my sense of self is
so far from
these Brooklyn kitchens with their smell
of grease and fighting
low rumble in the air
what are we being saved from?
Prospect Park outside my school
I went and sat under among the needles
my first stillness
walk and walk to hear the hum
of my own thoughts
now I don't need to walk
the stillness within and without
but I do
to take up the invitation to beauty
to be in the world
and to not be caught staying still
vulnerable to being taken over by time
I have written several blog posts, articles and advocacy statements about reparations for psychiatric violence. This has a personal meaning to me that describes my journey as a survivor – first bearing witness, then seeking healing and justice, which are intertwined. The personal and political (or simply collective and interpersonal) dimensions of these are intertwined as well – for me, bearing witness, healing and justice are for the purpose of stopping the atrocities for me and everyone, repairing what has been torn in the social fabric by people choosing to ask the state to incarcerate their loved ones or by workers in a healing profession to become part of a machine that harms and kills. My own healing becomes this justice in the world, and gives back to me possibilities of a new world that is also one with more ancient values stemming from wholeness that is originally female and that sings in the stars, stones, water and trees, in me and in my connections with belly laughing women and women with whom I can share soul-meaning in my life.
Reparations has meaning in my professional work as a human rights lawyer that both carries forward this vision – is its primary instrument – and is irrevocably at odds with it. Reparations in international law is a holistic call to repair harms attributable to a state, focusing on state responsibility to right wrongs towards individuals, groups of individuals, and communities. Yet what is the state in our lives, but a source of alienation from our original meanings and knowledge, our capacity for mutual responsibility? If the state is a means of coordinating large-scale projects (as it can be, at its best, subject to democratic processes and human rights norms which are mutually recursive), it is also the organization of power to control, suppress, punish and kill. For women especially the state can never be ours.
Reparative justice is a concept some of us have used to invoke a ‘whole society process’ that goes beyond what states can do. In reality this already is part of what any social justice movement that seeks reparation is pursuing. Think of the movement for reparations for slavery, which has seen some institutions and descendants of individuals who profited from enslavement make concrete economic and social reparations to those they harmed (descendants of enslaved Africans who still suffer from the long-term consequences to themselves and to American society). Think of the #landback movement and the rematriation of cultural objects, human remains and burial grounds to their indigenous communities.
In contributing to the Guidelines on Deinstitutionalization of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, I was able to advocate successfully, together with other survivors and allies, for inclusion of a substantive section on reparations for institutionalization in the draft issued earlier this year (it is expected the Guidelines will be finalized by October). Institutionalization is a broad concept that takes many forms, including psychiatric violence. (I argue that it encompasses forced psychiatric drugging outside institutions as well as any instance of psychiatric incarceration and the forced drugging and other violence that takes place there – as even forced drugging outside institutions is backed by threat of institutionalization for noncompliance and is part of a ‘logic of institutionalization’ that substitutes coercion and control for support and medicalizes and suppresses human diversity.) I expect to write more about the Guidelines when the final draft is issued.
For survivors of psychiatric institutionalization, the actors who harmed us are not only the psychiatrists, nurses, and institutional staff who turned themselves into machines to abuse us with their exercise of dominance, not only the shock manufacturers and drug companies who turned instruments of torture into a huge profit-making industry. Our family members – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouses and partners, grown children, and others – and our friends, lovers, neighbors, bosses, co-workers, teachers; our therapists and our family members’ therapists – those we trusted and those we didn’t trust but were in complicated relationships with that were not of our own choosing – any of these may have collaborated with the state’s repressive machinery to take away our freedom, our sense of safety, our last remaining ground of refuge. When they weren’t safe ever, but we thought we had figured out our work-arounds, they one-upped us with lies, deceptions, and the willingness of the state and the evil industries of medicalized repression to believe anything that feeds their machinery, their egos and their pockets.
We need reparative justice to work on this level and to have an interfacing relationship with the work of reparations mechanisms that states create in collaboration with survivors. This should, as CHRUSP advocated in our submission to the second phase of consultation on the Guidelines, be fully acknowledged in the Guidelines so that both deinstitutionalization and the reparations mechanisms of states will actually be reparative in nature. Justice requires true and full confrontation with the harms, and those who have caused harms cannot control the process or require carve-outs that exempt them. They do have a right to have their say on justice needs of their own – reparative justice has to be complete in all directions and dimensions.
Please see also the webinar that CHRUSP convened on Remedy and Reparation for Institutionalization as a side event to the 2022 CRPD Conference of States Parties, where I bring together survivors and allies with whom I have been thinking about the significance of reparations for psychiatric institutionalization.
In my CR group last time we talked about archetypes (not the scheduled topic, but came up in discussion). I said that I didn’t relate to the maiden/mother/crone as a way of naming the sacred female, because it was tied to women’s reproductive life cycle. While I can know menstruation and menarche and menopause in my own body I can’t know gestation and birth in the same way as it has not been my experience and never will be now. There was some intense feeling around this that I wanted to explore though, to understand my own vehemence and the reactions of other women.
Separately from that discussion, I picked up a book lying around in one of my rooms, Tantric Sex for Women by Christa Schulte. Christa is apparently a lesbian and writes from that perspective but the book is for ‘lesbian, bi, hetero, and solo lovers’. Over the weekend I had been playing some lesbian music, and was mulling over ‘Her Precious Logic’ sung by Barb Ester, which repeats the motif of ‘the blessings of precious woman’s love’ through figures of a ‘virgin’ (‘her seed on the wind blows, it seeks and carries the blessings of precious woman’s love’), a (mother? – unnamed) (‘glory to her for the joys of living, and praise be her power, her tender care’), and a (crone? – unnamed) (‘it’s her justice in motion, it’s your heart in devotion’). In much of Goddess spirituality, mother is sensual pleasure and desire, the gift of life as earthly paradise. The tantric approach to sexuality in Christa’s book, framed in a purely female sense without any need to accommodate males or their orgasms or functionality or dysfunction, is as simple as breathing once you are able to feel and welcome what gives you pleasure. It is of the utmost necessity to be able to set your boundaries for safety, to close doors, to refuse to be or to see yourself as as object for others’ pleasure or to deny yourself pleasure until or unless it serves someone else’s needs.
