Wednesday, November 02, 2005

feminist epistemology and you (and nature and MoDo and kathleen parker and...)


This is the thing that feminism failed to account for, according to Kathleen Parker in the Chicago Tribune today as a response to Maureen Dowd’s Sunday NY Times piece. But while this seems like a reasonable oversight on feminism’s part, I have to disagree – again.
Nature is something feminism has always been aware of.

How could feminism not be aware of nature when Nature has been the stick used to beat women over the head? We could not work outside the home because our ‘natural’ state was in the home; we could not participate in politics because our ‘natural’ place was caregiving; we are ‘naturally’ retiring, our brains were ‘naturally’ less powerful than those of men so why should we be allowed to attend school, hold a job or even walk the streets alone – since we were so ‘naturally’ inspiring of sexual violence?

We know that none of this is ‘natural’. The rules governing female behavior back then and now are cultural constructs, meaning they aren’t intrinsic rules but are socially mandated (unconsciously and consciously) in order to support a larger social structure.

Like Dowd, Park is ignorant that behind Nature there is Patriarchy, and while Patriarchy might not always wear a male face, it is usually (one might say ‘naturally’) supported by men, who ‘naturally’ benefit from it. Quite simply, patriarchy is a way of looking at the world and understanding it; it is the dominant paradigm – it is what we assume to be ‘natural’, or common sense – conventional wisdom, almost. Patriarchy manifests itself through a system of ideas and practices that systematically disadvantage women and other subordinated groups; it is a system of ideas and practices that serve the interests of the dominant group. Who’s in the dominant group? Those who benefit from it.

The thing about Patriarchy is that it’s so damn invisible. It’s the foundation of our Western civilization so it’s completely absorbed into our culture – our icons, our literature, our government, our institutions. It’s almost second nature to us. (heh.) Because of the ‘invisible’ work of patriarchy, we take as natural that our relationship to the opposite sex is to be deferential and appreciative. I suppose that when such natural deference is absent it appears “hostile and demeaning to men”. I’d call it impatience, myself. Hostility is so…patriarchal. Impatience at the slowness of someone else’s progress is much more accurate. (Like walking behind two tourists on Michigan Avenue. Maddening.)

But not only is Patriarchy invisible, the effects of Patriarchy are invisible, too – until feminism came along, that is. Till feminism came along, unseen were the ways that Patriarchy disadvantaged women by:
(1) excluding us from inquiry,
(2) denying us epistemic authority,
(3) denigrating our “feminine” cognitive styles and modes of knowledge,
(4) producing theories of women that represent us as inferior, deviant, or significant only in the ways they serve male interests,
(5) producing theories of social phenomena that render women's activities and interests, or gendered power relations, invisible, and
(6) producing knowledge (science and technology) that is not useful for people in subordinate positions, or that reinforces gender and other social hierarchies.*
[*emphasis mine and a shout out to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for this and the above definition of patriarchy.]

Which brings us back to Nature. Feminists are very much aware of Nature; we just object to the use of Nature as an excuse to reinforce a bullshit, oppressive paradigm that fails to see women as people and only serves male interests. Let’s consider the conservative boycott of American Girl. Why do they protest a bunch of ahistorical dolls? Abortion and lesbianism, we all thought. That’s not the real reason at all.

In today’s Trib Dawn Turner Trice quotes Ann Scheidler, the Executive Director of Pro-Life Action League: "The reason we're protesting is that American Girl appeals to the wholesome image of girls, and the Girls Inc. web site is almost a recruitment for a feminist agenda. All they talk about is science and sports, nothing about homemaking and motherhood."

Homophobia and a lack of respect for a woman’s reproductive autonomy is certainly a part of Scheidler’s boycott but the fundamental thing that makes her twitch her apron is the way Girls, Inc. advocates for a girl to transcend ‘nature.’ For Scheidler, feminism is freakish because it isn’t wholesome, homemaking or motherhood. It’s sports and science – two fields that aren’t feminine because they aren’t ‘natural’ to a woman, while childbirth and caregiving is.

What’s Nature again? Patriarchy.

