Dear Salty #2: Just Us

Dear Salty,

Whew. What a crazy week. Still, I have a question not directly related to Trump.

Right after the women’s marches around the world, I learned about a “radical feminism” conference. It’ll be happening in a few months, and I’m curious! Their literature is brave. They are willing to confront gender hierarchy head on, and I think I could learn a lot. Some prominent men—newspaper columnists and talking heads on TV—disparaged the marches. That made me pretty angry. The march I went to woke me up a lot, and I want to be part of—something.

But what about the exclusivity of “radical feminism”? I wonder if that would decrease the diversity of women who would be attracted to attend. In fact, I’m not exactly sure what “radical feminism” is.

Thank you in advance for any insight.


Dear Salt-seeker,

Let’s look at that terminology. Wikipedia (to be sure, no be-all/end-all source) has an article titled “radical feminism” that calls it, “a perspective within feminism that calls for a radical reordering of society in which male supremacy is eliminated in all social and economic contexts. Radical feminists seek to abolish patriarchy by challenging existing social norms and institutions, rather than through a purely political process.” How does that sound to you? People do seem to define things differently, and labels and their referents have changed over the past few decades. Forty years ago there was a notable contingent of women who insisted you couldn’t be feminist if you had sex with men. You would look hard to find that view now.

Yes, I understand a number of men condescended about the women’s marches. For example, there was David Brooks, who has a job at the New York Times for some reason, though no one seems to know why. Brooks, of course, is the guy who publicly disparaged Michelle Obama’s toned bare arms, but not the Fox Network on-camera women’s mandatorily skimpy sleeveless dresses, or the Bush girls’ tube tops at a State of the Union address, or—well, let’s not go on with this absurdity. Because after all, this is again just a man focusing on a woman’s body. In his column about the marches he sniffed that they were “mass therapy.” He mansplained that “the central threat is not patriarchy,” because he said only upper-middle-class educated coastal lefties care about reproductive rights and equal pay and affordable health care and—what? These, he said, weren’t “the big things.” They’re “identity politics.” Not civil rights issues. Indeed, they’re just not upper-middle-class white male civil rights issues. They are not problems for Brooks and his fellows.

Plus, he kindly instructed what progressives should do next. But Brooks has never been a progressive by any stretch. His advice to progressives is irrelevant.

And that’s a lot of what New York Times readers thought. More polite commenters said, “David, you’re missing the point.” One wrote, “It’s exasperating that when men speak out about something, it’s politics, because men are “above” identity, with identity so heavily normed (white, hetero) male. When women speak out about something, it’s identity politics.”

Another more directly said, “As a privileged white male, you have no idea what ‘identity politics’ are all about, because you have never been oppressed.”

And one woman drove in the knife. “Hey, Mr. Brooks, look at it this way: for all your condescension–if they—’women activists’—are successful in containing Trump’s despotism you reap the benefits without having to do any work.”

Here is the thing. What do Brooks’ or any other arrogant, privileged jerk’s resentments have to do with anything? Why would he think he can weigh in?

Maybe because if he and other similar men act out their anxiety about the restiveness of the peasants and scullery maids and fishwives, they then feel still in charge? Blustering exactly how, and in what outfits–no pink hats!–said commoners may take hold of our rights, as if these men were aristocrats trivializing the French masses before the collapse of the Ancien Régime? Why are we forced to listen to them?

We aren’t. And that is the point.

Salt-seeker, you and I don’t have to care. And it is a relief not only not to care, but to refuse to acknowledge them. It is odd they are still published. (David Brooks is not the hottest, smartest opinion columnist at the New York Times. Charles Blow is.)

As for you, what about your reservations about this conference?

I wonder if this sort of trepidation—will they accept me, do I even like these women, are they my kind of person, are they going to say I’m not their kind of person—is a female thing. Thinking we have to fit in. As if we were still in junior high school. As if a tight bunch of mean Queen Bees were going to judge us.

Take a look at this. Laurie Stone’s piece helps any female person, gay person, person of color, disabled person comprehend what has been and continues to be done to us, and why we are reviled. She here has concisely explained things I and others have also said. But I often have called on empirical evidence from history and prehistory. Stone’s analysis is more theoretical and comprehensive, but written in clear and simple language.

Or as another writer has said, “We are actors…Truth is only that which is taken to be true. It’s the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn’t make any difference as long as it is honored…Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace…to which we are condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one—that is the meaning of order.1

What has bothered, hurt, limited you in life? I mean specifically, concretely. Start there. You mentioned questioning gender hierarchy. What is gender anyway? Is it biological–that is, material? Or is it culture—a fiction? Or is it something in between? In what way is culture a fiction? Why do we speak of a hierarchy? Where did that hierarchy come from? How is it maintained? Why do some people speak of “dismantling patriarchy,” while others only talk about how there should be more women CEOs?

One weird thing about being female is that most of us are related to males. Patriarchy essentially creates for women the experience of living intimately with the enemy. Sometimes literally, but always metaphorically. This is not always so good for women’s heads. Or bodies. (That does not mean that your particular male partner, if you have one, is your “enemy,” by the way.)

I am white. (Or as I now say, “white,” as now we know race is a fiction.) I have been told that under segregation created via extreme white supremacy, people of color who spent much of their time in their own communities developed considerable solidarity and mutual support systems, and that some of these aspects of life have been somewhat lost. And that happened since the civil rights movements of the 1960’s allowed and encouraged the physical and social integration of people of color among whites.

Women and girls, too, may have had that kind of micro-society at times. But only under stricter social sex separation than we live with now in our supposedly, but not really, sex-integrated and equal Western society. To learn about such a way of life, read, for example, “Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village,” by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea.

So to be in an all-female community can release us from all kinds of hypervigilance. There’s no David Brooks around. Learning and thinking, listening and talking can happen outside the male gaze under which we are always Other. We feel central. And then maybe we can build the strength to move back and forth between female space and integrated space and “invent spaces of radical openness,” as the writer bell hooks calls living as a member of a non-dominant group in mixed society.

At this conference and in feminist circles you are likely to encounter varying perspectives. Many will contradict each other.

But listen to lots of people. Let one hundred flowers bloom along the road to liberation. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. By grappling with these questions you’ll grow and further your own thinking and engage your strength. And maybe make new friends. Onward, Salt-seeker!



Between a rock and a hard place? Lost in our current historical moment? Lost in your life? Ask


1. From “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” a play by Tom Stoppard.

Susan Nordmark’s essays, poetry, and fiction have been published in EntropyPeacock JournalDraft: The Journal of ProcessPorter Gulch ReviewMatrix, and elsewhere. She studied anthropology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz and Harvard, and now lives in Oakland, California.

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