Thursday 17 October 2019

Reflecting on Selfish Women

Written by Kate Mitchell, Lecturer in the School of Humanities, University of Strathclyde - with answers to Q&A text by Lisa Downing, Professor of French Discourses of Sexuality, University of Birmingham.

I first heard about Lisa Downing’s work when I was a PhD student at the University of Warwick in the mid-2000s, so when I discovered she was speaking on her ideas for a new book at the University of Glasgow in 2015, I went along to listen and introduced myself. We have since become friends, and share a love of fine dining and cocktails. As someone who thinks a lot about marginality, ‘Otherness’, and risk, Lisa’s provocative, contentious argument, previewed at that Glasgow event and developed in her recently published book Selfish Women (Routledge, 2019), is that feminists would do well to examine the strategies and behavioural modes of certain women from the past who embraced individualistic discourses and who ‘centred themselves’. Her exemplars are the French novelist Rachilde (1860-1953), the Russian-American writer Ayn Rand (1905-1982), and the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). I found this argument both fascinating and jarring, not least for its unapologetic audacity. So, when Routledge asked me to review the manuscript of the book, I willingly accepted, though not without some trepidation. 

Cover of Selfish Women (2019)
These anxieties dissipated as soon as I began reading and discovered that Lisa’s decisive prose, her command of the debates, and the enviable ease with which she takes on big names, concepts like intersectionality and the discourses of ‘postfeminism’, swayed me to take seriously her invitation to ‘consider the possibility that the individualisation of culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, often assumed to be the outcome of neoliberalism, might in some ways have offered and continue to offer women a better deal than a purely collectivist alternative’ (p. 13). But a little voice inside my head said, where is Lisa’s sisterhood? To which she would most probably respond: ‘Where is feminism’s sisterhood?’. For, there is no doubt that since the age of Margaret Thatcher’s ascendance to power – what many refer to as the decade of individualism and the beginning of neoliberalism in the West – feminism has splintered into many different internal divisions and factions which, as Lisa so eloquently argues, are hindering feminism’s progress. Intersectionality is part of the problem here, in Lisa’s view. Applied injudiciously, and especially in toxic online spaces such as Twitter, it often ends up creating divisions among and between women  who are constantly tone-policed, exhorted to privilege-check, and told to centre in their politics anyone belonging to what is perceived to be a less privileged group. That this usually results in in-fighting among white middle-class women desperate to prove their intersectional ally credentials, while women of colour and working-class women are still often silenced, is an unfortunate irony.

Instead, Lisa argues, traditionally left-leaning feminists might do well to take a leaf out of the book of certain unapologetically individualistic, ‘exceptional’ women, who, while not identifying with feminism (when has the right ever embraced feminist ideology?), had no issue with putting themselves first. One contention of the book, then, is that excluding ‘unpalatable’ women from the history of women’s literature, and refusing to engage seriously with their arguments because ‘we’ don’t agree with them, may impoverish our understanding of women’s history; equally, individualistic women such as Rand and Thatcher were thwarted by their inability to take structural sexism onboard or to see the need for feminism, even as they themselves faced instances of misogyny. This is no simple shoring up of the distinction between ‘individuality’ and ‘collectivity’, then, but rather a plea that each might learn from the other. Lisa coins the term ‘self-ful’, which she argues comes from prioritising the self while understanding structural sexism (and misogyny) and the need for strategic feminist common cause-making. (She is clear that Rand and Thatcher are selfish, not ‘self-ful’.)

As part of her Scottish book tour, Lisa came to present her ideas on Wednesday 2 October at the University of Strathclyde at an event jointly-sponsored by the Feminist Research Network and the School of Humanities, after which I asked her a number of questions as part of an ‘in conversation’ session. Below, and for the purposes of this blog, we attempt to reconstruct the dialogue. Before doing so, and to sum up, in an age in which more and more men are now beginning to take on caring roles and traditional distinctions between the genders are blurring as never before, Selfish Women offers a timely and very important contribution for feminism’s trajectory, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Lisa Downing (left) and Kate Mitchell (right) at the SUFRN and School of Humanities seminar, 2nd October 2019.
KM: I’m intrigued by your choice of book cover! Can you tell us who this svelte, chest-thrusting, futuristic-looking, beautiful woman is, and why she embodies a ‘Selfish Woman’?

