Tag Archives: A Year of Feminist Classics

Feminism without Borders: Inquiry vs. Business

Cover of Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity Title: Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity

Author: Chandra Talpade Mohanty

Publication Date: 2003

LC Call Number: HQ 1870.9 .M64

I can’t even begin to write about this book as a whole, because it is long, complex and dense, but just as an introduction…. Mohanty wants to write about worldwide feminism and in particular the condition of Third World Women (a term she defines carefully and uses advisedly) while at the same time being very careful not to flatten “women” into a coherent group with identical interests. This means that she has to take all the nuances into consideration: legal and social differences in the status of women around the world and in different social strata, economic and class issues, the effects of race, the way that family is constructed, and everything else that affects what “women” means in that particular context in time and space.  So, yeah, this is really difficult.  It means recognizing that there is no way to immediately solve all the problems of sexism and racism and imperialism in the world because everything has to be addressed carefully, one context and one social group at a time, and it means that it’s quite difficult to find a position from which one can speak.  It’s overwhelming, but as Mohanty points out, all alternatives are oppressive and center women of privilege, so—she is probably right.   The post on the first chapter of the book at A Year of Feminist Classics includes a better discussion of this than I can give here.

I should note that, according to Mohanty’s definition, third world women can include women in wealthy countries who are poor, have migrated or are of color, because they are affected by globalization in much the same way as women in poor countries and often end up doing similar work. Mohanty’s methodology is one that she describes as eclectic, but it has a strong Marxist component, and she is deeply concerned with globalization and the ways that women around the world are exploited—and how women resist exploitation, and are discouraged from resisting.  Early in the book, she uses examples such as Indian lacemakers and women workers in Silicon Valley to show both how she thinks about the economic conditions of women and to teach her readers how such distinctions can be made.  She also includes a really interesting discussion about why it is so difficult for conditions to improve for such workers. Mohanty, then, actually shows how some analysis is actually possible when taking all these things into account.

But what I really wanted to focus on was a different part of the book. In the last several chapters, Mohanty quickly shifts focus to higher education in the United States. This seemed like a very strange move; there is a huge social and economic distance between many of the issues that she discussed earlier in the book and the problems of higher education. It was a real surprise, then, to find myself thinking about the goals of higher education, the problems of temporary part time educational labor, and the dangers of allowing commercial interests to participate.  Despite the strangeness of the way this fits into the book, I was really excited to see it, and if the book had been split into two, this may actually have been the half I’d have been interested in reading, if only because I work in higher education myself and am acutely aware of some of the problems she describes.

Mohanty is very concerned with the privatization of higher education, in particular, the relationships that have been formed with governmental and business interests.  She cites several authors who have written about the expansion of the military-industrial complex into various institutions and shows that even theoretically public higher education is implicated in this complex.  She’s concerned with the research done in universities is given a monetary value as “intellectual property,” so that it can be sold to military and industrial types.   With this move, the university becomes part of the economy, and is presumed to have its own economic interests.  Mohanty writes:

[I]mmense power as well as oppression is dispersed, funneled through, recycled, consolidated and above all justified through the daily operations of US universities newly resurrected through the processes of economic globalization.  It is this link between the university and other scapes of global capitalism that recycle and exacerbate gender, race, class and sexual hierarchies that concerns me.  (173)

In short, Mohanty argues that by participating in the project of globalization, the university gives up its pretensions of creating an atmosphere in which intellectual freedom is the primary value and democratic citizenship is an important goal.  Mohanty describes a set of ideals under which higher education is a means of both distributing and thinking through justice and equality. She points out the discrepancy between the university’s involvement in structures that create oppression throughout the world and the ideals on which the academy is supposedly built. The “entrepreneurial university” as she calls it, not only contributes to exploitation elsewhere in the world but also uses labor in a way that perpetuates inequalities of class, race and gender by employing white male professors on the tenure track, a large number of (mostly white female) adjuncts for less prestigious teaching work, and what she would third world women in menial and staff positions.

There is a ton going on here, so I’m going to look closely at only a couple points.  First, Mohanty is worried about the decay of the concept of public goods. She contrasts the more traditional ideals of the academy with the concept of “corporate citizenship,” which find the ideals of citizenship in the work of the self-interested capitalist marketplace:

Ideas of the public good, collective service and responsibility, democratic rights, freedom and justice are privatized and crafted into commodities to be exchanged via the market.  The institutionalization of capitalist citizenship at the corporate university thus profoundly transforms the vision of the university as a democratic public space, a sanctuary for nonrepression. (184)

This reminds me very strongly of the arguments Siva Vaidhyanathan makes in The Googlization of Everything, which I wrote about early in the life of this blog.  Vaidhyanathan’s interest is narrower; he focuses on the ways in which Google has co-opted many functions formerly assumed to be those of the university and privatized them in service of corporate profits.  He’s skeptical of Google’s user-friendly public image and points out their US-centric nature and their status as a for-profit company.  Although he doesn’t address the problems within the academy in that book, I’d recommend it to anyone who finds this argument compelling. I found that Mohanty’s critiques gave me more perspective on Vaidhyanathan’s argument as well.  Curiously, she criticizes the Human Genome Project, which he used as an example of promising collaborations rather than exploitative ones.

In any case, back to Mohanty: she finds  many problems with corporatized education and, for her, they are all linked together. She writes about the devaluation of her own field, women’s studies, and others that do not produce income but are intended to increase the amount of justice and equity in the world. She writes about the demographics of labor as I’ve mentioned above. She briefly discusses access to education and how public defunding decreases access, while information is instead being sold as described above.

