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Romulan Dogmatism, Contextual Complications and the Danger of Absolutism
off our backs, November 1994, V.24; N.10 p. 15, Word Count: 2404
I have always tried to direct my life and politics by the Prime Directive. For those of you who are Star Trek: The Next Generation fans, you will know what I mean. For those of you who aren’t or who couldn’t give a damn, the Prime Directive is an ethical policy used by humans exploring strange new worlds that says that each person or species, no matter how alien, is valuable and has the right to live (and die) as they wish. (As long as they’re not trying to take over the galaxy or eat you or something.) Behind the Prime Directive is some pretty sound reasoning. Its basic premise is that people have the right to live their lives or construct their communities in any way they wish. Valid reasons may exist for why some people do one thing or another, reasons people who live differently may not understand. Generally, it is best not to interfere in something you don’t understand. This rule not only protects new life and new civilizations, but it protects the Enterprise too. It helps us to mind our beeswax and keep our nose clean. It humbly acknowledges the shortcomings and limitations of human existence, thereby validating the basic freedom of all beings to write the pages of their destinies, for better or worse, without colonial, or even well-intentioned, influence.
The only time one is permitted to actively affect the life of someone else is upon invitation, by contract or in the case of defending the planet from a hostile alien takeover. In other words, my freedom to live exactly how I want ends at the point at which I keep someone else from doing the same. So Ollie North can take all the pride he wants in his nice (superficially) heterosexual, conservative, religious family, but he cannot force or sanction me or anyone else into living the same way. Reciprocally, I can be as big and bodacious of a bisexual anarcha-feminist as I want as long as I don’t make everyone else play by my rules. My anarcha-queer-feminist activism is justifiable as defense of the freedom to choose, or as persuasive debating, consciousness-raising and education that seeks to open choices up to others, but it is never justifiable as a political dogma I force down other peoples’ throats. For me, the definition of violence begins with any form of ideological imperialism, be it religious, racist, heterosexist, separatist, anarchist, feminist, or Klingon.
As Ani DiFranco says, “You barely have time to react in this world/let alone rehearse…” So true, Ani, which is why the most important aspect of the Prime Directive is that it affords us the freedom to make mistakes by acknowledging the various limitations on human judgment. After all, it is the human condition to err. (Of course, some more frequently than others.) Far be it for me to assume that I know the best way to live for anyone but myself. And I certainly don’t want to insult a woman’s ability to know what is best for her life at any given moment, or her ability to interpret her own experience. What this comes down to is that although I may think someone is making a poor choice or behaving in a way that I don’t approve of, as long as that choice or behavior does not violate the right of others to make their own life-choices, my scope of intervention ends at reproaching, counseling, educating or other forms of activism, but must never extend to benignly, selfishly, offensively or maliciously acting against one’s person, will, or lifestyle.
I think ultimately people must make poor choices and shoulder the responsibility of those choices in order to learn. This is the process by which we figure out how best to live. And for all I know, I could be the one making the mistake. What is a poor choice for me might be a splendid one for someone else. And I have learned a lot from other people’s choices, both good and bad. For example, time and friendship have taught me that most of my well-meant reproaching and proselytizing is really a mistaken and inappropriate attempt to get someone to live by standards that she simply cannot. This is a lesson I constantly have to relearn. (Although sometimes I am vindicated.) When it comes right down to it, the only person I can be truly responsible for is myself, so I try to uphold the Prime Directive in all things in my life, even when it sucks to do so. It’s kind of a good-faith policy toward all earth’s creatures — women in particular — tempered by the reality of my personal experience. I especially am of this opinion when it comes to debating s/m and other button-pushing feminist topics.
Maybe it is a reflection of my youth or just the group of young women and men I came out and grew up with, but s/m has always been a tolerated, even accepted, activity. In the lusty spirit of someone having “discovered” something new and wonderful, of having come into one’s own, my group of friends and I sought/seek to live the co-ed queer experience to its fullest in all the facets we individually felt/feel comfortable with. We trusted one another to have respect for ourselves and our partners, so bisexually, gender-bending, cruising, sex toys, polygamous threesomes and yes, even s/m, were considered within the realm of legitimate queer self-expression. As part of this new and “radical” form of queerness, body piercings and tattoos are quite popular, even faddish, among my peers, regardless of their sexual orientations or appetites. The reason for this runs the gamut of personal context and symbolism: reclaiming one’s body; rite-of-passage; the nobility of enduring pain for beauty and ornamentation instead of ugliness and scarring; sexual release; catharsis; aesthetic radicalism; “the rush”; person aesthetic preferences; non-conformity; commitment to a partner; as a phase of rape trauma therapy; cultural norms…There are so many uniquely human reasons for committing such epidermally violating acts like piercing one’s nose or nipple, or tattooing one’s butt, that I would feel presumptuous to judge one over the other, especially if the parties involved were happy.
While s/m has met with controversy in all time periods for certain, in context, our college-age, newly-out, politically-active, adventurous selves considered s/m a rare, titillating taboo, but no big deal. The women and men I know who have been or are still involved in s/m relationships have made choices for themselves, like anyone, with their own best interests and preferences in mind. And when those choices haven’t worked for whatever reason, they have paid the consequences and made other choices. Anyway, it’s pretty audacious of me to assume to know better how to live someone else’s life when I am having enough trouble living my own.
And while trying to do just that, the one thing I have learned painfully again and again is that context is everything. The social, political, temporal, cultural and personal lenses that color our understanding of the world shape not only the choices we make, but the way in which we perceive and treat others. One of the most slippery of definitions that epitomizes the power of context is the meaning of the word violence. Since determining whether s/m is violent or consensual is an interminable, insoluble and utterly hackneyed task, perhaps it is more productive to take a wider look at the fragile balance of power inherent in all relationships and the attendant potential for even the best-intentioned use of power to shift into non-consensual and destructive behavior.
As much as my anarchist self hates to admit it, it seems there is a power dynamic inherent in almost everything — even this planet has two magnetic poles. (Though interestingly, no one really lives at either one; they are cold, bitter, unforgiving places.) Here are some benign and ordinary examples of what I mean: When two people speak, one person, at least for a short time, will dominate the conversation. When women marched in the Dyke March in New York this summer, they were exercising physical, political, economic and numerical strength. When I tell my lover I don’t want to have sex because I am angry at her or him, I am exerting sexually charged power. Even the oob collective, as much as we try to be truly egalitarian, is not free of power struggles, political dynamics and compromises among our members. Unfortunately, it has to be this way sometimes just to get anything done. Power exists — so what! The secret is to watch for the particular nuances of context, meaning and intent attached to its usage.
There is something sexy to me about a woman wielding power, controlling a situation, her life or her environment in order to create something positive for herself. However, there is nothing sexy about a woman using her power to hurt someone or destroy. Where do we draw the line between the two intentions, and who can presume the right to draw that line in any one place? Or at all? Some forms of direct action and activism may fall into this gray area. As may s/m, lesbian erotica/pornography or any other controversial, polarized issue. As I see it, the price of drawing arbitrary divisions of acceptability is to become unwittingly caught within our own boundaries — a price I am not willing to pay.
There is also a certain power in giving totally of oneself; of becoming completely vulnerable and open to someone you love passionately and can trust explicitly with your body and soul. There is also a noble, quiet power in giving of oneself even when reciprocation is not expected. There is strength in acting powerfully, even aggressively, in the context of freedom, love or trust, and in being willing to bear the responsibility for those actions. Is that not what “romance” and “character” are made of? Is one possible definition of love the exchange of (intellectual, laughter, economic, political, personal, sexual) power toward the growth, betterment or fulfillment of all parties?
I believe that s/m, like all human relationships, is, for better or worse, fraught with contextual complications and semiotic conflicts far more intricate than simple domination and submission, aggression and passivity, butch/femme, masculine/feminine, or any other polarity. It might be the paradox and the frustration of humanity to be simultaneously highly reasonable and animalistically wary and territorial. This plays itself out in our need to mete out taxonomic dichotomies and other categorical pejoratives like sociological handcuffs just to begin to feel safe. It is both fascinating and sad how we can flatten a person’s entire life experience with one label. Yet in spite of our (largely American) fetish with taxonomy, somehow we continually confound our every attempt to explain (and rule) the world with evidence from our very own life experiences! Perhaps the truth we seek is outside of the realm of science, outside of the realm of order and control. Maybe the truth about who we are and how we are powerful lies somewhere vague and shifting, both difficult and dangerous to find. Maybe it is impossible to ever be totally safe.
But questioning and telling the truth about who we are and who is powerful is and has been the task of feminists and all freedom workers. However, the truth we tell is incomplete and misleading unless we permit the good and bad uses of our own power to be exposed, and take responsibility for what that means.
Maybe s/m, like all human relationships sexual or otherwise, is, for better or worse, a delicately balanced, dizzyingly gray tangle of power plays, trade-offs and compromises that are essentially political in nature. These power-plays can be flirtatious, parodied or fun (like rousing my partner out of bed on Saturday morning); mundane or routine (like dragging my pattern out of bed on Monday morning); or suspicious, manipulative or abusive (like my mother’s well-intentioned-but-totally-self-concerned guilt trips about us waking up together at all.) Again, where do we draw the line, and who can presume the right to draw it in any one place? Especially if all parties involved willingly consent?
