Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
Journal of the 16th Year
On Second Street
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
The Gender Order of Things
I n an article “The Women of Enron” ( Fast Company , September 2003 ) by Jennifer Reingold, we learn about Sherron Watkins, who “spotted wrong doing and tried to bring it to the attention of others.” She is described as a “brassy Texas broad in the baby blue suit.” Rebecca Mark, former CEO of Enron International, is described as “all that was good about Enron: the brains, the verve—and yes, even the sex appeal.” Currently, she raises cattle and wishes she had taken more “time out for her children.” “Looking back, I don’t know if that sacrifice was warranted,” says Rebecca. Hmm, a career woman with regrets—where have we heard that before?
In one of this summer’s movies, Charlie’s Angels , Part II, Full Throttle (more appropriately Full Straddle ) we are entertained by unrelenting violence while viewing tits, ass, and crotch “feminism.” These “angels” get to straddle motorcycles, bad guys, and the hoods of cars. They get to wear skimpy outfits and to play “hookers,” “strippers,” show girls, and whatever else shows crotch and cleavage to full effect. It’s all in good fun. There are even some spoofs of male hero type movies/TV shows to keep it sort of tongue-in-cheek (or a slap in the face for those “feminazis” who are too dull and sexless to appreciate how liberated this is—wet T-shirts and all). Hmm, sexy detectives. Sounds familiar.
In Legally Blonde (1 & 2) we are entertained by a seemingly dumb, beautiful blonde, with a fetish for all things pink, tottering around in tight skirts and high heels who is really a smart, beautiful blonde—also she’s so sexy in a cute, perky, and funny kind of way. Marilyn Monroe meets Lindsay (“The Practice”). She even succeeds (in Legally Blonde 1 ) in winning the admiration of the most sneering (read lesbian) feminist with her street smarts—in that case, using her feminine intuition/female experiences to discover who was at fault. Hmm, a beautiful dumb blonde who is really smarter than she looks. Now that's creative.
Clearly, when it comes to popular consciousness, this is the current gender order, same as the old order, except women are now divided into three basic categories:
Hyper-sexed creatures who can kill and maim just like the guys, but it’s okay because they show “boobs” and crotches while doing it. This makes them feminine-ists. Without the boobs flailing and the ass/crotch exposure, they would be women trying to be men.
Hyper-feminine powder puffs, with brains of steel whose liberation comes from knowing how to disguise all of this in a joyous affectionate return to/spoof of the Marilyn Monroe movies and the 1950s female. This makes them feminine, which nails another coffin in the death of the women’s movement propaganda. Without the powdering and the puffing and the tottering, the fact that they had brains would make them women trying to be men.
CEO career types who “remain” feminine and sexy and, more often than not, rue the fact that they missed out on their children’s ballet concerts and piano recitals. If they didn’t look sexy, they would be women trying to be men, i.e. lesbians .
This gender rewrite has been going on ever since the women’s movement began sometime before or after 1969. By now, the litany (mainstream and not so mainstream) is pretty much locked in. Without changing the basic institutions that help keep women (and men) in a constant state of confusion about what’s what with gender oppression, the result, in popular consciousness, is that some feel feminists have won their rights and should shut up and move on. Others feel that feminists went too far and won too much and it is now men who are oppressed.
For those of us who had other things in mind besides a gender order where women fight for power in the corporation or who titillate, full throttle, while pummeling bad guys, or who turn themselves into powder puffs in order to be accepted as something more (a contradiction if there ever was one), the question remains: where are we in the journey from a feminist movement that raised consciousness and challenged patriarchy, capitalism, and institutionalized racism to a hoped for liberator society based on different values—and how can we move forward in the face of such overwhelming mainstream, not to mention right-wing, control of our images, our life choices, and our revolution?
If we define feminism as a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and sexist oppression, then that movement ran low on gas some years ago.
If revolutionary feminism involves raising consciousness about the ways sexism is maintained in our societies through laws, cultural images, dehumanization, fear and violence, control of our bodies via reproduction and sexuality, through scientific methods that posit the inferiority of female genes and brains, through a hierarchical, racist, and patriarchal division of labor, then we’ve made some inroads, but we have a lot of consciousness raising to do.
If feminist revolution involves understanding how race, class, and gender oppressions are played out in our societies, how they interact, and how that understanding can inform our visions of a new society with institutions and structures that foster the values of solidarity, self-management, participatory democracy, diversity, and equity, then the journey has barely begun.
