A group of women, involved together in political an emotional relationship, record here that they have gained from the last few years of movement and struggle, and, on that basis, assess what they still lack.
We have fought, effectively, against the social poverty of women’ s condition. We have discovered the originality which goes with the fact of being women. Through the political practice -if relations between women, by spending time with other women, by loving other women, we have come to value ourselves. But at the moment we have no way of translating the experience, the knowledge and the value of being women into social reality. In social relations, outside our groups, we feel uncomfortable, as if in a world where the best part of ourselves is unknown and counts for nothing. This is something which weighs more heavily on us now than it did a few years ago, when we were more uncertain about what our own desires, our own wants, could be.
We have experienced this sense of inadequacy even in our groups, when we have been with other women: perhaps this is because the sense of discomfort and blockage of which we are conscious in the social world is associated with every desire and every wish to be active. Our strongest and deepest desires risk becoming the wellsprings of paralysing fantasies so as not to remain unexpressed. But in a women’s group there is at least the chance to question this experience and, even more important, to estimate its proper weight, so that we lose nothing of what any of us can become conscious of and desire. We enter social relationships for various reason: – some of us to earn a living, some to satisfy their own ambitions, some simply because it can’t be avoided – and in these social relationships our unease has remained completely unspoken. There, the fact of being a women has proved meaningless, a embarrassing peculiarity which we had to justify or which we forgot and wanted others to forget. To a greater or lesser extent this uses up a part of our intelligence and diminishes our enjoyment. And it reacts back on the project of women’s struggle as well, impoverishing it. We lack any positive experience of self-affirmation in social life and this is, by reflex, missing in our groups. Instead we act like beginners and copycats.
It is no longer a matter of discrimination
We want to start from our present condition and talk and ask questions about our failure to achieve in social life. This failure reverberates in a diffuse sense of discomfort, a feeling of inadequacy, of mediocrity. As failure it needn’t be anything special: on the contrary, in general it doesn’t present itself as extraordinary failure but more as inhibition, as a block on capacity, a source of anxiety and withdrawal.
In the face of this experience it is an advance to acknowledge openly that we try hard but that our results are generally mediocre and that for the most part we are unequal to the performance demanded in social transactions. We focus on the feeling of being blocked because it reveals more intensely than does our vague sense of discomfort that we want to do something, we want to achieve, and that perhaps something inside ourselves stops us, says “no”.
We are now dealing with an external obstacle. To think of ourselves and present ourselves as victims of discrimination against women by now no longer signifies what is essential about our condition. It runs the risk of being a cover. We know that discrimination exists and can return, especially when material conditions are hard. But this is an easily recognised difficulty which we know how to fight and which has no power to inferiorise a woman or make her feel inadequate. On the other hand, a sense of inadequacy contributes not a little to reinforcing the residues or the return of discrimination.
This sense of inadequacy must therefore be brought into the open and questioned on its own account as a more profound stumbling block that any which derives from an unjust social order. We are therefore discussing the failure of our social performance in terms which do not attribute it to discrimination. We are relating our sense of blockage to what we want for ourselves, not to what others want of us against our own interest. To discuss this just in terms of discrimination is to remain silent about something which is a part of our experience – which is that our difficulty does not only come (does not essentially come) from external obstacles, but from our own wish for social recognition which clashes with its own excess. It is enormous, abnormal, not because it is itself greater that it should be, but simply because it finds no means o£ satisfaction.
The wish to win through
There is within us a wish to live in the grand manner, to have a secure familiarity with things, to find every now and then the gestures, the words, the behaviour, which correspond to our own feelings and are appropriate to the external situation, to follow our thoughts, our desires, our projects, through to their end. We call this “the wish to win through”. We wish to be victorious over everything which makes us insecure, unstable, dependent, imitative. And yet at the same time we do not want to betray anything of what we are, not even that part of ourselves which at the moment speaks only hesitantly.
To begin with we have to overcome our fear of our own wish to win. When this wish presents itself it does so as something abnormal, almost without an object and without any relation to our own resources. At the moment of a “block” we recognise our wish as hesistant but unsuppressable.
We can speak of our “block” and attempt to understand what we mean by it, to follow it, through, because in these years of struggle we have shifted the emphasis of our work on to our own desires. The women’s movement has revived in us the sense of fearlessness we had in childhood and thought we had lost. We find in this a point of reference for becoming what we are and wanting what we want.
We have inside us a wish to win which paralyses us rather than carrying us forward because, separately from any form of discrimination, the possibilities offered by this society do not correspond to it. Because of this clash society will perhaps have to change.
when we place the sense of blockage we experience in our attempts at social existence alongside our persistent wish to win, a resistance or an estrangement is revealed; something within resists an entry into social games, doesn’t want to be there, isn’t there.
