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Monday, February 28, 2011

my feminist awakening

by Kaleigh

I suppose that I stumbled into feminism somewhat by accident. I was a teenager, attending community college, and was disinterested in my studies, for the most part. The only time I felt enlivened in the classroom was if I had a teacher who was particularly riveting, and these teachers tended to be the ones that took an interest in me and my future as a student. One of such teachers happened to be a professor of Women's Studies. Quite honestly, I had no idea what the class would be like when I enrolled in it. I had heard that it was an interesting course, so I signed up. I always knew that I cared fiercely about people and justice, but I was never able to formalize this passion into thoughts and ideas about action. The class was fairly academically rigorous, heavily weighted in theory and historical constructs, and I found myself truly caring. I was being challenged to think in a new way, to see the world with new vision. I remember that I composed a song for a part of my final project, and I performed it in class. Looking back on it now, I think the lyrics were pretty generic and lacked depth; but at the time, I truly meant what I sang. I remember explaining the song and the writing process after I performed it, and I said, "I just want to make a difference." I will never forget the look on my teacher's face, her smile and her eyes as she simply said, "You will." I am someone who has tremendous issues with confidence and self worth (as many under patriarchy do), and those two words have stuck with me and have empowered me to this very day.

I departed from feminist thought for a year and half after completing that course. I didn't come back to it until I was nineteen and moved to California. I didn't know anyone and was completely alone. I started at a University, and visited the school's women's center during my first week. I talked with the person at the front desk about the center, looked around, and noticed that they were looking for interns, so I applied and got the position. I am so grateful for this because that was the darkest time in my life, and if I didn't have that internship, I'm not sure if I would have come out of it.

Two weeks after I moved to California, I met some people at a school festival and was invited to a party the next night. I didn't have any friends, so I went alone. I remember having about a half of a screwdriver, and that's it. After that, it was a complete haze. I never felt so uncontrollably shit-faced in my entire life, and it definitely wasn't my first time drinking. I remember not having control over my body, not being able to move, being catatonic on the floor of these strangers' apartment as I vomited all over myself. And I remember the group of men hovering around me, their voices hissing remarks about my body, their hands touching places that I reserved only for loving caresses. I wasn't alive enough to even be scared.

Then, I remember her. But not her, completely. I wasn't coherent enough to register sight, but for whatever reason, I could hear what was going on around me. On some level, I know exactly what happened and the things that were being said, but my body felt literally paralyzed. I remember her voice clearly. She stayed by me. I remember the tremor and panic and urgency in her words. I guess she found my phone, because the woman from whom I was renting a room came to pick me up. I still don't know who the girl is, what her face looks like. All I know is that I will be forever grateful to her, because she saved me that night. I don't know if I believe in guardian angels, but for whatever reason, there was someone or something that night that wanted me to make it.

Somehow, with the girl's help, I made it to the woman's car, and back to my bed. I awoke the next morning, drenched in everything that my body expelled the night before. I have never felt so much shame. I figured out that the girl called my parents' house in Washington, reaching my brother who woke my mom up to tell her that I was drunk and passed out at a strangers house. Immediately, I blamed myself. That's what we do, isn't it? When we are violated, we take it on ourselves, don't we? I know I did. I was distraught that I worried my family so much, and embarrassed that my landlord had to come get me and see me in that state. I convinced myself that I drank too much, that I let myself get out of hand. But I know, I know that I hardly drank anything that night. I know it. It wasn't until a discussion I had with the other interns and our supervisor at the women's center about date rape drugs that it clicked.

After the incident, I continued my descent.  The following year held nothing but hate and violence that I directed toward myself in every which way. As I said earlier, if it wasn't for my internship, I would have felt that I had absolutely no purpose, and I don't doubt that I would have let my self-inflicted pain get even farther than it did. Coming together with other women to learn and talk about oppression was my only respite. It was the only thing in my life that gave me a shred of esteem, and I literally owe my life to feminism. I would never be able to love and honor myself the way I do if it weren't for the hope that feminist thought, community, and action have given me. I still struggle greatly with loving myself, without question; however, I don't despise myself anymore, which for me, has made all the difference.

