The White Woman's Burden

by Janis Cortese

There is a tendency I've noticed among older feminists to ... well, for want of a better word, to proselytize when someone doesn't agree with them 100%. It's hard to explain, but I want to try to get the idea across, in as nonconfrontational a manner as possible. This is important.

*deep breath*

I am a feminist. Make no mistake. I most definitely am a feminist. I've been thinking about the various issues that confront women for years. I've been turning it over in my mind since as long as I could remember. All of it -- the violence against women, the sexism, the workplace harassment issues, the sex issues, the body image issues, the whole bedamned mess.

I've read all the big noteworthy feminist tomes by all the big noteworthy feminists. Gloria Steinem, bell hooks, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, some Germaine Greer. Even Simone deBeauvoir, a reader of whom you'd be hard pressed to find outside of a women's studies program. I subscribed to Ms. Magazine for years. My bookcases have tons of women's issues books filling their shelves.

I'm well-read, and I've been chewing on all this information for years.

Now, I'm also trained as a hard scientist, a physicist, although I'm not one now. When I confront any theoretical construct, I really analyze it, investigate the interrelationships between the parts, see if it makes predictions that are actually grounded in reality, find out if it's logically consistent, both with itself and with the outside world.

And, just as happens with general relativity versus quantum mechanics (both of which seem to behave just fine but nonetheless contradict one another), feminism isn't always entirely consistent. No body of knowledge that's less than a century old is going to be entirely consistent right off the bat. There are going to be false starts, revisions, and even (as has happened in physics and astronomy enough times for us to be used to it, and even expect it) complete paradigm shifts that render what went before totally invalid.

So naturally, being both of an analytical bent and being trained to hone that to a fine point, I took what I learned over those many years and did all that scientific stuff to it -- thought about it long and hard, reconciled it with itself and with the rest of the world.

And in many places, this body of knowledge called feminism fits reality hand in glove. It illuminated a lot of stuff, brilliantly, beautifully. And in other places, it was off kilter a bit. In still others, it was so far off as to be unusable. And this isn't a bad thing -- it's to be expected.

So why am I called a Bad Feminist for thinking this? Why are my credentials as a feminist under fire for this?

The Ignorant Savage

Okay, I can hear you say, come on. You aren't under fire. No one is saying that you can't be a feminist if you disagree with one eensy thing that we second wavers say. Don't overreact.

I'll give you some concrete examples, and we'll see what comes of them.

I'm pro-second-amendment. I think that it is a vital and crucial right to be able to own a firearm. It's neck and neck with reproductive freedom to me. Why then, when this comes up, do so many second wave feminists assume that I'm simply a little dim, or unenlightened, and that I just need to be spoken to very slowly and handed a page of statistics in large kindergarten print? Why do so many second wave feminists start talking to me in that patient "mother talking to a slow child" voice, and feel that I must be told that violent crime is, like bad?

I think that heterosexual sex needs to be reclaimed as a positive thing, not just thrown on the scrap heap. I think that, while most sex entertainment nowdays is awful and sexist, women need to produce our own. Why then do so many second wave feminists think I haven't read Catharine MacKinnon's "Only Words" and Andrea Dworkin's "Pornography: Men Possessing Women" and that, if only I had, I'd agree with them? (I've read both.) Why do so many second wave feminists assume that I need to be enlightened to the fact that, like, rape is bad? Gosh, I had no idea.

I think very strongly that feminism needs to rethink its position on body image: check out my page called I Am Not Barbie. Go read it. But because I'm thin and hit society's definition of pretty, do you all think that I don't know that anorexia exists? Do you think that my TV has some sort of special chip in it that identifies it as belonging to a thin woman, and therefore it doesn't show me the diet pill commercials? When I say that a lot of supposedly feminist women hate me because I'm thin, why do you start talking very slowly to me about how, well, you have to understand the body images that are presented to women --

Gosh, no shit, really?

The Noble Missionary

To a large extent, it feels as if second wave feminists look at those of us who don't agree with them 100% the same way that missionaries used to look at the "natives" who refused to wear pants. Unenlightened, needing to be proselytized to in order to see the light and join you. The fact that I have already been through all of the information that you have also digested, and have analyzed it in very great depth means nothing. The second I deviate, it's as if I never read it at all. It doesn't meant that I've built on what you did, or that I have added to the theory that you've constructed.

As far as you're concerned, I've backslid.

As far as you're concerned, questioning is the same thing as backsliding.

Daring to add to the body of knowledge that is feminism instead of simply allowing ourselves to be spoonfed is backsliding.

Take a look at The Other Foot, our political cartoon. "Men can be so frustrating and sexist, sometime I just want to swear off of them entirely!" I say, and you all applaud. But when I then say, "How can we make it better?" the reaction is --

"Ohhhhhh! Damn! You were almost there! You were this close!"

Close to what? Almost where? Where you are? Instead of behind you? For a group of women who are trying not to rank things on a linear scale of hierarchy, many of you are doing a very good job at ranking women's levels of enlightenment by how close they are to parroting Ms. Magazine. If we differ, it doesn't mean that we are going at the same problem from a different angle, it means we're less enlightened that you.

In your eyes, different equals less.

You can't treat us like the White Woman's Burden. Please don't try. If you want us to be feminists, and we are, then you have to let go of the body of knowledge you've created and allow us to modify it, to take part in the shaping of it. Had Aristotle been alive this century, and been as possessive towards astronomy as you all are towards feminism, we never would have gotten to the Moon.

You want us to be feminist. Let us be feminist. Let us write the books, build on what you created. Being feminist means participating in that, not in mindlessly swallowing whatever came before.

Copyright © 1998 by Janis Cortese

07/04/07 at 22:27