I was a little surprised how close she came to discussing the problematic publishing practices of scholars and the need for open access, and then disappointed that she didn’t quite get there. I didn’t really expect it, of course, but it is such an important part of the constellation of things that she describes.  Current academic publishing practices provide profit to multinational publishers who may or may not embody some of the problems with globalization but who certainly contribute to the corporatization of the academy by charging outrageous prices for their journals and increasing money pressure on the academy.  Not only that, of course, but by limiting access, they contribute to the restriction of scholarly knowledge to the elite, which is a huge part of the problem that she describes.  Not only that, but the open access movement represents a kind of resistance that may be of interest to her.  Since Mohanty is not a librarian, of course, this is not at the forefront of her mind—but maybe it should be. Social justice types need to start thinking about this stuff.

In any case, Mohanty is hardly the first to note the shift of the university’s priorities from a place of free intellectual inquiry to a place where future workers can be trained.  Mohanty doesn’t discuss how and when this shift took place; from what I understand, it happened when just as higher education became accessible to those other than the elite.  The ideal of the academy as a place where citizens are created is—historically complicated. It’s been embraced within critical pedagogy for sure; I love critical pedagogy, but it’s hard to cast it as an integral part of the academy when it’s actually a radical movement.  Thus, I’m not sure about her characterization of the ideals of academic life, and I suspect that this shift to the corporate university comes about, historically, as a result of some of the changes that happened as a result of letting in people who were not previously considered worthy. This makes it a little complicated, actually, but I don’t think that it undermines her point about the importance of the kind of inquiry she wants to support and the difficulty of supporting it under the current circumstances.


Filed under Professional or Philosophical

Women, Race & Class: American History

Title:Women, Race & Class
Author: Angela Y. Davis
Date of Publication:1981
LC Call Number: E 185.86 .D383 1983

Race, Women and Class is not at all what I expected, and I wish that Davis had used a different title to give me a better idea of what the book would be about. What it is: a history, mostly, of women’s movements in the United States and their intersection with other social justice movements, often with Marxist analysis included. I’m really glad this was included, because I keep coming across these references to what the early women’s movements were like and the schisms of race and class that were introduced fairly early on, but this is the first time I’ve looked into a really detailed history and analysis of the movement. When I began reading, I expected it to move quickly from there into an analysis of the current situation, as several other books had done, so it was pleasant to find that it was actually concerned with giving the history, although the second half of the book is more argumentative and more concerned with contemporary events.

I really appreciated Davis’s historical analysis of the economic forces that lead women to get involved in activism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She shows how women of all classes had been important contributors to the economy prior to that period, which I think is something that often gets missed. I’m thinking back to The Second Sex, when Beauvoir appeared to give a fairly detailed analysis of the role of women in culture generally (an ambitious and perhaps somewhat suspect goal, but, well, Beauvoir) and she went on about marriage customs and women as chattel and so on in a rather ahistorical way. Here, of course, we are dealing with a much more specific historical period, but Davis gives a very different picture of women (other than slaves, who must be and are analyzed separately) as productive workers within a home-based economy, an economy in which labor was performed primarily for the benefit of one’s own household. In this economy, although there was certainly a division of labor, there wasn’t a division between valued, higher-prestige work in some sort of organized system for a wealthy employer and “housework.” Rather, families worked to create goods that had value, using most of the products of their labor themselves. Davis argues that the advent of the Industrial Revolution devalued the work that women had formerly done, because much of that work was now automated: weaving, candlemaking, baking, etc. Women were still involved in the production of these goods, but instead of middle-class skilled workers who produced these things on their own terms, they were now poor and immigrant unskilled workers who labored for an employer under exploitative conditions. Davis does not really address how industrialization affected men’s work differently; I’m sure that much of the work that they had previously done was also automated, but they didn’t seem to lose prestige and economic relevance the same way that women did. In any case, this may paint too rosy a picture of the preindustrial period, but I am intrigued by the idea that, first of all, industrialization put women at an economic disadvantage relative to men, and second of all, that both the Victorian ideology of motherhood and the push for women’s rights was a result of the diminished importance that women had in society under the new industrial system. It’s something I’d like to read more about (suggestions welcome).

In any case, Davis argues that society attempted to make up for this loss of economic prestige by offering women this ideological role of the angelic and all-nurturing mother, but that this role actually can work both for and against the dominant ideology. Because of its unspoken emphasis on middle class whiteness, it encouraged women to see the women of color who worked for them (both slaves and servants) as fundamentally different from themselves and in general encouraged a paternalistic attitude. Davis describes one white woman’s efforts to improve conditions for factory workers while overlooking the conditions under which she employed a housekeeper in her own home. On the other hand, being cast as the guardians of morality, along with having more time available to them, helped many women to become anti-slavery activists on moral grounds and later to become part of the women’s suffrage movement. Women led the anti-slavery movement, and Davis provides some explanation of this.

One of the things that becomes clear as we go through this history was something that I actually first discovered many years ago when reading about the Gold Rush: a person can be an abolitionist and still be racist. In the book I’d read on California history, I found that although Californians voted not to allow slavery, they also had a heated debate about whether or not they should exclude African Americans from entering the state. In Davis’s book, which is more concerned with the more easterly part of US history, she shows that the suffragists, although many of them had been active in the abolition movement, ended up employing essentially a Southern strategy to attract Southern white women to the movement by refusing to deal with any of the issues faced by the newly emancipated African American women. There was, at the time, a debate about whether black men or white women should get the vote first, and Davis shows that the votes of white women were considered, at the time, an antidote for the changes that the votes of black men might bring about. This was of course encouraged by racist white men, and middle class women bought into it because it was useful to them, but this was really a mistake because it drove a wedge between “women’s rights” and all the civil rights that the African American population of the US was fighting for at the time. In any case, the early suffragists wanted the support of racist white men and racist white Southern women more than that of African American women activists.