Women’s free sexuality is united with our intelligence and morality and our power in all respects – as Audre Lorde wrote in ‘The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power‘. We need to read and re-read that wonderful essay many times in our lives, but here is a part that speaks to me particularly now:
That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of our capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it b lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.
This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. Fo once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that the1 feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.Audre Lorde, The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power
Hearing Judy Grahn read from her book Eruptions of Inanna some months ago, and in reading Heide Goettner-Abendroth’s book Matriarchal Societies, I was drawn to the connections between sacred sexuality and female power. It is exactly the opposite of patriarchal bioessentialism which treats us as a resource to be exploited ‘good for one thing only’ (and we all know what that is, and ‘good’ to whom: not ourselves). The power is a power of creative intelligence (as Paula Gunn Allen also emphasizes from a Laguna Pueblo perspective). Inanna is a lawgiver who sends her sacred raven out to look over the land and see what is wrong and needs fixing. How can she also be a goddess associated with sacred sexuality? The answer is, how can she not? as Audre Lorde’s essay explains beautifully, and as Christa Schulte’s book offers a way into, to know in our bodies if we aren’t already aware of this power within ourselves.
So, abortion. Right to absolutely, unaccountably to anyone else, decide to terminate a pregnancy while it is still a pregnancy, is fundamental to respect for women as human beings. Motherhood, and capacity for motherhood, are sacred powers of women and not a resource for men, or society, or children, or other women, to exploit or control. Our bodies are ourselves as the book of second wave feminism by that name said. Those who claim to valorize mothers or motherhood while pushing us back into male cages will find themselves deprived of the nurturance they claim to be seeking, and facing the wrath of awakened women.
Heide Goettner-Abendroth uses the term ‘patriarchalization’ to refer to the process by which a society becomes patriarchal. If we accept that all of us can trace our roots back to some ancestral society that was matriarchal – which does seem to be the origin of humanity and human culture, and which some indigenous societies retain to this day – and that matriarchal societies promote well-being and peace, let us think about how we can re-matriarchalize and what this means.
What are the values and practices of matriarchy that we want to draw on? Which matriarchal threads do we retain in our modern cultures, persisting underneath patriarchy and in long-term, traditional resistance to it? How have lesbian feminists, anarchists, poor people’s movements, anti-colonial movements (and others) built matriarchal cultures of resistance, or cultures of resistance with matriarchal elements?
Heide Goettner-Abendroth’s book Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe, which is an English translation and distillation of a four-volume study in German, is an eye-opening resource to consider the features of diverse modern-day and documented recent-historical matriarchies from all parts of the world with the exception of Europe. The variety of matriarchal forms and the method of inquiry that draws out features cumulatively makes a powerful case for the feasibility or actuality (if we needed it) and the specificity of matriarchal societies. From this reading, I would describe matriarchies as societies in which women hold central authority in spiritual, economic and political affairs through kinship-based social structures determined through matrilineages.
One sister in my lesbian consciousness-raising group emphasized in a discussion about matriarchy, that women are in control of their own sexuality and that their brothers, rather than male sexual partners, play a role in raising children (and in the affairs of the clan generally).
Women’s economic control of land, resources, distribution of goods is emphasized by Barbara Mann in Iroquois Women: The Gantowisas.
For me, what stood out in reading Matriarchal Societies, not so much as definitive or important, but as a way forward that I want to pursue, is matriarchy as mother-law, with women, especially elder women and ancestral women, but also all women in their sphere of authority (as clan mother, head of household etc), as law-makers. The creativity of law-making as an exercise of wisdom with precise communication, taking into account the views and interests of all members of society, is a deep structure of law that I connect with in my work and want to promote. I am not sure what it means to do this in the context of a patriarchal society, state and legal system (and global society of such states) but want to explore the connection with mother-source and origin, in the sense of both structure (where law in this sense originates ancestrally, so that it is our birthright as humans and women) and content, in terms of serving interests of a social structure that centers women in our creative intelligence linked to the unique capacity for motherhood.
The other feature that emerged for me as resonant was sacred sexuality. In thinking about possible connections between that and mother-law, I remembered that Inanna is goddess of sacred sexuality and is also a law-giver. Judy Grahn in Eruptions of Inanna tells a story of Inanna taking the form of a raven to go and look out over the land and see what is wrong so it can be remedied. This image is similar to one that I had for myself at an earlier stage of my justice and healing work, of using ‘crows’ eyes’ to seek out what was dead and had to be cleaned away. (This had been inspired by hearing Luisah Teish say that the vulture was an aspect of Oshun that cleared away what was no longer needed.)
When women know our own sexuality and exercise it without constraint to put it at anyone else’s service – whether a man’s, or men’s in general, or another woman’s – we can exercise our own authority knowing that it is right and good. Sexuality and knowledge of our reproductive capacities, also to exercise in our own wisdom and not in service of anyone else, is central to what it means to create social arrangements that do not entail disadvantage for or subjugation of women. Our bodies can gestate new life, men’s cannot – as other writers have said, only women can know what it is to be two-in-one, to be carrying a new life that is and is not ourselves. Law needs to start from that premise of what a human being is, what it is to be human, and not from the other premise that makes a male body, incapable of creating new life in itself, the paradigm.