LD: The simple answer is that I found the image by Coneyl Jay on the Getty website, to which Routledge had pointed me to choose a cover image, and it immediately spoke to me as a figure of female-becoming that seemed to embody my neologistic concept of ‘self-fulness’ beautifully. Additionally, in the Conclusion to the book, I take Ayn Rand’s eponymous figure of Atlas, tired of bearing on his shoulders the weight of the world, and who, in the title of her novel, ‘shrugs’, and I ask what if women, socialized to shoulder the heavy altruistic burden of womanhood, instead shrugged? The woman in the image seemed to me to be on the verge of shrugging off her worldly burden and I fell in love with her.

KM: In your discussion on narcissistic mothers (or ‘narc moms’), you are quite dismissive of the glut of literature to have emerged on them in the past ten years. Does this not undermine and diminish the actual experiences of daughters of ‘narc moms’, who, thanks to second-wave feminism can now speak out about their experiences without guilt, and is it really always the case that, as you say, ‘a narcissistic mother begets a narcissistic daughter, who becomes a narcissistic mother’?

LD: I absolutely take your point that women with children, who have the characteristics we associate with narcissism, no doubt exist and may be very difficult for those children to deal with!  My point is a Foucauldian one, insofar as I’m interested in the conditions of construction of diagnostic subjects, and how these get written into discourse at certain points in history. The ‘narc mom’ becomes a pathologized subject at a time in American history when women want to have family and careers. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that male narcissistic personality disorder tends to be discussed in terms of that individual’s pathology, while female narcissists are understood primarily as problematic for how they impinge negatively on others – especially children – since women are culturally expected to be with and for children, family, the other – before we are expected to be selves. 

KM: You say how marriage is ‘the life project in which women are supposed to invest most of their emotional energy’, but I’m not sure this is still the case. Fewer couples get married these days because it’s expensive, or they don’t see the point in marriage, viewing it as an anachronism or an archaic institution. What do you think?

LD: I think you’re absolutely right that marriage as an institution is becoming less popular. The point I was making here was simply that we haven’t yet moved away from a world in which little girls are brought up to expect that being part of a couple, and often being a mother, is a kind of inevitability. The question ‘why don’t you want children?’ or ‘why don’t you want to get married?’ is still commonly asked of, mainly straight, but I think increasingly all, women with the rise of marriage equality and same-sex parenting. And it is seldom, if ever, asked of men. From this, we see that we still live in both a resolutely heteronormative and family-oriented world, and one in which we still find the figure of the autonomous woman, interested in being an ‘I’ not a ‘we’, largely illegible.

KM: You’re explicit about focusing on feminism in the Western neoliberal context, but are there not also differences within neoliberalism, for example, in culturally Catholic countries such as in southern Europe: can the arguments you make in the book about women needing to centre themselves, ‘to shrug’, be made for countries in which the Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary occupies such a powerful and iconic position in the collective imagination?

LD: Cultural context is everything, and I’m explicit in the book that I’m focusing on Northern Europe and North America, largely because these are the contexts I know. I talk in the book about Mary Wollstonecraft’s observation back in the 18th century that women have historically been flattered by being ascribed the ‘feminine virtues’, such as ‘selflessness’, which are perversions of true virtues, and which act to keep women in their place. I think the figure of the Virgin Mary offers a similarly perverted role model/ illusion of female power. Mary as the ideal woman is an impossible one; she gives birth without having had sex; she’s an altruistic vessel for God’s spawn, not an agent of her own self-interest!

KM: Finally, I’d like to ask you about patriarchy. Is your perception of the patriarchy in neoliberalism the same as the patriarchy that prevailed in the time of Freud? I’m wondering if ‘white, male, middle-class power’ is maybe not a more accurate, albeit verbose term. Indeed, some feminists now argue that we are inhabiting a ‘post-patriarchy’. Would you agree?

LD: Some feminists have stopped talking about ‘patriarchy’ and started using the term ‘kyriarchy’ to describe the rule of the powerful, rather than the rule of symbolic fathers, and to account for the ways in which oppression works multiply and intersectionally (in the true sense of the term, as analysed beautifully by KimberlĂ© Crenshaw in her ground-breaking articles). I do use ‘patriarchy’ myself, because I certainly don’t think, unlike some post-feminist discourses, that we are somehow beyond a patriarchal, paternalistic, masculine view of what women are and are for – a view that too many women have also internalized.

If you would like to know more about Lisa Downing’s work, you can see her talk about the ‘Selfish Women’ research project here.

Click here for further details of the Strathclyde University Feminist Research Network research seminar series 2019-20.

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