By Marilyn Frye
From Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism (1992, The Crossing Press)(1)
For feminists, the permanent moral problem of how to live becomes the problem of how to live in accord with feminist values; we have to subsist by means which are harmonious with these values, and we have to live well enough to have resources for change and for enduring processes and events precipitated by our own movement. In short, we need more than subsistence, we are committed to getting it in wholesome ways, and we must manage all of this now, within a hostile sexist society. Looking about at people’s lives generally, it seems that requiring more than subsistence is a considerable luxury, and so it can seem that a feminist ethic which presupposes that luxury is necessarily elitist. There is truth in this, but it is not the last word. For one thing, revolution may in fact be something of a luxury–its moment is not to be found among the absolutely destitute. And furthermore, if having resources beyond the requirements of material subsistence is deemed a luxury, then a great many of us were born to that luxury as surely as we were born to our oppression as women, and we had better understand what it means and what we should do with it.
For some of us these dilemmas rise concretely in the matters of work and privilege. One apparently rich resource which many feminists have, have access to, or aspire to, is a situation in an establishment institution or profession. Attractions include salaries, fringe benefits, offices and supplies, postage, secretarial services and assistants, transportation services, contacts with other persons similarly situated, and respectability. But there are feminists who have been wary of this, and have been inclined to reject such situations or aspirations, as part of their rejection of class privilege.
Elimination of class privilege, along with race privilege, is certainly a feminist goal; if we ignore it we will find ourselves outmaneuvered by a strategy of sex-integration in middle bureaucracy, which would strengthen white middle-class dominance and divert the force of radical feminism. Part of our defense against this is steady awareness of class and race. Class privilege is offensive; but privilege is itself an odd sort of self-regenerative thing which, once you’ve got it, cannot be simply shucked off like a too-warm jacket.
Privilege in general is maintained by its exercise. It must remain substantially unquestioned by the non-privileged and this is achieved through the constant, easy, more-or-less unconscious exercise of it. The constancy and the ease make it seem natural, and then render it almost imperceptible, like the weight of one’s clothes on one’s body. As a consequence of this, one cannot merely do something which happens to be a privilege to be able to do. The “mere” exercise of the privilege positively contributes to the continuance of privilege. Using it strengthens it. This obviously applies to taking a position in an establishment institution: taking such a job not only uses privilege but builds privilege. And even this is not the worst of it. For, to reject the position is also to exercise privilege. As a matter of fact, it seems more of a privilege to be able to turn down a $15,000-a-year administrative job than to be in a position to get it in the first place. If the question even arises for a particular woman, then she has privilege; and she cannot refrain from having it, whichever decision she then makes. In deciding not to do some lucrative thing one is privileged to do, one is falling back on other privileges. The person who does not take the $15,000 job can handle the resulting poverty relatively well because the same skills, training, connections and style which fit her for the job, enable her to be a reasonably crafty consumer and manipulator of bureaucratic process, and give her a network of well-connected acquaintances; and she starts out her poverty in good health and forearmed with feminist analysis. For most people, poverty is intolerably destructive; for most people, choosing it would be choosing a form of suicide. Having relative poverty as a genuine and interesting option is itself a privilege.
I see no way to suddenly stop having privilege, or to stop exercising it. I certainly am not saying that privilege is ineradicable absolutely–but one cannot suddenly, by a simple act of will, detach oneself from it (which is perhaps one of the many reasons why “personal” solutions are inadequate). And in the end, if poverty and detachment from establishment institutions would eventually reduce one to having no privilege it is still far from obvious that feminists should do it. To renounce middle-class privilege is not to extricate oneself from the system but to relocate oneself within it. Joining the lower classes and recruiting members to them may tend more to the support of the system than to its downfall, for it may simply be providing more victims for the more thorough exploitation and oppression which take place at the lower levels of the hierarchy: those more thoroughly oppressed provide more fuel for the machinery.(2)
Impoverishment and deprivation reduce power, vision and endurance. The idea that justice and Dignity require Suffering belongs to an ethic of self-denial, a slave morality. All resource is tainted (men have not yet been dispossessed). We recognize this and we aim to change it. Meanwhile it is not politically incorrect to avail ourselves of the resources available to us.
