Hit me with your privilege stick!

Blog Series: Legacies of Individualism in Radical/lesbian feminist thought and the question of Praxis (Revolutionary Change):  [1]

Entry One:  Hit me with your Privilege Stick! [2]

My plan for a blog-series

Individualism is a major obstacle to political radicalism today, and this includes–and of particular importance to me (and the world)–radicalism in feminism. In this blog-series I will explore different strands of my critique of individualism as it has manifested itself from within radical feminist thought and practice. As in my other blog entries, my purpose is to understand internal obstacles to radicalism within feminism although it is always important to refer to external forces of anti-feminism. Aspects of the individualism I will discuss overlap with what I call “one dimensional feminism” or have been impacted by one dimensional feminism.

I have long been perturbed by how aspects of radical feminist thought perpetuate individualism, sometimes strangely mirroring the po-mo queer trans trends it also, and often lucidly, critiques.  Related to the problem of individualism is the big question of how we envision social change and the very complex question—rarely explored by radical feminists—of the relation between self and society (patriarchy).  Radical feminism has a troubling tendency to at one and the same time critique gender as a social system based on hierarchy, domination and exploitation, and yet often suppose that feminists and especially lesbian radical feminists are already self-made individuals beyond the reach of all the strategies and tools and techniques that torture females into form as feminine—into becoming woman. When individual females—like many but not all feminist dykes–appear to have to some extent always already have resisted in their muscles and cells, as part of their development as humans, the shackles of femininity, this phenomenon tends to be treated as a normative ideal that every other women can and should catapult herself into, by force of will.  Sometimes this takes very silly forms (with serious implications) as does the “privilege-pushing” (credit to the mysterious RS of the internet for the phrase) debacle to be described in this entry. Sometimes it takes more sophisticated forms which are even more concerning and I will discuss this in future entries in the series.

“They didn’t even notice that two of us had Native American Heritage”

The Onion, that paper based wholly on satire, could have made it up:

“Lesbian group decries ‘femme oppression of butches!’”

“Lesbian group decides that femininity privilege must be eliminated.”

“After examining femininity privilege, lesbian group decides that anorexic women had too much of it and must be blamed for their part in the oppression of fat women.”

“When asked to respond to the dissenters who left the group, group member X states, ‘They didn’t even notice that two of us were one eighth Native American!’”

The Onion surely could have written the whole thing—but it hadn’t.

There was a feeling of a time-warp about it. An ultimately fractious anti-dialogue among feminists–mostly lesbians and self-defined radical feminists–about “privilege” in this cyber-domain was like a replay for me of twenty years ago.

It was the eighties. The atmosphere was ripe with immanent denunciations. Politics in the still-breathing lesbian community had begun to hollow out into a ritual called “name the racist (classist, homophobe etc).” Who would be next in line to confess her privilege? Once she confessed, she too could be admitted to the ranks of the righteous, entitled now to “call out” any others on their particular “isms,” these thingies that a person carted around as if (thank you Peggy McIntosh) in an “invisible backpack.” She now had an Id-entity. Indeed the self became implicitly re-imaged a container-entity either filled or emptied of privilege-chips.  In the seventies, activists had struggled against imperialism, poverty, the military-industrial complex and of course patriarchy.  But within “the community” the struggle against concrete structures of oppression had devolved into group scrutiny of individual behavior (the way she walked, the way she talked, how she dressed). Any lingering connection to thought of oppression as a system of exploitation and domination had faded into abstractness.

Skip ahead twenty or thirty years when most of what was then known as “the community,” and most vestiges of feminist culture(s) and/or feminist-lesbian culture(s) has been sucked into the vortices of mass-reproduced historical amnesia. (This amnesia is sometimes sold in the form of Third-wave feminism; sometimes in the form of Queer). It’s unsurprising that the debacle unfolded within the vertiginous zone of cyber-space. It is here that a new absence of presence and presence of absence has come to define everyday life for a vast majority of individuals in industrial capitalist countries. In my view the feminist corner of the net (as in other corners) has accreted around the absence of former community in any organic sense, substituting something new and strange, and not terribly rich.  In the presence of this absence, the detritus of the former era—the worst-of-the-worst-hit lists of the eighties seems to have floated back to the surface of one’s computer screen from who knows where. Privilege-speak had returned from the debt to demand its due in privilege credits and debits.  And the privilege-pushers went at it with the same gusto—i.e. vitriol—that had characterized the worst of the old days. For, given the lack of any real field of common struggle and any actual community, the level of emotional intensity unleashed was startling. What could possibly be the energy source of such transmissions?  Leaving aside that interesting question for now, I focus here on the contents rather than form of the whole “privilege-accounting” ideology, which, I argue, is individualist to the core.

“I don’t think patriarchy can be changed; I just want to make a safe space for lesbians”

One of the obstacles to critiquing individualism is that the latter, like all ideology, functions by obscuring itself and self-presents as “just the way things are.” It is the air we breathe, the element in which we swim, thus invisible. Because individualism is so naturalized as a belief system, it can disguise itself as knowledge—or invisibly form the preconditions of what is claimed as self-evident knowledge. In the wake of the Facebook and blog mash-up about so-called femininity-privilege, the privilege pushers repeatedly attributed the fall-out to those women who were afraid “to ask the real questions.”  But the questions they asked were substantially limited—to vastly understate the matter—by a view of society and change which they refused to question.

There was a fleeting moment when the implicit view of social change in the privie-pusher discourse was made explicit: Thus the statement of one of the main privie-pushers:  “Oh I don’t believe we can change patriarchy; I just want to make a safe space for lesbians.”

