Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

“I did not awake this morning to the deafening noise of sirens or the rocketing sound of nonstop bombs. I did not awake to the missiles that come like rain from the sky, exploding on contact with land, staking out huge craters within the earth, collapsing people into buildings, trees into rubble, men into women, hands into feet, children into dust. Two thousands tons of ammunition in three hours. Forty-two air raids in one day. Twenty-seven thousand air raids in a decade. I did not awake this morning to the taste of desolation, nor to the crusts of anger piled high from from decades of neglect. I did not awake to the smell of charred flesh, which sand storms use to announce the morning raid. I did not awaken in Basra to the familiar smell of hunger, or of grief for that matter, residual grief from the last twelve years that has now settled as a thick band of air everywhere. Breathing grief for a lifetime can be toxic. Breathing only grief simply kills. I did not awake in Falluja, symbol of the post-election settlement wager: votes in exchange for bombs. I awoke this morning from a comfortable bed, avoiding the interminable queues for rations of fuel or food, because I have the privilege to choose to live, unlike many who have lost their lives in the insatiable service of imperialism.”

– Jaqui Alexander, The Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory & The Sacred. Duke University Press, 2005.

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Judith Levine, “Sympathy for the Devil: Why Progressives Haven’t Helped the Sex Offender, Why They Should, and How They Can” in Halperin & Hoppe, The War on Sex (2017), 141-142.

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“In contemplating the many reverberations of the patterns set up by sexual harassment, it is hard to keep in mind all the consequences. That women are forced to accept the image of themselves as fair game in any public space – even if for the least serious of attacks, say, whistling from across the street – maintains and reinforces women’s sense of belonging at home in the family, and hence of the most basic sexual division of labor, one of the biggest sources of sexual inequality

The attitudes that produce sexual harassment also maintain a powerful bonding among men which not only weakens any existing class consciousness, but is one of the major obstacles to its development. I might add that this is the hopeful view; the more skeptical one is that the historically developed notion of class consciousness that we have inherited is based so fundamentally on male bonding, on fraternity, that it cannot be transformed into a comradeship including women without changing the image of comradeship itself.

Thus, from a socialist perspective as well as from a feminist one, no general issue is more important than sexual harassment. To challenge it, to make it unacceptable, is to attack one of the major barriers to unity among people who have the possibility of bringing about radical social change. To challenge it is also to challenge one of the aspects of the male ego and the male-dominated culture that feminists so dislike – the ego and the culture that depend on the subordination of others.

The very difficulty of defining sexual harassment specifically should be an asset, for it cannot be combatted effectively in a mechanical, legalistic, or superficial way. Teaching men to quit harassing women cannot be done by rote. It requires enjoining them to try to see the world from a woman’s perspective: it requires developing the faculty of empathy that is so atrophied in many people; it requires challenging all those patterns of bonding which block the possibility of understanding a different point of view.

I do not consider sexual harassment as a gender-neutral phenomenon which women do to men as often as men to women. I would hardly deny that women can use sex in an harassing way; far from it. Sex is one of the few weapons women may have. But it is absurd on the face of it to suggest that the sexual harassment of men by women or of women by women is a social problem, any more than rape by women. For better or worse, women’s sexuality in our culture, whether heterosexual or lesbian, is not typically aggressive. Furthermore, acts of sex or sexual flirtation cannot be abstracted from the overall context of male supremacy which, with few exceptions, deprives women of coercive powers. These basic facts can be obscured when the struggle against sexual harassment becomes disconnected from a women’s movement, as has now happened to some extent. Thus we see polls which show men to be harassed as often as women!

This brings us to the second general topic, the changes created by the victory we have won in making sexual harassment illegal. Perhaps the most important characteristic of this victory is its fragility. In this period of strong anti-feminism it does not take much imagination to figure out how sexual harassment could be licensed again, and the legal and social weapons we now have against it taken from us. Only constant vigilance and militance on this issue can maintain these weapons for us.

Furthermore, as feminists we face a particular problem in how to use the weapons we have because of the definitional problems. There is a big area of overlap between sexism and sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is part of sexism; to detach it from that context would be to miss its importance. Yet we have an interest in defining sexual harassment specifically so that we can use the legal and moral weapons we have gained. If we insist on total subjectivity in the definition of the “crime” – that is, that whatever makes a woman feel harassed is harassment – then we will sacrifice all access to legal weapons. Perhaps someday we will be strong enough as a movement to make sexism itself a crime; but we are not that strong yet and “merely” pressuring sexual harassment out of existence would be most welcome.

