In memoriam Irena Vrkljan (1930-2021)
A great poet and novelist, one of the most important female writers in Croatia, influenced a generation – even if she was sometimes bewildered by her impact.
The feminist cause is the cause of civilization and, at the same time, is now a cultural trend, writes Aloma Rodríguez. She calls on us to embrace its heterogeneity: there is – and should be – room for many different points of view to co-exist.
Feminism maintains that one half of the population should have the same rights and opportunities as the other half. This affects many areas of life, and develops in different ways in different places. Obviously, the situation of women in Europe is infinitely better than that of women in Saudi Arabia – even though they can now drive a car. However, it is not the same for an immigrant in France as for a senior executive, nor is it the same whether someone is transgender, homosexual or heterosexual. Differences of degree exist, but, despite all the possible nuances, the goal is to advance towards the most egalitarian society possible, in which all individuals are protected whatever their gender, ethnicity or other origin. This may seem an obvious truism but it is the goal of the Enlightenment and of liberalism, and of feminism in the most global sense. The marches of women against Donald Trump, the publication of the allegations against the film producer Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement (with its emulators such as the French #BalanceTonPorc or #Cuéntalo in Spain) have finally forced a taking of sides regarding feminism. A climate of cultural war has taken shape, at least on social networks. All of us find ourselves obliged to take up rigid, fixed positions, and books or films are put in question by being interpreted through a gender perspective – which sometimes leads to erroneous readings, as in the case of Lolita, which is above all a terrible story of abuse, as Nabokov himself thought. More extreme postures have also been aroused on the other side, as, for example, in the emergence of Jordan Peterson and his machista discourse with an intellectual patina. We are in a feminist moment.
There are good reasons why women are angry: in the majority of advanced democracies there is still a salary gap – generally directly related to maternity. Few women succeed in breaking through the glass ceiling, and consequently few women take major decisions. Quotas continue to be necessary. In other parts of the world things are much worse. In many countries abortion remains illegal, women’s rights are limited and restricted, and there are still forced marriages. In the war in Syria rape has been used as one more weapon in the conflict. In western democracies, there is still a long way to go to achieve full equality, even if the advances made in only a few decades have been impressive, from the incorporation of women into the labour force to the generalized use of contraception, or from the right to vote to the acceptance of homosexual marriages. All such changes are steps towards a more egalitarian and just society. The new government that took office in Spain in June, for example, has eleven women ministers in a cabinet of seventeen members, and, with a composition thus made up 64.7 per cent by women, is the government with the highest female representation in Europe and the world. This representation in government would possibly not have come about without the sustained effect of the marches each 8 March which made the rise of feminism visible, as the political analyst Sílvia Claveria pointed out in an article in El País, although the previous governments of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero from 2004 to 2011 already had equal representation of men and women. Women have for some time also headed governments in a range of countries, as in the case, today, of Angela Merkel in Germany, Theresa May in the United Kingdom or Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand.
The first wave of feminism was the campaign for the vote, the second wave, that of women’s (above all sexual) liberation and their incorporation into the world of work, the third wave is that of transfeminism, which has incorporated queer theory and proposed a revolution in ways of seeing sex and gender. This third wave began in the 1990s and continues today. However, along the way, something has changed. Feminism has gone from being a polarized argument full of small cliques and factions to one that leaps out into general public discussion. The debate has moved out of the academies and specialist circles and onto generalist media and T-shirts. Feminism and the new forms of feminism have been one of the topics of mainstream discussion since at least 2014: How to Be a Woman, the autobiographical feminist essay by Caitlin Moran, first appeared in 2011, and was published in Spanish in 2013; We should all be feminists, a TED talk by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was also published in book form in 2014, and in 2017 the same author produced Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. During 2018 Penguin Random House Spain has bought the rights to King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes, an earlier translation of which had been published in 2007, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Hunger have also appeared in Spanish, and Nuria Varela’s 2005 Feminismo para principiantes (Feminism for Beginners) has been reissued in an illustrated edition. In 2017, too, Spanish-Argentinian journalist Lucía Lijtmaer produced Yo también soy una chica lista (I’m a Clever Girl Too), a sharp and entertaining book in which she identifies some machista tics that for years she had let go by unnoticed. Mamá, quiero ser feminista (Mummy, I Want to be a Feminist, 2016) by Carmen G. de la Cueva, and Morder la manzana (Biting the Apple, 2018) by the actor Leticia Dolera are other examples from Spain of attempts to make feminism more popular and more accessible. ‘I hesitated a long time before writing a book on women. The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new. Enough ink has flowed over the quarrel about feminism; it is now almost over: let’s not talk about it anymore. Yet it is still being talked about’, wrote Simone de Beauvoir in her introduction to The Second Sex, the most important book on feminism of the twentieth century.
