Monthly Archives: April 2008

What’s a white woman to say?

Cross-posted at The Hand Mirror

I have been a bit slow on the posting front recently, because I have been trying to get my head around a Flying-spaghetti-monster-Almighty stoush in the feminist blogosphere. That’s a bit of an exaggeration; it’s mostly to do with US feminism, but US feminism does dominate world wide English speaking feminism, and more than that, the problems thrown into stark relief by the incredible dust-up are not just American problems. It’s a complicated story, and I don’t think that I can tell it well, nor do I even want to tell it. But as far as I can tell, it hasn’t made its way into the wider blogosphere, much, except on some leftie blogs – see for example, this thread at Larvatus Prodeo. So I want to bring this to the attention of my New Zealand e-friends and readers.

Where to start? Probably with a very general statement, that the stoush was, very roughly, between American women-of-colour (WoC) feminists, and American white feminists. Even the use of that term, WoC, tells you that this is a US-centric dispute; the term is not much in use in the parts where I live (that would be in Australia and New Zealand). And there’s history here. There have been disputes between American white feminists and American WoC feminists before, and disputes in the blogosphere. I’m not so aware of the previous history in the blogosphere; I read just a very few NZ-based blogs until about 18 months ago, and I only started blogging myself about nine months ago, so I know nothing myself of these old disputes, but I can see that the rumbles go on, and on, and on.

The basic cause of conflict lies in the extent to which feminism is a white, middle-class movement. Very roughly, white women are inclined to see feminism and gender issues as the base issues, and they subsume all other issues to them; WoC (correctly) point out that racism is one hell of an issue too, and the intersection of racism and gender is particularly vexed. Moreover, the way that white women approach feminism is itself racist.

No one (or at least, no one I know) likes being called racist. It’s a charge we reject, and for the most part, if someone calls us racist, our instinct is to get defensive, and to defend our behaviour, rather than to stop and examine what we have been saying and doing. So I’m guessing that if you are a white woman or a white man reading this, then you will be inclined to stop listening around about now. But please don’t.

Given this account of the types of discussions there have been in the past, you can imagine that the US feminist blogosphere was well-primed for a conflagration. So what went down?

Three things.

(1) Amanda Marcotte, a prominent feminist blogger, posted material on the intersection of feminism and immigration. It looked like her own work, but Brownfemipower recognised her own ideas in Amanda Marcotte’s posts. However Amanda Marcotte had not linked to Brownfemipower, nor given any recognition to her. So she seemed to have appropriated Brownfemipower’s ideas, and presented them as her own. Not plagiarism, exactly, but at least using someone else’s ideas without acknowledgment. Some people defended Amanda Marcotte, some people supported Brownfemipower, and other WoC bloggers chimed in. (I haven’t done a detailed textual analysis of Marcotte’s work and BFP’s work, but it does seem to me that Marcotte must have been at least influenced by BFP’s ideas. So, educated as I am in the academic tradition, it does seem to me that Marcotte ought at least to have acknowledged her sources, even if she didn’t quote them exactly.)

(2) Black Amazon put a single comment in a post, saying “Fuck Seal Press.” (I would link to the particular post and the follow-up comments, but Black Amazon has taken her blog private – see below – and although I suppose I could hunt around and find a cached copy, that seems to be a bit damned rude just now.) Seal Press is a feminist press, but they had been called on racism in the past. The Seal Press editors visited Black Amazon’s blog, and said something to the effect of, “We get that you engage through negative discourse” (I forget the exact words, but it was something to that effect), and then invited WoC to tell them what they should be doing better. (Umm… like it’s good to tell people that they are negative. And on top of that, why should people who are already subjected to racism have to turn around and educate people who are being racist. Surely it’s up to the people who are acknowledging that they may have gotten it wrong to do the hard yards of finding out how to fix the problem.)

So things were rumbling along under the strength of these two issues. BFP took down her blog and gave up blogging altogether (farewell post), and other WoC were at least unhappy, and in some cases renouncing feminism. The overall point was that a white feminist was appropriating ideas from WoC, WoC were being told they were negative, and then they were being asked to fix the mess up. In general, white feminists promised to try to do better.

Links for all of this – far too many to post! But the F-Word (UK feminist blog) has a post with helpful links, as does Feministe.

