This is the third part in an eight-part series of articles, The Prudes’ Progress, about non-objectifying, woman-identified sexuality based on ideas of equality and whole-personhood, in the tradition of lesbian feminism. For the first article in the series, which includes a table of contents, please click here. The articles don’t have to be read in order and contain many backwards and forwards links so you can follow them in whatever way is most useful for you, although forward links won’t work until the relevant article is available.
The First Progression: Consciousness Raising
Consciousness-raising is a fancy name for a simple process: women (in this case) coming together to tell each other our experiences and figure out what forms of oppression we experience in common, and how those affect different women in different ways. It’s a way of sketching the shape of patriarchy from the inside out by joining the dots between the places where patriarchy has impacted women’s lives.
Consciousness-raising was a key activity of the early Women’s Liberation Movement, as shown in two articles by Shulamith Firestone “based on group discussions held over the past year ”. I get the impression that formally organised women’s consciousness-raising groups are relatively rare nowadays, but wherever women are gathered together in some consciously political sense – even if only united in a moment, like when catching a woman’s eye after a man does something sexist – there is the opportunity for joining the dots.
In particular, consciousness-raising can give us an opportunity to get at the truth behind our experiences in sexuality. In her talk, Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon, Kathie Sarachild related one woman’s argument for feminist consciousness-raising:
“I think a lot about being attractive,” Ann said. “People don’t find the real self of a woman attractive.” And then she went on to give some examples. And I just sat there listening to her describe all the false ways women have to act: playing [unintelligent], always being agreeable, always being nice, not to mention what we had to do to our bodies, with the clothes and shoes we wore, the diets we had to go through, going blind not wearing glasses, all because men didn’t find our real selves, our human freedom, our basic humanity “attractive.”
And I realized I still could learn a lot about how to understand and describe the particular oppression of women in ways that could reach other women in the way this had just reached me. The whole group was moved as I was, and we decided on the spot that what we needed – in the words Ann used – was to “raise our consciousness some more.”
The picture we draw through consciousness-raising is never complete, in part because no woman experiences all forms of oppression, and what proves to be a near-universal experience for a group composed entirely of white women may be unusual in the experience of Black women, or may take different forms.
And although consciousness-raising can be one of the more inclusive forms of feminist activity, it’s a long way from being universally accessible. Very few women will have access to consciousness-raising groups, and fewer will take up the opportunity. Not every woman will be willing to start her own, and those which are established may appear frightening or inaccessible to women not familiar with consciousness-raising. For some women, consciousness-raising won’t be a personal priority.
So as a movement which emphasises personal experience, feminists must acknowledge multiple ways in which women raise or articulate consciousness, and that it doesn’t just happen in groups organised for that purpose. There are other forms of sisterhood than explicitly feminist sisterhood. For some women the home will be a space where they speak to other women about their experiences; for other women, it may be on the factory floor or in sport or social settings.
Those of us beginning our Progress from within a feminist context – which I imagine will include most of my readers, given that you’re reading a feminist blog! – must remember that we’re not the only women on this Progress. If patriarchy acts on all women, then we have to trust all women to find our own way to that truth and to act upon it. This is also certainly not the only way to re-member what I’m calling feminist desire, and we may meet women who are walking on different paths which still lead in a similar direction.
For example, Patricia Hill Collins notes that for African-Amerian women, the issue might be less about consciousness-raising and more about rearticulating existing knowledge:
By taking the core themes of a Black women’s standpoint and infusing them with new meaning, Black feminist thought can stimulate a new consciousness that utilizes Black women’s everyday, taken-for-granted knowledge. Rather than raising consciousness, Black feminist thought affirms, rearticulates, and provides a vehicle for expressing in public a consciousness that quite often already exists. More important, this rearticulated consciousness aims to empower African-American women and stimulate resistance… The ideas that Black women share with one another on an informal, daily basis about topics such as how to style our hair, characteristics of “good” Black men, strategies for dealing with White folks, and skills of how to “get over” provide the foundations for this taken-for-granted knowledge.
Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, second edition, 2000), p32-34
Whatever path we take, the place we reach is similar: an understanding that something isn’t right, and that it’s not just us. This is the basic point of authentication for the whole Progress, and it’s one I really recommend coming back to throughout. The first circlewise movement on the Progress, then, is to regularly return to other women with our feelings and understandings and to continue to create feminist thought together. Doing this helps to stimulate external action (like this writing) but also is a way of checking in with our Selves. And developing a deep, loving connection with our Selves is the subject of the second Progression.
