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A RADICAL PROJECT
AN INTERVIEW WITH CATHRINE HOLST ON FEMINISM
BY GORANA OGNJENOVIC AND Lene Auestad
GO: WHAT IS feminism? Is feminism only concerned with discussing typical issues such as abortion, equal pay and “teaching” women in third world countries how oppressed they are? Is it more important to identify oneself with the feminist movement or is it more important to act as a feminist in daily practice? Is individualism a major problem for today’s feminism?
LA: I think individualism is a problem in the sense that there is a fragmentation, as a reaction to what happened in the 70’s. One has become very frightened of being categorized, of being seen as a typical 70’s feminist. Expressing oneself as an individual has become the most important thing; I want to be able to represent precisely what I like, and at the same time I claim the right to call myself a feminist. Being an individual has become the major focus, to such a degree that any cause in question is often completely lost.
GO: Does that mean that feminist theory stands in need of reform?
HOLST: TO ME, IT IS NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE that people should refer to themselves as feminists. The most interesting thing is how people think and how they act. When a lot of people in Norway, even men and right-wing people call themselves feminists, it is because they accept a general norm of equality between the sexes. But this is not so interesting, because this is something many people declare without even trying to live up to this norm in practice. More important than such declarations is being able to agree on political issues, independently of how one refers to oneself. As for the tendency to repeatedly point out the fact that women are individuals, and not only members of a group, I think this has been a justified reaction to a collectivism that went too far in the 70’s, but we may have gone too far in the opposite direction today.
Individualism as being self-centred, self-absorbed is one kind of individualism. Another kind of individualism is moral individualism – according to which each individual should be listened to when political projects are concerned. This is extremely important. The fact that women with other kinds of experiences have questioned the ruling paradigms is precisely what has «opened up» feministic thinking. For instance, women from other cultures have at least conceptualized matters differently. More important than these categories «Are you a feminist?», «Are you an individualist?» is what you yourself understand by these concepts.
GO: NOT LONG AGO there was an article in Dagbladet (Norwegian newspaper) where someone wrote, in connection with the issue of abortion, that feminism has taken more human lives than Nazism. Where is this coming from? Why do some people find feminism so offensive? Which sensitive point does feminism irritate since the reactions can be so brutal?
HOLST: WHAT MOST PEOPLE FAIL TO UNDERSTAND is that feminism demands very radical social changes. It is one of the most radical projects there is. To demand equality between the sexes, to really grasp what that means. I am not even saying that it is unproblematic, an egalitarian society with regard to gender, where you shall not expect different degrees of self-sacrifice from women and men – these things are so deeply culturally grounded. I think this could change our society in unforeseeable ways – and in rather problematic ways if we are not able to develop new forms of solidarity that do not rest on the traditional gender pattern and on the subordination of women. We are very strongly shaped by the cultural expectations of what it means to be a woman or a man, which leads to aggression in a lot of people. If codes of gender are too radically overstepped, they cannot take it, they are deeply worried by it. Another reason for the aggression is that private and public issues are so easily connected, both to women and to men, when feminism is discussed. Some relate it to their divorce. Some may have experienced assaults. Events in one’s life, personal upsetting experiences, or personally very enriching experiences, can very easily be linked with the feminist political agenda. Thus it becomes very difficult to lead a public conversation where issues and persons are kept apart.
CULTURE AND VIOLENCE
GO: My understanding of feminism as “narrow-minded” is connected with the fact that in this country a lot of the arguments go around the two issues, abortion and equal pay for women and man. Both of these issues for someone who comes from a socialist society were not feminist issues. Where we come from there was no difference in pay between women and men, and abortion was allowed. For example in the advance Western countries we encounter a lot of women who say that they are feminists, and then they enter a marriage where they endure an awful lot, only because there is a societal norm stating that you should not be alone, you shall have a family. It is a kind of cynicism – a lot of people are feminists just as long as it suits their life style. As you also wrote about the feminist movement in Afghanistan, foreign policy is one thing, feminism is a Western product, another thing is having it out with oneself – are all the feminists in theory also feminists in practice?