Even talking about power is a pretty charged thing to do, as we feminists and other activists know well. Yet it seems we humans — women especially — riskily expend, waste, recycle and exchange an enormous amount of energy and personal power for the sake of connection and communion with Person Right (or Right-Now). And, ironically, the best we can hope for, all things considered, is a rare and short-lived opportunity to do our best at providing the people we care about (ourselves included) with what they want and need. Hopefully therein we might find the reciprocating energy, trust, commitment and acceptance that gives one a sense of belonging or purpose. It is precisely because these feelings of reciprocation, trust, acceptance and purpose are so rare and precious that I will not condemn someone who believes to have found them, even if she has done so in a way I would not choose for myself.
Nor am I remotely prepared for the responsibility of deciding who lives or does not live “correctly.” As long as your choices do not benignly, selfishly, offensively or maliciously restrict someone else’s freedom to choose, I will afford you wide latitude. We’ll never get to Freedom unless everyone gets the time they need to mentally and emotionally prepare to do what it takes to get there. Besides, people move a lot slower when you stand in their way. It is generally more rewarding and successful to raise consciousness and make it worth someone’s while to take another path. In other words, if you don’t play goddess in my life, I promise I won’t play goddess in yours — but my arms are open wide if you change your mind; let me show you how things might be different, and then you will be even better prepared to make your own decisions. After all, we are all on this journey together — so won’t you meet me somewhere in the Great Contextual Nebula for tea? I promise to leave my dogma (and the Romulans) at home. It is very important that you come, you see, because the freedom to be exactly who I am depends completely on my ability to give the same freedom to you.
Beyond Tolerance: Feminist Values
off our backs, May 2000, V.30; N.5 p. 6
“The politically cowardly (PC) crowd believe that it is impolitic to be opposed to anything. Therefore, everything is acceptable.” 1 This is one of the main arguments that the religious right has against feminists: they say we have no standards. They characterize the current cultural climate as a time when moral values are being eroded. They characterize themselves as the ones with moral values, and liberals, progressives, and feminists as people who have no values or morals whatsoever.
This characterization is in error. We are not in a time when values per se are being eroded. Instead, we are in a battle over what the values of our culture will be. We are at a transition point from one set of values to another, not from moral values to no values at all. Feminists do not lack moral values. On the contrary, feminism is a powerful value system, and it offers higher and better moral values than those the religious right espouses.
By using the words “family values” the conservative right tries to take the high ground by claiming the word values and making the feminist position seem selfish: against children, caring for others, and commitment. In short it looks as if feminists are against families and against values. But the truth is, feminism calls for a higher morality than traditional family values, because it wants a greater good for all (not just a few categories of) people.
One of those higher and better moral values is tolerance. Tolerance is a kind of least common denominator among value systems of the left. But it seems to me that we are not so much for tolerance, as against intolerance as practiced by the religious right. One thing we know for sure is we are all against the intolerance of the religious right, which tries to tell us we must follow a set of rules that are against our personal freedom, our right to happiness, and our right to love who we want, among other things. But liberals and feminists sometimes fall prey to the idea that tolerance is the only value we can have. We have been so burned by intolerance that we see virtually any attempt to define one set of behaviors as better than another as a kind of oppression. As soon as someone tries to articulate a set of values, others accuse her of being intolerant. “You can’t say that, because you can’t really know another person’s experience–you can’t deny another person’s reality” is the common refrain.
The way out of the “tolerance means you can’t say anything” trap and the way to actively take part in the redefinition of values is to define the whole discussion of values in a new way. What we really need is a new way to understand what values are. Then we need to proceed to define a complete set of values that address the complexity of human experience, instead of hanging all our morality upon the thin thread of tolerance.
Values Are Not Commandments
An articulation of feminist values has to start with a change in the way we look at values. We tend to see values or morals the way the religious right does: as a list of proscriptions or rules that are to be enforced the way laws are. We think that you catch someone at breaking a law and you make them pay the consequences. Or, if we are the ones who have transgressed, we must feel guilt and remorse. Values, from this point of view, are prescriptive and negative and tell us how bad or sinful we are for failing to live by them. Thus at feminist events and conferences you have someone who instead of trying to live up to the values herself ends up screaming at the organizers that they have violated one of the prescribed values. We have moral policing instead of moral living.
Instead we can look at values as a positive group of suggestions for the best way to live. Instead of a list of things to do/believe because if you don’t you are evil, values are things to believe in and live by that enable us to have a good life. In this view, when we failed to live up to one of our values, we would not be labeled evil and be excoriated, but helped to succeed next time. When we fail one of our own values, we suffer. When our failure harms another person, our sense of connectedness suffers. The values themselves describe what will help us do what is best for ourselves and others. When we succeed at living by our values, we enjoy the utmost happiness and want the same for all people. Feminist values are suggestions for improving the quality of human life for ourselves and others, not commandments that we dare not break.
As we define exactly what feminist values are, we should not see them as a litmus test or a manifesto to which all feminists must subscribe or else be called unfeminist or trashed in other ways. They should be recommendations for how to provide the best possible life for every person on this planet. It is important to think seriously about what we value and what moral values we want for our communities and families, and ultimately our nation and the world. And we should be able to articulate these values, so that we are not left speechless when we are attacked with the implication that we are anti family and anti values.
What is Wrong with the Traditional Family Values?
Traditional family values are based on fundamentalist christianity (and other fundamentalist religions). Although it may not seem obvious, fundamentalist christianity is a religion based on the premise that people are inherently bad, evil, and sinful. The story of the fall from Eden introduces this concept, and the death of Jesus Christ takes it to its ultimate conclusion. A deity’s son had to die a horrendous death by torture to pay for the sins of the individual christian. The underlying belief is that people are constantly doing wrong and must be punished. The fact that god’s son was willing to take the punishment is seen as infinitely touching. But this holds as a given that punishment had to be given. Fundamentalist christianity posits a god that is a vengeful authority figure who must be obeyed under threat of punishment.
This underlying belief has specific results in the world. If people are inherently bad, then their impulses, desires, and drives are inherently bad and must be resisted, controlled, or punished. Because of the belief that people are inherently bad, fundamentalism also holds the belief that the only way to cause moral behavior is to threaten punishment.
The fundamentalist god is the model for and is modeled after the patriarchal male head of household who enforces his will on others through threat of punishment, demands respect for his authority, and controls the resources. The fundamentalist family, therefore, is based on a power hierarchy in which a man is at the top.
Traditional family values follow this pattern. Proponents of traditional family values state that a man should “protect and provide.” “Protect,” in a world no longer rife with animal predators, means protect against other men. Writers on traditional family values characterize men as being inherently aggressive, violent, and dangerous. Feminists have long ago analyzed how the predations of other men serve to keep women trapped in hierarchical relationships with individual men. If all men were held responsible for their behavior there would not be a need for such “protection.” “Provide” is actually another tool for men to control women: by controlling the income within the family, the man retains the economic power. By limiting the ability of women to make it on their own, the traditional family system limits economic options for women other than the patriarchal marriage arrangement, making it all the more likely that each woman is under the economic control of an individual man.
Add children to the traditional family and you have an even more oppressive situation for women. Writers on traditional family values characterize men as eager to elude responsibility for children. They blame feminists, for example, for enabling divorce and freeing men to abandon their children and focus on their own selfish wants. They would like to see the welfare system eliminated because by supposedly enabling women to survive without men, it enables men to elude their responsibility for children. But if there is no welfare system and no way for a woman to earn enough money to provide for herself and the children on her own, the result is that a woman must stay with a man no matter what. If he is controlling and abusive, her choices are stay and be abused or face extreme hardship and poverty.
1 The Geopolitical Strategist. 1996.
What does the traditional family values system offer men? First, that they work hard outside the home in a harsh and competitive world with other men. Writers on traditional family values readily admit that environments such as the military, naval ships, and prisons, dominated by men alone, are harsh, authoritarian, competitive, hierarchical, and inhumane. Under traditional family values, boys are raised to be disconnected to their own feelings so that they can be tough in these male-dominated environments. And if they succeed, they receive economic and social rewards.
Second, because men are defined as violent, dangerous, independent, and eager to escape responsibility for children, women have to offer men quite a lot to get them integrated into responsible society. Women have to “civilize” men. Within the family, a woman must obey the man and sacrifice herself to the welfare of the man and children. What keeps the man in such a marriage? What’s in it for him? He gets to be in charge.
Within the traditional family values, what happens to children? First and foremost they learn about hierarchy and dominance, and they learn that men are at the top. Second, they learn a set of values that emphasize sacrifice, self-discipline, obedience to authority, duty, and responsibility. All of these values arise from the original premise that people–children–are inherently bad and their energy, desires, and drives must be controlled through discipline and threat of punishment.
The religious right’s family values state that what it takes to get a child to work hard and succeed and contribute is to instill a sense of duty and a respect for authoritarianism. But the imposition of authoritarian control and discipline creates exactly the opposite of the effect intended. Hitting children, for example, which is considered routine in traditional family values, results in children who hit others, according to every study ever done of this practice. I have personally witnessed an example of this: the story of the boy from the fundamentalist family down the street, who attends the church school. When the principal/minister called him into the office to administer yet another spanking with a stick, the boy punched the preacher in the nose. Where did he learn to hit another human being? Right in that very office. Traditional family values, while trying to teach discipline and respect for authority, end up teaching by example the value of imposing your will on others through violence and coercion. Respect for authority too easily becomes an attempt to dominate others so that you are the authority being respected. Traditional family values perpetuate a society based on domination of some people by others.
