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Out-Organizing Patriarchy, or: Buddhist Strategies For Existing Politically In A Mini-dress

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Feminism is about politics, not a one-size-fits-all uniform.

Janell Hobson, Ms. magazine writer, in Policing Feminism: Regulating the Bodies of Women of Color

Some would say it’s my fault, for wearing a dress like that to a political action.

How do you expect to be taken seriously?

(And, from certain older feminists): We fought to be seen as more than sex objects.  How can you throw away that progress?

Understandable frustration.  Wanna hear something scary (though maybe not all that shocking)?  Recent psych studies ([1] [2] [3]) testify to what many of us have understood through experience: that bodies read as “women” tend to be cognized as objects (to perilous, rape-y effect) whereas bodies read as “men” are perceived as human beings.

I wonder whether any of the images used in these psychological studies showed androgynous people, gender-queer people, fat people, elderly people, or visibly disabled people.  (Anyone reading have access to the academic journals?  Hook us up!)  So many normative standards of beauty and aesthetic ideals of ‘human-ness,’ from shape to skin color, affect the ways we are objectified or humanized.  Politically (in terms of respectability, influence, and power), our looks affect our interactions as we pass out flyers, march and chant, photograph the action, deliver a speech, or bus or bike to the strike.

As for me, it’s not like it happens 100% of the time, but I can usually tell when strangers are paying closer attention to my hemline than my politics.  Like the two guys waiting for their order at the taco truck on a Monday noontime, right next to the undocumented workers’ press conference against I-9 audits, or “silent raids.”

I recognize one of the men from doorknocking in the neighborhood the day before.

“Hey!”  I call.  “You came!”  (Do I care that he’s probably just there for lunch?  Nope.)  “Come meet the workers!”

At first they stay put at the taco truck; they want to chat me up, but they don’t want to walk over to the protest to do it.  I approach them instead, talking talking talking.  I make myself oily like a duck’s feathers, so the swamp water of sexism won’t soak me.  (Awareness + acceptance* is my anti-patriarchy emotional preen gland.)  I explain the background for the action: 125 workers fired with no notice — some after decades working for the industrial bakery, still making just $9.40 an hour.  The guys’ ears perk up.  I allow myself to get more animated about it.  “Come!” I say.  “Come meet the workers!”

Eventually, some combination of the political content, the live brass band, and my encouragement does the trick.  They walk over with me.  I immediately introduce them to other people, older people.  An elderly worker strikes up a conversation in Spanish with the neighbor who speaks it.  Only then does it come out: the neighbor says, “Yeah, I know someone who works in here.” Inside the factory that we’re protesting.

“Oh yeah?” says the fired worker slowly, scratching his ear.  “Who?”

I flit away, to go dance some more with the band.  Before the neighbor men leave, I make sure to say goodbye, ask them what they thought.  I hope they keep supporting the fight.

If the psychological objectification of women is a pervasive phenomenon, it undermines the unity of the working class in the U.S., and deserves to be treated as seriously as, for instance, white skin privilege.  Class-struggle theorists continue to study the feminization and de-feminization of various factory and non-factory work, which is important on a large scale.  At the same time, I would love to hear more about ways that organizers (especially Buddhist organizers!) are handling the interpersonal body politics that manifest in the course of the organizing.  The way I’ve learned to respond isn’t necessarily the best way, or a way that is relevant or useful for everyone.

I hope it’s clear, especially to Buddhists, that by *acceptance of sexism I don’t mean that I want to permit sexism without trying to change it.  The first step to changing something is accepting that it exists.  Patriarchy is how it is, right now.  I’ve been lightweight slut-shamed in my organizing circles before; it’s no fun.  Misogyny may not be as acutely dangerous for me as transphobia or homophobia are for other people, or as sexism is for women trying to organize in other contexts (see, for example: sexual assaults during protests in Tahrir Square, which some suspect are state-backed efforts to sow discord in uprising groups).  But sexism here, in my life, still exists, still disrupts connection and the political work we are trying to do together.  I have little choice but to name it and figure out how to deal.  In the words of Black revolutionary Assata Shakur (who recently became the first woman on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists list):

People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.

