Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"My mother's a feminist"

One day in my university course on 20th Century African American history, I remember another student beginning his remarks with "My mother's a feminist..." We may have been discussing bell hooks, I can't recall. I do, however, remember something of my contribution to the discussion. I said that it seemed odd to me that he would have referred to his mother in this way. Not that it was at all strange his mother was a feminist but rather that he so clearly did not think of himself as one. In fact, I believe I said, in that vaguely condescending way I had, "it seems to me that we should all be feminists". In a sense this remark reflected the naivete I had at the time towards progress and social justice. I've mentioned this before, but to recap: Just as I believed each generation would necessarily be less racist than the one before it, so I earnestly believed each generation would be less sexist, less misogynist, less homophobic than the one before it. It simply didn't occur to me that people in general saw things differently. As such, feminism, in my conception, was simply the way I looked at the world. And yet it’s not as if I knew anything about it. I hadn’t read anything by feminists. In fact, I don’t think it occurred to me that feminism was in any way theoretical; that is, it didn’t occur to me that I needed to read much feminist thought (though I did try and fail to register for a Woman’s Studies course: not enough prereqs). You either believed women and men were politically, legally, morally equal, or you didn't, and I had a hard time believing there were young people who didn’t.

What strikes me now about my classmate's words, and I think what struck me even at the time, hence my response, is that feminism was located outside of him, as something that didn't involve him. He might have believed in equality, but feminism perhaps represented something more strident, something more political, and don't feminists hate men or something? He would have been right that feminism is something more political, I've long since realized; feminism is something more political than simply believing, and even behaving as if you believe, in equality. But what is it? It's been said that feminism is the radical belief that women are human. The troubling implication of this formulation is the fact that women have been all too often treated as something less than human, as something other.

My point of this rambling is to articulate a political position. I have no desire to define feminism here, not least because I am a man and it's not my business to do so. I know there are many strands of feminist thought, and I know that there's no reason why I should have to be on board with them all. But I firmly believe that feminism is about all of us and that gender issues, and the basic problems facing most women, should be at the center of any liberatory politics—questions of reproduction and reproductive rights and childcare chief among them. That is, any viable politics must be radically feminist, and as such must be centrally concerned with the actual lives of women, the actual problems faced by most women. I mention reproductive rights and childcare, not because everyone should be parents or have children, but because most people do have children; it's a basic experience for people and we treat it like it's a merely a matter of someone else's personal choice and personal health, a problem getting in the way of productivity. I believe that women, far beyond the individual "right to choose" of abortion politics (which right, anyway, I also completely support), must collectively have control over reproduction. I'm not going to try to spell out what this might mean in practice in this post, except to note that such a program is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism, and the implications would be far-reaching, positively affecting men as well as women, those completely uninterested in having children as well as parents. For me, then, a radically feminist politics is a class politics is an anti-capitalist politics. Consider this just another beginning in my exploration of these issues.


M.J. Nicholls said...

I had a similar experience when understanding feminism.

I'm getting private lessons now from a friend.

Rebecca H. said...

Looking forward to further posts on the subject.