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Author Topic: ''A survivor of a feminist co-operative tells all.''  (Read 1323 times)


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''A survivor of a feminist co-operative tells all.''
« on: Apr 30, 2004, 07:24:42 PM »

A survivor of a feminist co-operative tells all.


“Knowledge, Difference, and Power: Essays Inspired by ‘Women's Ways of Knowing’”
Edited by Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattuck Tarule
Basic Books, 478 pp


In 1986, four academic women - Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattuck Tarule - published a book called "Women's Ways of Knowing." A couple of years later, I went to work at a small business that would eventually become a worker-owned, feminist co-operative. When I finally left that company after seven years, I'd learned to curse Belenky et. al., along with a whole passel of other feminist theorists, whose ideas, I believe, helped to make my workplace the most poisonous and depleting I've ever encountered.

"Women's Ways of Knowing," like the more popular writings of psychologist Carol Gilligan ("In a Different Voice"), claimed, in the words of two followers, that "women's thought patterns are more contextual and more HACKded in relational concerns than those of men." Women are supposed to be co-operative rather than competitive, more inclined toward empathy and less toward seeking dominance. In opposition to "the rationalism, separation and false 'objectivity' of masculinist models of knowledge," women were touted as caring more about personal experience, feelings and intuition, which are felt in the body ("gut" feelings) rather than the head. Even people who've never heard of "Women's Ways of Knowing" or Gilligan recognize such ideas - if only because they parrot traditional notions of femininity, with the connotation neatly switched from negative to positive.

Depending on your politics, a democratically-managed, feminist co-operative might sound intriguing, heavenly or nightmarish. People who have worked in other "alternative" organizations tend to offer a knowing, sympathetic groan of agony when I talk about that part of my past. My former workplace suffered from a litany of woes that plague such idealistic groups, most of which just boil down to childish behavior. The difference was, in our organization the perpetrators had a ready-made ideological justification for every tantrum and dropped ball, every passive-aggressive stratagem and rank prejudice, the wheel spinning and the finger-pointing. It was all, somehow, a more feminist and womanly approach, an attempt to topple the patriarchy by defying its cruel, oppressive, rational standards of behavior. That ideology, picked up in college Women's Studies programs and various feminist books and journals, came courtesy of theorists like Goldberger, Tarule, Clinchy and Belenky.

Now, with "Knowledge, Difference, and Power: Essays Inspired by 'Women's Ways of Knowing,'" the four authors have anthologized writings by people whose lives were changed by their original book - although not, unsurprisingly, malcontents like me. To be fair, reading it I learned that many of the boosters of "Women's Ways of Knowing" have gravely misinterpreted and simplified its authors' ideas. But I also learned that this (deliberate or just plain stupid) misreading keeps cropping up again and again. Students who read "Women's Ways of Knowing," as one contributor to "Knowledge, Difference, and Power" reports, invariably "heard [the] authors as praising 'connectedness,' a voice of one's own, emotionality, 'embodied' knowledge and other characteristics," all described as typical of women.

Our company ran a retail store and mail order business. Trying to accomplish the necessary, nuts-and-bolts tasks of such an operation, while appeasing those staff who demanded that the company emulate this "connected" vision of feminism, felt like playing tennis underwater. The authors of "Women's Ways of Knowing" don't seem to recognize that the "female" style of behavior they champion is the direct result of women having had very little power throughout most of history. It completely fails us when we actually have some economic and social muscle. But many feminists, like many leftists, have such a moral phobia about power that they have no idea how to exercise it constructively.

At our company, this phobia took the form of talk-mania and decision-avoidance. Big decisions required a majority vote of all worker-owners (eventually, as many as 40 people, although for most of my tenure around 20 to 25). These took place at general meetings where the unfortunate person or committee charged with getting something done presented their recommendation to the entire membership. Discussion ensued, usually a stultifying, circular one, no matter how hard we tried to reform our meeting procedures. Far too often, weeks worth of preparation was scuttled when a member abruptly raised a feeble, last-minute objection, and requested "more information" (despite having paid little attention to the information already offered).