The women’s protests after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 globalized the feminist cause. In part this was a reaction against the misogynistic comments made by him that had been made public shortly before the election but did not prevent him gaining the presidency of his country. Women also protested because it was felt that in the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton the fact of being a woman had been held as a negative against the latter. A pink hat, of any kind and in any shade, was chosen as a symbol of protest, and women came out into the streets. After that came the showing of the series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. In it, the United States has undergone a coup d’état and puritans have taken over the country, which is now called Gilead. They have turned it into a repressive society in which fertile women are dressed in red and raped punctually once a month by their ‘commanders’. It is a militarized society under constant vigilance. Atwood has said that she was inspired by the military regimes in Chile and Argentina. Also first shown in 2017 was Big Little Lies, a series that was seen as feminist because the lead characters were women and there was a sense of sisterhood between them. Girls, whose creator Lena Dunham is one of the best-known figures of this new global feminism, had just concluded. Then the Weinstein case exploded, followed by the #MeToo movement, and it appeared that an end might to be put to all the abuses, or at least to silence about them. In the New Yorker, the media outlet that exposed the Weinstein case, Masha Gessen warned of the possibility of an over-reaction in the #MeToo movement, due to it being seen partly as a means of correcting the balance after having looked the other way for so long. This is a little similar to the observation made by Mary Beard in the first of the articles and papers brought together in the collection Women and Power: A Manifesto (2017, Spanish edition Crítica 2018), on ‘The Public Voice of Women’ – a Spanish translation of which was first published in Letras Libres in 2014:
One particularly bloody anecdote vividly exposes the unresolved gender wars that lay just below the surface of ancient public life and speaking. In the course of the Roman civil wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero – the most powerful public speaker and debater in the Roman world, ever – was lynched. The hit-squad that took him out triumphantly brought his head and hands to Rome, and pinned them up, for all to see, on the speaker’s platform in the Forum. It was then, so the story went, that Fulvia, the wife of Mark Antony, who had been the victim of some of Cicero’s most devastating polemics, went along to have a look. And when she saw those bits of him, she removed the pins from her hair and repeatedly stabbed them into the dead man’s tongue.
This article is a historical survey of the ways in which women were denied a voice in the public sphere in the classical world, from the Odyssey to speeches in Roman forums. Beard explains that there were only two exceptional circumstances in which women could speak openly in the public sphere and be listened to: when they appeared as victims, and when they spoke about matters regarded as those of women. In this, Beard points out, we have not moved on too far since the days of Rome. The #MeToo movement consisted of that, of giving a voice to women as victims. And in so doing it entered sticky ground, intelligently analysed by Jill Lepore in a New Yorker article on ‘The Rise of the Victims’ Rights Movement’. This issue is also very present in the polemical essay by Jessa Crispin Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (2017). Her book is a critique of universal feminism – a feminism ‘redesigned for contemporary women and men’, but ‘banal, innocuous and ineffective’ – a feminism that to Crispin appears just a form of self-help. For her, this type of feminism forgets that it should be linked to the struggles of civic movements and should also fight against inequality and capitalism and for the cause of peace. Although the book lacks concrete proposals and some of its assertions and demands can feel over-provocative and unsettling, Crispin’s work is a highly self-critical analysis of a feminism created by white women with education and the right background that demands access to the same levels of power as men but, as she sees it, lacks any intention of changing the rules of the game. For Crispin, one of the problems of this ‘self-help’ feminism is that ‘revenge has become an official part of feminist policy’. ‘The targets of feminism, particularly of feminism on the internet, are individual acts of misogyny’, she writes. ‘Whenever a questionable act is committed, both men and women are submitted to scrutiny, and (if they are found to have been at fault), a punishment is applied, generally an organized attempt to get the man or woman in question dismissed from their job’. It is not necessary to look too hard to find examples of these public denunciations of behaviour of questionable morality and demands for punishment. For Crispin, this is closely related to the culture of indignation, an evolution to some extent from what the Australian critic Robert Hughes called the ‘culture of complaint’. Crispin defends the presumption of innocence, and says that feminism should be happy that the rule of law and its institutions exist and continues to function. For her, feminism goes hand in hand with the conquest of civil rights. Margaret Atwood also defended the presumption of innocence in the case of Steven Galloway, a writer and professor at the University of British Columbia, who was accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour by several female students, and dismissed forthwith as soon as the accusations were made. He was eventually declared innocent, but did not regain his post. Atwood, who not long before had been lauded by a universalist feminism that now berated her, wrote an article arguing her position. She naturally defended the presumption of evidence, together with the right of the accused to know what they are accused of and to put forward their own defence. In addition, she also argued that ‘All too frequently, women and other sexual-abuse complainants couldn’t get a fair hearing through institutions – including corporate structures – so they used a new tool: the internet’. Curiously, to understand some of the dark areas of orthodox feminism and their behaviour today on social media it is useful to refer to two books that were written before the flowering of #MeToo. One is the already-mentioned Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin. The other is the collection of essays and lectures by writer and art critic Camille Paglia recently published (for Spanish readers) as Feminismo Pasado y Presente (Feminism Past and Present) – although the most recent contribution, which gives the book its title, dates from 2008 – in which she particularly discusses the major problems that exist on university campuses in the United States around intolerance and the rhetoric of power. These are two books that make uncomfortable reading, alerting us to the dangers of one-sided, monolithic, unanimously-accepted conceptions of things. They offer opposing visions in many ways – in viewing capitalism as an emancipating force, or as an evil that needs to be defeated, for example – but share a defence of the importance of nuance.
