Susanna J. Sturgis    


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"Is this the new thing we're going to have to be p.c. about?"

P.C.: politically correct. I have two rubber stamps that I use indiscriminately on outgoing correspondence, one reading "politically correct," and the other (of course) "politically incorrect." I do not like to believe that we are swayed, or even influenced, by prevailing dogmas. I use "p.c." and "p.i." lightly, ironically, in jest. For me "p.i." denotes independence and originality, and "p.c." suggests an absence of humor and a lack of flexibility. Someone who is p.c. would probably not duck to get through a low doorway.

In her excellent essay "Traveling Fat,"1 Elana Dykewomon describes her experiences as a fat poet-writer on the road giving readings. At the request of reading organizers in one city, she prepared a  brief statement on some fat liberation issues: she explained that the selling of diet drinks and the unavailability of t-shirts in multiple-X sizes made it unsafe for fat women to attend women's events. When she made the statement at a reading in another city, the response that reached her, second hand, was, "Is this the new thing we're going to have to be p.c. about?"

Although this woman was presumably encountering fat liberation for the first time, she was already dismissing it as "the new thing we're going to have to be p.c. about." It is unlikely that she would then turn her critical attention to the essential feminist issues that fat activities have raised -- to, for instance, the diet industry, which uses billions of women's dollars to tell us that our bodies are not good enough. It is unlikely that she would bother to try to imagine what it is like to be perpetually too big for "standard" sizes, in feminist t-shirts as well as required-for-work clothes.

And I was chastened to realize that, though the fat liberation movement has deeply affected my life, I recognized myself in this woman. I recognized her exasperation, since I have felt it too: oh, god, something else I'm supposed to feel guilty and shut up about. Reading Elana's essay, hearing over and over again that woman's response, convinced me once and for all that p.c./p.i. is more than a joke.

Like our double-headed axe, political correctness has two edges. Pushed to identify what exactly is p.c., even we who ridicule the concept will list important feminist goals and ethics. When I say that someone is "too p.c. for words," I am usually not criticizing her specific beliefs and commitments. What I mean is that in espousing and/or implementing them, she tends to be self-righteous, humorless, and inflexible. She produces silence and mistakes it for agreement.

Communication breaks down easily, particularly among feminists who strongly disagree with each other. Whether the subject is sexuality, spirituality, confronting oppressive behavior, or participating in electoral politics, our public explorations tend to degenerate quickly into a series of mortar barrages between two bristling camps, with a sizable neutral zone of unnatural quiet between them.

So many truths lie submerged and even unimagined, yet we have developed, and are skillfully using, a variety of techniques to deflect and dismiss issues that we do not want to deal with. I believe that this much-ridiculed concept of political correctness is one of those techniques, and that it contributes profoundly to the difficulties we frequently experience as we struggle to speak and work together. Political correctness simplifies, and the way of truth is to be complex.

I think that it is the very complexity of feminism that makes the simplicities of p.c./p.i. so attractive. Since feminism is a struggle with many, many fronts, trying to cover more than a few at once is a fast route to overextension and burnout. Many of us nevertheless want to, or think we should, be doing it all, and we react to the resulting frustration in different ways. We drop out and do nothing. Or, once we acknowledge that we can't do everything, we say, "Well, then, we should ALL do this particular thing."

Our various attempts to influence each other usually have a much more immediate, visible effect than our challenges to patriarchal institutions and ethics. One's certainty and sense of purpose may be affirmed by making converts; or maintaining doctrinal purity may be the overriding concern. Either way, it isn't hard to persuade oneself that flexibility and tolerance are no virtues when our feminist goals are so essential and so long overdue.

Feminism is a worldview, a philosophy, a politic, a way of interpreting what happens and has happened, and of developing strategies to empower women of many backgrounds and circumstances. Most of us have grown up disempowered: we have learned that our part is to obey laws, or perhaps t evade them very discreetly, rather than to make, remake, or repeal them.

