Feminism 101 – Purplestockings Style

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The due date for the book is 23 September – it is available for pre-order here! If you want a signed copy – come to Calder Bookshop Theatre between 6 and 9 on the evening of 22nd October. There will be wine.

Here is your fourth extract from Liberating Motherhood.

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FEMINISM 101

        Just as we mustn’t fear talking about our needs as women, and mothers, we needn’t fear talking about feminism. We are women. We are mothers. We might well have daughters. Just think about the wisdom of Maya Angelou when she said, “I’ve been a female for a long time now. It’d be stupid not to be on my own side.”

        Feminism is not dead (rumours of its demise are always exaggerated). So before I go on, perhaps a short iteration of what feminism is and what it is not. One of the biggest challenges is the fact that so few people seem to agree about what feminism means, what it is seeking to achieve, and what it must do.

          First things first, feminism is certainly not a system or a theory which wants to see the obliteration or oppression of men. Rather it illuminates the fact that our ‘history’ is a censored, photoshopped, patriarchal history of ‘Man’. The reality is that women have to live, work and love within a culture and under the rules of the Father, the Son, the Husband, the Male, the worship of the masculine, and the prioritising of destruction over creation of life. Hey, nobody said this was going to be about unicorns. To quote Andrea Dworkin, “I’m a feminist, not the fun kind.”

     Feminism is about a quaint notion: that women are people too. And with that understanding, that women should have basic human rights, the right to autonomy and self-determination, freedom from inhumane treatment, oppression, gender stereotype, and all the rest. The thing is, much of the human rights message has been lost in translation. Equality became the buzzword: which is interpreted by many to mean ‘the same’. Equality is, in truth, a massive red herring. The overwhelming preoccupation with ‘equality’, to quote academic Eva Feder Kittay, “misses the importance of the symmetries and differences that are unavoidable and even desirable in human intercourse”. The debate about ‘special treatment’ has been raging for long enough. Time for some humane treatment: the recognition of a diversity of needs and the acknowledgement of discrimination and exploitation of women by virtue of their becoming mothers. The standpoint of mothers cannot be minimalised in feminism any longer. We are a beating heart. We are strong arms. And we need to march our way into politics, feminism and economics. We need to demand that the persistent and institutional discrimination against mothers is exposed and levelled with creativity and humanity.

    There are numerous ‘schools’ of feminism, and tensions between them, ranging from liberal, Marxist, socialist and radical. We also have a de facto corporate feminism which is predicated on ‘more women at the top’. Come on now! That ain’t feminism: it is capitalism. And under it, there will always be women at the bottom. Then there is a feminism which is clear that what is between our legs is irrelevant — it’s how we identify that matters. Clearly, feminism has many shades.

      Personally, I agree with Rebecca West’s sentiment in 1913 that “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat …” And a doormat I ain’t. The rights and challenges of women are central to my feminism. I will also address the needs of children. I am very clear that mothers are important to their children, and that our children — our flesh and blood — are important to us. If a feminist mother cannot say this, we are in trouble, aren’t we?

     However, when it comes to mothers, some schools of feminism seem to evoke My Fair Lady and Professor Higgins’ lament “why can’t a woman be more like a man?” sung to a minor melody of “Capitalist Patriarchal Neoliberalism”. I will discuss this poxy trinity, and the meanings of its components throughout the book, but for the time being ‘money, men and selfishness’ will probably give a good enough idea of what these mean.

     Feminism was the movement that was supposed to free us from patriarchy and lead us to the promised land — not necessarily Herland, but one where we could enjoy human rights, equality of opportunity and dignity. But somewhere along the way it got lost and confused. It has become seen as, and is, for some women: “I want what men have”. In reaching for that, we have lost touch with what women have (or could have). The baby has been thrown out with the feminist bathwater and, in doing so, some women have indeed got what men have: power over other women.

     If we struggle to speak of the issues that remain for all women under patriarchy, we are even more bound when we try to articulate the mother issue. There is an awkwardness about women’s reproductive and mothering experience. They are seen as more private and personal. In her work, Jean Bethke Elshtain explored issues surrounding the ‘private sphere’: why do we devalue the ‘private’ over the ‘public’? Why is a ‘public’ role effectively seen as more worthy and a marker of citizenship than private, family or community work? Why do we continue to deny broad differences in the lived experience of men and women? To quote Elshtain, “To recognize that women as a group experience their social worlds differently from men as a group complicates feminist thinking, deepens female self-awareness, and calls attention to the complexity and richness of our social experience and relations”.

    There is an unspoken rule that one may not engage in biological essentialism (biological essentialism is about bodies. Feminism has traditionally argued that women are more than what is between our legs. Under some schools of feminism today, what is between our legs is irrelevant. Somehow, the point in between, namely, we are bodies, minds and worthwhile human beings all at the same time has been missed.) or exploration of difference. In Motherhood in Patriarchy, Animosity Toward Mothers in Politics and Feminist Theory — Proposals for Change, Mariam Irene Tazi-Preve calls this the “taboo of physicality”. As Patrice DiQuinzio frames it, “the dilemma of difference and its resulting paradoxes are most salient and most difficult to resolve at the site of mothering”. She talks of the “problem of maternal embodiment”. Mothers are the square peg in the round hole. A reminder that individualism has its limits and that denial of difference fails to reflect substantial issues relating to mothers and motherhood.

     When it comes to politics, socialist feminism has become somehow old-fashioned, talking as it does of redistribution of wealth, capital and accumulation, when nobody talks like that any more. In fact, some feminists resemble the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm: it is hard to tell them apart from the patriarchal capitalist farmer. And in our farm, some women are more equal than others. Indeed, as I have said, some women are more equal than mothers. Two legs (individualism) good — four legs (mum’s two and little un’s two), bad. The “occupational elite” — those who, quite frankly, seem to live in a different world, immune to the issues facing many families today — are wilfully blind to the everyday existence of women outside their domain.

     Our modern feminist and political dialogues obscure the desires and needs of the majority of mothers: those unimportant ones reproducing the human race and raising them to be decent future citizens. This tension leads many women on the ground to think that feminism is irrelevant to their lives or their struggles. As Ann Crittenden writes in The Price of Motherhood, “changing the status of mothers, by gaining real recognition for their work, is the great unfinished business of the women’s movement”. Well, sisters, time to finish the job. Time for a movement in our language: The Mother Tongue.

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Liberating Motherhood, Birthing the Purplestockings Movement: Due Date 23 September 2016.

Available for pre-order here: http://www.womancraftpublishing.com/liberating-motherhood.html.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/drainrat/16213421094/in/photolist-qGJ2e1-2NxkgF-75vWZF-KtTBDZ-7hZqcg-gfVCaP-rzESJ7-rDCKSB-Bsq5Mg-5AAf77-bqhiyW-HKPcbE-62Vd54-sSW18u-bm3tor-cx4Vrf-2jMqwe-g2PZRr-93UtPK-3PWU8U-8xWrnp-866peT-5tczqG-fezo9A-rcGUx-HKWBJh-fezmqw-3A1SZP-5yPRfL-9YHUd6-boZr1-ehqXBK-o1Lqcb-yfBUAq-hQ2P4A-mDjGk-6ujc7u-7MhWRg-vwWcgr-9KD6Jv-FbXWwp-FbXWrK-9avW2t-qqLBk-i8i7RB-r89Nnm-hgMR8M-vRQ4Pa-uga12Q-KpeHvh

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