Washing Utopian dishes; scrubbing Utopian floors

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Date: Spring 1994
From: Women and Language(Vol. 17, Issue 1)
Publisher: George Mason University
Document Type: Transcript
Length: 4,680 words

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Matriarchy and separatism are two forms of feminist utopias. In matriarchy, women are in control and men are the oppressed. In separatism, women abandon men to fend for themselves. Both forms of utopias are wicked and have few chances of ever being achieved. The more sensible and achievable female utopia is one in which females are no longer the victims of violence. This utopia will come about if women use language to replace deeply ingrained concepts of male and female roles in society.

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Keynote presentation at the Conference on Gender Research at Hollins College, Spring 1992

Feminist utopias tend to be of two kinds - both wicked. There is matriarchy - the flip side of patriarchy - in which women run the show for a change and men are oppressed. That's wicked, and the fact that it's our turn to be wicked makes it no less so. Then there's separatism, with women going off and abandoning the other half of the human race. That's wicked, too; that's manslaughter, in the most literal sense of the term. Left to themselves, men would kill each other off, and those who won the battles would die of never doing the dishes. I mean that most seriously. Neither the miracle drug nor the miracle machine nor the miracle physician is responsible for the life expectancy enjoyed by those who survive violence in this country. Hygiene is responsible. Men - most men - don't do hygiene. They believe someone ought to, and they understand it intellectually, but they won't do it themselves.

I don't believe any sensible case can be made for either matriarchy or separatism. But let's set that aside. I could be quite wrong. Let's assume that my ethical objections are so much romantic flapdoodle. Let's assume that a way could be found to justify one or the other of those alternatives. They're still no use to us. Because neither one could possibly be accomplished at the moment. Men have all the armies and all the tanks and all the planes and all the governments, and all the banks and all the savings and loans .... Women cannot suppress men at this point in history, nor can they drive men off to die bloody and/or dirty deaths. Not right now; and not for the foreseeable future.

What, then, could constitute a plausible feminist utopia? One that might be achievable? One that wouldn't be totally fantasy? Is there such a thing? .... I think so. Let me restrict myself for purposes of economy, to these United States, with the stipulation that it is a model to be expanded to the entire world, with whatever modifications each individual culture required.

I would suggest that a plausible feminist utopia would be a society in which it was not the case that a women was beaten by a male intimate every seven seconds. That would be a good start. It would be a society in which it was not the case that four million women a year suffered physical injury at the hands of the men who are allegedly their partners in life. It would be a society in which it was not the case that twenty percent of all women arriving injured in emergency rooms had suffered those injuries at the hands...and feet, and guns, and knives...of the their husbands or boyfriends. It would be a society in which it was not the case that seventy percent of all housework and more than seventy percent of all caretaking was done by women, even when those women were holding down fulltime jobs outside the home. It would be a society in which it was not the case that two-thirds of all poor adults were women, and most of the rest were the children of those women. It would be a society in which it was not the case that the most common reason for women to lose their infants was lack of prenatal care, and the most common reason for them to lose their young sons was violence.

That is: a possible feminist utopia would be a society in which women no longer had to fear human violence as a threat as constant as bad weather, and in which the vast resources saved thereby would then be available to pay for basic food and housing and services for women and children. A peace dividend, you perceive.

The question is, then: HOW DO WE GET RID OF THE VIOLENCE? And there are two associated questions. Let's just use the word "hit" as a cover term for violence.

First: Why do men hit?

Second: Why do women tolerate the hitting?

Assuming, as I do assume, that most men are not psychotic sadists and killers, why do they hit? Sometimes hitting until they have also killed? Assuming, as I do assume, that most women are not psychotic masochists or terminally stupid, why do they allow this hitting to continue?

I'm not going to spend time here trying to answer the first question - Why do men hit? - other than in the most general terms; it is a proper subject for another, different, talk. In general terms, men hit because hitting gets them something they need more than they need respect or love. I am going to turn most of my attention to the second question - Why do women in America let it go on? The most likely answer is that somewhere in our cultural consciousness the following foul proposition is lurking:


With the consequence that men feel obligated to do it, or justified in doing it, or both. And with the consequence that women don't feel motivated to resist strongly enough to stop them.