Grounded in the connection of personal and political, feminism emphasizes the ethical self-determination of each woman, working always in cooperation with her community and the natural world around her. A woman becomes a feminist as she realizes that the rules society applies to her are dangerous and constricting. She comes to understand that the language she speaks warps all of her senses. For many women, becoming a feminist means rejecting, or radically transforming, her designated place in the world. But becoming a feminist does not automatically free any of us from the contradictory ways of our particular heritage.

When in the early 1980s our discussions of feminist sexuality burst into the open, it immediately became apparent that our differences on these issues were great and deeply felt, and that our impatience and inexperience in dealing with this gut-felt diversity were combining into an overload of contradictions and frustrations. In some cases this overload was "resolved" by defining some women out of the movement -- "excommunicating" them2 -- because their actions and/or ideals did not fit into a particular definition of feminism.

After more than a decade of theorizing and organizing, we are still finding it impossible to devise unambiguous, comprehensive definitions of "feminist" and "feminism". This ambiguity has caused us no little trouble. Tolerance for constant uncertainty and change varies from woman to woman and for each of us over time. We are pressed by nonfeminist theorizers and activists who will not respect a theory that lacks a polished finish. How comforting it would be if we could only lay out a few rules, a few thou shalts and thou shalt nots, by which to decide which of us is doing it right. Since consciousness is just about impossible to assess, these rules would naturally have to deal primarily with our outward behavior.

What further complicates the issue is the obvious but overlooked fact that outward correctness is often, in many ways, better than nothing. It's safer and more pleasant to walk through the world without being constantly threatened by physical or verbal abuse. Sometimes an individual's willingness to avoid sexist behavior in public, for example, will lead to a lasting change in his or her consciousness. It may, however, become a kind of shield, a garment worn outside in order to avoid criticism. Underneath, nothing may change.

Some roots of political correctness

Living in a movement where behavior is heavily emphasized brings out the chameleon in us. many of us have learned along the way, whether from earliest childhood or at the onset of adolescence, that behavior matters most of all; in practice, you can think anything you want as long as it doesn't show. The rules the adults laid out for us were myriad, often incomprehensible and capriciously enforced, always undebatable. Sometimes we muttered discontent among our siblings, climbed trees in our party dresses, or escaped from the stodginess of it all by retreating to a quiet corner or sneaking out of the house.

When we got to school, unless we were very fortunate, we learned that sitting still and doing what you were told was far more important than curiosity, enthusiasm, creativity, or originality. In history we were rewarded for learning lists of dates, battles, and famous men; in science it was parts of the body or the periodic table; in English it was standard grammar and poetic forms. Again, unless we were lucky in our teachers, family, and peers, unless we somehow developed the ability to see behind the lists, we never sensed the currents of history, our connections with the earth, the immense, miraculous possibilities of language.

What we learned at home and school prepared us for dealing with the larger society. We have forgotten all the lists but this much we remember. Don't make waves. Defer outwardly to those more powerful than you. You can mutter all you please in private, you can even speak in opposition -- as long as you behave. These are not the virtues of a transforming social movement. As radical feminists, we have had to unlearn much.

If so many of patriarchy's lessons, subtle and explicit, have taught us that behavior is what matters, a feminist might well be suspicious of any movement phenomenon that by accident or by design delivers the same message. Good manners may make my life and many others safer and more comfortable in the short run, but in the long run they can present a formidable roadblock. Even when behavior changes and the words change, the motivating consciousness may go unchallenged. All that matters is that our behavior is beyond reproach.

Gradually, however, the pressure builds up. Presented over the years with one rule after another, a woman adapts and adapts, or pretends to adapt, until, when yet another prescription presents itself, she sneers, "Is this the new thing we're going to have to be p.c. about?" Fat liberation is still a new and vulnerable movement; for the time being, it's a handy, safe place to channel all the resentments that can't be voiced on other issues. When fat is generally accepted as a cause of oppression, the snide remarks will be directed elsewhere.