Understandably this comment was ignored by sister-privie-pushers who do fancy themselves as fighters of patriarchy. However, the above statement about patriarchy points to a common, if implicit, thread in the whole privie-pushing business.  The notion of Patriarchy lacks reality for the privie-pushers who, for radical feminists, display a curious blindness to the nature of oppression as structural (institutional, systemic). The privilege-pushers have a view of structure (thus of patriarchy) that is so vague that some of them dismiss the notion of a structural view of oppression as at best, academic bullshit, and at worst, a way for an individual to dodge examination of her own privilege. Oppression for them is most vivid, and perhaps only apparent, as it lives in individual behaviors. To them, this behavior—and thus oppression itself—is primarily defined by two choices: conform or dissent to “patriarchy.” I put patriarchy in quotes because “patriarchy” functions for them as more of a prop against which to measure an individual’s degree of conformity or dissent, rather than as a systemic set of forces and barriers (M. Frye, “Oppression”) which structure (organize, shape, mold, pattern) relations between individuals. Sometimes structural is called “institutional,” but it is deeper than that.

Thus armed with their behavioral notion of oppression, the privilege-pushers feel no sense of cognitive dissonance when claiming that anorexic women are oppressors of fat women. Anorexic women—women in the throes of self-starvation to the point of (often) death—are understood as willful conformists above and beyond anything else. Anorexia is a sub-category of those with “femininity-privilege,” namely those who conform to patriarchy through their choice of individual dress, adornment, style, etc. And “femininity-privilege,” according to the privie-pushers, directly oppresses butches (as well as fat women).

When looking for any idea of change in the privie-pusher discourse one can only come up with a 12-steppy (although in this case three-steppy) process: First, admit you have a privilege and second, confess to everyone whom you might affect with this privilege. Third—well this is unclear.  One of the privie-pushers advocates that femme lesbians dress as neutrally as possible so as to protect butch women in “the community.” It’s not as clear as to what counsel they would offer to anorexic women. Maybe, “Just say yes–to peanut butter!” ??

“Every woman’s privilege is at another woman’s expense”

The above line is a favored privie-pusher refrain.  There is the deceptive appearance in here of some sense of collective responsibility. Indeed we are all responsible for one another (and I mean not only all women, but all humans, and as humans, we are responsible for animals and the non-human world as well), and this is the reality hidden by the atomized individualism of capitalist-patriarchy. But the privilege-pushers actually mirror rather than challenge this individualism in their notion of accountability and thus obfuscate collective responsibility. This is because for them (and I have heard this voiced explicitly) “collective” means that individual women, one by one, “own up” to their privilege, and the idea is that somehow if enough of us did this, presto, power relations between women would change.  This just seems like common sense to them—again like the air we breathe. The problem is that the view assumes that individual behavior exists in a social vacuum—there is no social context for their notion of an individual. Instead there is a default notion that individual change exists in the application of something like feminist principles from text-books (or blogs) to everyday life. Needless to say, or it should be needless, this has never proved a particularly effective means for real change at individual or collective levels.

For the privie-pushers, the individual and privilege itself is an entity, a sack of goodies, to be emptied or filled (ohhh… nooo..  Peggy McIntosh, look what you wrought!).  What is striking is the fact there is very little about their notion of “privilege” that differs from the capitalist notion of “(self)interest.” To them all women and/or lesbians are atomized self-interested individuals clashing against other self-interested individuals in a bumper-car like game of “community.” Thus femininity is no longer understood as the way women are structured (marked and molded into) as feminine subjects but as a form of self-interest. “Got femininity?” If so, your sack of interests are colliding with and subtracting from the sacks of women who have less of it—to them butches epitomize such a femininity-disadvantaged group of individuals.

Oppression is a zero-sum game in which there is a scarcity of resources (privileges) for all women.  Is it odd that this is exactly the picture of women–as already always competitive with one another–as engaged in an eternal cat-fight–offered by patriarchal ideology? This is precisely the view of women that obfuscates and thwarts collective responsibility. What is collective responsibility?: I will go into detail in another post, but to abbreviate, it means that we look at the ways that oppression binds women together in both positive and destructive ways and thus accordingly, align and ally ourselves with struggles that fight patriarchy as a comprehensive system involving class, race and other social relations of exploitation and domination.  Of course the issue of struggle is highly complex.. so to repeat, stay tuned, or put in your own comments!

Got femininity? A personal anecdote about “femininity privilege”

The recent debacle did have the value of prompting me to reflect upon an unpleasant experience I had several years ago in the company of two thin straight women, and one straight man, all my friends.  It was in Berkeley in 1999, and I had been looking forward to the dinner all day. The two women, one of whom was in a couple with the man, were women of strong intellect, quick witted, and feminist. The man was one of my closest friends at the time, a graduate student colleague. I’ll call him Nigel (with a nod to the Aussies’ version of Tom, Dick or Harry), and the women, Lorraine and Suzanne.  We were barely seated at our table in a low-lit Italian place when Lorraine and Suzanne began chatting about starting up a gym habit, and suddenly commenting on how out of shape they were, Lorraine who is rail-thin not just thin, mocking her own supposedly flabby behind (I believe “cottage-cheese” was the  metaphor du jour for her rump). Already sinking in disappointment—sinking on my comparably ample behind–another blow was yet in store. Suzanne (the woman who was not Nigel’s girlfriend but who had harbored a long-time crush on Nigel) started doing the fluttering-girl thing. She was flirting, high-talking, giggling, and batting eyelashes, her attention entirely fixed on Nigel.  I was almost crushed to see this new friend and wonderful woman ignore me (and Lorraine) and just crumple into someone I could hardly recognize. The evening for me was ruined—not helped by the fact that the two skinny gals also ordered something ridiculously austere—salads–for dinner while I defiantly ordered pasta of some sort. At the time I think that I attributed the pang of alienation and rejection to the behaviors of the two women: I felt that they had blithely discussed themselves as “fat” in the presence of a woman who was not thin, and of course, had indulged typical hetero-feminine behavior in the presence of a lesbian. The privilege-pushers might call them “oppressive” towards me.

