Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist Or, An Apologia for Embodied Feminism

Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist Or, An Apologia for Embodied Feminism

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 4, Summer 2021

Author(s): Tracee L. Howell

Tracee L. Howell is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Composition Program and the Writing Center at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, where she teaches courses in literature, composition, film, and gender/sexuality/women’s studies. Her current research focuses on recovering the early 20th century fiction of Jewish American novelist, playwright and screenwriter, Vera L. Caspary.

Abstract: In this work of critical autoethnography, I interrogate my experience of perimenopause to present a manifesto as critique of white feminism, utilizing an analysis of Aristotelian persuasion and force (peitho and bia) as a call-to-action to white feminists to do better in response to the 1977 Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement”. I further petition that the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of critical menstrual studies be formally recognized and validated within feminism, arguing that its focus upon the body—and its potential for embodiment as feminist epistemological inquiry—provide openings within academic feminism to center the experiences of scholars of color and, perhaps, for a praxis of an inclusive l’écriture feminine of the 21st century.

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Those of us who have been around for a while and are accustomed to older vocabularies should welcome the new ideas, new formulations, new vocabularies. Here we should pay tribute to all the young scholars who want to change the field and who want to change the world!

Angela Davis, “Difficult Dialogues” (110)

It was right around the middle of the Trump presidency when I began to experience it. There had been other flushes of intensity in the years prior: night sweats off and on, a week per month of forgetfulness and loss of words, rapidly irregular cycles, and then one particularly poignant moment when I had to physically restrain myself from getting out of my car and jumping atop the lap of a seedy, hyper-masculinized man sitting on a motorcycle in a grocery store parking lot. Reader, I knew myself to be an animal who is human1 as I forcibly steered my legs, step by step, towards a shopping cart and away from the bike and its man, who seemed to me oozing with ripeness. But even after all the shifting mood swings, with their deepening valleys and ever-higher plateaus, after all the odd moments of bleeding and then none, it wasn’t until one particularly painful day-long cramping session that suddenly I knew it. Rage. In its sheerest form. Unbridled and all-consuming. A fire of obliteration in which I felt myself to be an utter and complete force, the primordial scream. I exist and I. AM. POWER.

The rage I felt, and still feel, was not merely in response to the installation of Donald J. Trump by millions of Americans—including 53% of white women who voted for him—as President. I was shocked by his election, yes. And I think it more than generous to say, as a white woman in the 47%, as the only member of my large, extended family who was not one of his proud supporters, and as a feminist committed to racial justice who teaches within a university setting, that both my personal equilibrium and my professional output have been strained by the Trump presidency and its lingering aftermath. We have collectively witnessed, if not taken part in ourselves, the final unveiling of a new and distinctly American rhetoric, one that values persuasion not through logic but by brutally compelling a physical reaction in the listener. In her discussion of Trumpian rhetoric, Jennifer Saul cites Tali Mendelberg’s influential work on “the dog whistle” in The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality. “Dog whistle” is a term, thanks to both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, that most of us are very familiar with. As Saul explains, Mendelberg argues that two forces are simultaneously at play in the dog whistle: “a Norm of Racial Egalitarianism, which brands outright expression of racism unacceptable”, and a simultaneous high level of “racial resentment” that is never directly mentioned. Saul writes:

A dogwhistle utterance exploits [these twin forces]: by talking about ‘the culture of the inner city or ‘welfare’ a politician may avoid mentioning race, while still causing voters to bring their racial resentment to bear on their voting decisions. Donald Trump is no dogwhistler: he proudly tosses around racial terms, paired with the most hideous stereotypes. And he rises, and rises, and rises in the polls. (“Donald Trump, Racial Figleaves, and The Breadth of Bigotry”)

Trump re-normalized the public utterance of racist and misogynist terms; as Saul suggests, there are far too many examples to count. His defamation of Black women journalists became a sad refrain at the end of his term, an unsurprising coda to his Mexicans-as-rapists start on the campaign trail in 2015. During the Republican primaries, when he was asked by moderator Megyn Kelly about his use of language in reference to women, he balked, taking it as a threat rather than as a strategic opportunity to rehabilitate his already-infamous misogyny. The day after, he declared on CNN not only that Kelly was “a lightweight,” and that he had “no respect for her as a journalist”, but that she “had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” (Yan).

But I must disagree with Jennifer Saul. When it comes to the denigration of people who identify as women, Trump most certainly does employ the dogwhistle (of course he does—white supremacist patriarchal culture makes the degradation of women so easy, with so many code words to be employed). “Blood” is not on its face a misogynistic slur. Yet perhaps especially because it’s been tossed out so casually, so illogically and even absurdly, by its speaker, in the context of referring to a journalist who is a woman, the word “blood” can’t fail to function for the listener as a coded reference to menstruation, to religious sin, to supposed feminine weakness, to hysteria and illogic. Even putting these connotations aside, “blood” suggests harm, suffering, pain, trauma, violence; even death, heroism or sacrifice; and as these meanings resonate within the listener, so the imagined power of the speaker is rather effortlessly reinforced. The particular lack of effort involved in the practice of this rhetoric is Trumpian sui generis, but what makes it an American rhetoric is its inherent reliance upon our national history of violence and trauma. Land of chattel slavery, of proudly televised rape culture, of corralled and fetishized Native peoples, of the semi-automatic, of knees upon Black men, of elderly Asian bodies beat up in the street, America is the land of embodied trauma. Only a rhetoric of force could be born here, only here would one be borne.

How does one counter such a rhetoric? It seems to me that this is the question Americans are left with in the aftermath of that presidency; co-incidentally, it’s also the question we’ve faced throughout the history of this country as well as the one that grounds its formation. It’s a question feminists and anti-racists and social justice activists have been asking for hundreds of years now. Thanks to the ever-present narcissism of president #45, it’s been pretty hard to miss the cartoon-like hatred on display in our own time. It’s as if the white-supremacist-patriarchy-pride-parade has been floating a big, bloated, racist balloon of xenophobia and toxic masculinity over all of our heads for the last five years, complete with celebratory fireworks at Mount Rushmore, in case anyone missed the point (we are power! this land is ours! America is white! God is white! and a man! with a gun!). Now that it’s been exiled to Florida, the big balloon, what do we do—just forget? Tell ourselves that this massive self-exposure of national racism and misogyny wasn’t that bad, that it was a mere blip on the screen? Our history sadly suggests that the majority of us—especially those of us who are white—will go back to pretending it doesn’t exist, perhaps after publishing a few essays about how valiantly the self-aware came together to resist and overcome. Or will this be a moment of true national change? Will the poison be the cure?