We have yet another interest in being specific about sexual harassment: because we women are changing, are deciding not to accept treatment that we previously regarded as normal, many men are genuinely confused. Indeed, many men are defensive and angry; many conceive of the pressure against sexual harassment as a rejection of their very personalities, and lack confidence in their ability to find other sources of identity. This does give us the responsibility to examine what it is that we find harassing, at least enough to be able to explain it to others. It is not our fault, of course, if men are thick-skinned about this, and our explanatory attempts may often, perhaps usually, fail, because men benefit from harassing women, and thus have an interest in not understanding. Still, our only hope after all is that the majority can be forced to change, so that a new norm can be developed, a new pattern of male-female public relations that allows women more space to define and initiate the sexual content of encounters. There is no substitute for patient, as well as impatient but repeated, explanation.” 

– Linda Gordon, “The Politics of Sexual Harassment.” Viewpoint Magazine, November 29, 2017, originally appeared in print in Radical America, in a 1981 special issue on sexual harassment.

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“Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness – and that is not the nature of a human group.
This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized. This is not to say that formalization of a structure of a group will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and make available some means of attacking it if the people involved are not at least responsible to the needs of the group at large. “Structurelessness” is organizationally impossible. We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured one. Therefore the word will not be used any longer except to refer to the idea it represents. Unstructured will refer to those groups which have not been deliberately structured in a particular manner. Structured will refer to those which have. A Structured group always has formal structure, and may also have an informal, or covert, structure. It is this informal structure, particularly in Unstructured groups, which forms the basis for elites.”


Jo Freeman aka Joreen, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Originally in The Second Wave, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1972.

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““Women” returns to a project that Leibovitz undertook in collaboration with her late partner Susan Sontag, published and exhibited widely in 1999. In some respects, the exhibit is a traditional portrait series drawing on Leibovitz’s long career as a celebrity photographer; the subjects are disproportionately famous women.

Yet many of the women pictured are also diverse and outspoken — activists, writers, artists, models, businesswomen, and politicians like Kara Walker, Amy Schumer, Misty Copeland, Caitlyn Jenner, Wendi Deng Murdoch, Elizabeth Warren, Patti Smith, Lupita Nyong’o, Michelle Obama, and Laura Poitras. Most are American, and most have a public voice, though Leibovitz has included several global women’s advocates like Malala Yousafzai and Aung San Suu Kyi, in a gesture toward geographical comprehensiveness.

Ordinary women find their way here as well, though for the most part their photographs are recycled from the larger 1999 show in which Leibovitz made an effort to include women one might encounter in everyday life: health-care attendants at a Circle K in Rockdale, Texas; farmers in California’s Central Valley; a police officer from Hoboken; twin sisters in Miami Beach in matching yellow sundresses; a baseball pitcher in the act of delivering a two-seam fastball, ponytail whipping around her face; a young teacher in the South Bronx, her shirt lightly dusted with chalk.

But the new exhibit is not a simple extension of the 1999 show: Leibovitz collaborated with Gloria Steinem to make the current show an activist project. As the exhibit travels internationally, it has been accompanied by a series of planned “talking circles,” non-hierarchical community-building discussions. The talking circles are meant to mirror the potential and the approach of the exhibit itself, as women sit down “eye-to-eye” to find common goals for which they can begin to advocate. As Steinem has argued elsewhere, this “activism 101” strategy aims to give all women, especially those most marginalized by poverty, race, sexuality, and nation, a voice.

The intent is laudable, but the political takeaway is less clear. Are we meant to understand the portraits as part of a grassroots strategy, and the women photographed as a sort of talking circle? It’s hard to imagine Sheryl Sandberg — photographed in a corporate boardroom in Menlo Park — telling Tammie Winfield, a home health worker and victim of domestic violence seeking treatment at the Crime Victim’s Center in St Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, to “lean in.”

Moreover, if “Women” illustrates the contradictory nature of its own premise, its activist ambitions dishearteningly demonstrate that while all women can be victimized (#yesallwomen) they won’t all become feminists. This doesn’t negate feminism but it does beg for collective strategies far beyond the ones liberal feminism has put on offer.

Leibovitz doesn’t address or acknowledge these incongruities, but asking viewers to puzzle through them makes the show engaging and productive. The New York staging, in particular, tried to make sure that viewers did so by hanging the exhibit in the former Bayview Correctional Facility in Chelsea, 550 West 20th Street.

Bayview was a correctional drug-treatment facility turned women’s medium-security prison, imprisoning up to two hundred women charged under the Rockefeller drug laws. First closed after Hurricane Sandy drowned it in fourteen feet of water, the prison was then permanently closed in 2013. In 2015, redevelopment rights were granted to two progressive foundations who plan to turn the building into a center for nonprofit agencies, community services, and a women’s organizing center. Former prisoners, who convened an event with their families this past month as a part of the reclamation and closure of the building, will be part of the demolition crew.

