Race & Ethnicity


From: "Arthur R. McGee"
Subject: Z: Feminist Opportunism or Commitme (fwd)
Resent-From: "Rich Winkel"
Date: Wed, 9 Mar 1994 22:06:18 GMT

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/* Written 1:48 pm Jan 27, 1994 by corina@igc.apc.org in igc:zmagazine */
/* ---------- "Z: Feminist Opportunism or Commitme" ---------- */

Sisters of the Yam
Feminist Opportunism or Commitment to Struggle?

Roiphe's "The Morning After" ignores the connection between maintaining patriarchy and condoning male violence against women

By bell hooks

Feminist thinkers and activists have had difficulty coping with dissent since the beginning of the contemporary movement for "women's liberation." The call for unity and solidarity structured around notions that women constitute a sex class/caste with common experiences and common oppression made confrontation hard to face. Divisions were often coped with by forming separate groups and by developing different definitions and labels (radical feminist, reformist, liberal, marxist, etc.). Significantly, conflict around the issue of common oppression reached its peak in discussions of race and/or class differences. Women of color, particularly black females, some of whom had been involved in the movement from its inception, some jointly engaged with women's liberation and black power struggle, called attention to differences that could not be reconciled by sentimental evocations of sisterhood. The face of feminism--the rhetoric, the theory, the definitions--began to change.

Visions of solidarity between women became more complex. Suddenly, neither the experiences of materially privileged groups of white females nor the category of "woman" (often used to refer to white women's experiences) could be evoked without some contestation, without white supremacy looming as the political ground of such assertions. These changes strengthened the power of feminist thought and feminist movement politically. They compelled feminist thinkers to problematize and theorize issues of solidarity, to recognize the interconnectedness of structures of domination,.and build a more inclusive movement. That work now risks being undone and undermined by some of the current feminist writing by young white privileged women who strive to create a narrative of feminism (not a feminist movement) that denies race or class differences.

Despite political differences in the works of, for example, Katie Roiphe and Naomi Wolfe, both write as though their experiences reflect "the norm" without testing many of their assumptions to see if what they have to say about feminism and female experience is true across class and race boundaries. In "The Beauty Myth" Wolfe does not address differences in the ways women think about beauty across race and class, and whether fashion magazines address all women in the same ways. Reading Wolfe's book I was disturbed by this omission, but did not see this work as undermining feminist work that recognizes race and class difference. Yet, as more and more books by individual feminists (mostly white, young, materially privileged) are mass marketed and become the "texts" that teach what feminism is or is not, there is a danger that critical interrogation of the universal category "woman" will be erased. We may end up back where contemporary feminist movement began, with the false assumption that feminism is primarily for and about materially privileged white women.

Katie Roiphe's book "The Morning After" is a harbinger of this trend. It attempts to construct and attack a monolithic young "feminist" group that shares a common response to feminist thinking, most particularly around issues of sexuality and physical assault. The book begins with the evocation of a cultural "family" in which feminism is evoked as a legacy handed down from mother to daughter, a strategy which makes feminism, at least symbolically, a "turf" that can be like a small country owned and occupied by some and not others. Hence, the white, book-writing women within feminism can have daughters like Roiphe who feel that they are the movements "natural" heirs. It is this claim to "ownership" of feminist movement that women of color and progressive white women have challenged, insisting that feminism is a political movement--that all who make a commitment to its tenets belong, that there are no owners.

In this book the feminist agendas that are talked about, however negatively, are those set by white females. Purporting to bring a newer, fresher feminist vision, "The Morning After" disturbs precisely because it erases the voices and thoughts of women of color. This erasure cannot be viewed as a sign of the author's ignorance or naivete. It has more to do with the fact that many feminist thinkers and activists who are women of color do not fit neatly into the categories Roiphe erroneously suggests constitute the feminist norm. The only time she mentions a woman of color (a black woman) she ridicules and devalues her work. This did not appear to be innocent. It fits all to well with Roiphe's construction of a feminist arena where the chosen (young, white, and privileged) don their boxing gloves to see who is the better feminist.

