Patriarchy has been reconstructing women to “fit” within male biological norms and convenience for millennia. One of the first bits of female biology to start reconstruction was pregnancy and birthing, more recently, patriarchy has focussed on reconstructing sexuality and sexual identity. In all cases, this reconstruction removes all the uniquely female bits. As Germaine Greer in her classic The Female Eunuch pointed out, women often seek social reconstruction as castrated males, or as mentioned in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, women’s only options are to 1. Live WITH a man, or 2. Live LIKE a man.
With motherhood, the final chapters of the reconstruction are almost completed with the evolution of assisted reproduction technologies, as discussed in Womb Rights, Womb Wrongs. Childbirth was the first to be reconstructed by males. Birthing had to be at male convenience, and by male design, under male control, whether of domesticated animals or of women. It was treated by men as similar to a stubborn bowel obstruction, as that is how their bodies work. As Mary Daly pointed out in her discussion of the elements of the Sado-Ritual Syndrome, such torture rituals start in the upper and middle-classes, become fashionable and spread downward over time. The first women to submit to the knives and torture of the man-midwives in the middle-ages, were the royal wives of European nobility. No wonder women welcomed and demanded the introduction of chloroform in the 19th Century. It is no wonder then, that now, many women prefer, request and even demand Caesarian section.
However, less well known is a similar Sado-Ritual Syndrome surrounding lactation. Although many women will whisper their testimony to the whole-body eroticism of breastfeeding in kaffee-klatsches and suburban play-group centres, many Western women still don’t breastfeed or if they do, not for very long. ie. “the minimum necessary”. Mothers who breastfeed for too long, or in public are seen as an aberration. Despite a push by women’s health-workers in recent decades to reverse this process, it hasn’t been very successful. As with childbirth, males can’t do it – therefore it is an aberration, a ‘Misfit’ piece of biology that needs some sort of surgery to ‘fix’. If physical surgery/reconstruction won’t fix it – then social surgery will have to do.
Previous generations, in the middle-ages and through the nineteenth century saw upper-class women abandoning breastfeeding of their own children, and so it was left to servant and slave-women to do it, the invisible ‘wet-nurses’. In the 20th century, the removal of breastfeeding by the formula-bottle, allowed many more women in all socio-economic classes to abandon such stigmata of lower-class servitude. With recent technological advances, we are just beginning to see the beginnings of the removal of pregnancy. Upper-class wealthy women can hire a surrogate womb, just as previous generations hired wet-nurses. Like the wet-nurses, the gestational mother, or surrogate is the least paid, the least visible, the least valued and is given at best, token respect for her altruism. But not to worry, within 30-50 years, maybe earlier or later, it can be taken over by machinery for all socio-economic classes and that mythical all-powerful, pregnant, child-feeding, child-tending, or child-teaching woman can be completely dispensed with.
And good riddance, is heard by all.
Every psycho-analytical theory from Freud onwards, including some feminist theory has claimed that mother-child bonding is somehow detrimental to humans. Particularly if prolonged beyond the ‘minimum necessary’, which is defined at the limits of masculine biological/social capability. So it should be discouraged, and de-valued to that minimum necessary for the maintenance of physical health of the infant and no more. Women have been encouraged for generations to ‘separate’ themselves from the child/infant at younger and younger ages. Eventually, we all hope, the minimum necessary will be nothing at all. The feminist theorists however, go on to say that it isn’t the mother’s fault – its just a by-product of primitive biology and sexism, and technology and greater participation in ‘real-life’ will get rid of the whole messy business eventually.
So we forgive the mother for her sins, whilst still calling motherhood itself a sin, and biological motherhood, the most sinful of all. At best, we support the inclusion of fathers in the social parenting role, to try and rid parenthood of its all-powerful bad-mother myth. But even men who do take an active participatory role in parenting their children – are considered “lesser” men by others. Probably because most men can’t identify with the earth-fathers doting on their babies, anymore than they can identify with a lactating or menstruating woman. Male mothers aren’t considered any more important than female ones – but at least they aren’t biological Misfits. Of course, Big Daddy will prove through retroactive reconstructed scholarship that he was better at it all along, once he ‘liberated’ all that messy female biology.
Menstruation of course, has been rendered invisible as it is the primary Misfit piece of female biology. In the search to reconstruct female biology in terms of male biology, the menstrual cycle has changed dramatically over the centuries. There is evidence to suggest that modern Western women today have far more cycles, heavier and more prolonged bleeding due to changes in diet, pregnancy/lactation patterns, as well as altered muscle-to-fat ratios. There is little research of women’s menstrual health however, as being Misfit and not entirely necessary, it can be safely ignored, or reconstructed with hormones or surgery for convenience.
