Wednesday, October 18, 2006
"Deadly Innocence," continued
As promised, further delving into this book by Angela West, as first discussed here.
First, from the chapter "Alice in White Wonderland:"
When white feminism has looked for inspiration from the foresisters and mothers of the past, it was natural that they should come up with suffragists, women like the Grimké sisters who also opposed slavery. She shows how the opposition to slavery by such women was a result of their cultural re-shaping by Northern Enlightenment ideals, the same ideals which caused them to view their gender identity differently. But interestingly, the origins of the Grimké sisters had been in the South, where slavery took its classic form. Here indeed black and white women had a very intimate relationship--but it was not exactly one of common oppression. During the early period of slavery, the dominant Christian teaching was a form of Puritan theology. In this theology, the vast, wild expanse of the frontier was seen as a temptation to the bestial and barbarous in man, who needed to be brought firmly within the safe haven of a cultivated social state and the restraints of religion. Women's place in this particular theological configuration was a distinctive one. As Thistlethwaite says:
Fear of the uncharted possibilities of the wilderness aggravated misogynistic tendencies already resident in a Christianity that had declared sin and death to be the fault of women. Stringent regulation of women's chaotic sexual behavior was the misiterial prescription for the threat of the encroachment of the wilderness. Sex was a symbol of that which threatened man's rational control over his environment.
But the presence of women on the frontier was of two kinds--the black slaves and their white mistresses--and each had a different but intimately connected role.
What the black slave woman provided was a buffer against the hatred of all women built up on the American frontier. She could become the bearer of the stigma of the physical, the carnal and the excess of women's lust that threatened the rationality of Christian civilization.
White women were thus freed to play the role of 'angel in the home,' the symbol of soul and spirituality. Thus their stake in slavery was two-fold. Not only were they relieved of the burden of punishing domestic and agricultural labor by the slaves, but they avoided the sexual terrorism of their menfolk that was the underside of the "civilizing impulse." This instead was vented on the slave women, and the whole system was kept in place by the psychological and physical threat of rape and beatings. And white women, as was expected of them, did their bit to uphold the system. bell hooks quotes from a collection of slave narratives the case of a white mistress who returned home unexpectedly to find her husband raping a thirteen-year-old slave girl. The mistress' response was to beat the girl and lock her in a smoke house. The child was whipped daily for several weeks. Whipping--paticularly of naked slave women, including the pregnant and nursing mother--was frequently employed against black women. White mistresses would send their female slaves to be publicly stripped and flogged for the slightest offence, such as when the bread did not rise or the breakfast was slightly burned.
It is clear that the endurance and resistance of black women to this sort of persecution and oppression was something of a different order to the opposition of it from white women. This, when it came, The division of human experience into the rational and irrational, as in the previous Puritan theology, was retained--the difference being that [Enlightenment feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and the Grimké sisters] argued that women and men were moral and intellectual equals, and women should be treated as befits their equal status.
These two principles, the faith in human rationality and the assertion of the equality...of men and women are...two of the hallmarks of liberalism; the other two were the view of the human being as an isolated individual who seeks truth and whose dignity depends on the freedom to pursue this search. Closely related to this is the doctrine of natural rights, the view that each individual has certain inherent or natural rights. The latter, of course, is consummately represented in the American Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." And the pedigree of this can be traced back to the French Revolution, which...marks the origin of the modern notion of human rights.
Their belief in human rationality and in natural rights made it logical that [early white feminists] should support the abolitionist cause as well as campaign for women's rights. But...their faith in human rationality did not allow them to perceive the nature and function of the misogynist division of black and white women into body and soul [respectively]. What they saw was the scandal of a situation where a Christian father might sell his own daughter, or the brother his own sister. ..But the appeals for an end to this disgraceful situation were predicated on an assumption of the white woman's "enlightened mind" coupled with her moral purity, and they did not perceive the intimate dependence of this purity on the black woman's degradation. [emphasis mine].
[follows a discussion of the early history of the split between the suffragists like Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton after the end of the Civil War; black men got the vote, they didn't, and from then on out the suffragists declared they would never again "labour to second man's endeavors and exalt his sex before her own." and then comes post-War/Reconstruction overall racist backlash as well; and by 1895, the National Woman's Suffrage Association suggests that [[white]] womens' suffrage is "one solution to the Negro problem."]
It is thus not surprising in view of this history that black women remain skeptical of white feminists' declaration of sisterhood and solidarity between black and white women, the transcending of all differences in favour of a common bonding on the basis of a common experience...
If we look closely at the situation, it becomes clear that the liberal humanist assumptions of the nineteenth century have been revised and recycled in twentieth-century white feminist politics...The appeal to sisterhood and bonding appealed to white women who had been socialized to concern themselves with bonds--to avoid conflict, to foster dependence and the affective aspects of private life, creatins a haven of peace and harmony from the harsh realities of competition in a capitalistic society...
...Nor has the concern with purity disappeared, though it has been radically metamorphsed. [emphasis mine]. Mary Daly now offers us the journey of pure lust [there's our anti-pornstitution and so forth creeping back in], where women can break through the sphere of potted passions and virtues and get in touch with Natural Grace. For it is in the realm of purity that all differences dissolve. But the irony is that such a realm is likely to be racially segregated too--pure white, since most of the black women (and a good many white ones too) have no access to her mystical spheres because of their economic and social and racial location. Daly's creation is that of a pure enlightened mind, such as the nineteenth-century women aspired to. She reinstates this dream, and in so doing she also reinstate the politics and culture of abstraction that she castigates...
...And as we white stepsisters hug Alice* to our breast at the Great Feminist Writers' Ball, we are desperately hoping that she will be so breathless and startled by the fervor of our embrace that she won't think to bring up the subject of difference. For difference is dangerous; like a dropped stitch, it may cause that whole feminist-ideological pullover to unravel. We are terrified lest Alice and her sisters force us to remember what happened in the slaveowners' kitchen; and worse still, to make us realize that though things have changed, certain things have a way of keeping the same shape."
*bit of a mixed literary allusion there, but o well