Thursday, May 10, 2012

Social & Political Philosophy: Feminism

Myths and Realities of Gender Differences

The myth is that women are docile, non-violent, unconfident, incompetent, and emotional.  Grossman already has told us that there is no difference between men and women in combat physically or psychologically.  Women are capable of violence and even rape, though our society does not recognize this yet (Melody’s lesbian serial rapist story, female gang members story, female serial murderers as poisoning, girls style of picking on people vs. boys).  Women are not unconfident or emotional compared to men.  Consider that it has been said women have a emotional-sexual cycle that lasts 28 days, men’s lasts 6 minutes.

What, then, are the differences between men and women?
Most obviously, there are physiological differences that relate to sex and procreation.  In addition, there are two dynamics of psychology in which women differ from men.

First, men tend to seek power through NOT being social, isolating themselves and their opinions, whereas women tend to seek power through BEING social, interacting with others.  The two best examples are 1) classic women ‘let’s talk’ vs. men ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ that becomes strained in many heterosexual relationships (choosing a restaurant, where women wants to discuss and man wants her to just pick), and 2) male boss ‘don’t bring it to me until it’s done and done right’ vs. female boss ‘let’s go over the details so we are on the same page’ difference of support offered.

Second, in sexuality, men like to watch women and women like to be watched, as one author has said, to watch themselves being watched.  Women want to be desired, whereas men want to get what they desire.  BOTH OF THESE differences are relative and to a degree, a leaning apart as I like to say.  Thus, men like being watched and desired, and women don’t want to talk about everything.

Other than these RELATIVE oppositions, there is no good evidence to suggest that men and women are very much different at all.  The work of Piaget suggests that men and women undergo the same mental development in the same set of stages at roughly the same ages.


History of Sexism and Feminism

In apes and the most ancient nomadic and tribal societies, there is evidence that women often had status and leadership positions.  Women were shamans, leaders, and there were often central female mother gods.  As people began to collect into city states, we can see patriarchy increase.

Why did this happen?  The best explanation so far, one that does not rely on any inability of women, is the increased size of the community.  When people lived in small communities, women could raise children at the center of the village, as the political center.  As city states increased in size, it made it increasingly difficult to raise one’s children at the public center.  Thus, women retreated into the home, and men, who had to be the go-for before now were the ones who could venture out of the home and into the centers of political activity.  Today, devices allow women to raise children while fully participating in public life, but women are still confined in a way to the home in balancing life between home and career.

When we look at the cultures of the world and their historical development, we can see that all cultures have taken part in a similar oppression of women, but at the same time women have had increasing power in society and new movements have to appeal to women to take off.  Consider that Buddhism, Christianity and Islam (the three largest cultures yet) all had to offer women better status and rights than they had previously (Naga princess story of Buddhism, stories of Jesus involving women and men cheating equally bad, Islamic law and divorce and consensual sex), but all three oppressed women (nuns can only teach kids).

Modern society has continued the trend, such that today women have equal legal status in many nations but covert sexism and a lack of women owning property persists.  A united Nations 2004 report claims that women work 20% more a day on job and home together than men do (10 ½ hours to men 8 ¾ hours).  Women are 51% of the population (technically the MAJORITY of the population), do 66% of the work, get 10% of the income, and worldwide own 1% of the property.  Thus, sexism (overt AND covert) is quite alive, in spite of counter claims.
(Performance art piece with empty area of museum with card that says women who clean are the artists who have performed in this space).

Feminism is the movement in reaction to sexism and prejudice against women.  The basic idea is that women should have the same status as men in society, or “women are people too” (Kate Weber from high school assembly asks crowd ‘Who thinks women are equal to men?’ most everyone raised hands, ‘Then you are all feminists!’, impressed me much).  It is a shame that people, men but ALSO women, are afraid of calling themselves feminists, largely from the backlash of the 80s between the second wave and third wave of feminism which said that “militant feminists” “hate men”.

There are three waves, each building on the last and addressing new issues from the last wave.

