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April 06, 2004


Ivan Lenin

I'm sorry to misrepresent my question. Let me try it one more time: feminism is better equipped - better than what - what do we compare it to? Locke? Leo Strauss? Lenin? What's the context here?
"social problems that would be overlooked if we merely traced the history of men."
According to your description, feminism sounds compensatory, not to say reactionary.
There must be a million definitions of feminism, but my experience is that feminism is not about ideas; it's about wearing a badge. What about your experience?


If I can jump in for a sec, Ivan, let me provide a quote on feminist history from another heroine of mine (right up there with Audre Lord), the historian Gerda Lerner:

“Women have been left out of history not because of the evil conspiracies of men in general or male historians in particular, but because we have considered history only in male-centered terms… to rectify this and to light up areas of historical darkness, we must, for a time, focus on a woman-centered inquiry, considering the possibility of the existence of a female culture within the general culture shared by men and women. This is the primary task of women’s history. The central question it raises is: What would history be like if it were seen through the eyes of women, and ordered by the values they define?”

Ivan Lenin

Thanks for the quote, this is great. So, women have been left out because we have considered history only in male-centered terms ("only"? that's an exaggeration, but suppose it's true), and to rectify this, we must focus on female-centered inquiry.
Let me see if I get this right. Historians made the mistake of looking at the world one-sided way - so let's make the opposite mistake, and look at things the other way!
Doesn't sound like a good idea to me. Applying Derridian deconstruction to gender studies was a silly enterprise to begin with, and to me the results seem disastrous. It may be entertaining to indulge in such mental activities, but it is ultimately inconclusive, and evidently, counter-productive. Look at the American educational system, which has very much adopted this approach in the past few decades, and you will see a tragic failure at teaching both girls and boys how to become women and men. It may be therapeutic for college girls to talk about how women don't get enough attention from history, science, and society in general, but benefits of such therapy are dubious, to say the least.

Jonathan Dresner

When I started teaching Asian history, about ten years ago, and I talked about Chinese footbinding, I could compare it to breast augmentation, facial modification, but with some obvious differences: footbinding was done to children and it was inherently disabling. I recently read an article, though, about the dramatic rise in orthopedic podiatric surgery... to make women's feet narrow enough to fit the slender fashion shoes they want to wear. Now I describe footbinding, and I have a direct comparison, and the differences aren't as great. And I'm troubled by that.


Hugo - "What would history be like if it were seen through the eyes of women, and ordered by the values they define?”

Depends on the woman (Angela Davis was my teacher in Womans Studies at SFSU), but many cultures are matriarchal.

C. Young


"Normal" is a value judgment--whether we're talking about the normality of ears, breasts, penises, height, weight, sexual orientation, behavioral patterns, etc. "Deconstructing the values of the marketplace" is a hollow (or hypocritical) exercise, if you're unwilling to turn the same critical eye on the values with which you'd supplant them.



Oh, I have plenty critical to say about most feminist utopias! But a culture of greater body acceptance is surely a culture we can all agree is desirable.

I heard Angela Davis speak once; wasn't moved. Feminist history is best done in community, in listening to and sharing the stories of women from the past and the present. It can use the techniques of masculinist history (empirical inquiry) but is not limited by them.

Ivan Lenin

You say,
"Feminist history ... can use the techniques of masculinist history (empirical inquiry) but is not limited by them."
So what makes it feminist then?

Another quote from Ms.Lerner:
"The central question [women’s history] raises is: What would history be like if ..."

Doesn't it strike you as vain and simply ridiculous that somebody could in all seriousness pose such a "what if" question as "central" to any branch of science? How much more useless and masturbatory does it get?


I find it very interesting that this thread moved into feminist theory. I need to point out that not all feminist thought is the same - there are many different areas of feminism, just as there have been different "waves" of feminism. Not all feminists have the same ideology. . .but in general terms, I think the descriptions I've read here of feminism are about right.

As for the mention of footbinding, I actually wasn't familiar with the practice until I saw the Ingrid Bergman movie, "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness", in which she stars as a missionary in rural China. One of her goals was to stop the footbinding of girls.


Thanks, Elizabeth, I'd agree. There are different ways of seeing things. The difference (this is for you, Ivan) is not merely that we look at an opposite, narrow world view (potentially, a radical feminist one) at the same time as we examine the preexisting narrow paradigm, although that in itself would increase our understanding. The difference is that feminism as a way of thought (not a political movement, which my father-loveuBigDaddy-seems incapable of realizing!) is inclusive, meaning that it values all perspectives, including the male.