Since everyone in our company had an equal voice, such objections had to be taken seriously, even if they were based more on feeling than fact - no, especially if they were. If the objector could convince enough members that deciding immediately wouldn't be "fair" (not enough people had been consulted, not enough options considered, someone disempowered might be left out), the whole thing was postponed. It often seemed that, as a group, we lacked the will to decide anything, because to decide would be to act, to risk, to use the sliver of power we had. We might make a mistake, or offend someone, or find out a better alternative later, when it was too late to change our minds. Better to refrain, to stay as stationary as possible and talk and talk and talk, which is what we, as women, were so good at. Reading "Knowledge, Difference, and Power," I realized that the biggest fans of "Women's Ways of Knowing" are teachers, therapists and counseling social workers, people whose jobs consist primarily of talking, of working on how people feel and think. They aren't, however, experts at coping with, as one critic put it, "the intransigence of material circumstances:" buying, selling, scheduling, accounting - doing.

Vague protests on behalf of oppressed people - sometimes racial minorities (always depicted as a noble, unindividuated mass), but also the junior and lesser-paid staff - were a surefire way to bring action to a grinding halt. Women of color made excellent excuses because they were especially powerless, and therefore must be especially virtuous, being even less able to do anything than we were. We could assign several people to a committee to endlessly discuss "doing outreach" to poor "communities of color," and since those communities didn't have much money, we were assured that the effort wouldn't lead to anything compromising, like profits, which might lead to something scary, like growth. However, to be on the safe side, that committee somehow never managed to do much more than insist that the staff undergo an expensive "diversity training."

The purpose of "diversity training," despite its name, is to make sure that everybody thinks exactly the same way, or understands that if she doesn't, she is a reprehensible racist/sexist/classist homophobe. One of the most peculiar notions perpetuated by "Women's Ways of Knowing" and its ilk is that feminist groups are accepting of differences. In fact, our group had an unspoken directive: equality means uniformity. To be exceptionally intelligent, motivated, able or talented was to make everyone else look (or, more important, feel) inadequate. Excellence invited whispered suspicions of "power-mongering" and hubris; it reeked of "hierarchy" and testosterone. "What was the worst thing," a fellow escapee once told me, "was the attitude that merit and competence shouldn't be recognized and rewarded, but held back."

Based on their interviews with 135 women, the authors of "Women's Ways of Knowing" professed admiration for the way that women reject the "competition" rife among men. But women don't really avoid competing with each other - we usually just avoid admitting it, and that makes contests more bitter. The purportedly "male" style of competition, while often unnecessarily harsh, stays aboveboard and focuses on outdoing the rival. Toeing the "nice girl" line means pretending indifference, while criticizing the character and derogating the achievements of women who dare to surpass the rest of us - how unwomanly, how individualist, how selfish!

Social sorting - deciding who are the good, respectable girls and who are the bad - has long been a task bestowed on women. In 1994, Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge published the book "Professing Feminism," an alarming - but in my case, all too familiar - documentation of the deteriorating morale in many university Women's Studies departments. They point to "Women's Ways of Knowing" as a contributing factor to the departments' inability to handle internal conflicts and the use of "sentiment as a tool of coercion."

Curious to see how the proponents of connected thinking would respond to this critique, I found Patai and Koertge barely mentioned in "Knowledge, Difference, and Power," and then briskly dismissed as "misapprehending" the theory. In a particularly hectoring essay, Frances A. Maher and Mary Kay Tetreault refer to them as "'feminists,'" with quote marks, implying that Patai and Koertge's "credentials" have been revoked, even though the two women are professors of Women's Studies who have worked in the field for years. Feminists always agree, Maher and Tetreault imply, because if someone disagrees with us, we declare her a non-feminist.

