Book projects – No Fallen Angels: 4: Power and responsibility

The Angel Factor provides women with any number of comforting myths, which insist that no woman is ever responsible for violence, for sexual assault, for harassment, or for anything that isn’t quite ‘nice’ about being human. Responsibility for all these things, in all forms, and at all times, is laid squarely at men’s feet. Yet without responsibility – without acknowledgement of choice and its consequences – there is no power. When this confusion wanders into the tangled realms of gender-politics, the result is policies which actively disempower women – in the supposed belief that this actually helps them.

The Office for the Status of Women, for example, rejects any notion that women can contribute either as instigator or as provocateur in domestic violence, and insists that “the social norm is violence against women”.[1] Their basic argument is that if female violence exists, it is always, and only, self-defence. In the strict sense that most, if not all, violence arises from defence of the ego – our beliefs, our fears, our sense of self – violence can hence easily be mistaken for ‘self-defence’; but the Office means ‘self-defence’ in a far more literal sense. The same rationale is even applied to any questioning of women’s violence against children: this too is dismissed as “self-defence against a male-dominated society”. When self-styled ‘women’s advocates’ deem that even an infant has more power than an adult woman, something is clearly wrong with their self-perception and their perception of their own power-relationships with others. And this doesn’t help anyone – especially women.

It’s fascinating, if disturbing, to watch just how much this aspect of the Angel Factor dominates some women’s thinking. In one example, a male colleague visits a Neighbourhood Community House – a place that’s supposedly open to all members of the community, but he’s told, firmly and aggressively, that he has no right to be in this ‘women’s place’. He notices, on the table in front of him, an article on lesbian violence: “What d’you think you’re doing, looking at that?”, a woman demands, aggressively. “I’m a social worker”, he replies, “It’s my job, I’m required to know about this.” “Huh! In any case”, the woman retorts, “it’s all men’s fault.” “How? There aren’t any men even present, are there?” “It’s obvious”, is the snapped reply. “They’ve taken on the male rôle.” A classic circular definition: violence is male, which means that any woman being violent is doing something that only men do, therefore it must be attributable to men, which proves that violence is male…

In another example, a woman colleague argues long and hard that no woman is ever violent: violence is a direct result of men’s moral inferiority to women, hence no woman is capable of violence. I point out a number of incidents that disprove this assertion, including several at which she herself had been present. “All right, then”, she says, “yes, women can be violent, but it’s only in self-defence. A woman is only violent if a man has abused her. All men indirectly abuse women anyway; but if she’s violent towards a man who hasn’t directly abused her, it’s only because another man has previously abused her. So it’s the first man’s fault – not the woman’s. She isn’t responsible for what happens to the second man.” I try to illustrate the argument’s absurdity by inverting it: so I remind her that the standard psychological profile of a serial rapist usually includes an extremely abusive mother or mother-figure in the background. In the terms of her argument, I suggest, she would have to describe the rapist, like the woman in her example, as an intermediary without choice, and without responsibility for his actions; in that case the mother would have to be deemed the ultimate source of the abuse. But rather than face the flaws in her reasoning, my colleague hides in fury: “No woman is ever responsible for another woman’s rape! And in any case, the mother only abused the son because she was abused by another man – so he’s the one who’s responsible!” The discussion goes on like this for quite a while: in every instance she argues that if anyone’s actions were violent, only men were responsible. There is no circumstance of violence to which she can accede that any woman was in any way responsible: violence is always, and only, men’s fault.

The trap with this reasoning is that power and responsibility are intimately interwoven: neither can exist without the other. As long as women insist that only men are responsible for violence, and for facing that violence, those same women – and many other women – will continue to be trapped in self-created powerlessness. The solution is obvious, but it’s not a comfortable one…

Explore that reasoning for a while – that “violence is always, and only, men’s fault”. How closely does it accord with your own thinking on women’s responsibility within the web of violence?

What do you feel? There’s likely to be a surface layer of anger – which is a characteristic sign of ‘denial’. If so, look a little deeper, at the feelings that the anger masks from your own knowing: what do you see? What do you fear?

The advantages of that reasoning are obvious: no woman ever has to face the felt discomfort of her own responsibility, her own choice to be violent. But by denying that women have any choice in their actions, it assigns all choice – and hence power – to men, and guarantees an increasing sense of powerlessness for women: which is itself a key source of violence. Is this what you want – for yourself, or for any other woman?

It’s essential here to distinguish responsibility and blame. Responsibility is, literally, ‘response-ability’: it’s concerned with the present, with choices in the present, and intentions for the future; and it’s self-focussed, concerned with personal choices, not those of others. Blame, by contrast, is concerned with hiding from choices in the present by focussing on the past; and it’s other-focussed, assigning responsibility to everyone but self. (Self-blame sounds like ‘taking responsibility’, but in practice it’s just as unconstructive as other-blame: it focusses on actions in the past – on what I ‘could’ or ‘should’ have done – and assigns responsibility to an imaginary self in the past rather than to a real self in the present.)

Since power is the ability to do something – anything – as an expression of choice, to accept responsibility – and accept the consequences of that responsibility – is powerful, whereas blame is not. Blame often feels the easier option, since it assigns the work to someone else (or to that imaginary self in the past, in the case of self-blame); but the end-result is a sense of powerlessness – for which others are generally blamed… The only way out of that trap is to develop a sense of self-awareness, a clear understanding of exactly what we can be responsible for, and what we can not, as the veteran feminist Glen Tomasetti describes:

Ten years ago in a time of rabid feminism for me – by that I mean resentment and blame of men and male systems, all drawn into resentment of my father – my inner voice was nudging me like a fish under a boat. I could not receive till later what it was saying: ‘Take a look at yourself’.

