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Present Reflections on "Power and Helplessness in the Women's Movement"

Among her many reflections on Feminism through her writing career, one of Joanna Russ' most striking essays is "Power and Helplessness in the Women's Movement," dating to no later than the early 1980s, and collected in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts.1 As the title says, Russ takes a critical look at power relationships within the women's movement, and how they have gone awry in many cases due to the persistence of what she refers to as the "Feminine Imperative," the intensive training women receive to ignore their own needs while fulfilling those of others. To my knowledge, this is one of the bluntest examinations of the meaning and problematics of this imperative when it is left unexamined and allowed to define how women work together on the task of winning their liberation. I suspect she got a lot of flack for it, not least because the essay in itself defies the Feminine Imperative and demands the reader defy it. From a current perspective, Russ' essay makes sense of the apparently self-destructive moves of various Feminist women in both the late twentieth century and now in the relatively early twenty-first.

Russ' careful dissection and description of the feminine imperative is one any woman with serious Feminist ambitions ignores at her peril. At its root, the imperative "allows of no self-help at all. We exist for others."2 This is ground into women from when they are tiny tots, regularly rewarded for playing up to the expectations of others and scolded or punished more seriously for doing otherwise. Another frequently used technique is when mothers – and alas, it is practically always mothers because they are the ones mostly saddled with the housework – "edit" their daughters' belongings. When beloved clothing items or other objects disappear, the thing they will often have in common is a perceived failure of "feminine qualifications" for the time, place, and culture at hand. This can be almost as frightening as it is infuriating, because the mother engaged in this activity will herself be under intensive pressure to both deny she is doing it and intensify her efforts. It's horrible for everyone concerned, but depends on that trusty tool of oppression, complicity, to keep mother's buy in. After all, this sort of "editing" seems to be a way of exerting power and doing so in an apparently unselfish manner.

The next step Russ takes is to clearly define two poles of behaviour that women may bounce between depending on context in the women's movement, and indeed if we are very honest, in life more generally.

If you've been forbidden the use of your own power for your own self, you can give up your power or you can give up your self. If you're effective, you must be so for others but never for yourself (that would be "selfish"). If you're allowed to feel and express needs, you must be powerless to do anything about them and can only wait for someone else – a man, an institution, a strong woman – to do it for you. That is, you can be either a Magic Momma or a Trembling Sister.3

Still from 'The Walking Dead,' the popular AMC series. Still from 'The Walking Dead.'
"No, really, just do the same thing again, I know it'll work this time, finally!" Still from 'The Walking Dead,' the popular AMC series.

There is something creepily addictive about these two ways of behaving and thereby squandering our power. As Russ emphasizes, no amount of being cared for is enough to satisfy a Trembling Sister, nor is there any desperately wanted end to caring for the Magic Momma. Yet if they are caught up in these behaviour patterns, they are unable to realize that the very thing they are doing is inherently not going to meet the needs they have. The doing is a distraction that seems like cure, only to show itself an aggravating factor. The kicker is the emotional distress that can make it even harder to realize that we've been had and get started on breaking our habits and recognizing when we are slipping towards reenacting the feminine imperative.4 Our righteous anger at being oppressed and told that we should be inhumanly indifferent to our own needs and hypersensitive to those of others however mythical they may be, gets turned not outward onto the structural oppression and deprogramming from the brainwashing, but inward and against other women. Which leads straight to the phenomenon Feminists defined in the 1980s as "trashing."5

Today "trashing" is disguised in quite a number of glittery disguises, because it is a toxic mimic of genuine and constructive resistance to oppression. Russ' explanation of trashing is one of the most powerful sections of this incredible essay, and I will preface this next quote by noting that the terms Magic Momma and Trembling Sister also reflect the perceived hierarchy in this pseudo-power dynamic. Momma is the adult, and Sister is taking up the hyperfeminine role men so love to sneer at under the adjective "sissy."

