Tag Archives: feminism

digging for a voice

what follows are excerpts from an essay i wrote in 1995 on women in philosophy, and how women’s voices often speak more to the particular (i.e. real life examples and experiences) rather than the general. it is interesting to look back on it, to see what’s still the case, and what has changed. in the next post, i will discuss that a little. here’s the excerpt:

“i” write these words. it is i, sitting here in my body, using my hands to transfer unto a black screen what i think. what i do and think is really all i can know. or is it? when i look into the mirror, i see myself, when i speak, i can hear myself, and there are other beings around me who look and sound quite similar. do they think, feel, move like i do? can i assume that they are more like me than unlike? can i speak for them? and if i do, should i extrapolate from me to them or from them to me?

“… woman was not fit for the governing of society or the workings of the state. in fact, she was seen as a threat because her thoughts and desires were tied to the realm of the particular … any attempt by her to enter into the public realm would only pervert the aims of the state from the universal to the particular.” (tuana 166).

why does the particular pervert the universal? couldn’t it be the other way round – that the universal at least sometimes blurs and inhibits the particular and with it reality? this is exactly what happened for philosopher claudia card. while tenured at a large university, she developed a writing block. at this time she was teaching a course on “crime and punishment” from a purely theoretical point of view: “i had never been inside a prison … never witnessed an execution … [or] attended a criminal trial. i was not aware of people who had done such things.”

gradually, through exposure to students who, in the 60s and 70s were doing “such things” (i.e. they were exposed to the criminal justice system through war resistance or marijuana), card began to wake up to the reality of the particular. she saw that real people were “liable to being accused of crimes or victimized by them”. these people were particularly

“the very young, the homeless, the poor, … people of color, women attempting to protect themselves or children against battery and sexual abuse, women (rebels) who refused the ‘protection’ of men.”

this insight helped her realize that she, too, a closeted lesbian living in an abusive relationship, really did know about crime or at least the possibility of it: “i knew firsthand the fear of murder.” with time, the more she fleshed out philosophy with tangible reality, the more her writing block disappeared and she regained her voice:

“i presented my … ‘feminist ethical theory: a lesbian perspective’ … at the university of minnesota … to my surprise, i began speaking from deep inside, without effort, in a large voice that i had not known was there. people later said they heard me in the hallways … there was anger fuelling that voice. there was also confidence …”

claudia card has turned from the universal to the particular:

“i no longer linger over ‘eternal’ or universal truths. i seek wisdom … in relation to lives fleshed out as gendered as well as members of species, as having ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds, even sexual orientations – things not universal … i still teach from books … but i also teach from my life, and my writing flows from that life …”

in the second part of the essay, i added my own voice, my own lived experience:
what i am digging for is my voice. to some degree, i mean this quite literally, which is why i felt such affinity with claudia card. i often feel weak, powerless and confused when i speak, especially in small groups. my voice is not my accomplice but my betrayer; so often it has let me down by scrambling my words and stammering, by being sarcastic when it should have yelled, by taking on a childlike whisper when it should be loud and articulate, and by being mute when it should spit out the truth. and it is as if my speaking voice, when not articulated, just like unexpressed anger “backs up” and constipates my thinking. i believe this voice is not only undeveloped for private reasons but also because i feel my reality, like that of so many other women, has been negated in the context of a society that does not wish to give weight to women’s experiences.

so this is my motivation for writing these words: i am trying to unconstipate, to untangle my thinking, and to reconnect it with my both my speaking and my metaphorical voice. as well, i would like to connect further out, with other people who are also trying to find their voice. while i earnestly do not want to minimize the voicelessness of many men, i do identify better with women who want to speak up and be heard. this is why i was so intrigued when i saw the announcement of petra von morstein’s lecture, especially because she was described as a poet, philosophical counsellor and researcher into feminist philosophy. what would her voice be like, i wondered, how does she sing the song of philosophy?