Everyone has an inner voice. We drug it away through any kind of compulsive behaviours including workaholism – a condition that threatens today’s women. (Heresy in the women’s movement is as important as it is anywhere else.) It is not my business to hear your inner voice – only mine. Not easy to control this…[2]

“Take a look at yourself”: it’s often what we least want to do, but it’s the only way in which we come to understand our responsibility – and our power. When you find yourself blaming others, or blaming yourself, how do you allow yourself to hear that “inner voice … nudging me like a fish under a boat”?

To learn to hear that ‘inner voice’ – rather than the voice of habit, or the voice of other people’s opinions – is work; so to find it, and to apply its advice in your own life, is powerful – your own power. “I could not receive till later what it was saying”, says Tomasetti: when – if ever – have you allowed yourself to hear that ‘inner voice’? If you have, and it’s told you to “look at yourself”, what did you see? What did it show you of your own power – and of your own evasions of your responsibility for that power?

In exactly the same way that “it is not my business to hear your inner voice – only mine”, it’s not others’ business to hear yours (or, for that matter, mine). To try to force others to listen to, or act on, what your ‘inner voice’ is telling you to do is an evasion of responsibility – and in a real sense is an act of violence, even if an extremely common one. (It’s why I may invite you to listen to what I have to say, but I must also remember to remind you that only you can know the degree to which it’s true for you: to purport that what I see is ‘the truth’ would be to violate your truth, your own knowing.) Trying to be responsible for others is perhaps the most common means by which we evade being responsible for ourselves. Traditionally, men have tried to ‘look after’ women, and women to look after children, each expecting someone else to be responsible for them in turn; in recent times, some feminists have tried to ‘solve’ the problem by insisting that no woman should be responsible for anything or anyone, including herself[3], but the results can hardly be called an improvement…

We cannot be responsible ‘for’ anyone else: it’s not that we won’t, or shouldn’t, but that we can’t. Ultimately, we can each be responsible only for ourselves. To try to do anything else is counter-productive for everyone; and to demand that others should be responsible for us – “make the world safe for women”, says that graffito; “women’s safety: a community responsibility”, says a bumper-sticker – is not only self-disempowering, but an act of violence, since it demands of others that they must perform an impossible task. Understanding the true balance of responsibility in each circumstance is a subtle balance, which only awareness of that ‘inner voice’ can teach.

How much do you try to take responsibility for others? Where do you draw the line between taking responsibility for others, and taking responsibility for yourself? When you have to choose between them – as must often be the case – how do you know which to choose? How much do you rely on habit to help you make that choice (or to make the choice for you)? On what you’ve been taught that ‘good girls ought to do’? Or on that quiet ‘inner voice … nudging like a fish under a boat’?

If you’ve assumed that you ‘must’ take responsibility for another – a child, perhaps – what do you feel when you can’t, or don’t? Do you usually blame yourself, for having ‘failed’ them? Or do you allow that ‘inner voice’ to help you look more closely at their responsibility as well as your own?

How much do you demand, or expect, that others should be responsible for you – for your comfort, for your fears, for your general well-being? Where do you draw the line between taking responsibility for yourself, and expecting others to do it for you? How much do you rely on habit to help you understand – or not understand – that choice? On what you’ve been taught that ‘good girls ought to expect’? Or on that quiet ‘inner voice … nudging like a fish under a boat’?

If you’ve assumed that others ‘must’ take responsibility for you, what do you feel when they don’t – or can’t? Do you usually blame them, for having ‘failed’ you? Or do you allow that ‘inner voice’ to help you look more closely at your own responsibility as well as theirs?

We cannot be responsible for anyone else; but we can, and where practicable generally should, be responsible about others – their needs, their concerns, their feelings, their fears. It’s a subtle distinction, but as usual it’s an important one. If we know that someone’s afraid, it would obviously be violent – or at least abusive – to use that fear as a weapon with which to disempower them. But if we don’t know that they’re afraid, it’s unrealistic to expect that we ‘should’ be responsible ‘for’ them, for preventing them having to face what is, after all, their own fear. If we don’t know, we don’t know. And since facing fear is one of the main ways in which people discover their own power, being over-protective can be as disempowering as being deliberately neglectful. One doctor commented, of the many children brought into her surgery by over-protective mothers, that they were suffering only from a shortage of what she called ‘the other vitamins-D’, without which no child could thrive: a little Dirt, Danger, Disorder and Discomfort.[4]

‘A little Dirt, Danger, Disorder and Discomfort’: anathema to the ‘traditional’ housewife, and to so many mothers! And yet no-one thrives without at least a sprinkling of each – so as to learn how to cope with them. How do you cope with their presence in your life? If you have children, how do you cope with their learning to cope with ‘the other vitamins-D’?

Fear is a fact of life – and generally a useful one. Knowing how and when to respond to it is how we become powerful, and how we know we are powerful. If we hide from fear, or try to force others to face it on our behalf, we discover that Reality Department – in its strange twists that were once referred to as ‘the wyrd’ – has a nasty habit of bringing us face-to-face with it once more. This isn’t ‘the Other’ – to use a common form of feminist terminology – doing it ‘to’ us (though others are often its agents): looking closer, following the promptings of that ‘inner voice’, we will always find that we have some responsibility in each incident – if only by choosing to be there. And by understanding that responsibility, we can learn more about our own choices – and increase our power each time we do so.

