The political Left and panty-checks

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Until we support girls and women in setting boundaries for their own safety and comfort, we cannot accurately describe ourselves as opponents of rape culture.

The core of female oppression is the appropriation of our reproduction, care provision and sexuality by more powerful social sectors, for the purpose of maintaining their power. (In this era, we’re talking men and the capitalist class.) Our speech is discouraged and ignored. We are impeded from shaping society, but society insists on shaping us.

This means that a prerequisite for feminism is supporting women in working out which boundaries we want to set and maintain in support of our political, social and individual needs, as well as safety. Not jeering at girls and women who defend these boundaries. “How are you going to keep the attendance female-born – are you planning on doing panty checks at the door?” has to be one of the most shameful responses to anyone organising a female-only activity*, whether it be commercial, social or political. And yet I was part of a socialist group in which some members did that. It’s one of my more embarrassing memories of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party’s intervention at a Fem X (student feminist) conference in the late nineties, and I don’t think I said anything in response.

As yet we often have no means of ensuring that participants in events specifically for the oppressed always meet the set criteria. But where the event is for women, it’s crucial that we support that intention, rather than jeering at it. Whether we advocate for female autonomy, or ridicule it, has a real impact on the social value placed on women’s boundaries.  It will affect how many try deliberately flouting those boundaries because they get a thrill out of it or see it as important to their ego. It will affect whether women who are violated get social support afterwards.

And frankly, “we shouldn’t support women in having any autonomy because we can’t fully achieve it” has to be either one of the stupidest, or most dishonest, stances out there. That sounds to me a lot like you don’t see the value in it because if you did, you’d realise that some respect for boundaries is a hell of a lot better than having hundreds trampling over them.

Of course, we’re taught to respond to the difficulty in achieving social support for female boundaries by rounding in on women, not on those who want to violate them. It’s easier to criticise those with less social power, isn’t it. Tell us we have the wrong position.

As will be clear to some reading this, this is especially topical. Right now, the organisers of an Australian commercial event, Seven Sisters Festival, are copping criticism** on news sites which detail the ‘transphobia’ of an event which told some prospective participants that the event is for women and post-op transwomen only.

This venting, often by those on the political Left, even takes the form of accusing the organisers of wanting to check people’s genitals. It should be clear to anyone with a semblance of feminist politics that making accusations that women want to look at or touch someone’s genitals is – outside of specific contexts, such as making out – sexual harassment. It is especially bad to make this accusation when their hypothetical ‘victim’ of enforced panty-checks would be the transgressor of female boundaries in that scenario.

Women on the Seven Sisters Festival Facebook event page experienced a fair amount of such sexual harassment. It would be great if the political Left developed the politics required to recognise and combat this sort of misogyny (reading that link is important), even though this particular commercial enterprise is unlikely to interest most socialists at least. My experience is that much of this Left does not recognise sexual harassment, nor understand its gendered nature. That is, that it flows from and reinforces the power males as a sex have over females, especially on the sexual/reproductive axis. It is not a gender-neutral activity, although males also deserve not to be targetted by it.

Female-only spaces are not inherently free from disability inaccessibility, racism or awful politics. Defending women’s boundaries does not mean agreement with all individual female-only spaces or processes. But if you don’t think that even the politically worst women-only group deserves to be defended from male sexual aggression, you’re no feminist.  And isn’t it about time women were free from the constant “transwomen, transwomen” derailment of the many important issues affecting us.

 

An earlier version of this article was posted at A Room Of Our Own

 

*  It is  far from being the only or even main reason for desiring female-only spaces/projects, but the limited research done so far on people after ‘sex reassignment’ indicates that transwomen retain a male pattern in criminality, including with violent offences: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0016885
**There is also criticism of the Festival as being inappropriate towards indigenous cultures, and some of this does appear to be valid. And in general, the commercial nature of the event means various kinds of deficiencies, so that it is not especially worthwhile for women to invest much in it – and racialised women especially should not be expected to. The point of this piece is to oppose the enabling of sexual harassment.

 

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Against patriarchy

Most feminists believe we live in a patriarchal society, although opinions vary as to what that means. The major feminist stream known as ‘radical feminism’ attaches a particular political theory and approach to this. Some feminists simply use the word as a substitute for ‘sexist’.

How do marxists see this?

We don’t see ‘patriarchy’ as a useful catch-all term to describe every ruling elite and class-based economic form that depends on women’s oppression.

We believe it’s very inaccurate and prevents feminists from accurately assessing and opposing the dynamics maintaining our oppression.

Briefly:
Patriarchy was a very early form of class society that involved two crucial dynamics:
1. Male family heads having legal decision-making power over their women, children and family property.
2. The patriarchs, as a social sector, being incorporated into the decision-making processes of society as a whole. [Note: this does not imply absolute equality amongst the patriarchs.]

