In the early days of this wave of the women’s movement, I sat in a weekly consciousness raising group with my friend A. We compared notes recently: What did you think was happening? How did you think our own lives were going to change? A. said she had felt, “Now I can be a woman; it’s no longer so humiliating. I can stop fantasizing that secretly I am a man, as I used to, before I had children. Now I can value what was once my shame.” Her answer amazed me. Sitting in the same meetings during those years, my thoughts were roughly the reverse: “Now I don’t have to be a woman anymore. I need never become a mother. Being a woman has always been humiliating, but I used to assume there was no exit. Now the very idea ‘woman’ is up for grabs. ‘Woman’ is my slave name; feminism will give me freedom to seek some other identity altogether.”
On its face this clash of theoretical and practical positions may seem absurd, but it is my goal to explore such contradictions, to show why they are not absurd at all. Feminism is inevitably a mixed form, requiring in its very nature such inconsistencies. In what follows I try to show first, that a common divide keeps forming in both feminist thought and action between the need to build the identity “woman” and give it solid political meaning and the need to tear down the very category “woman” and dismantle its all-too-solid history. Feminists often split along the lines of some version of this argument, and that splitting is my subject. Second, I argue that though a settled compromise between these positions is currently impossible, and though a constant choosing of sides is tactically unavoidable, feminists—and indeed most women—live in a complex relationship to this central feminist divide. From moment to moment we perform subtle psychological and social negotiations about just how gendered we choose to be.
This tension—between needing to act as women and needing an identity not overdetermined by our gender—is as old as Western feminism. It is at the core of what feminism is. The divide runs, twisting and turning, right through movement history. The problem of identity it poses was barely conceivable before the eighteenth century, when almost everyone saw women as a separate species. Since then the idea “woman” has become a question rather than a given, a question increasingly unavoidable as an earlier absolute definition of gender difference has begun its long, slow, and fundamental erosion.
In the current wave of the movement, the divide is more urgent and central a part of feminism than ever before. On the one hand, many women moved by feminism are engaged by its promise of solidarity, the poetry of a retrieved worth. It feels glorious, Michelle Cliff says, to “reclaim an identity they taught [us] to despise.” Movement passion rescues women-only groups from contempt; female intimacy acquires new meanings and becomes more threatening to the male exclusiveness so long considered “the world.”
On the other hand, other feminists, often equally stirred by solidarity, rebel against having to be “women” at all. They argue that whenever we uncritically accept the monolith “woman,” we run the risk of merely relocating ourselves inside the old closed ring of an unchanging feminine nature. But is there any such reliable nature? In each case these feminists question the eternal sisterhood: What about class, age, race, nationality?
Names for a Recurring Feminist Divide
In every case, the specialness of women has this double face, though often, in the heat of new confrontations, feminists suffer a harmful amnesia; we forget about this paradox we live with. Feminist theorists keep renaming this tension, as if new names could advance feminist political work. But at this point new names are likely to tempt us to forget that we have named this split before. In the service of trying to help us recognize what we are fated—for some time—to repeat, here is a reminder of past categories.
Minimizers and Maximizers
The divide so central as to be feminism’s defining characteristic goes by many names. Kate Stimpson cleverly called it the feminist debate between the “minimizers” and the “maximizers.” Briefly, the minimizers are feminists who want to undermine the category “woman,” to minimize the meaning of sex difference. (As we shall see, this stance can have surprisingly different political faces.) The maximizers want to keep the category (or feel they can’t do otherwise), but they want to change its meaning, to reclaim and elaborate the social being “woman,” and to empower her.
Radical Feminists and Cultural Feminists
In Daring to Be Bad: A History of the Radical Feminist Movement in America, 1967-1975, Alice Echols sees this divide on a time line of the current women’s movement, with “radical feminism” more typical of the initial feminist impulse in this wave succeeded by “cultural feminism.” Echols’s definition of the initial bursts of “radical feminism” shows that it also included “cultural feminism” in embryo. She argues that both strains were present from the first—contradictory elements that soon proclaimed themselves as tensions in sisterhood. Nonetheless, the earlier groups usually defined the commonality of “women” as the shared fact of their oppression by “men.” Women were to work separately from men not as a structural ideal but because such separation was necessary to escape a domination that only a specifically feminist (rather than mixed left) politics could change.
On the other side stands Echols’s category, “cultural feminism.” In her depiction of the divide, the cultural feminist celebration of being female was a retreat from “radical feminism”: “[I]t was easier to rehabilitate femininity than to abolish gender.” She offers as a prime example of the growth of cultural feminism the popularity of Jane Alpert’s “new feminist theory,” published in Ms. magazine in 1973 as “Mother Right”:
[F]eminists have asserted that the essential difference between women and men does not lie in biology but rather in the roles that patriarchal societies (men) have required each sex to play. . . . However, a flaw in this feminist argument has persisted: it contradicts our felt experience of the biological difference between the sexes as one of immense significance. . . .The unique consciousness or sensibility of women, the particular attributes that set feminist art apart, and a compelling line of research now being pursued by feminist anthropologists all point to the idea that female biology is the basis of women’s powers. Biology is hence the source and not the enemy of feminist revolution.
Echols concludes that by 1973, “Alpert’s contention that women were united by their common biology was enormously tempting, given the factionalism within the movement.”
Ironically, then, the pressure of differences that quickly surfaced in the women’s movement between lesbians and straight women, between white and black, between classes, was a key source of the new pressure towards unity. The female body offered a permanence and an immediately rich identity that radical feminism, with its call to a long, often negative struggle of resistance, could not.
As her tone reveals, in Echols’s account, “radical feminism” is a relatively positive term and “cultural feminism” an almost entirely negative one. As I’ll explain later, I have a number of reasons for sharing this judgment. Finally, though, it won’t help us to understand recurring feminist oppositions if we simply sort them into progressive versus reactionary alignments. The divide is nothing so simple as a split between truly radical activists and benighted conservative ones, or between real agents for change and liberal reformers, or between practical fighters and sophisticated theorists. The sides in this debate don’t line up neatly in these ways. Maximizers and minimizers have political histories that converge and diverge. A pretense of neutrality won’t get us anywhere either. I’m describing a struggle here, and every account of it contains its overt or covert tropism toward one side or the other.
Essentialists and Social Constructionists
One has only to move from an account of movement politics to one of feminist theory in order to reverse Echols’s scenario of decline. In academic feminist discussion, the divide between the “essentialists” and the “social constructionists” has been a rout for the essentialists. Briefly, essentialists (like Alpert, above) see gender as rooted in biological sex differences. Hardly anyone of any camp will now admit to being an essentialist, since the term has become associated with a naive claim to an eternal female nature. All the same, essentialism, like its counterpart, cultural feminism, is abundantly present in current movement work. When Barbara Deming writes that “the capacity to bear and nurture children gives women a special consciousness, a spiritual advantage rather than a disadvantage,” she is assigning an enduring meaning to anatomical sex differences. When Andrea Dworkin describes how through sex a woman’s “insides are worn away over time, and she, possessed, becomes weak, depleted, usurped in all her physical and mental energies . . . by the one who occupies her,” she is asserting that in sex women are immolated as a matter of course, in the nature of things.