What can it be, this something which says “no”, this stumbling block? It can’t be named, because it hasn’t a name. Our estrangement consists precisely in this, that something inside has no means of expression or self-realisation but still exists, making its presence felt the more the wish to win presses its claims. Its way of making itself heard is as mute presence which hinders us, provokes paralysing fantasies, robs us of words. What we are in the social lives we lead – mothers, housewives, professional workers, political activists, those who make a living where they can – inspires criticisms of this society; but no criticism is as radical as this objection, raised by something which doesn’t want and can’t stand what society offers as the possibility of a life.
The wish to win and the sense of estrangement are components of the problem, not reasons for it. What creates the obstacle, the refusal to have anything to do with social games, whether experienced as a block or as diffuse discomfort, is definitely the fact of being and having a woman’s body. If we want to name what it is in which a sense of estrangement resides, all that can be said is that it is being and having a woman’s body, something in itself quite common, as common as having a man’s body. And yet they are not comparable and never have been. To be sure, with each day that passes fewer obstacles are put before women who want to realize themselves in social life and our eyes become accustomed to seeing women in men’s places. But meanwhile, within each woman, where the eye cannot go, there is a constant labour unwinding to make her keep her body, a woman’s body, in a place where those who are given pride of place have a men’s body.
This constant internal work will never cease because there is something inside which will never get used to it; every now and then the work is interrupted by an almost physical refusal of the effort involved.
The sense of blockage is produced because this society is fashioned by male desire, by being and having a man’s body. To be a woman, with a woman’s experience and desires, has no place in it. This is the only way to explain why it is that when the wish to win is not intimidating it becomes inevitably an aspiration to virility. By following this line of thought much more than by using the idea of discrimination, we have realized how much society is imprinted with male prevalence; the imprint of the male is clear within us, in the desire to exist, to act, to count for something, which in fact takes the form of a desire for virility – the only form of victorious desire, one can say. But a woman’s stake in this game is her body: this is what she can lose.
When a woman enters the social world, even in the simplest way, for example, by speaking at a neighbourhood meeting, there is always an extra effort to be made so that she can explain herself according to procedures which do not harmonise with either her feelings or with her thoughts and which result in her feelings and her thoughts emerging more or less distorted. Each time there is a void to be filled, a sense of having to climb a little higher. In this way a fantasy of perfection can be born, which paralyses because it doesn’t foresee, doesn’t admit of, mistakes. The feeling of real estrangement is also given by this: one cannot live comfortably in a world in which everyone is bound to make mistakes but you are not allowed to make them.
There are those who will say, “but I manage, I can do it”. Perhaps. There are certainly women who, in given circumstances, manage to establish their equality with men, even their superiority. But this is at the cost of a disablement which is often shadowed by personal suffering and eventually manifests itself as isolation from those like you, an inability to understand them and, underneath, a contempt for your own sex. This disavowal of the loser, in yourself and others, is the reason why many of the few socially successful women are conservatives or reactionaries. It is undoubtedly the case that some men feel themselves inadequate to the virile model and to the social performance which corresponds to it. But a man has always his body, his being and having a male body, which can be displayed to his fellows and made something of, even if in a manner marginal to or opposed to their models and values. In a man the experience of inadequacy can be and often is the occasion for raising the stakes in the social-sexual game and renewing, for example, the terms of the dialectic between sexuality in its literal sense and its sublimation (or displacement) into areas like careers, the arts, finance, politics and so on. Female sexuality, in its literal sense, does not enter into any of this. In social life its display of virility is not attached to the body and therefore has no real stake, to such an extent that it often ends up rigid, imitative, or conformist. The fantasy of perfection which paralyses so many women or makes them insecure Comes from this inability to to put their body into what they do – to those who put their body into the social game is given the right to make mistakes, to transgress, but this right: is given by a body which is never completely bounded by the norms. Our paralysing fantasies derive from an asexual model, interposed between body and language.
In this society the profound feelings of a woman, an intelligence true to her emotions and desires, are not allowed free rein. In one way or another they end up either distorted or forced into silence. As a rule we use our sense of estrangement as a corrective to our wish to win, and our wish to win as a corrective to our sense of estrangement. And we divide in this alternation into those who support (or exhibit) what is foreign about us and those who support (or exhibit) ways of enjoying inclusion in the social world.
