On The Issues

On The Issues

by Merle Hoffman

In the cheaper stores, it’s much more obvious – Sometimes there’s a big sign announcing that everything on the rack is $19.95. Usually the tag is brightly colored, not difficult to see. When you move up – Bendel’s. Bergdorf’s – it’s a little more subtle – Sometimes hidden in the sleeve or under another set of labels. In these more elevated states of spending, there’s usually a broker – salesperson – someone who tells you – you must do this blouse with that skirt or that Halston does a little belt for this outfit. Without asking – the product is presented. Carried along by the necessity of appearing able to afford whatever is being brought to you – finding the price tag becomes a little more difficult.

You can, of course, ask outright before you try anything…”how much is this?” But that’s far too direct – to honest – too much of an acknowledge ment of potential limits. So you cast sidelong glances as you carefully slip into garments…a little game…hoping the salesperson won’t catch you look- ing. Her good opinion of your cash flow oddly important. And then, there’s always the opportunity to take quick, furtive, glances at the tag when she looks aside or goes to another rack for you. Then, somehow, this color, style, size just doesn’t suit you. Rarely, the direct confrontation – “I can’t afford this”. In this strongly consuming capitalist economy, we all learn early about price tags – how everything has one – every thing.

Strange that the biggest selling commodities – sex and power have no visible price tags.

Indira Ghandi knew about the price of power – the loneliness – isolation – compromise – in the 1950s she wrote:

“I have been and am deeply unhappy in my domestic life. Now, the hurt and the unpleasantness don’t seem to matter so much. I am sorry, though, to have missed the most wonderful thing in life, having a complete and perfect relationship with another human being; for only thus, I feel, can one’s personality fully develop and blossom. However, and perhaps as compensation, I am more at peace with myself. One of our 17th-century poets has said “Go where thou wilt…if thy soul is a stranger to thee. the whole world is unhomely.” I think I have come to a stage where home is wherever I go.”

They are sharply contrasting images – Indira – alone, shot down in her garden – and Geraldine Ferraro on the Phil Donahue show – promising to “Make it up to my husband and children for the rest of my life”. Ghandi’s life – and death – vividly depicts in sharp and glaring tones the possibility and perhaps the inevitability of violent death for those who would seek and attain ultimate political power. . . Predicting her death the day before it happened – Ghandi did not have to face the enormous societal pressures thrust upon Ferraro to be a “good-girl” – to “make it all up”. To play out some collective expression of an ultimate soap opera – where the heroine fails – only to rise again on the talk show circuits.

How odd that the majority of American women expect to be exempt from the realities of the struggle for power – so used and conditioned are they to making choices as “informed consumers” – choosing this or that on the basis of quality and price.

Sisterhood is Powerful! In those words lies a collective romantic notion of political power that bypasses each individual woman’s responsibility in achieving it.

Price tags. That issue somehow got lost in all those consciousness raising sessions – all that rhetoric. Small wonder that statistics show considerably growing rates of depression and substance abuse among women.

“To be conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage”: James Baldwin. “Scratch any woman and you will find rage” said a well-known feminist. But where to put that rage – anger and rage both are totally unacceptable female traits in both the individual and political arenas. . . It is an old political idiom that “morality cannot be legislated”. Even though there have been observable gains in terms of laws and social policy that express feminist concepts; i.e. marital rape, abortion, comparable worth etc. – the actualization of this into the realities of women’s everyday lives remains to be seen. The outward expression of political feminist rage, unlike other revolutionary movements (Black, Socialist) seems to be easily dismissed by propaganda and minimization. It is the only political struggle that can be translated into a locker room joke. “I kicked a little ass last night” – George Bush (circa 1984).

As part of the employment process at CHOICES – a 40-question-questionnaire is presented. It goes over issues ranging from the political to the medical. Three of the most interesting are: 1. Are you a feminist? 2. What is a feminist? 3. Do you like to have power over others? A review of over 300 responses has shown some interesting answers to these questions. All of the following respondents considered themselves feminists and defined feminism as believing in and working for equality and liberation. On the question of whether they like to have power over others, the responses were as follows: “No, I dislike such words as manipulative, coercive, controlling.” “No, but I like having power to SHARE WITH others.” “No. I prefer working together and sharing power.” “No. I hate it. I do like being able to explain things to people though.” “Yes. Although I would define it as authority.” “Depends.” “I like to be able to influence others through knowledge and behavior.”

Historically taught and conditioned by their own sex as well as men to view power as negative women choose to see the exercise of power as inevitably leading to war and destruction – rather than acknowledging our need for power – accepting it and viewing it as a positive, active, defining, influencing state that when harnessed can result in moving society towards a more acceptable social agenda. This of course involves the necessity of giving up the all powerful mythology of the “good-girl” – because “good girls” don’t want power – are passive, quiet and basically do what they’re told.

Power has many faces – political, individual, corporate, financial creative, biological et .al. But for women – power must begin with the personal – To stand alone, to take responsibility for one’s life in all of its complexities, errors and triumphs, is the ultimate existential experience. This reality comes through with particularly glaring clarity in the abortion decision which is, ultimately, a power survival decision. Much of the conflict, guilt, ambivalence, surges of relief and positive feelings that women have expressed concerning their abortions may be viewed not only as a response to “terminating a pregnancy” or “killing their babies” but as a response to themselves as an active agent in the use of power for what may be the first time in their lives.

Ironically, the New Right and Moral Majority are far more in touch with the issue of women and power than the Feminist Movement. They clearly understand that the right to abortion is ultimately an issue of power, and that to keep women under control they must effectively stop abortion. Their consistent focus on when life begins and whether or not abortion is “killing babies” has effectively removed the issue from where it really belongs – that is with each individual woman’s right to exercise her power over her own body and reproductive choices. Not viewing women as active moral agents – the Right-to-Life Movement wants to keep the power over women’s lives where it has always been – with men – the law – the establishment – the status quo.

