Sisterhood or scorched earth?

As I’ve become more aware of the problematic aspects of female socialization, I’ve taken steps to actively work against what I’ve been taught is expected of me simply because I’m a woman. In some ways, the process has been straightforward: I notice my impulses, think about where they come from and who they serve, and then do the opposite. One aspect I continue to struggle with is figuring out how much kindness my feminism should include.

In patriarchy, a woman who correctly performs femininity puts the needs of others before her own. She takes up little space in the world, both physically and behaviourly. She is gentle and quiet, downplaying her accomplishments in order to not appear brash or threatening, and she decorates herself in ways she has been taught appeal to men. She is selfless, unthreatening and, most of all, she is nice.

In contrast, men who behave according to traditional rules of masculinity are competitive and dominant. Protecting their pride against perceived slights is a constant concern, one that justifies using violence when the situation presents a significant enough threat.

Examined together, it’s clear how both male and female socialization benefit men while actively disadvantaging women, so it’s no surprise that feminists focus on identifying and challenging gendered socialization, and freeing ourselves from the shackles of conditioned nicety.

What becomes more complicated for me is figuring out how geniality relates to feminism.

Since feminist activism involves consciousness raising and persuasion, is being kind simply the effective thing to do? Or, since recognizing and rejecting problematic aspects of gendered socialization is central to feminism, does gentleness reinforce problematic stereotypes? Is liberation freeing ourselves from the desire to be, or be seen as, nice? Or is rejecting socially-conditioned impulses to be mild and cooperative simply emulating aggressively masculine behaviour?

A black and white thinker who often has trouble discerning shades of grey, I often find myself vacillating between both approaches, usually depending on the audience and situation. Sometimes this seems like an effective middle ground, other times like insipid half measures.

Some of the more radical feminists I’ve encountered have been admirably raw, openly and mercilessly pushing women to ally exclusively with other women and avoid men altogether. Sometimes going as far as calling heterosexual women handmaidens of patriarchy, some of these feminists aggressively criticize women for allying with, marrying or having children with men.

Seeing these women openly flout the rules of feminine behaviour sometimes makes me uncomfortable, yet I tend to see that discomfort as a result of my socially-conditioned expectation that other women conform to the same version of femininity that patriarchy uses to control us all. Part of me admires these feminists, and believes they push us into the uncomfortable, raw places we must go to deconstruct our internalized misogyny. At the same time I wonder if this ferocity fuels and sustains the movement, or does it fragment the movement by dividing women who could otherwise work together?

On the other hand, does a feminist approach based in a gentler form of persuasion reinforce problematic stereotypes about what’s expected of women? Is seeking compromise just another way in which women continue to settle for patriarchy’s meagre crumbs? Is allying with men or groups who don’t explicitly prioritize women’s liberation selling out? Or is this approach simply a more pragmatic, longer-term journey towards liberation?

I don’t have the answers, but considering many women spend their lifetimes without recognizing or questioning their socialization, I’ve decided to cut myself some slack while I figure it out.

Looking for your input, sisters – on the continuum from scorched earth to sisterhood, where does your feminism fall?

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3 Comments

  1. I feel like there’s no way for me to adequately respond to everything that you’ve brought up here without writing my own essay. So, I’ll just say a couple of things. Yes, I think that women who criticize other women for their sexual orientation and desire to have children “fragment the movement by dividing women who could otherwise work together.” There is institutionalized heterosexuality, which is harmful, but there is also a natural attraction to men that many women have. I don’t think that feminism should be about telling women to repress their sexual desires or that only one type of intimate relationship is acceptable (with other women), but about finding new ways to have relationship with men and other women that aren’t based on the harmful or institutionalized aspects. Women can have healthy relationships with men. No, I don’t think that allying with men or groups who don’t explicitly prioritize women’s liberation is selling out. I’m a black feminist and so I have to ally with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, because a movement that is only based on gender will never liberate black women. We need liberation from racism too. This requires me to ally myself with black men, which is very rewarding, as many of them in the #BlackLivesMatter movement are working for my liberation as well. I’m a radical intersectional feminist. I have to be, or else I’m not advocating for myself or my sisters. Finally, I think that women should analyze their own behavior in a political context and make sure that they aren’t being nice only for the benefit of men in a co-dependent way. But, kindness and compassion are very important qualities that I believe all people should develop for the good of humanity. I am not kind to those who don’t deserve it. But, I give everyone the benefit of the doubt. It is hard for me to be around people who are too aggressive, callous, or unkind. I don’t desire to work with people like that of any gender. I have a friend and when we were in college together she kept trying to be less modest and less nice, which is okay. But, she ended up taking it too far and being really competitive, cold, and snobby toward other women. She wanted to break out of the female gender norm, but the bottom line was that she was being a dick and she hurt my feelings. I told her that and we both cried, because she knew that I was right. Interesting questions that you raise in this post.

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  2. I just discovered your blog via another blog, and this is kind of an old post, but I just wanted to comment that this is a good essay and something that I don’t think gets talked about as directly as you talk about it here often enough — this question of “nice.” “Nice” really is very gendered and it is so difficult sometimes to overcome that conditioning while trying to be “kind.” Kindness and compassion are something we should all care about but it continues to be expected of women and not as much of men. It’s something I think about a lot and was pleased to see someone writing about it.

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