Now that I have finally finished the anthology Female Erasure, I am thinking critically about the wide range of ideas and arguments made in the text. While every single essay was important and information-rich, two stood out as particularly effective in offering readers feminist insights capable of altering epistemological frameworks or simply expanding one’s level of consciousness. Of all the essays in the anthology, these are the two that impacted me the most:
Lierre Keith’s “The Girls And The Grasses”
I will likely be quoting this text for the rest of my life. Keith provides readers with an excellent analysis of numerous issues that are still integral to radical feminist discourse, including what gender is and how it impacts women. In discussing it, Keith notes that:
“Gender is who gets to be human and who gets to be hurt. That has to be made clear because men know what they are capable of. They know. They know the sadism they’ve built into their own sex. Do it to her, is what they say to each other. Not to me, the human being. But her, the object, the thing. And “her” has to be obvious, visually and ideologically. See, there she is, unable to walk. See, there she is, on display. Or there she is, secluded and covered, for your eyes only” (292).
What I found uniquely compelling about this definition of gender is that in addition to demonstrating how this class system legitimates violence against women, it shows the reader how homosocial interaction is integral to the regime. Specifically, gender creates an epistemological realm in which men are conceptualized as subjects while women are relegated to the sphere of object. Additionally, men are taught to acknowledge themselves as subjects who share humanity and can thus bond in a formulation one might conceptualize in terms of Buber’s “I-thou” schema. This man-to-man “I-thou” schema is diametrically opposed to the man-to-woman “I-it” schema in which the subjectivity or humanity of women is not recognized, thereby creating an experiential realm in which women can be abused through acts of male violence such as rape, domestic violence, prostitution, pornography, etc. It is these two antithetical epistemological/experiential configurations (“I-thou” vs. “I-it”) which engender a system of relations between men in which violence against women becomes an act through which they bond and build communities. This fact becomes plain through Keith’s insightful reference to how men tell themselves, “Do it to her” (female object) and “Not to me” (male subject). This practice of encouraging one another to harm women in sport-like fashion keeps the culture of misogyny and perverse male bonding alive and active.
Patricia McFadden’s “Why Women’s Spaces Are Critical To Feminist Autonomy”
This essay is important for numerous reasons, one of which is that McFadden shows readers how political space is and why women must seize it as a resource through which to accomplish the agenda of the Women’s Movement. She defines the agenda as “the emancipation of all women from patriarchal bondage and exploitation” (312). To contextualize her argument regarding why women need separate spaces to accomplish this objective, McFadden first notes how
“space is gendered and highly politicized as a social resource in all societies. Throughout the known human narrative, certain spaces have been culturally, religiously and politically marked as either “male” or “female,” and we know that in terms of the latter spaces, these were and still are largely linked to women’s breeding and feeding functions in all human societies, without exception. The spaces we refer to as public are assumed to be male, and for centuries men have excluded women from the public where all the key decisions relating to power are deliberated and implemented” (310).
This assessment is important for numerous reasons, one of which is that it demonstrates an important historical reality: many men have had no issue with denying women access to space they define as exclusively male for the purpose of purporting patriarchal power. To further the reader’s understanding of the politicization of space, McFadden goes on to point out that “…across human time, those spaces that were feminized were also considered the least important; they were and still are places where women functioned through the benevolence of males, but which they never owned and still do not have entitlement to if they live in close intimate relationships with adult males” (310). After drawing the reader’s attention to the gendered, politicized import of space, McFadden states that “the Women’s Movement as a political, ideological, activist and structural space must remain just that: a woman-only space” (310). Right.
In addition to providing readers with a substantive explanation for why woman-only space is important and imperative, McFadden offers her audience with a clear, convincing analysis of why allowing men into spheres set aside to advance the feminist agenda is problematic and harmful. Specifically, she notes that
“To argue for men’s inclusion into women’s political and structural spaces is not only fundamentally heterosexist; it also serves an old nationalistic claim that women need to take care of men, no matter where they are located and or what they are engaged with. This claim is inherently premised on the assumption that women who are not attached to or associated with a man are dangerous, rampant women who must be stopped. That is why the statement that women need to “take men along” smacks not only of the deep-seated patriarchal assumption that women’s mobility requires male approval. It also facilitates the transference of sociocultural practices into the Women’s Movement that nurture male privilege and pampering in spaces that women have fought for centuries to mark as their own” (309).
The accuracy of this assessment has been made plain by numerous radical feminists who point out that, when men are present within feminist meetings designed to advance the Women’s Rights Movement, women tend to talk less and self-censor their speech to ensure that men do not take offense at their critique of patriarchy and/or construction of strategies to abrade its presence and perverse power.
In addition to providing readers with a context through which to understand why women need separate spheres through which to organize against oppression, McFadden offers an effective alternative to allowing men to invade women-only spaces. Specifically, she noted that “those women who like men so much that they cannot spend any time during the day or night without male presence can set up what are called “mixed” organisations, which have a right to exist as all other civil society structures do which enhance human desires and interests in the common good; but not as part of the Women’s Movement” (311).
Exactly. This solution is tenable because it helps ensure the maintenance of women-only spaces while providing women and men who insist on occupying the same physical spheres the ability to do so.
While the aforementioned essays are not the only important and insightful works within Female Erasure, these two works are uniquely effective in analyzing issues that remain integral to the Women’s Rights Movement. Those issues include defining gender for the purpose of understanding how it operates against women and grasping why advocating for female-only space will play an integral role in accomplishing the feminist agenda.