Saturday, August 13, 2011

In her written

I've threatened to expose my views on feminism before on this blog, I think I may even have noted my rejection of the term 'feminism', but I must thank Women Rule Writer over at the Anti-Room for finally drawing out of me exactly what it is about the term that doesn't agree with me.

I think I'd like to add to my comment there - but to put it here rather than gobbling up any more comments space there - and say that, for me, patriarchy is at its strongest and conversely least detected within our language system. I'm not suggesting we change the language or that it would be possible or acceptable to drop gender markers, for example, from it - though this would whittle down discrimination at least in the written form. Shock horror, I don't even have the answer! But I do strongly, passionately believe that our entire value system is flawed and language is where it's clearest to see the discrimination, though most often ignored, and where it is easiest to stop. However, we have to learn to recognise it.

Our entire language is an extension of patriarchy. We don't gender every word so we have a better chance than, say, the French to rectify this but we do have gender in the language. Fact. We have masculine and feminine. Pretty simple so far, pretty fair, nest-ce pas? OK but what I think happens, all too often, still (no I am not the first to note this nor do I claim to have some enlightened position on the situation here), is how the masculine word is favoured over the feminine. Waiter/waitress (caps omission deliberate). Think up a few binaries. Try it. I am aware that there's some work being done to address this imbalance - actor is now favoured over the actor/actress dichotomy - this is progress and it's as much as we can aim for in the now given that we have to privilege one term over another ultimately to banish the inequality. It's much less practical to think up a whole new, gender neutral, term than it is to drop the recessive term in favour of the one we've privileged. But just take a look at the word we favour. In our promotion of actor, for example, we are acknowledging the superfluousness of the word actress. We are acknowledging that the feminine state was nothing more than a suffix to a male preference. All our progress looks, from this  perspective, like a lot of running backwards - running with gusto, but not quite progress. And not equality. But a start. I do not think there is a solution to be found in privileging the feminine term either, I must stress that, my aim is not for an inverted form of sexism - patriarchy with a feminine hat (ouch - self-loather?) - I want equality.

And that's essentially it - no cure, no big fix because I don't think society is ready for what it would take to fix the inherent discrimination hardwired within our respective cultures. And, respect is key here. A lot of ands, but as me granny said, a lot of 'ands make light work. So it's not easy to remove the discrimination from language or to achieve equality through deconstructing binaries but it is what I advocate and what I believe in and what I believe we can all work together to achieve, AND before you criticise it - you taken a look at your beliefs lately?

Therefore, my thanks to Women Rule Writer, and to every woman who has stood up and been counted for her rights and beliefs. But here's to every other person who's been discriminated against, of whatever other gender, race, (choose own marker) variation because feminism is not just for women, it benefits us all - but can we have a fairer name?

PS. is fair regarded as a feminine word? If so, take that last line as irony. Balance things out.

Maybe someone can get me started on class distinctions - that's bound to amuse. Discrimination and oppression wear many hats but all smell the same to me.


Thomas Taylor said...

It's fascinating to hear your views on these this, Rachel, and the language dimension is especially interesting to me. I'm in France now, a country where a single man in a group of hundreds of women causes that group to be grammaticaly masculine. At least we're spared that level of inequality in English.

Of course, one could take the utilitarian view that 'actress' carries more information than 'actor' (when it's applied to both genders), and is therefore more useful. Though maybe only if you're casting a film:) But surely it comes down to the conotations we apply to a word like 'actress', which is a societal issue rather than a linguistic one, I'd say.

Rachel Fenton said...

For me they are interconnected, Thomas. Society teaches through language that there are two words for a whole range of things and that one is somehow better than the other. Language is the common tool of all the members of society. As soon as we express our views we immediately bind our potential for change in patriarchal values. All society uses this value system.

But I do think that any attempts to reduce society to a simple cause/effect/solution is misguided. Language is one aspect of our society. It doesn't hold all the answers but it is the writing on the wall.

It's actually too complex and to far reaching to express from one reference point, and to try and do so with language borders on the paradoxical.

I don't think I have made a conclusive point - I hope not - that's not my intention and whatever anyone adds to this, including your points, Thomas, will be valid and as 'right' as mine.

Andrea said...

Some really interesting points here, Rachel. Thanks for pointing out the link as well. Great piece - thought I don't actually see anything wrong with Beyonce saying that we could come up with a new word for feminism. I'm happy to be called a feminist, but I'm equally interested in movements like the gurlesque and lot's of subversions of girl culture.

I do agree with you that it's a wider issue than just feminism.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks, Andrea. I actually don't see anything "wrong' with anyone's comments - people are actively thinking about the issues our society faces and that's something we should be inspired by.

I think Nuala's intention was just to raise the the point that many people do think "feminism" is somehow a dirty word. Which is a fair point. And I was glad of the debate to give me an outlet and food for thought to work through my own thoughts.

There are some very interesting movements around - so many people have such interesting things to say - and it's good to feel a sense of society actively engaging in positive progress.

