Kjersti Ericsson: Sisters, comrades!

Contents | AKP home page | More in English

The stereotyped woman

In this chapter:
Lesbian women - particular oppression - particular strengths
| The immigrant woman - a "problem" | An in depth understanding of oppression

The word "worker" commonly conjures up the image of a man in coveralls and a helmet. This is the "stereotyped" worker, he is what we think is typical.

The women in the working class have often been hidden behind this picture of the "stereotyped worker". Cashiers, health workers, washing women, office help; they are not the ones we think of when we hear the word "worker". And when one wants to fight for "the workers'" conditions, and develop a policy which serves the "working class'" interests, one forgets the cashiers, health workers, washing women and office helpers. Therefore, much of the women's struggle has been a question of making women visible, crushing the image of the "stereotyped worker".

But there is also a "stereotyped woman". In Norway she is white, heterosexual, married or cohabitating with a man, and has children. Many women become invisible behind the picture of this "stereotyped woman".

Bell Hooks sharply criticizes the feminist movement in the USA for making black women invisible. The feminist movement perpetually compared "women's" situation with "the black's" situation, as if black people weren't also divided into two sexes. Through this the special oppression of black women became invisible (p. 140):

"White feminists did not challenge the racist-sexist tendency to use the word "woman" to refer solely to white women; they supported it. For them it serves two purposes. First, it allowed them to proclaim white men world oppressors while making it appear linguistically that no alliance existed between white women and white men based on shared racial imperialism. Second, it made it possible for white women to act as if alliances did exist between themselves and non-white women in our society, and by so doing they could deflect attention away from their classism and racism. Had feminists chosen to make explicit comparisons between the status of white women and that of black people, or more specifically the status of black women and white women, it would have been more than obvious that the two groups do not share an identical oppression. It would have been obvious that similarities between the women under patriarchy and that of any slave or connolized person do not necessarily exist in a society that is both racially and sexually imperialistic. In such a society, the woman who is seen as inferior because of her sex, can also be seen as superior because of her race, even in relationship to men of another race. Because feminists tended to evoke an image of women as a collective group, their comparisons between "women" and "blacks" were accepted without question. This constant comparison of the plight of "women" and "blacks" deflected attention away from the fact that black women were extremely victimized by both racism and sexism - a fact which, had it been emphasized, might have diverted public attention away from the complaints of middle and upper class white feminists."

What Bell Hooks criticizes here is the white feminists' claim that they represent "all women", while in reality their perspective was solely based on their own situation, which actually differed greatly from the situation of a poor, black woman, for example.

The idea of an all-encompassing sisterhood which unites "all" women does not have to be stretched very far before it is transformed into a way of oppressing and making invisible women who do not fit into the pattern. The fellowship between female and male workers must be built upon the recognition of the distinctive characteristics of the two groups, otherwise the fellowship becomes oppressive. In the same way the fellowship among women must be based upon the particular characteristics of the different groups of women if the fellowship is to avoid being oppressive. We have already seen how this applies to class divisions. Women of the working class must fight as working class women if they are to liberate themselves. But there are also other divisions between women.

Lesbian women - particular oppression - particular strengths

It often happens that an opponent of a particular woman's issue accuses the women that are fighting for it of being lesbians. One well-know Norwegian example is city councilor Anders Melteig's speech in the Oslo City Council in 1982, when suggestions from the Oslo project against prostitution were debated. One of the suggestions was a criminalization of prostitution customers. Melteig commented it in this way (as quoted in Finstad, 1986, p. 129):

"And in conclusion I would like to be honest enough to confess that I am particularly hesitant towards this proposition because I have the uneasy feeling that it emerged from a fixed idea, conceived - and that has to be the right word in this context, by a woman who, as I understand it, disapproves of or is skeptical towards any sexual connection between man and woman and feels that it is a menace which only leads to the oppression of the woman both in the literal and the other sense."

The woman that Melteig was referring to was Liv Finstad, the leader of the prostitution project. She had, in fact, publicly stood forward as a lesbian.