The first wave was the women’s suffrage movement of the 1920s in America and Britain.
The most famous figure is Susan B. Anthony.  She argued that the abortion issue should be set aside to concentrate on women’s right to vote as an adult citizen and women’s right to refuse sex to their husbands (note Mohammed in the Ahadith says this in 600 CE, with problems today).  The first wave, not of course known as that till the second wave, ended in 1919 with 19th amendment to the constitution.

The second wave was the civil rights movement, the late 60s and early 70s which is also called the women’s liberation movement or ‘women’s lib’.  Defined by Carol Hanisch’s phrase “The personal is political”, took off in early 60s and culminated in the civil rights act of 1966 (backed by both NOW and NAACP, the biggest US anti-sexism and racism groups together).  While the first wave said ‘this is America so we deserve to vote’, the second wave was part of anti-establishment left movement that said that America was a corrupt institution that needed to be changed.

Simone De Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in France in 1953, arguing that women had been marginalized as ‘The OTHER’ by men using Hegel’s idea of the master-slave dialectic (my German Hegel professor ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ speaking of feminists using Hegel).
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The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan was another big book of the time (much more published in America than Marxist De Beauvoir’s), arguing that women were not feeling fulfilled as homemakers and mothers, and they needed an identity for themselves as individuals beyond the identity of the family (valium in the 50s, TV’s Madmen).

The major criticism of the movement, which only fully rose in the third wave:
Gloria Jean Watkins, known as ‘bell hooks’, early critic of 2nd wave as white middle class women empowerment that ignores all else in the name of ‘feminism’, thus hooks’ ‘womanism’.

The third wave was after the 80s backlash against the 60s progressive movements that began in the early 90s and continues today.  The third wave tried to not only pay attention to black women, Latina women, third world women, but also to break down the idea of women as essentially different from men but equal.

The two big issues, which are still being fought out today, are 1) Is gender a subjective construct (in the mind) or social reality (in the world)? And 2) Did feminism accomplish what it set out to achieve, or did it in part hurt its own efforts in telling women that sex makes them oppressed?  I was talking with a co-worker the other day, and she said her son and his friends in high school think that feminists are hippie women who don’t shave their arm pits, hate men and think that the oppression of women is a thing of the past.  Notice that this deals with these two issues: the kids misunderstand feminists as both anti-sex and not recognizing the battle is over.

First Issue: Structuralism of 50s & 60s vs. Post-Structuralism after 60s.  De Beauvoir says that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman’.  Judith Butler (I saw speak on Wed) says that gender identity is performative.  Both of these figures thus back the poststructuralist conception, that identity is created and performed.

Second Issue: If a woman puts on makeup and wears a short skirt, is she being oppressed or is she actively expressing her individual sexuality?  Second wave came under fire from the third wave because feminists often told women that if they tried to be sexy they were being deceived and made into property (vs. my friend from Berkeley at the Lusty Lady, working for prostitute’s rights here and in the third world).  This drew a fight between anti-pornography and prostitution feminists and younger pro-sex feminism.  Pro-sex feminists ask, even if we are talking of abusive male style porn (vs. porn FOR lesbians), do you want to make porn illegal?  Should we try to deny men watching women and lust, or should we empower the individual woman to live as freely and equally as men in a complex and messy world?

This is still a big issue, as many feminist authors have argued that TV and movies today SEEM to be pro-feminist (Sex and the City, Ali McBeal, Brigit Jones’ Diary) but in fact they are stories where a working white woman (and her friends) try to find the perfect man to find happiness.


bell hooks (1952 – present)

Born Gloria Jean Watkins, bell hooks (yes, spelled lower case on purpose) is a feminist and social philosopher who argues that class, gender and race are complexly connected.  Critical of second wave 60s feminism focusing on sexism to the neglect of racism and the gap between the rich and the poor, she labeled herself a womanist (not in spell check, but now added to my dictionary) and argued much like Foucault did with Chomsky that power, even resistance movements, reinscribes itself and thus feminism can itself be a marginalizing force.  This is also similar to Judith Butler, who views culture and feminism as a complex and not as a simple struggle between the forces of good and evil.  While feminism made gains in the 60s and continues to do so today, bell hooks was critical of the movement as it was populated mostly by white college women who are upper and middle class, live in first world countries such as the US and UK, and disconnected from the lives of many women who are impoverished, are unable to attend college or a good career, and who are overwhelmingly of European descent.  Consider the shows criticized by feminists today, such as Ali McBeal, Sex and the City, and Bridget Jones’ Diary.