We always have some responsibility: the important word is ‘some’. Despite the simplistic – and, all too often, convenient – black-and-white notions of blame, no-one has all the responsibility in any incident; no-one has none. Only by assessing exactly how much responsibility we can usefully and honestly accept within each incident can we learn from it, and make new choices. One of the most unhelpful of the many mistakes of feminist theory has been its insistence on portraying women as victims in almost every circumstance. ‘Victims’ have no power, and no choice – either in the past, the present or the future. It’s one of the ways in which women have traditionally been able to entrap others into doing their work for them – the ‘broken-winged angel’ mythos – but as a self-image, playing ‘victim’ can be lethally dangerous, and is always self-disempowering and self-destructive.

Power comes from accepting responsibility: not accepting too little, or too much, but exactly that degree of ‘some’. Anything else is violence – either to self, or to others. It may seem strange to think of the ‘victim’ stance as a form of violence, or abuse of others, but within the terms we’re using here – where violence is “any attempt to empower the self by disempowering any other”, and abuse is “any attempt to export responsibility to others” – that’s exactly what it can be: and often does so easily become.

The notion that to portray oneself as ‘victim’ can be an act of violence, to self if not to others: does this make any sense at present? If it does, remind yourself of some examples – preferably from your own past behaviour – and keep them in mind as you read on.

Correctly, a ‘victim’ is someone who has no responsibility at the present time: it’s not a choice, but a simple fact that they are unable to respond, perhaps because of injury, or shock, or whatever. But it applies only to the present time: the moment that person is able to respond, they have some responsibility – some power to choose, and to change the world for themselves and others. And in choosing, they know they are powerful. To teach women instead to regard themselves as victims, as so much of feminist theory in the past two decades has done, has not helped women at all: it has, in fact, perhaps been the single most monstrous act of violence against women in history. Once this point is fully understood, true ‘woman-power’ becomes possible: but the enormity of the mistake is so vast that few feminists, in particular, seem able to grasp it.[5]

That’s another comment about which you may be none too happy, especially if you still find it easier to blame men for everything! But if you’re familiar with the development of modern feminist theory, compare the focussed anger of the early writings of Germaine Greer with the discoordinated blame of her later writing, or of other near-obsessive ‘blamers’ such Marilyn French, Andrea Dworkin or Catherine MacKinnon. Much of this has settled around the use of blame and the ‘victim’ mode to avoid personal issues, and to teach other women to do the same, so as to justify that evasion. The shift to the active promotion in feminist theory of the ‘victim’ mode takes place in the late 70s and early 80s, as the structural impediments to women’s power were progressively dismantled, and became less of a problem than what Naomi Wolf describes as ‘the feminine fear of power’ – or, more accurately, responsibility.

Do you teach others – particularly women – to view themselves as ‘victims’? If so, why? Although it may well be uncomfortable, explore your own motivation for doing this – what responsibility are you hiding from, in your own behaviour? What can you do to shift your teaching away from the ‘victim mode’, and towards empowerment and responsibility – both for others, and for yourself?

No matter how uncomfortable it may be for feminism, the importance of point this cannot be over-emphasised. One of the essential lessons of the rape-recovery centres was to learn to not treat their clients as ‘victims’, but to help them move from victim to survivor to chooser: a woman powerful in her own right, aware of her choices and the consequences of those choices. Naomi Wolf described how her fellow volunteers at one centre failed to grasp this, although their clients did: “It was not the survivors who drained us: their resilience was energizing. It was the volunteers themselves whose culture of hopelessness was so different from the quality with which survivors brought themselves back to life.”[6] The volunteers’ ‘victim’ mentality imploded into bitter recrimination and back-biting, with tragic results: the centre closed, leaving their clients with nothing. “This must not be taken out of context”, said Wolf, “but there is no other way to say it: the centre starved for lack of fun.”[7] Rape is certainly no laughing matter: and yet many women have said that central to their process of recovery has been the discovery of their own power and joy.

“From victim to survivor to chooser”: an important sequence of changes in self-perception. In what ways do you see yourself as ‘victim’? As ‘survivor’? As ‘chooser’? How does each of these states feel to you? In what ways, and under what circumstances, does your sense of self move between them? Or in what ways, and under what circumstances, do you choose to move between them?

Remember some examples of each of these states in your own life. Moving from one extreme to the other – from victim, to survivor, to chooser – how do you reclaim your power? From where do you reclaim power? How – and from where – do you reclaim joy?

In part this was supported by a major thrust of the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, which was to break away from the passive voice in language – “I was stopped”, “they did it to me” – and instead to show women, and to help women to see themselves, as agents of change and choice – “I stopped”, “I chose this to happen around me”. But the ‘victim’-oriented feminism of the 1980s and 1990s, for a variety of reasons which seem mostly concerned with the use of language for ‘other-blame’ in what Robert Hughes termed “the Culture of Complaint”[8], returned to promoting the passive style once more: “blind and stupid – or blinded and stupefied, as some feminists would insist on describing it”, commented Lynne Segal.[9] Yet in promoting it, those same feminists seemed to be unaware that they were in effect promoting a return of women’s self-perception to where it was in the 1950s – with a real risk of wiping out all the real gains that feminism has created. Power comes not from blaming others, but from accepting responsibility: anything else is violence, if only to one’s-self.