But heterosexual women can also be subjected to the same treatment: that attempts are made at undermining their factual arguments through the claim that those who forward them are lesbian or that they submit to "lesbian ideology". In the debate that followed the publication of the book Men in 1983, a feminist anthology which raised a number of different issues, the terms "lesbian" and "lesbian ideology" were used to characterize the authors' arguments as invalid. Nina Karin Monsen reviewed the book in Morgenbladet November 8, 1983. "Conspicuously many of the article authors are lesbians," she claimed, before she continued:

"If we lump the authors together, and extract their message it is: women shouldn't deal with men, they should become lesbians; incest offenders and prostitution clients should be publicly exposed; men who pressure women sexually should be removed from their positions; one should discriminate against men on the job; women who kill the men who abuse them shouldn't be convicted, and the streets ought to be decorated with the vital organs of men who have killed women."

This singular outburst by the ex-feminist Nina Karin Monsen turned out to be hot material. Monsen was rewarded with a Saturday edition portrait interview in Aftenposten under the title "She curses in the feminist's church". Among other things, she had the following to say:

"Another expression of man-hating comes out in the claims from the lesbian corner that women really, deep down, can only develop meaningful love towards other women. What a lot of nonsense! Naturally our love life is directed towards men."

In Arbeiderbladet Finn Gustavsen hones in on the same tones. In a commentary piece about the fight against pornography November 3rd, 1983 he has this "analysis":

"Several currents have made themselves felt, with AKP in the lead. Their specific form of new moralism - with its infectious effect on the entire left, goes together well with the Christian People's Party's reactionary pietism and with a lesbian ideology which characterizes portions of the heavily reduced women's movement."

How does one reply to this sort of thing? For heterosexual women the answer lies uncomfortably close, "No, I'm no lesbian, I'm just as heterosexual as anyone". But implicit in this answer is the concession that sexual preference is relevant to this particular issue. We are then accepting, as an argument against the criminalization of prostitution customers, the fact that the person who raised the proposal is lesbian.

How can "you're a lesbian" become an argument against the women's struggle? How is it that even knowledgeable, strong women can be vulnerable to this type of argument? It must have something to do with the strength of the idea of the connection between "natural" love between the sexes and the superior/subordinate relationship between man and woman. Women's subordination under the man is such an inseparable part of love between them that only women who do not direct their love towards men can question this subordination relationship.

This thereby makes the lesbian woman a threat to society's sexual system. She loosens the ties between love and subordination under the man. She undermines the family's place in society's hierarchy by being a living example that it is possible to live in other ways, not just with a man in a family. Lately, lesbian women's fight for the right to artificial insemination and adoption has also challenged the control which has existed over women's sexuality. Throughout history women's sexuality has been strictly controlled as a means of giving husbands legitimate heirs. Modern contraceptive methods have weakened the control over women's sexuality (though it has also had the effect Bell Hooks pointed out: giving men unlimited access to women's bodies). Women's sexuality has become something in itself - not merely a means of giving birth to children. Lesbian women's demands for the right to insemination and adoption bring this division to a head. And they challenge the image of the holy, natural family with mother, father and child.

Lesbian women have been, and are, severely oppressed and are labeled as "unnatural" and perverse. This oppression takes on extremely concrete forms. It is enough to remember Hitler's attempts to exterminate lesbians and gays during the last war. Under more "normal" circumstances lesbians and gays have been subject to discrimination both in the workplace and the housing market and in all other contexts. They have been met with violence and contempt, and they have been labeled as psychiatric cases because of their sexual preference. A good deal (most) have attempted to "solve" this problem by hiding their lesbianism or homosexuality. Hiding a significant aspect of one's personality as something shameful, is of course an enormous strain. Condemnation and disgust eat into one's self-image. When the lesbian and gay rights movement arose, one important task was the fight for a new, positive identity.

