A politics of locations
I am to speak these in Europe, but I have been searching for them in the United States of
America. A few years ago I would have spoken of the
common oppression of women, the gathering movement of women around the globe, the hidden
history of women's resistance and bonding, the
failure of all previous politics to recognize the
universal shadow of patriarchy, the belief that women
now, in a time of rising consciousness and global
emergency, may join across all national and
cultural boundaries to create a society free of
domination, in which "sexuality, politics, ... work, ... intimacy
... thinking itself will be trasformed."1 I would
have spoken these words as a feminist who
"happened" to be a white United States citizen, conscious of
my governement's proven capacity for violence and
arrogance of power, but as self-separated from
that governement, quoting without second thought
Virginia Woolf's statement in Three Guineas that "as
a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the
You could see your own house as a tiny fleck on an ever-widening landscape, or as the center of it all from which the circles expanded into the infinite unknown. It is that question of feeling at the center that gnaws at me now. At the center of what?
As a woman I have a country; as a woman I cannot divest myself of that country merely by condemning its government or by saying three times "As a woman my country is the whole world." Tribal loyalties aside, and even if nation-states are now just pretexts used by multinational conglomerates serve their interests, I need to understand how a place on the map is also a place in history within which as a woman, a Jew, a lesbian, a feminist I am created and trying to create. Begin though, not with a continent or a country or a house,but with the geography closest in-the body. Here at least I know I exist, that living human individual whom the young marx called "the first premise of all human history."2 But it was not as a Marxist that I turned to this place, back from philosophy and literature and science and theology in which I had looked for myself in vain. It was as a radical feminist. The politics of pregnability and motherhood. The politics of orgasm. The politics of rape and incest, of abortion, birth control, forcible sterilization. Of prostitution and marital sex. Of what had been named sexual liberation. Of prescriptive heterosexuality. Of lesbian existence. And Marxist feminists were often pioneers in this work. But for many women I knew, the need to begin with the female body-our own-was understood not as applying a Maxist principle to women, but as locating the grounds from which to speak with authority as women. Not to transcend this body, but to reclaim it. To reconnect our thinking and speaking with the body of this particular living human individual, a woman. Begin, we said, with the material, with matter, mma, madre, mutter, moeder, modder, etc., etc.
Begin with the material. Pick up again the long struggle against lofty and privileged abstraction. Perhaps this is core of revolutionary process, whether it calls itself Maxist or Third World or feminist or all three. Long before the nineteenth century, the empirical witch of the European Middle Ages, trusting her senses, practicing her tried remedies against the anti-material, anti-sensuous, anti-empirical dogmas of the Church. Dying for that, by the millions. "A female-led peasant rebellion"?-in any event, a rebellion against the idolatry of pure ideas, the belief that ideas have a life of their own and float along above the heads of ordinary people-women, the poor, the uninitiated.3 Abstractions severed from the doings of living people, fed back to people as slogans. Theory-the seein of patterns, showing the forest as well as the trees-theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain cloud and returns to earth over and over. But if it doesn't smell of the earth, it isn't good for the earth.
I wrote a sentence just now and x'd it out. In it I said that women have always understood the struggle against free-floating abstraction even when they were intimidated by abstract ideas. I dont't want to write that kind of sentence now, the sentence that begins "Women have always..." We started by rejecting the sentences that began "Women have always had an instinct for mothering" or "Women have always and everywhere been in subjugation to men." If we have learned anything in these years of late twentieth-century feminism, it's that that "always" blots out what we really need to know: When, where, and under what conditions has the statement been true?
The absolute necessity to raise these questions in the world: where, when, and under what conditions have women acted and been acted on, as women? Wherever people are struggling against subjection, the specific subjection of women, through our location in a female body, from now on has to be addressed. The necessity to go on speaking of it, refusing to let the discussion go on as before, speaking where silence has been advised and enforced, not just about our subjection, but about our active presence and practice as women.We believed (I go on believing) that liberation of women is a wedge driven into all other radical thought, can open out the structures of resistance, unbind the imagination, connect what's been dangerously disconnected. Let us pay attention now, we said, to women: let men and women make a conscious act of attention when women speak; let us insist on kinds of process which allow more women to speak; let us get back to earth-not as paradigm for "women," but as place of location.
