Monday, August 21, 2006

Counting Cherry Stones: the White Feather Wielder and the Down-trodden Woman

I tried writing about them separately. They wouldn’t have it. No sooner did I get to describing one of them and there was the other, beating the door down, getting her feet under the table, shaking her head, rolling her eyes and saying “You think you’re going to write about her and leave me out of it?”.
I looked at them – unreal though they are – and they looked alike. Are you one and the same then? I thought. Through one eye they are almost impossible to tell apart; through the other one would never have thought them related. Not identical then, but not easily separable.

They are the two heads to the same coin. Mirror images. Inversions. When one’s down the other’s up. Janus looking forward and back. Two-faced.

Like Rosie, the white-feather wielder casts her echoes before her, flowers strewn before the troops departing for battle. Once she was a Spartan mother sternly instructing her son, “Come home with your shield or on it.”

Ninety years ago or thereabouts, she strolled through these streets, cool and slim in long Edwardian skirts, white feather held jauntily between thumb and forefinger seeking out unmilitary men. Men to chastise for their ununiformed unmanliness, for above all she is a womanly woman.

The white-feather wielder is man-made and in that she is the same as many womanly women. Rosie also sprang fully-formed from the forehead of J. Howard Miller, a latter-day Athena for an industrial age. She too had her avatars and her priestesses to officiate at her altar poised precariously on the fuselage. Is the white-feather wielder also a goddess then? Or is she a demon, this womanly woman? Lamia. Seductress. Despatching young men to drown in mud, just as the sirens sang them down beneath the swell. Her creator described her and her gift as “far more terrible than anything they [men] can meet in battle.” Perhaps to those who believed in ideas of manliness and womanliness she was more terrible at that.

Unlike Rosie, the white-feather wielder has not gathered a stable iconography about herself. She has not become a symbol of women’s liberation or power. She did exercise a particular kind of power though, using her words to persuade men to go and slaughter or be slaughtered. Perhaps the War Poets caught her off-guard: some of them took a dim view of drowning in mud and a dimmer view still of the particular form of manliness which she upheld. In any case revival efforts in World War II failed dismally. She had come to be seen as a woman who used her feminine wiles to send young men to their deaths. A Lorelei repeating endlessly the old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Like the leopard, she had to change her spots. Scatter her feathers to the four winds. Feathers? What feathers. No feathers here. These days, she’s a ‘security mom.’ For a while before that she was a soccer mom: she still is. Clad in jeans and sneakers, slightly harried, ferrying the kids to practice in the SUV with the the red-white-and-blue festooned bumper and the yellow ribbon (faded now from a couple of years of sun, rain and snow) drooping from the antenna. She’s all for staying the course: after all the troops are protecting her children from terrorism. And if that means recruiters in schools – well that’s what it means and that’s all there is to it. It’s like the man on the T.V. said “We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.”

“And after all, look how they treat the women!” she says. “Just barbaric.”
The coin spins on its edge and comes down heads.

Sometimes she’s Belgian. Perhaps she’s a nun in a torn habit. More recently she’s been spotted in a chador. But she has worn many different kinds of clothing in her myriad lifetimes, she has lived in many different places. Once she may have been a kidnapped bride. Did she stand atop Troy’s towers? Perhaps so, but now she has been safely reduced and diminished so that the one central fact of her life, the sine qua non of her existence is her oppression. She is dust beneath the enemy’s heel, foreign or domestic: bereft of agency or resistance. She has no avatars, only involuntary sacrifices. What woman would choose to embody her?

Like the others – the Grocer’s Daughters, the Rosies, the White-Feather Wielders, the Down-Trodden woman is a type, a figure, used in service of war-making. Which is not to say women are not often oppressed, or even to debate which forms of oppression are to be considered culturally superior. That is not the point. The point is that the Down-trodden Woman, whoever she is and whereever she comes from, needs liberating and we know just the folks for the job. Results guaranteed.


