Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: Feminism (Page 1 of 2)

A Brief History of Feminism by Patu and Antje Schrupp

“behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.”

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

What is feminism anyway?

To start with, feminism is not the belief that one gender should be raised in power above another. Feminism is not against men. Feminism is against patriarchy, that is the system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

Feminism is one of the most important and certainly most enduring and progressive social movements of the past two centuries. It is common to divide the history of modern feminism into a First, Second, and Third Wave. As times are changing, we are now entering in the fourth phase with feminism moving from the academy and back into the realm of public discourse.

Women are coming out of the closet, they dare to discuss difficult subjects, such as violence and sexual harassment. Intersectionality, race, ethnicity gender, class, and ability, are all part of the discussion.

Now, the book. A Brief History of Feminism is a  graphic novel about the history of feminism. It is a short book, just 80 pages. It begins with antiquity and the early days of Christianity, it moves to Middle Ages and the Enlightenment and finally at the beginnings of the organised women’s movement and the third-wave feminism and intersectionality. It examines – briefly – the fights for autonomous pregnancy and against domestic violence.

Along the way, you learn about a few of the most important figures in the history of feminism. Flora Tristan, a courageous woman, who in 1825 fled her violent husband and broke the social behaviours of a nineteenth century woman. Flora described herself as “an unfortunate Pariah”, and linked the oppression of women and the oppression of the proletariat before Marx and Engels. Also, the poet Audre Lorde,  Elizabeth Cady Standon, Sojourner Truth, Emma Goldman, Simone de Beauvoir, Sulamith Firestone, Angela Davis, and more.

It is not a complete history of feminism. The focus is Western Feminism, mainly in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany. It could be characterised as a guide on the history of Western Feminism. I really enjoyed it. It is beautiful, clever, funny and informative.

Translated by Sophie Lewis

Published by The MIT Press

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, by Melissa Harris-Perry

What means to be a black woman and an American citizen?  This is the question that Melissa Harris-Perry tries to answer in Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

Sister Citizen is a multi-layered book about the complexities in the lives of African American women.  About what it feels like to be a citizen in America when you are a black woman, in a body that it has been racialized and gendered in a way that
produces shame, fear and distress.

There are some broad ideas in the book, particularly the notion of politics recognition and visibility of the black woman in the American society and politics. ‘Recognition’, says Harris-Perry, ‘is a useful framework because it emphasises the interconnection between individuals and groups. Individuals from disempowered social groups desire recognition for their group but also want recognition of their distinctiveness from the group.’

Taking recognition seriously means understanding the correct relations between the state and its citizens. Citizenship is membership in a community and a nation. Citizenship is bound with recognition. Harris-Perry argues, that black women in America are frequently not recognised for what they really are. Their bodies, their minds, are invisible to many whites who do not see them as individuals with distinctive talents, accomplishments, and burdens. The myth of strong black woman has formed a crooked image and contributed to the misrecognition of black women by denying them their humanity.

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The War on Women by Sue Lloyd-Roberts

The War on Women is a book that shocks. After every chapter you have to pause, think what you just read, take everything in. The inhumanity of man to women, and sometimes woman to women, the misogyny, the hatred, the fear towards women, it’s just heartbreaking.

It is a book filled with compelling stories of women, of injustice and abuse in countries with different cultures as Ireland and India,  in countries as distant as Egypt and Argentina. Sue Lloyd-Roberts believed that no country could take the moral high ground when it came to human rights abuses.

Abducted women are drugged and thrown out of planes by the junta in Argentina, during the “Dirty Wars”.  Young women as young as fourteen years old are raped in Kosovo by members of an international peacekeeping force. Girls endure ‘horrible, horrible pain’ because their external female genitalia have been partially or completely removed by force (FGM).  But it is also a book that inspires, because there are women that fight back. Like Maimouna from Gambia that fled her village in Gambia so she can stop her family’s tradition role i genital ‘cutting ceremonies. Or Célhia de Lavarène, the French journalist that fights human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Women that do make a difference.

Sue Lloyd-Roberts was a  determined and pioneer journalist, she exposed so many of world’s tyrannies. She was also  courageous and fearless campaigner who gave voice to people who otherwise would not be heard.


Headscarves and hymens

They hate us because we are at once their temptation and their salvation from that patriarchy, which they must sooner or later realize hurts them, too. They hate us because they know that once we rid ourselves of the alliance of State and Street that works in tandem to control us, we will demand a reckoning.

Imagine you are a woman born in the United Arab Emirates. Your father or brother or husband can beat you and remain fully compliant with the law so long as he leaves no marks. If you are unlucky enough to be born to Egypt there is a 90% chance to have your genitals cut and almost certainly (99.3% ) you will experience sexual harassment at some point in your life.

bookIn Saudi Arabia, you are not allowed to drive and you need the permission of a male legal guardian to travel, marry, work or access education. You have to wear the abaya in public.   Yet,  even though you cover your entire body in black,  86.5%* of the Saudi men think that  “women’s exaggeration in wearing make-up (to clarify  – that means mascara and eyeliner)  is the main cause of the rise in molestation cases in public places.”  Not that is better in Moroco, where 16 years old girls are forced to marry their rapists, so that the rapist to escape conviction.

The Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy is perhaps the most provocative voice in misogyny in the Middle East. Headscarves and hymens is a brassy, provocative and emotional book – a mix of memoir and indictment against the misogyny society who oppress Arab women.

The Arab women, Eltahawy says,

…live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to us [women], enforced by men’s contempt. They don’t hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired post 9/11 America cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us.]

They hate us, she writes, because they need us, they fear us, they understand how much control it takes to keep us in line, to keep us good girls with our hymens intact until it’s time for them to fuck us into mothers who raise future generations of misogynists to forever fuel their patriarchy.

They hate us because we are at once their temptation and their salvation from that patriarchy, which they must sooner or later realize hurts them, too. They hate us because they know that once we rid ourselves of the alliance of State and Street that works in tandem to control us, we will demand a reckoning.

To back up her argument, Eltahawy presents horrific statistics and stories about women that survived genital cutting (FGM), child brides who bleed to death when they are raped by their husbands on their wedding nights, young women in Egypt who sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square and forced to have ‘virginity tests’.  Egypt, she writes,  “is an important case study in how state and street work in tandem to push women out of public space”. It demonstrates how regimes, regardless of ideology, have proven unwilling to address what Human Rights Watch has described as “an epidemic of sexual violence.”

In his study on the relationship between “Oil, Islam, and Women,” Michael L. Ross argues that gender inequality in Arab states is influenced by oil rather than Islam. Since there is little economic diversification in the oil produced countries, there is little chance for women to join the non-agricultural workforce. Oil production has resulted in Arab states’ patriarchy. It is a compeling argument, but he underestimates the power of Islam on gender roles and the fact that the influence of Islam on Arab culture predates the discovery of oil by several millennia.

On the other hand, Eltahawy’s generalisation and isolation of the Arab women from a fight that is global is not perhaps the best way to approach gender equality. Not all Arab societies are the same and misogyny do not exist just in the Middle East.  They are many women across the globe who feel like ‘second-class citizens’.  But this is her fight and it is just great that her article and book has reignited a discussion that needs to be at the forefront of the public debate in many societies.

*2014 poll from the King Abdul Aziz Centre for National Dialogue

The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for a Feminist Revolution

In January 1969, a group of radical feminists calling themselves the Redstockings – a play on the word bluestocking (an 18th and 19th century term for a woman who had intellectual or literary interests) adapted to include red, a color long associated with revolution – erupted in the USA. The aim was to develop female class consciousness and to overturn the status of women as an oppressed class. One of the group’s founding members was Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012), a Jewish, Canadian-born feminist.

Originally published in 1970, when Shulamith Firestone was just twenty-five years old, ‘The Dialectic of Sex’, one of the most contentious and important books of feminist theory, was the first book of the women’s liberation movement to put forth a feminist theory of politics.

Firestone presents feminism as the key radical ideology, the missing link between Marx and Freud,  uniting their visions  of the political and the personal, Susie Orbach said in a discussion about the book in the Freud Museum in April 2015.

Firestone synthesizes and criticises the works of Freud, Marx, and Engels to create a strong argument for feminist revolution. She does not dismiss them; she says social revolution can’t happen until you go back to the source of original oppression, that of man over woman. “Women are an oppressed class”, she says, exploited as sex objects, breeders, domestic servants, and cheap labour.

"Freudianism subsumed the place of feminism as the lesser of two evils." It [Freudianism] was the perfect foil for feminism, because, though it stuck the same though it stuck the same nerve, it had a safety catch that feminism didn’t - it never questioned the given reality.”

The connection between sex and racism is much deeper that anyone has cared to go, says Firestone.

Racism is a sexual phenomenon. Like sexism in the individual psyche, we can fully understand racism only in terms of the power hierarchies of the family: in the Biblical sense, the races are no more than the various parents and siblings of the Family of Man; and as in the development of sexual classes, the physiological distinction of race become important culturally only due to the unequal distribution of power. Thus, racism is sexism extended.”

Sexually men and women were channelled into “a highly ordered – time, place, procedure, even dialogue – heterosexuality restricted to the genitals, rather than diffused over the entire physical being.”

Firestone submits four demands for an alternative system

1. – The freeing of women from the tyranny of reproduction by every means possible, and the diffusion of the child-rearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women.

