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A Repeat of the Titanic? The Women’s Movement and the Heterosexual Norm

Originally posted April 17, 2012. My professor didn't like the title because it's cliched. I now agree with him.

Men are studs and players, but women are whores and sluts. Men are expected to sow their wild oats, but women who do so are easy. A man has a mistress, but a woman is a courtesan, or high priced prostitute. “Boys will be boys” and girls, well, girls will be chaste, according to society’s view of “ladies.” Through a criticism of four essays from the “And When You Leave, Take Your Pictures With You: Racism in the Women’s Movement” and “Between the Lines: On culture, Class, and Homophobia” sections of This Bridge Called My Back,this paper will show that women are fractured through the heteronormative double standard related to classism and need to demonstrate compassion for others or else we will sink our ship of feminism.

Chrystos’ “I Don’t Understand Those Who Have Turned Away From Me” speaks to the major problem in feminism: a white middle class sensibility that offers no solution (68) for most women due to “gossip, bitchiness, backbiting & [sic] jealousy” (69) and a righteousness based upon privilege because the white women can “chose to be poor” (68). Chrystos says that her “attitude is all [she] owns so [she] quit school” because of the feminist “propaganda” that “does not give her any answers for correct behavior in [her] own life” (68). Chrystos, a lesbian, is “afraid of white people,” but white feminists’ “heterosexual indifference allows [her] more freedom to be [her]self” (69) because they ignore instead of attack her. It’s already “extremely difficult to like oneself in a culture which thinks [one is] a disease” because of lesbianism, but “the lies, pretensions, the snobbery & [sic] cliquishness” of the white feminist movement made it a “struggle [for Chrystos] to be accepted” as did its “most superficial rules,” “racism,” and “gross lack of love” (69). Why didn’t the women care “to see about [her] and who she was instead of being “so rarely loyal” and having “no joy, no new roads” for feminism to travel (69, author’s emphasis)? Chrystos says that the white women do not have to be loyal and expect “status. . .& [sic] respect without labor” (70). Women of all sorts, lesbian or heterosexual, should be respected “simply because [they] exist” (70).

Rosario Morales tells us that she is “white skinned and puertorican [sic]” in “We’re All in the Same Boat” (91). She was “born into the working class and married into the middle class” and has been involved in the “Puerto Rican communist & independence movements” as well as the feminist movement (91). She says that “class and color and sex do not define people” (92). What defines people are “their struggles against” the oppressions of heterosexism, classism, and racism (93). Playing this “enormous game of musical chairs” (92), where we continue to be divided by class and color (91), is “no way to live” (92). Morales would like to “claim [her]self to be puertorican [sic], and U.S. american [sic], working class & middle class, housewife and intellectual, feminist, Marxist, and anti-imperialist. . .so [she] can struggle with it” (92). These are roles that she does not wish to isolate nor does she wish to reconcile them. Separated, they leave her fragmented, but together, existing at the same time, they leave her whole. Because we are different people with different experiences, “we know different things” (93). Fragmenting ourselves due to race, gender, sexual identity, or even sexual preference keeps us from unifying. Fighting amongst ourselves defeats our common purpose: the destruction of all forms of oppression. Morales says that “the basis of our unity is that in the most important way we are all in the same boat” (93). All of us have experienced oppression and fragmentation, and that is all we need to come together. According to Barbara Smith, “[We] don’t necessarily have to like or love the people [we]’re in coalition with” (Smith and Smith 126), but through our unity we cannot be conquered.

Cheryl Clarke’s “Lesbianism: An Act of Resistance” begins with the statement that for a “woman to be a lesbian in a male-supremacist. . .culture. . . is an act of resistance” (128). “The lesbian has decolonized her body” because she refuses “to define [herself] in relation to men” (128). “Any woman who calls herself a feminist,” Clarke states, “must commit herself to the liberation of all women from coerced heterosexuality as it manifests itself in the family, the state, and on Madison Avenue” (129, author’s emphasis). Lesbianism, then, “is a means of liberation” (129) from the “heterosexual, patriarchal culture” (128). “Gender oppression, i.e. the male exploitation and control of women’s productive and reproductive energies on the specious basis of a biological difference” indicates that “sexual monogamy. . .[is] for women only” (131). Men believe that they are supposed to “‘take care of us’ because we are women,” but that translates to controlling us through the economic power of the male in the work force, the “dominant” sex earning money to support his family (133). This “system of patriarchal domination is buttressed by the subjugation of women through heterosexuality,” Clarkes asserts (130). “The white man learned, within the structure of heterosexual monogamy and under the system of patriarchy, to relate to black people – slave or free – as a man relates to a woman, viz. as property, as a sexual commodity, as a servant, as a source of free or cheap labor, and as an innately inferior being,” she continues (131, author’s emphasis). This idea of women as objects leads to “predatory heterosexuality” and the idea that the male’s sexual needs are greater than all others, allowing him to break “his racist and racialist laws and taboos. . .in terms of [sexual relationships with] the black slave woman just as [he broke] his classist laws and taboos regarding the relationship between the ruling class and the [white] indentured servants. . . he chose to rape (134). Black women “could never depend on . . .[black men] ‘to take care of [them]’ on their resources alone (133) because the “black man. . .lacks the capital means and racial privilege” as a result of the white patriarchy’s oppression (132). The white patriarchy’s preying on women of all colors has resulted in a “divide and conquer” strategy to dominate women; this ploy has been successful because “both [white and black] women have grown hostile to each other” (135) because of competition for male approval. Because each woman “still believes that the other is getting away with something both can be fooled into mis-channeling their frustration onto each other rather than onto the real enemy, ‘The Man’ (136). The “Black dyke, like most black women, has been conditioned to be self-sufficient, i.e. not dependent on men” (133) and is, as a result, the most threatening to the male patriarchy. By “vehemently resist[ing] being bound by the white man’s racist, sexist laws, which have endangered potential intimacy of any kind between whites and blacks” (135), by defying “the taboo [of intimate relationship], then [women] begin to transform the history of relationships between black women and white women (136) and can recreate the “ancient act of woman-bonding beyond the sexual, the private, the personal” (134). This bonding among women of various ethnicities would defeat the divide and conquer strategy and allow us to focus energies on male repression of women instead of on each other. We can then stop fighting for room in steerage class to be the ones, not on top, but side by side.

