My introduction to feminism was women’s liberation. ‘Do you agree with women’s liberation?’ a friend asked me, in junior high school in 1970 or 71. I asked what it was and she explained that it meant a woman can do anything a man can do. I thought about it a few seconds, and said yes. It changed my life, to have the possibility of living as a full person in the world and not being required to be ‘a wife and a mother and…”
A slogan that I embraced and still remember from that time was, ‘A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.’ It says that, contrary to the ideology that told me I had to be a wife and mother no matter what else I might become, I exist in myself and have no need of a man to be complete and for my existence to make sense. The ideology that paired up boys and girls in elementary school, that insisted on a ‘smartest boy’ and ‘smartest girl’ in my first grade class, I could overthrow as authority once it was ridiculed as absurd.
As it turned out, the premise of female autonomy expressed in the slogan appealed to me as a lesbian – on the sexual level as well as other aspects of life. But the premise of existential female autonomy is important for heterosexual women as well, to know themselves as existing in and for themselves, before any relationship they may have with a male partner. On the species level, as we know, both female and male are necessary for sexual reproduction, with distinct reproductive contributions and the female partner contributing the vast majority of labor and physical substance. Yet this fact implies nothing about the political relationship between females and males, if anything it suggests the greater dependence of males on females. Men’s subjugation of women is not natural, it is not implied or made necessary by any biological imperative, and to attempt such justification suggests a fear of lesbianism, or at least a fear that heterosexuality is not appealing enough in itself to sufficient numbers of women for the species to continue.
If the species dies out because women are free and do not desire men or pregnancy (or because men stop desiring women or lose their potency), maybe it means that the species does not need to exist any more. Species existence depends also on many other factors, such as climate and war, in addition to reproduction. It is immoral to enslave any individual or group of individuals to the aim of continuation of the species.
At the individual level, everywhere we look, we do not see heterosexuality dying out, or an end to women choosing to become mothers. Women’s bodies are powerful in birth and the choice to risk one’s own life and health to birth another human should be honored with gratitude while not obligating any woman who is not so moved.
As a girl faced with coerced heterosexuality as the only option, I learned to deny and suppress not only sexual feelings for other females but a sense of myself as autonomous with respect to the world at large. Not being ‘naturally’ as I was expected to be, and not being free to be me, the paradigm of female service to others allowed me a kind of space to fit within a gender role. I didn’t have to serve men; serving humanity, or anyone in need, especially women or other girls whom I was naturally drawn to, was safe.
I don’t know if all the ways I felt ‘different’ as a child and have known myself as ‘different’ throughout my life can be explained by being a lesbian. I don’t feel fully at home in lesbian community or in any community. I don’t accept my difference as impairment either, though I have been disabled by being treated as such. My difference feels more than anything else, like a sense of my actual autonomous being in a way that connects me deeply to a sense of harmony with the whole. While I need connection it is much less than I have been taught to believe is natural, either for ‘women’ or for anyone. The connection I need is often not with other humans, it is something else. When I need connection may be the time when I most need to be alone.
Female autonomy as a principle encompasses all these levels. Each one of us is an actual autonomous being, and can know ourselves as such. Sexually, we have a right to come to know ourselves and to be free to connect deeply with other females without hindrance, and/or to connect deeply with males on one’s own terms. Socially, familially, we also have a right to choose to connect with other females without hindrance, with males on our own terms, and in mixed spaces. I could equally say we have a right to connect with anyone we choose, without hindrance and on our own terms – as a friend commented to me – but there is a reason to differentiate as I have.