Davis shows that this history has had a profound effect on the feminist movement, affecting not only the suffrage battle but also such seemingly unrelated issues as reproductive rights. To Davis, this is can all ultimately be traced back to capitalism. I think she needs to make a stronger case for this particular point; it’s a short book and mostly full of history, and it seems like there are a lot of cultural and specific historical factors at work which Davis describes very well. This is not an argument with her conclusion, but I’d like a further explanation of how monopoly capitalism forwards these interlocking oppressions in the current historical period. I thought ending with a call for socialized housework was… kind of odd.

In any case, this is quite a short book and as such, it’s raised a lot of questions that I’d like to read more about: Frederick Douglass’s work in the suffrage movement, the effect of the Industrialized Revolution on women in the economy, the role of women in the Socialist movement, and several other things. She also recommends specific works; the one that I find the most interesting is Sarah Grimke’s series of letters, The Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women. Talk about feminist classics!


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Beyond the Veil & De-exocitizing Islam

Cover image of Beyond the Veil

Title: Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society

Author: Fatima Mernissi

Publication Date: 2003 (first ed. 1975)

LC Call Number: HQ 1170 .M46 2003

Late again for November’s selection for A Year of Feminist Classics.  As it winds toward the end of the year, this does sometimes happen!  But I did read Beyond the Veil and I’m glad I did.

I had some of the same concerns that Ana expresses in the introductory post;  I know little to nothing about Islam and it would definitely be a mistake for me to try to make assertions about it based on reading one book.  There is a huge amount that I don’t know.  However, Mernissi is an excellent writer who provides convincing documentation both of the documents that are most influential in the creation of Muslim nations and the experiences of individuals within those countries.  As I was reading, I kept thinking back to Friedan, whose work used lots of cultural artifacts to make her point, but who used them in very selective ways, relied heavily on anecdote, and failed to properly identify and justify the segments of society that she was actually studying. Mernissi is the opposite; she is a real sociologist who, in a much shorter book, carefully establishes the basis of her analysis, brings in evidence from both official sources and a specific dataset of letters for information on people’s lives.  Although the first edition of the book was published in 1975, Beyond the Veil seems much more like a modern sociological text.  I really appreciated Mernissi’s more scientific approach and it did a lot to make her claims more convincing.

Beyond the Veil focuses on explaining the way that the family and gender relations are understood in Muslim texts and Muslim society, from both a religious and a social/legal point of view (and one of the points that Mernissi makes is that in Islam, there is little or no separation between religion, society and law).  Although I don’t believe that her primary audience is Western readers, it’s a really good read for Westerners who, like me, have little understanding of how this dynamic really work and tend only to hear about Muslim women in terms of the specific oppressive practices that they suffer, especially those which differ from Western practices and end up being exoticized. This book is about ideology rather than practices and it gives the reasoning for some of the features of women’s lives in these societies.  This makes it a good antidote for the Orientalism that pervades many Western accounts of women in Muslim countries.

Mernissi argues that the view of women in Islam is very different from Western sexism.  She characterizes Western sexism as an ideology based on the perception of women as inferior in capability, strength, intelligence, etc.  So in the view of Western sexists, women shouldn’t be involved in politics, science, the arts or other public pursuits because they aren’t good at it.  I think Mernissi is mostly right about this; I’m thinking back to John Stuart Mill, whose On the Subjection of Women, which was part of this project way back in February 2011, seemed to be an argument against precisely this point of view.  So Western feminism has had to spend a lot of time showing that women are able to be good at things and that talented women are not anomalous.  This creates a lot of problems that aren’t really on topic here. But in Islam, at least according to Mernissi, there is no such perception of women as inferior.  Rather, women are considered to be as capable as men, but also threatening because of their sexuality.

Mernissi contrasts what is known about the life of women before rise of Islam with the rules that were imposed afterward and finds that women had a great deal of sexual freedom in many cases, especially due to uxorilocal marriage, which means that wives kept their own tents in their own tribes and were visited by their husbands.  To Muslim sensibilities as described by Mernissi, this state of things is chaotic and uncivilized.  A primary concern in Islam (again, according to Mernissi; can I just make the caveat here that everything I say about Islam is based on my understanding of her book and is not any knowledge of my own?) is social stability, and sexual freedom, especially for women, is seen as a threat to that.  The understanding of Islam as a clean break from the past strengthens this perception.  As Mernissi explains it:

Islam too has a progressive view of history. The year 622, the hijra, is the year one of civilization. Before the hijra was jahiliya, the time of barbarism, the time of ignorance. Islam maintains that one of the dimensions of society in which there was progress is human sexuality. Under jahiliya sexuality was promiscuous, lax, and uncontrolled, but under Islam it obeys rules. (46)

So for women to behave in a way that suggests sexual independence upsets this notion of a very structured society with strict rules, and for women to participate openly in society suggests some sort of apocalypse.  Mernissi introduces a few other concepts here that are really important to understanding what these rules are and how they affect society.  One is umma, which seems to be a very important concept, and I’m not going to pretend that I totally understand it. From what I understand, though, it means “community” and implies a close-knit society in which everyone is united by their shared faith. It is not hierarchical in the way that many Christian communities are.