Look, I'm not here to defend every mainstream "feminist," to pretend like I own feminist thinking, or to refute the claims I hear from male students that they feel "excluded" by anger and hatred in women studies classes. I get all that. What I will do is say that if we look at this problem as something partly due to patriarchy (gasp! she used that dirty radical liberal p-word!) we can start to understand the broad roots of this issue. Hugo's original post talks about dominating structures of the past, oh-so-clear to us now as we look back at an early 18th-century work like Defoe's Moll Flanders. We tend to think now that we have already solved all those problems of the past: women vote, work, have greater political agency, etc. Yet that is still a masculine evaluation of progress. The issues dealt with then ("How could a woman dare to refuse a proposal, especially a poor woman!") still haunt us today, merely in different forms. Whereas traditional thinking can't understand that, the inclusive nature of feminist thinking has room for both - or, as HUgo puts it, "It can use the techniques of masculinist history (empirical inquiry) but is not limited by them."

Ivan, it's not about therapy or whining about the past. It's about understanding historical patterns in order to change them. If you look even at science, there is so much study that's missing -- about the female body, for example. That must be rectified in order to improve women's health (again, not at the expense of men's health, but in addition to it!).

I'm not sympathetic to every cause that passes as "feminist," but neither will I apologize for believing that the present should not repeat the mistakes of the past, and looking to the past to inform future actions. The very fact that this discussion has been so long, and that it seems inexhaustible, just goes to show how much work remains to be done, how much remains to be said, how much remains to be done when it comes to feminist issues.

Hugo, hit me up.


Well said, Candace.


I don't want to argue in circles, Ivan, but what makes feminist history "feminist" is that it asks the question, "how do traditional methods of doing history leave out women?" How do they ignore issues of the body in favor of a (traditionally masculinist) ideal of an objective "view from nowhere"?

Feminist history is not merely a litany of complaints, but it also embraces the intensely personal -- and it denies the possibility of total objectivity to boot.

Bill Ekhardt

Normal is not a point, but a range. You can not illustrate normal with one sample, or point to one person and say her body is normal. Rather, you show examples across the range and say, these fall within the bounds of normal.

Now 'normal' can be socially constructed, and it sounds like that is the only definition of normal that you are using. Under that definition, normal can be used interchangeably with 'norm', or a socially defined value.

There is an alternative, though. Normal can describe a statistical range, i.e. all bodies that fall within the 15th and 85th percentile on this range are accepted as normal. This normal can also be socially determined in so much as the breadth of accepted is determined (at what percentiles we draw the lines.)

I believe Hugo's desire for a society with a broader body acceptance is a society that enlarges the breadth of range of both statistical and socially defined 'normal'; one that is accepting of both 1)people who's bodies are noticibly different from many other's bodies and 2)people who's bodies vary significantly from an established societal norm.

Ivan Lenin

"I don't want to argue in circles, Ivan"
Hugo, arguing in circles is what you seem to do for a living.

"How do they ignore issues of the body"
We just demonstrated that it wasn't just the female body, didn't we? Are you ignoring it on purpose, or just playing stupid with me?

"in favor of a (traditionally masculinist) ideal of an objective "view from nowhere"?
I believe this issue was addressed by such thinkers as Plato and Aristotle, and many others afterwards. To pretend that feminists invented this approach is an arrogant way to perpetuate politically biased ignorance, which is rampant at our colleges.

It would be stupid to say that no feminist ever came up with anything worthwhile. However, to confuse young people by "arguing in circles" and making science serve a political agenda is immoral - and to deny it the way Mr. Hugo does is hypocritical and doubly immoral. I'm afraid what we have here is another case of trivial parasitism, masked as "progressive intellectualism" - and feminism, in this case, is nothing more than a badge of approval, that this cute earnest professor proudly puts on his muscular chest. Something to be concerned about as a general tendency, but not really interesting as an individual case.


Ouch. Well, at least I get to be "earnest".

Type 5

"But I'm not sure that the young students of mine who save and scrimp and go into debt for liposuction and breast enlargements (and I can think of quite a few who have done just that) really have much more agency and autonomy than their forebears."

Therein lies the crux of your conflict with MRA's. They percieve (with varying degrees of sophistication and compassion) agency in women where you do not. Within your "Where I Stand" entries, the only woman whose agency you truly acknowledge is Amy Richards.


Type 5, you misunderstand me. I'm not denying that young women have any agency at all, just that on body issues they don't have much more than women did a century ago. Saying that their agency is oversold is not the same as saying it doesn't exist.

Type 5

I pretty much understood that. It's the sliding scale for female agency that I find problematic. It's the basis for what one MRA aptly termed the "now we're weak, now we're strong" shell game."

Contrast it to your position on C4M. (I pretty much agree with your position, BTW) It contains an embedded assumption of... nay, an expectation and requirement of complete, autonomous, accountable agency. (Thus, I was heartened to see you extend that same expectation to Ms. Richards.)

I understand that a major part of your estimation of agency in the case of this post is the youth of the women, which I find reasonable.

But again, it must be contrasted with views of the degree of agency in young men. From your entry "Boys, Grrls, Hugs" I know that you favor nurturing communality in men, but I don't find a view on agency. Therefore, I'll use examples of law, which might be considered to reflect societal views.