Leibovitz’s New York exhibit was staged in the former prison’s gym — a simple arrangement of metal folding chairs, three large screens offering a digital slideshow of photographs, and a bulletin board of unframed prints with thumbtacked lines of twine leading to image descriptions. Far from the framed and museum-hung scale of the first exhibition, this second series is being shown in unfinished, industrial, or repurposed spaces — industrial buildings in Hong Kong, a railway station in Singapore, a former military barracks in San Francisco’s Presidio, a Wapping power station in London. The pop-up aesthetic lends the show an agitprop feel, of squatting, of a community meeting, of a project not yet ready to frame. It’s accessible, and admittance is free: you might even take your own photograph and tack it up.

The day I visited, the room was full. Mothers and daughters sat in the chairs, groups of friends whispered names as famous women’s faces passed by the slideshow, fathers stood back from the crowd, trying to keep the babies they were holding asleep.

Viewing world-famous portrait photography in a prison gym feels, like the show itself, both voyeuristic and inclusive, and raises thorny questions. Does the idea of “women” trade in on the radical setting or transform because of it? Leibovitz only hints at answers, but I think the show does both. For example, the portrait series of Hillary Clinton was likely read by many as a tribute, and Clinton’s inclusion in this activist-y show certainly gave her center-right politics a progressive ablution. But for anyone remembering Clinton’s infamous 1996 use of the term “super-predators,” the prison setting also casts a critical eye on her legacy.

The prison setting forces the show to turn around questions of violence and confinement. Bayview held fifteen solitary confinement cells, the exhibition insert reads, and a mid-1980s investigation reported “unsanitary conditions” and “the frequent occurrence of sexual harassment by male guards.” In fact, by the time it closed, Bayview had the highest rate of sexual abuse of prisoners by (mostly male) guards in the nation, a reminder that the social space of “women” is delineated by violence. The setting asks viewers to think about who “women” are from within the space of those who have been criminalized and marginalized, disproportionately women of color, largely women who are poor.

Yet the exhibit’s reading room dulls this message, and actually works to highlight the disconnect between the show’s radical goals and its broad liberal premise: photography books by Tina Modotti, Diane Arbus, and, unsettlingly, Nazi propagandist and cinema pioneer Leni Riefenstahl, lay next to reports on the state of reproductive health care in New York women’s prisons, and Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis.

What, if anything, do these books have to say to one another? The inclusion of Riefenstahl points to the fallibility of the idea of “women”; Riefenstahl directed Triumph of the Will — the influential 1935 propaganda film that popularized Hitler’s National Socialist Party and its ideas of Aryan superiority — and spent much of her career glamorizing a genocidal politics that sent millions of women to their deaths.

Does the shared experience of women truly give us anything in common?

Many believe it does. “Women” has been highly praised by critics who focus almost exclusively on single portraits, offering wispy tributes to “womanhood.” Vogue, whose editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s photograph is part of the new series, calls Leibovitz’s installment a “celebration of womanhood.” Some find the exhibit’s focus on women’s individuality highly compelling, while others have read it as a paean to power feminism — the idea that an individual woman’s success benefits us all. They enthuse over the images of Queen Elizabeth II, Caitlyn Jenner, CEO Sheryl Sandberg, Hillary Clinton, and the portrait Leibovitz had hoped to secure of Angela Merkel.

Individuality is a longstanding theme for Leibovitz and Sontag. For Sontag, the project wasn’t a simple “celebration” as much as a call for viewers to probe their own preconceptions about looking at women (did they expect to see beauty? were they disappointed when they didn’t?). In her 1999 essay for the exhibition catalog, Sontag wrote

That women, in the same measure as men, should be able to fulfill their individuality is, of course, a radical idea. It is in this form, for better and worse, that the traditional feminist call for justice for women has come to be most plausible.

I understand Sontag to mean that legal justice recognizes only individuals, not the collective needs of a group. But this is not a secure hook on which to hang your civil rights. To be sure, the radical notion that women are people needs repeating, but the focus on women’s individuality as the basis for feminism (after decades of feminist and gender studies scholarship, activism, and organizing) is a declawed and defanged sort of politics; it’s the forcible reworking of feminist language into neoliberal individualism.

“Celebrating womanhood” and securing “justice” for one woman alone has always been much too limited: for consciousness-raising groups from the 1970s to now, it is the starting place, not the endpoint, for probing investigations into capitalism, patriarchy, racism, Marxism, and revolution.

The “radical idea” Sontag pointed to is a classically liberal one, which claims that we’re all autonomous selves with the same access to freedoms. Like much of classical liberalism, it contains both radical promise and the danger of absolving inequality through false equivalency.”

– Jessie Kindig, “Tear the Prison Down,” Jacobin. February 16, 2017.

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