Perhaps we need a moratorium on saying "the body". For it's also possible to abstract "the" body. When I write "the body," I see nothing in particular. To write "my body" plunges me into lived experience, particulary: I see scars, disfigurements, discolorations, damages, losses, as well as what pleases me. Bones well nourished from the placenta; the teeth of a middleclass person seen by the dentist twice a year from childhood. White skin, marked and scarred by three pregnancies, an elected sterilization, progressive arthritis, four joint operations, calcium deposits, no rapes, no abortions, long hours at a typewriter-my own, not in a typing pool-and so forth. To say "the body" lifts me away from what has given me a primary perspective. To say "my body" reduces the temptation to grandiose assertions.
This body. White, female; or female, white. The first obvious, lifelong facts. But I was born in the white section of a hospital which separated Black and white women in labor and Black and whita babies in the nursery, just as it separated Black and white bodies in its morgue. I was defined as white before I was defined as female. The politcs of location. Even to being with my body I have to say that from the outset that body had more than one identity. When I was carried out of the hospital into the world, I was viewed and treated as female, but also viewed and treated as white-by both Black and white people. I was located by color and sex as surely as a Black child was located by color and sex-though the implications of white identity were mystified by the presumption that white people are the center of the universe. To locate myself in my body means more than understanding what it has meant to me to have a vulva and clitorins and uterus and breasts. It means recognizing this white skin, the places it has taken me, the places it has not let me go.
The body I was born into was not only female and white, but Jewish-enough for geographic location to have played, in those years, a determining part. I was a Mischling, four years old when the Third Reich began. Had it been not Baltimore, but Prague or Lódz or Amsterdam, the ten-year-old letter writer might have had no address. Had I survived Prague, Amsterdam, or Lódz and the railway stations for which they were deportation points, I would be some body else. My center, perhaps, the Middle East or Latin America, my language itself another language. Or I might be in no body at all.But I am a North American Jew, born and raised three thousand miles from the war in Europe.
Trying as women to see from the center. "A politics," I wrote once, "of asking women's questions." 4 We are not "the woman question" asked by somebody else; We are the women who ask the questions. Trying to see so much, aware of so much to be seen, brought into the light, changed. Breaking down again and again the false male universal. Piling piece by piece of concrete experience side by side, comparing, beginning to discern patterns. Anger, frustration with Marxist or Leftist dismissals of these questions, this struggle. Easy now to call this disillusionment facile, but the anger was deep, the frustration real, both in personal relationships and political organizations. I wrote in 1975: Much of what is narrowly termed "politics" seems to rest on a longing for certainty even at the cost of honesty, for an analysis which, once given, need not be reexamined. Such is the deadendedness-for women-of Marxism in our time.5 And it has felt like a dead end wherever politics has been externalized, cut off from the ongoing lives of women or of men, rarefied into an elite jargon, an enclave, defined by little sects who feed off each others' errors. But even as we shrugged away Marx along with the academic Marxists and the sectarian Left, some of us, calling ourselves radical feminists, never meant anything less by women's liberation than the creation of a society without domination; we never meant less the making new of all relationships. The problem was that we did not know whom we meant when we said "we".
Living for fifty-some years, having watched even minor bits of history unfold, I am less quick than I once was to search for single "causes" or origins in dealings among human beings. But suppose that we could trace back and establish that patriarchy has been everywhere the model. To what choices of action does that lead us in the present? Patriarchy exists nowhere in a pure state; we are the latest to set foot in a tangle of oppressions grown up and around each other for centuries. This isn't the old children's game where you choose one strand of color in the web and follow it back to find your price, ignoring the others as mere distractions. The prize is life itself, and most women in the world must fight for their lives on many fronts at once.
We... often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual... We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. This is from the 1977 Combahee River Collective statement, a major document of the U.S. women's movement, which gives a clear and uncompromising Black-feminist naming to the experience of simultaneity of oppression.6 Even in the struggle against free-floating abstraction, we have abstracted. Marxists and radical feminists have both done this.
To come to terms with the circumscribing nature of (our) whiteness.7 Marginalized though we have been as women, as white and Western makers of theory, we also marginalize others because our lived experience is thoughtlessly white, bacause even our "women's cultures" are rooted in some Western tradition. Recognizing our location, having to name the ground we're coming from, the conditions we have taken for granded-there is a confusion between our claims to the white and Western eye the woman-seeing eye,8 fear of losing the centrality of the one even as we claim the other.
