May 17, 2004

Those moral-superiority feminists and the leverage they provide.

Barbara Ehrenreich addresses the topic that it seems everyone will need to talk about forever: the assumptions of feminism and the reality of women in the military. She writes in the LA Times (link via A&L Daily):
Even those people we might have thought were impervious to shame, like the secretary of Defense, admit that the photos of abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison turned their stomachs.

The photos did something else to me, as a feminist: They broke my heart. I had no illusions about the U.S. mission in Iraq — whatever exactly it is — but it turns out that I did have some illusions about women.
The stomach/heart contrast may have some (slight) literary merit, but it is quite wrong to portray the nonfeminist photograph viewers as affected only in their stomachs. Many people who were not focusing on the question of women at all felt great pain in the loftier organ. Even if they didn’t think “how could women do this?” they surely thought “how could Americans do this?” “This is not America” has been the key idea expressed by members of the Bush administration.

Ehrenreich writes that “A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naiveté, died in Abu Ghraib,” but it is quite clear from her article that she never subscribed to this kind of feminism--“a feminism that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice.” She ties this naïve feminism to the pursuit of equality, as if those who think the basic goal of feminism is equality also believe that women are morally superior to men. She assumes those who favor equality do so because they want to reform institutions and believe women, in their superiorty, will bring reform by their magical presence. It would be naive to think that, but in fact, most people who favor the equality version of feminism (in other words, most Americans), favor it as a matter of simple fairness to the individual. We believe it’s wrong to discriminate based on sex! Thinking she has swept equality feminism aside--Abu Ghraib destroyed it!--Ehrenreich fancies herself in a position to replace it with the feminism that is entirely subsumed into an ambitious political agenda. [ADDED ON REREADING: This agenda is, in Ehrenreich's words "the struggles for peace and social justice and against imperialist and racist arrogance."]
What we need is a tough new kind of feminism with no illusions. Women do not change institutions simply by assimilating into them, only by consciously deciding to fight for change. We need a feminism that teaches a woman to say no — not just to the date rapist or overly insistent boyfriend but, when necessary, to the military or corporate hierarchy within which she finds herself.

In short, we need a kind of feminism that aims not just to assimilate into the institutions that men have created over the centuries, but to infiltrate and subvert them.

To cite an old, and far from naive, feminist saying: "If you think equality is the goal, your standards are too low." It is not enough to be equal to men, when the men are acting like beasts. It is not enough to assimilate. We need to create a world worth assimilating into.
This is not a new version of feminism—as the existence of an old saying shows—but the same expropriation of the power of feminism in the service of political goals that are not very appealing at all to the many people who easily support equality feminism and can easily continue to do so despite the role of women at Abu Ghraib. Women are individuals, capable of good and evil, who deserve to be treated fairly as individuals. There is nothing naive about that at all. It strikes me as quite a bit more naive to think that Abu Ghraib is going to excite women about your "infiltrating" and "subverting" project.

UPDATE: Ehrenreich's position is similar to one discussed here earlier, by Debra Dickerson.


lindsey said...

Yes, the target of most modern feminists is not equality but dominance. I called myself a feminist until I figured this out.

Anonymous said...

One strain of discussion, other than the feminist angle, that I wonder if we'll see come out of this is to talk about the abuses that occasionally occur in American prisons. It seems this is documented at some prisons, in terms of overcrowding, certain prisoners being raped, etc. In Wisconsin there was recently a lawsuit re. requiring air conditioning during a brutally hot, occasional summer heat spell here (got to be in the 80s in the cells.) I don't believe in coddling criminals, but surely this discussion has some merit in a democratic society. Does the discussion wait until we have pictures, or until we are afraid the costs of any abuse will come back to hurt our people? Or do we write the powerless prisoners here off and just assume no abuses occur in our own correctional systems?