True, for those of us who grew up in a society where women were dependent and more or less the property of men—and all that meant about how we were treated—women have made major gains. Joanna Brenner in Women and the Politics of Class and Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon in Dear Sisters outline some of them as follows:
- More women are working for a wage than ever before, which hopefully gives them some independence
- There are some changing attitudes and consciousness around women’s roles
- There has been legislation against discrimination in education and employment
- There are organizations to defend women’s interests
- There are women’s health clinics and counseling; women’s bookstores and publishing companies; women’s studies programs and campus organizations; women’s legal aid societies and prison programs; AIDS organizing; ecology movements; organizations of women workers; reproductive rights groups; and violence against women activism
- Legalized abortion
- Major improvements in health care
- Raising consciousness about violence against women; rape and battering became prosecuted crimes
- Public funding for women’s shelters
- Changes in education and textbooks
- Changes in women’s involvement in sports
- Improvements in daycare, parental leave
of women workers
and in women’s wages
- Changes in expectations
- Marriage and family seen more as an equal partnership (in theory, not necessarily in practice)
As for image and popular culture, women on TV have “progressed” from “The Donna Reed Show” and “Father Knows Best” to “Judging Amy,” “Alias,” and “Crossing Jordan.” These new TV women have backbones and minds of their own, but they still look pretty and show cleavage while doing it. Even CJ on “The West Wing,” one of the best TV portrayals of a woman, has to undo the top button of her blouse, presumably so we won't ever forget what gender she is.
At the same time, feminist consciousness and activism has been steadily marginalized and constantly ridiculed almost since it began in the mid-1970s. Currently, returning to Brenner:
- There is no grassroots movement to promote feminist consciousness and change
- Most radical activists and theorists have disappeared into academia or social reform activities. They do valuable work, but often spend their days adopting professional behavior in dealing with the mainstream, and don’t prioritize challenging existing institutions of domination
- Women’s organizations, once committed to non-hierarchical structure, have, in many cases, replicated existing hierarchical institutions
- Reformers work for “equal rights” within an economic system that is inherently unjust and so their success is limited
- Conditions for women continue to deteriorate
- Male domination continues in the home and outside it
women persists so that women are not free to move about the world
- Women living on their own without a man are increasingly impoverished
- There is sex segregation in the workplace
- Women, particularly women of color, are still on the lower rungs of the hierarchy, hanging on for dear life
- Gains around reproductive rights and affirmative action are constantly under attack
While these gains confirm the importance of the women's movement, in the absence of institutional changes, gains are often mixed blessings, making many women confused about the benefit of fighting for them at all. For instance, the family wage for men has been replaced by women’s right to compete. Women’s greater access to “independence” has been matched by economic insecurity and women doing double duty. Greater personal freedom and sexual autonomy has often made women more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Activism had been marginalized into separate “women’s spheres of women’s concerns,” which are considered “lesser.” Women who choose to work on other issues find that the intersection of class, race, and gender is often subsumed under a more traditional “working class” politics—working class still being consciously or unconsciously thought of as mostly blue collar white men.
The result is that, while women can be mobilized around discrimination or violations of individual rights or to better the lot of the poor and disadvantaged, there is little coherent organized raising of consciousness about revolutionary change. As Brenner points out, women join in family “partnerships” based on gender divisions of labor in which men specialize in income earning while “helping” out at home, while women specialize in care-giving while helping out with income earning. Women, more often than men, must limit education, enter less competitive workplace situations, or accept more flexible part-time work. Women must try to maintain partnerships in isolation and to find work with some value, while sexist media messages bombard them from all sides.
Mainstream media (through books, magazines, TV ads and shows, movies) hammer women with images of ravaged, passive, anorexic females. Other images keep women in a constant state of insecurity about their weight, skin tone, hair color, size and shape of their facial features, breasts, thighs, etc.
Popular psychology presents sexism as just a lack of communication that can be solved by understanding each other better. There is no oppression of one gender by another, no patriarchy in the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” thesis that has been popular for many years. Rather, men and women are described as being from two different cultures and our “problems” can be solved by better communication and by spending money on books and lectures by experts who are not interested in challenging the basic institutions, such as patriarchy, that perpetuate sexist oppression.
Popular evolutionary psychologists and biologists use dubious “scientific” studies to promote the view that the male and female division of labor evolved over millions of years and these “differences” are now embedded in our genes and brains. Men and women are genetically different along stereotypical lines (what a surprise) that cannot be changed. Rather, say the pop “scientists,” why not celebrate the fact that men are men and women are women. Just because women are genetically programmed to be more “nurturing, communicative, and passive” doesn’t mean they’re inferior, they say. In fact, they’re poised to take power in the new information technology. Suddenly, the very traits imposed on them and used to make them the property of men for thousands of years are now the traits that will liberate them.
Women can defy convention, leave friends and family, and become part of feminist culture—and hopefully find a job they can tolerate and live on; or they can continue to accept their so-called “god-given” roles as dependent wives and mothers in households headed by men, where their lives are defined for them; or women can work and consume in a mainstream society where feminism has become a lifestyle choice, devoid of all radical politics.