"The Morning After" is subtitled "Sex, Fear, and Feminism On Campus." But this book does not offer a substantive look at feminism on any campus. Instead it narrowly critiques expressions of white privileged feminist "hysteria and extremism" on issues like date rape, sexual harassment, pornography, etc. When Roiphe turns her critical spotlight on these feminist excesses, she erases that which is meaningful in feminist critiques of and resistance to sexism, patriarchy, and male domination. It is this erasure that renders suspect her self-congratulatory insistence that she is the representative voice of a less "rigid feminist orthodoxy" speaking on behalf of "some feminisms" which "are better than others."

Unlike many feminist thinkers I do not believe that Rophie's critiques are entirely wrongminded. Nor am I that concerned with whether she has the "facts" right. Her book, whether she can take the heat or not, is a polemical work. It's power does not lie in the realm of research. The feminist thinkers who want to refute her work on this basis should do so. Strategically, however, it advances feminist movement more for us to acknowledge that some of the examples of excess she calls attention to are familiar. And that many feminist thinkers have warned against these excesses and worked to deflect the interests of young feminists away from the sentimentalization of feminist concerns.

But cleverly failing to mention the work of feminist thinkers who have critiqued the very excesses she names (Judith Butler, Audre Lorde, Kimberly Crenshaw, Diana Fuss, to name only a few), Roiphe makes it appear that her ideas offer a new and fresh articulation to feminist "dogmatism." In fact, her book draws heavily on critiques that have been continually voiced, respectfully, within feminist circles. No respect is given these agendas in "The Morning After." Clearly, ending male violence against women is a feminist agenda. Roiphe ignores the connection between maintaining patriarchy and condoning male violence against women. She is so eager to provoke that she is unwilling to point out that male violence against women, and that includes sexual assault, is utterly acceptable in our society and that the various ways women organize to protest that violence should be praised and applauded despite flaws in strategy. Roiphe's polemic leaves readers with no understanding of constructive way feminists have challenged male violence. Roiphe's tone of ridicule and contempt gives her polemic an air of insincerity, as though she is much more concerned with "duking" it out with her peers than she is with challenging patriarchy.

In the chapter "Catherine MacKinnon, the Antiporn Star," Roiphe concedes that she is not the first or only feminist to raise concerns about rigid feminist orthodoxy. Yet she consistently repeats the phrase "many feminists" to refer to those scholars, writers, and critical thinkers who have diligently worked to offer a broader more complex understanding of feminist theory and practice as regards sexuality, male violence against women, and a host of other issues. These feminists are not named. Their works are never referred to or cited. The absence of these works makes it appear that Roiphe stands alone in her will to name and critique aspects of feminism. The underlying message is that most feminists are rigid and dogmatic with the exception of Roiphe herself, and maybe Camille Paglia. Had she acknowledged the range of dissenting voices within feminism, the multi-dimensional critiques that already exist, the underlying premise of her book would have lost its bite. Without mentioning the words and deeds of dissenting feminists, Roiphe presents herself as, dare I say it, a "victim," punished by her willingness to say what no "young" feminists are willing to say. Indeed it is the evocation of young peers that is meant to excuse the erasure of older voices while strengthening her position as "young" authority. Feminist thinkers making similar critiques are ignored. She does not highlight the book "Feminist Fatale," one of the most well researched and thoughtful discussions of the factors that shape responses to feminist thinking among younger women."

Roiphe's image of herself as "maverick" standing alone in a feminist jungle where no one will listen deflects from the diverse critiques that exist. She does not stand alone. She stands in the shadows of feminist thinkers who have worked passionately to bring to the public a deeper awareness of the political significance of feminist movement, who have sought to deflect popular attention away from simplistic equation of feminism with anti-male and anti-sex sentiments. Roiphe draws from this body of feminist thought, even as she distorts and undermines it, by insisting that narrow rigid feminism goes uncritiqued.

