Tag Archives: gender

Complex Inequality

complexinequality

A sociological study of the effects of race, gender, and class – and combinations thereof – have on wage difference and economic restructuring. You won’t want to read this unless you have an interest or background in particularly sociological methodologies of economic inequality and public policy. In this sense, it is a groundbreaking study of the material conditions of intersectionality. For me, quantitative analysis and pages of graphs and tables scrambled my mind, but the central arguments are crystal clear: recent structural trends affect different groups in vastly different and often overlooked ways. Her focus is explicitly the US, with firm case studies of postindustrial Dallas, industrial Detroit, immigrant Miami and high-tech St. Louis. She finds that these cities differ more in terms of group-specific patterns of inequality, rather than overall levels of inequality. For example, wage earnings by gender may be relatively equal in one city, but this may mean that wage equality by race may be very low. Statistics may show a small wage gap between women and men in one city, but wage inequality among women may be higher as a result. Looking at different configurations of class, gender, and race is therefore vital.

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New York, New York: The Cook and the Carpenter

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“In Memoriam” to the Fifth Street Women’s building, at a very specific period of US history: the women’s liberation movement. Feminist, socialist, anarchist, it was New Year’s Eve, 1970 and Arnold herself was part of a group who wanted a counterlife and a revolution. Thirteen days later, it was destroyed by police. This book is specific and wide-ranging, a document and a novel about love and difference. It’s formally avant-garde too, especially in its use of non-gendered pronouns – “na” and “nan” – that grate at first on the reader’s indoctrination in a binary system of gender, then feel natural. Arnold unsettles dearly-held ideas of gender, identity, and possessive monogamy. In Texas, before they establish the takeover in New York City, the cook and the carpenter are romantic partners living collectively with children and adults. Another member, Three, joins and complicates their relationship. Through people, Arnold wonders about dualism and dialectics, unity and difference. Remarkably prescient are her questions about the nature of the self: is it fluid or essential? Much of her thinking seems more radical than most lesbian feminist essentialism, but also considers the limits of a poststructuralist concept of the self as fragmented and forever socially constructed. The dialogue, inebriated meditations, and representation of dancing as freedom, are all beautiful. Unfortunately, I was surprised by how wonderfully written this was: I didn’t expect too much from an experimental lesbian long-out-of-print book from the 70s. It’s forgotten because it’s a radical lesbian text, not because it’s badly written or polemical.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center

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Concerned first and foremost with intersectionality, a brief, stark, incisive tract that is another introduction to feminism. Better than most post-second wave works, a call to embrace mass global feminist movement, spotlighting hooks’ characteristic linguistic construction: “feminist movement” and NOT “feminism.” The distinction is patent, a focus on praxis not theory, despite its title. Often it suffers from this, treading an unstable line between palatability and radicalism, most potent in the eagerness to embrace men and heterosexuality. Attacks on white liberal feminism are long overdue, perfect, necessary even more today. Without race and class feminism is useless. Again, outdated cherishing of a destructive gender binary undermines the heat and power of the call for radical eradication of white patriarchal domination and oppression. Most trenchant are chapters on violence and sisterhood. Easy to carry, underline, page through, slip into the hands of those acquaintances who skirt the edges of feminism but don’t yet feel its radical core.

The Daylight Gate

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The 1612 Pendle Hill witch trials, as real today, wilder than Salem, rich on paper. The August Assizes, Lancaster Castle, Daemonology, 1605 Gunpowder Plot, Hogton Hall, the Rough Lee, the North and its darkness, severed heads, poverty, women’s power crushed again and again, and still frightening. The foolishness of patriarchy, the banality of violence against women, children, the poor: all of this moves in a swampy sump, shifting point of view and allegiances. Spitting in the wind, galloping on horses, a woman with fire for hair, the inventor of magenta dye. She writes, rescues, and queers your dull grey Protestantism. Not only the gothic, but patriarchal and feudal oppression, fearfully resonant.

The Use of Pleasure

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How did sexuality acquire its relation to truth? (In construction alone). How a decipherment of the self by the self, how a hermeneutics of desire? How in the 21st century did sexuality come to signal a revelation of the soul as a realm of knowledge about the True Self, where the smallest pieces of desire must be examined and analysed? Ancient Greece, on the other hand, turns to sexual practices themselves, not as moral/immoral, but as moderation, self-mastery, the superiority of the free man and his need to exercise his birthright as active, as ruler. Boys are the most beautiful, women are in a political relationship of ruler/ruled. All a juridico-moral codification of acts, arts of existence, regimen – for “free” men only.