In the midst of all this, Amanda Marcotte published a book, with Seal Press. Some of the other leading feminist blogs put up posts advertising her book, and publicising her book-reading appearances. So despite all the furore, they still supported her (despite having earlier promised to try to do better). Understandably, WoC were upset by this. I guess it looked to them that white feminists, despite having read all their blog posts and comments, and despite having promised to try to do better, nevertheless turned around and supported the very person who had been at the centre of the storm.

Then (3). Amanda Marcotte’s book came out, complete with these images.

(Images lifted from Feministe, who lifted them from Dear white feminists: quit fucking up.)

Faaaarrrrrccccckkkkkk!!!!

I find these images incredibly racist. “Good white woman” will defeat “wicked black / brown / other people”.

Amanda Marcotte apologised, Seal Press apologised, Black Amazon quit blogging, one of the Feministe bloggers has quit blogging, and everywhere, or at least, everywhere in the US feminist blogosphere, people are upset and angry and unhappy. It’s a mess.

Which is why I haven’t been posting. I just can’t get my head around all this. Maybe that’s because identity politics doesn’t play out in the same way in New Zealand as it does in the US. The whole topic seems like something “over there” to me. Except that thinking that the problem is “over there” would be an easy way to duck thinking about it altogether.

So, I have been thinking long and hard about white privilege, from which I benefit. Here’s the original essay about white privilege. It’s something that I think is worth reading, and re-reading, and re-reading, to remind myself about the extent to which being born white means being born privileged.

As for the feminist blogosphere in New Zealand – well, there aren’t too many of us explicitly claiming feminism. There’s those of us blogging at The Hand Mirror, and THM has a list of other NZ women blogging too, but not all of these explicitly claim feminism. Of course, I’m not in New Zealand anymore, ‘tho for the time being, my heart is still there. (You can take the woman out of New Zealand, but…) I think it’s telling that I can’t explicitly identify any Maori women blogging, although I know that Maia at least has been explicit in her condemnation of the racism on display in the police raids on Ruatoki last year. I would like to think that we would do better on thinking about the intersection of race and gender, if only because our race and gender history is different from the history in the US, but that may just be a forlorn hope.

Some final words on this, from a WoC in the US, and a South Asian woman in Australia.

Garden progress report #1

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the wonderful kitchen garden project that Stephanie Alexander initiated in an inner-city Melbourne school, and of my resolve to start gardening at home with my daughters. I have been working hard, clearing the irises out of the space the girls and I intend to use for their gardens, and replanting them elsewhere. They surived the extraordinary summer heat here in Adelaide extraordinarily well, so they are definitely on my list of acceptable plants to use. I still have a little way to go on clearing and replanting, but Anzac Day provided me with the perfect excuse to make real progress on my own herb garden.

This is the space I started with – a good structure, but old, old soil, and just a few scraggly plants left. I thought that the best thing to do was to start again, clearing out all the pine needles, digging out the remnants of plants, getting rid of the onions (I don’t want to grow my own onions in any case). My Dad helped me to get rid of the pole in the middle. The previous occupants of this house had a dovecote atop the pole, but fortunately, they took it with them, sans pole, when they moved out. It took quite an effort to get rid of the pole – it was well concreted in – but Dad made short work of it once he had Mr Strange Land’s skill saw to play with. Once the pole was gone, I dug masses of compost into the soil, and watered it well (by hand and watering can, of course, in keeping with Adelaide’s water restrictions).

Then I planted it up – lemon verbena at the back, flat leaf parsley, curly leaf parsley, coriander, marjoram (thank you Mum, for the plant), oregano, and green sage. And thyme – lemon thyme, pizza thyme, and ordinary old thyme, all of which I value for different reasons. Lemon thyme for chicken, pizza thyme for virtually any purpose – its large leaves make it easy to use, it spreads into satisfying clumps, and it has a pretty flower – and ordinary old thyme for bouquets garni and bologneses and tomato sauces and because how could you possibly have a herb garden without common thyme? I want to find some purple sage – I like the flowers – and come spring, I will plant sweet basil. Any other suggestions for culinary herbs will be considered carefully, over a glass of wine and a stroll around the garden. Of course I will plant some mint somewhere, but in a carefully confined space; its rampaging habits would be a little hard to take in this beautifully ordered space.

The soil in the garden is very sandy, so borrowing a tip from my aunty who lives on the Kapiti coast, passed on by my mother, I put about a pot’s worth of compost in the hole I prepared for each plant before I settled them into the ground. After everything was planted up, and well watered, by hand, I covered the soil with mulch. And this is the starting product.