Trashing in the feminist movement has always proceeded from "below" "upwards," directed by the Trembling Sister (that is, those who've adopted the TS position) at the self-elected (or merely supposed) MM. The hidden agenda of trashing is to remain helpless and to fail, whatever the ostensible motivation. The payoff is to Be Good (though miserable). The TS/MM scenario is predicated on the unrealistic ascription of enormous amounts of power to one side and the even more unrealistic ascription of none at all to the other. It assumes that hurting another woman's feelings is the worst thing – the very worst thing – the most unutterably awful thing – that a woman can do. In a world where women and men are starved, shot, beaten, bombed, and raped, the above assumption takes some doing, but since the MM/TS script requires it, it gets made. (The script also assumes that the MM has no feelings, or if she does, hurting them is a meritorious act.)6

This should be sounding horribly familiar, because a version of this very dynamic and its correlates make up "call out culture," in which it has been specially weaponized to do at least three things. First, win brownie points with the oppressor in the typical liberal playbook, in which move one is to insist that you are just like the oppressors, really, except for one unimportant difference, and you can prove it by move two, playing deputy oppressor to others outside of your group. Second of course, to cause constructive action against oppression to fail by diffusing the action and redirecting attention onto serving the oppressor. Third, provide a pretext to drive away and isolate the ones who have refused to Be Good and miserable. Those engaged in trashing are insufferable because in their minds they have the wrath of the righteous, therefore they don't need to give anybody they are trashing a fair hearing or serious attention, and they feel good about stirring up a pile on and attacks in the form of no platforming, revealing personal information in hopes of endangering the trashed person's home, family, or livelihood, and so on. There is nothing healthy, good, or ethical about trashing or call out culture.

Whenever trashing rears its ugly head, it is important to ask the all important question, who benefits? No, who really benefits? After all the Radical Feminists and lesbian Feminists have been driven out of the group, organization or similar, who moves in and what happens next? The answer is men. Men, every time. Regardless of the men's motivations, they needn't be anti-Feminist or Feminist allies. Not at all. All they have to be is positioned to be declared somehow more oppressed than women engaged in Feminist work and running Feminist organizations, at which the trashers will insist that those poor men have more right to all that Feminist hard work because of how terrible their lives supposedly are. This is why Feminists insist that women need to organize separately and build and run their own services and groups. It is the only way to begin properly identifying trashing and its kissing cousin call out culture, unravelling it, and breaking the habit of it that will rear its ugly head whenever success seems too close.

The mythical straw Feminist in the form of a middle class (white) woman is tied into the Magic Momma, Trembling Sister system of true power avoidance, which if we are reading Russ carefully, should surprise us not at all. She notes that characterizing

The women's community as a mystically loving band of emotional weaklings who make up to each other by our kindness and sweetness for the harshness we have to endure in the outside world is a description that exactly characterizes the female middle-class sub-culture as it's existed in patriarchy for centuries – without changing a thing.7

Please read this quote carefully, because Russ is not doing what you might think she is doing on a cursory reading. She is not calling down the women who are enmeshed in female middle-class sub-culture. She is pointing out that while it may be a great tool to keep some heads above water, it is not in itself a challenge to patriarchy. She is pointing out that women separating from men in order to survive patriarchal oppression is the start, not the finish, and not enough. As lesbian Feminists have pointed out again and again, separatism is properly a tool and a means to end oppression ultimately for all women, not an end in itself. If we are so unwise as to be convinced that an individualized solution will work, then we have divided and conquered ourselves on the oppressor's behalf. Russ is not trashing middle class (white) women here, she is exposing how romanticizing and effectively reinscribing the feminine imperative does women wrong. This can be mighty hard to read, even if you don't happen to be a middle class (white) woman. Women have been taught to be uncomfortable with receiving constructive feedback, especially the kind that helps us stop hurting ourselves. We have to work our way through that, and refuse today's new-old false equation of discomfort with danger. We especially need to shake off the discomfort we have been taught to have with our own power. Or as Russ says in her inimitable style:

To understand that no one has or can have your power, that it remains in you no matter how forbidden you feel it to be, means defying the patriarchal taboo and that's very hard. It means claiming one's own limited but real power and abandoning one's inflated notion of other women's power. It means engaging in a direct public confrontation with the patriarchy as embodied in men and men's institutions, not concentrating on its symbolic presence in other members of the women's community.8

I have wondered a lot about descriptions of Joanna Russ as "terrifying." On one hand, I have no doubt she was whenever she deemed necessary, because she suffered no fools gladly. I have read enough of both her fiction and non-fiction to be awed by her unblinking gaze at some of the most difficult visions. On the other, this quote strikes me as one of the most deeply compassionate. Then again, maybe that is precisely what made her so terrifying. There is more than something to be said for that.

