Thursday, October 30, 2008

6. The Longest Revolution

This is the sixth post in my "back-to-basics" series about why I became a feminist and why feminism is still needed. I'm not certain if this is the last post, but I believe that I'm going to pause for a while after this one. The earlier posts are:

1. The Right to Go Out
2. Planet of the Guys
3. Our Father Who Art in Heaven
4. The Invisible Women
5. The Female Body As Property

The posts are not in any order of importance. Neither do they aim at being a logical classification of all the issues that matter about the status of women in this world. Indeed, I doubt that I will even end up covering the most common topics of such discussions: sexual violence, sex discrimination at work or at school or religious laws which regulate women's lives in many countries.

All those topics matter, a lot. But if you think about the treatment of women as an onion, the layers we usually talk about are around the outer skin of that onion. I'm trying to drill into the very middle, to talk about the hidden layers, the ones which we truly cannot see. I'm not going to get at all of them and my interpretations are not the only possible ones. Still, I think doing this can be of some benefit, at least as the starting point for a conversation.

Then to the post itself: Remember our earlier discussion about the odd way women are often viewed as a subspecies of homo sapiens while men are viewed as not a separate gender at all? Remember how that makes women both invisible as persons and very visible as specimens of womanhood? Remember that separate box I drew to represent women in the second post?

Mmm. Now I'm going to turn the whole thing upside-down by arguing that despite all that treatment of women as one of the groups of Others, women are also extremely tightly intertwined with every level of every society! They are integrated, scattered evenly all over the place like raisins into a cake batter! Every single one of us has a woman for a mother! By necessity, because we earthlings haven't figured out a way to make babies without women's wombs. This means that the richest people on earth will have women in their families and so will the poorest people on earth, and women themselves are both rich and poor on this planet. Indeed, there are women in all sorts of families, from all races, religions, ethnic and cultural groups!

That women are so integrated on that most primal of levels probably explains why sexism is harder to see than other -isms which oppress people. If women are killed because of their sex it mostly doesn't happen in large public slaughterings but privately, one woman at a time, and in each case we wonder if the cause for the killing might not have been something personal, something unrelated to the gender of the victim. And note that while most racists don't have parents of the race they now hate, all misogynists do. -- It's all too close, too intimate, too hard to see because we lack the necessary distance, the necessary ability to see the possibly oppressed as a separate group.

You may wonder where I'm going with all this, other than pointing out that sexism is hard to see because of the integrated nature of women in the society. I could go many different ways, actually, ranging from a long discussion about why women will never be a clear-cut interest group because of their multiple allegiances to an angry discussion about why a male politician telling us that he loves his mother says nothing about what he thinks about women in general. But instead of that I'm going to pick a topic which my visiting alien found confusing.

It is this one: Suppose that in a few large countries on this planet the population is determined to make one ethnic group extinct, not by killing the adults in that group but by making sure that babies in that ethnic group are not born or by killing the babies which are born. Suppose that the killing consists of feeding the babies dried beans or by letting the umbilical cord become infected, of abandoning the babies at the roadside or of letting the babies starve to death.

What would you think the media coverage of these events elsewhere in the world would consist of? Do you think that it would carefully explain why that particular ethnic group isn't as important as other ethnic groups (so that their annihilation is sorta understandable)? Or do you think that it would worry about the resulting mix of the remaining ethnic groups and how that mix hurts the ethnic groups which were never assaulted in the first place?

That sounds so ridiculous, does it not? But this is exactly how the newspaper stories about the vanishing girls of India and China are often framed. First we get a careful explanation why girls are not wanted (and, yes, I have written like this, too): sons are needed for the hard work at the farm, for the support of the parents in old age and for the religious roles which only men can carry out.

Then we get articles about how bad it is for the society in general and for men in particular not to have access to adult women at the breeding stage. Men need wives! If they don't get them, violence will erupt! Even the term usually employed to reflect the reasons for the wonky sex-ratios in some parts of India and China: "son preference", serves to hide the underlying real problem: Daughters. Not. Wanted. The articles which point that out and suggest policies which might make daughters more wanted are extremely rare. It's as if we all take it for granted that daughters are inferior creatures but, really, women should try to have them as later on they will turn out useful as peace-keepers in the society and as providers of more children. Though for other families, of course, and it will still be true that a mother who gives birth to yet another daughter has failed her family.

These descriptions of the two possible ways to cover the disappearing women of India and China as a news item are caricatures, of course, and a more complicated and deeper treatment is possible. But note the basic reason for the prevalence of the second treatment: It has to do with the way women are integrated into almost all families and how this disguises the resulting consequences for the class "women". Thus, we calmly report that sons are preferred in most cultures of this planet. It's Just The Way Things Are. Now, to act on that preference is bad, because of the "imbalanced" society it creates. But to have the preference is understandable.

I called this post "The Longest Revolution", both after an early second wave feminist book and because feminism indeed always takes a very long time to get anything changed in the society. The snail's pace has a lot to do with the way women are everywhere and nowhere at the same time, with the idea that we all have mothers and many of us have daughters which must mean that women don't suffer from any specific ills in this society and with the way we have "biologized" or "naturalized" anything that ends up treating women poorly. Our cultures themselves take precedence over "women's concerns": If traditional cultural values are misogynistic many argue that those values must nevertheless be respected. Yet many traditional cultural values are also xenophobic, for instance. Should we respect those values, too?

My alien visitor has gone out to buy a t-shirt saying "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like." Now isn't that something? It's useful to point out, once again, that much progress has taken place for women in some places on earth, much.

Yet even here in the U.S. we earthlings discuss the cleavages or butts of female politicians and our media wonders if those female politicians make "us" think of our ex-wives at the divorce court and frets over the immense, unquenchable, rabid ambition of women who dare to run in politics, Hitlery and Caribou Barbie and so on. This, my friends, is the post-feminist world.