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

18 comments:

Unsane said...

Why is difference dangerous like a dropped stitch? Truly, all of this fear of difference warrants very much investigation, philosophically and social. It does seem to be a peculiarly western cultural fear (as compared to various African cultural approaches, for example).

Mandos said...

You know, I never really thought, for some reason, that white ladies whipped slaves themselves.

rhondda said...

What I have to say is not a criticism of what you are saying. I am getting it. However, I just have to come to the defense of Mary Daly because her writing saved my life. I was born into a very christian family and my father was a minister. I figured out very early women were regarded as evil in that system and yet I was bound to it. My father was also a leftist, so I was in alot of confusion about the right thing to do.I was always for the underdog and felt I was too (an underdog). It was Mary Daly's work that let me see the lies that I had been taught. Her works did not thrust me into innocence, but I felt a great relief to know that this burden held deep in my subconscious was a pile of shit I needed to eliminate. -- that fucking my boyfriend was not a sin as defined by my family. That pleasure is not something you have to deny yourself because well you are so "Christian" She exposed those lies that I had been fed since birth and if she had not, I may have just decided to leave. I disagree with her about men, because I have two sons and well she has no idea about the orgasmic reality of birthing. But, what she did do for me was expose the lies and for that I will honour her. As for white feminists trying to make their beliefs universal, I agree that is silly. I do think though that putting feminists into a historical perspective is a good thing. When you look at Mary Daly's life, it was really quite protected and isolated and I am disappointed that she does not get beyond the gender line. However, on the other hand, she is in her 70's now and deserves respect for what she did do like one honours one's grandmother, but does not necessarily agree with all she says.
No one can figure everything out.
I am getting this intersection of sexism, racism and classism. I may not be able to articulate it with the jargon of the new intellectuals, but yes I get how white women have been complicit with racism and and classism, and how I have been, but I fucking refuse to cut my wrists over it.

belledame222 said...

rhondda: I'll respond at more length later, but just so we're clear: this is not me writing; this is extensive quotage from an author called Angela West.

Alex said...

The Western novel, especially Last of the Mohicans, really highlights the black/white carnal/pure divide. Cora, the older sister, is something like one-quarter black (West Indes?), with dark hair and eyes. She's the "freer" of the two sisters, and the one that forms a bond with (Native) Uncas; prone to taking charge, unafraid - oo, dangerous dangerous. Alice, meanwhile, is the fully-White girl, blonde, innocent, prone to tears and falling all over (White) Duncan.

Of course, in the end, Cora and Uncas die; it is 'sad but inevitable' that the Natives are taken over by, you know, White culture. Manifest Destiny, taming the frontier, getting rid of "savages" and all.

So it's not very surprising that this theme was played out in real life; the schoolmarm/good wife "taming" the "unbridled passions" of her "lesser, more animal" Black 'sister'.

It's a continuation of MD: it was White Christians' duty to tame the land, so they had to take it from the Natives and the Mexicans. And it was their duty to train those Natives, and Mexicans, and Blacks... but it was tied together with a racial essentialism that we still hold onto today, where those groups could never be trained, or at least never be as good as White Christians.

belledame222 said...

>Alice, meanwhile, is the fully-White girl, blonde, innocent, prone to tears and falling all over (White) Duncan.>

Well, that's it, too, of course. The fragile "damsel in distress" is white. and it's a degraded position, sure, but at the same time: there are benefits to it. and it's maintained from below and horizontally as well as above.

Alex said...

Yes indeed...

Nanette said...

There is a lot in this and one can go in so many directions discussing it, but this part brought to mind something:

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.

I think, possibly, that this is still happening, only in different ways. Might explain what seems like great reluctance to address or advocate for the reproductive justice issue, in all its forms.

I'm no expert, but it's always seemed to be ultimately self defeating to spend the bulk of the time protecting the top of the tree (so to speak), abortion... while the rest of the tree is being cut down right from under them, through actions and laws passed affecting (at this time) mostly poor women of color.

It's funny, I don't usually refer to myself as a feminist, although I am. It just seems too narrow a term for me. Feminism has the capabilities of being all compassing, world changing, but often in practice seems extremely limited. Or rather I guess I should say that some feminists limit themselves extremely.

Sort of easy bake oven feminism... let's do just like mom did - or that's what it seems like to me. Like republic of palau(sp) said of the shaving thing... didn't we go through of all that in the 70s? Sex stuff too.

So now, at least on MWF the blogs, it often seems as if most of the discussion is the rediscussing and endless dissecting and reinterpreting only to reinterpret right back again and then pulling out new frames to stuff old tropes in to make them look like new again and then on and on and round and round in the same wading pool... instead of tackling the next big thing.

(Caveats galore above, add your own - some, not all, not me, not this group or that group, etc).

I'm not sure, but I don't think I wandered too far from the topic!

belledame222 said...

no, that is the topic, or one of them. "those who do not learn from history," etc. etc. and yeah, republic was right in that there is a sense of reinventing the wheel over and over and over and frigging over and...

and the thing is, with all the "examination" that goes on, y'know, it's not -just- look at your own personal shit, your surroundings, the media, etc., although that's great too of course;

but, where did we come from? ideologically? among other ways.

belledame222 said...

