Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Family feminist blitzkrieg postponed

If I were to rate my feminist activity over the holiday I would give myself one thumb up. After all, I am biased. Mostly I found myself in the all-too-familiar position of "hanging out" while the women of the family organized and executed everything. I complimented them profusely and did some dishes. At one point I was told that I didn't need to do the dishes. I think that is a very interesting statement, in light of the fact that somebody does. But compliments are always well received. There seems to be something happening between the men and women in my family when it comes to meal preparation: if men really like the meal, this validates all the work women put into it. There are a lot of ways in which families kind of suck, quite frankly. That is why I sit by the fire and make myself keenly preoccupied with the dog.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Introducing a feminism for men

Industrial Worker

When we think about feminism amongst the working class, the people we usually think about are women. Feminism, after all, is understood as the struggle for the liberation of women in much the same way that industrial unionism is conceived in terms of the struggle for the liberation of the working class.

All too often, however, the role that working class men might play as feminists is not adequately defined. As Wobbly men, we might hold feminist values, but we may not know what to do with them in concrete terms. This is a frustrating experience for those of us who would like to establish real ties of solidarity to women's struggles, much like the ones we extend to other workers -- even when they are struggling under circumstances very different than our own.

Identifying our role as feminists can be less intuitive than knowing our role as unionists: as unionists, we experience class subjugation directly; but as men, our relationship to the subjugation of women is ambiguous. After all, there always exists the possibility that we are contributing to the problem, somehow, even in spite of ourselves.

Working class men should be reassured that this problem is not insurmountable. There is a necessary role for us within feminism; and what’s more, men have something to offer feminism that even women can’t provide. This is the perspective of someone who directly experiences patriarchy as a man, but who utilizes this awareness as a feminist.

Patriarchy is a big word and complicated affair. However, to afford us a familiar starting point from which to proceed, let us think about patriarchy as being not unlike the kind of hierarchy we know so well at work. At work, there is a boss that tells us what to do, enjoys privileges we don't, and who is free of responsibilities that we bear alone. Patriarchy, in other words, is a form of authority which assigns the role of “boss” to men.

Like bosses in the workplace, when a person occupies a formal position of authority over others, this doesn’t tell us everything about what kind of person they are, or what their first preferences might be. But like bosses who were promoted from the ranks of the working class by their employers, the role that patriarchy assigns to men isn’t something they choose. It is how their responsibilities are dictated by that system. But men don’t even “apply” for the job of patriarch; it is thrust upon them, and they often enjoy its benefits before they know what is going on, by the simple virtue of being “men.” Furthermore, most men don’t have the option to “quit” being men, strictly speaking -- as a manager might quit being a manager once he grasps the moral implications of class struggle.

If we think about men under patriarchy as being like managers who are forever condemned to be bosses until that system is destroyed, then the responsibilities appropriate for feminist men are easier to discern. Namely, it is incumbent upon us to actively resist our assigned role as “boss.” We can’t be neutral on this moving train -- and identifying as “feminist” is only the first step. Active resistance means anticipating what patriarchy is trying to accomplish and directing our actions accordingly -- namely, in solidarity with its intended victims. If patriarchy wants us to actively or passively endorse our boss-like authority or privileges, we need to identify what these are and reject them.

Much of the practical work of feminism for working class men begins at the individual level; it means examining our relationships with women in order to identify the ways in which our behavior might impact them like the behavior of a boss. For example, do we tell them what to do, enjoy privileges they don’t, or escape responsibilities that they bear alone? Once we start asking ourselves these questions in our relationships with women, we create the practical possibilities for modifying our behavior: we can reject the role patriarchy has assigned us as “men,” and create our own as individuals. But this takes quite a bit of work and introspection, as well as a readiness to hear the critical concerns of women as they are addressed to us.

In future installments, this column will address the relationship between feminism and the class struggle for men from a variety of perspectives; underscoring how this can contribute to the work of women feminists, and ultimately inform the feminist and class struggles at large. Specific strategies, including workplace organizing as a feminist activity, will receive special attention.

This initiative wants you to write for it so that the benefit of your direct experiences can be shared with others as they relate to the interwoven struggles of all of us within the working class.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Wages for Housework Campaign

Thanks to Nate for the links in the past post. One of the ones I really enjoyed was
Dorothy Sue Cobble, “‘A Spontaneous Loss of Enthusiasm’: Workplace Feminism and the Transformation of Women’s Service Jobs in the 1970s” which touches on an important feminist workplace campaign that was fought for in the 1970s: The Wages for Housework Campaign. This campign spelling out how housework and other caring work women do outside of the market produces the whole working class, thus the market economy, based on those workers, is built on women’s unwaged work.