Mothering is the beginning because it is, and not because we want to artificially valorize or venerate it – this is not ‘motherhood and apple pie,’ rather the opposite.
It makes sense to start with women and our self-knowledge, our authority over bringing new life into the world, caring for that new life and then by extension all the descendants. It is our creative intelligence, our self-authorship (in Gerda Lerner’s words) that is primary rather than our bodies’ maternal capacity. It is our sacred sexuality, the sacralization of our self-knowledge and sexuality unto-itself, that pre-exists any decision about whether or not to bear children. Without bearing children we keep our sacred self-authorship and our creative intelligence, we may become social mothers or contribute our creative intelligence and law-giving in other ways (as mothers also do). The only thing we cannot do is found a new matrilineage – and one thing we may be particularly suited to do is to heal and repair the matrilineage we are born into.
Another sister in the CR group was struck by a mention of restorative justice in a question posed, and said she wanted restorative justice for women.
I love this idea, because restorative justice, similar to reparation, allows us to take a look at what needs to be changed – what needs to be restored as balance or wholeness or serenity, a sense that something is settled and we can move on. What are the wrongs patriarchal society has committed against women, where are the hurts located and what are their roots? – look with the eyes of a raven as Inanna to see what is wrong and need to be repaired in our world. This led me to think about ‘re-matriarchalization’ to think about how our societies need to be changed.
We cannot start from scratch, it is never possible. Yes, there might be a sudden apocalypse of the planet through the accumulation of catastrophic climatic events or patriarchal war, such that the ways many of us live dependent on technology that harms and depletes our sources of life – earth, water, air – entirely break down and all we have is what we can do locally with subsistence knowledge. Subsistence knowledge is needed and has to be cultivated and preserved. But to rely on that scenario is to both put off needed work that can still dismantle parts of the oppressive and damaging systems we are enmeshed in, and avoid owning the places we ourselves start from.
We do not have to love the patriarchal cultures we are born into, or capitalism, or nation-states, or our existing local, state, federal governments. But we have to engage with those cultures in the practical everyday and in the bigger questions of policy as they play out in our lives. For example, take issues like land ownership, marriage and family. Some women decide to make a land trust because they don’t want to individually own property, but this is a decision to be weighed by any woman with pros and cons, leaving her vulnerable to the nation-state’s property laws and her personal situation under capitalism if she doesn’t get along with her land-mates. Women owning land individually under capitalism and property laws can still be treated as stewardship; neither collective ownership by women who come together based on mutual affinity as a land trust nor individual ownership by a woman reproduces a functioning matriarchy, though both potentially support re-matriarchalization by placing control of land in the hands of women. Both use the legal formalities of property ownership in the existing patriarchal capitalistic nation-state; the only difference is that a land trust creates the added layer of legal formality among the women who decide to own land together. The creation of that legal formality using tools of the nation-state may or may not be conducive to re-matriarchalization.
Women’s use of law or involvement in law-making is not itself mother-law, which requires in my view deep and thorough reconsideration of the structural elements of a legal rule and how it may operate, taking into account the needs, well being and freedoms of all members of the relevant community. If anything undesirable is accepted as the price of doing business with the legal system, it needs to be a clear decision weighing pros and cons, acknowledging the price and mitigating harm. (Of course we can and do all make decisions like this by our own instincts and inclinations and work it out as we go along. We use the forms that make sense to us at any time, and can reconsider and revisit them though there is a price for doing so – e.g. divorce or disengaging from one’s home in a land trust is not easy; neither is selling a home one owns outright.)
A woman who doesn’t have the money to own land or a home, especially if she and her family have been city-dwellers for generations, who depends on jobs in the urban economy and doesn’t have skills of rural living, won’t have these kinds of choices or will have to pay other kinds of prices for them. She may come into a land trust feeling like a beggar who doesn’t belong and has nothing to contribute, or what she can contribute from her work in urban economy may be hateful to her. It’s simply over-idealistic to imagine that all women can or should find their place in a rural sisterhood land trust under such circumstances – and the problems are magnified where cultural differences, added vulnerabilities of racism and anti-semitism (not only in a land group but in many rural surroundings that are mostly white and reactionary) and ableism are taken into account.
We think to think bigger about re-matriarchalization, whether we choose to live on lesbian land (lesbians living on land we can count on as our home by legal right – it’s unavoidable that we need the legal right because a woman saying ‘treat this as your home’ might break her word at any time or impose unacceptable conditions) or in cities. Wherever we are we are not isolated. Patriarchy and capitalism can still come and get us. We have to interact with our neighbors, to do otherwise creates its own vulnerability. The planetary environment affects us all and what those politicians do and don’t do matters. Racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic and misogynistic violence, political violence of any kind, can come after us – including the tools of patriarchy and the nation-state that enact repression and control. We can face down the fear of violent repression and speak out, stand up, sit in our power, locking arms not only for ourselves but for our sisters and brothers, our children (everyone’s children) and the planet.
It does make sense to start with where we are, what each of us is doing in our lives to re-matriarchalize – to act with responsibility to and for all beings, to accept and affirm and value our self-authority and self-love as sacred. Some of us are lesbian clowns, others are healers, matriarchs caring for our multigenerational lineage, teachers and engineers and scientists. Some of us are gardeners, farmers and foragers, land-mates in lesbian collectives, organizers of female-only networks and forums. All these activities can be done with a matriarchal consciousness, looking beyond the everyday to where we are going. Among other things, we need to ensure that girls and young women, and older women who are new to a particular community, can be welcomed not only as recipients of our wisdom but as participants holding inherently their own self-authority and self-love.