I have since continued on in my search for understanding the world through feminism. I've worked in various feminist organizations and have had the great honor of knowing some of the most amazing, loving, thoughtful people in my life, as a result of feminist organizing. It's been six years since that first Women's Studies course, and I know I am still at the very beginning. It's humbling and inspiring to know that there is still so much to learn, so much to do. I welcome the next phase of my life and the pursuit of social justice with that same unyielding passion which was lit six years ago.

how feminist consciousness led me to myself

by Alex
When I considered feminism, I all thought of were a bunch of butch, man-hating lesbians. The side of feminism I could see seemed overzealous and hateful. I am not the type of person to associate with hate; I tend to avoid it at all costs. Hate is a nasty emotion that promotes dark and evil behavior. Hate stems from within -- a selfish and consuming thing. I want no part in it ever. My knowledge of feminism was fundamentalist, extremist, and wrong. I saw everyone as equally human, and discriminating or distinguishing based on gender or anything else felt wrong.

Recently, I took a Women’s Literature class at Portland State. At the same time I was taking a Nazi Culture course for my Junior Cluster. The lit class seemed to be opening my understanding of feminism by simply defining it as the experience of women in society and culture. I began to realize that, of course men and women are different and have different experiences. Feminism is about that female experience more than the hatred of men. The Nazi Culture class helped me to solidify this understanding when the professor posed the controversial statement: “There is no such thing as equality. Equality is bullshit,” he said.

Having regarded both men and women as equal for most of my life, this statement shocked me. As he began to argue his case though, my own opinions became clear. Equality, as our society views it, is indeed bullshit. Our society attempts to place women on equal terms with men as far as economics, politics, and other mainstream cultural systems. These are the mediums in which we judge fairness. However, women are different from men biologically and therefore are different culturally and ideologically. My professor went on to argue that these differences needs to be embraced rather than turned masculine.

Since then I have come into many other consciousnesses besides feminist. If asked, I can honestly answer that I am a feminist, but mostly because I am a woman and I have experience that is vastly different then a man’s. I would also say that I am a human being, a person, an individual who has her own unique person that separates from that gender identity. I have come to find myself within the scope of queer ideology, a sense that labeling one’s self is unnecessary. I choose not to orient myself, but rather reside in that space within myself that is my individuality. Some people find comfort in labels and identities. I know I have in the past. My feminist consciousness led me to a much greater understanding of myself.  All labels really do is keep us from having to explain things so much. They are a generalization, but we are not.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

talking back to Charlotte Bunch

by Kaleigh

The following is a critical response to Charlotte Bunch's "Lesbians in Revolt." I wrote this years ago in the beginnings of my coursework in Women's Studies.  Looking back at this piece, I smile at the freshness and determination in my younger voice.  I like to believe that my understandings of the world, and my ability to articulate them, have grown and evolved in some ways since this was written, but it is lovely to look back and hear my passion emerge as I opened my eyes to feminism for the first time.

“Talk Back” Critical Reading Response
Charlotte Bunch,

Upon reading your essay “Lesbians in Revolt” it appeared to me that you were primarily addressing a very specific group of people.  The group of people in question is feminist women, and more particularly, lesbian feminist women.  I would have to say that I do somewhat identify with being a part of that audience, specifically with your definition of the group in the passage “The lesbian, woman-identified-woman, commits herself to women not only as an alternative to oppressive male/female relationships but primarily because she loves women” (Bunch 83).  I identify with this definition of the target audience in a general sense, in that I am deeply committed and passionate to improving the lives of women because I love them, but I don’t love women to the exclusion of men and all other genders. 

My love for women doesn't detract from my love for all humanity.  It is in this way that I am excluded from your target audience, at the same time that I am partially included.  I am excluded because I do not reject men, as you say we must in order to put an end to oppression (Bunch 85).  I, instead, invite them to join me in the struggle for equality.  As stated in an article published by Agenda Feminist Media by Ira Horowitz, “Sexism hurts us all.”  Men aren’t excluded from the equation; therefore, I choose not to exclude them from my life.

Another way that your target audience may be seen as exclusionary is that your message has left out the population of women (and people, in general) of color.  It appears that you do make an attempt to be inclusive in your statement “race, class, and national oppressions come from men, serve ruling-class white male interests, and have no place in woman-identified revolution” (Bunch 85).  However, The Combahee River Collective sees it in a different way.  They state “although we are feminists and lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand” (Combahee River Collective 166).  This statement furthers the idea that oppression, including sexism and racism, is damaging to all people. 

