May 4, 2010

“The hidden patriarchy” falls short in addressing sexism

Since the 1960s we have increasingly seen a deficit of thought about what overcoming sexism would mean.

Since the 1960s we have increasingly seen a deficit of thought about what overcoming sexism would mean. Robert A. Heinlein wrote books filled with strong female characters in sexual relationships based around respect, loyalty, and communication. As a vision of the future it is now unthinkable as a possibility. To think that when these books were written they were criticized for being overly patriarchal seems absurd to us. But they were.

And yet, sexism was not merely endemic in 1961, it was the norm, enforced by law. Help-wanted ads in newspapers were segregated, abortion was illegal, and married women could not legally learn about contraceptives in Connecticut. Sex remained a mystery. The female orgasm had not been spotted in the wild since the days of Freud, and was believed extinct because no one was looking for it. The Pill had been introduced just one year earlier.

What happened? How is it that with the progress feminism has made, the dreams have become so much less than what they were? As women gained equality before the law, increased equality in the workplace, and control over their sex lives, the political promise died out. To look at modernity as the cause is to render this unique phenomenon outside of history, and make it mysterious.

Rather it was a general failure of emancipation from 1965 onwards that led to political disunity, infighting, and a renewed focus on women as women, victims because of who they were, rather than women as people who deserve the freedom to create their own lives. The culture of male privilege is an easy target in this narrative: Women are oppressed by men; therefore the oppressing culture must change. But this ignores the ways in which culture is determined by other forces.

Changing the culture of male privilege requires more than banishing gendered pronouns in favor of “they,” a linguistic evolution I wholeheartedly endorse. Rather, it requires consciously deciding how we want to address the questions of sexual freedom, of gender roles, of social visibility of different ways of life, of socialization by the state, of religious practices that continue oppression, and, ultimately, of the role of the state in society. It is a conversation that focusing on particular instances of oppression and particular methods of socialization render impossible.

To have this conversation requires imagining a society in which consciousness can decide how society evolves, and in doing so will enable a more complete transformation of society than merely achieving equality of the sexes. Piecemeal moral reformism will never be able to act on enough of society to effect genuine transformation. While at the most immediate level it is true that social relations are not preordained but are the results of choices, our understanding of social relations must take into account the fact that they are at once real and imaginary, at once abstract and immediate. To deal with either one of these prongs in isolation is to either react or affirm, neither paving the way forward nor having a goal beyond the present.

The personal is not the political because personal choices, as important and meaningful as they are to the persons making them, take place in a society that is not controlled by its members. Our good wishes do not become represented in society automatically, even if we live the life we ourselves consider ideal. As Socrates says in The Republic, while the lone philosopher may live his own life justly, he has not contributed to social justice by doing it, no matter how virtuous his conduct is.

In conclusion, I can only state that the failure of our parents and grandparents to emancipate themselves in ’68 leaves us with the unenviable task of having to address the social questions they left behind in an environment where nothing is political, and everything has to be. Addressing these questions will require reexamining the path that has led us to this dreadful place.

Watson Ladd

Class of 2013