I wrote this essay on my blog last week. (Writing about feminism and not mentioning the presidency of Geena Davis, what was I thinking?) Current events, from the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, first woman President of an African nation, to this excellent book review of the career of Phyllis Schlafly by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, have put feminism in the spotlight.
Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a post election piece on dKos that tried to start a discussion about changing the face of the Democratic party. Today, I’d like to take that topic up again through the lens of feminism…I know I’m not saying much new to anyone here, but I wanted to put these thoughts down all in one place.
Warning: This is a long essay, real “oatmeal” if you know what I mean. I print it here in hopes it reaches a few more folks than it did on my blog, where I occasionally write long pieces like this and, thank god, mostly shorter ones as well.
Context, Consensus and Community: feminist values for everyone
In the worst ways, mass media offered, and continue to offer, a vision of feminism to the public that suggested it was a movement for equal rights that would make women be like men. The fact that the feminist movement was equally critical of male identity formation within patriarchy was rarely given attention in the media. Clearly, the aspect of reformist feminism most people could understand was the insistence on equal pay for equal work. Coupled with that was the stereotype of women become pseudo-men. In the final analysis, mass media and the mass public have shown a willingness to embrace women acting like patriarchal men while they eschew feminist attempts to transform male and female roles.
-bell hooks, rebel’s dilemma 1998
I’m a man and I’m a feminist. There’s nothing remarkable about that, it’s how I was raised, and, as bell hooks points out, that was part of feminism in the first place.
I was raised by a strong, brilliant and caring woman, who is still very much “my mom.” And I was raised by a strong, brilliant and gentle man who is still very much “my dad.” I have two sisters with whom I shared the experience of growing up and being raised by our parents in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Who I am was forged in that context. That context is the essential part of me. My family’s shared experience, growing up side by side with my sisters, being raised by my folks in my community, is what, essentially, made me.
I think most women “get” that kind of thinking…thinking of one’s self in this relational and rooted way. I think most women’s politics are deeply informed by this mode of thinking, and the consensus-building it impies. Frankly, however, most of the men who run our country don’t get it. Where women understand the core feminist values of context, consensus and community, most men in our society do not. Men, in particular our leaders, tend to take those values for granted, and it shows.
Feminism is a strong word. As a concept it is currently more reviled than that other current bete noire, socialism, though they both represent, on some level, deeply shared, positive and hopeful human ideals: community, empowerment, the common good. Now, I don’t think this on the outs status for feminism is an accident. Nor do I think that feminism’s “ill repute” represents some nefarious, wholly intentional plot.
Simply put, the “isms” of the status quo…corporate capitalism, militarism, religious fundamentalism, and nationalism…form a bundle of interests and structures that collude organically to favor what used to get called patriarchy but what can also be summarized in present day terms as: national governments dominated by men on behalf of the military industrial complex and vested corporate interests. (Another way to put that would be to say that men have built militarized societies that favor short-term political and economic outlooks…and, men!) Like a lot of folks, male and female, I think these isms are killing our planet.
Of the “isms” progressives might replace or modify these with: a people’s globalism, feminism, environmentalism (or “green economics”), humanism and some form of democratic market-based socialism…feminism is, politically, in my view, the crucial one. And here I am not talking about feminism as an intellectual project so much as a pragmatic and political program to empower women and change the playing field of political and economic power. In my view, the central question of our times is what women around the globe will decide to do with the political and economic challenges of the 21st century…what they will make of their lives in this context. I am convinced our collective history rests on the decisions women make and the actions women take going forward. In so many ways, our future depends on women’s empowerment.
part i: Feminism and Motherhood
Now, I am not an academic expert on feminism, but I’ve read and thought about the work of authors like Audre Lorde, Betty Friedan and June Jordan. I’m familiar with the intellectual history of women’s struggle and understand that its roots extend deep into the intellectual and political history of the west beyond Mary Wollstonecraft and Sojourner Truth. I’ve also lived long enough to know that oftentimes abstractions don’t do justice to common-sense lived experience, as the women above knew well. Speaking from one’s experience and limitations is feminism too.
