The Society-Agent problem

I am of two minds linking this post, because it is nice to me, which is how I found it. (Yes, I google myself.  It's perfectly natural and healthy, folks.)  Still, I think it's important, so just ignore those bits and concentrate on this:

Here is what I think too many women who identify as feminist, including myself, too often overlook:

When you tell someone "it's not just you; it's millions of women," do not be surprised when that person gets hung up on "it's not just you," and takes no comfort from "it's millions of women."

Because I think when feminists talk to other women who are, at best, on the fence about feminism, they forget this. I know I forgot it. I forgot that one of the losses I had to grieve when I threw my lot in with feminism was the idea that I was special and that, as someone special, I could beat the system all on my own. I was cute enough. I was funny enough. I was a "guy's girl" enough. I was laid-back enough. I was smart enough. I liked fucking enough. I could totally do this, and just as soon as I did, oh, how I was going to have a good long laugh at all the pathetic loser women down there who couldn't.

Don't you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?

And not just that! I wasn't just saying goodbye to everything I was going to do; I was also having to scale back the credit I had enjoyed giving myself for everything I had done.

Did I leave an abusive relationship?-Yes, and go me.

Was I able to leave that abusive relationship because of work other women had already done for me?-Uh, well, okay, kind of-but wait, why can't we talk about my awesome courage some more first?

Was I able to leave that abusive relationship because of certain privileges I held, privileges of which I was completely unaware?-I don't think you heard me! I LEFT AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP. IT WAS HARD. I DID A LOT OF WORK TO GET THERE. YOU CAN'T DENY MY ACHIEVEMENT LIKE THIS. I REJECT THIS JOY-KILLING NARRATIVE.

I also completely forgot how much importance this thing that you can call patriarchy or kyriarchy, I really don't give a shit which, places on individual women being special, standing out, being unique, being the exception, being the "atypical" girl, being a creature unlike any other.

So when you tell some woman, "You've got to get on board for the good of all of us," please do not forget that first, she's got to get okay about saying goodbye to a familiar pattern, that I'm-special pattern. Second, she's got to get okay with realizing that everything she has already accomplished to date may not be entirely the result of her innate and unique awesomeness. it may not even be entirely the result of her hard work and elbow grease. She may, in fact, have to share the good along wtih the bad.

If you don't hold out something for incentive here, if you don't suggest the possibility that smashing old patterns might even wind up benefiting her personally, odds are good that you can chalk another one up for the whatever-archy and subtract one for the cause. But at a minimum, if you're going to bother at all, then be prepared to sit there with her through a sort of mini-grief process, because hearing that it's not just you, when you've been taught to believe that it's all up to you, can be harder to accept than you might think. Obviously, this goes double for fans of Ayn Rand.

You lose something when you let go of an old pattern, and maybe you even needed to lose it, maybe that old pattern was hurting yourself and hurting others, too, but you still probably process breaking out of it as, initially, a loss, because that's what it is.

There's a temptation, when you embrace the idea of privilege, to go too far in the other direction--to write off everything as the product of forces beyond your control.  This makes social conservatives and a lot of libertarians crazy, and I can see why.  I think that conservatives tend to give themselves too much credit for doing things that were enabled by a solid middle-class upbringing.  As I wrote a number of years ago, it's easy and true to point out that poor teenagers wouldn't stay poor if they finished school, didn't have babies out of wedlock, and eschewed criminal activity--but how many of us had the courage to defy our parents and peers, drop out of high school, and sell drugs?  Every time I think about how much my parents did for me just by choosing a peer group that valued college, I close my eyes and thank my lucky stars.

The problem of poverty is not that it's impossible to get out of -- lots of people do.  It isn't even that you need to be some sort of superhero.  The problem is that poor kids have no margin for error.  I got to be a screw up who nearly flunked out of college, and thanks to parents and schools that cared desperately about my fate, nonetheless turn it all around, pull a 4.0 in my major, and graduate on time.  The first time a poor kid pulls that kind of crap, he's back at home looking for minimum wage work.

But if the right goes too far in congratulating people for pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, I think the left often goes too far in crediting nebulous social forces over individual agency.  It's not only incorrect, but also, it seems dangerously passive.  Women have been encouraged to be passive for centuries.  It's good to recognize how much of what we achieve is possible because we stand, so to speak, on the shoulders of giants.  It's very good for women who find the more radical, humorless brand of activist kind of annoying (and I am often among this group) to recognize that their willingness to be radical, humorless, and not very well liked was a necessary component of the massive advances we won a few short decades ago.

But it's not good to tell yourself that really, it wasn't you, just your environment.  Luck plays a giant role in all of our lives, but we all know people who have grasped extraordinary luck with both hands and flung it away.  Women of my generation are phenomenally lucky to be able to walk out of an abusive relationship, not because some protective male relative has arranged it, but because we don't deserve to be beat on, and we don't have to endure it to secure social approval or economic security.  But we still have to walk the hell out, and lots don't.  Society can't make them walk out, though it still may be able to do something for their daughters.

So it seems to me that celebrating your courage and hard work is a fundamentally feminist action.  You don't need to deny the concept of privilege to recognize that we are not only products of society--that, in the words of Scout Finch, virtuous people are those who do the most, but those who do the best they can with what they have.  When you say I did this, you send the most important feminist message at all--that women have the power, and the right, to improve their lives.