Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What is Women's Courage When Men Define the Terms?

image is from here
Over at Shakesville, I just read Melissa's post "Women are Brave", which you may link back to by clicking *here*. Rather than post a comment on a feminist blog, I'll put my comment here in my own space. I've learned that a male voice isn't always appropriate, and is often enough unwelcome, in spaces designed to be woman-centered.

Her post led me to think back to something I once read by Andrea Dworkin on the subject. I did some searching and found Andrea Dworkin's chapter in her book Our Blood, called "The Sexual Politics of Fear and Courage". A scanned version of the book is available to be read as a pdf document (or may be downloaded) *here*.

As I reflect on Melissa's blog, Dworkin's work, and on the purgatory of contemporary U.S. society, I am struck with the degree to white men define the terms so many of us live by. Inside a white male supremacist system, "courage" is traditionally and ubiquitously understood to be masculine in nature, belonging to men; a capacity understood patriarchally to be inherently male and associated with strength. Fear is understood to be feminine in nature, the "natural" province of women, and is associated with weakness. For men and boys to be what men determine to be "weak", including by being afraid, is--so the status quo society says--to be less manly and more like a woman or girl. For women to be courageous and strong as men define it, is to be unwomanly and more like a man. If she isn't punished for being "brave" in the patriarchal definition of the word, she might gain temporary male status.

In Melissa's incisive account of a stand-up comedy club, I find examples of how men define not only terms but also act them out in social spaces. At the club, a combination of men's sexual violence against women, including the threat of violence and "jovial" harassment and objectification, ensures that women aren't likely to be too unafraid. As Dworkin has stated, "By the time we are women, fear is as familiar to us as air. It is our element. We live in it, we inhale it, we exhale it, and most of the time we do not even notice it." Curiously, the only men I know personally who seem to have this deep-seated fear-orientation to the world are male survivors of child sexual abuse. While women do, in fact, live with courage and bravery as they negotiate many challenges and obstacles, men do their best and worst to make sure fear, in women, is never completely irrational or unwarranted.

The misogynist violence that men direct at women ensures that those men aren't seen--by other woman-hating men--as too weak. Rape is one of many acts in which males may cast off their supposed weakness and exercise patriarchal power by terrorising and violating women. War is another realm where men get to be brave and heroic by doing violence and 'conquering' fear, against the bodies, minds, and spirits of threatened people. Military war, when perpetrated by the Western world, is also the place where imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism are acted out in patriarchal terms. Invasion is always sexualised in the male supremacist imagination.

It's going to be interesting to see how U.S. female soldiers in military combat are regarded by male soldiers: will the women be seen as heroic, like the men? Will any individual woman in military combat be treated more like one of the guys? Or will her patriarchally-defined courage be seen as tainted by her gender? (Sort of the way bigoted straight men argue that marriage is tainted if queers--defined by dominant straight male society as feminine men and masculine women--can do it too.) A serious concern is that any woman in military combat may be additionally vulnerable to rape by male soldiers who want to be sure she doesn't believe she's equal to men. I say additionally because we know this is already happening endemically and systematically to civilian girls and women, and to women troops off the battlefield. Or, rather, off the battlefield that men name as such, for many private and social spaces men occupy are battlefields for women, such as the bed, the home, the workplace, and the street.

We also know that U.S. male soldiers practice rape against the women and girls of invaded countries, usually populated by people of color: even a partial list of such countries invaded and/or occupied by U.S. troops or covert operations is long: Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Grenada, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Taken together, the body count is in the many hundreds of thousands; how many of those murder victims were also victims of rape is impossible to say. It was likely to be grossly under-reported or not reported at all: all forms of men's sexual violence is under-reported because terrorising people and forcing submission works to silence and shame them. If we leave out all other European countries that made conquest and occupation of other sovereign nations a national pastime, and only focus on Britain's imperial invasions, we are left with very few countries untouched by brutal, white imperial/patriarchal force. (Source for that comment is *here*.)

What we may notice internationally in the West is that when European white women are in seats of typically and traditionally white male power, they sometimes argue, over the disdainful shouts of men, for equality not supremacy. See, for example: To End Extreme Poverty, Let’s Try Ending Extreme Wealth or this: This bold equality push is just what we needed. In 1997.