“Social construction” —the idea that the meaning of the body is changeable—is far harder to embrace with confidence. As Ellen Willis once put it, culture may shape the body, but we feel that the body has ways of pushing back. To assert that the body has no enduring, natural language often seems like a rejection of common sense. Where can a woman stand—embodied or disembodied—in the flow of this argument?
Writing not about gender in general but about that more focused issue of bodies and essences, sexuality, Carole Vance muses over the strengths and vicissitudes of “social construction” theory. She observes that the social constructionists who try to discuss sexuality differ about just what is constructed. Few would go so far as to say that the body plays no part at all as a material condition on which we build desire and sexual mores. But even for those social constructionists who try to escape entirely from any a priori ideas about the body, essentialism makes a sly comeback through unexamined assumptions. For example, how can social constructionists confidently say they are studying “sexuality”? If there is no essential, transhistorical biology of arousal, then there is no unitary subject, “sexuality,” to discuss: “If sexuality is constructed differently at each time and place, can we use the term in a comparatively meaningful way? . . . [H]ave constructionists undermined their own categories? Is there an ‘it’ to study?”
In the essentialist–versus–social constructionist version of the divide, one can see that one term in the argument is far more stable than the other. Essentialism such as Jane Alpert’s in “Mother Right” assumes a relatively stable social identity in “male” and “female,” while as Carole Vance argues, social construction is at its best as a source of destabilizing questions. By definition social construction theory cannot offer a securely bounded area for the study of gender; instead it initiates an inspiring collapse of gender verities.
Cultural Feminists and Poststructuralists
The contrast between more and less stable categories suggests yet another recent vocabulary for the feminist divide. In “Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory,” Linda Alcoff puts Echols’s definition of “cultural feminism” up against what she sees as a more recent counterdevelopment: feminist poststructural theory. By speaking only of “the last ten years,” Alcoff lops off the phase of “radical feminism” that preceded “cultural feminism” in movement history, leaving the revisionist image of extreme essentialism (such as Mary Daly’s in Gyn/Ecology) as the basic matrix of feminist thought from which a radical “nominalism” has more recently and heroically departed, calling all categories into doubt. It is no accident that with attention to detail, Alice Echols can trace a political decline from “radical feminism” to “cultural feminism” between 1967 and 1975 while Linda Alcoff can persuasively trace a gain in theoretical understanding from “cultural feminism” to “poststructuralism” between 1978 and 1988. Put them together and both narratives change: Instead of collapse or progress, we see one typical oscillation in the historical life of the divide.
These two accounts are also at odds because they survey very different political locations: Echols is writing about radical feminist activism, Alcoff about developments in academic feminist theory. Though political activism has developed a different version of the central debate from that of the more recent academic feminism, both confront the multiple problems posed by the divide. Nor will a model that goes like this work: thesis (essentialism, cultural feminism), antithesis (poststructuralism, deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis), synthesis (some stable amalgam of women’s solidarity that includes radical doubts about the formation, cohesion, and potential power of the group).
Instead, the divide keeps forming inside each of these categories. It is fundamental at any level one cares to meet it: material, psychological, linguistic. For example, U.S. feminist theorists don’t agree about whether poststructuralism tends more often toward its own version of essentialism (strengthening the arguments of maximizers by recognizing an enduring position of female Other) or whether poststructuralism is instead the best tool minimalists have (weakening any universalized, permanent concept such as Woman). Certainly poststructuralists disagree among themselves, and this debate around and inside poststructuralism should be no surprise. In feminist discourse a tension keeps forming between finding a useful lever in female identity and seeing that identity as hopelessly compromised.
I’m not regressing here to the good old days of an undifferentiated, undertheorized sisterhood, trying to blur distinctions others have usefully struggled to establish, but I do want to explore a configuration—the divide—that repeats in very different circumstances. For example, in an earlier oscillation, both radical feminism and liberal feminism offered their own versions of doubt about cultural feminism and essentialism. Liberal feminists refused the idea that biology should structure women’s public and sometimes even their private roles. Radical feminists saw the creation and maintenance of gender difference as the means by which patriarchs controlled women. Though neither group had the powerful theoretical tools later developed by the poststructuralists, both intimated basic elements in poststructuralist work: that the category “woman” was a construction, a discourse over which there had been an ongoing struggle; and that the self, the “subject,” was as much the issue as were social institutions. To be sure, these early activists often foolishly ignored Freud; they invoked an unproblematic “self” that could be rescued from the dark male tower of oppression; and they hourly expected the radical deconstruction of gender, as if the deconstruction of what had been constructed was relatively easy. Nonetheless, radical, philosophical doubts about the cohesion of “woman” have roots that go all the way down in the history of both liberal and radical feminism.
Recently I asked feminist critic Marianne DeKoven for a piece she and Linda Bamber wrote about the divide for the Modem Language Association in 1982. “Feminists have refined our thinking a great deal since then,” she said. Yes, no doubt; but there is not much from the recent past that we can confidently discard. In fact, the Bamber-DeKoven depiction of the divide remains useful because we are nowhere near a synthesis that would make these positions relics of a completed phase. One side of the divide, Bamber says in her half of the paper, “has been loosely identified with American feminism, the other with French feminism.”
But in fact these labels are inadequate, as both responses can be found in the work of both French and American feminists. Instead of debating French vs. American feminism, then, I want to define the two poles of our responses nonjudgmentally and simply list their characteristics under Column A and Column B.
Column A feminism is political, empirical, historical. A Column A feminist rebels against the marginalization of women and demands access to “positions that require knowledge and confer power.” A Column A feminist insists on woman as subject, on equal pay for equal work, on the necessity for women to be better represented in political life, the media, history books, etc. Column A feminism assumes, as Marks and de Courtivron put it, “that women have (always) been present but invisible and if they look they will find themselves.”
The Column B feminist, on the other hand, is not particularly interested in the woman as subject. Instead of claiming power, knowledge and high culture for women, Column B feminism attacks these privileged quantities as “phallogocentric.” . . . The feminine in Column B is part of the challenge to God, money, the phallus, origins and ends, philosophical privilege, the transcendent author, representation, the Descartian cogito, transparent language, and so on. The feminine is valorized as fragment, absence, scandal. . . . Whereas the Column A feminist means to occupy the center on equal terms with men, the Column B feminist, sometimes aided by Derrida, Lacan, Althusser, Levi-Strauss and Foucault, subverts the center and endorses her own marginality.
No doubt Bamber and DeKoven would restate these terms now in the light of seven more years of good, collective feminist work, but I am trying to write against the grain of that usually excellent impulse here, trying to suggest a more distant perspective in which seven years become a dot.