The Second Progression: Loving Our Selves
Instrumental sexuality hates women and calls it love, but feminist desire is impossible to nurture while hating women, and the first woman most of us learn to hate is our Self.
The capitalised word “Self” is widely used by Mary Daly but needs some definition here, because I don’t want to suggest a simple model of an original, untarnished Self, covered-over by a false, male-defined self. Andrea Dworkin argues against the existence of such an “original self” in Intercourse:
Because a woman’s capacity to feel sexual pleasure is developed within the narrow confines of male sexual dominance, internally there is no separate being – conceived, nurtured somewhere else, under different material circumstances – screaming to get out.
Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse (Arrow Books, 1988), p77
Daly’s use, which I follow, is subtle and is summarised by Krista Ratcliffe in Anglo-American Feminist Challenges to the Rhetorical Traditions as: “an agent who chooses herSelf and defines herSelf in relation to her own experiences, not only in relation to children or men” (p86), a definition Ratcliffe draws from pages 3-4 of Gyn/Ecology (1979). The definition is s(S)elf-referential, which I like, referring to a Self which defines herSelf, as opposed to a self who is externally defined/created, or alternatively to a Self which moves rather than a self which is stationary, a distinction we’ll revisit later in the section on Movement.
An important part of the definition is “not only”. A woman’s experiences with children and men are certainly part of “her own experiences”, as are her experiences with other women. Excluding these would exclude a significant part of what, over our lives, becomes Self, as Patricia Hill Collins writes on Black women’s conceptions of Self:
Given the physical limitations on Black women’s mobility, the conceptualization of self that has been part of Black women’s self-definitions is distinctive. Self is not defined as the increased autonomy gained by separating oneself from others. Instead, self is found in the context of family and community.
Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, second edition, 2000), p113
But historically women have been encouraged to view ourselves as only existing in relation to children or men. When we depart from this in any way, sexist men like to call us narcissistic or lesbian (presumably meant as an insult), because as far as they’re concerned, any amount of Self-love in a woman is excessive and any love for women deviant. These insults are rarely necessary though since women’s relationships to our Selves exist within an effective system of control.
In the State of Domination the dominant points of view are the dominators’ points of view, in other words, those in charge attempt to control what can be understood. For women, these include male points of view; for people of colour they include white points of view. These points of view, among other things, try to control the definition of our value as people. When we come to assign value to ourselves – to decide how much we love ourselves – we may be using definitions of value which don’t belong to us. Even if we believe in other definitions, we’re constantly having to assert ourselves against these dominant points of view:
I don’t love myself. It’s not that I haven’t tried or that I don’t want to, but it’s due to the fact that people don’t love brown trans femmes like me. How can I love myself when the only time I see myself is in tragedy? When trans women of color are being murdered on their way to work, on busy streets, and their own homes how am I supposed to feel safe, let alone loved? How do I follow my passions when I don’t see trans women of color in movies, magazines, books, video games, literature, on television, shirts, billboards, etc?
The more we only value ourselves through the dominators’ eyes, looking at them looking back at us, the more we’ll only love ourselves when they say they love us. But what they’re in love with is an image of us (with our demeaned state), not our Selves (what is fully human in us). By maintaining us in that state they show their hatred of our Selves. So what we are told to call self-love in the State of Domination is our conformance to that image, our distance from our Selves, our “success” in taking in their hatred and making it our own point of view. We can end up valuing ourselves by how well we Self-hate.
Our love or hate of our Selves can emerge in different ways, and how it’s expressed may differ between classes of women. For example, white women sometimes misrepresent Black women as being uniquely Self-loving and sometimes even as less oppressed. But the yardstick by which white women measure the self-esteem of white women isn’t appropriate to measure the self-esteem of Black women, as bell hooks warns in Bone Black:
White girls of all classes are often encouraged to be silent. But to see the opposite in different ethnic groups as a sign of female empowerment is to miss the reality that the cultural codes of that group may dictate a quite different standard by which female self-esteem is measured.
bell hooks, Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood (The Women’s Press, 1997), foreword
In fact, it’s a not-so-innocent “mistake” which white women have a good motive to make, as hooks notes elsewhere:
By projecting onto black women a mythical power and strength, white women both promote a false image of themselves as powerless, passive victims and deflect attention away from their aggressiveness, their power, (however limited in a white supremacist, male-dominated state) their willingness to dominate and control others.