But Mernissi argues that there is a double standard in the umma; that men are members of it and women are not, and a lot of this has to do with the way that sex is understood.  She quotes many Muslim texts to show that sex is seen as a need that should be fulfilled as efficiently as possible so that Muslims can spend less time thinking about that and devote their attention to God instead.  She makes a complicated and fascinating argument about the way that polygamy functions to fulfill this ideal for men—not only because polygamous men have more wives, but also because it formalizes sex in a way that makes it less personal and discourages attachment to a particular person. She shows that this ideology filters down to affect non-polygamous households as well. From this perspective, love is bad, because it is a distraction from religious life; arranged marriage is good because it helps to maintai  a stable society and reduces opportunities for conflict.

Which is not to say that Mernissi endorses any of this; she shows that polygamy’s goal of reducing sexual frustration can backfire for the young men who are left without any social validated sexual partners when all the young women are married to older, more prestigious men. She also shows that this is a double standard because, although the texts that approve polygamy do make mention of women’s need for sexual satisfaction, women are expected to share a husband while men may have  many wives.  She is also very interested in the transition from the traditional lifestyle to a more modern one, especially under the influence of the West. Conflicts are arising between young people who want to make their own choices about marriage and lifestyle and their parents.  There are also conflicts between women who want to participate in society and men and women who are uncomfortable with this.  It’s really useful as a Westerner to understand that the people who react so strongly against women’s participation in society in Muslim countries are not, in fact, resentful of women’s success so much as they are frightened that abandoning old practices will lead to chaos and destroy the ability of men to relate to each other as a close-knit community.  It’s really important to know that when the stories come through of men who throw acid on girls attending school, they are actually reacting out of fear.  This doesn’t make it better, but knowing why they do this matters a lot for those who try to change it, and also to defuse Western stereotypes about Muslim violence.

In the second half of the book, Mernissi analyzes data from letters written to a counseling service, and interviews with women of two different generations.  This stuff is intrinsically fascinating, and she uses it to tease out a lot of useful insights about Muslim societies, which I certainly can’t go through here in any kind of detail, but definitely worth reading.

So, yeah, I guess I don’t have a lot of interesting things to say here, but the book is really well written and researched, and I think it’s really important for Westerners to read books like this rather than relying upon an understanding filtered through more Western sensibilities.

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The Feminine Mystique: Questioning and Upholding Biases

Sorry for the long pause between entries.  Life happened, and then there was, ah, a bit of a hurricane. I still don’t have power—thank goodness for local public libraries. In any case….

Cover of The Feminine Mystique

Title: The Feminine Mystique

Author: Betty Friedan

Date of Publication: 1963

LC Call Number: HQ 1420 .F7

Oh, Betty Friedan, you are such a creature of your time.

This is actually my second time reading The Feminine Mystique, and I feel like a much more sophisticated feminist now.  So I really wanted to still like it, even though I’d heard that a lot of feminists don’t… and there are some things I do really like about it. And a lot of things that I don’t.

The Feminine Mystique argues, over the length of some 400 pages, that it is unreasonable to build society upon the expectation that men will go to work and women will stay at home to form the stereotypical 1950s white middle-class nuclear family.  I’m reading this is 2012 and the argument that seemed so urgent to Friedan in 1963 is a little less relevant now, although there are still some weird resonances.  But what’s interesting here is the way that she makes her arguments. As I wrote above… she’s a creature of her time. She’s a highly educated white woman who writes from a perspective of social privilege, financial security, and the many assumptions that were probably common among educated people of the time but which seem pretty obviously racist/classist/homophobic now.  So as a reader, you have to take her for what she is, and reading her after having read bell hooks leaves some obvious criticisms ringing in one’s head.

So.  It’s been said elsewhere, and so often that I don’t even know where, that her focus is very narrow here; when she says “women” she does indeed mean “middle-to-upper-class educated white women.”  This is true, and I do, actually, think it is worthwhile to point out how an ideology can fail even those who are supposed to be most privileged within it, so such a focus is kind of okay, though of course she should have been more explicit about it. However, this isn’t the bottom of her racism. She buys into a lot of ideas that, again, I’m sure were current at the time, but that I can’t read without wincing. There is a chapter on anthropology and Margaret Mead, which she points to as one of the sources of pressure for women to devote themselves to being housewives.  She recognizes that anthropology has been used to create this rhetorical trope about the natural role of women, but as she analyzes this, she doesn’t realize that she is simultaneously reinforcing racism which also finds its roots, or some of them, in anthropological thought. So she goes on about “primitive societies” and writes things like this:

Our increasing knowledge, the increasing potency of the human intelligence, has given us an awareness of purposes and goals beyond the simple biological needs of hunger, thirst, and sex. Even these simple needs, in men or women today, are not the same as they were in the Stone Age or in the South Sea cultures, because they are now part of a more complex pattern of human life. (144)

Her language is fairly neutral here, but she’s essentially saying that the people of the South Sea are less complex, have no goals in life, and that their culture is based only on fulfilling basic biological needs.  It gets a little “noble savage” throughout this chapter, and the irritating thing about it is that she isn’t attempting to make an argument about the nature of non-Western culture; they’re just a background “other” against which to define American women.  Throughout the book, while focusing on women like herself, she frequently invokes  “other” women—lower class women, or at one point, Catholic and Jewish women—in order to make points about what women can do, while leaving them out of her argument about what is good for women almost entirely.  To invoke the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike in a book about the need for women to do wage-earning work, but without discussing labor history or working conditions or even the need to earn money is surely a little… tone-deaf.  (and then there’s the ever-popular concentration camp metaphor. Blergh.)

