Editorial Letter sent to the Humboldt State University matrix (Womyn's Center Journal)

To the Editor:

I would like to start off by quoting a few bits from the HSU Women's Center Mission Statement that is available on your website:
    "Primary Goals:
    To fight against sexist oppression in its various forms...To create a place where  feminist ideas, dialogue, and expressions are
    encouraged rather than censored.  To  foster respect for women...To provide resources enabling women to empower  themselves...To
    support a womanís right to make her own decisions.  To educate the  campus and the community..."

These goals will provide the backdrop from which I will address some disparities I noticed in the current issue of the matrix (Fall 1999, #1).  I would first like to make a few speculative comments and then proceed with my critique.
These goals, as I am sure anyone would agree, are positive, forceful, directive, and therapeutic in nature, and are addressed to the larger, overall concerns facing the being of a woman.  Notice the sense in which I would like to address this--being of a woman--rather than "being a woman."  My implication is that "woman" is a linguistic signification of meaning, a label (categorization), a generic term that denotes difference physically and physiologically from the other generic term, label, linguistic signification of meaning, "man."  By the being of a woman, I would like to suggest an ontological framework that recognizes the word "woman" as being a process, an act, a determination among others, a position, a bodily corpus, a time/space valuation (I'd rather not use the word "history") that begins and ends, just like all things that are.  From this vantage point, "woman" now becomes an active, substantial, meaningful, though contingent, entity that is one among many possibilities. Thus we have removed a sense of necessity of "being a woman," and replaced it with the idea of contingency (taking weight away from the words, and focus on the idea, the actual "being of a woman").  Thus I, as a "man," would have no right to even begin to describe the "being of a woman," but would be relegated to observing, perceiving, interacting with, and imagining the "being of a woman" as another possible world.   I have no doubts that I can respect and admire women, both publicly and privately, but I tend to feel as though there is something in the being of a woman that I cannot pinpoint, cannot fathom, cannot even think of approaching to describe because it is alien, it is foreign, it is "other;" it is a being that cannot be mine, but can only be seen and lived with (synthetic co-existence).

In the current issue, a debate between Josh Breese and Neil Peacock was commented on by a reader named Amy.  She mentioned many statistics about "being a woman" as it was reported by the United States Government.  This institution collects data about certain phenomena that occur in our society called "crimes."  But the data researched, collected, synthsized, and disseminated is often self-referential (the person who is the researcher is also the "researched").  Thus we have an interesting paradox:  how can objectivity ever be achieved?  How can the data be valid except by being based upon experience of individuals, by being based upon being a subject within this institution? So in essence, Amy might be trying to get at something that is beyond statistics, beyond research, beyond institutions, beyond representations within communicative media formats, which is called the "being of a person" and cannot be made to be "objective."  This then returns to a necessary implication that we cannot ever "know" or "understand" what this process is without relying on ourselves as the subjects and the objects. Amy then goes on to give some different examples of the "being of a woman," one that was obviously not well received by both Mr. Breese and a third-party entrant into this discussion--Jodi.

We now have a significant contradiction with the stated and "advertised" mission of both the HSU Womenís Center and its extension, the matrix: if these are the goals and ideals from which your institution works from, abides by, and encourages, then a grave injustice has been served by the response we receive from Jodi.

Jodi proceeds to tell the reader that she is "so tired of fighting this fight that never seems to end," that she is "done fighting with women like [Amy] because I have better things to do with my time."  Yet the contradiction is that Jodi herself spends an entire column and a half doing the same thing that she said she was not going to do.  I do not seem to understand this and Jodi's response illustrates a more internal and systematic flaw, not only with her reasoning, but with her demeanor towards women who are "not like her," women who take a different stance on the meaning of the "being of a woman," and also her own interpretation of the mission statement that she so earnestly tried to defend in her rebuttal.  My disappointment arises not at her response, which is indicative of cliched feminist rhetoric, but with what it represents.   It represents an un-knowing of what she herself stands for and an antagonism towards those who do not defend her banal version of what "sisterhood" is.  Instead we receive a rant;  we receive new and improved methods at attacking and debasing someone as "wrong" as Amy "really" is.  Jodi implies that she is correct and that others who agree with her viewpoint are the real sisters that she would like to thank.  But at the same time Jodi was also "planning on ripping [Amy] a new asshole," which is another contradiction (unless Jodi wants to perpetrate the same injustices she speaks of).