Results for the World
Those who write in favor of traditional family values have the following concerns: that divorce and welfare encourage single-parent families that neglect children; that abortion is killing potential children; that welfare is enabling some women to be sexually promiscuous and encouraging them not to work at all; that there is an epidemic of drug abuse, crime, and violence; that women’s traditional work in the home has been devalued by feminists; and that men have been freed by feminism to not be responsible for the family. Proponents of family values are right to be concerned about the neglect of children throughout our society, whether in single-parent homes or not. They are right to be concerned with drug abuse, crime, and violence. But the traditional family values agenda will not solve these problems; it perpetuates them.
One way traditional values perpetuates social problems is by training people to acquiesce to external authorities. They keep people in their place by having them believe that other concerns such as duty and respect for authority are more important than their own happiness. This kind of thinking can keep workers doing a 60-hour work week out of duty and then blaming themselves for not spending more time with their children rather than criticizing a system that has them work so hard. Traditional family values is an ideology that not coincidentally forwards the interests of capitalist corporations, who get a workforce that values working itself to death without questioning the profit-making agenda and without noticing that human joy and quality of life are being sacrificed to the profits of a few at the top.
A second way traditional family values perpetuates the very problems its proponents are concerned about is through applying punitive measures. Because of the view of humans as inherently bad, punishment is seen as the way to induce moral, socially constructive behavior. Proponents of traditional family values want to call a halt to abortions, forcing women to have more unwanted children than we already have. Then, by dismantling welfare, they want to not pay these mothers or give families enough financial support so that the parents have to work outside the home instead of doing the valuable work of raising children to be integrated into society. Then they are shocked that the kids raised this way become self-destructive and get on drugs, and instead of helping these people, these human beings, get lives that are fulfilling enough that they don’t have to resort to drugs, they want to keep drugs illegal so that people who are so miserable that they have resorted to using drugs to still the pain of their disenfranchised existence are criminals. Then they want to do battle against them, killing them and locking them up, spending more and more money on prisons, rather than spending the money to improve the lives of the people to begin with. At every turn, focusing on punitive measures recreates the negative, inhumane conditions that cause people to go off track to begin with. Focusing solely on punitive measures will never create a moral, safe, happy society.
What Are Feminist Values?
The underlying assumption of feminist values is that humans are inherently good. Therefore the basic human impulses and drives–seeking happiness, expressing sexuality, experiencing joy, and needing human connection–are good and should be nurtured and encouraged. Because humans are social beings, one of the natural impulses right along with wanting things and seeking pleasure is toward connection with others. When we see people as inherently good, we seek ways to nurture and encourage their inner impulses. Too often this acceptance of self is viewed as permissiveness or saying anything goes. The fear is that this liberality will create people who have sex indiscriminately, abuse drugs, kill their parents, and run amok. But I do not see feminists and liberals doing these things. I do see fundamentalist anti-women’s rights men bombing health clinics and shooting doctors. I do see the christian boy down the street punching the preacher in the nose. The truth is that domination and the negative, strong-arm values that go with the traditional values worldview create these problems.
By recognizing people as inherently good, we can see that people want to be accepted and to be part of a functioning social network in which they can contribute their own unique part. People are not motivated toward murder, rape, drug abuse, robbery, and laziness unless something has gone terribly wrong. It takes a lot to stifle a person’s human motivations toward connection and functioning within society. For example, economic injustice can go a long way toward killing a person’s desire to work and contribute to the social welfare. To address these social problems we have to do more to address what has gone wrong instead of only administering punishment to those who fail.
Feminist values can start in the family by recognizing that people are best motivated by the desire to have good relations with others. The desire for connection is an important human need.. Dominating another person is the opposite of connection. It denies the full humanity of the dominated one, and destroys the humanity of the one who dominates. We have to stop raising boys to be tough and to dominate. Most of us raise girls more kindly with gentleness and warmth. Boys tend to be treated with more toughness, discipline, and authority. Who does most of the violence and destruction in the world? Men. If we want a better society, the place to start is to raise boys more like we raise girls: with a sense of connection to, not domination over, both their own feelings and the feelings of others. And we have to stop raising girls to see themselves as secondary to men.
The local women’s bookstore sells a bumper sticker that says, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” This radical notion means feminism values more of the people on this planet. We want the greatest good for all of the people–and women are people. Traditional family values place men at the top of a social structure based on dominance, where men are the “people” and women are their “helpmeets.” Feminism seeks to create a world based on equality, where people’s human needs are legitimized and met instead of demonized and suppressed.
We want every human to be able to have what he or she needs materially to thrive with dignity and quality of life–and women are people. We want every person to have the time and social and financial support to spend time raising children–and children are people. We want all people to have the right to the medical and physical integrity of their own body–and women are people. We want every person to have the right to plan and decide when to have a baby and not be forced into reproduction through ignorance, financial hardship, rape, or imprisonment in a false morality that results in unwanted children who cannot be supported financially and socially and who grow up in neglect and are swept into the garbage pail of the prison system or die young a violent death in the gutters of our cities. Feminist values want more for humankind than family values do. Every person should have the ability to find love and intimacy in mutually respectful relationships and be able to freely and openly explore sexuality in safety and dignity.
What feminism wants for men: That they not be raised to be emotionally stunted and disabled. That the ability to feel close and open with other humans not be stamped out of them. That they not be forced to work in cold, inhuman, cruel environments for extensive hours every day. That they have tenderness toward children, especially their sons, and don’t perpetuate the cruel rules of masculinity by emotionally abusing them. That sex be for them a tender sharing of human intimacy rather than a tool for self-gratification exercised through dominating another person. That their feelings of connection with all other humans enable them to work for a better world where we all get what we need to thrive and be ourselves.
What it takes to raise moral children is not the traditional nuclear family where the mother sacrifices her other abilities and interests to do all the work of homemaking and child raising while the man signs his soul over to overwork and corporate cruelty and misses out on the human experience of full involvement with children. What it takes is the economic ability of people (individuals, heterosexual couples, gay couples, extended families, communes, whatever) to make a living while still having the extensive amount of time it takes to raise children. The time it takes to raise children does not merely encompass the time it takes to feed and clean and clothe them. They require hours and hours of direct, individual contact with adults, teaching them, listening to them, advising them, praising them; in short, attending to them. This is what makes children socially integrated with a sense of human responsibility toward others. This is what enables children to be happy enough that they don’t have to resort to drugs to dull the pain of neglect. This is what makes children want to work and succeed and contribute to a stable and peaceful society.
Results for the World
We have right now a worldwide political and economic system that devalues and crushes people. People serve the corporations and the economic system instead of the reverse. Instead of corporations existing for the service of people and for the purpose of contributing to the most human well-being and happiness that can be achieved, corporations exist to serve those in power. A few people at the top benefit, while most of the people in the world live in destitution. When we think about values for our families and for our selves, we must recognize that right now not only does our society not put children first: we do not put people first!
The traditional family values tend to keep people in these immoral systems without questioning them. We must begin to value the human above the system–and therefore create systems that truly serve all humans. A system that served humans above profit would have universal health care, vaccinations for all children, an emphasis on human welfare across national boundaries, equitable distribution of resources, accessible high-quality education for all people, opportunities for meaningful and productive work for everyone, and adequate resources for each person to have self-determination over their daily life. And women are people. Feminist values are higher values. We want more for our society and our world.
Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Mostert, Mary. Coming Home: Families Can Stop the Unraveling of America. Carson City, NV: Gold Leaf Press, 1996.
Bennett, William. Book of Virtues.
Live and Let Live? The Moral Bankruptcy of Liberal Tolerance
off our backs, November 1994, V.24; N.10 p. 14
Word Count: 1372
One of the arguments I heard frequently at Michigan addressing the latest controversy is that because the right wing is intolerant of us as feminists and lesbians, we should not act similarly intolerant of things we may not necessarily like, such as s/m and violent sex. Another way I heard it phrased was to say that because others make negative value judgments about us, we do not want to engage in the same behavior by making value judgments about others women’s behavior. This kind of nonjudgmental tolerance is a central tenet not only among some feminists, but is rampant in current liberal thinking throughout the United States. As I see it, while adopted under the best of intentions, tolerance as an absolute principle undermines everything otherwise good about liberal thinking.
The first problem with tolerance as a guiding life principle is that it is a way of saying that we cannot discern whether anything is better or worse than anything else. It is a way of pretending that all choices are equally valid. Under tolerance, choices are to be made somehow randomly, perhaps willy nilly, since proponents of tolerance abhor making a judgment about better or worse. In fact no one can actually live this way because we make choices about what is best for us from the moment we wake up in the morning. And our choices are not random and amoeba-like — they come out of our values. We simply cannot make a choice without making a value judgment about better and worse. But tolerance in and of itself cannot be a guiding principle in making choices because no values are attached to it. It simply says anything goes. When it comes to my body and my life, anything most emphatically does not go.
Secondly, the principle of tolerance reduces all values to equal status. Thus under a guiding principle of tolerance, one cannot say that having access to material resources is in fact better than starving to death. You could of course say that you prefer to live a comfortable life, but you couldn’t say it was better for anyone else to live comfortably (a suspiciously convenient ideology for those with access to resources). You would have to make a definitive value judgment about others in order to say that, as a general rule, it is better to live comfortably than die miserably. Under a system of absolute tolerance, the values of human dignity and worth are not better than the values of domination and exploitation, the value of relatively equal access to resources is not better than the value of mercilessly taking advantage of the disempowered, and the value of treating others as you would have them treat you is no better than the value of callously manipulating others for your own ends. Under tolerance, there is no way to finally make a judgment that some values are superior to others. So to fight for social justice for anyone other than yourself becomes a meaningless endeavor.