She has other, more obvious biases, as well.  She is much interested in sexuality, but she comes at it from a pretty prescriptive point of view (of course women should get married! But they should do this at a specific age! They shouldn’t be promiscuous! Divorce is bad!)  and ends up addressing homosexuality in a way that made me actually angry: “The shallow unreality, immaturity, promiscuity, lack of lasting human satisfaction that characterize the homosexual’s sex life usually characterize all his life and interests” (276). Um. Wow.  I didn’t throw the book across the room, because I was on a train, but Friedan lost a lot of credibility for me at that moment, and I started scrutinizing a lot of the things she was saying a little more critically.

So yes, I don’t like how she treats those who fall outside of her little paradigm of what she thinks American life is, but nevertheless, she does make some valuable arguments. She knows that a vicarious life, such as the one that women were (are?) encouraged to live, is not satisfying. She punctures the image of the happy nuclear family with stories about affairs, drugs, and child abuse. She writes fairly blisteringly about the idea of “adjustment,” which stated that if women are unhappy living through their children and spending all their time on housework, then they need to learn to become happy with it. At her best, Friedan argues that the problem is with the system and not with the women who do not fit into it, asking why her society asks women to adjust to a life which does not make them happy.  Instead, she calls for a society in which women are encouraged to pursue their “needs for identity, for self-esteem, for achievement, and finally for expression of her unique human individuality” (315) instead of being pressured into seeing their children as the only outlet for any of these needs. I can certainly get behind that. These things are really important.  At the same time, though, I realize that seeing work as a way to achieve all these needs is the product of a very privileged view of the world. There are a couple points in the book where Friedan argues that (implicitly middle-class) families should feel free to bring in a cleaning woman so that mothers can go out into the world and do all these wonderful things, and I wonder, is the cleaning woman fulfilled? How does she express her unique human individuality?

Friedan doesn’t answer this question, because it’s a little more radical than she wants to get.  In fact, she doesn’t appear to make many substantive changes to society at all. This becomes obvious when she writes that part-time college work “is the only way a woman with husband and children can get, or continue, an education” (371).  The only way, really? Allowing part-time study is obviously important for lots of reasons, but it’s one of those moments where I stopped and thought about how she would never have said that about young fathers.  Hmm. As I say, not very radical.  Still, it’s an important book, if a frustrating one, and I appreciate her challenges to the culture in which she is still very obviously immersed.

Those of you who, like me, read this for A Year of Feminist Classics may want to check out Stephanie Coontz’s The Way we Never Were for a historical perspective on this time period.

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Borderlands/La Frontera: Being the Wild Tongue

Cover of Borderlands/La Frontera

Title: Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Author: Gloria Anzaldúa

Publication Date: 1987

LC Call Number:PS3551.N95B6

I was really excited to read this book. I’d read a chapter from it before, and really loved Anzaldúa’s deliberate blending of Spanish and English, as well as the way that she wrote about language and the relationship between language and identity. I’d wanted to read the rest for a long time, and here I finally had an opportunity.

For those who are not familiar with it, Borderlands/La Frontera is a very heterogenous text—part history, part memoir, partly a passionate argument about the importance of language.  It even includes a small collection of poems at the end of the book.  For Anzaldúa, the borderland is where many different kinds of people, ideas, languages, ways of thinking and being come together, and her strategy is often to break down as many distinctions as she can in order to overcome anything that seems to divide different parts of herself. The subtitle of the book is The New Mestiza, and she is not kidding about this—she uses the concept of mestiza not just to refer to her multiracial ancestry but her demolition of barriers.

Throughout the book, Anzaldúa often uses a combination of English and Spanish—mostly English, but with some Spanish words or phrases, though these are often Anglicized. This is the blending that will be most obvious to most readers, I think, especially those who don’t know much Spanish, especially since she is most explicit about it. She doesn’t draw as much attention to the way that she combines academic writing, footnotes and all, with memoir.  The parts of this book that are both academic and bilingual are astonishing to read, because the language-switching feels natural, intimate, and informal, none of which are adjectives generally associated with academic writing.  So she can write paragraphs like this:

But Chicano Spanish is a border tongue which developed naturally.  Change, evolución, enriquecimiento de palabras nuevas por invención o adopción have created variants of Chicano Spanish, un nuevo lenguaje. Un lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir. Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language.   (55)

Anzaldúa wants to establish the legitimacy of this way of writing and speaking because it is closely tied to her identity:

Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.  (59)

So, in a word: she wants to feel comfortable and at home in language, and she uses this book to build both a space in which she can do that and an argument for the existence of such a rhetorical space. I haven’t encountered any other authors who write the way she does, but I’m also not very well-versed in Chicano studies generally, so I don’t know whether other authors have taken her up on this. In any case, it will be very interesting to see how other bloggers react to this use of Spanish and English together; although my language learning experiences have practically nothing in common with Anzaldúa’s, I’ve spent enough time thinking in both languages to find this rhetorical device exciting and pleasurable.  It’s hard for me to imagine what this will be like for those who have to struggle through the Spanish—but it’s not Anzaldúa’s fault that they don’t speak her language.

I knew all this going in, though. What did I get from coming back to Anzaldúa, or from reading the entire book instead of just an excerpt?

