MAY/JUN 2001

Inclusive Take Back The Night Needed to Take Back The Country

I would like to contribute my thoughts to Cecelia Ober’s piece, "Women Cease to Exist, Men Take Back the Night." While Ober laudably breaks down the salient issues surrounding gender inclusion in the Take Back the Night (TBTN) march and rally, I feel that Ober fails to capture the spirit of the night and the general direction of the budding Third Wave feminist movement. As progressives, liberals, radical leftists, anarchists and anti-establishmentarians, separatism has failed us time and again. While liberals are preoccupied with our disagreements over our disparate issues, squabble over the nuances of our causes and fail to see beyond our own specific issues and passions, the right wing and Christian Coalition have Taken Back the Country (TBTC). You want to talk about women’s rights? Two days into his presidential term, Bush directly threatened the health of millions of women worldwide by signing an executive order to end funding for international family planning organizations. The National Organization for Women has now declared a state of emergency to save women’s rights to self-determination and reproductive freedom—are we as women going to tell men they can’t stand next to their female partners as we face the possibility of back-alley abortions? Feminists, regardless of gender identity, need as many allies as we can get.

It is not my purpose to close the discussion of Ober’s extremely important points. If nothing more, this is an illustration of how we need more opportunities to come together as a feminist community to discuss our issues, rather than co-opt a singular night as the culminating representation of all of our issues. We need to discuss the meaning of gender, the personal and political significance of gender-identity, and whether my womanhood is the same womanhood as Laura Bush, Martha Stewart, and RuPaul. To impose this sort of discussion on a singular event is to miss the commemorative (and celebratory) spirit of TBTN and calls for alternative outlets for our anger, intellectual potential, and community-wide communication.

We are in a state of crisis. Women, feminists, liberals, the LGBT community—we need to be more united than ever before. This is not the time to tell supporters and allies that they are not welcome at "our" rallies. As a radical cuntluvin’ woman-centered feminist, I agree with Ober that women need more spaces to make our issues visible, to shout out against violence against women, and to celebrate ourselves as a group of survivors and everyday heroes. The answer, however, is not to exclude those friends and lovers who stand by our side every day to offer us strength and support.

Cecelia’s article fails to capture the spirit of the TBTN rally. Granted, I do not know if any article, Pulitzer prize winning or otherwise, could capture the full emotional scope of hearing the stories of abuse from the voice of survivors, the sound of women (yes, women, I did not find more than four male faces in the entire TBTN march) shouting "Women, united, we’ll never be divided," and knowing that united meant more during that march than it could ever have as a separatist event. For those readers who were actually present at the TBTN march, I want to ensure you that that the spirit remained focused on women, women’s issues, and creating a space where women feel comfortable. Women did not cease to exist, as Ms. Ober claims, for a single moment of the event. Gender-inclusion allows us to recognize that women can’t claim ownership of sexualized violence, and that being a survivor means recognizing who supports us rather than who victimized us.

This has been difficult to write—difficult because I fear that I have created a potential rift between two women who are otherwise united in the same struggle against patriarchy. As feminists, and especially as women, let’s stand together, united, not for one night, but until we have taken back our country, our bodies, our laws, and our sisterhood as well.

--In sisterhood, Lara Zador

Cecelia Ober responds:

Thanks to Lara for her thoughts about my article. I share her wish that a friendly alliance bridge the divide of opinion between us.

It was not my intention to capture the spirit of the night, but to raise specific objections to the TBTN planners’ reasoning for ending the twenty-year tradition of women-only marches. I objected to their claim that women may be impossible to define: the category can and should be defined for the purpose of ending the oppression of those who are targeted because of their membership in this category.

While I agree that women are not the only targets of sexualized violence, I outlined problems with the change in TBTN’s focus to sexualized violence of all kinds rather than that against women. I described a distinction between sexual violence that can happen to anyone and sexist violence that is done to women as women and that is an expression of the subordination of women.

I also illustrated how it may be desirable to focus on some issues and not others for the purpose of a single event even though the larger movement embraces and addresses more issues of injustice.

My title that claimed "women cease to exist" was not meant to be taken as my own claim, but rather was a provocative way of channeling the TBTN press release’s claim. I believe that the event remained focused on women for many who attended. I expect this to occur at TBTN, which is one reason why I believe that this event should not try to tackle every form of sexualized violence. Gay-bashing and other forms of sexualized violence deserve a forum where they are the central focus; it’s clear they are not getting the attention they deserve at TBTN. At the same time, there has been some loss for many women who valued the women-only march.

Though space does not allow me to discuss all of Lara’s points, her main point of disagreement seems to be that there is no room ever in progressive movements for the occasional and strategic use of separatist space and action. Her main criticism of my position that TBTN marches should be women-only is that this risks undermining the efforts of feminism to gain allies in a time of crisis for women’s rights. I agree that this is a time of crisis, but I disagree about the risks.

I find it hard to believe that 40 minutes of women-only space as one part of an all-inclusive 3-hour event, once a year, poses any danger whatsoever to the ability of the women’s movement to mount a challenge to the right wing. No man with a sincere commitment to ending women’s oppression is going to let those 40 minutes scare him away. For years, our male allies have attended the TBTN rally and its planning sessions, voted on the women-only policy, and run counterpart men’s events during the march to address men’s role in ending violence against women. If this march "costs" us a male "ally" (or four), we are probably no worse off without him.

Being an ally is mostly about the other 364 nights (and days) of the year. As you mentioned, we have friends and lovers who stand by our sides every day to offer strength and support. Surely we are not so codependent that they have to tag along everywhere we go.

Ironically, the new "all-inclusive" TBTN events of the past two years have included events where men were invited to explore with other men their roles as men in a sexist society. Women were not invited, but that won’t stop us from supporting the efforts of these men!

There are a number of women who benefit personally and politically from women-only space and who bring these benefits back to their larger movements and communities.

I don’t see that "separatism has failed us time and again". Its occasional use by oppressed groups is widely practiced and offers valuable opportunities that would not otherwise exist. For example, the Congressional Black Caucus does not extend full privileges to their non-African-American "associate" members. One of the original intents of this group’s creation was to make more visible the existence of the few African-Americans in Congress. They believed this was best done by joining together as African-Americans—not merely a group of Blacks and allies. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival does not permit men and this is what makes it attractive to the thousands of women who attend every year. The woman that I described in my article who felt for the first time liberated to go shirt-free at this Festival gained an invaluable experience she was unable to have anywhere else. All-woman gyms or self-defense classes provide an opportunity for women who may otherwise feel self-conscious because of societally imposed expectations for female bodies.

I wish Lara’s motley crew of "progressives, liberals, radical leftists, anarchists and anti-establishmentarians" were as uniformly progressive as they sound on paper. But within these groups I’ve known overt racists, sexists, rapists and wife-beaters. Who is the "us" that separation has failed? Did the strategic and occasional separatism fail the radical women who, through women-only consciousness-raising groups in the sixties and seventies began to see that serving coffee to Leftist male organizers, being expected to do the housework by their radical husbands or being forced to have sex by their dates was systemic and "political" and not just "personal"?

Judging from Lara’s letter, she has a bit of a separatist tendency herself. For example, she finds significance in "women united" and the "emotional scope" of hearing "the sound of women shouting". And she is not satisfied to end her letter with a call to stand together as feminists—it is "especially" important that we do this "as women". I agree with these points and I think that we can meet this need by preserving some rare women-only space without being at odds with our other equally important need to include all our allies in the struggle for women’s rights.



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