Separatism part 1

In the Feminist Reprise library there is an article by Marilyn Frye called Some Reflections on Separatism and Power which I find very thought-provoking. I will try to summarize it here but of course you would be best served by reading the whole thing.

Frye establishes that men are in a parasitic relationship with women—they come to us for sustenance and we nurture them. Interactions with women “make men feel good, walk tall, feel refreshed, invigorated. Men are drained and depleted by their living by themselves and with and among other men, and are revived and refreshed, re-created, by going home and being served dinner, changing to clean clothes, having sex with the wife; or by dropping by the apartment of a woman friend to be served coffee or a drink and stroked in one way or another; or by picking up a prostitute for a quicky or for a dip in favorite sexual escape fantasies; or by raping refugees from their wars (foreign and domestic). The ministrations of women, be they willing or unwilling, free or paid for, are what restore in men the strength, will and confidence to go on with what they call living.”

She then discusses abortion, because there is a possible connection between women recognizing a fetus as a parasite and then recognizing men as a parasite.

“The fetus lives parasitically. It is a distinct animal surviving off the life (the blood) of another animal creature. It is incapable of surviving on its own resources, of independent nutrition; incapable even of symbiosis. If it is true that males live parasitically upon females, it seems reasonable to suppose that many of them and those loyal to them are in some way sensitive to the parallelism between their situation and that of the fetus. They could easily identify with the fetus. The woman who is free to see the fetus as a parasite might be free to see the man as a parasite. The woman’s willingness to cut off the life line to one parasite suggests a willingness to cut off the life line to another parasite. The woman who is capable (legally, psychologically, physically) of decisively, self-interestedly, independently rejecting the one parasite, is capable of rejecting, with the same decisiveness and independence, the like burden of the other parasite. In the eyes of the other parasite, the image of the wholly self-determined abortion, involving not even a ritual submission to male veto power, is the mirror image of death.”

She talks about relationships of power in terms of who has access to who, and who gets to define “what is said and sayable.” People in power have access to people with less power, but not the other way around. For example, a boss has access to his employees, but his employees have limited access to him. In the case of women and men, men have unlimited access to women’s bodies and to what we can produce with our bodies, whereas women may not access male institutions or the fruits of male labor unless men willingly share. When women separate from men and form our own spaces, this becomes a challenge to male power by denying them access.

“The woman-only meeting is a fundamental challenge to the structure of’ power. It is always the privilege of the master to enter the slave’s hut. The slave who decides to exclude the master from her hut is declaring herself not a slave. The exclusion of men from the meeting not only deprives them of certain benefits (which they might survive without); it is a controlling of access, hence an assumption of power. It is not only mean, it is arrogant.”

I laughed at this detail she added about men flipping out when women declare a space as female-only.

“Only a small minority of men go crazy when an event is advertised to be for women only—just one man tried to crash our women-only Rape Speak-Out, and only a few hid under the auditorium seats to try to spy on a women-only meeting at a NOW convention in Philadelphia.”

Somehow, I’m not surprised about men hiding under seats to spy on a women-only meeting. Men absolutely cannot stand when women set boundaries and exclude them. There’s always a few men who get all excited about women-only spaces and make it their mission to try to get in. These days, such men are winning—men can now access women’s colleges, women’s locker rooms and washrooms, and women’s prisons. They just have to make up some shit about a “gender identity” and voilà—easy access for them. Feminists have known for decades that men have a fetish for spying on women when they believe they are in a private space—this is observable male behavior.

Frye also discusses how people in positions of power have the right to name reality. This is an excellent explanation.

“The powerful normally determine what is said and sayable. When the powerful label something or dub it or baptize it, the thing becomes what they call it. When the Secretary of Defense calls something a peace negotiation, for instance, then whatever it is that he called a peace negotiation is an instance of negotiating peace. If the activity in question is the working out of terms of a trade-off of nuclear reactors and territorial redistributions, complete with arrangements for the resulting refugees, that is peacemaking. People laud it, and the negotiators get Noble Piece Prizes for it. On the other hand, when I call a certain speech act a rape, my “calling” it does not make it so. At best, I have to explain and justify and make clear exactly what it is about this speech act which is assaultive in just what way, and then the others acquiesce in saying the act was like rape or could figuratively be called a rape. My counterassault will not be counted a simple case of self-defense. And what I called rejection of parasitism, they call the loss of the womanly virtues of compassion and “caring.” And generally, when renegade women call something one thing and patriarchal loyalists call it another, the loyalists get their way.”