How does the white Western feminist define theory? Is it something made only by white women and only by women acknowledged as writers? How does the white Western feminist define "an idea"? How do we actively work to build a white Western feminist consciousness that is not simply centered on itself, that resists white circumscribing?
It was in the writings but also the actions and speeches and sermons of Black United States citizens that I began to experience the meaning of my whiteness as a point of location for which I needed to take responsibility. It was in reading poems by contemporary Cuban women that I began to experience the meaning of North America as a location which had also shaped my ways of seeing and my ideas of who what was important, a location for which I was also responsible. I traveled then to Nicaragua, where in a tiny impoverished country, in a four-year-old society dedicated to eradicating poverty, under the hills of the Nicaragua-Honduras border, I could physically feel the weight of the United States of North America, its military forces, its vast appropriations of money, its mass media, at my back; I could feel what it means, dissident or not, to be part of that raised boot of power, the cold shadow we cast everywhere to the south.
In the United States large numbers of people have been cut off from their own process and movement. We have been hearing for forty years that we are the guardians of freedom, while "behind the Iron Curtain" all is duplicity and manipulation, if not sheer terror. Yet the lagacy of fear lingering after the witch hunts of the fifties hangs on like the aftersmell of a burning. The sense of obliquity, mystery, paranoia surrounding the American Communist party the Khrushchev Report of 1956: the party lost 30,000 members within weeks, and few who remained were talking about it. To be a Jew, a homosexual, any kind of marginal person was to be liable for suspicion of being "Communist." A blanketing snow had begun to drift over the radical history of the United States. And, thogh parts of the North America feminist movement actually sprang from the Black movements of the sixities and the student left, feminists have suffered not only from the the buying and distortion of women's experience, but from the overall burying and distortion of the great movements for social change.9
A movement for change lives in feelings, actions, and words. Whatver circumscribes or mutilates our feelings makes it more difficult to act, keeps our actions reactive, repetitive:abstract thinking, narrow tribal loyalties, every kind of selfrighteousness, the arrogance of believing ourselves at the center. It's hard to look back on the limits of my understanding a year, five years ago-how did I look without seeing,hear without listening? It can be difficult to be generous to earlier selves and keeping faith with the continuity of our journeys is especially hard in the United States, where identities and loyalties have been shed and replaced without a tremor, all in the name of becoming "American." Yet how, expect through ourselves, do we discover what moves other people to change? Our old fears and denials-what helps us let go of them? What makes us decide we have to reeducate ourselves, even those of us with "good" educations? A politicized life ought to sharpen both the senses and the memory.
The difficulty of saying I-a phrase from East German novelist Christa Wolf.10 But once having said it, as we realize the necessity to go further, isn't there a difficulty of saying "we"? You cannot speak for me. I cannot speak for us. Two thoughts: there is no liberation that only knows how to say "I"; there is no collective movement that speaks for each of us all the way through. And so even ordinary pronouns beecome a political problem.
* 64 cruise missiles in Greeham Common and Molesworth.
* 112 at Comiso.
* 96 Pershing ii missiles in West Germany.
* 96 for Belgium and the Netherlands.
That is the projection for the next few years.
* Thousands of women, in Europe and the United States, saying no to this and to the militarization of the world.
An approach which traces militarism back to patriarchy and patriarchy back to the fundamental quality of maleness can be demoralizing and even paralyzing... Perhaps it is possible to be less fixed on the discovery of "original causes." It might be more useful to ask, How do these values and behaviors get repeated generation after generation?11
The valorization of manliness and masculinity. The armed forces as the extreme embodiment of the patriarchal family. The archaic idea of women as a "home front" even as the missiles are deployed in the backyards of Wyoming and Mutlangen. The growing urgency that an anti-nuclear, anti-militarist movement must be a feminist movement must be a feminist movement, must be a socialist movement, must be an anti-racist, anti-imperialist movement. That it's not enough to fear for the people we know, our own kind, ourselves. Nor is it empowering to give ourselves up to abstract terrors of pure annihilation. the anti-nuclear, anti-military movement cannot sweep away the missilis as a movement to save white civilization in the West. The movement for change is a changing movement, changing itself, demasculinizing itself, de-Westernizing itself, becoming a critical mass that is saying in so many different voices, language, gestures, actions: It must change; we ourselves can change it.
