November 20, 2007


Filed under: women's history — polywog @ 11:13 p11

Once again i’ve left my “sisters in struggle” class feeling like the most inarticulate, judged and judgmental person in it. In every other aspect of my life i feel that i can be collected and articulate even when i disagree with others, but not in this class. The books we are reading for this class have a consistent theme, even a celebration, of assimilation. My intellectual theme in this program so far is best described in this question: is it possible to write a history that does not reinforce dominant cultural values? The more i ask the question the more it becomes obvious to my classmates that i have somewhat of an agenda. However, i’m getting the sense that those who disagree with me do not see that they also have an agenda. Assimilation is an agenda–and it is reinforced page by page, book by book, historian by historian, feminist by feminist. It is reinforced in so many ways through so many actions, and yet somehow i feel redundant when i make the same claims about each book.

I thought that most feminists agreed or at least acknowledged that women stepping into traditionally middle/upper class white male roles is a problematic version of feminism. But there is very little in women’s history, as i have yet seen, that problematizes this.

Women’s History is a Basket, and in it are Women’s History’s Things:

one Thing is scholarship that acknowledges that women exist in and participate in history.

another Thing is scholarship that acknowledges how women struggled within their historical and social landscape to make their lives better.

another Thing is scholarship that acknowledges differences between and among groups of women and analyzes those differences.

I would guess (i’m only in my second month studying women’s history) that this is about as far as women’s historians have come, and it seems that they have stalled. I believe they’ve stalled for a few reasons:

1) They have no clear political agenda

I’m not suggesting that women’s historians should be unified, but rather that women’s or feminist history could grow from setting out agendas and analyzing history based on those agendas. They have set out a most basic agenda which is described above, but i am not clear on what, if anything, women’s historians plan to do with these “things.” The things are quite powerful. They could build a house or tear one down. They could form the basis for workers’ resistance or they could form a platform for a woman’s presidency. They could also plunder a people or strip an individual of her culture or values. They can also shape themselves into thin cloth-like material and form a veil for the delicate eyes of privileged students who want to believe in a linear social evolution of the human spirit, who want to believe that women have almost won the battle against patriarchy.

The “things” feminists have are useful, are tools potentially, but i don’t want to read one more book unless the author is very clear with me what kind of agenda she has set out for the things in her basket. I don’t want to read another book unless she tells me whether she has made these things into tools, platforms, veils, etc. I don’t want to read another book unless she tells me whether she is building a house or tearing one down. It is not enough to have the “things.” I need to know what she plans to do with them, before i will trust her.

2) They are stunted by the end goal of “equality”

The following is from a reading response about the ongoing equality vs. difference debate among feminist activists, theorists, and historians: Both the categories “equality” and “difference” are imaginative and strategic. Who is the standard bearer of equality? As bell hooks has noted, if women want to be equal to men, which men are they talking about–because men are not a single, homogeneous category themselves. In this society, I’m guessing, it would be the upper or middle class white male. But it is not physically possible for everyone to live like an upper class white male. To occupy this station requires the mass exploitation of human and non-human life. Is that feminist?
A common assumption is that if women were to occupy positions of power, they would for some reason make different choices than men. This seems to me to be sliding essentialism under the table while making an argument for equality. It obscures the fact that women, just as much as men, have the ability and potential to exploit and to ignore or reinforce oppression. Instead of focusing on ambiguous and ideological comparisons, I am interested in framing questions in terms of needs and desires, in terms of justice, in terms of sustainability. I need respect, bodily integrity, joy, challenge, and connection in my life. I need basics like healthy food, clean air, clean water, sleep, and warmth. If I do not have these, I am going to figure out why and work to change that. It does not matter (emphasis on the matter) whether I am “the same” or “different” from anyone else. It does not matter who is the standard-bearer or “equality.”

When people are so focused on equality, they are literally missing the point, which is justice. Equality is always relational, and the standard bearer of equality may not be one which can coexist with justice. As long as feminists ignore this, their actions and beliefs will be hospitable to such dangerous tendencies as imperialism, racism, classism, and the physical and psychological destruction of nature.

3) and thus, my third issue with feminism and women’s history: i believe that it is incredibly detrimental to attempt to understand people without considering nature. Wonderful Chaia Heller writes, and i wish i had the quote with me because i might get it wrong, that “as we radicalize our view of nature, we radicalize our view of culture.” Feminists and women’s historians continue to attempt to understand culture without considering their connection to nature. This leaves their understandings of culture impoverished and stunted. For instance, consider the definition of industrialization i recently quoted from wikipedia: “Industrialisation also introduces some form of philosophical change, or to a different attitude in the perception of nature.”  The week that i wrote that post i was fuming because i’d just read a celebratory history of women industrial workers. The book was unflinchingly celebrated of capitalism, consumerism, and assimilation. It is not the individuals–the women workers–who i am upset with, but the way the story was told, the presumptions the book makes, and the lessons it teaches. I bet lots of people walk away from that book feeling that “women have made it” and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. But women and nature are suffering so much more today than they were back then–is it feminist to celebrate that industrialism has been exported? Is equality only a meaningful goal within the borders of certain countries or colors while it rests on the backs of others (as well as the exploitation of nature)? I believe feminists would deepen and further their ultimate goals of living in a world without oppression if they replaced their obsession with quality as the standard-bearer with an obsession with nature and justice as the standard-bearers. What kind of lives would we be living to ensure that no one is oppressed? What kind of lives would we be living to ensure that the natural world too can breathe?



  1. “Is it possible to write a history that does not reinforce dominant cultural values?” I think you have hit the nail square on the head. Why is it that feminists, and many others often use “equality” as their benchmark? It seems that a human characteristic and stumbling block is the inability to recognize and attack multiple problems simultaneously. In this case, scholars and activists have been able to recognize the inequality generated through the subordination of women. They see women occupying supportive roles to patriarchal men, being abused by men, being killed and harmed by the culture and the symptoms of that culture. However as their focus narrows to concentrate on particular “symptoms” of a culture based on exploitation, and importation, they often become oblivious or unable to focus on the larger cause of the problems, the system structure itself.

    One possible explanation for why the history you are studying avoids the subject of assimilation and system structure, instead focusing on equality, is the difficulty of grappling with the immense task of reinventing all of culture and civilization.
    It is much easier to focus on one labor movement, or civil action, than it is to try to get a handle on how to bring about sustainability in a culture inculcated with the idea that growth is the goal, and sustainability equals failure.

    Further, to teach students that assimilation is something to question, that never ending growth will lead to an eventual total collapse, that nature must be respected and celebrated before a true justice will be served, to teach them that the particular president we have isn’t the problem, rather it is the fact that we have a president, is dangerous. It would lead to a rebellion, a revolution, a true system wide change, and that would severely damage those who hold power; in the college industry, in the book industry, in every industry. After all even the school you are attending is not only the product of an industrial civilization, it is in itself an industrial machine, and its goal is to produce an ever growing number of parts which will assimilate into the industrial machine upon graduation.

    Maybe you feel inarticulate, judged, and judgmental, because for you to state your opinion threatens every thing that the school is built upon, everything that you and your co students lives are built upon, and everything that you and your fellow students are paying a lot of money to learn how to be.

    Comment by eug — November 21, 2007 @ 11:13 p11 | Reply

  2. OK, case in point. I have submitted my comment, and now the site says “your comment is awaiting moderation,” and I think that is exactly the problem you are facing in your class. Moderation is required for the system to work, and for the school to function.

    Comment by eug — November 21, 2007 @ 11:13 p11 | Reply

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