One of the most frequently cited sources of the third wave of feminism, bell hooks argues that feminism is for everyone, not just middle and upper class college girls and career minded women.  Growing up first in segregated schools and then in predominantly white schools, she saw firsthand that progressives and educators can support prejudice while fighting for change.  She studied at UC Santa Cruz and began teaching in 1976 at USC, then later at Santa Cruz, Yale and SF State.  She first wrote poetry under her grandmother’s name, Bell Hooks, later keeping the name as she wrote nonfictional essays and books.  One of her early and most famous books is Ain’t I A Woman?  Black Women and Feminism (1981), which examines the dual marginalization of black women in a patriarchal and racist society.  The title is inspired by Sojourner Truth, a black abolitionist and feminist living in the late 1800s whose speech Ain't I a Woman is a celebrated work of women’s rights.  She is critical of black men’s sexism towards black women, the marginalization of the poor by the powerful, and white racism and white supremacism in culture and media.

While some are critical of her work, like Foucault she is suspicious of any side that calls itself the true and the objective, including feminist and black consciousness movements.  For this, many call her, as they do Foucault and Butler, a post-modernist, a skeptic of conceptions of absolute truth and a believer in perspectivism and historicism, that truth is always in a particular perspective situated in a particular time and place.  This is similar to Trotsky and Heidegger in so far as power and knowledge must continuously transform themselves.  A movement such as feminism must thus be continuously critical of itself and understand itself as a diverse group of various strategies and perspectives.  I am particularly inspired by her view of education and teaching.  She argues that schools can operate as mind control centers that breed conformity and complacency with injustice such as institutional racism and sexism, but they should operate as open spaces where individuals are invited to question their culture, assumptions and ideas.


Judith Butler (1956 – present)

Another celebrated source of feminist philosophy, particularly post-structuralist and post-modernist third wave feminism which is critical of power like Foucault, is Judith Butler, a professor at UCB and one of the most famous feminist thinkers today.  She wrote her thesis at Yale on Hegel and understanding individuality in French history.  Like bell hooks, she began to question feminism and its assumptions, particularly the monolithic “us vs. them” mentality that is unreflective and untransparent not only in its assumptions but in its masking the diversity of the feminist movement.

A political philosopher beyond the focus on feminism, I myself saw her give a recent talk (in jeans and a black t-shirt in front of a well dressed audience) on Palestinians and how their suffering is perceived and framed in the US and UK, particularly on how suicide bombers understand themselves and their actions and how they are understood by outsiders.  This is very similar to her work on gender in locating truth in a human body as a performance in time and space.  As she is Jewish, she has been praised for this, her most recent work by pro-Palestinian groups and opposed by pro-Israel groups and authors as a traitor and fool.  I particularly admire thinkers who stand up against what they believe are injustices of their own culture and people.

Butler’s famous feminist idea is performative gender, that gender, and all identity, is a performance.  Wearing a dress, applying make-up and watching certain types of TV shows are obvious examples of how traditional women’s gender is performed.  In her most famous book, Gender Trouble, she particularly uses Foucault as inspiration to critically examine gender and how it is prescribed and reinscribed through the actions of people as they identify themselves with a particular gender.  Like Hegel and Foucault, this is a historical view of truth that suggests that gender and identity are cultural constructs.  Like Foucault and Fanon, Butler is critical of binary divisions and how they limit our understandings of ourselves and others.  Like bell hooks, Butler argues that supporting feminism means criticizing binary distinctions such as women vs. men rather than supporting them. Given a diverse population and the complexity of politics and history, human beings limit themselves through their understanding of identity and its complexity.

For example, men come to see certain actions as macho, and they identify these with masculinity and heterosexuality as individuals in a cultural coherence such that their performance of their own identities and individualities are stylized and polarized.  Thus, crying becomes something feminine or homosexual, in opposition to the masculine and heterosexual.  A male individual, inauthentically as Heidegger might say, would believe that he is doing what he naturally wants without critically reflecting on the fact that he has helped participate in his own enclosure in an identity that limits his individuality and possibilities.