Feminism's Twist Ending
Women and the Internet: Part Four
Feminism isn’t about equal pay or equal rights. It is a way of dealing with change.
It's not an easy idea to advocate for, even for women. I have a dear friend, a woman, who is not an online feminist. Like nearly all of my friends, particularly the women, she's a tremendously passionate and motivated person who supports a vitally important cause -- in an obscure end of computational linguistics. I have found her talks on the subject to be fundamental and mind-expanding, but requiring some expertise (often more than I have) to follow in detail. Her work is rarefied, and she is good at it. I don't need or want her to take minutes away from this passion, and the way it improves the world, which is potentially substantial. I can ask her for her time explaining the linguistic concepts, and it's a subject we've talked about many times -- me literary, her computational.
I am so happy she does what she does. I don't need her to do what I do. Also, what she does doesn't work for almost anyone else in the world.
But just by being where she is, she upends assumptions about women all the time. She redraws the map of feminism by fiercely and unapologetically being herself.
Where we've had fights, and we have, I believe they have mostly arisen out of the fact that she gets policed by the geek feminism crowd for not being interested in their fights. When I've overreacted, and I have, it's been because I feel constantly under authenticity policing in my community, always either too much or not enough a part of tech. Neither of us were really reacting to each other, but to a community that loses sight of making real progress and attacks women and men needlessly and hypocritically.
Geek women don't all have to be working on issues around women and technology. My friend does her part for feminism, simply by being public and being unashamed to be herself. Her colleagues who engage with her, debate with her, and build on her work are performing feminism too, even if they don't like feminism. "Ha," I have said to them, “Got you!"
For geek feminists who criticize the women (or men) who don't want to let these issues take up their time, I have a simple question: What have you done lately to help people of color get involved in the tech community and to get equal access to online life and resources? What have you done to address class and culture prejudices that keep this increasingly important slice of the world demographically, politically, and socially homogeneous? The vast majority of those women would, if answering honestly, have to say nothing at all.
This is a small conception of feminism, not the strange and beautiful philosophy we need feminism to be.
The feminism I fell head over heels for was a big feminism. It is about how all people grow and become themselves. It gives people, all people, personal choices and access to resources.
I grew up in a time when everyone talked about trying to make the world more fair, but that didn’t ever seem possible or even desirable. Making a world I could live in wasn't about meritocracy, which is a nonsense concept in a complex world.
The "level playing field" is about as real as Narnia -- a wonderful place I dreamed about as a child, but have never gotten to no matter how many closets I plowed through.
And besides, we all came from different worlds and wanted different things. Instead of making everyone the same to make them count as people, feminism evolved from the radical idea that women are people to the radical idea that all people are people, whoever they are and whatever they happen to be doing and wanted to do next.
We need the feminism that is big enough to let everyone in. That feminism isn't new, in some ways it's an old form of feminism. It’s the ability to see those who are different as lovely and miraculous and in the end not so much stranger from you than you are from yourself.
As the 30-something Walt Whitman put it so beautifully in "I Sing the Body Electric" in 1855:
The man’s body is sacred, and the woman’s body is sacred;
No matter who it is, it is sacred;
Is it a slave? Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere, just as much as the well-off—just as much as you;
Each has his or her place in the procession.
(All is a procession;
The universe is a procession, with measured and beautiful motion.)
In this head the all-baffling brain;
In it and below it, the makings of heroes.
Examine these limbs, red, black, or white—they are so cunning in tendon and nerve;
They shall be stript, that you may see them.
Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant back-bone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs,
And wonders within there yet.
Within there runs blood,
The same old blood!
The same red-running blood!
There swells and jets a heart—there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations;
Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?
That's some damn good feminism there, from a bisexual New Yorker nurse with a fine hipster beard, no less.
The recognition of the worth of others is a timeless good, the recognition of worth in the myriad invented and reconstructed ways we live our lives now is the project of our contemporary feminism.
130 years later, feminist theorist Donna Haraway wrote,
By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality… the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination...
From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet... From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point.
In the twist ending, feminism is not actually about women. It's a philosophy of radical adaptation.
Feminism, with its corrosion of categories and powerful self-determination, acknowledged that the goddesses and gods were dead, and all we could be now is cyborgs.
In 2013 every human being is a cyborg, monitored, comprehended, and augmented by the endless interlocking web of our tools laid over the Earth which we are learning to admit is also now a cyborg. Our home's crust is permeated with those tools, machines, ideas, and endless traces of the common human self.
The only philosophy of life that makes any sense in our artificial environment is feminism. As Haraway said: "The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust."
Feminism, like being a cyborg, is a handle for the world. It does not restrict us to who we were, or who we are now. It makes us mutable, psychic changelings bound to the Earth in will and in love rather than by the force of Nature. If feminism is unnatural, so is life itself in the 21st century. Manhood as it was defined for so many thousands of years is a straightjacket for the self, it keeps men small and concerned with small things.
I have been told by both men and women that there's a natural order to the genders, that by their natures men are rational and strong, and women are emotional and nurturing. What I find most frustrating about this argument isn't whether it's true, but the total irrelevance of what is “natural" on our deconstructed and re-engineered planet. "It is natural," I often reply, "to be dead at 35, so I'm ok with being unnatural."
We have this tremendous world to manage, and we're doing a piss-poor job of it, because of the myth of nature, the myth of manhood, the myth that it means anything at all to be "on top" in a hyper-connected, hyper-distributed cyborgian network world. And despite our artists and thinkers telling us this for hundreds of years, men and women are so scared of not being liked that they are killing themselves, each other, and the whole damn planet.
Because at its heart, the gender role of being a man, like being a woman, is about being liked by the people around us. That’s always been a huge constraint on what we can be. But now we have the net, and if the people around us won’t support us, we know there are people out there who will.
I am a cyborg, and I am an extremely angry feminist. But I don’t hate men, I love the fuck out of men, sometimes literally, and always figuratively.
I love them so much I want them to get their act together, face the changing nature of manhood, and stop dying of more stress-related diseases and suicides than the victims of their gendered violence. I want men to stop killing the planet out of the need to still be a kind of man that technology had made irrelevant a thousand years ago. I want men to stop trying to be old gods, and join women in being cyborgs.
Women need feminism, but men need it more.