Well, I didn’t plan to stay away from my blog for such a long time! But when I was rewriting Living a Feminist Life over the summer, I did leave my blog behind. I seemed to find it hard switching between blog and book: it seems to be one or the other.
Other reasons: I have had the best hap ever. In July a little puppy came into my life. She has changed my life as I knew she would, as I knew she should! Her name is Poppy and she has as much attention as I can give her. I am quite sure she will end up in my “Killjoy Survival Kit.” She’s wriggle her way right out of it. Wriggling is in there, too.
So, just to get back to my blog, I am sharing part of a new section I wrote in the first chapter of my book ‘Feminism is Sensational,’ which develops an earlier post of the same name, as well as the post ‘Feminist Hurt/Feminism Hurts’. In the chapter this section is followed by another called ‘Problems with Names,’ which develops an earlier post of the same name.
The blog: a step on a feminist trail.
The section is called ‘feminist consciousness’.
When did you begin to put the pieces together? Perhaps when you put the pieces back together you are putting yourself back together. We assemble something. Feminism is DIY: a form of self-assembly. No wonder feminist work is often about timing: sometimes we are too fragile to do this work; we cannot risk being shattered if we are not ready to put ourselves back together again. To get ready often means being prepared to be undone.
In time, with work, things begin to make more sense. You begin to recognise how violence is directed: that being recognized as a girl means being subjected to this pressure, this relentless assault on the senses; a body that comes to fear the touch of a world. Maybe you learn from that, from what that repetition does; you realize retrospectively how you came to take up less space. You might express feminist rage at how women are made responsible for the violence that is directed against them. Feminism helps you to make sense that something is wrong; to recognise a wrong is to realise that you are not in the wrong.
Becoming feminist: how we redescribe the world we are in. We begin to identify how what happens to me, happens to others. We begin to identify patterns and regularities. Begin to identify: this sounds too smooth. It is not an easy or straightforward process because we have to stay with the wrongs. And think about feeling: to direct your attention to the experience of being wronged can mean feeling wronged all over again.
We need to attend to the bumps; it is bumpy. You had already sensed something amiss. Maybe it was an uneasy feeling at first. As Alison Jaggar describes “Only when we reflect on our initially puzzling irritability, revulsion, anger, or fear, maybe we bring to consciousness our ‘gut-level’ awareness that we are in a situation of coercion; cruelty; injustice or danger” (1996: 181). A gut has its own intelligence. A feminist gut might sense something is amiss. You have to get closer to the feeling; but once you try to think about a feeling, how quickly it can recede. Maybe it begins as a background anxiety, like a humming noise that gradually gets louder over time so that it begins to fill your ear, cancelling out other sounds. And then suddenly it seems (though it is not sudden) what you tried not to notice is all you can hear. A sensation that begins at the back of your mind, an uneasy sense of something amiss, gradually comes forward, as things come up; then receding, as you try and get on with things; as you try and get on despite things. Maybe you do not even want to feel this way, feeling wrong is what brings a wrong home. Attending to the feeling, might be too demanding: it might require you to give up on what otherwise seems to give you something; relationships, dreams; an idea of who it is that you are; an idea of who it is that you can be. You might even will yourself not to notice certain things because noticing them would change your relation to the world; it would change the world to which you exist in relation. We have to stay with the feelings that we might wish would go away; that become reminders of these things that happened that made you wary of being at all.
Perhaps there is just only so much you can take in. Perhaps you take in some things as a way of not taking in other things. As I have been putting a sponge to my own feminist past, I remembered another conversation. It was with a teacher of mine at university, Rosemary Moore who taught the first feminist classes I took: Nineteenth Century Women’s Writing in 1988; Twentieth Century Women’s Writing in 1989. I hadn’t thought about this conversation for a long time; though it is probably not true to say that I had forgotten it. I asked her whether my essay for the course had to refer to women or gender. Her answer was that it didn’t but that it would be surprising if it didn’t. Why did I ask her this question? I had come to University hoping to study philosophy. I was especially interested in what I called “scepticism,” philosophies that proceeded by doubting what is, as a way of questioning what’s what. Sadly, philosophy at Adelaide University was pretty much straight analytical philosophy and scepticism was dismissed as self-refuting in the first lecture of Philosophy 101. To study the kind of work I was interested in I ended up in the English Literature department because there they taught what was referred to as “theory.” And I choose the women’s writing courses not because I was interested in “feminist theory” (even though I was passionate about feminism) but because I was interested in “critical theory.” I was interested in how we know things, in questions of truth, in perspective and perception, in experience and subjectivity. I wanted to ask how I know what I see as green is what you see as green; those sort of questions were my sort of questions.
Yes: I chose Women’s Writing because I wanted to do Critical Theory! Our teacher was engaged with and by psychoanalysis. If we began there (Lacan’s “The Mirror Phase,” was one of our first assigned readings), that wasn’t what kept my attention. It was 1980s feminist literary theory and from there, feminist philosophy of science and feminist epistemology. I ended up writing my first feminist essay for that course.[i] So why did it happen this way around: from critical theory to feminist theory given I thought of myself as a feminist and had been such an outspoken feminist growing up? I think there was only so much feminism I could take in. I had thought to be philosophical or to ask questions about the nature of reality, was not to do feminism: that feminism was about something particular not general, relative not universal, that feminism was about questioning and challenging sexual violence, inequality and injustice and not the nature of reality as such. I did not understand that feminism was a way of challenging the universal. I did not appreciate how questioning sexism is one of the most profound ways of disrupting what we take to be given and thus learning about how the given is given. Feminist theory taught me that the universal is what needs to be exploded. Feminist theory taught me that reality is usually just someone else’s tired explanation. So if in my introduction to this book I suggested that feminist theory is what gets you there, to the classroom, we might note how feminist theory can be what gets you out of there. By this I mean: I thought I wanted to be in the theory class, feminist theory taught me that “that” was not the class for me. Feminism is my theory class.