Lesbian women have been made invisible in two different ways. In the women's movement they disappeared behind the heterosexual "stereotyped" woman. There has, undoubtedly, also been a certain amount of resistance against making lesbian women too visible, because this could contribute to making the women's movement's arguments invalid in the eyes of the public. In the gay rights movement lesbian women have disappeared behind the gay men. But in many situations lesbian women's and gay men's situations and interests are very different, because they belong to different sexes (see Enderud and Ringstad, 1987).

Lesbian women are particularly oppressed. But they also have particular strengths. The most important strength arises perhaps from the fact that they have been forced to reflect on their own gender's identity in a different way than heterosexual women. Society offers the heterosexual woman an established pattern to fit into. It is a pattern that has its rewards, but these rewards are at the expense of subordination under the man. Society has no pattern of this nature to offer the lesbian woman. At its best, society offers a grotesque caricature. Lesbian women must, to a greater extent, build up their own positive self-image, a woman's identity that does not contain subordination under the man as an inseparable part of a loving relationship. In the battle to change the social genders that this society creates, lesbian women's experience is therefore valuable to all women.

There is also another way in which lesbian women can play a specific role in the women's movement. Through challenging the women's movement to make lesbian women visible, they are forcing heterosexual women to take a stand against the idea that the women's movement's arguments lose their validity when too many lesbians participate. By taking a stand against this idea they are also challenging the idea that still lives in their own subconsciousness: that women's subordination under men is only "normal" and "natural". Lesbian women's demands for their rightful place in the women's movement expose the unpleasant baggage of thoughts that many of us still carry around.

The immigrant woman - a "problem"

In an article about Norwegian immigration policy Guri Larsen (1986) describes how the authorities have created the "immigrant problem". "The immigrant problem" arose when it was no longer just people from other western countries (and partially Southern Europe) who came to Norway, they were joined by people from the Third World. Arguments for an immigration stop were built up around three main pillars, as Guri Larsen writes:

Thus immigrants from the Third World received their identity, created by the Norwegian authorities: they were a "problem". In the beginning, it was primarily men who came, seeking employment. The immigration stop put an end to that. The "dual problem" turned up, the immigrant women. Guri Larsen writes about which arguments were used when the "temporary" immigration stop, after a few years, was extended indefinitely (p. 42):

"But the "old" arguments are still valid: though the immigration stop for the most part worked as they had assumed it would, and efforts were made which intended to better conditions in Norway for foreign workers and their families, the situation for many immigrant groups is still extremely difficult. Due to, among other things, the increased family immigration in recent months (this is not effected by the stop), problems associated with housing conditions have increased rather than decreased. Also in other areas things are still difficult." (St.meld. nr. 74, 1979-80, p. 31.)

It is family immigration which "creates the problem" now. And this cannot be stopped. Reuniting families is an international right, and it is warranted by law in the Foreigners Acts. (Though limited by western standards to the core family.)"

Many of the immigrant women from the Third World have come to Norway under the authority of regulations regarding family reunition. They have become an extra "problem" which the "problem" (employees from the Third World) brings in its wake. And the authorities cannot protect themselves from this extra "problem" with an immigration stop as their weapon.

This is the line of reasoning Norway uses when greeting immigrant women from the Third World, and this reasoning is used to interpret their actions. This opens for gross state injustice, such as the punishment of women with deportation if they divorce, being possible, when the victims are immigrant women. And it leads to immigrant women's situation being interpreted on the basis of her negative "qualities", often "qualities", which have roots in her "culture". Hedda Giertsen has pointed out how we often use stereotypical conceptions about other people's "culture" in order to interpret their actions, often actions which we experience as negative (1986, p. 21):

"When we talk about cultural conflicts it often means that we lock the situation and give up on finding a solution. First, it means that we ascribe the cause of an act to the person's culture. We do not try to discover the many nuances, differences and contradictions in the other culture, instead we use smooth, simplified and generalized concepts which apply to everyone from a certain country or part of the world. (When and if the same type of action is perpetrated by a Norwegian - where does the cause lie then? We place it conveniently on the individual, most preferably on deviant qualities. Not on culture.)"

