Women Talking by Miriam Toews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What a beautifully and simply written book. Simply written but with complex moments, thoughts and ideals that one stops to contemplate. If one does not understand patriarchy or the systemic oppression of women, then this is a book to read. Through the words of these women talking Toews outlines for us how patriarchy works and how women grapple with their own patriarchal socialisation as against their own self-worth and their experiences of oppression.
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Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An enchanting and interesting book. The author draws interesting and likeable characters whose paths I was drawn into and eager to follow. Her story is set in two eras – 18th century and today – of two people living in the same house. There are useful parallels in this scenario with our 18th century story depicting the negative reactions to Darwin’s theory of evolution and the influence of right wing dogma and capitalist thinking – paralleling this with the 21st century USA entering the racism and misogyny of the Trump era and the same religious dogma refusing to accept climate change and the disaster of growth capitalism. Despite this I found it a gentle and thoughtful read.
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This book is a collection of essays written by Silvia Federici in relation to her on-going studies of witches, witch-hunting and its relationship to the development of capitalism. The book is in two parts. The first section, which I will talk about here, summarizes and builds on her work in Caliban and the Witch in which she explores the European witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Federici stresses the importance of situating these witch-hunts in their social, political and economic context. In particular this was a time when the enclosures of the Commons were taking place in Britain. The Commons land were traditionally available to landless peasants , enabling them to make use of the land for subsistence farming. In the 16th and 17th centuries these common lands became enclosed – by wealthy landowners and the middle class, thus depriving poorer peasants the use of such land. Land became privatised and became an economic asset for profit, rather than as a source of nurturance for the whole community. This led to an increase in poverty and social unrest amongst the community. This had a significant impact on the peasant women in particular. It often meant a stripping of their means of livelihood and the possibility of economic independence.
Federici describes the social unrest that was occurring at the time. One can imagine the anger, bitterness and distress that women were experiencing as a result of being left destitute. Her analysis describes how those in power were able to turn such social unrest to demonise those opposing the changes, effectively allowing them to increase their power and control over the communities.
She likens the demonization of women as witches to the McCarthy era of the 1950’s in the USA and the current ‘War on Terror’.
“The exaggeration of ‘crimes’ to mythical proportions so as to justify horrendous punishments is an effective means to terrorize a whole society, isolate the victims, discourage resistance, and make masses of people afraid to engage in practices that until then were considered normal.” (p.33)
“The witch was the communist and terrorist of her time” (p.33)
But it was not only about dealing with social unrest. It was about power and control and capital accumulation. Where previously in villages and communities there was a system of sharing resources, such as the Commons, where women used and shared their knowledge and experiences of caring and healing, midwifery and reproduction. The state needed to take control of this knowledge and these skills.
“…the witch-hunts served to deprive women of their medical practices, forced them to submit to the patriarchal control of the nuclear family, and destroyed a holistic concept of nature that until the Renaissance set limits on the exploitation of the female body.” (p. 11)
The state needed to disempower women of their knowledge in order to take control. In particular the state needed to take control of women’s reproductive capacity and knowledge. As capitalism was taking hold, children were seen as products for labor exploitation – economic property which the capitalist state need to control. Thus women’s sexual behaviour and procreation needed to come under the control of the state.
“We must think of an enclosure of knowledge, of our bodies, and of our relationship to other people and nature.” (p.21)
Federici concludes Part One of the book with a chapter ‘On the Meaning of ‘gossip’.
“Tracing the history of the words frequently used to define and degrade women is a necessary step if we are to understand how gender oppression functions and reproduces itself.” (p.35)
I have long been interested in the concept of female solidarity, friendships and collectivity. The fact that throughout history women’s knowledge, their experiences – women’s history has not been recorded or seen as of value.
In this last chapter of Part One, Federici describes important information about the origin of the term ‘gossip’. In early modern England it was a term used for ‘companions of childbirth, not limited to midwives’. “It became a term for women friends.” (p. 35). Federici describes how gossip became a word of degradation and ridicule, thus effectively the silencing of women. This is a subject that I would like to analyse in more depth in a future blog post.
