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On the Edge of Change: Gender War and the Search for Utopia

That women are now arming themselves against men means that what has hitherto been a metaphorical 'war' of the sexes is now becoming a kind of disturbing reality.
Jillian Sandell

Issue #15, September 1994

Currently doing the rounds on late-night television is an infomercial for the 'Pulsewave Myotron', a maintenance free, lithium powered, non-lethal weapon being marketed specifically to women. The Myotron, designed and marketed by the Arianne Foundation and endorsed by the president of Colt, attacks the voluntary nervous and muscular systems, leaving the involuntary systems intact, thereby 'neutralizing hostile messages from the brain'. Claiming that women have a 96% chance of being a victim of violent crime, the Arianne Foundation urges women to take responsibility for their own safety and purchase this 'modern peace-maker' as a way of fighting back against male violence.

The debatable efficacy of the Myotron notwithstanding, a late-night infomercial is clearly not the most reliable place to look for statistics or information on violence against women. However, I use this commercial not to provide evidence about the extent of violence against women but rather to draw attention to the way in which such violence has become so naturalized in our collective consciousness that the kinds of 'facts' the Arianne Foundation shares with us sound depressingly familiar. The figure of 96% may or may not be accurate, but what is significant is that it does not sound unbelievable because we hear such figures everyday.

Clearly, the aim of this infomercial is to sell its product and as such it is merely exploiting a new niche market. In other words, despite its 'feminist' overtones, it is not a public service announcement provided by feminists to women. Nevertheless, it clearly speaks to contemporary feminist debates about male violence and to the kinds of options currently available to women who feel that their personal safety is threatened by men. Among the contributions to this debate there have recently been several articles, most notably the cover story of Ms Magazine (May/June 1994), addressing the fact that the National Rifle Association is now explicitly encouraging women to buy guns, using the slogan 'refuse to be a victim'.

In many ways this move by the NRA is not surprising. While their motivation, like that of the Arianne Foundation, is clearly to tap into a new market of consumers, they nevertheless play upon the very real kinds of fears women have for their safety. The success of the 1989 best-seller Armed and Female, by former anti-gun activist Paxton Quigley, suggests that many women are eager to take personal action against the threat of male violence. Quigley's book, which documents violence against women and presents the case for women owning guns, is contributing to the shift in our understanding of violence in contemporary culture. She cites statistics which suggest that up to twice as many assailants are shot and/or killed by armed civilian women than by the police, and that this is one of the reasons the police tacitly support women carrying handguns. Quigley also runs self-defense and personal empowerment classes for women where she not only teaches women how to use a handgun but also how to feel comfortable about being powerful and in control of a lethal weapon. Among Quigley's supporters is Naomi Wolf, one of the most vocal advocates of 'power feminism', who similarly recommends that women should 'refuse to be a victim' and who sees women owning handguns as a kind of 20th century version of 'pioneer' or 'frontier' feminism.

That women are now arming themselves against men means that what has hitherto been a metaphorical 'war' of the sexes is now becoming a kind of disturbing reality, with both sides being armed, and mutual violence ensuing. Such an scenario is deeply troubling. The case of Lorena Bobbitt and the many other, though less well publicized, cases of battered and raped women who maim or kill their attackers point to the problems of a literalized gender war: it deals only with the end results, not the causes of, violence. However, the fact that Lorena Bobbitt and Paxton Quigley have become so popular suggests that many women are profoundly dissatisfied with the current system of justice in the United States. Moreover, the fact that the police admit that they are unable to adequately deal with crime indicates that this dissatisfaction pervades society on many levels. But the answer is not for us to take the law into our own hands. While it is clearly completely unacceptable for men to rape or batter women it is unclear to me that merely retaliating in kind offers any kind of real solution. Individual acts of revenge and retaliation are inherently anti-social and undermine the possibility of social order and harmony. Indeed, since revenge is incompatible with large scale co-operation it can only ever foster the most fragile of social systems. The war between the sexes clearly needs addressing, but there are alternatives available to us other than individual acts of retaliatory violence.

