“[Feminism is] a struggle against the very existence of power, a struggle for a mode of organization and life which would no longer be maintained by the distinctions of class and power.” – (Braidotti 1991, p.157)
“It is axiomatic that if we don’t define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others – for their use and to our detriment.” – (Collins, 1991, p.26)
“The mind of the man and the mind of the woman is the same, but this business of living makes women use their minds in ways that men don’t even have to think about.” – (Collins 1991, p.25)
Historically, the identity of “woman” has always been in question. She is human, yet humanity is man. Pondering this anomaly, Simone de Beauvoir (2009, p.3) asked: “what is a woman?”, and some people answered and many still answer: “she is a womb” – A baby-making machine, whose worth is linked to her (in)ability to reproduce and increase the human population. From culture to culture, civilized and otherwise, woman has for a long time been under the influence of patriarchy (read male dominance): shed of her intelligence, infantilized, manipulated and directed – as if she were witless – by man to accept whatever identity, roles, obligations, and/or rights he assigns to her. Meekly, she accepts these roles, and sees herself as mother, “good wife” (read submissive, mute), and supporter, but rarely as a person independent of man. So total, so domineering was this domination that, “woman cannot think of herself without man” (Beauvoir 2009, p.5), so she seeks his validation and directions, and thus acts – as directed – as: the dutiful young woman who must “behave” or she will remain unwed – a cursed state, the clipper of her niece’s clitoris to prevent “promiscuity”, the “good daughter” who accepts the payment of money (bride price) on her head, and/or the “good wife” who meekly welcomes her husband’s second wife because it’s his right as sexually insatiable man. Truly, patriarchy brainwashed woman into submissiveness: told her to play coy because she’s more attractive to him that way, defined her femininity as gentle, soft-spoken, weak, child-like and needing man to survive; he then told her – when she objected – that he was being chivalrous. It was these false beliefs of woman’s weakness and ordained dependence on man for survival that Sojourner Truth responded to, when she cried:
“Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?’ (Sojourner Truth quoted in Collins 1991, p.209).
Patriarchy being “a sort of ‘metaphysical cannibalism’ which feeds upon female energy, intelligence and labour force, in order to sustain the monuments of masculine power” (Braidotti 1991, p.156), fed on woman, raped and sucked her dry, and, then devalued her using powerful, regular, patriarchal figures like Village Chiefs, Religious Leaders, Fathers, Husbands, and more popular figures such as Aristotle, Plato, St. Thomas, St. Peter, Freud, etc. Powerful men whose writings, actions and utterances portrayed woman as unequal to man; men who held society in thrall with their authoritative power; men whom a magnificent number of people listened to, and emulated. Succinctly put, “he is the subject; he is the absolute. She is the Other” (Beauvoir 2009, p.6). Woman linked intrinsically to man through biological, familial, economic and cultural ties, and shy of the hostile repercussions of lashing out at the chains that shackled her, could not revolt against male dominance without being called “bitch”, “man-hater”. “man-wanna-be”, “emasculator” or “bitter”. Thus, it was not simple for woman to revolt against her assigned “Otherness” without “renouncing all the advantages an alliance with the superior caste confers on [her]” (Beauvoir 2009, p.10). But, revolt she did and still does.
Woman revolts every time she shows disloyalty to civilization. Eve revolted when she refused to obey God’s command not to eat the “forbidden fruit” of knowledge (The Book of Genesis, Chapter 3:1-11); White American women of the South revolted when they refused to be “loyal to the ideology of race and segregation” (Rich 1979, p.278); ten thousand Nigerian women revolted when they marched bare-breasted along the roads of south-east Nigeria, in protest of heavy taxes and non-participation of women in governance (Aba Women’s Riot of 1929); Women revolt every time we challenge society’s perceptions of womanhood; Women revolt every time we pick up our pens to write against sexism, gender inequality, discriminatory cultural norms or gender-based violence; Women revolt every time they shun society’s expectation of them based on their gender. Women have for long been in the business of civil disobedience, they just didn’t call it feminism. Like Rowbotham rightly noted, “there is no ‘beginning’ of feminism in the sense that there is no beginning of defiance in women…Female resistance has taken several historical stages” (Rowbotham quoted in Braidotti 1991, p.151). The woman’s struggle for identification and recognition, for the right to equal opportunities, is an aged one – aged because this struggle cannot be accurately traced, timed, dated; it is a struggle that began when woman started to question the rules of man which he termed “civilization”, rules which favored the interest of man, because “those who made and compiled the laws, being men, favored their own sex, and the juriconsults have turned the laws into principles” (Beauvoir 2009, p.11). As such, the man (or men) in woman’s life should not take it personal if she revolts against these civil laws, but were he(they) to do so – as he(they) more often than not does(do) – woman is justified in wanting to identify herself as one, equal, half of humanity and not a small part (of humanity) that makes up Mankind. The words of Montaigne come to mind: “women are not in the wrong when they decline to accept the rules laid down for them, since the men make these rules without consulting them” (Montaigne quoted in Beauvoir 2009, p.11).