I suspect that your first reaction may be to claim that I am wrong, that there is no conviction in our culture that women deserve to be abused. I understand that. It's a repulsive concept, and the drive to deny its existence is powerful. But I'd like you to consider a few facts, nonetheless. We can do this most quickly from within the context of some of our most powerful unifying metaphors - that is, metaphors that are shared by almost everyone in our culture.

The first such metaphor is: WOMEN ARE OBJECTS.

For an object to be valuable, for it to be something that is cherished and protected, it must be very decorative or very useful. If it is both decorative and useful - like a thin woman who dresses beautifully, brings home a nice paycheck, and does all the housework - that's even better. Women bristle when they hear this Object metaphor, and we talk a good lip service line against it, but we have bought into it with our whole hearts and whole minds and our whole energies. It isn't men who buy VOGUE and GLAMOUR and MIRABELLA and all the rest of those grotesque publications in which women who are paid to serve themselves parade their deformity. It's women who do that. It isn't men who buy WORKING WOMEN and SAVVY and THE FEMALE EXECUTIVE, in which they are told that success depends not on your brain but on the $750.00 blazer jackets - in very small size. It's women who do that. Women have accepted this metaphor, often at a level well below their conscious awareness, and women support it.

They also support a second, more recent, metaphor which interacts with the first one. It goes like this: OVERWEIGHT IS A DISEASE.

These two metaphors are allowed to structure our lives as women. So that in a country where we are told that there isn't enough money for school breakfasts and school lunches, and there isn't enough money to give young mothers and babies milk and orange juice, there is enough money to spend THIRTY BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR on diet foods. Notice - thirty billion just for diet foods. That doesn't include the money spent for diet books and diet gadgets and workout tapes and diet spas and liposuction, and "weight reduction centers" supervised by doctors, and weight reduction clubs, and all the rest of the apparatus of looking like a fourteen-year-old-with-breasts until you die. Those things bring the total for the diet industry to many many more billions of dollars every single year. You want a safe financial investment? Put your money into Physician's Weight Loss Centers, or Weight Watchers, or Nutrifast. You want to be a best-selling author? Write a diet book. No product has steadier and more recession-proof demand, no product has greater built-in-obsolescence, than a diet product.

Women have accept, and women enthusiastically support, the two-part Sucker Punch Program these two metaphors set out for their lives. Part One says: "You have to be thin because that's how you have to look." And - for those women wise enough to say "I could care less how I look!" - there's Part Two: "You have to be thin because overweight is a disease." So that if they don't accept the Decorative Object metaphor and waste their resources of time and money and energy that way, they accept the medical metaphor script, which presupposes that anything that is a disease must have a TREATMENT, preferably supervised by a DOCTOR, and they waste their resources that way.

Let me make it clear: I am not doing what's called Blaming The Victim. A victim is someone that something awful simply happens to, out of the blue. The life devoted to the pursuit of thinness doesn't fall out of the sky that way. It's not a natural disaster. It's not imposed by law, or at the point of a gun. This is something women are doing to themselves, and training their daughters to do after them, and allowing the medical establishment to do to them and to their daughters. This is something that women could STOP doing.

Women are not so stupid that they don't know they can refuse to buy fashion magazines and diet dinners and Jane Fonda workout tapes. They're not so stupid they don't know they're free to say, "I have better things to do with my life than spend it trying to look like a little boy with big breasts." They're not so stupid they don't know they're free to tell the medical establishment to go bother somebody else with biased research and the careful suppression of information. The fact that they don't make those choices appears to me to have only one possible explanation: They have internalized the WOMEN ARE OBJECTS metaphor so completely that they are no longer even aware of the way it lies coiled and dominant in their psyches. And they are determined, in the service of that metaphor, to be valued for their decorativeness. If they can't manage that no matter how hard they try, they hope their usefulness will get them by. And this leaves them no strength - and no energy - and no inner will - for resisting violence.

