The Woman Without a Voice

July 24, 2020

I’ve stayed out of the Rowling row, pretty much, as it has unfolded over the past month or two, despite my long term commitment on this blog to championing free speech. For one thing, I’m not a Harry Potter fan. As a real Witch, I’ve been less than impressed with the series. If you like it, fine, I don’t ridicule fans, but it’s not for me. Another reason to stay out of the controversy is that I’ve posted so much on this issue of censorship that I’m tired of it. I’m really really tired of it.

But I decided to weigh in, to celebrate one media outlet’s decision to listen to JK Rowling’s lawyers (or maybe their own?) and print an apology for libel. That’s the place we’re at, where an unimaginably wealthy woman hitting back over false accusations designed to silence her is a milestone.

When I shared with a friend my interest in the backlash to Rowling’s essay clarifying her positions, my friend dismissed the backlash by saying, “Well, JR Rowling is rich. She can’t really be hurt much.” Rich people might beg to differ on that, but I understand my friend’s point: rich people don’t have to worry about basic economic survival, which is always a calculus in what ordinary people say or write.

The ”these people are rich and famous so they can’t really be cancelled” argument exploded after the Harper’s Letter (as it is now called) earlier this month. That letter argued, in a vague, general way, for more tolerance of honest discussion. Many were offended by this (rather mild) letter, saying instead of listening to these famous writers talking about something that isn’t happening (to them or anybody else) we should listen to MARGINALIZED people, who don’t have platforms, and highlight their struggles, which have nothing to do with the Harper’s Letter.

But here’s the thing. When a woman fights back against cancellation, she’s always too rich or too White or too educated or too straight or too socially/politically connected for her stand against injustice to be justified. The only legitimate woman to give pushback, say the detractors who watch bullying from sidelines, is the WOMAN WITHOUT A VOICE. The very poor, dark skinned, immigrant, non-English speaking woman with ten children, two them disabled – THAT woman is entitled to criticize an online culture limiting free discussion and debate. If only she could.

Because the point of pointing to the WOMAN WITHOUT A VOICE is that she has no voice and can’t speak. If she could speak, she would tell the woman with a voice speaking in a way disagreeable to somebody to SHUT UP. The woman without a voice is the ultimate straw woman. I follow Black women on social media who have been subjected to cancel culture – booted off the birdsite or threatened with violence or disciplined at their job for speaking up. Ditto for disabled women, working class women, lesbians, Latinas who don’t like the X. Where are these people saying cancel culture isn’t an issue for marginalized people, when women with multiple oppressions (sexism alone doesn’t seem to count) are subjected to its bullying tactics?

Little known fact: Rowling ran afoul of cancel culture originally for supporting a working class lesbian student struggling with a life threatening disability. A marginalized woman. This woman, Magdalen Berns, faced a brutal cancellation campaign. You always know when you’ve found your voice: there are people telling you to shut up. The cancelers will justify their attempts to censor women by bringing up the woman without a voice, a woman who might even be have been you, once upon a time. The woman without a voice is the beloved woman of the left-liberal patriarchy because she isn’t speaking. Listen to the voices of women who are speaking. Or at least, don’t join the mob to cancel them.

Back in the Saddle

July 3, 2020

Well, I got my car back on Thursday. Cost me almost $900. Next week will be busy with stuff I couldn’t get done without a car. Sunday is the final lunar eclipse until November, then Mercury goes direct on July 12. Things should be getting back to normal by the last week of July. I’ve always thought that transits, for me, happen before they happen, though. I think that’s because I’m an Aries, and we always have to be first, but it might be my four planets in Pisces making me more sensitive to vibrations.

In other news, this was quite a week in censorship. Reddit deleted it’s radical feminist accounts as offensive, but left up all the rape porn.

A legal crowdfunding site in the UK deleted, then rewrote, a campaign for a discrimination lawsuit by a lesbian, then told the public they had to because she did something wrong, but they couldn’t say what. Can’t make this stuff up, or keep track of it, or understand exactly what’s going on. EXCEPT that there’s a double standard in censorship for women and men. If a man takes offense at something a woman says, his offense proves that it’s “hate speech.” If a man types something that’s objectively sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic–well, he’s a man.

I personally let the stupid mean things people say go, unless they cross the line into violence or threats of violence. Unfortunately, with so much censorship going on, violence still isn’t addressed. Filming a woman’s rape is violence.

The take-away this week–and I’ve said it before–is that social media sites need to be regulated. That includes crowdfunding sites. They’re a vehicle for powerful unelected men to assert their control of the masses. What is the point of women having the vote, when men silence us through corporations?

Another post at Return to Mago

May 15, 2020

No exploration of life on wimmin’s land would be complete without a discussion of the mice. Coincidentally, after submitting this article a mouse appeared at my workplace. I caught it and released it outside. It will probably be back.

