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The feminist as humanist.

The media have done a remarkable job of distorting and discrediting the meaning of the word feminism. The specific techniques by which this verbal mayhem was accomplished have been documented in detail in Susan Faludi's Backlash. It is possible that even some humanists may have been taken in by this same propaganda campaign, so that they now hear the adjective feminist as a pejorative, as do many members of the general public. In this so-called post-feminist era, it is an often-told story that many young career women deny vociferously that they are feminists, yet when asked if they believe in equal opportunities in employment for women and men, equal wages for equal work, or a woman's right to control her own reproductive capacity, they assent readily to all the above principles of the current feminist program.

Feminism is women's answer to centuries, to millennia, of oppression by men in the hierarchical social arrangements associated with patriarchal religions. Feminism demands an end to hierarchy in human life and proposes that it be replaced by egalitarianism and democracy in social relations as well as in politics. Feminism is nothing more nor less than the advocacy of equal rights for all--men as well as women. In the words of Marilyn French in Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals:

To reintegrate humanity requires not just treating women as human beings, but valuing in one's own life and actions love and compassion and sharing and nutritiveness equally with control and structure, possession and status.... Feminism is a political movement demanding access to the rewards and responsibilities of the "male" world, but it is more: it is a revolutionary moral movement, intending to use political power to transform society, to "feminize" it.

Feminism does not contemplate replacing the historic domination of men over women by the domination of women over men. (This truth is not belied by the existence of some individuals calling themselves feminists who, out of their accumulated anger, engage in male-bashing in words or deeds.) Nor is feminism primarily concerned with advocating lesbian rights, despite the constant efforts of the right to promote this notion. Some of the organizations within the women's movement have been torn by the need to stand up publicly for the rights of gays and lesbians to pursue their lives in their own way, without at the same time coveying the public impression that all feminists must therefore be lesbians; but true mainstream feminism regards sexual preference as one of the primary areas of self-determination for all human beings.

Humanists may be particularly at risk for mistaking a part of feminism for the whole if they are familiar with Barbara G. Walker's The Skeptical Feminist: Discovering the Virgin, Mother, and Crone, which is available from the Humanist Bookstore. Walker says, for example:

A resurrection of the feminine archetype that all women still keep somewhere deep inside themselves, even if they don't know it, may be the only ideological possibility for rehumanizing and reuniting the world that now sets generation against generation, nation against nation in endless cycles of pointless aggression. The final results of patriarchal ideologies have been so disastrous that almost any shift toward feminine imagery in the spiritual realm would be beneficial. Reinstatement of the goddess in the hearts and minds of her earthly daughters--and sons as well--may turn out to be the only practical salvation from the final chaos with which man in his vast cultural imbalance now flirts. Sometime in the not too distant future, the world's newest religion might take shape as an updated version of the world's oldest one.

Walker overstates the case both in the above passage and in her opinion that "women need Goddess imagery in their lives. Men also need it, as much or even more." The resonance of goddess imagery may be very emotionally satisfying and enriching to some individuals--especially to those whose upbringing from birth or emotional lives have been so deeply committed to a patriarchal form of religion that it has resulted in a psychological dependency on the concept of a deity. The goddess may be a useful way-station on the way out of emotional dependence on a supernatural being.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that feminism is limited to those who find value or validity in the goddess myth. Walker herself calls attention to the danger inherent in over-literalness:

Some feminist groups evince a tendency to denigrate all scientific discovery as a product of patriarchal, exploitative thinking. Some would like to do away with scientific inquiry in favor of shamanistic magic or mystical techniques such as meditation and trance. Some go beyond the perception of symbol and ritual as foci for the setting of goals into the realm of primitive sympathetic magic itself, where symbolic enactment is believed to bring about real events quite apart from their psychological component. There is a kind of credulity here that may be as destructive to the ultimate aims of feminism as Christianity's flat denial of what Galileo saw or what Darwin realized turned out to be destructive to orthodoxy.

Those who have fallen into the trap of magic described above represent only a tiny fraction of those who call themselves feminists, or who subscribe to the mainstream feminist values of democracy, justice, peaceful resolution of conflict, attention to the needs of all living things and of the planet. We should not allow ourselves to be distracted by the idea that the part is equivalent to the whole.

Most feminists view the goddess myth in the spirit with which Corliss Lamont, in The Philosophy of Humanism, describes George Santayana's philosophic approach: "Treating supernatural religion ... as poetic myth to be enjoyed and understood rather than as dark superstition to be fought and eradicated." Let us therefore see the goddess as most feminists see her--that is, as a metaphor for the human qualities sorely needed in our culture: caring, concern, connectedness, the need to treat all persons with dignity, the need to find solutions to social problems that are constructive and unitary rather than punitive and divisive.

Patriarchy has fostered incalculably enormous and invaluable contributions to the history of humanity: logic, order, science and technology, the rule of law, the advancement of civilization. Unfortunately, the limitations inherent in this system have now rendered humanity in need of some additional values which feminist thinking has to offer, including a greater emphasis on the interdependence of all humanity and the physical world. The humanist principles expressed in Humanist Manifestos I and II, as well as in the forms of democracy essential for civilized living listed in Lamont's The Philosophy of Humanism, are entirely consistent wiht the true definition of feminism, such as that given by Betty Friedan in The Second Stage:

If we can eliminate the false polarities and appreciate the limits and true potential of women's power, we will be able to join with men--follow or lead--in the new human politics that must emerge beyond reaction. And this new human liberation will enable us to take back the day and the night, and use the precious, limited resources of our earth and the limitless resources of our human capital to erect new kinds of homes for all our dreams, affirm new and old family bonds that can evolve and nourish us through all the changes of our lives, and use the time that is our life to enrich our human possibility, spelling our own names, at last, as women and men.

Many humanists obviously have already achieved this understanding of the essential unity of feminism and humanism. As a feminist and humanist of long standing who has only recently become involved with the organized structure of American humanism, I am encouraged by the presence of feminist terms and concepts in an article in the March/April 1994 issue of The Humanist. In Robert Elias' article "Declaring Peace on Crime," he speaks first of the need to "pursue a more feminist model of criminal justice, focusing less on how to extirpate crime and more on how to achieve greater social harmony." Later in the same article, Elias describes as qualities needed in human life those which are associated with feminist concepts:

... we need a more democratic culture. We must promote alternative social values in our education, media, and other means of socialization. These values should reflect the aforementioned structural changes; they include nonviolence, sharing, public service, cooperation and community, racial and sexual equality, and human dignity and human rights.

The humanist movement as an organizational strategy might make further efforts to strengthen its ties with organized segments of the feminist movement to benefit from enhanced access to potential allies in future struggles for humanist principles. Surely the American Humanist Association and other humanist groups could find large areas of commonality with feminists whose intention is that expressed by bell hooks in her 1981 work, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism:

... a commitment to eradicating the domination that permeates Western culture on various levels --sex, race, and class, to name a few--and a commitment to reorganizing U.S. society, so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.
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Author:Odessky, Marjory H.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Words:1526
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