The Construction of a Feminist ConsciousnessThis is a featured page


In her article “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”, Audre Lorde claims the goal of the feminist movement is not only to eliminate oppressive situations and actions, but to also remove the “blueprints of expectation and response” and ideas of the “oppressors’ tactics” from our consciousness. (pg 123) Sandra Bartky, in her article “On Psychological Oppression”, makes a similar claim when she argues that it is possible to be oppressed in ways that need not involve “physical deprivation, legal inequality, nor economic exploitation [, for] one can be oppressed psychologically….” (pg 22) How, then, can we formulate a ‘feminist consciousness’ that is not grounded on “the oppressor’s tactics, the oppressor’s relationships”, as Lorde describes it? (pg 123) In this essay, I will explain what each author means by their claims and discuss how and why I find it impossible to conceive of a formation of a ‘feminist consciousness’ without it being grounded on the actions of the oppressor or relationships between the oppressed and the oppressor.

Audre Lorde quotes Paulo Freire when she says: “[T]he true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressor’s tactics, the oppressor’s relationships.” (pg 123) In other words, feminism isn’t exclusively seeking to eradicate all behavior that is oppressive, but also to address the psychological aspect of such oppression. Actions and behaviors are relatively easy to eliminate; for as Lorde quotes Kalamu ya Salaam, “Only women revolting and men made conscious of their responsibility to fight sexism can collectively stop rape.” (pg 120) However, the thoughts, ideas, and fear that oppressors place in the minds of the oppressed, which come from the oppressor’s relationship with the oppressed, are extraordinarily difficult to eliminate, for people and actions can be stopped, but ideas and stories die hard. When I say relationship, I mean the natural dichotomy of such groups as male/female and white/colored. Lorde describes the oppressed as anyone who does not match the “mythical norm”, which is described in America as being “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure.” (pg. 116) Anyone who doesn’t fit into this description is oppressed in one manner or another. At the very least, they feel inferior if even one of these descriptions doesn’t match. In addition, as Lorde points out in her description of the “mythical norm”, there are more differences between people than sex and gender; there is color, size, and beliefs, among others. While some may claim that these other differences do not matter (pg. 122), to diminish a person by denying parts of who they are is yet another form of oppression:
“My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition.” (pg 120 – 121)

In one’s attempt to revolt against the oppressors, one must attend to this psychological oppression, as well as what it means for an “oppressor” to “oppress”. Sandra Bartky claims it is possible for one to be oppressed in ways other than physical deprivation, legal inequality, or economic exploitation, for one can be oppressed psychologically. To be psychologically oppressed, according to Bartky, “…is to be weighed down in your mind; it is to have harsh dominion exercised over your self-esteem.” (pg. 22) This is identical to the argument that Audre Lorde makes when she refers to “…that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us….” (pg. 123). This psychological oppression comes from the implied superior/inferior relationship that exists between Lorde’s “mythical norm”, and those who fail to be described as such. Psychological oppression takes into account the fact that one can feel oppressed just by the fact that this relationship exists. Nothing oppressive may ever happen to an individual, but if one fears that this action may occur, or that it is an inevitability; this is psychological oppression. Some may respond to this and say that one could actively resist this fear, forcing it from his or her mind in an effort to resist psychological oppression. However, as Bartky points out, what reason would the object of a stereotype have to not believe what everyone else believes? If the object of a stereotype believes the stereotype, this is also psychological oppression.

How, then, can we cultivate and recognize feminist consciousness that is not grounded on “the oppressor’s tactics, the oppressor’s relationships”? The answer is simple: we cannot. Feminism revolves around this oppressive relationship between categories of people, for if oppression was non-existent, the feminist consciousness would cease to stand for anything. One of the main goals of feminism is the abolishment of the “superior/inferior” labels applied to classifications of people due to differences in characteristics deemed to be favorable or unfavorable. This dichotomy is, once again, based on Lorde’s “mythical norm”.

In opposition, one could attempt to modify the definition of feminism so its lone goal would be the equality of all people. The goal of this would not be to stop oppressive actions towards those deemed to be inferior per se but to set forth a state of the world in which people of all genders and sexes were treated equally. To ignore the nitty-gritty of who is being oppressed by whom and why, one could start with a blank slate of equality and eliminate all categories of people. For example, everyone would refer to everyone else as “human” and “people”, not “woman” or “man”.