The issue of male violence toward women has been a central concern for feminists since at least the 1960s. And in many ways it makes sense that the current 'power' feminism, which often tacitly supports women's violence, should have emerged in the way it did. However, while power feminism may represent a coherent historical response to the problem of male violence in the 1990s it is not, I would suggest, a desirable one. Women who proudly wear T-shirts proclaiming 'graduates from the Thelma and Louise training school' or 'ice-pick wielding dyke' may find such slogans psychologically empowering, but fighting violence with more violence can only ever lead to an ever escalating war in which all sides lose. The success of Quigley's book and workshops, the NRA campaign, and the tacit feminist support for Lorena Bobbitt and others could mark what science-fiction writer Joanna Russ has called the moment when it changed, or what philosopher Michel Foucault has called a change in the order of things, in other words, a moment in history when the material conditions of existence changed so radically that the future is irrevocably altered. What has changed is that both women and men are now armed and violent. It seems to me that since we are at a point of change we should take stock of the kinds of answers we have come up with so far, and reconsider how we might envision the future. That violence pervades many aspects of contemporary life is obvious, and that women are often the victims of this violence is also evident. What is less clear is that the way out is via the kind of apocalyptic scenario suggested by these recent events.

One of the ways of understanding violence against women is to see it as an expression of patriarchy that is reinforced by economic, familial and cultural arrangements. This view first became popular in the 1970s when radical feminist organizations such as Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) argued that violence was inherent to male biology and that it had a range of manifestation including murder, battery, rape, reproductive technologies, psychiatry, pornography, and even make-up and fashion. For WAVAW, even when individual men didn't actually participate in any of these acts, men as a group still benefited since acts of violence, and the threat of violence, serve to keep all women oppressed.

Other feminists argued that it was not male biology that was inherently violent but male sexuality, or rather heterosexuality. Susan Brownmiller's 1975 classic Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape and Catherine MacKinnon's 1979 study Sexual Harassment of Working Women suggested that rape and sexual harassment are on a continuum with 'normal' male heterosexuality and that these forms of male violence are merely the more anti-social versions of an already aberrant form of sexuality. As an even more critical statement on male violence, Mary Daly's controversial 1978 classic Gyn/Ecology catalogued traditions from around the world, such as Chinese foot-binding, European witch burning, African clitoridectomy, Indian suttee and American gynecology, arguing th at these kinds of ritualized forms of female torture are the central defining feature of patriarchy. For Daly, men are innately 'necrophilic' while women are innately 'biophilic', and women, if left alone, would live in harmony both with nature and each other. However, while the problem of global violence to women is extremely serious, this kind of essentializing argument is clearly problematic since the solution is simply to avoid or get rid of men.

Radical feminism dominated the early years of second wave feminism and, despite many differences, these feminists shared a belief that violence is an innate and inevitable part of male biology, a view some in the 1990s still share (including, presumably, the makers of the Myotron, since it allegedly works by neutralizing hostile messages in the brain). In other words, all acts of male violence, in this view, are merely different manifestations of the same (biologically induced) phenomenon and require no historical, social, or cultural context to be understood.

This view was, quite rightly, soon considered to be not only too simplistic, but also lacking in any understanding of the social context in which acts of violence occur. In the late 1970s and early 1980s socialist feminists such as Juliet Mitchell and Dorothy Dinnerstein argued that the violence associated with patriarchy, capitalism, racism and imperialism are completely inextricable from each other, and that they each reinforce the others as structures of domination. Socialist feminists also reject the ahistorical notion of biology and argue that it is the social categories of masculinity and femininity, not male and female biology, that govern human behavior. Juliet Mitchell's 1979 classic Feminism and Psychoanalysis was one of the first attempts to bring together sex, gender and class as part of a feminist analysis. For Mitchell, Dinnerstein and others it is the gendered division of labor, not innate biology, that leads to oppression and domination. Violence and coercion may be ways of enforcing this domination, but the propensity for such behavior is learned not innate.