The loneliness of the emancipated woman
Social existence is won in a sexual competition between men. When discrimination disappears a woman can enter the competition, but it remains a men’s event. She finds herself alone even if there are other women around, alone in the midst of male self-assertion, which is men loving themselves by making careers and money, creating knowledge and political parties, attempting revolutions and so on. Female emancipation equals letting women enter a social competition which confirms virility. Emancipation, of necessity, places an emphasis on individual talent. The roost women can achieve is solidarity with their own kind as a defence. In other words, emancipation puts us into a social game with words and desires wich are not our own. And it induces us to play down our feelings of indequacy and blockage as things to be ashamed of, when in fact they contain an objection and a force for change which is usually not effectively exercised because women exhaust their energies in efforts to adapt.
Bring Sexual Difference into Social Relations
The massive entry of women into social life does not automatically modify this situation. What automatically happens is that women tend to assimilate therselves to the male model.
We need a moment of reflection and a specific political practice which can make our sense of unease and inadequacy in social transactions into the principle of a knowledge and a resolve in relation to society. As a result we will be able to say: society is made like this, functions like this, demands this kind of performance, but I am a part of society and am not made like this, and because of this society will perhaps have to change so as to give expression to my existence within it as well; through an understanding of this contradiction we can become aware of what we wish to be.
Social relations must be sexualised. If it is true that social and cultural reality is not neuter, that within it human sexuality is expressed in a displaced form, then our search for social existence cannot but clash with the domination of men over women in the fabric of social and cultural life. To sexualise social relations means to tear away their apparent neutrality and show that a woman cannot be fully herself if she adopts the socially current ways of relating to one’s peers, neither with regard to her pleasure nor with regard to her abilities. In fact the stimuli to become involved in social games, to treat their rules and rewards as everything, are directly or indirectly addressed co masculinity, fashioned so as to bring it out or to gratify it. It is difficult to become involved in a situation in which your own pleasure is always in suspense.
From this it can be understood why many women, even given the choice, prefer to keep themselves apart from social life and do not follow the path of emancipation through to its end. They are defending their own integrity. What must be taken up from their attitude is their knowledge (the knowledge that men prevail in social relations) and their implicit resolve (resistance to assimilation into the male).
It therefore seems to us mistaken to continue to insist on discrimination and beside the point to issue demands for more social and cultural space for women. The concession of greater space is a response to a flagrant injustice, that of a society half made up of women but almost entirely run by men; but it doesn’t touch the substance of the problem, which is that in this society as it is, women find neither strong incentives to become involved nor real opportunities to develop to the best of their ability.
The struggle for a sense of ease
For at least a century the politics of emancipation has developed amongst socially underprivileged groups, aiming to achieve equal acceptance in the social world. As far as material conditions are concerned we are approaching the finishing line, but nothing has yet been done about a perhaps more serious disadvantage: that of finding oneself inducted into a social life which provides no pleasure, no sphere of competence, no sense of ease. These are also material elements. The emancipatory struggle passes,unseeing, over energies which are blocked by a sense of real irreducible estrangement, and does not touch those energies which are exhausted in the effort to adjust.
Some writers from socialist Germany, one of the most advanced countries from the point of view of the struggle against discrimination against women, tell of this deep sense of estrangement, this not being able to stand it, which comes from a woman’s body. Read, for example, Mutation by Christa Wolf. The process of emancipation has a limit which may emerge later but which is there at the start, in its demand to women that they push forward, enter a condition which is in many respects desirable but where it is not possible to take with you the integrity of your own most elementary experiences, those associated with the body and with sexuality. And yet the integrity of your own experiences is a fundamental condition for entry into society in the best way. Without that, mediocrity and a sense of blockage are almost inevitable.
From the moment that this becomes clear the struggle against discrimination appears secondary. What comes to the fore is the struggle to have a sense of ease in social life: to stay in the world whilst being faithful to one’s womanhood, having emotions, desires, motivation, behaviour, criteria of judgment, different from those which are aligned to masculinity and which therefore still prevail in society, governing it even in its freest expressions.
Il is because we do not wish to give up our social existence that we are now concentrating on our sense of unease. First of all we wish to emerge with an explanation of its roots. Our difficulties in social transactions are caused by the prevalence of the male, a maleness which translates itself into money, careers, culture, politics, art, and which arrogantly demands admiration and imitation. We are saying nothing new. These are all things which are known in the abstract, yet in practice are negated. To sexualise social relations means to oppose this act of erasure. In practice it means constituting separate women’s groups even when and where we are in search of a social existence, in order to interrogate this “block”, to recognise our wish to win, to start a struggle to be at ease with the world.