One of the more interesting variants of evasion of responsibility through ‘other-blame’, in feminist theory, is the concept of ‘the male gaze’:

It is a fine spring day, and with an utter lack of self-consciousness, I am bouncing down the street. Suddenly … catcalls and whistles fill the air. These noises are clearly sexual in intent and they are meant for me; they come from across the street. I freeze. As Sartre would say, I have been petrified by the gaze of the Other. My face flushes and my motions have become stiff and self-conscious. The body which only a moment before I had inhabited with such ease now floods my consciousness. I have been made into an object.[10]

According to the theory, the ‘male gaze’ converts everything to the status of ‘object’, leaving it with no free will and no independent existence; and according to the theory, only men do this. (In reality, whilst men do seem often to view the world in an object-centred way, women most certainly do treat ‘the Other’ as ‘object’: Naomi Wolf, for example, admitted in her later book “Fire With Fire” that one of her primary, if unconscious, motives for writing her earlier book “The Beauty Myth” was to deny how she herself treated men as sex-objects.[11]) But in contrast to this ‘male’ object-centred view of the world, an equivalent ‘female’ view of the world is subject-centred: everything is seen as in relationship to self, without a clear boundary between Self and Other. When dealing with people, this can be useful, because without it empathy cannot exist; but it can have some very strange side-effects if the same approach is used to deal with all of the complexities and interweavings of Reality Department. A woman doctor, for example, commented about the problems she’d seen arising from

women’s tendency to react emotionally to situations rather than to discuss facts in a sensible practical way. I don’t mean that women can’t talk about facts sensibly but there will always be this emotional overlay, e.g. if [the] washing machine doesn’t work it’s doing it on purpose![12]

If the ‘male gaze’ turns everything into an object, what we could reasonably describe as the ‘female gaze’ turns everything into a subject. In an object-centred worldview, if something (or someone – which, since it’s treated as object, comes to much the same) fails to perform as expected, the responsibility is on the Self, not the Other, to do something about it. In order to create conformity between Self and Other, the Self marches into the space of the Other: the man rolls up his sleeves, gets down to it, starts yelling, demanding or enforcing compliance. There’s no shortage of examples of this…

Wolf-whistles and cat-calls are demands for attention from the Other; but so is the common male tendency to respond to any problem by ‘doing’ or ‘fixing’. What are some examples of these from your own life? In what ways do you approach the world from this perspective?

A subject-centred worldview, though, expects compliance: if someone (or something – which, since it’s treated as subject, comes to much the same) fails to perform as expected, the responsibility is on the Other, not the Self, to do something about it. In order to create conformity between Self and Other, the Self does… nothing whatsoever – because the Other should know what the Self wants, and adjust its own behaviour accordingly. In effect, it’s assumed that there is no such thing as Other: the nearest equivalent exists only as an extension of the Self – a subordinate subject of the Self, which exists only to serve the Self and to do the Self’s bidding. Unlike the object-centred worldview, in which the Self attempts to override the Other’s free-will in order to enforce its desired result, in the subject-centred worldview the Other has no right to free will or to independent existence. Since it exists only to serve the Self, the Other has no rights at all: all it has are responsibilities – for the Self’s well-being, the Self’s comfort, the Self’s every whim…

At this point this may look a little abstract: but in reality it’s no more abstract than that concept of the ‘male gaze’. To put it into a more practical context, read that section again, with your own name in place of ‘the Self’. As you do this, who comes to mind as ‘the Other’? Your children? Your partner? Or those anonymous, unknown, unacknowledged people, perhaps, whose task it is to “make the world safe for women”?

In the subject-centred worldview, the Self has no responsibility, for anything: if the Self wants the world – the interaction between Self and Other – to change, the onus to create that change is not on the Self, but on the Other. And if the Other, as subject of the Self, fails to make that change, it can and should expect to be punished. This attitude is common among children – particularly in their tendency to mete out ‘punishment’ to toys or other objects that ‘misbehave’; but just as an object-centred worldview is common for men, the subject-centred worldview stays with many women for the whole of their lives. When these become gender-rôle stereotypes, both worldviews assign all responsibility, all action, and all blame, to men. While men ‘do’, women simply ‘are‘, and may come to expect the world to conform itself to their desires.

This still may not be an easy concept to grasp, precisely because it can seem so ‘normal’. For illustration, would you find yourself thinking – particularly when you’re under stress – that “it’s doing it on purpose” if the washing-machine breaks down, or the car won’t start? If you’re feeling down, do you expect your partner or your friends to know this, without being told? If you want someone to phone you, do you find yourself blaming them, rather than taking action yourself? All of these are examples of a ‘subject-centred’ worldview. What other examples come to mind, from your own life?