I’m not sure what to do about the centre section yet. I would like to have a small fountain there, just a simple upwelling of water into a bowl, but that seems wasteful, so I am thinking about a tiled bird bath, or maybe a sundial, correctly aligned for Adelaide, or perhaps a rose. Roses are incredibly hardy; of all the existing plants in my garden, they seem to have survived the hot summer best. In the meantime, the centre section is covered with small white stones, recovered from another spot in our backyard.

I have always managed to grow a few herbs, even when I lived in student flats. I love cooking with fresh herbs, and I find the process of planting and tending them soul restoring. It has been raining today in Adelaide, and as I have walked around my garden in the damp air, I can feel the garden growing.

(This post is for my gardening mother, and for my e-friend merc, both of whom knew that I ought to be growing herbs.)

Friday Feminist – Marilyn Waring (5)

Part 2 of Who’s Counting

Part 1 is posted here, and I will post the third part next week.

Marilyn Waring

Of course! It’s teh girleez’ fault!

I’ve been muttering about this to myself for days, wondering would I / wouldn’t I write about it. After all, the person I am about to criticise is someone I respect, and whose work I enjoy. But really, Poneke? Is it all teh girleez fault?

A few years back, Poneke delivered an address to the Sceptics Society conference, which is now posted on his blog. It’s a fascinating piece, showing that our mainstream media is far more sceptical about Western medicine and medical science than it is about new age nonsense, like homeopathy and iridology and feng shui. I find that a worrying trend too – why on earth is all this non-scientific crap getting a free pass? So I agree with the basic concerns raised by Poneke in his post. Moreover, I choose Western medicine over acupuncture, herbalism and prayer, every time. As for psychics and astrologers and other such charlatans who prey on other people’s tragedies, don’t get me started.

It’s when Ponoke stops reporting and analysing, and starts blaming, that I get upset. Why, he says, does the MSM give this kind of nonsense a free pass?

His answer – it’s all because there’s more girlies writing these days. He starts with the women’s mags, pointing out that they are full of stories about the alleged efficacy of the various alternative charms and spells. From there, he deduces that women are taken in by this stuff, and they like it. And that leads to saying that women journalists must believe in it. On top of that, it turns out that journalism is being feminised, even in the big newspapers. So the poor silly chookies have taken their uncritical belief in witchcraft and spread it right through the media.

The trouble is, Poneke’s analysis is based on what was published between September 2003 and August 2004 in 13 daily and weekly newspapers, including all the ‘big’ newspapers in New Zealand. Whatever the gender makeup of the newsrooms, aren’t most newspaper editors men? I know that the Sunday Star Times is edited by a woman, but as far as I can recall, during the time that Poneke used for his analysis, most of the other big newspapers were, and indeed still are, edited by men. So there must be a whole lot of mennies who have been brainwashed by the women’s mags too.

Of course, there is a much simpler explanation as to why the new age stuff gets this non-critical acceptance, even in the MSM. It sells. Rather than blaming the women writers for these pieces, it might simply be better to follow the money. Who would bother publishing a piece on feng shui if you couldn’t also sell the eyeballs to the advertisers?

That of course begs the question – why does this stuff sell? There must be an audience for it, or the women’s mags wouldn’t be full of it, and neither would the pieces in the MSM be so silly.

Poneke gives one highly plausible reason; following the cervical cancer debacle at National Women’s Hospital, many women, and presumably many men too, became deeply sceptical about doctors’ “authority”. But I think he misses another plausible explanation, to do with the way that women acquire and pass on information. And it’s not by listening to words of wisdom delivered from on high by people who can’t be bothered treating you with respect. Blue Milk has some words of advice for medical specialists, enthusiastically endorsed and added to by her commenters. Here’s the thing; if doctors treat you with contempt, brush aside your questions, tell you to just believe in them and trust them, and all the while, you know of far too many cases where trust in doctors has been rewarded with on-going contempt, then just how likely are you to go to them for further information, to feel that if you ask a question, it will be answered in a way that you can understand, without at the same time making you feel that you are stupid and small. In recent years, there’s been plenty of noise about the need to get men to see their doctors more often. I’m guessing that one of the reasons that men don’t like seeing doctors is not just that they don’t like admitting to ill health, but also that they don’t like being talked down to, and patronised. Their response? Avoid doctors. But what do women do in the same situation? Talk to each other. Gossip – pass on information and ideas. And that’s exactly the function that women’s magazines serve. Women connect with each other through them, get and pass on information, in an environment of equals.

