Thursday, June 22, 2006

Women are really neat people

The head-line comes from Carol Hanisch's brilliant article 'The Personal is Political'. If you haven't it read it yet I recommend that you do that now, because I'm going to be talking about it. One of the themes for the latest feminist carnival at Bitch|Lab (which this post is probably too late for) is Carol Hanisch's article:

Given what Carol Hanisch originally meant by the phrase, “the personal is political,” how do you see your work as a continuation of what Hanisch and some of our early second wave foremothers envisioned?
There has been a bit of a bit of a debate among feminists blog-writers, about blow-jobs. I don't want to write about that, but I do want to write about the way in which feminist analysis looks at women's lives, both individually and collectively, and what relationship that has to the sort of action we take.

The first thing I want to say, the first thing I always want to say. Is that 'the personal is political' doesn't mean what so many people seem to think it means. In fact, that wasn't exactly what Carol Hanisch was saying. What she was saying was:
One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.
If I start posting that every-day and twice on Sundays it's only because I agree with every word. So now I've got my regular rant about collective action (or actually got Carol Hanisch to do it for me), I want to talk about some of the other things Carol Hanisch had to say. The pro-woman line
This is part of one of the most important theories we are beginning to articulate. We call it “the prowoman line.” What it says basically is that women are really neat people. The bad things that are said
about us as women are either myths (women are stupid), tactics women use to struggle individually (women are bitches), or are actually things that we want to carry into the new society and want men to share too (women are sensitive, emotional). Women
as oppressed people act out of necessity (act dumb in the presence of men), not out of choice. Women have developed great shuffling techniques for their own survival (look pretty and giggle to get or keep a job or man) which should be used when necessary until such time as the power of unity can take its place.
To me there are two really important points here the first is the usefulness of looking at many of the things women do in our society as survivial strategies, and the other is the futility of giving up those survival strategies without having something to replace them with.*

I think it's probably easiest to explain what I think Carol Hanisch means if I talk specifics - so I'm going to look at women's relationship with food and their bodies, and how that is, so often, a survival strategy.

Sometime in the late 1990s a Wellington feminist group organised an eat-in picnic in the waiting room of a local Jenny Craig on international no-diet day. I didn't know about it, so I didn't go, but I'm really glad that I didn't. I think it crosses the line between blaming structures and blaming people. I'm not prepared to participate feminist action that implies that feminists are different and better from most poor deluded women.

In Travelling Mercies Anne Lamott talks about being bullimic. She was very hostile when she first started talking about this with her therapist, and her therapist told her - "I'm not going to take your bulimia away from you." Eating disorders, eating disordered behaviour, and the many different meanings we give to food are all survival strategies.** Sometimes these strategies are really simple. If you're an actress in a TV series and you want to get a film role the more weight you drop the more likely you are to get the role. Most of them are a lot more complicated - this post is already to long for me to go into a detailed analysis of food and having or losing control, but for most women I know it's about far more than just the fact that we live in a culture has a problem with us taking up space(and quite frankly that's hard enough to deal with).

Anyway my point is that blaming individual women for the role they play in conforming to and maintaining all this is next to useless. It's no good trying to take people's eating disordered behaviour away from them, unless we have something better to offer.

I don't want to pretend that it's easy. The way most women talk about food upsets and depresses me. I've seen the domino effect of serious eating disordered behaviour first hand. I'm pretty sure that discussions with other women about food that assign it moralistic qualities play an important role in maintaining eating disorder behaviours among groups of women. I hate it when I see it happening around me - and it does every day. I make snippy comments, I make direct comments, I roll my eyes, I silently fume - I do completely unhelpful things in many different situations. I don't mean to blame women, and intellectually I know not to, but sometimes I get overwhelmed with the awfulness of the role women play in upholding this system.

But I've had discussions that I think are useful. I've had discussions with other women that make us feel that we were building something that might offer an alternative. Not now, obviously, now it's just a handful of women, but we're trying to take these conversations wide, we're trying to write about what we're saying. I don't see this as action in the form of protest - but I do see it as the beginning of organising. If we're going to organise, we need to be able to make ourselves strong.

I don't think building our strength is enough, but it's a necessary precondition for making any sort of change. There are many, many institutions that uphold , and we can attack them and we should attack them (Dove beauty products - you're first up against the wall). But if what we do has any meaning, we have to be strong enough that we offer another survival strategy to women.

That's the role that I see Carol Hanisch's ideas play in the work that I do. That my starting point is not blame women, but trying to build alternatives, and acknowledge that we can only struggle meaninfully once we have built strength. Whenever I think of any of the issues that seem most problematic within feminism, this approach makes things easier.