Even in their gender-stereotyped forms, each worldview can work well within its own context: men can learn the power and creativity that comes from working with objects, and women can find their own power both through their relationships, and within those relationships. But outside of an appropriate context, the results of these worldviews can be disastrous – and violent. Trying to use force with someone who’s frightened – a classic male response to frustration, which I know I’ve fallen into from time to time – can be lethally destructive; but demanding that the world should change itself – a classic female response to frustration – can be a singularly futile exercise. People can be nagged into submission, but machines and other objects don’t have ears to listen, or minds to be manipulated…

Misused and misapplied, an object-centred worldview can be immensely destructive: if we don’t wish to wade through the morass of feminist literature on the ‘male gaze’, we need only look at any city environment to see the results of the object-centred worldview’s insensitivity. But the same is true of a subject-centred worldview: it can be just as violent and just as destructive, although the results may be harder to see on the surface. When used as a tool for Other-blame rather than as a tool for self-exploration, the feminist concept of the ‘male gaze’ is one such example of the violence of the ‘female gaze’…

We’ll look at this again later in the book, but for now, what do you think – or feel – this violence would look like? Why would the results be “harder to see on the surface”?

Another example is one of the key causes of women’s disempowerment. Most girls learn in childhood that there are strong rewards for self-denigration, for self-disempowerment: yet the main teachers of this learned powerlessness are not men, but other women – or, more often, other girls. Feminist writers such as Marilyn French have blamed men alone for this self-destructive habit, since on the surface men may appear to be the main benefactors: but in reality it’s established much earlier than adulthood, and usually in an environment which excludes all males. In the schoolyard scramble for affection and attention, girls get to be wanted by being ‘nice’, by deferring to other girls’ wishes. They learn to put themselves down, and to prop up the egos of others. And they don’t have to – in fact mustn’t – ‘do’ anything at all, other than to act as ‘subject’, and try to predict and respond to what the other girl wants. In her novel Cat’s Eye, the Canadian writer Margaret Attwood describes this process happening to a ten-year-old girl settling into a new school after a childhood spent mostly on the road:

I begin to want things I’ve never wanted before: braids, a dressing-gown, a purse of my own. Something is unfolding, being revealed to me. I see that there’s a whole world of girls and their doings that has been unknown to me, and that I can be part of it without making any effort at all. I don’t have to keep up with anyone, run as fast, aim as well, make loud explosive noises, decode messages, die on cue. I don’t have to think about whether I’ve done these things well, as well as a boy. All I have to do is sit on the floor and cut frying pans out of the Eaton’s Catalogue with embroidery scissors, and say I’ve done it badly. Partly this is a relief.[13]

Boys receive the opposite pressure from their peers: to perform, to be ‘the best’ – or be excluded as a ‘failure’. By the end of the first two or three years at school, each sex arrives at the ‘appropriate’ stereotype: while boys ‘do’, girls simply ‘are‘. And these stereotypes are enforced, often rigidly, often violently, not by adults but by other children. And the results can – and often do – last a lifetime.

Does this describe your own childhood? What would have been – or were, and are – the apparent advantages to you of this self-attitude? What do you feel have been the costs to yourself in your own life? And who, ultimately, is responsible – both then, and now?

In the schoolyard, the boys’ hierarchies are visible, like the violence which often maintains it; but the girls’ world is one of Machiavellian manipulation, constantly-shifting alliances of Byzantine complexity and inscrutability, maintained by unfathomable – yet easily-deniable – punishments of exclusion and isolation. An incident on the London Underground reminded columnist Julie Myerson of this: “I’m tense”, she wrote, “with the memory of a particular kind of tyranny: the malicious, totalitarian, false logic of a gang of girls. They don’t do anything, these girls – nothing that you could explain and get sympathy for, anyway. And yet now, on the Northern line, six girls momentarily trigger an alarm system I’d hoped was no longer there.”[14] The violence is real: yet it’s remarkably hard to describe…

Naomi Wolf, writing about what she termed “the feminine fear of power”, commented that as a result of this subtle violence, “girls’ social organization is profoundly subjective and undemocratic. The ‘system of government’ girls learn in the playground ranges from a ‘popularity oligarchy’ to an Evita-type personality cult that is, at best, a benign dictatorship.”[15] The need to maintain relationships and a resultant semblance of unity leads at best to ‘rule by charisma’, at worst to ‘consensus by intimidation’ in which, although the results of the violence are plain to see, no-one can ever be shown to be responsible. From my own observation of some well-known ‘feminist leaders’ in action, and from descriptions in more thoughtful feminist studies[16], it’s clear that ‘consensus by intimidation’ is extremely common in current feminism… and it certainly doesn’t contribute to women’s empowerment.

‘Consensus by intimidation’ occurs when you disagree with someone, but publicly you say you that agree with them, perhaps to ‘keep them happy’, perhaps because you feel you have to show a semblance of unity, perhaps because you’re afraid they’ll be angry if you say what you think or feel.

Which men in your life do you do this with? Why? What are you not saying to them?

Which women in your life do you do this with? Why? What are you not saying to them?

When you know you disagree with them, yet they claim to act with your authority and with your full agreement – because you’ve said so – what do you feel, about them, and about yourself?

To not state our own truth is, quite simply, dishonest, although our reasons for hiding it often seem all too understandable. Yet what is the cost of that self-dishonesty to you, to those others, and to the society at large? What could you do to be more open and honest about what you feel and think, rather than submitting so often to ‘consensus by intimidation’?

