- Post 12 May 2008
- Last Updated on 12 May 2008
- By Pius Adesanmi
These are definitely not the best of times for Gloria Steinem and the “gender trouble” radicals in her flock. Ever since the train of the 2008 American presidential elections arrived at a station famously baptized by Barack Obama as “the silly season”, the Gloria Steinems and the Roseanne Barrs of this world have given a new meaning to silly by seeking to foist a meretricious Orwellian hierarchy on the two historical oppressions that define not only the candidacies of the two democratic contenders but also their respective trajectories as human subjects: race and gender. Hillary Rodham Clinton, they argue, is more deserving of the Democratic Party’s ticket and the Oval Office because her oppression as a female subject is less equal than Barack Obama’s oppression as a black male subject in America. And because gender has always been less equal than race in their Orwellian rendering of America’s many original sins against the black person and woman, they reason that gender restitution and equality are more urgent than racial restitution and equality. First things first: we shall pay attention to racial restitution and equality after giving patriarchy a bloody nose.
There is always a price to pay for solipsism. Where solipsism is deliberate and disingenuous, there is an even higher price to pay. There is, for instance, the little unstated aspect of Steinem’s formulations which makes her appear to prey on the two historical solitudes of the black woman – being black, being woman. It certainly looks like Steinem is inviting her to hierarchize these solitudes in favor of gender solidarity with Hillary Rodham Clinton while papering seamlessly over American society’s formidable armada of white skin privileging institutions, ethos, and mechanisms, of which the white woman – most certainly Hillary Clinton - has historically been a partaker at the expense of her non-caucasian sisters. In South Africa, Steinem’s Orwellian calculus would amount to telling Black women that Nelson Mandela and the black patriarchy he represents were more deleterious enemies than Apartheid and Henrik Verwoerd in the period between 1948 and 1994.
But that is only one part of the problem. The solipsistic narratives of Hillyary Clinton’s feminist warriors have tended to favor an attack on symbols at the expense of unpacking and delegitimizing the deep-seated structures of imbalance and injustice for which those symbols merely serve as an opportunistic patriarchal veneer. Steinem and the warriors are for instance preoccupied with the idea of the Oval Office as a symbolic expression of patriarchal power, domination, and desire. Put Hillary Clinton symbolically in that office and all other things shall be feministically added. Hillary Clinton’s potential presence in the Oval Office is thus perspectivized as an open sesame to feminist bliss. This oracular formulation prevents other perspectives from emerging and those who swear by it have been reluctant to probe further by asking questions informed by history. Why, for instance, was Margaret Thatcher only able to exercise “male power” as Prime Minister of Great Britain? Why is the adjective “male” always attached to power immediately it lands in the hands of a woman, especially in the domain of politics? Why was it necessary to coin a macho sobriquet – the Iron Lady – to remind doubters that once in the hallowed precincts of 10 Downing Street, her skirt was immediately transformed by Aladdin’s lamp into nice-fitting trousers, making her worthy of a sobriquet that tied her to Otto von Bismarck, “the man of iron and blood” in a long macho chain? What was the nature of Thatcher’s discourses/language in office? How was the masculinist whiff of Thatcher-speak pre-determined?
Gloria Steinem and co. need not venture too far for answers to these questions. Three representatives of American patriarchy supplied very loud answers recently. Answers that should compel any feminist, preoccupied with the exaggerated importance of symbols, to begin to examine the paths of deeper structures not addressed by Steinem’s sortie. Governor Mike Easley of North Carolina recently found no other way to describe Hillary Clinton, the candidate he supports, than to imaginatively frame her as a determined Hercules who made “Rocky Balboa look like a pansy”. The sexist bombshell had hardly sunk in when a local union leader in Indiana snatched the baton from Governor Easley and rejoiced profusely in contemplation of Hillary Clinton’s “testicular fortitude”. Now, the one person you don’t outdo in an orgy of machismo is James Carville, the long-time Clintonite war horse for whom Hillary Clinton already represents a messianic, masculine Jesus sold for thirty pieces of silver (thirty dollars?) by the “Judas” of New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson. Carville promptly supplied the icing on the cake. Not only is Hillary Clinton Jesus, HE is actually endowed superfluously with three cojones and may consider loaning one to Obama so “they’d both have two”!
In one week, Hillary Clinton achieved the spectacular feat of becoming a testicularly fortified alpha male, who puts Rocky Balboa to shame, and is capable of upgrading the deficient, single-testiculed Obama into a real man by loaning him one of her three balls! She achieved this feat in the phallophilic diction and the subconscious of her male supporters. These incidents of male epistemic violence have not happened by accident. What we have here is America’s most famous female politician in the prison-house of masculinist framings of the subject. If there is any lesson for the Steinems of this world, it lies in grasping the fact that the kind of woman who ends up in the Oval Office and the road taken to that destination are as important as the symbolic presence of a woman in that office. Be careful what you wish for, Governor Easley and James Carville seem to be screaming at Steinem and her sisters. We could give you your symbolic female in the Oval Office but we’ll allow her to get there by putting as much distance as possible between herself and everything you imagine ‘woman’ to be. She’s got to be a symbolic male and that’s not up for negotiation! If necessary, we will supply her three cojones. There is a reason why we have the expression “beltway boys” and have never thought of anything like “beltway women”. We are the sentinels of male power in DC. We are the way, the truth, and the light. We can only let her in if she becomes a psychological and metaphorical clone of our all-important maleness. Once in, we’ll encircle her and loan her the appropriate macho language befitting of that office. Cardinals Mike Easley and James Carville of the Roman Curia have examined Hillary and declared: “testiculos habet et bene pendentes! (translation: testicles s/he has and well hung ones)” In essence, the spokespersons of patriarchy have spoken loud and clear: the road to the oval office is ontologically male. Permanently. It seems to me then that feminist thought and praxis cannot focus on the surface symbology of the office and ignore this road. Deconstructing the ontology of that road is in fact a more urgent task.
