This is an extension of my twitter thread here in response to the complete travesty that was International Womens Day 2020 (on, as usual, the 8th of March.)
The thread is reproduced first, followed by some additional remarks.
I’ve had a rather disturbing epiphany after the complete patriarchal circle-jerk that #IWD2020 turned into. The TRAs are right. Trans women are women, woman is an identity, and if women have spaces then anyone who identifies as a woman can automatically enter those spaces.
I think they’re right about SdB too, and this picture is wrong (sorry @janeclarejones and #womenslib2020). While she couldn’t have predicted transactivism, I suspect that after five minutes conversation she would have agreed that both pictures reflected her thinking.
Why’s that? Because there’s a dimension missing and so my first diagram failed to distinguish between ‘woman’ as symbol and female as person (or rather non-person). This version does that a bit better.
SdB understood that ‘woman’ has ALWAYS been a projection of men’s psychosexual fantasies onto us, and a demand that we live on their terms and conform to their expectations. That’s why it’s oppressive. It’s a patriarchal symbol, not a word for an observable entity.
And it’s their concept so it can be anything they want, turn into anything they desire. They can stick sex dolls into it if they want, or girls. It’s a repository for their imaginations, nothing more. Its Old English etymology – wifman, wife of man – should have warned us.
And what’s the implication? They’re not stealing our word, because it was never ours in the first place. We don’t *have* a word apart from female (which is under threat). “Woman = adult human female” is the ORIGINAL conflation of sex and gender.
40 – 50 years ago at the height of the 2nd wave, when “women’s rights” actually seemed possible, recognising and dissolving the gendered connotations of ‘woman’ so that it simply meant ‘adult human female’, and giving that class of persons rights equal to males, seemed feasible.
Today, after 40 years of backlash, when we are right back in the pustulent bowels of patriarchy, being raped, fetishised, commodified, where ‘progress’ consists of ripping out the wombs of females and giving them to men, and ‘feminism’ is some sort of bukkake ritual, it’s not.
This is what ‘woman’ REALLY means. Backlash. Returning females to the status of hypersexualised chattel, in the prison known as the PWPC (Planet-Wide Patriarchal Clusterfuck), aka ‘civilisation’. Nothing has changed since the Bronze Age. Nothing.
‘Woman’ once meant liberation. But after yesterday’s jeering, wanking exhibition of male supremacy larping as ‘progress’, I think we have to reject the word. #InternationalWankDay2020
This is the single thing the 2nd wave wasn’t harsh enough about. Step One needed to be: we reject your labels and all their connotations. We name ourselves.
That was the thread. This is the continuation as a blog post. It’s largely consciousness-raising and moves onto patriarchy in general, so the TL;DR version is : Renaming ourselves would be a revolutionary, but completely pointless act. If you want to fight back against transactivists, stick with ‘woman’, or if it gets worse, use a renaming exercise to highlight the complete removal of our rights that redefinition produces. If we want to move to civil disobedience, the logical next step, it would best be done as women, I think. If you want to tackle patriarchy itself and possibly even have a crack at climate change, read on. And I warn you, we’re going to get a little essentialist!
Some females did indeed attempt to do this with alternative spellings of woman like ‘womyn’, which had less than nothing to do with ‘inclusivity’ and everything to do with the power of naming. But they weren’t resolute enough, the words didn’t gain popularity, and of course they couldn’t have seen this shitshow coming.
So here we are. We either stick with a word that currently represents our humiliation for having dared to think we could have any rights within this system, or we say a next-level ‘FUCK! YOU!’ and rename ourselves. Or do we?
The frow thing – the power of renaming ourselves – has been niggling at me for a while as crucial. The instinct was right, the idea was wrong. We wouldn’t be renaming ourselves. We would be naming ourselves for the *first* time ever.
The precise word we choose is both less important than the principle and very important as a symbol if and when we finally decide on one, but for now let’s use frow as a temporary term to mean adult human female for a few minutes. (As an alternative to ‘sounds like vrouw’, we can think of it as an acronym for ‘Female Radical Original Witches’.)
Frows have no rights, as the thread makes clear. It says we had rights when ‘woman’ meant ‘adult human female’. But of course, in the light of my new epiphany, that isn’t true.
Giving us a few ‘rights’ like the vote was a sop to keep us quiet, because that’s easier and more politically defensible than clamping down and imprisoning us. And some men actually do like us and stand up for us, and it’s easier to manage the populace when they think they’re getting somewhere, as every bread-and-circuses propagandist has always known. (Plus you look after your breeding stock if you have any brains).
But look what we did with just a tiny bit of power. We turned out to be just as competent and intelligent as them, if not better. We beat them at their own game. We rejected their concepts of the world. And we pointed out that their ENTIRE society – the whole of ‘culture’ – was based on their need to control us.
