What is feminism and why do we need it?

This article draws on the work of key feminist thinkers to explain some of the core concepts of feminism. It is followed by a reading list.

Systems of oppression

In The Politics of Reality, Marilyn Frye explains that there are a number of interlocking systems of oppression. Each one is a set of interrelated forces that press down on people who belong to one group (such as women or people of colour) and effect their subordination to another group (such as men or white people).

One of the key things oppressed people experience is the double bind. This limits the options that are available in such a way that each one exposes the person to negative consequences.

For example, if a young woman is sexually active, she risks being called a “slut” and is considered unworthy of respect. But if she’s not sexually active, she’s “frigid” or “uptight” and is harassed by men to “loosen up”. If an older woman dyes her hair and wears makeup, she’s ridiculed for “trying too hard”, but if she doesn’t, “she’s let herself go”. If a woman goes back to work soon after giving birth, she’s judged unnatural, inadequate. If she gives up work, she’s a gold-digger sponging off her husband (if she has one) or a scrounger on the state (if she doesn’t). And if anything goes wrong, it’s always her fault, no matter that her power is nearly always limited.

Life for oppressed people is confined and shaped by interlocking forces that are impossible to avoid. Marilyn Frye uses the analogy of a bird cage to explain how it works and why it can be so hard to identify the forces as a system. When you are close, you may wonder why the bird doesn’t just go around the bar in front of it, because on its own no single bar traps the bird. It is only when you move back and look at the whole arrangement that you can see that it is the configuration of the bars that traps the bird. Together the bars form a system of oppression.

When we consider the forces that press down on a woman, the forces that mean that she is censured and belittled and found fault with and blamed no matter what choices she makes, we see that these forces are nothing to do with her individual qualities but are entirely to do with her membership of the group female (or her membership of the group Black, if we look at racist oppression).

In many ways it’s easier to recognise the system of racist oppression because of the relative separation of Black and white people (and perhaps because the group Black contains men), and similarly for class oppression.

The fact that women are dispersed across all social classes, ethnic groups, and geographical areas makes it harder to identify the structures that press down on women as a group.

For women, the cage is based on our function: the service of men – not only housework, sexual service, and the bearing and raising of children, but also “being nice”, “being attractive,” and encouragement, support, praise, and attention.

The details vary, but everywhere women serve men and nowhere do men serve women in anything like the same way.

Women generally comply because they’re raised and socialised in the system and the penalties for not complying can be heavy. Her submission is then taken as proof of women’s inherent inferiority. The same dynamic can be observed in other oppressed groups.

But men are oppressed too, right?

When we say that women are oppressed as women but men are not oppressed as men, we are not saying that men don’t suffer or they don’t have feelings. What we are talking about here is the systematic oppression of certain groups that people are born into.

As a white person, I was raised in a racist society and as a child I was taught racist stereotyping and other hateful concepts. This was an assault on my humanity, and erasing that racist conditioning is a continuous personal effort. It’s important to recognise this. But that isn’t oppression in the sociological sense and to suggest it is obscures the very real oppression that Black people experience.

For example, Black people are constantly measured against some mythical white standard of “normality” and found wanting, because “white” is the racist standard for what is human, and all the practical and material injustices and inequalities that follow that – from the international trading agreements that systematically disadvantage developing nations to the way society reacts to the exuberance of youth, seeing it as “high jinks” when he is white and as proof of criminal tendencies when he is Black, and everything in between and beyond.

Similarly, the oppression of women affects men and limits men’s humanity. But that doesn’t mean that men are oppressed as men.

The bars of the cage form a barrier to the people outside the cage, but the bars have a very different meaning to those inside it. For the people inside, the cage encloses, restricts and confines. For the people outside, it provides liberty and greater opportunities – by reducing competition from those inside the cage, for example.

Understanding male privilege

The corollary to the oppression of one social group is the unearned advantages of the dominant group. These unearned advantages are generally referred to as privilege. Peggy McIntosh in a pioneering essay tells how she was pondering men’s unwillingness to recognise their male privilege even though they would sometimes acknowledge women’s disadvantages.

Recognising that the hierarchies and systems of oppression interlock and intersect, she realised there must also be a phenomenon of white privilege that was similarly denied and protected.

She then embarked on an exercise to identify and list some of the practical advantages that her white privilege granted in her daily life. After listing 46 points, she paused to make some observations.

