On April 16, 2010, Vexingwrote at Feministing that she’s frustrated with the transgendered females she’s met who don’t acknowledge that becoming female has caused them to lose privilege. (For a discussion of privilege, see yesterday’s post.) She wants to know how to convince them that when they were gender-normative males (meaning their gender identity matched their genitalia), they had male privilege and that once they transitioned to female, they lost it.
Vexing’s frustration comes from the reactions she’s received from these transgendered females. They don’t see a problem at all. She hypothesizes that they are so thrilled with being female that they’re willing to put up with the sexism and discrimination that comes with it. Some even appear to welcome it, as a kind of proof that they are indeed being accepted as women.
It’s not just transgendered females who feel this way. Plenty of gender-normative women seem willing to accept what society dishes out because “after all, it goes with the territory.” These women usually insist that the benefits of being women—being sought after sexually, protected and supported, able to have children, and not having to work—far outweigh the possible deficits—being abused sexually, controlled and mistreated, left high and dry when they become pregnant, and not being able to find meaningful work that pays well.
A woman who refuses to call herself a feminist is one divorce or beating away from becoming one. Everything’s fine as long as she gets to be the star of her perfect little life. But when reality sets in, when she experiences the negative side of being female, when she wakes up and realizes that men get a larger share of the pie than women do, then she may begin to wonder if being a woman is all that it’s cracked up to be.
I hate sentences that start with “most” and end with some ridiculous pronouncement about what “most” are doing. Phyllis Chesler appears to be a prime offender, judging by her article on Muslim women and the veil. She writes: “Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families.” She also writes that “Most Muslim girls and women are impoverished and wear rags.”
These statements are typical of a person who cares more about justifying her own prejudice than in adding something constructive to the debate. Not only that, but they’re just plain ignorant. Chesler cites examples coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan as being typical of the entire Muslim world. She also equates Muslims with Arabs, when in fact this only applies to 20% of all Muslims.
I especially love this statement of Chesler’s: “It is well known that the Arabs and Muslims kept and still keep sex slaves–they are very involved in the global trafficking in girls and women and frequent prostitutes on every continent.” Where does she get her ideas??
But of course Chesler doesn’t care about being objective—or even factual; she has a career to think of. Dr. Chesler (she has a Ph.D in psychology) is primarily a writer and is the author of thirteen books and numerous articles. (Check out her web site for examples of her writing.) She is also a psychotherapist and an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY). By her own account, she was “held captive” in Afghanistan when she went to visit her then-husband’s family, an experience that she says made her an ardent feminist. It also appears to have made her into a rabid Islamophobe.
In a 2003 review of one of her books, Publishers Weekly concluded that “Chesler’s tone and lack of intellectual rigor will not help her ideas to be heard by those who do not already agree with her.” (Source: Wikipedia.) From the samples of her writings, particularly those about Islam and anti-Semitism, I concur.
But what about Chesler’s feminism? Is she really a feminist or a neo-con masquerading as one?
From what I can gather, Chesler is the kind of feminist who blames the victim. One of her books, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, more or less says that women are just naturally competitive with other women, resulting in back-stabbing and general meanness. There is no recognition that women are socialized to be competitive by a patriarchal society that encourages them to stake their identities on the men they can “catch.” (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, just this USA Today interview with Chesler about it, so I realize I may be misrepresenting her views.)
Yes, I know I’m dangerously close to saying that there is only one way to be a feminist or that there is a set platform all feminists have to espouse (pro-abortion, anti-pornography, pro-gay rights, etc.). Although, like all people, I am more comfortable with people who have the same views I do, I recognize that we all have our own versions of feminism, just as we all have our own versions of religion. For instance, Sarah Palin calls herself a pro-life feminist. Some feminists are supportive of pornography and sex work. Many women who hold feminist views don’t identify with the feminist movement because they feel that it is too upper-class and white.
Me? I’m just a feminist who believes that feminism is—or should be—incompatible with any kind of racism, prejudice or hatred. For this reason alone, I find it hard to believe that Chesler is a true feminist.
“A God who is beyond sex/gender has no investment in favoring males or oppressing women.” So wrote Asma Barlas in her article “Islam and Feminism.” Barlas states at the beginning of the article that she doesn’t like to call herself a feminist and yet she made an observation that could revolutionize religion.