Troubling Gender, Radicalising Feminism: Easy Notes on Judith Butler

gendertroubleIt is difficult to find a book that is both so central to gender studies and that causes so much gritting of teeth. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, first published in 1990, is still barely understood and still strikes us as way ahead of our own time.

But Butler is pretty much inaccessible to people without a background in gender studies. And also to many of us with such a background. Which is a damn shame, because she will break your mind apart. Yes, a nice experience.

I hope to pull out some basic ideas of Butler that make her so radical. The preface to the original edition and the preface to the 1999 reprinting give a nice summary, even if she doesn’t “dumb down” her notoriously convoluted prose.

skimjudithFirst of all, why does she take issue with what we consider such a straightforward word: woman?

This is Gayle Rubin’s contribution, especially in her seminal piece “The Traffic in Women” – that “normative sexuality fortifies normative gender.” So, Butler extrapolates: “one is a woman, according to this framework, to the extent that one functions as one within the dominant heterosexual frame and to call the frame into question is perhaps to lose something of one’s sense of place in gender.”

What Butler criticises in most mainstream feminism, and even a lot of academic feminism, is that a concept of “gender hierarchy” cannot explain the complexities of gender’s relationship to power. It doesn’t explain the production of gender. We have to ask: “To what extent does gender hierarchy serve a more or less compulsory heterosexuality, and how often are gender norms policed precisely in the service of shoring up heterosexual hegemony?”

In other words, we cannot have gender without compulsory heterosexuality.

But is it so simple?

Feminist activist Catharine MacKinnon, whose work Butler has criticised harshly, takes this a step further, arguing that “to have a gender means to have entered already into a heterosexual relationship of subordination.”

When Butler introduces performativity, she does so to theorise the potential subversion of this kind of relationship of subordination.

One of the most common misunderstandings of this part of Butler’s theory is that performativity means performance. No. They are very different things. In her 1999 preface to Gender Trouble, Butler clarifies Judith-Butler-Quotes-5this misconception (and many of her own earlier assumptions):

“[T]he performativity of gender revolves around this metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself.”

Basically, in expecting that we are a gender, inherently, we in fact produce it – or reproduce it. In the doing of gender, we create it.

There is no prior existence of gender.

butlerbigthinkShe clarifies: “performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalisation in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration.”

Those two points summarise very nicely the most important contributions Gender Trouble has made to feminist theory and queer theory.

It’s quite easy to see how we perform gender through bodily acts, but how does language contribute to the production of gender?

Butler has quite a dim view of the capacity for dominant forms of language to destroy hegemony. Subversion is possible, but language is a hegemonic trap.

subvertShe asks us to think: “If gender itself is naturalised through grammatical norms, as Monique Wittig has argued, then the alteration of gender at the most fundamental epistemic level will be conducted, in part, through contesting the grammar in which gender is given.”

Which is a tough ask. How many of us have the ability to subvert grammatical norms successfully and lucidly?

This is essentially what she is pointing to when she asks if the terms “men” and “women” are “untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualising gender and desire? What happens to the subject and to the stability of gender categories when the epistemic regime of presumptive heterosexuality is unmasked as that which produces deconstructedand reifies these ostensible categories of ontology?”

In other words, without compulsory heterosexuality, the assumption that heterosexuality is a real and natural phenomenon, everything about gender becomes meaningless.

She also takes issue with what she sees as primary concern of feminist theory – to establish identity. If feminism takes as its starting point the category of “women,” what hegemonic assumptions is it already making about gender and power?

This is indicative of a problem a lot of readers have with Butler. Like Foucault, she seems to deny us any possibility for revolutionary subversion! She even denies the existence of a subject which can act outside cultural norms. That is, we are all socially constructed to such an extent that our ability to defy hegemonic gender is very limited.

I think Butler is more subtle than this. She is relentlessly critical, but she also has little grains of idealism and hope that offer shining possibilities.

In this paragraph she summarises her aims and hopes, which is a good thing to keep in mind when reading Gender Trouble:

“What continues to concern me most is the following kinds of questions: what will and will not consdeconstructtitute an intelligible life, and how do presumptions about normative gender and sexuality determine in advance what will qualify as the ‘human’ and the ‘livable’? In other words, how do normative gender presumptions work to delimit the very field of description that we have for the human? What is the means by which we come to see this delimiting power, and what are the means by which we transform it?”

These are the questions with which Butler radicalises feminism. And for this reason she has been ignored in most mainstream conceptions of feminism. For without identity, are we all just blank spaces?