She is a strange creature, this Down-trodden Woman. So clearly visible in the Enemy’s citadels, yet when the citadel is stormed she evaporates like a puddle on a hot day. Her liberation is so instantaneous it leaves no trace. Practical indicators of her presence– the number of women being raped, for example – may increase quite dramatically. And certainly it is true that after liberation, actual women may also have far less in the way of practical opportunities to keep themselves from such things as starvation. All of which might suggest that the Down-trodden Woman should still be there, that she had no business leaving yet, but no. She has gone her ways. She vanished the moment the first ‘liberator’ passed through the gate.

To complain about such practical indicators – to gripe and moan, to whine and wail, to bitch – is simply to mistake the nature of the Down-trodden Woman’s Liberation. It is symbolic. Or perhaps more accurately, it is nominal, pertaining to names. The Down-trodden Woman is Liberated because certain generous gestures have been made. Certain phrases have been pronounced correctly. Incantations recited over just the right bubbling stew.

The lives and living conditions of actual women have absolutely nothing to do with the Down-trodden Woman’s Liberation: they never did.

9 Comments:

Blogger Nanette said...

This is making very important points. But I have to think about them for a bit.

I agree that the two are not easily separable, but I'd never noticed before how similar they are - and how much one is used against the other, quite often. Or rather, I can only view it from this (Western) side of things, so I guess I should say how both are played against the other, but both for the benefit/corraling of more western type women.

The lives and living conditions of actual women have absolutely nothing to do with the Down-trodden Woman’s Liberation: they never did.

Very true. Anyway, I have more thinking to do!

8/21/2006 10:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

from poco:

Wow! I am absolutely amazed at the way you limned the connections, dove, between these three figures: the feather-wielder, the security mom and the Down-Trodden woman. The connections are there and screaming to be made, except that I never made them till I read your piece. (By the way--what is the cherry stones reference? Yes, I know I haven't done my homework!)

I don't know if I am repeating myself, since there is not a day that goes by in my working life when I am not engaged in a fight over the Down-Trodden Woman, so I may have said this earlier, but this particular symbol is what I find most egregious about western feminism.

Most of the time, especially when dealing with North-Atlantic issues, or domestic issues for western feminists, I am in complete solidarity with their myriad aims and critiques. I may quibble over details or methods but not the larger aims. I am a product of these critiques, after all, having done my graduate work in North-Atlantic cultures. But when western feminism turns to a smug condemnation of non-North Atlantic cultures for their misogyny and sexism, without realising how these critiques are used in the service of the Empire, I am unable to do anything but resist, as forcefully as I can.

Not, as you said, dove, to discount the fact of the Down-Trodden woman's oppression; of course it exists, and occasionally needs exposure to the basic tenets of universal feminism to bring these facts to a conscious level, but one must be aware at all times to see the use that such critiques are put to. And we all know, that once the Empire's needs for propaganda are realised, the Down-Trodden woman vanishes.

Funny, isn't it, that Iraq under Saddam had one of the better records for gender equality, compare it with whichever nation you want. Women were judges, senior bureaucrats, politicians, trade ministers, etc. And now, to save these Down-Trodden women, we have managed to make them afraid to go out of their homes for fear of rapes, kidnappings and bombings. Yeah, that is exactly how we rescue her! I am not even venturing into Afghanistan!

I bet we are going to hear a lot more about Iran's oppressed, Down-Trodden women pretty soon, and a lot more from security moms worried about Iran following the international rules on nuclear energy. Funny how these fears never surface when the nuclear reactors are in their suburban neighborhood and the safety and upkeep have been delegated to private companies focused only on short-term profits. No fears there!

8/21/2006 10:22 pm  
Blogger NLinStPaul said...

Wow dove, this is amazing stuff. I'm finding myself really looking forward to your installments on this topic. As Nanette has already said, you give us much food for thought.

I am just finishing re-reading "The Chalice and the Blade." I read it first in the late 80's and now my bookgroup is set to discuss it tomorrow night. I can't believe how timely it is for what is going on in the world today. So much there, but I'll give you all a teaser:

...what all this points to is the grim conclusion that unless the systems relationship between the suppression of women and of affiliative and caring values is finally addressed, we are inevitably moving toward another period of massive bloodletting through war.

8/22/2006 12:56 am  
Blogger dove said...

