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The hierarchy of oppression

April 19, 2013
This post has been in gestation for about 4 months now. Even now it doesn’t really feel finished, but either I publish it now, or it stays in my drafts folder forever.

You know how it is. It’s late at night, you’re having to do that job application thing again which always sucks, you’ve had a glass of wine and you’re feeling up for a fight. Well, that’s how I was late one night between Christmas and New Year. So in this dangerous frame of mind, someone retweeted some cunt into my twitter feed, and I had found my adversary for the night. Ding ding!

I didn’t stay in the fight very long as it quickly became evident that no minds would be changed and the whole exercise was as self-indulgent and fruitful as a punch-up outside the pub. In the morning, the tail ends of the other people in the argument wafted in and out of my mentions feed, and something caught my eye. In response to the statement, ‘your blanket statements about ‘most straight men’ are increasingly difficult to justify’, Cuntish Adversary said this, ‘you are not most straight men, you are a feminised, leftist male. Hardly male at all.’

Firstly, it’s quite clear that Cuntish Adversary is a misogynist. But it made me think about how so many oppressions are, at their heart, misogyny and fear of femininity. I don’t personally feel that femininity is something to fear, but evidently some people do.

And it is evident in so many ways that our culture and society feels that it is something to fear. The roles that we are asked to play are rigid, and there is a hierarchy of oppression. I mean, I’m an intersectional feminist, so I would say that, but if you think of all the things that you are happy to do, and all the things that you’re happy to be seen to do, and the things that you’re embarrassed for people to know that you do, I imagine that gendered assumptions and stereotypes about those actions probably have more than a little to do with your reactions.

I was unintentionally raised mercifully free of an awful lot of gendered bullshit. I was a daddy’s girl. I had my own set of overalls for working on the classic cars that were his pride and joy. It was assumed from the age of 5 that due to my mathematical ability and interest in the way things fit together, I would be an engineer; I was going to build aeroplanes or bridges or something, but definitely things made out of metal and rivets.

My mother also is not a fan of either make up or fashion and her open disdain for both along with the fact that I was a bit weird socially have meant that I’m happy leaving the house in clothes and states that I know that some people wouldn’t let their own partners see them, at least until a significant way into the relationship. I remember catching sight one time of this article in Cosmo entitled, ‘When do you let him see THAT?’, where ‘that’ was you without make up on. As someone who, on the second date, opened the door to her now-husband having just got out of the shower, and not even managed to get as far as my dressing gown, let alone dry hair or make up, this sentiment is quite alien. Nevertheless, both these attitudes to make up are valid, which relates to something I explored back in January, yet one is viewed as more feminine than the other. And there are some settings where the most make up am I willing to wear is lower than the standard expectations for a woman in that setting.

However, it is impossible to grow up entirely free of this stuff. I was trained to sit with my knees together. Taught how to get out of a car in a skirt without flashing. I learnt that my anger was less tolerated than my brother’s. Despite my parent’s academic expectations for me (high – they met at Cambridge, and expected me to follow) I knew only one example as a child of a father as primary parent, and even then, there was the whispered whiff of career disgrace. And I knew no women who were simultaneously childless and not literally nuns. Discussion of children was always a when, never an if.

As another example, I have never to my knowledge met a man who was happy to cry in public. I know some men who are not embarrassed to be seen by loved ones crying in their own home, but equally some who would never let another human being know that they ever shed tears. I’ve seen my father cry exactly once, and it lasted about 5 seconds. I’m sure you can think of other examples of things that you wouldn’t even think twice about doing, but would find strange to see if you saw someone of another gender doing them. And, conversely, things that you see people of another gender doing that look normal for them, however if you did that thing or performed that behaviour, you would feel very strange.

We learn this stuff very young. We are surrounded by these assumptions and instructions about our behaviour from the time we’re born. From the moment the gendered cards are picked out in the shop, the way we talk about babies, the ‘he’s a handsome little lad’, the ‘she’s a real beauty’. There is so much that we absorb as children.