I agree more with the idea that men are products of socialization and that it is not their inherent “maleness” that is the cause for sexism (Combahee River Collective 167).  Therefore, by discriminating men solely on the basis of their biological sex, I feel that we would be furthering sexist attitudes instead of working towards ending them.  I also agree with the stance that lesbian separatism isn’t an adequate political analysis and strategy because too many people are left out, including men, women, and children of color (Combahee River Collective 167).  As Andrew Matzner states in his article “Separatism,” “radical feminist ideology (holds) the white, middle-class woman as its standard, and that, in particular, the needs of women of color (are) ignored” (Matzner 2).

Another group of people that are excluded from your target audience are people in the trans community.  You state that in order to be a part of the lesbian feminist movement to end oppression, one must be a “woman-identified-woman”.  This again puts the emphasis on biological differences as opposed to socialization.  By deducing that the root of all sexism, and therefore the root of all oppressions, is biological, socialization is completely overlooked, even though it is a very valid and probable theory. 

I believe that by excluding male-to-female transsexuals from the definition of what a woman is, you are denying someone the right to their own identity and therefore contributing to the oppression of those peoples.  This oppression of trans individuals by radical feminists can be seen in the history of the radical feminist movement.  In the 1970’s, there were various male-to-female transsexuals that were forced out of communities of lesbians because they were born biologically male.  One such case is that of Beth Elliott.  Elliot was serving as the Vice President of the San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, and was “outed” as a transsexual and subsequently forced to resign from her post (Matzner 2).  Another case is that of Sandy Stone.  When rumors began to fester that she was a transsexual, she was asked to resign from her post as a recording engineer by Olivia Management (Matzner 2).  In my eyes, these are further examples of oppression by people whose aim is supposedly to end all oppression.
I feel a bit uncomfortable when I read your statement about lesbians in the workplace.  You iterate “The lesbian is also a threat on the job because she is not the passive/part-time woman worker that capitalism counts on to do boring work and be part of a surplus labor pool” (Bunch 86).  When I read this, it seems that you are insinuating that any woman who does not conform to your idea of what a feminist should be must immediately be weak and “passive.”  I don’t believe that all of the people who are excluded from your audience (women of color, male-to-female transsexuals, heterosexual women) are inherently passive.  If a woman chooses to work part-time and not put all of her focus and energy into her work, that is her choice.  To me, feminism is about the right to choose, and by immediately categorizing women whose main goals in life don’t revolve around their career is denying their right to choose and is therefore counterproductive in the feminist movement.
One of the strengths that I see in your piece is the idea that “sexism is the root of all oppression.”  Your argument for this idea is made quite adequately when you say “the first division of labor, in prehistory, was based on sex…  Having secured the domination of women, men continued this pattern of oppressing people, not on the basis of tribe, race, and class” (Bunch 84).  Robin Morgan, along with various radical feminists, agree with the idea, saying “sexism is the root oppression, the one which, until and unless we uproot it, will continue to put for the branches of racism, class hatred, ageism, competition, ecological disaster, and economic exploitation” (Morgan via Katherine, 282).
I suppose that my way of thinking is from more of a liberal feminist perspective, in that my views are heavily based on equality for all people, and not necessarily for the advancement of women beyond men and other genders.  Yes, I believe that the rights of women need to be advanced in order to achieve this equality with white males, but so do the rights of people of color and people in the LGBTQI community, as well as other oppressed communities.  I also believe that socialization has a huge role in the roots of oppression, as opposed to being based solely based on the biological.  It is in this way that I agree with Mary Wollstonecraft when she says that if men were confined to the same cages that women are confined to, they would also develop the “same flawed characters” (Wollstonecraft);  those flawed characteristics being the generalizations that are made in regards to the female sex.  To me, Wollstonecraft is explaining that we are products of socialization, and I wholeheartedly agree with her in that regard.
In conclusion, I feel that your piece “Lesbians in Revolt” is incredibly provocative and stirring.  Although there are various ways in which I don’t completely agree with your agenda, I agree with your purpose, which is to end sexist oppression. 