Support for this kind of social constructionism has become widespread among feminists, and it has informed a number of different positions. One that emerged in the late 1980s was a kind of therapeutic feminism which suggested that women sometimes solicit violence from men by (mostly unconsciously) adopting the role of victim. Best-sellers such as Robin Norwood's 1985 Women Who Love Too Much and Melody Beattie's 1987 Codependent No More argued that women, taught by society to act in a masochistic way, actually enable male domination and violence. In this view, the cycle of violence becomes completely individualized and women are seen as being victims both of male violence and of their own pathology in soliciting the violence. The focus of blame and responsibility thus shifts from men to women.

While therapy and recovery texts have not traditionally been considered part of the canon of feminist theory, they are clearly informed by a feminist sensibility and represent a response to patriarchy. They also provide an important 'missing link' between social constructionist feminism of the 1980s and the contemporary power feminism. Therapeutic feminism and power feminism both locate the problem of male domination and violence at the level of individual men and women. However, while therapeutic feminism advocates that women should embrace their victim status and make changes at the level of interpersonal relations, power feminism suggests women should embrace their potential for power and control and advocates retaliation, often in the form of violent or anti-social acts. Nevertheless, both still focus on individual acts of, or responses to, violence which serves to obscure the larger picture. This is one reason why power feminism is completely inadequate to address the causes of violence, and to account for those acts of violence that are not between men and women.

Since power feminism does not offer a particularly utopian way out of the problem of male violence, I want to return to the 1970s, and to rethink some alternatives to patriarchy that were popular at that time. While feminist theory has been good at offering a range of critiques of existing kinds of social relations, it has often proved less able to offer positive alternatives. But one of the exciting things that came out of early feminism was the boom in 'women's culture'. As an important adjunct to feminist analyses of male domination, women-centered culture set about imagining — through books, art, theater, film and cultural festivals — less oppressive alternatives. Aware that an important part of working to create a desirable future is to envision positive ways that this future might look there was, during the 1970s and early 1980s, a significant increase in feminist science fiction; women writers who re-imagined possible ways for men and women to co-exist. As a genre, science fiction originally emerged as a literary response to the technological revolution of the 19th century. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), generally considered to be the first science fiction text, dealt with the relationship between society and the kinds of knowledges and ideologies (in that case scientific) that it develops. Writers of feminist science fiction during the 1970s and 1980s similarly addressed the relationship between contemporary society and prevailing ideologies — specifically ideologies of sex and gender. Science fiction is therefore one place we can look for alternatives to our existing mode of social relations.

In some, such as Monique Wittig's Les Guerillieres (1971) and Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground (1979), the solution was either for men to no longer exist, or for men and women to live apart. While the women in these future worlds lived well enough, men were confined to the cities or other 'male' spaces while women lived in harmony with nature. In order to sustain this life women needed to patrol the borders of their 'safe space' in either more or less violent ways. As possible alternatives to our contemporary world these kinds of utopias not only reinforced existing stereotypes about men and women, but were unsatisfying to those of us concerned with working out how men and women can live together with dignity and mutual respect.

The novels that tend to be more satisfying are those that speak to contemporary problems of gender, class and racial oppression, but that re-imagine our own world without merely killing off, or segregating, the previously oppressive groups. One such utopia, in which the author engages with contemporary problems of male violence by positing alternatives that are both desirable and (with a slight leap of faith) believable, is Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. Indeed, for Piercy the solution to the 'problem' of men is not to get rid of men but to change men. In fact, men and women have changed, and so, of course, has society. First published in 1976, Woman on the Edge of Time has become a classic among fans of feminist utopian fiction and is among the most fully realized of alternative literary worlds. Before going on to explain why I think this work is so relevant to contemporary debates about the gender war I want to first take a moment to summarize the novel for those unfamiliar with it.