Animal Rights and Feminism–What’s the Connection

January 24, 2020
Photo: Jay Bergesen

A misconception emerged in the last decade of the twentieth century that took feminism seriously off track: the assertion that feminism is about “the rights of everyone.” Yes, because feminism deals with the rights of half the world’s population, it has had to delve into many issues that also affect men, albeit in different ways. Feminism has had to address racism, as it affects women of color. Feminism has had to address class, as it affects working class women. Feminism has had to address sexual orientation, as it affects lesbians. But these and other serious problems also need to be addressed within their own movements, in work performed by women and men: it is not the business of feminism to solve all the world’s problems. The moment women ceased to be centered in the movement dedicated to furthering their rights, feminism itself became a tool for placing women last.

Since feminism has never been popular, it’s debatable whether defining feminism as “about everybody” has done anything for other movements. Defining a problem as a “women’s issue” at best frames it as a problem for women to solve. Since women as a group lack political and economic power, while shouldering most of the daily work of taking care of others, the group with the least resources is tasked with solving the biggest problems. Certainly women should be part of these solutions, but they are men’s problems, too, and men need to give in real ways, not just in empty grandstanding.

Making feminism about everybody’s rights does make feminism slightly more fashionable. A feminism about “men too” is a feminism more men and women can get behind. And since men’s ideas and needs are the draw for the “everybody feminism,” men quickly become the priority. Feminism that centers men is (mistakenly) lauded as “intersectional.” Feminism that centers women, such as childbirth issues, is decried as “white feminism,” although childbirth can transcend “white feminism” by reframing it in terms of those identifying as men: chest feeding, not breastfeeding; front hole, not vagina; pregnant person, not mother. At worst, “everybody feminism” destroys the concept that there can be a legitimate movement centered on women’s rights.

Feminists who are for women have grown increasingly weary of “everybody feminism,” cognizant of the deleterious effects of feminist mission creep on the women’s movement. Nowhere has this mission creep been more obvious than in the assertion that “animal rights are a feminist issue.”

Feminism is a movement concerned with the rights of women – adult human females. By definition, it is not about nonhuman animals. The rights of animals are important – with the growing eradication of whole species it can be argued that animal rights are more important than those of women – but animal rights are not the same as women’s rights.

The exploitation of animals in capitalism is indefensible. Eating animals can be defended as the cycle of life or decried as unnecessary for human survival, but the wrongness of inflicting suffering on animals should be a given. There is also overwhelming evidence that exploitative practices of the meat industry contribute greatly to global warming and other environmental pollution. The question for people invested in the wellbeing of animals (and the planet) is not whether animals are exploited by humans but how to reduce or eliminate that exploitation.

Actually, there is an additional question: how to define that exploitation. The suffering of animals at human hands is so ubiquitous that you would think this definition would be obvious, or at least that debate over the finer points could be put aside until gross injustices are remedied. But there is a tendency in social movements to equate the suffering of one constituency with that of another, one in which there is seemingly more agreement. This tendency is especially prevalent when activists feel their efforts are being stymied. When people feel like they are losing an argument, they bring up such an analogy – not to gain insight into their issue or to explain their position, but to win the debate.

The most famous example of this tendency is Godwin’s Law, the observation that any passionate sustained argument will eventually devolve into a comparison with The Holocaust. Another common occurrence brings Segregation in the South into arguments that have nothing to do with race. Then there is Sexual Violence Against Women. Apparently it happens to animals too.

To people who use these analogies, the parallels are obvious. There is hierarchy and violence; there is domination and abuse; there is perpetration and suffering. But analogies are not equations. People who use human rights analogies need to think about where these analogies break down.

Infringement on animal rights predates patriarchy. I would guess (without really knowing) that abuse in 10,000 B.C.E. was milder than today, but at the end of the Ice Age many species of mammals were hunted by humans into extinction, and not always because there were no alternatives. Humans moved to a more plant-based diet partly because we had killed so many animals (though the environmental changes precipitated the imbalance).

Animal abuse does not, usually, involve sexual gratification. Yes, men can do all kinds of bizarre sexual things, but the key word is bizarre. Bestiality is not normative male behavior, unlike sexual abuse of women.

Animal abuse occurs across species. Animal rights activists are often criticized for caring about animals yet not caring about people. Sometimes this accusation is justified, sometimes it is not, but it is an obstacle in convincing the public to refrain from supporting factory farming. Occasionally I see social media bios that say something like, “I love animals and hate people.” I wonder, do the owners of these accounts understand that dogs and cats are not reading their Facebook posts? Do they think that kind of post endears them to other humans (unless those humans are so delusional they believe they are nonhuman animals)? Do they understand what it means to be human, and can a person who doesn’t understand humans think about animal rights in a coherent way?

One argument for animal rights as feminism uses a Marxist analysis of ownership of female reproduction. The idea is that, just as patriarchy controls women’s reproduction, animal abuse is about controlling the fertility of female animals. This, to me, is a stretch. Yes, domestic female animals are used for their eggs and milk. Every animal slaughtered is some female’s baby. But I don’t think female animals, on balance, are really treated worse than males. In the rural community where I live, which is very patriarchal, the marginal agricultural environment supports goats and sheep, and the females are well cared for. The males, of no use for wool or milk, are made into burgers. Male deer are hunted and does are left alone. Dogs and cats are not pampered according to sex, but male horses are usually castrated. I’m sure there are examples of female animals treated worse or suffering more than males, but as a country girl I’m finding this a hard sell.