Reader, I’m sick of Trump; no doubt you are too. I’ll leave to others the question of his status as Derridean pharmakon. I conjure his presence (ugh) here only because force and rhetoric are central to the larger story I want to tell about my experience of perimenopause, and to the argument I want to make about the white embodiment of feminism. If you haven’t already done so, I do invite you to imagine experiencing the hormonal rollercoaster of full-on perimenopause during the long years of the Trump presidency, with the last-minute addition of a global pandemic thrown in for good measure. The 3-inch long chin hairs, the scaly skin, the brain-fog, the ridiculous bloodflow, sweaty legs and hotflashes, that fucker everywhere I looked fucking up everything I care about: fun. But ultimately the Trumpian exposure of our structural racism and misogyny functioned as fuel rather than cause for this rage; it’s been an almost helpful contextual reminder of what I’ve endured as a menstruating person for the last 40-odd years, a sad backdrop for the show my body puts on for me daily. As I’ll try to explain in greater detail below, the perimenopausal rage I felt (still feel) was a force beyond my experience, it was an entirely new-to-me phenomenon, and, as I’m even now still realizing, a new phenomenology. Seeking answers, or at least communion, I picked up an old feminist favorite, one I’ve not enjoyed in decades, where I found much that rings true to my current situation:

Unleashed and raging, she belongs to the race of waves. She arises, she approaches, she lifts up, she reaches, covers over, washes ashore, flows embracing the cliff’s least undulation, already she is another, arising again, throwing the fringed vastness of her body up high, follows herself, and covers over, uncovers, polishes, makes the stone body shine with the gentle undeserting ebbs, which return to the shoreless nonorigin, as if she recalled herself in order to come again as never before…She doesn’t hold still, she overflows. An outpouring that can be agonizing, since she may fear, and make the other fear, endless aberration and madness in her release. (Cixous and Clément 90-91)

Orgasm? Perimenopause? Neither/and/both? As much pleasure as I found reading this playful, sensuous text in my twenties, ultimately the essentializing of “woman” drove me away, as did my own readerly frustration with the (larger) concept of Cixousian écriture féminine: how the hell do we do that, and who would read it? In peri, those questions now strike me as meaningless, and I laugh, reader, since I am here writing myself right now, both of my body and in my body (either you read me or you don’t, but I’m still here, throbbing, typing, fingering these keys, haw). Am I a “newly born woman” via perimenopause? I don’t yet know, which may indeed be a sign that I am, since “knowing” seems to be undergoing revision for me, a challenge given my profession as a teacher and scholar. I am certain that I have renewed stores of tolerance for mystery and increased impatience with both logic-flouters and logic-deniers. Nothing really makes sense, and so everything does, because how egotistical are we to believe that we can even begin to impose our racist, patriarchally-limited categorizations upon the world, upon ourselves! Perhaps you can see why I found refuge in gorgeously rebellious and revelatory late-twentieth-century French feminism; it’s a relief right now to read such prose as:

And mysterious to herself, something she has been disturbed by for a long time, made to feel guilty for “not understanding herself (taking herself in) or knowing herself (cunt-born), because all around her they valorized a “knowledge” (cunt-birth) as ordained, as a mastery, a “control” (cunt-role) (of knowings! cunt-births!) established on repression and on “capture,” arrest, pub-poenis, confinement. (91)

And it’s true. I am a mystery to myself with this rage, inhabiting a body that is out of my control and that seems to be forcing new experience upon me/within me. That newness in and of itself has been both overwhelming and instructive. That I’ve not experienced such all-embodying rage before is one very real demonstration of the depth of my privilege as a white, middle-class, cis woman. That it took the experience of writing this essay—of sharing stories about my body, of diving into my own shame, of allowing my racism to be reviewed and read—for me to understand this newness as privilege, is another.

Manifesto of a MidLife White Feminist

  • Taking action that reveals one’s own vulnerability is often easier said than done within the patriarchy, no matter one’s power or privilege. We can begin by taking action to know ourselves.
  • Offering the body, in trust, is an act of faith not only in the Other but in the act of discourse itself—that we may both benefit from the careful gift and receipt of one’s vulnerability.

It’s frankly beyond my writerly ability to adequately describe the rage of perimenopause, or to persuade you that it is both of my body and already beyond it. As I’m at the cusp of menopause, I can’t say whether such rage occurs after the cessation of fertility and its re-settling of hormones, even though we most often hear of menopausal rage.2 But I can state with confidence that not every menstruating person experiences perimenopausal rage; just like any other process, the lead-up to menopause is unique to each menstruating individual. But many of us have, enough for the creation of the many female monsters inspired over time by the disgust held in white supremacist patriarchies for the menopausal woman, at least within Western culture: Medusa,3 the Scylla, Lady Macbeth, Cruella de Vil, Alex Forrest, Catherine Tramell, Maxine Waters, Hillary Clinton, etc.4 I experience this rage as a unique state of being, as power itself, but power without agenda or slant (at least that I am able to discern). It’s of my body, but beyond it. It is simply force itself, it is potential. That it is a force that renders me anew is perhaps the most that I can say, at least here.

For Aristotle, celebrated paragon of Western culture and an ethicist keenly concerned with power and polis, both “potential” and “potentiality” are worthy of specific interest. Since this rage—the overwhelming potential that comes upon me—and its cause, perimenopause itself, originate in my body, its traditional Aristotelian categorization would be phusis, or as Megan Foley explains, a “principle of change that originates from within a given body” (175). Yet my experience of this force is such that I have no control over it; indeed, I experience myself as compelled by this force in that I am conscious of its existence outside of my ability to choose it to act upon me. In Aristotelian terms, such an external force is bia: “the person affected by bia does not have power over his or her own action. Bia is a power that comes from elsewhere” (175). Reader, you may be familiar with bia. Sister to peitho, persuasion, bia has traditionally been defined as bodily force, as violence. How well do these strange sisters relate? Within the rhetoric that sustains a white-supremacist patriarchy, they are seen to be much as we might expect—separate and distinct, segregated from one another. In her insightful analysis of Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric, “Peitho and Bia: The Force of Language,” Megan Foley challenges this separation, taking as her starting point that their unity, “the concept of rhetorical force, although central, has remained a persistent theoretical blind spot” (175). She writes:

Commonly, bia is seen as rhetoric’s radical exterior: negative in both senses, bad and excluded, allowing rhetors and rhetoricians to valorize their art by comparison. The rhetorical tradition has defined itself against violence; persuasion ends where coercion begins. Yet while bia functions as the constitutive exclusion that figures rhetoric, bia is also included within rhetoric to account for its force…In fact, rhetoric has been so identified with force that the phrase “rhetorical force” almost sounds redundant—rhetoric is the name for the force of language. (174)

Rhetoric is never merely non-violent persuasive speech; it is also a compelling, a force that enacts itself upon an external body. We Americans have forgotten this at our peril. Ignoring force as part and parcel of persuasion allows for the cultural dismissal of hate-speech as “mere words”, as “locker-room talk,” as bluster without real-world consequence. Understanding speech as separate and distinct—and thus free—from violence allows for the election of a blatantly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobe as President of the United States. It is what perpetuates rape culture and what is at the heart of the “all lives matter” retort. For the good of the order and/or ease of living and/or the comfort of ourselves and others and/or simply to survive, we pretend that rhetoric is free of violence even while we know that dogwhistles abound, that force is omnipresent, that rhetoric turns precisely upon force to wreak its transformations. The willful forgetting of how our rhetoric depends on violence is what has allowed systemic oppression to flourish in this country; it’s what allows white people who are not actively, explicitly racist to proclaim their innocence; it is at the core of white privilege and it is what most sustains white supremacy. Even we well-meaning white feminists, or most of us, I will venture to say, continue to live in an imagined community of liberty, justice and safety for all, no matter how many protests we attend. Force, let alone violence, isn’t real for those of us who rarely have to experience it.

