This is much more of what people call a “rant” than a piece of news. It’s in reaction to what gets defined as news in a political community, and has been written over my sojourn here, so is not coming out of any particular article or comment. Warning: antibiotics and steroids may be somewhat involved, if the piece’s connection to the concrete seems to be just a little strained.
I receive Daily Kos recs in the mail every day. I’ve noticed that the list usually contains news about politics in the narrowest sense: the politics of the mainstream, the politics of left, right and center, the politics occasionally of resistance. There are other articles occasionally, but the emphasis is usually on what I would call the "politics of men," though I've seen a lot of women turn into pols over the years.
I also read quite a few blogs, though my energy for comments is currently down. This often leads me to older ones which concern topics I'm interested in. Occasionally, I encounter comments which question if the topic is even appropriate on a political blog.
The deep down insight of the feminist second wave, the most important insight to understanding what radical feminism is, as opposed to the vaguely liberal feminism of wealthy men’s wives, (and yes, I put it like that deliberately, since women with money in their own right are somewhat different in their political personae) is that the personal is political. That we cannot understand the oppression of women unless we understand the system which keeps it in place, which is not in the public sphere.
When I write an essay about not doing dishes, it is informed by a lifetime being told that women should keep our houses clean. Many men, I think, and some women miss that saying I don't clean my kitchen voluntarily is as much a political manifesto as a personal decision.
Once, in grad school, a colleague presented a fascinating paper on a feminist collective which did pap smears and birth control. My (male) friend whispered to me during an enthusiastic Q&A period, “Do you feel as bored and puzzled by the subject matter when men present on things like mainstream political figures?”
The answer of course was no, because I don’t get bored and puzzled by rhetoric in any form anyway, and besides, women listen to men’s interests by nature and careful training. But I was completely surprised that he would be uninterested in a topic which, to me, was the height of political analysis, and had been done very well.
Nonetheless, I suspect that the assumption domestic arrangements are not political still lies out there in our little diary community. The travails of a writer's cat, the cosplay of bdsm -- not the stuff of electing Democrats.
The phrase “The Personal is Political” was coined before 1968, a few years after then-Stokely Carmichael supposedly said during a SNCC meeting, “The only position for women in the movement is prone!”(1) That was arguably the year of the beginning of women’s liberation, as opposed to Betty Friedan’s 1964 National Organization for Women, which had been acting precisely like any other lobbyist group which worked within the system, and had their own internal problems, like lesbians who thought their sexual orientation should be validated and respected. (Ask Ti-Grace Atkinson for details.) (2)
Radical feminism (which for the purpose of this diary I will call “feminism,” but is only one of many kinds) noticed that, since women had been relegated to the domestic spaces, that was where oppression often manifested. It was at home that women were most at risk for male violence; in private spaces where sexual assault most likely would occur; in the invisible interstices where women’s names, credit records, ability to sign contracts and buy homes or cars on their own all ended. The public sphere, which contained the laws which supposedly protected all citizens, failed miserably at protecting at least half of them.
The story of the ‘70s struggle to reverse these trends is a long one, and, it appears, also long-forgotten. It started far earlier. My mother had to bear five children before she could have her tubes tied, although she had wanted only two. Even then, she required my father’s signature to stop continual pregnancy; if he had not given it, she would have had to fight with him about sex or continued to proliferate.
My friend Jeannie had an excellent income, but her husband’s was poor, and her mortgage reflected that. Men with similar incomes, whose wives did not work at all, got much better deals.
Women I knew fled dangerous homes, and their abusive husband got custody; newly-come out lesbians were afraid to tell their husbands because there was a very real possibility they would not ever be able to see their children again unsupervised.
Millions of stories. The point concerning them is that, while law eventually got involved, it wasn’t as central to the issue as the culture was. As long as there were public and private spaces, and as long as oppression remained nine-tenths below the surface, what needed to change was invisibility. Domesticity, the arts, children and pregnancy, even travel – everything had an unspoken side where the chains were hidden, but also where they were locked.
Because of the vast nature of the movement, and the very different goals of many sorts of feminists, change happened. The women’s movement began as many threads of different issues, but having a movement meant that it was formed into macrame. Like macrame, the end result was geometrically, not merely arithmetically, stronger.
