Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why I am a Feminist

All of us, at least those of us who consider ourselves human, have a moment, usually quite early in life, when we become aware of our embodiment, of our corporeality. Despite our ability to imagine and mentally travel anywhere and at anytime, and to feel our thoughts as flowing and unbounded by space and time, we nevertheless find ourselves to be embodied creatures, and that the particulars of our embodiment set limits and possibilities upon what is within our capacity.

Moreover, we can break down our bodies into parts that seem salient and important and at other times trivial. Further still, we can have emotions and feelings about the parts of other bodies of those around us. In particular we have an experience of having specific sexual organs and the ability to experience the organs of other people in the same general category as us, or, as is more common, with different sexual organs.

We have great pleasure and pain about these organs - both those of ourselves and of others. We are now attracted to and now repulsed by this state of affairs. We create and sustain symbolic and exchange values to these aspect of our bodies. We change our mind about ours and others' bodies. And, of course, our very bodies change through time.

Above all, if we are fully honest with ourselves, we will come to realize we had absolutely nothing to do with our particular embodiment. It was not originally an act of will or decision. Even the feelings, positively or negatively, about our particular embodiment are not something we choose: rather it is something akin to hunger breathe, however unnatural and ostensibly cultural aspects of the symbolism might appear.

Since we have no choice in this aspect of our lives and since this embodiment is a very important aspect of our lives and part of a web of dreams wishes and real life achievements, as a logical consequence we must develop practices and theories which respond to this state of affairs, a need that takes the form of two very opposed yet equally necessary moves.

Since this embodiment is not freely chosen, we must honor our lack of responsibility for how we find ourselves in ways that make no notice of or discrimination on the basis of our particular case. That is, our embodiment should play NO role in, for example, our function as citizens, in friendship, in work, business, and aspects of leisure, in intellectual endeavors and certain athletic endeavors. In short, we need a neutral space where the case of our embodiment is not an issue. We may not always succeed at this since we will always have special feelings positively or negatively over that aspect of our embodiment over which we had no responsibility; we will always have values and feelings over being male or female or transgendered. Indeed, in certain aspects of life we ought to have values and feelings about those states. But in many aspects of our public and private lives such values and feelings ought to be rendered irrelevant as is hopefully the case in our employment practices.

Conversely, since aspects of our embodiment do matter deeply in certain circumstances, (for many of us this is in our sexual life for example), we need the freedom to escape neutrality, to exercise bias, discrimination and desire and express ways of valuing those very aspects of our embodiment that we did not in fact choose. (As of late even the decision to alter our embodiment would appear to fall under the right to not be neutral and to express preference about our bodies).

For a variety of cultural and historical reasons, Feminism has been the word to describe the negotiation of these two opposing but equally necessary responses to our embodiment. Feminism wants both to honor and value what might be a consequence of being female, however that is understood, yet, at the same time to ignore that very embodiment when it is considered prejudiced or unfair to take such embodiment into account. Feminism is a way of negotiating these dual needs - the need for both relevance and irrelevance - that arise from having a body that is not freely chosen. This deeply relates Feminism to other social justice movements that arise from other identities over which we have no will or control, as in skin color or the economic station into which we are born.

This has been called Feminism not because those in the female sex are the only ones to whom the issues I have been discussing apply but because historically it has been women for whom the balance between neutrality and preference has been most askew and, above all, for much of human history it is men who have had a relationship of dominance over women in certain aspects of life that has been most injurious to women. Thus the word Feminist seemed the most natural and appropriate word for ways of understanding this state of affairs.

At one time, as I was the victim of a particular and peculiar teacher who expressed the view, (though I nevertheless dearly loved her), I was under the impression that no man could be a Feminist by virtue of having only male experience and male body.

I now see, for the reasons I logically laid out here, that Feminism is (potentially) for everybody.

I leave to one side all sorts of perennial controversies about our embodiment. It is not necessary to agree about what is the proper meaning of woman or man or indeed the correct behavior that would be expected from either or both. All that is necessary, to accept the truth in Feminism, is to acknowledge that it would be cruel and unjust for us to hold ourselves and others responsible for matters over which we have no control, and to create undue emphasis upon such matters. All that is necessary for us to embrace Feminism is to realize that we are embodied and that part of that embodiment involves experiencing particular sexual organs and all of the historical weight that hangs upon us by virtue of being female or male. We should be Feminist because we live in History and are human, because we owe it to ourselves to honest about that History, because until now the business of being male and female has not been so easy or straightforward or transparent. However part of nature being male and female has been, if we are honest with ourselves it is never feels entirely natural. We have had to reflect, to theorize, above all to Critique.

Feminism is a way of negotiating our daily reality of being embodied. We are not Platonic ghostly forms hovering in the ethers. We deal daily with being and having bodies. That is why a word like humanist is not always sufficient. We need ways of theorizing and knowing that take into account certain particulars of our embodiment. Whatever one's beliefs about souls or minds or bodies, all of us find ourselves with particular sexual organs and feelings and relationships about those organs. This fact alone, along with the fact that we had no choice in what form we take, any more than we had any choice in the families into which we were born, should make Feminism a necessary part of human intellectual inquiry and physical practice.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! Great and crystal clear piece on what SHOULD be the goals of feminism. Too often emotions and personal or political agendas get in the way when feminism is discussed, or irrational fears and hatreds come up. Feminists themselves often make their areas of focus so narrow as to alienate many who would naturally come to their side. Hardly anyone really thinks of feminism as an equal rights movement, but rather as an us/ them war. The problem becomes so much more confusing when, as you stated, different strategies need to be used at different times with women. It's as if modern men don't know when to look at a woman and when to treat her like a neutral human, so they've decided to stop looking, taking away the pleasure of many women as well. Women of course have exacerbated or in some cases created this problem by overreacting to male attention in unjust and sometimes damaging ways. But if we all look at others as people first and always, and do not try to use traditional privilege such as gender, race, or class to oppress others, then of course there won't be any more of these problems. What's most distressing is how being a white male is the "normal" thing to be, and all others need to conform to his example in order to be normal as well.