When we participate in consciousness-raising we can start to experience a sense that there are at least two realities, the foreground oppressive reality that women live in and each woman thinks is uniquely hers, and a Background in which, when we compare notes, something in us acknowledges that the foreground isn’t the only possibility. This “double vision” is what Janice Raymond describes in Chapter V of A Passion for Friends as the art of “Two Sights-seeing” (though I disagree with Raymond in that I think we need triple perception: of the apparent consensus un-reality of the world, of the truth we know from our position in the margins, and of the way we act as a source of distorted reality in our positions as dominators within oppressive systems such as, in my case, whiteness). There’s a “you” that’s in the Background perceiving the foreground and deciding that there’s something wrong with it. And that “you” is your Self, and it’s in encountering the desires of our Selves that we receive our first opportunities to practise Self-love.
Take the sentence, “I hate how I look in the mornings”. It’s not much of a step from that to “I hate myself”, but women recite this mantra or ones like it on our own and in groups as a kind of bonding activity. But the bonding that’s being performed is a reinforcement, a sealing together of the useful gap this Self-hate opens up between what “we” are in the mornings, and what the dominators would like us to be (the face we want to see in the mirror, because we want what they want).
Self-love works the other way, it looks knowingly into that gap. The Self-loving woman says, “Well, I hate how I hate how I look in the mornings!” Hate isn’t quite the right word here, because rightly it means a kind of fascinated pushing-away (we’ll look at this more in the sixth Progression, Undoing Fetishes), but at this stage of the Progress it’s important to reach some kind of expression of that sense even if it’s imperfect. Right now what matters is rejecting the foreground of Self-hate and taking a step into Self-love.
This is the first of many times on this Progress when the Progressive step isn’t a clear opposite of the regressive. Because Self-love isn’t saying, “I love how I look in the morning”. Self-love is saying, “This is how I look in the morning”, because basing our kicks on how we look in the morning can reduce us to our bodies. If we can love our appearance in the mirror, that’s fine, there are no problems with that. But Self-love is unconditional. It’s not based on liking what we see.
Unconditional Self-love is much easier to do when other women also show us unconditional love and respect, the subject of the next section.
The Third Progression: Loving Other Women’s Selves
In learning to love your Self you learn to love one woman (you!) and to reject the language of woman-hating. This is a lesson we can learn to extend to other women. Or, it might be that we first find it easier to learn not to hate other women, in which case we can apply that later to our Selves. This is one of the first of many possible circular movements on the Progress, in which moving between multiple Progressions may be more useful than immediately pushing on.
If we use the dominators’ points of view when we look at ourselves, then we also use them when we look at other women. The dominators have separated women into types and given us names, and as we grow to understand our world it’s the dominators’ language which is constantly been used around us in the media, in pornography, in everyday speech. Any woman is not a full human being: she’s a Jezebel, a bitch, a slut, a mother, a mammy, a girl-next-door, a shrew.
Women can’t be friends with other women, we’re told, or women’s friendships are trivial or emotional. We’re certainly never passionate (unless this is for the enjoyment of men) or political. This is what we learn about other women and about connections between women.
But it’s impossible to love other women without in fact loving women. It’s not possible to love one woman while hating all women, in that act slicing her away from women as a class and saying, “she’s different”. If you believe that all the other women are bad, then it’s not because we are bad, it’s because you’re looking at us through patriarchy’s eyes, understanding us in patriarchy’s language and value system. And you can’t turn off that way of seeing for long for just one woman, to love just one.
Sure, perhaps together you can carve a space away from other women where the two of you defy the company and love of women and find identification with malestream society. But that society does not identify with you and will, in the end, throw you under the bus, as a Right Wing Woman always eventually discovers:
… women struggle, in the manner of Sisyphus, to avoid the “something worse” that can and will always happen to them if they transgress the rigid boundaries of appropriate female behavior. Most women cannot afford, either materially or psychologically, to recognize that whatever burnt offerings of obedience they bring to beg protection will not appease the angry little gods around them.
One barrier within this Progression for some women is the Right-Wing Woman’s Bargain (though this bargain isn’t offered to everyone). In order to love other women’s Selves, a woman must surrender (at least in her head) the bargain that says that as long as she identifies and allies herself with men and distances herself from women (including her Self), she’ll be safe.