A matriarchalizing political agenda in the US would include zero tolerance for white supremacist militias; comprehensive voting rights for the widest and easiest participation; free child care, full reproductive freedom and maternal health equity; feminist women’s health agenda for the practice of medicine as an art that cares for each person’s best health and not population-wide outcomes and that respects women’s intelligence and dignity as adults in charge of our own bodies – not just our sexual and reproductive choices but our total body-knowledge and health decisions. It would include the strengthening of national workers rights with with guaranteed livable wages and right to collective bargaining and unionization in every occupation and industry including part-time work; occupational safety and health regulations and environmental regulations with teeth; managed and funded committed goals to end dependence on fossil fuels and other extractive industries. It would include de-escalation and diminishment of military capabilities and other violence-practicing institutions including police and prisons – wisely, thoughtfully, justly and with an end to the mentality of siege which is racist, imperialist, colonialist, based on fear and on the valorizing of male violence which always is based on their subjugation of women and reinforces that subjugation. It would include dismantling of forced psychiatry and guardianship without making mothers, sisters and wives responsible for taking up extra care they don’t have available to give or for absorbing the violence of anyone – usually male – who takes out their rage at powerlessness by unleashing it against those closest to them. This means communities looking out for each other beyond our current bubbles if we are in them, whether families or land trusts or walls we build that separate ourselves from what we fear.
The same sister in CR who wants restorative justice for women, talked about energy work as how we create protection for ourselves against male violence. This is not new age fantasy but how we stand in our authority and meet an aggressor with a rock-bottom recognition of their humanity, that we are firm in deterring them from harming us but they don’t have to fear our vengeance either. In thinking about what this would mean, I can see it requires seeing them, opening myself to who this person is, in a way that I am not inclined to do but I can see making a difference. (Sarah Knutson described this also in her blog post on a publicized instance of such engagement by a Black woman in a workplace incident all too common now – ‘Tuff’ Love – a Public Safety Alternative.) It is also reminiscent of Aikido, which teaches us to open ourselves fully to the energy directed against us by an opponent, to appreciate the totality of this energy (which means becoming aware of all its facets, e.g. if there is a hidden punch coming – or a sexual as well as ordinary aggression), step into it and redirect it harmlessly.
Thinking about spaces where men abstract themselves and their violence into machines – drone warfare as the ultimate example, and forced psychiatry as a routinized, ritualized functioning of violence that screens perpetrators from their victims and allows them to disregard their victims’ screams as incompetent ingratitude – what can we do to resist and not only to stoically withstand the machine’s violence? We can’t love the machine, but we can reach beyond the machine when that is possible to the men or women operating it. They are still human. I can imagine this kind of resistance being meaningful as it is one form of resistance practiced against large-scale violence throughout history (war itself is such a machine that demands obedience and self-sacrifice in a collective bond against others defined as an enemy – especially in aggressive war and genocide where victims are systematically degraded). Our individual resistance is not enough, it is not foolproof – the machines are collective forms of organizations that have to be met with our collective organization to resist, dismantle, defund, however we can.
Restorative justice ‘for’ women also requires restorative justice ‘by’ women as we step into our agency to set things right. It is not only what others – men and women in political leadership for instance – need to do in response. We cannot be only victims, and we never have been, the moment we identify victimization we begin to name and to own our anger and learn how to work with it. We begin to own our self-love and become aware of who we are in our authority as well as our woundedness. That authority of repair, what steps out of the first outrage and need for comfort, what steps beyond fear to renewal and responsibility, is self-authorship that lives in the same place as our sacred sexual self-knowledge, as who we are and our connection to earth and cosmic energy, to our ancestors and the ancestral being within ourselves, the ‘ancestor-in-training‘ that we are.
Re-matriarchalization finds self-authority and the values we live by, that support us, in the everyday and the world around us, both what we create and nurture lovingly and what others create that we find joyfully resonating. It pieces together what is now fragmented, working where we create beauty and justice to set one more thing right, to join our energy with others moving in the same direction.
Women’s stepping outside of patriarchal authority, spaces, organizations and collectives to create our own female-only spaces as women together is essential. That is the great gift of second-wave lesbian feminism and lesbian separatism including the land collectives. I participate in this reclamation which is a necessary grounding and creative source in my life, to which I come as a woman who has faces challenges of outsidership in some of these spaces that I continue to work at breaking down and setting right as my own exploratory reparation. It depends on the receptivity of other women in particular spaces, which we cannot take for granted but work at building the sometimes-fragile care and mutual respect and collective strength that keeps us coming back to continue when it gets hard.