Women’s right are human rights. They’re not animal rights.

The false equivalency between women’s and animal rights movements has produced a backlash that is in some way understandable. This should not mean, however, that feminism should leave animal rights alone. When feminist events become inhospitable to animal rights activists, it does become an issue specifically for feminists. I’ve noted situations where multi-day feminist events did not offer vegan options, either as part of the pre-paid event meals or as option to buy elsewhere in vegan food deserts. Since veganism is an important aspect of animal rights for many women, this becomes a feminist issue in terms of barriers.

There are a lot of “feminist” issues that are not intrinsically about women’s rights. Women in literature has been recognized from the start feminist issue, with women’s words suppressed or warped by patriarchy. Women in STEM is a hot feminist issue right now, with feminists pushing to overturn barriers for girls entering science and tech fields. Yet science is not intrinsically about women’s rights; it only affects our rights tremendously. Women and religion is another important area for feminists, yet is religion itself about women’s rights, or it only used as a tool for perpetuating male dominance?

Animal rights is a women’s issue when it is an issue begging for feminist leadership and influence. Animal rights as practiced can have a “ladies’ auxiliary” aura to it, with men defining and controlling the issue and women preaching to other women about becoming vegan to be a real feminist. It reminds me of knitting socks to help the war effort. Who controls the philosophy of animal ethics, or the strategy of animal rights, and why?

There has also been an element (which may now be on the wane) of the subjugation of women through animal rights activism. I’m talking about the PETA lettuce dresses and other skimpy clothing, the women re-enacting lobsters boiling, the women subjecting themselves to animal testing. This kind of “activism,” whether promoted by women or men, has used animal rights to express hatred and objectification of women. Young women, motivated by compassion for animals, have found themselves conned by this movement. I believe that in some instances animal rights has been used as an issue to control women.

Animal rights need to be discussed within feminism, not as part of the to-do list of being a feminist, but for feminist influence in a wider movement. Why is being vegan an issue for feminists, when men eat so much more than we do? Shouldn’t they be the focus of dietary changes?

Anything can really be about feminism, but the way we know if we are practicing real feminism, versus “everybody feminism,” is by looking at how that feminism challenges the power of men. Are animal rights a feminist issue? Only as they intersect with women’s rights. Only as they affect women’s right to influence an important issue. Only as they may be used by men to dominate women. Animal rights should, in the end, be focused on animals, and there are problems with grafting a human rights model onto animals. Sometimes we have to look beyond our anthropomorphic lens.

So these are the ways animal rights becomes a feminist issue: 1) Ensuring there are no barriers to participation by vegan women in feminism; 2) Pushing for meaningful participation by feminists in the animal rights movement; and 3) Countering the way the animal rights movement is used to further subjugate women. To base analysis of the subjugation of animals on the subjugation of women, however, is unhelpful. Most people, men and women, care less about the suffering of women than that of animals, and making animal rights about feminism extends the mission creep of “everybody feminism” from men to animals.

Iphigenia in Aulis

August 9, 2019

I was reading Iphigenia in Aulis this week, and another thought struck me about this myth.

The Greeks performed a ritual to Artemis prior to attacking Troy, offering Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to her priestesshood, in order to secure favorable winds and other blessings from the goddess, who was venerated along the coast of Asia Minor. Buttering up the gods of the people you planned to attack, trying to get them to move over to your side, was an ancient war strategy. The story goes that Iphigenia was going to be killed at the altar, but by a miracle Artemis substituted a deer (or sometimes, a bear) at the last minute. This made a better story, but it (probably) was an embellishment. Maybe as part of the ritual to Artemis a deer was sacrificed. Maybe Iphigenia initially protested being relegated into chastity. Her mother almost certainly wasn’t onboard with the plan. But I’m not going along with the miracle substitution.

Photo: Elfer

I was thinking this week about how Judy Grahn and other feminists have viewed the Trojan War as a last stand against Western patriarchy, the defeated Trojans representing the matriarchy. The all-women priestesshoods were relics from the matriarchies, their continuation an uneasy truce, or even a condition of surrender. As patriarchy gained a firmer hold, the Witch hunts of the Catholic (later Protestant) church sought to eliminate these relics of female power. The persecution of Dianics by American Witches are a continuation of that quest to subdue female power under male domination. Thinking of the autonomous priestesshood as a term of surrender puts the attacks on Dianics within Paganism in sharper focus. The three major methods of maintaining female subordination under Patriarchy are violence, economic oppression, and religion. Destruction of religious self-determination for women is an essential part of patriarchal control on the left and the right.

I tell the story of Iphigenia in my book, Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the pagan priestess.

A Priestess for Artemis

Iphigenia means “mother of strong children” and is probably an early name for Artemis or another bear goddess who became merged with Artemis. It later became an honorary title for her priestess. There are conflicting versions to the following story, but this much is not in dispute: The hero Agamemnon, leading an offensive against Troy, made little headway with his fleet due to unfavorable winds sent by Artemis, whom Agamemnon had offended. After consulting an oracle, Agamemnon offered Artemis his eldest daughter Iphigenia, thus earning the implacable wrath of his wife, Clytemnestra.

