(Mis)reading feminism

I’ve been meaning to write a post on reading feminist texts for a while. I haven’t studied feminism in any formal way so my knowledge is very patchy (often based on what I’ve been able to find for free). However, one thing I’ve started to notice, at least through the things I have read, is how badly we misrepresent female thinkers, even in a field which they should own. I’m not sure why this is — perhaps we can’t bear the fact that the case for feminism has already been argued, a million times over, yet women are still oppressed. Perhaps it’s easier to think that earlier feminists got it wrong. Perhaps we’d rather think that this time we’ve hit upon a brand new formula so this time it can’t fail. Perhaps, surrounded by misogyny from the day we’re born, we find it incredibly difficult to appreciate women’s ideas, no matter how hard we try. Or perhaps we’re just lazy, used to reading things in 140 character bursts. I’m not sure.

Whatever the cause, far too many feminist classics exist, for the most part, as caricatures. So we avoid reading them for years, just knowing they’re not for us. I know I’ve done this and it’s such an incredible waste of time and thinking power, constantly reinventing the wheel when other women have already offered so much. So here are five texts which, until this year, I’d never have bothered reading. They’re not what I thought they were.

 

De Beauvoir, The Second Sex

What she doesn’t say:

Woman is not born but made therefore anyone who says they’re a woman is one and the ones who weren’t called women to begin with are the most oppressed and everyone else is cis scum

What she does say:

There have always been women. They are women in virtue of their anatomy and physiology. Throughout history they have always been subordinated to men, and hence their dependency is not the result of a historical event or a social change – it was not something that occurred. The reason why otherness in this case seems to be an absolute is in part that it lacks the contingent or incidental nature of historical facts.

 

Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins

What she doesn’t say:

wow just wow I just can’t even vile bigoted scum DIAF platform ilk Caitlin Moran aye folk *buffs nails*

What she does say:

The struggle over which differences matter and which do not is neither an abstract nor an insignificant debate among women. Indeed, these conflicts are about more than difference as such; they raise critical issues of power. The problem is not simply that women who dominate the anti-violence movement are different from women of colour but that they frequently have power to determine, either through material or rhetorical resources, whether the intersectional differences of women of colour will be incorporated at all into the basic formulation of policy. Thus, the struggle over incorporating these differences is not a petty or superficial conflict about who gets to sit at the head of the table. In the context of violence, it is sometimes a deadly serious matter of who will survive – and who will die.

 

Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs

What she doesn’t say:

Ugh! Young women! Having sex! Unbearable! *clutches pearls, faints, crushing a million sex workers as she falls*

What she does say:

Raunch culture isn’t about opening our minds to the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality. It’s about endlessly reiterating one particular – and particularly commercial – shorthand for sexiness […] our interest is in the appearance of sexiness, not the existence of sexual pleasure.

 

hooks, Feminism Is For Everybody

What she doesn’t say:

Exactly the same thing as Kimberlé Crenshaw because although white SJW twitter bangs on and on about intersectionality in a kind of hipster “some of my best friends are black” way, let’s be honest, they basically think all WoC are the same

What she does say:

Older feminist thinkers cannot assume that young females will just acquire knowledge of feminism along the way to adulthood. They require guidance. Overall women in our society are forgetting the value and power of sisterhood. Renewed feminist movement must once again raise the banner high to proclaim anew “Sisterhood is powerful.”

 

Dworkin, Woman Hating

What she doesn’t say:

SWERFY TERFY bigoted something something no idea really but she’s from ages ago, like even before there was twitter, so must be shit

What she does say:

Feminism is a political practice of fighting male supremacy on behalf of women as a class, including all the women you don’t like, including all the women you don’t want to be around, including all the women who used to be your best friends whom you don’t want anything to do with any more. It doesn’t matter who the individual women are.

 

All of the above quotes can’t capture the complexity of these works. They’re just a tiny part of the whole. I just wanted to suggest these women should be listened to and read, not name-dropped or worn as badges in some fake ideological war.

Read them if you can. It is worth it.

 

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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. Continue reading