In a way, it’s good to understand that the brains of many strangers see me as an object first.  Lets me know what I’m working with.  Then, compassionately — whether gently or acerbically, playfully or gravely — I can try to thin and whittle those delusions in myself and others, try to sound out new relationships written through the small-scale but meaningful struggles now at hand.

Katie Loncke is Co-Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, where she rejoices in meeting and jamming with more and more fabulous political Buddhists.  She lives and organizes in Oakland, with a current emphasis on feminist solidarity in undocumented immigrant struggles, and more generally trying to find an collective emancipatory path out of this whole capitalism thing.  She suspects that people will have an easier time being peaceful and compassionate if there is more meaningful equality, with basic rights like food, water, and shelter guaranteed, not commodified.  You can drop her a line at katie[at]bpf[dot]org — she’d love to hear from you.

Comments (8)

  • Ian Mayes

    When I lived in Oakland I once went to a Lyndon LaRouche meeting because I was attracted to one of the followers who was proselytizing to people on the street. I figured that getting to spend more time with her, even if it was a weird political meeting thing, would be a good thing.

    At the meeting itself I ended up being so disgusted and disturbed by that political cult that surrounds LaRouche that I ended up leaving the meeting early. It then resulted in the odd situation of one of the group members then chasing me down the street yelling “WAIT! WE WOULD LIKE TO GET YOUR PHONE NUMBER!!” and me yelling back “NO WAY!!! LEAVE ME ALONE!!!”

    Having attractive public spokespeople certainly is a successful attention-getting strategy, but it only goes so far.

  • Katie Loncke

    Wow, that’s quite a scene! Yes, when people come on too strong for outreach or recruitment, that whiff of desperation can really put a damper on things.

    To be clear, since I’m not sure if you’re implying that the way I dress is a “strategy,” it’s not. It’s just how I dress!

    When you are doing political organizing or outreach, do you find yourself consciously adjusting to gendered power dynamics, or other power dynamics? Are there certain patterns that you notice coming up a lot?

  • Jeff

    Having slowly deteriorated from a marginally attractive young activist into a balding, overweight, mature one, I often wonder what organizing would be like if I was really fine. I know people would read my leaflets and listen to my spiel more often than they do now, but would they take me seriously or look at me as just another pretty face? Would they really hear what I’m saying or smirk knowingly and try to mack on me?

    I suspect that superficial appearances are going to get in the way of progressive discourse and liberation movements for a long time to come. Our visual landscape is saturated with images equating idealized beauty with youth, happiness, and success. Everyday commerce and information are so pervasively spiced with sexual themes and our own identities so dependent on gender role-playing that it would seem to be the work of a lifetime (indeed, generations) to get past that hype. Fortunately, many of the contributors to BPF have made good progress in engaging others as simply human rather than as objects.

    Buddhists are at an advantage in understanding that social change will not happen without personal evolution. Calling someone in your sangha on an inappropriate racist or sexist attitude shouldn’t be a big problem, right? Even revolutionary parties have a goal of fighting oppressive social conventions and promoting equality: openness and ongoing constructive self-criticism are essential to moving beyond the narrow prejudice that reinforces material injustice.

    It’s harder when, in a larger issue-based political organization, people don’t necessarily share that long-term, spiritual commitment and sense of community. However, I think it’s important to create these positive currents in the groups we are active in so that sisters and brothers are not reluctant to talk about interpersonal issues that might be holding back the political work. It’s usually uncomfortable at first, but so are most of the big steps forward we take. Like dancing, it’s wonderful after awhile.

    Meantime, Katie, be sure to dress warmly for those picket lines if it’s windy out.

  • Katie Loncke

    Hear, hear, Jeff! Yes, let’s learn to do the dance, and support one another along the way.