King Agamemnon of Mycenae was on the wrong side of Artemis from the start. His father had failed to honor a vow that he would sacrifice a prized lamb to the Huntress, and there is no record that the son felt an obligation to make good the pledge. Agamemnon, so capable in manly pursuits, once slew a white stag with a single arrow and boasted that Artemis could do no better. So true this boast: the beast was a member of the Virgin’s chariot team, and she would never have slain it.

When Queen Helen ran away with the Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon took command of the retaliatory mission. Here was a chance to lead a great coalition and gain heroic stature. So much more the pleasure of Artemis, whose sympathies were inclined toward the Trojans, in thwarting Agamemnon’s plans. As the fleet readied to embark, an unfavorable northeast wind stranded them in the harbor of Aulis for weeks. Some say the goddess was miffed over the killing of a hare and cursed the whole expedition. Impatient to sail and bewildered by the persistent bad wind, Agamemnon called for an oracle. A chicken was gutted and the seer declared Artemis must be coaxed with a sacrifice of Agamemnon’s oldest daughter.

At first Agamemnon demurred. His wife would never surrender the girl, he protested. The military cohorts devised a scheme: send a messenger to the mother explaining that the demigod and prince Achilles wished to marry the princess, and she must come at once.

Clytemnestra, whose ambitions were wholly channeled in securing an advantageous match for her beautiful daughter, hastened to Aulis with Iphigenia, where a comedy of errors—or perhaps a tragedy of errors—awaited them. Agamemnon’s secret letter to Clytemnestra exposing the ruse had been intercepted, and the strong-willed matron arrived against her husband’s expectations demanding a marriage contract. Achilles, innocent and uninformed of the subterfuge (and married to someone else besides), was protesting there had been a mistake. Priests were completing preparations for Iphigenia’s dedication. The bamboozled daughter was balking at the plan, and her mother began begging Agamemnon and then threatening him. Surely there was a face-saving way out of the mess, by declaring Achilles an unknowing partner to deception if nothing else, but the fact remained that ships were stuck in harbor and men were itching for war.

Iphigenia, realizing her father’s ambitions and her country’s future revolved around her, finally stepped forward and declared she would go to Artemis. Iphigenia was as loyal, devoted and obedient as she was beautiful. Or maybe filial duty and patriotism were just a piece of it, and Artemis herself seduced the girl. Perhaps Artemis promised her adventure in a far flung country. She could be mistress of a great temple. The possessions of rich ladies who died in childbirth were sent to this temple, and Iphigenia’s beauty could be displayed against the finest fabrics and jewels.

Iphigenia’s acquiescence stirred a whirlwind. At the altar of Artemis the priests raised their knives to slit the girl’s throat, but at the last moment a bear cub was switched in her stead, and Iphigenia was swept on a red cloud to the land of Tauris. The same wind that whisked the new priestess filled the sails of the Greek fleet, and they were off to conquer Troy.

In offering Artemis the coveted maiden, Agamemnon was given the favorable wind he requested, but the act never improved the disposition of the goddess toward him. Later she abandoned him to the wrath of Clytemnestra.

It would be inaccurate to say the sacrifice of Iphigenia turned Clytemnestra away from her husband, for he had earned her hatred long ago. There comes a point, however, where dislike becomes disloyalty, and the proud mother had envisioned a greater future for her daughter than being exiled in a remote temple wearing dead women’s clothes. That the victorious Agamemnon returned from the war to be trapped in his wife’s net should surprise no one.

Iphigenia did not learn of her father’s fate for many years, until her brother Orestes was cast ashore at her temple under mysterious circumstances. As high priestess, Iphigenia presided over the slaying of refugees at the altar of Artemis, and during the pre-ceremonial interview learned of his identity.

What was Orestes doing in Tauris? Orestes admitted he was running from the horror of his actions. He had killed Clytemnestra, with Apollo’s approval, to avenge her murder of their father. After the filthy deed, Orestes was called to account before the Olympians, where Apollo spoke in his defense. The gods quarreled over his fate along political lines until the goddess Athena cast a vote with Apollo, tipping the verdict in Orestes’ favor.

An acquittal won through a brilliant defender and a stacked jury does not automatically erase the pangs of conscience, however, and Orestes had committed a horrendous deed. The Furies, sister deities who rule the conscience, tormented him for his crime until, driven to the edges of insanity, he consulted an oracle for a remedy. The oracle instructed him to steal the sacred statue of Artemis at Tauris and carry it to Brauron, where he was to build a new temple to the goddess. If he was unable to carry out this feat, Orestes declared, he might at as well die in Tauris; he could not go on living with this torment.

