Monthly Archives: July 2021

Binaries as balance vs hierarchy

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.)

Revisiting the dispossession of women: prostitution

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

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

Dispossession of women

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.


I think we need a renewed excavation of power, among feminists and other movements.

Power has gotten a bad rap because for many women it is associated with men, with abuse, with violence. Anger has similarly gotten a bad rap. It seems the only time power and anger can be made safe for women (or anybody, but only women are paying attention) is through therapy. If a therapist, or your collective, affirms that you are in the right, that you are defending yourself, that your power has been taken away by an abuser who is definitively in the wrong – and of course that abuser is characterized as someone who is in love with power, who likes being powerful, who isn’t ashamed of their power – well, then go ahead. Do what you have to do, you have the stamp of approval.

But watch out – somebody else may be paying attention who didn’t go through that program with you. They might call you a Karen (see Glosswitch’s post) or crazy, they might lock you up or get you killed depending on who you are and who they are and your relative power and privilege on a social scale.

So what do we do if we genuinely don’t want to abuse anyone at the micro and macro levels, we want to be conscious of both internalized oppression and implicit bias (against ourselves or others) and the ways we inadvertently oppress others? How can we do this internal and external work to upend and destroy the hierarchies that construct power at the collective level, while understanding power simply and neutrally as the force we wield through our will and action and communication, apart from hierarchies and not in itself good or evil?

When I was learning Aikido, my male teacher – someone who I sensed did not think well of himself and who was a combat veteran and probably an abuse survivor – responded nervously and misogynistically to my delight at completing a technique successfully at an early stage of my training. I had done a wrist lock on a very nice large and gentle man, done it fast and just as I was shown, and it made him wince and brought him to his knees. Being able to subdue someone twice my size, doing a martial arts technique successfully, was not a power trip. But my teacher responded, ‘You like the power, huh’ as an implicit criticism. My technique never really recovered.

Three years or so later, my teacher eyed me quizzically with another implicit criticism, after I had taken a fall when another (male) student had actually failed to perform the technique successfully. I was somewhat intimidated by this student’s advanced standing and felt unsure of myself in calling attention to his failed execution, though we were all supposed to be each others’ teachers.

I can’t make a direct link between the two incidents, but both reflect a misogynistic environment that denied women the free use of our own power – in the one case our physical power and in the other, our authority as knowers of the art we practiced in common. (I use the plural but for most of my time there I was the only woman present on a regular basis.)

I liked the dojo and enjoyed casual friendships with some of the men I practiced with, hanging out after class. It was small, in my neighborhood, and I practiced nearly every day for much of that time.

It ended after an act of sexual abuse by a senior male student in the act of doing a technique, when we were attending a seminar given by the teacher of our teacher, at another dojo. My teacher gave me no support when I told him about this, and only years after I left and encountered him in the street he told me that I was right to consider it a problem of the dojo and he had eventually spoken to that student about his behavior. Too little, way too late.

I don’t think that women should have to create our own female-only spaces in order to experience our power safely and freely. I treasure female-only space and especially lesbian space. There is a richness to our connections, seeing each other, toughening up in our mutual abrasiveness and basking in our mutual tenderness, that nourishes me to my roots.

But if I am obligated to seek out that space for safety, I am not free and I am not strong. And it’s not only physical safety, safety from violence and aggression that we should be and are concerned about, it’s safety *to* be our full, big selves. We can and should share our knowledge and strategies for exercising our power out there against male aggression and its collective, corporate and institutional organized forms. But we have to understand that power is not something that needs sanitizing or processing through a feminist collective, or therapy, in order to be safe for women, in order to be satisfying, in order to be good.

The good or evil of power is our choices about how to use it. We have to own our power in order to make these choices – not power as privilege, which becomes an obligation to political correctness, but power as power, inherent in all human beings or any life. Power as the force behind one’s will, and will (as readers of this blog may know) is the human right to universal legal capacity.

We don’t need to point to some kind of intersectional identity – anything but the status of being female, which is once again being shoved into the mud, made animalistic, shameful, and irrelevant to human rights and non-discrimination discourse – in order to understand ourselves as having and using, wielding and exercising power. It does not have to be butch or femme, does not have to be Jewish or Black or Brown or Indigenous, though we need to know, analyze, feel and move with the ways these intersectional oppressions take power from us and complexity the barriers we face in exercising it (and the strategies we use in affirming and claiming power for ourselves).

We do not have to see power as all or nothing either, or shared as if it were a pie. My power is not the same as yours, I don’t have to divide mine for you to have some. ‘God(dess) bless the child that’s got her own.’