Whose day is it today?
We’ve hit on the perfect way of denying women a social and intellectual heritage
“The entire history of women’s struggle,” wrote Adrienne Rich in 1980, “has been muffled in silence over and over… each feminist work has tended to be treated as if it emerged from nowhere; as if each one us had lived, thought and worked without any historical past or contextual present. This is one of the ways in which women’s work and thinking has been made to seem sporadic, errant, orphaned of any tradition of its own.”
It’s 2022, International Women’s Day, the second week of Women’s History Month. I’m reading a second-hand copy of Rich, dead since 2012 and now deemed “problematic” due to her “outdated” views on what a woman was. My own era is feminist in aspiration — we want a heritage of our own! — yet routinely let down by those who inhabited the past. Then again, so was Rich’s. No matter the time or place, you just can’t get the dead women.
Pretending not to know what a woman is has become a mark of sophistication
It’s not that the dead women didn’t do their best, in an era deprived of the wisdom of Judith Butler and Paris Lees. The first International Women’s Day was held in March 1911, following a proposal made by the German theorist and activist Clara Zetkin at the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. The focus was on women’s rights to work, vote, access education and hold public office (“the right to sit on our arses afterwards” was hopefully taken as read).
Over a century later, many of the issues Zetkin highlighted remain unresolved. Today, countless business will declare themselves appalled by the invisible female labour on which their profit margins depend. The theme of IWD 2022 is #BreakTheBias, implying that the problem resides in ongoing misapprehensions about what women are as opposed to the intentional exploitation of half the human race. I can’t help thinking this is all very convenient.
It’s not that anyone wants to load us with the majority of the world’s unpaid work while excluding us from majority of decision-making opportunities. It’s just that no one ever objected before. Apart from all the dead women — and they are, you will recall, problematic, not least because they tended to have a stable concept of what a woman was.
These days pretending not to know what a woman is has become the new mark of moral and intellectual sophistication. Only a pleb would, like Rich, admit it has anything to do with belonging to the female sex class at all.
Without a shared identifier, differences between women are impossible to analyse
Women, tweeted UN Women on IWD 2020, are “limitless, formless”. No longer an adult human female, a woman is anyone who says they are one. How such a definition helps in the construction of a coherent feminist history and politics, is anybody’s guess. To claim there is any one quality which links me to Adrienne Rich and Clara Zetkin and indeed every woman who has ever lived, is to risk being called a biological essentialist, wryly defined by Maureen Freely as “what you are if you assume that there are any attributes common to all women”. Urgh! Who’d want to be that?
We are not meant to identify the threads that bind us across generations, across classes, through time. After millennia of trying, it seems we’ve hit on the perfect way of denying women a social and intellectual heritage, by insisting that any defined connection only serves to exclude others while demeaning us.
Feminism thrives on bonds between women, yet in the name of progress and inclusivity, we are encouraged to feel divided not just from one another, but from our own selves. A feminist politics which does not see female embodied experience as a continuous story, but a series of random services rendered — menstruator, gestator, birther, chestfeeder — robs us of both our personal histories and of the ability to situate them in relation to others.
A refusal to view female oppression in the context of female lifecycles leads us to see both our pasts and our futures as potential sources of shame. Without a shared identifier, differences between women related to race, socio-economic class or geographical location become impossible to analyse. We are all of us cut adrift.
Today, and this month, and for the rest of the year, so many amazing women will do the hard, repetitive work of pushing back against the forces that oppress us. Yet in each conversation I hear, in each book and article I read, I sense the intellectual foundations of feminism being pulled from beneath us.
Talk about violence against women, but don’t name the sex of who perpetrates it. Scream about reproductive injustice, but never use the term “pregnant women”. Tot up the lifetime costs of the gender pay gap, but don’t ever be so crude as to relate this to male bias in our understanding of embodied lifecycles.
Ladies may have a moan, but nothing so grand as a theory of patriarchy
In essence, you are still allowed to complain about what is done to you, as long as you cut all the threads that connect it to all the other things that are done to women because of their sex. You may speak as long as you don’t draw on a shared philosophy, a shared politics, a shared history. You may have a bit of a moan, ladies, but nothing so grand as a theory of patriarchy.
Having a moan is not feminism, though. Chanting slogans, or even copying and pasting them as many times as you can into one tweet, is not consciousness raising. Agreeing to be a formless void, an undefined shifting social construct, a non-man, is a renunciation of politics.
Feminism is generative. It is formed through relationships with other women, including, to quote Andrea Dworkin, “all the women you don’t like, including all the women you don’t want to be around, including all the women who used to be your best friends whom you don’t want anything to do with any more”. It is formed in knowing, as the women at the second International Conference of Working Women did, what all women have in common as well as what keeps us apart.
It is not formed by slashing and burning, constantly revising the narrative, deciding that what is needed is not for women to be liberated from male oppression, but for the concept of “woman” to be liberated from female people.
I am not going to insult my own intelligence, or yours, by explaining what a woman is. You know this already. The decision to make, is whether you consider such people worthy of a vast, inspiring class narrative of their own, or whether you want to dismiss them as wibbly-wobbly discursive entities to be defined and redefined at any available moment (the modern way of positioning us as Adam’s spare rib or Aristotle’s “misbegotten male”).
So, do we get more than a day? Do we get a history, a story of our bodies, our thought, our commonalities, our differences? One experience women share, wrote Dale Spender, is that of “becoming a member of society in which women have no visible past, no heritage; our experience of existing in a void”. Or now, being told we are a void.
The women who went before us, whom we’re so busy forgetting, deserve better than that. Fellow women, we do, too.
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