Ehrenreich’s solution, to put women in power, shows limits of liberal feminism

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From our archives: Articles you should have read but missed the first time around
Editor’s Note: In this piece Bonnie Weinstein essentially demolishes the position held by so many left-liberals and “democratic socialists”, including some like Ehrenreich with an estimable body of progressive work.  In so doing she also exposes the limits of liberalism.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Kinder and Gentler Capitalism

By Bonnie Weinstein, Socialist Viewpoint


 
Barbara Ehrenreich

I remember the argument well. “Women in the military will make for a kinder and gentler approach to war.” This was the philosophy of the conservative wing of the women’s movement in the 1970s. They counterposed these issues to the real issues facing most working women, such as the need for childcare, access to safe and legal abortions and equal pay for equal work.

This conservative wing believed that if women, who were naturally the world’s caregivers, were admitted into the military, the police or even into the corporate structure, it would be the end of an unjust, male-dominated world and its propensity toward violence. They believed that if women could infiltrate the “power structure,” their rights would trickle down—just as profits are supposed to.

That’s why I was so tickled at first to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s1 essay, “What Abu Ghraib Taught Me,” which first appeared May 16, 2004, in the Sunday Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times and then also on AlterNet, May 20, 2004.  It’s still posted at http://www.alternet.org/story/18740/  (See our addendum at the foot of this article)

Her essay starts out rejecting this belief—taking issue with this assessment in the context of the vicious acts of torture carried out by American military women at Abu Ghraib. She admits, “Secretly, I hoped that the presence of women would over time change the military, making it more respectful of other people and cultures, more capable of genuine peacekeeping. That’s what I thought, but I don’t think that anymore.”

Ehrenreich correctly dismisses this notion now as simplistic and the result of “a certain kind of feminism…that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice.”

She then correctly points out, “You can’t even argue, in the case of Abu Ghraib, that the problem was that there just weren’t enough women in the military hierarchy to stop the abuses. The prison was directed by a woman, Gen. Janis Karpinski. The top U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq, who also was responsible for reviewing the status of detainees before their release, was Major Gen. Barbara Fast. And the U.S. official ultimately responsible for managing the occupation of Iraq since October was Condoleezza Rice. Like Donald H. Rumsfeld, she ignored repeated reports of abuse and torture until the undeniable photographic evidence emerged.”

Ehrenreich even admits, “The struggles for peace and social justice and against imperialist and racist arrogance cannot…be folded into the struggle for gender equality.” But then she arrives at a somewhat contradictory conclusion: “What we need is a tough new kind of feminism with no illusions. Women do not change institutions simply by assimilating into them, only by consciously deciding to fight for change. We need a feminism that teaches a woman to say no—not just to the date rapist or overly insistent boyfriend but, when necessary, to the military or corporate hierarchy within which she finds herself…In short, we need a kind of feminism that aims not just to assimilate into the institutions that men have created over the centuries, but to infiltrate and subvert them.”

In other words, she still believes that gender inequality is at the root of the problem but replacing men with women is not enough. Instead we must replace these men with “women with a conscience.” These women, she claims, will then be able to subvert the capitalist system into doing the right thing and becoming a kinder and gentler enforcer of capitalist domination—capitalism, so to speak, with a woman’s touch.

Not only does this imply that there are no men “with a conscience” but it implies that it’s just a matter of replacing “bad boys” with “good girls.” This concept is just as simplistic as the original position she claims to be arguing against.

This kind of thinking is what has invariably led women to commit abuses like those at Abu Ghraib in the first place. And it ignores the real economic hardship young working-class women face that drives them to join the military—very often leaving their own children behind. The same is true for the men who enlist. The capitalists who threaten the very survival of the entire planet do not deserve such sacrifices.

Of course, Ehrenreich’s philosophy also echoes the “lesser evil” theory of electoral politics, which maintains that there are degrees of evil in candidates and we should support the ones less evil. This is the philosophy that has brought us to where we are today—with wars and racial, ethnic and gender discrimination rampant and with antiabortion legislation inching its way back into law.