So to Park I say that feminism didn’t tell half a story; feminism knows the whole freaking story. It knows the Author, the Publisher, the Reader and the little bitty ISBN number inside the front page. It knows who the Distributor is and where the Bookstores are (tired of this metaphor, yet?). We know the story and we keep telling it. You just don’t like that story. That’s fair.

You don’t like the ending, either; that's ok, too. It’s hard being a feminist. It’s hard being 'unnatural' and knowing. It’s much easier to be naturally ignorant. I get that. It’s hard to look around and see you're the village idiot, or the crazy lady crying in the wilderness about something no one else wants to see. I get that. You don’t want to be the outlier.

But you are lying. Feminism didn't cheat women; it just didn’t account for the general chicken-heartedness of our sex in the face of patriarchal disapproval.

It thought we were braver than that.

[cross-posted at Screed - and edited to correct Parker's name...]


Anonymous said...

Wow, you said virtually everything I thought when I read the article! I thought the feminist movement was about CHOICE. We women have the CHOICE to work, or the CHOICE to find a husband, or the CHOICE to have kids, or make just about any other CHOICE you can think of. Obviously some realities intrude here (a woman might have to work for financial reasons rather than stay home with her child), but our sphere of influence is no longer limited to childcare and nursing.

I've read that, in Japan, many women say they never want to get married. The patriarchial system there is such that women have a lot of freedom until marriage, then the cultural norms expect them to become essentially slaves to their husbands. Any wonder the marriage and birth rate there has plummeted in the last decade?

I do think one good point the article made was that a lot of women seem to be unrepentantly bitter about men -- ALL men. I live in a "red" state, work in a male-dominated field, and am related to a number of men (husband, son, brother, father, etc.). And know what? Most every man I know is a reasonably decent human being. A few of the single guys I work with have even asked me why women feel comfortable making blanket statements about men ("No man can clean anything"), where the guys would never make a similar statement about women ("No woman can fix a car"). Granted, there are obviously men out there who *would* make such statements, but these generally decent guys are having a hard time finding women who are at least sociable.

Okay, so this ended up rambling. However, I think that maybe we women may need to take a step back from the strident edge -- at least on a one-on-one basis where there's a modicum of respect. If we assume that the man we're talking with is a reasonable human being until proven otherwise, we might make more progress with each other as people. My grandmother always said you could catch more flies with honey than vinegar :-).


LutheranChik said...

Ms. Scheidler (I know she'd love that), quoted in your post, wins my weekly Brainless Twittery Award.

ding said...

my daddy used to tell me that i wouldn't find a man because i didn't know how to make a sandwich for a man.

this was his metaphor and it's a useful one for illustrating patriarchy. what strikes me is that this lunch meat gender play doesn't strike those who benefit from it as inherently infantilizing or debilitating to them. if all i do is make sandwiches for my man, how is he learning and growing? how is this useful to either of us?

ding said...

LC-i just about choked on my coffee when a friend emailed the column to me. i couldn't believe their little protest boiled down to gender roles.

i'd thought we'd moved past that, but apparently not. gender roles seem to be at the foundation of all these cultural war articles and conversations.

amazing we still have to fight this crap in the 21st century.

greg said...

It's not so amazing - reactions take a long time. We are just now getting into the thick of the reaction to the feminist movement of the 60's and 70's. The good news is that in the end, the reaction goes away and the progress stays. The bad news is that it may be another few hundred years before that happens - think about the Jim Crow reaction to emancipation.

Anonymous said...

ding wrote:

my daddy used to tell me that i wouldn't find a man because i didn't know how to make a sandwich for a man.

this was his metaphor and it's a useful one for illustrating patriarchy. what strikes me is that this lunch meat gender play doesn't strike those who benefit from it as inherently infantilizing or debilitating to them. if all i do is make sandwiches for my man, how is he learning and growing? how is this useful to either of us?

Wow. Yep, patriarchy. My husband can make his own sandwich, thank you very much! I may *choose* to make him one, but that's an inherently different thing.

I guess it all boils down to respect. Do you respect a person of the other gender as a full person, or do you just see them in terms of what you expect them to do for you? Those expectations come from both sides. Women make the sandwiches/clean/care for the kids, men work/mow the yard/maintain the cars. Those general expectations are limiting to men and women alike.

