Monday, April 14, 2014

A list of one's own

Dear Miss Manners:
Those of us working for women’s rights have been advised to take a “ladylike” approach. We tried emulating the behavior of our opposition, but this hardly seemed ladylike. Could you provide a precise definition of “ladylike”?
Gentle Reader:
A lady is, above all, someone who is passionately concerned that others be treated with dignity, fairness, and justice. It has always been considered ladylike, for instance, to fight for these things on behalf of children, animals, and one’s husband. The difficulty you are encountering on the subject is that many people do no consider it ladylike to fight that battle on one’s own behalf. Therefore, if a woman truly wishes to be ladylike, she will fight for dignity, fairness, and justice, not for herself, but for all other women.

From Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior by Judith Martin, copyright 1982

At The Federalist, David Marcus is writing about the aftermath of concerns in the world of American theater over “the lack of work by women playwrights at major American theaters”:

Asked to explain the reason for this well established low representation of plays by women, one artist director explained that there just aren’t enough talented women playwrights in the pipeline, and that it will take at least a decade to fix the problem. 

According to Marcus, this was generally viewed as “an inane explanation and one that is insulting to thousands of women playwrights who face real, institutional barriers to having their work produced.” As a result of this exchange, “several theater artists” started “compiling lists of accomplished women playwrights.” So far, so good.

However, the resulting lists (now collapsed into a document called “We Exist”) are not, after all, lists of women playwrights. Instead they have become a list of “Female and/or Trans* Playwrights”. Marcus is taken aback by the asterisk after “Trans” but assumes that the term “Trans*” refers to people who were born anatomically male, identify as transgender or transsexual, and have either undergone hormone treatment and surgery to become female or are living as women. This, he says, is problematic for two reasons:

The inclusion of trans* writers suggests that a theater company can fulfill its commitment to gender parity without actually producing any plays written by people born as women.  And in a more fundamental way it reduces the meaning of the word woman to whatever a man thinks it means since at any point a man can decide he is a woman and expect to be considered one.

Why is this a problem for the theaters?

The stories we tell help to frame and create the society we live in.  Hearing women’s stories is valuable for the entire culture, especially at a time when the role of women is changing at an unprecedented pace.  When the stories of a group of people numbering more than half our population are excluded, our understanding of gender, and of each other suffers.  This is true (though on a much, much smaller scale) of the stories of trans* artists as well. But the experiences and identities of the trans* community cannot be conflated with the experiences and identity of women in general.  Pretending these experiences are one and the same may be inclusive and progressive, but it is also dishonest and disempowering.

Apparently, however, Marcus has misunderstood the meaning of the term “trans*”. It does not refer simply to those born anatomically male who have become, or are living as, women. Rather the asterisk at the end is far more sweeping than that. According to It’s Pronounced Metrosexual:

A few people have asked why I write “trans*” (with the asterisk) instead of just “trans” when referring to trans* folks on my site.  [snip]

Trans* is an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum.  There’s a ton of diversity there, but we often group them all together (e.g., when we say “trans* issues).  Trans (without the asterisk) is best applied to trans men and trans women, while the asterisk makes special note in an effort to include all non-cisgender gender identities, including transgender, transsexual, transvestite, genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, genderfuck, genderless, agender, non-gendered, third gender, two-spirit, bigender, and trans man and trans woman.

In other words, it appears that the term “trans*” refers to everyone except cis-men (those who were born anatomically male, have remained anatomically male, present as male/masculine, and identify as male); and cis-women (those who were born anatomically female, have remained anatomically female, present as female/feminine, and identify as female).

Given this, the “We Exist” list is open to everyone except cis-men. Both Marcus’ points are still valid and his second point - that “the experiences and identity of the ‘trans*’ community cannot be conflated with the experiences and identity of women in general - is perhaps even more valid. However, this is not, as Marcus’ piece frets, about a “new definition of women”. That would be problematic for the reasons Marcus describes but it would at least be about women fighting for women, albeit not just women as traditionally defined. Rather this is the same old story: A group of women start out fighting for themselves and end up fighting for everyone else.

This is the pre-Civil War suffragettes diverting their attention to abolition - and waiting 55 years for the right to vote. This is Ms. magazine “switch[ing] its focus from supporting women’s rights to supporting Third World peoples who had been oppressed by the Western European patriarchy.” This is another iteration of what I noticed in the 1990’s:

Much of feminist discussion now seemed to revolve around including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered concerns as an intrinsic part of feminism.

This is feminism becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, required to support the Party’s agenda first and women second, third, or last. Or, no, not required - that’s the puzzle and the heartbreak. No one forced feminism to subjugate its mission to that of the Democratic Party; no one forced feminists to become obsessed with LGBT issues or forced Ms. magazine to turn its focus from women to Third World peoples; no one forced the early suffragettes to spend time, energy, and resources on abolition. And, so far as I know, no one forced the people who set out to put together lists of women playwrights to expand - and dilute - that list to include everyone who isn’t a man with a capital “M”.

Women do this to themselves. Apparently whatever other aspects of “ladylike” behavior have been lost along the way, far too many modern women are convinced it is wrong for them to fight to be treated with “dignity, fairness, and justice”. Even worse, they believe it is wrong for women to fight for other women to be so treated. Oh, they can perhaps mention themselves in the fight but really so many other people are suffering that it would be mean and selfish of women to think of themselves. The only proper course is to, once again, subjugate women’s concerns to those of every other person and group who has suffered, appears to suffer, and/or claims to suffer from some type of discrimination, disrespect, or insufficient attention. The goddess forbid women should stand up for themselves first and trust all those other people and groups to stand up for themselves.

I can only conclude that far too many women consider themselves somehow unworthy of being fought for. This is sexism of a very peculiar but oddly familiar kind: it is internalized sexism. Sounds like feminism desperately needs another round of consciousness raising.


E Hines said...

Maybe the feminists of the movement just suffer from ADD. [g]

Women do this to themselves. ...far too many modern women are convinced it is wrong for them to fight to be treated with “dignity, fairness, and justice”. ...but really so many other people are suffering that it would be mean and selfish of women to think of themselves.

I see another problem here--not a sole factor, perhaps, but IMNSHO an important one, and it's in that last bit remaining from my perhaps overzealous editing. Women aren't the only ones who do this to themselves; although, as the more empathetic gender (says chauvinist me), perhaps they're more susceptible to the pressure. Liberals generally are constantly charging, "You selfish person. What about all these other poor, downtrodden people?" It's ugly, too, for Conservatives, and blunter: "You racists. How dare you not join with us on our issues!?"

In this regard, Henry Higgins was right: why can't a woman be more like a man? At least regarding the degree of focus and single-mindedness the stereotypical male has. Stay on topic, and don't let others with their own agenda arrogate--or failing that, deprecate--yours.

The lack of women in any endeavor (nearly) is a matter of socialization, interest, and choice--and the interactions among these. We'd likely be better off with more women in lots of arenas, but only if they're there voluntarily. Women indentureds aren't any more valuable than men indentureds.

I've always been a fan of enlightened selfishness. If you don't keep yourself up to snuff, how can you help anyone else, especially when that help will take everything you have?

Eric Hines

Elise said...

I agree this is a thread running through much of the Left's thinking, that to think of one's own identity without thinking equally of other identity groups who are "downtrodden" is wrong. And I agree that women may well be more susceptible to it than non-women - and would argue that's part of women doing it to themselves. My impression - and it is just an impression - is that a lot of other groups primarily give lip service to this idea or use it as a weapon. Women often seem to buy into completely - to their detriment.