*References available upon request.

objects of beauty

Monday, February 21, 2011

afternoon walk

“Oh, dear, you are too cute.”  There was a smile in his voice as he shook his  head and gave my knee an affectionate pat.  I looked down at my hands lying limply in my lap, the fat on my thighs spread gelatinously across the seat.  My knees were soft lumps gently straining against the worn fabric of size-zero skinny jeans that I’d worn so often the elastic had stretched to accommodate my now size-three ass.  I could picture my flesh, pale and riddled with cellulite, and there before me were my hands, swollen and pink, plump as balloons.  His hand gripped the clutch, strong and full of bones or tendons or veins.  I crossed my arms across my stomach, sucking in reflexively, and turned to squint out the window at life passing by.  Pedestrians with strollers or shopping bags or small dogs on leashes.  Sunlight flashing between tree branches and tall buildings, illuminating the specks of dust that suddenly floated through the air.  My hands were hot, my mouth was dry, I could feel the wrinkles forming in my forehead already.  “I think I have a migraine,” I said.  I leaned against the door and looked everywhere except at my reflection in the side mirror, because I knew already that my pores would be caked with powder and shining with grease or sweat, my creased lips would be blurred with melting lipstick, and my eyelashes would be stuck together, garishly black, beneath waxy arches too obviously drawn on my face with brow pencil.  “You wanna stop for coffee?”  I wanted a cold compress and a shower; I wanted to be anywhere but the passenger seat of an overheated sedan with no air conditioning and pictures of his exgirlfriend still floating around in the back along with his sweaty soccer clothes and Spanish homework.  He was babbling about economics, political science, the results of his midterm –  When we stepped out onto the pavement, onto the curb, over the dry tree roots reaching down into soft piles of soil red and flaky, white stars began to burst in the back of my eyelids.  There was a feeling in my throat of bile, but if he noticed my silence, it made no difference, for I had nothing important to say.  His hand grasped mine and we walked.

Friday, February 18, 2011

on beauty

by Anonymous

"One is not born a woman, but becomes one."

This is one of the best-known quotations of the French philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir.  She meant that women are not born with culturally-defined "feminine" qualities, but become so through social indoctrination.  The Second Sex is a massive tome, but it's well worth reading for a look at De Beauvoir's reaction to commonly-held Freudian assumptions about women's essentially inferior nature.

I tend to remember this line when I'm standing groggy and heavy-lidded in front of the bathroom mirror some cold grey morning -- or better yet, before a party or a night out on the town or an important date.  It comes ironically and unbeckoned to mind right before I pull my hair back and dive into my bag of brushes, pencils, paints, and powders.  On ne nait pas femme, on le devient.  To me, being a woman involves a ludicrous degree of artifice, deception, and trickery.

Everyone knows that the preadolescent years can be rough in terms of body image, but mine was particularly grueling; perhaps because of that, I have a difficult time seeing myself as anything but an ugly, flat-chested thirteen-year-old with bad acne.  When my skin problems finally began to abate and I discovered the vast array of cosmetic products available to girls like me, all promising to fix flaws and erase imperfections, my experiences underwent as dramatic a transformation as did my chubby face, scrubbed pink each morning.  Overnight, it seemed, my sense of value skyrocketed.  Suddenly I was cute, adorable, pretty, all the things a girl should be.  But I paged through my mother's magazines, marveling at the poreless, Photoshopped faces in the makeup ads; on sick days, I watched soap operas and studied the actresses' heavily accented eyelids and prominent cheekbones.  I scrutinized my own  reflection and found it hopelessly wanting.

I remember one bad night at an Italian restaurant with my mom and sister, when, even though I had only eaten carrot sticks and yogurt that day, I couldn't bring myself to take a single bite, I was so depressed.  My face was peppered with blemishes and my hair looked frizzy.  Also, my thighs were huge.  My sister, who has never worn lip gloss or thumbed through a fashion magazine, said to me, in a voice dripping with disgust, "Why can't you just be happy with what God gave you?"  I spent the rest of the evening curled up on the floor in the backseat of the car, sobbing, because her words were like a knife to my heart.

Today, I'm used to being told I'm pretty.  I've heard it from strangers, close acquaintances, my parents' friends, and a number of young men who probably just wanted to get in my pants.  But it brings me no joy, now, to win the affirmation and positive reinforcement I so desperately crave.  I have always wanted, more than anything, to be be found beautiful -- but now that I am, the satisfaction of attracting admiring glances and compliments is disappointingly hollow, because my external beauty is all a performance, a carefully crafted lie.

I paint my face, set my hair in rollers, glue bits of plastic to my fingernails, suck in my stomach and perform the necessary rituals.  Sometimes I feel like a fraud, more drag queen than human being.  And yet for this I am praised, flattered, and rewarded...