Combined with the confusions of the ‘female gaze’, current feminism is littered with personality cults that would put Eva Peron’s to shame – and are probably a great deal more violent. For practical reasons, it’s best to avoid naming any names, but anyone who’s read much feminist theory, or watched certain self-styled ‘feminists’ in action on campus or on the conference circuit, would be able to recognise all too many. As the American feminist philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers put it, these women have betrayed women: totally.[17]

In particular, they’ve betrayed women’s right to empowerment, by subordinating other women’s needs to their own, and dressing up that violence against women as righteous indignation against men. One particular woman comes to mind: her young teenage son was killed by what she terms ‘patriarchal technology’ – namely a car, in a street accident; but the underlying source of so much of her righteous rage is her refusal to face her own responsibility in his death, having pushed him out to wander on his own in a foreign town whilst she attended a conference so aggressively ‘women-only’ that no male, of whatever age, was allowed in the building. I’ve been with her, or around her, at a number of conferences and elsewhere: whilst I understand her inner pain, the results of that denial have not been pleasant to watch. A woman publisher I know once described her, brusquely, as ‘a thug’, and it’s an accurate description: she demands other women’s attention – and gets it, in what she evidently thinks is ‘consensus agreement’ with her ideas, but is really little more than ‘consensus by intimidation’.

This isn’t unusual: if anything, it’s become the norm.[18] Many, if not most, of the well-known ‘names’ in current feminism have huge personal issues which they refuse to face, which they attempt to export to other women, and which are often visibly the real reason for the intensity of their Other-blame. Since these women brand all who question them as ‘traitors’, real feminists – those who really are concerned about women’s empowerment – are the ones who are silenced: and in the process, everyone loses – including the ‘blamers’ themselves.

At this point it would be worthwhile reviewing what you found earlier in your own experience of ‘denial’ and ‘projection’, about denying responsibility and projecting the blame onto everyone else. Notice how easily this leads to ‘consensus by intimidation’: if responsibility is successfully exported to others, that ‘proves’ that the denial and projection were ‘valid’ – “see, even you agree that it’s all your fault!”

Think back to some examples of where others have done this to you – blamed you for ‘provoking’ them into violence, perhaps. What did you feel when they denied their own responsibility, and tried to project it onto you?

Think back to some examples of where you’ve done this (or tried to do this to others) – blamed them for ‘provoking’ you into violence, perhaps. What feeling – such as guilt or shame, for example – were you trying to export to those others? In what ways did you try to export that feeling – through blame, through bringing up the past, or what? Did your denial and attempted export ‘work’? – in other words, even if those others took on the blame or the guilt, did you ever truly export the problem to them, or did it come back to haunt you anyway in its own weird way?

Everyone has some responsibility in any incident: no-one has all of it, no-one has none – and power is reclaimed by assessing exactly that degree of ‘some’, and taking responsibility for it ourselves. Think back those examples again: what responsibility did you have in each case? What are the feelings you use to hide from this? What are the feelings that tell you when you’ve reached that true degree of ‘some’?

A common tactic has been to avoid responsibilities in the present by focussing on the past, inventing blame where it cannot be challenged, since the relevant facts which would diffuse the blame are no longer to be found, and the differences in context are carefully masked. The all-pervasive concept of ‘the patriarchy’ is perhaps the best example in feminist theory: for many self-styled ‘feminists’, it’s little more than a dump-bucket for all of their own issues which they refuse to face, and can find a way in which to blame them on men. This ultimately reinforces women’s sense of disempowerment – including their own – because power and responsibility are deeply interwoven.

The so-called ‘patriarchy’ was as much the result of women’s systematic avoidance of responsibility, and of the ‘protection’ myths of the Angel Factor, as it was to do with men’s actions and men’s choices. ‘Protection’ was so total that even until relatively recently women’s legal responsibilities – and legal rights – were little different from those of a child: a point which was one of the major complaints of Seneca Falls “Women’s Rights Convention” of 1848. But they sometimes failed to notice that men were legally responsible for women’s actions: if a woman stole, or abused her children, or injured someone in the presence of her husband, he was the one who went to jail. There’s a popular feminist misconception that violence against women was and still is legally condoned, and that the phrase “the rule of thumb” was coined by the eighteenth-century jurist William Blackstone as a limit to the size of stick with which a man could beat his wife: yet such a comment never appears in Blackstone’s commentaries on the Common Law.[19] What does appear is something much more specific:

The husband…, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or his children. … But this power of correction was confined within reasonable bounds and the husband was prohibited from using any violence to his wife. … But with us, in the politer reign of Charles the Second, this power of correction began to be doubted; and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband.[20]

By 1870, legislation specifically intended to protect women from almost any kind of violence was in force in almost every US state. Some US legislation goes much further back, even before “the politer reign of Charles the Second” – for example, a Massachusetts Bay Colony edict of 1655 states, with an unusual degree of equality: “No man shall strike his wife nor any woman her husband on penalty of such fine not exceeding ten pounds for one offense, or such corporal punishment as the County shall determine.”[21] Few if any of these laws protecting women have been repealed. What has been added is a great deal of law which specifically permits, or even encourages, abuse of men…

