Another slim novel vibrating with an undercurrent of rage tightly reined in by thoughtful and clear intellectual argument. Dworkin’s second book, this one again a collection of speeches she’d given in the early 1970s. I admit to skimming the last few essays wherein she attempts to equate the female condition to slavery (broad strokes painted by a white girl) and her foray into a dissection of pornography. The other essays are brimming with worthwhile ideas, not to say that the previous essays aren’t worthwhile, but I’m just not in the mood and don’t think it’s a compelling discussion of the slavery question. She quotes the same section from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in a few of the speeches, the one that references Aristotle’s “the female is a female by virtual of a certain lack of qualities.”
From The Sexual Politics of Fear and Courage:
The kinds and categories of mythic male heroes are numerous. A man can be a hero if he climbs a mountain , or plays football, or pilots an airplane. A man can be a hero if he writes a book, or composes a piece of music, or directs a play. A man can be a hero if he is a scientist, or a solider, or a drug addict, or a disc jockey, or a crummy mediocre politician. A man can be a hero because he suffers and despairs; or because he thinks logically and analytically; or because he is “sensitive”; or because he is cruel. Wealth establishes man as a hero, and so does poverty. Virtually any circumstance in a man’s life will make him a hero to some group of people and has a mythic rendering in the culture–in literature, art, theater, or the daily newspapers.
It is precisely this mythic dimension of all male activity which reifies the gender class system so that male supremacy is unchallengeable and unchangeable. Women are never confirmed as heroic or courageous agents because the capacity for courageous action inheres in maleness itself — it is identifiable and affirmable only as a male capacity. Women, remember, are “female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities.” One of the qualities we must lack in order to pass as female is the capacity for courageous action.
This goes right to the core of female invisibility in this culture. No matter what we do, we are not seen. Our acts are not witnessed, not observed, not experienced, not recorded, not affirmed. Our acts have no mythic dimension in male terms simply because we are not men, we do not have phalluses. When men do not see a cock, they do not in fact see anything; they perceive a lack of qualities, an absence.
Every organ of this male supremacist culture embodies the complex and odious system of rewards and punishments which will teach a woman her proper place, her allowable sphere. Family, school, church; books, movies, television; games, songs, toys — all teach a girl to submit and conform long before she becomes a woman… Her arguments with the very definitions of womanhood are internalized so that, in the end, she argues against herself–against the validity of any impulse toward action or assertion; against the validity of any claim to self-respect and dignity; against the validity of any ambition to accomplishment or excellence outside her allowable sphere. She polices and punishes herself; but should this internal value system break down for any reason there is always a psychiatrist, professor, minister, lover, father, or son around to force her back into the feminine flock.
Now, you all know that other women will also act as agents of this mammoth repression… All women are supposed to vilify any peer who deviates from the accepted norm of feminiity, and most do. What is remarkable is not that most do, but that some do not.
From the essay Redefining Nonviolence:
I have never heard of a white male radical ridicule or denigrate a black man for demanding that the Civil Rights Act be passed, or for recognizing the racist values behind any refusal to vote for that act. Yet, many left-wing women have said to me, “I can’t quite figure out the politics of the Equal Rights Amendment.” … Let me tell you about “the politics of the Equal Rights Amendment” — a refusal to pass it is a refusal to recognize women as being sound enough in mind and body to exercise the rights of citizenship; a refusal to pass it condemns women to lives as nonentities before the law; a refusal to pass it is an affirmation of the view that women are inferior to men by virtue of biology, as a condition of birth. Among political people, it is shameful to be a racist or an anti-Semite. No shame attaches to a resolute disregard for the civil rights of women.
Feminism is an exploration, one that has just begun. Women have been taught that, for us, the earth is flat, and that if we venture out, we will fall off the edge. Some of us have ventured out nevertheless, and so far we have not fallen off. It is my faith, my feminist faith, that we will not.
Our exploration has three parts. First, we must discover our past. The road back is obscure, hard to find. We look for signs that tell us: women have lived here. And then we try to see what life was like for those women. It is a bitter exploration. We find that for centuries, all through recorded time, women have been violated, exploited, demeaned, systematically and unconscionably… It is not easy for us to bear what we see.
Second, we must examine the present: how is society presently organized; how do women live now; how does it work–this global system of oppression based on gender which takes so many invisible lives; what are the sources of male dominance; how does male dominance perpetuate itself in organized violence and totalitarian institutions? This too is a bitter exploration. We see that all over the world our people, women, are in chains. These chains are psychological, social, sexual, legal, economic. These chains are heavy. These chains are locked by a systematic violence perpetrated against us by the gender class men. It is not easy for us to bear what we see. It is not easy for us to shed these chains, to find the resources to withdraw our consent from oppression. It is not easy for us to determine what forms our resistance must take.
Third, we must imagine a future in which we would be free. Only the imagining of this future can energize us so that we do not remain victims of our past and our present. Only the imagining of this future can give us the strength to repudiate our slave behavior– to identify it whenever we manifest it, and to root it out of our lives. This exploration is not bitter, but it is insanely difficult– because each time a woman does renounce slave behavior, she meets the full force and cruelty of her oppressor head on.