Love, Lust, and “Where are the boys?”: A Response to Gloria Steinem

I am a stranger
learning to worship the strangers
around me
         June Jordan, “These Poems”

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them
          Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”

***

A lot of eloquent and passionate rebukes have already been written addressing the misogynist debacle of Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright chastising young women for supporting Bernie Sanders. I’m not going to rehash the same — very fundamental and correct — arguments about how women have the right, the intelligence, etc., to make up their own minds. I don’t need to restate the dismaying heteronormativity inherent in Steinem’s remarks. Instead, I want to head into some rockier, less-charted terrain and express something I have not heard voiced yet in this conversation. That is, I want to address what Steinem’s words imply regarding women’s sexuality, and ask what role our bodies and our desires play, or ought to play, in the political sphere.

***

If I were to write an essay about how I became a socialist, how I became an activist for that matter, how would it begin?

It would begin in 2002, in the months leading up to the US invasion of Iraq. I was a high school junior, and I was mad as hell. I was mad to see my country wasting a fortune attacking another country for no good reason. I was mad that we were gobbling up natural resources at a rate the earth could never keep up with. I was mad that even the best public schools in the nation pretty much blow. I was mad that I was poor and my friends were not.

I was also madly in love for the first time.

As I entered the tumultuous orbit of the growing anti-war movement, I found myself all of a sudden amid a group of like-minded peers: kids in high school and college who weren’t afraid to complain, loudly, about militarization, power and oppression, and capitalism. One of those loud-mouthed kids asked me out. I think our first date was to go see Bowling for Columbine — talk about romance!

It turned out we actually had a lot in common, besides a visceral dislike for Ayn Rand and a fascination with Marx. We could spend hours listening to early Dylan albums, scouring the lyrics for hints of revolution. I wrote slam poetry: he gave me Sage Francis CDs to listen to.

I lived a solid thirty-minute drive outside of town — no public transit. He was a year older than me and had his own car. This meant I had a way to get to study groups, planning meetings, concerts and film showings, lectures and poetry slams. Having a ride, and having someone whose company I enjoyed to attend events with, had a profound and immediate effect on my level of political and cultural engagement. It’s easy for rural kids to get left out of the conversation when all the action takes place in town.

It’s also easy for a shy kid, a borderline antisocial kid, to just not show up. I came into politics without any conception of what solidarity might look or feel like. At sixteen, I rarely had the confidence to stand up in the midst of a meeting and challenge the views of a seasoned activist, university professor, or professional organizer. Oftentimes, it felt safer to wait until the car ride home and begin hashing out my views with my boyfriend as my sole audience.

Sometimes I’d leave an event feeling frustrated that he’d talked over me or spoken for me. In retrospect, I wish I’d had the courage — not to mention the words, the analysis — to call him out on it. But experience is a good teacher, and so are older activists, especially women with decades of feminist struggle and theory under their belts. More than once, an adult, usually a woman, would turn to me and say, “What’s your take? What do you really think?” Being encouraged, being gently drawn out, and being treated like an intelligent young person whose questions and opinions mattered as much as everybody else’s helped me become more confident and more articulate. It helped me, quite honestly, become an adult. And no one (as far as I know!) assumed that I was “just there for the boys” — certainly they didn’t treat me that way.

I rarely saw one hundred percent eye-to-eye with my boyfriend, or any of my peers for that matter, on any given issue. We never expected to. Arguing with one another was part of the fun. I learned that solidarity doesn’t mean agreeing blindly with people just so they’ll like you. Solidarity means trusting one another enough to disagree, to argue, and to see the other person’s side.

As women and as feminists, we can stand together in solidarity and support, and still maintain separate sets of ideals, fight for separate causes, vote for different candidates or abstain from voting altogether. Any politics, feminist or otherwise, that preaches lockstep ideology is not the politics for me. Likewise, any politics that disavows the importance, the necessity, of love — of lust, even — as a political force is not the politics for me.

I am unsettled by Gloria Steinem’s implication that young female activists have let their emotions and/or sexuality get in the way of their common sense, their rational brains. This, from the very movement that told us, “The personal is political.” The personal is political. The Clintons themselves are perhaps the best living exemplars of this very notion. And from where I stand, if Hillary Clinton is the most powerful woman in the world today, due in no small part to her choice of marital partner and the life/career they’ve built together, isn’t it a little disingenuous to criticize young women for looking to see where the boys are?