We who are not the same. We who are many and do not want to be same. Trying to watch myself in the process of writing this, I keep coming back to something Sheila Rowbotham, the British socialist feminist, wrote in Beyond the Fragments:
A movement helps you to overcome some of the oppressive distancing of theory and this has been a... continuing creative endeavour of women's liberation. But some paths are not mapped and our footholds vanish...I see what I'm writing as part of a wider claiming which is beginning. I am part of the difficulty myself. The difficulty is not out there.
My difficulties, too, are not out there-except in the social conditions that make all this necessary. I do not any longer believe-my feelings do not allow me to believe-that the white eye sees from the center. Yet I often find myself thinking as if still believed that were true. Or, rather, my thinking stands still. I feel in a state of arrest, as if my brain and heart were refusing to speak to each other. My brain, a woman's brain, has exulted in breaking the taboo against women thinking, has taken off on the wind, saying, I am the woman who asks the questions. My heart has been learning in a much more humble and laborious way, learning that feelings are useless without facts, that all privilege is ignorant at the core. The United States has never been a white country, though it has long served what served what white men defined as their interests. The Mediterranean was never white. England, northern Europe, if ever absolutely white, are so no longer. In a Leftist bookstore in Manchester, England, a Third World poster:WE ARE HERE BECAUSE YOU WERE THERE. In Europe there have always been the Jews, the original ghetto dwellers, identified as a racial type, suffering under pass laws and special entry taxes, enforced relocations, massacres: the scapegoats, the aliens, never seen as truly European but as part of that darker world that must be controlled, evntually exterminated. Today the cities of Europe have new scapegoats as well: the diaspora from the old colonial empires. Is anti-Semitism the model for racism, or racism for anti-Semitism? Once more, where does the question lead us? Don't we have to start here, where we are, forty years after the Holocaust, in the churn of Middle Eastern violence, in the midst of decisive ferment in South Africa-not in some debate over origins and precedents, but in the recognition of simultaneous oppression?
I've been thinking a lot about the obsession with origins. It seems a way of stopping time in its tracks. The sacred Neolithic triangles, the Minoan vases with staring eyes and breasts, the female figurines of Anatolia-weren't they concrete evidence of a kind, like Sappho's fragments, for earlier woman-affirming cultures, cultures that enjoyed centuries of peace? But haven't they also served as arresting images, which kept us attached and immobilized? Human activity didn't stop in Crete or Çatal Hüyük. We can't build a society free from domination by fixing our sights backward on some long-ago tribe or city. The continuing spiritual power of an image lives in the interplay between what it reminds us of- what it brings to mind-and our own continuing actions in the present. When the labrys becomes a badge for a cult of Minoan goddesses,when the wearer of the labrys has ceased to ask herself what she is doing on this earth, where her love of women is taking her, the labrys, too, becomes abstration-lifted away from the heat and friction of human activity. The Jewish star on my neck must serve me both for reminder and as a goad to continuing and changing responsibility.
When I learn that in 1913, mass women's marches were held in South Africa which caused the rescinding of entry permit laws; that in 1956, 20,000 women assembled in pretoria to protest pass laws for women, that resistance to these laws was carried out in remote country villages and punished by shootings, beatings, and burnings; that in 1959, 2,000 women demonstrated in Durban against laws which provided beerhalls for African men and criminalized women's traditional home brewing; that at one and the same time, African women have played a major role alongside men in resisting apartheid, I have to ask myself why it took me so long to learn these chapters of women's history, why the leadership and strategies of African women have been so unrecognized as theory in action by white Western feminist thought. (And in a book by two men, entitled South African Politics and published in 1982, there is one entry under "Women" [franchise] and no reference anywhere to women's political leadership and mass actions.)12 When I read that a major strand in the conflicts of the past decade in Lebanon has been political organizing by women of women, across class and tribal and religious lines, women working and teaching together within refugee camps and armed communities, and of the violent undermining of their efforts through the civil war and the Israeli invasion, I am forced to think.20 Iman Khalife, the young teacher who tried to organize a silent peace march on the Christian- Moslem border of Beirut -a protest which was quelled by the threat of a massacre of the participants- Iman Khalife and women like her do not come out of nowhere. But we Western feminists, living under other kinds of conditions, are not encouraged to know this background.