Her offering is this: “we ought to ask, what political possibilities are the consequence of a radical critique of the categories of identity. What new shape of politics emerges when identity as a common ground no longer constrains the discourse on feminist politics? And to what extent does the effort to locapridete a common identity as the foundation for a feminist politics preclude a radical inquiry into the political construction and regulation of identity itself?”

This is most evident when it comes to a “gay identity.” To what extent are the labels “gay,” “lesbian” and “bisexual” complicit in heteronormativity?

An unusual question in today’s society, and perhaps one of the things that makes many uncomfortable with Butler. But I think it’s one of the concepts that is at the heart of her optimism. A ruthless critique of all hegemonic assumptions, and an imperative to radicalise everything.butler

Feminism is for Everybody: A Choice to Love (Part 2)

feminismisforeverybodyYou are mistaken if you think feminism is about women. It is about rethinking gender in a way that unravels patriarchy, which instils ideologies of masculinity that are about domination and violence.

Necessarily, this means we must rethink relationships and family. This is what scares conservatives most, why they cry “political correctness” at any critique of gender stereotypes. Undermining gender necessarily undermines the family.

nuclearfamAs hooks shows, “A utopian vision of the patriarchal family remains intact despite all the evidence which proves that the well-being of children is no more secure in the dysfunctional male-headed household than in the dysfunctional female-headed household. Children need to be raised in loving environments. Whenever domination is present love is lacking.”nuclearfamily

Feminism has always been concerned with such relationships. As hooks traces the concerns of second wave feminism in relation to marriage and partnership, she mentions that many feminists “saw sexual monogamy with men as reinforcing the idea that the female body was property belonging to the individual male she was bonded with. We chose non-monogamous relationships and often refused to marry. We believed living with a male partner without state-sanctioned marriage within patriarchal society helped men maintain a healthy respect for female autonomy. Feminists advocated demanding an end to sexual slavery and called attention to the prevalence of marital rape while at the same time championing the rights of women to express sexual desire, initiate sexual interaction, and be sexually fulfilled.”

Ininstitution a society in which marriage, romance, partnership and intimacy have been structured and defined by patriarchal assumptions, how can we reenvision them as feminist? Is it impossible? Certainly we must always be critical of marriage, monogamy and family units. Then again we must also be critical of polyamory, the fight for marriage equality, and the so-called “non-traditional family.” The problems faced by second wave feminists in their own lives forces us to never let our guard down. For example, is it possible for marriage to be a viable feminist option given the huge, undeniable patriarchal legacy of the institution? It remains as such today.

The discussion sparked by second wave feminism about sexuality remains with us today, though it is still fraught. As hooks advises, “While men must let go of the sexist assumption that female sexuality exists to serve and satisfy their needs, many women must also let go a monogamyfixation on penetration.” This is why feminism is intertwined with ideas of sexuality as much as with race, class, religion, and age. Feminism cannot be heteronormative, it must be queer. Because patriarchy has rested on heteronormativty. But today we still assume that heterosexuality is natural, and that sexual “orientations” are genetic, inborn, fixed, and markers of our identity. Until we let go of this, we can’t reach a feminist sexual politic.

While hooks doesn’t yet articulate this, she does recognise the centrality of heteronormativity to patriarchy: “Masses of heterosexual women remain unable to let go the sexist assumption that their sexuality must always be sought after by men to have meaning and value. To do so they must believe that same-sex sexual encounters, self-pleasuring, and celibacy are as vital and life-enhancing as sexual intercourse with men within patriarchal culture.”cosmomagWe see the truth of the second wave’s realisation that “women would only be truly sexually liberated when we arrived at a place where we could see ourselves as having sexual value and agency irrespective of whether or not we were the objects of male desire.”malegazeWe still live in the world hooks describes here: “We will never know how many millions of women stay in relationships with dominating sexist males simply because they cannot imagine a life where they can be happy without men, whether they are satisfied sexually and emotionally with the men in their life or not. If any female feels she needs anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency. Lesbian women inspired me from childhood on to claim the space of my own self-definition.”

This is why queer women are vital in “representing” feminism to the mainstream. After all, “this is the special wisdom radical lesbian thinkers brought to the feminist movement. Even if there were exceptional straight women who theoretically understood that one could be utterly fulfilled without the approval of men, without male erotic affirmation, they did not bring to the movement the lived experience of this belief.”

