Talking Back to the Patriarchy

Talking Back to the Patriarchy

It is in the interest of women of all generations to invent a complex, resistant, and sexually curious strain in feminist thought and action. History can show us how.

Members of W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) stage an action, c. 1968–70. Source unknown.

First off, and above everything else: for a feminist activist like me, after forty-five years, #MeToo is simply marvelous: “We believe the women!” Although this is an absurd, generic statement, once again sealing one inside a restrictive existential category that can’t hold, still, what a change. To be believed, to have what one says make things move. Yes, marvelous.

The worries many have expressed are also pressing in: fear of backlash (the richly recurring hatred of women who speak); fear of a loss of due process and proportionality in punishment; fear of a misdirection of the eye toward individual “monsters” and away from the need for systemic change. For me, too, a dislike of some women’s current delight in the shaming of men, which puts women in their traditional role as moral arbiters and, sometimes, scourges. Making men ashamed, from cradle to grave, is a constitutive part of how men—excuse the generic—spend their lives trying to establish a masculinity to cancel all doubts. Shaming men is simply joining the system, a return to the idea of women as sexual gatekeepers. (Women are constantly shamed, too, in quite a different way. They should be experts in the failure of this emotion as a goad towards positive change.)

What might work better? I was recently at a lecture where a speaker I admire made the suggestion, based on her research, that levity, playfulness, a change of tone in the struggle might cut through both female self-righteousness and the arrogance of male associational life. She rounded her remarks off by saying that this buoyancy of tone would be new for feminists, pointing to the strict, puritanical earnestness of the second wave.

What! I felt consternation at this misreading of our collective U.S. feminist past. Why has an earlier, radical feminist history been so distorted in common memory? The high spirits of the new have dropped out, along with sweeping demands it’s hard to imagine now. I intend no nostalgia here. Beginnings have their own special voice, one of high expectations. But, it is in the interest of feminists of all generations to invent and reinvent a more complex, resistant, and sexually curious strain in feminist thought and action. I offer the following personal, potted history of feminist tones of voice used in response to tireless sexism and relentless sexual harassment. Tone is an elusive subject. In each social context, feminists seek a language to be believed, using tones of voice that are currently available.

The potted history

1970—The height of the sexual revolution before AIDS, before the anti-eroticism of failure, before the low spirits that follow defeats. Contrary to my young speaker’s received idea of this phase, we feminists were wild in the streets. Enraged but enchanted with our new understanding, we were W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell); we were theater; we were excitement. We had seen the actual situation at last and, glowing with this new knowledge, we expected to be believed. The new news about patriarchy was dark, but at the same time the social atmosphere in which this new knowledge was blooming was hopeful and exuberant. The sexual revolution had been for men so far. But now we wanted it on our terms. Anne Koedt had explained everything in The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm (1970). Birth control was beginning to be legally obtainable. The last line of Alix Kates Shulman’s 1970 piece heralded the joy women could have from sex: “Think clitoris!” This erotically charged exuberance suffused feminist activism then. The uncovering of feminist understanding was so startling that we held our new truths to be self-evident.

1979—Only, they weren’t. Backlash was a shock, enabled as it was by the slowdown in the economy that made the tone of exuberance unusable. A new precarity led to a new exhaustion. Reaching for a return to an earlier passion, some feminist activists began the anti-pornography campaign around this time. To those of us who opposed this move, in what became the feminist sex wars, attacks on pornography were a misdirected rage: men were predators, immoveable; we must take their misogynistic candy away. The anti-pornography movement in feminism was all about no more fun and games. Play about sexuality was seen as unthinkable, an evasion from the sober truth about men. (This phase in feminism is often called “radical” feminism. It was not.)

In resistance to this dour tone, some of us started the zap street theater group No More Nice Girls to bring a naughty energy back (picture a street of pregnant Reagans) and to return to our core issue, arising from our earlier hopes for freedom, the basic freedom to control our bodies—in sex and in reproduction. In these years, we also had Take Back the Night marches, which varied in tone from a happy night on the town to a walk for the endlessly endangered. (I remember the few men on these marches, sometimes wonderful, as allies, sometimes officious, as protectors.) There were always counter moves like this toward a feminist power that would not invoke the protection of the state, but hopefulness was far to seek.

1991—Anita Hill. My letter about the wandering languages of liberation was published in the New York Times. First I glanced back at the anti-pornography ordinance written by Catharine A. MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin in the early 1980s, which had been at the center of the feminist sex wars. Then:

Many of us felt that the ordinance confused a legitimate need to attack coercion with a general assumption that sex itself is subordinating to women. Many believed that the language of the ordinance proposed a stifling morality while pretending to protect women from sexual abuse by men.

A similar confusion can occur in the current discussions of sexual harassment. The issue is not that “dirty” words besmirch women, but that men sometimes use these words to keep control of public space, trying to make less powerful women feel like strangers there. Unfortunately, MacKinnon’s work has muddied the distinction between the old ideal of female sexual purity and the newer one of women’s autonomy and self-determination.

In the Hill-Thomas hearings, we saw the grave consequences of this confusion, with some senators and commentators talking as if it were a feminist idea that women require a special “respect,” that we are inevitably insulted and degraded by any mention of sex. We only nourish this foolish moralism by framing the issue as one of good girls and bad boys. The real point . . . is women’s lack of power—to talk back, to work as equals and, without reprisals or stigma, to name our own desires.