In her discussion of a book by Sven Axel Månsson (Kärlek och kulturkonflikt [Love and cultural conflict]), Hedda Giertsen (1985) provides a striking example of the way in which immigrants actions are interpreted. Månsson has interviewed an Iranian who has settled in Sweden, and tells about an episode where he spent the night with a Swedish woman. They lay naked next to each other, but he was not allowed to make love to her. For the Iranian this was confusing. As he was used to interpreting it, a woman lying down naked beside a man, meant an invitation to sex. The Iranian felt offended. But he did nothing. There was no rape. The Iranian himself explains this with the fact that he has a kind of internal barrier which prevents him from attacking a woman in this type of situation, a "kind of political morality", which says that one gets nowhere using violence in this type of situation."

Månsson tries to interpret this situation, and the man's actions in terms of the concept "cultural conflict" (as referred in Giertsen, p. 44):

"Though a cultural conflict presumably exists, which can be difficult enough, this does not automatically cause a rape. The "barrier", the man says he has, can most likely be found in most people in this type of situation."

Månsson's implication is that "the cultural conflict" really should have lead to rape. When this does not "automatically" happen, it is because the Iranian has a human barrier against violence. The negative impulse to rape is ascribed to the Iranian's culture. The positive, the block against violence, is ascribed to "humanity". As Hedda Giertsen points out: why isn't the Iranian's "political morality against the use of violence" interpreted as a part of the value system of his culture?

This mechanism is important for an understanding of racism in general, and of immigrant women's situation. Heiberg and Roli describe the situation for many immigrant women from the Third World in this way (1981, p. 82):

"In order to understand the consequences of the move it is important to look at a number of similarities in the immigrant's background. The home country is organized differently from Norway both in terms of paid work, social rights and benefits, and practical duties in the home and society. There the women's jobs are tied to the production of necessities (farming, home industry, food and clothing production) along side of childbirth and care and household chores. Through kinship, women's fellowship or the local environment, the woman had the opportunity of having influence, while she simultaneously had security through being a member of a larger social context.

The move to Norway means a change in country, residence and values. The woman becomes dependent upon the core family as a social and economic unit, and she moves her solidarity and dependence from relatives over to her husband. This little unit experiences their meeting with Norway as a confrontation with a majority which will not accept their way of living. In this country the immigrant women do not represent a natural part of production or the local community. Her care functions increase, and she is not offered other responsibilities in the Norwegian society."

The immigrant woman comes into the country, already defined as a "dual problem". She is pressured into an isolated, dependent, powerless position. The fact that she ends up in this situation is interpreted as a reflection of her personal characteristics and her "culture", not as a result of the manner in which the Norwegian society greets her. The authorities "... strengthen the idea that it is a part of other cultures that women should be home and locked up. In this way the authorities legitimize a policy of discrimination against immigrant women," say Heiberg and Roli (p. 88).

Making immigrant women visible means making the oppressive structures and mechanisms in our own society visible. This is an important part of the necessary solidarity with immigrant women. And it is important in order to be able to fight to the limit against an oppressive society.

An in depth understanding of oppression

Lesbian women and immigrant women are not the only ones who risk becoming invisible behind the "stereotyped woman". The same holds true for sámi women, women who live alone, women who are single providers, old women. The result becomes that their problems and demands do not emerge, and they get no support for their struggle. And the "stereotyped woman" can also risk legitimizing forms of oppression which do not directly affect her.

The other result is that the understanding of society and the oppressive structures and mechanisms which rule, becomes lacking and faulty. The fight against oppression does not go deeply enough, it doesn't become radical enough. Earlier, based on Amiri Baraka's play, I talked about the impossibility of fighting against racism with the oppression of women as a foundation. But the opposite, the fight against the oppression of women with racism as a foundation, is also impossible. Those who not only want some limited improvements for their own group within capitalism, but instead seek a totally new, liberating society, must understand oppression in its full breadth. This understanding cannot be reached as long as the "stereotyped woman" blocks the view.

Contents | AKP home page | More in English