To conclude, in Federici’s words:
“As I wrote in Caliban and the Witch, the witch hunt instituted a regime of terror on all women, from which emerged a new model of femininity to which women had to conform to be socially accepted in the developing capitalist society: sexless, obedient, submissive, resigned to subordination to the male world, accepting as natural the confinement to a sphere of activities that in capitalism has been completely devalued.” (p. 32).
Part Two of this immensely important work, Federici explores modern day witch hunts detailing how this is on the increase. I will be writing about this in my next blog.
Well what a night of television.
It started with the news (ABC SA). Their 3 leading news items were as follows:
1. The finding of the Coroner’s report into the death of Chloe Valentine – a four year old girl whose mother and her partner were found guilty of criminal neglect and manslaughter. The report was scathing of SA’s child protection system and has called for a massive overhaul.
2. The drowning of 3 Sudanese children (another child is in a serious condition) in Melbourne in a car driven by the mother which ended up in a lake. The mother is now helping the police with their inquiries.
3. 250 Australian men convicted of child sex offenses traveled to the Philippines last year.
“It comes as Filipino police continue to build a case against an Australian man, Peter Gerard Scully, who is accused of some of the worst child sex offenses in the nation’s history.”
He is also being charged with the death of at least one child. It is understood that he was producing child pornography for sale.
Then I watched Redfern Now. It was about 2 Indigenous women raped by a white middle class man. They chose different paths – one not wanting to report it to the police, fearing the shame and humiliation; the other reporting him and taking him to Court and grilled because of being a single mother, Centrelink fraud and working for cash. In a positive turn of events the man is found guilty – not a common occurrence in rape cases.
Why do all of these make me angry; make me want to cry with rage and sorrow?
We know the Child Protection system sucks. It lacks resources, funding and properly trained and experienced staff. It largely targets women – whether they are victims of male violence; living in poverty with poor resources to raise their children. And we also know that the child protection system takes a punitive approach to women, regardless of their circumstances – because well women are always to blame.
At the same time that the SA government says it will respond to this report, funding is being cut from so many services that could help mothers, particularly single mothers.
And yet one of the key recommendations of the Coroner’s report:
“The State Government begin negotiations with the Commonwealth to make a child protection income management regime permanent.”
A measure that will leave women with fewer resources, tells them they are inferior and incapable of looking after themselves, aimed at working class mothers – and assumes that child abuse is a class issue – that it is only the poor who neglect and abuse their children.
And it is important to say – there is a difference between neglect (which often is a result of poverty) and child abuse – so often about male violence against women and children – in all classes.
And when we turn to the tragedy of the Sudanese children – what resources do we provide to those from war-torn countries who come to Australia seeking shelter and a better way of life? How much trauma counselling is available; how much support are they given in adapting to a strange and alien environment? And importantly how do the media portray our immigrants and refugees from non-Western countries? How much racism are they subjected to?
It is astounding that the Federal Government can make it illegal for Australians to travel to Syria – out of our fear of “home-grown terrorists” – and we have no laws that prevent convicted child sexual abusers from traveling to South East Asia where extreme poverty puts children at risk of rape and murder – by Australian men.
In all of these cases it is really quite simply the paternalistic, imperialist, patriarchal culture which creates these situations – and provides no avenues to challenge this ideology.
I doubt that any proposed changes to the Child Protection system will really make children safer. It is far more likely to become more punitive to women in vulnerable situations.
Our current ethos is racist.
If this Sudanese mother is found responsible for the deaths of her children it surely must speak to our failure.
And why is it not a national emergency that Australian child sexual offenders are granted the freedom to travel oversees to sexually abuse children?
And women continue to be raped – and when they are Indigenous women – they have very little hope of the judicial system providing justice.