In response to this suggestion, “equality of all people” is still a relationship. Instead of being a relationship of oppressors and the oppressed, the suggestion would impose a relationship of equality. Since, despite our efforts to create equality, the relationships between these categories remain, the problem here seems to be that of relationships themselves. To cultivate and recognize feminist consciousness that is not grounded on “the oppressor’s tactics, the oppressor’s relationships”, one would have to, as my proposed objection states, eliminate the categories between which the relationship stands. However, by eliminating the categories of “woman” and “man”, for example, and just lumping them together into the classification “human”, people would begin to question why they were all considered “the same”. In reality, as much as everyone would like equality, it cannot come about in this manner; there are too many differences and variations between individuals to go without more specific categories of people.

Having said this, one could attempt to reorder classifications of people so as to eliminate relationships. However one can not classify individuals as “women” without also classifying “men”. All categories require that the category stand in relation to another category. For example, the category “homosexuality” means nothing without the category “heterosexuality”; the category “fat” means nothing without the category “thin”; and the category “woman” means nothing without the category “man”. It is evident here that the mere existence of categories, by their definitions, imply relationships between the categories. Getting rid of the “troublesome” terms did not solve this issue. As I shall discuss here, not even extreme measures will allow us to conceive of a feminist consciousness that is not grounded on “the oppressor’s tactics, the oppressor’s relationships”.

If eliminating the terms does not help, one could theoretically take this a step further and eliminate the objects for which these categories stand. For example, if all men on earth just ceased to exist in an instant, leaving only women, it would be senseless to them to refer to themselves as “women” because they would be unable to answer the question “as opposed to what?” Although they would be able to refer to the idea of the men as “being opposed to” women, the relationship between “men” and “women” would cease to be a relationship between two things in existence since, in this example, the term long since ceased to indicate anything in the world. Women would slowly refer to themselves are human “as opposed to” animals or non-humans. At the very least, they could retain the term “women”, but it would thus replace the term “human” or “people” in their vocabulary. To help imagine this situation, it might help to think of why people think Bigfoot exists. Every culture has an idea of Bigfoot, and people refer to it, but the idea does not cease to exist because people keep reporting sightings of Bigfoot, thus keeping the idea alive. The same goes for U.F.O., “sightings”; subsequent television specials about said sightings keep the idea alive. The existence of things to which these terms refer will always be in doubt, for it is no falsifiable. In my example, however, we know that men no longer exist. The occasional repetition of an entity to which a term refers would keep the term “men” alive, in my example, but since their existence is simply not be the case, the term would eventually cease to be used, thus ending the relationship.

At this point we have theoretically removed one of the many relationships that exist between individuals; however, if relationships are truly the problem when dealing with oppression, we must continue to remove relationships by eliminating the people who represent these categories. Although this is possible in theory, and unlikely in reality, one could continue to do this with every difference and every category of people. By the time this project was accomplished, one would be extremely far from cultivating any type of feminist consciousness. Not only would this be implementing a “superior race” like approach, but how would one choose which characteristics were “worthy” of life? There is no correct answer; any form of unfavorable action towards a group, due to their distinction, is discrimination. Even if one could eliminate all oppression by eliminating all other relationships between categories, we would not be solving the problem, for metaphysics tells us that the only way one could not stand in relation to anyone or anything else would be to exist alone. All oppression would disappear, but where would that leave you? If we can not even form a feminist consciousness grounded on something other than “the oppressor’s tactics, the oppressor’s relationships” with measures as extreme as my examples, one could not expect to do so under rational conditions.

In conclusion, the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed is required for feminism. Since this relationship is required for a feminist line of thinking, this would imply that, by implementing and fighting for feminist rights, one would appear to be forcing feminism into nonexistence. In other words, successful feminism places us on a path that eliminates feminism as well. To hold this view is to misunderstand what feminism is all about. Feminism isn’t trying to eliminate categories of people, or even the relationships that exist between them. Feminism searches for equal relationships. Without relationships, feminism would mean nothing.

Works Cited

Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Sex, and Class: women Redefining Difference,” in Sister/Outsider (Boston: The Crossing Press, 1984).

Sandra Bartky, “On Psychological Oppression,” in Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (New York: Routledge, 1990).

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