There is a third metaphor that women have now accepted, and are giving their enthusiastic support to: THE TREATMENT WOMEN GET IN AMERICA IS WAR. We see and hear this one everywhere now in articles and books and media bits, often coming from women. Think of Susan Faludi's extraordinarily valuable book, BACKLASH, which lays out for us - research and referenced with scrupulous care - a set of lies that women have swallowed whole lately. It has as its subtitle "the undeclared war against women."

This is incredibly dangerous. Because the military metaphor is another one that unifies our culture. And just as defining overweight as a disease immediately brings in treatment and doctors and drugs and clinics and all the rest of the medical apparatus, defining the treatment of women in America as a "war" brings in all the pieces of the military metaphor. In this metaphor, women are not objects, neither decorative ones nor useful ones. In this metaphor women are the enemy.

That's dangerous. Because Americans are allowed to fight only in just wars. The theology of the just war says that killing to kill is wrong, and is forbidden. But just wars are not fought with killing as their goal. The goal of a just war is (a) to defend your country or (b) to stop an evil greater than war that cannot be stopped in any other way, or (c) both of those. Killing that takes place during the achieving of those two goals is simply an unavoidable side effect. And that is the exact term used: UNAVOIDABLE SIDE EFFECT. Killing the enemy in a just war in not only not wrong, it is encouraged. You get medals for it, and promotions, and money, and perks. The more of it you do, the better. It is the theology of the just war that allows us here in the United States to claim that we deplore violence while at the same time glorifying it with yellow ribbons and tickertape parades and cheering sections for the Patriot missiles and blockbuster attendance at Sylvester Stallone movies.

The technical term "unavoidable side effect" is revealing, in a way that makes your skin crawl. Because the research of M.D. Blumenthal, with thousands of male Americans as subjects, demonstrates that for most American men, force that is unavoidable is NOT VIOLENCE. Thus there is no contradiction.

When it was suggested to women that their treatment in this country could be called a war, in which force used is BY DEFINITION not violence, they should have said firmly, "Nonsense!" and stuck to that absolutely. They didn't; they embraced the metaphor that defined them as the enemy. The enemy that it is permissible - even admirable - to injure or kill or take prisoner. This was a very serious error.

Because this phenomenon is newer, it may seem a little more puzzling than the endorsement women give to the first two metaphors. But it is a superb example of the power of language, a power we underestimate at our peril. If American men had come home one day in camouflage fatigues, carrying rifles, roaring into the houses screaming "KILL!", women would have fought back. They might have lost the battle, but they would have fought to protect themselves and their children. But when the metaphor that defines them as the enemy was inserted into the culture, they not only did not fight it, they welcomed it. They nurtured it. No military technology, in the sense of guns and bombs and so on, could take over half the population of a country like that. Without a single shot fired. Without even being noticed. I assure you: language is the only real high technology. It is interesting that linguistics, the science of language, remains the property of the elite.

It seems to me that this most recent coup can only be explained as a case of women having lost track of the forest because of excessive familiarity with the trees, and as a case of self-defense against intolerable cognitive dissonance. It is hard to keep saying "Violence is despicable!" while remaining glued to the television set for "Twin Peaks" or "The Silence of the Lambs" or "Terminator II" or the latest multimillion dollar trifle from Stephen King. It takes lots of cognitive gymnastics. In the course of which it is apparently possible to forget that when the "war" is against women, women are what good soldiers are supposed to go after.

Here we are, then, we women. Posing decoratively, or working our hearts out usefully, or cowering against a wall. And the question is, suppose I am right. Suppose this is really the way things are, not in some imaginary dystopia but in these United States of America in the year 1992. Then what? I refuse to believe that women are going to say, "Then nothing can be done. We give up."

There's a long history of attempts to bring about change by force - including the passive force of Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King - and by legislation, such as the civil rights laws and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Both force and legislation take it to be the case that social change comes first, and then the language changes to reflect the social change - to my mind, exactly backwards. Could we women rely on force, or on legislation, to bring about the changes that are so desperately needed? I don't think so. I've been around a long time; I was a civil rights activist, I was a sixties radical, and I've seen all these things tried. And nothing leads me to believe that they are much use in changing the lot of women.