Because we avoid examining the workings of p.c./p.i., we generally criticize only the particular aspect(s) of political correctness that chafe us personally. By dismissing p.c./p.i. as a phenomenon that affects only "minor" (as defined by us, of course) issues, we are able to overlook the fact that there are correct, coercive, usually simplistic lines on every other thing that concerns us: race and racism, class and classism, sexuality, reproductive rights. It's a mistake to assume that a line is not a line just because we agree with it, or because the issue is agreed to be crucial.

In a recent Lesbian Connection, an Oakland, California, lesbian wrote, "Political correctness grew from an innocent wish to transcend our racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, lookism, ageism, religionism, ableism, etc."3 Political correctness may indeed be rooted in our "innocent" wish to transcend our constricting attitudes, but much of its coercive power and persistence derives from other, older, less idealistic sources -- gleaned from our upbringings, the survival tactics of manipulation, silencing, and intimidation. It is given force by our urgency, by our understandable but impossible desire to undo generations of oppression in a year or so.

Since we have recognized and developed the essential connection between personal and political, feminists are in a good position to understand what can happen when correct behavior is emphasized to the neglect of inward growth and transformation. Consciousness raising (CR), for instance, has been the single most important strategy of the feminist movement because it encourages all women to value and speak their lives, enabling us to build our movement, organizations, and theories from the ground up. Once CR becomes part of a virtually obligatory program, however, it becomes something that many of us were once intimately familiar with: the required class. We know how to respond to required classes. We do the minimum required to get by. We may emerge at the end basically unchanged but with the necessary credentials: "I was in a CR group on . . ." I've done my bit.

Ideally, consciousness having been raised, either by individual effort or with a group, we perceive things differently. Privileges whose presence or absence we once took for granted now have historical context and political significance. We are less likely to make unfounded romantic or patronizing assumptions about other cultures, or to react angrily when someone points out our mistakes. We recognize habits and attitudes of our own that need changing, and we begin to change them. We go into the world prepared to make a difference. We will confront Xist behavior when we encounter it and respond sensitively when confronted ourselves.

Confrontation, like CR, is a valuable tool, and like CR it can become useless. As consciousness raising may come to mean no more than a course in etiquette or diplomacy, confrontation carelessly used becomes more effective for intimidating or manipulating people than for showing them necessary truths about their own behavior or about others' lives. The ongoing firefight that has taken place in the sky above our discussions of sexuality is a form of confrontation -- confrontation become a hostile exchange or loaded words: "sexual fascist," "anti-feminist," "neo-Nazi," "classist," "racist."

These are important words for describing certain acts, attitudes, and institutions. They are also effective weapons. In the heat of debate, passionate feminists tend to shoot first, ask questions or consider the subtleties later (if at all). Taking cover is a more pressing priority than looking to see where the bullets are coming from or what they are made of. After a few heart-stopping pyrotechnic struggles, we learn something about prevention: how to avoid drawing fire in the first place.

This is nothing we haven't learned at home, in school, on the job, in the street. It's so basic a part of our lives as women that we do it without thinking. We risk rape on the streets; we restrict our movements. We risk abuse from men; we avoid antagonizing them. We are trashed for being competent, original, creative, or "difficult"; we pretend to be otherwise. We hear the ridicule heaped on fat women; we compress ourselves into small shapes. In each case, we pretend to be, and eventually become, less than we are.

The ethics of vulnerability

In an excellent and important essay, "Vulnerability and Power,"4 Sarah Lucia Hoagland has written that women have developed vulnerability as a strategy to obtain some limited, individual control over those who have power over us. Some manifestations of this strategy are acting helpless, running down other women, and denying connections with feminists, lesbians, radicals, and/or separatists -- all in order to make men feel competent, necessary, and comfortable. These self-protective responses can become so ingrained that we resort to them automatically, even in feminist contexts.