If the foregoing arguments are sound, then holding a well-paying job is not necessarily in violation of feminist principles. Since virtually all well-paying jobs are establishment jobs, the next rack of problems is generated by tokenism. In virtually all middle-income, middle-bureaucracy, middle-civil-service jobs, a woman will be a token woman, since virtually none of these are classified as “women’s work.” Her existence there as a token woman works for the good of the institution and the ill of women generally. The presence of the token is used to convince both her employers and the rest of the world that the institution is not sexist and need not bother seriously with affirmative action, or correcting salary inequities or sexist division of work, et cetera, while it cheerfully continues to hire and promote men and serve male interests. These goods done the institutions are complemented by various harms done the token woman (one never gets something for nothing). The token woman is generally quite isolated; she will not have the relations with her colleagues that the men have, and thus the whole work situation is not as rich in stimulation, assistance, and comradeship as it is for most men in similar positions. This is likely to affect the quality of her work, or the amount of energy it takes to maintain the quality of her work. And this isolation also aggravates the constant problem of coping with the difficult questions of integrity and compromise that arise for her. She has to decide whether and in what degree she must be a closet feminist, how manly to act in order to be taken seriously, how much, when, where and with whom to fight over sexist language, sexist jokes, sexist gallantry, sexist assumptions, sexism in hiring and promotion and such consummate evils as sexist dress requirements. If a woman fails to take matters of integrity and compromise seriously, or makes the wrong decisions, she is likely to slip into being one of the boys–a female man. If she takes them seriously and makes the right decisions, she invites the fate of being a token feminist, and the whole situation becomes more complicated. My situation as a professor at a university exemplifies this nicely.
Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in a classroom, in a university building, clothed and fed and insured by the university, before an audience brought there by the university; and I am very seriously spelling out and explaining for them as persuasively as I can a radical feminist perception of the world, and coaching them in the arts of right reason and clear vision so they will be able to discover for themselves what is going on in this sexist culture. And the better I am at teaching these things, the more truth I find and communicate, the more good I do the institution. The fact that it allows someone to stand in it and say those things gives it credit in the eyes of the students and the wider public. That I am there saying truths and teaching women makes the whole thing more tolerable for the women. The better I am, the better they feel about being in the university, the more they are inclined to believe that professors know what they are talking about, the more they feel the university really is a place where knowledge will bring them freedom. And the stronger is the institution. But among the truths is the truth that the institution is male-dominated and directed to serve the ends of a male-dominated society, economy and culture. As such, its existence, not to mention its strength and vigor, is inimical to the welfare of women, and probably to the survival of the species. If the women in the class come to agree with me in belief and perception, they must see me then as an absurd figure. For I am just that. I can try to see myself as someone working as an undercover agent, fomenting restlessness and stirring up radical sentiment and anger, working as a traitor from within, as an agent of the new order…. But that gratifying fantasy is absurdly counterbalanced by the fact that I am doing all this fomenting quite openly, in the pay of the institution, with the blessing of the patriarchy, in the context of a grading system, and with the students learning through all of this that the university is a good place, a place where freedom reigns. The university is in the business of authority; by bestowing its authority on selected token representatives of non-standard views, it enhances its own authority, which is used and designed to be used in the maintenance and justification of male hegemony over knowledge.(3)
Tokenism is painful, and either resolution of the problems of integrity and compromise–joining the boys or becoming a token feminist–immerses the woman in the absurdity. For the token feminist, the thing must eventually come down to the question of when, over what issues, and with what provocation to fight the battle which will lose her job; or when to reject the absurdity and resign. It is inevitable that it comes to this question. If she is a feminist her tolerance for sexist abuse must have a limit; if she is unable or unwilling to risk her job, she has no limit; if she can risk it she eventually will.
The conclusion here is, of course, that a feminist should not be too dependent upon her establishment job. And this is not peculiar to establishment jobs; anyone living and acting in a manner calculated to bring about changes in her situation must keep her options open. Economic flexibility is needed by anyone who is sticking to some principles. But there are factors contributing to dependence which are of particular significance to a feminist working an establishment job–especially in the kind of emotive or psychological relationship one has to the institution in which one works.
I began to see these questions of relationship through discussion with another woman professor about the role and life of a feminist in such a position. There was much agreement, until we got to the question of reforming the university. She claimed the university’s ideals were fine and it could be made to live up to them; that one should work for reform in the institution, and this would help reform society. I claimed that these “ideals” were not really the university’s ideals at all but a public relations hype, and it was never meant to live up to them and never would. What emerged was a crucial and profound difference of affect, not of opinion. She was loyal to the university and its professed ideology, she had faith in the institution; I had neither faith nor loyalty. As she talked, it became clear that her loyalty was rather like filial love or patriotism. I have seen such loyalty also among those who have worked for a long time for one of the large paternalistic corporations.
The pathology of institutional loyalty seems to come from at least three sources. First, the institution keeps the person on the payroll, increasing salary and benefits a little faster than the cost of living goes up. Second, there is the matter of exclusivity, of fraternal bonding, especially in loyalty to a profession. This has a nice additional twist when the subject, a sister, is being taken in as a brother. A third source of loyalty lies in the fact that one gains status and identity from one’s position in an established institution, profession, or the like. One is a professor; one is a physician; one is the director of the women’s studies program. The bestower of such meaning and identity is the bestower of self-respect, of personhood (or so it seems to the love-struck employee). One is grateful, and indebted, almost as to one’s heavenly creator.