After thousands of years of enforced motherhood, where women often didn’t even have a token ‘choice’ of which male sired their children – I can empathise with Shulamith Firestone’s cry of ‘Pregnancy is barbaric!’ and some women’s desire to abandon motherhood and its attendant biology altogether. Pregnant and breast-feeding mothers are a reminder of the cruelty, the physical and psychological rape heaped on our mothers for generations. Biological motherhood is also a symbol of our greatest powerlessness, our bodies are taken over by forces beyond our control, not just physical ones – but social forces as well.
Perhaps throwing out female biology and replacing it with masculine techno-porn processes designed to imitate masculine biology, will liberate women, as depicted in Marge Piercy’s popular utopian novel Woman on the Edge of Time. Nonetheless there may be some discomfort when a main character justified this with ‘We all had to give up our power-bases’ in order to create ‘equality’ – assuming there is some kind of one-to-one ‘equal’ exchange of ‘equivalent’ commodities-– men sharing their power-bases is considered equivalent to women sharing their mythical ‘power’ of biological reproduction. When I first read this, my initial response was “What power?” The first thing patriarchy did was expropriate reproduction under male-dominance, and keep mothers (and children) under very tight control. Mothers have no rights. In the search for an androgynous solution to the gender wars, some women seem to agree with patriarchy that female biology is the root of all evil and oppression. Get rid of the Misfit biology and problem solved.
“The phenomenon of the drag queen dramatically demonstrates such boundary violation. Like whites playing “black face”, he incorporates the oppressed role without being incorporated in it.”
“…the feminization of male-to-female transsexuals…. who consider themselves “women”…..undergo operations which …give them artificial vaginas but no clitoris…”
Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology – 1978
Many of us who grew up with the liberal/humanist tradition accept M2t trans* as ‘women’. On one hand, many born women do reconstruct themselves to ‘fit’ a masculine definition of femaleness, or femininity, much as M2t trans* do. Biologically speaking, this version of male-constructed womanhood, either denies the clitoris or reconstructs it as an ‘equivalent’ version of the penis. Breasts are denied any biological function other than decorative, the vagina is an artificial hole without complex musculature or nerve system, and the uterus and ovaries disappear altogether. Apparently to be considered biologically female, all that is needed is a pelvic orifice, and a couple of decorative lumps on the chest. Full stop. End of story. All the uniquely female “bits” are completely disappeared.
From any of the traditional viewpoints, be it essentialist, biological determinist, or completely social constructionist – accepting bodies reconstructed to mimic female physicality to be included in the sex class ‘Woman’ (however ill-defined and problematic that category may be) appears to lack even basic logic. Even from a purely social constructionist perspective, childhood socialisation is very much rooted in physicality. Perhaps M2t trans* are not male either, but its questionable whether this should automatically provide a basis for a definition of ‘womanhood’ to include any human, that is considered “not male”. Just automatically lumping anyone ‘not male’ into womanhood, is bizarre. We are a class/sex all of our own.
“The insistence that manmade women be accepted as women, is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males”
Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman – 1999
Liberal men sometimes embrace their “feminine side” – but we all seem to forget that a male’s “feminine side” has nothing to do with being female, biologically or socially. Men’s ‘feminine side’ can only ever be a part of masculinity, but perhaps one that is difficult for men to accept in their own identity – the male’s concept of the ‘Other’ is a part of their own Self. This ‘Other’ or ‘twin’ of the male Self may be a softer, gentler version of masculinity, but it is not femaleness.
Throughout history, this ‘twinning’ of masculinity can be seen in mythology, religion, and politics. Examples abound – Castor & Pollux, Apollo & Dionysus (who often appeared ‘in female form’), Cain & Abel, socio-political revolutions sometimes described as the revolts of gentle Sons over their cruel Fathers, even the modern politico-military use of the terms of ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ – and the wrathful God image of Judaeo/Christian/Islam tradition – contrasted with His gentle, ‘effeminate’ Sons or Prophets. As Robert Graves explains in The White Goddess:
“It will be claimed that man has as valid a claim to divinity as woman. That is true only in a sense; he is divine not in his single person, but only in his twinhood. As Osiris,…he is always jealous of his twin – Set, and vice-versa; he cannot be both of them at once except by an intellectual effort that destroys his humanity, by denying both twins’ dependence on Her, and this is the fundamental defect of both the Appollonian and Jehovistic cults. Man is a demi-god; ……Man envies Her completeness, flees her divinity, and tells himself lies about his own completeness, and thereby makes himself miserable; because if he is divine and complete, she can’t be…. She becomes a mere nymph, and his love for Her turns to scorn and hate..”