To illustrate the danger of translating any of these tactics into lesbian ethics without very close scrutiny, Hoagland uses an incident from Sally Gearhart's The Wanderground,5 a series of stories that envision a lesbian-feminist utopia. Margaret has escaped from the male-controlled city after being raped and dressed in armor as a "joke". Seja, one of the lesbian separatist hill women, finds her and is unable to communicate with her. To show that she means no harm, Seja kneels down and exposes her neck to the armed (with a sword) and distraught Margaret.

The incident ends "well", i.e., Seja is not hurt. Hoagland's point is that the episode could easily have ended tragically for both women.

By using vulnerability to transform Margaret's fear, Seja is forcing Margaret to choose between killing a womon or letting loose her own armor, her defenses. And in choosing to let loose her armor, Margaret must still her anger, contain it. Yet it may be too soon for Margaret to do this: it may be time instead for her to vent her rage and thus to assuage her wounds.

Margaret could have killed Seja and been saddled with a lifetime of guilt and regret. As Hoagland points out, Seja's strategy

is based on the practice among some animals of exposing their bellies, necks, or genitals to other members of their pack. The problem is that such behavior establishes dominance and a dependence which comes with a form of security, but it does not establish trust among equals.

Hoagland asks "whether vulnerability ever comes with no strings attached. . . . Even in the best of contexts," she writes, "to use vulnerability as a tool is to take a 'short-cut through another's personality'"6 -- to control the outcome of the situation by limiting the other's options. This use of vulnerability avoids the risk of bonding, which "lies in a willingness to take the next step, to change the relationship, to lose the security of predictableness."

Displaying the vulnerability that Hoagland describes has become a prescribed feminist tactic for dealing with the isms. A woman confronts a member of an oppressor group. The oppressor is not supposed to explain, argue, defend him- or herself, or do anything but agree, apologize, and promise to take steps toward changing his or her Xist behavior. Following the prescribed sequence reliably has the effect of short-circuiting anger, yet one can do all this without changing, or committing oneself to changing, consciousness.

I sometimes hear comments made in "safe" spaces that suggest that the changes wrought in these interactions are frequently superficial and short-lived. My own resentment festers, bringing up the bitter taste of childhood encounters with an angry parent, whose power coupled with fury could erase the nuances and sometimes the entire truth of a situation. Why? I come from a very privileged background and am relatively privileged even now. Why do I see myself as the silenced child? The following incidents provided me with some clues, and thus sparked some ideas on how to avoid reducing important issues to "the new things we're going to have to be p.c. about."

In Common Lives/Lesbian Lives 37 a poem appeared. It was called "some like indians endure" and it began "i have it in my mind that / dykes are indians". In the biographical note that followed, the poet, Paula Gunn Allen, was identified as "Lebanese-American," when in reality she is Laguna/Sioux-Lebanese-American. Not only does this (partially) describe who Paula Gunn Allen is, it was particularly significant for this poem. It assured the reader that this was not a non-Indian trying to romanticize either dykes or Indians.

In the following issue of the journal, the Common Lives collective described the incident, acknowledging their racism in omitting Allen's tribal affiliation. They wrote:

We further compounded the situation by failing to take immediate, aggressive actions when we first discovered the omission after the books came off the press. We did not inform Paula and we distributed the books without informing our readers. We did not take responsibility for what we'd done until after Paula called us to express her anger and to challenge us on our racism.8

The collective further described how the incident had grown out of their unexamined white privilege and the mundane pressures of publishing a magazine.

Common Lives/Lesbian Lives 6 brought to light a similar incident. A story by Jewish lesbian Judy Freespirit was published in issue 3; without consulting the author, the editorial collective had deleted the last paragraph of her story, thinking that it was "stronger without the last three lines". The author saw those lines as very important, "significant to me because they were a twist of a Jewish joke ('It might not help, but it wouldn't hurt.')."9 The Common Lives collective apologized for its anti-Semitism and cultural bias.

