Feminism as an Imperialist Construct

By Hardman, M. J. | Women and Language, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Feminism as an Imperialist Construct


Hardman, M. J., Women and Language


Even as we attempt to reconstruct our own society closer to our ideals, we bring with us the baggage that we learned as we acquired the language that made us human and members of that society. In our first six years we as humans acquire a native language that simultaneously makes it possible for us to be human and lays down the rails for our perceptual and thinking patterns. In this fashion we bring with us to the feminist task some ways of perceiving and thinking that may not be what we want.

For instance: Our culture leads us to believe that the best of all worlds is the USA, at least in our white middle class world, to everyone presumably aspires. The structure of our language supports this kind of thinking. It bolsters our beliefs and we become blind to what we might learn from others and attempt to impose our perceptions on others. Our western feminism has reflected such a tendency.

Over the years my work has suggested that we invented feminism because we needed it, because our situation was critically bad. (1) A logical extension of that argument is that other places did not develop a feminism such as ours because it was not so badly needed. Instead, a common practice within feminism as we know it is to lament the horrible state of women elsewhere. Perhaps both conclusions have merit. For myself, as an anthropological linguist whose work since the late fifties has involved extensive fieldwork, living with and talking with women of other cultures as I discovered the structure of the languages for which I was writing the grammars, the first one resonated. I conclude that, mostly, US style feminism is needed where US style sexism has been imported (Hardman 1966, 2000 and 2001; Hardman, Ed. 1981).

I once wrote a guest editorial (Hardman 1989) entitled 'White Women's Burden' in which I compared our push to export our feminism to the 'White Men's Burden' of our men who thought they had the right and the duty to 'civilize' the rest of the world. I would rather we not imitate our men in this fashion. The rest of the world has other structures and other problems--declaring ours universal is being deaf to the voices of other women.

Consider the following: I was attending a conference of a philosophical association that considers a broad spectrum of issues which included in its film offerings the one on wife killing in Brazil. One day I returned to my room during lunch and turned on the TV. The lead story was of a man who had been in jail for beating his wife, had threatened to kill her if he got out, was released and he had indeed killed her. As I stepped out of my room I overheard the conversation of two white men of the conference walking by. One said to the other "Oh look, here's a film of wife killing in Brazil. I have to make sure my wife sees that."

Our perceptual blinders lead us to malign women's status elsewhere and to celebrate what we now have, without sufficient attention to our own history or culture. One might see these blinders as part of an only partially unconscious conspiracy on the part of our men to keep us in our place, along the lines of 'don't you see, my dear, how good you have it? What are you complaining about.' They also do not help us in seeking to construct for ourselves a more just society, and, secondly, they make our feminism appear to the rest of the world to be feminine versions of masculine colonialism--and thus an imperialist issue.

I have been a feminist as long as has been possible to have been so, even before I knew the term. Nevertheless, there was no place for me in the early feminist movements, precisely because my professional work as a linguist had led me to a group of people where the sexes are not ranked--an impossibility by the feminist canon. (2) Wagner (2001) recounts something she told me the first time we met: That she did not understand the power of the women she was working with until she saw them in them in their own place, and that she, also, would have rejected my description of the Jaqi women until she came to actually know the Haudenosaunee women. …

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