“Some privileges make me feel at home in the world. Others allow me to escape penalties or dangers which others suffer. Through some, I escape fear, anxiety or a sense of not being welcome or not being real. Some keep me from having to hide, to be in disguise, to feel sick or crazy, to negotiate each transaction from the position of being an outsider… [I was] given cultural permission not to hear the voices of people of other races.” – Peggy McIntosh

She realised that people of colour are made to lack confidence and feel uncomfortable and alienated in direct proportion to how white people are made confident and comfortable. She realised her whiteness protected her from many kinds of hostility, distress and violence and that she was subtly trained to visit those same things on people of colour. She was reluctant to look at this at first but gradually came to see that just as most of her oppressive behaviour was unconscious, so is most men’s oppression towards women.

It’s painful to let ourselves see how the advantages of a social group to which we personally belong come at the expense of the people in one or more other groups. It’s also painful to let ourselves see how these systems of oppression damage both the winners and the losers. But if we want to build a better world, we must face these uncomfortable truths.

“In some groups, those dominated actually become strong through not having all these unearned advantages and this gives them a great deal to teach others. Members of so-called privileged groups can seem foolish, ridiculous, infantile or dangerous by contrast.” – Peggy McIntosh

The unearned advantages conferred on the winners in these systems of oppression often contribute to a sense of entitlement – the feeling that we are entitled to our unearned and unfair privileges, that they are ours by right, rather than coming at the expense of another social group. And when the barriers are removed, people in the dominant group sometimes feel that they are being attacked and fight for the barriers to be replaced. This is sometimes called the backlash and makes changing oppressive systems difficult.

So what is patriarchy anyway?

Allan Johnson in his classic work, The Gender Knot, defines patriarchy as a society based on four key principles that promote male privilege:

  1. Male dominance, which means that men disproportionately occupy positions of authority. As a result they get larger shares of the wealth and get to shape the culture and laws to serve men’s collective interests – for example, by controlling the content of the media to promote their interests and by handling rape cases so that effectively the victim rather than the perpetrator is on trial.
  2. Male identification, which means men are considered the standard, and society’s key values are associated with men and masculinity. Men are seen as superior and whatever they do is seen as having higher value. For example, occupations primarily done by men are paid more than those primarily done by women.
  3. Male centredness, which means men are the primary focus of attention in most contexts. For example, men dominate conversations by talking more, and zoning out and interrupting when women speak.
  4. Obsession with control, which is the core principle around which both patriarchal social life and men’s inner lives are organised. As a result, patriarchal societies are hierarchical and revere power over other people and nature.

These forces reinforce each other at both the individual and collective level. Individual men’s focus on themselves and women’s focus on others (especially men) reinforce male-identification and male-centeredness. This in turn reinforces male dominance and makes it easier for men to concentrate on protecting and enhancing their own status.

If men were naturally superior to women, there would be no need to enforce the system. But in fact male violence is widespread and is used not only to keep women in a state of fear but also as a way for individual men to enhance their personal sense of dominance and superiority.

The subordination of women

Andrea Dworkin showed that sex is a key mechanism used to oppress women and this means the oppression of women is fundamentally different from the oppression of racial, ethnic and other social groups – although the way sex is used to oppress women of colour and working class women is particularly vicious.

In Against the Male Flood, Dworkin identified four elements in the subordination of a social group:

  1. Hierarchy – There’s a group on top and a group on the bottom. The bottom group has less power and fewer rights and resources than the top group and is treated as inferior.
  2. Objectification – Members of the bottom group are treated as things, instruments, commodities, and/or property for the use of those on top.
  3. Submission – Those in the bottom group typically comply with the wishes of those on top, because doing so is essential for survival. This is then used as proof of their inferiority.
  4. Violence – is committed by members of the top group against those in the bottom. This is routine and systematic, and is seen as right, necessary, inevitable and natural.

Dworkin shows that pornography is a key mechanism in the subordination of women. When feminists talk about pornography, they often use Rebecca Whisnant’s definition: “sexually explicit material that makes dominance and inequality sexy.” So we’re not just talking about material that’s sexually explicit, but rather such material that eroticises dominance and inequality.

Pornography, Dworkin says, is:

“Women turned into subhumans, beaver, pussy, body parts, genitals exposed, buttocks, breasts, mouths opened and throats penetrated, covered in semen, pissed on, shitted on, hung from light fixtures, tortured, maimed, bleeding, disembowelled, killed. […]

It is rape and gang rape and anal rape and throat rape: and it is the woman raped, asking for more. […]

It is the conditioning of erection and orgasm in men to the powerlessness of women; our inferiority, humiliation, pain, torment: to us as objects, things, or commodities for use in sex as servants.”

She says that if pornography were done to human beings, it would be recognised as atrocity, but because under patriarchy male is “human” and female is “other”, pornography is classified as entertainment, a civil right, freedom of speech.