Alcoff is only the latest in a long line of frustrated feminists who want to push beyond the divide, to be done with it. She writes typically: “We cannot simply embrace the paradox. In order to avoid the serious disadvantages of cultural feminism and post-structuralism, feminism needs to transcend the dilemma by developing a third course. . . .” But “embracing the paradox” is just what feminism cannot choose but do. There is no transcendence, no third course. The urgent contradiction women constantly experience between the pressure to be a woman and the pressure not to be one will change only through a historical process; it cannot be dissolved through thought alone.
This is not to undervalue theory in the name of some more solid material reality but to emphasize that the dualism of the divide requires constant work; it resists us. It’s not that we can’t interrupt current patterns, not that trying to imagine our way beyond them isn’t valuable, but that such work is continuous. What is more, activists trying to make fundamental changes, trying to push forward the feminist discourse and alter its material context, don’t agree about what sort of synthesis they want. Nor can activists turn to theorists in any direct way for a resolution of these differences. Activism and scholarship have called forth different readings of the divide, but neither of these locations remains innocent of the primary contradiction. There is no marriage of theoretical mind and activist brawn to give us New Feminist Woman. And the recognition that binary thinking is a problem doesn’t offer us any immediate solution.
In other words, neither cultural feminism nor poststructuralism suggests a clear course when the time comes to discuss political strategy. Though we have learned much, we are still faced with the continuing strategic difficulty of what to do. As Michèle Barrett puts it: “It does not need remarking that the postmodernist point of view is explicitly hostile to any political project beyond the ephemeral.” The virtue of the ephemeral action is its way of evading ossification of image or meaning. Ephemerally, we can recognize a possibility we cannot live out, imagine a journey we cannot yet take. We begin: The category “woman” is a fiction; then, poststructuralism suggests ways in which human beings live by fictions; then, in its turn, activism requires of feminists that we elaborate the fiction “woman” as if she were not a provisional invention at all but a person we know well, one in need of obvious rights and powers. Activism and theory weave together here, working on what remains the same basic cloth, the stuff of feminism.
Some theorists like Alcoff reach for a synthesis, a third way, beyond the divide, while others like Bamber and DeKoven choose instead the metaphor of an inescapable, irreducible “doubleness” —a word that crops up everywhere in feminist discussion. To me, the metaphor of doubleness is the more useful: It is a reminder of the unresolved tension on which feminism continues to be built. As Alice Walker puts it in her formal definition of a “womanist” (her word for black feminism): “Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility . . . committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.”
This is not to deny change but to give a different estimate of its rate. Mass feminist consciousness has made a great difference; we have created not only new expectations but also new institutions. Yet, inevitably, the optimism of activism has given way to the academic second thoughts that tell us why our work is so hard. For even straightforward, liberal changes—like equal pay or day care—are proving far more elusive than feminists dreamed in 1970. We are moving more slowly than Western women of the late twentieth century can easily accept—or are even likely to imagine.
Motherists and Feminists
If the long view has a virtue beyond the questionable one of inducing calm, it can help feminists include women to whom a rapid political or theoretical movement forward has usually seemed beside the point—poor women, peasant women, and women who for any number of reasons identify themselves not as feminists but as militant mothers, fighting together for survival. In a study group convened by Temma Kaplan since 1985, Grass Roots Movements of Women, feminists who do research about such movements in different parts of the world, past and present, have been meeting to discuss the relationship among revolutionary action, women, and feminist political consciousness. As Meredith Tax described this activism:
There is a crux in women’s history/women’s studies, a knot and a blurry place where various things converge. This place has no name and there is no established methodology for studying it. The things that converge there are variously called: community organizations, working-class women’s organizations, consumer movements, popular mass organizations, housewives’ organizations, mothers’ movements, strike support movements, bread strikes, revolutions at the base, women’s peace movements. Some feminist or protofeminist groups and united front organizations of women may be part of this crux. Or they may be different. There is very little theory, either feminist or Marxist, regarding this crux.
The group has been asking: Under what class circumstances do women decide to band together as women, break out of domestic space, and publicly protest? What part have these actions actually played in gaining fundamental political changes? How do women themselves define what they have done and why? Does it make any sense to name feminist thinking as part of this female solidarity? Is there reason to think some kind of feminist consciousness is likely to emerge from this kind of political experience? Is the general marginality of these groups a strength or a weakness?
Almost all the women we have been studying present themselves to the world as mothers (hence, “motherists”) acting for the survival of their children. Their groups almost always arise when men are forced to be absent (because they are migrant workers or soldiers) or in times of crisis, when the role of nurturance assigned to women has been rendered impossible. Faced with the imperatives of their traditional work (to feed the children, to keep the family together) and with the loss of bread, or mobility, or whatever they need to do that work, women can turn into a militant force, breaking the shop windows of the baker or the butcher, burning the pass cards, assembling to confront the police state, sitting-in where normally they would never go—on the steps of the governor’s house, at the gates of the cruise missile base.
As feminists, it interested us to speculate about whether the women in these groups felt any kind of criticism of the social role of mother itself, or of the structural ghettoization of women, or of the sexism that greets women’s political efforts. As Marysa Navarro said of the women she studies, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who march to make the Argentine government give them news of their kidnapped, murdered children: “They can only consider ends that are mothers’ ends.” The surfacing of political issues beyond the family weakened the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Some wished to claim that party politics don’t matter and that their murdered children were innocent of any interest in political struggle. Others felt political activism had been their children’s right, one they now wished to share. These argued that their bereavement was not only a moral witnessing of crime and a demand for justice but also a specific intervention with immediate and threatening political implications to the state.
This kind of difference has split the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo along the feminist divide. To what extent is motherhood a powerful identity, a word to conjure with? To what extent is it a patriarchal construction that inevitably places mothers outside the realm of the social, the changing, the active? What power can women who weep, yell, mourn in the street have? Surely a mother’s grief and rage removed from the home, suddenly exposed to publicity, are powerful, shocking. Yet as Navarro also points out, the unity of this image was misleading; its force was eventually undermined by differences a group structured around the monolith “mother” was unable to confront.
But, finally, to give the argument one more turn, many Plaza de Mayo women experienced a political transformation through their mothers’ network. No group can resolve all political tensions through some ideal formation. The mothers of the disappeared, with their cross-party unity, have been able to convene big demonstrations, drawing new people into the political process. Women can move when a political vacuum develops; by being women who have accepted their lot, they can face the soldiers who have taken their children with a sense of righteous indignation that even a usually murderous police find it hard to dispute. On whatever terms, they have changed the political climate, invented new ways to resist state terrorism.
Using examples like these, the Grass Roots study group gave rise to a particularly poignant exploration of the feminist divide. In each member’s work we saw a different version of how women have managed the mixed blessing of their female specialness. Actions like bread riots are desperate and ephemeral, but also effective. With these street eruptions, women put a government on notice; they signal that the poor can be pushed no further. It is finally women who know when the line has been crossed to starvation. But what then? Prices go down; the women go home—until the next time.
Women’s movements for survival are like fire storms, changing and dissolving, resistant to political definition. We asked: Would a feminist critique of the traditional role of women keep these groups going longer? Or might feminist insights themselves contribute to the splits that quickly break down the unity shared during crisis? Or, in yet another shift of our assumed values, why shouldn’t such groups end when the crisis ends, perhaps leaving behind them politicized people, active networks, even community organizations capable of future action when called for? If the left were to expand its definition of political culture beyond the state and the workplace more often, wouldn’t the political consciousness of women consumers, mothers, and community activists begin to look enduring in its own way, an important potential source of political energy? Perhaps, our group theorized, we are wrong to wish the women to have formed ongoing political groups growing out of bread riots or meat strikes. Maybe we would see more if we redefined political life to include usually invisible female networks.
The more we talked, the more we saw the ramifications of the fact that the traditional movements were collectivist, the feminist ones more individualistic. Women’s local activism draws on a long history of women’s culture in which mutual support is essential to life, not (as it often is with contemporary urban feminists) a rare or fragile achievement. The community of peasant women (or working women, or colonized women, or concerned mothers) was a given for the motherists; crisis made the idea of a separate, private identity beyond the daily struggle for survival unimportant. Here was another face of the divide: Collectivist movements are powerful but they usually don’t raise questions about women’s work. Feminism has raised the questions, and claimed an individual destiny for each woman, but remains ambivalent toward older traditions of female solidarity. Surely our group was ambivalent. We worried that mothers’ social networks can rarely redefine the terms of their needs. And rich as traditional forms of female association may be, we kept coming on instances in which the power of societies organized for internal support along gender lines was undermined by the sexism of that very organization.
For example, historian Mrinalini Sinha’s research describes how the Bengali middle class of nineteenth-century India used its tradition of marrying and bedding child brides as a way of defining itself against a racist, colonial government. The English hypocritically criticized Bengali men as effeminate because they could not wait. Bengali men answered that it was their women who couldn’t wait: The way to control unbounded female sexuality—in which, of course, the English disbelieved—was to marry women at first menstruation.
In Sinha’s account one rarely hears the voices of Bengali women themselves, but the question of which sexism would control them—the English marriages of restraint or the Bengali marriages of children—raged around these women. Neither side in the quarrel had women’s autonomy or power at heart. Both wanted to wage the colonial fight using women as the symbolic representatives of their rivalry. Because Bengali men wanted control of their women just as much as the English wanted control of Bengali men, the anticolonial struggle had less to offer women than men. In general, our group found that sexism inside an oppressed or impoverished community—such as rigidity about gender roles, or about male authority over women, or about female chastity—has cost revolutionary movements a great deal. Too often, gender politics goes unrecognized as an element in class defeat.
Our group disagreed about the women’s solidarity we were studying: Was it a part of the long effort to change women’s position and to criticize hierarchy in general, or did motherist goals pull in an essentially different direction from feminist ones? And no matter where each one of us found herself on the spectrum of the group’s responses to motherist movements, no resolution emerged of the paradox between mothers’ goals and the goals of female individuals no longer defined primarily by reproduction and its attendant tasks. We saw this tension in some of the groups we studied, and we kept discovering it in ourselves. (Indeed, some of us were part of groups that used motherist rhetoric, as Ynestra King and I were of women’s peace networks, or Amy Swerdlow had been of Women Strike for Peace.)
Drawing hard lines between the traditional women’s movements and modern Western feminist consciousness never worked, not because the distinction doesn’t exist but because it is woven inside our movement itself. A motherist is in some definitions a feminist, in others not. And these differing feminisms are yoked together by the range of difficulties to be found in women’s current situation. Our scholarly distance from the “motherists” kept collapsing. The children’s toy-exchange network that Julie Wells described as one of the political groupings that built black women’s solidarity in South Africa couldn’t help striking us urban women in the United States as a good idea. We, too, are in charge of the children and need each other to get by. We, too, are likely to act politically along the lines of association our female tasks have shaped. We sometimes long for the community the women we were studying took more for granted, although we couldn’t help remarking on the ways those sustaining communities—say of union workers, or peasants, or ghettoized racial groups—used women’s energy, loyalty, and passion as by right, while usually denying them a say in the group’s public life, its historical consciousness.
Culture offers a variety of rewards to women for always giving attention to others first. Love is a special female responsibility. Some feminists see this female giving as fulfilling and morally powerful. Others see it more negatively as a mark of oppression and argue that women are given the job of “life,” but that any job relegated to the powerless is one undervalued by the society as a whole. Yet in our group there was one area of agreement: Traditional women’s concerns—for life, for the children, for peace—should be everyone’s. Beyond that agreement the question that recreates the feminist divide remained: How can the caring that belongs to “mother” travel out to become the responsibility of everyone? Women’s backs hold up the world, and we ached for the way women’s passionate caring is usually taken for granted, even by women themselves. Some Western feminists, aching like this, want above all to recognize and honor these mothers who, as Adrienne Rich writes, “age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” Others, also aching, start on what can seem an impossible search for ways to break the ancient, tireless mother’s promise to be the mule of the world.
Equality and Difference
By now anyone who has spent time wrangling with feminist issues has recognized the divide and is no doubt waiting for me to produce the name for it that is probably the oldest, certainly the most all-encompassing: “equality” versus “difference.” Most feminist thought grapples unavoidably with some aspect of the equality-difference problem at both the level of theory and of strategy. In theory, this version of the divide might be stated: Do women want to be equal to men (with the meaning of “equal” hotly contested), or do women see biology as establishing a difference that will always require a strong recognition and that might ultimately define quite separate possibilities inside “the human”?
Some difference-feminists would argue that women have a special morality, or aesthetic, or capacity for community that it is feminism’s responsibility to maximize. Others would put the theoretical case for difference more neutrally and would argue that woman, no matter what she is like, is unassimilable. Because she is biologically and therefore psychologically separable from man, she is enduring proof that there is no universally representative human being, no “human wholeness.” In contrast, the equality-feminists would argue that it is possible for the biological difference to wither away as a basis for social organization, either by moving men and women toward some shared center (androgyny) or toward some experience of human variety in which biology is but one small variable.
Difference theory tends to emphasize the body (and more recently the unconscious where the body’s psychic meaning develops); equality theory tends to deemphasize the body and to place faith in each individual’s capacity to develop a self not ultimately circumscribed by a collective law of gender. For difference theorists the body can be either the site of pain and oppression or the site of orgasmic ecstasy and maternal joy. For equality theorists neither extreme is as compelling as the overriding idea that the difference between male and female bodies is a problem in need of solution. In this view, therefore, sexual hierarchy and sexual oppression are bound to continue unless the body is transcended or displaced as the center of female identity.