When we consider the politics of many prominent, activist women of color, we see comprehensive intersectional analysis and proposals for global peace and justice. See, for example: Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development, by Vandana Shiva, and The Winona LaDuke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings.

A flip side of this issue of gender and courage is seen when we try and make heroes of  men who preached against many forms of violence, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or John Lennon. This is not at all to say either man was non-violent historically in their own lives. At least John Lennon spoke honestly about his abuses as such and endeavored to be a different kind of man in his later years. At least Dr. King set an honorable example of how to love one's enemy while holding them accountable for their crimes against humanity. But when such men advocate peace-not-war, or equality with women, they become vulnerable to being stigmatised 'feminine'.

Referencing Melissa's post, it says a great deal that men on stage doing comedy or men in the audience, need to reinforce and verbalize the worst aspects of male supremacist/patriarchal practice, and in particular to affirm a phallic identity. I admire the woman who did her own comedy, successfully, disproving so much that is taught in a racist patriarchal society like ours about women's power to create something new that is solely hers while deeply shared, in the midst of a culture of sexual predation and cultural appropriation. More power to her. More power to all women fighting for justice and equality.

Despite the saying that sits atop this post, liberally redefining terms won't shift society's political hierarchies. Many of us strive to make language express the complexities of who we are. As I listen to those singly or multiply oppressed, I hear again and again how difficult it is to make the dominant language speak their truths. It is courageous, isn't it, to endure and survive rape and warfare? I'd say so. But will patriarchal men ever see the courage of it, or only determine her survival to be a residual sign of his weakness?

However we maneuver meanings and memes, such effort is insufficient if our goal is liberation. The means and machinery of gynocidal straight male supremacy and genocidal and imperialist white supremacy must be shut down; new systems and institutions fostering equality and non-violence must become the status quo. Only then will new definitions have rooting and resonance beyond small, non-dominant groups of people. And only then will whole truths be spoken about life under siege, without interruption and mistranslation by the former masters.

Referring back to the phrasing in the image above, I'd say: "When peace-work is routinely seen as courageous, and war-making is popularly viewed as the work of cowards, we will know substantive, life-affirming change has occurred."

And when women of color define the terms we all live by, and govern globally, I will know we have radically purged ourselves of purgatory, razed hell, and brought heaven down to Earth.


  1. White men seem to get great pleasure by bringing fear on women. Those white US male soldiers (and European) see rape as a weapon to instill fear in the women and girls of the lands they invade. Seeing the fear seems to be a turn on for white men. I guess it makes them feel so powerful.
    Rape by white men is a very big part of white male supremacy. These WHM firmly believe it is their right to use rape to ensure that women and girls submit to white male supremacy.

  2. Yes, Christina. Thank you.

    And here's more information supporting your statement, from *here*:

    A Summary of Amnesty International's Findings

    Sexual violence against Indigenous women in the USA is widespread. According to US government statistics, Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the USA. Some Indigenous women interviewed by Amnesty International said they didn't know anyone in their community who had not experienced sexual violence. Though rape is always an act of violence, there is evidence that Indigenous women are more likely than other women to suffer additional violence at the hands of their attackers. According to the US Department of Justice, in at least 86 per cent of the reported cases of rape or sexual assault against American Indian and Alaska Native women, survivors report that the perpetrators are non-Native men.

    Sexual violence against Indigenous women is the result of a number of factors and continues a history of widespread human rights abuses against Indigenous peoples in the USA. Historically, Indigenous women were raped by settlers and soldiers, including during the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk. Such attacks were not random or individual; they were tools of conquest and colonization. The attitudes towards Indigenous peoples that underpin such human rights abuses continue to be present in in the USA today. They contribute to the present high rates of sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and help to shield their attackers from justice. They also reflect a broader societal norm that devalues women and girls and creates power dynamics that enable sexual violence against women of all backgrounds.

  3. Thanks for the info Julian. Even when white males are a minority in someone else’s country they cause so much shit and suffering. See my latest post about racism in South Africa