This imagined separation of peitho and bia is also what allows feminism to (still) be dominated by white universalism in 2021. Like other institutions in this country, feminism—at least academic feminism—has enacted within its rhetoric this forgetting of force as key to persuasion. Unlike other institutions, feminism has thus enabled the practical erasure of the body even as it has proclaimed its importance as central to its theory. This may seem counter-intuitive, given the recent history of the field. The notion of embodied rhetoric is not new to feminism, nor to rhetorical studies; in its insistence upon a speaking of the body, academic feminism today requires the acknowledgement that bodies are raced and gendered, aged, disabled, etc., and thus bodily experience may not be universalized through a mainstream white lens. But consider: we feminists know this, and many of us who are within academia have produced, studied and embraced “embodied feminism.” And yet, feminism is still pretty dang white. Why hasn’t white privilege been transformed—at least within academic feminism, with all of its insistence upon inclusivity, and its embrace of the diversity of bodies and of bodily experience? We who know better, why have we not done better?

Certainly, academia is itself an institution that upholds and perpetually re-inscribes the capitalist white patriarchy, and as such, it resists transformational attempts (pretty deftly, in my experience). And yet, is it only institutional pressure that has kept feminism white? After all, what else is there but institutional pressure? Sara Ahmed suggests that we look to “a phenomenology of whiteness” for answers to the institutionalization of white privilege. Like all institutions, feminism has both been constructed and operates within the “ongoing and unfinished history” of whiteness, and thus it serves to perpetually “orient [our] bodies in specific directions” around whiteness, “so that even bodies that might not appear white still have to inhabit whiteness, if they are to get ‘in’” (150; 158). Yet as Ahmed states, exploring the phenomenology of whiteness “does not teach us how to change [institutional] habits”. There are no quick fixes, no magic spells that will dissolve the dominance of whiteness into a rainbow of equity. In critiquing the whiteness of our feminism, Ahmed argues, we are left, at best and rightly so, with the potential for more work:

“Such an approach to whiteness can allow us to keep open the force of the critique.” (165)

Critique, and self-understanding, are processes; enacting a critique of whiteness leaves us with power, with force, with the capability to carry on. But why “keep open the force of the critique,” why not simply, ‘keep open the critique’? Ahmed’s usage of the term force speaks to the strength of white resistance, certainly, which is part of her larger point. To my mind, the inclusion of the word “force” here is just one small example of how completely we’ve separated our understanding of persuasion—and thus the bulk of our work, which is, after all, persuasive speech, or, rhetoric—from any conception of force, at least within academic feminism. That we must specify that our critiques have force (because we do not see them—or want to see them—as inherently force-ful) speaks to how fully we have fallen into the trap of always-already conflating rhetorical force with rhetorical violence.5 To its detriment, academic feminism in the United States has for far too long taken up this understanding of rhetoric as an instrument free of violence, as the tool with which we counter force. In so doing, we’ve simultaneously dis-empowered and gaslighted ourselves to our own complicity in the maintenance of violent, white supremacist patriarchy. Because we academic feminists choose to see our work as peitho and never as bia, we imagine that we are only ever operating in opposition to force, that our speech is the panacea for violence. Clearly this is problematic.

Taking off from Foley’s argument about the paradoxical valorization of peitho to the detriment of bia,6 I want to suggest that academic feminism re-consider its relationship to force. We might start by hypothetically untangling the term ‘violence’ from its patriarchal/racist connotation. By de-gendering ‘violence,’ so to speak, we may begin to consider the possibility of power that is embodied and pre-political, that is without a hierarchically-posited subject/object. Within a white-supremacist patriarchy, ‘violence’ presupposes a power differential and thus connotes victimization, as it is indeed intended to do. Violence does real harm upon real bodies; it is a main regulating force of oppression and of any systematized hierarchy. Those with greater power routinely employ it, explicitly and implicitly, against and upon those with less power. If we were free of oppression, how might we see “violence”? Rather than a maintenance tool of the patriarchy, in the beloved community as it might exist in a world of equity, might we be free to understand violence as bia, as a non-subjective force acting upon matter, as simply force itself? Such a thought experiment may seem utopian, or simply a power play on the part of white academic privilege, since undertaking it runs the risk of universalizing experience—unless and until we acknowledge and incorporate the variances, disparities and specific differences that occur across human experience, and seek out the information that we do not know.

Consider, for example, the violence of human birth. Generally speaking, humans do not consider a newborn to be a victim of its maternal source, even though that nurturing body forcibly expels it out and away from food, comfort, shelter. Neither do we consider a woman giving birth to be enacting violence upon the newborn even as she applies magnificent force to compel its emergence out and away from her body’s protection. To the suffering of birth “we” ascribe not horror, but profound joy—at least those of us privileged enough to experience a trouble-free pregnancy and delivery. When we confront the reality that, according to the CDC, women of color “are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women,” the ease with which human experience is universalized within dominant white culture becomes glaringly apparent. Yet, there is value in abstraction when it is responsibly employed. In our hypothetical oppression-free community, where violence is understood simply as force, human beings might view themselves—all of us—as capable of giving birth all the time, at any time: to new ideas, new theories, new art, new practices, new methodologies. Sometimes they are themselves re-birthed, awakened by others to new understandings, to new knowledge, to new consciousness. Impossible? Megan Foley traces Aristotle’s usage of bia as connoting possibility itself, writing that “bia makes a body do something it cannot do and become something it cannot be. Bia thus appears as the possibility of impossibility—the actualization of the impossible itself” (175-6).