People can change, though. When I went off to freshman orientation at college (too many years ago!), I came home and announced that I'd changed my major from Foreign_Language to computer science. My mother absolutely exploded -- said I'd never make it (though I graduated near the top of my high school class) and I would flunk out in the first semester. My dad, otoh, said he thought it was great and knew if I made it I could get a decent-paying job to support myself. I had expected my dad to be upset, not my mom, with my choice. Dad was right though. I graduated from college a year ealier (and with better grades :-)) than any of the guys from high school. So, my dad has come a long way in the last several years. He seems pretty happy that his little girl has had the same choices that his son did. I think in a lot of ways he's accepted that the world has changed -- for the better -- than my mother has.

So, I guess I agree with greg: reactions take a long time. Real change takes a long time, too.


ding said...

re: general expectations for both genders

yes. take the men's rights movement. though i disagree with almost ALL of what they stand for i can't help but feel sorry for them; they're struggling with roles in this period of flux and they have absolutely no idea what to do. they're chafing at the narrow role patriarchy has given them yet they only know how to reassert themselves within the terms of patriarchy. they're trapped.

how much more rewarding it would be for their side and our side to work together to reimagine how men and women could relate to one another.

Gwen Stefani said...

Hey there. . . I've been chewing on your post of "off to church". I really liked it, the update, the questions. I've been chewing. You know, i have little insight to offer on the questions you raised. They are good ones, ones that I think perhaps the Grey Lady and her sisters might not be able to answer right now (at least the Ladies I've supped with aren't ready too, but I've not been across the globe entirely yet). But I think they are the questions that the Grey Lady and her sisters members should be asking themselves, my fear/disappointment/ understanding is that rarely she is even ready for the question to be raised.

Here, my neighbor, is where I am saddened-and growing cynical I might add.

At any rate, I wanted to say that upon reading this post I found your comments so interesting because they relate SO MUCH to the other post. Your soap box about Patriarchy being Invisible, struck me. Is that not the dillema with some of the leadership at the Grey Lady? It seemed, as you described it, that perhaps part of the challenge (for you maybe as leadership?) was in helping the very WASPY ones understand or see the issues that related to the people of color. I am sure if there is one thing that is invisible it is WASPy WHITE America. (as a side note, I was pleased that our dear Mrs. Parks laid within those stone cold marble walls of that Phallic White building. her presence must have been just as powerful today as it was so long ago in Alabama) Again, consider those paragraphs here and I'm sure you would know & see how clearly they apply to that conversation as well.

I'm wondering (since the i can't answer entirely the questions) if part of the path to the answers come from your understanding of how Feminism played a role in bringing "light" to "darkness". Patriarchy became more visible when Feminism shed light onto it, as your post says. So then, is this, would you say, in part what you and the others at the Grey Lady are trying to do?

I ask to generalize as well, is this what we (those who care about making the WASPy WHITE invisible stratosphere more visible within the Church)are to be about as well? Asking the sorts of questions you so thoughtfully raised? about patronizing, and the needs of the community surrounding Her, how their faces reflect something in Her that we might be missing, how to reach out and why?

I don't intend to sound or imply that I've got it together. I almost can't stand going to church in the suburbs, She is so damn White I choke some weeks. Anyhow, I hope that made sense. thanks, thats all I've got for now.

ding said...

when power is invisible that's what i call privilege. and you're totally right - it's about privilege: class or race. and when you're talking about the acknowledgement of privilege you might at well spit into the wind.

no one wants to talk about privilege. hardly anyone has the language to (and while that might sound elitist, it's important to be able to talk about privilege in a way that allows people to not be defensive about it.) and that's what we're facing: a kind of benign condescension.

like "oh, we'll put this task force together and we'll help you out but we actually don't see why we're going through the motions."

but is there actual buy in? hard to say. we aren't in any real dialogue with any of the big churches on the south side and i think that's strange. a few of us think that's strange. but i'm finding that presbyterians move slowly.

very very very sloooowly.

ding said...

gwen, i tried posting an extension of this comment at your place, but i couldn't create an account. boo.

Gwen said...

i'm sorry. that's crap. you gotta get a user ID (but don't have to set up the xanga) to comment. sorry it didn't work. feel free to try again if you'd like, but i know how annoying it is to try to keep up with 5 million user ID's and passwords. sheesh.