I was very surprised to find that she reminded me strongly of Audre Lorde, an author with whom I didn’t really connect.  Like Lorde, she can get essentialist.  I feel a little uncomfortable when I read sentences like this:

At the confluence of two or more genetic streams, with chromosomes constantly “crossing over,” this mixture of races, rather than resulting in an inferior being, provides hybrid progeny, a mutable, more malleable species with a rich gene pool. From this racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollinization, an “alien” consciousness is presently in the making—a new mestiza consciousness, una conciencia de mujer.  (78)

I don’t think that’s really how genetics works, but the science aside, I don’t like the idea of undermining racist paradigms by buying into them—it’s pretty important to me to insist that a particular racial background does not have an inevitable effect on a person’s political participation, because the history behind that argument is horrible, and because people are different from each other. She steps back from this racial essentialism not long after, however, admitting, “Pero es difícil differentiating between lo heredado, lo adquirido, lo impuesto” (82).   At the same time, I really like what she is saying about being able to use all the intersections that she experiences among languages, cultures, histories, religions, and identities in a productive way.  I love how she wants to reclaim what has been unjustly maligned:

This step is a conscious rupture with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and religions.  She communicates that rupture, documents the struggle.  She reinterprets history and, using new symbols, she shapes new myths.  She adopts new perspectives toward the darkskinned, women and queers. She strengthens her tolerance (and intolerance) for ambiguity. She is willing to share, to make herself vulnerable to foreign ways of seeing and thinking. She surrenders all notions of safety, of the familiar. Deconstruct, construct. She becomes a nahual, able to transform herself into a tree, a coyote, into another person.  (83)

This is very Lorde too; once you get through the essentialism, you find this determination to reclaim this entire constellation of marginalized traits, and not by bringing them under an existing framework (despite what I wrote above) but by remaking our understanding of history and challenging white supremacy and western-centric assumptions.  Like Lorde, she is willing to embrace the emotional, the personal, and the non-rational.  I loved the way that Anzaldúa addresses what she calls “the Coatlicue state,” a time in which she retreats into herself and which, from a Western medical point of view, might be called depression, as simply part of life. She doesn’t condemn it as an unacceptable experience, just one that happens and that she has to remember should not last forever.  She understands all the parts of her life as connected.

I don’t relate to Anzaldúa in very many ways, and her approach to feminism is very different from mine.  But I really love her writing, both for the formal rhetorical aspects of it I’ve discussed through most of this post, and for her energy and passion and insistence on owning her identity.  I’m really glad I finally got a chance to read this, and I’m very much looking forward to what others in the Year of Feminist Classics think. Perhaps I’ll be inspired to write again—there’s a lot here, and I’m really just scratching the surface.


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The Bluest Eye: Genealogy of Rage

Title: The Bluest Eye

Author: Toni Morrison

Publication Date: 1970

Library of Congress Call Number: PS3563.O8749B55

Unlike a few of the other books this year, and unlike some other participants, I hadn’t read The Bluest Eye before. I’d read Beloved, which is a very challenging book, but other than that, I’m not familiar with Morrison’s work. So, although I knew that this book was concerned with the racist beauty standard, that was really all I knew about it when I started reading.  I’ve really struggled with writing this post and I know that in a lot of ways I’m just rehearsing what is most obvious about this book—but I take comfort in knowing that Morrison is difficult to write about. 😉  Anyway, bear with me here…

I’ve typed and erased a few sentences that try to give a general idea of what the book is about; it’s complicated enough to make a quick summary difficult.  The title refers to Pecola Breedlove’s desire for blue eyes, indicative of her acceptance that her body, that of a twelve year old African American girl, is unacceptable.  However, the novel is not about her wish for blue eyes; this is merely the culmination of everything that she has endured throughout the novel.  And then, on the other hand, while Pecola emerges as the central character by the end of the book, the narrative does not spend most of its time on her directly. Rather, it comes at her indirectly, mostly through the perspectives and the backstories of other characters. Only at the beginning and the end of the novel do we see things from her point of view.  In the edition of the book that I have, Morrison explains that the purpose of this structure was to steer the reader toward self-examination rather than pity, but that in her opinion this was not successful.   However, the other effect of this strategy is that it gives the reader a look at how the simmering rage is passed down from one character to another.

The beauty standard is part of this, but it’s far from the only part.  Morrison uses a sequence that reads as if it was lifted from a very simple children’s book to begin the novel and again, in pieces, as chapter headings: “Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy.”  This idealized conception of a family, of course, contrasts strongly with the complicated and marginalized families we see throughout the novel.  This functions both as a critique of privilege, playing as it does on cultural stereotypes about the family, and also introduces in a very simple way what will be complicated later, the need to be loved and valued. These things aren’t independent of each other, of course; the point here is that that which is privileged is understood as worthy of love, and the effects of these assumptions are seen in every character in the novel.

The first-person narrator for several sections of the book is Claudia, who is given white-skinned baby dolls, understands what such dolls represent, and rejects it:

I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me.  … But the dismembering of the dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls. The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so. To discover what eluded me: the secret of the magic they weaved on others. What made people look at them and say, “Awwww,” but not for me? (21-23)

Although this specific type of privilege is opaque to her, she is strongly and consciously aware of it, and she reacts with violence (and actually does behave violently toward a white girl early in the story.  She indicates that this awareness and strong resistance will fade with age, but as a young girl, she does not feel the pressure to accept these standards and is honest about her rage and resentment at what she can easily recognize as an unjust and irrational beauty standard.  This is the simplest form of rage in the novel, and while it still isn’t quite aimed at the appropriate target—after all, little white girls, and especially inanimate objects which represent them, aren’t the ones responsible for promulgating this standard—it’s much closer and, ultimately, much less destructive than the other ways that this anger plays out throughout the novel.