New York Times, November 3, 1991

I signed this as a founding member of the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT), a hard-working but hardly exuberant group. We were so discouraged by fighting other feminists and, by then, so overworked that the only time we could find to meet was on Saturday nights, always remarking to each other that this was no party.

Hill was not believed. Thomas was seated on the Supreme Court. And the meaning of what he did to her was not adequately registered. Pundits blared, “We’re having a national conversation,” and there was indeed some “me too” during this period. But the tonal shift we hope for now, from our #MeToo moment, didn’t come. Goals narrowed, enchantment was replaced by small steps, fidgets, the niggling irritations of having to endlessly repeat oneself. With the contraction of expectations came a contraction of inspiring ideas. The saga of good girls and bad boys prevailed, capturing the joyless essence of the backlash years.

So is our current moment going to be different? Will we get further, find a voice both exuberant and militantly directed toward substantial change? Will #MeToo propel and sustain the national resistance to Donald Trump that women launched with that beautiful and witty surge of pink hats?

Tone is a tricky thing. Using the available language during such a right-wing period, when even the fundamental right to abortion is being undermined, we constantly meet in current narratives traumatized and ruined girls who can’t talk back, innocent girls who have no sexual desires of their own, men who need punishment, and men who are righteous and riddled with hypocrisy.

This mixture is a hastily assembled language of resistance under the pressures of Trump’s America. There’s a reach toward freedom that sometimes sinks under the weight of current political threat. But when I complained about this wavering tone to younger feminists, they said that for them, this, too, is a time of exuberance. I was delighted to hear they feel this élan in such dark times; they believe a better sexual culture is possible. Viva the women irradiated with hopeful anger; try to hear them over the rival voices of abject passivity and irreparable damage. We can help make new language, constantly struggling free of the old. We had this slogan at the very beginning of the second wave of the U.S. women’s liberation movement: “Teach the fish to question the water.” Nothing is harder. Patriarchy was everywhere, and still is. But, in the present outpouring of speech from women, we are hearing at new volume a sound of resistance. Knocking the edges off each other’s arguments as we go, we are and will be finding the voices we need.

A reader’s guide

Commentary is pouring out. I certainly haven’t managed to read everything, but I recommend the following list. Taken together, this writing persuades me that a nuanced and useful language for describing and understanding our situation is in the works. In Trump’s America, these subtle pieces, born of a rich dialogue, are precious. Exuberant outrage mixed with broader political ambitions might well be potent.

All of Rebecca Traister’s pieces for how they acknowledge women’s ambivalence, their possible desires, a recognition that takes apart the iron binary of male and female interests.

Your Reckoning. And Mine” (New York)

This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work” (New York)

Judith Levine’s critique of punishment as our single response. She offers one of the few concrete strategies around: a process of truth and reconciliation. The common guilty man’s statement: “I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused” is useless as a one liner. But what if it were a part of a conversation?

Will Feminism’s Past Mistakes Haunt #MeToo?” (Boston Review)

Shanita Hubbard describes the painful confrontation between young girls and the older black boys waiting for them on the street corner. But she reminds us, powerfully, of how impossible and wrong it would be to report such moments to any state authority.

Russell Simmons, R. Kelly, and Why Black Women Can’t Say #MeToo” (New York Times)

Dayna Tortorici’s description of the young men of her generation (she’s in her late twenties) is truly harrowing. She reveals the new face of male bonding and complicity with each others’ exclusionary world building. The sophisticated men Tortorici encounters in the arts and media know all about what sexism is, but that knowledge converts into a sense of threat. What they have taken away from feminist discourse so far is that it’s a zero-sum game between men and women—and these men want to win.

In the Maze” (n+1)

Susan Faludi asks “can #MeToo’s momentum be hitched to the broader fight for equality?” She traces the wavering history of feminist outrage and how easily it can be sidetracked away from systemic change.

The Patriarchs Are Falling. The Patriarchy Is Stronger Than Ever.” (New York Times)

Laura Kipnis: I was happy that she offered my mentor Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976) as a textbook of explanation. Dinnerstein argued that the female monopoly on early childcare establishes a layer of feeling from which none of us fully recovers. In the eyes of infants, women are tyrants who control and thwart us and must be put in their place if we are to separate from them and become adults. Alas, and inevitably, women too share these emotions.

Kick Against the Pricks” (New York Review of Books)

Has #MeToo gone too far, or not far enough? The answer is both.” (Guardian)

P.S. Andrew Sullivan, in his piece “It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of #MeToo,” begins with an argument I find unexceptionable against the anonymous list that went viral, naming men as guilty. But just when one is about to grant him his argument comes his conclusion: to oppose patriarchy is far too sweeping to make any sense. To Sullivan, attacking patriarchy is as silly as attacking the weather. Let me resist: it is a feminist position that we live in patriarchy but that this condition is not inevitable.

Ann Snitow, a co-founder of the Network of East-West Women, is a professor of Literature and was the Director of Gender Studies from 2006 to 2012 at The New School. Her most recent book is The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary (Duke University Press, 2015).