Do You See or Hear or Do I Smash the Mirror?

The Professor and I went to hear Kelly Oliver speak in the hours before the gout-ridden, kitchen-cleaning, dog-harassing contingent of the family arrived. It was interesting, but kind of a let-down compared to the events of earlier in the week.
Anyway, she was talking about women being the secret weapons of war. So, she talked about Palestinian suicide bombers (though, in a strange oversight, she didn’t talk about Israeli soldiers), Guantanemo interrogators, Abu Gharib torturers, and our POWs. But I was a little frustrated in that she didn’t seem to come to any conclusions. Still, I think it was one of those situations where some of us have already been thinking a lot about what it means to have women in combat and some of us have not. The folks who were impressed by Oliver’s talk, judging from the chatter around the snack table, were really impressed, and those of us who weren’t, wished she’d gone farther.

But, towards the end of the talk, the Professor leaned over to me and asked me something that’s now stuck in my craw.

Is feminism really a moral position?

One of the points that Oliver made is that both feminists and anti-feminists seem to have real difficulty deciding what it means to have women in combat, to see women killing themselves and others to further war, and, especially, to see women torturing men. A prevailing feminist attitude seems to be that women who torture and kill are somehow ruining it for the rest of us. By acting immorally once we’re given the same tasks as men, these women feed into the idea that it’s dangerous to have women in positions of power–dangerous for the women, who might act unwomanly, and dangerous for men, who might end up their victims. The anti-feminists make pretty much the same argument, though they lay the blame squarely on the feminists, saying that the feminist movement has caused women to become less womanly and, thus, immoral.

I want to take an interesting side-trip here, which is to point out that, if one looks too closely at either of these lines of argument, what one sees is that both sides equate essential “womanliness” (whatever that might be) with essential morality. The feminist argument that we’re examining blames the corruption of our inherent morality with our exposure to the immorality of men. The anti-feminist argument links it to the corrupting influence of feminists. Either way, both share the belief that, in our “pure” form, we’re moral.

This, my friends, is very interesting. It leads us to some intriguing questions, the most intriguing being, do we assume women are more moral than men?

How much of the roles prescribed to both genders rely on “women=moral; men=immoral”? Hmm. If we look at one more facet of the stereotype, it becomes even more interesting: “women=moral & passive; men=immoral & active.” If manliness, activity, and immoral behavior are all linked, it sheds some light on some of the more perplexing behavior of women in combat situations.

Why is it okay for Muslim suicide bombers to unveil and wear more Western clothing? Why is it okay for them to go out in public without a male family member, even in the company of other men? Why do the interrogators at Guantanemo press their tits into the prisoners’ faces? Why would female soldiers participate in the abuse at Guantanemo?

I think it has to do, not exactly with becoming “like men,” though that’s the objection both the feminist and the anti-feminist argument make; it has to do with exploiting this relationship between immorality and activity.

If women are asked to be active–to kill someone, to fight someone, to torture someone, to escape from someone–and they are stuck with these gender prescriptions, we can’t access the right to be active through being men; we must access that right through being immoral. (Oh, Mary Magdalene, now it’s clear why you are commonly thought to be a prostitute, even though there’s nothing in the Bible to suggest it of you!) But the three things are so closely linked that the feminists and anti-feminists both are not seeing the activity and immorality; each in her own way is seeing it as a problem of women wanting to be (or just becoming) too much like men.

(We can see the flip side of this phenomenon when men who are wimpy or sticklers for rules are called pussies, linking moral behavior and passivity with womanliness.)

Obviously, I can’t speak to the anti-feminists. In a perfect world, all the anti-feminists would renounce for themselves all the gains the women’s movement has given them, chiefly among them, wide-spread female literacy, and I wouldn’t have to worry about them reading this.

But, to my fellow feminists, I say, feminism is not a moral position. Of course, there are many different kinds of feminism, but, broadly speaking, feminism is about women’s rights to participate fully and equally in society. And as much as that means it should be conceivable that we be soldiers and congress people and CEOs, it must also mean that it should be conceivable that we be killers and torturers and child molesters.

Women are, right now, fully human.

You might say, though, that our world is like a carnival fun house, full of mirrors reflecting back to us distorted images of ourselves–weak and fragile, too fat, too thin, too dirty, too pure and holy, incapable of evil, sadists, etc. Of course, this sucks for us, as it becomes nearly impossible to remember what your self is like in the face of all those distortions. But we can do it.

What’s more insidious, though, is that these fun-house mirrors don’t just shape how we see ourselves; they overtly influence how we see each other, male and female.

And this is the tougher work, to see each other, fully human, flaws and all, because it means rejecting the parts of “womanliness” that put us automatically above all men, that makes us more moral–that little refuge of the oppressed, saying “we’re better than you, even though and because you’ve done us wrong.”

It’s understandable that so many women, feminists and not, take shelter in that; it’s seductive–to think of ourselves as more moral than men. But it’s still that fun-house mirror bullshit–so, it’s inherently dishonest–and we need to be vigilant against it.