Saturday, July 23, 2005

Feminism: some questions about sex and power. Part 1

In ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle’s view of women had a profound effect leading to women’s negligible role in Western philosophy. Plato asserted that there was two parts of reason, an upper and lower. Plato believed that one part must dominate the other. “Reason becomes a divided facility, it includes lower instinctual parts which are in conflict with the higher cognitive parts”. Aristotle, Plato’s student, believed that rationality was somehow especially associated with masculinity. These views together with later Enlightened 17th century philosophy of Francis Bacon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedreich Hegel, thoroughly excluded women from Western philosophy, ensuring that all thought was male dominant.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. I have just finished reading a book, Australian writer, Helen Garner’s The First Stone.
I read this book primarily due to another that rigorously critiqued it. This was Gangland: cultural elites and the new generationalism by Mark Davis.
I spoke about this book in one of my previous blog entries entitled Generationalism.
On the cover of my copy of The First Stone, is the added sentence: some questions about sex and power. Helen Garner follows events that transpired at Melbourne University’s prestigious Ormond College, where after a Valedictory dinner a Master was accused of sexual misconduct. From the very beginning of this book, Garner, a self-professed feminist, portrays a generational divide, and questions not only ideas of sex and power, but the very ideology of today’s feminism. This book was enthralling to read, eloquently told with a sense of Garner’s frustration, anger and at times even disbelief. However, although a moving and compelling story is being told, you cannot help but be struck by a certain sense of ‘us and them’ in the feminist divide.

“One morning in August 1992, I opened the Age at breakfast time and read that a man I had never heard of, the Master of Ormond College, was up before a magistrate on a charge of indecent assault: a student had accused him of having put his hand on her breast while they were dancing. I still remember the jolt I got from the desolate little item: Has the world come to this? All morning at work I kept thinking about it. I got on the phone to women friends of my age, feminists pushing fifty. They had all noticed the item and been unsettled by it. ‘He touched her breast and she went to the Cops? My God – why didn’t she get her mother or her friends to help her sort him out later, if she couldn’t deal with it herself at the time?’ And then someone said what no doubt we had all been thinking: ‘Look – if every bastard who’s ever laid a hand on us were dragged into court, the judicial system of the state would be clogged for years.’ At this we laughed, in scornful shrieks. There was even a kind of perverse vanity in it, as among veterans of any tedious ordeal.”

Almost every girl has a story of unwanted sexual attention. When this sort of debate comes to the fore from time to time, these stories often rise with it, the ebb and flow of being female and living. This attention can be the uncomfortable sensation of a male colleague standing too close to you, the brush of an arm on a crowded tram, to full-blown physical abuse. Garner comments on the passivity of the moment. The unstable moment when you question your own reasoning, asking yourself, is this really happening? Garner uses the words “the male gaze”. I understood perfectly what she meant.
Helen Garner does question her own ideology. She wonders at today’s feminists.

"I thought too that, at fifty, I might have forgotten what it was like to be a young woman out in the world, constantly the focus of men’s sexual attention. Or maybe I was cranky that my friends and sisters and I had got ourselves through decades of being wolf-whistled, propositioned, pestered, insulted, touched, attacked and worse, without the big guns of sexual harassment legislation to back us up. I thought that I might be mad at these girls for not having taken it like a woman – for being wimps who ran to the law to whinge about a minor unpleasantness, instead of standing up and fighting back with their own weapons of youth and quick wits. I tried to remember the mysterious passivity that can incapacitate a woman at a moment of unexpected, unwanted sexual pressure. Worst of all, I wondered whether I had become like one of those emotionally scarred men who boast to their sons, ‘I got the strap at school, and it didn’t do me any harm’.”

Helen Garner talks of being the feminist who fought for abortion laws. She didn’t wear lipstick, and lived in a time where she was unable to use the power of the law. Anti-discrimination, and sexual misconduct, this type of legislation did not exist. She was from the feministic batch that took care of things themselves. My question here, isn’t that the whole point? Garner is horrified, at what she sees as almost an abuse of what she fought for. She fought for a world where a woman received equal pay and equal kudos to any man. Instead, she saw a woman complaining over a man placing his hand over her breast. Unwanted attention yes, but warranting the law? It is obvious in this book she doesn’t understand this. This is what she means when she asks questions about sex and power.

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