But then again: well, look at rhondda's response. Obviously the Dworkin-Daly-Griffiths-etc. line still resonates for a lot of women...certain women. And other women pick up bits and pieces from it here and there. Which is i'd suggest kind of what's going on right now: the bikini waxing and blowjobs and so on and so forth is this all kind of confused vaguely radfem-influenced but watered-down mishmosh grabbed from the "air," I think: which in turn is/are the more radical end of all this.

but yes, it's all dated. we've been like doing this Reduced Shakespeare version of the original Feminist Wars, online, i think.

Guilt, you know, is a funny thing. i mean it's a curious response (i'm now addressing rhondda). I don't feel like cutting my wrists. I don't feel "guilty." There's no point. It is what it is. But it's important to really look at it; otherwise we go nowhere. Nowhere new, anyway. THAT to me is what "examination" is all about. You look; you absorb; you process; and sooner or later, down the line, you take what you've found, and you move with it.

belledame222 said...

>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.

I think, possibly, that this is still happening, only in different ways. Might explain what seems like great reluctance to address or advocate for the reproductive justice issue, in all its forms. >

It could be. Or, well: it's the same thing as has been happening all over the "left" or whatever you want to call it: focus all one's attention on one -do-not-cross-this -line. but as you say, it's on the surface: there are tectonic shifts going on that haven't even begun to be addressed.

Bitch | Lab said...

just to help rhondda out, she's posted at Bitchlab, making very clear that she's opposed to what's happening out there with MWF, etc.

I didn't read her as addressing guilt but the same thing I've talked about before -- and Janet Halley personally mentions. There are some writers, Daly was among them, who helped me learned to love women in a way I hadn't learned to yet. So, yeah, I agree that there's no reason to ever trash Daly -- and I doubt that West does this. And I'm pretty sure Rhondda is also saying that criticism is fine, it's just the one-sided trashing. I'm not much of a fan of it either, though I confess that it was only an intial "oh, isn't the clever writing fun!" feeling and then i quickly realized i was feeling alienated by everything daly wrote. but she introduced me to a world of feminists who were doing art, poetry, etc. who were celebrating women and i needed that at one time. there are women of color writers who do very much the same, especially those who work in a more 'womanist' strain -- a line of thinking that has also been criticized for essentialism, IIRC

belledame222 said...

well, like I said: I totally get why Daly, Dworkin (in particular, I suppose; some of the others I'm less fond of as writers as well as theoreticians) are still popular: what they say really resonates for a number of people, and they say it in a very striking way.

i will probably never feel anything but loathing for Jeffreys, but o well. supposedly she's quite funny(in person? in writing?) haven't seen it yet, but i'll take whoever's word for it.

belledame222 said...

but I agree that West is not trashing Daly. she's writing as someone for whom Daly meant quite a lot, I'd say, and is now reassessing more critically some of the basic tenets that she'd based her earlier thinking and activism on (along with others).

rhondda said...

So, thanks, B|L, I am not the great writer I think I am.
I was not going on about personal guilt, but I do take what resonates and Daly did as in past tense. When I went to university, it was before women's studies, gender studies, ethnic studies, etc. etc. It was before all the deconstruction, reconstruction, post colonialism etc, etc. I fought with all my male professors about their sexism before I had a name for it. Since then I have been a union rep in a profession and have witnessed this "white women's professional feminism" and it made me sick: as in it was more important to them that the union get them birth control on their medical benefits than it was to support a fellow worker who was being discriminated against because lordy lordy she had epilepsy and went out to a pub to have fun. I knew I lost her battle when I saw the union boss and the manager having lunch together. I did manage to persuade her to print all the e-mails which documented her discrimation. (Managers are rather stupid.) She did take it to a humans rights tribunal and won. However, her death two years later was hard to take. I also saw quite clearly the anti-racist rhetoric of professional feminists with regards to First Nations people. I called my supervisor on it one day and she destroyed my career. She would sit before a First Nations group and pontificate and they politely would nod because she had the power and they did not. Me and my big mouth pointed out that something she said sounded a little racist. Of course, she was offended, but the First Nations women agreed with me. I had believed her rhetoric that she was anti-racist, but after that day I saw it as a pose and she will never admit that she has had such a thought. Afterall, she married a Chinese guy, so could not possibly be racist. Oh, the status!
Anyhoo, I do not claim to be racist free, but to add to my credentials, I dumped the best fuck of my life when he started spouting racist crap to my kids.

FoolishOwl said...

The trouble I have with that passage is that it describes white women as an homogenous bloc, obscuring the sharp class divide. Most Southern white women were not of the slaveowning class.

belledame222 said...

no, but, well, and i don't know if West goes into this in great detail, but they occup(ied) a position that, while often putting them far closer to the "body" side of the divide, still aren't quite in the same class as the black women either. which is sort of the whole point: maintaining that careful boundary.

"I may have nothing, but at least I'm not ____!"

The color line's been used for that; and sex itself gets used for that a lot as well, among women. "Whore" occupies a particular position all to herself in this system. still, yes. slut, tramp, "fallen woman" ("fallen," there's a word), you know. Yah, reproduction is a big part of it--no better proof of your shame than a pregnancy, may as well paint a big scarlet "A" on your stomach--but it's not all of it. Don't be like -them.- Don't get dragged down.

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