Yes, I am a Feminist
by Mary DuChene
Women's experience of life is simply different than men's, just as the experience of people of color differs from whites. These differences are not ethereal, based on emotion, but are a fact. Women cannot walk alone at night comfortably. They are overwhelmingly more likely to be the victim of rape. Women and girls cannot be certain that their husbands, fathers, brothers, partners and boyfriends will never hurt them physically. Women are far more likely to live in poverty and to be the sole provider and caregiver for their children. Women are exposed to images of themselves as sexual objects continuously. They must accept that they are judged by most men (and women) they interact with daily; at work, at school and on the street and in terms of their sexual desirability.
Achieving legal equality, which has been the general goal of feminism since the suffragettes, will have no effect on these unjust facts of life. Women often defend themselves against the charge of "feminist"by asserting they are only looking for equality. Equality will not change any of the things that are deeply hurtful about being female in this culture.
No law silences women. This has not been necessary, for women are previously silenced in society by sexual abuse, by not being heard, by not being believed, by poverty, by illiteracy, by a language that provides only unspeakable vocabulary for their most formative traumas, by a publishing industry that virtually guarantees that if they ever find a voice it leaves no trace in the world... So long as men dominate women effectively enough in society without the support of positive law, nothing constitutional can be done about it. (Catherine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State)
One of my professors put it in this way. "It is like saying that women can play if they can make it on the men's team". While this is literal equality, it also insures very few (if any) women will play, and those who do will have to put up with getting patted on the butt just like everyone else.
In American society, the woman's experience makes her the alien, the other. She must, if she is to be successful, understand and enter into the male experience as much as possible. The most insidious thing about the equality standard is that most women who identify as feminist buy into it wholeheartedly. They agree to their own marginalization.
Ladies, this is not justice.
In terms more day-to-day, equality cannot guarantee a woman freedom from poverty, rape, violence or fear. And if it cannot do that, what is it worth? Indulge me while I insert an example from pop culture here.
I'm listening to Ike and Tina Turner as I write this, and it strikes me that in the public sphere, Tina Turner was the equal to any man. The proof was her position as an entertainer. She had more fame than her husband, and that fame generated wealth for her, which in our society is the embodiment of freedom. I'm sure she thought these were things she wanted. But in the end what does legislated equality in earning and recognition of your worth matter if when you go home at night your husband beats the shit out of you and takes all your money? What use is equality when, in Carnegie Hall in front of thousands, a woman sings, "I've been loving you so long, don't know why, but I don't want to stop now", and her husband answers "Cause you ain't ready to die..." and the audience accepts this as an expression of love?
The first thing a woman, or any person placed in the "other" category must do is see themselves as a subject rather than an object. This is a basic human need; all people must go through this process of individuation if they are to have a chance at happiness. Unfortunately if you are a woman, assertion of the self is in opposition to the claims of "reality." When women engage in an independent analysis of their place in the universe and their experience as human beings, their conclusions often run counter to cultural norms. The reality of being female is shockingly unlike the reality of being male.
Why is this surprising, much less threatening?
The standard cultural response to women publishing, broadcasting or teaching their experiences is to vilify and denigrate the women themselves; ignoring what it is they have to say. Typical would be the response of right wing talk radio, that radical feminists are just 'femi-nazis' who need a good fuck.
The core of feminism, (as defined by me), is the process of individuation, of understanding and articulating our experiences as best we can without the filter of dominant culture. This process is apparently offensive to men, and to many women.
I was recently participating in an internet forum for teen moms and former teen moms. The discussion centered around the word 'cunt'. For many women, this is a term which makes them feel powerful, because they choose to use it in the face of society's attempt to either make cute or sterilize their sexual lives. Adopting the term is a feminist issue. At mention of the word, one participant said flatly that she wasn't a feminist, and rejected the word cunt "Because I don't hate men".
Why is act of a woman deciding what the proper word for her own sexual organs considered an act of aggression toward men?
By asserting that we have a distinct reality from the standard (which is male and based on domination) we are, in the eyes of the culture declaring ourselves as the other. Radical feminists who want to go beyond legal equality are seen as destroyers of American society, threats to the American family, and according to Jerry Falwell, responsible (along with gays and lesbians) for a recent incident involving fanatical zealots, planes and tall buildings.
As a young mother I must have represented a serious threat to society, considering the hostile reaction I got for two simple parenting decisions. First, I had a homebirth, with midwives! When I would tell people about my decision, they were aghast. It did not matter to them that my midwives had nearly as much medical education as any doctor, that they had delivered hundreds of babies between them in places as medically primitive as Ethiopia and the Jamaican slums. They were not doctors, therefore they were not competent. I was obviously not fully sane.
Long ago our culture expelled the midwife from legitimate practice and replaced her with the male expert on childbirth. Equally important in the development of civilization was the decision that women simply could not labor in their own homes, they must be removed to an institution created by men and peculiarly unsuited to comfort. One doctor told me I wasn't capable of making the decision to have a homebirth, and that I was putting my child and myself at great risk. The state insurance plan would not pay for my midwife's services, though she was duly educated and licensed. How is this not hostile to women's real experience of labor?
So it is with my breasts. Everyone knows that the function of the breast is to nurse children, yet I heard gasps when I breastfed in public. Breasts are a sexual object to the dominant (male) culture; to a mother they are a source of food for her child. There is nothing erotic about the need to feed a squalling infant, I promise you.
Luckily, American manufacturers have conveniently stepped in with powdered protein and fat in cans to relieve the embarrassment of revealing the breast in public. Bottlefeeding has become the normative experience, preserving the breast for the role most beneficial to men; sexual object.
In order to really seek justice, all experiences must be heard. It seems very simple: there can be no norms or standards. When there are, equality doesn't mean anything because it only protects the freedom to be like the dominant group. When we set men as the standard for women to aspire to, we automatically devalue the experience of being female.
"When we learn to know another's experience, we are forced to feel compassion for them. Without understanding, compassion is impossible. When you understand the suffering of others, you do not have to force yourself to feel compassion, the door of your heart will just naturally open. " Thich Nhat Hahn