Laws are a sign the culture is weakening in some place and needs shoring up. Until the mid 20th century, abortion was hardly an issue in the country because medical solutions were so scarce. Laws trying to stop abortion, birth control, economic fairness are all anti-progressive and dangerous, but they are at heart the sign of a technological site of struggle. If we win control of the technology, we can be free. (3)
I am a rhetorician. I learned in both my practice and my study that you cannot fight an opponent until you understand what they’re trying to say. I have come to the conclusion that, in this intensely technological time, you cannot understand an opponent by listening to their soundbites -- and certainly can't fight them by a constant state of outrage about them.
The real struggle is one of raw power: who controls people and resources?
So the important questions include how exactly they got there, and why people give themselves away to their class and economic enemy? Or go after the words instead of the power?
These are political issues in the most important sense. But they are not legislative issues. If we merely focus on the legislation coming out of the back room, to fail or succeed, we will win some, lose some, but never achieve the kind of power any liberation movement has wielded at its strongest and best.
Perhaps the “strongest and best” looked like the “most divisive” or "most out there" to those who don’t understand rhetoric and power. Just as the radical feminists and the socialist feminists and the liberal feminists and the womanists all looked suspiciously at each other for focusing on the less essential; just as SNCC and CORE and the NAACP and the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims all thought the other groups didn’t really have the clearest thinking or the best path to power; just as the Abolitionist movement a century before wobbled between seeing John Brown as a hero, a crazy zealot, or a righteous but misguided leader, so the movement of progressives today requires more diversity to survive, and a far broader definition of “political”.
They need to remember that the times of greatest change come in the times of greatest argument among members of the same movement. They need to remember the lessons of the feminists that the personal is political. They need to remember Civil Rights lessons that allies are not the same as you, don’t have the same experiences, and may actually prefer that you not write their agenda for them – but that it’s nothing personal.
We need to remember the lessons of the 80s – the time of anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear activism – that there’s plenty of room for affinity groups, and you don’t have to make everyone be arrested to support each other.
We need to remember the most recent lessons of Occupy – that technology isn’t everything, that there are other ways to make sure everyone can hear and participate, even if it's simply shouting to those further back.
But what I want to remind people of the most is that there is a class war – that Marx developed the term, identifying a real-life phenomenon that, no matter what Republicans or Republocrats say, describes how the rich get richer on the backs of… whomever they can, except in some cases their own wealthy allies. The ruling class controls the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, and if we lose sight of that, we forget the organizers’ first rule: “No Permanent Enemies, No Permanent Friends.”
Thinking that most of politics takes place between people in the places of power is to forget our organizing heritage; to forget our private spaces; to forget how we win, when we do. So keep those stories of your cat or your bdsm outing coming; that's what leads to an exploration of animal/human relationships and the nature and limits of sexuality and racial difference..
And that's of course without even considering that I've never been to an in-person political discussion which did not, over time, develop ties of intimacy, because we are, and need to remain, human.
So keep those personal stories coming. That's where progress lies.
(1) While the comment itself has never been questioned, there is some evidence Carmichael meant it in a teasing way. Casey Hayden, who with another women had written a critique of SNCC'S problems with women activists, wrote later,
At a break in one of SNCC's marathon, multi-day, staff meetings, our paper on the position of women came up, and Stokely in his hipster rap comedic way joked that 'the proper position of women in SNCC is prone'. I laughed, he laughed, we all laughed. Stokeley was a friend of mine. We crossed paths in many settings, as he was close to the Young People's Socialist League, and through them, to SDS... and I knew he was on my side about women's issues, because we'd talked about them.(2) A nice little summary of the Second Wave of feminism and its beginnings, written in 1971, is available from Jo Freeman, then a political science student, who had already written more than one radical feminist paper under the name "Joreen."
(3) That's why I deliberately pass on information about how amateurs can perform abortions on each other. While this ability is certainly higher risk than medically-approved, easily accessible abortion, the inability to find such things is growing, at least in certain states. The economics of obtaining an abortion are unfairly born by the working class and poor. A solid underground willing to violate laws if it becomes necessary requires education. Currently, that's free on the internet.