Talking this over with my friend Nancy Meyer, a few points became crystal clear and enabled me to see even more clearly into the deceptions of the privilege-pushing discourse. First of all, my feelings about my own body were distorted by the same ideals that filtered these other women’s perceptions of themselves. Although not “thin” I was not in the least fat. More importantly, my experience was that of being devalued in a competition that all of us suffered from believing in. Here I was taking the competition for granted; naturalizing it. Although I was legitimately disappointed in these supposedly feminist women’s failure to critically reflect on this basic ideology about “body image,” the failure was not “oppressive” just alienating. And the source of the alienation was the ideology, not the two women’s behavior, ultimately. Most importantly of all, I had failed to scrutinize the main beneficiary of all this. Yes, that’s right, it was Nigel all along! Regardless of his own intentions—whatever they were—he was certainly magnified by that magic mirror of feminine attention to men that Virginia Woolf talks about. It was not only Lorraine’s doting glances, but the specter of women’s self-scrutiny that magnified his subject-position as the One empowered as the ultimate dispenser of approval of female bodies, and recipient of the pleasures gleaned from the system marking women as objects of male desire.

Here I was in 2010, re-discovering feminism 101! It is patently clear to me now how it is the Id-entity of privilege-pushing—where each privilege hardens into its own Id-entity category, and every individual has one of these Id-entities—that obfuscates such basic feminist insights into the source of horizontal female hostility. And look who gets off the hook.

The main contradiction: Having your choice and eating it too?

Radical feminism is critical of the notion of individual choice when used by postmodern queer sex-positives to justify prostitution, pornography and pole-dancing and so forth as a matter of individual empowerment and agency. It is critical of the postmodern positive affirmation that gender is something an individual can make up as she goes as is expressed by terms like gender-queer, and by practices like transgendering. It is also critical of the idea that women actually choose heterosexuality, marriage, and any range of ways that male power is organized in a patriarchal society. Some radical feminists argue that women do have choices but that these choices are very constrained, often to the point of choosing between a rock and a hard place. Marilyn Frye’s notion of the “double bind” as a feature of oppression perfectly captures the situation of choice for subordinate groups, and women in particular (Frye, “Oppression,” The Politics of Reality). If a woman “chooses” to be (hetero)sexual, she is stigmatized as a slut; if she chooses not to be (hetero)sexual she is stigmatized as a prude or (horrors) dyke. If she is raped and found to have carried birth-control in her bag, her claim of rape lacks credibility since she is seen to be someone who was making herself sexually available. If she does not have birth-control she, not any man, is to be held responsible for (blamed for) her pregnancy. And so forth.

Given the radical feminist critique of individual choice, there is a major contradiction in radical feminist theory when it comes to notions of change—especially when it comes to the issue of the relation between the self and society. Sticking to the issue of femininity, the contradiction is in the following two mutually exclusive (explicit and implicit) propositions: The first is the explicit argument that femininity is the way that half of humanity is imprinted, molded, mutilated from birth into “becoming woman,” which also means constructed as beings who exist fundamentally for the use of men and male interests. This argument is that femininity—and gender—is structural, namely, a system of marking sex-differences as hierarchal and exploitative.  The second is the suggestion—implicit rather than explicit, that once one reaches adulthood at least and certainly upon identification as feminist and/or lesbian-feminist, femininity is now amenable to a woman’s rational, moral choices. Now that we’re grown up feminists, we can and should willfully reject all the trappings, so to speak, of femininity. So here’s the contradiction: If, as radical feminist theory has it, gender is ideological, structural and hegemonic as a system of dividing human beings into male dominants and female subordinates, then this gendering (feminine-izing) can not also be a matter of individual choice. We can not have it both ways. Am I saying that we are so socially determined that change is impossible? Of course not. Would there be any point to feminism if that was the case? I do think, however, that change is far more complicated than individually willed actions and that the notion of individual choice mystifies (obfuscates) individual change as much as it mystifies structural change. We need to think beyond the liberal-individualist framework to discover/invent what we mean when we talk about transformation at both individual and structural levels. We need to think about the notion of praxis: the complicated process of putting ideas and ideals into practice and thus how to get from here to there when talking about radically transforming, if not overthrowing, the patriarchal social order.

To be continued…


[1] This blog entry is indebted to the brilliance of both Isabelle Moreira and Nancy Meyer with whom I have had extensive conversations about the topics covered. Inspiration is also due on several counts to The Mysterious R of the Internet.

[2] “Hit me with your privilege stick”: I got the phrase from Isabelle Moreira and The Mysterious R who in turn referred to an event in Australia, in the seventies, when a women’s street-theater group, in one of their performances, changed the lyrics of the song, “Hit me with your rhythm stick” to “Hit me with your privilege stick.”

23 responses to “Hit me with your privilege stick!

  1. Probably because I’m an artist, I look at individualism differently. Visionary individuals change the world… and the protecting and nurturing of that individualism is a full-time job in a world of broadcast corporate media AND endangered marginalized communities dependent on party lines for defining positions and strategizing. It’s an important subject and thanks for blogging it. The recovery movement has helped me enormously with functional exploration of the boundaries between collective responsibility and individual rights, with analysis vs. judgment, etc. I can have an analysis about practices, an understanding of where they come from and who benefits from them, and a humility regarding my ignorance about the individual who embraces them… what they may mean to her, etc. And a respect for her right to her own experience and perceptions, her right to define hereself, etc. The gray area so anathema to organizers and activists is the arena for transformation in drama.

  2. This Mysterious R, hmmm?? I like the intrigue! Anyway, this is great! I’ve been on the privvie-pushing tip for a few months now. And I agree that INDIVIDUALISM as a solution to systemic change is a growing problem for feminist ideology.

    Oppression is a zero-sum game in which there is a scarcity of resources (privileges) for all women.