But while I greedily reap the fruits of adhering to society's rules about what women should look like, for me this beauty has not been without cost.  Perhaps worst of all, it seems as though my mood and sense of self are inextricably linked to my physical appearance, as if I've lost the ability to see myself as having any value separate from my worth as an object of beauty.  I say "lost" because I assume I had some knowledge of my own value as a person, once, and not just as a feminine being in keeping with our culture's definition of femininity.  After all, I wasn't born this way.

Friday, February 11, 2011

naomi wolf says it best

So the beauty myth sets it up this way:  A high rating as an art object is the most valuable tribute a woman can exact from her lover.  If he appreciates her face and body because it is hers, that is next to worthless.  It is very neat:  The myth contrives to make women offend men by scrutinizing honest appreciation when they give it; it can make men offend women merely by giving them honest appreciation.  It can manage to contaminate the sentence “You’re beautiful,” which is next to “I love you” in expressing a bond of regard between a woman and a man.  A man cannot tell a woman that he loves to look at her without risking making her unhappy.  If he never tells her, she is destined to be unhappy.  And the “luckiest” woman of all, told she is loved because she’s “beautiful,” is often tormented because she lacks the security of being desired because she looks like who she lovably is.
This futile bickering goes far deeper than simply to show that women are insecure.  It is not insecurity speaking the woman’s lines but – if she does have self-respect – hostility: Why should her lover, just because he is male, be in a position to judge her against other women?  Why must she need to know her position and hate needing to, and hate knowing?  Why should his reply have such exaggerated power?  And it does.  He does not know that what he says will affect the way she feels when they next make love.  She is angry for a number of good reasons that may have nothing to do with this particular man’s intentions.  The exchange reminds her that, in spite of a whole fabric of carefully woven equalities, they are not equal in this way that is so crucial that its snagged thread unravels the rest.

– Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

debunking the beauty myth: my journey to feminism

                The French philosopher Denis Diderot once famously wrote of young women, "You all die at fifteen."  A few hundred years later, his words still contain a bitter kernel of truth, in light of the obsession that quietly, insidiously ravages the minds and bodies of Western women trapped within the golden cage of the beauty myth.*

                I first put myself on a diet at age eleven. I have been on that diet ever since, and it's less a way of eating than a state of mind: a relentless awareness of my weight, of the space I occupy in the world, of the sound of my footsteps and the ring of my voice.

                Like many women, I struggled with disordered eating throughout most of my adolescence.  For years, I despised myself for having deliberately squandered my youth in the pursuit of self-destruction, and I mourned the loss of so many opportunities I had both taken for granted and refused to accept.  I considered myself an unequivocal failure.  There’s a passage in Abra Fortune Chernik’s essay The Body Politic that changed my perspective:

"I had been willing to accept self-sabotage, but now I refused to sacrifice myself to a society that profited from my pain.  I finally understood that my eating disorder symbolized more than ‘personal psychodynamic trauma.’  Gazing in the mirror at my emaciated body, I observed a woman held up by her culture as the physical ideal because she was starving, self-obsessed and powerless, a woman called beautiful because she threatened no one but herself."

                Reading these words, for the first time, I began to understand how to forgive myself for harboring this sick obsession that compels women from all walks of life to self-destruct in the name of beauty.  Still in recovery, I know all too well that issues with weight and body dissatisfaction are incredibly difficult to overcome, especially in a culture that equates thinness with health, happiness, and moral fortitude.  But although education and enlightenment alone cannot cure clinical eating disorders, an awareness of the cultural forces that encourage women to maintain unwavering control of their bodies is one of the many factors that have helped me to triumph over my own struggles and to gain a sense of empowerment.   The beauty myth is only one of many feminist concerns, but it wasn't until stumbling upon an introductory course in women's studies that I found a new way of understanding the roots of my eating disorder and the drive to fight against it. I hope this blog will be a place for other students to confront or share their own struggles and revelations, and to find their voice in the way that I have found mine.

*Hilde Bruch's The Golden Cage, published in 1974, was a groundbreaking book on the pyschopathology of anorexia nervosa; The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf was first published in 1991 and examines how women have come to be more firmly oppressed by cultural beauty ideals even while gaining political and economic power.  Look out for future blog posts on these and similar books!