So I think we can look deeper than the silly girlies when it comes to trying to explain why the MSM is so accepting to alternative medicines. I think that the explanations lie in the money trail, and in the failure of doctors and health professionals to treat women with respect, instead of treating them as a problem to be solved.

(As an aside, I’m not even so sure that the women’s mags are full of it. Last time I read one of them, at the hairdressers’, I found it was full of diet and weight pieces. Every celeb story commented on whether the person was looking too fat or too thin. And guess what? According to the mag, not a single person was looking good. I felt quite ill reading it.)

I see misogyny lurking in Poneke’s causal analysis. I wish he had dug a little further, thought a little harder about what might underpin the women’s mags, taken the time to look at the gender of people editing papers, not just writing them, and followed the money, rather than just blaming women. Of course I will continue to read and recommend Poneke to other people; I wouldn’t bother with this sort of analysis of some of the material presented on some of the other blogs around town. And no doubt he has plenty of issues with stuff that I write. In this case, however, I think he has just gotten it wrong.

So what finally pushed me to post on this? This charming bit of misogyny from Tumeke, where a woman is reviled for daring to have a baby. No mention of the baby’s father, who might just be held responsible too. No attempt to understand just how extraordinarily difficult it might be to care for a child in this woman’s circumstances. No idea that the woman might have had the baby because you know, that’s what people do. No – she is immediately dumped on for what the writer assumes to be her motives. What a great strategy – assign a motive to someone, then attack them for having that motivation. Fantastic. And there seems to be a nasty intersection of racism and sexism here too – would the writer have had a go at a white woman in quite the same way? I find it very odd, not least because the writers on Tumeke are often outspoken about racism, and the extent to which issues aren’t issues that the world should be concerned about if they only affect brown people.

Then there’s this bit of misogyny from The New Republic, analysed on Shakesville, and elsewhere in the feminist blogosphere.

And from Poneke himself, a nasty little jab at women. Not something he said himself, but did he really need to report this tired old sexism?

On top of that, Lyn wrote a nice piece about the web as menz space. Time to claim our space in it, she says.

So all my buttons have been pushed. And indeed, the fact that I sat on it for a few days, hesitating about whether or not to comment on it says something apropos of Lyn’s piece, all by itself.

Moments of enculturation (2)

“Well, what about being sex?” asked one of the Miss Sixes at dinner this evening.

I shot an appalled look at her father, and thought, “Bloody hell. Do I really have to deal with this now, over dinner?”

But she continued.

“I’m sex now, so how many years will it be until I’m eighteen and I can leave home?”

(Previous post in this series here.)

Finished!

I have just finished reading the very last “Little House” book to my daughters. I started reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in August last year, a chapter a night, most nights. And now, seven books later, we are done.

It has been an interesting project. The girls have been fascinated by accounts of pioneering life, from making clothes by hand, and wearing layer upon layer upon layer of clothes, even in hot weather, to rearing calves and raising crops, to working on slates at school. They were astonished to find that tomatoes were regarded as fruit, and puzzled that the only viable job for Laura was teaching school.

I have enjoyed re-reading the books as an adult. Some of the stories touched me, in a way that simply was not possible when I was a child. I grieved for Laura’s sister Mary’s blindness, and empathised with Ma’s grief, because as an adult, I can understand just how becoming unsighted could have a devastating impact on a child’s future, especially in a time when there were so few resources and options for blind people. I could understand Pa’s physical weariness from the long days in the field, and feel Pa’s and Ma’s increasing worry as the long winter became longer and longer and longer, and the food started to run out. I was intrigued by Laura becoming “Mary’s eyes”, describing the world to her in colourful and evocative language – was this the beginning of Laura’s ability to write? There is some dispute over just who is responsible for the “Little House” books – was it Laura or was it her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane or was it some felicitous combination of both women? To me, the fanciful but descriptive words and phrases that Laura uses, and more particularly the literal-minded responses that Mary makes to them, perhaps indicative of on-going bickering between the girls, suggest that Laura, both as the character in the book, and in real life, had a way with words, which her daughter was able to help her to shape into the wonderful stories we know today. I recall, however, that when I read these books as a child, the wonderful imagery simply passed me by. Not a waste, ‘though. I think that the joy of the books stayed with me, and even when my girls were tiny, I had marked the books out as being something that I might be able to read aloud to them one day.