I think there is some danger that this sort of analysis leads to the sort of paralysis that comes when feminists talk as if 'choice' was the most important thing for women. I used the word 'actions' rather than 'choices' in this post, and I've did that deliberately. To me the point of feminism isn't to give women choices, but to make sure that we don't have to make them. We don't have to be virgins or whores, or career women or housewives. We have to make shitty choices every single day - for me the point of feminism isn't to celebrate shitty choices, but make sure we don't have to choose.

But I don't think it has to - I think we can see actions women take as survival strategies - as long as we acknowledge that our eventual goal is to be organised enough to challenge these things that women need to survive from.

My point in making this discussion isn't to say I think I have all the answers - I don't. But if I'm going to talk about feminist analyses of our lives with other women I need to know that we're starting at the same place. I need to know that they believe that women are neat people.

It's fine that other feminists disagree with me, it's fine that other feminists think that some women are dupes of the patriarchy - but if I'm going to have conversations with people that think like that I need to talk directly about our differences towards the meaning of indivdiual women's actions in our society - not about blow-jobs.

* In this discussion I'm talking entirely about situations where women don't have power. In a situation where women have power, over other women or over men, I think we need a totally different sort of analysis. I used to wear a t-shirt saying "Jenny Shipley is not my sister" back when Jenny Shipley was prime minister - and if only I had one I'd wear a similar t-shirt now. But that's a discussion for a different post.

** I've written before about why I find the idea of privilege problematic when talking about thin women - for most women I've known - of any size - food and their bodies, and the relationship between the two hasn't got much to do with power or privilege.


  1. You have stated some relative insights... I appreciate your blog.

  2. >I'm not prepared to participate feminist action that implies that feminists are different and better from most poor deluded women.

    thank you for that. it's really important.

  3. Nor am I! And from now on I'm going to make much more an effort to make sure I don't imply such a thing in my own writing or thinking.

    I think it crosses the line between blaming structures and blaming people.

    We really need to bring this back to the forefront of feminist analysis.

    This is an excellent post.

  4. I really liked your post too, as always you are helping me immensely in my own thinking and politics.

    I just have one question though, something I want to explore a bit further - if occupying a Jenny Craig office isn't attacking structures then what about occupations of places like the Reserve Bank, the WTO etc? I'm thinking specifically of the wave of occupations in the mid to late 90s by university students, of MOE offices and university registries.

    Thanks :-)

  5. Oh, it is just sooooo sad to me that this still needs to be said...
    I mean: this article came out thirty years ago. Really. Thirty years ago, women were still busy discovering their own genitalia with mirrors, Our Bodies Ourselves was on its first edition, and the term "consciousness raising" was radical.

    How can so little have changed?

    Not that I disagree.

    (Well, I disagree with some of it. I think that power relations are more complicated than anyone is making them out to be here. And I have issues with the "all women are victims" subtext, the monolithic thinking that we seem to be at risk of buying into here. But for the most part. No. I don't disagree.)

    But haven't we done this already?
    What a scary historical moment we're in.

    When the cover of People magazine features a new pregnant celebrity preparing to give up her career and embrace motherhood every week...when educated, privileged women are "getting back on the baby track" and "rediscovering their values" "just in time" to make babies (because apparently they JUST CLEAN FORGOT about their biological clocks!) instead of changing the world...when there's actual serious debate about requiring a vaccine for primary-school-aged girls so that they don't get cancer (that's right: CANCER) from an extremely common std because it might compromise the integrity of their morals and encourage them to have sex...

    well, you get the idea.

    I've made a habit of asking my students (very very very smart scholarship kids) about what the word "feminism" means to them. They say things that would have resulted in being pelted with rotten produce when I was in university. Feminists, apparently, do not shave their armpits or wear bras (and they all *need* to wear bras). They are all lesbians. Mean lesbians. Not the sexy kind. They have no sense of humour. And, of course, they are all fat and badly dressed. And most importantly: women who are feminists die lonely and deluded, without a man to love them, perhaps surrounded by extremely stinky cats. Grey Gardens-style.

    Sometimes at this juncture I show them a picture of Gloria Steinem in her prime.

    Then we talk about history.

    Perhaps we should be talking more about history?

  6. This is a great essay.

    I think it's interesting that the original Hanisch article mentions personal solutions and collective solutions, but only collective actions and not personal actions. If there are both solutions and actions in the collective sphere, then why are there not both in the personal sphere?