A UTERUS IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR A CONSCIENCE
by BARBARA EHRENREICH
Barbara Ehrenreich is a well known writer who has appeared in
Harpers, Time, The Nation and The Progressive.
Her most recent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting
By in America, has received critical acclaim. This article
is published with the permission of
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those people we might have thought were impervious to shame,
like the secretary of Defense, admit that the photos of abuse
in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison turned their stomachs.
photos did something else to me, as a feminist: They broke my
heart. I had no illusions about the U.S. mission in Iraq --
whatever exactly it is -- but it turns out that I did have some
illusions about women.
the seven U.S. soldiers now charged with sickening forms of
abuse in Abu Ghraib, three are women: Spc. Megan Ambuhl, Pfc.
Lynndie England and Spc. Sabrina Harman.
was Harman we saw smiling an impish little smile and giving
the thumbs-up sign from behind a pile of hooded, naked Iraqi
men -- as if to say, "Hi Mom, here I am in Abu Ghraib!"
It was England we saw with a naked Iraqi man on a leash. If
you were doing PR for Al Qaeda, you couldn't have staged a better
picture to galvanize misogynist Islamic fundamentalists around
in these photos from Abu Ghraib, you have everything that the
Islamic fundamentalists believe characterizes Western culture,
all nicely arranged in one hideous image -- imperial arrogance,
sexual depravity ... and gender equality.
I shouldn't have been so shocked. We know that good people can
do terrible things under the right circumstances. This is what
psychologist Stanley Milgram found in his famous experiments
in the 1960s. In all likelihood, Ambuhl, England and Harman
are not congenitally evil people. They are working-class women
who wanted an education and knew that the military could be
a stepping-stone in that direction. Once they had joined, they
wanted to fit in.
I also shouldn't be surprised because I never believed that
women were innately gentler and less aggressive than men. Like
most feminists, I have supported full opportunity for women
within the military -- 1) because I knew women could fight,
and 2) because the military is one of the few options around
for low- income young people.
I opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War, I was proud of our servicewomen
and delighted that their presence irked their Saudi hosts. Secretly,
I hoped that the presence of women would over time change the
military, making it more respectful of other people and cultures,
more capable of genuine peacekeeping. That's what I thought,
but I don't think that anymore.
kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of
feminist naiveté, died in Abu Ghraib. It was a feminism
that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual
victims and male sexual violence against women as the root of
all injustice. Rape has repeatedly been an instrument of war
and, to some feminists, it was beginning to look as if war was
an extension of rape. There seemed to be at least some evidence
that male sexual sadism was connected to our species' tragic
propensity for violence. That was before we had seen female
sexual sadism in action.
it's not just the theory of this naive feminism that was wrong.
So was its strategy and vision for change. That strategy and
vision rested on the assumption, implicit or stated outright,
that women were morally superior to men. We had a lot of debates
over whether it was biology or conditioning that gave women
the moral edge -- or simply the experience of being a woman
in a sexist culture. But the assumption of superiority, or at
least a lesser inclination toward cruelty and violence, was
more or less beyond debate. After all, women do most of the
caring work in our culture, and in polls are consistently less
inclined toward war than men.
not the only one wrestling with that assumption today. Mary
Jo Melone, a columnist for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times,
wrote on May 7: "I can't get that picture of England [pointing
at a hooded Iraqi man's genitals] out of my head because this
is not how women are expected to behave. Feminism taught me
30 years ago that not only had women gotten a raw deal from
men, we were morally superior to them."
that assumption had been accurate, then all we would have had
to do to make the world a better place -- kinder, less violent,
more just -- would have been to assimilate into what had been,
for so many centuries, the world of men. We would fight so that
women could become the generals, CEOs, senators, professors
and opinion-makers -- and that was really the only fight we
had to undertake. Because once they gained power and authority,
once they had achieved a critical mass within the institutions
of society, women would naturally work for change. That's what
we thought, even if we thought it unconsciously -- and it's
just not true. Women can do the unthinkable.
can't even argue, in the case of Abu Ghraib, that the problem
was that there just weren't enough women in the military hierarchy
to stop the abuses. The prison was directed by a woman, Gen.
Janis Karpinski. The top U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq,
who also was responsible for reviewing the status of detainees
before their release, was Major Gen. Barbara Fast. And the U.S.
official ultimately responsible for managing the occupation
of Iraq since October was Condoleezza Rice. Like Donald H. Rumsfeld,
she ignored repeated reports of abuse and torture until the
undeniable photographic evidence emerged.
we have learned from Abu Ghraib, once and for all, is that a
uterus is not a substitute for a conscience. This doesn't mean
gender equality isn't worth fighting for for its own sake. It
is. If we believe in democracy, then we believe in a woman's
right to do and achieve whatever men can do and achieve, even
the bad things. It's just that gender equality cannot, all alone,
bring about a just and peaceful world.
fact, we have to realize, in all humility, that the kind of
feminism based on an assumption of female moral superiority
is not only naive; it also is a lazy and self-indulgent form
of feminism. Self-indulgent because it assumes that a victory
for a woman -- a promotion, a college degree, the right to serve
alongside men in the military -- is by its very nature a victory
for all of humanity. And lazy because it assumes that we have
only one struggle -- the struggle for gender equality -- when
in fact we have many more.
struggles for peace and social justice and against imperialist
and racist arrogance, cannot, I am truly sorry to say, be folded
into the struggle for gender equality.
we need is a tough new kind of feminism with no illusions. Women
do not change institutions simply by assimilating into them,
only by consciously deciding to fight for change. We need a
feminism that teaches a woman to say no -- not just to the date
rapist or overly insistent boyfriend but, when necessary, to
the military or corporate hierarchy within which she finds herself.
short, we need a kind of feminism that aims not just to assimilate
into the institutions that men have created over the centuries,
but to infiltrate and subvert them.
cite an old, and far from naive, feminist saying: "If you
think equality is the goal, your standards are too low."
It is not enough to be equal to men, when the men are acting
like beasts. It is not enough to assimilate. We need to create
a world worth assimilating into.