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F is for Human The Evolution of Feminist Consciousness

Twenty-first century feminism has come to be occupied with promoting a specific, and reified, understanding of womanhood. It is an understanding of womanhood in which ‘real women’ are forced to choose an adherence to the feminist ‘super-frame’ over and above any understanding of the intricate and complex substance that makes women thinking and feeling individuals.

What began in the late nineteenth century in Western Europe and North America as a significant historical turning point for women’s rights, and the political organization of feminist liberation, now appears to be culminating in the very forms of dominance that organized Western feminism had initially sought to eradicate. Further, it is a very different version of feminism from the one that appears to more naturally evolve from the history of female organization in Nigeria, and in other parts of the African continent. In the latter, the struggle for women’s rights—which in countries such as Nigeria began long before the second wave of feminism was sweeping the United States, and which certainly never self-consciously gave itself the ‘feminist’ labelling—was not only about women but also about the struggle for entire nations.

In her weighty volume, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, the American historian, Gerda Lerner, identifies the historical development of feminism, as it occurred in Western Europe, to be traceable to at least A.D. 700, nearly 3,000 years ago. The ‘second-wave’ of women’s liberation movements in 1960s and 1970s North America, with which many are more familiar, was a very different sort of feminism from the feminism that was taking place in medieval Europe.

In the Middle Ages, the feminist concern had been with securing a basic education for women and girls—which many got either by joining the missionaries as nuns and Christian proselytizers or through the luck of being born into wealthy families. In fifteenth-century France, the opening of urban grammar schools introduced limited opportunities for female education. By the late seventeenth century, educational opportunities had widened just enough for women to lead the existence of those such as Elizabeth Elstob, who compiled the first Anglo-Saxon grammar book in modern English.

Where its medieval predecessor had been squarely focused on a narrower fight for the liberation of female thought, what some termed the ‘radical feminism’ of the 60s and 70s sought an equality for women that was based on fundamentally challenging society’s fabrication of ‘masculinity’. It was this latter phase of feminism that Sarah Slavin, in her Intellectual History of Feminism in the United States, records as having led the British socialist feminist, Juliet Mitchell, to opine that feminism must surely be “the most public revolutionary movement ever to have existed.” It was a fight that in many European and American societies was essential to dismantling the strictures that constrained women’s participation in the modern era as full human beings. In the Unites States, for example, the inclusion of gender as a protected civil rights category in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 1963 Equal Pay Act, as well as constitutional protection for the use of birth control, were notable victories for Western feminism’s second wave.

The 1990s marked yet another turning point. Understood as the ‘third-wave’ of feminism, the period highlighted Western feminism’s internal discord. The movement had come to be seen by many non-white women as aiming only to represent the interests of white Christian heterosexual women. But even within the individualistic concerns of the ‘third-wave’, the more fundamental problems of Western feminism had begun to make themselves apparent.

Intellectually, Western feminism seemed to have undergone a more structural transition in which the very masculinity that this feminism had—up until that point—sought to challenge, was now its most powerful organizing tool. The modern conception of the new feminist was as an emotional and intellectual strongbox who was encouraged to make her life choices on the basis either of what men themselves did or in automatonic disobedience to the established patriarchy, regardless of her own personal understanding of herself.

In contradistinction to the reality of human frailty and complexity, the ideal modern feminist of this era was not a real person. Like the hyper-masculine male in opposition to which she had been constructed, she was an extremity. There were, of course, variations within the modern feminist imagery—just as there were variations in society’s understanding of perfect manhood. Not every feminist agreed with Germaine Greer in believing that just because men did it, it was acceptable for women to sleep with other people’s spouses or that it was a requirement for card-carrying feminists to publicly scream about their vaginas in counterbalance to society’s constant phallic displays. Nevertheless, the underlying notions never shifted; there was ‘an ideal’ woman who, in individualistically needing no one (and certainly not any men), was to be the opposite of society’s male-dominated conceptions of what a woman should be. Despite its principle opposition to one ideal stereotype, it was, nonetheless, an inhuman ideal.

It is this modernist notion of feminism that is now generally referred to as ‘white feminism’. In the global cultural vortex where such obfuscating terms are generated, these latter labels are not simply a reference to the skin tones of those who might adhere to such understandings of feminism. Nor do the labels refer to the fact that this variant of feminism was developed in the Western Hemisphere. Instead, the labels are a condemnation of this feminism’s oppressiveness.

In the economic sphere, for example, Western feminism failed to acknowledge the myriad ways in which women across the world experienced their societies. It ignored, if it even knew, the fact that women in many parts of the world had always worked though, largely, out of necessity and not choice. The struggle for a woman’s right to access the workplace was not one with which many women outside Western Europe and North America could always easily identify. In Lerner’s magnificent volume, she acknowledges: “I must admit that this book is centred on Western European cultures, not because I think that entirely desirable—I would consider a cross-culturally comparative approach to be more effective.” But she would not be the one to do it. Unlike many of those in the Western feminist vanguard today, at least Lerner understood that a consideration of a non-Western ‘feminist’ history was important if ‘feminism’ was not to ignore large swathes of women in the world.