Approximately two decades after Dworkin wrote this powerful essay, photos of US military personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison entered the public domain. The abuse was immediately recognised as atrocity – because the prisoners were male. But although some commentators drew comparison with what is done to women in pornography, pornography is generally seen as harmless and not as the atrocity that it is.

So pornography is both propaganda and practical violence against the women and children used in its creation and the women and children on whom it’s acted out. This is of pressing concern now that pornography has moved from the shadows into the mainstream. In 2011, the average age of first exposure was estimated at 11 years. It’s now even younger.

Being exposed to pornography so young is a form of child sexual abuse. It grooms boys for a life of using, taking and pimping. It grooms girls into accepting a life of objectification and service to men’s needs rather than their own.

Patriarchy and capitalism

Patriarchy is a relatively recent development in the long history of the human race. For most of the million plus years of our existence, human societies were egalitarian and cooperative. Patriarchy emerged about 8,000 years ago in the Middle East (and at different times in other regions of the world). Capitalism on the other hand developed in Western Europe in the early modern period (from about 1500 AD). So clearly patriarchy preceded capitalism.

The transition to patriarchy was marked by violence as the older men (the fathers or patriarchs) took control of resources that were previously shared, and subdued and controlled the women. The development of capitalism involved a parallel process in which elites took control of land and resources previously shared (known as the enclosure of the “commons”) and subdued the ordinary people. Capitalism can therefore be seen as a logical extension to patriarchy and we cannot fully understand one without the other.

The development of capitalism was messy and violent as the elite set about transforming the largely self-sufficient peasants into a controllable workforce from whose labour they could make a profit. Initially the stealing of the commons on which the ordinary people, particularly women, depended was vehemently resisted and in many places women led the resistance.

Sylvia Federici in her book, Caliban and the Witch, which traces the history of this transition from a feminist point of view, has shown that during this transition the authorities condoned violence against poor women as a way of controlling rebellious young men. Gang rape became common and the perpetrators had impunity – provided the women were poor. At the same time prostitution was institutionalised throughout Europe. In this way men’s anger was redirected at women and working class solidarity was undermined, making the ordinary people easier to control.

This was followed by two centuries of brutal witch hunts that were accompanied by widespread misogynistic propaganda and the expulsion of women from traditional crafts. As a result women lost such independence that they had, their rebellious spirit was broken and they were driven into economic dependence on men, who had also lost their independence and had become dependent on employers. Women became reproductive machines turning out new workers on which the capitalist economy depended but their labour was now defined as non-labour.

Women, accused of being witches, were hanged in England (1655)

The previous mutual, symbiotic, relationship between men and women was replaced by a harder, more vicious one. Men got to have power over their women and children as if in compensation for the loss of their old independence.

Although individual men sometimes fought to save their women from the witch hunts, with one exception (in the Basque region), there is no record of men uniting to resist the persecution of women.

Federici says, “there is no doubt that years of propaganda and terror sowed among men the seeds of a deep psychological alienation from women, which broke class solidarity and undermined their own collective power. […] Just as today, by repressing women, the ruling classes more effectively repressed the entire proletariat.”

This was taking place in Europe at the same time as the colonisation of the Americas, the genocide of its peoples, the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade and subsequent colonialist expansion in Africa and Asia. Methods of control learnt in the witch hunts were exported to the colonies and methods of control learnt in the brutal suppression of the colonised people were introduced in the control of women and workers at home.

Maria Mies and others have shown that the capitalist system is dependent on the continual patriarchal exploitation and subordination of women and colonised peoples, and the viciousness increases in every crisis of capitalism.

It is no accident that in the current major crisis in capitalism we are seeing vast industries develop based on the crudest exploitation of women’s bodies in prostitution and pornography and the renting of poor women’s wombs for babies for the rich.

Conclusion

Feminist theory enables us as women to understand that many of the things we struggle with are not personal failings but are consequences of a system that is rigged against us – simply because we are female. That system has many threads – including the systematic deprivation of resources from women, men’s impunity to rape and abuse women, and the system of prostitution. So long as one woman is abused, oppressed or exploited because she is a woman, we all remain second class citizens. To bring about change requires a collective effort – a movement of women – fighting for all women. Please join us.

Sources and reading list

  • The Politics of Reality: Essays in feminist theory by Marilyn Frye
  • White Privilege and Male Privilege by Peggy McIntosh
  • The Gender Knot by Allan Johnson
  • Against the Male Flood by Andrea Dworkin
  • Caliban and the Witch by Sylvia Federici
  • Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale by Maria Mies
  • Beyond Power: On women, men and morals by Marilyn French

Anna Fisher, October 2018

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