By way of introduction I will reveal that Maura Hennessey, Irish lesbian activist extraordinaire, has visited our home in the Catskills and along with a board member of HRC we shared an evening of spirited and delightful debate on feminism past and present. Her “friend of operative history” is a mutual one.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was an epoch of foolishness; it was an age of wisdom…”
In short, it was the 1970’s. A brash, angry and outspoken woman named Greer was caught up in and in fact one of the public faces of the feminist movement in the British Commonwealth. In Boston, a young graduate student was working upon expanding the ideas of her doctoral supervisor and rumoured lover. Her work on gender and feminism would be perceived as largely theoretically sound to a point, making a sudden leap to come to a conclusion nearly inconsistent with the first few chapters of her work. Her name was Janice Raymond.
“To understand what came after, it is important to know what came before.” In this case, it is important to understand the milieu in which both of these women arrived at the conclusions that are forever associated with their names.
Feminism arrived with not so much a trumpet blare as a cannon blast. Partly it was fueled by the availability of contraception, which meant that “good girls could…and did” and partly it was a reaction to the sociological experiment known as the Eisenhower years . The sexual revolution was on and with it a rapid and vertigo-inducing shift in ideas about women, women’s roles, women’s rights.
Donna Reed and June Cleaver were replaced by Angela Davis and Bernadine Dohrn(or Bernadette Devlin, if you were overseas). The stereotyped conservative, deferential housewife was exposed as a mockery of women, contrived to encourage a TV-opiated television audience to accept and to accomodate the dominance of men
Roles and stereotypes were ripped away, derided and condemned as what they were, sociological chains wrapped around women to keep them in their places serving comfortable a patriarchy deluding itself that it was exercising noblesse oblige in caring for their servant-wives and servant-daughters.
Into this age, this milieu and this sociological revolution came the higher awareness of transsexuality. The public began to hear of cases more frequently. These women now in the public eye were conventional in speech, in behaviour, in belief and in behaviour with perhaps the exception of Dr Richards. They were by and large heterosexual and socially conservative. Much as women of the fifties were shaped by the social constructs of men, the presentation of trans-women of the 1970’s was as well. Donna Reed and June Cleaver had returned, only now they emerged from the operating room. The culprit was the standards used for operative selection, permitting only women attracted to macho men, demure, feminine, attracted to frilly things. Man had become God and created woman in the image of his own fantasies and his own misogynistic desire for dominance. Man wrote the criteria for the surgery, insuring only women from the fifties languishing in the 1970’s could achieve their goal of mind-body agreement.
New women were coming into existence, it seemed, garnering public attention, and these new women were caracitures of the goals of women radicals, the antithesis of the feminist desire to shatter glass ceilings and glass walls, to end the control of men over their reproduction and thier bodies. The new women would in the end use conservative ideals, conservative life choices, and conventionalism to survive “in a man’s world.” By and large they are not to be blamed, this was the price of surgery and men had written the rules.
To women like Raymond and Greer, it seemed as if the Stepford Wives had arrived upon the scene. Worse, they seemed to have equal media access to send a decidedly anti-feminist image in nations where women were struggling for independence of men and equality to men. The anger and rage towards the men who had created post surgical Mrs. Cleavers spilled out in poisonous draughts upon their creations, whether or not they were truly ‘caricatures.’ An entire class of women was condemned in a fashion just as separatist, just as elitist and just as noxious as that of the men who Greer and Raymond were declaring their separate identity from.
Raymond and Greer condemned an entire group when their anger was at the man made social image of women carefully selected and crafted by male medical professionals. Over time, women freed themselves of the expectations of men and trans-women found medical professionals who would do likewise…
But ….the Stepford Wives, the ‘Desparate Corrected Housewives,’ these are still with us. Anti-feminist, conservative, demanding purity in their ranks, we know them by various names. Embracing a conventionality of the 1950’s, defining their group as heterosexual, frequently anti Lesbian their socialisation as women seems to be out of 1950’s and early 1960’s television; one wonders if they would appear in black and white or in colour were you to meet them.
I remark upon the socialisation because for the past 40 years women have had, unless living in a polygamous Mormon compound or a fundamentalist enclave, broader views of roles women can play, women’s sexuality and even women’s spirituality than is to be found amongst the heirs of Greer’s and Raymond’s targets. Worse, they choose, out of some desire for separatism and ‘legitamacy’ the lives, beliefs and roles of the trans-women of decades ago who had no choice but to be what their masters in the medical establishment meant them to be or they would never see the inside of an operating room.
They condemn Lesbians, they condemn radicalism, they condemn women’s spirituality which even Girl Scouts are exposed to and either overtly or covertly participate in. Though overinclusive, there remains a truth to Greer’s condemnation, though she points it in the wrong place.
There are caricatures, but in limited numbers, clinging to conventionality, defining others out of their cohort, roundly condemning women’s radicalism of spirit, spirituality, politics or sexuality. They are not amongst us, for they desire separateness of identity while claiming at the same time the title of women. While a conventionalised and more reactionary Greer points in one direction, the true anti-feminist caricature is to be found in the opposite.