2. – The political autonomy, based on economic independence, of both women and children. (Women and children, Firestone argues, are always mentioned in the same breath; the nature of this special bond is no more than shared oppression). “Under, a cybernetic communism”, she says, “even during the socialist transition, work would be divorced from wages, the ownership of the means of production in the hands of all people, and wealth distributed on the basis of the need, independent of the social value of the individual’s contribution to the society.”

  " ....... while we still had a money economy, people might receive a guaranteed annual income from the state to take care of basic physical needs. These incomes, if distributed equitably to men, women and children, regardless of age, work, prestige, birth, could in themselves equalize in one blow the economic class system."

3. – The complete integration of women and children in the society.  …. “ All institutions that segregate the sexes, or bar children from adult society, must be destroyed (down with school)”

4.- The sexual freedom of all women and children. …. “humanity could finally revert to its natural polymorphous sexuality – all forms of sexuality would be allowed and indulged.”

Shulamith Firestone was written this book more than thirty years ago, but it is just as enlightening today as it was then.

Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine

Is your brain male or female?

That was the title of BBC documentary in 2014.  In one of the documentary interviews,  Michael Mosley, a British physician claimed that “studies” have found that women are better at “empathizing and communicating”, while men are better at “systematising”  which means  understanding and building systems-not just computers and machinery, but abstract systems such as politics and music. Michael Mosley has been strongly influenced by the work of Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University who argued that the differences between male and female brains occur because of the higher testosterone levels in the womb.  No need to say who have the highest levels.

Simon Baron-Cohen  is so confident that there is a link between foetal testosterone and  mathematical ability that

….’he expresses concern that a future, hypothetical prenatal treatment for autism that blocks the action of foetal testosterone might reduce ‘that baby’s future ability to attend to details and to understand systemic information like maths’.

In Delusions of Gender the psychologist Cordelia Fine spends a lot of time discussing the topic of foetal testosterone, exposes the bad science and reveals how unconscious gender bias influences people’s behaviour. Her initial motivation, she says in an interview in the American Scientist,  was “simply to alert people to the fact that old-fashioned stereotypes are being dressed up in neuroscientific finery, and to remind people not to be so enthralled with brain imaging that they forget the importance of social factors.”

She discusses research into hormonally-driven “hard-wiring” of gendered interests, behaviours and aptitudes,  aka neurosexism. She is also funny!

brains….  [W]hen I decided to follow up [Louann] Brizendine’s claim  (Louann Brizendine is an American neuropsychiatrist) that the female brain is wired to empathize, it nonetheless proved to be an exercise that turned up surprise after surprise. I tracked down every neuroscience study cited by Brizendine as evidence for feminine superiority in mind reading. (No, really, no need to thank me. I do this sort of thing for pleasure). There were many such references, over just a few pages of text, creating the impression that it is no mere opinion, but scientifically established fact, that the female brain is wired for empathy in a way that the male brain is not. Yet fact-checking revealed the deployment of some rather misleading practices. For example, let’s work our way through the middle of page 162 to the top of page 164 in her book (The female brain, 2007). We kick off with a study of psychotherapists, which found that therapists develop a good rapport with their clients by mirroring their actions. Casually, Brizendine notes, All of the therapists who showed these responses happened to be women.” For some reason, she fails to mention that this is because only female therapists, selected from phone directories, happened to be recruited for the study.

There may be slight variations in the brains of women and men, says Cordelia Fine, but the wiring is soft. Thinking, learning, sensing can all change neural structure directly. As Bruce Wexler has argued, one important implication of this neuroplasticity is that we are not locked into the absolute hardware of our ancestors. We are not prisoners of our genders or our genes.

“ In addition to having the longest period during which brain growth is shaped by the environment, human beings alter the environment that shapes their brains to a degree without precedent among animals ….. It is this ability to shape the environment that in turn shapes our brains that has allowed human adaptability and capability to develop at a much faster rate than is possible through alternation of the genetic code itself. This transgenerational shaping of brain function through culture also means that processes that govern the evolution of societies and cultures have a great influence on how our individual brains and minds work.”

In the epilogue of her book, Fine writes:

“The fluidity of the self and the mind is impressive and is in continual cahoots with the environment. When social psychologists discover, for example, that mere words (like competition), everyday objects (like briefcases and boardroom tables), people, or even scenery can trigger particular motives in us, or that similar role models can seep into our most private ambitions, it makes sense to start questioning the direction of causality between gender difference and gender inequality. We are justified in wondering whether, as gender scholar Michael Kimmel suggests, “gender difference is a product of gender inequality, and not the other way around.”

As for hormones that act on the brain, if you cuddle a baby, get a promotion, see billboard after billboard of near-naked women, or hear a gender stereotype that places one sex at a higher status than the other, don’t expect your hormonal state to remain impervious. It won’t. “Even how we behave or what we think about can affect the levels of our sex hormones,” point out Gene Worship authors Gisela Kaplan and Lesley Rogers.

Our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable, and changeable. And, if we only believe this, it will continue to unravel.

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