Unselfish Female Feminists: True or False?

Dear CF, Subashini, we are all from earth, and others,

I started replying to you all in the commenting section of this post but it got so long that I broke the comments box. Please bear with me–this is a great conversation, one well worth having. [ETA: I’m so long-winded that this turned into two posts. Part 2 is coming.]

CF, you said this:

Conversations about consent (in all situations) remove this luxury [of un-self-consciousness] from both parties by making everybody self-conscious, kind of clearing the way for both to have access to that great concentrated place of “optimal experience.” This being said, I still don’t know how to do it.

I don’t know if this works! I’m eager to hear about your findings. “Flow” or “optimal experience” only emerges (in Mikhaly Csikszentmihalyi’s account, anyway) as a function of productive un-self-consciousness. According to that logic, the ideal solution would be to eliminate the woman’s self-consciousness, not to cripple the man and the woman’s psyche equally.

On the other hand, there are two frames of reference here: one artistic, one domestic. You’re talking about self-consciousness and its absence on a different scale. I doubt Csikszentmihalyi would insist that consciousness of chores or the work of domestic living impinges on creative time—flow isn’t a permanent state, after all, it’s a characteristic mode in which expertise can flourish with spontaneous automaticity.

But the one can facilitate or obstruct the point of access to the other.  If you’re always self-conscious, you’re probably lacking the luxury of “falling into your cortex,” as my dad puts it, which means you don’t get to step into creative time.

Relatedly, I’m unconvinced by our historical consensus that all great artists(I’m looking at you, Picasso, Milton, Stein) need ministering angels to protect from the demands of dirty dishes and other mundane life responsibilities. (Look at Spenser! Austen! Donne!)

I’m intrigued by your theory that if the domestic burden is shared (and by”domestic burden” I think you mean the mental work of resisting the domestic defaults which the more privileged partner doesn’t even realize s/he is imposing) and the “luxury” inherent in that posture isn’t removed but rather redistributed, the unself-consciousness can be shared too. Which gives greater creative space to all.

That’s a utopian vision, and I like it. ETA: I don’t quite know what that vision looks like yet. I’d add one interesting caveat: “flow” is contingent on expertise. In other words, novices use a lot more physical and mental energy to perform a task than an expert does, because the effort and training drains resources. Real flow isn’t quite unconscious, but it’s close—it comes from a place of deep practice. It’s muscle memory, it’s habit. Like playing the piano: when you’re new, you have to think about every finger movement. When you’ve played for awhile (or typed), you don’t even think about what your fingers are doing. They’ve become a means to an end.

That could explain why people accustomed to privilege don’t realize they’re exerting it (they’re experts), and why novices seeking to establish parity might find it amazingly taxing.

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on all this.

On to your last point: you speculated on ways of turning the selfish into the political, to which I say, phew. Talk about a problem people have been working on for 2000 years.

It’s obviously easier to start with the opposite scenario: The reason martyrdom is so powerful (see Tunisia, or Foxe’s Acts and Monuments) is that it explicitly sacrifices the self on behalf of a larger cause. This is why male feminists always (and perhaps rightly, looking at it strictly from this POV) are deemed more noble than women, who are almost invariably perceived as self-serving.

I’m going to get back to your question, but I want to insist on inverting it:

Is there a way for a woman to be a feminist without being selfish?

Only if we allow that such a philosophical position is theoretically possible, which many people don’t.

I’m always surprised, in conversations I have with people on feminist topics (or in response to things I’ve written here), at how quickly they assume that I’m responding to a personal set of circumstances—frequently I get advised to try harder, be more aggressive, not give up on my dream!

The assumption seems to be that the main reason I’m thinking through these issues is that I’m personally affected.

The intentions are usually very good, but I must clarify that there isn’t a perfect correlation between the things I write about here and my personal challenges.  Don’t get me wrong: you and I have talked plenty about personal stuff on this here blog (much of that was before we had any kind of audience—hi audience! We’re delighted to have you!).  What’s more, we keep things personal to some extent because this is an epistolary format and the point of letters is that they’re voiced differently than, say, articles. Still, it seems that several people assume that everything we write about must be private. Not universal, but personal.