    YES. But privilege sticks are not all the same. And new ones are being made all the time. It is NOT zero-sum.
    Also, I have this mental image of a satire cartoon femme, a butch, and a white man. The white man has access to the 2 women’s respective Privvie Knapsacks. He takes sticks from the butch’s knapsack, hits her on the head with them, then puts the stick in the femme’s knapsack! It’s obviously the femme’s fault.

    Is it odd that this is exactly the picture of women–as already always competitive with one another–as engaged in an eternal cat-fight–offered by patriarchal ideology?

    Seriously. That’s the major problem, I think. To envision one’s passive qualities of self– such as race, skirt-wearing, physically healthy, young, or thin– as directly in competition with, and directly damaging to (privvie stick exchanges!,) any one else’s day-to-day survival is blatantly divisive. And, as you say, obfuscates the SOURCE of the value system that places one way of being above another! It so ass-backwards it hurts. And I mean that politically.

    I felt that they had blithely discussed themselves as “fat” in the presence of a woman who was not thin, and of course, had indulged typical hetero-feminine behavior in the presence of a lesbian. The privilege-pushers might call them “oppressive” towards me.

    Oh yes, privvie-pushers would be CRYING in their closets! Probably still whining about it today and being “triggered” whenever anyone orders an f-ing salad! Throwing hissy fits and trying to make everyone in the present responsible for their hurt FWEEELINGS from the past. But as you say, it is merely alienating. Their behavior does NOT have any material impact on your day-to-day ability to survive in the world. There is no PRIVILEGE that they took from you, or flaunted before you. If anything, because they were clearly motivated by self-hatred, you were in a better mental state! If emotions count as privilege, you would be the winner. HA! Except that there is no winner. Besides men, of course.

    So, CHANGE. Praxis being the technical term, I guess? :) Alrighty, I think that when we look at individuals, we have to STOP suggesting/believing/asserting that individual lifestyle choices have ANY SUBSTANTIAL impact on the whole. Yes, there may be some arbitrary tipping point where social change begins to occur, but we cannot rest our salvation on this. Mostly because the SYSTEM isn’t designed to SERVE individuals. It serves CLASSES. There are many other compelling reasons to avoid this strategy for change, but I digress. Let me be specific and stick with femininity privilege as an example: I have recently been discussing the difference between what harms an individual women DIRECTLY (such as the pain she may feel from wearing high heels, or the cancer she may contract from chemical eyelash enhancers) and the sense that so many privvie-pushers seem to have about the harm “femininity” causes an individuals BECAUSE OF the perceptions *others* may have about her, based on their observance of her femininity. So, this is the difference between things that could harm you alone in the woods, versus those that (speculatively) harm an individual through the social MEANING they’ve been infused with. Objective versus subjective. And not that the subjective meanings of patriarchy should be disregarded! No. But they should not be given priority when we make personal decisions. Objective harms should. This distinction can help guide us to as we envision systemic change, or Praxis. Those things that are objectively neutral, only becoming BAD when infused with the arbitrary assignment of social value– those are the things we need to change– on a SYSTEMIC level. And in the meantime, using these subjective meanings (often assigned to immutable characteristics) to discredit each other is unavoidably destructive of community/solidarity/progress as a CLASS.

    Thank you for this wonderful post!
    PS. Frye’s Oppression essay can be referenced here.

  3. One more! I’m sorry if my comment was a bit unclear. As to what Carolyn says (above), individualism as it relates to the emotional well-being of self isn’t what I object to. Indeed, individual self-exploration and self-expression is essential to emotional health and personal growth. My objections are specifically about using individualism as a *strategy* for systemic political change, and leveraging passive individual characteristics as a means of discrediting and devaluing each other (in a feminist context, particularly).

  4. I’ll respond to Carolyn’s post in a bit.
    But thanks U.P for your response! But I have some differences with your points. First: you quote me: Oppression is a zero-sum game in which there is a scarcity of resources (privileges) for all women.

    You write: YES. But privilege sticks are not all the same. And new ones are being made all the time. It is NOT zero-sum.
    The zero-sum term refers to the concept of “privilege” not to the proliferation of different kinds of supposed privileges if that makes sense. In this sense, every new privilege stick will be employed in the same way–as one person-with-privileges butting up against a disadvantaged individual in a bumper-car relationship. Whatever “privilege” is, it is always in scarcity in the way capitalist notion of the objects of self-interest are in scarcity. Hmm.. might have to work on clarifying this further. Obviously, material goods are scarce–but that’s because of a structure of distribution–capitalism in one case–not because there there is some essential scarcity. For the privvie-pushers, privilege is something that seems essentialized and essentially scarce
    Also, you write: “To envision one’s passive qualities of self– such as race, skirt-wearing, physically healthy, young, or thin– as directly in competition with, and directly damaging to (privvie stick exchanges!,) any one else’s day-to-day survival is blatantly divisive.”
    I do not believe that race or femininity or health etc. are passive , much less “qualities”–I think that they are *structures* and that as individuals in a capitalist patriarchy we are always being actively structure-ed (and to some degree impacting the structures-but not by individual will). I need to work on making the concept more accessible- but I think that the privvie-pushers make the mistake of seeing femininity, itself as a “quality” (part of the set of properties in the backpack) that one can peel off one’s true self at will. More on this at a latter point for the development of the alternative view!