Motherhood and how our political and economic system deals with it is the crux of the matter. It is what feminism has always addressed on one level, and, on another level, this focus represents a new wave of thinking. Different authors have approached this topic different ways: Anne Roiphe, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Eva Cox and Peggy O’Crowley to name just four. Having and raising children…in terms of the time and risks it takes, the commitment involved, and the “social norms” of how women are universally expected to take charge of child rearing and do the bulk of its work…forms the nexus through which most men view women, and, oftentimes, through which women view themselves and their political lives, whether they choose to have children or not.
Children are factual, real, necessary…and hard work. Women know this. Many men don’t. In my personal and professional life, and as a man in my 30’s, I can attest that motherhood changes the political and economic playing field for women. While men I’ve known have been exemplary parents and dads, there is really no comparison between what is essentially voluntary virtue on the part of most men…and the fact that for women…pregnancy, breastfeeding, child care, being the de facto primary caregiver, the whole package, comes with the choice to have a child. In 2005 we still don’t have adequate health care, child care, or a minimum wage that would make of motherhood anything other than the herculean effort without much of a safety net that it is for the majority of women in our society to this day. Employers, unless one is quite lucky, still don’t “get” pregnancy. Most young mothers I know are run ragged by the demands of our society. Of course, this gets lost because, most of us are run ragged living our ‘modern lives’.
As a man, it has been clear to me, however, as it is to most men I know, that there is no difference in political insight, intellectual analysis or leadership capabilities between women and men. That is crucial, because so much in our society, so much of our structures, implicitly assumes the opposite. Aside from that “little thing” called having and raising children, we are, estrogen and testosterone fluxes aside, in reality very much equals, though society does not treat us that way. Despite that inequity in treatment, it is clear that our world needs the input, the intellectual firepower and the lived experience and wisdom of women here at the birth of the 21st Century. In that sense we desperately need a rebirth of feminism, and a reintergration of the roles of men and motherhood in our discussions.
I am convinced we will not achieve a sustainable and peaceful human presence on this planet without women’s full and equal participation in our political and economic lives. Given that at various times in human history and prehistory, women’s empowerment and input may have been greater, effectively, than it is now, it is time for a women’s century.
part ii: Women and Politics
In essence, we need to examine the intersection of women and politics for the next century…we need to take apart how men, who have heretofore dominated our political and economic lives in the industrial era, have created, intentionally or not, a political environment antithetical to the intersection of women and politics, if not the intersection of motherhood and full participation in our economic lives. Greed, selfishness and “one-up-manship” rule the day. By its nature, whatever our democratic ideals, our current system produces and rewards wars like the one in Iraq, produces and rewards torture like that of Abu Ghraib, produces and rewards Enron-like corporate scandals and profiteering as a part of its inherent nature. Our system produces and rewards judges like John Roberts and Samuel Alito, as well; and a society where an 8-1 male Supreme Court is acceptable, indeeed, where it can be countenanced philosophically, is one in which an unquestioned patriarchy rules the day.
If we are to change this status quo, we need to change this male-oriented and dominated state of affairs. And that means reviving and revaluing the project of feminism as the essential start point to making fundamental change. We need to make explicit, and quite often, literal room for women, and hence, for mothers, and the values of consensus and community, in the structure of our political and economic life. Women must take their proper place, even as they change the very meaning of that place, from the High Court and the Senate to the board room and even the military high command. If the 21st Century is to represent a turning point in human history, it will be because women will take their rightful, and fully equal place at the table, and allow all of us to change the nature of that table.
This must not be done, as so often has been the case, by forcing women to conform to the current very male requirements of political and economic participation. We, men and women together, must change the broken and biased rules of public life. In this sense, as bell hooks points out cogently in the lead-in quote of this piece, feminism is as much about men as it is about women; true feminism includes a revolution in men’s roles too.