American feminist Pat Mainardi pointed out in The Politics of Housework that even if it takes only one hour's work per day to attend to a person's domestic needs (a very low estimate), men who offload this work onto women gain seven hours per week, almost a whole working day. And women lose those hours. Working fathers gain leisure, earning-power, authority, status and choices, while stay-at-home mother had housework. This unfairness was no coincidence: the analysis of the "WfH Campaign", men's privileges existed because women d0 housework.

I think that this is an important campign to study, especially for the IWW. As far as I know, the IWW is one of the only union confederations that have a section for unwaged home-makers (antiquated term, sorry): The Household Service Workers I.U. 680. Of course, this section is inactive at the moment, but would be a amazing base point in developing a feminist unionism. "Wages for Housework" would be key to this union.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Back To The Future: Feminist Struggles Against Waged Work

I want to point out three suggested readings. Two are articles at the excellent Caring Labor blog, an article about the Canadian feminist union SORWUC, and an article by the historian Dorothy Sue Cobble about feminism and service-sector work. The third suggestion is the set of material in the "work" section of the online archive of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. Much of these articles deals with underappreciated and understudied aspects of the past. Specifically, these articles describe attempts at building powerful fighting organizations that confronted power in waged workplaces and which were informed by feminist values and women's concerns.

Ths material is worth reading for its own sake, for the way it speaks to current concerns with workplace organizing and with feminism. I've been writing a series of pieces on workplace organizing and feminism (the most recent piece is here and contains links to the rest of the pieces so far). Past experiences of this sort of struggle have lessons to teach us that we can and should use in the present.

It's also worth reading this material because we need a past. That is, we could use a sense of past feminist struggles on the job, as part of present feminist struggles on the job. I think many of us have inherited a limited understanding of feminism, of the possibilities of feminism. As part of this we've also inherited a partial understanding of the activities of actually existing feminists. This can shape our impulses in the present when it comes to activity. It's easy to feel like being a feminist means doing a few things and it's easy not to associate feminism with other activities - like workplace organizing and other attempts to build organizations of working class people who seek to exert power. This can lead feminists to neglect workplace organizing and lead workplace organizers to overlook the feminist components of their activity. A better grasp of the history of feminist struggles on the job and against waged work would help enrich our activities in the present and help us see various ways our organizing fits into a broader feminist agenda.

Social freedom

Ramblings of a Feminist:

Questions have arisen regarding the roles men should play in eliminating women’s oppression. Patriarchy is not solely a female problem. Patriarchy negatively affects both men and women in society. As a system of domination, patriarchy limits human potential -- advancement based on the subjugation of others is not progression at all; it’s simply a process that allows certain inequities to be addressed while ignoring others. With that said, men have a duty to address patriarchy in their personal lives and communities.

I would go on to say that men have a stake in creating free relationships with other people, if for no other reason than to finally experience freedom themselves. What happens between people should only be limited by what they choose, not by what society demands.

Much of my own motivation in this area comes from drawing a connection between how impoverished my life can sometimes feel, on one hand; and the arbitrary limitations placed on women, on the other. Those limitations affect me directly -- if differently than how they impact women.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tim Wise>>> The Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility

Tim Wise is probably one of the best speakers on white male privilege (and how to combat it as a white male) in America. The following is a clip from an October 6 speech in Detroit, for the Michigan Roundtable, in response to a question from the audience about so-called "white guilt" (Which I would argue is a right-wing talking point used to justify there own privilege and doing nothing about it):

The Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility – Video Clip 10/6/10

Monday, December 6, 2010

Recognize and record

Yesterday one colleague approached another: "Come here, [colleague's name]. Let this white man violate you!" He threw his arms around her and they laughed as though a good time were had by all.

Except by me. Afterward the woman asked, "Are you okay, [my name]?"

Friday, December 3, 2010

Anarchism vs. feminism?

reposted from ladypoverty


Cindy Milstein, at a recent event in Baltimore, described [feminism] in less negative terms. She said that the anarcho-adjectives symbolized not preference, but passion. That’s fine. If you are extra passionate about injustice related to gender oppression, more power to you. But I am not. I may identify more when I hear about the injustices and abuses faced by women, but I am not more passionate about doing something about those injustices than I am about injustices due to race or class or disability or anything else.

I would take it one step further than Cindy Milstein and suggest that "passions" are best informed by people's individual experiences; and, moreover, our circumstances are to a considerable extent not what we "choose."

People can be passionate about wanting to address every conceivable kind of oppression, and identify themselves in these terms; but in practice they will only have the kind of direct experience to speak, or act, in a leadership capacity on a few. As soon as we step out of what we experience on a daily basis and get drawn into circumstances which primarily affect others, we have to defer on some level to how they understand their own experiences.

We've certainly seen how the tendency to preference our own struggles can assume many illegitimate forms. But that doesn't mean it's inappropriate for middle-class white feminists, for example, to be committed to addressing the problems that they know best. It's inappropriate for them to be completely self-consumed; but it's also inappropriate for them to pretend to be something they're not.