Surprisingly, Iphigenia decided to help her brother. She had grown tired of her exile and longed for the customs, faces and clothing styles of her native country. She told the Taurian king that Orestes and his companion were polluted by matricide and must be cleansed before sacrifice. That much was true; Orestes was not fit to have his throat slit on the altar of Artemis. She further told the leaders of her host country that she was borrowing the statue of the goddess for the purification rites. Iphigenia was certainly the double-crossing daughter of Agamemnon

Orestes consulting the oracle. Notice the snakes on the priestess hovering above the tripod. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Miraculously, with much adventure and intercession of the gods, the brother and sister eventually reached the ancient shrine in Brauron. A new temple was built, with the sacred image installed therein, and Iphigenia was named high priestess of the complex.

The presence of an important temple to Artemis so close to the city was an honor that made the Athenians nervous, as the wrath of Artemis had already sparked so many misadventures. Every family that could spare a daughter for a year sent the girl to Brauron to attend the goddess and learn the Brauronia ritual. The girls were called little bears and charmed the goddess with their dances. In this way, Artemis extended her healing side to Athens, protecting against plagues and enhancing the survival of infants and their mothers.

The Feminist Digression, Part Deux: Thus Begins My Foray Into Gender Trouble

July 26, 2019

In the last essay, I described the article that finally got me interested enough in Judith Butler to actually read Gender Trouble. I had read a lot about Butler’s writings, filtered through radical feminist interpretations, and they had not inspired me to explore the original.

For one thing, I never see anyone quote or discuss Butler except radical feminists and a few philosophers who hate her. Of course, I don’t follow the social media or blog accounts of the tribe that espouses gender ideology, but I do run across comments from the tribe on Twitter – it’s impossible not to. They say: “Trans women are women, end of discussion.” “Biological sex is a social construct.” “Our identity is not up for debate.” “Shut up Terf!” “My pronouns are xe/xur.” “Misgendering is violence.” “Objecting to the label cis is transphobia.” “Non-binary people exist.” “The penis is a female organ.” “Suck my formaldehyde pickled balls.” Leaving aside the truth or falsehood of these assertions, none of this sounds very theoretical or academic. And unlike radical feminists, these commenters don’t link to academic articles or thoughtful essays on blogposts, despite exhortations to “educate yourself.” I have a hard time believing any of these people have read Butler.

I’ve also read a good deal of media propaganda about the “gender revolution,” from places like National Geographic, The Guardian, The New York Times, and the BBC, to name a few. Butler’s name is occasionally dropped, as a historical precedent or an inspiration to the genderfull, but the discussion quickly moves on. I doubt many of these journalists have read Butler either.

Having been a college student myself, I also find it hard to believe that many college grads have read Butler. Oh, I believe Gender Trouble was assigned. I believe it was discussed in a class or two. I believe many graduates can regurgitate a succinct summation of the theme, the way so many white quasi-feminists can spout a rehearsed definition of intersectionality without having any idea what it means. But come on, if any of the people who bought Gender Trouble at the beginning of a college term ever read past page two, those troubling words are decomposing in their brains along with calculus theorems they hope never to use again.

I have made the assumption (unconscious, as most assumptions are) that radfems have been perusing Gender Trouble carefully searching for a theoretical basis for the current gender madness that is undermining feminist progress (and even hard-won rights). I have assumed that they have done this because radical feminists are theoretically-minded women, who ground their own positions and actions in careful analysis, not because Gender Trouble has inspired bizarre permutations of patriarchy like the Cotton Ceiling. In short, I assumed radfems were reading Gender Trouble because of who they are, not because of what that book is, thereby giving it a significance it doesn’t deserve.

I further assumed that this agenda of finding a theoretical basis for contemporary women’s oppression has led radfems to misread Butler. I assumed that by careful reading they found somewhere, perhaps on page 53, something that implied that sex (female biology) is fundamentally a suspect social construct, and later, perhaps on page 97, something that implied “woman” should be deconstructed into an individual identifier unconstrained by common definition. But surely she didn’t mean to erase women altogether. It had to be a misreading, because who would seriously say that, besides some nut on Tumblr?

The final assumption I must confess (the last one, I promise) is my assumption that my poor brain wasn’t up to the job of reading Butler. Not that I consider myself an idiot, but I’m trained in economics and social work, not philosophy. And I kept hearing from radfems that Butler was “difficult,” “impenetrable,” “hard to understand.” I now think that they were only being kind.

Because the first thing I realized, reading the preface of Gender Trouble, is that Judith Butler is not in my league. After ten years in psychiatric social work practice, I know the difference between someone communicating a difficult concept and someone who has difficulty communicating. I know better than to strain to grasp the point of a writer jumping from place to place to place, because I know she, too, is struggling to find her point. I know that convoluted writing reflects confused thinking as much as poor writing skills, and I don’t think Butler’s primary problem is that she can’t write. Butler’s convoluted, disjointed, disorganized, unfocused thoughts are a desecration to the printed page, and had she come up with any “theory” except one so damaging to feminism, no one would take her seriously. Thus my first apology is to myself, for thinking I could not understand Butler. I understand her too well.