I was fascinated when I realised that as a teenage girl, Laura lived and worked in De Smet, Dakota, a town that was technically in the Wild West. There’s a vivid account of two drunk men sailing down the boardwalks in the town and kicking the screen doors on every shop in, but aside from that, the picture is of a small farming community, made up of people trying to claim their 160 acres from the government. These hard working small holders were loathed by the big ranchers and cattle men, because they took up the free space on the prairie, and perhaps they were loathed, or at least disliked in return, so it is not all that surprising that the traditional cowboys barely feature in the “Little House” books.

Laura herself is a feisty independent girl and woman, so I was taken aback when she explicitly rejected votes for women. But the rejection comes in the midst of a remarkable conversation with her fiance, when they are setting a date for their marriage.

Laura was silent again. Then she summoned all her courage and said, “Almanzo, I must ask you something. Do you want me to promise to obey you?”

Soberly he answered, “Of course not. I know it is in the wedding ceremony, but it is only something that women say. I never knew one that did it, not any decent man that wanted her to.”

“Well, I am not going to say I will obey you,” said Laura.

“Are you for woman’s rights, like Eliza?” Almanzo asked in surprise.

“No,” Laura replied. “I do not want to vote. But I cannot make a promise that I will not keep, and Almanzo, even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgement.”

(My daughters were astonished by the concept that wives ought to obey husbands. They said, “But Mum, you don’t obey Dad!” and “Did you promise to obey Dad when you married him?” They were relieved when I said that I made no such promise.)

This bespeaks a woman who knows herself, and knows what she can and can’t commit herself too. Moreover, she wants to sort this out before she gets married, rather than hoping to muddle through. She has also been determined to earn an income of her own, before she marries, and contribute to the household, rather than just depending on her parents for support. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to cast her as a feminist, even though the year in which Laura had this conversation, 1885, was nearly 40 years after the Seneca Falls Convention, often referred to as the birthplace of feminism, and it was just eight years later that women in New Zealand gained the vote, and only two years after that that women gained the vote in South Australia, both pioneer societies like Dakota Territory. Laura was strong minded and independent, a woman of feminist qualities (qualities which are of course possessed too by people who wouldn’t claim the title, “feminist”), but it would be a mistake to claim her as a feminist in retrospect. Nevertheless, I think she is someone to be admired.

What fascinated me most of all was realising that although Laura Ingalls Wilder spent most of her early years, and even the early years of her marriage travelling by horse and wagon, by the time she died in 1957, trains were old-fashioned, automobiles were commonplace, air travel was becoming popular, space satellites were orbiting the earth, and it was only four years before a human being would enter space for the very first time. It made me realise just how easy it can be to reach back through over 100 years of history, if only we take the time to listen. Some years ago, my parents attended a reunion in Auckland, of the descendants of people who had sailed to New Zealand on the Duchess of Argyle and the Jane Gifford and arrived in Auckland Harbour on 8 October 1842. At the reunion, my father spoke to an elderly lady, who told him that as a small child, her grandfather had told her stories about his experiences as a child on one of these ships. Through just two long lived people, Dad was able to make a connection with the early beginnings of formal European settlement in New Zealand. Likewise, there must be many people alive today, who knew Laura Ingalls Wilder, and through her, could reach back to the European settlement of the American West. As for me, when I was a child, my by then very elderly grandmother told me of life in Aotuhia, where she and my grandfather were breaking in a block of back country Taranaki land. Through those stories, I still have a connection to the pioneering past of New Zealand.

Most of all, my girls have enjoyed the nightly reading ritual. We sat on the sofa in the family room every evening, and they would quibble over whose turn it was to sit by herself on one side of me, who would be sitting next to me on the other side, and who would be on the far end. Eventually they worked out a rotation schedule. They got more and more confident about asking questions about what was going on, instead of just accepting the story wholesale, and they started to identify with Laura, and to compare characters in the books to children and adults that they know. When I read the couplet at the end of the last book, and closed it, I expected that the girls would be sad that the books had come to an end. But no. The younger Miss Six piped up. “Good,” she said. “I liked that. Now we can start on the Narnia books.”

Right, then. Expect future reports on the metaphysics of Narnia.

Friday Feminist – Marilyn Waring (4)

I | Marilyn Waring! Here’s part 1 of a marvellous documentary based on Counting for Nothing. I will post parts 2 and 3 over the next couple of weeks.

Who’s Counting?

Marilyn Waring