The worst thing about this line of thinking is that it keeps us from seeing what is really wrong about the religious right’s intolerance of gays and lesbians, environmentalists, atheists and feminists (among others). What is wrong about the religious right’s stance is not that they are intolerant — it is that their underlying values are twisted, perverse and anti-human, in short, wrong. It is not wrong that they make judgments about lesbians — it is that the judgments they make are ill reasoned, mean-spirited, selfish and contrary to any vision of creating a world where all people have the possibility of living a full and rewarding life. The real reason fundamentalists hate lesbians so much is that their very existence proves there can be an alternative to the heteropatriarchal paradigm in which women are subordinated to the interest of men and the rest of society. Their hysterical opposition to abortion is also fueled by the fact that it might provide women a way out of patriarchy. What is wrong here is not that the religious right has the temerity to judge others, but that their judgments arise from a stance which values the abject subordination of some groups in order to advance others. In short, it is their values, not their intolerance, which is so wrongheaded.
Admittedly, tolerance is not always a bad principle. When it is unclear what values emanate from a particular action or when it is unclear whether certain values can be definitively preferred over others, then tolerance is certainly superior to thoughtless and premature judgments. But the obsessive emphasis on tolerance leads us to be distracted from the work of clearly articulating our alternate values and vision for the world. It allows us to avoid having the real debate we should be having on values. We should be able to say clearly and forcefully what is better about our vision as well as why and for whom it is better. To submit both feminist and anti-feminist values to a clear headed analysis can only further our cause considerably. Examining anti-feminist values in the reasoned and clear light of day exposes the underbelly of a value system based on dominance and subordination, a value not many people are willing to explicitly uphold. But if, rather than carry out a debate on values, we merely mumble about tolerance and nonjudgmentalness, then we miss the opportunity to show how our values are clearly superior to the family values crowd. We have not answered their retrograde vision with a more moving and powerful vision, and because ours is unarticulated, many people who would not ordinarily support their mean-spirited campaign believe their choices are limited either to the fundamentalist vision, or some non-vision coupled with an overabundance of tolerance.
Finally, since nothing is really value-free, an overvaluing of tolerance promotes a set of values in and of itself, albeit covertly. It arises from the strong American libertarian tradition which, although sometimes tempting, is finally a fundamentally male way of thinking. The basic value of libertarianism is that it is best to be left alone to do as one pleases. This sounds good as long as one has everything one needs to live, but being left alone does not sound good when you are sick or old or a child. Being left alone works for those who already have the most access to resources and for the most able-bodied. But caring for dependent children cannot figure in any way under libertarianism. Leaving children alone to do as they please as a long term childcare strategy simply constitutes neglect. Obviously children cannot care for themselves in the same way as adults and we must not leave them alone to do their own thing. They must be fed, bathed, protected and taught about the world. The few children who have in fact been raised in abject solitude have been damaged beyond the point of even being able to speak or communicate at all. Libertarianism overlooks the fact that we are fundamentally interdependent social beings who suffer, rather than flourish, in isolation. (Isn’t that what solitary confinement for prisoners is all about?) Thus, libertarianism, by denying the reality of differential access to resources and power, empowers the already empowered. It is for this reason that libertarianism has been most often embraced by well-off white men.
So, while I am not willing to reject women on the basis of their practice of s/m, or violent sex alone, I am willing to say that it is not just a different way of being in the world. It is clearly about sexualizing power and domination and I am not for that. Certainly s/m women are not the biggest threat to a vision of a world based on equality today and it is important to keep that in perspective. But based on my value system I will make judgments about them. However, if they can clearly articulate their vision, not based only on their right to tolerance, but based on an alternate value system in which all people are accorded human dignity and worth, then I will listen to that. But taking a sexual libertarian stance alone will not convince me. We’ve been down that road before with men.
War: It’s (Still) a Male Thing
off our backs, February 1991, V.21; N.2 p. 1, Word Count: 833
It has become a cliché to compare dicks to missiles and vice versa. At a peace demonstration in Washington D.C. one protester carried a sign depicting Bush with a missile sticking out of his pants and the caption “Bush, You Are a Real Man Now” “War. It’s a Dick Thing,” read another placard. But with numbers of women participating in the war and supporting the war, it may no longer seem that simple. As many men as women oppose the war, and there does not seem to be a clear women’s position on the war, despite NOW’s statement on the Middle East (see oob, Jan. 1991). When Congress voted to grant Bush the authority to wage war, the few women members of Congress voted almost entirely along party lines (Republicans for, Democrats against), with one Republican, Connie Morella of Maryland, voting against the war.
Little gender gap has been reported in efforts to gauge the U.S. public’s response to the war, which has been largely favorable. Not only are many women in favor of the war, women are participating in the war. Such is the impact of the numbers of women serving in the Persian Gulf that military leaders, the media, and others have learned to say “our men and women in the Gulf.” In some U.S. cities so many men and women are gone that special counseling groups have been set up for children who have both parents in the war.
Does all this mean that the conflict in Iraq is women’s war too? Look at some of the reasons given for the U.S. attack on Iraq. Over the last several months we have heard about the “rape” of Kuwait. We have heard that Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to get away with that. Countries are quite often called “the motherland” and “she.” It seems that in the international arena, as in the personal one, a woman needs a man to protect her from the aggression of other men. President Bush and political analysts have unabashedly used the language of masculine posturing in trying to justify this war, speaking of drawing a line in the sand and facing up to the bully.
Further clues to the gender of war are present in the rhetoric of the media, of political analysts, and of military men. Sex and aggression are linked or parallel in this language: “Send us in to kick some or send us home to get some,” read a sign outside a U.S. airfield in Saudi Arabia before the war, fondly cited in Newsweek to show the “gung-ho” attitude of “fighter jocks.”
A televised documentary about weapons systems contained a segment on an exhibition of military equipment. While men in uniforms walked through the display area carrying shopping bags full of brochures, one hopeful defense contractor demonstrated his missile aiming system. The cross-hairs panned across displayed weapons, tables, signs, and several men to zero in on an unsuspecting woman seated across the room. Bang, bang–tracers appeared in the sights indicating a direct hit. It looked a lot like the film clips from Iraq of two missiles going right in the door of a building.
Combat vehicles are characterized as objectified females: “The A-10 [war plane] is like an ugly girl at an all-boys school: she’s not much to look at but everyone likes to have her around” (Lt. Col. Bill Pitts, cited in Newsweek).
Aggression, strength, and masculinity are linked and viewed as positive; shameful weakness is associated with the feminine: “Despots have always looked at democracies as pampered, effeminate societies. Saddam is a masculine warrior and [the United States] is a feeble, effeminate society” (Johns Hopkins international studies professor Fouad Ajami, describing Saddam Hussein’s point of view, cited in the Washington Post).
Sexual objectification of women is viewed as rewarding entertainment for male warriors: Newsweek reported that a (female) striptease show may be part of entertainment for U.S. troops provided on special entertainment ships chartered by the military. In Doonesbury, Gary Trudeau portrayed the answer to the troops’ frustrations as a picture of a partially undressed woman with a gun between her legs.
Women are participating in the war. women are protesting the war, and women support the war. Some women, like one whose son is in the marines, feel no choice but to support the war effort because of personal ties to men who are fighting: “It’s what my kid chose to do. My kid is backing [Bush], and I’m backing my kid,” Barbara Lyons told Newsweek. Despite these varied positions, I think women cannot afford to forget that war is a product and expression of male domination, and that the most basic form of this worldview is the sexist oppression of women. War is still very much a male thing.
[In this issue you will find responses to the 1991 Gulf War by collective members and friends and a commentary entitled “Three Guineas Revisited,” as well as a letter replying to NOW’s statement on the Middle East. February 1991]
Let them eat text: The real politics of postmodernism
off our backs, August/September 1999, V.29; N.8 p. 7, Word Count: 2852
After doing some reading in postmodern theoretical texts, several things about the theory suddenly struck me as incongruous. I have been trying to see not just what postmodern theorists say about their theory, but more importantly, how postmodern theory functions in the world–what are the effects of adopting postmodern thinking and theorizing. What became clear to me after some reading was that the overarching effect of postmodernism is to silence thinking and speaking, both personally and politically. I am aware that this is a rather outrageous statement given the attention postmodern theory pays to privileging the voices of marginalized people, to giving voice to those previously unheard, and to investigating the silences embedded in the dominant discourse (to sling a little postmodern verbiage myself). However, in a deep reading of how postmodern theory functions, I find that these claims are little more than lip service. The important thing to see is not what postmodernism says it does, but how it actually functions.