We scared the living shit out of them. So now they’re reasserting themselves, and this go-round is extremely authoritarian. Quelle surprise.
So before we do anything about anything, we need to come to terms with a few things and understand that they are as true as they ever were. Good old consciousness-raising.
Here’s the harsh truth: ‘Woman’ has never meant anything the patriarchy didn’t permit it to mean, and our ‘rights’ were just another one of their symbols. The whole system EXISTS to breed and fuck females in captivity. Those are its founding principles – read Gerda Lerner and Carole Pateman. Nothing, least of all ‘women’s rights’ can be allowed to interfere with that for long. And in any case, while ‘woman’ is the patriarchy’s word, it’s still a fetishised distortion of us, the actual females (and this becomes obvious when we see how many men are trying to appropriate the word ‘female’.) So as genuinely revolutionary as naming ourselves is as a rejection of male colonisation, we have to ask how and whether it’s going to improve our situation in patriarchy. And the answer is: it isn’t. Sooner or later, they will fetishise our new word too.
See, here we are in the entirely predictable backlash against feminism. The right removes reproductive ‘rights’. The left removes all our ‘rights’ by the simple expedient of handing them to men.
And it’s global. Pretty much all societies are patriarchal, although the form may vary and there are a few tiny holdouts like the Mosuo. Populism and religious fundamentalism are on the increase everywhere. There is nowhere to go on the entire planet where we can live in a non-patriarchal society. Hence my phrase “the prison known as the PWPC (Planet-Wide Patriarchal Clusterfuck), aka ‘civilisation’”. We can’t leave. So we’re in prison.
And actual rights in a system we are not allowed to leave is a contradiction in terms, because of course declining to participate is a fundamental right. If you can’t do that, no decision is free, and no honest negotiation possible.
So in patriarchy, we have no real rights, and no possibility of rights. They can shove their ‘inalienable’ guff in the same place as #IWD2020.
And so if we call ourselves frows, big deal. What are we going to do in a system designed to keep us in captivity? Start begging the patriarchy for reproductive ‘rights’ all over again? Asking for little handouts? Seriously?
And that – begging for reproductive ‘rights’ – prompted another (speculative but powerful) epiphany which is much wider than transactivism; I think I know how and why patriarchy got started, and no, the fundamental reason is not primitive accumulation or the recognition of paternity, although they certainly contributed.
Because of course we females don’t ‘have reproductive rights’. WE ARE THE SOLE FUCKING AUTHORITY OVER REPRODUCTION. It’s our fucking job description. You need a permit from one of us to exist AT ALL.
And that is exactly as it should be, because reproduction has to be balanced with resource availability both at the personal level and, even more importantly, in the habitat, otherwise the tribe (or in our monumentally moronic case, the species) dies out.
This is what females in all mammalian species do: We say “this one we can afford to rear”, and after that, heaven fucking help you if you touch him or her. And next year it’s “we don’t have enough food”, and we put him out for the hyenas.
It’s not because we hate babies. It’s because it’s our job not to let them grow up into suffering and simultaneously cause the tribe to become unsustainable.
And when patriarchy finds a culture which does this, and which has as a result lived in harmony with its environment for hundreds of thousands of years, it calls them ‘primitive’. The Khoisan of Southern Africa, whose blood I’m extremely proud to have a little of, are unbelievably ancient. Our lot, by contrast, have taken just five thousand years to completely nuke the planet.
Watch this in animals. It’s remarkable. They reduce their fertility automatically in response to environmental constraints, and they reject offspring they can’t rear so as not to compromise the rest of the litter. (And yes, we’re animals, with a cultural overlay.)
I once watched my Dobermann bitch push a 10-day-old fading puppy away from the litter and ignore him – all dog breeders have seen this happen. She didn’t hate him. She wasn’t an ‘unnatural’, evil mother. She just picked up that he wasn’t going to make it, and she stopped expending resources on him, because it would have compromised her other pups. She was the perfect evolutionary system. Life and its continuation come first, not morality.
(And in case you think I’m a puppy-killing psychopath, I took him out of the litter, stayed awake for 24 hours, and bottle-fed him every half-hour in between letting my other bitch fuss over him and pee him and poo him and keep him warm. The extra fluid and attention picked him up, he revived completely, and once he was back to normal I put him back in with the litter, and his mother took him back quite happily. Because now he was signalling ‘I can survive’. And he did.)
