Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Solidarity? Or Silencing?

A graduate seminar on Public Feminisms during my PhD was one of the formative experiences of my academic life, in some ways you can probably guess and in some ways you probably can't.

It was a pressure cooker, fully enrolled and then some, with something like 18 students, mostly if not all women, in a too-small glass-walled seminar room without enough space for all the coats, books, bodies, tempers, ideas, egos, and agendas. Not enough room either for all the possibility, the joy, the injustices and tragedies and triumphs we were learning about. The course was team taught--which is to say, serially instructed by three different women. This took away from some of the coherence, I think, and the room sometimes developed a kind of Lord of the Flies atmosphere barely kept covered by an avowed hewing to the common purpose of the Cause.

We all self-identified as feminists. I honestly think you couldn't not, in that room, and survive until the coffee break. From this shared self-identification something unhelpful happened: we thought we were all alike. And from this misunderstanding sprang a regrettable tendency to view one perspective or practice as ideologically pure, and all others as unfeminist. Or even misogynist.

We were not alike, I probably don't need to tell you. Among the many unacknowledged differences in the room were nationality, class, sexual orientation, age, temperament, work experience or disciplinary training. And what resulted was that while we all expected ourselves to think alike on all feminism related topics, we didn't: how could we? But when we differed, we weren't really able to cope with the idea that someone's career being advanced by housekeeping provided by immigrant women looks liberating or exploitative depending on whether you're the career woman or the immigrant.

We fought. Instead of really listening to one another, or grounding our own interpretations of a text or our own practice of some or another fraught engagement, in the contextualizing preamble of our own positionally, we tried to determine by various means, which idea was right. And which was wrong.

I remember feeling perpetually frustrated, often angry, usually helpless, sometimes despairing: I am obviously not a good feminist if I can't get along with feminists, if they make me angry and they think I'm totally wrong. I think a lot of us experienced those feelings.

One class we were considering the pornography wars of the 70s and 80s, and the notions of representation and sexualization and objectification of female bodies for the male gaze (or the male meat grinder as in that famous Penthouse cover). I did a presentation on an American photographer whose work had all been confiscated, his equipment seized, his business shut down because a FotoMat employee printing some test shots noticed there were naked children in them. Since I was trained as a fine art photographer myself, and knew this artist's work very well, I had a particular slant I wanted to argue. I was totally unprepared for the total shitstorm of rage that rained down on me that day. This happened a lot, not just to me, but to others. Nearly perpetual misunderstanding, hurt feelings, accusations of racism and sexism and homophobia and various other kinds of heresy and more.

I'm still working through what happened over those two full semesters of that course. The very difficult and challenging materials we read are pieces that have ultimately made me who I am--a lot of that work was the pit in which I was forged as a thinker. But the classroom space has always left a bad taste in my mouth, this tendency we all had to want to be right, to find the one right theory, right answer, right practice and to lash out at anyone who thought, said, did anything differently.

If a room full of feminists working on feminism can't find a way to be respectful and kind in working through the ideas from that field, what hope do we have in the rest of the public sphere.

I'm asking now because Things Are Going On on the Internet, where some of the most vituperative attacks on feminist writers are coming from other so-called feminists. We need to find a way to talk to each other, I think, where we can really listen to one another's ideas in the full contexts in which they are offered. But how?

The personal is the political after all ... but how this became a license to engage in ad hominem attacks is a question that remains to be answered.

For the most part, in 99% of what you see here, people are kind and respectful and interesting and engaging. That's awesome. Some posts that draw a lot of outside traffic (like the post on Amanda Todd and a couple of others) draw some random loons from the broader internet who have some anti-feminist agenda to promote. We have a policy where if the attack gets personal or off topic, or, actually, attack-like, we just delete it.

But the internet at large is undeletable. And we need to start thinking more seriously about what a normative style of interaction based on flaming does to participation in our debates, and to the participants.


  1. Well written and answers (or at least asks, which is huge) some big, difficult questions. I self identify as a feminist, but find it difficult to understand what that means to others, and even to myself at times. Thank you.

  2. Oh yes, I recently read Sheryl Sandberg only because a colleague pressed it on me. She doesn't have kids but thought it was important because it suggests we can hang in, if not lean in, by doing "well enough" -- not having to give up a so-called personal life for an academic one.
    So I posted a tentative response to it on my (personal, not academic) blog, and I was really, really surprised by the strong responses from a community of commenting readers who have generally shown themselves to be thoughtful. . . .defensive, angry, most without having read the book itself.
    Obviously, Sandberg's investment in conservative corporate culture, as Susan Faludi argues, is a problem for many. Her privilege. But to me, she's a voice re-energizing a set of goals that feel reasonable to me as feminist ones -- making partners share the domestic and child-rearing chores, pushing for extended maternity arrangements, better child care, etc. None of it is new or particularly ground-breaking, but if younger women (she's younger to me, at least, only a few years older than my daughter) are picking up the torch (I have heard so so so many disavow themselves from anything called "Feminist"), I want to find a way to support that, perhaps to push it further and complicate it. But at the very least to listen.
    Personally, I was intimidated at first by the can of worms I'd apparently opened. Annoyed at my naivete, and doubtful whether I would go ahead with a declared project of a series of posts around what Sandberg troubled up in me. I've taken a deep breath and written another one or two, although not clicked on the "Publish" button yet. But I will. And I thank you very much for the addition to my thinking on the topic. Great post!

  3. In case anyone is curious about the post and comments I refer to above, here is the link:

  4. Materfamilias, I've been thinking about blogging about Lean In, because I read all the pre-reviews that were so ... nasty. And when I read the book it was nothing like the thoughtlessly entitled bossy rich girl screed those columns had described. I thought the book was really balanced, and like you, I thought it was really energizing actually.

    But I haven't been brave enough to blog about it here. I doubted myself. Thank you so much for YOUR take on it -- I'm going to read you blog post right now.

  5. I find it interesting that you started with real world examples, as nearly all of my in person contact with feminists has been characterized by a great deal of respect for alternative perspectives. On the other hand, I've definitely been flamed by internet feminists, and had tended toward the theory that this was just another example of the internet's apparent ability to make any conflict more heated. Do you think things are as bad in real life as on the internet, or do you agree that the internet seems to make things worse?

  6. Hi Aaron -- nice catch! I would say things are worse on social media, in general, because of the rapidity of the responses, the wide spread of material beyond its original contexts/audiences, a normative flame culture online, and the relative anonymity of responses.

    Others have had similar experiences to mine in "real space" as well, but in this post, I'm using my own experience: I've never really had problems on the internet, personally, but I *have* had problems in real space.


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