Before I close and suggest again that running, not walking to your closest library copy of the original book or reading the copy up at Feminist Reprise, there is one more aspect of trashing to unpack. This is the one that originally I failed to appreciate what Russ was explaining. It seemed a bit metaphorical, and that should have warned me that I had misunderstood. In her essays, there is no word out of place and no idle digressions, nor any odd, hanging break downs of the feminine imperative. On pages 49 to 50, Russ briefly discusses Harriett Tubman and the way her life has been interpreted by outsiders in terms of the feminine imperative. Her life has been interpreted as one of great self-sacrifice, as one of terrible suffering. As Russ discusses Cicely Tyson's portrayal of Tubman in a television biopic – which I have never seen, yet even so, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up reading her description of Tyson's performance – she precisely demonstrates that Tyson pounded that bullshit interpretation of Tubman's life and work into dust. Then closes that section gently with, "An action may be hard, unpleasant, dangerous, the salvation of others – and heroically self-creating."9

How did I go away not realizing that insisting on interpreting a woman's life and work in terms of the feminine imperative is one of the most insidious and vicious forms of trashing? Well, it is hard to look straight at it while being distracted by the clumsier expressions of trashing such as call out culture and not realizing that distraction is what is going on. Having finally caught on, suddenly the level of viciousness involved in this form of trashing shows up in all its awfulness, because this is the way women are taught to talk about other women who get constructive things done. Not to acknowledge and praise those women for their determination and action, but to condescend to them and call them down by the subtle equivalent of a man walking up to two women sitting together and insisting that they shouldn't be alone. There are many ways to do this form of trashing, especially in circles where women want to have the benefits of the labour and risks taken by actual Feminists, and to use the threat of the challenge actual Feminists represent, while being Good Girls themselves. We all know how it's done to key Feminist theorists.

  1. Willfully misinterpret and misrepresent their work.
  2. Willfully misrepresent the Feminist theorist, especially if she happens to be dead and therefore unable to challenge the slander.
  3. Insist that any attempt to correct misrepresentations is a personal attack or an enactment of some pseudo-phobia.
  4. Repeat three often and as loudly as possible.
  5. Insist that nobody actually reads what those women wrote, what a waste of time because they are really horrible people enacting some pseudo-phobia.
  6. Repeat five often and as loudly as possible, especially to anyone who is at all impressionable. (That doesn't de facto mean young, it can simply mean busy and under high stress.)
  7. Discourage the sale or reprinting of their books and other publications anyway you can. This is actually pretty easy, no matter how well Feminist books sell, malestream publishers will gladly drop them at the first excuse.
  8. No platform the Feminist theorist in question whenever possible.
  9. Disrupt any public appearance by the Feminist theorist, including by sending in false reports of cancellations or attempting to physically prevent people from entering a venue to hear her speak.

To paraphrase Marilyn Frye, if what a Feminist theorist is doing is getting patriarchal loyalists into a lather, they must be doing something right – even if on giving their views and arguments a fair hearing, you disagree with them. Discomfort is not a sign of danger, it's a sign that we are on the edge of letting ourselves learn and grow. We know that growing pains are not mythical, we all had them during growth spurts as children, and we learned that these were unpleasant but necessary and actually a good sign. They meant we were healthy, even if it was particularly hard to believe at times. Mental and emotional discomfort is often the psychological equivalent of growing pains. It is not nearly so hard to change as it is to make all effort to keep things the same, especially destructive, oppressive things that aren't actually working for anybody concerned. No matter how much malestream media pretends to glorify the non-conformist who breaks old constraints, what it actually glorifies and tries to convince us to glorify, is a person who does the very bait-and-switch at the heart of being a Magic Momma or Trembling Sister, performing according to the sex-stereotyped role they have been assigned.

Let's all refuse the assignment and break the bad habit of disowning our power. I suspect it's the only practical hope most of us have got.

  1. Russ, Joanna. 1985 Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts: Feminist Essays. The Crossing Press: New York, pages 43-54.
  2. Page 44.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Page 46.
  5. Page 47.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Page 48.
  8. Page 53.
  9. Page 50.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2019
Last Modified: Monday, December 31, 2018 18:14:21