I think this is why motherhood in patriarchy can be so incredibly stressful, especially when our lives are fragmented by violence and poverty. Because we’re not supposed to give birth and rear offspring under conditions of profound stress. It’s an environmental signal that the child’s chances are poor and the mother needs to take care of herself first, and all our instincts are saying, ‘not this one, I can’t do this one’. But we’re forced to. We demonise girls and young women who abandon infants, but they’re following a natural impulse because society prevents them from controlling their fertility. I think this is also why we feel so incredibly strongly about contraception and abortion rights. It’s not just to do with planning families or careers. At the root, it’s existential; we know in our bones that being able to control childbirth is fundamental to survival, both our own survival and that of our social group.
This wasn’t the epiphany, though; I’ve been more and more convinced over the last few years that we need reproductive authority, not a few ‘rights’. How, exactly, do we propose do stave off environmental disaster without a basic policy-setting body like the Women’s International Council on Population and the Sex Ratio? (And where the fuck is it? And is this seriously something you want to leave to men, who have no interest in reproductive justice?)
The epiphany was more about how this is related to the origins of patriarchy:
Kin selection has long since been demonstrated in animals, so I don’t really think men had a huge epiphany about recognising their role in reproduction, although language would have let them formalise it. There’s certainly some evidence that human males inherited drives to mate-guard and form raiding gangs (see Richard Wrangham’s Demonic Males), but while this might explain why men react so violently to infidelity, it doesn’t explain their aversion to controlling fertility, particularly if they already have offspring. And while controlling women certainly furthered their accumulative aspirations, it doesn’t explain why men hate us, fear us and eroticise our degradation. Farmers with any wits treat their brood animals well.
I think behind all this is something deep, unconscious and powerful: language and consciousness gave them the awareness of death, and they had the terrifying realisation that they had no control over whether they (and by extension their offspring) came into existence at all; it was a female’s decision.
And in a species where the males are hierarchical and invested in status, power and control, this is the abyss they could not bear to confront.
Hunter-gatherer life would have forced them to, as there were times when there simply wasn’t enough to go round, but once humans started producing food surplus in settled communities, the drive to alleviate their partly unconscious terror overcame the ecological imperative to maintain a stable population, and they developed a culture which forced females to breed. And they’ve been rationalising it ever since.
And they did that by deciding that some uber-male made and controlled everything, and they’re still doing it today. I mean, just *look* at their batshit religious systems.
Is there really anything to choose from amongst some bronze age nutter going “male and female HE created them”, Aquinas raving about “first causes” or Elon Musk’s inane babbling about “base reality”? Whether your soul goes to paradise or you reincarnate until you’ve burned off your karma or your mind gets uploaded to the cloud or you break out of the simulation, they’re all saying exactly the same thing: SOMEBODY MALE AND SANE MUST HAVE MADE ME AND I DON’T REALLY LIVE HERE AND I’VE GOT ANOTHER LIFE SOMEWHERE ELSE SO MY EXISTENCE DOESN’T DEPEND ON THOSE FUCKING MAD MURDEROUS HAGS!!!!!
What, after all, are our foundational demons, the ultimate nightmare? The hag. Kali the Destroyer. The female baby-killing demon. What is our greatest cultural taboo? The ‘unnatural’ woman who commits infanticide or abandons her infant (or, to the religious right in our times, uses birth control or has an abortion).
In an extraordinary piece of synchronicity, my Twitter friend @Danvers07943910 responded to the thread with the comment that Lilith might have been one of the earliest representations of the female, and when I asked if she had a short article about Lilith, she sent me this link:
The article begins: “Lilith is first mentioned in ancient Babylonian texts as a winged female demon that attacks pregnant women and infants.” It continues by explaining the rabbinical view that the two different accounts in Genesis of the creation of humans represent the two different wives of Adam, that Lilith had her own name, was equal, powerful and independent, and refused to accept Adam’s authority, while Eve was built from his side, named by him, and subject to him.
Lilith wanted authority half the time and was willing to accept Adam’s the rest of the time; had he accepted that, she would have been Eve. I don’t think the authority she wanted was authority over life versus authority over death; even Mary Daly’s insightful characterisation of biophilia versus necrophilia doesn’t quite paint the full picture, and it leads us to ideas like Lilith having incorrectly been demonised as a baby-killer simply because she was a strong and independent woman. I don’t think that’s correct at all.
I think the authority she demanded, an authority she already had, is authority over the beginning of life versus authority over the end of life.
When men kill an adult, they are not killing all adults. They are deciding who dies.
When women decide not to have or to rear a child, they are not killing all infants. They are deciding who lives in the first place.
This is what Lilith supposedly said when the angels tried to drag her back to the Garden of Eden and she refused to go:
“‘Leave me!’ Lilith said. ‘I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth [until his circumcision on the 8th day after his birth protects him], and if female, for twenty days’.”