So many women – patients, friends, acquaintances, have looked into my eyes quizzically, bewilderedly, pseudo-knowingly since the debacle of November 6th. Why? How did it happen? What went wrong?

Columnists had a field day – some gloating, some analyzing why the Women’s Movement couldn’t “deliver its sisters”. The concept of delivering – another political reality that women must learn. We were so vocal: “Put a woman on the ticket and we’ll deliver.” Not said quietly in a private room but shouted to the press – to the country. The Gender Gap. It seemed so obvious. Wouldn’t women vote a ticket that touted their interests? E.R.A. – abortion rights – empowerment? And, for the first time in history, one of their own sex on the ticket of a major political party – proof that women could attain real power?

Not so fast – it’s not that simple. WOMAN COLLECTIVE is, in reality, not a collective at all.

The famous black comedian and political commentator, Dick Gregory, was giving an address at an Ivy League University and started out by asking his audience this question – “What do you call a black nuclear physicist?” His response – “A NIGGER.” In one word he symbolized the reality that any personal or single achievement by any one member of an oppressed or “second-class” group is effectively minimized by a collective label.

Individual women must all be aware that regardless of our own achievements which we personally may view as positive and successful (and which may indeed be the case), we are still seen by the majority of the male establishment as either “mommy”, “tits and ass”, or “those women’s libbers” – all correlates of being a “nigger”.

The Feminist Movement has an enormous challenge – to rethink, reclarify and redefine our relationships with other women. It is a grave error to consider traditional feminist politics only in the genre of electoral politics. Feminist politics must truly begin at home – in a sense, they must begin in bed. Women are so politically and psychologically conditioned to view their survival as individually dependent upon individual men that their current existence as any type of political force has been effectively negated. We are bound, all of us – rich, poor, white, black, Democrat or Republican, by our biology and we must educate women to rejoice in this commonality, rather than to consistently deny it. To negate this reality makes any move towards both personal liberation and political power for women almost effectively impossible.

I am reminded of a time a few years ago when I spoke at a house meeting in Queens to a group of young married women who had given up careers (jobs) to stay home with their first babies. They were uncomfortable with me, uptight, curious, impressed and threatened – newly rationalized in their roles. I spoke of the cut off of Medicaid funds for abortions that would so badly affect poor women. These middle-class women were totally unconcerned. It was not their problem. If abortion rights were cut off for everybody, they could after all fly to those abortion havens – Puerto Rico. . . England . . . Sweden . . . anywhere. They had the money. Not for them coat hangers, bottles and back alleys. They were not poor and they were – white. As of this date, there are only five states in this country that provide Medicaid funding for abortions for poor women. The silence of this issue screams out.

There is a reason why the Right to-Life Movement counts many women in its ranks. Phyllis Schlafly cannot be dismissed as an antediluvian aberration. She also is primarily concerned with power. Her perceptions of how women should achieve and use their power lie in the historically-based role of woman as reproducer of children – as Mother gaining their power through accepted channels of male affiliation.

Until this distinction between women of the Right-to-Life Movement and the Pro-Choice Movement is recognized for what it really is – that is, different definitions of power – and the way women should be allowed to use it (only to give birth – rather than choose abortion) – women will continue to be politically divided on the basis of a fabricated reality – and ultimately serve only the interests of a repressive establishment.

Abortion (the other side of mother) is truly the issue that binds all women – for it is the bottom line – the front line of all other freedoms.

I have often said and written that if women cannot control (have power) over their own reproductive lives (themselves), that they can never hope to control, direct or have power over anything else. At the core of the feminist line is a call to power and, therefore, to greater responsibility – and power for most women is a dirty word – unacceptable to “good girls” who have not been trained or conditioned in its acceptance or usage.

I see so much of this every day at CHOICES. Numerous women of all ages who so eagerly put their biological life choices into the hands of men –

“He wants me to stop using the pill.”

“He said it was my safe period.”

“He says using a rubber is like wearing a glove.”

“He said he could feel my diaphragm so I didn’t use it.”

“He wants a boy.”

And we are ultimately comfortable with He – (either in terms of Daddy, Doctor or Husband) because we have trained him, suckled him at our breasts to be strong and powerful.

The 57 percent of the women’s vote that went to Reagan cannot be explained away glibly by a “satisfactory economy” or rationalized away by a different statistical analysis. Too many women are struggling to make ends meet; trying to raise children by themselves; earning bare minimum wages. It was the Big Daddy figure – so familiar – so comfortable – the image that Reagan represented to the public – that swayed women – who basically wanted to be swayed. They basked in the protection offered in the vicarious reflection of his power. No need to worry – what a relief not to have to exert control or make those difficult decisions – to have ultimate responsibility for our lives. Big Daddy will take care of us, especially if we’re “good girls” and ascribe to the acceptable female persona. After all. we trained him for the job!

Power wears a three piece suit – doesn’t carry handbags or wear silk dresses. Perhaps the real issue is that women don’t trust themselves and are basically afraid to exercise power on their own, and as a result, cannot possibly identify with another woman who is able to do so. Not enough empathy. Not enough “sisterhood”. The leap of faith it would have taken to trust Ferraro as a person, let alone a powerful person in a top political role, was just too much for too many women at this point in time.

It should then come as no great surprise that our faith has been misplaced. Choice has moved away from the philosophical, moral, medical realms to the very real world of terrorists and bombs. Choosing not to defend their Constitutional rights of reproductive freedom in the ballot box, abdicating their collective political power – women may find themselves once more on the streets or in the back alleys, having to defend their choices with their lives.

That price is one we will all have to pay.