Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Women's Business: From Feral Competition & the Complex Bonds of Sisterhood to an Emerging Feminism (for Dummies)

I grew up in a family dominated by women which was headed by my grandfather who was the stereotypical  powerful patriarch.
 And while he was far more than a mere figurehead in this semi-harem nevertheless it was still an atmosphere where the women were the power behind the throne. My grandmother was a beautiful, educated, extremely brilliant and talented woman. The two of them were larger than life characters whose reputations always preceded them.
But we were a family of non-conformists there was the advantage of  individuality for all the women which was encouraged and never repressed.

In my family, it was the women who were particularly creative and assertive. That tradition has certainly been true for Black families in America but it took on a proactive, positive and distinct trademark in our family minus the oppressive struggle element that often is the primary cause of Black female character development. 

So the grooming of daughters was a nearly a sacred and very complex task. It was a sort of ritual imbued with importance, happiness and significantly the passing of secrets as well.

Beauty secrets were handed down over dinner. While preparing for church. In church, even. "Do you see that woman? The way she's styled her hair in that french roll? It's done just right. When we get home I'll show you how to do that."

"Look at how that woman is behaving." my mother might comment at a party. "She's acting up because her man keeps on talking to that woman in the red dress and she's jealous. But she's only making a fool of herself! Never ever let a woman know you feel threatened in that way! You're only giving her power of you!"

Secrets. Instructions. Etiquette. Moral Development. Survival Techniques. So many things that must be handed down to daughters from mothers, grandmothers, aunts and cousins. And not all of it would be considered feminist I was to learn later. Certainly I was taught to view other women competitively. And standards that were set for my brother and the other males of the family were never the same standards that were applied to my behavior and expectations. 

In some ways I may be un-learning those lessons for the rest of my life. Yet I don't know what would have happened to me, how I could have survived infancy without the stringent, constant, all-encompassing instruction that was forever being whispered in my ear. 

In a family of women there are secrets that are kept from the very men who share the family house and even the marriage bed. 

"Now don't you tell this, what I'm about to tell you!! This is women's business only!" My mother still says that to me from time to time “This women's business". And I suppose in a perfectly feminist world there would never be such a distinction. It's one reason I've always felt handicapped among my girlfriends, many whom are committed and thoroughly educated in feminist thought. I learned late the value of feminism but little by little I learned it and embraced it. Yet it remains a sort of secret subversion that is always at war with the women's business as I was taught at home that lies in the back of my brain
guiding my actions subconsciously at times.

I'm not skilled in the technical vocabulary of feminism. I can't describe to you its evolution from first-wave to second and third-wave ideologies. I haven't read many, many of the most groundbreaking works. I am still learning and have a long way to go before i can claim fluency in the revolution of establishing full human rights for women. I am a still working out what it means to be feminist and how one's behavior should conform to that commitment. I make mistakes though I define myself as feminist. In conversation with my girlfriends I always find myself making clumsy statements or judgments that scandalize my friends who then instruct me on the errors of my beliefs. And, so often I have learned valuable secrets from those feminists, my friends - women's business that may contradict my familial training but nevertheless functions with a practicality of its own that differs from what I was taught.

My mother and grandmother were teaching me what they knew based upon survival in a patriarchal social model that they weren't attempting to overturn. However they were deeply concerned with power and their secrets were political in nature designed to make me a power- wielding woman throughout my life regardless of the setting.

My feminist theory is weak and still blossoming and is ever at war with my mother and grandmother's words. First and foremost they were concerned with the practical elements of survival and adaption. Yet they were revolutionary in their outlook. The women of my family were the most independent and powerful individuals I ever encountered among other friends’ mothers, sisters and assorted womenfolk. They spoke without consideration for the Rules, never even attempted to appear obedient to pastors or husbands. True they often conducted their subversive talk and actions behind the backs of the patriarchs but they still acted in accord with their own beliefs and decisions. 

And I spend a great deal of time weighing the ideas of my feminist idols like bell hooks,
Alice Walker (I am primarily a Womanist which is related to mainstream feminism as way “purple is to lavender”, in the words of Alice Walker.) Discovering Womanism allowed me to embrace a model of  feminist exploration that spoke from the viewpoint of a Black woman’s situation in society, critiquing race, gender and class simultaneously whereas mainstream white feminism still often lacks true revolutionary action in these areas. Womanism felt familiar to me and familiar to those goddesses of my child and young woman-hood who surrounded me in the kitchen for Woman Talk.

Womanism, for me combines the practicality and real world perspective that so inextricably laces Black women into American society and the world in general. When I was in the midst of those grand beautiful woman as a child listening to women's business I was invariably in the kitchen, or the hair salon, or at my mother's vanity as she dressed and made up her face. Not only did their instruction occur specifically for my female ears but it occurred in gendered spaces too. 

It wasn't until my 30s that I began to embrace female relationships with women who were not family. It was so ingrained within me to view women as rivals –for men, for jobs, for popularity, for beauty - that I had very few deep female friendships as a young woman. My goals as a teen and twenty-something revolved around success in the career world that was dominated by males, and management of my love life with men. It took a series of deeply dramatic and life changing events to shift my perspective and open myself to female friendships.

And it is my girlfriends who now instruct me in much the same way as my mother and grandmother did before. So often I can think of my friend Ebony saying "No a man would never be expected to do that!!" And then I think quietly to myself That is true. But so what? And then I think some more on her always sophisticated and wise ideas and realize Yes she's right. From there I am led to the critical question of How to change my outlook to empower myself without further limiting myself based upon thoughts and ideas which ultimately may handicap my own ambition and success through outmoded, gendered thought and action. 