Barbara and Beverly Smith discuss several issues related to feminism in “Across the Kitchen Table: A Sister-to-Sister Dialogue,” but the most salient discussion for this essay is their discussion of lesbianism as it relates to the feminist movement and black women in particular. The major difference between black and white lesbians is that black lesbians may “not identify as feminists. . . [because they] base their lives in the Black community” (120). This appears contradictory to the idea of feminism, but feminism also is against the domination of people through skin color. Barbara says that white feminists accuse “lesbians of color. . .of being ‘male identified’ because [they] are concerned with issues that affect [the] whole race (121). The reason lesbian separatism exists, according to Beverly, is “because in being separatist [white lesbians] were separating themselves from white men….they had to separate themselves from white men to even have a fighting chance” (121). But white lesbianism has had its own privilege. Black lesbians (and black women in general) have been lynched because whites do “not even view. . .[black women] as women” (122, author’s emphasis). The thinking was that “some false chivalry” would occur and white men would rescue the women, but black women are not even seen as female (122). According to Beverly, “some separatists believe that although women are racist, when men disappear and no longer rule, racism will not be a problem” (122). “What lesbian separatists are saying is that when we get rid of men, sexism and racism will end too,” she continues. “I think that this is one of the most racist aspects of it because it does not recognize the racism that women, including lesbians, have” (123). “There is no such thing as a non-racist,” Barbara concurs (123). But Black lesbians have been “cut cold by [their] own” (124). When women, and black women in particular, ignore lesbianism as a part of the feminist movement “they may have to deal with their own deep feelings for women” (124). Continuing on, Barbara says that the way “most Black women deal with [lesbianism] is to be just as rigid and closed about it as possible” (124) while Beverly states that “lesbianism is. . .seen as a white thing. . .[as is]. . .suicide” (124); homosexuality is viewed as a “white disease within the Black community” (125). But feminism is not about fracturing people based upon their sexual identification just as it is not about fracturing people based upon their skin color or their mental health. According to Barbara, though, “[heterosexual privilege is] always the last to go” (125). The issue is to form “principled coalitions around specific issues. . . .[We] don’t necessarily have to like or love the people [we]’re in coalition with” (126). What is really radical “is trying to make coalitions with people who are different from [us]” (126). It is not a “one dimensional, one-issue. . .[platform]. . . in our political understanding,” she continues (127). There needs to be a constant “challenging [of] white women, usually on the issues of racism but not always,” Beverly says. We need to “challeng[e]. . .[all] women to go further, to be more realistic” even in terms of dealing with issues of sexuality in terms of choice so that all women are free from oppression (127). It’s a matter of support (126) for women in their endeavors.

What do we do when women (or men, for that matter) are not free to be themselves, to have control over their own bodies, and to engage or not engage with the men and women of our choosing? We are oppressed, and we fracture as we try to submit our desires to those of society, specifically to those of the white middle class male patriarchy that is supported by white feminism. As a Christian heterosexual middle class female I believe in certain moral truths. But this is not a discussion of the morality of others’ lives. In America, people of all backgrounds and beliefs are supposed to have the civil liberty, the freedom, to choose how to live. When we expect all people to live with a particular mindset, whether that mindset espouses middle class values of, say, not leaving junked cars in the yard or heteronormative values of male-female only sexual relationships, we oppress others and deny them the ability to choose. Forcing an entire system of beliefs on others is not civil liberty.

There are two situations from my life that apply here.