Even the least evil of candidates cannot make any meaningful changes so long as he or she subscribes to and represents the inherently unequal system of capitalism—the domination of the wealthy minority over the impoverished majority. It is a system that has outlived its usefulness and is destined to crumble.

Just as sending women to fight and die for capitalist imperialism does nothing to raise the status of women or end wars, so will replacing corporate heads with “women or men of conscience” do nothing to reduce capitalism’s overwhelming and compelling need to increase profits above, and at the expense of, all else.

This is the driving force behind all corporate executives, no matter of what race or gender they may be. And if there is no profit to be gained under their leadership, then they are replaced. But have no doubt, the job will be filled and its purpose will remain the same—to make more money by hook or by crook for the company!

It is capitalism and its built-in, all-consuming need for profit, regardless of the needs of people, that enslaves all workers—women and men alike, of all races, ethnic and religious backgrounds—and condemns them to struggle for their very existence.

There is no “trickle down” in money or justice under capitalism. Every bit a worker gets, or will ever get, must be fought for, tooth and nail. Just as every victory won by women or any oppressed section of the working class has to be defended by any means necessary.

Today every victory the world’s working class has won in bloody battle is being challenged and torn asunder by the greed of modern capitalism. We will have to fight to preserve what liberties we have left and to restore those we have lost. These will not be protected or restored out of conscience but out of battle.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bonnie Weinstein serves as one of the editors of Socialist Viewpoint, a publication of the Socialist Workers Party.


1 For those who may not know, Barbara Ehrenreich is also the author of the bestseller, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, an exposé of what life is like for those living on minimum wage. It’s a real eye-opener to working-class life in America today and well worth reading.

Editor’s Note: The publication by TGP of any article by a socialist party member of any tendency does not constitute endorsement nor affiliation with that formation or tendency but simply agreement with the analysis at hand. TGP is an independent socialist organization that utilizes Marxian tools to understand contemporary reality.

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ADDENDUM

By Barbara Ehrenreich

What Abu Ghraib Taught Me

The sight of women soldiers gleefully participating in the torture of Iraqi detainees taught this feminist a difficult but important lesson: A uterus is no substitute for a conscience.
May 20, 2004  |
The photos did something else to me, as a feminist: They broke my heart. I had no illusions about the U.S. mission in Iraq — whatever exactly it is — but it turns out that I did have some illusions about women.

Of the seven U.S. soldiers now charged with sickening forms of abuse in Abu Ghraib, three are women: Spc. Megan Ambuhl, Pfc. Lynndie England and Spc. Sabrina Harman.

It was Harman we saw smiling an impish little smile and giving the thumbs-up sign from behind a pile of hooded, naked Iraqi men — as if to say, “Hi Mom, here I am in Abu Ghraib!” It was England we saw with a naked Iraqi man on a leash. If you were doing PR for Al Qaeda, you couldn’t have staged a better picture to galvanize misogynist Islamic fundamentalists around the world.

Here, in these photos from Abu Ghraib, you have everything that the Islamic fundamentalists believe characterizes Western culture, all nicely arranged in one hideous image — imperial arrogance, sexual depravity … and gender equality.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked. We know that good people can do terrible things under the right circumstances. This is what psychologist Stanley Milgram found in his famous experiments in the 1960s. In all likelihood, Ambuhl, England and Harman are not congenitally evil people. They are working-class women who wanted an education and knew that the military could be a stepping-stone in that direction. Once they had joined, they wanted to fit in.

And I also shouldn’t be surprised because I never believed that women were innately gentler and less aggressive than men. Like most feminists, I have supported full opportunity for women within the military — 1) because I knew women could fight, and 2) because the military is one of the few options around for low-income young people.

