Friday, October 05, 2007

Young Man in Travail, Young Woman In Revolt

Alan, 22 years old, writes: “I made a vow to devote my next ten years to political activism. My (ex-) girlfriend was cynical about my decision, saying I would just carry my sexism to politics. Can you give examples of political sexism, so that I can try, at least, to avoid it? Becoming a non-sexist activist seems to me the best way to honor my mother who alone raised me and continues to support me on her earnings as a hotel chambermaid in Chicago.”

Maryanne, 23 years old, writes: “I was very distressed to be told I should ignore your writings and all your works. I wanted to attend your talk here in Boston but was told No, that that would be breaking discipline, that you’re not a proper representative of Filipinas. Since I was 15 years old, I’d been reading about you and wanted to become like you. What is a model activist woman?”

As I read these two pieces of email, I have an ear cocked to news about Anucha Browne Sanders, whose sexual harassment lawsuit against the Madison Square Garden has been resolved in her favor, to the tune of $11.6 million. She said she had engaged in the legal fight “for all working women…” Certain elements would dismiss this as a bourgeois-feminist triumph, ignoring the link between quantitative-qualitative changes in the process of social transformation. My view is that whatever expands democratic rights, especially for the poor and marginalized, for the discriminated, is a good thing.

The case underscores what remains unresolved in the activist world: finding the means and process by which collective political sexism can be addressed. Such individual acts of sexual harassment and discrimination as had been visited on Browne-Sanders are far easier to resolve: here’s the act; there’s the culprit; here’s the victim; here’s the intent; these are the repercussions and here’s the law. But rectifying the collective grievance of womankind would require a massive change in how we look at the world, in our value systems and in our power relationships. So much of political sexism is standard practice it is barely recognized even by the well-intentioned. Rather, women’s struggles for equality within progressive circles are often met with cynicism and a consistent devaluation of the issues with which they have to contend. In contrast, meeting a half-dozen former mail-order-brides with varying experience of domestic violence in Maryanne’s Boston, drove home the truth that when women’s issues are not addressed with immediacy, the outcome is often a dead woman or one crippled for life in one sense or the other.

The most pernicious and the most grievous of political sexism is that which disallows women the right to effect historical signification, which has led, through 7,000 years, to the loss of women’s history and social amnesia regarding women's ability to effect social change. This is part and parcel of the overall social and economic denigration of the value of women’s work, of women’s actions – a requirement in class society which has perpetrated the largest thievery in the whole of human history: the theft from women of the value of labor characterized as “necessary.” Through such necessary labor, for which women go unpaid and unacknowledged, corporations and class societies are ensured the daily and generational replenishment of labor for their profit-making activities. Currently, with capital’s push to transform women into wage laborers, the “nurture” gap, as some refer to it, is made up by the devalued household work of Third World women. Hence, the push as well to deprive women of color of the right to historical signification.

Let us be more concise. In recent discourses about the Philippine government’s black list, watch list and hold-order list, the full-frontal attack against those travesties of human rights launched by three women’s organizations – two in the Philippines and one in the US – has been studiously ignored, for the sole purpose of raising the testosterone profile of certain entities. Cong. Liza Maza’s blistering congressional speech, Atty. Alnie Foja’s legal moves – none of these appear to be of the same value as words emanating from predominantly male, often white quarters. Since the three organizations are comprised largely of women of color, sexism is thus compounded by racism.

This should not be surprising. The “lost” history of women is replete with the “unmentionable” roles they played at moments of historic juncture. The Petrograd uprising of women in 1917 is one; the Chinese women’s role in the May 4th movement is another; the 1984 October women’s march in Manila which triggered end-game convulsions that ousted the Marcos dictatorship… The list would be long and stretch back through time. Even such a datum as women being the original holders of the key to the kaaba in Mecca has been hidden by acts of long-standing historical censorship.

