“I’ll be Post-Feminist in a Post-Patriarchy”:
The Boundaries of Privilege between Wo(men)
This week’s entry is, I think, rife with debates which I struggle with in my advocacy and I am therefore going to draw upon the words and experiences of some of my inspiring fellow feminists in Vancouver to discuss the problem of privilege.
To my mind, one of feminism’s greatest strengths is its insistence on self-reflection as the cornerstone of any ethical inquiry into the lives and experiences of others. In other words, it insists that we examine privilege. One of the greatest struggles for me personally is my position of privilege within the movement itself as a white woman. I cannot and should not to presume to speak for others unless I can situate myself in a manner which neither appropriates nor collapses the processes of representation by which other women make their voices heard–the means to which, I’ll admit, still escapes me.
While I certainly agree that we can no longer use woman as a category–and certainly not as an additive position from which all women can speak, since indeed white feminists have a legacy of that kind of thought–there is a part of me which still buys the necessity of difference. This is not to say I seek to revive the second wave, but rather that there are many injustices and oppressions still suffered by many women at the hands of colonialism, imperialism, racism, heteronormativism, and perhaps the most insidious ism of them all neoliberalism. But enough with the ‘isms’: what do I mean you ask? Well, I’m going to cite the current debate within our feminist community at UBC as to whether the “women’s centre” should remain the “womyn’s centre” and the political ramifications of changing a single vowel within an admittedly loaded word.
The deconstructionist in me prefers “women” because it maintains the interrelatedness of the genders and the inextricable-ness of one sign from an’other.’ Nonetheless, I also sympathize with the statement made in claiming the ‘y’ in the word. To resignify ‘womyn’ is to rebirth the category as a safe space distinct from the systemic oppression inherent in the very patriarchal nature of language itself. I quote from the current debate on the topic within their group’s website. Anoushka Ratnarajah sums up the debate quickly and efficiently:
As for the womyn thing, it comes from a legacy of feminism that seeks to challenge privilege within the construction of language. It’s not because we want to banish all thoughts and evidence of men by reworking the word; we simply seek an eye catching way to make people think about the connotations of power inherent within language. And Woman or women are words that can and have been reclaimed by feminists from their patriarchal legacy. To use women, womyn, wimmin interchangeably, is a way of pointing out the ways in which language is steeped in legacies of sexism, and show how the reclaiming or reworking of language can be an empowering experience for the oppressed.
She continues on to explain the rationale behind maintaining the ‘y’ form of the term and equally the need for spaces which do not erect boundries:
Women’s only spaces exist because they need to. Safe spaces for marginalized people need to exist, because the rest of world is very often a place where they experience personal and political violence. By encroaching on this space, folks with more privilege will create more anxiety and anger in marginalized people. There is an equal need for allied spaces, for only if we work together, can we defeat systems of oppression. However, until systematic and personal violence against women ends, we will need places and spaces where we feel safe and accepted. Many women on campus have experienced violence at the hands of men, and therefore feel like they need JUST ONE ROOM in which they feel safe. A group of marginalized people coming together to support each other is not about the exclusion of privileged groups. It is about making a space in which we feel safe to support each other, to vent, to cry, to get angry, to celebrate our successes and work together to challenge our oppressions. We need that. We need to be able to speak freely, without fear of being shut down, for being called angry feminists, or angry colored people, or angry homos. We need people around us who know what we’re going through, because we have a similar embodied experience of oppression, our struggles and victories. Spaces exclusive to marginalized people ARE problematic, but they are only problematic because the reason they need to exist is because patriarchy, colonialism and heteronormativity have excluded marginalized people from participating in many spaces in the world.