She explains that when women define our own reality, that is another instance of women saying no to men, just like when we exclude them from our spaces. So the woman who names her own reality and excludes men from her spaces is doubly insubordinate, and subject to punishment from males who try to take back their power.  This is what men do when they call women “TERF,” of course. They are trying to re-name what women have named. Women have said “no” to male definitions of what women are and to male intrusion into our spaces and because we are saying “no” to that, men have to take their power back. They name us as evil bitches who are trying to kill them, and because they have defined us this way, that is how we are seen in the eyes of all those who are loyal to patriarchy.

Frye sees separatism as an element that is present in every part of a kaleidoscope of feminism and that can take many forms.

“Feminist separation is, of course, separation of various sorts or modes from men and from institutions, relationships, roles and activities which are male-defined, male-dominated and operating for the benefit of males and the maintenance of male privilege—this separation being initiated or maintained, at will, by women. … The feminist separation can take many forms. Breaking up or avoiding close relationships or working relationships; forbidding someone to enter your house; excluding someone from your company, or from your meeting; withdrawal from participation in some activity or institution, or avoidance of participation; avoidance of communications and influence from certain quarters (not listening to music with sexist lyrics, not watching tv); withholding commitment or support; rejection of or rudeness toward obnoxious individuals. Some separations are subtle realignments of identification, priorities and commitments, or working with agendas which only incidently coincide with the agendas of the institution one works in. Ceasing to be loyal to something or someone is a separation; and ceasing to love.”

As defined here, separatism isn’t just a group of lesbians going to live on their own farm and withdrawing from society for the rest of their lives. Separatism is a strategy applied to many areas of life and this strategy is in use whenever women say no to men—when we refuse to marry men, when we leave abusive relationships, when we refuse to carry a child, when we refuse to stroke men’s egos, and when we refuse to prioritize men in our lives.

I have mixed feelings about separatism—I certainly use the strategy of separatism in some ways, by having mostly female friends, by prioritizing females, by having a female partner, etc, but I can also understand how the strategy of withdrawing from society is not effective in changing the power structures. That is something I will discuss in part two.


17 thoughts on “Separatism part 1

  1. Woman on the straight side here, mother and grandmother. I hate to bring this up because it might get me banned, but is anyone interested in having a next generation? If babies are parasites on women (rather like tapeworms!) and men are worse, and all women very sensibly put a stop to all that, you know what?

    We’re the last people. Ever.

    Which might be ok. Certainly all the other life forms on this planet (except the ones who cannot survive without us, which would be most of our food plants and most of our food animals) will breathe a collective sigh of relief if we all die out, and the ecosystems will have a chance to recover from widespread destruction caused by activities like agriculture. But still, I do have a fondness for people, females and children. Even some men. Perhaps this fondness is in the hardwiring, but there it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wouldn’t ban you for asking a question! To me, the main question is, “Why do we need a next generation?” I basically see humans as parasites destroying the Earth—I think the planet would be much better off if we were gone. I don’t really get into anti-natalism on my blog, because so many of my nearest and dearest have children that I’d alienate everybody. But I really am not a fan of human reproduction, and I don’t think there’s any real need for us to stick around.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Well that’s refreshingly honest!

        For myself I think that for all of our flaws and excesses, we humans too, along with the flowers and the wolves and the hummingbirds and the bacteria and everyone and everything else, male and female, are an expression of the beauty of the universe. I have hope our excesses can be tamed and our beauty enhanced.