By examining the Common Lives collective's exchanges with Paula Gunn Allen and Judy Freespirit, I want to take a closer look at two specific points. One is the way in which certain highly charged words can be used to bludgeon, intimidate, and silence rather than to identify and challenge. The other is the peculiar power reversal that frequently takes place among feminists, progressives, and others who are committed to addressing these matters of oppression and oppressiveness.

Loaded words and fake emotions

"The New Feminism I am committed to building," wrote Paula Gunn Allen to Common Lives/Lesbian Lives,

is one which never lets fantasies, noble, romantic imaginings, or learned emotions (I call them "fake" emotions because they are conditioned, not spontaneous) interfere with reality-based understandings and actions.10

Allen's "fake emotions" encompass the kind of political correctness that goes no deeper than outward behavior. Our learned responses -- fear, silence, superficial change, the parroting of required formulas -- do indeed "interfere with reality-based understandings and actions."

What struck me about both of these episodes is that, once the issues of racism and anti-Semitism were raised, some significant underlying questions were pushed aside. What was emphasized was who did it and to whom; what was actually done was somewhat obscured. The collective omitted a crucial part of Paula Gunn Allen's biographical statement, then did not take immediate steps to inform her and correct the error. They lopped a paragraph from Judy Freespirit's story without consulting the author. If my work -- the work of a white upper/middle-class anglo-saxon ex-protestant lesbian writer -- were handled in this manner, I too would have good cause to be angry.

In effect, what was done was racist and anti-Semitic. In practice, as the collective members themselves pointed out, it resulted from carelessness, ignorance, and deadline-itis. In personal interactions, these cause a great deal of oppressive behavior. They also cause a great deal of pain and grief that cannot -- because of who does it and/or whom it is done to -- be classified under any of the identified isms. These underlying questions -- of honor, of editorial responsibility, of feminist ethics -- tend to get buried under all-sense-numbing barrages of loaded words.

The various oppressions have developed differently, and they operate differently. Yet, although none is exactly like another, the similarities suggest that, at least on the personal level, there are some common causes: ignorance of other women's lives, the assumption of sameness, fear of difference, laziness, carelessness, insensitivity. Learning the isms as a list of disparate elements obscures those connections and makes it all the harder for us to understand each other. In the end, learning lists teaches us to be good at learning lists. Learning the underlying shared characteristics, on the other hand, enables us to recognize the oppressions and cruelties and omissions that no one else is yet talking about.

Learning lists, ironically enough, brings us around to the very situation that we say we are trying to avoid. Someone else has to point out and describe whatever is to go onto the list -- and very often the only "someone else" who has the credibility and insight to identify the "whatever" is a member of the oppressed group.

Power reversals

When I, a woman, confront a pro-feminist man, a curious dynamic comes into play. Usually when around men, I do the tiptoeing and hope that I can get through before one of them blows up, but when I tell a pro-feminist man that he has said or done something sexist and offensive, I put him off balance. Because of the man's political commitment, our relative positions are reversed. The reversal is situational: it lasts only as long as the relatively privileged participant allows it. If the pro-feminist man decides that he doesn't care about feminism any more, that no woman is going to tell him what to do, or that I am just an unreasonable man-hater, my influence ends.

As my own anger about fat oppression boils to the surface, I have erupted more than once at an insulting remark or a familiar but erroneous assumption. What happens? A woman cowers. She adds fat oppression to her p.c. list. She doesn't say fat-oppressive things around me. Behind my back, however, she strongly suggests that being fat is not only physically unhealthy, see what it's done to Susanna's mind. Or maybe she just yells that I am full of shit.

Temporary they assuredly are, yet these power reversals are real and must be considered in devising and revising strategies. History and experience may justify my anger, but if I believe that my pro-feminist co-worker and my fat-oppressive friends are sincere, I do not want them to cower ritualistically to protect themselves from what I say. I remember too well being corrected by those who had power over me. I remember how I tuned them out, said what I was supposed to say and secretly crossed my fingers. This learned response to threat from above became automatic with me; I still practice to unlearn it.