If feminism’s enduring purpose is ultimately to transform structural oppression into structural potentiality, all feminists could do worse than to take up a consideration of bia. Given our material reality, as well as feminism’s goal to effect practical change within it, how might we understand “actualization of the impossible” as anything other than the siren’s call, especially when we see that sirens are not the monsters we’ve been told, but simply ourselves as viewed through the lens of white patriarchy? Cixous and Clement warn/promise that:

When “The Repressed” of their culture and their society come back, it is an explosive return, which is absolutely shattering, staggering, overturning, with a force never let loose before, on the scale of the most tremendous repressions: for at the end of the Age of the Phallus, women will have been either wiped out or heated to the highest, most violent, white-hot fire. (95)

Force can liberate, force can release—why have we feminists allowed ourselves to lay it down? In any case, we are lying to ourselves if we believe that our work does not cause impact, that we are leaving no trace in our wake. So, how do we employ force to fight the abuse of power without abusing our own power? In the real world, one of structural oppression, how might a rhetoric that acknowledges not only peitho but also bia be ethically, justly, achieved?

I don’t know how many times I’ve taught the Combahee River Collective Statement. There’s no excuse not to, frankly, helpfully included as it is within the Heath Anthology of American Literature. I most often utilize it in literature, philosophy and gender/sexuality/women’s studies courses, but I’ve found it helpful in composition courses, too. Most recently, it was part of a collection of texts I’d randomly assigned to one of several student presentation groups in an American lit survey course. As student presenters, their task was not to offer an airtight analysis, or a perfect summary. It was to help “get us engaged in what the writers have to say; get us all excited to discuss their texts!” That day, the quietest of the three rural white women who comprised the group took us through the Statement, breaking it down by section and pulling out passages that seemed especially important to her. She did this well, hitting on critical points, and imbuing her prepared remarks with what struck an absolutely delighted me as authentic passion. I admit that I was surprised by her level of investment, given her usual silence, though I knew better than to be. Students are always already more than we suppose, and in allowing our assumptions of them to dictate our teaching decisions we only succeed in reiterating the same oppressions we intend to explode. It was the gut-wrenching earnestness of her concluding statement, however, that made my heart leap. She said: “I guess I never really thought about what it’s like to be a Black woman before. They have to fight against racism and discrimination against women, at the same time. It’s way worse than what I ever faced being white and especially now with everything going on, I mean, with Trump.” This speech was made slowly and with a sense of wonder, even sadness. After a brief moment of silence, three things then happened all at once: her two white presentation partners looked down at their hands, a self-identified Trump fan abruptly left the class session, and the three Black women in the class simultaneously began to contribute to the discussion. Clearly, manifestos make a difference.

  • Thanks to the work of Black and other feminists of color working in every generation, feminism has never been singular, it has never been entirely univocal. It has merely been dominated by white women and white priorities.
  • That we white feminists can hold this understanding and yet persist in universalizing white experience is an indication that we aren’t doing enough within the practice of our feminism to challenge white privilege.

As gratifying as this story may be, especially since it appeared to be truly transformative for two of the three Black women, who never again held back their voices, I must provide an addendum: the white woman who spoke with such passion retreated back into silence, never again referencing this moment, even in her later writing for the course. Was this because she received my follow-up question, what does it mean to challenge the seeming centrality of the white perspective, as a threat, as too much, as an unwelcome force? Did I push too hard? In our thought experiments involving bia, above, I was careful to stipulate an absence of power differential. In real life, of course, hierarchies are always in operation, and we ignore them at our peril. While both of us were white women in the room, the young white student’s silence is understandable in the face of my authority as Professor. Yet, the three Black voices responded to this same query with tales of their own experiences as female students at our small, primarily white, rural college. What accounts for this difference? Perhaps the fact that Black women in America have been forcibly compelled to submit to white culture for hundreds of years. Even in academia, Black women are never permitted to forget their bodies in order to distance themselves from the trauma of the Diaspora, from the suffering of slavery. Force is a part of everyday life for women of color, and especially Black women, because systemic racism polices their bodies to such an extent that in March, 2020, three white men can forcibly—and mistakenly—enter the home of Breonna Taylor, shoot her dead, and face no penalty.

Here is where the importance of embodied feminism lies for the critique of white feminism, I think; it’s also where my perimenopausal rage comes into play. It’s near impossible to truly interrogate the significance of one’s own raced-ness when one is deeply invested in consistently denying one’s own physical identity. If I’m not living in relation with my own body, chances are slim that I will succeed in understanding the experience of living “race,” especially the one that masquerades as invisibility, as a body in the world, even when the stakes are high. I am indeed speaking from own experience, and for the purposes of diagnosis rather than justification. I have lived most of my life as the now stereotypical “body-conscious” white woman, and usually an overweight one—or morbidly obese, as the medical establishment and insurance actuarial tables have it. I’m extremely skilled in distancing my “self” from my body. It’s been my most basic social survival strategy and I’ve spent decades doing it (not to mention that, like many body-avoidant people, I’m a perfectionist to boot). While I’ve never hated my body, I’ve certainly taken pains to hide it, not only from others but from myself. Don’t get me wrong, reader, there have been sustained periods of time when I’ve devoted myself wholly to nurturing my body with healthful eating and dedicated exercise, both of which I love. I’ve spent years slowly unwrapping myself free of extra and unnecessary flesh, often successfully enough to enjoy the simple but exquisite pleasure of being in love with muscle and skin and the sheer pleasure of moving as a physical being through the world, and tremendously grateful for the ability to do so. But I’ve also spent years hiding within my flesh, denying it and myself, re-wrapping myself up in its comfortable yet socially-degraded embrace, all the better to be the invisible white woman, and so an accepted woman within mainstream American culture, and so a being free from violence and shame within American culture.

  • Taking responsibility for my own privilege must be my first priority as a feminist. Being afraid of my own power does not justify inaction.
  • Privilege, at core, is the absence of suffering, and the utter lack of empathy for the suffering of others that such a complete absence allows.
  • It’s time white feminists stop ignoring and/or fearing our privilege and power in the world and start making right use of them to fight the oppressions of white supremacy.

Mostly I’ve struggled to inhabit my body as consciously as I do my mind, much as I love Cixous. It’s always been one or the other, for me, it seems; either I’m a bookworm or a gym rat, a runner or a writer, a tire-flipping warrior or a writing whiz. Balance has heretofore been my downfall, and on the whole, I’ve found my body far too easy to ignore, especially in favor of the many delights of narrative, the teaching of which rather conveniently happens to be my profession. Like big heads at the cinema or one’s cat plopping down upon a book, bodies do tend to get in the way of a good story, unless they are the story, and I’ve taken pains to ensure mine isn’t, because of course far too often it has been. “I’ve never seen a stomach that big,” announced my white high school boyfriend. “Your boobies are showing,” taunted a white middle-school enemy. “Pleasingly plump,” pronounced my white male pediatrician. “I won’t be made responsible for your size,” said my white mother. “Does she have to eat in public?” asked my white father. “Your face is so pretty! I’ll cover your membership at the corporate gym, as long as you actually go,” said my boss, a white woman stockbroker. “You shouldn’t wear a bathing suit in public,” said my white, once-partner. “Just get rid of the blanket, it’s too hot and I don’t mind,” said a white male lover maybe twenty-five years ago. These are the easy ones to tell; the more complicated stories I have of living within my body are deeply buried. But they pretty much all boil down to this—and it’s only my experience of perimenopause that allows me to admit it, let alone share it: I struggle to confront my body. It’s difficult for me to integrate my materiality into my larger sense of self because I’ve never known what it is to be a body without also being shamed by that body.