        • As a person with a totally unreasonable number of cousins, and as a woman who was publicly chided for NOT contributing to the small army that is our family’s next generation, I assure you I have no worries that women will suddenly rise up and cut off future generations. (Since that absolutely LOVELY experience – in which I was supported by a male cousin who asked why he wasn’t being harassed over his lack of progeny- several of my cousins have upheld the familial virtue of “go forth and multiply.)

          But the ability to say “yes” is absolutely dependent on the ability to meaningfully say “no”.
          Without the ability to say no, to choose a different life, women become dependent chattel. I support my younger cousins who have chosen to follow in my footsteps. And by creating that space for “no” even in the face of male bluster, I feel more confident that my female cousins choosing “yes” really mean it.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Agree with you, drycamp. Once, many years ago, I was going up the road that connects India and Kathmandu, just at the start of the rice growing season. The Himalaya take you to a bigger and better universe all by themselves. All around me were steep hills and mountains terraced with flooded fields, glowing like the sunset sky and bringing out every contour of the mountains. The work of people took something astounding and made it even bigger than that.

          So it can be done.

          (And I’m not, not, not saying that it would be fine to rip up all mountain ecology with rice farms. Only that on a limited scale, it can be an amazing addition and that only people could do it.)


    • The problem with this argument is nuclear power plants. They are relatively easy to decommission, but it takes decades to cool the fuel rods sufficiently to be able to bury them somewhere, assuming you don’t want to just ditch them in the ocean.


  2. I like the idea of separatism in society – it doesn’t have to be going and living on a farm somewhere, although I think that should definitely be an option.

    It’s a question of independent resources. If you look at the legal methods women have for fighting things such as rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, they don’t really protect women and often women are punished for making use of them. In effect, women have to rely on one group of men (I’m counting a patriarchal institution as a group of men even though there are some women in there, since they are largely still male-dominated and defined by patriarchal values) to protect them from another man or group of men. So, women are still dependent on the goodwill of men – women have not gained independent enforcement power against male crimes and have not gained the power for self-defence.

    Abuser husbands and boyfriends break their restraining orders, women can file sexual harassment suits but never get hired again, women report rape but are shamed out of their communities even committing suicide in some cases.

    So instead of this – women organizing to protect other women in their community from an abuser husband – all together can come to the house, watch out for him. Women who escape from abusive men can spend their lives looking over their shoulder, never feeling safe. This would be the only really viable way to keep women safe. The police, even if they give a shit which they often don’t, can’t be there all the time. Women need to start their own businesses and hire women who are facing discrimination for standing up to men. Women need to make their own communities away from those who would shame and blame rape victims (probably we have the most progress on this one but it’s still a long way).

    Women can never be safe from men without independent means, and this means some degree of separation. How different would it be if men were actually competing for women’s company, women’s resources? Changing their behaviour to become more appealing to us? Men will only shape up if women are free to leave them. It’s the only way that men will actually start taking responsibility for themselves – when women stop trying to argue with them and just start walking out.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, and this means breaking the pattern of wanting to do stuff for men. Men force women to do things for them in a variety of ways, but this will never end until women stop feeling like they should go along with it, stop feeling like they are somehow getting something out of sacrificing themselves. The cultural grooming of girls into sacrifice has to be broken.


      • Absolutely. In fact this is probably one of the most beneficial things about separatism (however relative) because it creates the space for consciousness raising which is extremely hard to do in the presence of men.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yup. What is most important about separatism is that it be an option and men leave it alone. Women who arrange their lives to exclude men as much as possible, for an extended period of time, report a lot of evolution of their perceptions, and women who have been terribly damaged by men to the point where trust is impossible, have the right to sanctuary. Right now you’re stuck with nunneries.

          Girls’ schools were a little like this. It’s a sad irony that women are stuck with institutions of patriarchal religions to get away from men.

          Liked by 2 people

    • There is a group of women in India who got so sick and tired of male abuse and the ‘authorities’ doing nothing, or worse still supporting it. They got together and when they hear of a male being all abuse-y they head over and beat the crap out of him. The actual incidence of abuse has gone down in the areas they ‘patrol’. I don’t know how long the ‘authorities’ will allow them to continue, but it is an example of what you described.

      Liked by 2 people

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