I have been remiss in not commenting on many significant items that have been in the news lately (the new pope not among them – I can’t think of anything less relevant to the lives of the majority of the world‛s people). Insults and attacks on the fundamental rights of women are escalating alongside our protests of same. And such action that comes, amid much back-patting by one group or another, generally amounts to nothing more than shining a spotlight on hideous behaviors and their tragic results with the promise that “this time we will act.” Lip service is on the rise for such causes as ending violence against women in civilian and military realms, regulating guns and gun ownership, improving access to healthcare and education, reducing the disparity between rich and poor (of which women and children are disproportionately among the poor), and limiting the power corporations have over our political process. But it mostly amounts to the staking out of entrenched positions at the expense of finding real solutions. One simply becomes loathe to add to the sound and fury.
A multi-hour PBS documentary on the history of the women‛s movement should have been balm to our beleaguered feminist spirits, but it had a strange effect on me, and the more I think about it, the grumpier I get. Even the title “Makers” puts me on edge. I suppose someone thought it was clever to tie up the traditional role of homemaker, women’s entry into the industrial age as factory workers, and the emergence of revolutionary history-makers in this neat little bow, but it cuts to one of the elements of female/racial/class subjugation that has always offended me most: the assumption that some people are naturally bred to be scholars, thinkers and leaders while others of us are consigned to be makers and caregivers – in short, mindless worker bees.
As for the style and substance of the “Makers” documentary, I did find the material engrossing, often moving, and I welcomed every scrap of information offered. Yet I also felt there was something pat and superficial about it, especially as its chronology neared modern times that I have lived through, and detailed (or left out) some characters whom I have actually recently met and/or heard discussed in the context of my own feminist leadership role. By the end of the thing, I felt like I had been witness to history in the process of being sanitized. There was the inevitable Hollywood glow around everything, and an undue perkiness in which the worst affronts to women could be placed squarely if unrealistically in the past tense. I couldn’t help feeling like the ostensible objectivity and therefore “for the record” cache that go with anything on public television and radio had been appropriated to convey what will now amount to an “official” version of what the feminist movement was and will be. Who got to write that history?
It’s time to stop kidding ourselves about the autonomy and impartiality of public broadcasting. They have corporate sponsors versus advertisers, but “corporate” is the operational word. (Did you get a load of that website?) Content is adjusted to make these wealthy sponsors happy, though it may work slightly differently than on for-profit networks. Maybe you have noticed these trends when you watch PBS or listen to NPR: Segments are shorter; excessive time is spent repeatedly hyping each upcoming segment, which diminishes the substantive content of the segment itself; simple statements of who sponsored the segments have expanded into actual adspeak; anything that might be controversial or inflammatory is abbreviated, diluted, scored with obtrusive soundtrack, and recited breezily by narrators who have a perpetual smile – if not snark – in their voices; the “difficult” pieces are then surrounded by mindless pop culture and audience participation fluff so you can forget them as quickly as possible; the reporters-commentators eschew neutrality in their tone and questions in favor of gushing emotionality and often answer their own question and consume most of the available interview time on their own thoughts and phrasing versus letting the interviewee speak – they generally seem to prefer cutting and pasting together a pre-planned composition instead of actively probing for new information and deeper understanding of the subject at hand.
I’m in a funk because, between “Makers” and all the mishegas that has transpired since, I feel overwhelmed by the variety and scope of insults to my intelligence and sensibilities perpetrated by media, politicians and well-meaning activists alike. So, let’s talk honestly about feminism, the women’s movement, and the broader movement to win equality and justice for everyone.
In the first place, it just hurts to confront and truly digest the fact that you have come into the world as a hated class. I don’t say that lightly. It’s absurd on its face, but it’s true. Ask the required-to-be-celibate pope. Ask the male-only-need-apply cardinals who chose him, cloistered away in their scarlet gowns and attended to by faceless nuns. Ask the military mucky-mucks who think they can write off rape and assault within their own ranks as just part of the job, or the armies of the world who use rape as a weapon of war. Ask the evangelical preachers and holier-than-thou politicians who can‛t abide the idea of women earning equal wages for work outside the home because it would cut into all of the free labor they are expected to provide for the household. Ask Hollywood, where the torture and terrorization of women in their plotlines amounts to a conditioning regimen in which women learn to expect and accept that sexual violence or threat of it must be a factor in any crime against them, while men are encouraged to mentally practice and fantasize about all the ways in which women can be demeaned, used and put in their place. Ask the supposedly pious, life-loving people who think a collection of womb-dependent cells has more value and “right to life” than the mature human being who may or may not be prepared for a pregnancy.
To really and truly absorb the historic subjugation of women, the tenacity of misogynist attitudes up to today, and the tenuous position women still endure – that we have so little representation in government, business, religious and social institutions that we are literally ruled by men in every area of our lives – chills me to my core. I have been fortunate in that I never felt that my family, friends and professional associates hated me or demeaned me for being a woman. But this only makes it more of a shock to the system to realize what, in fact, over the course of generations, society had intended my lot in life to be as a female: restricted, controlled, financially dependent, psychologically and often physically, violently muscled into subservience, sexual servitude and the virtual slavery of providing free domestic labor without regard for my personal preference or individual potential. People in power are still trying to impose this role on women, and in many cases they are succeeding. We continue to be impoverished, exploited and subject to chauvinistic whim and damaging mind games from both male and female adherents to gender role tradition. It makes me sick. The fact that I feel like I’ve been here before contributes to my dizzy, nauseated feeling of betrayal and disillusionment:
A kid on the playground told the little Jewish girl that she would go to hell for not believing in Jesus. It was so startling and ridiculous to the pampered six-year-old that she could laugh it off…. But it sank in over time as she learned how that attitude played out in history, as the reality of genocide was hammered home. People can hate you, and kill you, for some trait that doesn’t even define you as the individual you are, for something you had no control over. And, as if knowing the history wasn’t bad enough, the girl came to realize that the haters were still out there, some of them still had power to harm her kind. But, this thing that she was, that she didn’t choose, that they hated her for – being a Jew – guess what? Her “kind” were no kinder! They pigeonholed her too. They decreed a lesser role and opportunities for her too. They‛d call her a sinner too. Because she was female. And this was the culture and identity she was supposed to cling to against those other oppressors?
I keep coming back to the word “betrayed.” This is where women stand today, just like yesterday and the day before. It’s what happens when your destiny is not in your own hands – those who have power over you either take care of you or betray you. Men still dictate what the lives of women are. Those of us who have been lucky enough personally to have been able to assert our independence, who may have been able to laugh off the odd sexist remark or unwelcome advance here and there, must look beyond our immediate circumstances to acknowledge what is still reality for most women and call it for what it is: complete and utter betrayal of the fundamental personhood of women, with little indication that society as a whole is ready or willing to cast off its patriarchal hierarchy. That hurts, and no amount of pep in the soundtrack or congratulatory recapitulations of “progress” in the script of “Makers” could soften that blow for me.
I recently wrote in an email to fellow feminists, “A world full of war and poverty is not one in which women have had an equal say.” Women do not engage in this battle for equality for ourselves alone. The only way humanity is going to “make it” is together, hand in hand, in mutual respect, with concerted effort and with every bit of talent and ingenuity that each of us can muster.