But 1. no longer holds, except in an altered way in a few countries. While men do retain much of this power in reality, it takes a different form – it is no longer legally mandated.
And 2. is not the case, since only a few men (in the capitalist class and amongst their political servants in governments) have the power to make decisions for society, regardless of the illusions of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. Being a father no longer confers that right/power.

So patriarchy theory disguises the current state of women’s oppression – and prevents us from relating well enough to the factors maintaining it, which these days are much less inscribed in law, although still very powerful.

Patriarchy theory often also dissuades its proponents from looking at who the ruling class in our society is (the capitalists/ bourgeoisie), deeming it instead ‘men’, despite most men not having the power to rule society.

It does matter what the ruling class is. It affects the way society works. [Eg capitalism or feudalism? It does matter.]

  • Capitalism has created entirely new forms of female oppression. The porn industry as we know it wouldn’t exist without capitalism. As advanced capitalist industries do, it creates demand. And its images are nothing like the pre-capitalist paintings of nude women – they are now images of actual women, which continue to be sold and bought long after the image’s subject/object has died.
  • Industry as a whole needs different classes of workers, to play us off against each other, with some paid much less. And capitalism needs women to do unpaid work (including rearing the next generation of workers) within the hetero family unit in order for the capitalists to keep more of society’s wealth, rather than devoting it to these important welfare tasks.]

[This is not to say that men won’t in general try to maintain their (relative) material privilege via exerting power over the women around them. Male privilege under capitalism is very real, despite it being less inscribed in law than it used to be. Any socially privileged sector has an immediate objective interest in maintaining that privilege, and capitalism inherited the pre-capitalist sex and sexual relations of male dominance and female subjugation, although it has altered those relations in its own interest. Consequently, female sexuality remains largely subordinate to the political and economic needs of the ruling class (as it has been to the ruling classes of all economic forms), and men maintain their historical role as main gatekeepers and immediate beneficiaries of women’s sexuality. The implementation of this (including the extent to which a woman’s sexuality is determined by her own wishes and enjoyment) varies enormously around the world, which will have to be a subject for a future post.]

And while it has been true that the ruling classes of all types of class society have mainly comprised men, it doesn’t follow that all or even most men are part of the ruling economic class.

This is another reason why conflating capitalism (a women-oppressing system) with patriarchy just confuses us. It can lead to writing off any mention of the role of the capitalist class with (‘well, men created capitalism – it’s part of the patriarchy’). But it is vital to acknowledge that the capitalist class has political interests outside the objective interests of most men. Since knowledge is power, it utterly disorients us, and significantly demobilises us from key aspects of the fight, to assume that discussing and opposing capitalism *specifically* is pointless.

We also recognise that employing terms simply because they are perceived as “stronger language” is not inherently a radical approach; in fact it can impede recognition of the limitations of this method. Political strength of oppressed movements is aided by accuracy of terms and analysis, so that we can better orient our strategies for liberation.

 

 

Interesting reading, from ‘Patriarchy or class?’ (1988) by Rose McCann (Chapter 2). The ‘socialist feminism’ referred to is in contrast to marxist feminism, and was created by feminists who were only familiar with the reductionist/ Stalinist (conservative) distortions of Marxism:

~

Socialist feminism’s starting point – the alleged inadequacy of Marxism in providing a theoretical explanation of women’s oppression and a program for combating it – is based on an extremely distorted interpretation of Marxism. A crude, dogmatic, eclectic caricature is presented as Marxism and then knocked down as inadequate to the task of explaining women’s oppression.

Having rejected Marxist analysis, socialist feminism then sets up the concept of patriarchy as the centrepiece of its viewpoint…. Relations between men and women are said to have their own, independent logic, dynamic and history that do not stand in any necessary or contingent relationship to the prevailing relations of production.

While Marxists reject the underlying philosophical idealism of such a view, this does not mean that they accept the vulgarised, mechanical view often presented as the materialist alternative. Although relations between men and women are historically and materially incomprehensible in isolation from the context of the prevailing relations of production, relations between the sexes cannot simply be reduced to economic/ class relations.

In any society, relations between the sexes do have a substantially autonomous dynamic, influenced by non-economic relations and the social consciousness these relations generate (political, moral, religious, and other ideas).

….

The Marxist (or historical materialist) approach does not deny that all known class societies have oppressed women. Nor does it dispute the fact that the capitalist system is male-dominated and that male privilege is a central feature of it. Marxism emphatically agrees that men dominate virtually all aspects of capitalist economic, political and social life, and that capitalist society is riddled with degenerate sexist attitudes. It also agrees that a by-product of this is the oppression of individual women by individual men. Sometimes individual men can be responsible for extreme violence against women.

But none of this proves that patriarchy is an autonomous structure with its own history, laws of motion, and material base separate from the class relations associated with exploitative relations of production.

Copyright © Virginia Brown March 2012. Feel free to repost for non-profit purposes and without alteration so long as my authorship is noted, and this article URL is included: https://liberationislife.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/against-patriarchy/