My feminism, my womanism, is still practically bound in this stage. I haven't reached a point of grand world vision yet. I'm in the baby step stages. But you see there must be allowances for those pre-school, remedial lessons. It takes a great effort powered by sincere desire to begin training oneself OUT of gendered thought. And particularly for Black women who encounter deeply complex battles on two fronts, from racism AND sexism.

I don't say it to my girlfriends but I often leave conversations with my feminist friends feeling embarrassed and weak. I was brought up to be a strong, dominant and successful woman but the ideas of radical, gendered freedom complete with complex vocabulary like hegemony, agency, patriarchal oppression, post-modernism take time to digest.

In graduate school I thought I would run mad from frustration with advanced feminist language. It was entirely new to me and being deeply entrenched in the women's business I learned quite literally at my foremothers' knee (probably while having my hair braided) I was being forced to un-learn and challenge lessons that were valuable to me in sentimental terms and which I actively based the way I lived my life.

I became infamous  in the department due to my argumentative approach to feminist theory.* However, it wasn't stubbornness for its own sake, nor was my attitude prompted by a gleeful selling-out with the intention to prop up the Man's phallocentric, patriarchal misogyny do or die. Quite simply, I had a tremendously difficult time grappling with complex theories which were entirely new to me, and whenever I sought clarification from fellow students, from professors, I was never treated with reasonable and serious consideration as a scholar seeking true understanding rather than a mere rote repetition of Ivory Tower principles. I
n fairness this was very advanced feminist critique which is challenging even to intellectuals, and I was barely out of pre-school instruction when it came to feminist theory.

During one class with a famous feminist scholar I blurted out loudly "This is some nonsense! That has zero relevant application in the real world and WHY are we talking about it!!" 

You could have cut the silent astonishment with a knife. "Perhaps you need to do some more reading," the Professor told me quite acidly. I was burning with shame and embarrassment and I could feel the pity and schadenfreude directed at me by the rest of the class.

Truthfully the discussion was nonsense and devoid of practical value. And as well I was still recovering from serious illness that day and had been rather too liberal in the pain killer and Xanax dosages that my doctor had prescribed. In short I was high as hell, or I would never have said such a thing to such a venerable scholar who was known for her sarcastic and condescending attitude.

And it was true, furthermore, that I needed to do more studying, as she said.

In artistic and academic circles among the intellectual glitterati and poseurs it is assumed
Artist Angel Hardy
that every woman is fluent in feminist thought, and women are quick to cut other women, trumping them in discussion with  brilliant wit and ideological dexterity. It's a skill that is admirable to be so advanced in feminist thought and I do aspire to greater fluency, but the fact is that not everyone is fluent. I certainly am not, and I know that I am not alone in this rudimentary, remedial skill set. Many of us are open to the wisdom and truth from our sisters because we know ourselves to be wallowing in old, patriarchal principles.

And it is through my friendships with other women, partnerships that are deeply where I have found the best instruction. But the most important feminist principle that can ever be practiced, in my opinion, is patience by those with missionary zeal determined to convert every other ignorant female soul.

 The ideas of throwing off the gendered yokes that hold us back from full humanist realization are principles that can be parroted easily but take immense devotion, consideration and time to understand. 

Destroying an opponent in debate is no less gratifying for intellectuals than a gladiator besting his enemy in blood-sport. But if sisterhood is to be achieved successfully then we have to be patience and kind and committed to teaching one another.

Don't immediately destroy another woman who inadvertently demonstrates her ignorance and advantageously reveals your superiority. Help guide her. I can tell you that it is utterly humiliating to look into the eyes of another woman whom you know looks down on you for your lack of skill and knowledge, and I've felt that humiliation more than once upon witnessing the triumph by intellectual foes who have bested me on the debate field of honor.

Frankly, it is rather dishonorable to engage battle to the death with a foe who cannot properly or adequately defend herself. Yet it is also true that even feminists have to respect the fact that some women don't want to be feminist. And those women will always  be the most difficult individuals to convert; they will support patriarchal domination and structural oppression long after the last male warrior has fallen.

The journey of each individual woman toward feminist understanding of her own is deeply personal. And, if we are truthful to one another about that journey, then there is no shame in admitting how uncomfortable and difficult it is at times to release the old, familiar ways that maintained the constructive of one's world. Sisterhood, like the maternally dominated secret world of my growing up, is a powerful force of intimacy that is essential to every woman's growth; without it there can be no conversion from the old ways.

Many of us are still babies on the road to enlightenment and empowerment. And we need our wiser sisters to be gentle and patient and willing to be guides to the new ethic of sisterhood, particularly when it deviates from what we have known as truth before.

This is true nature of women's business and the most practical application of all.

*After a few years in my grad program, a friend disclosed that I was not the only graduate student who felt in over her head, I was merely the only one honest enough to say so plainly in public. An acquaintance in my cohort admitted that  everyone had been in a similar state of utter confusion during one particularly stressful course on theory in which I earned a reputation as the only one brave enough to out herself when I did not understand. Each week, so I was told, my cohort waited for me  to become frustrated enough to stop the discussion which resulted in universal enlightenment by the haughty and patronizing female professor. My friend expressed gratitude to me for helping to liberate the whole cohort from the primitive darkness that trapped the whole lot of us.)  

No comments:

Post a Comment