I want to reflect upon some points on feminism I draw from Carol Hanisch and Sara Ahmed. Hanisch coined the well-known phrase, “the personal is political.” Her work is related with the groups to conscientize women organized in the 1970s. The aim of the process of conscientization was to share experiences of everyday life in these groups, and from there to elaborate general principles about women’s oppression.
These groups were criticized for considering they were therapeutic groups. But Hanisch disagrees with the differentiation between personal and political, private and public, individual experience and collective experience. These groups precisely showed for her that it is possible to articulate political ideas from everyday experience. As such, these groups constitute a different way of participating in politics.
“The personal is political” because the goal is for the woman to understand what she experiences in her private life is not due to something she did wrong or psychological factors. In these groups, the personal narrative becomes a collective one. Women learn to identify her personal experience in the context of patterns of behavior that society naturalizes.
Sara Ahmed in her book “Living a feminist life” translates the personal is political into the question how to live a feminist life. Though she refuses to give a recipe, she points out two main factors: 1) Living a feminist life implies to formulate ethical questions about the injustice and inequality of the world. A world that also is anti-feminist. 2) Living a feminist life implies to ask how these ethical questions can become trends, habits. How we can make these ethical questions become practices. Specifically, feminist practices.
Living a feminist life for Ahmed implies to deconstruct, unlearn what was learned, and learn new habits. It is necessary to learn to live in a radical, different way; it is necessary to move from an androcentric to a feminist life. For instance, women have been historically restricted in the use of the space. It is expected women to be thin, to occupy not much space. We can think of how the restriction of women’s space operates in the distinction between private/public sphere; the restrictions in the labor market (glass ceiling); or in everyday microaggressions (manspreading).
How do women acquire feminist consciousness? The answer for Ahmed is phenomenological. There is not a single moment in the life of women, but a collection of moments, and at some point women feel, experience, the resistance from the world. Due to this resistance, and how women feel, the world cannot be called home. Thus, acquiring feminist consciousness begins as a collection of sensations, feelings, emotions. Then, women think why we feel uncomfortable in the world.
Ahmed asks how can we make a home of this world? We need to reform the house of the oppressor to make it our home. Remembering what Audrey Lorde said, “the master’s tools do not dismantle the master’s house,” Ahmed points out we need to create new, feminist, tools to reform the house of the oppressor. One way to do this is changing how knowledge is produced. Ahmed says anthropocentric epistemology is not useful. We need to deconstruct the way in which we produce knowledge. First, we need to dismantle the dichotomy between theory and praxis. Ahmed says it is possible to elaborate conclusions from experience: the personal is political and is also theoretical. Second, when we ask ethical questions, when we create new habits, we are doing theory as well.
I want to highlight below some quotations from Ahmed’s blog post on sweaty concepts. https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/02/22/sweaty-concepts/
“By using the idea of “sweaty concepts” I was trying to say at least two things. Firstly I was implying that too often conceptual work is understood as distinct from describing a situation: and I am thinking here of a situation as something that comes to demand a response, a situation is often announced as what we have (“we have a situation here”) as well as what we are in.”
“Concepts in my view tend to be reified as what scholars somehow come up with (the concept as rather like an apple that hits you on the head, sparking revelation from a position of exteriority) as something we use to explain by bringing it in. For me, concepts are ways of understanding worlds that are in the worlds we are in.”
“Secondly by using the idea of “sweaty concepts” I was also trying to show how descriptive work is conceptual work. A concept is worldly, but it is also a reorientation to a world, a way of turning things around, a different slant on the same thing. More specifically a “sweaty concept” is one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world. By this I mean a description of how it feels not to be at home in the world, or a description of the world from the point of view of not being at home in it.”
”When I use the concept of “sweaty concepts” I am also trying to say we can generate new understandings by describing the difficulty of inhabiting a body that is not at home in a world (for instance, how it feels to inhabit a black body in a world that assumes whiteness). Sweat is bodily; we might sweat more during more strenuous activity. A “sweaty concept” might be one that comes out of a bodily experience that is difficult, one that is “trying,” and where the aim is to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty, which means also aiming not to eliminate the effort or labor from the writing.”
I also enjoy reading the piece on the place of women in the Ancient world. Coincidentally, I have been re reading with a group of readers The Iliad and The Odyssey this year. We read one book by week, began with the Iliad on January 1st, and since July 1st we are reading The Odyssey. The Iliad clearly shows the no place of women, though it is most dramatically exacerbated in the context of the war, in which women just are a piece of trophy for men. The author mentioned the episode in the Odyssey when Telemachus asked her mother, Penelope, to shut up. But also, Zeus had done the same with Hera, in the Iliad, when Achilles’s mother, Thetis, visited Zeus to ask him help for her son. When Hera saw them, she made Zeus one of her typical scenes and Zeus also shut up her and she had to go sleep with him without saying a word. It is true, however, and knowing Hera’s bad temper, that she made Zeus pay for it later in the story.
The Odyssey it seems to me is more interesting to reflect around the place of women. It is true that Telemachus shuts up her mother. But he is not the worst male figure. One feels sympathy for Telemachus because the circumstances made him become a man, an adult, so fast. What is violent to me is the presence of Penelope’s candidates. They invade her house; they drink and eat her food; they pressure on her to move out with her father and choose a candidate. This shows to me at the beginning of The Odyssey the place of women. The absence of Odysseus brought disorder to the city and home. Therefore, Penelope must endure the violent presence of her candidates. Now, Penelope is not merely a subjugated woman; she is a thinker, she plays a key role in the development of the story. In a sense, knitting during the day and unknitting during the night, she tries to have some margin of action, of agency, and power in a powerless context.
I want to finish mentioning that one of the first feminist characters in the literature appeared in Cervantes’s The Quixote. Marcela is a peasant, who quit the wealth of her family and lived her life as a peasant because she chose her freedom. She also is accused of the suicide of one of her candidates because she rejected him. Though this is for her a way of exercising her freedom to chose as a woman.