I think the table's big enough for everyone's views.

Anonymous said...

'Our entire language is an extension of patriarchy'. Too true. But there has been so distinct a slipping back from feminist (insert own adjective) positions established in the '70s and '80s that it's very difficult to see a fundamentally untransformed cultural context will ever accommodate linguistic change. Once again 'chairmen' prevail and 'mastery' defines control over process. It remains to be seen whether the current tentative anti-materialist initiatives that may just be the harbingers of the next movement for change will incorporate the principle of the non-gender-specific. (Inelegantly phrased, but I hope you see what I mean!)

Rachel Fenton said...

I may be asking to be shot, Dick, but I recall Virginia Woolf having some notion that it would be better to focus on breaking down the class barriers - thus improving social conditions for all - including women - than focusing on feminism alone. Easy for a middle-class woman to say, perhaps (Virginia, not me). I do think that the only way social change can be achieved is through movements which benefit us all.But when you carry that idea through - given the patriarchy of the government and legal system - true equality is actually the definition of anarchy. Change in that context seems less likely than a linguistic shift.

I'm over thinking it now.

As for the non-gender specifics - looking at the ridicule the recent stories of children being raised gender neutral received - again, unlikely much progress will be made.

We do seem to be going backwards.

Talli Roland said...

I'd like to write an erudite and intellectual comment here, but... I've started drinking wine!

Rachel Fenton said...

You brought much needed humour, Talli! Far more important!

Leslie Morgan said...

OK, I give up. I've read your post over and over again. It evokes strong feelings in me that I believe we share. But when I try to post a cogent comment, it begins to go essay length . . . so, let me simply say I am on the same side of the building as you and I will attempt to write my essay, whether for a blog post or for your eyes only.

Rachel Fenton said...

Oh, hey, Les, it's not a test - not meant to be a call for registrations of allegience - you do not have to agree with me to be agreeable to me. That said, I am always interested to read what you have to say on many issues and this is no exception. As and when.
Thanks for your continued support of me and all my ramblings.

Merc said...

On language, and in another life, I remember well my verbal sparring in the internal "company" rag with a female superior - she wanted tomes of techno-regulatory text to be made gender neutral in 6 languages! I thought it would be better to use the money for translation and meeting costs to help women in developing countries become self sufficient through use of the technology. She lost. I like to think it was because of really wanting to help women in need, but it may have just been too much for the predominantly male-run company to bear. Or all just too much of a hassle.

Rachel Fenton said...

Your self-awareness, Merc, is refreshing. We live, we learn - at least we hope we do. Thank you so much for sharing that.

~*L.*~ said...

This is of course another one that I missed. How on world did I miss this one?

Anyway, you know I love a good discussion about feminism.
You think that feminism has outgrown its original movement and that is one of the reasons we should discard the term, right? I think I understand and I agree that if you look at things that way, than indeed, "feminism" should not exist anymore.

In my mind though, feminism cannot outgrow its origin because feminism grows with women and their new needs in the new type of society. Feminism comes from "feminine" and "ism," so it means the feminine doctrine, or system, or theory, or cause. I like cause. So feminism, etymologically, without any of the connotations means "the feminine cause." Isn't that just beautiful? Why would we discard that? When is the feminine cause outdated? Certainly not now. I wish there was no need for it, like there is no need for "maleism," but we are not there yet.

I am not here to say that language is not an extension of patriarchy or that it is not unfair and horrible most times. It is all that. But feminism is our word, isn't it? Maybe the only one that's really ours. I like it. And I do not believe that the feminists themselves gave the word a bad name, but the media of the time and ... I don't want to say the men, but you know, the power structure. Anyway, this is my position. I like to call myself a feminist. And if anyone came up with another word for it, I would call myself that too.

By the way, I so hate it when we call an actress "actor," and suddenly she looks more accomplished, and we look more sophisticated for it. Language is terrible this way. My native language has genders assigned for every noun. It can be very bad.
Thank you for the wonderful conversation, Rachel. Now I'll go and read your post again because I kind of rushed to leave my comment.

Rachel Fenton said...

Lori - you are an amazing woman!
Feminism as a movement has the backing of my whole being but I hate the name. However, I love your view on the needs of women growing and feminism growing with these. Do you not think, thought, that perhaps the needs are growing as a consequence of the persistence to try to deal with them from a reactionary stance. I tend to have an holistic approach to most things - looking outside the movement to the world and viewing from multiple perspectives - I think that an equalist approach is the way forward.

I think what you said about conversation is vital - feminism is and should be a dialogue - ongoing debate is and can only be the best way to grow and learn.

I'm just trying to works stuff out for myself and this wasn't meant as some manifesto or dictat to others - I don't oresume to have the knowledge or authority to foister my opinions on the nation but I'm interested to listen and learn and make sense of it to myself. Thank you for asking me to question myself.

And there is so much to be done to make things better for so many women - I just wonder if a more hands on deck approach would get it done faster?

In short, I don't know. Thank you.