One of the things that has made me especially curious about postmodernism has been my experience working with interns, for the most part, undergraduate college students, at off our backs. Often, as may well be imagined, in the midst of getting a mailing out, shipping out back issues, or some other tedious office chore, I tend to get involved in discussions of feminism with interns. More frequently than I wish, after offering my perspective on a particular event or theory, interns will reply to me, “You can’t say that.” My usual reply is, “I just did.” I don’t mean to be flip in my response, but I am trying to communicate that you can in fact state your opinion without self-censorship or an overexaggerated reluctance to say something that others disagree with. You can in fact state things clearly and concretely, however controversial. Others can disagree, but you do, after all, get to say things
One intern, assigned to cover an anti-choice event, became confused about how “You can’t say that anti-choicers are wrong–they have a viewpoint too. You really can’t say any viewpoint is wrong.” She actually became confused about her stand on abortion after hearing the fervent beliefs of anti-choicers. Not that she was convinced by the merits of their arguments–that would have been at least an honest mistake. It was her inability to hold any argument as being more valid than another, so that as long as there are competing positions on any topic, she seemed unable to take a stand on it. This, as I see it, is the cumulative effect of postmodern academic teachings on students of women’s studies these days. They are rendered unable to take even the most obvious of stands with any conviction.
The advent of postmodernism as the prevailing academic theory is of great significance, not only within academia but for feminist as well as progressive social movements. There are several problems with postmodernism, the first of which has to do with the way it has coopted some of the key insights of radical feminism, but stripped them of their political impact.
Radical feminism, diluted
One of the core insights of postmodernism is that everything is socially constructed–gender, race, class, personal attributes, etc. Postmodernists take great pains to elaborate on every nuance of every social system that has been constructed. There is great emphasis on constructions arising from particular places in the social order–a white rich American man will ascribe to a worldview that confirms and legitimizes his position. This is nothing new–radical feminists had this insight years ago–social systems profoundly shape and determine people’s lives in ways that don’t seem readily apparent–even intimate and personal aspects of people’s lives such as gender roles, sexuality, even their sense of self.
What is really interesting is the way postmodernists theorists write as though this is big news. Radical feminists have been saying this for years. And in a classic patriarchal reverse (a la Mary Daly), postmodernists accuse radical feminists of being essentialists, that is, believing that gender and other qualities are biological. That is precisely the opposite of what radical feminists have been saying all along–that since gender is so thoroughly socially constructed, it can be constructed differently, more equitably. Where radical feminists do part ways with postmodernists is their understanding of just what a difficult project this is to undertake. And the radical feminist view that this has not yet happened nor could it happen so facilely is why they are accused by postmodernists of being essentialist–because although it does not arise from biological differences, there is now a significant difference in the ways women and men are raised and socialized, hence there is currently a great difference in some ways. I think of postmodernists as a brand of “you’ve-come-a-long-way-baby” feminists–blithely in denial about just how deeply patriarchal conditioning runs and patriarchal institutions are entrenched.
Subverting the subordinate paradigm
In addition to the cooptation and subsequent dismissal of radical feminism, another even more insidious way postmodernism subverts the subordinate paradigm is the way some of the key insights, while claiming to allow more voices to speak, actually silence all voices, causing proponents of postmodernism to be muzzled and muddied in their speech and writing.
Postmodernism: the master’s tools
The hallmarks of postmodernist thinking are tools and methods that serve to reinforce the way things are now. Even while espousing radical politics, the cause of marginalized people, working against all oppressions, the tools of postmodernist thinking foil the project from the start. Some of the primary tools that have the effect of silencing speech are as follows:
Writing style–Although the obtuse writing style is an easy mark for criticism, it must be emphasized again that even highly educated people struggle with its nuances and meanings. As I have struggled to make it through the painfully dense and clumsy prose that is characteristic of postmodernist writers, I have discovered that the thinking underneath the layers of prose absolutely does not merit such convoluted presentation–the ideas are no more complex or complicated than ideas in progressive, marxist, feminist or other theories. This writing style is more than inconvenient and cumbersome–it has an effect.. As Katja Mikhailovich writes in Radically Speaking (see review in this issue) “My first response, and the response of many women I have talked with since, was to doubt my own intellect and ability to make meanings of these texts.” The effect (presumably unintended but effective nevertheless) is to create self-doubt in the intellectual abilities of the reader and to discourage students from theorizing about their own experiences and lives thereby making the connections necessary for radical consciousness and activism. The ability to create theory is relegated to those in authority–professors and their ilk. Even thoughtful and analytical students come to see theory making as excessively complex and out of their reach.
Another conspicuous feature of postmodern writing style is an abiding hesitancy and reluctance to say anything definitive. Witness the reflexive self-doubting parentheses and unanswered questions posed for effect. Also there is much “calling into question,” “moving toward a theory of…” and “calling for a discourse on…” in the place of definitive statements. Statements are frequently qualified out of existence. New words are made up almost daily (the old ones I presume are too precise in their meaning) which add mystique and uncertainty about what is really meant. Finally the advent of the irritating, unnecessary, and inappropriate “s” on the end of every other word rounds out the obfuscation (added even to nouns which are already plural)–“knowledges,” “discourses,” or “positionalities.”
It is ironic that with this prolific onslaught of postmodern verbiage and theory, hardly anything is in fact said. Sheila Jeffreys points out in Radically Speaking that “…in post-modernist feminist writing there is much agonising on how hard it is to speak or write.” The net effect of all this is to silence and muzzle speech and to inhibit taking a strong clear passionate stand on anything.
Denunciation of the meta-narrative–For the uninitiated, a “meta-narrative” is an explanatory statement–one that attempts to explain something as a generalizable concept rather than simply describe a specific individual situation without any generalizations. So according to postmodernists, any time someone uses the dreaded “meta-narrative,” they may be suppressing and silencing other voices. If you are willing to say something definitive, someone somewhere is bound to disagree. If you are saying something with which no one disagrees or no one feels is wrong, you are probably not challenging the status quo (or anything for that matter). It is a grave mistake, however, to conclude that you must self censor because, by speaking, you silence others’ speech.
The other feature of the denunciation of the “meta-narrative” is that it effectively subverts the meaning of the personal is the political. In postmodernism, the personal, rather than being the political, becomes only and exclusively the personal–any attempt to create bonds between oppressed individuals or to raise consciousness about how individual experiences are really reflective of larger social forces is reinterpreted as silencing other voices. Any attempt to make generalizations is seen as silencing and rendering invisible those people for whom the generalization does not apply. This defies a basic understanding of the concept of a generalization–of course it is not true for every single person in the group–it is, after all, a generalization. Exceptions alone do not, however, disprove the validity of generalizations. If I make a generalization that people stop at red lights while driving, certainly it is true that occasionally, some people do not; however it is an accurate and useful statement that people stop at red lights. It describes, with reasonable accuracy, a social phenomenon. To say that the generalization is not true simply because a few people do not fit it, is ludicrous and leaves us unable to describe or name even the most obvious social norms.
The overall effect of this turn away from “meta-narratives” is to stop people from being able to describe their social conditions, from being able to generalize about personal experiences in their lives, from being able to see the commonalities of experience that can mobilize them to see problems as political rather than personal. The net effect is a lot of women’s studies students saying, “You can’t really say that,” about even the most basic truths.
Denunciation of binarisms–Binary thinking involves thinking in dualistic mutually exclusive categories such as good or bad, gay or straight, woman or man, etc. In postmodern thinking, binarisms are bad (that in itself is an unavoidable binarism). Some theorists say that binarisms are the root of all oppression–that without them we could not oppress others. Unfortunately, without binarisms, we also cannot make a definitive statement. Making a statement, especially a political one, requires that we say one thing is better than (or worse than) in some way than another thing. If we avoid binarisms (a feat which some postmodernist writers do manage to approach in their flailingly uncertain prose), we cannot say, for example, liberation is better than oppression, being fed is better than starving, being healthy is better than being sick.
By demonizing binarisms, the effect is to stifle clear articulate speech. People become so mired in trying to avoid choosing one thing over another that they are rendered incapable of sustaining a passionate conviction on any topic.
Taking the social out of social constructionism–What is perhaps most fascinating about postmodern theory is that for all the talk of how things are socially constructed, they forgot the implications of “social” in social construction. After their supposedly new insight that nearly everything is socially constructed, they do not advocate much for transformation at the social level, ie. for changes in institutions, social norms, social structures such as the family, etc. Instead there is much attention to individual acts of transgression of conventional social norms as a way of highlighting that social norms are constructed and not natural or inevitable. This kind of rebellion in postmodernism is a very isolated activity–it consists of individuals taking it upon themselves to fight battles all alone. There is not an emphasis among postmodern theorists for building a critical mass of people united in a social movement which could begin to effect changes at the social level. There is instead a very superficial understanding of the how social forces work–a naive and libertarian emphasis on individual actions and choices as though the cumulative effect of each isolated individual choice or action will effect largescale social transformation. The net effect of such an atomization of individual activities serves to prevent rather than foster social change.
The curious timing of postmodernism
What I find most interesting about postmodernism is not what postmodernists say about it, but how it functions in the real world (and I’m assuming there is one) in terms of social change. The effects of the intimidating and obfuscating writing style, of inhibiting generalizations and so the formation of commonalities between people, of ruling out binary thinking and so eviscerating impassioned convictions, and of overemphasizing individual rather than collective action is to create a multilayered system of disconnection, silencing, and disempowerment.
What is also interesting is the timing of the advent of postmodernist theory. As Somer Brodribb and Barbara Christian point out in Radically Speaking, postmodernism came into vogue in academia just when the voices of women and people of color began to assert a significant presence there. It seems that when groups other than those in power attempt to say things, suddenly truth dissolves into meaninglessness. This is a little too coincidental for my taste.
The coincidence becomes even more striking when it becomes apparent that this is not the first time this has happened. Right after the first wave of feminism, in the 1920s, when women had made some advances, had gotten the vote, and began to gain some access to academia, another nihilistic kind of theorizing became the rage in academia–relativism and existentialism. Again, just when women were trying to gain access, and to articulate our points of view, suddenly nothing was meaningful anymore, everything was relative, and meaninglessness was lauded as high theory.