So let’s imagine Lilith as the Last Hunter-Gather Matriarch and Adam as the First Pastoralist Patriarch, very much in the spirit of Daniel Quinn’s mind-altering account of the Great Forgetting here, which changed my ecological thinking and which observes that for the bulk of our existence, our insanely destructive culture did not exist, and that we are the end, not the beginning of human history. It’s a mind-blowing read, an excerpt from his book The Story of B, which is well worth reading.
And let’s imagine a tribe which is very short of food, and that the leaders are engaged in an argument.
Lilith: We can’t afford to feed these babies. The tribe will go hungry and people will die. We need to end their lives now, so that they don’t suffer later, and their mothers can recover.
Adam: I’ve planted these seeds with the sweat of my brow…
Lilith: We don’t have enough, you idiot! Do you want everybody else to go hungry? Your 5-year-old? My teenager? Do you want me to have to kill an older child rather than let it starve? Do you want the mothers of these children to rear them for a year and then have to watch them die?
Adam: The seeds will grow and we’ll have some corn by the time these babies are big enough to become a drain. Calm down, Lilith.
Lilith: Stop mansplaining, you deranged monkey! Your corn is going to take food away from the deer, and then there will be fewer deer, and fewer lions, and where will the herbs of the forest grow, and the trees that shelter us?
Adam: There’s plenty of room, Lilith. Stop being hysterical.
Lilith: Fuck. You. I’m out of here.
[Lilith leaves, many follow her, and her tribes, the hunter-gatherers, are still sustainable today.]
Adam is, of course, right in the short-term context, but Lilith is the one with the long-term vision. Adam’s seeds grow, the children are fed, and the tribe decides that they no longer need to worry about nature’s ability to feed them. So they grant themselves dominion over the earth. The men bury their terror of the women controlling their existence, although it never really leaves them. They’re fruitful, and they multiply, and multiply, and multiply, and multiply, and invent mass agriculture and vaccines to prevent infant mortality, and multiply, and multiply, and discover oil which seems to promise non-stop almost-free energy, and multiply, and multiply, and develop petroleum-based fertilisers, and multiply, and multiply, and here we are facing extinction, because our culture, in thrall to its terror of woman-as-destroyer, suppressed a vital evolutionary population management mechanism and allowed a population which is addicted to resource-intensive material goods to grow to completely unsustainable levels.
Quinn puts this down to what he calls totalitarian agriculture providing an ever-increasing food supply, which is undoubtedly a huge contributor. He remarks somewhere else that birth control doesn’t work as a means of controlling population in most countries; but of course it actually does in those countries in which women have some rights over their own bodies (and where it also produces ethnic panic amongst white supremacists, and horrific absurdities like the Quiverfull movement). Food supply alone doesn’t explain it. Food supply at any cost plus the forced breeding of women does.
Quinn is also at a loss to explain exactly what our current religious systems purport to save us from, although he recognises the absurdity. I think it’s the need for salvation from the great existential abyss of the Mother refusing to allow you life at all. And this cumulative, greedy, terrified god-complex, which is destroying the biosphere, is what we call patriarchy.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong or bad about developing good technology, saving people’s lives or trying to improve the survival chances of babies; far from it. It’s one of our most admirable traits. But it comes with a price; if we’re going to prevent Nature from keeping the population in check, then we need to do it ourselves, by adjusting the birthrate down to compensate for every new medical or agricultural technology. We haven’t paid our bills for about five thousand years, and now they’re coming due in full, with some climate scientists saying they don’t expect there to be more than 500 million people left on the planet by the end of the century. Population isn’t part of the problem, it is the problem. As James Lovelock said, if there were a hundred million of us, we could do what we liked. (We wouldn’t be at much risk from coronavirus, either.)
Meanwhile we fiddle and re-arrange. We tend to think of society as being a bit like the Titanic, and climate change like the iceberg. If we just change course a bit, make a few more LED lights and solar panels, assume individual responsibility for our consumption, we can save ourselves from disaster and all will be well.
But in fact it’s the species which is analogous to the Titanic. Our social order, the fundamental ways in which our society is constructed, is analogous to the iceberg, and climate change is just the particular ocean we’re going to drown in.
All of which says that what is ultimately at stake is far more crucial than something which can be affected by a choice of word. If our only goal is to combat the current attacks on the rights we have in patriarchal society, to the extent that such rights are even possible; if we want to retain women’s rights in the teeth of transactivism’s attack on them, then we’re probably better off hanging onto ‘woman’, although changing the word would be useful to symbolise the extent of what has been done to us and how radical we’re willing to be to undo it.
If we really want to be radical, though, then I think radical matriarchy is our only option. The explicit resumption of our role as the species’ population modulator is the only thing I can see which might get us out of the mess we’re in, and keep us out of it. Either we change the fundamental structures of our society, or we’re toast.