Woman having been conditioned to band together with the men in her life – her circle of interaction – did not band together with the other women in her circle, and rarely did she form relationships across racial, cultural, or class lines. So, it is not surprising that when feminist scholarship and activism began, the experiences and viewpoints of colored women were not documented as feminist standpoints. As Lorde rightly noted, “certainly there are very real differences of age, race and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation” (Lorde 2007, p.115). I think this hesitation (of white women to understand the racial and cultural differences between them and women of color) isn’t borne out of spite or any malevolent feelings of superiority; to me, it is borne of white women’s lack of understanding of the lives and cultures of colored women; it is borne of the years of stereotyped, negative, identities of Black women (for example) as this and that negatives; it is borne of the differences in white women’s and colored women’s lives, wherein one group is made up of the daughters of a “superior race” while the other consist of daughters of an “inferior race”.
However, this history of differences has to be confronted in order for both sides – black and colored women and white women – to move on towards a greater feminist movement that takes into account every woman’s experience and works to better every woman’s world irrespective of her race, culture or class. Lorde (2007) urges us to confront this past (of slavery, racism, oppression), because “by ignoring the past we are encouraged to repeat its mistakes…Ignoring the differences of race between women and the implications of those differences presents the most serious threat to the mobilization of women’s joint power.” (Lorde 2007, p.117). Disregarding situated viewpoints is a threat to the feminist movement because it is an unjust silencing of viewpoints which is antifeminist, besides the fact that “all silence has a meaning” (Rich 1997, p.308). Consequently, the act of not recognizing individual woman’s standpoint means: a silencing of her objections, and the enabling of her oppression. It also means that the white woman regards “women of color as ‘Other’, the outsider whose experiences and tradition is too ‘alien’ to comprehend” (Lorde 2007, p.117). There has to come about a change: in the ways white women perceive women of color, a change in the ways white women respond to racism and the black woman’s anger towards racism; there has to be a change, so the feminist movement can grow to achieve more, because “change is growth, and growth can be painful… [But] for Black and white, old and young, lesbian and heterosexual women alike, this can mean new paths to our survival.” (Lorde 2007, p.123). Lorde is also quick to enlighten us on what she means by “change”: “when I speak of change I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a lessoning of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlying our lives” (Lorde 2007, p.127).
How do we confront these differences? We – white women and colored women alike – do so by listening to and understanding every woman’s experience(s) and situated knowledge(s). We do this by accepting each other’s situated knowledge(s), because we need these situated knowledges for “a feminist version of objectivity… [that is] not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object”, (Haraway 1988, p.578, p.583) and because “a culture’s best beliefs – what it calls knowledge – are socially situated” (Harding 1991, p.119). The situated knowledges of Misi Juliette Cummings is a case in point, because hers “is a uniquely individual story, [but] it is as much a collective story, a story of women of her generation, her ethnic and class background, enacting the same versatile sexual behavior.” (Wekker 2006, p.2).
In understanding and accepting individual feminist standpoints, let us bear in mind that disregarding a subjugated minority’s point of view is tantamount to oppression, and promotes the single story, and is against the ideals of feminist objectivity. Let us always remember that no woman is free while one is chained, “even when her shackles are very different from [our] own”, (Lorde 2007, pp.132-133).
- Beauvoir .S, 2009. The Second Sex. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
- Braidotti .R, 1991. Patterns of Dissonance. Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Collins .P.H, 1991. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Power of Empowerment. Routledge, New York.
- Haraway .D, 1988. Feminist Studies Vol. 14, No.3. Feminist Studies Inc.
- Harding .S, 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.
- Lorde .A, 2007. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, Berkeley California.
- Rich .A, 1979. On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. W. W. Norton & Company, New York.
- The Holy Bible, King James Version. Kerr. W. F, ed. 2000. International Publishing, San Dinas, California.
- Wekker .G, 2006. The Politics of Passion. Women’s Sexual Culture in the Afro-Surinamese Diaspora. Columbia University Press, New York.