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Friday, November 18, 2005
Obsession: The Search for Women

We Americans are obsessed with women; it is a national pastime. References to and insinuations about women are to be found in every magazine, television show, song, work of philosophy, journal, and newspaper. The appetites of our imaginations to know Woman and to understand Her seem to show no sign of abating nor of being satiated. We have colonized every part of Woman: her imagination, her body, her sex life, her gender, her difference, her clothing, her religion, her most sacred communions of love and giving. What we enjoy most about Woman is discussing Her relation to Herselves. In that vein, the project of feminism--making women equal partners in social discourses and liberating them from hierarchies of sex and sexed difference--is the social-mental climax of our obsession. Feminism is all about women; talking about feminism is just another excuse to talk about Woman and Her "authenticity", Her relationship to Herselves.

It is with that idea in mind--that we are obsessed with Woman's authenticity--that I will seek to understand the articles and essays which follow. After suggesting why the quest for authenticity is a bad way to do feminism, I offer a critical re-orientation for feminist projects.

The Columbia Spectator on 3 November 2005 ran an article entitled "Is Feminism Screwing Women? Or Are Women Screwing Feminism?" (Thanks to Rabbi Gray for this tip.)The title itself betrays the author's presupposition that women are uniquely the authors and targets of feminist inquiry. To the extent to which a feminist critique is a challenge to hierarchy, inequality, and sexed difference, it is also a relational proposition for both men and women. Feminism is, to be sure, the articulation and culmination of women claiming their humanity and personhood, but the claims to that humanity and that personhood are claims about belonging to a cosmopolitan group inclusive of all and exclusive of none, especially on grounds of sex. At the heart of this project are twin goals, both equiprimordial, of liberation and equality. Understanding the feminist project is crucial to understanding how women today relate to that project, and whether Woman is being true to Herselves.

I take up here the challenge of answering the question "Is Feminism Screwing Women? Or Are Women Screwing Feminism?". In order to get at the question we need to know what feminism isn't, what feminism is, and who are women?

Contrary to popular belief, feminism is not the sexual revolution.
Harvey Mansfield a Harvard political philosophy professor made famous most recently by his tactic against grade inflation—giving students As on their transcripts and a separate grade they deserved—has been talking about nothing but feminism these days. His new book on manliness explores the boundaries of feminism, making the argument that there is nothing “liberating” about women trying to rack up sexual partners like guys. By playing “the men’s game,” women are just submitting to its restrictions. With Levy and Mansfield on my mind, it was impossible to see the various varieties of slut nurse, slut policewoman, slut angel, slut devil, and slut maid strutting around this Halloween and not ponder the question of feminism.
The misunderstanding here comes from a conflation of the message of sexual liberation and the project of feminism. The aim of the sexual revolution was to cast aside cumbersome social mores and rules surrounding the public pursuit and acknowledgement of the act of sex. The goal of sexual liberation is the pursuit of the good "fuck" without any authority, secular or ecclesiastical, providing prohibitions on the path of pleasure. The sexual revolution was rooted in biological and psychological desire; it freed the individuals to get what they wanted without sympathy, remorse, or second thought, and, most importantly, to be able to talk about it the next day. The revolution was particularly helpful in bringing the sex lives of those who have them--and the pity for those who don't—into full public view, thus allowing sexual discourses to be medicalized as a regulation for the safety of the body.

The author's conflation of the revolution of sex with the project of feminism is no where more apparent than in her/his description of a Chabad Jewess as "an orthodox woman, wife, and mother who covers not only her body out of modesty, but also her hair...[and] has been either pregnant or breast-feeding for the past seven years." He/she continues: "in a culture where some claim feminism means flashing your tits to drunken guys on spring break, certainly a[n] [orthodox] woman... is more than worth considering." Feminism is more than about getting off and getting wet. The project of feminism has to be more than the ability of females to fellate guys they hardly know, of two guys to make out in public, or of two lesbians to give each other a hand during an awful movie. Sex isn't politics and feminism was quite political.

Karen, our Chabad Jewess, however, tell us a lot about what the project of feminism is. "I discover that she runs a 501(c)3 and is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology at Teacher’s College. To those who still turn their nose up at her way of life, she says, “If you say you’re a feminist and you are judging women like me, maybe you need to rethink your feminism." Karen's life, lived in accordance to religious authorities and as a head of a 501(c)3, demonstrates both the liberating and equalizing components of the feminist project. Feminism is liberating in the sense that it grants persons, especially women, the ability to speak and act in public fora without being constrained by their sex and social sexed difference. It is equalizing to the extent to which the hierarchies of sexed difference, and in particular the manipulation of those hierarchies to uphold male privilege and the enforcement female subordination, are challenged, exposed, and subverted.