As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, American university campuses are the places where the culture of indignation is cultivated the most. In 1991 Camille Paglia gave a lecture at MIT (‘Crisis in the American Universities’) in which she attacked the idea of gender studies, the devotion for Lacan – without having even read Freud – and the notion of victimhood among women on campuses. Paglia, whose most celebrated work is Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primaries in 2016. Her polemical – to say the least – opinions on nearly everything, including transgender issues, should not prevent us from looking at the pieces brought together in the brief recently-published collection in Spanish. They include her MIT lecture, a survey of the image of women from the American South and the title article, to mention only the most interesting. In them she demonstrates her knowledge of art, and also of academic literature; she defends the idea of beauty – what she does criticize is the assumption that beauty should be the measure of a woman’s value – and the capacity to enjoy it, and she defends individual freedom. There are moments of self-criticism – and self-parody – and a ferocious critique of monolithic feminism, but above all she shows that feminism is plural, and complex. Her writings also raise one of the issues that continue to be debated today: the relationship between art and feminism. It is exemplified by a 1969 argument over the Rolling Stones’ track ‘Under My Thumb’, which she described as a great song and a work of art. ‘Art? Art? Nothing that demeans women can be art!’, was the response she got from the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band. For Paglia, ‘there is a lost generation of women coming out of these women’s studies programs: a lost generation’. Feminism, she argues, had excluded two significant elements that should have been integrated within it. One is aesthetics: ‘we should not have to apologize for revelling in beauty. Beauty is an eternal human value. It is not a trick invented by nasty men in a room someplace on Madison Avenue.’ The second is psychology: she is thinking here of Freud, excluded as sexist, when, she believes, one cannot construct a theory of sex without Freud, one of the great analysts of human personality. At the same time, she qualifies her views thus: ‘Now, you don’t have to assent to Freud. I don’t read Freud and go, ‘Oh, wow, he is the ultimate word in the human race’.’
In the title article ‘Feminism Past and Present: Ideology, Action and Reform’, originally presented as a lecture in Harvard in 2008, Paglia gives an overview of the history of feminism in the United States, its presence in public discussion and some of its most prominent faces, from the suffragists to Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan, who are not exactly objects of her devotion. In this lecture she says, more or less, that it is attitudes to sex that have created most discrepancies and confrontations within feminism. ‘…I say more power to all these chaste young women who are defending their individuality and defying groupthink and social convention. That is true feminism!’ She concluded her talk by saying that the feminists of her generation fought to liberate themselves from the tutelage of paternalistic institutions, and that ‘If women expect equal treatment in society, they must stop asking for infantilizing special protections. With freedom comes personal responsibility.’
The memoirs of Vivian Gornick permit us to understand the history of feminism through the intimate experience of one of its activists. Fierce Attachments: A Memoir first appeared in 1987, although it reached Spain (as Apegos Feroces) thirty years later. Between walks and conversations with her mother, Gornick recounts the awakening of her feminist beliefs and her disillusion with romantic love. The same themes reappear in The Odd Woman and the City (2015, Spanish edition La Mujer Singular y la Ciudad 2018), a book on solitude as a personal choice. The author realizes, thanks to literature and its female characters, that she herself is a woman who is odd, singular, but not incomplete. These are not books of feminist theory or ideas – although they do contain reflections and ideas regarding these and other subjects such as love, personal relationships and literature: they are the personal story of a feminist told in an intelligent and moving manner.