Against Static Separatism
After ten years and more of political movement the experience of discomfort and “block” in the struggle for social existence remains an individual fact which everyone perceives on their own or with a special friend or therapist. It is difficult to talk in our groups about the conflict between our wish to win and our sense of estrangement, although the outcome of this conflict is fundamental to all the choices we make (or do not make) and not just those about work. The women’s movement has neither studied this point enough, nor has it developed a political practice around it.
Within our groups there circulate in abundance accounts of our experiences in relation to men, women, children, even animals and nature in general. Anything regarding wider social transactions is passed over in silence, or labelled as soon as it is mentioned as an aspect of discrimination of which we are the victims and the male world the author. This glosses over one part of the situation: our own wish to achieve and the checks that this encounters. As a wish it endures through various adaptations and disguises and operates even in choices which appear by their very nature to be purely sentimental. One can also have a child because of the wish to succeed or the fear of failure. We tend to present ourselves as human beings dominated by emotional needs.
The insufficiency of analysis is reflected in the fact that the movement, whilst arousing in many the wish to change their own lives and the wish to win, has at the time served as a cover for the small change of marginality and emancipation. Women’s groups risk becoming the site of female authenticity, cut off from social intercourse and involvement in social exchanges. The proclaimed marginality of women, like the emancipatory process, does not prevent women from meanwhile being subject to male initiatives in social life, whether as chatty collaborators or as paralysed mutes. Feminist separatism, understood as women with their specificity on this side, society with its specificity on that, merely prolongs the silence of desire and of women’s knowledge: it does not end it.
We draw to one side in relation to groups dominated by men (dominated, that is, by projects thought by men in language appropriate to the male) in order to find an existence by reference to those like us, and in order to articulate our own desires and knowledge of ourselves” how we are in the world, what the world is like. We draw aside in order to exist in the world and to participate in it, not in order to celebrate a marginality which is either bogus or despairing and hopeless. In other words separation is an instrument of struggle, not a way of regulating relations between women and men. If we respond to our desires as was done in the past, by choosing between emancipation and evasion, between making it through our individual abilities or giving up, our relationships with men, which we have been able to modify in part will also regress.
Our profound estrangement from society and culture must be interrogated at the moment at which we become involved in society, when it is felt alongside the wish to win through, to exist, to count for something in the world. These two, estrangement and will, working together rather than negating each other, demonstrate that society will not be the same when women’s desire and knowledge run free within it. At that point man will be able to discover his own incompleteness and free himself from his oppressive universality.
A Common World of Women
The main difficulty we face is that we lack “a common world of women”. This insight comes from Adrienne Rich. A woman who in some way tries to live socially, whether to make her living or for her own satisfaction, enters the common world of men, a world where the things which to her seem basic an essential fall into the void, count for nothing; they have never existed there. And where, conversely, she has to confront things in which she cannot recognise herself although certainly she knows they exist: masculinity has no difficulty in getting itself recognised. With the political movement of these last years, personal relations between men and women have changed, and so have our ways of talking about them between ourselves, This is not the cast- in social relations where we still lack any criteria rooted in our own interests and therefore lack freedom of judgment.
An analogy can be made between sexual frigidity and blocks on acheivement in social life. The frigidity of some women revealed to us the mute resistance of the female body as well as the violence that male sexuality exercises on women and this pushed us to a struggle to change personal relationships with men. In a similar way, to feel blocked in social life, unable to speak, anxious, uncomfortable, “speaks” of an estrangement and a resistance.
Up to now resistance has only been silent. In the social world we are still isolated and uncommunicative except about matters that are marginal to the situation. Even when moved to criticism we are silent or repetitive about essentials. Conformist or subversives, we act and think according to criteria into which our womanhood does not enter. Society does not deny us position and even success just because we are women. But this is really because in terms of social acceptance the fact of being a woman is irrelevant. What a strange existence we have, creatures who are not men but who cannot-come out as women.
Only by reference to those like us will we be able to rediscover and therefore support those contents of our experience which social reality ignores or tends to cancel out as scarcely relevant. This is also perhaps the only way in which women can give to man the measure of his incompleteness, letting him perceive the existence of relationships and interests which do not put him first. So long as the incompleteness of men/women remains without substance in social and cultural life, society is maimed and, for us, maiming.
It is almost unthinkable that women can manage alone in a world in which, from the factory to the laboratory, from the nursery to the football stadium, from law to poetry, what circulates and is willingly endorsed is the excellence of having and being a male body. Once a tissue of preferential relations are woven between women, within which the experiences associated with womanhood are strengthened by reciprocal recognition, and once ways nave been invented of translating this into social reality, then women can manage. This is what is we call the common world of women, a web of relationships and references to others like yourself which is able to register and make consistent and effective our experience in its integrity, recovering and developing the practical knowledge which many women in difficult circumstances have already intuitively acquired. In other words, we must develop ways of being in the world whist at the same time holding on to relationships with others like us. Through this substance can be given to what male predominance negates, the basic fact of our being women rather than men. There is only one world, inhabited by women as well as by men, children, animals and various living and non-living things, and it is in this world which is one alone that we wish to stay, at our ease.