  5. Carolyn you talk about individuals as visionaries who are world-changing. I don’t deny the existence of individual visionaries–but they world-change because they influence movements–whether movements in the arts, or in politics, etc. There are also visionary *leaders* like Ghandi– but leadership logically entails the existence of “followers”– groups who are collectively inspired, and should not preclude other kinds of leadership within the collectivity. Are there individuals who are blazingly unique and might never have a following? of course! What interests me though is how world-changing occurs not whether there are unique individuals who exist. Another topic might be- how is that a few individuals do manage to see beyond, and create their selves and lives in ways beyond a system demanding so much bruising conformity to its norms? I think that our individualist system is also conformist- sometimes in the most ridiculous ways like the imposition of simplistic party lines, and sometimes in punishing ways, sometimes both. True collectivity (to be discussed) is the only context in which true individuality can flourish: by flourish I mean can be nurtured and thrive in a wide spread way, not in isolated examples of people who generally feel isolated from others–or live in groups that feel completely isolated.
    I”m not sure why you’re talking about “party lines” but I certainly do not think the only options are a kind of group-think on the one hand and individualism on the other. Collective-work is of course always vexed with obstacles in the kind of traumatizing culture/society we live in. Individualism is no solution to that, and further depoliticizes the kinds of trauma that prevent female solidarity, however.

  6. OH, Undercover Punk, I missed your second post. I agree!

  7. I’ll call him Nigel (with a nod to the Aussies’ version of Tom, Dick or Harry),

    Just to clarify, Nigel is originally English who should really get the nod. Aussies adapted it from their colonial overlords. From an early form of the English slang usage of ‘Nigel’. British tradition from the 1920s/30s period, referred to ‘Nigels’ as the stereotype of an upper-class young male prat, (no commen sense) the beloved object of Monty Python-style class satire. Also the stereotype of the male-half of the typical liberal middle-class suburban couple “Nigel and Sandra”.

    In Australian usage, it’s more akin to the friendless ‘loner’ male, the geek, the nerd, the propeller-head, the one nobody wants to play with – as in “they left me standing there all by myself, looking like a right bloody Nigel”. Either way, Nigel is seen as the irritating, boring, socially inept, but basically harmless, Nice Guy (TM). I thought in recent years, it was north-American women/feminists who have ‘backronymed’ it, and further popularised it’s general usage, as the NIcest Guy who Ever Lived.

  8. Hi again, I think we’re just talking around each other.

    Whatever “privilege” is, it is always in scarcity in the way capitalist notion of the objects of self-interest are in scarcity.

    This is the privvie-pusher view, right? And, as you say, that the sticks all operate in the same way. I disagree with this view. Especially with regard to the mechanics of femininity, as compared to other forms or kinds of privilege/oppression. “Privilege” sticks are not all the same. And you aren’t hitting others just by holding one in your knapsack. To use the metaphor. Not to mention that there are sticks you can NOT get rid of. Such as your race. Or your sex.
    Which goes to this:

    I do not believe that race or femininity or health etc. are passive , much less “qualities”–I think that they are *structures*

    When you say *structures* I think you mean subjective value systems that CREATE hierarchies (and then codify them). If so, I simply mean that certain “passive characteristics”– such as the fact that one *is* biologically female, or *has* dark skin, or is not-thin– these visible markers of an individual’s class membership are infused with social meaning. Meaning which serves to validate the privilege &/or oppression of individuals. Without the subjective value systems (self-fulfilling social structures) to screen our perceptions through, these facts of life would be neutral happenstance. I hope this clarifies.

  9. Hi, Undercover Punk

    The following exemplifies a typical privvie-pushing notion of ‘privilege’, as defined by a notoriously privvie-pushing blog:

    Privilege is occupying a favorable place within a system of social, legal, and economic advantages/disadvantages. That is it. That’s all it is. It’s not identifying with that place, or relishing that place, or even feeling as though one is entitled to that place. It is merely occupying that favorable position, regardless of how it is one came to occupy such a position.

    Besides the fact that, in effect, the privvie-pushers do not treat ‘privileges’ as positions but rather as possessions (and essentially scarce, as KM put it), their definition is misguided. I believe that, instead of talking about ‘favorable positions’, we ought to explore relations of ruling in relation to class/caste positions, and how individuals are structured within relations of domination. Defining ‘privilege’ and oppression as a vague ‘one-up, one-down’ system of advantages and disadvantages is the most problematic aspect to privvie-pushers’ theory which ultimately clouds rational thinking and allows for such absurd claims as that of anorexia being a ‘privilege’, in my view.

  10. Privilege is systemic, and in order to be that, it is not static, as it is made to be in the quote Isabelle gives above. It is perpetuated by practice, in actions. When the diner engages in feminine deference to the male, she is practicing what she has been taught, and what she has learned she will be rewarded for, or punished for not doing. Those rewards are of course never what the recipient of her ministrations receives, but she is actually an agent in her conformity to social systems, who is inflicting distress on another woman who is *resisting* these systems. So i see a complex interweave here. Such actions on an individual basis may not count for much; it is their preponderance on a mass, daily practiced scale that demoralizes women into thinking that they might as well play along, because it all seems so universal in so many cultural worlds. But individual resistance does count, refusing to go along with the system, which is not static but demands compliance, and i see that as different from individualism.
    However! the kind of behavior you describe here, and which i’ve called “counting the beads of oppression,” i think comes from unexamined ideas about how to raise issues and create change, how we resist. I see its origins in confrontational new left styles of the late 60s and early 70s (when lots of feminists were reading mao’s little red book, believe it or not) which were based on confrontational, accusatory calling-out of any person whose individual acts were judged as based on systemic oppression structures, even potentially. No sense of proportion, all or nothing, totally Manichaean and polarized into good or bad. Breast-beating required, and confession (maoism again). Lots of guilt and fear behind the attacks, too. The destructiveness of these beliefs and methods was immense, and bears some responsibility for the way that dialogue about class oppression and privilege (which was the theme title of the Facebook blowup Kathy refers to) was completely thrown over by the 90s.

    I am critical of the Joanna Russ essay on trashing that came up there, however, because of the way it re-naturalized class privilege by saying that any attempt to name differences in access to resources, all the Stuff, was nothing more than jealous attempts to tear down feminist leaders. That was not my experience of how things went, since there were and are real issues to be dealt with and to me there was an element of trashing in that article which automatically tagged any challenge to “natural” social order as illegitimate and basely motivated. However, as Kathy knows, i spoke out against the way that privilege was used as a club in the aforenamed FB blowup. It was and is destructive and counterproductive, and does nothing to bring about change.