In defense of the theoretical possibility of an unselfish (or un-self-centered) feminist-authored blog, I’d like to gently remind everyone that there are other alternatives.

For example, neither of us has gotten pregnant or given birth. And yet. And yet. And yet. And yet. And yet. And yet. And yet. And yet.

I haven’t been seduced by the “pseudo-philosophy” of Eat, Pray, Love, or The Celestine Prophecy, or Carlos Castaneda, or Paulo Coelho, and yet.

You don’t plan to be in a Hollywood movie, and yet.

I haven’t participated in a beauty pageant, and yet.

Neither of us have foreskins, and yet.

We haven’t lost a child, and yet.

I am not an anti-American spy.

You are not a director.

I’m taking us as a test case because we here at Millicent and Carla Fran have a particular epistemological relationship to how the personal can be a useful vehicle for thinking through universal issues that isn’t unique to us—that exists, in fact, across several woman-authored sites. And not just woman-authored; the principle I’m describing is constitutive of “creative nonfiction,” gonzo journalism, etc.

In our case, we’re formally combining the strategies that inform the writing of letters vs. the writing of essays. (Essays in the Montaigne sense–essais, from essayer, attempt: that which explicitly acknowledges that what follows is an open-ended effort.)

That’s not particularly interesting—I’m just pointing it out because it’s a slight departure from what a number of other sites do. What is interesting is the view that sites that use personal material are a priori guilty of navel-gazing.

Now, that’s often true. Blogs are known for their tendency to become semi-public diaries. But that’s an early account of the blogosphere that doesn’t take into consideration the many uses it’s been put to since, and all the ways in which writers of creative nonfiction have taken to the internet with verve. This simply isn’t an applicable stereotype anymore. Even when the personal intrudes, there’s something categorically different about the way many people use blogs. In particular, the way women who write on feminist issues use blogs.

In our case, this is actually (to get academic for a second) a principled intellectual posture: including a personal element acknowledges that there’s a perspective (actually two) informing the discussion. It sacrifices the claim to total objectivity. Revealing one’s personal proclivities is in this sense an ethical disclosure, no different from the journalistic practice of full disclosure. It’s a means of keeping oneself honest. To speak in universals is arrogant and irresponsible.

(Yes. I know what I did there.)

But it’s also a means toward acknowledging the power of community and culture over how we experience life. As Ampersand put it in this great post on privilege, “The more privileged you are, the easier it is to envision human beings as pure individuals, unconnected to other individuals in any way that matters.”

While we’re on the subject of the individual vs. the universal, I want to take a minute, partly to reassure those who assume that our writing is motivated by personal despair, partly because it’s a decent human practice to examine all the ways in which I have, through no virtue of my own, power that’s denied to others so that I can try to correct the ways in which I personally replicate those power structures.

I have a million different kinds of privilege. I know they’ll work if I need them to. They have in the past, they will in the future. It offends my sense of justice that that’s true, but that’s true. While technically I’m half  “woman of color,” in real life, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone pastier. Therefore I have white privilege. I have a fast metabolism. Thin privilege. I grew up middle class. Class privilege. I went to good schools. I happen to fit one standard of attractiveness. Privilege. I’m able-bodied. Privilege. I’m young. Privilege. I’m heterosexual. Privilege. I’m cis.  Privilege. I’m American. PRIVILEGE.

What that means for me is that I’ve had the incredible good fortune to not know a huge part of the human experience. I am massively ignorant, and this is one instance where ignorance is undeniably bliss.

A partial list: I don’t know what it’s like to be stopped by police because of how I look. I don’t have to worry about trying to prove my worth by learning a set of social graces we associate with class. If I’m sick, people don’t assume it’s because I eat too much. Nobody judges me on my (unhealthy) selection at a restaurant or lectures me out of concern “for my health.” No one assumes, by looking at me, that I’m lazy and lack self-control (both of which are true). I don’t get stared at or mocked for having a wheelchair. I don’t know what it’s like to have to plan my routes around the presence or absence of wheelchair ramps and elevators.  I don’t know what it’s like to have someone look at me and be afraid, disgusted or uncomfortable. I don’t know what it’s like to have people assume my level of education or income based on how I dress.  I don’t know what it’s like to have someone assume I’m bad or mean or boring because I don’t fit their aesthetic standard and am “ugly”.

