The personal is political – living feminist politics

One of the most difficult parts of my own feminist journey has centred around the inevitable and yet disturbing gap I see between what I believe in and the way I live. In other words, it is one thing to strongly believe in gender justice and feminist politics, and to advocate for both, and another thing to always live according to them. Whether in relationships, friendships, or even just everyday situations, more often than not I find myself acting or thinking in ways that go against what I believe feminism should be. And of course once I interrogate these situations, I understand why – and more often than it, it is because of the way we are socialised into our respective genders. But why is it so difficult to move past this when it comes to gender?

In an attack against Simone de Beauvoir, Pierre Bourdieu wrote the following:

There is not a better example of the symbolic violence that constitutes the traditional (patriarchal) relationship between the sexes than the fact that she will fail to apply her own analysis on relations between the sexes to her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.

Bourdieu not only said this, but also claimed that de Beauvoir had “no original ideas of her own” and simply copied everything Sartre said. In an excellent article on Beauvoir and Bourdieu, Michael Burawoy not only shows that these two claims are untrue, but also that Bourdieu is extremely sexist in the way he attacks de Beauvoir. What I found especially interesting in this article was something on de Beauvoir’s feminism and her own life:

Hers is a more contradictory position in which she dissects masculine domination, yet in her own life finds herself falling into the same traps that she denounces as inauthentic. While she is writing The Second Sex she is having a passionate affair with Nelson Algren that bears all the marks of her analysis of “women in love” – knowing it to be an inauthentic and ultimately futile response to masculine domination. More successful, though never without its tensions, is the “brotherhood” of Sartre! Throughout her life Beauvoir lives out, reflects on, and struggles with the contradictions between her theory and her practice.

De Beauvoir theorises that the reason for this contradiction between theory and practice is that unlike other marginalised groups, women cannot form a unified whole that can rise up against patriarchy. In other words, while other marginalised groups can exist in spaces separate from (to an extent) those who dominate them, this is not the case for women, who “orbit around individual men, complicit in their own subjugation, seeking the best possible partnership on the matrimonial market, subjugated in body and in soul to masculine domination.” As Burawoy writes,

Beauvoir sees masculine domination as a special type of domination that is stronger and deeper than class or racial domination, for the latter occupy spaces from which oppositional identities can be formed.

This struck me because it is something I have sometimes thought – women are so closely tied to individual men that it becomes difficult to think outside of those social relations. And yet, is it true that other marginalised groups do think outside of such relations? Maybe not, but to an extent they are able to exist in material spaces that create a distance between them and those that dominate them. Think of racial or class segregation, although I would question whether this physical separation constitutes a discursive break.

Women being tied to individual men conjures up a more materialist understand of gender, in the sense that this atomisation and individualisation tends to be more pronounced in advanced capitalist societies. Would this be the case everywhere? More importantly, what about societies that do not conceptualise gender relations in such an individualistic manner? And yet – are not all women orbiting around men, and complicit in our own subjugation?

I obviously am still thinking through these questions, but reading this piece yesterday reminded me of the same issue I have had for several years now – the contradiction between theory and practice in my own life, and why this continues. Is there something unique about masculine domination? Or is this a case of a white feminist – de Beauvoir – privileging gender above other marginalisations? And yet we know that “safe spaces” are important. What do these safe spaces look like for women – or do they even exist? De Beauvoir seems to be suggesting they do not because of the nature of heterosexual organisation of society, and therefore: “women orbit around men.” Does this make masculine domination unique or more difficult to eradicate?

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8 thoughts on “The personal is political – living feminist politics

  1. Marijan Dzima

    Inherent knowledge comes from inherent experiences. One cannot fully understand a complex situation, no matter how diligent or perceptive they are, unless they go through it themselves.

    Yes, men too (willingly or otherwise) may find themselves in safe spaces. That too is an inherent experience (seemingly emasculating) which provides inherent knowledge (surprisingly invigorating). Both invaluable.

    (P.S. Glad to see you’re writing again. I enjoy your posts.)

  2. rootedinbeing

    I do think it makes it unique among heterosexual women on a personal level. Lesbians, at least, do have a bit more of the distance and are able to separate themselves and form communities outside of men’s spheres – which is why I think the types of criticism lesbian feminists (whom have more chance of forming “oppositional identities”) have of hetero feminists is so important. Even with that said, it is still true women are orbiting around men in some fashion in our personal lives (most all of us have fathers, etc etc). But, these safe spaces do exist, at least within the Lesbian community. Our fight is unique in that we live in such close quarters, love, and share our intimate lives (not just work, school, etc) with the very people whom we want the most change from. How could this not have an impact on our theory versus our everyday lives?

    1. Yes but men are not subjected to a system from which all women benefit, the way women are. Indeed you would think men being tied to individual women would make them less patriarchal, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  3. Dr Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan

    Hi Sara,
    I have been following your blog for a while and have thoroughly enjoyed the blog posts. This one, in particular, is very interesting and resonates with me. Amongst my research interests, I am particularly interested in the question of agency in relation to feminism. The dilemma/contradictions you point to is something that I too grapple with, everyday. I can think of plenty of examples (personal ones and hence cannot articular them here) that makes me wonder how ‘I live my feminism’ (what a wonderful phrase you’ve put together!). As you’ve said here, one of the main critique against feminism is that it is a diverse movement and hence, divided; I think it is important to maintain diverse ways of ‘living feminism’, of course. But I think that points to one of the reasons why there is a ‘disconnect’ between theory and practice; that is, one feminist scholar’s theorisation does not necessarily translate in to practice for all. (I know this is a rather simplistic explanation, but I am unable to articulate it better here; my apologies!). Secondly, I think Beauvoir is absolutely right in arguing that women cannot separate ourselves from the group dominating them. Why other groups can whilst women cannot separate themselves from the patriarchal society is an interesting question. Perhaps, if we, for a moment, suspend the social construction surrounding gender/sex dichotomy and look at the biological process, women and men are interdependent for procreation (at least, at the moment although scientific advances are quickly proving my statement as wrong). Patriarchy has been the ‘norm’ and hence there is a continuous marginalisation of women. And finally, I see myself as a ‘third world feminist’ (I despise such labels but let’s stick with that for now). I see alternative ways of acting agency (as Saba Mahmood and Lila Abu-Lughod have argued) as an answer to your question of ‘living our feminism’. Subversion at that (can I say micro) level takes places too often and rarely acknowledged, especially by Western feminism. Thus, I think if we look at individual acts of agency, we may have a better (and more encouraging) ways of understanding how patriarchy is subverted on a day-to-day basis. It is, of course, situational and rather, self-reflective. And feminist theories help us to do that. Hence, feminist theories work insofar as appropriating certain strands of arguments, but individual acts of limited agency are important.
    I realise I’ve made some problematic statements, here. However, I do hope my articulation isn’t too muddled 🙂

    1. I really like what you said about subversion and how it is often ignored by feminism. These daily acts are definitely part of the story! I think that a more nuanced view of resistance and feminism in general is needed – where daily and minute acts of subversion or reproduction are analyzed, rather than grand gestures. Thanks for the thoughtful comment! 🙂

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