Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Visible Invisibility

Flying from San Diego to Los Angeles to Honolulu to New York to Boston is both exhilarating and exhausting. At each stop, there were young men and women beginning both life and involvement, more women than men, it seemed – which gave me a tweak of irony, as I was re-reading Rosa Luxemburg, trying to puzzle out as to why such a brilliant woman said nothing about the state of womankind. Neither do many of these young women who greet me at every airport; they can discourse with great aplomb on anti-war, anti-globalization, anti-imperialism, anti-racism topics but turn coy when it comes to sexism.

I wondered if this was a case of “exceptionalism,” -- the same that afflicted Ms. Luxemburg and which seems to afflict women when they rise to positions of power over mixed gender institutions and organizations. I wondered whether Ms. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo considered herself an exception as well, not subject to the vagaries of sexual discrimination that women in general are subject to on a day-to-day basis. In her case, more likely than not, her class status overwhelms whatever slim thread of solidarity she might feel with other women, enough for her to consent to the virtual release of a convicted rapist from jail.

A grad student presenting a paper on “black-face” minstrels -- “having the black body present without the black body" – made me think that, to some extent, a parallel development had evolved with the women's case. There are women with power, women of leadership, without the consciousness of womanhood. I wonder whether this is caused by pride: “I have risen and therefore, I am not like them.“ Not like the exported woman, not like the prostituted woman, not like the woman with five children trying to eke out a livelihood from selling small bags of peanuts on the sidewalk; not like the bruised and battered being who emerges from the darkness of domestic violence. .

Every woman, at some point in her life, must have encountered a sexual innuendo, a degrading remark. The worst I’d heard were “she needs a spanking” and “she needs to get pregnant,” both said in the midst of a political debate. Many women have assured me that this is not unusual and worse have been said to girls and young women. A GABNet recruit said that the school guidance counselor advised her not to try hard for her SATS, as she would just get married and pregnant.

Class and male dominance were from the same source, the rise of private property, which continues to divide humankind to this day. One would expect that, in this era where corporations hold sway, their heavily male hierarchies owning and controlling practically everything, women would be most aggressive in their advocacy for and defense of their rights and just due. This is not the case. Perhaps the winnowing process of leadership selection is so geared toward enabling men to attain power that when the "exceptional" woman manages to maneuver to leadership, she emerges degenderized -- i.e., alienated from a social reality that forms such an important aspect of her life and being (shades of "unsex me here"), becoming emblematic of something akin to the revisionist concept of "a whole people." To chance upon someone like Parvati of Nepal is therefore a pleasant surprise.

In the course of the past 20-day lecture tour, I was asked several times whether Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, erstwhile president of the Philippines, was a feminist. Well, no. A feminist holds the rights and welfare of the majority of womankind to be paramount in her thoughts and work; she works for an equal share, for womankind, not only of political power but of social wealth. The last is important, as women own/control less than one per cent of the world's resources while doing three-fourths of the work to keep the species alive. Unfortunately, feminist has been made to mean everything most men find unpleasant in women; hence, the use of the word with neither thought nor analysis.

So not all women who wield power do so even partially on behalf of their sisters and the current political scene is replete with this irony: that despite so many women active and engaged in a welter of political activities -- from grassroots organizing to teach-ins to managing organizations -- women's issues remain at the back burner and continue to be "secondary." The phenomenon has made women metaphorically invisible by their very visibility.


Anonymous said...

I don't understand what you're trying to say. Women are all over the place. How can they be invisible?

AWE said...

Beautiful. I just came from a conference myself, focusing on Asian American women living in the USA and my thoughts on women of color in leadership positions found a home in your post. Thank you for this post. Thank you.

Anonymous - if you don't know what women and invisibility is about, continue reading other's works before asking such a question about the basic oppression of women and especially poor, marginalized, women of color.

Dax said...

"There are women with power, women of leadership, without the consciousness of womanhood." I'm going to oversimplify here: if we think of 'men' and 'women' as concepts or social constructions that are value-linked, then the irony you point out, while no less ironic, is explanable. Simply put (too simply, but for brevity's sake) we haven't taken many steps towards the equality of the sexes, we've just allowed (some) females to chose to be men rather than women, so to speak. We can't really then expect them to possess 'the consciousness of womanhood' which they may have never even developed if their power came early and relatively easily (though your suggestion of amnesia, or exceptionalism, is probably a part of it too). This step we have taken just opens the population pool from which the powerful are drawn without addressing the underlying, and persistant, ideological means by which the powerful are separated from the powerless or the reasons that make such a separation appear natural and unavoidable. The reason I said 'some' females is that other ideologies of power are also at play (racism, class, etc.) which, as you correctly point out are related and, even ideoligally, have the same source ('man' against 'nature') and intersect with each other creating levels of power/powerlessness. Women, the Other, manual/'unskilled' labour, etc. are ideologically conceived as part of nature and as such, less valuable than European man, mental/'Skilled' labour, etc. This is quite simplified...Hope you get what I mean. As for feminism being a dirty word, I think this is partly due to the fact that feminism has largely neglected the negative impacts of sexism on males. Sexist ideology harms males as well, not just psychologically but physically (especially at the points of intersection with other ideologies). I'm not a fan of much masculinist thought (in its backlash form it is especially regrettable) but there is a need to look at the the effects of sexism on males and not just on males as aggressors, rapists, etc.

Sylvia said...

I think she means women are visible in numbers but invisible in power and decision making. We're still growing as far as recognition of our weight in the world as women.

(Here via Vox, by the way; great post.)

allecto said...

Hi, I found this post from The Carnival of the Radical Feminists at I'm glad I did. Your posts are incredibly well written and intelligent. The way you write about the experiences of women just breaks my heart. I've read a few of your posts and when I have more time I'll be reading more. Please keep blogging. The voices of strong, caring women are so important and deserve to be heard. I can't believe some of the things that the anonymous posters have said in their comments. How can they be so callous? It just proves to me how much men hate women.

In sisterhood,


Mayumi Masaya said...

I find myself guilty of the things that you have pointed out. Although I am engaged with several concerns, I find that 'feminism' as a term, isn't one.

Perhaps I have become too Western in this sense, believing too much in this freedom of choice and what we call 'equality.' I have been in situations where I have experienced this imbalance, whether it be in the fields of Bukidnon, or the streets of Londonistan. I am still wary of entering territory where women are outrightly considered inferior and where I am limited in terms of doing the work that I do (as in some parts of Muslim Mindanao.) I believe in the social, educational, political, (and the almost unattainable possibility of) economical equality for women. Maybe I am a feminist. I just don't call myself one.