wrong and money and strength capitalizing on itself to mow down whatever can be made grass i needed something to rise as whole and shining moving through the dark it’s a time of flouishing within a hard vigil that hurts as it goes bumping and ripping our fingernails on the walls we try to keep ourselves safe from knowing the lives we share in this world between we are midwifing we’re weaving a dream we can’t see on these screens and these waves and wires in the skies the energy we draw and circulate back to earth in our bodies and souls we are keepers of what can’t be known, what is a birthing to be made whole like a woman screaming herself into being for the first time
*This poem came after a gathering with about 25 lesbian radical feminists, sharing intensity for a short time that felt cataclysmic and transformational. Part of what is always on our minds now (all of us) is the Earth's changes and our grief over human (euro-cultures, patriarchy, capitalist) destructiveness towards her and life. Paula Gunn Allen, in her 1991 essay 'The Woman I Love is a Planet, The Planet I Love is a Tree,' used the terms 'menopause' and 'climacteric' for these changes, and said: 'Our planet, my beloved, is in crisis; this, of course, we all know. We, many of us, think that her crisis is caused by men, or White people, or capitalism, or industrialism, or loss of spiritual vision, or social turmoil, or war, or psychic disease. For the most part, we do not recognize that the reason for her state is that she is entering upon a great initiation-she is becoming someone else. Our planet, my darling, is gone coyote, heyoka, and it is our great honor to attend her passage rites. She is giving birth to her new consciousness of herself and her relationship to the other vast intelligences, other holy beings in her universe. Her travail is not easy, and it occasions her intensity, her conflict, her turmoil-the turmoil, conflict, and intensity that human and other creaturely life mirror. And as she moves, growing and learning ever closer to the sacred moment of her realization, her turmoil, intensity, agony, and conflict increase. ... At a time such as this, what indeed can we do? We can sing Heya- hey in honoring all that has come to pass, all that is passing. Sing, honoring, Heya-hey to all the beings gathering on all the planes to witness this great event. From every quadrant of the universe they are coming. They are standing gathered around, waiting for the emergence, the piercing moment when she is counted among those who are counted among the wise. We can sing Heya-hey to the familiar and the estranged, to the recognized and the disowned, to each shrub and tree, to each flower and vine, to each pebble and stone, to each mountain and hill. We can sing Heya-hey honoring the stars and the clouds, the winds and the rains, the seasons and the temperature. We can think with our hearts, as the old ones do, and put our brains and muscles in the service of the heart, our Mother and Grandmother Earth, who is coming into being in another way. We can sing Heya-hey, honoring. What can we do, rejoicing and honoring, to show our respect? We can heal. We can cherish our bodies and honor them, sing Heya-hey to our flesh. We can cherish our being-our petulances and rages, our anguishes and griefs, our disabilities and strengths, our desires and passions, our pleasures and delights. We can, willingly and recognizing the fullness of her abundance, which includes scarcity and muchness, enter inside ourselves to seek and find her, who is our own dear body, our own dear flesh. For the body is not the dwelling place of the spirit-it is the spirit. It is not a tomb, it is life itself. And even as it withers and dies, it is born; even as it is renewed and reborn, it dies.' http://www.feminist-reprise.org/docs/paula-gunn-allen.pdf
The above image, of many swirling and vibrating colors with different energies, including two focal points of red and many downward-moving energy spirals, was drawn by me in a workshop my wife Diana Signe Kline gave at our gathering. It feels to me like a a good fit with the poem and with Paula Gunn Allen's theme of listening to our hearts and bodies in all their disturbances which are more than our own individually, and acting from that space.
As a Jew I have always understood myself to be part of a people – could say nation, but we have no land or territory and no self-government. The Jewish religion, I have always understood to be part of that culture, essentially a tribal god and a set of rules or principles for how to live in the world. Stories, music and poetry are part of this, gratitude and acknowledgement of the gifts of life. Balancing ritual duties with meeting needs (you can break the shabbos or a fast if needed for health reasons). So I’ve kind of bracketed the patriarchal nature of the religion, avoiding it, keeping what nurtures me – the ethical principles, the poetry.
This Rosh Hashana I came face to face with the patriarchy in a way I couldn’t avoid. I wanted to relate to the holiday in community instead of in a solitary way or only by wishing my wife a sweet year as we eat apples and maple syrup. So I attended a service by zoom, done by a progressive Jewish Renewal synagogue in California. The service was conducted by several people together, there was music and drumming as well as speaking and singing. The primary officiant, a transman who carries the title of Maggid, or preacher, was highly dynamic and brought a lot of heart to the service, using humor and connecting the themes of Rosh Hashana to life and emotions and fears and needs.
I mention that this person is a transman because I felt a deep connection with them – pronouns are ambiguous and impossible to accurately convey this situation, since to say ‘him’ would deny the connection I felt with another female person entering into patriarchal archetypes. And it would flatten and reify the archetype of masculinity itself which I reject, along with the archetype of a violent masculine covenant of submission to abject terror and helplessness that is the essence of the religious significance of Rosh Hashana beyond the simple fact of an autumnal lunar new year.
The Torah portion traditionally read for Rosh Hashana is the ‘akedah’, the binding of Isaac to an altar as sacrifice to Abraham’s god. As we know, the god saves Isaac at the last moment, it was only willingness required and not the sacrifice itself. We can rationalize this any which way, consider it to be a reconciliation of the practice of sacrifice with preserving life (of a supposedly beloved child!) by making the deity responsible for both ends and worshipping the deity ultimately as both all-powerful and merciful. But it is a patriarchal vision of deity as an entity to be feared, an arbitrary power that issues commands having no inherent value that we can discern – indeed the deity’s reasoning is considered to be asymptotically incommensurate with our capabilities of perception.
The service I attended didn’t read the Torah portion (for which I was thankful) but the themes brought out invoked it implicitly. On Rosh Hashana it is said that the deity inscribes people in the book of life or the book of death for the year to come, and on Yom Kippur that fate is sealed. Well, we know that some people will live and some will die, it is sobering to contemplate our mortality and what this means for how we want to live our lives. But there is a theme of atonement for sins, asking forgiveness for all the ways in which we have disappointed our higher conscience, as if it is a matter of averting the imposition of a death sentence that the deity may arbitrarily impose for any reason of its own. This again is a patriarchal image of deity as sovereign monarch, a king ruling by decree, the best we can hope for is mercy. And that is not an inherent attribute of deity or our relationship to the sacred, it is a reflection of a particular kind of class society with patriarchy at its foundation.
The other patriarchal aspect of the ‘akedah’ is the covenant that follows the merciful saving of Isaac from a death sentence. It’s a male covenant with a male god, involving male circumcision. What is this for women? How are women even a part of the Jewish people?