What feminists have described as ‘the patriarchy’ would more accurately be a form of ‘paediarchy’ – rule by, for or on behalf of the childish. A paediarchy is an institutionalised form of abuse, in which a group is given, or gives itself, almost all authority, yet most or all responsibility is assigned to someone else. The so-called ‘patriarchy’ was a fairly complex form of this, in which men tended to assign themselves authority and responsibility for the external world, and women tended to be infantilised as ‘protected persons’. In the home, however, the positions were generally reversed, with women holding the authority and responsibility – the word ‘economy’ literally means ‘the management of the household’. In a peasant environment, management of the household is a highly skilled task, and the focus for all external activities. But with the erosion of the peasant economy from the eighteenth century onwards, the ‘housewife’ role became steadily de-skilled, and its status all but destroyed. The Angel Factor’s myths became a substitute for meaning: and what we now have in ‘Western’ societies, courtesy of current feminism, is a full-blown paediarchy in which almost the entire culture is focussed on pandering to the whims of a relatively small group of women. There is constant pressure – or, more accurately, abuse – whose aim is to assign all authority, but no responsibility, to that self-selected sub-group of women[22]: and authority without responsibility is the hallmark of all forms of paediarchy, whether of ‘the patriarchy’ or the modern-day ‘femocracy’. In the meantime, those women – and, for that matter, men – who do take responsibility are derided and denigrated: which again is characteristic in all forms of paediarchy, because a side-effect of taking responsibility is that it inevitably exposes the denial, the dishonesty and the immaturity that underpin the paediarchy.

There’s a childish pastime that can be seen being played out time after time in the playground, the household, the office and – all too obviously – in politics: “round and round in the usual old game: I take the credit, and you take the blame”. That’s paediarchy: a grab for ‘authority’ without responsibility – the ‘right’ to bully others, or to export our own issues to others, without any kind of comeback.

When violence, intimidation and denigration of some group goes unchallenged, or there’s an expectation of unquestioning service of some self-selected individual or group: those are the symptoms of rampant paediarchy in a family or a society.

What men have you seen promoting those attitudes – expecting unquestioning service, and bullying those who don’t provide it?

What women have you seen promoting those attitudes: expecting unquestioning service – if only in the form of others who can always be blamed – and bullying those who both don’t and do provide it?

Think back to some occasions when you’ve done this yourself – if only in childhood? Explore for a moment why you did this: what did you feel about yourself, and about others, when you did so?

The other half of paediarchy, though, and the half that really keeps it going, is that we let it happen – through ‘consensus by intimidation’, through an attitude of “anything for a quiet life”, or whatever. Which men do you allow to ‘get away with it’? Which women? Which children? Or pets, perhaps? What are your reasons for doing so? What do you feel, about them and about yourself, when you do so?

The only way out of the chaos created by paediarchy is to develop maturity, a balance of authority and responsibility: and in societal terms that requires a culture which supports and acknowledges maturity. This in turn needs a balance of analysis and intuition, a balance of the ‘object-centred’ and ‘subject-centred’ worldviews. Men sometimes have difficulty merging the two, rather than going for one or the other; women sometimes have difficulty separating them, to separate emotion from fact. Some feminists, however, have been keen to not separate them, because, as Katie Roiphe indicates:

Rape is a natural trump card for feminism. Arguments about rape can be used to sequester feminism in the teary province of trauma and crisis. … By blocking analysis with its claims to unique pandemic suffering, the rape crisis becomes a powerful source of authority.[23]

Yet this ‘authority’ is not true power, but abuse and violence of paediarchy: it depends on the ability to blame some Other, and assign to them the responsibility for facing one’s own fears and issues. In the same way, by blurring emotion and fact, some feminists have claimed to have an ‘intellectual’ foundation for their work without any of the rigorous intellectual honesty that true academic study requires. This is nothing new, of course: male armchair Freudians and armchair revolutionaries have played this game for decades, if not centuries. But as mythologist Janet McCrickard comments, much self-styled ‘feminist theory’ rejects analysis completely, with results that could hardly be called an improvement:

The effects of this [rejection of analysis] on the feminist study of myth and religion have been dire. Sceptical enquiry, careful reasoning, intellectual discipline and factual accuracy are anathematised as so-called Sun-consciousness – men’s way of thinking – and thrown out of the window in favour of Moon-consciousness, “fantasies, intuitions and dreams… {which are} more legitimate and more to be trusted than Sun-consciousness”. As a result the modern spiritual-feminist texts … characteristically make no distinction between fact and speculation.

Moon-consciousness, it seems, absolves women from any responsibility to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Question-begging, circular argument, deletion of the agent (very common), using the word “all” when “some” is correct, unwarranted conclusions, outrageous generalisation, equivocation, deleting personal pronouns, compounded errors, wishful thinking and every classic variety of false-logic technique proliferate on every page, to say nothing of factual inaccuracies and information stripped of every vestige of its context – all these techniques are used to grossly distort and misrepresent the history and content of mythology. All is sacrificed to the doctrinal need to see the Moon as female, and to avoid at all costs being contaminated by any of those things deemed to belong to the solar principle.[24]

To make the point, McCrickard’s published work includes a detailed study of the mythology of sun-goddesses and moon-gods – archetypes which are not supposed to exist, according to the worldviews of either ‘patriarchy’ or feminist spirituality’, but which in reality are just as common worldwide as the ‘normal’ archetypes of sun-gods and moon-goddesses.[25] Her experience for having said this was fairly typical, and her response was typically framed in careful language: “[As a woman,] one of the things I most appreciate about living in the Western world at this time is the freedom to dissent – freedom of conscience and belief as well as freedom not to believe. … [Yet now in the women’s-spirituality movement] there is an absolute taboo against criticizing any women’s work… strenuous efforts are made to silence dissent, ranging from verbal bullying to attempted censorship, but in any case the dissenter is usually nervous of being branded negative, antifeminist or politically incorrect.”[26] In other words, ‘consensus by intimidation’…

It’s a fundamental principle of paediarchy that there’s always someone else who’s to blame for whatever may go wrong. But unlike the concept of ‘patriarchy’, with its comforting, convenient myth of malicious patriarchs, there are no ‘others’ whom we can blame. The ‘paediarchs’ are ourselves: we all have our problems with our own childishness. The only way out is to stop pretending otherwise – and to work with ourselves and each other to break the cycle of disincentives against maturity which maintain the delusions of paediarchy.

