Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Why the Personal is Political

(I doubt anyone reading this needs to be reminded of this, but an debate over at Pandagon got me thinking about it. So here's my ideas put into words, because that's the best way to work through and remember them.)

Having finished In a Different Voice, I'm now skimming through parts of Reviving Ophelia, which I've read before.

In the second chapter Dr. Pipher writes that

What girls say about gender and power issues depends on how they are asked. When I ask adolescent girls if they are feminists, most say no. To them, feminism is a dirty word, like communism or fascism. But if I ask if they believe men and women should have equal rights, they say yes. When I ask if their schools are sexist, they are likely to say no. But if I ask if they are harrassed sexually at their school, they say yes and tell me stories....If I ask who has more power, they say men.
(emphasis mine)

In one comment at Pandagon, asfo_del said (with regard to focusing on "the minutiae of sexist behavior and language"):
Look at the results it has accomplished: How many young women today refuse to identify as feminist? Yet being a feminist means, at its most basic level, that you think women are just as worthy as men. How can someone say they’re not a feminist? It’s tantamount to saying you think you, a woman, are inferior. But our movement has so turned off these women that that is what they are willing to say just to distance themselves from us!
(emphasis mine)

The contrasts between these two statements are interesting to me because both speakers are trying answer the same question, but they have very different answers. In the end, both conclusions are simply the result of observation, not scientific research. However, the second is a purely personal observation, made mainly (one assumes) from observing the limited number of people the speaker has had contact with. The second speaker, while undoubtedly not an impartial observer, has nevertheless based her conclusion on interactions with at least scores, perhaps hundreds, of adolescent girls and young women over a series of decades.

As I argued at Pandagon:
Young women do not refuse to identify as feminists because of what feminists have done, they refuse to identify as feminists because most of what they have learned about it has been through institutions that uphold the patriarchy. They’ve mostly been taught the bad, and much of the good was either ignored or presented as an inevitable footnote to “the larger struggle.” Women’s contributions, feminists in particular, are often marginalized, completely ignored, or shown as misguided - as if all the gains that were made were made despite feminists, not because of them.

In this sense the “minutiae” are essential because, by pointing out the cracks in what others call reality, one calls into question the larger picture that relies on all of these little “realities” as it’s foundation. That was the big push of second wave feminism. Since everyone experiences things differently though, the trick, as others have discussed elsewhere, lies partly in maintaining the social connections that discourage people from accepting the “othering” of women and feminists.

Amanda, with her usual insight, states that "Blogging is a pretty good echo of the consciousness-raising groups of the 70s, it seems to me. That’s a strength, not a weakness." She argues that conversations about language and other "little things" are useful in certain situations. asfo_del admits that "discussion is [not] unimportant" and "It’s not just the movement, obviously" that is responsible for feminism's negative image, but also argues that that Amanda's post about the phrase 'the sex act" and the heteronormative assumptions that go with it are not useful - that they do more damage than good

I disagree. It is important to remember that the girls Dr. Pipher discusses in her book are not "willing to say [that women are not as worthy as men]." They distance themselves from feminists not only because "feminism is a dirty word" but because "they are likely to say [their schools are not sexist]" despite the fact that their own experiences contradict this. The sexist experiences of these girls - these mostly privileged girls who have never once questioned their right to vote, drive, or pursue a career - are, for the most part, "the minutiae of sexist behavior and language." They reject feminism not because they see it as wrong, but because they have been taught that it is no longer needed. Feminists are therefore outside of the norm not only because they see monsters lurking everywhere, but because they cannot even see that they already lie vanquished.

In order to reach these girls one cannot simply point out biased language and behaviour, because they do not see that as threatening their basic rights. Neither will it work, however, to focus on "the big picture" issues - like the wage gap - because they do not see the sexism around them, and so attribute such inequalities to other factors. Instead one must show the connection between them. One must point out the obvious contradiction of saying that their schools are not sexist, but then admitting that their textbooks make sexist assumptions and that their peers sexually harrass them. One must help them see the paradox inherent in denying the need for feminism, while at the same time believing both than men and women are equal but that men have more power.

The personal is political because the political affects the personal. Second wave feminism gave us a greater appreciation for this by illuminating some of the ways in which our assumptions about people also affect political debate. While feminism must, indeed, look beyond "the minutiae of sexist behavior and language" we cannot ignore the ways in which the biases they hide are the foundation for everything else. In reaching out to others and in refining our own understanding of the world, we cannot forget one or the other, nor the fact that they are interconnected.

We cannot abandon the "little things" for the the "larger" issues - or vice versa - because it is the connection between them that makes feminism resonate. Neither can we abandon one or the other simply because potential allies may be frightened off, to do so is to reject what makes us feminists. Instead, all we can do is learn to navigate such unfriendly waters carefully.

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