Later, briefly, we meet Geraldine, the mother of one of the children at school. She’s not described as being important for herself, but rather as an example of a type; the introduction to the chapter gives her life history in the plural. There is a certain amount of distance from the voice here—that is, I’m not sure that we really are supposed to see her one of an identical series of women—but rather, we understand that the constraints under which she operates, and her response to them, are shared by many women. These are women who live, essentially, a life of service; ultimately, their marriages also count as service. This is a deal which they accept, even if it’s not a totally fair one, but it comes with a house and a cat and security and some status.  Geraldine is as sensitive to the issue of privilege as Claudia is, but unlike Claudia, she cannot openly express wrath over it.  Rather, her attitude is aspirational.  She encourages her son to play with white children, and distinguishes between the black children with whom he is allowed to play and those with whom he is not in explicitly racialized terms, although many of the differences she finds important are those of social class.  It is important to her to maintain her own status, and she needs her husband and her son to help her with this.  Although she has certainly achieved respectability, she feels she is always in danger of losing her status: “The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant” (87). She feels contempt for those she considers beneath her, but it’s also clear that she is not completely happy with herself and obvious that some of the same contempt she feels is reserved for her family.  Basically, she turns her anger toward those she sees as lower status rather than the holders of privilege. This is internalized racism, but to describe in in such a neat phrase does not do justice to the complicated nature of her feelings.   What can be easily observed and described, though, is how Geraldine’s son Junior hates her cat, because she loves it, and how he hates Pecola, first because she is dark and is known to be ugly, and then because the cat likes her.  His rage is  not as insightful as Claudia’s; he is angry because he understands that he is not loved more than a cat, and he too has been caught up in his mother’s worldview, but he does not understand it as clearly as she does.

Mrs. Breedlove is not quite the same kind of person as Geraldine, but we see a few similarities (she notes: “I didn’t even have a cat to talk to” (117)). She lacks status when she moves to Ohio, but she gains it by her association with a white family, even though it is as their maid.  She uses her work to gain a secret life into which she can escape from her own chaotic family, and thus a vantage point from which she can look down on them.  She loves the white family’s house and hates her own, she finds the white family beautiful and her own ugly, and ultimately, she punishes her children for not being like the little Fisher girl. Again, much like Geraldine, instead of being angry about poverty and status differences and racist beauty standards, she is angry with her family for not measuring up.  Later in the book, we meet the loathsome Soaphead Church, whose hatred is stronger still.

Cholly, too, directs his anger against those whose status is below his. Interrupted by terrifying giggling white men with guns during his first sexual encounter, he suddenly hates the girl he is with rather than the men:

Sullen, irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene. Never did he once consider directing his hatred toward the hunters.  Such an emotion would have destroyed him.  They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless.  His subconscious knew what his conscious mind did not guess—that hating them would have consumed him (151).

By this point in the book, we’ve seen this misdirected anger so many times that we are prepared for it.  There is another reference to Darlene as “the one whom he had not been able to protect” (151).  This is, perhaps, a partial explanation for his rape of Pecola; his reaction to her is “revulsion, guilt, pity then love. … The clear statement of her misery was an accusation. He wanted to break her neck—but tenderly” (161).  He’s angry that Pecola seems so helpless and beaten-down, but his rage, again, is toward her, and thus he himself becomes her attacker.

So then, finally, there’s Pecola herself.  The adults have all turned their wrath toward her, and she turns it on herself.  Her desire for blue eyes does not surface until nearly the end of the novel and is really just the final symptom of her curling in on herself in response to the contempt heaped on her from all sides. It’s not the beauty standard that really causes it; she’s been constantly rejected by her family and by everyone else that she knows, and she’s been raped and impregnated by her father.  By the end of the book, even Claudia and Frieda avoid her, for reasons strikingly similar to Cholly’s—“not because she was absurd, or repulsive, or because we were frightened, but because we had failed her” (204-205).  At the end, she has nobody to talk to except herself, and even to herself all she can do is ask for reassurance of the one thing that she can cling to, her conviction that her eyes are now blue.  It’s what I hinted at in the paragraph on Claudia, above—the problem is not actually the perceived lack of beauty but rather the lack of love and the idea that love comes from fitting into the molds described so succinctly in the text that heads all the chapters.  Like all the others, she reacts with rage and violence, but in her case, her victim is herself.


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Little Women: Marriage is All

Cover of Little Women

Title: Little Women

Author: Louisa May Alcott

Publication Date: 1868

Library of Congress Call Number: PS1017.L5

Little Women, like several other books I’ve written about here, is one that I’m revisiting after reading it as a child. Unlike those other books, however, I disliked it at the time, especially the second half. Reading it again, I can see why—the idea that love and marriage are totally central to a woman’s life, whatever else she might do, pervades the book, becoming stronger and stronger later in the text.

The introductory post for Little Women asks whether it leans more strongly toward supporting conformity or independence. I think it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s clear throughout the book that the March family adheres to a very specific set of Christian values, which may or may not mesh with what they see as the values of popular society.  It’s hard to see this as conformity, exactly, because it might conflict with social pressure, but it’s also difficult to see it as independence, because it adheres to a code that they don’t make up themselves.  The March girls may resist the admonitions of their friends but never the advice of their parents.  There is another type of independence in the books, economic independence, which is treated separately and certainly seen as a virtue by at least Jo, but although related to the conformity/independence spectrum, I think this is a slightly different issue.