  11. I want to clarify that in using the word “agency” re the straight woman’s acting out male-deferential behaviors, i am not endorsing the pomo uses of this word which negate the force-field it all happens in. Often combined with the word “negotiating” in ways that erase the power relations of such “negotiation.” However, i think we need to keep in mind that women do have responsibility toward other women, whether they recognize it or not, when they behave like this. It is such collaborative behavior in no-stakes situations like this (she is not facing losing her house or anything dire, she is just playing the game so that, she hopes, she will get some strokes for it) that is for me typical of the lack of female solidarity that patriarchy demands.

  12. Honestly I can’t wrap my head around how radical feminism and the idea of femininity as privilege can ever be understood as anything but contradictory- just in itself, before even surfacing the problem of individualism. I’m wondering how widespread this is, how much of a problem? My jaw drops when I consider that anorexia, as you report, is construed by some as indulgence in said privilege. Seriously astounding. I think a more mainstream example (and one that threatens to erode an already marginal/barely there radical feminist position) of this sort of backwards thinking is in the idea that marriage is a privilege, and thus when straight women decide to get married they are indulging in a privilege that lesbians and gays are barred from and thereby directly participating in the oppression of said folk. I think this is an issue – the institution of marriage – that has certainly been swallowed up by the tide of gay rights — and the stance toward legalizing gay marriage is one taken up by some radical feminists. Instead of understanding marriage as a religious, conservative, patriarchal – damaging of self and society – institution, it is viewed from a different vantage point — a vantage point which I would argue is defeatist in that it takes as assumption that we can’t change the social organization of persons in society, but can only make it better serve all of its participants. Thus, instead of understanding that straight women who marry act in accordance with a still very punishing, patriarchal womanhood – marriage still being a compulsory ‘choice’ — she is seen as choosing to gain privileges that one has access to only through marriage, and thus leaving lesbians and gays behind for her own advantage. While albeit, there are serious disadvantages involved in being disallowed, the advantages involved should not be organized based on the institution of marriage in the first place — and marriage itself should be deflated of such exclusive ‘ownership’ of certain rights, not to mention of persons.

    Your analysis here on the basic capitalist assumptions of self-interest shine through clearly. Instead of a married woman being understood as necessarily part of the system, a system that punishes women for being women with nearly full immunity (marital rape, abuse, battering, etc) she is understood as having enough agency to apparently rise above societal and self expectations, ingrained in her surroundings and psyche since childhood. She certainly never taps into some spring of special privileges denied to her lesbian sisters. And the only way to play it that way is to understand privilege as a tally of debits and credits, as you elucidate so nicely. What is she being credited with? I’m not so sure, though I see how some feel they are being debited– not being allowed to see a loved one in the hospital, etc. So- marriage is still a troubling institution, and gay rights agendas often mystify and then glorify marriage by demanding inclusion rather than societal-structural transformation.

    This brings me to a question, that your essay provokes. When is the notion of privilege important for radical feminist organizing? And can it ever be useful so long as individualism invisibly informs our understanding? (Nope). The second question is sort of the answer to the first. I think though you are right, that this “‘privilege accounting’ is individualist to the core.” It is the “accounting” aspect that makes it so; the credits and debits; the extraction of certain behaviors from their contexts to justify an argument, as if people were made of ideas, and ideas were isolated strands of applied information. I am troubled by this trend in thinking which threatens the existence of truly radical and feminist work. “…there is a default notion that individual change exists in the application of something like feminist principles from text-books… to everyday life.” This is something I’ve been thinking about, as it’s been an obstacle in my own thinking at times, especially when I first got into feminism, and it reflects i think the common route of whatever feminist consciousness raising exists, in places like Women’s Studies departments. Much more to be said, but I’ll have to leave it at that… Great piece, and looking forward to the next installment in the series…

  13. AmazonMancrusher

    I really enjoyed reading this post and all the comments. Thank you!!

    I have some thoughts around this issue, but I have to confess that I am not entirely sure that I understood everything in the post, so I may be way off track and ‘not getting it’.

    Regarding :

    “What is collective responsibility?: I will go into detail in another post, but to abbreviate, it means that we look at the ways that oppression binds women together in both positive and destructive ways and thus accordingly, align and ally ourselves with struggles that fight patriarchy as a comprehensive system involving class, race and other social relations of exploitation and domination. Of course the issue of struggle is highly complex.. so to repeat, stay tuned, or put in your own comments!”

    My thoughts are that I would to organise more on an international level and to do meaningful stuff with sisters around the world and to build international women’s and lesbian community. I know there used to be online conferences and consciousness raising events – does anything like that still happen online? Also, it’s difficult because many women are not online.

    Also I had some thoughts (which I cannot explain coherently) around individual ‘positive’ resistance, which I see as productive to the collective struggle and necessary in such isolating times – where an act of individual resistance to male supremecy may be the only thing that makes us feel connected in a week or a month and can liberate women around us v individualising a persons situation in a negitive way, for example privilige pushing, which only benefits male supremacy (Undercover Punk, I LOVE the satire cartoon image – v funny!).

    Whilst I am repelled by individualism, I am also critical of e.g. some marxist groups, which pay no attention to the politicisation of the individual at all, meaning that people (well actually mostly men) behave really badly and then just blame capitalism (it was all capitalisms fault that I went to the strip club). Whilst women do not have the same power (or interest) to perpetuate such harm against one another, I think it is important to keep the personal highly politicised, within the collective struggle.

    I am really struggling to write coherently today, maybe I will try again later.

  14. AmazonMancrusher

    Also…becca, good points. How could marriage and heterosexuality really ever be seen as a privilige? Lesbians may be marginalised and it is fine to focus on that, but it is not really valid to do so in comparison to het women’s privilige – because having to live with and sleep with men is no privilige.