Force - active force, in the usual sense of the term - has been preempted. We can't take the weapons and the armies back now. They are controlled by men. As for passive force, that works only if you have unanimity. You can get every African-American in the state of Georgia to say, "We ride no bus until we can sit where we like, as white people may sit where they like," and they will stick to it.

You cannot get all the women in even a single block or two to say "I will cook no more food..." or "I will wash and dry no more clothes..." or "I will provide no more sexual services..." "UNTIL WOMEN ARE GIVEN THE SAME RIGHTS THAT MEN HAVE." They won't do it. Ask any feminist organizer, if you don't believe me. Not so long as it would be their families that went hungry and dirty and bedraggled; not so long as it would be their husbands that slept alone. That option is out.

And legislation? Legislation, my friends, is chicken scratches when it runs counter to the will of the powerful. The law says, right this minute, that you cannot discriminate against women or blacks or Latinos or Native Americans or the disabled. Those laws are there, this minute. I suggest you go tour the Arkansas and Mississippi Deltas, you go tour the Indian reservations, you go tour the inner cities, and you see how those laws are enforced. The law says, right this minute, that men are forbidden to hit other people with their fists or with weapons, other than in war or in self-defense. The law says, right this minute, that men are forbidden to rape. And I am here to tell you that you can pass a dozen Equal Rights Amendments, and they will do no more than these laws that we already have already pay lip service to, and already ignore.

There are some things that women could do, on their own, some changes that they could make. Most are things men wouldn't even notice until it was much too late to stop them.

To achieve a feminist utopia, women would have to give up the pursuit of thinness and permanent youth and they would have to give up the glorification of violence. Among other things, this would mean...

No more buying fashion magazines, or going to fashion shows, or leaving perfectly good clothes hanging in the closet because someone - usually a man - has declared that skirts have to be longer or shorter this year and that you must buy new clothes even though you already have a closetful.

No more supporting the diet industry, no more Weight Watchers, no more Nutrifast, no more Physicians Weight Loss Centers...no more of any of that nonsense.

It would mean no more watching movies or videos, or reading books, in which human beings commit gratuitous violent acts against other human beings.

No more watching sports that are nothing buy carefully-framed violence, such as football and boxing and roller derbies.

No more reading romance novels in which women are just thrilled to pieces at being subjugated and overwhelmed and forced.

No more maintaining the home as a War Zone where every disagreement, no matter how trivial, must be resolved by an argument which has, obligatorily, a winner and a loser.

It would mean no more sitting and laughing our way through "Roseanne" and "Cheers" and all the rest of the sitcoms in which the person who gets all the applause is the one who causes the most pain with his or her mouth.

No more teaching our kids that people who are hurt by their words have something wrong with them - as in "He's just being a baby" and "She has no sense of humor" and "He can't take a joke" and "She's just neurotic .... she'll get over it." And no more tolerance for the professionals who support the idea that people who suffer pain from cruel words - rather than those who cause the pain - need their heads fixed. Because verbal violence is where physical violence STARTS; if you allow the one, the other is guaranteed.

I'm quite sure we women can stop the violence. Not the violence of the psychotics. That will happen, in the way that tornadoes happen, despite our best efforts. But we can stop the rest of it, which is by far most of it. We can refuse to accept - must less to support and nurture - the proposition: "deserve to be punished, because I have failed to be a decorative object and I have no other value." We can refuse to accept and support "I deserve to be hurt because I am the enemy." We women are half of the population. THESE GAMES CANNOT BE PLAYED UNLESS WE PARTICIPATE, and they are, almost without exception, LANGUAGE games.

The problem isn't whether we can do it, but whether we will. For one thing, there are all those sacrifices. Women say to me, "Give up my soaps? No way!" "Give up the sitcoms? You're out of your mind!" "Let people get away with mouthing off at me in my own home? Forget it!" They say to me, "If you think I'm going to go around looking like a bag of old laundry, you can think again!" And so on.

They don't really mean those things, of course. They mean: "The idea of living my life without all the things that have always surrounded me, playing by a set of rules that are completely new to me, scares me - I'm not willing to risk that for myself or for my children. They mean "Abandoning the metaphors that are central to my life, the metaphors around which I have structured my life and from within which I filter my perceptions, terrifies me. I can't do that. Better the evil I know!"