Human relationships are at the core of all political thinking. Feminism has long questioned the black-and-white distinction between public life and private life, and challenged those who would seek to confine women to exclusively private, domestic roles. The simple physical presence of women in the public sphere has, historically, been a political gesture. Perhaps it still is. Our bodies are every bit as political as our brains, and no one knows this better, or has articulated this better, than the women’s movement. Any radical will tell you, we’re not just fighting for our needs, but for our desires too. We’re fighting for the right to have desires.  

Remember the 60s? I wasn’t there, but I hear there was a lot of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, along with the peace, love, and understanding. I hear the grown-ups wrote the kids off then, too, as a bunch of free-lovin’ stoners, but the kids, tired of being told who to love and how to love (and forced to fight someone else’s war), built a movement anyway.

To my ear, Steinem’s comments also contain painful echoes of arguments used by anti-abortionists, those who oppose comprehensive sex-ed, and even rape apologists. These arguments are always rooted in the notion of telling girls they need to learn to “control themselves” and reign in their sexuality. Be a good girl. Ultimately, women are expected to bear the blame whenever their behavior (or appearance, or beliefs) makes someone else uncomfortable. We are expected to bear the blame even when we are the ones being attacked on all fronts — physical, emotional, and intellectual.

Steinem’s apology (which was not really an apology at all but merely a sidestepping allegation that young women, in their anger, have misinterpreted Steinem’s words) only makes it clearer that she herself has perpetrated an attack on women. Like the original comment, her follow-up remarks contain the age-old complaint that women are governed by emotion (or, ickier still, by hormones), simply aren’t thinking clearly, and that we must learn to control that baser side of ourselves.

I say, if the girls are meeting boys — or girls! — at Bernie rallies, or any other rallies, more power to them. Let’s not negate the power of our emotions and our sexuality, because that is an enormous step backwards. And at the same time, let’s not buy into the notion that something as universal and inescapable as having feelings automatically trumps our capacity for rational, critical thought. Should young women confine themselves, for fear of compromising the ostensible purity of their beliefs, to purely apolitical friendships and romances? Is such a thing even possible? Solidarity is not a cold and sterile thing. For a political movement to take any sort of root, there must be an element of joy. Why else would art, music and dance continually prove to be such powerful means of political expression?

By all means, let’s acknowledge, too, the thorny issues of power and representation that young women in particular must tackle whenever they involve themselves in a political movement. Let’s create a space in which women feel safe enough to speak out when they’ve been threatened or violated by their comrades. Older feminists, who have years of experience speaking truth to power, need to be there for young women, not berating us for our behavior but showing us how to stand up in the middle of the room and make our voices heard. Young women need role models, not naysayers.

When individuals (regardless of gender) within a movement begin speaking in paternalist and misogynist terms, it is very much our obligation as feminists to call them out and demand to be treated with respect and equality. Attacking young women with shame, blame, and I told you so’s is no solution, and only serves to deepen the divides — between women and men on one hand, between young and old on the other.

***

What I remember most vividly about 2002 and 2003, about my first months of political engagement, are the massive national protests that shook New York and DC: the long overnight bus rides into the city, all of us sleepless and stiff-necked by the morning, and the brutally cold hours we spent out in the streets, chanting and shouting into the frozen air until our throats and lungs were raw, our fingers and toes completely numb. I remember huddling together in the shadow looming grey buildings, small clusters of us, all trying to keep each other warm. I remember feeling so grateful to the people who’d thought to bake cookies, or who’d brought hot tea in thermoses to share. I remember losing my gloves and a stranger being kind enough to loan me an extra pair.

I’m sure we all had brilliant and inspiring discussions of strategy and tactics, I’m sure we came up with blistering quips when approached by reporters. But it’s not the words I remember; it’s the sensation of being hungry and cold and tired, of being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of bodies, all brought together for a common goal. Being out in the streets together, it wasn’t just our ideas making history, it was our bodies, the sheer and massive force of our physical presence and solidarity. It was exhausting, it was freezing, and it was fun.

And yes, it was fun because I was there with my boyfriend and we were, in a sense, going on weekend-long dates — dates that happened to involve bullhorns and picket signs and confrontations with local law enforcement. We were passionate in every sense of the word: we were angry, we were fueled by our convictions, and we were in love. Does it make me less of a feminist, less of a socialist, to admit that I was radicalized by a boy I met in high school? I don’t think so. Our politics emerge from the complexity of our lived experience. Of course our friends and lovers have an influence on our beliefs and actions. If we downplay the importance of human relationships, what do we have left out of which to build a movement? If we downplay the gravity of our desires, what do we have left to fight for? If we downplay the power of our bodies, who will show up in the streets when it really matters?

 

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