Political commitments, coupled with the pressure to be correct, work other reversals too. To "pass," for instance, generally means to present oneself as, or to let oneself be taken for, a member of a more privileged group. In conversation among (say) white middle-class people, to reveal that you or your parent is a janitor is to risk being erased by the stereotypes of your listeners. Among feminists and radicals, though, it isn't unusual to find a person from the upper or upper-middle class passing for middle, or even working, class. The motives for both kinds of passing are similar: a woman believes either that her own truths are not good enough,11 or that acknowledging membership in the group in question will lessen or destroy her chance of acceptance as an individual. Some of these pressures come from within. Others are imposed by a community's standards of acceptability.

On ready-to-wear words

Consider the difference between sending a friend a birthday card with a preprinted message and writing and/or drawing your own. By extensively advertising their products, the card companies manage to persuade a lot of people that by not using canned sentiments you prove that you do not care enough to send the very best. Use your own words, your own drawings, and your own handwriting and you will be thought a cheapskate. But by using those cards exclusively you risk losing your capacity to speak in your own words.

In 1983, Women: A Journal of Liberation published my "Class/Act: Beginning a Translation from Privilege," an essay about coming from an upper-class background. When I wrote "Class/Act" (1981), I had not heard the voices of fat women writing of fat oppression and fat liberation. In my journal there were long, raw screams of pain at the harassment, the rejection, and the isolation that my life as a fat woman was full of. As I worked to begin translating my class privilege into radical feminist/lesbian terms, I could not even imagine translating my personal knowledge of fat issues from my private journal into my public writing. When I reread "Class/Act," I admire it but I think to myself, "This makes my life look easy."

In retrospect it's easy to understand. Because the privileges of class and race have been much discussed, many helpful words were readily available for me to use. Had Michelle Cliff, Audre Lorde, and others not published works on these subjects, my own work would have been much more difficult. But for my experience of fat oppression I had no words. Though I was a writer, it did not occur to me that I could start making my own. In classic, prefeminist fashion I thought, "If there are no words, it is because the subject is not worth discussing."

Who decided that the subject was not worth discussing?

In exploring the issue of political correctness, I confronted this question in several forms. Who decided that this was significant while that was not? Who decided that these were the words we would use? Who decided that this was correct and that incorrect? Sometimes I could identify the group that put out these priorities, phrases, or ideas. Then I would ask myself why I was letting myself be swayed or intimidated. Because "they" got there first, they had access to print, they had greater numbers -- they had the words.

A catchy phrase would surface in a publication. It would be quoted and requoted, used as epigraphs, used to name organizations. It might once have been a resonant, clever, or eloquent phrase, but pretty soon I would groan when I heard it coming. A living phrase had lost its power and come to be a mere insignia, a kind of verbal shorthand that conveyed the user's group affiliation but little about her person. Politically correct.

Who knows exactly how or when a living phrase or image becomes stale? Who knows when a basic feminist goal becomes just another form of political correctness, something that one does in public but ridicules or ignores in private? Over and over again, ferment turns to orthodoxy, new words become clichés. Even a volcano's molten lava cools and turns solid. Must feminism inevitably become a politic of thou shalts and thou shalt notes, of public correctness and private resentment?

To prevent this, a first step is to push ourselves beyond the ready-to-wear words and ideas that we have inherited from the academy, from the left, from the psychologists, and even from our own feminist predecessors. Opening up language involves flexibility, experiment -- play. Among feminists Mary Daly is one of the best at this; although she is often called "heavy", what keeps me coming back to Gyn/Ecology is its humor, its whimsy, its playfulness. So many of those who made essential criticisms of the book -- particularly about its cultural myopia -- regularly missed its humorous spirit, were so resolutely humorless and inflexible in their own approach, that for years I could only perceive an either/or choice: be playful, provocative, and culturally solipsistic like Daly, or pedantic, self-righteous, and anti-racist like her critics. It was Audre Lorde's moving, compassionate, still-unanswered "Open Letter to Mary Daly"12 that showed me a way beyond the either/ors.13