I have a friend who also wrote an article in same issue of the matrix, where she took on an important problem and fear that has recently been raised on campus--student mothers with children who must use campus academic facilities. The discussion was short, yet it nonetheless tried to think through a problem and find a solution that came from within and strengthened her  positive contract to uphold the goals of the mission statement.  Jodi did not "foster respect for women," nor did she "create a place where feminist ideas, dialogue, and expressions are encouraged rather than censored," and nor did Jodi "support a woman's right to make her own choices."  This disappointing display of untactful and ridiculous rhetoric is what tends to bother me and others (both men and women), whom not only respect the being of a woman, but try to at least understand the relationship between differences and the importance of what is at stake here.  The decisive factor may be that once a contradiction or a paradox is found within value systems (feminism, democracy, human rights, etc.), it tends to either corrupt the system's foundations or instills cynicism toward a specific value system.  The issues  raised through most of the journal were not only necessary and compassionate, but they elevated the discourse to a level of critical analysis that is the signifier of thought, dialogue, acceptance of "otherness," and a tolerance towards the contingent and diverse possibilities of the being of a woman.

In taking Jodi's rhetoric as just one indicative example of the contradiction, we should and must broaden the scope of the goals stated in the HSU Womenís Center Mission Statement to include the idea that differences of opinion and identity within the value system of feminism must be allowed equal and unabated discourse freedoms.  Thus we would allow for the Amy's of the world to be just as accepted within the identity of "sisterhood," within the identity of the being of a woman, and within the system that must not only refer to itself as subject and object, but must relate to itself as such--to see oneself in otherness.

Jodi's example also implies a larger horizon that we must consider to allow this critique its necessary conclusion--that of human rights.  Catherine MacKinnon, a feminist intellectual and legal theorist, notes that "Human rights principles are based upon experience, but not that of women.  When things happen to women that also happen to men...the fact that they happened to women is not counted in, or marked as, human suffering."   Her implication here is that women do not experience rape, death, torture, beatings, horrors like men do, or that when they do occur to women, they are categorized as groups of "others," groups that are different and thus have different meanings.  The validity of "human rights" remains problematic because "man's inhumanity to woman is ignored."   Thus Jodi's ignorance of Amy's rights is the same motivation that surrounds the ignorance of man's imbalanced relationship to the being of a woman.  MacKinnon goes on to  say that "Womenís absence shapes human rights in substance and in form, effectively defining what a human and a right are...[and] what violates the dignity of others is simply dignity for them; what violates the integrity of others is integrity for them; what violates the security of others is as much security as they are going to get."   Understandably, MacKinnonís critique is pointed towards international human rights rhetoric that does not acknowledge the debasement and the terror inflicted by state regimes upon groups of women.  MacKinnon's reply was  in response to the widescale and wholesale "justification" for the liquidation of an ethnic group that was not "identified" as the being of a "Serb."  Women were forced into terrors and horrors that cannot be understood (sexual and reproductive destruction of "other" women) by the rationale of human rights, because human rights does not imply the necessary inclusion of the being of a woman.  Human rights is historically based upon Aristotelian categorizations of the "being of things" from a male identity.  Thus Aristotle conceived of "his equality principle as treating likes alike and unlikes unalike--a concept fundamentally unquestioned since, including in the international human rights context."   From Aristotle on, all liberal compacts of equality, freedom, understanding, tolerance, were based upon the identity of "likes" that neglected to include the "other" (or, in this case, the "unalikes," or women).

The entire horizon of human rights is thus founded upon unjust and unequal value systems that seek and receive justification from the nation-states (institutions) that propound and endorse this type of neglect of the "other."  I am not specifically equating Jodi's response with the atrocities committed in the world against women (the analogy might be harsh, but I think we all need to probe and seriously consider the foundations we think and act on), but am trying to show  that her response is endemic of the faulty lines on which we (yes we) determine our ideas of "fighting against sexist oppression," "creating a place for feminist ideas, dialogue, and expressions," "foster[ing] respect for women," ad infinitum.  I hope that maybe some critical dialogue in accord with the ideals of the HSU Women's Center may be established in the matrix, or  I fear that the publication will do more damage than good in reinforcing, promoting, and establishing equality for women both here at HSU and in society.

Onur Azeri
29 November 1999

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