Just to see how it works, I am going to conduct another experiment in on-line learning.
I recently constructed a popular education “participatory chart” for a workshop on “Gender and Militarism,” for the Veterans for Peace Conference in Dallas. It occurred to me that each “frame” on that chart — a word or phrase — could be the subject for a discussion, and because many of the concepts that were being drawn out by connecting these “frames” are alien to our own epistemologies, that I should try a medium where there is more time for reflection and assimilation to build this relationship/connection chart.
When I use the term “epistemology,” an important word, I think, the word refers to HOW we know. Becoming aware of the fact that knowledge is not some direct perception of an unchanging reality is the first step in seeing through and beyond the ways of knowing that are constructed by and for dominant groups, be they a ruling class, an imperial nation, or males-as-males.
This series of posts that I am calling “Gender and Power – a Tutorial,” is obviously on the net, so it is available to anyone who thinks it has value… or not. While I compose it, however, I hope it offers a small contribution to the development of anti-patriarchal pedagogy that can serve the same purpose as antiracist pedagogy — in this case done by a male. There is something inherently problematic about the issue of gender as a system of unequal social power being relegated — consciously or by default — to women, as if it is a “woman’s” issue, that is, lacking in universality.
I hope this proves valuable for some, including myself.
As far as I can tell, this phrase and concept originated with poet Adrienne Rich, in her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” I find it a very useful starting point for talking about gender as a system of unequal social power because it pulls together so many different threads.
“Compulsory Heterosexuality” lays out some basic theses, which include:
* Heterosexuality needs to be studied as a “political institution.” (“Political” here referring to a struggle over power, and “institution” meaning socially *structured* and nearly-universally accepted.)
* The institution of heterosexuality depends on a concept of “normal,” which attempts to construct and regulate divisions of labor, the organization of kinship, epistemology, and desire in ways that systematically disempower women. This goes beyond the more superficial idea that “heterosexism” and “homophobia” — seen as individual moral failures — are unfair to those who are not “heterosexual.” Rich is saying that Compulsory Heterosexuality is a social *system* that ultimately devalues all women.
* Compulsory Heterosexuality is mapped directly into a *normal* notion of marriage, family, economy, and nation. Rich wants us to examine the concept of “normal” more closely, because the ability to determine “normativity” is an exercise of power as well as a reproduction mechanism for the whole system.
Rich’s essay lists the following components of male power that are apsects of Compulsory Heterosexuality:
1. to deny women [our own] sexuality
[by means of clitoridectomy and infibulation; chastity belts; punishment, including death, for female adultery; punishment, including death, for lesbian sexuality; psychoanalytic denial of the clitoris; strictures against masturbation; denial of material and postmenopausal sensuality; unnecessary hysterectomy; pseudolesbian images in media and literature; closing of archivcs and destruction of documents relating to lesbian existence];
2. or to force it [male sexuality] upon them
by means of rape (including marital rape) and wife beating; father-daughter, brother-sistcr incest; the socialization of women to feel that male sexual “drive” amounts to a right,
idealization of heterosexual romance in art, literature, media, advertising, and so forth; child marriage; arranged marriage; prostitution; the harem; psychoanalytic doctrines of frigidity and vaginal orgasm; pornographic depictions of women responding pleasurably to sexual violence and humiliation (a subliminal message being that sadistic heterosexuality is more “normal” than sensuality between women)];
3. to command or eIploit their labor to control their produce
[by means of the institutions of marriage and motherhood as unpaid production; the horizontal segregation of women in paid employment; the decoy of the upwardly mobile token woman; male control of abortion, contraception, and childbirth; enforced sterilization; pimping, female infanticide, which robs mothers of daughters and contributes to generalized devaluation of women];
4. to control or rob them of their children
[by means of father-right and "legal kidnapping"
; enforced sterilization; systematized infanticide; seizure of children from lesbian mothers by the courts, the malpractice of male obstetrics; use of the mother as "token torturer"
in genital mutilation or in binding the daughter's feet (or mind) to fit her for marriage];
5. to confine them physically and prevent their movement
[by means of rape as terrorism, keeping women off the streets; purdah, foot-binding; atrophying of women's athletic capabilities; haute couture, "feminine" dress codes; the veil; sexual harassment on the streets, horizontal segregation of women in employment; prescriptions for "full-time" mothering; enforced economic dependence of wives];
6. to use them as objects in male transactions
[use of women as "gifts," bride-price; pimping; arranged marriage; use of women as entertainers to facilitate male deals, for example, wife-hostess, cocktail waitress required to dress for male sexual titillation, call girls, "bunnies," geisha, kisaeng prostitutes, secretarics];
7. to cramp their creativeness
[witch persecutions as campaigns against midwives and female healers and as pogrom against independent, "unassimilated" women;
definition of male pursuits as more valuable than female within any culture, so that cultural values become embodiment of male subjectivity, restriction of female self-fulfillment to marriage and motherllood, sexual exploitation of women by male artists and teachers; the social and economic disruption of women's creative aspirations;(19)
erasure of female tradition];
8. to withhold from them large areas of the society’s knowledge and cultural attainments
[by means of noneducation of females (60 percent of the world's illiterates are women~; the "Great Silence" regarding women and particularly lesbian existence in history and culture]
So while Rich’s essay focuses on “lesbian existence,” she is not defining “lesbian” in the same sense that we perceive it through the capitalist-consumerist lens of “possessive individualism,” where people have a sexual *preference* based on some generalized phenotype… I am attracted to (general) women… or (general) men… Rich is talking about women who are “women-identified,” which is a much deeper form of commitment to other women — one that includes social and political solidarity.
Though the only link I could find (above) to this essay on-line is kind of squirrelly in layout, I strongly recommend that people read it rather than merely relying on my own abbreviated and filtered version of it. The object at this point is not to agree or disagree with Rich — though it will be difficult for people to resist this kind of inferential exercise. The object, initially, is to understand Rich’s thesis on Compulsory Heterosexuality as she meant it — to accurately and more or less comprehensively understand he concept.
The reason I ask folks to suspend judgement and focus on an accurate apprehension of the idea is that this is not the end point, but the beginning, and when we refer to Compulsory Heterosexuality as this progresses, the purpose will be to refer to the concept as part of a larger discussion. We need not agree with Rich, but with each other on what she meant.
Here are a few questions that may be helpful in looking at this. In answering them, do not seek your answers in inference, but directly from the text:
(1) Rich calls “heterosexuality itself… a beachhead for male dominance.” Is she saying that sexual activity between men and women is the problem? This accusation is frequently aimed at her.
(2) Can you briefly summarize Rich’s thoughts on the con struction of “romantic love”?
(3) Can you briefly summarize Rich’s thoughts on homosexual relationships that “mirror” heterosexual “norms”?
(4) Rich refers to the fact that women are not merely sexually segregated in the workplace by their inferior pay, but that even when women could be hired for less than men in certain traditionally male jobs, they are still excluded. This suggests that there ism ore than economics and class at work here. She then refers to “‘sexualization of the woman’ [as] part of the job.” What does that mean? Find specific examples in the text, and think of specific examples in your own experience.
(5) What does she mean by “lesbian continuum”?