For centuries, in the space now called Nigeria, women have always had to be mothers, at the same time as they were partners, and also breadwinners. These women, prior to the colonial period, had rarely experienced what it was like to only belong in the home and, as such, were not the types of women a Western feminism of the late twentieth century sought to represent. But these were the types of women on whose behalf Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the women of the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) were fighting in the late 1940s in colonial Abeokuta. Ransome-Kuti writes in a 1947 essay, The Plight of Nigerian Women:

“Before saying anything about the present condition of women in Nigeria, it will be necessary to give a brief description of their condition before the British advent. The life then was mainly agricultural, and there was division of labour between men and women. The men cultivated the land, and it was chiefly the duty of women to reap. Women also owned property and traded with men and exercised considerable political and social influence in the society and were responsible for crowning the King on Coronation days. Whatever disabilities there were then, were endured both by men and women alike.”

The history that birthed the feminist movement and understanding in Nigeria is a very different one from that which led to the liberation movements in Western Europe and North America. The feminism that now labels men as ‘trash’ in response to a persistent patriarchy is a feminism with which women in Nigeria would have been historically unfamiliar. History does, of course, evidence many women in Europe particularly those of the working classes—who were working women and independently earning mothers. Similarly there would have been, throughout Nigerian history, many stay-at-home wives and mothers. However, the generalized household structure in these two broad societies looked quite different from one another.

In many parts of Nigeria—particularly in the South—women were, and had always been, politically relevant labourers, who never saw the choice as being between socially defined feminine roles of homemaker and the masculine privileges of economic and political productivity. Instead of simply mandating everyone—man, woman, and child—to take on a specifically ‘feminist’ labelling, the advances that such a multifaceted understanding of womanhood could make to colonized societies that had absorbed a hitherto absent version of authoritarian masculinity, would be ones that could enable these societies to recover, and remember, their humanity.

Johnson-Odim and Mba’s highly readable biography, For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria, includes the remarkable retelling of a 1947 incident involving Mrs. Ransome-Kuti, in which “a British district officer reportedly yelled at Ransome-Kuti, “Shut up your women!” She allegedly retorted, “You may have been born but you were not bred! Would you speak to your mother like that?” Reportedly, women around her threatened to take the district officer and cut off his genitals and post them to his mother.” Ransome-Kuti’s forceful retort did not intend to establish her superiority over the British officer, but to ask, instead, that he not mistake himself for a god. A similar understanding appears to run through Ransome-Kuti’s and the AWU’s struggle for equal female political participation alongside men, as well as Ransome-Kuti’s long-standing confrontations with the Alake over his wide-ranging corruption.

Similar historical experiences led women such as Mai Musodzi to found the African Women’s Club in Zimbabwe in 1938. The strict, European-inspired, gender roles which Musodzi and her peers were responding to had little to do with a biological determination, and were, rather, colonial impositions on societies, such as Musodzi’s Zimbabwe, to which they made little sense. It was not surprising that the group that would suffer the most from this imposition would be at the forefront of the revolt against colonialism. Such was the case in Namibia where, despite their relatively low numbers in the worker’s unions such as the National Union of Namibian Workers, the level of female militancy during the resistance war for independence was still significantly high.

If it was not for the fact that women in southern Nigeria were accustomed to working outside their homes, especially after marriage, and to keeping their own income, the 1945 Nigerian General Strike that proved a turning point for Nigerian labour history may never have happened. Documented in Lisa Lindsay’s essay, Domesticity and Difference: Male Breadwinners, Working Women, and Colonial Citizenship in the 1945 Nigerian General Strike, the strike, which lasted nearly a month a half was critical for the development of African nationalism in Nigeria. Notably, the strike turned on the participation of women who earned their own income from their own enterprises but were paid poorly in contrast to men because the colonial government reasoned that women did not need the income since they bore no financial responsibility for wives and for children.

These women traders and marketers did not revolt because the colonial government’s labour policies were unfair to them as ‘women’; they revolted because they recognized themselves as being extremely productive market traders, whose independent income was critical not only to the welfare of their families but, also, to that of their country. The strike was successfully carried out as a result of the union between male breadwinners and female traders. As Lindsay describes it, it was, in fact, the economic and political activities of the women traders that funded the 1945 strike and allowed nearly 40,000, largely male, civil servants and railwaymen, to stay off their jobs in protest to the colonial government’s refusal to increase their wages.

The 1940s offer some insight into what a distinctly Nigerian feminism ought to look like; a Nigerian feminism that is sorely needed to correct the masculine authoritarian strictures brought in by the colonial escapade, and which continues to pervade every nook and cranny of the society, including the gender relations that define the organization of many Nigerian homes.