My second apology is to my fellow radfems, for assuming they were erroneously ascribing to Butler the intentional unmooring the word “woman” from any definition. That is unquestionably her aim, stated on the first page and continuing for as long as I could read. She doesn’t say it clearly, because she doesn’t say anything clearly, but she does say it.

The very subject of women is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms. There is a great deal of material that not only questions the viability of “the subject” as the ultimate candidate for representation, or, indeed, liberation, but there is very little agreement after all on what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women. (p. 1)

Yes, that’s what she wrote. Don’t go back and read it again. I carefully proofed this excerpt, and the grammatical error in the second sentence is either a typo or Butler’s unique way of phrasing things, free from the constraints of heteronormative grammar. As for the “great deal of material,” supporting this contention, it isn’t cited, so I’m unsure whether this material is feminist, or about women, or related to “the viability of ‘the subject’” in more general postmodern theory. If I had read to the end, perhaps I would know (but I doubt it).

Having moved women beyond any clear definition, Butler moves on to the biology of the female.

If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. (p.9)

If the immutable character of sex is contested. That’s a big “if,” unsupported by the previous paragraph, requiring a consultation with the footnotes. Let’s see. She cites herself, which might count if she was a biologist, but she’s not, and a quantum physicist who sounds interesting but she’s also not a biologist. Quantum physics challenges our basic notions of reality, but it doesn’t negate biology, as any physics teacher will tell you. Okay, moving down to the next note, an African-American historian, a professor of American Studies, and an anthropologist are given credit for thinking some of Butler’s ideas before she did. I wonder how that feels. Then more Butler citing herself. Then there’s this gem:

Of course, Homi Bhabha’s work on the mimetic splitting of the postcolonial subject is close to my own in several ways: not only the appropriation of the colonial “voice” by the colonized, but the split condition of identification are crucial to a notion of performativity that emphasizes the way minority identities are produced and riven at the same time under conditions of domination.

Again, this was carefully proofed: it’s a classic example of a misuse of a colon. Don’t reread: it was wrong the first time.

Okay, I’m not going to subject myself, let along you, dear reader, to any more Butler footnotes. I’ll give one more example of Butler conflating sex with gender and erasing woman as a category,  just to complete my mea culpa.

[Simone de] Beauvoir is clear that one “becomes” a woman, but always under the cultural compulsion to become one. And clearly the compulsion does not come from “sex.” There is nothing in her account that guarantees that the “one” who becomes a woman is necessarily female. If “the body is a situation,” as she claims, there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings; hence, sex could not could not qualify as a prediscursive anatomical facticity. Indeed, sex, by definition, will be shown to have been gender all along. (p.11)

A couple of things. There is a dichotomy in that excerpt. Even though The Second Sex is about the condition of women, Butler states that we can theoretically imagine that nothing de Beauvoir says guarantees that the “one” who becomes a woman is necessarily female; but in the next sentence we are forbidden from supposition.. “…there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings; hence, sex could not could not qualify as a prediscursive anatomical facticity. This is an example of what I was talking about in part one: Butler can’t seem to hold a premise from one sentence to the next, or else there’s some connection between the two statements left out. There’s also a logical fallacy in that second statement. All sexed bodies are influenced by culture; hence there is no sexed body that culture influences. I won’t critique Butler on that level, however, because postmodern theory (when convenient) says there is no a priori condition and cause-and-effect are simultaneous. Still, if we can imagine de Beauvoir was talking about dicks (and it’s a stretch), we can imagine, just for a moment, a world that is subject to cause-and-effect (which, as a matter of fact, ours happens to be). Some radical feminists accuse Butler of sleight-of-hand and intellectual dishonesty. The impression I’m getting is that she is not dishonest but incompetent.

The second comment I want to make about that excerpt involves another apology, this time to French feminists. As an American feminist, I am so sorry about this woman. I don’t know how we produced her, and she claims it was the French. She quotes the translation of that opening line to The Second Sex in Gender Trouble and makes it carry a heavy load, and in the article in The New Stateman I mentioned in part one, she’s still taking that sentence apart. It shouldn’t need to be said, but I have to say it. De Beauvoir did not write, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” She wrote, On ne nait pas femme: on le deviant. Maybe that phrase translates perfectly in the English edition, but not everybody thinks it does, and at any rate a discussion of the meaning of the words and their connotation in their original language is warranted before imbuing them with a meaning that could not have been imagined at the time they were written.

In her 1999 preface, Butler also misrepresents Catherine MacKinnon’s arguments concerning gender hierarchy:

If gender hierarchy produces and consolidates gender, and if gender hierarchy presupposes an operative notion of gender, then gender is what causes gender, and the formulation culminates in tautology. (p. xiii)

Butler is aware, or should be aware, that MacKinnon is operating under a recognition of the material differences between men and women. Male and female is not a tautology, and MacKinnon is decidedly not a postmodernist. Not being versed in many of the theorists Butler cites in support of her assertions (and being reluctant to revisit Freud), I cannot say if she characteristically misrepresents them. I will say, however, that analysis that habitually misrepresents the work of others reflects dishonesty, laziness, or fuzzy thinking. (I vote for the latter.)