There’s so much I don’t have to prove every day—or even think about—that it makes my head spin.

Being in possession of all those kinds of privilege, I feel it’s incumbent upon me as a human being who aspires to basic decency to listen to and learn from people who do encounter those obstacles every day. The only way I can do that is by listening, and engaging with them in a way that recognizes their equal intelligence and agency. This is the flip side of privilege: for me to advise a black man (for example) writing about black issues to just try harder would be condescending and absurd, however helpful my intentions. It assumes, among other things, that in all the time he’s spent thinking and writing about the issue, this solution simply never occurred to him. It also presumes that I, a relative newcomer to the set of circumstances he describes, am automatically and instantaneously equipped to solve his problem.

That is not helpful. While it’s true that we’re all in control of our personal responses, the scope of the hypothetical black man’s discussion is the intersection between society and his agency–and the ways the former constrains the latter. While my intentions were good, the effect of dispensing “transcend your circumstances” advice is both to insult his intelligence and to further isolate the person who is working to communicate to me the ways in which society interacts with his personhood differently from mine. By shifting the terms of the discussion back to his behavior, I’m both registering the extent of my ignorance and ignoring, in turn, the terms of the conversation he is trying to have.

Blowing past the terms of the conversation your interlocutor is trying to have with you is an excellent way to shut down a dialogue.

So, getting back to the original question, which has faded into the background: is it possible for a female feminist to be unselfish?

I think it is.

I don’t know if that’s quite what we’re doing here. Here’s why.

Here—at least in those posts at Millicent and Carla Fran that are feminist in orientation—I’d say that our intention is to help those who are interested, in their turn, in what it’s like to live in this particular world as a particular kind of woman, by talking. For us, that means including ourselves, not out of self-interest, but because it’s important that you know how we think so that you can judge what we have to say and understand that it arises out of particular viewpoints. It’s a way to restore the reader’s agency—to make her conscious that she’s reading something a person wrote, not a disembodied author with a divine grip on the Truth.

Again: what I’m suggesting here it’s that it’s time to reframe “personal” subject matter as necessary but not sufficient for navel-gazing. Sometimes narrating your perspective isn’t narcissistic upchucking; sometimes it’s a principled decision.

In a nutshell: Acknowledging that your point of view is not objective isn’t unselfish—that’s a weird word for it—but it is an act of humility.

CF and I haven’t personally struggled with every aspect of femininity we discuss here. As the posts above show (I hope!), we haven’t, and we talk about a lot of other things too.  This is an epistolary blog between two women. HOWEVER, it does not follow that letters between women are always only personal and confessional in nature, rather than discussions of more abstract ideas. The presence of the one does not preclude the presence of the other.

To reiterate: while parts of our discussion have been deeply felt, many do not arise out of our own life experience. Whether that makes them (or us) selfish or unselfish strikes me as a basically uninteresting question. Were individual civil rights activists selfish?* Those terms seem inadequate, irrelevant, sort of like asking whether The Social Network was vegetarian.

But—and this a big but, and this, CF, was your question:

What if you ARE selfish, and a feminist? Is an effective political marriage between the two possible?

That—and my answer to Subashini—is in the next post, because this one has gotten absurdly long.



*Not claiming that we’re civil rights activists, by the way, but the question seems equally absurd when applied to both, I think.

One Response to Unselfish Female Feminists: True or False?

  1. bungars says:

    Could we think about this differently by perhaps rescuing the category of selfish? Can’t we save that as a category? No one thinks the Palestinians are selfish for wanting a state, or wanting not to have their electricity shut off or their kids killed. In fact, I’ve always felt sort of patronizing taking on causes that don’t include me. I feel much more noble being politically vocal about burka-clad women than with Palestinian men. If I too suffer from what she suffers, even only a little bit, then my sympathy amounts for standing up for my cause; whereas if I am free of the burden of starving, for example, my vocality will be tinged by pity, which I don’t think is a productive political emotion. Do you think this is a feasible way of saving selfish?

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