Thanks Nanette and poco

Yeah -- it can be used to corral men too I think, though I'm not sure it's being used that way at the moment. There's this poster from WWI that was used for recruiting in Ireland -- I couldn't get it to post properly, but here's the link .
It very much plays on the 'white feather wielder' inasmuch as it's about 'defending your womenfolk' but juxtaposed with 'remember the women of Belgium.'

So there, the juxtaposition of those two figures is being used in service of recruitment.

At the moment re. the GWOT, I'm not sure it's being used so much in direct support of recruitment. I think the main purpose is -- as you say Nanette -- to keep 'western' women corraled, especially since, when directed at those women the rhetoric around the whole 'they hate us for our freedoms' rubbish begins to sound suspiciously like 'If 'they' win, 'you'll' be the Down-trodden Woman.'

It depends on sleight of hand I think, inasmuch as for the trick to work, those women have to ignore what they know about the prevalence of rape and sexual abuse in the places where they live (and the near-impunity with which such crimes are committed) , to give just one example and let their attention be directed to the figure of the 'Downtrodden Woman' -- and obviously it's a distorted and simplified monolithic figure -- and do so in such a way that they never start to bring their lives and that figure into connection with each other.

If they did that, I think the figure of the Down-trodden Woman would eventually become unsustainable -- inasmuch as the whole 'Support us or you'll end up like her' line wouldn't work because the women to whom that was said would respond along the lines of "But I already am like her in x, y, and z way" or "But she's not like your description of her at all!" and so on.

I think that to the extent that rather few do, it's because rather a lot of 'western' women (and feminists for that matter) have brought into exceptionalism. But that's more of a hunch than a fully-fledged argument yet. ;)

Poco,

I've been doing a little series which is (a very compressed) typology of female figures used in service of war - this is the last. I did the first one in July here

If you're in catch-up mode, I did another Alex post back in July as well just in case you feel yourself in need of outdated meta. ;)

8/22/2006 1:05 am  
Blogger Nanette said...

Like the others – the Grocer’s Daughters, the Rosies, the White-Feather Wielders, the Down-Trodden woman is a type, a figure, used in service of war-making.

I wonder which creations have not been used in the service of warmaking? Even ones that don't start out that way, like the mothers of Mother's Day (originally supposed to be an anti war statement)and other such examples. When you stop to think about it, we've been manipulated greatly... used both to manipulate ourselves, and then to manipulate men/warriors/politicians and so on.

poco-

But when western feminism turns to a smug condemnation of non-North Atlantic cultures for their misogyny and sexism, without realising how these critiques are used in the service of the Empire, I am unable to do anything but resist, as forcefully as I can.

I have very little trust in western feminism although that is probably due to having approached it from the wrong direction, as I mentioned to dove and in one of the comments here. I think, though, that like much of western thought or philosophy (or American identity), it too tends to turn in on itself, and thus relate everything to things only within their own sphere, even when the discussion (rarely) turns to issues with women in other countries, or even in different social strata within the same country.

And then, of course, there is the thought that any number of western feminists have no problem at all with empire - they just have a problem with, due to sexist oppression and everything, not being allowed to fully partake in and profit from empire. More of the newly won power of women coming from the wrong source (some of it) as was discussed in... rosie the riveter? I think.

Of course there are also those whose focus is social justice and so on, baking new pies, and not just getting a piece of the existing pie and I've sort of learned to figure out which ones are which.

What is most cruel about the Down Trodden Woman prop is the thought of the women themselves, downtrodden and oppressed as they are, possibly waiting with hope for the promised liberation that is being so loudly trumpeted in their names, even after they are of no more use to us and thus faded from our war screens.

I'm actually concluding that leaving more downtrodden women in our wake than were there before is not carelessness or thoughtlessness so much as part of the plan, same as interrupting or impeding any progress towards self determination by many countries. Anyway, that's another topic, lol.

8/23/2006 11:18 pm  
Blogger Nanette said...

Nancy:

...what all this points to is the grim conclusion that unless the systems relationship between the suppression of women and of affiliative and caring values is finally addressed, we are inevitably moving toward another period of massive bloodletting through war.

Wow, great teaser! I hope you drop a few more of them here and there. Sigh, written in the 1980s? We still have such a long way to go, but we'll not get there, as she says, until those issues are addressed.

8/23/2006 11:21 pm  
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