The first is the classism that continues to exist in the feminist movement and which I struggle with. As a high school English and remedial reading teacher for fifteen years, I deal with students from a variety of backgrounds, not all of which are similar to mine. With one student in particular, I have struggled all year with appropriate methods of dealing with her need to spit. I was raised not to spit. My mother told me to swallow it, and that was what I did. When I began teaching, I heard another white female middle class teacher (who had been my math teacher in high school) tell of having trouble with girls spitting in the garbage can. Her solution was to have the girls discretely spit into tissue and throw the tissue away. But this did not and has not worked with this fifteen-year-old black female. As best I could tell, her hocking a loogie was a way to get attention. The best I’ve managed this year is to get her to spit quietly into the garbage can, which is at least part of the point – not interrupting class to take care of bodily functions. I am actually surprised at how much I cling to “middle class” values regarding propriety and what constitutes lady-like behavior. My husband and I frequently bicycle to our local YMCA to exercise, a route that takes us through a neighborhood near our city’s sewage treatment plant. A couple months ago, signs appeared. These signs said, “Low Class – Throw Trash: Don’t Litter. Keep Our Neighborhood Clean” and featured at the top a banner in red, white, and blue. At first I thought, “Alright! That’s just what we need,” but then I realized that this was a stereotype of poorer neighbors that fed off the idea of patriotism. The color scheme gave the patriotism away, but if my grandmother, who was the epitome of propriety, prudishness and snobbery, and was firmly entrenched in the middle- to upper-middle class when she died, if my own grandmother, who was certainly not low class, can manage to throw a coffee cup out the back window of a car when she was done because “there was no where to put it” then this is a stereotype that must go. One of the two Low Class signs was replaced with a “Home to Good Neighbors: We Take Pride in Our Community” sign while the remaining Low Class sign remains a bit more inconspicuous.

The second issue I need to address involves that of female bonding, homosexuality, and heterosexuality within the feminist movement. It has been relatively easy for me to address homosexuality in terms of males in past essays. While I morally disagree with the issue based upon my Christian values, I do agree that homosexuals deserve civil liberty, including the right to marry and have health insurance. It is not easy for these two fragments to exist within me, but they do, and there appears to be no reconciliation of these issues at this point in time. It is easy to deal with sexuality when it is not personally connected with oneself. I certainly feel more comfortable around my male gay student than I ever did around the female gay student I had about a decade ago. But there’s more to lesbianism than simply sexual intercourse. Female bonding is a very real necessity for women that is often ignored. Men have male bonding activities, but women, too, need communities where we feel supported, and we should be able to refer to it as female bonding. I think a turning point has been occurring for me over the last year. Earlier this school year, a black female who is a junior in my remedial reading class (and a girl with whom I get along very well) approached me with one of her female friends who is also black. The girls were holding hands, and my student said, “Look, Mrs. Childree, this is my girlfriend.” My response was to say, “Okay.” I think her point was to try and get a reaction as she repeated the behavior the following week and then a month later. She seemed happy for whatever reason, whether it was to see if she could get a reaction or the fact that she was simply holding her friend’s hand. But this is a student who has demonstrated heterosexual behavior, so again, I did not feel threatened. Two black sophomore girls in my English class, though, held hands with each other two class periods in a row last week. One of the girls is the aforementioned girl with whom I have classism issues. The other I do not have such issues with. The girls were resting their hands on the table, holding hands, not causing a disturbance, and were participating in class. I decided not to call attention to their behavior, but one of their friends, a black male, did begin to stare at them. One of the girls asked him why he was staring and then said, “This? What’s wrong with this?” My response was to tell the boy to leave them alone, that sometimes we need to feel supported and that this is one way the girls were supporting each other. The one girl, the same one I have classism issues with, is several months pregnant. Again, I was not threatened because at least one girl’s heterosexuality had been confirmed for me, but I saw the situation, the friendship between the girls as sweet. I wished that I had a friend as close as these two are who would be willing to openly support me by holding my hand in public. The difference with me, though, is that I am not one for physical contact with anyone. I do have a coworker who is a good friend who tells me that if I need a hug to please come see her, and she’ll give me a hug, and I have done so, even to the point of asking for a hug when she has students in her room.

The point is that we are all individuals. We come from different backgrounds and have different histories, but we all share one element. As women, we are all in the same boat, and it makes no sense to shoot holes into the bottom of the boat and then try to bail water. We will end up sinking. Gender discrimination and the double standard regarding acceptable behavior for men and women have already put enough holes in the boat of femininity. Why would we want to add more water to the sinking boat? So, here’s a life raft. Get over it! Women need each other. We need to feel loved and supported. We may not want to show our love in a similar way (I prefer private acts of affection, writing notes, and having meals with my female friends), but we can show respect and support for each other by not sabotaging others’ efforts to end oppression. We can empathize with others’ difficulties and try to understand the situation they are in and why they may choose to act as they do. We may think we’re unsinkable, but we’re not. Let’s not end up like the Titanic. Let’s work together instead of working against each other.

Works Cited

Chrystos. “I Don’t Understand Those Who Have Turned Away From Me.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. 68-70. Print.

Clarke, Cheryl. “Lesbianism: An Act of Resistance.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. 128-137. Print.

Morales, Rosario. “We’re All in the Same Boat.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. 91-93. Print.

Smith, Barabara and Beverly Smith. “Across the Kitchen Table: A Sister-to-Sister Dialogue.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. 113-127. Print.

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