But we are so grateful to Deborah Mailman (and the writers) for her portrayal of a strong Indigenous woman who takes the system on and wins!
“”I thought you might like to hear a man’s voice,”
Senator Barry O’Sullivan’s voice boomed during a fiery Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday morning.”
Sarah Whyte,The Age
Australian Human Rights Commission president, Professor Gillian Triggs has been the subject of harassment, abuse, and bullying.
“The Human Rights Commission recently completed a report on children being held in immigration detention in Australia.
The Forgotten Children report examines the treatment of children under both the current Government and the former Labor Government. It makes a number of recommendations designed to improve the welfare and protect the human rights of children.” Senator Penny Wong, Mamamia
There has been almost a hysterical response to the report with claims of political bias. All aimed at intimidation and silencing.
Professor Triggs was not the only subjected to the misogynistic behaviour of the Liberal Party Senators at the Senate estimates hearing. Both Senator Penny Wong and Sarah Hanson-Young were also bullied and shouted at. They even made a bit of a joke about possibility of being accused of sexism. Because after all, they are real men – and real men are sexist, misogynistic – and they don’t care about being perceived in this way.
“Macdonald joked with fellow senator Barry O’Sullivan about the damn ladies taking up all the panel speaking time.
Because if there’s one problem with the current state of parliamentary politics in Australia it’s that women are given too much airtime, of course. Remember the kind of free reign Juilia Gillard was given over the airwaves? Despicable!” Max Chalmers, New Matilda
But what can we expect from this Liberal government. We all remember the treatment that our first female Prime Minister was subjected to by the Liberal government when in opposition.
It would seem that these men just don’t like women expressing their opinions; having their say; or even, dare we say it, opposing their viewpoints. It is pure misogyny and patriarchy at work here.
“The speed with which supposedly adult men have feverishly rushed to turn into braying schoolboys has been astonishing; they are no longer even bothering to conceal the enjoyment they take from making it known to their female colleagues just how little they respect their presence in public life, telling them instead to “settle down” (as O’Sullivan pompously did to Senator Penny Wong) and quipping with each other to be careful what they say lest they be “accused of sexism”, presumably by the silly biddies who overreact to everything and can’t take a joke.” Clementine Ford, The Age
“Appointing himself Minister for Women after the LNP’s election to government wasn’t an example of his total lack of self-awareness. Rather, it served as a deliberate and final f… you to the woman who had unapologetically called out his misogyny in Parliament, and who received great fanfare from the countless Australian women who had identified so strongly with the moment.” Clementine Ford, The Age
And the saddest part of this is that the Human Rights Commission’s report is highlighting the dreadful inhumane treatment of refugees by the Australian government (on both sides of politics).
“She was something far less: a woman defending powerless children with the truth. And it is for that Gillian Triggs is being punished.” Richard Flanagan
Read those statistics again. 233 assaults against children; 33 incidents of reported sexual assault; 128 children who harmed themselves.
Children, fleeing for their lives, fleeing from torture, violence and war. And the Australian government locks them up in detention.
“For all their cant about families, this is a government with no pity and much contempt for the families of the poor and the powerless. In this government’s new Australia the strong can be needlessly and endlessly rewarded, and the weak endlessly attacked and punished.” Richard Flanagan
Their racist and misogynistic policies are not confined to those from outside Australia. If you have any doubts that our politicians’ policies and behaviour to asylum seekers is not racist, we need only look at their treatment of and policies in relation to our First Nation people.
I would recommend this moving article about the impact on the Northern Territory Intervention byAli Cobby Eckermann “The Northern Territory Emergency Response: Why Australia Will Not Recover from The Intervention”
I have also written about this in a previous blog post.
The biggest challenge for Australians is that this misogyny and racism has become the norm in political discourse today. Both major political parties are responsible for the appalling treatment of asylum seekers and our First Nations peoples.
