Gerda Lerner in her second volume on women’s history, ‘The Creation of Feminist Consciousness’ (1993), writes about Hildegard of Bingen’s coming to self-authorship, shown in her final series of mystical art works, in each of which she includes the figure of a nun writing on tablets in the left hand corner. Women still struggle with self-authorship, putting ourselves forward is taking a risk of hubris anticipating that other women as well as men will tear us down and ignore us, not because they dispute the quality of our work so much as because they dispute our right to claim public stature as authors at all. I am not talking about the industries and their commodification of art, writing, scholarship, activism, legal practice, any profession, so much as that which, as Lerner wrote at the end of ‘The Creation of Patriarchy’ (1986), puts women at the center (taking any issue from the perspective of how it is experienced by women) and gets outside patriarchal thought (questioning all systems of thought, including one’s own).
Readers of this blog will know that I can claim co-authorship of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and can demonstrate in particular my contributions to its most innovative normative standards. They may also, from knowing me, or from some of my previous writings, know that I struggled first to minimize the significance of this authorship while retaining enough control within the ongoing work to continue developing the logic of what I had begun, then later to reassert and reclaim an authorship that was unique in relation to the issues that I addressed and in the constituency of survivors and users of psychiatry/ people with psychosocial disabilities that I represented in that process. It was only when it became apparent to me that others claimed credit for innovations that pre-existed their participation, or had a mistaken view of equal contributions when their memories seem to have not retained key milestones in the process for which I had been uniquely responsible, or simply wished ‘everyone to get along’ and minimized – as I had myself – the aggression directed against me as a woman with a bare minimum of credibility from patriarchal institutions (being at the time a recent law graduate), a gender non-conforming lesbian, a survivor of being locked up as a madperson, upending two millennia’s worth of doctrine with a logical pathway that no one had seen before but that opened clear as day to my naive eyes.
Claiming ‘naivety’ is a trope of humility of mystics of both sexes as well as a way of deflecting frontal assault for the temerity of authorship by a woman. I did experience my work on the Convention as a somewhat mystical destiny, having had a prefigurative dream soon after being freed from psychiatry in which I saw myself as a lawyer, never having considered law as a profession, and having left law school abruptly the first time I started in the 80s, having completed all but six months, then embarking on a kind of ‘rabbit hole’ journey that focused on self-healing, contemplation, self-knowledge, self-directed study and attention, which led me back to law school undertaken at a higher level of understanding and with some awareness of personal power, and which included my first thoughts putting together disability non-discrimination with international human rights to address psychiatric oppression. Many kinds of synchronicity – meaningful coincidences and decision-points – affected my law school education, and shortly after I graduated I became aware of, and had and eagerly took the opportunity to become involved with, the inauguration of a process to draft a convention.
I had experienced during my time in law school, and reflected to a professor I spoke to, that I was being erased or erasing myself, and that this wasn’t uncomfortable. It wasn’t about becoming ‘a lawyer,’ it was something else that I believe was about becoming an impersonal public self to act within history, while letting personal aspects of identity, or who I believed I was, fade away. It made space within me to allow me to focus on the ideas that I absolutely knew were the logical pathway, and that I kept checking with my sense of responsibility to the constituency – to not harm anyone or destroy anything that should be preserved, given that this was about destroying systemic practices that harmed us and that needed to be catabolized. There was accountability to the board of the organization I represented, through formal and informal mechanisms, and I involved many people in our networks and in my personal circles in collaborative thinking and decision-making – and yet it was clear that the drive, the logic in its totality, the authorship resided in me.
There is still a sense of potential shame in saying this, a sense that I am sticking up my head like a nail to be beaten down. I don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t been female, a dyke, opening myself to the void and its creation of self and other and definition all at once. I don’t think I could have done it with the male-paradigm creativity of bringing an issue to an international forum and raising it within the confines of possibility, or speaking out and promoting a new vision and collecting adherents. I worked within a sense of historical time and creative energy, not expecting or anticipating next steps until they were already there, creating the tightrope I walked one as a spider spins out her thread. Maybe that is why no one saw what I did as I was doing it. My wife has always called it the ‘path-o-logic’ pointing to the mad quality of this creativity standing outside conventional norms. I don’t know another ‘mad’ person who has claimed simultaneously to enter history, to bring the void to the conventionalities, which is what the CRPD has opened a pathway for.
And, maybe we are all doing it. Gerda Lerner’s vision of authorship and how she sees the obstacles to it is still somewhat class-limited, it doesn’t take account of thinking by women, especially women of lower classes, that might be profound and worthy of engagement that simply was trashed, that wasn’t written down, that was burned, that was ignored, that was ignored, that was ignored. As Judy Grahn wrote in ‘A Woman is Talking to Death,’ ‘I looked in the mirror and nobody was there to testify; how clear, an unemployed queer woman makes no witness at all, nobody at all was there for those two questions: what does she do, and who is she married to?’ Lerner also gives short shrift to lesbians (so far in my reading), saying only that some women ‘turned to each other for care and affection’ among those who escaped the general subordination not only to men’s control but to the material and sexual servicing of men. While dykes it seems to me are self-authoring beings out of a void, who interact with each other in unpredictable and permeable ways, different entirely from the paradigm of yin/yang heterosexual relations (see eye-opening Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India, by Giti Thadani), and the paradigm of lesbian self-authorship not only as women alone against patriarchy but as women interacting with other women similarly inventing themselves against patriarchy, because they are drawn together, seeking fulfillment in each other and through their honoring of each other, has been important for feminism, at least as much as women in heterosexual relationships reinventing their own stance and honor between the sexes.