HOLST: This is why these issues are so hard to discuss. It is bound up with the entire idea of heterosexual love. Is it possible to desire someone within a wholly equal relationship? The underlying issues are beliefs that when you desire someone, there is a certain inequality. The sustenance of desire demands that one of the parties should be subordinate. But is it not possible to develop forms of life where desire may well be linked with difference – but not with patriarchate and being heterosexual?
A colleague of mine has studied gender equality in the Czech Republic, where women were integrated in the labour marked and had completely equal wages. Yet they worked double to an extreme degree, doing all the work in the home, and the number of rapes was high. But precisely because the sexes were officially equal, these things were difficult to discuss.
GO: How much do we really know about how women in Morocco, Iran, and Iraq are really suppressed, as we believe them to be? How much do we really know about what are they doing about their own situation?
HOLST: This needs to be examined. Pointing to such general features of other cultures is very comfortable, it is not very daring, while it is also of course very important to point to where it is the case that they are oppressive. This is where social anthropologists perform very valuable work with in-depth studies of cultural contexts. What may appear in a certain way on the surface may also have different sides to it. There are interesting discussions among feminists about these questions. Non-Western gender researchers have seen things which Western feminists have regarded as being obvious examples of patriarchal practises as having different aspects to them.
GO: THERE IS ALSO A PROBLEM OF SYSTEMATICALLY EXECUTED VIOLENCE like in ex-Yugoslavia, where men where symbols of power, while women performed power in other ways. Once society was lawless the aggression was immediately released. How could anyone commit such crime, take part in a mass rape without thinking that one day the war will be over – the next day you shall have to live with it? What are the odds that the same thing could have happened here, tomorrow, if this state would turn lawless, where the power asymmetry is shaped in a slightly different form?
HOLST: One thing is that violence occurs, but why does exactly this kind of violence arise? Why is it that one makes men do such things to women? Why do they not rather direct their aggression towards the ones who are to blame? It is terrible, and deeply depressing. I think it has something to do with what happens when men feel that they loose respect. I think some deeply rooted cultural mechanisms are at work here. Even when men are raised in an enlightened culture, are highly educated and so on, and again such things can happen. Enlightenment and cultivation suddenly turn out to be very superficial – patriarchy is still alive and well in most places, if not always easily visible, it exists in the underground.
WOMEN AND MEN IN THE ACADEMIC WORLD
GO: OFTEN ONE MEETS feminist female academics who appear to be so uncomfortable with themselves as women. They take over a male language and are purely power-oriented. How can they be capable of enlightening others when they live in this way themselves? They build up an ideology that they do not believe in, or practice. They can even behave worse than men in the system of power. Hence the question is: Is the point of the whole thing to become the same as a man?
HOLST: WOMEN MUST CONTINUOUSLY relate to this as a conflict, while men do not need to do so. And all of this is not necessarily conscious. Cultivating oneself takes heavy work no matter where one is. If one is to change a culture, there must be a mass that is capable of critical thinking to change that culture’s norms and ethos. One demands too much of singular women in male-dominated cultures when one expect them to be able to achieve a change all by themselves. It often becomes a strategy that one, as a woman, must prove oneself to be even better than men. I often see that women in male-dominated academic environments either have organized themselves on the outside, at the cost of their influence, or that they are inside and have become as hard as nails. I am thinking that they must have been put to some hard tests that have made them like that. But I have also met many socialist-men who hardly live as they teach, to put it mildly. I find no reason why one should demand more, humanly regarded, of women than of men. After all, the author must be distinguished from the text. There are an awful lot of unpleasant professors, furthermore, that aren’t feminists.
THERE IS A FUNDAMENTAL feminist insight in all of this – the fact that one discusses female academics and the way in which they deal with their sexual identity. We do not in fact discuss men in that way. It must be lovely to work within public institutions as a man and avoid that kind of questioning of one’s conduct with regard to gender. I myself notice how I repeatedly think of how as appear as “gender”. In the academic world it is very important to be taken seriously. Many women have told me of the fact that they have “lost” in an academic setting if their male conversation partner becomes to “conscious” of speaking to a woman – she is then no longer seen as an equally competent scholar. But I think it is different if one finds oneself in a research environment that is more mixed with regard to gender.