Above all, what we learn is that there is a hierarchy. There are acceptable ways to dress and behave. It is acceptable for a man to sit in the pub slouched with his legs open, but only the butchest butch woman would be able to get away with that without sidelong glances, which she may in any case be getting as a consequence of being butch. We learn that there is an order. At the top are white upper class men, at the bottom are the queer*. And each of us at every level of the hierarchy have behaviours that are allowed and behaviours that are transgressive. Things we are allowed to be, and things that would raise eyebrows if they came up over lunch at work. Max Mosley’s weekend preferences were, to many people, genuinely shocking and lowered their opinion of him in a way none of his other actions had or could. Personally, I look queer as all get out, and that’s deliberate (and the experience of deliberately dropping in the social hierarchy and the things I’ve noticed as I’ve queered myself, could make a whole other post. It’s been fascinating to consciously shed my privilege in this area) so it surprises people when they learn that I can sing a good operatic aria or two and actually, yes, I do have a favourite romantic composer (it’s Fauré).

This is the thing, though: we are all in the same fight. The fight against patriarchy’s assertion that there is a right way to be a man. That there is a right way to be a woman. That these are the only two options. That anyone who does anything different is other, and that other is the same as wrong, that they are normal, and that anything other than normal is broken.

We are not broken, we are beautiful.

Which leads me on to how we (and by we I mean feminists) create problems for ourselves.

For some people, their identity as a woman is intricately tied up with the fact that they have a womb, that they went through puberty with it, that their gender identity is the same as their political identity is the same as their gender expression, and that their opposition to patriarchy is necessarily opposition to everything that identifies as male. This is valid as a world view and a conception of self.

From this perspective, it seems logical and entirely consistent to find the concept of someone wanting to transition from one gender to another as either the enemy infiltrating your ranks, or someone defecting to the other side.  It is so important that we come to a place where we can recognise that it is entirely valid to feel that your politics are inextricably linked to your biology. That if you had been born with different anatomy, this would not have been the case. That if your biological configuration and your visible gender and your body hair and your choice to be a lesbian and your opposition to patriarchy are, for you, a coherent and inseparable centre of your identity, that this is legitimate.

But this is not the only way to be a feminist. I can imagine that if these concepts line up for you in your head, your body, your heart and your politics, that it must make a lot of things that I agonise over seem irrelevant, or an overcomplication. If you think this way, you don’t need different words for gender identity, political identity, gender expression and opposition to patriarchy, because you can say all of that with the word, ‘woman’. However, when I use the word ‘woman’, I do not automatically mean all, or indeed necessarily any, of these things. No one has a monopoly on the word ‘feminist’.

We need to find a way for this to be a legitimate personal identity without those who feel this way running over those who feel differently, and particularly, most importantly, vitally, for those who transition or have a non-binary gender. Because not everyone sees these things lining up so neatly.

We need to fight patriarchy, as the structure that oppresses us all, not divide ourselves up into small camps of people who define ourselves differently. We are human and fallible and varied and there is no one right way for us all to be. There is space in the world for both political lesbians and pansexual trans* men. For straight men who work to support their straight feminist wives who want to be housewives, and polyfamilies entirely composed of people who are all genderqueer and have been arrested multiple times for taking part in Occupy protests. We are all fighting the same structure. Some of us feel it’s jack boot more than others because of who or where we are, but we’re all being kicked.

* I am using ‘queer’ here in the broadest sense to refer to everything that patriarchy considers to be abnormal, including, but not limited to; woman, gay, trans, not white, non-neurotypical, disabled, polyamorous etc. 

I hope I don’t need to say, but in case I do, this is my blog, and if you shit all over the comments, I will clean up however I see fit. I might even screencap first. Lovely, useful or instructive comments are of course welcome.

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4 Comments
  1. I love you.

  2. stavvers permalink

    This is great, and I’m glad I read to the end, because I wasn’t sure what you were getting at a few paragraphs from the end at first. I feel like it is important to address the very real consequences for a lot of women that biological essentialists have in a little more detail, as what they do is genuinely quite dangerous for some. I’m thinking of the feminists who out trans women, etc.

    • I feel like, over the last few months, there’s been a real surge in seeing the ‘problem’ as other people rather than patriarchy. As @doodle_pops said in the last post, any identification of a problem as a ‘them and us’ problem will result in cutting at least one person somewhere in half. As you’ve said many times, feminism has issues, and we need to sort them out so that we can start tackling the real, structural problems, without worrying about and sniping at each other.

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