Unfortunately, Hillary Rodham Clinton has not helped matters. She was grinning from ear to ear on stage as her “testicular fortitude” was lauded to high heavens. To my knowledge, she has not shown any discomfort over the discursive sexism of James Carville and Governor Easley either. She did not even wait for these benevolent patriarchal dinosaurs to loan her macho diction - after she’s been satisfactorily testicularly certified! - before snatching that diction from the men, along with the macho actions associated with that mode of discourse. The tragedy here is that the copy will always try to outdo the original. Hillary Clinton seems to have convinced herself that she is the newly minted phallophiliac in town. This explains why she tried to outdo Sylvester Stallone/Rambo by dodging heavy sniper fire in Bosnia; this explains the beer swig in Indiana; and her belligerence on the Iraq issue. Lately, she’s upped the ante. She must now outdo the Generals in the US Army!
To do this, she has actually gone all the way to Africa to court Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron and warfare. In Yoruba mythology, Ogun is the fiery patron of all metals, the very embodiment of masculinity and virility. Unending war is HIS hobby. Here is how Odia Ofeimun, a famous Nigerian poet, imagines HIM:
We must take leaves of iron from Ogun
The masterbuilder who became god and witness
Keeping pride and anger at arms length
We must take leaves of iron from him
Who waited until his bellows could blow away
City gates for the rain of fire to begin
He condemned them all, stalls and shrines
To be razed in their sleep; he waited
Till his anvil could hold purest fire
In the square that gold-ringed women took over
In a vow of presence to humour usurpers
He would let the streets roast…
The imagery says it all: “rain of fire”, “condemned them all, stalls and shrines”, “razed in their sleep”, “let the streets roast”. In the province of Ogun, diction can only be evocative of fire, blood, and destruction. War. More war. When next Hillary Rodham Clinton insists on “obliterating” Iran, the American public now knows that, like John McCain, she has gone to western Nigeria and emptied Ogun’s shrine of every leaf of iron she can find! She has snatched them all. Ogun’s shrine is now empty. When you take leaves of iron of Ogun, Ogun takes possession of your tongue! You are only able to dream and speak of war! Mind you, Ogun is no respecter of race and gender. HE can take possession of a white woman’s tongue and this has obviously happened in Hillary’s case. There is thus the possibility that Gloria Steinem may very well get her woman in the Oval office only to be confronted by an Ogun wannabe, either reluctant to welcome Steinem to the White House for fear of being thought weak and effeminate or too busy planning to “obliterate” Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela.
These scenarios demonstrate the limitations of a feminist agenda based on rigid Orwellian hierarchies and dichotomies. Compartmentalizing modes of oppression and turning them into rigid, competing binaries is hardly helpful. I’m a conscientious student of African and Africana feminist scholarship and praxes. One of the most prominent and productive scholars in this field is Indiana-based Obioma Nnaemeka. What I’ve learnt from studying her expansive oeuvre over the years is that the African/black woman occupies multiple sites of deadly oppression all at once: she is a black, female, ex-colonial, neo-colonized subject who must also contend with her situation as a subject of the global south exploited by new forms of oppression from the North known as capitalist globalization, market, and the like.
The gist of Nnaemeka’s work is to account for the overlapping and interconnected nature of these loci of oppression as opposed to creating unhelpful Orwellian dichotomies between them. What we have is an intermesh of multiple modes of oppression. Her procedure lies in fashioning modes of discursive address and praxes that do not shy away from instrumentalizing strategic negotiations and compromises to achieve concrete objectives on the path to gender equity and justice. This is what Nnaemeka calls negofeminism, a pragmatic feminism of strategic negotiations that does not compartmentalize or hierarchize oppressions. In negofeminism, the female subject does not need to articulate race and gender as two mutually exclusive, warring, and competing oppressions, with the attendant need to determine which oppression is more/less equal than the other. They overlap and are mutually reinforcing with disastrous consequences for the female subject. Nothing in Nnaemeka’s work teaches me that the powerful, multi-millionaire white wife of a powerful, multi-millionaire President, who went to Wellesley and Yale, and has moved ever since at the apex of America’s circuitries of power and privilege, should unproblematically and automatically rank as less privileged than a black man in any Orwellian rendering of the American narrative. Although Western feminists hardly ever acknowledge the existence of their African/Black counterparts, methinks that Gloria Steinem needs the phone number and the email address of Obioma Nnaemeka.