In my view, the harmony between anarchism and feminism is implied insofar as anarchism concerns itself with authority, and feminism is aimed at authority in a particular form (that which subjugates women). People will use whatever terms or labels they like; particular women will distinguish their circumstances from others, etc.; but the principle remains the same.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Renewing the industrial union

This blog is fortunate to have several contributors who approach the issue of feminism from different perspectives. My co-contributors are seasoned Wobblies whose presence is felt within the larger organization in a variety of ways. In comparison, I am a newcomer with very little Wobbly "cred." And that's actually an awesome thing to be, because lots of people are in the same situation -- or else we want them to be as soon as possible!

There's a real advantage to be able to look at an organization like the IWW, which appeals to so many on the basis of its history, practices, and ideals; and give an unsloganed opinion about how well it functions in practice, at least for us. Newer members, who still haven't found their place in the organization, or who still haven't overcome the hurdle of making the sort of lasting commitment which defines veteran Wobs, can provide us with vital information about what the union looks like from their perspective. And that's important, because these people are the most important within the organization if we want it to grow.

If the IWW is going to grow as a popular organization it will have to defer in some ways to popular preferences. In many ways, it already does -- in its vision for a world without bosses, for example. What could be more popular than that? But in other ways, a sister Wob said it best when she recounted the description that other, non-Wob women organizers conveyed to her: to them, the IWW was male-dominated and "anachronistic."

If I'm honest with myself, almost nobody I know who isn't already well-versed in radical left history is going to understand the possible relevance of the IWW in their life -- not even with the benefit of someone like me as a family member, laying it out in 10-minute tutorials every time I see them; hammering the points in a blog everyday of my life; or otherwise attempting to patiently make the case. Of course, I'm open to the possibility that I am not the most effective salesperson, or that workers who self-identify as "professionals" and who never quite learned what a "union" is will require extra effort. The problem is that this is the situation that so many of us find ourselves in: if we don't have the skills to make the case to the average person, we need to develop them quick.

We need to turn to newcomers and outsiders for what they can teach us. If we aren't appealing to people effectively enough then we should be thinking about what we can do to change that. This has nothing to do with questioning our fundamental principles: our principles are among the few things that have consistently seen us through. But if our language or our practices or our general presentation to those who are more likely to identify as "consumers" than "workers" isn't viable, we have to think more about how a revolutionary industrial unionism can thrive in a culturally "post-industrial" age. To this end, feminism is an essential practice.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Many hands lighten the load

Ramblings of a Feminist:

I have been politically active for nearly a decade. Over the course of the years, I’ve been a member of several leftist organizations -- ranging from Leninist parties to groups structured around anarchist principles. Despite some fundamental differences in political ideology and strategy, the roles of women in these organizations remain eerily similar: women are reduced to tokenism. Women are largely underrepresented in leftist organizations -- a problem seldom addressed by male comrades. Even more problematic is that women who choose to participate in leftist groups often find themselves channeled into designated roles as “caretakers” or “poster girls.”

Because people tend to become preoccupied with their own struggles, it's not surprising that people with greater privilege also tend to shape collective action in their own image.

It's probably appropriate that straight white dudes like myself have always been preoccupied with a relation like class, for example, since the workplace is the one realm where we experience subjugation in a direct way. We experience this for ourselves, so we get very good at focusing on it as a result. It's not hard to see why we might even come to regard it as the prevailing relation which governs everything else: we don't experience "everything else" in a primary way.

In some ways, anarchism has given North American dudes like me the theoretical room to at least acknowledge the primacy of other struggles for other people, without taking away from what we know best. Subsequently, there is a lot of energy spent on acknowledging every conceivable category of oppression, or name-dropping a few big ones -- race! class! gender! -- as if to demonstrate that none are neglected.

And yet in practice we get a lot of the same outcomes, with progressive organizations reflecting the concerns of wonderful people like myself, while alienating our closest allies -- people who are in perfect agreement on problems of capitalism, the state, war, etc.; but who can't find a place to be honest with us about how our behavior impacts them. In consequence, they leave.

There are a few things that each of us can do well. Insofar as we find ways of working together, we can do many things well. It's not appropriate for anyone in particular to speak with theoretical authority on every kind of oppression, or for individuals to compete for this role. It's appropriate for people to think and act in response to the kinds of oppressions that face them, or that they are enjoined to perform. Our organizations would be a lot healthier if everyone focused on the relations that they know, let others do the same, and became comfortable moving between teacher/student roles rather than assigning these to a permanent hierarchy.

As men, we need to let go of the compulsion to be pedantic uber-activists, and let women bring to our organizations the kind of energy, perspective, and commitment that, by working together, might transform them from marginal entities into vibrant social groups that more people want to be a part of.