Joanna Russ on Heterosexuality

Women who live in patriarchies are draftees, as a class, into the lifelong job of making men happy without the power to do the job and without enough emotional, sexual, and material reciprocity for themselves. Often they (like the men) blame the nature of their relationships or their own defective psychology for the sheer loneliness, insecurity, and endless competitive stress enforced on us all by advanced industrial capitalism.

Let me repeat–for it cannot be repeated too often–that theories about women that concentrate on women’s “unique” psychology or on the oppressive centrality of language have a very clear and disastrous effect; they shift feminist effort from confronting those in power, who are, after all, people, to confronting something that is by its very nature nonconfrontable: the collective unconscious, language, or our own infantile psychology.

Is it too late in the day to point out a fact so gross and so obvious that enormous amounts of social pressure have been deployed around it in order to render it invisible–the fact that we face a mystification that could not work and does not work without the threat of force, from random violence to a vast mass of sexist propaganda, much of it called ‘culture’ and ‘psychology,’ to the structure of institutions?

That it is people who exploit and oppress other people?
That in sexism it is men as a group who exploit and oppress the group of women?

As our most brilliant nineteenth-century theorist put it (I mean, of course, Matilda Joslyn Gage), what we call patriarchy is the arrangement by which women’s resources are made available to men nonreciprocally. By resources I mean concern, reproductive capacity, labor, sexual access, and the capacity for emotional support, as well as large amounts of underpaid labor and even larger amounts of totally unremunerated labor. Men have also stolen women’s self-esteem, our sense of being normative, our right to our own ideas, and much more. By this I mean that many men’s self-esteem as men is overblown precisely because many women’s self-esteem as women is low; insofar as men are seen by women and see themselves as the important, intelligent, hardworking, competent, worthy sex, this is because our achievements as a sex have been belittled or obliterated, our work trivialized or rendered invisible, and our worth denied; men see themselves and are seen as centrally Human (in a species in which they do not even constitute a majority) precisely because we are seen and see ourselves as somehow not quite Human.

What has happened to the above ideas–which used to be commonplaces of feminist theory in the early days? Inside the academy–but we’ve been through that. Outside, although many feminists have certainly held on to these early views, the lack of coherent theory has nonetheless caused much confusion. Different feminists have focused on so many different issues as the “cause” or central focus of patriarchy–it’s violence against women; it’s personal relations; no, it’s the mass media; no, it’s the idea of “femininity”; and so on–that quite often any sense of the connection of issues with one another has been lost.

This is not to say a lot of important reform hasn’t occurred in the 1970s and ’80s. I don’t mean to condemn “liberal” or “bourgeois” reforms here. They are crucial. But as Hester Eisenstein puts it, “The radical views…of the second wave made it possible for the less sweeping reforms of liberal or bourgeois feminism to make some headway.” Liberals need radicals.

That’s why the evasions of the original central premises of early feminist analysis are so destructive. I mean the ideas that men and women constitute sex-classes (the term is Dworkin’s), that the interests of these sex-classes are often opposed, that the “personal” is in large part produced by the “political,” that the division between private and public life is a social construct, imposed by propaganda and force, that relegating women’s experience of oppression to the “private” realm is itself oppressive and mystifying, that gender is a social construct, that the father-headed family is a social institution that functions to exploit and oppress women, that the social construction of “femininity” produces large benefits for somebody, that the work women do as women is unrecognized and unpaid, that such work is not “natural” but socially arranged, that male privilege, just like skin privilege and class privilege, exists whether or not individual men want it to, that such a state of affairs, although it hurts men, hurts women more, and that feminist opposition to women’s oppression is not based on altruism or the love of abstract justice but on our own anger and our own healthily selfish desires for a more happy life.

To add a little of my own personal motivation to my own heathily selfish desire for a happy life, I am angry at academic colleagues whose work, supposedly feminist, leaves a deficit in the education of female students in my classes who are classically feminist in their perceptions, emotions, and preoccupations, and which deficit I find myself having to make up single-handed. I am sick to death of the lies of the mass media. I am sick of not having enough allies, and I want feminism to become ravingly radical once again. I even have a suggestion as to how to achieve this happy end.

We must all become crazy, man-hating separatists.

Sign me up.

From “Mommy, Where Do Baby Theories Come From?” in What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism by Joanna Russ


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