The most striking early example of both these tendencies is Meg’s visit to the Moffat’s.  During this visit, she encounters several “worldly” social ideas which the reader is encouraged to want her to resist.  These ideas are firmly situated in conventional femininity.  First, she overhears some gossip insinuating that her mother wants her to marry Laurie because he is rich, and second, she allows her friends to dress her up and make her pretty for a party.  Meg resists the insinuations about Laurie and succumbs to the temptations of making herself fancy for a party, but she soon feels  guilty about the latter, believing that she has done something wrong by indulging her desire to be pretty and feel admired. She’s described by one onlooker as “a doll” and briefly adopts this nomenclature for herself.  The implication is that there is something wrong or improper about adopting this style of dress, despite the social validation that it carries with it.  Meg ultimately rejects both this and the gossip about Laurie.  The book doesn’t get explicit about what is wrong with this.  Partly, it’s because it’s vain and silly and a frivolous use of money. Meg’s own discomfort is part of what’s wrong here, and it’s useful and quite feminist of Alcott to acknowledge this. However, some concern is also expressed that this is a slippery slope to “unmaidenly” behavior, and it seems to be rooted in ideas about her life course and later marriage, and this concern is, ah, somewhat less feminist.  In any case, the lesson here seems to be that Meg needs to struggle against both her own desires and the social pressures that surround her—so neither conformity nor independence is a very good way to describe it.

Meg’s experience here also provides the moment in which Marmee expresses her ideals of womanhood:

I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience…I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting.…Better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands. (Chapter 9)

This passage stood out to me because, although the book is heavily didactic throughout and constantly moralizing about whether particular actions are good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, this is the moment when we really get a good look at the goals behind it.  Marmee, who appears in this case to speak for Alcott, emphasizes earning respect through a useful life and attaining happiness through a good marriage.  I don’t have anything to say against being useful, or having a happy marriage, or any of this. However, the insistence on marriage as “the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman,” the apex of female existence and very nearly the point of this entire endeavor has always bothered me. I like marriage, but there is more to life.  This seems especially problematic to me when addressed explicitly to girls, and it is; marriage does not seem to carry the same sort of significance for men, although of course all the men in the book do marry eventually.  Later in the book, there is a strange and sudden digression calling for compassion for old maids:

Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason. …Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless of rank, age, or color. Just recollect the good aunts who have not only lectured and fussed, but nursed and petted, too often without thanks, the scrapes they have helped you out of, the tips they have given you from their small store, the stitches the patient old fingers have set for you, the steps the willing old feet have taken, and gratefully pay the dear old ladies the little attentions that women love to receive as long as they live. (Chapter 43)

While Alcott shows some respect for unmarried women here, there is an unmistakable note of pity in her tone.  They have “missed the sweetest part of life”!  They are faded, tragic, and underappreciated.  There is no idea here that some women might intentionally choose to remain unmarried, or that they may be so engaged in other aspects of their lives that they are happy and content without marriage. This is curious given that Alcott herself never married; I’m not sure what to make of that. Instead, unmarried women seem to play a supporting role in other people’s marriages and focus upon their role as aunts, much as married women in this world (at least, the white, middle-class women who are the focus of this text) focus on their roles as wives and mothers. Even for unmarried women, it is all about marriage.  Thus, despite Marmee’s insistence that her daughters should seek out happy marriages or none at all, marriage assumes an all-important role in the world of the book.

Even Jo’s resistance to marriage and her desire to support herself slowly break down over the course of the narrative. By the end of the book, she is the most domestic of all; she and her husband run a school in which she is painted as a mother figure to all the students, and this is the role which is shown to make her the happiest. There is a lot of really interesting material throughout the book concerning Jo’s work as an author.  She has always been a writer; she actually publishes a novel at one point in the book and spends a lot of time writing stories for magazines and making money from them.  However, because they are sensational, she is slightly embarrassed by them, and immediately gives them up after a single, indirect rebuke by the man who is later to be her husband. It is not until after the death of her sister that she begins writing again, at which point, the text leads us to believe, her writing has much more merit because it is now firmly based in her own emotional experience.  That is, she has become a stronger writer through her devotion to her family.  This does at least allow the possibility that other relationships in life are important—in this case, Jo’s devotion to Beth—but being independent and earning money by writing doesn’t even appear here to be the best way of being a writer.  She can only do it when it isn’t the most important thing in her life, and that honor has to be given to her family.

Still, while Alcott appears to view marriage as an indispensable part of life, her views of marriage are more equitable than this might suggest.  There was some discussion of this in the comments on the original post of Meg’s marriage—Marmee advises Meg to take interest in politics, John does his part to care for their children, and there is a strong sense that Meg is putting too much pressure on herself to be a perfect wife and that she should not do this because it is too stressful. We only get a few glimpses of the marriage between Marmee and Mr. March, but whenever we do, they seem to be discussing their opinions and trying to come to a consensus as to how their family should be run.  Based on this, then, Alcott does at least seem to support a somewhat equitable vision of marriage.  However, there are limits to this; she does not want Jo to marry Laurie because they “are too much alike and too fond of freedom, not to mention hot tempers and strong wills, to get on happily together, in a relation which needs infinite patience and forbearance, as well as love”  (Chapter 32).  Instead, she marries Professor Bhaer, who is older and certainly less fiery than Laurie, but who also has less in common with her and much more education. There is no question as to who runs the school they begin together; although the property is Jo’s, it is Bhaer who is in charge of all the educational aspects of the school, while Jo takes on the “caring” parts of it.  Alcott seems to prefer this sort of relationship to a marriage between close friends, and she disposes of Laurie with Amy, who has never been as close to him as Jo is.

In any case, I think the emphasis on marriage was what turned me off of this as a child, and I still find it troublesome today, though I do appreciate Alcott’s efforts to show cordial and reasonably equitable marriages throughout the book.

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