And as Clementine Ford has stated:
“… the bonds of patriarchy often bind tighter than those of political allegiance or loyalty. Some men simply do not want women working alongside them; it makes them feel their naturally ordained spaces are being suddenly invaded by people whose existence they don’t really understand, other than within the realm of being mothers and wives. And so they make jibes and jeer, the bravado and entitlement growing alongside the gang of merry men willing to join them in it.”
So whilst our media is excited and hyped up about the potential de-throning of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister – patriarchal in-fighting for power and control – they continue to use this power and control to oppress, intimidate, harm and abuse women, the dispossessed, asylum seekers, our Indigenous people.
I have just finished reading this moving and absorbing book.
My immediate impressions were that of loneliness, alienation, confinement and oppression. Kate Chopin reflects women’s oppression and alienation in their roles as mothers and wives at the end of the 19th Century.
But sadly it is far too familiar for women in the 21st Century. It is a battle that women still struggle against.
Interestingly, Kate Chopin’s original title was A Solitary Soul, which highlights the loneliness of women recognising that the role they are confined to, not only does not fit but is oppressive.
The book is about Edna Pontellier‘s awakening to her authenticity as a woman and her inability to continue in her restrictive and false life as a mother and wife.
“As the critic Per Seyersted phrases it, Kate Chopin “broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardy fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman’s urge for an existential authenticity. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom.” Rosemary F. Franklin
It is interesting to compare this with the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Both address the issue of women’s oppression and alienation within patriarchy. Both of the women central characters find that their only option is to rail against this oppression.
I was discussing “The Yellow Wallpaper” with two other women who had different interpretations of the ending. One thought that Jane finally went crazy; the other saw her as committing suicide. I saw Jane as finally being able to liberate herself.
Edna Pontellier finds her only solution is to commit suicide – to swim into the ocean, naked. This is her liberation.
“She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”
“The up-to-date research and information now available makes it clear that the present practices can no longer be justified and the custody court system must create the necessary reforms to protect the safety of children and protective mothers in domestic violence custody cases. This article will discuss ten reasons we know the custody court system is broken and must be reformed.”
If there is one symbol of misogyny and patriarchy within family law it must be the use of the concept of parental alienation.https://www.facebook.com/shoutoutaustralia)
Parental alienation epitomises how the patriarchal legal system has viewed women within our western civilisation.
It views women as vindictive liars – out to destroy men and fatherhood. It deems women as pathological – not the norm; not male.
And the intended result is to negate and trivialise male abuse of women and children. It denies and minimises the impact and severity of domestic violence and child abuse.
In basic terms, parental alienation takes the position that when a mother raises concerns about child abuse and domestic violence following separation – in a bid to protect her children from exposure to further abuse – that her allegations are likely to be false. That her motivations include revenge and vindictiveness against her ex-partner.
And most importantly it is seen as an effort to deny men/fathers the inalienable right to their children.
It is about male ownership and control.
The parental alienation syndrome was originally developed by Richard Gardner (1931-2003). It was based solely on his own (biased) clinical experience with little objective basis and lacks any empirical basis.
Gardner also had bizarre beliefs about sexuality. He is quoted as stating that:
“adult-child sex need not be intrinsically harmful to children.”
Parental alienation syndrome is grounded in misogynistic views and reflects a mother-blaming ideology.
ALIENATION AS A DYNAMIC OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
What we do know – and there is empirical evidence – is that alienation is a pattern of control used by male abusers in domestic violence and child sexual abuse.
The use of denigration of mothers is part of the pattern of both child sexual abuse and domestic violence.
And then when the mother separates from the abuser, perpetrators of domestic violence use custody litigation as a form of ongoing harassment and abuse of mother.
Alienation theory and its continued use reflect historical and societal denial of the extent of male violence within the family.
I would highly recommend Liz Library – lots of useful information about child custody, family law and parental alienation.
Other websites: Women’s Safety After Separation
And another useful book which examines how perpetrators use of controlling tactics:
Update: ABC television did a programme on Muriel Matters on Sunday: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/muriel-matters/
This information comes directly from the Muriel Matters Society
Muriel Lilah Matters (November 12, 1877 – November 17, 1969) was an Australian born suffragist, lecturer, journalist, educator, actress and elocutionist.