    I was reading a piece the other day (I forget where; I’ll try to go back and find it) about the strategies of self-presentation that Black students used in certain Civil Rights movement struggles. They consciously counteracted racist stereotypes of Blacks as aggressive and ignorant — not only through their rigorously nonviolent comportment, but also through their dress: wearing ties and slacks, and carrying books. I feel conflicted about these strategies in our own struggles, sometimes. One one level, it seems very savvy to flip the script on the stereotypes. On the other hand, does it mean supporting and assimilating into dominant expectations of what “respectable” and “educated” people look like? Or, to put it in terms of my own experience around gender, here, I know that I could dress more “professionally,” and that might change people’s responses toward me to a certain degree. In certain political actions, like an auction disruption to prevent the sale of a foreclosed home, I have dressed “professionally” in order to infiltrate the auctioneer group and gather info on what time the home we were defending would be going up for sale. Putting on a disguise is one thing, but trying to alter one’s appearance (which may also include dialect / language, levels of legible ‘queerness,’ or even body shape or size) in order to win political respect seems… tricky. Has this come up at all in the groups you organize with?

    Oh and no worries on the chill — it’s like 88 degrees out there in East Oakland! In fact, that’s one of the reasons I picked that clothing for that day: doorknocking had sunburned my shoulders, and strapless stuff felt better. Handy sartorial tips for the weatherbeaten organizer! :)

  • Jeff

    Actually, dress codes, tattoos, jewelry, language, body odor, queer vibes, and other sensory first impressions have not been much of an issue in my organizing experience. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t worry about that stuff unless someone’s appearance is so out there that it’s extremely distracting from and inappropriate to the message we’re trying to communicate. If the message is “this is who I am,” then go for broke! If it’s about collective action, most folks just expect a representative to be clean, respectful, and well informed. Although I’m not sure those shoes work with your mini-dress.

  • nathan

    “If it’s about collective action, most folks just expect a representative to be clean, respectful, and well informed.” Even this can bring up questions. During the heyday of Occupy here in Minneapolis (and all over the US and elsewhere from what I understand), there were challenges faced with the numbers of homeless and severely marginalized poor folks who were part of the everyday group planning actions and making decisions. Presenting as “clean” in mainstream society is a decidedly class-based affair, and some of the most articulate, well informed members of our local Occupy group didn’t make the cut when it came to mainstream clean. And in some ways, I think that was a blessing. It disrupted expectations and caused folks to pause.

    Wildly different understandings of basic respect also were present. For example, we had a handful of middle-aged white men who were used to being loud and argumentative, and couldn’t handle the necessary deconstructions of sexism, racism, and the like that other members eventually laid out. To these guys, respect mostly meant listening to them because they “were right” or “educated” or whatever.

    Just a few days ago, as part of a NSA/Surveilance protest, a small group of us connected to the still lingering Occupy group here attended a County Commissioners meeting. As always when I enter that space, or others like it, I immediately notice the dress differences. None of us looked “official” or “professional.” The commissioners all wore formal dress, and the room itself had a darkened, almost oppressive tone. The lone speaker on the agenda was also dressed professionally, and spoke in an almost clinical manner about a large county health program currently under review.

    Our group’s presence was a bit of a disruption from the norm. At the same time, everything surrounding us, including the guards outside the doors that promptly removed one member’s protest sign upon seeing it, preserved most of the established culture. Had we been a much larger group, I think the level of visual disruption would have been greater, and may have lent itself to an opening for our concerns. I’ve seen this happen before in other settings, and tend to think that visuals are more important than many of us think.

    And Katie’s point about altering appearance solely or mainly to gain “cred” is important. I’m not convinced that any effort to blend into that stodgy, controlled environment would help shift the power dynamics. At the same time, I do believe that for at least three of those seven County Commissioners, our lack of “fitting in visually” was immediate grounds for dismissal. They couldn’t be bothered to even look at us, or give us the time of day. So something else is in order perhaps in terms of collective strategy.

  • Shaz

    Been meaning to get round to reading this for a while. Thank you.

    Just wanted to say, I looked up the academic articles. The stimuli used could have been cut and pasted out of a TV advert for a machine to do crunches. White, tanned, muscular and in swimsuits.

  • Katie Loncke

    Fascinating (though not exactly surprising). Thanks for reporting back on that, Shaz.

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