Beyond political correctness

In the past, reformers and radicals have battled over which was more important: inward psychological and moral transformation or the transformation of social institutions. Each faction has had its way in various times and places, and both have led to dead ends and betrayed revolutions. Radical feminism demands the transformation of both at once. In theory it makes perfect sense: new institutions growing from our needs and beliefs while we shed the old ways of relating and develop some new ones. In practice it's like dancing on a razor blade. It's a constant temptation to jump to one side of the other, and if you do manage to stay in the middle -- it often hurts. Try working in a feminist business sometime. Try living in the world.

Things are never as clear as they look on paper. Years ago I burned out working in collectives because many women seemed to think that calling ourselves a collective made us one. The power-over dynamics in those so-called nonhierarchical collectives gave me headaches. One equally exasperated co-worker said something that I've remembered ever since: "The problem is that none of us can stand to be uncomfortable for more than five minutes."14 Yet learning to work in collectives when we've been brought up for hierarchies has to be a discomforting process.

We must start from where we are, with habits and defenses brought from the worlds we want to change, with ideas, situations, and other people that are not acceptable, simple, correct, and/or "attractive". For the last several years, the most vital currents in the feminist movement have been those of women exploring and developing theory, fiction, and poetry from the particular circumstances of their lives.15 Publications and organizations are growing around the lives and goals of women from many backgrounds, of many interests. We are making new words, insights, and priorities because the old ones didn't fit.

Some warn that we are becoming too specialized: everyone has her own book, her own group. Often the warning comes from those who do not see that we have been too specialized -- too white, too privileged by class and education -- from the beginning and that as a movement we are finally becoming less so. Where we have found, and will continue to find, strength in the recognition of similarity, now we must find it also in the celebration of difference. Since many of the groups we belong to have been at odds for generations and centuries, this discovery and celebration will be a challenging, often threatening, process.

Women sometimes say that focusing on (presumably tangential) issues like fat oppression will divert attention from "more important" concerns. For me, white, upper class, and fat, the exact opposite was true. It was as a fat woman -- not simply as a woman, or as a lesbian -- that I understood what it's like when your mere presence offends and angers a total stranger. It was as a fat woman that I learned what it's like to be erased and excluded -- to accept erasure and exclusion as inevitable -- to be resentfully grateful for the occasional offers of inclusion -- to feel from within the effects of my own corrosive rage.

Being both outsider and insider, white and female, upper class and lesbian, educated and fat, has given me what Marilyn Frye calls binocular vision: the capacity to see from two angles at once.16 For that anonymous woman on Elana Dykewomon's travels, fat oppression was yet another ism to be inscribed on a lengthening list, another rule to learn, another subject to watch your mouth about. For me it provided a key, a will to go beyond the "oughts" toward a transformation of consciousness, toward a gut understanding of how I oppress as well as how I am oppressed.

There are many other keys. Being female, for instance, or being lesbian, or being the only heterosexual woman in an openly lesbian group. Being working class, or mixed class, or mixed blood. Difference -- whatever it is, inborn or chosen, that locks you out of simplicities and generalizations and forces you to find your own way and your own language -- provides many of the keys. Being different in some ways does not miraculously allow you to understand all forms of difference. It can enable you, though, to realize that there are women whose ways you don't know at all; it can remind you to be flexible, empathetic -- to listen with care.

Years ago we recognized that the personal is political and the political, personal. Radical feminism pushes us both inward and outward -- out into the world and in toward our own sources and particularities. We do not expect ourselves to be perfect. We try to not pounce at the first sign of imperfection. We try not to create movements and communities where a woman has to pass for something she is not in order to be taken seriously and treated with respect, where she is encouraged to keep silent or to maneuver cagily through the minefield of p.c./p.i. We are, after all, each of us the woman for whom we are creating a world. Everyone of our voices is needed.

