Friday, August 01, 2008

An Open Letter to Open Left

-- by Sara

Regular readers may recall that a few weeks ago, I participated in a round-robin discussion hosted by Jon Pincus at Open Left, on the subject of "feminist and womanist perspectives on Hillary's withdrawal from the race."

The discussion ended abruptly after four posts, of which mine was the second. (It was also posted here at Orcinus.) It ended in a storm of recrimination, much of it crystallized in this thread, that soon enough devolved into pretty much exactly the same political correctness debate feminists have been having since I was in my first CR group in 1977. (Just reflecting on this fact makes me tired, all the way down to my bones.)

The personal part of this conversation included heated accusations from Paul Lukasiak (whose work I've admired) and Debra Cooper (with whom I generally disagree about almost everything anyway) that my offering was anything but feminist; and actually was a complete apology for, and a capitulation to, The Patriarchy. Other commenters picked up the theme, denouncing my lack of "feminist credentials." (Evidently, there's a licensing body out there somewhere that I've been derelict in sending my annual dues to.)

The discussion all went down in the days just before and during Netroots Nation, which is why I haven't really checked in and followed it all down until today. But, having done so, there are a few things I feel a strong need to set straight. Since I didn't make my case when the conversation was live, I'm going to accede to Jon's prompting for a reciprocating post here at Orcinus now.

This is my open letter to everyone involved in that conversation. (An earlier draft was circulated privately to the principals involved.)

To OpenLeft, fellow bloggers, and commenters:

I finally, belatedly, wandered into the 81 comments left at Jon's intermission post. And I really, really wish I hadn't.

It was delightful to discover, after 40 years of believing otherwise, that a bunch of people who've never even met me have decided that I'm not a feminist! Apparently (I had not known this), self-identifying as a feminist is Not Enough. You have to meet other people's externally (and badly) defined criteria. (I believe that, in other contexts, this is called "political correctness.") And I'm not politically correct, so Debra Cooper and Paul Lukasiak are going to revoke my card.

Fine. I've seen the "feminism" they represent, and it's not a club I've ever wanted to join anyway.

My main offense seems to have been in pointing out a historical pattern -- which, by the way, I first learned of in a women's studies class at UCLA taught by a radical lesbian feminist -- in which blacks almost always seem to come into their rights before women do. That's not an apology for anyone. It's simply a documentable description of how our society has worked in the past, and seems likely to work in the future barring extraordinary changes that don't appear to be in the offing.

This fact is annoying on some levels, and encouraging on others. I acknowledged that, too. If merely speaking a historical fact is enough to get one tossed out of the feminist movement (and, evidently, it is), I no longer have to wonder why we've made so little progress. The first step in dealing with reality is seeing it clearly. If contemplating the nature of reality is not allowed, then "feminism" will never amount to anything more than a shared fantasy; and those of us who consider ourselves card-carrying members of the reality-based world will be excluded from the work.

My other offense is that I apparently didn't feel sufficient allegiance to Hillary simply because she and I share a similar anatomy. In my feminism (which I realize -- all too acutely now -- does not look like that subscribed to by others in this discussion), we're allowed to choose our allegiances based on criteria other than shared gender; after all, this is exactly what we're asking the male power structure to do. I understand now that this kind of petty insistence on equivalency makes me a heretic; but since that's nothing new for me, so be it.

In my feminism, men do not get to be automatically wonderful just because they're men and hold all the power. And women don't get to be automatically wonderful just because they're women and we're supposed to be working off of some kind of presumed "sisterhood." (Sorry. I've been knifed in the back by too many rich white yuppie "sisters" in the course of my life to trust them blindly. I've also been in too many organizations that were completely disrupted by their combative operational style, and had to join the cleanup team after they left. Hillary did push that personal button for me, hard.) But mostly, I found Hillary distinctly unwonderful for a host of reasons that had nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her alliances and her record.

Because of who I am and what I do, I daresay I have a more-specific-than-usual set of criteria for what I look for in a leader. (And let me further note that those criteria are not the least bit gender-based -- though, if anything, they tend to favor women.) Hillary didn't make the cut because she simply did not exhibit enough of the characteristics I seek -- and my sense of female solidarity was not strong enough to make up for this lack.

I also learned through this discussion that being a middle-aged white female means I'm the heir to the only true feminism, and cannot possibly be disinherited. Or else I'm not a feminist, because I failed to stand in unquestioning solidarity with Hillary when she needed me. Or else I'm a covert agent for the Male Supremacy because I made an observation of fact that some people chose to respond to with emotion. Or something.

Drop me a note when y'all figure it out. Or, y'no, don't.

My feminism, in case anyone still cares, is based in a larger humanism. It's predicated in the idea that I have a fundamental right to live my life in a way of my own choosing, without having to submit myself to any man simply because he is a man. To the extent that men have conspired to create a society that demands that women do this in almost every interaction we have with men, women and their thoughtful male allies must conspire to break that system.

But you can have legitimate disagreements on how that can happen, and still be a feminist. Or, at least, I keep thinking you should be able to -- but I'm eternally astonished by my own gender's ability to insist on an ideological purity that destroys unity, creates schisms, leads to fights like this one, and makes a farce of the entire effort.

This is why I don't usually engage much with identity politics. My personal feminist revolution -- and I like to think I have this much in common with everyone here -- is working in a deeply male-dominated domain under my own name, and earning a fair amount of respect for what I do because of (or in spite of) my gender. I'm raising a son who reflexively respects women, and a daughter who knows how to demand respect for herself. I don't put up with sexist shit from men; and, mindful of the fact that lot of women admire what I do, I do my best to set a good example and offer encouragement those who are trying to find their own way to empowerment.

I find the idea that four decades of living a life rooted deeply in feminist values isn't enough to qualify me as a feminist deeply, personally offensive. My feminism doesn't depend on meeting the criteria on somebody else's personal political checklist. Muriel Rukeyser once said, long ago, that if one woman told the truth about her life, the world would split open. Modern feminism began with the deep insight that the personal is political -- that every act a woman performs as a free woman has the power to transform the culture. Feminism, to me, is not about how well one can parrot high-flown academic theories. Rather, its most radical and transformative expression lies in how we choose to exist in the world every day.

And so I speak my truth right out loud in the blogsphere -- and then I go about the radical business of living my life. And in my world, that makes me a feminist, regardless of whether or not those who think they hold the current patent on the word agree. I'm not looking to any of you to punch my ticket for me. And thanks to you, I now realize that attitude, too, is a radical act of self-liberation.

Sara Robinson

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