There is in the scripture reference to older traditions that may have been matriarchal, including the marriages of the founding patriarchs to the founding matriarchs – Isaac and Jacob both returned to their mothers’ relatives to seek their mates, and Jacob spent a number of years living with those relatives in a matrilocal arrangement before uprooting his wives and household to re-assert the patrilocal arrangement he had intended. When Rachel takes the teraphim – the household gods – she is both asserting her right to them, and cooperating with Jacob in moving to consolidate a patriarchal society. (We don’t have to take these stories as literal to derive this implication.)
As a Jewish woman, already having rejected zionism as an expression of nationhood because it adopts the form and nature of white settler colonialism with inherent genocidal implications that are ongoing, and also understanding that the patriarchal religion is not salvageable – this is how I see my particular situation in the world:
I can choose to look within to invoke my own ancestors, known or unknown, that come in a good way. (Thanks to Veronica Agard, who conducts the Ancestors in Training workshops). When I connect with my ancestors, I invite them to the place where I currently make my home. They can communicate with me through dreams or other signs and it is up to me to discern meaning and take responsibility for what I do in response.
I have no homeland, most of my people came here from countries where they were being persecuted. The land of Israel or Palestine is not capable of being a spiritual homeland because of how it is being used destructively for genocide. I can’t ‘go home’ again. I was born on land that was original Lenape territory, in Brooklyn; now I live on land that was original territory of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy/Mohawk nation and also occupied and used by Abenaki and other nations through treaties. (The book Rural Indigenousness by Melissa Otis is a fascinating history though needs to be supplemented by learning more about the massacres which are not presented in detail.) When I connect to the land, I recognize the original peoples as custodians and their ancestors as well as my own. Connection to this land where I live – the particular place where I make my home, its immediate surroundings – has become a source of important meaning to me, communion and mutual energy and knowledge.
As for the rest, it is open and indefinite, and unfinished. Being part of ‘the mixed multitudes’ is what diasporic identity means if it is an identity at all and it may be a history more than anything else.
There is a legacy of ‘tikkun olam’ that might be the best of what I inherit as a Jewish legacy. Survival strengths and understanding ourselves as both/and, inside and outside, a people dispersed among the nations, needing to find ways to repair what has been harmed and having the perspective to see from inside and outside at once. We have also inherited some intense fear, both from our own patriarchal covenant religion and from the persecutions we have undergone throughout history. So we can’t come to the world, or to tikkun olam, as beggars, as beings tainted by an original sin of homelessness mixed with patriarchal ambitions, crying to a sovereign king worldly or otherworldly for mercy. Moving into our place within the mixed multitudes, we have been and are part of reinventing woman-centered power as creative intelligence and order (see Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop). That is a paradigm I am tentatively adopting as a both/and way of exploring matriarchies (cultures centered on mothers as beginning with spiritual, social, economic and political implications). It may be that the two are the same but that as a lesbian raised in patriarchal culture I see ‘mother’ in a restrictive light. I am also especially interested in exploring original forms of law from this perspective, and connecting this with the possibilities that may or may not exist still to exercise creative intelligence through law-giving either using the political structure of states (can they be transformed, are some already functioning as anything other than a violent paradigm of arbitrary sovereignty?) or in any other meaningful ways.
Thinking about the sex binary and the existence, or possibility, of non-patriarchal forms of gender as cultural meaning given to the sex binary or to the existence of binary forms generally as a principle of social organization.
Women in modern capitalist patriarchy have a legacy to contend with that posits gender as complementarity, entangled with the hierarchy that is gender in patriarchy. Cynical glorification of women’s ‘place’ in the home, women as civilizers of men, ‘the angel in the house’ serves the purpose of flattery that works alongside threats to induce women to cooperate in their (our) own oppression (Max Dashú discussing the work of Collette Guillaumin). Feminists are rightly cynical about gender that maintains separate spheres of activity or enactment of archetypal cultural forms for women and men because of this entanglement and the subjugated relationship of women to its creation and maintenance.
We have been confronted with the need to articulate the difference between binary sex as a reality of our physical existence as a mammalian species, and the gender binary that socially constructs a hierarchy of sex-based oppression. We affirm the sex binary in itself as a neutral fact and contest the gender one. But we are left without a way to describe or imagine the possibility of social binaries other than as hierarchy, within western feminism.
Yet such binaries are all around and within us at the subsistence level that both underlies and resists capitalist patriarchy. Matricentric cultures treat social binaries as a form for balance and dynamic stability. This is fundamentally different from hierarchy.
My experience of balance in a relationship comes from loving another woman. She is my balance, something I feel as a counterweight connected to myself and inseparable in that sense. In a binary relationship as balance, each side exists in itself and in relation to the other. This felt experience of binary as balance allows me to move outward and appreciate the possibility of balance between the sexes in matricentric cultures and the potency of other binary forms such as clan arrangements that similarly differentiate and connect people in complex relationships of balance within a society.
In contrast to balance, hierarchy entails both dominance and a substitution of quantity for quality. Quantity in the sense of more than or less than, stronger or weaker, superior and inferior – comparison along a yardstick that is presumed to be uniform for both parts of the binary but is in fact (as we know from gender) based on the one that dominates. That is inevitable since the original form of binary as balance brings together two entirely different qualities, neither of which can measure or be measured by the other.