To achieve this end Roiphe refuses to acknowledge the critiques of sentimental white bourgeois feminist thought made by radical black, women of color, and progressive white women. Perhaps Roiphe would not be so enraged at young white feminists from privileged backgrounds at Harvard and Princeton who have "created their own rigid orthodoxy" if she were embracing the work and activism of feminist thinkers that promote and encourage dissent; if she were convinced that it was her mission to share these ideas. For it is that feminist thought and practice that would broaden her understanding of the politics of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Obviously, it is not only Roiphe's concern that feminist movement be a place where dissenting voices can be heard, where ideas can be challenged (if indeed that is her genuine concern), that has led her into the limelight. Her work has been featured in major popular magazines and will certainly influence public understanding of feminism. Many unquestioning readers will assume that Roiphe's version of feminism is accurate: that women who advocate feminist politics are primarily small-minded, dogmatic, and willing to curtail free speech when it suits their fancy. Careful readers will certainly wonder whether they can really believe Roiphe's insistence that feminist censorship is so pervasive on her campus that no feminists would allow her to "say that Alice Walker was just a bad writer." Certainly Roiphe has one-upped those "censoring peers," for she managed to move her ideas beyond the narrow cultural confines of an Ivy League graduate program to a public forum where her ideas are being heard, well advertised, and promoted. No interviews with Roiphe that I have read ask the author if she has critically interrogated the reason why her work has received so much attention and if she sees any connection between that attention and an anti-feminist backlash. Powerful forces in the publishing world have called public attention to Roiphe's work and made it appear that it somehow matters what Katie Roiphe thinks about Alice Walker, forces that convince readers that she is the bringer of suppressed and hidden truths other feminists seek to deny.

"The Morning After's" dismissal of black women connects with the recent attack on Women's Studies published in "Mother Jones" which suggested that among those "not very academic folks who are being read that should not be read" were black women writers (myself and Audre Lorde). I find it interesting to ponder whether or not this need to "trash" black women writers and critical thinkers, those who have challenged the assertion that the word "woman" can be used when it is the specific experience of white females, reflects a competitive impulse to "wrest" the discourse of the movement away from these directions. By this I mean that individual white women are now seeking to shift the movement back to those stages when it was acceptable to ignore, devalue, and trash issues of color and white supremacy. And it is interesting that this effort to denigrate black women writers emerges at a time when so many progressive moves to challenge literary canons to include works of women of all colors are under attack. With her seemingly "innocent" assertion about Alice Walker's work, Roiphe, along with others (for example the white woman reporter who trashed Toni Morrison in a editorial about the Nobel Prize), unite with conservative thinkers (many who are white and male) who have the power to prevent those works from being published, reviewed, read, and studied.

All too often in "The Morning After" Roiphe evokes a vision of feminist movement that simplisticly mirrors patriarchal stereotypes. No doubt this mirroring allows her voice, and not the voices of visionary critiques of feminist dogma, to receive widespread attention and acclaim. Roiphe closes by warning readers about the dangers of "excessive zeal" in advancing political concerns, cautioning that it can lead to blind spots, a will to exaggeration, and distortions in perspective. Regrettably, Roiphe is not guided by this insight.

While it is useful for us to critique excesses in feminist movement, mistakes, bad strategies, it is important for the future of feminist thought and movement that those critiques reflect a genuine will to advance feminist politics. Like Roiphe, I wrote a very provocative feminist book when I was young. And I know firsthand how important it is for young feminist thinkers to be courageous in their thinking and action, to claim the right and power to speak their minds. At the same time it is equally important that those who advocate feminism, young and old, female and male, continue to be clear that our interests are not motivated by opportunism or articulated in shallow ways that mirror anti-feminist sentiment. We must insist on a fierce feminist commitment to ending sexism and sexist oppression. Progressive, revolutionary feminist movement must create a context for constructive dissent. Through exchange of ideas, thoughts, and vision we, increase the power of feminist politics.

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