The misuse of the word ‘We’ by feminists. by: Esther Eillam
I believe that many women who became feminists in the nineteen-seventees - especially those who were familiar with the feminist western, english-written literature - remember the famous declaration, begins with the sentence "Because we are women". That time, the declaration (and similar material) had been for many feminists, including myself, a source of inspiration. It made a direct connection between various kinds of oppressions - which are directed towards women just because they are identified as ‘women’- and life situations that women are familiar with.
For example, the gap between men and women in the salaries they get – also if they are doing the same job – or living under the constant threat of rape.
Not many women that I knew questioned then the generalized attitude of the “we” language, and how it prevents from giving an accurate picture of real life of different women. Beyond the the grain of truth in the ‘we’, there is a covering of differences between women in themselves. Salary gap, for example, exists not only between men and women, but also between different groups of women.
The magic of the word ‘We’ worked again for me the middle of the nineteen-eightees, when a crowd of thousands of feminists - me among them - were singing - 'We are the Women, We are the World’. It was in Neirobi, Kenya, in the time of the U.N. Conference. Although the message here about the centrality of women in the world is important, at the same time this phrasing was concealing the problematic relationships between women on the basis of loyalty to patriarchal regimes and values, or using privileges, which form the degree of accessibility to resources.
It means that messages of solidarity - a basic condition to women’s liberation – might be deceiving, if women are treated as homogeneous group, while in fact they do not live in equal life conditions. In this case, sexism is mingled with other oppressive mechanisms that exist in society, like racism, ethnocentricity, classism, lesbophobia, able-bodism, and other mechanisms, which generate prejudices and discriminations.
This understanding underlies for feminist recommendation to adopt concrete and specific approach as a leading principal. It does not mean thinking and acting in a big scale is not needed, but it has to be done not on behalf of giving-up the effort to reach more valid and reliable account of reality.
In my experience, also today there are many women – mostly who are included in privileged groups – show no awareness to the falseness which is hidden in the generalized ‘We’. Lately, I have been a witness to such a case, when after a discussion by a panel of women (who discussed on stage about women and war, in an event of the women’s parliament) the moderator made a speech in which she used the word ‘we’ in as a rhetoric device. At one point I interrupted her by saying that she cannot talk in my name. (I took myself as an example, as my comment was a political one). Unfortunately, she understood it as a personal rejection to what she was saying at that moment (she said that ‘we’, mothers – she herself is not a mother – should refuse to send ‘our’ sons to the army. I support the idea, but cannot agree to her way of speaking) Her reaction to my comment missed my point, as she gave the audience the impression that it is a personal denial to what she said, and not to her oppressive rhetoric. I am not sure that someone in the hall was aware to my point.
For me, the misuse of the word ‘we’ has a political point. While it helps to gain popularity it is an arrogance and deception, especially when it comes from a privileged woman. I have learned that vast generalizations tend to silence women and make them invisible, as a prerogative of women in the hegemony.
I believe that a thoughtful way of treating other women, which in this discussion means careful way of speaking (and thinking), is a fruitful way to achieve an honest solidarity between women from different groups.
Esther Eillam _______________________________________________
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