Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Feminists Fighting

Some recent posts on a Women's Studies Listserv I've been a member of for years have left me spewing and spitting.

This happens every so often, and it's almost always the exact same thing. Someone will post about how oppressive to women "those people" are: Africans who practice clitoridectomy, Mormons who practice polygyny, people of any ethnicity/nationality/race/religion who participate in sex work, people who are transgendered or who support transgenderism, etc., etc.

Now, I always feel like I shouldn't have to add this disclaimer, but I keep being misunderstood, so let me say it now:

*I think clitoridectomy is horrible and find it impossible to imagine that a woman would freely choose it for herself.

*I think polygyny, as I understand it, is based on male supremacy and is not a good thing for women. (This should not be confused with polyamory.)

*I think that there is much about sex work that is oppressive and that many women, even most, who work in the industry do not freely choose such work (I'm leaving out of this sexual slavery, which does not involve consent at all, and any sex work that involves coercion of any kind). I also know of many women who have a different relationship to this work, largely because they have/had better resources and options and they approach it completely differently, choose the kind of work they want to do (which is usually work involving minimal or no contact, like stripping or phone sex), and leave the work when they want to.

*I am completely supportive of transgendered people and I wholeheartedly reject anti-trans "feminism."

That said, I find critiques that are launched in an "othering" way to be completely unproductive and even harmful to the purpose of the critique.

In the context of a discussion about polygyny, one listmember managed to condemn both Mormonism and Christian Science, though her remarks made clear that she has limited knowledge of both. She stated that polygynous marriages can never be fair or equal, that Mormon beliefs are falderol, and that Christian Scientists refuse medical treatment for dying children - all comments that play upon popular (and ignorant) notions of Mormonism and Christian Science.

In my response, I asked for a more respectful, contextual critique - I noted that polygyny may well be oppressive to women, but that I've known educated feminist women who are in polygynous marriages who don't feel that their marriages are oppressive, and that any critique should certainly allow for these voices.

[Just a note - I teach Composition, and one of the things I teach students is that, when writing an argument, they must accurately and adequately explain the opposition, and then refute it. My beef with this person's approach is that her explanation was neither accurate nor adequate; I don't have an investment in polygyny and I personally don't think it's a good system for women, but I would find it far more helpful to see an argument that addressed the fact that some women do find it to be a good system than one that didn't. Some later posts did address this.]

I also pointed out that feminists have long argued that heterosexual marriage is oppressive to women - and noted that the discussion was singling out those "other" traditions and behaviors that are foreign to our (non-Mormons) own experiences without looking at them together in a broader context. And finally, I alluded to the history of Mormon oppression in the U.S., a history that seems to be utterly foreign to some of the list members (Listmember asked, "What's wrong with anti-Mormonism?" as if there had been no such history).

As tends to happen on this list, a few other list members have been shocked at my supposed argument that we cannot point out patriarchy and sexism in any particular institution without also mentioning all the other institutions that are patriarchal and sexist. This is, of course, not what I said.

What I did say is that there is a cultural bias at work when we start criticizing "other" cultures and traditions and ignoring the problems in our own, and that a nuanced argument that places such critiques in a larger context that accounts for this bias is ultimately more useful. This has come up time and time again - with regard to female genital excision, pornography and prostitution, and transgender. Now it's come up with regard to religion.

What we've learned from the notion of situated knowledge is that who we are and what our experiences are shape our ways of viewing the world. It used to be that white feminists would look at the Black community and say, "the Black community is so much more homophobic than the white community." It was only possible to make this claim when one viewed homophobia in a particular way, when one determined that being gay meant behaving in a certain way. One of my colleagues in grad school, a Black feminist, was scolded (not to her face) by white grad students for not being out on campus as a lesbian. These white students felt that by not proclaiming "lesbian" everywhere she went, she was not expressing her solidarity with them as lesbians and was therefore oppressing them. What they didn't see - what was outside of their line of vision because it was outside of their experience and they hadn't bothered to think that maybe other people had valid experiences - was that by not making a big deal out of her lesbianism, she was remaining approachable to students of color who generally perceived queer people (mostly white) on campus as being hostile to their own interests as people of color (which they sometimes were, but that's a subject for another post). It's not like people didn't know she was a lesbian. She wasn't pretending not to be a lesbian. She had come out publicly in several ways, but she wasn't doing so in the ways that the white students wanted her to, nor was she being the kind of lesbian they wanted her to be. And so they felt free to criticize her, without looking at their own understandings of what "lesbian" entailed, or at the rocky history between the queer student and Black student groups on campus.

So, if we're going to critique Mormonism, let's start with an accurate portrayal of what Mormonism is about. When one listmember - an ex-Mormon - tried to point out that it's truer to say "Mormonisms," because there are different ways that Mormons approach their religion, including feminist understandings of it, Listmember responded that this idea was simply "window dressing."

As an example of the kind of critique I want to see, consider another listmember's question (which she offered as a rebuttal to my question about why we weren't critiquing marriage):
"Let's ask: Is there any *connection* between the renewed celebration of heterosexual marriage today - and further entrenchment of homophobia - in our country and this show [Big Love] blithely depicting the travails and wonders of one man's entitled, explicitly or implicitly legitimized access to the bodies, emotions, sexuality, labor of three women?"

This is exactly the kind of question we need to ask more often. Rather than singling out Mormonism for attack because polygyny, which some Mormons practice, is perceived by non-Mormons as perverted and dangerous behavior (I'm not arguing that it isn't oppressive to women, just that its "otherness" allows us to critique it more easily than we critique, say, marriage), this question focuses on access to women's bodies and every other part of them through heterosexually-defined marriage relationships, which allows us to rise above cultural bias to a broader and stronger critique.

I keep feeling frustrated because we are really so close on these issues, and yet they see me as so far away from them because I question their approach. This is, of course, the very problem that people have when they meet all-or-nothing feminists - life really isn't all-or-nothing, and second-wave feminist theory, taken as a whole, very clearly teaches us this (as does third-wave feminist theory). I hate that people experience this kind of feminism - not strong feminism, not radical feminism, but simply rigid feminism that will not listen - and think that's what feminism is about.

And lest you think I am one of those anti-feminist feminists - I'm not. I love second wave feminism, I love third wave feminism, I'm all about dismantling the patriarchy. But I will not sacrifice feminist methodology or feminist scholarship to fit someone else's idea of what a feminist should be.

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