And I turn to Etel Adnan's brief, extraordinary novel Sitt Marie Rose, about a middle-class Christian Lebanese woman tortured for joining the Palestinian Resistance, and read:
She was also subject to another great delusion believing that women are protected from repression, and that the leaders considered political fights to be strictly between males. In fact, with women's greater access to certain powers, they began to watch them more closely, and perhaps with even greater hostility. Every feminine act, even charitable and seemingly unpolitical ones, were regarded as a rebellion in this world where women had always played servile roles. Marie Rose inspired scorn and hate long before the fateful day of her arrest.
Across the curve of the earth, there are women getting up before dawn, in the blackness before the point of light, in the twilight before sunrise; there are women rising earlier than men and children to break the ice, to start the stone, to put up the pap, the coffee, the rice, to iron the pants, to braid the hair,to pull the day's water up from the well, to boil water for tea, to wash the children for school, to pull the vegetables and start the walk to market, to run to catch the bus for the work that is paid. I dont't know when most women sleep. In big cities at dawn women are traveling home after cleaning offices all night, or waxing the halls of hospitals, or sitting up with the old and sick and frightened at the hour when death is supposed to do its work. In Perù: "Women invest hours in cleaning tiny stones and chaff out of beans, wheat and rice; they shell peas and clean fish and grind spices in small mortars. They buy bones or tripe at the market and cook cheap, nutritious soup. They repair clothes until they will not sustain another patch. They... search... out the cheapest school uniforms, payable in the greatest number of installments. They trade old magazines for plastic washbasins and buy second-hand toys and shoes. They walk long distnces to find a spool of thread at a slightly lower price." This is the working day that has never changed, the unpaid female labor which means the survival of the poor. In minimal light I see her, over and over, her inner clock pushing her out of bed with her heavy and maybe painful limbs, her breath breathing life into her stove, her house, her family, taking the last cold swatch of night on her body, meeting the sudden leap of the rising sun. In my white North American world they have tried to tell me that this woman-politicized by intersecting forces-doesn't think and reflect on her life. That her ideas are not real ideas like those of Karl Marx and Simone de Beauvoir: That her calculations, her spiritual philosophy, her gifts for law and ethics, her daily emergency political decisions are merely instinctual or conditioned reactions. That only certain kinds of people can make theory; that the white-educated mind is capable of formulating everything; that white middle-class feminism can know for "all women"; that only when a white mind formulates is the formulation to be taken seriously. In the United States, white-centered theory has not yet adequately engaged with the texts-written, printed, and widely available-which have been for a decade or more formulating the political theory of Black American feminism: the Combahee River Collective stament, the essays and speeches of Gloria I. Joseph, Audre Lorde, Bernice Reagon, Michele Russell, Barbara Smith, June Jordan, to name a few of the most obvious. White feminists have read and taught from the anthology This Bridge Called My Bck: Writings by Radical Women of Color, yet often have stopped at perceiving it simply as an angry attack on the white women's movement. So white feelings remain at the center. And, yes, I need to move outward from the base and center of my feelings, but with a corrective sense that my feelings are not the center of feminism. And if we read Audre Lorde or Gloria Joseph or Barbara Smith, do we understand that the intellectual roots of this feminist theory are not white liberalism or white Euro-American feminism, but the analyses of Afro-American experience articulated by Sojourner Truth. W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, C.L.R. James, Malcom X, Lorraine Hansberry, Fannie Lou Hamer, among others? That Black feminism cannot be marginalized and circumscribed as simply a response to white feminist racism or an augmentation of white feminism; that it is an organic development of the Black movements and philosophies of the past, their practive and their printed writings? (And that, increasingly, Black American feminism is actively in dialogue with other movements of women of color within and beyond the United States?) To shrink from or dismiss that challenge can only isolate white feminism from the other great movements for self-determination and justice within and against which women define ourselves. Once again: Who is we? This is the end of these notes, but it is not an ending.
Il testo di questo articolo è tratto dalla raccolta di scritti di Adrienne Rich pubblicati dal 1979-85 da W.W. Norton & Company, New York London.
1. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience
and Institution (New York:W.W. Norton, 1976), p. 286.