from the pages of ../


 

We Will Disrupt

Michael Albert

 

How many young people today believe that sexism and misogyny are still virulently active in our society and will persist until basic U.S. institutions fundamentally transform? Judging from the relative lack of feminist activism, the answer seems to be very few. Do people think sexism is an ancient holdover, now so marginalized that the continuing pains women feel must be their own fault? Or do people think women suffer because of biological and not social structures? Or that small changes made 20 years ago are all that is needed for patriarchal institutions to wither away of their own accord? Or that women don't suffer? Or that it doesn't matter? I don't know the answer, but something drastic needs to be done. I never met Emma Goldman, but Madonna is no Emma Goldman.

Since the hardships and losses imposed by sexism still persist, shouldn't we have increasing numbers of feminist rallies, demonstrations, and media institutions? Shouldn't the agendas, budgets, and outreach of the U.S. progressive community militantly oppose sexism?

To be afraid when walking in public is an abominable condition. Half the population of the U.S. endures such fear during much of their lives. Why doesn't the existence and increasing rate of rape provoke militant mass movements?

Suppose some group began to attack and sexually abuse men. And suppose this practice grew until it happened once every sixteen seconds and that this group was trying to relegate men to a materially dependent, socially subordinate position in part enforced by fear of rampant sexual attacks. Society would be outraged. There would be no business as usual until the attacks stopped. But, in fact, society plods merrily along even as women suffer exactly these conditions.

Millions of women are physically beaten each year, and beyond actual instances, the threat is almost as stultifying as the occurrence. Moreover, after women suffer physical assault, they are often ignored or blamed for their own brutalization. How can it be a personal matter or biologically inevitable that millions of women are regularly battered in their own homes? What does it mean for so many people to believe that something is disgusting, and yet do little or nothing about it?

Suppose a new women's cult formed and attracted thousands of followers, and that one of their practices was to go to bars and beat up men, and that they did this to thousands of men each month. How would the media, government, unions, community groups, and populace respond to that? Would people say it was disgusting only when asked about it, and otherwise proceed with their lives as usual? We all know that militant action would persist until the man-beating was eliminated. The fact that this kind of analogy seems extreme helps indicate how gross the problem of violence against women is.

Women still earn little more than half men's wages for comparable work which work they most often can't get. Economic dependence or destitution is thus still generally a woman's lot. And even if they escape poverty, in school, at work, and at play women still suffer from genderized expectations about "female capacities." Women are allowed to succeed as models, sexual performers, and caretakers, and are sometimes highly rewarded for doing so. But is a photo of Madonna masturbating supposed to counter the vile advertising and manipulative editorial copy in the pages of even one issue of the magazine whose cover she adorns?

In short, sexism still prevails not only in the bedrooms, families, and public schools of our society, but also in our playgrounds, malls, newspapers, movies, government, courts, universities, religions, marketplace, and workplaces. It causes a hierarchy of power and material comfort that favors men over women. It proclaims heterosexuality normal and homosexuality perverse and heaps cultural and physical contempt on women and men who practice homosexuality. It establishes roles that objectify, abuse, denigrate, and deny women the rightful fulfillment of their mental and physical capacities.

In this context, shouldn't every progressive organization in the U.S. have as one part of its agenda helping to eliminate gender-related inequality and prejudice? Anti-intervention, anti-racism, pro-conversion, or anti-homelessness movements shouldn't elevate women's liberation to the same priority they give their defining causes. That would be counter-productive. But shouldn't each reassess and, if necessary, restructure their organizational dynamics, reevaluate and, if necessary, rebuild their alliances and render support for anti-sexist movements?

When I was learning about political activism and developing my own allegiances, there was a group called Bread and Roses active in Boston, where I was at the time. These women were committed to fighting all manifestations of sexism, personal and institutional. They were militant and angry and often saw manifestations of sexism where others tended to see only commonplace circumstances. For having these admirable traits, they were regularly called "hysterical," "kneejerk," "frigid," and "maniacal" not only by the media but by many otherwise leftist men.

I remember how Bread and Roses would confront institutions and movements: "Respect women and incorporate women at every level of leadership and participation and eliminate gender hierarchy, or we will disrupt your operations until you do." Bread and Roses confronted local radio stations, entertainment clubs, and cultural institutions, as well as groups in the New Left. They were ecumenical in choosing targets. "Women are everywhere. They are affected by everything. Therefore no institution, no project, and no person is exempt from the demand to respect women." To call "shit-work" "women's work" does not make it conceptual, adventuresome, or engaging, nor does it justify men not doing it or women doing nothing else.

To portray women in a derogatory, sexist manner was to invite unremitting criticism. To ignore women's opinions, relegate women to lowly tasks, or visually or verbally objectify women was to invite harsh censure and disruption of operations. To structure gender inequality into organizations was to invite militant critique.

Marriage was called into question as an institution. The basic structure of the family was called into question. Roles associated with dating were called into question. Macho posturing, male competitiveness, and sexual objectification were called into question. Opposition to pornography (with no accompanying censoring mindset at all) was part and parcel of opposition to anything that manipulated, maligned, or mistreated women's minds or bodies or that perpetuated male behaviors that oppressed women. Childcare was no longer seen as "women's work" and mothering and fathering were replaced with parenting. What was good in familiar male and female roles was merged to become part of women's and men's agendas; what was bad was rejected. Actions were direct and clear.

Bread and Roses was only a local organization and even in Boston its outreach was limited. It was not the only militant feminist organization in the U.S., but others like it had similarly limited resources and outreach. The National Organization for Women never became a national example of this sort of committed, militant, multi-focused women's organization. Nor has any other national women's movement achieved this. This absence may help explain why many women are once again emotionally and intellectually isolated and why many accept that the pains they suffer arise from personal inadequacy or biological inevitability rather than sexism.

At one large meeting of a regional organization planning a season of major actions for the Boston-area antiwar movement, members of Bread and Roses marched in, circled the room, came to the front, told the man then chairing the meeting to sit down, and delivered an ultimatum. "Incorporate women at every level of planning and organizing and have men do their share of boring and caretaking tasks and incorporate at least 50 percent women in the tactical leadership of all the associated demonstrations and incorporate at least half women as chairs of all the meetings and rallies, or we will not permit these efforts—which we support and want to give our energies to—to proceed."

Some people that day felt that a major antiwar planning session was no place to exert feminist pressure since opposition to the war was too important to interrupt. But the majority realized that there would be no successful opposition to the war, much less to sexism, unless women were respected and won their equal place. And the men who realized the importance and legitimacy of Bread and Roses' demands did so because they were forced to by Bread and Roses' actions. This kind of women's organization has been absent too long. As a result, many people have forgotten or never learned the kinds of lessons Bread and Roses taught. From thinking about these experiences and our current situation doesn't it follow that this country needs:

It is not my place to tell women what they should or shouldn't be doing about sexism. But it is my place to address men and male-dominated institutions. Just as whites need to deal with racism, men need to deal with sexism. We ought to make known our desire to support a reawakened militant feminism. Even more important, we should compel the still male-dominated institutions we operate in to restructure themselves to incorporate at least an equal share of women's leadership and to offer both material and organizational support for national and local women's organizing.

Whatever other impediments have obstructed the emergence of militant feminist movement on a national scale, surely the biggest has been the continuing intransigence and outright sexism of men. This needs attention—now.