Well, join the club, white woman, you may well be thinking. Try inhabiting the shame of the denigrated Black body, the fetishized Asian body, the pitied disabled body, the white-woman-appropriated brown body. There’s nothing unique about embodied shame, but certainly the reasons we inhabit it, and the ways in which we confront it, vary vastly across our group identities. When we think of embodied feminism, what comes to mind is communicating the value of the unique, individual’s bodily experience, both to honor that body, and to de-center the white body as dominant referent, to deconstruct its hegemonic hold upon the cultural imagination. This is important work that must continue. But as a white woman, I cannot begin to relate in a meaningful way to the experiences of women of color, no matter how beautifully told or persuasively written, if I have not first honestly confronted my own experience of being white. Without a personalized investment in the critique of whiteness—at the level of one’s own body—white feminists enable themselves to commit to the work of feminism in theory only, ensuring the continued dominance of white feminism. When we shy away from accepting what it means to be white in our practice of embodied feminism, we white feminists merely pay linguistic lip service to the centering of the Black body, no matter how wonderfully conversant in Black theory we may be. The price white feminists pay for our privilege is the never-ending bargain we make to uphold the white supremacist patriarchy’s definition of socially acceptable somatypes. In short, we pledge to patrol their borders and keep the unworthy Other well and truly out. We agree to re-inscribe racism and gender violence, even within ourselves; we agree to kill and to be killed, even by our own hands.

  • If as a white woman I’ve allowed myself to live in bodily ignorance, distanced from the matter of my own body, I’ve also allowed myself to ignore, to willfully not understand, the matter of other’s bodies.
  • This is not only how misogyny is propagated; it is the core of white supremacy.
  • I refuse to continue to be a patsy of white supremacist patriarchal culture; I refuse to continue to be a willing agent of white supremacist patriarchal culture.

Not even this, the thought of inhabiting the function of a killer, a terrorist, could convince me to confront my own racism. So I don’t imagine that my essay, and the stories I offer here, will compel any white reader to confront theirs. I present my experience of perimenopause precisely because I’ve been an example of the failure of mainstream—white—feminism. I’ve been too thoroughly wrapped up in my own victimhood, my own shame, to see that my feminist praxis has for decades served only to reinforce the universalizing of the white body. For me, it has only been the rage of perimenopause that has forced the first confrontation of my own physicality that I absolutely cannot ignore, including my white skin and the privilege it provides. Peri has been a jolt to my blissfully ignorant system, a compulsory intervention in bodily presence and in the reality I live as a white woman. When so many of us white women declare ourselves to be actively anti-racist, how can it be that so few of us undertake a serious interrogation of whiteness? Why aren’t there more fearless explorations of whiteness conducted by white feminists? I won’t mince words; to my mind the fault lies mainly with my generation. We were the first gen to be told that (white) women could be anything we wanted to be; we were also part of a gen that somehow, somewhere, lost its voice. Or perhaps gave it up, convinced that nothing matters anyway.

As of this writing, I am 51. Born at the tail end of 1969, I was identified in my youth by the marketeers as part of Gen X, that lost and abandoned generation of misfits, the “latch-key kids.” While I scorned such reductive categorization then, I now see value in its use as a kind of zeitgeist-descriptor of the dominant white culture of the time. As the Gen X story goes, it is undeniably the case that television was my most constant nanny and teacher, always present to shape my worldview and sense of self, especially in the absence of my working parents. Sesame Street taught me to read. Benny Hill taught me to feel uncomfortable as a person with breasts. As it is for most generations, music was everything, and our music came with images. I was in sixth grade when we got MTV at my house. If you don’t identify as Gen X, reader, take a moment now to imagine the scene in a small, white, lower-middle class household when Boy George first appeared upon the screen. Picture white, hetero, cis-male anger and elaborate displays of disgust for a man who would dare to wear make-up, who purposely subverted norms of gender expression, and then sang about love. Thankfully, my musical mother adored “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and stopped my dad from changing the channel whenever it played. If you’ll permit me a couple of generalizations on the dominant white culture spanning two different generations, it strikes me that Baby Boomers were slow to conceive of the power of visual media as cultural incubator. We, their children, grew up enlightened by the glow of the cathode ray, surrounded by its buzz, and did our best to make sense of the multimedia rhetoric we were fed. We were very aware of the power of words and of their connection to violence in the world, and as a result, hyper-conscious of ourselves as different from our parents and their idea of culture. Thus and therefore, we mostly kept our mouths shut, especially when it came to our own experiences of any kind of difference. After all, we reasoned, along with one of 1990s most popular mainstream hits, words “can only do harm,” and so we counseled ourselves and each other to turn inward and “Enjoy the Silence”.

While I didn’t buy the Gen X moniker, I self-identified as a feminist both before I knew the term and after I studied its theoretical underpinnings in college. In those days of (white) feminism, we women/womyn/wimmin fought against the reductive notions of biological determinism ceaselessly applied to gender. This battle served as the frontline of mainstream feminism, and it presented first and foremost as universally experiential, a fight for all women. It may be difficult to imagine today, but back then we heard constantly that women were crazy, dumb, only good for sex. Mainstream white media portrayed white women as such, as any casual survey of 80s films readily shows; Black women weren’t often portrayed. The “locker room talk” defense of misogynistic Trumpian rhetoric was more the rule than the exception, it was truly commonplace;7 it was also culturally depicted as both entertaining and as universally applied to all women. Biology, that is, “sex,” as the core defining principle of a human being’s identity, was presented as the most fundamental oppressive principle for all women. And so, white feminism told us, it was our first and foremost fight to destroy it.

My intention is not to provide a defense of late 20th century white feminism. I bring up the notion of biological determinism purposely, but for reasons other than to justify the actions of white, mainstream feminists of the 80s and 90s. For any critique of white feminism, it’s important for us today to understand just how powerful that referent once was within mainstream second-wave feminism. If I might borrow Sara Ahmed’s cogent argument for a phenomenology of whiteness, and suggest that we apply it to the grounding of biological determinism within white feminism, I believe we might better “notice institutional habits” within academic feminism and bring “what does not get seen as the background to social action, to the surface” (165). At the least, let us here consider biological determinism as the central and enlivening structure through which many of us experienced mainstream (that is to say, white) feminism at the end of the last century. My own understanding of mainstream feminism during this time was squarely centered within the fight against biology as social determinant of my entire identity. Since I didn’t buy the Gen X malaise, as a feminist in the world I took action: just because I bled every month didn’t mean I couldn’t work in the factory machine shop during the summer as did the white sons of my father’s work colleagues to earn money for college. But it did mean that I would be assigned to sweep the floor every damn day while the boys went off to assist the full-time mechanics, all men, all white. Until, that is, I resisted in both word and deed.

