Tuesday, February 10, 2009

WMST 621: Feminist Taxonomies

Carl Linneaus developed the system of taxonomy that organized plant and animal life into a giant classification system with seven levels or ordering. I confess a deep affection for his work and for the impulse to organize everything into categories that do not overlap and that bring logical insight and separation to the world. This is how at many times I want the world to be. It was also Linneaus who first likened women’s genitalia to flowers (this, I believe, is documented by Londa Schiebinger). This gives me even more affection for Linneaus.
When it comes to the taxonomies of the women’s movement, however, I feel deeply vexed. I’ll write more about that after I summarize these readings.
The Equal Rights Amendment is a single amendment to the United States Constitution that in three sections seeks to guarantee “equality of rights under the law” without denial or abridgement “by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The Amendment was approved by both chambers of congress and sent to the states for ratification with a deadline in 1979. It failed to achieve the 2/3 majority of the states required.
CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) was held in December 1979, and it entered into force as an international treaty in September 1981. This treaty represents the culmination of work, that began nearly with the conception of the United Nations, to address the status of women. The treaty itself has six parts; first, it seeks to prevent and condemn discrimination against women; second, it it seeks to eliminate discrimination against women in political and public life; third, it seeks to eliminate discrimination against women in education and employment, fourth, it requires that parties to the treat provide women equality with men before the law including in matters relating to family and marriage; fifth, it establishes a committee to monitor the progress of the treaty; and if states have laws that are better than the treaty, then those shall remain in force. The treaty also addresses the importance of economic, social, and cultural life and women’s full participation and the particular needs and considerations for rural women.
I had to do a little poking around on the internet to figure out exactly what the position of the United States is on CEDAW as I couldn’t completely sort it out from the CEDAW Exemptions document. The United States has signed the treaty but not ratified it through the U.S. Senate. The objections according to the United States are first, that there isn’t a guarantee of freedom from discrimination as construed in CEDAW in US law; second, while women volunteer for military service without restriction, the US in unwilling to accept an obligation under the Convention to completely integrate military service; third, there is not a willingness to enact comparable worth legislation; and fourth, there is not a willingness to enact maternity leave as required by the Convention. The United States is the only developed country that has not ratified the treaty.
Betty Friedan’s argument in The Feminine Mystique is that there is a problem in the United States “which has no name.” She argues that since World War II a crisis has been brewing among American women and now, beginning perhaps with 1959 and coming into full attention and fruition in 1961 and 1962, the crisis is in full bloom. The crisis is that women, educated women who are in suburban homes raising children and married to wonderful, productive men, feel, “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.” This crisis is caused by an ideology that Friedan labels “the feminine mystique.”
Marlene Gerber Fried is invested in both the history of the abortion rights movement and how it can be transformed into a reproductive rights movement. She writes this essay after the Webster decision, which upheld restrictions on abortion in a Missouri law. Fried examines how the abortion rights movement has been on the defensive for the past decade, how it has become a single-issue movement, and how clinic defenses have shaped the movement. She argues that the movement needs to be transformed to create linkages with other social movements and particularly expand the vision to think about sexual freedom.
Angela Davis’ history, “Racism, Birth Control, and Reproductive Rights,” explores the birth control movement’s history in relationship to Black women, in particular. Davis articulates how issues of race and class are connected with reproduction and the ability to control reproduction while also looking at ways that white women have failed to recognize that. Davis traces the roots of the birth control movement back to 1870 and Sarah Grimke’s advocacy for sexual abstinence through the early twentieth century and concerns about differential reproductive rates of women of color and middle- and upper-class white women. Davis also explores the implications of eugenics on the work of birth control advocates including Margaret Sanger. Finally, she discusses the more contemporary birth control and abortion rights movement using this history to inform contemporary concerns and suspicions of the movement from women of color as well as to discuss current abuses of sterilization and abortion.
Angela Davis’ contribution to Women: A World Report is on the status of women in Egypt with a particular focus on “women and sex” in Egypt. Women: A World Report as a project was designed to bring prominent feminists from other countries to write about the status of women in a country not their own. Davis’ contribution to this book is to me one of the most stunning examples of feminist writing. Davis uses both her personal experiences with taking on the project and with being in Egypt as well as reportage to tell the stories of women in Egypt that she interviews. Davis not only fulfills the actual “assignment” but also problematizes it through the essay. In discussing “women and sex” in relationship to Egyptian women she presents stories about housing, economic access, education, and political equality while also capturing some of the daily lives of women living in Egypt. She talks about sexuality in marriage and out of marriage and addresses the issues of female circumcision from the perspective of women in Egypt and women in the West.
“Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” is a foundational text by Adrienne Rich that is designed to think about and inspire change about lesbian visibility, constructions of lesbian sexuality, and the role of literary criticism in relationship to lesbianism. The essay works in four parts. In the first part, Rich reviews how feminist texts have erased or elided lesbian existence in favor of compulsory heterosexuality. Rich talks about texts by Ehrenreich and English, Miller, Dinnerstein, and Chodorow. She concludes with the suggestion that “heterosexuality, like motherhood, needs to be recognized and studied as a political institution” (p. 35.) In the second part of the essay, she analyzes how heterosexuality is a forced institution and how when feminist theory and analysis doesn’t recognize that and in fact contributes to lesbian invisibility and marginality, it works against “the liberation and empowerment of women as a group” (p. 50.) In the third part, Rich talks about lesbian existence and the lesbian continuum. With these two terms, she speaks about a historical past and presence of lesbians and about a continuum of lesbian experience. She uses Meridel LeSueur’s book, The Girl, and Toni Morrison’s Sula to make this argument. The final part of the essay is a summation of her work and the importance of eliminating the assumption of compulsory heterosexuality and unearthing lesbian histories.
“The Domestication of Motherhood” is Rich’s essay to position the relationship between mother and child as central to human relationships. The essay opens with a critique of Engels, Marx, and Freud in thinking about women in the family. Rich looks instead to work of Joseph Cambell and G. Rachel Levy to think about a time prior to capitalism where “The Great Mother” flourished. In doing this, she reviews a variety of ancient cultures in which mothers and motherhood were understood and experienced in different ways and she wants to expose what harm has come as a result of patriarchy.
Theresa deLauretis is writing in “The Essence of the Triangle or, Taking the Risk of Essentialism Seriously: Feminist Theory in Italy, the U.S., and Britain” to intervene in discussions between feminist theorist and post-structural theorists to prevent the marginalization and dismissal of “essentialism” as a strand of feminist thought. To do this, deLauretis posits a definition of essentialism that is quite useful, I think. DeLauretis says that there is a triangular essence of “the specific properties (e.g. a female-sexed body), qualities (a disposition to nurturance, a certain relation to the body, etc.), or necessary attributes (e.g. the experience of femaleness, of living in the world as female)” (p. 4.) DeLauretis then argues forcefully to bring some connection between the two “camps” of feminist theory (which I would add has a materialist basis in deLauretis formation here) and post-structuralist theory examining in particular text of Chris Weedon and Linda Alcoff. In the second part of this essay, deLauretis reviews developments of feminism in Italy as a way to bring relief to the discussion and look at alternative epistemologies.
I don’t have any particular questions about these readings.
A number of things interest me to discuss about these readings. First, how and why do each of these readings fit into each of these taxonomic categories? Do these taxonomies further illuminate the readings? Are they of use to us today, or are other taxonomies such as Chela Sandoval’s more useful? Why do these taxonomies persist?
I’m interested in the ways in which each of these readings speak to various activist communities and activist formations and academic communities and academic formations. One of the things that I understand as very vital about this time period of feminism is connections generated and sustained among these various communities at the time. I think that some of the connections are clearer as in the Fried essay and some parts of the Rich essays, but all of them position audiences in complex and multiplicitous ways that interests me.
I’m very interested in the categories of “radical” and “cultural” feminism and found the Rich selections in conjunction with those headings interesting. I actually think of other work in conjunction with “radical” feminism – in fact would put the essay by Davis on racism and abortion as more of a “radical” feminist article than a “socialist” feminist article. What constitutes “radical” for this time period and what constitutes “cultural”? How do current academic and activist configurations affect how we think about those categories today?
I recently read an article by Sara Ahmed, a British feminist scholar, in which she analyzes the “performativity” of documents relating to diversity and racial inclusion in British institutions. She mounts a fascinating argument in which the statements of diversity and the documents promoting diversity become the performance of diversity and allow institutions to not actually change but to simple talk about the intention to change or to be a certain way through their documents. I found her argument quite compelling and thought about it repeatedly while reading the CEDAW document and thinking about the work at the United Nations. To what degree is that work materially changing the conditions of women’s lives and to what degree does it operate as a performance without a material impact?

No comments: