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Sisterhood and Solidarity: A Feminist Utopia

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“Intra-sexual competitive behavior remains a major barrier to women’s full inclusion in the university workplace, and we would be wise to break it down.”

A considerable number of feminists advocate greater sisterhood; in the face of male-produced and reproduced violence, women would find solidarity, support, comfort, and help among other women. I believe this as problematic as Marx’s idealized class consciousness of the proletariat. Marginalized and exploited groups often don’t acknowledge or recognize their exploitation, and even when they do, this recognition of shared suffering isn’t a sufficient condition to generate support networks and collective action to counter the structures that oppress and marginalize them. As a feminist, it is deeply saddening to see that solidaristic sisterhood, as desirable as it might be, remains a feminist utopia. Instead of solidarity, women remain likely to engage in competitive behavior. As Charleen Adams wrote in her articleFemale Intrasexual Competition: From Demons to Better Angels,” women are very likely to engage in intrasexual competition, most of the times without being aware of the significant psychological, economic, and professional consequences which result.

I am often faced with the question of how to make sense of aggression displayed by other women? In 2013 Emma Brockes questioned why sisterhood and solidarity are so rare when so much attention is directed towards feminist projects. Conventional wisdom in feminist circles suggests that competitive behavior between women exists because they internalize and replicate patriarchy. I believe this explanation is both enlightening and problematic, but, above all, apologetic. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that understanding gender as a mere construction supposes that women are passive recipients of their gender with little or no agency to overcome the limitations that their gender imposes on them: “If gender is constructed, could it be constructed differently, or does its constructedness imply some form of social determinism, foreclosing the possibility of agency and transformation?”

This same argument is useful here: if women know no better, what can be done? How can we judge, accuse, face or point out aggression when women’s conducts is purely determined by their environment? Do we confront these women or do we help them? Isn’t it patronizing to assume that it is our role to help them because we know better? Butler’s point of view is enlightening, mainly because it emphasizes that patriarchal oppression is structural; however, it is also problematic because it leaves us few space to act. Taken radically, we could not oppose competitive, sexist women without unjustly attributing agency to them that they do not in fact possess. So, what can be done?

Adams concludes that “female intrasexual competition is also subject to reason, once we see our involvement in it, and can be guided by our better angels.” She argues that the possibility of change starts with self-reflection. As a philosopher I am inclined to agree; however, I can’t help thinking of the institutional obstacles that limit the actions prompted by self-reflection. Part of my sensitivity to this comes from personal experience. I was recently informed that a female colleague in a position of power appropriated the gender studies seminar I designed. She argued that such a course should be part of the Humanities rather that the Political Science Department, which I belong to. This colleague, who has been reported for unethical behavior towards female colleagues in the past and who told a student that I knew nothing about my area of expertise, has now been promoted.

The question I keep asking to myself is, what can I do to fight this without endangering my job? As precarious as my contract faculty job is, I still need it. Furthermore, I don’t want to lose a job I take a lot of pleasure in doing. The problem with positions which compel women to think, understand, and act is that they disregard the numerous contexts which determine their status in various social hierarchies. Even when we can reflect a great deal about our subject-positions and practices, that doesn’t mean that we can act accordingly. Arguments like Adams’—that reflection is the key to overcoming patriarchal structures—stem from a bourgeois, white, privilege mentality which sees the solution to all problems as an act of volition. As a Mexican, such a perspective is deeply problematic. Who am I to tell an indigenous woman in the mountains to think more deeply about how she replicates sexism, violence, and oppression by teaching submissive behavior to her female offspring? Her most pressing concern is internal displacement due to poverty, drug-related violence, and worsening climate conditions.

Furthermore, there’s also the case of women who decide not to change even after reflecting on the determinants of their behavior. They reflectively choose to perform competitive sexist behavior to advance their careers, interests, and social status. After all, the woman I mentioned before claims to be a sound ethical person teaching applied ethics at the university. Do we call this person a hypocrite and open the door for every feminist to be called a hypocrite? Do we confront her at the risk of retaliation? There is no clear solution to such problems.

A barrier to our ability to act against competitive behavior is that many women appropriate feminist terminology and use it to reinforce misogyny, sexism, violence, oppression, marginalization, exploitation, etc. This demonstrates how sisterhood and solidarity are difficult to build when the prevailing environment is sexist and encourages  the competitive and sexist while ensuring it remains unreported. In the case of universities, despite some institutional efforts to tackle these issues, we have to acknowledge that they remain fixed hierarchical spaces. These hierarchies usually include entrenched hierarchy patriarchy and sexism, which are difficult to navigate if you are a women or are indifferent to university politics. Competitive behavior is prevalent in universities because the everyday practices that allow these behaviors to thrive is frequently unchallenged. Even if universities have developed mechanisms to tackle gender discrimination and sexual violence, these are usually directed against men who attack women. They disregard practices which aren’t openly violent or discriminatory.

There are few efforts made to make visible and confront competitive behavior between women. It is usually interpreted exclusively as aggressive competition common in any workplace environment. This disregards the feminist dimension to these problems; it is, in fact, a form of gender discrimination and violence. Additionally, the mechanisms to file complaints about such behavior often aren’t clear or reliable. Information about past incidents isn’t transparent, and social and labor norms mandate that you should be a good team player. The reality is that women are encouraged to be docile and passive employees, in particular by moderating anger and tailoring it to men’s sensibilities. Finally, since there are no definitions about what competitive behavior is and no guidelines to prosecute it, administrators will often dismiss claims by arguing you are overreacting or misunderstanding your colleagues’ conducts.

In my case, the woman from the Humanities Department is masking intrasexual competitive behavior behind the screen of a disciplinary dispute between departments. How can one make such behavior transparent? I think this is done by building sisterhood and solidarity. In spite of the problems I mentioned before, I don’t consider the allegedly utopian argument for greater gender in the equality in the workplace unnecessary or expendable. Quite the contrary. As writer Eduardo Galeano has often quoted Latin-American filmmaker Fernando Birri:

What is the purpose of the utopia? I often ask myself this question because utopia lies in the horizon, and if I walk ten steps she moves further away ten steps. And if I get closer by ten steps, she situates herself ten steps further. What, then, is the purpose of the utopia? That exactly, to cause us to advance.

I don’t want to sound like an idealist. I am not. I don’t believe in abstract utopias of any sort as they can be dangerous and murderous. I believe in what the ideal of the utopia can do to help shape our daily practices. In this particular sense, suggesting that sisterhood and solidarity are utopian ideals mean that these are conditions we need to create for women. Many women are tired of intra-sexual competitive behavior in male dominated workplaces, and we will often discuss it in suitably safe conditions. Moreover, in the classroom I’ve found that many younger female students cherish the company and insights of other women and who want this to be a more common intra-sexual group dynamic. That, right there, is sisterhood and solidarity.

I think that we can start by joining these women, listening to them, and ensuring they have platforms to speak and promote their causes. We need to find new means to ensure women’s voices are heard, and post-secondary institutions are attentive to their needs. As for the kind of institutional changes that can be done so that we prevent this behavior, I think two concrete steps can be taken: first, to include definitions about what intra-sexual competitive behavior is and stipulations in the universities’ protocols concerning how to investigate and deal with these matters. Secondly, to create workshops tailored to the faculty members which promote gender equality in the university and which explain the tools available to report on these issues.

Intra-sexual competitive behavior remains a major barrier to women’s full inclusion in the university workplace, and we would be wise to break it down. While reflection and dialogue are good first steps, we also need to take seriously the institutional barriers which prevent women from dealing with such problems. The two steps I suggested would be a good start to creating a more welcoming workplace for women employed in the post-secondary sector.

Marion Nadezhna Trejo is a Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. She completed her Masters Degree in Philosophy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and is currently researching the political history of fear. 

One thought on “Sisterhood and Solidarity: A Feminist Utopia

  1. Hmmm, its almost as if both men AND women can act in corrupt and harmful ways. Who would of thought, women are not purely good; they have some original sin perturbing their actions as well. Perhaps, despite ones place in society, or their identity, there are certain ideals we as individuals should strive to live up to?

    While you railed against intrasexual competitive behavior among women, is this necessarily a bad thing? It seems that you are opposed to those corrupt actors who use underhanded means to “game” the system, but there will always be a small percentage of those who do not play by the rules. Working towards an “ideal”, as you stated, must be attempted–although it will never be reached. However, this does not mean we should discard the game altogether.

    Creating easier ways to identify and report those who do not play by the rules is a good suggestion. Encouraging proper competition not only benefits the actor in the long-term, but also benefits all those who play the game at all. Spreading this message as far and wide as possible will benefit all of humanity, but yes, women too. Not sure what your obsession with women competition is. Do women compete differently than men in a professional environment? I thought the feminist movement of the late 20th century was all about women being equal to men. Are workplace interactions between the two sexes now so alien as to facilitate different domains of competition? Should they be competing in different hierarchical structures?

    In order for a stable game to occur certain ideals and ethics must be idealized. This goes well beyond the purview of the administration of a university or any other institution or company for that matter. A societal shift that encourages fair play amongst every human will be needed. I believe this gets to the root of our culture. Typically, the hero; a savior and proponent of the good; the ideal ethic, was symbolically masculine. Every man must embody this ideal, insofar as they embody this archetype, the more fair society will be. However, feminine symbolism, at least as it has been in the past, does not strive for an ethical ideal and cooperation like the male archetype. The female archetype in Beauty and the Beast ,or Snow White, is not a hero as we typically conceive of it, the feminine archetype seems to be in relation to her ability to “tame” and help the “hero” master the ethical ideal–although, I would say that is heroic nonetheless.

    Are humans now in the midst of a cultural and gender evolution that will tear the roots of our culture to bits? It seems likely. But, will this change (making women more like men) actually make the world more gender inclusive? Ironically, it seems that the feminists are replacing and repressing the things that make them feminine, and trading them in for a more masculine set of ideals. They are contributing to the expansion and sustenance of the thing they so dearly hate: the patriarchy.

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