Create a strong precedent
Solidarity is precious but it is not enough. What we need are diversified and strong relations in which, once minimum common interests are safeguarded, what links us is not just the defence of our interests; relations into which differences enter into play as enrichment and no longer as threat.
Differences between women sometimes take the form of real and proper divergencies and with the recognition of difference goes an attribution of value. Such an attribution of value can have its place amongst women: on it depends the feeling that it is valuable to be a woman. Not in a general and abstract sense, but in a context in which everyone lives with their own wish to acheive and their own sense of estrangement. To attribute value in this context means to put one of your own kind first, to privilege her wish to win through, her sense of inadequacy, and to do this in your own interest. In this way a material link can be established which can allow the communication of things which have been forced into silence or distorted in individual confrontations with male society.
Our objective is to weave a world in which the interests associated with being a woman circulate, and in which a woman can exist without having to justify her existence. To this end we are using, our political practice of relations between woman to make a contribution to the issue of disparities between women, the need to engage with them and the need to practice a confidence in and reliance on one of your own kind.
Generally we do not admit of difference and disparity in our groups in the name of an egalitarianism inherited from the youth movement. But this refusal is also and perhaps fundamentally a reaction to the obliteration of the mother in our society. The relationship between mother and daughter has no form in patriarchal society; it is therefore conflictual and mother and daughters are both the losers. We therefore conflictual and mother and daughters are both the losers. We have come to understand that we can engage with disparities between women. In our political practice and that this is precious. To recognise that someone like us has “something extra” breaks the rule of male society according to which, once the mother is removed, all women are definitely equal. At the same time it liberates us, intimidated or inferiorised as we are in relation with men, from a reactive need to feel on a par with our own kind at least. Women were also brought into the world by a mother. In order to struggle against patriarchal society we must give real strength within our relationships to that ancient relationship in which there could be, fused together, love and esteem for another woman. Every woman had, in her mother, her first love and her first model.
Are we then proposing to reproduce in our relationships that hierarchy of “better than”/”worse than” which rightly we detest because in our society we find ourselves the losers? The answer cannot be other than “yes” and “no”. “Yes”, because there is a need to break with the regime of sameness between women which is based on an undervaluation of womanhood – parity between us has its roots in the deep insecurity each one of us feels. To that extent it does not impede submission to the hierarchies current in society. But “no” as well, because the “better than” which determines a disparity between women is being given space in a relationship in which love and esteem circulate together.
The recognition of disparities between women is therefore not an end in itself. It is the practice of a contradiction, a practice which is needed to allow freedom from the fear of being less than other women and through which each woman can arrive at a sense of her own value because she can rely on what is valuable in others, and treat it as an element of strength.
That this recognition of value and mutual trust takes place between women who spend time with each other and work together creates a strong precedent. It means we have a point to refer to where the integrity of womanhood is confirmed and the “something extra” which is being looked for can be found.
To the extent that we can engage in the recognition of disparity, we will be able to find an order, a dynamic, the fertility, of the primary emotions linked to the ancient relationship with the mother. With the recognition of the “something extra” that another woman can be, these old emotions will find a means of positive expression – freeing themselves from ambiguities and us from recriminations.
In the liqht of a living desire
The articulation of emotions is part of our journey towards a sense of ease, the diminution of anxiety. Ease is in fact the third term between a savage wish to win and submission, between fantasies of omnipotence and failure. Ease is a sense of connection between our own emotions and what we think and do in a given situation. This is not a psychological matter. The search for a sense of ease is a political practice which continually says: “the effort to masculinise our mind and our emotions is oppressive and what is more useless”; “we wish to translate women’s experience and desire within a society which doesn’t want to know, and to change things thet way”; “a sense of ease is a most material need along with other material needs, and a struggle for a sense of ease is subversive in a world in which desire is petrified”. This wish to stay comfortably in the world brings things back into a living relationship with thè desire for them to be examined. In the light of that desire they can be changed (a lot or a little, probably a lot) to the degree that it is necessary.
Books referred to:
The title is taken from Ivy Compton Burnett’s novel of the same name.
I have not been able to trace an Anglo/American version of the Christa Wolf book.
“Conditions of Work; The Common World of Women” is the preface to Working It out, ed. Sara Ruddick & Pamela Daniels, Pantheon ’77.