We can't do anything to change this situation - by the technology of language - we insert new metaphors into our culture to replace the old ones, just as we have done in turning "war" into "defense." Let me use a metaphor here that I read first in a book by Sonia Johnson, to make it clear why this is so. Women need to get from one reality to another, across a perilous abyss. They need to get from the status quo to the plausible utopia on the other side of the gorge. Women could find the courage to hold on tight to the familiar rope and swing out over the abyss - if they could be sure that a new rope was hanging out there for them to grab when the old one would reach no farther. But you can't ask them to grab the old rope and swing out over nothingness on blind faith alone, with no reason to believe that there's anything out there to grab!

You don't use guns, or laws, to insert new metaphors into a culture. The only tool available for metaphor-insertion is LANGUAGE. And we know very well how to go about it. Our nuclear studies programs, where students learn the totally sanitized and domesticized language of nuclearspeak that makes it acceptable to name a missile "The Peacemaker," are a magnificent model. The American advertising profession is another. And there is the medical profession, which has managed to convince us that health is slaughter, with our "killer cells" endlessly prowling the battleground of our bodies in search of bacteria and viruses and tumor cells to conquer. We have the models; the question is whether we are willing to use them. The question is whether women are willing to accept the almost unimaginable change in reality that would come with defining women OTHER THAN as objects, other than as perpetual victims, other than as the enemies in a just war.

Finally: There's one more set of objections: the set that can be summarized as "it's not fair." Women shouldn't have to do all the work! Let the men do it.

The problem here is the same problem we have with housework: MEN AREN'T GOING TO DO IT. Anything men do unwillingly, they do as badly as possible. Willingly, American men today will do anything that has a short term payoff and/or glamour. Our culture has made violence glamorous. But housework? What we've accomplished by trying to force men to do housework is very simple: We've convinced them that housework is so horrible that nobody would ever do it except at the point of a gun. We have established the metaphor: HOUSEWORK IS SLAVERY. Men won't do it. IT TAKES THREE TIMES AS MUCH OF A WOMEN'S RESOURCES OF ENERGY AND TIME TO MAKE A MAN DO HOUSEWORK AS IT DOES FOR HER TO DO IT HERSELF. But the consequences of housework not being done hurt women. And the same thing is true for getting rid of violence - either women will do it, or it won't be done, and women will suffer the negative consequences of its not being done.

It's not fair, but there it is. This is the real world. Women can keep the status quo, or they can make the sacrifices and do the work that is necessary to fix it. There are no other choices.

Women can put the time and strength and money and energy now use for dieting and body-decoration into living their lives.

And women can refuse to take part any longer in the waste of time and strength and money and energy that goes into our culture's glorification of violence.

This is women's work, and it would bring us the feminist utopia. It's work women are equipped to do, and are capable of doing. This is work that women - who still have almost the entire task of bringing up the children - could teach the new generations to do. The question is not whether it's possible, but whether women have the will. We have done it the other way for so terribly long. The other way is home, and the warm bed, and the cozy womb. The new way is swinging out over empty space into the unknown, believing there'll always be another rope to grab, believing there'll be strength enough to do the grabbing and the holding on....and trusting that what's on the other side will be WORTH having taken that terrible risk.

Thank you for listening.


Blumenthal, M. D. Justifying Violence. University of Michigan: 1972.

Cohn, C. "Slick 'ems, Glick 'ems, Christmas Trees and Cookie Cutters: Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1987, pp. 17-24.


I let the girl-child wash away as I walked across water talking with you. When I saw the women lay her on the swift-flow, I thought, at first, No, you can't send six-year old girls down the river like flowers or diyas on a leaf. Then I wondered how I knew they set her moving for death and not for play, why not for the girls who danced below having shaken free of the strain of journeying?

I know nothing of girls who float downstream on their backs unresisting to water, buoyed up by the bubbles of a river that burst large and frothy. So I let her be and walked away with you.

Padmini Mongia

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A16617852