At the level of practical strategy, the equality-difference divide is just as ubiquitous as it is in theory. Willingly or not, activist lawyers find themselves pitted against each other because they disagree about whether “equal treatment” before the law is better or worse for women than “special treatment,” for example, in cases about pregnancy benefits or child custody. (Should pregnancy be defined as unique, requiring special legal provisions, or will pregnant women get more actual economic support if pregnancy, when incapacitating, is grouped with other temporary conditions that keep people from work? Should women who give birth and are almost always the ones who care for children therefore get an automatic preference in custody battles, or will women gain more ultimately if men are defined by law as equally responsible for children, hence equally eligible to be awarded custody?) Sometimes activists find themselves pressured by events to pit the mainstreaming of information about women in the school curriculum against the need for separate programs for women’s studies. Or they find themselves having to choose between working to get traditionally male jobs (for example in construction) and working to get fair pay in the women-only jobs they are already doing.
One rushes to respond that these strategic alternatives should not be mutually exclusive, but often, in the heat of local struggles, they temporarily become so. No matter what their theoretical position on the divide, activists find themselves having to make painfully unsatisfactory short-term decisions about the rival claims of equality and difference.
Regrettably, these definitions, these examples flatten out the oscillations of the equality-difference debate; they obscure the class struggles that have shaped the development of the argument; they offer neat parallels where there should be asymmetries. Viewed historically, the oscillation between a feminism of equality and one of difference is a bitter disagreement about which path is more progressive, more able to change women’s basic condition of subordination.
In this history each side has taken more than one turn at calling the other reactionary and each has had its genuine vanguard moments. “Difference” gained some working women protection at a time when any social legislation to regulate work was rare, while “equality” lay behind middle-class women’s demand for the vote, a drive Ellen DuBois has called “the most radical program for women’s emancipation possible in the nineteenth century.” At the same time, bourgeois women’s demands that men should have to be as sexually pure as women finessed the divide between difference and equality and gave rise to interesting cross-class alliances of women seeking ways to make men conform to women’s standard, rather than the usual way round—a notion of equality with a difference. As DuBois points out, it is difficult to decide which of these varied political constructions gave nineteenth-century women the most real leverage to make change:
My hypothesis is that the significance of the woman suffrage movement rested precisely on the fact that it bypassed women’s oppression within the family, or private sphere, and demanded instead her admission to citizenship, and through it admission to the public arena.
In other words, at a time when criticism of women’s separate family role was still unthinkable, imagining a place outside the family where such a role would make no difference was—for a time—a most radical act.
Equality and difference are broad ideas and have included a range of definitions and political expressions. Equality, for example, can mean anything from the mildest liberal reform (this is piece-of-the-pie feminism, in which women are merely to be included in the world as it is) to the most radical reduction of gender to insignificance. Difference can mean anything from Mary Daly’s belief in the natural superiority of women to psychoanalytic theories of how women are inevitably cast as “the Other” because they lack penises.
Just now equality—fresh from recent defeats at the polls and in the courts—is under attack by British and U.S. theorists who are developing a powerful critique of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century roots of feminism in liberalism. In what is a growing body of work, feminists are exploring the serious limitations of a tradition based on an ideal of equality for separate, independent individuals acting in a free, public sphere—either the market or the state. This liberalism, which runs as an essential thread through Anglo-American feminism, has caused much disappointment. Feminists have become increasingly aware of its basic flaws, of the ways it splits off public and private, leaves sexual differences entirely out of its narrative of the world, and pretends to a neutrality that is nullified by the realities of gender, class, and race. A feminism that honors individual rights has grown leery of the liberal tradition that always puts those rights before community and before any caring for general needs. Liberalism promises an equal right to compete, but as bell hooks puts it: “Since men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to?”
These arguments against the origins and tendencies of equality feminism are cogent and useful. They have uncovered unexamined assumptions and the essential weakness in a demand for a passive neutrality of opportunity. But there are cracks in the critique of equality-feminism that lead me back to my general assertion that neither side of the divide can easily be transcended. The biggest complaint against a feminist demand of “equality” is that this construction means women must become conceptual men, or rather that to have equal rights they will have to repress their biological difference, to subordinate themselves in still new ways under an unchanged male hegemony. In this argument the norm is assumed to be male and women’s entry into public space is assumed to be a loss of the aspects of experience they formerly embodied—privacy, feeling, nurturance, dailiness. Surely, though, this argument entails a monolithic and eternal view both of public space and of the category “male.” How successfully does public space maintain its male gender markers, how totally exclude the private side of life? (The city street is male, yet it can at times be not only physically but also conceptually invaded, say, by a sense of neighborhood or by a demonstration of mass solidarity.) Does male space sometimes dramatically reveal the fact of women’s absence? How well does the taboo on public women hold up under the multiple pressures of modernity? Even if public and private are conceptually absolutes, to what extent do individual men and women experience moments in both positions?
Or, if one rejects these hopeful efforts to find loopholes in the iron laws of gender difference, the fear that women will become men still deserves double scrutiny. Is the collapse of gender difference into maleness really the problem women face? Or are we perhaps quite close to men already at the moment when we fear absorption into the other?
None of this is meant as a refutation of the important current work that brings skepticism to the construction of our demands. When health activist Wendy Chavkin notes that making pregnancy disappear by calling it a “disability” is one more way of letting business and government evade sharing responsibility for reproduction, she is right to worry about the invisibility of women’s bodies and of their work of reproduction of which their bodies are one small part. When philosopher Alison Jaggar gives examples of how male norms have buried the often separate needs of women, she is sounding a valuable warning. When critic Myra Jehlen describes how hard it is for the concept of a person to include the particular when that particular is female, she is identifying the depth of our difficulty, men’s phobic resistance to the inclusion of women into any neutral or public equation.
Nonetheless, I want to reanimate the problem of the divide, to show the potential vigor on both sides. On the one hand, an abstract promise of equality is not enough for people living in capitalism, where everyone is free both to vote and to starve. On the other, as Zillah Eisenstein has pointed out in The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism, the demand for equality has a radical meaning in a capitalist society that claims to offer it but structurally often denies it. Feminism asks for many things the patriarchal state cannot give without radical change. Juliet Mitchell’s rethinking of the value of equality-feminism reaches a related conclusion: When basic rights are under attack, liberalism feels necessary again. At best, liberalism sometimes tips in action and becomes more radical than its root conceptions promise. Certainly, no matter which strategy we choose—based on a model of equality or of difference—we are constantly forced to compromise.
It’s not that we haven’t gotten beyond classical liberalism in theory but that in practice we cannot live beyond it. In their very structure, contemporary court cases about sex and gender dramatize the fact of the divide, and media questions demand the short, one-sided answer. Each “case,” each “story” in which we act is different and we are only at moments able to shape that difference, make it into the kind of “difference” we want.
The Divide is Not a Universal
After having said so much about how deep the divide goes in feminism, how completely it defines what feminism is, I run the risk of seeming to say that the divide has some timeless essence. In fact, I want to argue the opposite, to place Western feminism inside its two-hundred-year history as a specific possibility for thought and action that arose as one of the possibilities of modernity.