Anecdotally, I'll mention the increasing practice of charging juveniles as adults. While I may be wrong, It certainly seems the vast majority of those cases are young men. What is that but the formal designation of these boys as possessing full agency?

More concretely, I'll point to the consistent body of law in which a minor boy who can't legally enter a contract is suddenly a fully responsible agent when his babysitter seduces him. (See II. "YES, YOU WERE UNDERAGE. NOW PAY YOUR CHILD SUPPORT.")

I hope this has clarified my point.


I'm with you on the absurdity of the law, Type 5, no doubt.


"Back to the breasts. A Miracle Bra is "decoration." Breast implants following a radical mastectomy would be "reconstruction." And an elective breast implant boost from an A cup to a C cup would be "cosmetic surgery." In each case, the intent is *solely* to conform to a societal ideal (relating to size and shape of breasts).

So again I ask, What's the difference?"

Here's the difference: buy a "miracle" bra to reshape my natural breasts for amusement, sexual fun with a partner, or some insecurity about my breasts and it costs around 30-40 bucks and I am in no danger of dying when I purchase it. When I get radical reconstruction after mastectomy I am endangering my life (as we do in any surgery) to look "normal" after a life-threatening illness that required the removal of my breasts to save my life. When I risk my life to get implants because I "think" my normal breasts are somehow deformed or abnormal in size, then I am getting plastic surgery. I see a big difference in the three, although if I had a mastecotomy I wouldn't bother with implants. I would probably get a padded bra, just so I would look the same as I do now. Frankly, I see the difference between a padded bra that costs 30 bucks and a potentially life threatening surgery that costs thousands of dollars and potential health risks.


>“Women have been left out of history not because of the evil conspiracies of men in general or male historians in particular, but because we have considered history only in male-centered terms

But of course, there is nothing to stop anyone from writing woman centered histories. We do have free speech, despite the best attempts of the PC movement to abolish the 1st Amendment (provocative statement!).

Of course, one can argue that history is made by great individuals, men or women, and that any history which is honest is going to have to reflect this.

An issue I have with Howard Zinn (whom I can otherwise respect for his activism) is that he rigs up his "People's History of the US" to ignore the repression that came out of the "people's" movements.

For example, the 19th century women's movement pushed "sexual purity" and supported bans on birth control, prostitution, oral sex (even in marriage), etc., as well as promoting prohibition and (sometimes) segregation (had to protect women from being raped!).

m. ben

pardon my intrusion, but i incidently stumbled upon your blog and couldn't resist the read. over the years, i've had a growing interest in women's history and the factors that spearheaded the women's movement, which is ever-present. however, i do find that many modern feminists have lost sight of their forebearers' framework, to simply be acknowledged as an equal intellectual being obtaining the means to contribute to the world and not unwillingly drudge out a domestic lifestyle. feminists such as sojourner truth, margaret fuller, s. anthony, e. stanton seemed to have a less convaluted arguement (in regards to what i've recently read) in defining their terms.

i believe that humanity as a whole has lost sight of the benefits of simplicity. at the risk of creating an uproar, gender roles were not humanity's greatest crime. of course, there are a litany of disadvantages attached to a society operating according to this system, but equally there are advantages. now, mating, marriage and family life has become as complicated as science! oftentimes, philosphy underscores what humanity had once upon a time seemed to do so well. although there were no utopias, there was a reliable and efficient rhythm to life in such societies.

lastly, the masculine male is facing a steady yet rapid decline. men are constantly being encouraged to take part and show enthusiasm in areas that they simply may not have an interest and that should be okay with this newly liberated and intellectual society. the feminist perspective is relative to experience and wisdom, along with a host of other things. thanks for allowing me to share.


gender roles were not humanity's greatest crime

This is a good point. One thing that feminists ignore is that many if not most women chose their "role." It was women who objected en masse to the ERA (e.g., Phylis Schlafly). Many women want to be housewives and have husbands who provide for them.


There's an article in the September 2005 "Commentary" magazine by Charles (Bell Curve) Murray called "The Inequality Taboo." In it he states that there are inherent differences between men and women but that the prevailing PC ideology makes it impossible to deal with them realistically.

For ex: he points out that virtually all advances in science and technology have been created by men.

Now, this is an interesting point. Why have women failed to contribute as much to society as men?


Alexander, I don't know much about Hugo's feminist theory, but that seems to be one question that it can help to answer. However, your implications that inherent gender differences are the cause of imbalances in the sciences is a real stretch. Tell me, do you expect in a society where women have been excluded from math and sciences and dumped with full family responsibilities to make an equal amount of scientific discoveries? And your assertion falls down once we add a control.

Since races are a social construction and have litle if any actual genetic basis, why have virtually all advances in science and technology been created by WHITE men? While the experience of white women and black people have been vastly different, this shows that the dominance of white men in society and its related biased social constructions has influenced more than we would ever have thought.

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