This eternal dance of Osiris & Set, may superficially value more highly those characteristics traditionally associated with the male, but the male’s ‘feminine side half’ is also valued but returned to us as the only definition of womanhood to which either born-men or born-women can aspire. The message to all is that men make ‘better’ women than born-women do, and one part of the process of becoming a “real woman” (and worthy of being man’s “Other half”) is to deny, remove, minimise, or reconstruct all uniquely female biology (and the social constructions as well) to fit the image of his ‘Other’ Self.
Some feminists have approached this by continuing the debate on social construction of gender, although most would appear to dismiss biological essentialism/determinism. In recent times this discourse has expanded with some new analyses emerging from academic circles – Judith Butler, Donna Haraway et al, have developed intriguing concepts of reconstructing humanity into some kind of sexless soup-blend of androgynous cyborgs – but this seems to combine only those traits that are parts of the twinned masculinity that Graves describes. Again, uniquely female attributes, whether they be biological or socially constructed – appear to disappear in the blend. This is the basics of the “Myth of Androgyny”, androgynous means male, as male is the default human.
These recent models of social gender constructionism maybe a fun and intellectually stimulating way of viewing the age-old “nature vs nurture” debate, but most of them seem to be strongly in support of nurture, and its offspring culture and technology, ‘freeing’ us all from the limitations of nature. However, the impact of biology on gender identity is ignored, minimised or completely dismissed, just because we have developed an enormously complex psychosocial organisation independent of the natural world. An unstated assumption in all this theorising is that Nature is somehow negative or evil, and female biology the worst of the lot. It is also reminiscent of ancient Greek male philosophical obsession with transcending Nature (female) by Culture (male).
“The mythology of the female orgasm could be considered the last ideological push of the heterosexual establishment…….Nothing however, could disguise the fact from women at least, that, where male sexual response tends to the mechanical, female response continues to manifest as unpredictable and variable…..A man who knows which buttons to press to get his partner to come….is seeking to produce in his partner stereotyped orgasms rather like his own….Only lesbians were able to handle the idea that female sexuality might not be symmetrical or mirrored with male sexuality, and that reconstructing it to fit, might result in a net loss of delight.”;
Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman – 1999
As a young woman discussing sexual matters with others, some of us felt struck by our lack of words with which to articulate our feelings and discoveries, whether lesbian or heterosexual. Sex researchers’ tended to formally describe female sexuality in frameworks of male sexuality, and for some of us women, concepts used to describe male sexual responses didn’t appear to comfortably ‘fit’ what we had experienced.
This reconstruction of female sexuality to parallel that of males, including describing lesbian sexuality in terms of some kind of “mirror-image” of male homosexuality, on some levels parallels the reconstruction of all female biology described above. In the search for ‘equality’ we seem to have settled for ‘equivalence’ of the kind that anything a man feels, a woman can too.
But anything a woman can feel, but a man just can’t, just doesn’t exist and should be erased from the Human Condition.
In her book Sex and Destiny, Greer outlines her perception of the changing concepts of sexuality, in that she believes that the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ was co-opted by patriarchy, and turned into a religion. She argues that the only sexuality that was freed, was male sexuality:
“Whether women like it or not, current sexual mores are conditioning them to become genitally centred: their sexuality is being conditioned into the likeness and the counterpart of masculine response……There is now no reason why a woman can’t be more like a man. Female sexuality has been tailored, pared-down, snipped to fit (the) male………. Only lesbians were able to handle the idea that female sexuality might not be symmetrical with male sexuality, and that reconstructing it to fit might result in a net loss of delight.”“
Male sexuality is fixated upon genitals and penetration, with the ultimate goal of orgasm. Mechanical factory-line production of orgasms. Therefore, hence, ergo – so must female sexuality. Women and men are ‘equal’ defined as ‘equivalent’. Its religious nature underpins the consumer economy, which is also fixated on penetration of markets. The explosion of increasingly bizarre pornography, paraphilias, prostitution and trafficking, has at least partly resulted from its promotion as a modern opiate of the masses – if you aint coming, you aint living, and from its liberal roots, this new religion also embraces many others previously excluded (eg homosexuals, disabled, the elderly) in its ritual observances and homage to the Sacred Orgasm.
Only the Celibate is ex-communicated from this new Church, to the point where lack of libido, or a personal preference for celibacy, is seen as a major health problem requiring some sort of “fix”, physical or mental.
The basic premise of the liberal philosophy behind the sexual revolution of the 50s & 60s, (at its most simplistic), was that much of the authoritarian patriarchal state was based on repression of sexuality. Free the libido and hey, presto – patriarchal structures would collapse, and the world would magically start to make love not war. Many ‘early feminists’ agreed with this stance. Denied women’s history, they were no more aware of women’s activities in previous generations, than any generation of women has ever been. For example, the Parisienne women of the 1890s, with their riotous bare arse, split legged displays designed to show utter contempt for their oppressors – as in ‘Kiss my fat ass!’. Like many young adults, the ‘early feminists’ of the 70s were rebelling against their parental generation, they were going to change the world, by reclaiming and celebrating their sexuality.