Matters was an extremely prominent member of a critical mass of people agitating for women’s suffrage in London.
Matters is most recognised for chaining herself to the grille of the Ladies’ Gallery in the British House of Commons on 28 October 1908. The ‘grille’ was a piece of ironwork placed in the Ladies’ Gallery that obscured the women’s view of parliamentary debates. A symbol of the oppression of women in a male-dominated society, it was her firm conviction the grille should be removed.
Her non-violent solution to chain herself to the grille was the centre-piece of a larger protest conducted by the Women’s Freedom League. While attached to the grille Matters, by a legal technicality, was judged to be on the floor of Parliament and thus, the words spoken by her that day are still considered to be the first delivered by a woman in the House of Commons.
Matters is also identified with attempting to shower King Edward VII and the British Houses of Parliament with handbills dropped from an airship on 16 February 1909.
The South Australian Parliamentary Library Reading Room has been named in honour of Muriel Matters on 5 August 2014.
Photo from The Guardian
It was great to see an all-female panel (except of course for Tony Jones) on Q and A on Monday night. (1st September).
Unfortunately we know that not all women are feminists or are willing to promote women’s issues.
The research that Kay Hymowitz was propagandizing sounded very familiar.
Her research posits that the family unit is suffering
– that single motherhood is causing high levels of poverty and inequality
– that the destruction of the nuclear family unit is toxic to boys’ well-being.
She links single motherhood to high rates of delinquency and criminal activity in boys.
And of course we have heard this all before. Fathers’ rights groups have been pushing this line of the crisis of manhood and the destruction of the nuclear family.
It fits in very well with right wing ideology:
“children’s interests are met best in a heterosexual, two parent family, where the mother says at home to raise her children” Cohen and Katzenstein
And of course they blame feminism.
Kay Hymowitz reflects common views held by right and neo conservatives.
For example, it is claimed:
“the feminist movement…has caused certain changes in the family which further the dissolution of society. He suggests that the family and the independence of women cannot exist together.” Lasch (1977)
It was ironic and interesting that later in the discussion on Q and A, Jane Caro linked prostitution with marriage. This has created quite a commotion in the mainstream media.
Michelle Smith from The Conversation provided us with a more realistic exploration of the issue.
“In 1790, the English writer Mary Wollstonecraft argued that for women to “marry for a support” was “legal prostitution”. Other British feminists made connections between the male dominance inherent in both institutions, as well as the ways in which both could “enslave” women’s bodies.”
Marriage in the not far past did involve economic exchange of women’s bodies. Women depended on men in order to survive economically.
Male heirs inherited property, women were expected to marry.
At the beginning of last century, the legal status of married women in Australia reflected English common law.
Women were unable to vote or hold public office. Married women did not have legal guardianship of their children and a wife could not hold property. Divorce was rare. Husbands had complete legal powers over their children and extensive powers over their wives.
“Marriage, for many women, was a necessity to ensure that they would be housed and fed into old age.” Michelle Smith
Radical feminists have argued convincingly how the nuclear family is oppressive for women.
“It may be expressed through its physical manifestation in assault, its economic manifestation in male control of resources and decision-making, its ideological control through the socialisation of women and children, and/or its control of women’s energy in emotional and physical servicing of women and children.” Robyn Rowland and Renate Klein
It also is a site of socialisation where children learn the gender rules. Where boys learn that to be boys they need to be aggressive, whereas girls learn that being feminine is being passive.
“The pressure on women to undertake the mothering role is intense, yet it is only admirable when the mother is attached to a legal father.”Stacey (1993)
As marriage has become less obligatory, particularly for women, we have seen an increase in the rhetoric about the destruction of the nuclear family and negative critiques of single mothers.