The choice, such as it is, that modern Western feminism seems to impose is an ideology that wants women to be what they are because of the unfair privileges many societies continue to accord men—in some respects, to the almost total denial of women. Although this is the appearance given by Western feminism, it is not a necessary corollary. It is entirely possible—and, indeed, many individual feminists who prescribe to an understanding of feminism that is largely derived from a Western European historical evolution do choose an intellectual humanism over an understanding that preferences all organization in reaction to men.

The problem with Western feminism remains that Western feminism has always seen itself as representing the universal experience of womanhood. Like all the oppressive political and economic systems before and after it, it saw itself as master and everybody else as grateful subordinate. It failed to humbly realize that, in many respects, it was a feminism that had been developed in reaction to a social context that was itself quite unique. It was certainly in contrast to the vast expanse of thousands of years of a socialized human history—of which, after all, the period from the agrarian settlement constitutes such an insignificant proportion. The women and men of eighteenth century England were very different from the women and men who had lived throughout history with interchangeable social roles that often worked in unison. The social conditions of Western Europe were also in distinct contrast to those that obtained in many societies in which industrialization had not culminated in strictly defined roles for men and women and in which women, for reasons over which they seemingly had no choice, would be the losers.

More importantly, in refusing to look around itself for examples prior to, or at least as significant as, its own, the feminist response in the post-industrial societies of Western Europe and North America—and just like the phallic system before it—demanded that women first consider what men were doing and then either do the same or better. Far from being radical, it placed women in the same conservative straightjacket men had already constructed for themselves. It seemed that women would loosen the restriction on natural womanhood that men had given them, simply to replace it with an even trickier, more mental, brace.

This should not confuse the fact that this response may have been a necessary development in societies where being a woman often meant not being considered a full person. Indeed, as Lerner has argued, the rise of the feminist consciousness in Western civilization was a product of the patriarchal construction. Lerner goes so far as to trace the development of ‘forms of dominance’ such as slavery to the prevailing patriarchy. As Lerner explains, the construction was total:

“[I]n the course of the establishment of patriarchy, and constantly reinforced as the result of it, the major idea systems which explain and order Western civilization incorporated a set of unstated assumptions about gender, which powerfully affected the development of history and of human thought… the metaphors of gender constructed the male as norm and the female as deviant.” (Lerner, 1993; p3)

But just like its racial counterpart, in developing an ideological stance in which women are ‘Women’ and not simply human, Western feminism has gone full circle by arguably reaffirming the very dichotomy of ideal man and ideal woman that it sought to eradicate. In all social constructions where a defence is developed solely in reference to an oppressive argument rather than to what is true, one of the results is usually an even stronger restatement of the oppressive construction.

It is a failure of Western feminism that it refused to search outside the false dichotomy that had been established by its male-dominated societies. In creating Superwoman to society’s Ultra-male, Western feminism ignored and buried even deeper the plain and simple truth that women are neither partial humans nor two-times human. By failing to properly ground itself in a study of humanity in which men and women are nothing more than biological entities of a single form, Western feminism forgot one crucial thing: to tell men that men too were just one single quantity of human-being; certainly no less, but also no more.

To be simply as human as it is possible for you to be is an experience that is at best partial for many women. Whether first by men, or later by other women, women are still not being allowed to be as they want to be, and all of who they can be. In the new ‘enlightenment’ where women are commanded into ‘formation’, the kind of women who wish to experience the fullness of their humanities and not simply those parts which are the most masculine are no longer allowed to disagree with the prevailing understanding of feminism as ‘anti-manhood’. And yet, the understanding that anything which forces me to live a different understanding of myself than that which I ‘will’ and desire also places me in a form of servitude, is no less true simply because it is women saying it this time around.

It continues to be true that women are not yet people entitled to socially and economically specific opinions of themselves and the world around them. As in the old days, women are still held to be merely automatonic shells, the one indistinguishable from the other. Only now, some have been allowed to swap dusters for microphones and fishnet tights.

But the difficulty of being a human being is not confined to womanhood. The hardship of human existence impinges the imagination of us all. To be a being fully sentient of the complete breadth and depth of one’s own flaws and weaknesses, as well as of the partiality of one’s own understanding not only of other things and other beings but of the nature of one’s very self is a privilege of human existence to which both men and women are denied. But the social and economic inability of many women to admit to and embrace a depth of understanding about themselves as human beings and not as reified constructions is a distinction that has been preserved for the female form, and for some women more than others. The solution cannot be to oppress women, yet again, by asking them to emulate a false understanding of the very masculinity that society adopts to its own detriment. The solution is to tell men and women to remember, and feel—deeply—the meaning contained in the understanding, that each is simply, and only, a human being