  15. Thanks for your comments Kat (and thanks Becca, I never responded to your points).
    “What is collective responsibility?: I will go into detail in another post, but to abbreviate, it means that we look at the ways that oppression binds women together in both positive and destructive ways and thus accordingly, align and ally ourselves with struggles that fight patriarchy as a comprehensive system involving class, race and other social relations of exploitation and domination. Of course the issue of struggle is highly complex.. so to repeat, stay tuned, or put in your own comments!”

    Kat, you write: My thoughts are that I would to organise more on an international level and to do meaningful stuff with sisters around the world and to build international women’s and lesbian community. I know there used to be online conferences and consciousness raising events – does anything like that still happen online? Also, it’s difficult because many women are not online.
    I don’t think that actual organizing can happen on line–not *in lieu* of face to face organizing. Strong bonds have to be built in order to take the kinds of risks that movement-making requires. It’s impossible to build these bonds without “real life” friendships, or camaraderie. In that context–to respond to your point about politicizing the individual–accountablity is very important. I just think that in the current moment–in this micro-micro-micro context of privilege pushing, and elsewhere– a notion of individual accountability is so bloated, there is no sense whatsoever of the structural context. I think that moral responsibility for e.g. femininity is, in a contradictory way, pushed by some radical feminists (not only the priv-pushers) on women who have become feminists and/or lesbians–responsibility to suddenly pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and reject however many years of socialization as a feminized female–by strength of will!
    I agree that acts of individual or small-group resistance are inspirational and get us through the day or month- but we need to go beyond that, it’s urgent. Ask me how, I’m not sure yet, except at least to start taking the question of what is to be done very seriously, and seriously, and *responsibly* assess the weaknesses as well as strengths of second-wave and radical feminism in order to move forward even more radically.

  16. AmazonMancrusher

    I don’t think online organising is a replacement for local women’s community building and activism and I agree that face to face contact and relationships is the ideal, but feminist activism at the local level is really tough in the current political climate and it is so nice to be able to connect with other radical feminists around the world, which can really only happen online. I have also found that online relationships between women can be very meaningful.

    “but we need to go beyond that, it’s urgent. Ask me how, I’m not sure yet, except at least to start taking the question of what is to be done very seriously, and seriously, and *responsibly*”

    Spot on – so refreshing to hear such motivation for urgent action. I relate to what you are saying about the urgency. I feel the same. I feel a sense of urgency and I feel deeply frustrated that I am unsure of what to do next. It is very hard to find other women who feel the same sense of urgency and who have motivation, passion and commitment to structural change.

  17. It does seem, Kat, that on-line connections have some significance–you and I are finding that out through the connection we are percolating across the oceans.. and I am excited to find you and others like you around the world, and definitely hope to think together with you all about structural change–and this thinking-together might be a first stage of some sort for organizing on the ground. I’m heartened by your comments and your work!

    On the other hand, I have also found the net to be a minefield of dangerous behaviors between women–thus the privilege-pushing episode–with the intensity of the hostility vented by the pushers– took on utmost surreality in the absence of face to face connections–(I had never met or phone-talked to a one)– and creates a climate of permission–an ideal medium–with its “anonymity” doubled with the speed and intensity of public-ity (and reputation smearing possibilities), I think, for the state of patriarchal disordering that afflicts most if not all of us women to express itself too freely. what do you think? this is a whole other thread, and I wonder about some kind of “carnival” or some private list-serv “think tank” about this?

  18. I love this thread, and want to follow up on these efforts.

    Hi Max Dashu! (from 1972)

  19. Pingback: Privilege at its Extreme is Individualism, Again « Brave Lucky Game

  20. I really like this piece and look forward to more installments. I remember being intrigued by similar ideas that you wrote about in your article in “Unleashing Feminism” lo these many years ago — that it was somewhat hypocritical for radical feminists to point out the structural nature of indoctrination (regarding sexuality, at that time) but then expect resistance/change to happen only at the individual level, and that we needed to come up with ways to work on these things together.

    My own personal experience was that, as a younger feminist, I thought that undoing my personal conditioning was a one-way journey — moving from “more indoctrinated” to “less indoctrinated.” I was fortunate to spend time in some “counterculture” spaces where feminine behaviors and appearance were not (over)valued as they are in mainstream US culture. But when that space was no longer available to me, and when most of my time was once again spent being exposed to mainstream culture, my self-confidence and my rejection of “beauty practices” was definitely weakened. Which goes to your point about change at the individual level — if such a thing could happen to me, if I could move “backwards” along my spectrum of “feminist” nonconformity, as passionate and as educated as I am about living a feminist life, then it was very clear that none of us are immune to the ongoing effects. It’s not a matter of the lightbulb turning on and click, suddenly we’re free always and forever. The patriarchal grind grinds us all down one way or another, and keeps on doing so. Resistance at a minimum depends on having others around us who see what we see and are willing to fight it with us.

    I too will be interested to participate in this conversation as time goes on and maybe figure out some practical things to be doing — as that is where I find myself to be most productive, not in endless online “discussions” that go nowhere and, as folks here note, often have poor boundaries and really unpleasant consequences.

  21. Well rebel13 we are exactly on the same page. I intend to focus again on this issue with respect to the sexualization of girls and women, and my latest piece on Slutwalk. I tackled the neoliberal individualism behind Slutwalk and next I will tackle the kinds of radical feminist reactions that fall into a different kind of individualism. thanks for the comment!

  22. As much as I enjoyed many of the other pieces, reading them today, this one has disappointed me.

    I understand that this kind of privilege-calling has been a phenomenon hunting the US feminist “scene” since the 1970s. I also agree with the vignette of the two usually reasonable, intelligent women transforming into silly little girls to get male attention. I enjoyed it in a bitter way.

    But there are a couple of big problems that I see.

    One of them is that individualism gets smuggled back in.