Connie Ramos, a Chicana from contemporary Manhattan, visits the future community of Mattapoisett with the help of her time-traveling friend Luciente. In Mattapoisett the guiding moral principle is mutual respect and self-determination, both for individuals and the small communities in which people live. There are limited resources but people live well; money no longer exists, everyone has a job and takes turns in performing both interesting and boring tasks, and the environment is well looked after. Luxury goods are circulated among the community and one-time treats — such as 'flimsies' (biodegradable decorative clothes) — are available for special occasions. People are valued according to what they contribute to the community, whether it is being a good story-teller, technician, or a healer, and all jobs are considered equally important. The main decisions of the government (made up of people of all ages) involve ecological concerns and the fair distribution of resources. Language has been de-sexualized (instead of his and her they say 'per' and instead of he and she they say 'person') and men and women (who are all bisexual) freely engage in sexual relationships. Children are raised in the childrens house and, although adults live alone, all meals are taken communally. Finally, babies are conceived in and born from test-tubes with each child having three birth-mothers (both male and female), two of whom are able to breastfeed via hormones stimulation (both men and women).

The separation of conception, gestation and birth from the sexed body, and of nursing and parenting from gender roles is the most radical aspect of Piercy's future, and the only thing that marks the world of Mattapoisett as explicitly 'fictional'. While using technology to create babies may seem unrealistic, or even potentially dystopian, Piercy demonstrates that the separation of sex and gender from social behavior is crucial to her utopia. In addition, this represents a positive future scenario where technology serves human needs without leading to alienation and oppression.

Connie is a woman who has suffered a range of violent acts from men in contemporary America. She is a poor Chicana single mother whose child, Angelina, is taken from her and 'into care' by the state authorities because she is declared an unfit mother. However, she is unable to have another child because, earlier in her life, after having an abortion she is used as 'practice' for young male doctors learning how to perform hysterectomies and so is now unable to conceive. As the story unfolds we learn that she has been incarcerated in a psychiatric institution by Luis, her brother and Geraldo, the brutal pimp of Dolly, her niece. The two men decide to put her away after she confronts Geraldo about his cruelty to Dolly. At the hospital the doctors force her to take powerful sedatives and want to test a new brain electrode implantation procedure on her. It is under the influence of the drugs that Connie first meets Luciente and is able to travel in time. In fact, even though the drugs she is given are sedatives it is never entirely clear whether Connie's 'trips' to the future are real or hallucinogenic. In many ways it doesn't matter; since the point is that she is able to escape in spirit to another place and experience a world that is different and better from her own.

The future of which Mattapoisett is a part comes about following a century of brutal war between men and women. On one of her trips Connie accidentally ends up in a parallel future, where the gender war is still happening. This world is an exaggerated version of Connie's (and our own) and while there meets Gildina, a prostitute who has no control over her body or her working conditions but is enslaved by technology that traps her in a cell and keeps her sedated. In this alternative future humans are literally commodities to be bought and sold and identities depend solely on one's economic value, which is gender based.

At the end of the book Connie is forced to choose between the two future worlds and she decides that the future as Mattapoisett is worth fighting for. However, the act she chooses to demonstrate this is an act of violence; specifically she kills one of the doctors. Woman on the Edge of Time suggests that Mattapoisett was only able to come about after the violent war between men and women had been raging for decades, and moreover that the apocalyptic gender war was in fact necessary for the utopia to be created. Indeed, both in Piercy's fictional world and our own real world there is a belief that only violent or otherwise anti-social acts can bring about social change. This is problematic for two reasons. First, and most obviously, it is an extremely negative and anti-social way to enact social change. But also, we have no evidence to support the idea that violence is a necessary pre-requisite for utopia. Certainly, history has shown that the eruption of widespread violence can give way to a new kind of social order, but this new order is not automatically a desirable one. All this view does is try and redeem violent acts by arguing they are the price we pay for a better future society.