When Mary Wollstonecraft wrote one of the founding books of feminism in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she said what was new then and remains fresh, shocking, and doubtful to many now: that sex hierarchy—like ranks in the church and the army or like the then newly contested ascendancy of kings—was social, not natural. Though women before her had named injustices and taken sides in several episodes of an ancient querrelle des femmes, Wollstonecraft’s generation experienced the divide in ways related to how feminists experience it now. At one and the same time she could see gender as a solid wall barring her way into liberty, citizenship, and a male dignity she envied, and could see how porous the wall was, how many ways she herself could imagine stepping through into an identity less absolute and more chaotic.
Modern feminists often criticize her unhappy compromise with bourgeois revolution and liberal political goals, but if Wollstonecraft was often an equality-feminist in the narrowest sense, eager to speak of absolute rights, of an idealized male individualism, and to ignore the body, this narrowness was in part a measure of her desperation. The body, she felt, could be counted on to assert its ever-present and dreary pull; the enlightenment promised her a mind that might escape. She acknowledged difference as an absolute—men are stronger; then, with cunning, wheedling a bit, Wollstonecraft made men the modest proposal that if women are inferior, men have nothing to fear; they can generously afford to give women their little chance at the light. This is a sly, agnostic treatment of the issue of equality versus difference. Experimental and groping spirit, Wollstonecraft didn’t know how much biological difference might come to mean; but that she suffered humiliation and loss through being a woman she did know, and all she asked was to be let out of the prison house of gender identity for long enough to judge what men had and what part of that she might want.
When Wollstonecraft wrote, difference was the prevailing wind, equality the incipient revolutionary storm. She feared that if women could not partake in the new civil and political rights of democracy, they would “remain immured in their families groping in the dark.” To be sure this rejection of the private sphere made no sense to many feminists who came after her and left modern feminists the task of recognizing the importance of the private and women’s different life there, yet it is a rejection that was absolutely necessary as one of feminism’s first moves. We in turn have rejected Wollstonecraft’s call for chastity, for the end of the passionate emotions “which disturb the order of society”; we have rejected her confidence in objective reason and her desire to live as a disembodied self (and a very understandable desire, too, for one whose best friend died in childbirth and who was to die of childbed fever herself), but we have not gotten beyond needing to make the basic demands she made—for civil rights, education, autonomy.
Finally, what is extraordinary in A Vindication is its chaos. Multivalent, driven, ambivalent, the text races over most of feminism’s main roads. It constantly goes back on itself in tone, thrilling with self-hatred, rage, disappointment, and hope—the very sort of emotions it explains are the mark of women’s inferiority, triviality, and lascivious abandon. Though its appeals to God and virtue are a dead letter to feminists now, the anger and passion with which Wollstonecraft made those appeals—and out of which she imagined the depth of women’s otherness, our forced incapacity, the injustice of our situation—feel thoroughly modern. Her structural disorganization derives in part from a circular motion through now familiar stages of protest, reasoning, fury, despair, contempt, desire. She makes demands for women, then doubles back to say that womanhood should be beside the point. Her book is one of those that mark the start of an avalanche of mass self-consciousness about gender injustice. So, in the midst of the hopeful excitement, the divide is there, at the beginning of our history.
If the divide is central to feminist history, feminists need to recognize it with more suppleness, but this enlarged perspective doesn’t let one out of having to choose a position in the divide. On the contrary, by arguing that there is no imminent resolution, I hope to throw each reader back on the necessity of finding where her own work falls and of assessing how powerful that political decision is as a tool for undermining the dense, deeply embedded oppression of women.
Though it is understandable that we dream of peace among feminists, that we resist in sisterhood the factionalism that has so often disappointed us in brotherhood, still we must carry on the argument among ourselves. Better, we must actively embrace it. The tension in the divide, far from being our enemy, is a dynamic force that links very different women. Feminism encompasses central dilemmas in modern experience, mysteries of identity that get full expression in its debates. The electricity of its internal disagreements is part of feminism’s continuing power to shock and involve large numbers of people in a public conversation far beyond the movement itself. The dynamic feminist divide is about difference; it dramatizes women’s differences from each other— and the necessity of our sometimes making common cause.
A Gender Diary: Some Stories, Some Dialogues
If, as I’ve said, the divide offers no third way, no high ground of neutrality, I certainly have not been able to present this overview so far without a constant humming theme beneath, my own eagerness to break the category “woman” down, to find a definition of difference that pushes so far beyond a settled identity that “being a woman” breaks apart.
Though sometimes I have found the theoretical equality arguments I have described blinkered and reactive, when it comes to strategy, I almost always choose that side, fearing the romance of femaleness even more than the flatness and pretense of undifferentiated, gender-free public space.
I suspect that each one’s emphasis—equality or difference—arises alongside and not after the reasons. We criticize Wollstonecraft’s worship of rationality, but how willing are we modern ones to look at the unconscious, the idiosyncratic, the temperamental histories of our own politics? It is in these histories—private, intellectual, and social—that we can find why some women feel safer with the equality model as the rock of their practice (with difference as a necessary condition imposed on it), while other women feel more true to themselves, more fully expressed, by difference as their rock (with equality a sort of bottom-line call for basic reforms that cannot ultimately satisfy).
Why do I decide (again and again) that being a woman is a liability, while others I know decide (again and again) that a separate female culture is more exciting, more in their interests, more promising as a strategic stance for now than my idea of slipping the noose of gender, living for precious moments of the imagination outside it? An obvious first answer is that class, race, and sexual preference determine my choices, and surely these play their central part. Yet in my experience of splits in the women’s movement, I keep joining with women who share my feminist preferences but who have arrived at these conclusions from very different starting points.
This is not to understate the importance of class, race, and sexual preference but merely to observe that these important variables don’t segment feminism along the divide; they don’t provide direct keys to each one’s sense of self-interest or desire nor do they yield clear directions for the most useful strategic moves. For example, lesbian and straight women are likely to bring very different understandings and needs to discussions of whether or not women’s communities work, whether or not the concept is constricting. Yet in my own experience, trust of women’s communities does not fall out along the lines of sexual preference. Instead, up close, the variables proliferate. What was the texture of childhood for each one of us? What face did the world beyond home present?
In the fifties, when an earlier, roiled life of gender and politics had subsided and the gender messages seemed monolithic again, I lived with my parents in the suburbs. My mother’s class and generation had lived through repeated, basic changes of direction about women, family, and work, and my own engaged and curious mother passed her ambivalent reception of the world’s mixed messages on to me in the food. With hindsight, I can see that of course gender, family, and class weren’t the settled issues they seemed then. But the times put a convincing cover over continuing change. Deborah Rosenfelt and Judith Stacey describe this precise historical moment and the particular feminist politics born from it:
[T]he ultradomestic nineteen fifties [was] an aberrant decade in the history of U.S. family and gender relations and one that has set the unfortunate terms for waves of personal and political reaction to family issues ever since. Viewed in this perspective, the attack on the breadwinner/homemaker nuclear family by the women’s liberation movement may have been an overreaction to an aberrant and highly fragile cultural form, a family system that, for other reasons, was already passing from the scene. Our devastating critiques of the vulnerability and cultural devaluation of dependent wives and mothers helped millions of women to leave or avoid these domestic traps, and this is to our everlasting credit. But, with hindsight, it seems to us that these critiques had some negative consequences as well. . . . [F]eminism’s overreaction to the fifties was an antinatalist, antimaterialist moment. . . .