The feminism project is incomplete, however, because our society is still caught up over the issue of women. Whether in the mini-skirt or the veil, men and women in positions of power continue to want to regulate and prescribe actions for women so that they can signal their social position. When one listens to the "dance Hip-Hop" so popular these days, the rappers encourage the women to "shake their asses" to signal to "brothas" and other ladies their intents. Conservative Jewesses and religious Muslim women are under intense pressure to dress their part. Arrogant and/or diva/ ghetto fabulous thick women are derisively told by horny men to "act their weight" when these men's offers of sex are rebuffed and rejected. Liberal feminists froth over how religious women dress, encouraging the religionists to forsake their garbs to display female solidarity against oppression. Prurient men defend their right of free speech to pornographically depict women as sexual objects for heterosexual male fantasies; even if is free speech, the voice of the women in these videos are obscured by the penises in their mouths and vaginas, and the possessive, rough male hands on their heads.

Feminist preoccupation with the right of abortion demonstrates just how co-opted the movement has become from its radical roots. I quote this passage from Washington Post to gesture briefly at a larger problem.
One of the major issues facing Alito is where he stands on abortion. All you have to do is read his dissent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey to figure out where his feelings are. The case had to do with a requirement that a wife prove she had notified her husband that she intended to have an abortion. The Supreme Court sided with Planned Parenthood and overruled Alito.

Nancy comes into the living room, where Horace is watching television.

Nancy: I have something important to tell you.

Horace: Can it wait until the game is over?

Nancy: It is very important.

Horace: What could be more important than the Redskins' offense?

Nancy: Remember when we drove to Maine and stopped at the cute little bed-and-breakfast in Bangor?

Horace (not taking his eyes off the set) : Yeah. It was a nice trip.

Nancy: Do you remember the bedroom?

Horace: Yeah. It was a nice bedroom. Jeez, the Redskins just fumbled.

Nancy: All right, we're getting somewhere.

Horace: They can still tie the game.

Nancy: It was a beautiful bed with a spring mattress and pink sheets.

Horace: Why do we have to live in the past when I'm watching television?

Nancy: I'm getting to the point. We made love in that bedroom.

Horace: We're married. What's the big deal? We also made love in Bar Harbor and Nantucket.

Nancy: There is one problem. You didn't have any protection in Bangor and all the drugstores were closed.

Horace: It wasn't my fault.

Nancy: Yes, it was, because I'm pregnant and I'm too old to have a baby.

Horace (jumping out of his chair) : He dropped a pass! The dummy let it fall right out of his hands. We can't have a good quarterback if his receivers don't catch the ball.

Nancy: I'm not ready for more babies. We both agreed when our children grew up we wouldn't have any more.

Horace: A field goal should tie the game.

Nancy: I'll be frank. I want to have an abortion.

Horace: He made it! (turns to Nancy) Why have you brought up the subject in the middle of the game? You know Sunday is my only day off.

Nancy: The law says I have to inform my husband if I have an abortion.

Horace: Do what you want.

Nancy: You have to sign legal papers that I notified you.

Horace: I will after the game is over. As long as you're up, will you get me a beer?
Is the main problem here that Nancy has to ask Horace's permission to get an abortion, or that Horace feels its ok to ignore Nancy for a game? Or maybe that ultimately Nancy is alone in the world when it comes to the issue of children and her pregnancy? If she has the baby, Horace will hate her; if she does not have the baby, she alone must make the decision to undergo the procedure.

Feminism has a long way to go when the defense of Western aggression into the postcolonies is a defense of white men and women saving brown women from the brown men and their gods. Of all critical projects, feminism should know that military imperialism hardly ever creates conditions of equality. The fact that veil is still a site of struggle and contestation between legal-religious authorities, women of the postcolonies, western feminists, and western political leaders in France, in Turkey, in Germany, in Afghanistan, in Saudi Arabia, and numerous other countries means that feminism is incomplete.

Feminism will be complete when it understands that targeting hierarchies of sexed difference means undermining all projects and philosophies that seek to define women as women and to confine them as such. This means exposing all hierarchies of difference--class, race, gender, and sexuality--and unmaking those hierarchies so that all can achieve their humanity. At least that is what I mean when I say that I am a feminist.