I suggest that postmodernism is nothing more than the new relativism and that relativistic theories emerge as a new line of defense when power structures are becoming threatened. It is a very insidious and crafty defense because it mouths the words of liberation while simultaneously transforming them into meaninglessness. The real agenda is masked in clever obfuscation–to preserve the status quo by rendering dissent meaningless and ineffective, unable to gather any social or political power. Notwithstanding postmodernism’s purported intention to deconstruct social norms and by so doing, make way for changes, its actual effect is to atomize peoples’ experiences, obliterate the potential for solidarity, silence articulate and forthright speech, and render passionate convictions meaningless. It leaves us unable to condemn anything as wrong or oppressive with clarity, certainty, or conviction. Furthermore, nearly all of the so-called insights of postmodernism are simply rehashed and depoliticized versions of radical feminist ideas. Postmodernism is a theory which denounces the act of theorizing, it is speech that silences voices, it is writing that stultifies and obscures, it is a position which advocates no position at all, it is a politics which refuses to take a stand on anything. And we must see the politics of that–it is a viper that women’s studies and English departments have nursed to their collective bosoms. It is a theory, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is a stealth theory that contains a virus which, once incorporated, explodes all possibility of impassioned righteous collective action for changing the conditions of our lives.
Bad Writing or Bad Politics? Feminist and Postmodern Relations
off our backs, August/September 1999 V.29; No.8 p. 10, Word Count: 1232
Judith Butler, the poster professor for postmodernism, was thrust into the center of the debate over academic writing when she was awarded a prize in an annual Bad Writing Contest. The prizes are awarded by the Journal of Philosophy and Literature, a journal notorious for promoting the work of culturally conservative scholars. The majority of those singled out for bad writing were critical theorists focusing on feminist theory, queer theory, and post-colonial studies. But just when it looked like a simple case of bullying by the academic right, the matter became more prominent when Edward Said, president of the respected Modern Language Association took up the issue of bad writing in the MLA newsletter. Then Martha Nussbaum, prominent feminist legal scholar, wrote about Judith Butler’s work in the New Republic, stating “Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women, are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it.”
So what is the issue here? Some of my feminist friends feel progressive women in the academic system have no choice put to play the bad writing game–to produce dense difficult theses in order to get jobs and hopefully tenure. Despite backlash from right-wing and traditional scholars, every self-respecting arts faculty must have at least one scholar who can articulate the postmodern perspective. Essentialist and science-based perspectives have taken a back seat as postmodernism has revealed the importance of context in creating our “reality.” Therefore, it seems a necessity that women’s studies students adopt a postmodern discourse to made headway in the extremely competitive realm of academia.
Judith Butler does not see herself as merely “playing the academic game,” which is hardly surprising considering she was one of the originators of the postmodern discourse in queer and gender studies. In Butler’s relatively easy-to-understand response in the New York Times (3/20/99) to an earlier article on her bad writing award, she claimed that the traditional language of academia cannot truly subvert the existing power structures that have invisibilized those without power. New language, Butler says, can “play an important role in shaping and altering our common or “natural” understanding of social and political realities.” And then Butler goes on to show that a discussion about the validity of using the word hegemony, will quickly lead to an actual discussion about whether hegemony really exists and to what extent it is hidden by the normalcy of everyday power relations. Butler argued that language creates our understanding of society and if we want to change society we better change our language.
A postmodern approach clearly has an application for feminism in its deconstruction of power relations based on gender and the role of class, race, gender, sexual preference, and much more in formulating our complicated identities. But then postmodernism has gone on to undermine some of the essentialist and concrete assumptions associated with feminist theory, especially radical feminist theory. Feminism is not just a perspective, a methodology–it has a prescriptive purpose which is to bring about social change to make women’s lives better. Radical feminist analyses has often appeared to rest on essentialist notions of women’s greater abilities to create a nurturing, caring, and superior society. The postmodern perspective, which pushes the notions of gender and sexuality often to the point of meaninglessness, is no building block to a society more based in feminine values. How do we make sense of being a woman or being a lesbian when these categories are steeped in the defining power of our oppressors? In very simple terms, where is feminism left if we deconstruct the notion of being a woman leaving only biological differences? The struggle over whether to name academic programs “Gender Studies” or “Women’s Studies” reflects this tension. The postmodern feminist scholars are now coexisting uneasily with the more traditional women’s studies scholars, such as Nussbaum, who try to ground their work in concrete concepts that generate implementable strategies to improve the lives of women.
The accessability of academia and the connection between theory and practice has tortured feminist theories for years. With the development of the postmodern perspective and the rise of other critical theories such as queer theory, the divides in the feminist community seem to have got more pronounced. I guess none of us would argue that if the difficult-to-read theory does not inform the practice then it is not a political tool, not an instrument of social change and therefore, not feminist. I think we can view the Journal of Philosophy of Language judgments with suitable skepticism. There is no doubt a lot of complaining about bad writing comes from white men who resent the rise of critical theory and queers, women and people of color having a say in the academic canon.
However, the disagreement among feminists is really over whether the writings of Judith Butler and others do or do not have a real world connection. Comprehensibility by a large and not just academic audience, Nussbaum appears to be saying, is vital for ideas to make women’s lives better. But does women’s oppression have to be expressed in only simple language — is there room for different ways to express and explore it? Life generally is very complicated and the distribution of power according to gender and sexuality is part of this complexity. We don’t expect to understand books on nuclear physics without training so why do people expect to instantly understand a feminist theory book? It is usually highly irritating for women’s studies students when men feel free to challenge the tenets of feminism when they had never even read an article on feminist theory. And what of Butler’s point that everyday language is inherently linked to oppressive concepts? But there clearly is an academic game that requires we act and write a certain way and because of that there is an enormous amount of pointless academic inquiry. But other sectors such as direct service provision and public policy work for women have their own games, and the same degree of politics and the same degree of pointlessness.
It is probably fair to demand of any academic who sees herself as an instrument of social change that she constantly question the motives of her studies, i.e., to get the grant and the salary or to improve women’s lives. But for feminists to question the ground-changing work of a scholar who has radically rethought ways of thinking of gender–in a world where masculinity is an enormously destructive but hidden force–seems unfair and short-sighted. It also seems an unusual burden for Butler to carry the complete responsibility for making the real world connections in her work. Clearly discussions about the construction of gender and sexuality have to be central to feminist theory. Rather than dismissing some of the more thorny issues related to deconstuction as arcane, women studies’ scholars should address them and their real world implications for feminist practice.
Identity = Politics: A Personal Story
off our backs, April 2000, V.30; N.4 p. 9, Word Count: 827
I grew up a tom-boy, loving softball, pocketknives, and tree-climbing and hating frilly dresses and dolls. In college I fell in love with a woman and by my early 20s I had two love relationships with women.
When I came out as a lesbian and discovered lesbian community in the mid 1980s, I discovered feminism at the same time. My first contacts with the lesbian community were through the Washington Area Women’s Center, which at that time ran the Lesbian Resource Center. I went to coming-out discussions sponsored by the women’s center, and I discovered feminism right along with lesbianism.
The coming out process was for me a process of adopting an identity. It was a process of discovering various role models for various ways of being and deciding which ones fit. The women I met through the women’s center had a feminist point of view, therefore we had a critique of butch-femme role-playing. It was not cool to be butch or femme. We were androgynous.
I made daily choices in matters large and small that expressed an androgynous persona. From clothing to tone of voice to types of purchases to ways of acting, these choices were political. I was rebelling against femininity because of its association with oppression and staying away from being too much like a man because I was a feminist. I decided on an identity, hammering out in long, late-night discussions with other feminists whether I was a radical lesbian feminist, or a radical feminist who was also a lesbian, or a lesbian with feminist politics. It was very clear that “identity” was also politics. I finally settled on calling myself a lesbian radical feminist. Clearly the politics and community of the time largely formed my “identity.”
Along the way I confronted the fact that internalized misogyny had made me reject qualities or behaviors associated with femininity that could have improved my life. Thus, for example, my home was not a comfortable and nurturing space but a frat-boy-like crash pad where if a person came to visit there were no clean towels, we ran out of toilet paper, and we ordered out for pizza instead of eating home-cooked healthy meals. And I preferred masculine values such as toughness, individualism, and not being dependent, so that, for example, when my truck got stuck in the snow, I could not ask for help but had to try to brave it out, shoveling by myself in the freezing snow.
If I were coming out in my early 20s today, I would find that the organization formerly known as the Lesbian Resource Center at the Washington Area Women’s Center and run by feminists is now part of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, an organization originally formed by and for gay men to deal with the AIDS crisis. The name is about to be changed to avoid the term “lesbian” because women participating in or using its services do not identify as “lesbian.” Lesbian feminism has largely disappeared.
If I were coming out today, I would not find lesbian feminist role models. I would find the politics of gay identity. I would find that the way to understand my rejection of femininity in childhood was to discover that I was transgendered. This would have influenced my choices about what to wear and how to act, and ultimately, would have determined my politics.
I would go to drag-king shows and glory in how masculine I could look or act. I would not confront the internalized misogyny that made me neglect housework, hate children, and avoid making my home warm and comfortable. I could easily come to the conclusion that I was really a man, and simply embrace masculinity whole-heartedly. And instead of having a feminist critique of patriarchy, I would simply be seeking an individual accommodation within it.