The main reason to avoid decision-making and enforce conformity is that if you don't, someone's feelings might get hurt. The "Women's Way of Knowing" crowd consider the empathy and compassion they see widely practiced by women as exemplary, especially compared to the detached, impersonal approach supposedly favored by men. They don't explore the possibility that men might have developed that detachment because their life in the public sphere exposed them to a greater variety of people and the possibility for sharp conflicts over those ol' intractable material circumstances. Yes, the body politic could use a lot more fellow feeling, but why make inevitable disagreements even worse by taking everything personally?

"The personal is political," declares a famous feminist slogan, but take that too far and you wind up with an incapacitating tyranny of the emotions. In our workplace, one staffer felt so daunted each time another informed her that she'd added up a column of numbers incorrectly that on the third or fourth time it happened she began to cry. Tears always trumped arithmetic in our workplace, so the two women involved, plus a conflict mediator and a "support" provider for each, had to meet for hours to discuss the problem. In another case, a woman applied for a promotion although she'd already proven only marginally competent in her current job. Her supervisor denied her request, but because the applicant was sweet-natured and popular, while the supervisor was a prickly over-achiever, several uninvolved staff members protested the decision and even more meetings and unnecessary grief ensued.

I worked with women who were so "connected" in their thinking that they agreed with whoever they last talked to. That lasted until someone with a different idea came along. Clinchy writes that "the picture of the connected knower as merely a jellyfish, clone, chameleon or wimp" is mere "caricature." But I assure you, such women not only exist, they congratulate themselves on their womanly and feminist sensitivity.

For some of us, the political dissolved completely into the personal, and the co-op was held responsible for matters that, to my "separate thinking" mind, belonged in a therapist's office. Staffers who felt insecure, occupationally confused, or plagued by childhood traumas voiced their "discomfort" and expected their co-workers to correct the situation. "Alternative" businesses, ironically, tend to attract people who blame their every difficulty on forces external to themselves - exactly the infantile mentality most unsuited to the demands of an unstructured workplace. But only in a feminist workplace can people get away with demanding to be made perpetually "comfortable;" never mind that growth and learning don't often feel so cozy.

At its worst, this species of feminism gets outright invasive. At the aforementioned diversity training, the weirdly synthetic-seeming facilitators divided us into small groups. They instructed each of us to tell the rest of our group about "your class background and your feelings about it" for three minutes. You got three minutes whether or not you used all the time, just to make sure that especially timid members didn't feel rushed. When my turn came around, I said, "My class background and how I feel about it are very personal things, too intimate to be shared with co-workers I don't know that well. If stuff from my past is bothering me, that's my responsibility. I think a lot of our problems come from putting too much of our private lives in the workplace, not too little." Then we sat for over two and a half minutes in decidedly uncomfortable silence. "Silenced" is what the authors of "Women's Ways of Knowing" famously dubbed women crippled by self-doubt; protesting that people had been silenced was a popular, melodramatic complaint in our company. Under the tyranny of the emotions, what do we call women pressured into talking?

In truth, the sorry brand of feminism that bedeviled our co-operative is a drastic vulgarization of the ideas in "Women's Ways of Knowing." But then, the picture the authors paint of "separate knowing" (Clinchy states, ludicrously, that a computer could do it) is equally crude. The most brilliant scientists have always paid tribute to the role of intuition and emotion, as well as logic, in their work. They collaborate as well as compete. Ultimately, all the best minds - male and female - engage in "constructive knowing" as defined in "Women's Way of Knowing," a flexible blend of abstract reasoning, received information, personal experience, empathy and debate.

It's the small minds that cause the trouble, people looking for absolutes and fool-proof formulas instead of the unpredictable, laborious business of thinking for themselves. For every mulish fanatic who's passionate about thinking unemotionally, there's a ruthlessly domineering enforcer of warm 'n' fuzzy connected thinking. Such people love their blinders. At our co-op, we'd pat ourselves on the back for devising such a unique, superior, non-corporate place to work, even though morale had obviously plummeted to the earth's core. It was just so much easier to believe that we had it all figured out, could and should run things better simply by virtue of being women. And that's exactly what it was. Too easy.


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