11 May 2021

Karen Offen—Wherein It Takes One To Know One

Both the relational and the individualist modes of argument have historical roots in what historian Temma Kaplan has called "female consciousness," or consciousness of the "rights of gender." The evidence also suggests incontrovertably that proponents of the relational position possessed a "feminist consciousness": they viewed women's collective situation in the culture as unjust, they attributed it to social and political institutions established by men, and they believed that it could be changed by protest and political action. Nevertheless, they insisted that women had a special role, a role distinct from that of men. Thus, it is clearly erroneous to assert, as Kaplan recently did, that "all feminists attack the division of labor by sex, because roles limit freedom, and to mark distinctions is to imply superiority and inferiority." This is a radically individualist, very contemporary, and ultimately very exclusionary perspective on the history of feminism. ("Defining Feminism," 141)
First, recall that KO, having established the validity, if not the importance, of pursuing the question of definition of terms more than cursorily, dismissed the practice of applying the word "feminism" retroactive to its actual existence as "anachronistic" and, more to the point, "conceptually anarchic." (131) The present passage, then, is aimed at something of the opposite problem, i.e. the narrowing of both the temporal and conceptual bands to which "feminism" might be applied, specifically hinging on whether or not it "attack[s] the division of labor by sex." Without saying so quite so explicitly, KO offers a somewhat broader but ultimately just plain differently-oriented definition of "feminist consciousness."

Indicative perhaps of the social and intellectual fracturing inherent in hair-splitting expeditions, I would say that neither of these definitions quite works for me; though I'm happy to grant Feminism whatever leeway it needs, in terms of the interconnection of Feminist insights with wider social issues (and to be sure, both definitions here seem anxious to embrace those connections) I believe a broader, simpler concept of unprejudiced social agency is both sufficient and more pragmatic. The premise that "roles limit freedom" is central to this concept, but it also rejects Kaplan's rejection of "mark[ing] distinctions" on the grounds that distinctions cannot help but emerge even (actually especially) from ideally fair social intercourses; the fairness of the process generally (though certainly not always) will be reflected in the result.

KO's "feminist consciousness" is, in a word, broader than Kaplan's (anti-)role-oriented critique, and it must be pointed out that my "unprejudiced social agency," being broader yet, certainly allows for the eventuality that, given a fair case-by-case sort of interchange with the social world, a sizable group of women may well emerge whose wants and needs look very Traditional in comparison to present and future prevailing social norms, and that as a group within this larger social world they could have valid and distinctive concerns which need to be addressed. That being as it may, given such an ideal scenario, can we expect this group to be any larger than a middling minority? I for one would be quite curious to know the answer, because it so often seems that despite our present patriarchal malaise there persist nonetheless myriad institutional and psycho-social tithes to the bourgeois, quietist aspirations of this vocal minority; hence, for me, having quite different aspriations, KO's "relational" feminism is what makes feminism scary, and "individualist" feminism, while I certainly see its limitations, usually seems closer to curing what ails us.

It is at that point in spite of the admirable breadth and depth of KO's research that this passage crystalizes the impression that there is, as cannot be entirely avoided by any of us, something of an agenda underlying this work, namely to advance a collection of formal (e.g. semantic and historical) arguments for not kicking the family woman out of feminism.
solidarity among women is based not solely on recognition of common oppression but also, historically speaking, on a celebration of shared and differential experience as members of the same sex, the childbearing and nurturing sex. Feminist scholar-activists have discovered, for instance, that women's experience of motherhood as negative and restricting is historically specific and, given a different shape, can potentially offer women much satisfaction. [subsequently argues for a sort of synthesis of the relational and individualistic modes,...]one that can accommodate diversity among women better than either of the two historical approaches can on their own. (155-156)
Suddenly we are mired in consequentialism again: if women lose their greatest (really it is just their easiest)

[now: whoops, this is ambiguous and one of the meanings is offensive; what I mean is that getting pregnant is easy, and deciding to get pregnant is even easier, not that actually birthing or raising kids is easy; e.g. my extremely talented gay roommate at CalArts complaining that his family had lionized his straight brother upon conceiving, just because "he stuck his dick in a pussy"; I'm pretty straight but I resent this kind of thing just like many gay people do; I respect parents bonding over the hard part and I resent them bonding over the easy part; ditto artists; ditto pet owners; ditto scrabble players]

shared experience,

[now: of course she has thought through all this and so says she is actually talking about the hard part; I know this is really mean to say, but I'm dubious about that; please consider the rest of this before dismissing that thought outright]

they could also lose hope of identification with each other, as a group, as women. I would argue that there are more than mere "individualist" arguments to be made for allowing such massive, ancient identifications to stand or fall on the terms of contemporary rather than ancient life. Suddenly KO's brand of relational-individualist synthesis is revealed to have the stunningly flimsy goal of "solidarity" borne of identification, this in service of what is also a very "historically specific" conception, i.e. the need for vigilant feminist organizing/action on a massive scale. There are worse ways to go...but hand to heart, the thought of identification-as-women evaporating seems to me to be the truly radical alternative here, empowerment defined, the conclusive shedding of the Victim Mentality, and the creation of a decentered moving target on which Patriarchy could never hope to strike a direct hit. Merely giving "the cultural experience of motherhood...a different shape" achieves little; rather, individuals (yes, I said it) ought to have the necessary leeway to, for lack of a better way of putting it, find themselves. We can rest assured that plenty of motherliness will arise from such conditions; whether this mode (circumstance, culture, personality, and yes, even a certain accumulation of strictly rational consideration each have a part to play in delivering a person to their Mode of One) needs or deserves to be subsidized, and to what degree, is a rather separate question.

[from a notebook, 2017 or 2018]

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