When I learned what we are talking about when we talk about “feminism”….

Originally published here. 

This is not the abstract dialogue you are probably expecting from me.

It  is the story of one of two nights in my life I slept with a loaded 32. caliber revolver by my bed in the nightstand. I was a revolver that I had inherited from my late grandfather–clean, well-kept, and rarely fired. Most of the time I kept it in a safe in the closet.  I was tense, and the air-conditioning was working poorly in the large Victorian house my five friends and I rented.   In Georgia, when this happens, the air is sticky and thick.  My partner at the time was sleeping next to me, and few things made more tense than having a gun near her.   I was educated. I heard the statistics that some of my liberal professors had shot off at me. I would sell that gun later on those impulses.  Next door my other house mates were a young lesbian couple who did volunteer work at a local Goodwill center and who would sit up drinking whiskey and talking arguing with me about politics.  I considered myself a kind of atheist, paleo-conservative at the time. In some ways, I have been deviant:  pro-gay, a little wary of libertarian-ism, and opposed to Bush’s wars, but at times I would even argue for an American monarchy.  So the debates, fueled with whiskey, would often take a turn for the heated.   I, as a person who studied anthropology, philosophy, and literature was fairly well-versed in feminism: I knew your second-wave from your third-wave and your Lacanians from your gender theorists.  I knew this, but I didn’t understand it.

So what did feminism have to do with having a loaded gun by my bed?

Downstairs there was a woman sleeping with black and yellow bruises lining her arm. One of my roommates had invited her to stay because she didn’t own her own car and the nearest shelter was two counties away.  It was an hour drive, but in the interim her husband, who had bestowed upon her those black bruises,  circled outside the house periodically.   He sometimes threw cans at the house.  Our windows, given that we were in a crime-riddled, low-rent neighbor near the university I was attending, were either curtained off or sealed with pinned fabric.  Our fifth roommate, an ex-soldier with a broken knee, was away.  Hence getting out the gun.

Eventually, soaked in sweat, we all went to sleep.  At 8 in the morning, there was a strong knock on the door and our “house guest” answered it.  I go down stairs with the gun, and she gets into the truck with her husband and leaves.   My roommate cried, and I was dizzy.

This is when I learned why some sort of “feminism” was needed: not that there is violence against women, every conservative, liberal, leftist knows that. Some are even sensitive too it. I remember a conservative professor talking to me one day, and he looked at me over coffee in my apartment in South Korea, discussing both our classes and a date I had night before:  “One of the things I learned from being single is how many women are raped.  I was shocked when I figured that out in college”

“What did you learn from that?”

“The fallen nature of men.”

The difference is the analysis. What I was struck with was holding a gun in my hand trying to figure out why that woman, who was not stupid and not particularly weak, was going back to a man who would beat her, who had beat her, and had done this before.   She had four people willing to escort her to a shelter in two counties away.  Earlier in my life, I had done volunteer work at a rape crisis center.  I remember the women who worked there telling me about the women staying with spouses and boyfriends who had raped them.  I figured it was just Stockholm syndrome.  It didn’t occur to me that the women I saw lived very different lives than the women we were working with often.   The women were trying to help: white, black, poor and “lower” middle class more often than not. In rural and urban areas.  I was middle class and my colleagues at Uni were upper-middle. I was class consciousness  alone: being raised by a mechanic and a waitress-turned-nurse I was different from my classmates who were raised by teachers and business professionals.  Yet, there was a bigger gap between me and the woman I was helping.   A little vulgar Marxism for you.

I realized that only people that could be, or who are “victims” can change it; but one can’t do it alone and all this talk of “empowerment” wasn’t enough.

But in that moment, trying to figure out why this was happening, I needed some help to think it through and to realize that any heroic narrative I had about helping women by my goodwill was foolish.  This was larger than me, and larger than mere individual choice. While I support Patrick Stewart recent call for a million men against violence against women, I think it takes a lot more than that to fundamentally change these dynamics.  I realized this in that moment.

I am not going to lie and say I became some sort of Marxist that day, or that I think every kind of ideology that brands the name of feminism is useful:  at the end of the day,  I realized I didn’t understand all the social and material forces involved. I needed something much more than goodwill.  I need something of a class and gender analysis.  Before that moment, it was all an intellectual game or an act of good will.


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