GO: One does
observe many men who call themselves feminists, but their support of
is purely strategic.
LA: THERE IS ALSO THIS VERY COMMON CULTURAL OPPOSITION between something being very feminine on the one hand and serious on the other, or very sexy on the one hand and serious on the other.
HOLST: This is something very unfair. While being a male academic can be very potent, you can be a very sexual person, and while many male professors are able to pick up lots of women, 60-year-old female professors are not regarded as being equally sexy. This is not only intended in a trivial sense, it is an interesting fact in itself that a male intellect is much more easily compatible with sexuality. Karin Widerberg wrote about this in Kunnskapens kjønn (The Gender of Knowledge). She puts some of this into words in this book, how she felt that there was a split between the head and the body, how she experienced thinking a lot about her appearance and felt that there were clear limits to how she could behave, how far she could go before being reduced to a kind of object of desire. I find that story very sad.
GO: It is something one hears from the business world, that the presentation is part of the work. Body and clothes is part of the presentation. It is problematic when men sexualise us, but when we are sexualising ourselves for the purpose of manipulating them in the work situations, then suddenly all that does not seem as bad.
HOLST: THERE ARE LOTS OF STRONG MYTHS ABOUT THIS. It takes very little, in a university context as well, before there are rumours that women get things through sex. These stories are usually completely unfounded. Another thing is that bosses want their mistresses to be mistresses, not to employ them. I do not know of any woman who has gotten a position at the university because of having slept with someone. What happens in such a case is that she has to find a position somewhere else, because she is not taken seriously in that environment. It is ruthless. I think these are all problems that men can allow themselves not to relate to. The attitude is often that women can just get out and do something else. But what else should they then be doing? Stay at home? There are some female academics that have a very feminine style, with low necklines and so on. I find that cool, but at the same time I imagine it must cost them a lot.
RESPONSIBILITY AND EXPERIENCE
LA: RECENtLY THERE HAVE BEEN DEBATES about why I, as a woman, should feel particularly obligated to act in solidarity with other women because I am a woman.
GO: My recent experience from the US is that younger women actually protest against their tax money being used for paying benefits to single mothers; or against the use of helping agencies that provide services for protecting only women’s causes, such as giving a free legal services for women that had run of from their abusive husbands and risk loosing everything (including the children) just because they are living in shelters and do not have money to pay a lawyer. There is something about neo-liberalism that has struck; there is a lack of will to identify not only with mistreated women, but also with anyone who is in need in general.
LA: The interesting question is whether there is some kind of special obligation. Does everyone have the same obligation, or are some people, due to specific kinds of experiences, more obligated than others?
HOLST: THIS IS AN
INTERESTING QUESTION. Middle class men often confront women of the
with their lack of solidarity with working class women. But then men of
middle class are supposedly also responsible for correcting injustice,
women and to men of the working class. It is difficult to put into
“women’s solidarity” is or should be. I am unable to
conceptualize it fully. It
appears crueler if women do not protest against the closing down of
refuges than if men fail to do so. One could of course say: Women who
protest do not know their own good, since all women could possibly end
up in a
situation where they need women’s refuge shelters to go to. But
that would be a
purely instrumental justification based on self-interest. The point is
gives rise to an extra moral indignation when women do not stand up for
women. Is this indignation justified or not? I am not fully in
myself at this point. One problem is that men with power can be let off
hook far too easily if the problems of women are to be made
responsibility only. Take sexualized violence, for example. Even the
“night watchman-state” is to protect the citizens from
violence. It is a
fundamental right. There is no reason why men should not react to it.
GO: BUT ARE WE ABLE TO CHANGE the interpretation of such social symbols so quickly through political changes?
HOLST: It is about the limitations of politics. There was a larger optimism on this point in the earlier days of the feminist movement. There is a limit to how much you can change through political methods and everyday practices. One can, for instance, give the same toys to boys and to girls, do all of the similar things that we can do, and still there are things which remain deeply rooted in our culture.
LA: And then the parents have at the same time communicated a lot unconsciously.
precisely. This is what feminist psychoanalysis has focused on. Even
have the best possible intentions and are very conscious, communicate
that they never meant to communicate.
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