The bargain takes many forms, from, “I hate women, they’re so frivolous. I think of myself as an honorary guy” (combining hatred of other women with Self-hate, because an “honorary guy” is only a “guy” up until the point where she challenges male authority), to, “Lesbian feminists are evil man-haters, I’m the good kind of feminist”, to right-wing political activity by women such as woman anti-choice activists.
Right-Wing Women was one of the first books I read as a radical feminist. For those who haven’t read it, I’m including three quotes below to further describe the Right-Wing Woman’s Bargain:
Women desperately try to embody a male-defined feminine ideal because survival depends on it. The ideal, by definition, turns a woman into a function, deprives her of any individuality that is self-serving or self-created, not useful to the male in his scheme of things… Attempting to strike a bargain, the woman says: I come to you on your own terms. Her hope is that his murderous attention will focus on a female who conforms less artfully, less willingly. In effect, she ransoms the remains of a life – what is left over after she has renounced wilful individuality – by promising indifference to the fate of other women. (p19)
No one can bear to live a meaningless life. Women fight for meaning just as women fight for survival: by attaching themselves to men and the values honored by men. By committing themselves to male values, women seek to acquire value. By advocating male meaning, women seek to acquire meaning. Subservient to male will, women believe that subservience itself is the meaning of a female life. In this way, women, whatever they suffer, do not suffer the anguish of a conscious recognition that, because they are women, they have been robbed of volition and choice, without which no life can have meaning. (p21)
The tragedy is that women so committed to survival cannot recognize that they are committing suicide. The danger is that s[S]elf-sacrificing women are perfect foot soldiers who obey orders, no matter how criminal those orders are. The hope is that these women, upset by internal conflicts that cannot be stilled by manipulation, challenged by the clarifying drama of public confrontation and dialogue, will be forced to articulate the realities of their own experiences as women subject to the will of men. In doing so, the anger that necessarily arises from a true perception of how they have been debased may move them beyond the fear that transfixes them to a meaningful rebellion against the men who in fact diminish, despise, and terrorize them. This is the common struggle of all women, whatever their male-defined ideological origins; and this struggle alone has the power to transform women who are enemies against one another into allies fighting for individual and collective survival that is not based on self-loathing, fear, and humiliation, but instead on self-determination, dignity, and authentic integrity. (p35)
(All page numbers are from the 1983 edition published by Perigee books.)
We can disagree with these women without hating them as women – Laurie Penny’s defence of antifeminist Louise Mensch when misogynists subjected Mensch to harassment and abuse is an excellent example of criticising a right-wing woman without woman-hating.
On the other hand, multiply marginalised women, for example some transsexual and Black women, may never be offered the Right-Wing Woman’s Bargain in the first place. This doesn’t make us privileged relative to the women who have that bargain available, because enforced marginality is never privilege. It leaves us with one less choice out of a set of shitty choices, and less true choice for women is always worse. Audre Lorde again:
Today, with the defeat of [the Equal Rights Amendment], the tightening economy, and increased conservatism, it is easier once again for white women to believe the dangerous fantasy that if you are good enough, pretty enough, sweet enough, quiet enough, teach the children to behave, hate the right people, and marry the right men, then you will be allowed to co-exist with patriarchy in relative peace, at least until a man needs your job or the neighborhood rapist happens along. And true, unless one lives and loves in the trenches it is difficult to remember that the war against dehumanization is ceaseless.
But Black women and our children know the fabric of our lives is stitched with violence and with hatred, that there is no rest. We do not deal with it only on the picket lines, or in dark midnight alleys, or in the places where we dare to verbalize our resistance. For us, increasingly, violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living – in the supermarket, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who does not serve us.
Some problems we share as women, some we do not.
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, Age, Race, Class and Sex (Quality Paperback Book Club collected edition, 1993), p119
For doubly (or more) marginalised women, one problem may be how privileged classes encourage us to hate each other, to attempt to demonstrate ourselves “exceptional” (and thus for other women in our situation to be mundane and wrong). For example internalised transphobia in trans* communities based on who appears “acceptable” and who remains a “freak” is certainly fuelled by the tiny conceptual space allocated to us by the cisssexual mainstream and by how the actions of any one trans* person are taken to reflect on us all.
Solidarity and separatism get us so far, but I wonder if it’s ever possible to get on well with others when politically cooped up with them against our will. Here the task of loving others branches out into fighting for the right to Self-definition on our own terms, not of the mainstream’s, so that we’re not dancing just to get their crumbs.
This is a task faced by all women living in a world of men (among other dominators) and is the topic of the fourth Progression, which begins with the next part of this series.