An institution, profession, corporation or such, to which one feels loyal, which one loves, has a great deal more than mere economic power over one. The threat of being fired, in one form or another, is laced with overtones of the threat of rejection by a loved one, ostracism by the brotherhood, and annihilation through loss of identity. I believe that for mere mortals these are irresistible forces.
The various sorts of dependence upon institutions which can undermine the feminist’s ability to make proper use of an establishment employment as a resource for herself and the movement bear a rather obvious similarity to the sorts of dependence the stereotypic wife has on the stereotypic husband. She is tied to him by economic necessity and by feelings of owing him loyalty because he supports her, and she loves him because she derives her sense of meaning, her identity and status from his gracious association with her. The first salvation of woman from her fallen state, through her love and marriage to prince Charming, was a disaster; re-marrying prince Charming now, deceptively clothed as a title and a good salary, would be a disaster of the same magnitude and type.
It is, I find, a fundamental difference between me and many other feminists I know as colleagues, that I judge the opposition of interests between women and sexist (misogynist) institutions to be such that we can be united with them in matrimony or brotherhood, or alienated from them in sisterhood. The duality is so sharp because these anti-woman institutions offer (or pretend to offer) livelihood and identity, and women, the dispossessed and invisible, are dying for these. As a consequence of this the integrity of a feminist working within such an institution must depend on her alienation from it and the constancy of her adversarial relation with it. This orientation is maintained, not negatively through resistance of temptation or a system of coercive pressures and checks from other feminists, but positively, through woman-loving.
This woman-loving that supports one’s spiritual independence of the establishment institutions, supports best if it is not closeted. The publicity of a primary and loving identification with women places one in a position both with respect to the agents of the institution and with respect to other women, of having to live up to it or be a fool or a fake. And the openness of one’s woman-loving feminism is necessary also to be realizing one of the most important benefits one’s own establishment employment can have for other women. This is the benefit of space in which they can be women and feminists without fatal opposition and deprecation. One’s status, authority, recognition and power, however modest, are conveyed to those with whom one is identified. Respectability, like guilt, travels by association, without specific effort and without specific control; and respectability purchases space. Every time one woman moves or acts, she makes room for other women to move, to act, to be–if her womanness is overtly present as a salient factor in the situation, and not if she is masquerading as a man or a neuter.
The material benefits of establishment jobs include the income, the insurance, the access to duplicating machines and space for meetings, the material support of one’s feminist work through use of paid “company-time” for work, organizing, proselytizing, etc. One can and should share the wealth and resource within the community of feminists through incomesharing, use and support of membership in feminist operations such as credit unions, health clinics, woman’s centers, bookstores and so on. And one’s position and whatever accumulation of savings it makes possible can serve a community, and not just one person or one household, as a sort of cushion for emergencies–medical, spiritual, monetary, cop-and-court, welfare.(4)
There are material and political benefits to be derived from having some of us working establishment jobs. But integration into the establishment bureaucracies is not woman’s final answer. I do not think we can change the existing government, health, military, business or educational establishments significantly enough from within to bother with it. The internal structures of these institutions are designed to maintain a privileged elite and to organize even that elite in dominance-subordinance patterns. The health and welfare of women ultimately require entirely different ways of organizing things. If we were to try to transform the existing structures, our success would depend partly on enlightenment but largely on numbers. We would have to transcend tokenism. As long as a substantial majority of men are benefitting from the male-dominance within the institutions and in the world served by the institutions, and as long as men are in the substantial majority in these institutions, there is simply no reason why they should want, tolerate, or encourage enlightenment. The structures maintain the tokenism, which in turn protects the structures.
My conclusion, for now, is that a feminist can conscientiously hold and use an establishment position, if she is simultaneously cultivating skills, attitudes, identity and an alternative community, with and in which she can function without that position, and which will keep her honest while she has it. One day, when some who have been working straight jobs, and some have not, and all have been inventing new ways to survive and thrive, and when the evolving negotiations between my conscience and my patience set a new shit-limit which is found unacceptable by my employers; one day the time will be right for me to leave my post on the boundary and move into the new space.
It is clear enough that when I was writing the speech that became this essay, I was trying to come to grips with the phenomena of class and class privilege. Though I had come from a paradigmcase white middle class family background and education, feminism and lesbianism had brought me into a community of friends and associates that was both class-mixed and class conscious. This essay documents the fact that U.S. feminism of the second wave was not, in its first decade, “a middle class phenomenon” in at least one sense–those articulating and developing it were not all middle class and were not oblivious to their class positions or the political importance of class. I was not oblivious, and members of the N.O.W. audience to whom I spoke at least were hearing about concerns about class privilege as it related to the liberation of women, however seriously they may or may not have taken it. Feminism and lesbian feminism of that period were in fact vehicles of increased class awareness (as of increased race awareness) for middle class white women. But also, as conscious and self-conscious as I was at that time about class, this essay reads to me in 1992 as strangely unconscious of class.
