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.