For Jewish women newly entering the emerging working class in Russia, Eastern Europe and then as immigrants to the United States, theory and analysis was thriving in the communist socialist collectives they took part in during their off-work hours (at least until they married); this is documented beautifully along with other dimensions of women’s lives written in Yiddish during the period in which that language flourished. (We need to talk about Jews in history also; the background/foreground effects of Biblical history/Israel as nationhood narrative contrasted with exile among nations, as a people similarly exercising creativity from a position of non-identity or void. Lilith is said to be ascendant in exile; as well as being the energy of autonomous female sexuality.) Revolutionary women were among the prominent theorists; I have mentioned Alexandra Kollontai’s essay and should set myself to read some of Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg, and I’m sure there are others I’m not aware of – to center women and step outside patriarchal thought as Gerda Lerner has challenged us to do.
My point in these last two paragraphs is that democratization of authorship is consistent with women’s claim and necessity of self-authorship. As entirely predictable, when I recently posted a quote from Lerner on the need for women to assert ‘intellectual arrogance,’ a woman was right there to decry women becoming more like men. How can we overcome silencing without confronting that which tells us it is ‘arrogant’ to speak? As with lesbians creating permeable relationships into and out of the void, as mad people creating lives unaccountable to systems of normalization, it is essential to radically re-create all social relationships that have been based on dominance or shaped by ideologies of dominance of any kind (which as Lerner convincingly argues in ‘The Creation of Patriarchy’ is modeled on, reinforces, and always develops in interaction with, patriarchy), to be more like what we create in resistance from these positions of oppression. Lesbian relationships based on desire of mutually autonomous beings each self-creating in resistance, are unique and cannot be replicated in our relations with men, in work comradeship, in platonic friendship; still as Audre Lorde said in ‘The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,’ we can and do use the same energy throughout the different parts of our lives.
Lesbian relationships require us to pay attention to women’s relations with each other completely outside anything to do with men. Feminists have also looked at women’s class relations with other women. Gerda Lerner addresses these differences consistently – the (upper class) ‘wife’ in ancient Near East patriarchy could own property including owning female and male ‘slaves’ but her sexual and reproductive power was owned by her husband, while lower class women would be sold into slavery or concubinage to pay off their family’s debts; in both cases women’s relationship to class is defined by their sexual relationship to men); she acknowledges that class differences have made it difficult for women to come to awareness of themselves as an oppressed sex, but does not deal extensively with the intra-sex cross-class relations, e.g. (as described in Nell Irvin Painter’s biography) Sojourner Truth’s description of having been sexually abused by a ‘mistress’ as having been especially traumatizing because it was done by another woman. The lesbian/feminist journal Lesbian Ethics made a point of addressing abuse in the mother/daughter relationship and philosopher Claudia Card takes as one of her starting points the existence of abuse within lesbian relationships. But it is difficult to not only claim authorship but excavate claims and counterclaims and create the language for them among people who have been denied not only authorship but connection to one another unmediated by their oppressors. (Alison Bechdel, the ‘Bechdel Test’ for movies – are there more than 2 women, do they talk to each other, about something other than a man?) (Two lesbians, recently beaten up on a bus in the UK, after refusing to kiss for the titillation of a man.) Our connections to one another have not only been circumstantially impeded, they have been actively suppressed, repressed, and punished. Solidarity in response to male violence has paradoxically been more visible in the mainstream and in a sense more acceptable, more cognizable, than women being able to claim public (?) space to talk as women with other women, about pains caused within the community of women. We don’t want men jumping on this, as lesbians we don’t want straight people using our imperfections to vilify us or, even worse, benevolently offering to fix us up if we would follow their advice. Women claiming public space, lesbians claiming public space – public in the sense of being open to all women, or to all lesbians – while excluding those who don’t belong (men, non-lesbians, respectively) was marginal for the brief periods we have claimed it and now is being forced into hiding, into the impossibility of being public, once again through accusations of transphobia.
The principle of female autonomy I have proposed starts with a first principle for social/economic/political organization of ‘at least equal’ power of the two sexes (‘at least’ with a preference for women to avoid backsliding to patriarchy or women’s millennia-inculcated habits of deference) including definitional power and control over resources. Sexual autonomy – autonomy of women as a sex – is claimed in all relations with women and with men – sexual, familial, communal, social, cultural, civil, economic, political, spiritual, meaning the freedom (individually and in collectives) to interact exclusively with other women in any or all of these dimensions/spheres, and (individually and in collectives) to interact with men in any or all of these dimensions/spheres on women’s own terms. I think that this fits with Gerda Lerner’s call for women to develop new consciousness for liberation and the overthrow of patriarchy. Lesbians, female-autonomous spirituality, female-only consciousness-raising groups, and much else that is female-only from sports teams to colleges to music festivals, are crucial to developing women’s consciousness of ourselves as oppressed and our resistance – both to patriarchal thought and to patriarchal practices and their extensions in the state, capitalism, colonialism, other dominance relations. We are now facing a multiple backlash from the left (accusations of transphobia, undercutting and gutting women’s affirmative action, positive measures for advancement, safety and privacy within/against systematic disadvantagement and exclusion from public spaces at all levels and the at-will, continuous violation of our private spaces by men treating us – our sexed bodies, our attention, our capacities and powers – as public/private property), and from the right which seeks unabashedly to drive us back to ‘kinder, kuche, kirche’, even to the extent of blatantly justifying unequal pay for elite women (Heritage Foundation on the US Women’s Soccer team, won’t link to it, a recent article). Yet women’s powers of self-authorship are stronger than ever before, challenging everything albeit in a cacophony of voices that are watched and algorithmed by corporate social media, maybe irrelevant to late stage capitalist oligarchy destroying the living planet, or maybe not, as women, starting with indigenous women and women of color, defend migrant children against yet another genocide in progress.