In such a view a womyn’s centre takes on the task of edifying a boundary in order to create a safe space within which those who are too painfully familiar with the oppression of the current system can begin to examine their experiences. These sorts of spaces are very necessary and I think create very self-reflexive boundaries. They seek, in other words, to erect a wall in order to break it down. Trauma is usually conceptualized as absent from the conscious minds of its sufferers; it needs to be symbolized in order to be worked through. I speak here not of the systemic violence which we all regardless of gender, race, sexuality, class etc… are subject to in a patriarchal culture, but of rape or violence as an ‘exceptionally’ embodied violation–exceptional as both outside of and singularly violent. The centre quite literally excludes in order to include: to give victims back a sense of their self which we normally take for granted.
One of the comments made by a very self-satisfied commenter regarding the debate annoyed me. He claims:
You can rehash all your college lectures on women[‘]s studies that you feel have put you in a place of authority on the subject, and you can give me textbook tirades on how tough you have it, but the fact remains that no issue is one sided. This idea that a dominating male perspective is overly pervasive in everything one ever does takes the onus of responsibility away from the individual and instead places them in a category of victim, where one can repeat “I’ve been wronged! I’ve been wronged!” without actually changing anything. I feel like the stance you take is so polarizing that it eliminates any prospect of the progressive movement you’re trying to advocate for.”
All I can say is: you’ve entirely missed the point buddy. The fact that the individual carries the burden of responsibility for his or her difference, violation, victimization, and experience of oppression is patriarchy at its very best. Feminism works to break down the idiotic and harmful illusion of individuality which we cling to and which results in the mind-boggling policy decisions made by the likes of Sarah Palin in making rape victims pay for their own rape kits.
One of the most insidious and likely enduring facets of neoliberalism is its edification of the individual through the misnomer of choice. That is, capitalism reinforces the individualism which Western society embraced in the 18th century by offering ‘choice’ as a means to self-definition. In a consumer society, continued consumption and thus the success of a market economy depends on the ability of the consumer to gain something unique from his or her transactions in society. We gain some sense of uniqueness or individuality through the way we ‘style’ or choose our manner of consumption. Of course, the very illusion of choice is only a front designed to get us to continue consuming under the pretense that we can find our authenticity through exercising that age-old tokenism of democracy ‘free will.’ Forgive my sarcasm, but, in such a system anyone who claims, like our oh-so-honourable PM Harper that women’s equality or those who pursue it comprise a left-wing fringe group, is off their bloody rocker!!! We will not be equal unless and untill we start to examine the need we have to assert this very authenticity. What is it? What does it mean? I tend to regard it as another form of privilege in disguise, but that is a discussion for another time.
When young women my age ask me if “I hate men” or why I think feminism is still necessary, I groan inwardly every single time. Feminism is as much about interrogating how patriarchy and all other forms of oppression work against women and men alike as it is about the history of women’s oppression. Masculinism, as a discourse which paints feminism as reverse sexism misses the point. Working toward equality as I’ve said before discriminates against no one. Sexism is a discursive apparatus which effects men and women. Feminists don’t engage in reverse discrimination in attacking what are usually predominantly white-male dominated institutions, they are simply asking that we reflect on how patriarchy reproduces and reinforces itself. I may be born white, but that doesn’t mean I can’t effect change, I just need to acknowledge my position.
Thus, I come to my opinion on the debate between e and y. I personally feel that while safe spaces are very necessary and valuable undertakings, and that we should continue to protect them, we are at a crossroads in the feminist movement and in order to sustain the kind of inquiry which Women’s Studies departments undertake we need, as Ratnarajah notes, to create “allied spaces.” If I were a young woman seeking to learn more about feminism and who had no knowledge of the movement, as is likely to happen because Gender studies are commonly excluded from highschool curriculums, I would feel alienated by and likely unsure of my ability to contribute and participate in a group which used a ‘y.’ This could of course be mediated by community education and aggressive ‘marketing.’ But frankly, we have reached the crest of what could be a very fast downward spiral into the grave of gender studies. We just don’t have the resources to do that kind of re-education unless and until we break down the walls within the movement itself. At this point, we need to bring people together more than we need to divide them. Perhaps, then, it should be people like Ratnarajah leading the charge so that these allied spaces do not reproduce the very systems which they seek to challenge.