I am the child of this moment, and some of the atmosphere of rage generated by that hysterically domestic ideology of the fifties can now feel callow, young, or ignorant. Yet I have many more kind words to say for the reaction of which I was a part in the early seventies than Rosenfelt and Stacey seem to: I don’t think the feminism of this phase would have spoken so powerfully to so many without this churlish outbreak of indignation. Nothing we have learned since about the fragility of the nuclear family alters the fundamental problems it continues to pose for women. It is not really gone, though it is changing. And though feminism seeks to preside over the changes, other forces are at work, half the time threatening us with loneliness, half the time promising us rich emotional lives if we will but stay home—a double punch combination designed to make the fifties look, by contrast, safe. The fifties were not safe, not for me anyway, and they don’t become so with hindsight.
It’s hard to remember now what the initial feminist moves in this wave felt like, the heady but alarming atmosphere of female revolt. As one anxious friend wondered back then, “Can I be in this and stay married?” The answer was often “no,” the upheaval terrifying. Some of us early ones were too afraid of the lives of our mothers to recognize ourselves in them. But I remember that this emotional throwing off of the mother’s life felt like the only way to begin. Black women whose ties to their mothers were more often a mutual struggle for survival rarely shared this particular emotion. As Audre Lord once said, “[B]lack children were not meant to survive,” so parents and children saw a lifeline in each other that was harder for the prosperous or the white to discern. The usually white and middle-class women who were typical members of early women’s consciousness raising groups often saw their mothers as desperate or depressed in the midst of their relative privilege. Many had been educated like men and had then been expected to become . . . men’s wives. We used to agree in those meetings that motherhood was the divide: Before it, you could pretend you were just like everyone else; afterward, you were a species apart—invisible and despised.
But if motherhood was despised, it was also festooned—then as now—with roses. Either way, in 1970, motherhood seemed an inevitable part of my future, and the qualities some feminists now praise as uniquely women’s were taken for granted as female necessities: Everyone wanted the nice one, the sweet one, the good one, the nurturant one, the pretty one. No one wanted the women who didn’t want to be women. It’s hard to recover how frightening it was to step out of these ideas, to resist continuing on as expected; it’s hard to get back how very naked it made us feel. Some of the vociferousness of our rhetoric, which now seems unshaded or raw, came partly from the anxiety we felt when we made this proclamation, that we didn’t want to be women. A great wave of misogyny rose to greet us. So we said it even more. Hindsight has brought in its necessary wisdom, its temporizing reaction. We have gotten beyond the complaint of the daughters, have come to respect the realities, the worries, and the work of the mothers. But to me “difference” will always represent a necessary modification of the initial impulse, a reminder of complexity, a brake on precipitate hopes. It can never feel like the primary insight felt, the first breaking with the gender bargain. The immediate reward was immense, the thrill of separating from authority.
Conversation with E. She recalls that the new women’s movement meant to her: You don’t have to struggle to be attractive to men anymore. You can stop working so hard on that side of things. I was impressed by this liberation so much beyond my own. I felt the opposite. Oppressed and depressed before the movement, I found sexual power unthinkable, the privilege of a very few women. Now angry and awake, I felt for the first time what the active eroticism of men might be like. What men thought of me no longer blocked out the parallel question of what I thought of them, which made sexual encounters far more interesting than they had once been. Like E., I worried about men’s approval less, but (without much tangible reason) my hopes for the whole business of men and women rose. For a brief time in the early seventies, I had an emotional intimation of what some men must feel: free to rub up against the world, take space, make judgments. With all its hazards, this confidence also offered its delight—but only for a moment of course. The necessary reaction followed at once: Women aren’t men in public space. There is no safety. Besides, I had romanticized male experience; men are not as free as I imagined. Still, I remember that wild if deluded time—not wanting to be a man but wanting the freedom of the street. The feminist rallying cry “Take Back the Night” has always struck me as a fine piece of movement poetry. We don’t have the night, but we want it, we want it.
Another memory of the early seventies: An academic woman sympathetic to the movement but not active asked what motivated me to spend all this time organizing, marching, meeting. (Subtext: Why wasn’t I finishing my book? Why did I keep flinging myself around?)
I tried to explain the excitement I felt at the idea that I didn’t have to be a woman. She was shocked, confused. This was the motor of my activism? She asked, “How can someone who doesn’t like being a woman be a feminist?” To which I could only answer, “Why would anyone who likes being a woman need to be a feminist?”
Quite properly, my colleague feared woman-hating. She assumed that feminism must be working to restore respect and dignity to women. Feminism would revalue what had been debased, women’s contribution to human history. I, on the other hand, had to confess: I could never have made myself lick all those stamps for a better idea of what womanhood means. Was this, as my colleague thought, just a new kind of misogyny? I wouldn’t dare say self-hatred played no part in what I wanted from feminism from the first. But even back then, for me, woman-hating—or loving—felt beside the point. It was the idea of breaking the law of the category itself that made me delirious.
The first time I heard “women” mentioned as a potentially political contemporary category I was already in graduate school. It was the mid-sixties and a bright young woman of the New Left was saying how important it was to enlist the separate support of women workers
in our organizing against the Vietnam War. I remember arguing with her, flushed with a secret humiliation. What good was she doing these workers, I asked her, by addressing them and categorizing them separately? Who was she to speak so condescendingly of “them”? Didn’t she know that the inferior category she had named would creep up in the night and grab her, too?
I’m ashamed now to admit that gender solidarity—which I lived inside happily, richly every day in those years—first obtruded itself on my conscious mind as a threat and a betrayal. So entirely was I trapped in negative feelings about what women are and can do that I had repressed any knowledge of femaleness as a defining characteristic of my being.
I can see now that women very different from me came to feminist conclusions much like my own. But this is later knowledge. My feminism came from the suburbs, where I knew no white, middle-class woman with children who had a job or any major activities beyond the family. Yet, though a girl, I was promised education, offered the pretense of gender neutrality. This island of illusions was a small world, but if I seek the source for why cultural feminism has so little power to draw me, it is to this world I return in thought. During the day, it was safe, carefully limited, and female. The idea that this was all made me frantic.
S. reads the gender diary with consternation. In Puerto Rico, where she grew up, this fear of the mother’s life would be an obscenity. She can’t recognize the desire I write of—to escape scot free from the role I was born to. Latina feminists she knows feel rage, but what is this shame, she wants to know. In her childhood both sexes believed being a woman was magic.
S. means it about the magic, hard as it is for me to take this in. She means sexual power, primal allure, even social dignity. S. became a feminist later, by a different route, and now she is as agnostic about the meaning of gender as I am. But when she was young, she had no qualms about being a woman.