Moving on to another erroneous assumption I made about Gender Trouble, radfems are right to attribute at least some of the gender ideology eroding women’s rights to Butler. I won’t go into exhaustive detail on this, but I recognize phrases and jargon commonly invoked by gender warriors in this book. To give just one example: I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a trans woman assert that because black women with female anatomy can be women, anybody with a penis can also be a woman. Butler says:

The contemporary feminist debates over essentialism raise the question of the universality of female identity and masculinist oppression in  other ways. Universalistic claims are based on a common or shared epistemological standpoint, understood as the articulated consciousness or shared structures of oppression or in the ostensibly transcultural structures of femininity, maternity, sexuality, and/or ecriture feminine. The opening discussion in this chapter argued that this globalizing gesture has spawned a number of criticisms from women who claim that the category of “women” is normative and exclusionary and is invoked with the unmarked dimensions of class and racial privilege intact. In other words, the insistence upon the coherence and unity of the category of women has effectively refused the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of “women” are constructed. (p. 19, emphasis added)

Butler does not state the concept in such racist terms as my Twitter friends (nor do I believe she meant to invoke such a baldly racist statement), but she is saying that a woman can either mean a white, middle-class, straight, able-bodied, biological woman, or it can be dissolved as a defined category altogether. In order to include brown skin, we must include dicks.

Another popular idea that can be traced to Butler is that feminism should be about all people, rather than focused on women. In fact, Butler says feminism re-creates the oppression of women by sustaining “women” as a linguistic category.

Feminist critique ought also to understand how the category of “women,” the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought.

Indeed, the question of women as the subject of feminism raises the possibility that there may not be a subject who stands “before” the law, awaiting representation in or by the law. Perhaps the subject, as well as the invocation of a temporal “before,” is constituted by the law as the fictive foundation of its own claim to legitimacy. (p. 4)

There is nothing supporting this claim, other than to cite the work of the great man Michel Foucault. There is an almost Biblical paradigm operating here: don’t prove a point, point to an authority. I am struck by the lack of concrete real-world examples that I find in Gender Trouble, because I’m used to seeing them in the feminist theory that I have studied. One example I kept thinking of as I read this book, is the lawsuit against Poverello House in Fresno, California. The nine women suing the homeless shelter say they were subjected to sexual harassment typical of males from a resident housed there, and that this resident was a man falsely claiming to be transgender to access segregated living space. Yet the assertion of gender ideologists that there should be no defined categories of gender precludes a falsification of gender identity. The postmodern theory underpinning gender ideology, with its emphasis on linguistic subversion and individual rebellion against sexual norms, has no room for the class analysis that would identify remedies for as highly marginalized and vulnerable a group as homeless women. Ramifications such as the Poverello scenario to gender ideology were pointed out by feminists years before they occurred, because people who can think can understand, at least sometimes, the implications of a theory. Some feminists assert that Butler lacks empathy for women in harsh socioeconomic circumstances, while Butler asserts that she is detached and nonprescriptive in her realm of theory. I think there’s a cog missing in this woman’s brain.

Have I answered my initial question yet? I can’t take this woman seriously as any kind of theorist, though I can understand how she could have an appeal to sexist university officials, sexist gay males, sexist liberal philanthropists, and sexist medical doctors. She’s having trouble reaching sexist religious conservatives, though, which I guess is what that dizzying rant in The New Statesmen was about. I’m not interested in refuting her assertions, because other feminists have done an excellent job. What I set out to explore was whether she potentially has anything to bring to the table, and I found no reason to hope. I do have other questions, such as why Routledge ever published this book. It’s so poorly written, it’s unpublishable in my opinion. Poorly written theory, like any other theory, appeals to people who can find a use for it, but it magnifies the risk, inherent in all written theory, of allowing any agenda to be projected onto it. These suspect agendas then become onerous to dissect and counter, because the original theory is so inscrutable.

I’m going to have to return Gender Trouble to interlibrary loan soon, and in some ways I’m sorry to see it go. I’ve actually learned a few “things” from Butler, such as to be “careful” about putting individual “words” in “quotations.” It can make you “sound” like you’re trying to make the “things” in quotations “disappear.” I’ve started reading pages at random, since it’s poorly organized anyway, and it’s kind of a hoot. I’ll close with a passage selected entirely at random.

By restricting the paternal law to a prohibitive or repressive function, Kristeva fails to understand the paternal mechanisms by which affectivity itself is generated. The law that is said to repress the semiotic may well be the governing principle of the semiotic itself, with the result that what passes as “maternal instinct” may well be a culturally constructed desire which is interpreted through a naturalistic vocabulary.

I rest my case.

Digression into Feminist Theory, or what passes as such

July 19, 2019

Apologies for the diversion from the usual nature topics. I have some unrelated thoughts floating around I need to unload. You see, this week I perused the first forty-five pages of Gender Trouble, tenth anniversary edition, and you can’t unread that.

