Lately it has become clear to me that I am allowing certain things on the internet to get to me in a way that is unbecoming. For example, I’ll say that I think I was the partial inspiration for this. Well, I don’t think, I know. Suffice it to say that neither Sady nor I felt we represented ourselves particularly well in the conversation she mentions, and that we’ve been continuing to chat in other arenas and I think are beginning to understand each other better. But like most difficult conversations it has forced me to rearticulate why, despite all the shit it gets me and all the pain in the ass it is to try and talk about things on the internet that are hard and difficult and not inadvertently myself fall into dismissiveness and self-aggrandizement, I still identify as a radical feminist rather than some other kind.
It’s come to my attention that a few people think my reading of radical feminism is highly idiosyncratic. I’m not sure if they are saying that I cannot be right, or that I am eliding things. I happen to think my reading is reasonably close to Jill/Twisty’s, but the vociferousness with which I am told that Jill/Twisty hates men and also hetero women and condemns them to feminist hell for giving blowjobs makes me wonder if I’m just missing something obvious.
Anyway, at the risk of boring the shit out of everyone I’m starting to work these issues out publicly and in the most measured way I can.
So here’s the first part, on agency.
One of the criticisms I often hear of radical feminism is that it provides no way out of patriarchy. In most critiques, this is put as “radical feminism does not give us a theory of agency.” And without being able to do things in the world, there is no way out, and people quite rightfully want to think there is some way out of this oppression, that there is something we can do with our lives that will make things better.
This criticism has always confused me, because were it the case that radical feminism held that there was no way out of patriarchy, it would have no account of itself. What I mean by this is that if patriarchy were a totally closed system, against which we could not push for reform or even see things differently, radical feminism would not actually exist. Because a closed system of power would be fully invisible. We would take for granted what we are told the world is, and what it has to be. We would not, in fact, have the double-consciousness that seems to be such an intrinsic part of being female, or for that matter black, or gay, or an intersexed person in this culture: the feeling that this – this being what we are given – is not all that there is.
What I mean to say is that to me, recognizing the constraints on a person’s agency is not the same thing as denying that they have any at all. The capacity to think outside the box is a kind of agency. But it doesn’t mean the box isn’t there. And it doesn’t mean that thinking outside the box can, necessarily, ignore the shape and size and colour and frankly altogether claustrophobic nature of the box and still believe itself to have escaped from it.
To dial back a second and take an example from my own experience: until I nearly married a man I didn’t love at 24 years of age, I thought marriage was the shit. I thought it was what I should be aiming for. In retrospect I am not even sure what I thought marriage was, other than something I’d seen in movies that made people happy. And I knew I was unhappy, and here I saw these happy people in soft-focus Sears portraits everwhere in my life and thought: I want that. I want to feel like I am not alone in the universe. I want to know someone will be making me soup when I am sick. I want my friends to throw confetti and I want to know I am where I am supposed to be, because everyone else was doing it. I wanted to relax. I wanted a refuge.
And all of these things I wanted, I wanted sincerely. In some ways, I still do. There is a tiny voice in me that still thinks I ruined my life by becoming who I am these days, a person whom I really have no reason to complain about. But, having realized that I would be miserable in that marriage, I am now the kind of person who will not be able to relax or find refuge in a relationship with someone else the way I thought I once would. I can’t look at relationships in the same unqualified, purely calming way. I just can’t feel certain that marriage would satisfy that thirst.
When I say this, though, I recognize that other people have made other choices. They have decided to get married. I don’t assume it’s because they think marriage is an unqualified good. That is, I don’t think that until they start telling me it is, that there’s nothing wrong with it, they’re consenting adults, their love is the eternal flame that burns brightly through the night, etc., etc. Then I get suspicious. My grounds are not the solution they have chosen; I am suspicious, in short, of their declaration that their adoption of marriage can and does exist somewhere outside of where marriage seems to be for the rest of us, which is, at the best of times, a mixed blessing, compromise, something we do because we’re all just trying to get by here, and it feels better to cling to this person than it would not to do it, and with all of those ideas/explanations, I am okay. I have no issue.
And to get away from me, I just don’t see radical feminism taking issue with any of that either. Maybe I’m reading into things, but I see nothing in Intercourse, or for that matter in the lives of many actual radical feminists, that suggests the defeatism, the total denial of agency, I keep hearing about. I do hear from them that patriarchy is always there, and that we cannot simply wish it out of existence as long as so much sexuality and so many social institutions are governed by it. The evidence is there, folks, and at this level, at the empirical level of “does patriarchy exist, are women exploited on the basis of sex,” I don’t see a whole lot of substantive refutation.
The situation of a lot of women is pretty damn depressing, of course, and I understand that a certain degree of fatalism and disillusionment, even exhaustion, come with that when the enormity of it is staring you in the face. Most of what radical feminism talks about – rape, sexual subordination, prostitution – it’s all pretty damn depressing. But feeling held down by depression, as anyone who’s suffered from it knows, is not the same as a pure inability to act. To me radical feminism is like being a post-depressive – you still know things are generally shit, but you start to see the space you can move in, if only from knowing these things are not your fault, from knowing that your power to see them for what they are is a way of rescuing yourself from the endless, self-flagellating cycle of thinking you are too small and insignificant and nothing is worth fighting for in this world.
And that’s where I get my agency from, myself.