In this respect, men’s problems with maturity tend to be different from women’s: men tend to overrate their abilities and their responsibilities, for example, whereas women tend to underrate theirs. Yet for most women the greatest barrier to a true maturity is almost certainly the insistent denial of the fact, let alone the scale, of women’s violence. In own experience – mostly as an observer, I’m glad to say – few women recognise how powerful they are, and even fewer recognise how violent they are, or even recognise their own violence at all. In most cases this ‘invisibility’ is the result of what might best be called a systematic unawareness; but in some cases the assaults are invisible, or at least ‘deniable’ and untraceable, because a great deal of care is taken to make them so. Yet power cannot coexist with violence: so the next step towards claiming a true power for women involves their facing up to their own responsibility – though not blame – for women’s pervasive habit of invisible assault.

[1] Extract from the National Strategy on Violence Against Women, quoted in Andrew McIntyre, ‘Time for a big picture of domestic violence’, in “The Age” [Melbourne], 15 Feb 1995.

[2] Glen Tomasetti, ‘Aging Positively’, in “Judy’s Punch” (Melbourne University feminist magazine), Sept 1994, p.39-40.

[3] One of the chanted slogans at the Reclaim The Night Rally was “Who am I responsible for? No-one!

[4] Dr Valerie Graves, “The Other Vitamin-D”, in “Mother and Baby” magazine (GB), various issues, 1965-1975.

[5] Those feminists who have explored the problem are well aware of the dilemma, but are none too comfortable about its implications: see, for example, Lynne Segal’s ‘troubled thoughts on contemporary feminism’ in her book “Is The Future Female?”.

[6] Naomi Wolf, “Fire With Fire”, p.169.

[7] Op. cit., p.168.

[8] See Robert Hughes, “The Culture of Complaint”, especially Section 1, ‘Culture and the broken polity’.

[9] Lynne Segal, in “Is The Future Female?”.

[10] Sandra Lee Bartky, “Femininity and Domination”, p.22, quoted in Christina Hoff Sommers, “Who Stole Feminism?”, p.27.

[11] “I now understand a little better that I wrote ‘The Beauty Myth’ not only because I knew the harm that comes from being treated like an object, but also because of my own struggles to try to resist my temptation to treat men like beautiful objects” – a statement that shows considerable courage and candour: see “Fire With Fire”, pp.241-2.

[12] Dr. Valerie Graves, handwritten annotation in personal copy of Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk, ‘Greenham Women Everywhere’.

[13] Margaret Attwood, “Cat’s Eye”, p.54.

[14] Julie Myerson, ‘How Anorak put me back in the litter bin’, in “The Independent” [London], 30 January 1995.

[15] Naomi Wolf, “Fire With Fire”, p.290.

[16] See, for example, Katie Roiphe’s “The Morning After”, Christina Hoff Sommers’ “Who Stole Feminism?” or Lynne Segal’s “Is The Future Female?”

[17] In her book “Who Stole Feminism? how women have betrayed women” Hoff Sommers illustrates precisely just how damaging that betrayal has been, and how and by whom it was – and continues to be – perpetrated: at present it is, if anything, still getting worse.

[18] … a point emphasised by Christina Hoff Sommers: see her description of the 1992 (US) National Women’s Studies Association conference, in “Who Stole Feminism?”, pp.29-33.

[19] … a point apparently well known even to some of those women who promote this ‘feminist fiction’: see Christina Hoff Sommers, “Who Stole Feminism?”, note 52, p.296.

[20] William Blackstone (1723-80), “Commentaries on the Laws of England”, Vol.1, p.36, quoted in Christina Hoff Sommers, “Who Stole Feminism?”, p.205 (my emphasis).

[21] Elizabeth Pleck, ‘Wife Beating in Nineteenth Century America’, in “Victimology: An International Journal”, Vol.4 (1979), p.61.

[22] {ref to Eva Cox’s dream of running BHP}

[23] Katie Roiphe, “The Morning After”, pp.56-7.

[24] Janet McCrickard, “Eclipse Of The Sun”, p.28-9. She singles out two well-known, much-quoted and supposedly factual books – Sjöö and Mør’s “Great Cosmic Mother” and Barbara Walker’s “A Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets” – as “the chief offender[s] here… So intensely garbled and confused are both of these books … that it would take a work thrice their respective lengths to even begin to disentangle, refute and correct the misinformation they contain.” A disturbing parallel may also be found with the writings – or ravings – of Adolf Hitler, who likewise argued that “fantasies, intuitions and dreams {are} more legitimate and more to be trusted” than any form of analysis or physical fact…

[25] For example, the reason for the popular imagery of ‘the Man i’ th’ Moon’ is not – as one feminist theorist argued – that men have hijacked a symbol which belongs exclusively to women, but because in the Icelandic mythology from which it’s ultimately derived, the moon is a reflection of his more beautiful sister, the sun: see Janet McCrickard, “Eclipse of the Sun” for this and other stories from around the world.

[26] See, for example, her letter in “The Ley Hunter” (a British magazine on alternative views of archaeology), issue 119, 1993, p.22-24.

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