Prior to opening Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions, I had a fairly narrow view of feminism and the many different issues the broad umbrella of “feminism” entails. All the info I had on feminism came from Hollywood, shock jocks, overheard conversations, and 20 years worth of indoctrination into the conservative Christian tradition. Though I had largely rejected my religious upbringing and had begun to question many of the opinions which I’d thought were fact, many remained, simply because they were unexamined. The readings from Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions have caused me to examine my views of feminism, the role of women in society, the patriarchy, activism, and cosmetic surgery. Two readings in particular have proven catalytic in broadening my mind; Feminist Politcs, written by bell hooks, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, by Amy Bloom.
In Feminist Politics, hooks provided me with a definition of feminism I couldn’t not support (ironically, it was also the first definition I’d heard, despite having a strong, albeit ignorant, opinion about feminism): “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (2000, p. 40). Hooks went on to address why this is not a commonly understood and accepted definition of feminism and I had my eyes opened again. I was not a big believer in the “patriarchy”— the idea of a group of men in expensive suits, sitting around a cigar-smoke-filled room, conspiring to keep women oppressed seemed preposterous. With a simple phrase, “[Most people’s] misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media” (p. 40), I realized that it didn’t take a conspiracy of peers to oppress a group of people.
The term “radical feminist” was a cause for concern to me before hooks explained the difference between “reformist feminism” and “radical feminism.” Reformists want, primarily, “equality with men in the workforce” while the “original radical foundations of contemporary feminism…called for reform as well as overall restructuring of society so that our nation would be fundamentally anti-sexist” (2000, p. 41). Reforming our current, sexist society is not enough. Gaining equality in one area (such as equal-pay-for-equal-work), is not enough to end (or at least push back) all the ‘ism’s that oppress millions every day.
The second reading that cataclysmically altered my point of view was written by Amy Bloom. In Hermaphrodites with Attitude, Bloom writes that infants born with “ambiguous genitalia” are more common than those born with cystic fibrosis, about two thousand times a year in the United States alone. (2002, p. 244)
I myself am not a hermaphrodite, nor do I know anyone who is (that I am aware of). Prior to this reading, I had done no research about the subject whatsoever. And yet, I had an opinion about hermaphrodites and people I considered “gender confused.” My thought was naively, “Whatever genitals are most prominent, that’s what you are. Just be that.” Very few hermaphrodites are true 50/50 splits so this seemed an easy judgment to make.
This opinion was challenged upon my reading about the “corrective” procedures, which, “if necessary” involve “some enlargement of the vaginal cavity by metal dilators, inserted by the parents daily for six months….Monthly dilation of the seven-or eight-year old continues into adolescence to prevent the narrowing or closure of the vaginal cavity” (p. 244). Further challenges arose when reading about the mentality of those performing such procedures. Bloom quotes a doctor as writing, “After stillbirth, genital anomaly is the most serious problem with a baby, as it threatens the whole fabric of personality and life of the person.” One must wonder how much more a baby’s personality will be shaped by having non-consensual genital surgery and by the postoperative “dilation” in order to make her vagina “normal” than by having a “genital anomaly.” Bloom quotes Dr. Richard Hurwitz, in the instructional video “Surgical Reconstruction of Ambiguous Genitalia in Female Children” as saying, “The finding of ambiguous genitalia in the newborn is a medical and social emergency.” There is a common understanding among doctors and surgeons that a boy can not have a fulfilling life with a small penis and a girl can not have a fulfilling life with a large clitoris and therefore, “corrective” surgery must be performed as soon as possible. These same doctors believe that parents are incapable of truly loving a child whose genitals do not conform to the “normal” standard of genital conformation. The American College of Surgeons training video on how to treat female genital abnormality makes clear that they believe it highly important to appear normal while making no mention of functionality or feeling. (Bloom, 2002, p. 248)
My ignorant opinion that one should just “be what they are” was challenged and ultimately destroyed upon reading about Klinefelter’s syndrome, AIS, PAIS, and CAH, all of which result in fairly “normal” looking genitals but with various hormonal or chromosomal abnormalities which result in varying degrees of natural variations, such as a man developing small breasts but not the typically “male” traits such as a hairy chest, deep voice, and heavier musculature.
This essay also reaffirmed to me the dangers of homophobia. Dr. Philip Gruppuso (quoted in Bloom, 2002), speaking on the treatment of infant hermaphrodites said:
“…in the history of treating these kids, there is an element of homophobia…If you look back at the standard texts of the fifties and sixties, the underlying concern was that people who were ‘really’ male but looked female would want to have sex with males, and the same for females who appeared male. Homosexual sex was the underlying fear.” (p. 247)
While understanding that homophobia was dangerous and damaging to adults, I had not realized the extent to which the irrational fear of consenting adults having relations with other consenting adults of the same sex was causing harm upon the most innocent and defenseless people in our midst.
I know that I have many more ignorant and judgment views remaining to be examined, but due to the writings of bell and Bloom, there are at least some which are no longer mucking around in my brain.
Bloom, A. (2002) Hermaphrodites with attitude. In S. Shaw, J. Lee (Eds.), Women’s voices, feminist visions. (2009). (pp. 244-249). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
hooks, b. (2000). Feminist politics: Where we stand. In S. Shaw, J. Lee (Eds.), Women’s voices, feminist visions. (2009). (pp. 40-42). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.