    The idea on some level is that the author and her friends are, again, reasonable, intelligent and kind people who are usually accessible to each other through reason and empathy and only temporarily “out of their minds” because of a Nigel. Yet, surely, this is an exceptional case.

    What I am missing from this kind of analysis is the honesty that many women are cruel. They are often cruel because of patriarchy, but patriarchy is not the only reason.

    I speak as a person who has experienced sexual violence from men, and as a person who is outraged about not being able to **walk** outside at night and a person who cannot believe that most women accept earning less money than a man for the same type of work, or that there is no decent child care in most countries in the world, including the US. So, yes, on many levels I am a feminist and I would never deny defining myself as such. I am also passionately anti-capitalist, indeed I view that as one of my deepest identities.

    But I also speak as one who has had her head smeared in shit and her hymen broken by her mother. I know that my mother has a psychological illness, partially caused by poverty and abuse as a child (partially by her own mother). But that does not excuse the violence in the least.

    On a smaller scale, I have heard too many nasty comments about my legs, breasts, skin, face, hair, fingers, etc. etc. Comments which were never fended off by other females in the family, sisters, aunts, cousins, because the cruel and powerful mother-figure had to be indulged and because she suffered as a child and that was public knowledge. Comments which were always taken for granted by people who were educated, by people who could be very kind to strangers, people who read books and listened to beautiful music in their spare time.

    Not that there was any defense from the males in my family either, everyone was following a strategy of scapegoating and passivity. My father and brother were never physically cruel, but they were neglectful and dreamy.

    The structure which enabled my mother to harm me was privilege, privilege granted ideologically to the woman of the household and the idea that a “big mama” was untouchable. My mother was not stuck in the house, either, she was working. My parents had a wide circle of friends. There was no religion involved whatsoever. Violence was done to some extent to my brother, but mostly to me.

    Now, after I have been wonderfully sensitized to cruelty between women, how does contact with women outside the family compare? Sometimes it is better and I have gone through periods when all of my friends were female. I have had pleasant and kind female teachers. I like female bodies, and although I am strictly monogamous in a hetero relationship, I firmly believe that everyone, male and female, is ultimately bisexual.

    Yet, often enough, I witness female cruelty which I experience as more painful than cruelty inflicted by men, because women also often know how other women tick. Most of the time, it involves the body. You could, of course, argue that they are doing it for the imaginary male gaze, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

    I wrote this long digression above because in spite of personal pain it causes me, I could not think of a more drastic instance of abuse by women, and one which is not addressed by seeing all (or most of us) as rational, reasonable agents who deep down in their hearts want to get along. This is why I said at the start that individualism gets smuggled back in.

    We are not all rational agents. Many of us are motivated by unconscious forces past our control. Personally, the abuse worked at me so that I find almost ANY talk about physical qualities unbearable. I like to talk about emotions, about thoughts, about reactions to events. I never talk about physical issues with other women, except if there is illness or pain and I want to understand how I can help.

    But innumerable times I would want to talk about emotions, reactions to good and bad events, and female friends start talking about split hair, zits, cellulite, weight, physical fitness. They compare each other — without males present. I know when a woman talks about those things without cruelty, but I also know when there is a surreptitious gaze to see whether the other women will wince, whether they will be ashamed of their own bodies, so that a petty victory can be won and the self can be reaffirmed for a moment as “maybe not the thinnest/blondest, but thinner/blonder than that poor friend of mine”. If I point out I find this behavior cruel, they say that I am too sensitive and they did not MEAN anything bad. Meanwhile, the psycho-garbage that we inherited from generations past and their abuse upon each other keeps spouting.

    In that respect, I contend that being anorexic means many things, and one of them is indeed cruelty toward the self. If a woman is cruel toward herself, judging herself all the time, despising herself for eating, how can I be sure that I will not be judged by the same criterion? How can I be sure that my body and my sense of self is safe around her when she is in that state of mind? (No, my mother was not anorexic, so I am not projecting here, BTW)

    This is not to diminish an anorexic woman’s justified pain and the disgusting forces of society which bear on her with stupid and evil ideals, but again: Even the most intelligent among us (male and female) are not rational agents for large chunks of the time, and far too many enjoy the temporary release of pain, feeling superior by dumping it onto other people.

    Of course, anorexia is cultural. In the 1980s, it did not exist where I was born and raised, now it does, it is fashionable and to some extent it is a sign of privilege (mostly “done” by urban young women who have enough food, not peasants working in the fields who need the physical strength).

    In former times, of course, in many places, that cruelty worked in a reversed way, and naturally thin women (or poor women who could not feed themselves) were singled out for ridicule. To some extent, vestigial traces of that past are there in south Asia or parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and you can find many mothers-in-law who being cruel to their daughters-in-law by mocking them for being too thin (implying that they are possibly not “good breeders”).

    Finally, I also found the self-description as “Although not “thin” I was not in the least fat” disturbing. Why is that self-defense needed? In order to show that none of the friends was “really fat”? There again, I see a notion of “normalcy” and quite a bit of individualism being smuggled back in. But what would have happened if a “really fat” friend had been there as well?

    I have concentrated on physical matters, but as an academic I could have concentrated on professional questions as well. Is it really the case that a female superior or a corporate manager who is singling out other women, lower on the scale than the self, is merely deluded by the poison of patriarchy (which is poisonous, I’m not being entirely sarcastic here), and that she would see the light with a bit more empathy and understanding?

    I do not have an answer, and this long piece is merely a passionate protestation which at its core intended to express that privilege does exist, and that it is not neutral. As an immigrant and as a highly educated (Ph.D.) but financially poor person, I cannot afford to be blind to implications of privilege, and I cannot be silent when I see cruelty, whether among women or men.

    That is all I can bear to write for now.

  23. Pingback: From an unfortunate Facebook post concerning queer and identity politics: Or, a new low in political debate | The Charnel-House

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