After listening to S., I add another piece to my story of the suburbs. Jews who weren’t spending much of our time being Jewish, we lived where ethnicity was easy to miss. (Of course it was there; but I didn’t know it.) In the suburbs, Motherhood was white bread, with no powerful ethnic graininess. For better and worse, I was brought up on this stripped, denatured product. Magical women seemed laughably remote. No doubt this flatness in local myth made girls believe less in their own special self, but at the same time it gave them less faith in the beckoning ideal of mother. My gifted mother taught me not the richness of home but the necessity of feminism. Feminism was her conscious as well as unconscious gift.
It is not enough for the diary to tell how one woman, myself, came to choose—again and again—a feminism on the minimalizers’ side of the divide. Somehow the diary must also tell how this decision can never feel solid or final. No one gets to stay firmly on her side; no one gets to rest in a reliably clear position. Mothers who believe their daughters should roam as free as men find themselves giving those daughters taxi fare, telling them not to talk to strangers, filling them with the lore of danger. Activists who want women to be very naughty (as the women in a little zap group we call No More Nice Girls want women to be) nonetheless warn them there’s a price to pay for daring to defy men in public space. Even when a woman chooses which shoes she’ll wear today—is it to be the running shoes, the flats, the spikes?—she’s deciding where to place herself for the moment on the current possible spectrum of images of “woman.” Whatever one’s habitual position on the divide, in daily life one travels back and forth, or, to change metaphors, one scrambles for whatever toehold one can.
Living with the divide: In a room full of feminists, everyone is saying that a so-called surrogate mother, one who bears a child for others, should have the right to change her mind for a time (several weeks? months?) after the baby is born. This looks like agreement. Women who have been on opposite sides of the divide in many struggles converge here, outraged at the insulting way one Mary Beth Whitehead has been treated by fertility clinics, law courts, and press. She is not a “surrogate,” we say, but a “mother” indeed.
The debate seems richer than it’s been lately. Nobody knows how to sort out the contradictions of the new reproductive technologies yet, so for a fertile moment there’s a freedom, an expressiveness in all that’s said. Charged words like “birth” and “mothering” and “the kids” are spilling all around, but no one yet dares to draw the ideological line defining which possibilities belong inside feminism, which are antithetical to it. Some sing a song of pregnancy and birth while others offer contrapuntal motifs of child-free lesbian youth, of infertility, all in different keys of doubt about how much feminists may want to make motherhood special, different from parenting, different from caring—a unique and absolute relation to a child.
But just as we’re settling in for an evening that promises to be fraught, surprising, suggestive, my warning system, sensitive after eighteen years of feminist activism, gives a familiar twitch and tug. Over by the door, one woman has decided: Surrogacy is baby-selling and ought to be outlawed. All mothering will be debased if motherhood can be bought. Over by the couch, another woman is anxiously responding: Why should motherhood be the sacred place we keep clean from money, while men sell the work of their bodies every day? Do we want women to be the special representatives of the moral and spiritual things that can’t be bought, with the inevitable result that women’s work is once again done without pay?
Here it is then. The metaconversation that has hovered over my political life since 1970, when I joined one of the first women’s consciousness raising groups. On the one hand, sacred motherhood. On the other, a wish—variously expressed—for this special identity to wither away.
Only a little later in the brief, eventful history of this ad hoc Mary Beth Whitehead support group, a cleverly worded petition was circulated. It quoted the grounds the court used to disqualify Whitehead from motherhood—from the way she dyed her hair to the way she played pattycake—and ended: “By these standards, we are all unfit mothers.” I wanted to sign the petition, but someone told me, “Only mothers are signing.” I was amazed. Did one have to be literally a mother in order to speak authentically in support of Whitehead? Whether I’m a mother or not, the always obvious fact that I am from the mother half of humanity conditions my life.
But after this initial flash of outrage at exclusion, I had second thoughts: Maybe I should be glad not to sign. Why should I have to be assumed to be a mother if I am not? Instead of accepting that all women are mothers in essence if not in fact, don’t I prefer a world in which some are mothers—and can speak as mothers—while others are decidedly not?
To make a complicated situation more so: While I was struggling with the rights and wrongs of my being allowed to sign, several other women refused to sign. Why? Because the petition quoted Whitehead’s remark that she knew what was best for her child because she was the mother. The nonsigners saw this claim as once again imputing some magic biological essence to motherhood. They didn’t want to be caught signing a document that implied that mother always knows best. They supported Whitehead’s right to dye her hair but not her claim to maternal infallibility.
I saw the purity of this position, recognized these nonsigners as my closest political sisters, the ones who run fast because the old world of mother-right is just behind them. But in this case I didn’t feel quite as they felt. I was too angry at the double standard, the unfair response to Whitehead’s attempts to extricate herself from disaster. I thought that given the circumstances of here, of now, Mary Beth Whitehead was as good an authority about her still-nursing baby as we could find anywhere in the situation. It didn’t bother me at all to sign a petition that included her claim to a uniquely privileged place. The press and the court seemed to hate her for that very specialness; yet they all relegated her to it, execrating her for her unacceptable ambivalence. Under such conditions she was embracing with an understandable vengeance the very role the world named as hers. Who could blame her?
Eventually, I signed the petition, which was also signed by a number of celebrities and was much reported in the press. It is well to remember how quickly such public moments flatten out internal feminist debates. After much feminist work, the newspapers—formerly silent about feminism’s stake in surrogacy questions—began speaking of “the feminist position.” But nothing they ever wrote about us or our petition came close to the dilemma as we had debated it during the few intense weeks we met. Prosurrogacy and antisurrogacy positions coexist inside feminism. They each require expression, because neither alone can respond fully to the class, race, and gender issues raised when a poor woman carries a child for a rich man for money.
Over time I’ve stopped being depressed by the lack of feminist accord. I see feminists as stuck with the very indeterminacy I say I long for. This is it then, the life part way in, part way out. One can be recalled to “woman” anytime—by things as terrible as rape, as trivial as a rude shout on the street—but one can never stay inside “woman,” because it keeps moving. We constantly find ourselves beyond its familiar cover.
Gender markers are being hotly reasserted these days—U.S. defense is called “standing tough” while the Pope’s letter on women calls motherhood woman’s true vocation. Yet this very heat is a sign of gender’s instabilities. We can clutch aspects of the identity we like, but they often slip away. Modern women experience moments of free fall. How is it for you, there, out in space near me? Different, I know. Yet we share—some with more pleasure, some with more pain—this uncertainty.
I am indebted to the hardworking readers of an earlier draft who are not to blame for the times I have failed to profit from their excellent advice: Nancy Davidson, Adrienne Harris, Mim Kelber, Temma Kaplan, Ynestra King, Susana Leval, Eunice Lipton, Alix Kates Shulman, Alan Snitow, Nadine Taub, Meredith Tax, Sharon Thompson, and Carole Vance. A longer version of this piece will appear in Adrienne Harris and Ynestra King, ed. Rocking the Ship of State: Toward a Feminist Peace Politics (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, forthcoming).