I have been hearing about the lady who wrote this foundational text for postmodern Gender Theory for years now, but I haven’t been tempted to explore further, because…postmodernism. I was exposed to postmodernism in the early 80s, when all it meant in the real world was bad poetry (those were the days!), and I haven’t willingly dived into the monstrosity since. It’s like tasting your first bag of Cheetos, and deciding that no, you don’t need to try all the other little bags of munchies encrusted with bright powdery colors never found in nature, but then you’re at a bus station, and you’re hungry, and there’s a snack machine with nothing else. So you capitulate and snag one of those little packets of mostly air, and it tastes like metallic salt, but you look at the ingredients and it says: salt, sugar, cornstarch, cultural hegemony, high fructose Foucault, FDA yellow #5, subjectivation subversion, calcium dipropionate, identity signification, BHA to retard exclusivity, partially hydrogenated not-unproblematically binary cathexis of multiplicitous semiotics as performance methodologies of discursive continuances. And you think, this tastes like bullshit, but I’m not a chemist or a nutritionist, so my limited fund of knowledge cannot appraise the contents of this package.

I have a master’s degree obtained in the late 90s, so I had to read a lot of postmodernist injected social welfare theory that I struggled to understand. I felt ill prepared for graduate school, because I had not received my bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Only later, much later, with the help of radical feminists taking apart postmodernist Queer Theorists line by bullshit line, did I understand that I didn’t understand this shit because it didn’t make sense. There is a deliberate obscurity in postmodern theory which is employed to obfuscate the inability to connect one sentence to another, one thought to another, one suspect assumption to another. B does not follow naturally from A, but the postmodernist uses an ever-shifting array of repurposed jargon to hide this. It’s immediately obvious how C could follow from B, but the theorist doesn’t wade into the troublesome implications of her theory, instead demurring that her theory is “nonprescriptive.” The shaky assumptions underpinning her analysis, or what passes for analysis, call them A, are thrown out with cavalier smugness as if this were settled ground. Supreme show of confidence is the bullshitter’s primary tool.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What inspired me to look at Butler more closely was an article by the Grand Dame of Gender Theory in The New Statesman: The Backlash Against Gender Ideology Must Stop. You have to read the entire article to get a sense of how all-over-the-place it is, but here’s a sample:

So is gender a field of study that is destructive, diabolical, or indoctrinating? Gender theorists who call for gender equality and sexual freedom are not committed to a hyper-voluntarist view of “social construction” modelled on divine power. Neither do they seek through gender education to impose their views on others. If anything, the idea of gender opens toward a form of political freedom that would allow people to live with their “given” or “chosen” gender without discrimination and fear.

If you’re thinking that this doesn’t make sense because it was pulled out of context, go read the article. Then read it again. Then read it a third time and you may start to get a sense of what she’s saying. And maybe you’ll stop there, and accept what she’s (possibly) saying, because it was hard enough to make sense of it, let alone look at it critically. Because, trust me, it begins to not make sense again when you look at it critically. So is gender a field of study that is destructive, diabolical, or indoctrinating? Who is asking that question, Judith, because you don’t establish this, and the people you quote don’t use those words. Gender theorists who call for gender equality and sexual freedom are not committed to a hyper-voluntarist view of “social construction” modelled on divine power. Wait, how did that follow from the question before? How do “gender equality” and “sexual freedom” relate to gender as “a field of study”? Wait while I find “hyper-voluntarist” in the dictionary, and now tell me, how is it a view related to social construction inside quotation marks? Neither do they seek through gender education to impose their views on others. Ding ding ding! That’s not an assumption, that’s a lie, but full marks (!) for a sentence connected to the sentence before. If anything, the idea of gender opens toward a form of political freedom that would allow people to live with their “given” or “chosen” gender without discrimination and fear. Oops. You even forgot to make the subject of that sentence agree with the two before. You were describing what “gender theorists” do and now, in the same paragraph, you’re talking about what “the idea of gender” accomplishes. And you were doing so well. The “idea of gender” doesn’t seem to need any justification to the Pope, who I infer you are addressing from the word “divine” (and references elsewhere in the article), so why are you talking about this? And why are “given” and “chosen” in quotation marks?

My fascination with this article is not that I don’t understand what Butler is saying. I think I do understand, but more importantly, I understand that no clear-thinking person would express herself this way. Not even a bad writer. Butler’s writing is characterized by phrases that are missing a connection, although by repetition and familiarity with her work a reader can sometimes figure out what the connector should be. Butler also can’t find a subject and stick to it long enough to make a point. She goes off on tangents line by line, with no identifiable idea holding together a collection of assertions, forcing the reader to stop and say, “Wait, what was she talking about again?”

But maybe Butler had a deadline and dashed off this piece in a hurry. Maybe she was hungover when she wrote it, or sleep deprived, or just having a bad day. A person’s ability to argue feminist philosophy can’t be honestly evaluated in one newspaper article. I could hardly wait to obtain Butler’s seminal work, no doubt reviewed and critiqued before publication by an academic press, to find out whether what I was seeing in this article was representative of her work. Could one of the foundational texts of gender identity theory be a disorganized, illogical screed penned by an incompetent thinker?

This ends Part One. In Part Two, I fearlessly open the pages of Gender Trouble.