Friday, November 18, 2011

Anzia Yezierska, Part II

I: Man and “Other”

More women cry, loudly or silently, every fraction of every moment, in every town of every country, than anyone—man or woman—realizes. We cry for our children, our lovers, our parents, and ourselves. We cry in shame because we feel no right to cry, and we cry in peace because we feel it’s time we did cry. We cry for the world. Yet we think we cry alone. . . . [F]or most women, however, the resistances they encountered as they reached for the sky were so great that their wings have now drooped, and they try no longer. (Williamson 3-4)

Gerda Lerner, a Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, describes two elements of a process by which females learn to view themselves as less significant than males: the binary gendered opposition of male and female, so fundamental to many cultures, is ultimately associated with an “expertly” legitimized definition of female as “other,” and therefore subordinate. This claim is disseminated by various mass media and evidenced by the mass exclusion of females from historical rhetoric. By doing this, Lerner says, all omitted groups are signified as less important (105, 108).

According to Lerner and other contemporary feminist historians—Riane Eisler, Merlin Stone, Layne Redmond and others—this hierarchy was “invented” by groups of men in the Ancient Near East about 5000 BCE. The consensus is that during the Agricultural Revolution, small groups of peripheral invaders, all militaristic men, termed “Indo-Europeans” or “Kurgans,” began invading and conquering the matrifocal, peaceful cities of the Near East. The one thing common to these groups of invaders was their model of social domination via force. Their god was a male, and angry, symbol who epitomized an axiology in which male dominance, authoritarianism, hierarchy and brute force was the norm; a striking antithesis of the matrifocal Mother-Goddess and Nature-loving cultures whom they conquered (Eisler 42-45; Lerner 106; Redmond 11-13).

This new power structure could not have persisted to become a systemic tool used to repress other groups, however, without the legitimized propagation of certain ideological and institutional manipulators. When status and power inequalities exist interpersonally and interculturally, factors must be identified that justify and legitimize the perpetuating system. Lerner asserts that this was first accomplished by turning “difference into dominance” (106). As the small groups of men continued to control the resources, they demanded compliance with their norms in exchange for survival. To rationalize the domination, and justify women’s exploitation and subsequent commodification to women and other unaffected men, a rationale developed that equated sexual difference, e.g., male versus female, with superiority and inferiority, respectively. When these assertions were forcefully imposed and coercively applied, through time they eventually eroded and undermined the fundamental epistemological beliefs of pre-Patriarchal cultures (106-107); consequently, women learned to internalize these ideologies, legitimized them as “truth” and conducted their lives based on these beliefs.

Hellenic philosophy, from which Occidental philosophy originates, continued this tradition by incorporating systemic “women as ‘other’” conceptualizations into its axiological assertions and legitimized it with biological declarations. The Sophist School demanded that men “prove they are right by their armed might” (Eisler 112-118). Judaism, and later, Christianity, developed and flourished in the Near East during this era. These, too, embraced the systems of androcentrism and characterized females as inferior, partly by abolishing all female deities from their religions. The writings contained in the Torah’s and Biblical book of Leviticus clearly outline the biological, social and spiritual position of women.

As we leap into early twentieth century American society, we are confronted with the effects of five millennia of social “programming” and hierarchization of humanity. Jean Baker Miller, a contemporary psychologist and author, explains that under this hierarchical, primarily didactic, system she terms “permanent inequality,” dominant groups (i.e., white, male business-owners) tend to define “other” groups as inferior, then label certain ascribed characteristics of each groups’ members as “substandard” and “defective” (6).

According to Miller, every subordinated groups’ members are declared biologically “unable” to perform preferred tasks and are encouraged to internalize superordinate groups’ legitimizing ideologies, fundamentally embodying adoption of prescribed roles that include pleasing behaviors and psychological characteristics (i.e., submissiveness, timidity, docility, unselfishness, weakness and helplessness) (7-9). Through generations of socialization practices that, for each individual, begin and birth and continue throughout the life cycle, the members of the subordinated group tend to increasingly internalize the majority of these beliefs and characterize themselves according to the definitions imposed by the dominate group. Further, the “inferiors” generally do not question the superordinates’ authority on matters of “right” and legitimacy and hold each other, and themselves, responsible for upholding the axiology dictating the norms of their roles.

Emotional commitments become attached to these internalized “truths”; behaving in accordance with culturally-accepted norms yields positive social reinforcement, while “deviance,” intentional or not, from commonly-accepted role definitions precedes what French philosopher Michel Foucault describes as the “three modes of objectification” (7). Summarily, this includes three stages, the first of which is “dividing practices” in which the subject is “objectified by a process of division either within [her- or] himself or from others” (8, emphasis added). Second, the subject is “scientifically classified,” a process by which she or he is negatively and narrowly characterized by one or more “experts” whose postulates tend to be widely accepted in the society at large (8-9). She or he is then identified with an increasingly populous group whose existence has been exposed by these “experts.” Finally, the individual undergoes what Foucault terms, “subjectification,” which concerns the “way a human being turns him- or herself into a subject,” ultimately culminating in self-domination through the creation and maintenance of a newly created identity (11, emphasis added).

It is from this perspective that we must conduct our analysis of Anzia Yezierska, Jewish-American, immigrant, working class, socialist, feminist woman of the early twentieth century.

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