Unfortunately, with the white-washed, straight-washed feminism in the mainstream eye, such truths are swept under the carpet. Today, given the length of time since the radicalism of the second wave that broman feeding womanught feminism to the mainstream, we have forgotten how these women dealt with sexuality and relationality in a patriarchal world. Hooks recalls that, “In the early stages of feminist movement we used the phrase ‘woman-identified woman’ or ‘man-identified woman’ to distinguish between those activists who did not choose lesbianism but who did choose to be woman-identified, meaning their ontological existence did not depend on male affirmation. Male-identified females were those who dropped feminist principles in a flash if they interfered with romantic heterosexual concerns. They were the females who also supported men more than woman, who could always see things from the male perspective.”

Internalised misogyny and girl hate abound today, to the extent that many think that jealousy is an inborn trait of women and friendships between women. How are we supposed to enact feminism in such a context? Unfortunately, hooks’ observation remains true: “The vast majority of straight women, whether they were actively feminist or not, were more concerned about their relationships with men.

Hooks showholding-handss us what a queer feminism looks like, and why it is for all: “In a world where positive expressions of sexual longing connect us we will all be free to choose those sexual practices which affirm and nurture our growth. Those practices may range from choosing promiscuity or celibacy, from embracing one specific sexual identity and preference or choosing a roaming unchartered desire that is kindled only by interaction and engagement with specific individuals with whom we feel the spark of erotic recognition no matter their sex, race, class, or even their sexual preference.”

Most people’s aversion to this shows how ingrained a patriarchal heteronormativty is within us. Because of this overwhelming power, we struggle to envision intersectionality. Feminism becomes one thing: equality with men. But such a notion is incomprehensible unless we first examine the terms of that “equality.” So, “Women who claim to be feminist while perpetuating homophobia are as misguided and hypocritical as those who want sisterhood while holding on to white supremacist thought.”

Embracing a watered down, palatable version of feminism is easy. Heteronormativity is embedded in everything we hold dear, especially romance, that foundation of so many films, songs, books, and life dreams. But, as the second wave articulated, “female freedom could only happen if women let go their attachment to romantic love.”

nuclearfamilyHard to swallow? Maybe, but ultimately liberating. After all:

Romantic love as most people understand it in patriarchal culture makes one unaware, renders one powerless and out of control. Feminist thinkers called attention to the way this notion of love served the interests of patriarchal men and women. It supported the notion that one could do anything in the name of love: beat people, restrict their movements, even kill them and call it a ‘crime of passion,’ plead, ‘I loved her so much I had to kill her.’ Love in patriarchal culture was linked to notions of possession, to paradigms of domination and submission wherein it was assumed one person would give love and another person receive it. Within the patriarchy heterosexist bonds were formed on the basis that women being the gender in touch with caring emotions would give men love, and in return men, being in touch with power and aggression, would provide and protect.”jealousy-love-vanessa-zac-Favim.com-572124This is so uncomfortable because patriarchal romantic love is what we think of as love, how we define love, it is something natural. It is difficult to think of it as socially constructed. And yet the work of feminism has shown us that it is constructed, and for a specific purpose, and that it is damaging.

jealousyloveHooks offers as alternative vision: “When we accept that true love is rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgement, care, responsibility, commitment, and possessionknowledge, we understand there can be no love without justice. With that awareness comes the understanding that love has the power to transform us, giving us the strength to oppose domination. To choose feminist politics, then, is a choice to love.”

Why then would most people prefer the anti-feminist heterosexist dominating versions of romantic love we are fed every day?

It stems from a misunderstanding of the visionary nature of feminism, how it has beamed a light on our most taken-for-granted ideas. As hooks argues, this is partly because “one of the difficulties we faced spreading the word about feminism is that anything having to do with the female gender is seen as covering feminist ground even if it does not contain a feminist perspective. We do have radio shows and a few television shows that highlight gender issues, but that is not the same as highlighting feminism.”bitchmedia

On a sidenote, I would recommend the bitch media podcast, which certainly does contain a feminist perspective.

Feminism isn’t just about women, just as everything about women isn’t feminist. Hooks recommends “a collective door-to-door effort to spread the message of feminism,…to start again with the basic premise that feminist politics is necessarily radical.” That includes all these self-declared feminists in the public eye. “Confusion about this inherent radicalism emerged as feminist activists moved away from challenging sexism in all its manifestations and focused solely on reforms.”

Until we end the neverending defences of “feminism doesn’t mean hating men!” we won’t understand the true meaning of the movement. For everybody who has ever been caught in a debate going nowhere with someone who has never educated themselves about feminism but has expected to gain all they need to know from a mainstream mass media which is necessarily patriarchal, here is the book you can hand over.

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