Patriarchy, the system by which males extract resources from females, hinders us from relating to other females to the exclusion of males – whether on a sexual, social, familial, organizational or political level. And the same system deprives us of the power and freedom to control the terms on which we relate to males. We still live under this patriarchal system despite same-sex marriage equality and limited rights to use contraception and terminate a pregnancy, limited criminalization of rape. The smashing of female-only identities (such as lesbian, mother), spaces (festivals, showers, shelters, health care, sports, etc.), and political movements (feminism/women’s liberation) tells us it’s time to wake up again. The second wave didn’t free us, we didn’t free ourselves, patriarchy is enmeshed with racism, colonialism, militarism, capitalism. Individualist freedom-seeking – ok, I did not have to become a ‘wife and mother and…’ – meets its limits not only in the glass-ceiling for any kind of achievement within a public arena, in the unrelenting march of male violence of all kinds – rape, police killing, war, psychiatric assault, in the failure to create possibilities for women as public actors outside the idea of middle class careers, inaccessible to large numbers of us, and I’m sure we can go on and on.
The ultimate collective level of female autonomy would be large-scale political organization. There are and have been in the past societies where women and men are separate halves of the political structure, where collective decision-making and responsibility are separated based on sex (e.g. see Barbara A. Mann, Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas) or where women have a separate military structure within communal, egalitarian democracy (e.g. Kurdish women as described here). How do we get there, and is it enough? Do we want instead to envision something like the stories of ancient Amazons who lived entirely apart from men except for times when they would meet with a counterpart male society for trade and (for heterosexuals among them) sexual relations? Do we want lesbian-only societies that adopt girls to raise? In any case there is a need for cooperative and respectful men if we are to live in peace and stability, whether in mutual harmony or at least free from aggression. I think it is worthwhile to think about the implications of a principle of female autonomy for large-scale political organization, especially in light of contemporary and past societies where this structural feature seems to foster not only women’s autonomy, authority and integrity but also men’s respect for the same.
The concept and experience of autonomy is different in a cooperative economic and social context, than in a competitive and exploitative one. When we have competition and exploitation (as modern capitalist colonialist patriarchy) those in the subjugated classes are expected to submerge their autonomy for the good of the whole, while on the contrary the individual drive of the dominant ones is lauded and even deified as an engine of dynamism and creativity. When we flag this and call for autonomy, separatism, self-love and self-determination, the dominant groups and their acolytes try to shame us back into our place, first by appealing to cooperation as two halves of a whole, then by elevating the altruistic values they have projected onto us as a superficial ethic for everyone without changing the structure of exploitation/subjugation.
I think that this holds true for economic classes, sex classes, and race classes. You can consider what you know of recent history and see if you agree.
What I read and observe about autonomy in a cooperative economic and social context, and what I experience in small constrained contexts within capitalist patriarchy, is freedom to be oneself while remaining connected to a whole. A sense of place, of relationship and responsibility to others that doesn’t preclude fights and sorrows, heartbreak and rejection. I don’t want to live in any of the lesbian or women-only communities I know of, but I am a lesbian, married, at home in my own house and land that becomes center of the four directions for my world.
I’d like to fight for and work on cooperative economics and politics in my local area but am stymied by centrist politics stifling the possibility of even a radical naming of the problems (such as calling the Democrats a corporate party, or calling attention to the different material interests of health care providers vs people taking control of our own health care and autonomy).
Forced psychiatry is the antithesis of any kind of autonomy, reaching into the body to disrupt the brain and psyche, the sense of self-organization and possibility of wholeness. Being cracked and broken one can then know oneself as wholly outside what they can do to break us, but it has othering implications, and if I can’t relate to male-defined/mixed-sex generic madness discussions or to the view of madness itself as a thing rather than the content of what we are sad about or turning ourselves inside out on, well there aren’t many places to go. The male-violence aspect of forced psychiatry helped me to know I’m a lesbian but also chilled my relationship to all social, economic and political institutions with the fear of being prey, building and reinforcing my Jewish heritage instincts and my caginess to appease the abusers of my childhood. Female betrayal put me into the hands of psychiatry and kept me there until they were done with me. This is a feminist issue and an issue that could only be talked about among women, yet even then there are no words most of the time, no ground for it to be fully heard. No place for the twisted ugliness of abuse to be surrendered and healed, it has nowhere to go.