In this lifestyle feminism, fashion magazines define liberation and women’s images for them and these images change from moment to moment. Feminist liberation is anything that sells a product. A woman can be competitive, yet sweet as pie; adventurous, yet a helpless bimbo; intelligent, yet totally without a clue; strong, yet starving enough to be a walking skeleton; aggressive, yet scared of her own shadow; independent, yet helpless; equal, yet inferior; important, yet irrelevant; fascist about her politics, revolutionary about her makeup. In this lifestyle feminism, revolution is a makeup by Revlon who is “changing the world one face at a time.” Controlling your own body means having breast surgery “for the shape that says you love yourself.”
most importantly, one of the basic tenets of sexism remains unchanged
and unchallenged: that is, the deeply held belief that man is the
essential, the quintessential human being. Woman, then, is defined
in relation to him. She can never be equal, she can only be what
she is—i.e., not a man.
T he women’s movement changed history, reaching into every home, school, business, and workplace. But it wasn’t able to translate political consciousness into concrete revolutionary social change. It criticized institutionalized sexism, but left sexist institutions in place. It challenged institutions, criticized them as patriarchal and undemocratic, and then women proceeded to join them. It left the institutions in place so that its victories could and often did disappear with the pounding of a gavel in a courtroom. The Cinderella fantasy still lurks around every corner, in every movie house, telling younger generations of women that they should be longing for salvation and protection in the arms of a prince. We are left straddling between being legally blonde and/or being fantasy heroines (or CEOs) who show cleavage, as if that will help us annihilate the enemy (or get a corporate job where showing cleavage is praised as being liberated at the same time as it is the brunt of sexist comments and jokes).
Also, until recently, there has been no articulated vision or solidarity among leftists in the U.S. Instead, there was a legacy of distrust, some as a result of experiences working together, some from inequalities among us, some from personality clashes that become insurmountable in movements where we are all supposed to love each other and be equal.
Still other problems result from political differences having to do with disagreements about the centrality of Marxist ideas and their limits regarding feminism, racism, hierarchy, and even class. Marxist feminists believe women’s liberation lies in women’s participation in the labor movement; radical feminists see the original class division as that between the sexes and liberation will come from the elimination of obligatory sexualities and sex roles. Socialist feminists see the intersection of class and gender requiring an overthrow of capitalism and patriarchy. Liberal feminists see the problem as one of civil rights. Some Black feminists oppose white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, others see race alone as the defining issue. We often became trapped in internal competition for “who is the most oppressed,” resulting in a hierarchy of oppressions, each group guilt tripping the other. White feminists distrust white leftists, black feminists distrust white feminists, and working class radicals distrust leftists who seem to come from elite backgrounds. Anarchists distrust left organizations that are structured like corporate firms. Sectarian organizations with party lines and hierarchical, anti-democratic structures disrupt attempts to move forward collectively.
Clearly, the oppressions of class, race, and gender must be looked at together. They are connected in the world and should be connected in our theory, practice, strategy, and vision. Many activists have been attempting to make these connections and to encourage solidarity among radicals, rather than distrust and competition. The anti-globalization movements and world social forums have been a step forward in dispelling this legacy of distrust.
Additionally, with the slogan “another world is possible,” many have pushed for what is often being called participatory democracy. As a result, the possibilities for radical social change seem greater now than at any other time in history. Revolutionary feminists who have tried to raise consciousness about the way sexism is maintained in our societies through laws, cultural images, dehumanization, science, fear and violence, control of our bodies via reproduction and sexuality, and a hierarchical, racist, and patriarchal division of labor need to become central to this global movement.
There are, of course, numerous women already involved, but too much of the social forums—and other global efforts—lacks sufficient gender focus. There is a sense that a focus on class, rather than a more inclusive analysis, is in command. In addition, there are always concerns about the tendency, because of our socialization, for women to “end up” as secretaries, there to assist and record decisions made more often by men. Then there are the subtle things that go on, such as: when most men talk in meetings, they are listened to; when women talk, most men wait until they’ve finished, then go on to address what the men have said. There are also concerns about the still recurring dynamic that women are important in activist groups as they are sexually available to men.
If these and other concerns are left to fester, there is a danger of these exciting long-term global movements self-destructing, as past movements have done.
Among many options, we spend our days, unsettled and unsatisfied, critiquing the gender order of things as it plays out in the mainstream. Additionally, we can continue doing “double duty,” judging and correcting individual men’s behavior in our “equal” partnerships at home as well as men’s individual and group behavior inside various organizations and movements.
But this is getting tiresome. For some of us it's been going on for 25 to 30 years or more. Isn’t it time to join with others who are beginning to answer the question, “As activists, what do we want?” Isn't it crucial now for revolutionary feminists to push aggressively, publicly, and globally for a total social vision of what we want? We should not only be creating, together with men, a vision of “life after capitalism,” we should also be creating a vision of “life after patriarchy,” as well as a vision for a “life after white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” that is, for a wide-ranging, diverse participatory society.
Lydia Sargent is an activist and co-founder of South End Press and Z Magazine . She writes a Hotel Satire column and is active in a local theater group.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.