Political sexism is a reflection of class society’s need to keep women suppressed and oppressed, so that they may be alienated from the value of the work that they do. To stop the theft of the value of their labor, including necessary labor, women will have to opt to end society’s stratification into classes. Hence, no matter who does it or from what direction it comes, denying women the right to historical signification is reactionary. It echoes globalization’s treatment of women as a valueless and hence disposable population, as goods to be bought and sold, etc. Alan can tack on what other negative values he might perceive, should he examine the conditions of his mother’s life. What, for instance, happened to his father?

On the question of models, which Maryanne raises, I can only say that women’s liberation being a work-in-progress, there are no models. Or perhaps there are many models. Occasionally, I’ve heard admiring remarks about women who have “three children but (remain) politically active.” Never have I heard admiration expressed for one who says “I can’t have a child this year because it’s WISAP time; nor next year, because it’s general assembly time.” So which is right and which is wrong? Accommodating one’s self to women’s double or triple burdens or removing one’s self from the dynamics of that “karmic” wheel? I have no answer. Suffice it to say that motherhood, the consecration of it, is part of the arsenal of the right-wing effort to push back women’s freedoms.

Being works-in-progress, liberated women create themselves as they go along, negotiating between duty and vision, forging, out of the old, their new selves. As for discipline, that which arises from a system of punishment and reward is a fear-based one, more religious than political. Discipline in the latter sphere should arise from one’s understanding and acceptance of what needs to be done, in our diverse historic roles, and doing it. Knowing, understanding and comprehending – these are key words to me, creating a sustainable political activism that is consistent and enduring, much better than power-and-punishment words like those used to threaten Maryanne: being iced out, being shunned, being labeled, etc.

Erich Fromm wrote that “freedom from traditional bonds… though giving the individual a new feeling of independence, at the same time made him feel alone and isolated, filled him with doubt and anxiety, and drove him into new submission and into a compulsive and irrational activity.” In other words, when we leave our traditional comfort zone to embark upon a different way of living, the anxiety can be such that some among us will accept even the loss of the freedom to think in order to belong. Or be deemed “to belong” by those who construct models. Understanding this weakness, Alan and Maryanne, may over time help make you model activists. -- ##


Anonymous said...

As usual, a very elegant and concise piece. Wish more political essays were written like this. But who's this guy denying the women's experience with and courage before the black list?

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I am suddenly braver.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Am beginning to understand, I think. Like, no one ever thanked my mother, not even our relatives whom she supported for decades. And I must add, including me. Calling her right now to thank her and tell her how much she has meant in my life.

inthenameof said...

Thanks for the great article.

To Alan and Maryanne, here are some other pieces as food for thought:

"On Abuse of Activist Women by Activist Men"

"Gender Oppression, Abuse, Violence: Community Accountability Within the People of Color Progressive Movement"

Luisetta Mudie said...

"Being works-in-progress, liberated women create themselves as they go along, negotiating between duty and vision, forging, out of the old, their new selves."

Very eloquent; thank you. Is this something like a shift from PowerOver/PowerUnder duality to Power With? Are con-sciousness (withknowing) and re-cognition (rethinking)some of the hallmarks of Power With?

I have always been struck by the analysis in Process Work of the aspects of rank (privilege). That those lacking monetary privilege have access to a moral/spiritual rank that is denied the mainstream. Is your reference to the abuse of activist women by activist men an attempt by those men to appropriate that spiritual rank? The more dispossessed, the higher the spiritual rank, and the greater the fear generated in the privileged. Psychologically (unfortunately), fear cuts off higher brain functions like cognition, preventing (physiologically) re-cognition and con-sciousness from developing. Ironically, such a vicious circle is often only broken by com-passion (withfeeling) in the underprivileged person, because the fear suppressed in the hearts/minds of the privileged has cut them off from it. This surely ends up exacerbating the divide between them, as the underprivileged become more and more identified with their spiritual rank, and the privileged with their material rank. The answer seems to lie in the territory of the heart, which somehow manages to tolerate great contradiction...

Lisa said...

Thank you again and again!

Anonymous said...

I definitely recommend that the young men who want to become activists take up at least one women studies course. How else will they learn to identity sexist oppression and raise their level of understanding in order to end all forms of oppression?