But I believe that who I am is a process, not a product. I am a string of decisions and choices made to prefer one thing over another, to spend more time on some things and less time on others. I am part consciousness, part feelings, part intellect, part practice. Oh, yeah, and part biology.
Choosing to see myself as a lesbian radical feminist instead of transgendered means I have a political commitment to critique patriarchy and society, instead of making accommodations to society by altering my identity or my body.
It is part of the human repertoire to be tough, nurturing, independent, loving, vulnerable, individualistic, controlling, dependent. We need to evaluate the values that underlie all of these human traits and behaviors and decide which ones we want to emphasize in ourselves–not whether we are masculine or feminine. We need to choose whether we want to adopt competition or cooperation, aggression or nurturance, individualism or communitarianism as we seek to create a better world for all humanity.
Ultimately, we choose our values and they become our identity.
Biology, my ass
The religious right’s recent media blitz about how gay people can change comes as no surprise to me. Partly that’s because I have a long commute and so listen to a religious right radio station to keep abreast of their thinking. And partly it’s because I have long thought the strategy used by the gay rights movement of saying that it’s biological is incredibly lame. In a strange way I agree with the religious right. Of course it’s a choice–how could it not be? We make decisions (constrained choices, but choices nevertheless) about everything else in our lives–where we want to live, what we like to eat, how to dress. So we cannot make a decision about who we are lovers with? Of course we do.
If that’s what it takes to be a lesbian, then all women are lesbians
When I was coming out I went briefly to a support group for women coming out of marriage. At one point I asked, “How do you know you’re a lesbian?” One woman answered that she had never felt emotionally close to men and that she always could talk better with women. Another chimed in, saying she too had felt that way, that she could only be emotionally open with women. The rest nodded in agreement.
What’s wrong with this picture? Practically all women feel that way. Every straight woman I have ever known has felt more comfortable confiding in her girlfriends, felt closer to them, felt more understood by and able to open up to women. If that’s what it takes to be a lesbian, then all women are lesbians. The age-old complaint of straight women is that their men don’t talk to them, don’t understand their feelings, and don’t seem interested in what they are saying. One of the most common article topics in magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Woman’s Day, is how to get your husband to open up and talk to you.
Clearly, if the reason these women felt they were lesbians was because they felt emotionally closer to women, then being a lesbian cannot be biological. First of all, since most women feel that way, we would have to say that most women are born lesbians and that can’t be true (except perhaps on a theoretical level). Secondly, whether you feel emotionally close to someone does not seem likely to be biological: it seems much more plausible that it has something to do with the emotional and psychological characteristics of the person.
…that it was biological, appealed to them because it absolved them of guilt…
When I replied to the group, “But all women feel closer to women,” the conversation slammed to a halt. They were not going there. Instead, the line was, “my husband is a great guy, really he is, it’s just that I’m a lesbian–that’s why I have to leave him.” Over time, it became clear to me that these women experienced tremendous guilt over leaving their husbands at a time when divorce is billed as the cause of all social ills. So the idea that they couldn’t help being a lesbian, that it was biological, appealed to them because it absolved them of guilt, and of responsibility for their actions. When I tried to suggest that they were dissatisfied with the current state of relations between women and men, their husbands in particular, they could not think about it because that took away their special dispensation to feel less guilty about leaving their husbands–the dogma was they had to since they were lesbians. (Even conservative radio talk show “psychologist” Dr. Laura approves of gay people getting a divorce while allowing no other legitimate reason for divorce except extreme circumstances like battering or alcoholism.)
Biology as an explanation
Biology is evoked all the time to explain or justify human choices and social patterns. There is a long history of using biology to justify inequality as inevitable due to the genetic characteristics of women or people of color. In general, biological explanations serve to delude people into believing that they can’t help their choices; that it can be no other way; that their actions are not borne out of human volition or choice but rather inborn inescapable drives. But while the idea that if gays can’t help it because they are born that way seemingly might arrive at our acceptance into society, it also diminishes us as thinking purposeful beings.
Hunger may be biological, but eating M&Ms is a choice
Clearly, there is some biological element to sexuality, but it is limited to the generic desire for sex, in the same manner that hunger is biological which leads us to want to ingest food. But what we end up eating is as varied as human cultures are; what we are convinced is nourishing varies as well. And our gastronomical proclivities change over time too. In the United States, during the first part of the twentieth century, a healthy and nourishing diet was considered to be one which included plenty of meat and potatoes; only the poor ate beans and rice and greens. It has now flip-flopped almost completely, and the tony restaurants will serve rice and beans long before they will serve meat and potatoes (admittedly some obscure variety of bean and specially flavored rice) So while hunger itself, in its most basic state is biological, the means with which humans have acquired to sate it vary to a large extent.
Bagels vs. cow’s blood
Yet, when we crave some food, we feel it is biological. It seems that our body cries out for bagels, perhaps. But if we were Maori tribespeople, our stomach would surely cry out not for bagels, but cow’s blood.
In a like manner with sexuality. I know someone who believes he was born to have a sexual penchant for wearing lacy silky women’s underwear. But, come on, how could that be biological? Would some random Maori have a sexual fetish for underwear from Victoria’s Secret any more than he might have a hankering for a bagel with cream cheese and lox? Clearly, however early in youth this man perceived his sexual proclivity beginning, there is no gene that codes for Victoria’s Secret.
But how can people’s experience be denied? If a gay man says that he was born that way, how can I deny his experience? First, no one can deny someone’s experience, but people’s interpretation of their experience is what is truly in debate. And I think people’s interpretations, even about their own experience, can be and have been wrong. I had one friend who was born in Nicaragua and was a very committed catholic. He told me that the reason he was so committed to catholicism was that he could tell that it was the true faith. I asked him if he didn’t think perhaps growing up in a country where 95% of the population was catholic might have influenced his beliefs. Absolutely not, was his answer. I then asked him if he had been born and raised in Saudia Arabia, whether he would still see the truth of catholicism, and he was positively certain that, having been raised muslim, he would still have seen the truth of the catholic religion and changed his faith.
I think he is wrong about his interpretation both about his religion (catholicism is not the one true religion) and his experience (of course he was influenced by his culture whether he was aware of it or not). People can and frequently do underestimate the influence of their culture on their own beliefs and tastes. So just because people think they were born a certain way, that is they were that way ever since they can remember, this does not mean it is true. And I also do not agree with the increasingly popular compromise position that maybe for some people it’s biological and for others it’s not. I see no convincing evidence or plausible explanations that it is biological for anyone, I only see that some people feel they know what its etiology is.
Finally, why do we think that individual people have more insight into their own genetic make-up than science has? Just because something feels fundamental to a person, does that make her an authority on her genetic structure, able to authoritatively interpret her feelings as having biological roots? I think not.
In a strange way, the christian fundamentalists have this right–they believe homosexuality is a choice people make and that people can choose another way to live. I cannot conceive of rationally arguing otherwise. Of course any homosexual could choose tomorrow to reject homosexuality and attempt to find a partner of the opposite sex. But they don’t want to, it would not feel right, they would be unhappy (why they think fundamentalists would care about the little detail of personal unhappiness only reflects their thorough misunderstanding of the fundamentalist project).
But this is the point. Homosexuals choose to be homosexuals because something about homosexuality appeals to them, they like it, they prefer it to heterosexuality. When this is attributed to biology, any further examination must stop there. Why do some people prefer same sex partnerships over opposite sex partnerships? What seems preferable about it to them? What don’t they like about heterosexual relations? That is the rub right there. What if there are reasons that people reject heterosexuality and embrace same sex relations? What reasons would people have to prefer same sex relations over heterosexuality? Calling it biology does not allow us to even ask the questions.
The truth is, a lot of heterosexuals don’t like heterosexual relations either. When Ellen came out on the Oprah Winfrey show, she said that she tried having sex with men, but something was missing, she just didn’t feel something she hoped to feel. What was overlooked in the hubbub was Oprah’s response: she responded, “A lot of heterosexual women feel the same way [about sex with men],” kind of under her breath and meant to be taken only as a funny complaint. But it is true that a lot of heterosexual women are deeply disappointed in heterosexual sex, or to their thinking, with sex. To wit, the great Ann Landers survey in which over 70% of women answered that they would prefer cuddling to “the act,” a survey which was taken to mean that women don’t like sex much. No one thought that it meant that these women don’t like heterosexual sex as it is currently played out in the problematic gender relations between men and women.
They would be special rights for fundamentalists
The reason fundamentalists think homosexuals can change to heterosexuality is that they know people can force themselves to adapt to circumstances which they do not find particularly pleasurable. And so they resent the assertion by homosexuals that they must do what feels right; for fundamentalists, this is giving homosexuals special rights which they themselves do not have–doing what feels good or right for themselves is not something they do, after all. So there are millions of heterosexual women for whom sex does not feel right; they would prefer not to have it and only cuddle, but they do not follow their feelings and abstain from sex–they continue to have sex without liking it much or without getting that “special feeling” that they would like. This explains the romance novels which so many heterosexual housewives indulge themselves in–it is what they are lacking in their own lives. They dream of it, and yet console themselves that it is an impossibility and so settle for their husband.
That might explain lesbians, but what about gay men?