Feminist erotica was born. Again. *sigh*
Many of these early feminists who were trying to change the system from within, admitted their mistakes in the hopes that future generations of feminists might learn from their experiences. As Greer pointed out in response to Donita Sparks’s pulling a tampon out and flinging it into the audience when L7 was on stage at the Reading Festival of 1992 –
” Sexuality might be the most subversive thing, but female sexual display, from the artistically tasteful to the most grotesque, is pure sexual conformism to the dominant sexual paradigm. What (we) learned from the pointless surrender of our privacy was the true extent of our powerlessness, in that female sexual display, whether hostile or seductive, is a weapon that can only inflict injury on the displayer…. As long as men think of women’s bodies as commodities offered only and solely for their consumption, there is no liberation to be had either in taking clothes off, or keeping them covered”.
Nonetheless, it would appear that every new generation of women tries again to make female sexuality ‘subversive’ in the name of ‘sexual liberation’ – and hence each generation has its own version of ‘Girl Power’, riotgrrls, kinderwhores etc – hard-drinking, sexually aggressive Courtney Love wannabes, along with academic pseudo-feminist arthouse films like Romance exploring the transcendental experience of the ‘romance’ of rape and sado-masochistic sex.
Greer continues this theme in The Whole Woman:”Sex at the end of the century is no longer a matter of intercourse. The sex of the millennium is pornography.” The only sexuality which has been freed is male sexuality, but almost as an afterthought, women are invited to participate in the name of equality, or equivalence, but only as long as their sexual expression parallels the dominant masculine paradigm. As might be expected with the freeing of male sexuality, so has woman-hatred been freed and expanded:
“Some men hate all women all of the time; all men hate some women some of the time. I reckon that in the year 2000 more men hate more women, and more bitterly than in 1970. Our culture is far more masculinist than it was 30 years ago. Movies deal with male obsessions….the rock music that appeals to men is deliberately, unbelievably and outrageously misogynist. While women were struggling to live as responsible dignified adults, men have retreated into extravagantly masculinist fantasies and behaviours. Every day terrible revenges are enacted on women who have dared to use their new privileges…..yet every day we are told there is nothing left to fight for…..Feminism has served is purpose, and can now eff off.”
The assumption on both sides of the Nature vs Nurture debate assumes that for a characteristic to be biological, or ‘natural’, it must be ‘fixed’ or immutable, unchangeable.
Indeed, the opposite is true, biological behaviours and characteristics are infinitely adaptable. The ‘Biology is Destiny’ concept in regard to biological determinism, or the simplistic scenario of constant pregnancy for females, being produced from natural “instinctive” rape by males, is ridiculous being applied to humans, as both fertility & sexual congress behaviours are highly variable in all species, and is not a biologically ‘fixed’ determinant or ‘Destiny’ in any mammalian species, let alone in humans, but is highly dependent on other factors, some external to the population (eg. environmental), and some internal. But this assumption in people’s minds, is even more ludicrous when relating to homo sapiens sapiens – our own species has not lived as a primarily biological organism for uncounted millennia. Layers upon layers upon layers of civilisation, religion, tradition, education, culture, language, abstract thought etc have almost wiped off the physical map most of our ‘fixed’ biological instincts and drives belonging to our evolutionary ancestors. Our species has made both conscious and unconscious cultural decisions regarding biological processes ever since it crawled out of the primeval slime.
However, the same argument can be used against social constructionism, the automatic assumptions being biology is ‘fixed’ (which it isn’t, and never has been, especially in humans) – and ‘social constructs’ are changeable (which historically, have proved to be enormously difficult to change).
If social constructs are fixed, then there is no point working for change. As so many of these social constructs are written in stone, they may as well be set in concrete.
This generalised antagonism towards even the possibility of a unique female identity, is probably based in fear of upsetting the masculine power-systems – an understandable fear. Large numbers of women do embrace this ideology, or theology, of ‘flight from the female’ as a strategy for survival in an anti-female world.
A clever tactic of Divide & Conquer – by convincing us that we don’t really exist as a ‘class’ at all, and never did, neither socially nor biologically (when it has always been both) – we have absolutely no basis on which we can unite in solidarity, and will therefore never be a threat to the oppressive power-structures we all know are there. According to postmodern theorists, there is no such category of ‘Woman’ anyway -there are no universalisms biological or social, so there is still no point in working for change. The post-modernist ideal of genderless humanity, removes, dismisses or minimises all concepts of unique femaleness and replaces it with masculinity, albeit a far more socially acceptable one.
Whether Culture and/or Biology, is Destiny for all of us, then it would still appear to be a solely Male Destiny.
Edited from previously published version in FemSpeak e-zine