Recent events such as the support for Lorena Bobbitt and Paxton Quigley have fostered precisely this kind of apocalyptic attitude. Yet, individual acts of retaliatory violence do nothing to address either the source of the problem or the complex ways in which violence occurs in contemporary culture. Support for Lorena Bobbitt was greatest among working-class women which suggests that her act of retaliation was understood by many to be as much to do with her class identity as anything else. Indeed, gender is by no means the only axis along which violence appears. Violence, both literal and institutional, occurs at every level of society. In Women on the Edge of Time, Connie's oppression has as much by her class and race as it does to do with her being a woman, and not all the men in her world are brutal or violent. However, neither Claud, her lover, who is Black and blind, and survives as a pickpocket, nor Skip who is gay, and incarcerated in a mental institution, survive. They die from violence, but because of their class, race and sexuality, not their gender. My focus here has certainly been on violence against women, but my purpose is not to suggest that this is the only kind of violence that occurs, but rather to problematize the way in which the specifically gendered forms of violence have been understood.

Arming women to fight back at men only deals with the end result of oppression, moreover it also serves to completely normalize male violence. For example, imagine if the Myotron infomercial were instead aimed at the underclass, suggesting they arm themselves because they had a 96% chance of being the victim of capitalist oppression. Such a statement would clearly be fairly accurate, yet it would be unlikely for that kind of retaliatory violence to receive the kind of ideological support and target marketing that violence against women receives. In other words, despite the very real violence that occurs because of class and race, violence against women has become accepted as a normal part of everyday life. Encouraging women to fight back becomes a kind of sleight of hand whereby we accept that male violence is just natural and inevitable, so that even though not all men are violent towards women, women are encouraged to act as if this were the case.

Such an attitude does a real disservice to any attempts to forge alliances between women and other oppressed groups which include men, and de-emphasizes the other kinds of violence that occur in our society. Violence is endemic to our world on many levels. Millions of people live in sub-standard housing, are sick, hungry or unemployed. Environmentalists agree that so much damage has been done to the earth and its atmosphere that it has already past the point of being completely repairable. There is also evidence that being unemployed, more than anything else, affects the likelihood of a person performing violent acts, suggesting that class violence transcends gender, ethnicity, race and age in very real ways. Moreover, women do not only act violently in reaction to violence. Women also initiate violence. The issue of spouse abuse within the lesbian community is just one of the more controversial recent examples of women who are violent to other women. Normalizing male violence to women deflects attention away from other, equally pervasive, forms of violence. Issues of class, race and sexuality often transcend gender, and so encouraging women to act as if men were the enemy divides people who otherwise have a lot in common.

We are at a point of change in our world. As the century draws to a close we have the future in our hands. Perhaps we can look to the world of Mattapoisett, or at least a version of it, as the kind of future we want to work towards. In Mattapoisett identities are no longer based on sex or gender, or even on race or class, but identities are community based identities. Everyone has a valued and important place in the community and contributes to the collective whole. People do differ by age, sex, race and occupation but these axes of identification do not divide, but simply differentiate people. By changing the material conditions upon which society is based, this kind of world also addresses the causes of oppression rather than the end result. People who respect each other and live in a world where ones physical and emotional needs are met do not need to be violent to feel powerful, or get money or to exact revenge. Instead people are able to communicate with each other with honesty rather than with violence.

While this kind of future may sound a long way from reality that is, in a way, the point. Utopian visions of the future are designed to draw attention to the problems in our own world so as to inspire us to change it. Arming ourselves so that our community identities are defined as victim versus assailant and where women become de facto police officers can only further divide men and women and increase the atmosphere of mistrust that is already pervasive in contemporary society. I am not suggesting that we should ignore the reality of violence against women, but it is simply no longer tenable to suggest that violence is, in any way, inherently 'male'. Both men and women are victims and perpetrators of violence, but often in ways that have little to do with their gender. Violence may have become more 'democratic' but this kind of equality in oppression is nothing to celebrate. What we need is to work towards our own version of Mattapoisett, but one that would start right now, not after an apocalypse.

Jillian Sandell is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team and a graduate student in the English Department at UC-Berkeley. Her interview with John Woo, along with an article on his films will appear in the next issue of Bright Lights Film Journal. She can be reached at the following Internet address:

Copyright © 1994 by Jillian Sandell. All rights reserved.