after many attempts, i finally managed to speak to her on the telephone. von morstein threw an interesting and much-needed light on my quest for understanding women’s experience and women’s connection with philosophy. she criticized my (and others’) dichotomous approach to this question, saying that when reading the works of such male philosophers as augustine, descartes, hume, kant, hegel, heidegger or husserl, one does find a coming-together of the universal and the particular.

granted, these men did not inform their thinking with the particulars of female reality (it is unlikely kant came up with his categorial imperative while doing the dishes); nevertheless, they also did not insist on separating the personal from the universal. augustine’s confessions, an autobiography and arguably one of the most important philosophical writings, are a case in point, as are descartes meditations. it is debatable whether, as solanas says, these men are really “unable to relate to anybody or anything”.

von morstein also pointed out that, by making such harsh judgments as solanas, many women cut themselves off from the history of thought, thereby impoverishing themselves. “i want to have it all!” ms. von morstein exclaimed a few times, meaning that she thinks that women can and should draw on all perspectives, the feminist one and that of the “dead white males”.

searching for my voice, investigating other women’s voices, has been, in part, a very private enterprise. in other ways, however, i also hope that my words can be companions to those of other women, such as claudia card’s. taking yet another angle, i want to come back to what i said at the beginning of this essay: “what i do and think is really all i can know.” even though it seems that there are similarities between me and other people – other women -, i cannot presume to speak for them. i can only speak for myself, speak to them and sometimes maybe even with them. i can only say: this is my experience; and if yours is similar, let’s have them stand side by side and reinforce each other.

identity guilt and oppression

i just spent a little time reading through joyce trebilcot’s dyke ideas, a “passionate and insightful contribution to lesbian philosophy.”

seeing that a little while ago we had an interesting discussion on guilt here on this blog, her thoughts on “identity guilt” and “official guilt” were particularly interesting.

what i here call identity guilt is implied by definitions of persons that are imposed and hence oppressive: women as defined by men, lesbians as defined by hetereosexuals, people of colour as defined by whites, fat people as defined by non-fat people, etc.

such definitions not only stereotype and degrade those on whom they are imposed, they also, paradoxically, both blame the oppressed for being who we are, thus suggesting that we have the power to change, and imply that we have no power because our condition is innate and immutable.

for example, a traditional patriarchal definition of white women includes the claim that we lack courage.

this was written in the early 90s. while words like “patriarchal” have fallen out of fashion, and it’s become politically very incorrect to assert that “a patriarchal definition of white women includes the claim that we lack courage”, much of what trebilcot says here is still alive and kicking right beneath the surface (viz mike huckabee’s victory yesterday).

but that’s the sociological part of it. i’d like to talk about the psychological insights (which, to be sure, can never be separated from what’s happening in society.)

these oppressive moves, we can also make them on ourselves, and it’s not something limited to being gay. indeed, as we all know, that’s when oppression becomes most effective: when it’s internalized.

as women, we’ve all been there. for example, at some point – also in the 90s, if i recall correctly – the image of the superwoman started emerging. you know, the super-slim, super-healthy, super happy 45-year-old successful lawyer-cum-hockey mom with three kids, two dogs and one sexually completely satisfied husband, the she-god who never tires to redecorate the house, to volunteer at every bake sale, the one who’s always perfectly turned out, even when she goes to her evening class at university, where she’s working on her PhD.

i don’t know many mothers who don’t buy into that image at some level and don’t feel guilty in at least the deeper recesses of their pretty widdle minds when they can’t – surprise – reach that ideal. it’s not an ideal that real mothers came up with, it’s an outside definition, most likely concocted by marketing professionals who know how the power of guilt can be turned into profits.

identity guilt happens when we think we should conform to an outside image and we don’t make the cut. we can easily turn into our own oppressors, and, to use trebilcot’s words, “blame ourselves for being who we are, both suggesting that we have the power to change, and implying that we have no power to change because we are who we are.”

tomorrow i’ll compare this to “official guilt”. let’s see whether we can learn something from the distinction between the two.