One thing that seems missing here is the balance of consciousness of myself as both class-privileged and not a member of the ruling class. My issue in 1976 was about whether or not to avail myself of certain opportunities. The existence and permanence of those opportunities seems to be utterly taken for granted. The essay seems to me now to betray no working consciousness of the fact that the those opportunities, that life, are not a permanent element of the natural order of the universe but a product of a certain phase in the processes of global capitalism. To the extent those processes are manipulable, they are manipulated by members of another class entirely than mine. Middle class privilege is not an immutable “given” and does not include the privilege of ruling and running the things that create and maintain the middle class and its privilege.(5) In 1992 my academic job is still by world standards (and even by U.S. standards) plush and amazingly secure and the dollar amount of my present salary makes my reference in this essay to annual incomes of $15,000 seem comical. But “budget cuts” are coming down, teaching loads are going up; opportunities for interesting, creative, or innovative scholarly or instructional work are drying up; travel funds have disappeared almost entirely, and we have to supply our own paper, pencils, pens, printer ribbons; our use of the copying machine is strictly monitored, and we will not get cost-of-living raises (or “merit” raises) next year. My point is not “poor me”; I understand that I am still very well set in this world. My point is that the privileges of which I was going to avail myself (or not) are demonstrably mutable, contingent, dissolvable.
Also, in 1992 as I assemble this anthology many of my friends and acquaintances are unemployed or living with the daily threat of unemployment–both white collar and blue collar workers, and many have no medical insurance or may soon have none. It occurred to me within the last year, for the first time, that it might be irresponsible of me to give up the secure and well-paying job I have so chronically considered leaving, since we may well be coming into a period of economic desperation in which that income could be an invaluable community resource. Already some of my income is being worked into helping sustain some women more precariously, not to say desperately, situated than I, and it may become necessary for several or many women to live on this income. It is not only my own maintenance and survival (or that of my immediate kin) I must consider when I decide to avail myself or not to avail myself of these “middle class” opportunities (which are themselves not necessarily permanent), and it is not only the question of the contribution I can make to “the revolution”; survival issues within the community of my living are far closer to me (and really always have been) than I had any living, working idea of when I wrote “Who Wants a Piece of the Pie.”
The author of “Who Wants a Piece of the Pie” was privileged to think of herself as born to a kind of security, autonomy, and control of her fate that in fact did not and do not exist for (middle class) her, if they exist for anybody. It may indeed be a “privilege” to live in such false consciousness, and I grieve the loss of it as though it were something valuable; but false, it is.
But the author of “Who Wants a Piece of the Pie” was, in my 1992 opinion, absolutely right about the matter of the kinds of personal and political investment a feminist might put into her job and place in a commercial, government, or educational institution and still maintain her integrity and radical edge. Though economic circumstances might make one stick with such a job when the negotiations of one’s class/race/sex conscience would recommend quitting it, I think one yields everything up to the dominant order if one does not maintain a primary “homeplace” in a separate community of identity and value.(6)
- Published in Quest: A Feminist Quarterly, Vol.111, No.3, Winter, 197677, pp.28-35 and reprinted in Building Feminist Theory: Essays from QUEST, edited by the Quest Collective (New York, NY: Longman, 1981). This essay evolved from a lecture commissioned by NOW-Detroit for presentation in a series of lectures sponsored by them and funded by the Michigan Council for the Humanities. The lecture was delivered in Detroit, on May 19, 1976. I received much aid and advice from Carolyn Shafer in the thinking-through of these thoughts.
- This essay has a long history during which it has incorporated contributions by C. Rene Davis and by Carolyn Shafer who is, among other things, my regular thinking-partner. It got valuable criticism also from Jane English, Alison Jaggar, Sandra Harding and Adele Laslie. At this point in particular, this essay draws on conversations with Carolyn Shafer.
- This paragraph draws on conversations with Rene Davis.
- [In the original, there is a footnote at this point that recommends sharesecuring loans through your local feminist credit union as a way of sharing the benefits of financial solvency beyond the limits of one’s own social circle. But in 1992, feminist credit unions are a thing of the past. In my community, though, and in other communities I know of, lesbians have organized to collect contributions and make grants anonymously, in order to accomplish that sort of sharing of resources. 1992]
- Further thoughts on white middle class consciousness are worked out in my “Response to Lesbian Ethics” in this anthology.
- Using her term “homeplace,” I link my views with those of bell hooks. See “Homeplace,” in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990), pp. 41-49.