In saying this, I don’t pretend to be saying something new or unique…in fact, I am simply reiterating a core value that has, in my view, got lost by the wayside somewhat. Feminism is important to all of us. The Alito nomination, at least for me, brought that home with a vengeance.
part iii: Women’s Empowerment around the Globe
Now, in my view, the important places this change will happen, in contrast to our Western obsession with our own domestic feminisms and politics…is around the globe. The most significant decisions and developments in this regard may well be made in places like Karachi and Bangkok, in Seoul and Johannesberg and their surrounding countrysides. It is critical, for a women’s century, that women come to the fore around the globe, and that they do so in their own way, relating to their specific circumstances and histories. The crucial interactions here may involve micro loans and small-scale entrepeneurism…or a large-scale movement for fair trade, education, reproductive rights and sustainable agriculture. Regardless, women are on the front lines of the horizontal reorganization of global political activism that is challenging the vertical, top-down, hierarchy of the World Bank and the U.N. Truth be told, women have always have been on the front lines in this regard.
No movement for change in this world can take this global perspective for granted. Feminism has ceased to mean something that is sheltered in the industrial West. Hell, “the industrial West” doesn’t mean what it did twenty-five years ago. Women will be at the forefront of the political and economic changes of the next century. In very real ways, women will change how change is made.
part iv: Women’s Empowerment and Political Change
It is critical to understand that as women redefine and stake out new roles in political life, they redefine men’s roles as well. In my view, that is the reason we have seen a full scale push back from the right on feminism. And it is why the gender imbalance in the United States federal governement…our Congress, our Executive Branch and on our Supreme Court…must end. Reform of the United States government cannot happen with the “good old boy” networks still in place. It is not enough to vote out the “good old boys” or to redefine their clubs to include a few women. We must redefine what public service means for men and women alike. We need to drain the swamp which breeds the “good old boys” in the first place.
In this sense, I think the feminist values of context, consensus and community will form the crux of how feminism will help move our society from one based, essentially, on war and greed…those twin obsessions of the the militarized state…to one based on sustainability and mutuality, on democratic community and interdependence on all levels. As we can see from around the globe, the current wave of feminism is very much about “fact-based” and “reality-based” pragmatism; the world powers must see that and understand it. This is a project as bold and necessary as any yet undertaken in our short history on this planet, even if, at the end of the day, it won’t look like ‘revolutions’ past.
Men throughout our history have priveleged a kind of rhetoric for change that is essentially full of machismo. Without dismissing the validity and heroism of previous sturggles for change, it is essential that we envision the possibility of a different kind of struggle, a different, and perhaps, more pragmatic way of making progressive change. Motherhood, femininity, and womanhood represent a direct connection to a kind of continuity, a sense of connectedness that for women is simply not abstract. It is those values we see in the worldwide movement for women’s empowerment. Continuity and connectedness are not ‘known traits’ of most previous movements for change, which privilege seismic shifts and dramatic breaks. Taking a cue from Rosa Parks, and lesser known heroes like Maudelle Shirek, we should renew our commitment to already established models of women’s activism and the values they incorporate. We should seek to understand how these models and values apply to every last one of us. It is high time that feminism and women’s empowerment help us look at the bigger picture and move our politics into one of making long term change based on a long term vision.
Conclusion: for a Women’s Century
The 21st century, it is my hope, will be a century that will come to be known by history as a “women’s century” not because it priveleged or advantaged women over men, but because, finally, we made a decisive move towards a society that incorporated all of us, and made equal use of the full extent of our manifold insights, talents and abilities.
We must define a politics that puts the emphasis on context, consensus and community…that revalues feminism as a movement for pragmatic global women’s empowerment. That pragmatism and revaluing is, in part, a lesson I learned from my mother and my father. I am convinced, thinking on their example, that it will be when the world incorporates positive and culturally specific reinventions of both men’s and women’s roles that we will achieve what is at the core of the feminism’s long held dream: that, as brothers and sisters, as equals, we will be able to work together around the globe, honoring our mothers and fathers, to build a better, safer and more peaceful world for all of our children.