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Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force
Posted on May 22, 2014
By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch
We have so much further to go, but looking back at how far we’ve come can be encouraging. Domestic violence was mostly invisible and unpunished until a heroic effort by feminists to out it and crack down on it a few decades ago. Though it now generates a significant percentage of the calls to police, enforcement has been crummy in most places—but the ideas that a husband has the right to beat his wife and that it’s a private matter are not returning anytime soon. The genies are not going back into their bottles. And this is, really, how revolution works. Revolutions are first of all of ideas.
A Full-Fledged War Over Gender Roles
The great anarchist thinker David Graeber recently wrote,
“What is a revolution? We used to think we knew. Revolutions were seizures of power by popular forces aiming to transform the very nature of the political, social, and economic system in the country in which the revolution took place, usually according to some visionary dream of a just society. Nowadays, we live in an age when, if rebel armies do come sweeping into a city, or mass uprisings overthrow a dictator, it’s unlikely to have any such implications; when profound social transformation does occur—as with, say, the rise of feminism—it’s likely to take an entirely different form. It’s not that revolutionary dreams aren’t out there. But contemporary revolutionaries rarely think they can bring them into being by some modern-day equivalent of storming the Bastille. At moments like this, it generally pays to go back to the history one already knows and ask: Were revolutions ever really what we thought them to be?”
Graeber argues that they were not—that they were not primarily seizures of power in a single regime, but ruptures in which new ideas and institutions were born, and the impact spread. As he puts it, “The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a world revolution ultimately responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states as much as for Soviet communism.” Which means that the usual assumption that the Russian revolution only led to disaster can be upended. He continues, “The last in the series was the world revolution of 1968—which, much like 1848, broke out almost everywhere, from China to Mexico, seized power nowhere, but nonetheless changed everything. This was a revolution against state bureaucracies, and for the inseparability of personal and political liberation, whose most lasting legacy will likely be the birth of modern feminism.”
So the cat is out of the bag, the genies are out of their bottles, Pandora’s box is open. There’s no going back. Still, there are so many forces trying to push us back or at least stop us. At my glummest, I sometimes think women get to choose—between being punished for being unsubjugated and the continual punishment of subjugation. If ideas don’t go back in the box, there’s still been a huge effort to put women back in their place. Or the place misogynists think we belong in, a place of silence and powerlessness.
More than 20 years ago, Susan Faludi published a milestone of a book called Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. It described the double bind of women in that moment: they were getting congratulations for being fully liberated and empowered while being punished by a host of articles, reports, and books telling them that, in becoming liberated, they had become miserable; they were incomplete, missing out, losing, lonely, desperate. “This bulletin of despair is posted everywhere—at the newsstand, on the TV set, at the movies, in advertisements and doctors’ offices and academic journals,” wrote Faludi. “How can American women be in so much trouble at the same time that they are supposed to be so blessed?”
Faludi’s answer was, in part, that, though American women had not succeeded nearly as well as so many imagined in gaining equality, they weren’t suffering nearly as much as was being reported either. The articles were backlash, an attempt to push back those who were still moving forward.
Such instructions on how women are miserable and doomed haven’t faded away. Here’s the magazine n+1 in late 2012 editorializing on a recent spate of backlash articles about women in the Atlantic:
“Listen up ladies, these articles say. We’re here to talk to you in a way that’s limited and denigrating. Each female author reports on a particular dilemma faced by the ‘modern woman,’ and offers her own life as a case study… The problems these women describe are different, but their outlook is the same: traditional gender relations are by and large bound to endure, and genuinely progressive social change is a lost cause. Gently, like a good friend, the Atlantic tells women they can stop pretending to be feminists now.”
A volunteer police force tries to keep women in their place or put them back in it. The online world is full of mostly anonymous rape and death threats for women who stick out—who, for instance, participate in online gaming or speak up on controversial issues, or even for the woman who recently campaigned to put women’s images on British banknotes (an unusual case, in that some of those who threatened her were actually tracked down and brought to justice). As the writer Caitlin Moran tweeted: “For those who say, ‘why complain—just block?’—on a big troll day, it can be 50 violent/rape messages an hour.”
Maybe there is a full-fledged war now, not of the sexes—the division is not that simple, with conservative women and progressive men on different sides—but of gender roles. It’s evidence that feminism and women continue achieving advances that threaten and infuriate some people. Those rape and death threats are the blunt response; the decorous version is all those articles Faludi and n+1 cite telling women who we are and what we may aspire to—and what we may not.
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