One day I beat the boys to the tools and presented myself as ready to accompany the workers. This was easily done because the boys were chronically late. When they did arrive, the air was satisfyingly thick with their surprise until one said with a sneer, “Thanks for getting our tools out for us. Your broom’s over there.” The supervisor doling out the assignments knew then that he had a problem, and I knew that he believed the problem to be me. So I replied, calmly and in the lingua franca, “Fuck you, Louie. You do the sweeping. Or, get here tomorrow on time in order to get the tools.” I spoke out of instinct, with force and fire, and my speech rendered the problem at hand—the absurdity of the social construction of gender and our strict insistence upon its norms—as one not of feminism or social justice, but that of employee conscientiousness. Given this context, the supervisor suddenly had an out with the summer college boys and with any full-time worker unwilling to accept a college woman as their assistant on the job. Specifically, what really impressed the supervisor, as I found out later that evening from my father, was my utterance of “fuck.” Apparently, my usage of the “F word,” delivered with as much casual power as any man in that male domain employed on a daily basis, was what most impressed the mid-aged male supervisor. It may be a bit much to say that thanks to my unabashed, unashamed adoption of “male” rhetoric, my wielding of gendered power, I secured my liberation and a gender norm was shattered, especially because the two cis-gender straight men then took to calling me “lesbo” as a slur whenever no one else was around (that fight is a story for another essay). But damn it felt good, it worked, and it taught me an incredibly valuable lesson about language and power.

  • To be able to forget the reality of one’s own body, to deny both its suffering and its beauty, is to be able to ignore the violence being experienced by the bodies of others.
  • To be able to forget the reality of one’s own body is to be able to forget the reality of one’s own power in the world.
  • The right use of power is to continually interrogate the right use of power, and to hold oneself accountable for its wielding.

This all too common denigration of gay identity brings me to my second reason for discussing biological determinism. It was in this time-period, the late eighties/early nineties, when its central place as the enemy phrase within (white) feminism became very complicated. These were also the days when HIV/AIDS ran rampant, decimating the gay male community and intensifying blatant acts of violence against LGBTQ+ folk. To be clear, this acronym was not widely in use then, when T stood for Transvestite, the only available referent for gender non-conforming folks, other than drag queen, a term reserved for performance. Transgender people received little to no understanding; the mainstream white, male, gay community provided little acknowledgement of trans experiences, and the bountiful terminology we employ today in the queer community for a multiplicity of trans (and cis) identities was yet decades away. While plenty of people lived trans-lives, and plenty of people lived gender-fluid lives, the phenomenology of biologic determinism necessarily limited our linguistic and conceptual recognition of that reality. We lived and thought and reacted to and against the prevailing notion of two “sexes,” with distinctive, biologically-rooted ways of being in the world.

With the explosion of AIDS/HIV, white mainstream feminists who fought against gay discrimination faced a philosophical dilemma. If biology doesn’t determine identity, does that mean that being gay is a choice? If being gay is a product of biology, how do we fight against sexism? As people began to grapple with these questions, white feminism necessarily stretched to a more inclusive understanding of both gender expression and sexuality. This was of course not some overnight transformation, but a process, one advanced by philosophers, activists, researchers, artists, and by the persistent replication and presentation and amplification of new ideas within popular culture as well as the university. Each change opens up potential for subsequent epistemological shifts. This has at least been the case with the 21st century shift from gay culture to queer culture, which took place in the wake of the 20th century shift in white feminism I describe below. While we may not always experience it ourselves, the capacity for change is inherent in feminism, if we make it so. Angela Davis argues that:

it is the very capacity of feminism to embrace more and more complexity in response to historical circumstances that renders it so exciting. This is what renders it so radical. This is what keeps the field in a perpetual state of instability; sometimes verging on crisis. This instability and these crises should not be eschewed. Instability and crisis can be productive if we are willing to dwell within the interstices of the instabilities. (193)

We, all of us, can take heart in feminism’s ability to enlarge, to deepen, to refresh its terminology, perspectives, ideals. As Davis suggests, this is a never-ending state, a process always in motion, whether we acknowledge it or not. Again, I speak from experience. I was in college at the height of the 20th century shift within white, mainstream feminism, and so, as its central raison d’etre changed from The Fight Against Sex Discrimination to Gender is Socially Constructed, I had a front-row seat to the instability and crises that Davis mentions.

Mine was a women’s college, Bryn Mawr, predominantly white, where there was much discussion, much frustration, much heat surrounding the topics of gender and identity. This heat came to a boiling point when Judith Butler came to campus in September, 1990. She’d been invited to give a talk about Gender Trouble; the book had been out about a year and was causing ripples amongst feminist scholars and critical theorists alike. This was intended to be a small talk; the invitation was issued to students taking the brilliant Diane Elam’s8 Intro to Feminist Theory course, as I was, and any others who might like to come. As news of Butler’s appearance spread, so did the heated discussions, which ramped up until a rumor flew around campus that several self-identified radical dykes were a.) very angry by the invitation extended to Judith Butler and b.) would be in the audience that night to confront her9. One student was apparently vowing to get up in the middle of Butler’s remarks and punch her. You needn’t have any personal knowledge of life at a women’s college to guess that this news increased the audience for Butler’s appearance exponentially. Indeed, the room was over-packed that evening. To the best of my knowledge, no punches were thrown, and as I recall Judith Butler gave a pretty darn, if brief, clear presentation of her thesis as expressed in GT, explaining that we feminists had been conflating sex and gender and thus fighting against ourselves despite our best intentions; that gender is performative even as biological bodies exist. I think I remember her saying at the end of her remarks that she was unhappy with a lack of clarity in the book and was in fact working on a further elaboration of her ideas on the status of biological bodies. I definitely remember her look of genuine shock during the Q and A when the would-be assailant asked how any self-respecting lesbian could state that identity was a choice given the real-world violence that gay people face every day. I can’t be sure, but I like to think that this night was among those that Butler would later cite when crediting discussions with students as the impetus for clarifying and refining her explanation in Gender Trouble10.