Any woman's silence is a flaw in our foundation, a flaw that weakens the growing whole more surely than any dissent or disagreement. The responsibility is twofold: not to silence others, and not to let ourselves be silenced. Neither is easy.



Thanks first to the many women who have supported me in the writing of "politically correct" by telling me over and over again: "Yes, it is important, and no, you won't get murdered for it." I am particularly grateful to the women who have labored over various of my drafts and given generously of their insight, perspectives, and literary skill: Susan Wood-Thompson, Susan Bernick, Maureen Brady, Judith Treesberg, Donna Harrington, Jane Noll, Liz Quinn, and Pat Daly.


[1] In Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, edited by Lisa Schoenfielder and Barb Wieser, Aunt Lute Book Co., 1983, pp. 144–154.

[2] I borrow the phrase from Karen Lindsey, who used it in "Debate, Don't Excommunicate," in Sojourner, February 1983.

[3] In Lesbian Connection, vol. VI, no. 4, August/September 1983. This article, one of the first I've seen that refers to the harmful effects of p.c./p.i., discusses ways to make our movement less vulnerable to government infiltrators and provocateuses.

[4] In Sinister Wisdom 19, winter 1982, pp. 13–23.

[5] Published 1978 by Persephone Press; reprinted 1984 by Alyson Publications.

[6] This echoes a phrase in Adrienne Rich's "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying." It appears in Rich's On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978, W. W. Norton, 1979, and also as a pamphlet from Motheroot Publications, 214 Dewey Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15218.

[7] Common Lives/Lesbian Lives 3, spring 1982, pp. 75–78. Lest anyone be tempted to take these remarks as a condemnation of this vital quarterly, I want to say that CL has shown great courage and lesbian commitment from its first issue. By openly discussing its editorial process, the CL/LL collective took a major, probably terrifying, step toward ending some particularly frustrating silences.

[8] CL/LL 4, summer 1982, p. 107.

[9] CL/LL 6, winter 1982/3, p. 45.

[10] CL/LL 4, summer 1982, p. 109.

[11] For this also I am indebted to Adrienne Rich's "Women and Honor," cited above.

[12] In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, Persephone Press, 1981, pp. 94–97; reprinted 1983 by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, and also in Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, The Crossing Press, 1984.

[13] Daly's disciples, I should add, are oftentimes as adept as her critics at bleeding the resilience and humor from her work. They don't play or expand any frontiers; they take Daly's words and apply them like a fresh coat of paint to a variety of subjects and settings. The new color may be pleasing to the eye, but it neither transforms nor reveals anything new about the underlying structure -- as Daly's own work often does. In the hands of those who lack her spirit, Daly's innovations congeal, surprise no one, become clichés.

[14] I do not know how many times I have quoted this remark, whose truth becomes more clear, important, and many-faceted with age. This is the first time I have used it in print, so I want to credit Lorraine Biros, with whom I share a Gemini birthday. For the last four years we have inaugurated each new year in good politically incorrect style by discoing to the strains of "Macho Man." Each year more women join in.

[15] Cherríe Moraga discusses this "theory in the flesh" in This Bridge Called My Back. "A theory in the flesh means one where the physical realities of our lives -- our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings -- all fuse to creative a politic born out of necessity" (p. 23).

[16] In The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory by Marilyn Frye, The Crossing Press, 1983. ". . . [M]arginality opens the possibility of seeing structures of the dominant culture which are invisible from within it. . . . Most of us (gay men and lesbians) know that straight world from the inside and, if we only will, from its outer edge. We can look at it with the accuracy and depth provided by binocular vision." (From the essay "Lesbian Feminism and the Gay Rights Movement: Another View of Male Supremacy, Another Separation," pp. 128–151. The quotation appears on p. 148.)


Published in Sinister Wisdom 29 (Winter 1985)

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