Ellen Friedrichs cites research which shows that negative views about single motherhood tend to stem from a conviction that there is something inherently wrong or damaged about a single mother as a person.
As I have written in my previous post: HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY – WELL MAYBE NOT.
“If you are a single mother you are likely to face discrimination and condemnation – and lesbian mothers even more so.
Government policies push single mothers into poverty.”
Research which promotes the view that the two-parent patriarchal heterosexual family is the only way to raise our children is ultimately damaging for both women and children.
We must continue to resist this right wing conservative ideology that seek to lock women into traditional patriarchal nuclear family relationships.
Michelle Smith sums it up:
“Ultimately, Caro’s comparison has a real historical basis. The facts of traditional marriage should not be forgotten as we continue to address the vestiges of sexism in a culture that was once grounded in the economic exchange of women.”
Lasch, C (1977) Haven in a Heartless World, Basis Books New York
Stacey, J. (1993) Good Riddance to “the Family”: A Response to David Popenoe Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55 pp 545-547
Robyn Rowland and Renate Klein in Radically Speaking. Feminism Reclaimed eds Diane Bell and Renate Klein (1996) Spinifex Press
Cohen and Katzenstein (1988) The War over the Family is not Over the Family In Dornbusch, S.M. & Strober, M.H. (eds) Feminism, Children and New Families. Guilford Press New York
“A frank, intimate, urgent voice.” (Maggie O’Farrell)
I have just finished reading the collection of short stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman titled after the first short story
Written in 1890
I was amazed at how this short story has resonance for me, as a woman, in 2014.
The story is assumed to be autobiographical and describes a young married woman who is suffering from “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”.
As a result she, her husband (John) and her husband’s sister (Jane) spend some time in a rented house in the country. She is mostly confined to the upstairs bedroom with yellow wallpaper. The young woman becomes fascinated and obsessed with this ugly, yellow wallpaper, which in many ways symbolizes the oppression under which she lives.
Her husband is a medical doctor and takes control of his wife and her illness. He has legitimate patriarchal power. He confines her to the bedroom and she is told to have complete rest. She is forbidden to do any work, including her beloved writing.
“He is careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.”
As a result she is forced to write secretly. Writing stories she is informed by her husband will stir up “all manner of excited fancies”.
Despite her initially desire to please and obey her husband, we learn of her frustration and anger with his oppression and control of her…
“The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John”.
And the sister-in-law’s role is that of monitoring her – the role of all good patriarchal women. She is … “so careful of me.”
As Anne Summers (Damned Whores and God’s Police) highlighted these are the women who are placed in the position of being the moral guardians of the community – to ensure that women follow the patriarchal line.
Maggie O’Farrell writes in her introduction to the book this is an angry story:
“…fury crackling off the page”.
It is the writer’s relationship with the yellow wallpaper that is so creatively told. She begins to see things in the wallpaper that nobody else can and a woman begins to emerge.
“It is like a woman stooping down and creeping behind that pattern” and the woman becomes many women… “…trying to climb through”.
This story is about oppression – the oppressive nature of marriage and power and control of men over women.
It is also about mental illness. According to Maggie O’Farrell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself suffered some form of mental illness following the birth of her child. It is suggested that we may now know this as post natal depression. Charlotte was also forced to go through draconian treatment similar to the woman in her story where she is virtually imprisoned and not permitted any activity including writing.
Phyllis Chesler wrote a ground breaking book in 1972 (revised in 2005) “Women and Madness”
in which she documents how women are labelled as “mad” when they do not comply with the feminized norm or are unable to cope with the effects of patriarchal domination – and the harrowing treatment that has been imposed on women in the name of healing. There are many examples of this treatment of women throughout history – mad or bad – and it continues today.
The uplifting aspect of this story is the powerful ending.
She locks the door and peels off the wallpaper.
“’I’ve got out at last’, said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane. And I pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back.”
“What the Yellow Wallpaper does is give the mad woman pen and paper, and ultimately a voice of her own” (Maggie O’Farrell)