It is my suspicion that similar forces operate for gay men. They don’t like being in heterosexual relationships perhaps because they rebel against the role that straight men must play to a woman counterpart. They find themselves dissatisfied–it seems uncomfortable–certainly too stoic and self-restrained. They prefer being more emotional, more spontaneous, more pleasure-seeking, so they conclude that they are gay, rather than critique the role of men in patriarchy. Of course I do not mean to characterize all gay men as being the same on this count; I only want to suggest one scenario in which preferring men might occur which comes out of problems with the expectations of being a straight male and not out of biology.
Reasons for women to be dissatisfied with heterosexuality
Unfortunately, rather than looking into what parts of sex heterosexual women don’t like and what things they do like (ie., cuddling–does this mean they don’t get enough affection to feel like sex?), many heterosexual women feel that they simply don’t like sex. But what does “sex” mean? It can be can be many different things. Clearly sex between same sex partners is very different from sex between opposite-sex partners, enough so for sizeable segments of the population to exclusively prefer one or the other. Sex can be construed any way we choose–if we like more cuddling, then cuddling could be construed to be an integral part of sex. Sex does not have to be the heterosexually male model of sex–very little foreplay, cuddling, tenderness or caressing, followed by intercourse, followed by little or no talking. It could be entirely different. Sex between women, for example, involves a much longer time span than heterosexual sex, with more communication and expressions of affection.
The discontents of heterosexuality
So we have a situation where sizeable numbers of heterosexuals are dissatisfied either with sex or their heterosexual relationships or both, and yet think that “that’s life,” sex and relationships are just like that. And then we have a group of people who are also dissatisfied with heterosexual relations and think “I’m gay.”
The problem with the biological explanation is it does not allow people to seek to understand what precisely it is about heterosexual relations they did not like, what made them uncomfortable, what was unpleasant. Homosexuals in a way have an edge, because they are willing to have enough imagination to seek something better when they do not like (hetero) sex. But they don’t have enough imagination to see that they are not alone in their dissatisfaction with heterosexual relations.
I think that using the biological explanation is a poor strategy for several reasons. First, it maintains the current social order (the way heterosexuality is socially constructed currently) as stable and only gives individual escape hatches to a small number of people. Calling it biology is a neat way of sidestepping any critique of patriarchy or gender relations by attributing rebellion against the current structure to biology rather than dissatisfaction. Secondly, it does not allow people to think very deeply about why they choose on thing or another and so helps maintain the status quo of heterosexual relations. If people could say, heterosexuality sucks, and that’s why I’m gay, then we could begin to see more clearly that patriarchy sucks, that male-female gender relations suck, that marriage sucks, etc. Third, it inhibits agency among gay people. Rather than being responsible for and proud of our choices, it makes us seem we are helpless pawns reacting to our biology. Fourth, it keeps other who are dissatisfied with patriarchy or gender relations from making the choice to become gay. We ought to recruit–we don’t have much of a movement if we restrict new members only to those “born” to be gay. And finally, it is an exceptionally inadequate defense against the religious rights assertions that we can change. We would do better to say of course we could change if we wanted to, but we don’t want to, because it is better to be gay.
by karla mantilla
Is the Lesbian Future Feminist?
off our backs, October 1996, V.26; N.9 p. 22, Word Count: 1439
At the Lesbian Futures workshop [conducted by Marilyn Frye at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, 1996] we did a brain-storming session to name all the things created by lesbian imagination. Women called out and Marilyn Frye listed on a flip chart: “women’s spaces; women’s bookstores; women’s arts, crafts, music…consciousness raising…the Michigan Women’s Music Festival.” But when someone said butch/femme, Frye hesitated for just a moment before writing it down. Now of course I don’t know what Frye was thinking when she paused, but I know what I instantly thought: one of these things is not like the others. Claiming butch/femme as part of what we were talking about gave me pause. I think that is because what we were really talking about up to that point was feminist imagination rather than lesbian imagination. And butch/femme is more lesbian than feminist in origin.
It’s not that butch, femme, butchy femme, femmy butch, ki-ki and the whole spectrum of gender identities or roles can’t be part of an important feminist critique of gender now, but the creation of these things in the 50s came out of lesbian culture and was not explicitly feminist. All of the other things named were created by women who identified as feminists — lesbian or not — from the late 60s to the present.
There are nonfeminist lesbians. Are their ideas and creations part of what all of us really meant by lesbian imagination? I guess you would have to say so, if you assume what you are talking about is simply lesbians. But there is something wrong with that assumption. In listing lesbian creations we did not, ultimately, list certain controversial things that lesbians do. We did not list lesbian battering, tattooing, piercing, or s&m, for example. OK, maybe these things would not be listed as lesbian creations, because lesbians have taken these things over from the example of mainstream/malestream culture. But then, lesbians didn’t exactly invent the idea of a coffeehouse or of a bookstore either, and we listed those. To me the fact we listed only certain things means we had a value system and/or a specific politics in mind. And it wasn’t lesbianism. It was feminism.
Unless I missed the meeting where we all agreed that lesbian would MEAN feminist, the term lesbian does not automatically carry with it the kind of politics that created the things we were naming. Throughout the workshop I thought all of us were really thinking lesbianfeminism whenever we said the word lesbian. I think it is important to explicitly retain this distinction.
For one thing, the term lesbian has broad use today in the gay rights movement in expressions such as “lesbigay” and Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and “gay, lesbian, and transgendered people.” And the gay rights movement has (for many good, practical reasons) adopted largely an identity politics: we were born this way, we can’t help it, and we should have civil rights just like anyone else. But the born-lesbian/lesbian-as-identity politics of the gay movement erases precisely what is most radically political about being a lesbian: that we are women resisting heterosexist patriarchy and valuing women as human beings — and that other women can choose to do this too.
The term lesbian imagination can be heard to imply that there is such a thing as a lesbian to begin with and that one of their characteristics is that they have strong imaginations. But I think the imagination came first. I don’t think lesbians are born (although people can be born with various gender characteristics and this might influence whether they later become lesbian or gay). I think they are made.
Born lesbian/lesbian-as-identity politics does not explain any reasons we may have chosen to be lesbians. It implies that desire is mysterious or inborn. It starts with the given that some women simply ARE sexually attracted to women, and works from there. But exactly what is political about choosing to be a lesbian is the assertion that it is better to be with women. I’m not saying that “I will express my sexuality any way I want and with any one I want and you will not deny me the right to a job and a home” is not to some degree a political statement. It is a demand for freedom. But it does not carry with it any information about what direction to go to experience a higher quality life, except a general “sex any way I want to do it is good.” It does not imply a whole value system. And what I am after, and what I believe most of us really were after in the workshop, is a value system that will help us live a higher quality life, create better communities to live in, and work toward creating a better world.
Without an explicit value system, how do you know when you get up in the morning whether to go have breakfast or smack yourself in the face with a door? You have to know that nourishment is better than injury. In the same way, how do you know as a lesbian whether what you are experiencing in your love relationships or in your community is nourishing or injuring you? Many of us left or avoided heterosexual relationships because we knew something was bad for us there. Feminism provides an analysis of what was wrong: male dominance, hierarchy, financial and physical coercion, lack of equality, etc. And as a lesbian, feminism continues to help me understand what is better for me and what is worse.
A second reason it is important to retain the word feminism in lesbian feminism is that ultimately, lesbianism per se is an individual solution, whereas feminism is a politics that demands far-reaching social change. Frye has shown, in an essay in her book Willful Virgin, that it is about as difficult for a straight woman to be a radical feminist as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But for lesbians to seem to call lesbianfeminism, or radical feminism, simply lesbian is to seem to close the door to currently heterosexual women completely.
There are heterosexual married women coming out of marriages and coming out as lesbians today. Whereas in the past these women might have discovered radical feminism and chosen to join a movement for deep social change, they now look around and say something like: “All these other heterosexual women seem to be able to tolerate the conditions of male/female gender relations in our society, but I can’t. There must be something wrong with me. I must be a lesbian. I must have been a lesbian all along. It’s not that the condition of women under heterosexist patriarchy is unacceptable for any human being, it’s just that I was a lesbian.” The “problem that has no name” has been renamed “I must have been a lesbian all along.” This way of thinking prevents these women from seeing the connections between themselves and other women. This makes becoming a lesbian an individual solution and divides lesbians from straight women. To create social change in the world outside of lesbian-only spaces, the coalition between lesbian and straight feminists must remain solid. We need to know that any woman can decide to become a lesbian.
In the workshop we named consciousness raising as a creation of lesbian imagination, but consciousness raising was created by heterosexual graduate students and largely adopted by middle class housewives. Once they started becoming conscious of their oppression, working with other women to change it, and newly valuing the women in their lives, that led, for some of them, to imagining themselves lesbians. Lesbians did not invent feminism; it was the other way around, and what was invented was lesbianfeminism.
Finally, I think it is important to see what we discussed at the workshop not as lesbian imagination but as the imagination and creativity of women who are free. To call it lesbian imagination lures us into saying the kinds of things that did get said in this workshop: “Lesbians are better at organizing — can you imagine straight women organizing this festival?” “Lesbians are just smarter,” and “Damn we’re good.” Of course we should feel good about ourselves as lesbians and be proud of our accomplishments. But not as if we were born lesbians and our wisdom and creativity originate in our lesbianism, but because we are women who have imagined ourselves free. We have imagined ourselves out of patriarchy. We have imagined ourselves out of hierarchical relationships. We have imagined ourselves valuing women enough to give our primary energies to them. We are women who have imagined ourselves lesbians.