We learn also: how recognising sexism or racism here can be a way of not recognising it there. A location can be a reduction. Becoming feminist involves a process of recognising that what you are up against cannot be located or reduced to an object or thing (which could then be discarded so we could start up again). The process of recognising sexism was thus not smooth or automatic. Even though I find it hard to remember not being a feminist, it is important to remember that I had multiple false starts. There was so much I resisted: I could take feminism in only bit by bit. Maybe there was only so much I could take in because it meant recognising that I had been taken in. You can feel stupid for not having seen things more clearly before. You have to give up on a version of yourself as well as a version of events. And maybe we need to remember: how hard it is to acknowledge that a world is not accommodating you because of the body you have. I didn’t want feminism to be everywhere, as I didn’t want to encounter these limits; I wanted there to be places to go where I could just leave my body behind.
If becoming feminist is not a smooth process, if we resist what we encounter because it is too much to take in, this is not to say when we do let go it is just difficult. When you begin to put the pieces together, it can feel magical: the wonder of the clicking moment, when things that had previously been obscured begin to make sense, when things fit into place. You blink and the world reappears: clarity can feel magical. Reading feminist theory was like a series of continuous clicks. And later, teaching Women’s Studies was such a delight as you participate in other people’s clicking moments: what a sound it makes; how important it is that this sound is audible to others.
Finding feminism can be empowering as it is a way of reinhabiting the past. It is personal. There is no question: it is personal. The personal is structural. I learnt that you can be hit by a structure; you can be bruised by a structure. An individual man who violates you is given permission: that is structure. His violence is justified as natural and inevitable: that is structure. A girl is made responsible for his violence: that is structure. A policeman who turns away because it is a domestic: that is structure. A judge who talks about what she was wearing: that is structure. A structure is an arrangement, an order, a building; an assembly.
We need structure to give evidence of structure. To catalogue instances of violence is to create a feminist catalogue. I think one of the reasons I find the project Everyday Sexism so important and compelling is how it shows that the cataloguing of instances of sexism is necessarily a collective project.[ii] The project involves the creation of a virtual space in which we can insert our own individual experiences of sexism, sexual violence or sexual harassment so that we show what we know: that this or that incident is not isolated but part of a series of events: a series as a structure. These recent feminist strategies have revived key aspects of second wave feminism; we are in the time of revival because of what is not over. Consciousness-raising was also about this: reaching a feminist account, as an account for oneself with and through others, connecting my experience with the experience of others. We need a deposit system to show the scale of sexism. When there is a place to go with these experiences – and feminism is about giving women places to go – the accounts tend to come out: a “drip, drip” that becomes a flood. It is like a tap has been loosened, allowing what has been held back to flow. Feminism: the releasing of a pressure valve.
Feminism can allow you to reinhabit not only your own past but also your own body. You might over time in becoming aware of how you have lessened your own space give yourself permission to take up more space; to expand your own reach. It is not necessarily the case that we take up this permission simply by giving ourselves permission. It does take time, to reinhabit the body, to become less wary, to acquire confidence. Feminism involves a process of finding another way to live in your body. We might learn to let ourselves bump into things; not to withdraw in anticipation of violence. Of course I am describing a difficulty; I am describing how ways of resolving problems can enact the problems we are trying to resolve. We know we are not responsible for resolving the problem of violence; changing how we relate to the world does not change the world. And yet in refusing to withdraw, in refusing to lessen how much space we take up, in insisting on taking up space, we are not receiving the message that has been sent out. In order to put the pieces together you cannot but get the message wrong, the message that makes a wrong a right. No wonder then, as I explore later, to become a feminist is to be perceived as “in the wrong.”
As we begin this process of putting ourselves back together we find much more than ourselves. Feminism in giving you somewhere to go allows you to revisit where you have been. We can become even more conscious of the world in this process of becoming conscious of injustices because we had been taught to overlook so much. A world can flood once we have let it in, once we have unlocked the door of our own resistance. Feminism too can become a flooding experience: one book read that leads to another, a trail that leads you to find feminism, more and more feminism, new words, concepts, arguments, models: patriarchy, phallocentrism, rape culture, the sex-gender system, intersectionality. In finding feminism you are finding out about the many ways that feminists have tried to make sense, already, of the experiences you had, before you had them, experiences that left you feeling all alone are the experiences that lead you to others. I will always remember that feeling; a sense that there are others like you “out there,” that you are not on your own, that you were not on your own. Your own difficult history is written out in words that are sent out. I often thinking of reading feminist books as like making friends, realizing that others have been here before.
Even if you still feel pain, frustration and rage, even if you feel these feelings more as if you have given them more attention, they are directed in a different way. Knowledge is this achievement of direction. Your feelings are directed neither at some anonymous stranger who happened upon you (or not only), nor toward you for allowing something to happen (or not just), but toward a world that reproduces that violence by explaining it away.
[i] Though one funny detail: I spelt patriarchy wrong throughout! Patriarchy became patriachy. Maybe that was a willful desire not to get patriarchy right!
Jaggar, A. (1996). “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology” in A. Garry and M. Pearsall (eds), Women, Knowledge and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy, New York: Routledge.