Reader, you may well point out that I’ve told you a story about a white woman’s invitation to share her scholarship causing some trouble amongst a few white women at a (white) women’s college in the early 1990s. That Kimberlé Crenshaw, another important scholar of the time-period, wasn’t the woman invited to my campus is a reminder of the structural strength of white supremacy. Late second-wave academic feminism, in the main, focused itself upon gender all that this new conceptual shift in understanding socially-identity entailed, rather than prioritizing a fight against the oppression of “race” as biologically determined—even as that very work was being done by Black feminists done by Black feminists. How might intersectional feminism operate today had mainstream white academic feminism celebrated Crenshaw’s social work as central to its mission in the last century? That the shift in white feminism I’ve described did not center either intersectionality or the experiences of women of color—despite all the reverence publicly held for BIPOC feminist writers by white feminists at the end of the 20th century—is a demonstration par excellence of white resistance to the interrogation of privilege. While I share my experiences here not with the intention of re-inscribing white experience as universal, but towards an embodied rhetoric of liberation, the fact is that I am white. White feminists, take note: The retelling of white experience, when uncomplicated by an awareness of its own structural dominance and the refutation of the same, will serve only to reinforce white power and privilege. “Liberation rhetoric,” writes Mikki Kendall, “cannot be lubrication for the advancement of one group of women at the expense of others” (9). And yet, as scholar-activist Angela Davis reminds us, feminism is never static, it is always in flux. Once unimaginable, social media now allows unparalleled if imperfect access to new feminist formulations, critiques, and methodologies11. For human beings and their creations, the process of growth and of change can be bumpy, imperfect, troubling, uncomfortable, even at times violent; it can also be exhilarating, especially if we keep the faith.

The third reason I raise what seems now almost an archaic term and an equally dusty old premise, biological determinism, is to state clearly that its centuries-long cultural power must function neither as excuse for perpetuating racism, nor as justification for white feminism’s persistent failure to confront its own rhetoric of racial exclusion. It is the case that my 21-year-old-self believed the issue of “sex discrimination” to be first and foremost an issue of the acceptance of biology as destiny. While I was aware enough to realize that Black women fought this battle on two fronts, that of social limitations placed on them due both to skin color and gender, I could not see that my understanding of the primacy of gender was not necessarily shared by all women, or indeed all feminists. Even though I lived my own outsider’s syndrome as a first-generation, lower-middle-class student who had gained entry to an elite college, I downplayed the class discrimination I faced, certain it was nothing compared to gender discrimination. Even though I witnessed one of my very first friends experience several acts of explicit racial hatred in our first year, I still personally believed that gender discrimination was every woman’s first and overarching fight.12 As Mikki Kendall writes, “mainstream white feminists ignore their own harmful behavior in favor of focusing on an external enemy” (8). There is no excuse for the fact that we white, mainstream feminists universalized the experience of being a woman, and so everything that followed, all the theoria, all the praxis, all of the activism, the fundamental fight, everything was necessarily framed to support the survival and flourishing of white women only. The whole fucking enterprise was entirely exclusionary, as unified in our fight we white feminists thought all women were, as all about the advancement of inclusionary humanism we believed our feminism to be.

Except to verify our own assumptions, and perhaps to certify our own moral superiority as warriors for the good, we white women never confronted race. While my generation was told that we’d “come a long way, baby,” our daily experience told us that our bodies still served to function within patriarchal society as an inviolable argument for the inequitable segregation of women. We white feminists saw this and only this as our fight probably because, as so many Black women have so rightly pointed out, it’s the only suffering that many of us ever experienced. No matter how well-intentioned we are, white women, no matter how well-read and/or well educated, no matter our activist endeavors, our daily devotions to self-reflection, here’s the truth: We are always already trapped within the bounds of our own experience. I will speak here only for myself. I could not see that I was part of the problem that I fought; I could not see that I clung to the white social power and privilege that I had, still do have. Even now, as I struggle to see, I cling on nonetheless. As a willing dupe of the white male patriarchy, I have been an enemy to Black women, to all women, and to myself. I don’t want to continue to be an enemy of feminism. White woman, do you?

  • It’s well beyond time for white women to confront our own resistance to the reality of a feminism of différance. Apologies for our erasure of Black, indigenous and women of color within feminism aren’t enough.
  • White women, we must enact change, starting from within, if we are to embody a revolutionary feminism of inclusion.

Thirty years later, as I approach menopause, when I think of the stubborn constancy with which I fought against the tiniest suggestion that my ‘self’ was in any way defined by my biological being, I can’t help but roll my eyes. Take it from a white, mid-age woman: the mattering of bodies tends to catch up with one. As I near the cessation of my ability to reproduce, I am fully in the midst of an epistemological shift—not because my identity is tied irrevocably to my fertility, as the patriarchy would have it. But because after years of denying biology’s power to define, I now cannot deny that I am in the throes of biological transformation. Perimenopause, this biological process, undeniably impacts the self that I know to be me. “I” am indeed socially constrained and, yes, constituted—if only in part—by the real-life mess of surprise mid-cycle bleeding: I am the person rushing to the bathroom at the academic conference, the woman hogging the stall and all of the TP. I am the teacher who sometimes can’t think of really simply words in the middle of class, the one who will cry when a student says something beautiful. I am the horndog who almost ran over, first by car then by her body, some man on a motorcycle. My body’s hormonal fluctuations are so perpetually ramped up that they affect my behavior, my thinking, my writing, even my understanding of self. No matter the fights of my youth, this is now my truth. It has become, for me, the very grounding of truth itself, of being. How do I know I exist? I know I exist because I am perimenopausing.


Lest this sound all a bit too transcendental, consider living with significant bodily instability for anywhere between 5-10 years. Perimenopause, researchers are realizing, can last up to 10-15 years. My personal estimate is that I’ve been living it the better part of the last decade. My knowledge is experiential, borne of physical pain, and it is also everything else I’ve ever reasoned, imagined, created. Most importantly, it’s always in a state of change, never finished and never complete. Like bodies themselves, like ideas, like feminism. As for myself, at age 51, I am consciously embodied in a way I’ve never been. I am my body. I am also beyond it. Being forced to confront myself as a bodied individual in the world compelled me to recall my animal commonality with other bodies—bodies that also may suffer, that also do suffer. I’ve been snapped back into a critical awareness of material co-being, of communion and of community. Given my birth within the feminism inspired by biological determinism, that I now see feminism enlivened through a critical study of biological (et al) processes and their impact within and upon the body, is just another of the wonderful ironies of midlife.