It’s also far in the past now. I am not a ‘person with a psychosocial disability’ in my daily life unless my ordinary craziness is diagnosable as it is, and I care to frame my life in this way. I’m tired and don’t need or want the identity except as a link to survivorship, ex-mental-patienthood that will never escape me and that I don’t want to hide or dismiss. Other communities won’t fully hold me or embrace me, and neither will this one now, because of the gender identity witch-hunts finally reaching us, in the end that becomes decisive beyond any other dyke-baiting, dragon woman force of nature misogynies.
I don’t think we necessarily need separate political structures in a formal sense in order for female autonomy to be put into practice and respected. Separate political structures can be another Noah’s Ark scenario, male leaders and female leaders as ‘smartest boy’ and ‘smartest girl’, created as an arbitrary demarcation without a consciousness of ‘women’s business’ or women’s political autonomy and liberation from men as a principle and purpose. Respect for female autonomy can start anywhere by consciousness-raising and practice where we claim public space, public roles for the power and space we take in the world by being single mothers, business owners and skilled tradespeople, teachers, anywhere we are acting from strength and not performance, standing in our courage and linking in solidarity with other women whenever we choose to for pleasure, for resistance to male expectations and entitlement, for nurturing ourselves and each other and building our strengths. And with men learning to back off when we bar the door, or simply prioritize women, instead of treating it as a challenge or a joke.
I’m thinking of Kate Millett, who died during the time I have been writing this blog post. Reading Flying which I had bought from Kate and never read before, thinking of Kate’s art and her open lesbian desire in art and writing, her erudition and plain speech, how her life and charm and needs and insight touched everyone who came to know her in person or through her work, and her life like mine and any of ours an open puzzle, not solved and worked with all we have at any moment in our full hearts.
I can’t answer the questions posed by my work and advocacy about how we should ‘deal with’ each other’s pain and violence to self and the pain and violence we cause to others, all these frustrations and concerns when we are too far away in our own lives to reach each other and give everything that our sister needs. I know that life is hard for all of us whether we identify as mad or mentally ill or not, and while my mind does shut off to some of my sisters’ pains, that’s my limitation and not an excuse to have them locked up and tortured. I am an abolitionist, bearing witness to what I survived and trying to make reparations possible.
Cooperation is needed between women. Maybe some things work best with a focus, like Mary Lou Singleton’s wonderful interview calling for reproductive sovereignty – ‘abortion on demand with no apology’ – and women taking back control over abortions and birth control, learning again together to do these things for ourselves outside the medical/pharmaceutical industries. What else can we do politically, cooperatively and collectively as women to take back our sovereignty over everything that is ours?
Can we cultivate female solidarity against male violence and harassment in public places? Not posses or roving teams, just women learning to make eye contact with other women in public, to defend each other verbally or physically – similarly to how the left is now promoting for white allies to defend people of color against racists. I don’t want to involve men in this for now – I want it to start with women connecting with each other to name the aggression, let each other know we see, it’s real, we have each other’s backs.
To take back our sovereignty over being in public space in our female bodies, to not be objects of protection by the state or individual males. Take back the night marches were part of this but at least in the US reportedly came to be associated with calls for better policing, which is double-edged especially for communities of color, and for crazy and disabled women.
Political class solidarity among women is different than creating women-only communities that try to be all things to all women, or at least all things to a small group of women. For me intentional communities raise way too many red flags about trying to meet expectations, worse than marriage since no fundamental emotional connection and potentially intrusive interpretations of ‘the personal is political’ as ‘everything in your life is up for political discussion by anyone who disapproves of it.’
To link it back with some other points, I think political class solidarity may be better suited to the way we live now in modern non-indigenous communities, rather than trying to create or re-create ways of living that imitate our heritage past or contemporary indigenous people as functioning societies with internal political, economic, and cultural self-sufficiency. For those of us who easily get ostracized if we’re not the ones in control (looking at many of us), whether as crazy or as ‘not our kind’ in one way or another, maybe having our own homes is a priority and (re-)creating the political solidarity movement of women, i.e. the women’s liberation movement, from where we are. In-person in cities, in small towns, online. Why not?