our words and uses them to reform his perception of us. In doing so, he subtly changes our status; we are redefined from without. What we really wanted to achieve — an interchange of ideas, with all the shared vulnerabilities this entails — remains out of reach. “I am listening,” he says, “and later I will judge.”

So we get used to it. No point endlessly trying to achieve the impossible. If I put forward an argument, especially on twitter, I expect a large proportion of the men who hear it to understand it not as a challenge to their worldview, but as a means of positioning me in relation to them. “Where do I place this woman in relation to my rightness?” I lack the status to be an adversary or a mind-changer. Women generally do. Our words don’t penetrate. Penetrating others isn’t for the likes of us.

If I’m honest, I am surprised at this. I used to think that talking and writing – providing you were careful and used the right words – were ways to get beyond structural inequalities. I thought they could be the first stage in experimenting with other, “as if” worlds. I underestimated how much we create ourselves within the context of the power imbalances of each exchange. I know, deep down, that I respond differently if a man – a man! – seems to value the things I say. I know that it makes me feel a little more real, as though for once my thoughts have progressed beyond the shapeless morass that is womanthink. I don’t want to feel this way but the knowledge that my words could be heard by someone who “matters” influences their form and content. What’s at stake isn’t just the ideas themselves but how much of a solid, fully formed person I am allowed to be.

I wonder about how much feminist “infighting” (god, I hate that word!) is a performance on behalf of men, a means of conveying a message about how “safe” your feminism is. If it achieves little else, attacking the platforms of other women reinforces the idea that our space is limited and unstable, whereas male space is inviolable. Publicly undermining other women becomes a means of confirming that however much of a voice you require, it will never be one that speaks over men. It’s a way of maintaining self-definition. After all, if men did not judge us, who would have the authority to do so? Who would we be? The thought is frightening. Hence even when we try to create pro-women spaces within politics or social media, we frequently find ways of slipping in male authority by proxy. The current “best allies” become our substitute men, whose words are never questioned and who are allowed to sit in judgment of all others. Has she transgressed? Was her apology sufficient? Will she try harder to meet my standards – the standards which will never change – next time? It’s a brief power trip for the person at the centre but one which (I suspect) never takes place a constant awareness that somewhere, the real men are watching and taking notes.

When I started blogging two years ago I’d experience an instant “to the batmobile!” response every time an issue that concerned me appeared in the news. I wanted to express my view but also, I suppose, stake my claim to a part of the debate. I wanted approval for my position, partly as a means of getting others on board, but also (less nobly) as a means of validating myself. I don’t think this is a terrible way to be but once you start to feel overly judged – especially once you are deemed to have transgressed in some way – your responses become increasingly distorted. However much I care about the issues I write about, there’s a degree to which a personal blog is a vanity project, a repository for things I think I am saying that no one else can, at least not in quite the same way. This is embarrassing to admit to, but probably normal. Even so, the feeling that I am, with each post, adding to an overall picture that must meet with the approval of my betters – and which currently doesn’t – is getting in the way of honesty. You start to feel that if you can’t sell yourself, you can’t sell your feminism, since one discredits the other. Yet feminism should be generous and open to change, not an ideas PR campaign.

There is some mind-changing, wonderful, pro-woman writing out there. I haven’t read much of it. I don’t have a gender studies background. A lot of my perspectives on feminist and womanist writers have been formed by 140 character quips from others rather than reading their own words. I have plenty of pre-digested (patriarchally approved?) views on Greer, Crenshaw, Dworkin, Lorde, de Beauvoir. I think “I must like her, but I mustn’t like her.” I apply to them these writers the same superficial “defined in relation to The One True Narrative” standards that I apply to myself and other bloggers. I don’t want to give headspace to too many women as I fear it could encroach on my own scope for self-definition. This is something I want to change, which is why I’m taking some time out to read (with the odd break to remind myself how to string a sentence together).

There is so much generosity in feminist writing that has the “writing for male approval” trap. The creative, humane vision of works such as Intercourse or Mapping the Margins is just remarkable. It’s a move beyond justifying existences (in relation to whiteness or maleness – the supposed “norms”) to demanding that the conditions of existence improve in specific, non-negotiable terms. To be honest, I wish I’d started reading earlier, before I started shouting.

But anyhow, that’s why, for a couple of months, I won’t be blogging here quite so much. I fear myself falling into the trap of writing for twitter (male) approval and want instead to open myself up to the creativity and diversity of women’s voices. And actually I don’t give a toss how sugary and self-help-y that last sentence sounds. Because if you really mean something, does it matter if those who exist only to judge you don’t approve?


7 thoughts on “On stepping outside

  1. I will miss your more regular blogs, I love reading your writing. But totally understand why you want to blog less, this is a really thought-provoking post about how/why we write. Thank you for writing it, and for all the other writing.

  2. I think I know what you are saying in this post but I have to say that I read your article on “Sex-Positive” feminism in the New Statesman and judge it to have been an excellent contribution. I don’t consider myself to be especially judgemental but my judgement is that you certainly know a lot more about that topic [and doubtless many, many more] than I do. With best wishes . Russell Haggar [You have occasionally referred to my work on Gender and Education]

  3. It’s interesting that both you and Sarah Ditum are expressing a very similar thing at the moment: the acknowledgement of male-identified behaviour in yourselves, admitting that Dworkin may be undervalued, the need to withdraw and rethink feminist principles, and, finally, you have both recently referenced the Ferguson essay on ‘choice based feminism and the fear of politics’. Are you developing some new,covert feminist movement and, if so, can I join? Joking apart, I hope you come back soon.

  4. For me it isn’t about lack of status, it’s about lack of confidence. I am not interested in someone’s status, I am interested in their opinion, often finding I can learn something from someone even when I disagree with them. (And even if all I learn is that they are a total arse….) My lack of confidence comes from my feeling I don’t know enough on the topic sometimes, and therefore if someone chooses to ‘attack’ my viewpoint somehow, I feel a bit panicked that I can’t back it up with fact or more official theory. Feminism can be terrifying, it has it’s own language and nuances that as a participant with a vested interest as opposed to a scholar can be quite daunting. Perhaps I should take a leaf out of your book and learn more, so that I feel ready to tackle the topic publically again, something I have shyed away from in recent times.
    You make an excellent contribution, accessible but knowledgable, and I hope your absences are brief. As for whose approval we write for, it would take someone far deeper than me to be able to self-analyse to that extent- I write what tumbles out of my head most of the time, I definitely fall into your bat mobile category of writing!

  5. This piece articulates so well the subtlety of the need for male approval of feminist arguments in order to feel they are ‘real’ arguments. Also, I think it expresses the way this kind of desire for validation is replicated within feminist debate, particularly played out on Twitter. Often we play power politics around what is or is not a party line, and though feminist debate can be the safer space for expression, it can also be unsafe and silencing itself.

    What I like best about this piece is that it demonstrates to me the extraordinary process of feminist writing itself as a process of personal and political change. Reading as well. Feminism is transformative and a big part of this is the exchange between women’s writing and reading. It can be disturbing, and enriching. Part of this is sometimes looking at the feminist self and really questioning and challenging it. I love that you shared that inner process.
    Look forward to your return

Comments are closed.