In 2016 Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me was published in Spain (as Los Hombres me Explican Cosas). It is an uneven book, which hits a mark in some of its diagnoses on the problems of women in the West and its insistence on involving men in the struggle for equality. However, it also contains some excessively precarious logical leaps and simplifications which reduce the value of its analysis. The article that gives the book its title gave rise to the neologism ‘mansplaining’. In one of the essays in the book, too, Solnit produced an unbeatable argument with which to win any discussion, if you are a woman; if they contradict you, it’s because of misogyny. This is tempting, of course, for who can resist an argument that means they’re always right? However, it’s also limiting, and facilitates segregation, suggesting that women should only talk to each other. And this is not what feminism is about, if we listen to Simone de Beauvoir or Mary Beard. Feminism is about ensuring that what women have to say is also heard by men and that their discourse is given the same attention as that of men.
This kind of denunciation is also present in Crispin’s Manifesto. She goes much further, and, in seeking to explain the dangers of establishing a group called ‘women’, compares this with nationalism in its emphasis on group identification and on according value to things ‘disdained’ by the ‘other’. This is the case, she suggests, with feminist history, dedicated to ‘reaffirming the tasks and characteristics of femininity that the patriarchal system has disregarded as if they were things without any value, from the caring tasks such as child-raising and keeping house to craft labour such as sewing or quilt-making, and including the transmission of fairy tales and folk wisdom’. She accepts that ‘these ‘female’ matters are valuable, and that it is important that they are considered valuable by men as much as by women’. However, for Crispin, in many instances where people speak of ‘empowerment’ this is in reality a question of narcissism, in that the object is to identify one’s own group solely with positive characteristics by adjudicating all negative characteristics to the opposing group. ‘By means of this projection’, she writes, ‘not only do we refuse to see all the facets of humanity in men, we also refuse to see all the facets of our own humanity. We are not completely human if we only accept the good things there are within us as women. There is not too much variety if we only employ the most luminous colours of the spectrum.’
Jessa Crispin’s most severe criticism of universal feminism is its ability to be, in reality, complacent towards the hierarchy that a feminist movement ought to seek to break down. As she sees it, ‘universal feminism will always be inoffensive’. It seems to her that the women who gain power have the same characteristics as men, and she denies that everything a woman does can be feminist due to the fact that she is a woman – which may appear obvious, but at times it’s worthwhile to repeat the obvious – and argues that this kind of feminism in which everything is of equal value is effectively a system for laundering one’s conscience, with the idea that ‘I can do whatever because I’m a woman, and therefore it’s feminist to do so’. This feminism for one’s own benefit, she claims, does not generally show much concern for the women and children who continue to be oppressed so that, for example, we can buy T-shirts at derisory prices. She also argues that this is a ‘self-help’ form of feminism because it absolves women of responsibility, as if saying that if they do not have everything they want, it’s down to oppression. For Crispin, by contrast, feminism should seek to break with the system in order to move towards a world that is fairer and better for all. Overall, Crispin says that the feminism that is now in fashion is white, comfortable and selfish. Equally, too, that many of the discussions associated with it are actually concerned with personal ambitions and obscure important issues such as what can be done to reduce the salary gap, or to ensure that having children does not represent a block in women’s careers. She believes that feminism remains necessary ‘to finish the work of destroying hierarchy. And because there are questions regarding reproductive rights and sexual violence, among others, that are still real barriers to women’s liberty. We should not fall into complacency, and cease fighting’.
One may not agree with all these unsettling texts, but their contribution is fundamental: they question the conventional view and open up new lines of thought. Like Mary Beard, I believe that we have to go beyond the label of misogyny if we are to make progress towards equality, even though this label is undoubtedly a good description for some kinds of behaviour. The way ahead also requires that women should also enter into the global, general conversation, for otherwise we shall carry on the same as in Rome: able just to talk about our own affairs among ourselves. The voices of women have to be public voices.
Published 16 August 2018
Original in Spanish
Translated by Nick Rider
First published by Letras Libres 202 (July 2018)
Contributed by Letras Libres © Aloma Rodríguez / Letras Libres / EurozinePDF/PRINT
A great poet and novelist, one of the most important female writers in Croatia, influenced a generation – even if she was sometimes bewildered by her impact.
I was going to write a fiery editorial for Women’s Day about how the pandemic has eaten up women’s time and energy – but then I ended up homeschooling instead.