This shift, this imposition of a quantified relation based on dominance on a relation of balance between two entirely different qualities (which then also substitutes quantification and comparison for qualitative difference), would appear to be key to the original appropriation or dispossession of women as a sex class by men as a sex class. I started thinking about this from Max Dashú’s discussion of Collette Guillaumin’s insight that the exchange of women, which she considers fundamental to any form of patriarchy, assumes that women are already socially construed as objects capable of being exchanged. The ‘sexification’ of women – turning women into objects of sexual and reproductive use-value whose worth along the yardstick of the sex-class binary is qualitatively inferior to that of men and whose ‘worth’ can then be measured by men in terms of quantities of objects of exchange – is said to constitute that violent appropriation of women by men, for men’s use. Relating this to the substitution of quantity for quality links patriarchy – the original dispossession of women – with class society in which elite classes, primarily but not exclusively the men in those classes, use other human beings and both constitute themselves as the yardstick of measurement for social worth as human beings, and presume to measure the value of those they dominate as economic units serving the aim of the masters, in contrast to relation among differentiated social groups as qualitatively distinct cooperators in maintaining balance that each serve both the aims of society as a whole and their particular existence on its own terms.
This brings me back to the two previous posts on dispossession of women and the fact of life that everything matters, when we are facing dispossession as women continually do in capitalist patriarchy as it maintains itself over us. Every dispossession no matter how slight it may appear, no matter whether it comes in the form of confinement, force, law, custom or flattery, is a fundamental (and qualitative) shift from original balance (connection of qualitatively distinct existences) to hierarchy (domination and measurement of relative worth as a prerogative of the dominator). Balance is still possible at the subsistence level of life that capitalism cannot expropriate from us without killing us all, and as it is fundamentally about re-shifting the nature of relationships, including our relationships with nature, it cannot be done in isolation but only by means that put into practice the end, respecting the independence and connection of qualitatively distinct existences and rejecting any binary relations that entail quantification or dominance. (I have to thank Sally Tatnall for her presentation on hierarchy which planted a seed in my mind about the unity of forms of hierarchy that informs what I am struggling to express here.)
Thinking about prostitution and sex work debates.
I agree with the tenet of radical feminism that maintains selling sexual access to a woman’s body cannot be dignified as empowering work. It is a form of violence – sexed and sexual violence that appropriates women as the object of men’s sexual drive and social entitlements. Unionization and campaigns to ‘improve working conditions’ normalize sexual violence and rationalize its subjection to regulation without disturbing the central dispossession that defines the character of this particular way of earning a living.
If earning a living is how one defines work, however, selling sex is a way that women have earned money. When running away from sexual abuse at home, or as an alternative to becoming economically entirely dependent on one man in marriage, or giving in to the demands for sexual access made on women in work settings and any public or private space, prostitution can appear as the way to take control of violence that will be done to you one way or another. The sex trade encapsulates what capitalist patriarchy means for women as the bleakest and most cynical opportunity for direct participation in the market economy – equally available for contract exploitation, unequally sexed or ‘sexified’ (as Max Dashú translates Collette Guillaumin’s concept of ‘sexage’).
But abolishing prostitution through law and policy (e.g. the Nordic model designed to criminalize sex buyers and pimps but not sex sellers, and to support women to exit) will not change the conditions that bring it about. It will not free women from either sexual predation by men or economic marginalization as a part of the labor force easily reduced to contingency and precarity. (This marginalization is not new nor does it refer to the US 1950s campaign to install the middle-class housewife as prime consumer. Marx talks about it in Capital and housewives were considered by Chinese communist feminists to be an important group to mobilize politically, see Finding Women in the State, by Wang Zheng.) I support the Nordic model as an imperfect strategy to combat a particularly intense form of sexual exploitation but need to dig deeper and link the abolition of prostitution to the full inclusion of women currently or formerly selling sex in the defeat of capitalist patriarchy. To the extent any of us use strategies of survival or advancement that rely on acceptance of violence, exploitation or dispossession we need to be able to confront them and release them with all the grief they have caused us.
The subsistence perspective promoted by Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies, which relates closely to the land dyke movement discussed in my earlier post and to modern matriarchal studies and the movement for a maternal gift economy, offers a more holistic way to understand the exploitation, appropriation and dispossession by capitalism of women and others whose labor produces and reproduces the necessities of life. Importantly it offers a way to think about a way out of capitalist patriarchy through persistence and care for the necessities of life. As Jeanne Neath has said in discussing the subsistence perspective, capitalism can’t survive without subsistence underneath it, but subsistence can thrive without capitalism. (Or as Buffy Sainte-Marie sings in ‘Carry It On,’ ‘It ain’t money that makes the world go round, That’s just a temporary confusion.’) I’m still reading the Subsistence Perspective book, so stay tuned for further reflections and feel free to comment with your own knowledge and insights.
hold on, the space of this life like a spider stepping out lightly into air and brilliant sun no one has freed me the dark leaves shadow a shiver of creation where we dream what could be if the tragedies common to all of us had not happened if we had only the sun and not the shadow we became love and food with each other our transformations where one goes away out of pain that cannot be withstood, and then reminds herself light and dark and pain and hunger and cold and thirst and laughter still rile us, life with the skin sensitive as fire we curl and protect then open and close again
I was listening last night to David Harvey’s lecture on part 8 of Marx’s Capital, which feels like ‘this is the real dirt on capitalism’ that Marx set aside for the purpose of making his argument in the early chapters. Original accumulation or accumulation by dispossession, i.e. private property really is theft on a massive and systematic scale. The existence of capital and labor-power as the two essential components of the capitalist economic system cannot be brought about except by violently dispossessing people from the land and their homes, taking away from them the ability to work for themselves. This continues most obviously through colonialism but is also present as a feature of the continual evolution of capitalism in all its stages. Harvey cites Rosa Luxembourg for this and also gives the example of the subprime housing crisis as continuing expropriation within a developed capitalist economy.