Although I opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War, I was proud of our servicewomen and delighted that their presence irked their Saudi hosts. Secretly, I hoped that the presence of women would over time change the military, making it more respectful of other people and cultures, more capable of genuine peacekeeping. That’s what I thought, but I don’t think that anymore.

A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naiveté, died in Abu Ghraib. It was a feminism that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice. Rape has repeatedly been an instrument of war and, to some feminists, it was beginning to look as if war was an extension of rape. There seemed to be at least some evidence that male sexual sadism was connected to our species’ tragic propensity for violence. That was before we had seen female sexual sadism in action.

But it’s not just the theory of this naive feminism that was wrong. So was its strategy and vision for change. That strategy and vision rested on the assumption, implicit or stated outright, that women were morally superior to men. We had a lot of debates over whether it was biology or conditioning that gave women the moral edge — or simply the experience of being a woman in a sexist culture. But the assumption of superiority, or at least a lesser inclination toward cruelty and violence, was more or less beyond debate. After all, women do most of the caring work in our culture, and in polls are consistently less inclined toward war than men.

I’m not the only one wrestling with that assumption today. Mary Jo Melone, a columnist for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, wrote on May 7: “I can’t get that picture of England [pointing at a hooded Iraqi man's genitals] out of my head because this is not how women are expected to behave. Feminism taught me 30 years ago that not only had women gotten a raw deal from men, we were morally superior to them.”

If that assumption had been accurate, then all we would have had to do to make the world a better place — kinder, less violent, more just — would have been to assimilate into what had been, for so many centuries, the world of men. We would fight so that women could become the generals, CEOs, senators, professors and opinion-makers — and that was really the only fight we had to undertake. Because once they gained power and authority, once they had achieved a critical mass within the institutions of society, women would naturally work for change. That’s what we thought, even if we thought it unconsciously — and it’s just not true. Women can do the unthinkable.

You can’t even argue, in the case of Abu Ghraib, that the problem was that there just weren’t enough women in the military hierarchy to stop the abuses. The prison was directed by a woman, Gen. Janis Karpinski. The top U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq, who also was responsible for reviewing the status of detainees before their release, was Major Gen. Barbara Fast. And the U.S. official ultimately responsible for managing the occupation of Iraq since October was Condoleezza Rice. Like Donald H. Rumsfeld, she ignored repeated reports of abuse and torture until the undeniable photographic evidence emerged.

What we have learned from Abu Ghraib, once and for all, is that a uterus is not a substitute for a conscience. This doesn’t mean gender equality isn’t worth fighting for for its own sake. It is. If we believe in democracy, then we believe in a woman’s right to do and achieve whatever men can do and achieve, even the bad things. It’s just that gender equality cannot, all alone, bring about a just and peaceful world.

In fact, we have to realize, in all humility, that the kind of feminism based on an assumption of female moral superiority is not only naive; it also is a lazy and self-indulgent form of feminism. Self-indulgent because it assumes that a victory for a woman — a promotion, a college degree, the right to serve alongside men in the military — is by its very nature a victory for all of humanity. And lazy because it assumes that we have only one struggle — the struggle for gender equality — when in fact we have many more.

The struggles for peace and social justice and against imperialist and racist arrogance, cannot, I am truly sorry to say, be folded into the struggle for gender equality.

What we need is a tough new kind of feminism with no illusions. Women do not change institutions simply by assimilating into them, only by consciously deciding to fight for change. We need a feminism that teaches a woman to say no — not just to the date rapist or overly insistent boyfriend but, when necessary, to the military or corporate hierarchy within which she finds herself.

In short, we need a kind of feminism that aims not just to assimilate into the institutions that men have created over the centuries, but to infiltrate and subvert them.

To cite an old, and far from naive, feminist saying: “If you think equality is the goal, your standards are too low.” It is not enough to be equal to men, when the men are acting like beasts. It is not enough to assimilate. We need to create a world worth assimilating into.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” This article was first published in the Sunday Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times.

 

 

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