With this suggestion of perimeopausal phenomenology, I bring together the very beginning of this essay and its final turn, a brief call for the praxis of embodied feminism to embrace critical menstrual studies. Beyond the obvious objective of forcing a revaluation of a process that has been established as the signification of sin itself, the curse, at least within cultures rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition; beyond righting the real and ongoing degradation of menstrual bodies, real and imaginary; I believe, as do an increasing number of theorists, that menstruation as a field of inquiry provides the potential for rich new feminist work. Angela Davis argues that:

feminist methodologies, both for research and for organizing, impel us to explore connections that are not always apparent, they drive us to inhabit contradictions and discover what is productive in these contradictions and methods of thought and action; they urge us to think things together that appear to be entirely separate and to disaggregate things that appear to belong naturally together. (193)

While neither every feminist nor every woman menstruates, in allowing for the exploration of an epistemology that does not gender but rather embodies knowledge, and in presenting a phenomenological model of self-aware, intersectional, embodied consciousness, the burgeoning new field of critical menstrual studies may enable us to construct and employ multidisciplinary methodologies that neither universalize women’s experiences nor deny acknowledgement to any being who identifies as feminist. Every opportunity for feminism to open itself to new potential discovery, and to potential itself—as a rhetorical term in operation within the larger body politic we inhabit—is worthy of exploration. A critical menstrual studies (CMS) requires a centering of the body; it positions the body at the discursive center of scholarly endeavor. Because not all bodies menstruate and because those that do experience it in vastly differing ways, by definition CMS must eschew universality in favor of the wide spectrum of lived experience. The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies provides an overview of current work and an introductory indication of how CMS might force feminism to stretch, shift and change. For change is imperative if we are to realize an embodied feminism that grounds us in our specific bodies of matter while honoring our larger common goals. L’écriture feminine? A writing of the body? Of bodies? Think of the writing we can do together, when we truly are together.

I’ll end on this note, reader, with “A Black Feminist Statement,” a manifesto, given to us in 1977 by an actively engaged, committed, and forward-looking collective of Black women:

As black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and black history and culture. Eliminating racism in the white women’s movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue.

(Combahee River Collective 3277)

White readers, we must begin to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the work which we do and that which we don’t. We can start with our own rhetoric. Since our watered-down understanding of persuasion hasn’t seemed to be enough for us, perhaps it is time we white feminists—and those who have internalized white feminism—receive the call for action issued by Black feminists time and time again not simply as peitho, but also as bia, as a persuasive force compelling us to act. The onus is on us, however, white folx, to greet this force and to stop resisting its impact for fear that ego-violence may be done, or that we may indeed actually change as a result.

End Notes

  1. As opposed to Aristotle’s human being, the animal who is political. -return to text
  2. While it’s the process wherein most of the famous symptoms occur, the term perimenopause is itself hardly known, whereas menopause is widely used, often inaccurately. I would suggest that a patriarchy which places no value on a woman’s experience, has no need for a term that defines this process. Rather, its end-point, menopause, is seen as providing the only information necessary to the maintenance of the patriarchy: this woman is incapable of reproduction. -return to text
  3. Cixous and Clément: “All you have to do to see the Medusa is look her in the face: and she isn’t deadly. She is beautiful and she laughs” (69). -return to text
  4. Jane M. Ussher and Janette Perz provide intriguing research into how women inhabit the subject-position of monstrous through menstrual embodiment. See “Resisting the Mantle of the Monstrous Feminine: Women’s Construction and Experience of Premenstrual Embodiment”. -return to text
  5. Nor do we want to see ourselves as agents of force. In part this is due to academia’s insistence upon “objectivity” and political neutrality, which is currently in overdrive, and to our own desire to continue to earn a living within an institution that we are employed to critique. -return to text
  6. In her rhetorical analysis of Aristotelian peitho and bia, Foley ultimately concludes that while the two are intertwined, one of another, peitho is the more virtuous (in the Greek sense) because “it opens the possibility of change,” unlike the violence of bia. I argue here that if we de-gender our understanding of the term ‘violence’ we may then see bia as force itself, as power without agenda or intention to inflict suffering. -return to text
  7. Indeed, these were the high-rolling years for Donald Trump, which is no doubt one reason why he never left their prevailing ideologies behind. -return to text
  8. To wit, see her powerful book, Deconstructing Feminism. -return to text
  9. During my time at Bryn Mawr the phrase “confront her” was a commonly uttered phrase. As part of the much beloved and deeply inculcated Student Honor Code, students were encouraged to work through disagreement responsibly through peaceful confrontation. -return to text
  10. As in the preface to 1993’s Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” wherein she writes, “this text is offered, then, in part as a rethinking of some parts of Gender Trouble that have caused confusion” (xii). -return to text
  11. One example: Mikki Kendall’s 2013 #solidarityisforwhitewomen campaign, which eventually led to Kendall’s 2020 book Hood Feminism. -return to text
  12. Bryn Mawr College, like all American institutions of higher learning, has its own painful history of racial discrimination. My entry in 1988 as a first-year student coincided with the inauguration of a series of pluralism workshops for new students, a program instituted as one administrative response to the insistent demands of black students in 1987 for an end to racial discrimination on campus. In another essay, I plan to share my experiences with these workshops in greater detail. -return to text

Works Cited

  • Ahmed, Sara. “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory, vol. 8, no. 2, Sage Publications, 2007, pp. 149-68. doi:10.1177/14647001070781 39. -return to text
  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge, 1990. -return to text
  • Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. Routledge, 1993. -return to text
  • Centers for Disease Control. “Racial and Ethnic Disparities Continue in Pregnancy-related Deaths.” CDC, 5 Sept. 2019. -return to text
  • Combahee River Collective. The Combahee River Collective Statement. The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 7th ed., Ed. Paul Lauter, vol E. Wadsworth Cengage, 2014, pp. 3276-8283. -return to text
  • Cixous, Hélène and Catherine Clément. The Newly Born Woman. Trans. Betsy Wing. UMinnP, 1986. -return to text
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol 43, no. 6, pp. 1241-1299. Stanford Law Review, 1991. -return to text
  • Davis, Angela. The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues. City Lights P, 2012. -return to text
  • Elam, Diane. Feminism and Deconstruction. Routledge, 1994. -return to text
  • Embury-Dennis, Tom. “Trump Declares Twitter National Security Threat After #DiaperDon Trends Following Meltdown at Miniature Table. The Independent, 27 Nov. 2020. -return to text
  • Foley, Megan. “Peitho and Bia: The Force of Language.” symplokë, vol. 20, no. 1-2, pp. 173-81. U. of Nebraska P, 2012. -return to text
  • Kendall, Mikki. Hood Feminism. Viking, 2020. -return to text
  • Rogers, Katie. “White Women Helped Elect Donald Trump.” The New York Times, 9 Nov. 2016, -return to text
  • Saul, Jennifer. “Donald Trump, Racial Figleaves, and The Breadth of Bigotry.” Huffpost, 21 Jan. 2016, -return to text
  • Ussher, Jane M. and Janette Perz. “Resisting the Mantle of the Monstrous Feminine: Women’s Construction and Experience of Premenstrual Embodiment.” The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstuation Studies, 2020, pp. 215-31, -return to text
  • Yan, Holly. “Donald Trump’s Blood Comment About Megyn Kelly Draws Outrage.” 8 Aug. 2015. -return to text