What struck me beyond capitalism itself, is applying the accumulation by dispossession to male-female relations. The trans movement in its demand for gender identity to supersede sex is, from women’s point of view, nothing more or less than a reassertion of patriarchy by the aggressive and violent accumulation of social capital on behalf of the male sex at the expense of the female sex.
There is no need from a human rights and non-discrimination point of view to dispossess women from the spaces and institutions we have created for ourselves – chosen, created through hard work and advocacy, for love of ourselves and other women – in order to recognize the existence of gender diversity and of social groups that help to expand this diversity. It is true that we use the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’ to mean both sex classes and something more that has a range of cultural overtones varying by culture, (language!), and individual. That is why I use the terms transwoman and transman in order to acknowledge those individuals’ personal identities. They are outlier identities just as lesbian, dyke, butch are outlier identities. We exist in a similar space on the edges of our cultures’ mainstream gender norms and expectations.
My awakening to the problems with transgender advocacy came primarily from reconnecting with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival after a hiatus of many years and finding how much the energy of the women who continued putting it on and attending was being sapped by vicious attacks on the livelihood of performers and the existence of this female-centered community in itself. Michigan was, I used to think, the premier cultural institution of lesbian feminism in the United States; everything that was being discussed or worked out in our community, whether theory or practiced, came through and the festival’s handling of it showed the rest of us one way (or more) it could be addressed. So it was with the Womyn of Color tent, DART (oh help me out with what it stands for – an area set aside for disabled women and a hub for access needs), areas for non-smoking and smoking, chem-free and chem-tolerant, quiet and noisy, Twilight zone where anything goes. So it was also with transgender attendees. Despite the known presence of transwomen at the festival including on the work crews which were its core community, transgender activists attacked the festival as transphobic for its stated intention that the festival be for ‘womyn-born-womyn’ only. In lesbian feminist culture, intention is important in shaping the spaces we create and the future we desire. It is an affirmation and projection of ourselves into material reality without violent insistence on our own way. Why did transgender activists attack this festival and count it as a victory when the festival’s entrepreneur Lisa Vogel decided to retire after the 40-year anniversary, if the aim was to create space for gender outliers rather than to dispossess women?
Many current debates among gender-critical feminists (my definition: women who are actual feminists, advocating the defeat of patriarchy/male dominance and who reject the contention that gender identity supersedes sex) center around the degree to which any of us are willing to acknowledge the social group of people who consider themselves to be transgender. Some women refuse to use the terms transwoman or transman or even transgender, as they consider these terms to give too much ground. They consider that ‘gender identity’ as a concept contains in itself the aggressive dispossession of women – the political and legal erasure of women as a recognizable social group ourselves. On the other end of the spectrum are those who would concede to transwomen some inclusion in the category of women for some purposes, but would protect female-only spaces particularly in situations of vulnerability such as spas and changing rooms, prisons, shelters, hospital and rehabilitation settings, and in sports. Some of us like myself want to recognize the social groups of gender outliers by the names and concepts they choose for themselves and believe this can be done without accepting that ‘gender identity’ is a universalizing concept by which everyone can be reliably classified so as to displace sex. I do not think it is warranted to allow any members of the male sex to be considered women for any purpose, given the impossibility of justifying this according to a materialist feminist analysis and the need to maintain and nurture women’s resistance to patriarchy, our ability to reliably create female-only space for ourselves, to protect and defend lesbians and lesbian cultures.
The question of separatism is re-raised for lesbian-feminists, and our separatist cultural and political forms are flourishing. Sarah Hoagland commented once that the anarchist/socialist debate was reflected in lesbian feminist community as separatism/radical feminism. I don’t yet know where to go with that thought, and hope to explore with Sarah how she sees it, but my inclination is some of both. There is always a material reality underneath the social forms that, if we can gain independent ground we can stand on to mount a resistance. (I have also recently read the account of Emma Goldman’s involvement with the Spanish anarchist movement – in Emma Goldman in Exile, by Alice Wexler.) Land is a source of independence; some women are creating a high degree of self-sufficiency for themselves through subsistence living, creating all-female land communities, and/or simply re-orienting ourselves to what it means to live in the world based in relationship to land rather than the socially overdetermined spaces of cities. For women this is a meaningful lifting of the male gaze and male intrusions; while we have to defend ourselves we have greater scope to defend and the time and space to think for ourselves and think through personal and collective strategies.
At the same time I am aware of how small a percentage of women, even of lesbian feminists, the land dykes represent, and the many obstacles to accessing land and living sustainably (for oneself) in rural areas of the United States – knowledge of country skills, economic resources and access to livelihood, race/ethnicity discrimination, misogyny and homophobia facing women buying home or land and arranging for work to be done that we can’t do ourselves, uncertainty and precarity of all kinds. The distances between our lands is great for the most part, though there are clusters in a few places. If we could create (or fan the flames of) a vibrant lesbian-feminist land culture and develop it politically to the point where it could pose a real alternative for women in general, we would face violence and other threats to our existence. It seems to me sometimes that women in this land culture may have mixed feelings (and send mixed messages) about openness and inclusivity (among females), aiming for spaces to be refuges for women and a land base for women’s freedom but also wanting to curate the women admitted into these communities and maintain them as personal rather than collective refuges for those who have made the community their home.
I am a lawyer by training and profession, practicing international human rights advocacy. That is about as far from land-dyke separatism as possible, but I do live in the country, on some land, with my wife. We are part of the larger far-flung land-dyke community and recent visits have reaffirmed this connection. I am not sure whether land-dyke separatism is a refuge that allows me to do my work – that nourishes me in so many indescribable ways – or whether my work involves the theorizing of projections into a future where this way of living will be one among other sustainable ones available to human beings if and when capitalism collapses in on itself with as few casualties as possible.