Some feminists, especially in the ’70s, were fond of speculating what religion would be like if God was actually a woman. I always thought that exercise was silly, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt that way. Now I know: it’s because God is neither male nor female.
It’s unfortunate that we use the masculine pronoun whenever we refer to God (I do) because that only perpetuates the idea that God is male in character. Some people may honestly believe that He is. Others may honestly believe that She is female. But if you think about it, it’s clear that God is infinitely bigger than any box we can put Him into. We can speculate all we want—He is neither male nor female. He is male and female. He is androgynous. But it only makes sense that He is, as Barlas writes, beyond sex or gender. He simply is.
It seems to me that if we kept that observation uppermost in our minds we could eradicate much of the sexism that exists in most religions. Of course men like to think of God as a male because that makes it seem like God sides with men. Men also strenuously object to the idea that God could be a woman, because they’re afraid that women would then start to claim the upper hand (as men have). But what if God sees us each as persons who only incidentally are male and female (because of the mechanics or reproduction)? What if He doesn’t favor men over women or the opposite? What would our church fathers (and I use that term to refer to all religions) do with that?
Ah, to be a young feminist today! Wait, what would that look like? The 2010 National Young Feminist Leadership Conference that was held last weekend in Washington, D.C. provides us with one picture: 390 young feminist leaders came from 122 colleges in 30 states plus D.C. and Canada to learn more about what they can do as feminists to support abortion and reproductive rights, international family planning, the LGBTQ community, climate change, organizing on campuses, and feminist issues in general. (For a schedule of all events, see here.)
How does this kind of event compare with what was going on when I was a young feminist?
For one thing, there were no leadership conferences in Washington, D.C. Instead, there were protest marches and consciousness-raising groups. Oh, the National Organization for Women (NOW) had just been formed, but its founders were older than women in my age group. I went to college in 1970, before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was illegal in every state except for a handful that allowed it in cases of rape, incest or the physical disability of the mother. New York became the first state to allow abortion for any reason up to the 24th week of pregnancy just a few months before I had my abortion in 1971. I was lucky, not because I was able to have an abortion (or because I needed one), but because I didn’t have to resort to an illegal abortion which might have jeopardized my health and future fertility.
Countless young women came to feminism via the same route I did. Finding ourselves pregnant and unable to obtain a legal abortion made us angry. Or if we had had abortions, it made us angry that we had to go through legal and medical hoops to get them (if we were able to get legal ones at all). The anti-abortion movement had not yet found its impetus; that would come with Roe v. Wade. The mood was ripe in the country for a woman to have a right to privacy as to what she did with her own body. And that had a lot to do with the feminist movement.
The following videos are of the PBS production. It’s dated and overacted, but valuable nonetheless for its commentary on a society feeling the effects of the feminist movement, both before, during and after it.
“Keep your eyes and your ears open during March and you just might learn something you didn’t even know you didn’t know about the most influential group of people on earth.”
What did I mean by that? I meant that most people think they know all there is to know about women’s history and so they tend to ignore anyone who tries to teach them anything new about it. But there is always something new to learn about what women have done in the world. So why isn’t more attention paid to it?
There are two schools of thought which lead to the ignoring of women’s history:
1) People don’t believe that women are capable of great things, or at least of great things in the outside world (which is also considered to be the man’s world); and
2) People (especially men) feel threatened by accomplished women and so seek to downplay their contributions.
The first school is the more laughable, but it’s a mistake to not take it seriously. There really are people out there who don’t think women have what it takes to be a doctor, president, CEO, engineer, etc. They believe that their minds are too illogical, their emotions too unstable and their priorities skewed toward inconsequential things (children, marriage, the home). And, sadly, it is not only men who think this way. Plenty of women limit their choices in life because they, too, believe that they don’t have what it takes to compete in a “man’s” world.
This kind of self-sabotage can be subtle. A woman may go after a career, but only one she feels is appropriate for a woman (nurse instead of doctor, flight attendant instead of pilot, secretary instead of salesperson, and so on). But what is even worse, and not that uncommon, is when a girl grows up thinking that she can’t have a career at all. When she sees her options as limited to the home merely because she is female.