Breaking Down Dichotomies

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Breaking Down Dichotomies

Patricia Flaherty

Domestic sphere, public sphere, and gender; oh my! The discussions that we've had so far have only led to more questions about categories. Is there any way to escape being categorized? That question I'm still unsure of. I have come to one answer though. Through creating one specific, over-arching category to place every human being in, can lead to a better and hopefully more fluid situation of sub-categorization. This category is the materiality of the body in that all bodies get old and seemingly disabled in some regard with the aging. Everyone ages, and by putting everyone into a category that embodies the essential human characteristic helps to place them in other categories. The ideas of nature/female as asserted by Ortner and predominantly the domestic/public spheres as articulated by Rosaldo are the ideas that have been leading me on the path to find the most answers at the moment. In addition, the notion of disability feminist theory as it specifically relates to Rosaldo's theory, and what that added perspective does to the overall meaning of feminism and gender is of extreme interest and helps highlight some important foundational groundwork for my own perception of gender.

Beginning with Ortner, I feel that she has an interesting idea. The idea that women are closer with nature because of their child-rearing activities they partake in is an interesting assertion, but one I personally found problematic. If we are defining women on characteristics of child-rearing, how will the women that are incapable to rear children feel? Will that make them feel less like a woman? Ortner says, "Woman's body, like that of all female mammals, generates milk during and after pregnancy for feeding of the newborn baby...Since the mother's body goes through its lactation processes in direct relation to a pregnancy with a particular child, the relationship of nursing between mother and child is seen as a natural bond..." Although this is Ortner's first work, I still found it resonating very deeply as a theoretical piece and has helped me identify how one's categorization of a seemingly "same" can actually trigger an exclusion of some sectors of that supposedly unifying characteristic of woman.

I found myself identifying with Rosaldo's arguments as a means to answering questions about categories. I liked how she asserts that by linking gender to the domestic sphere assumes that we know the "core" of what different gender systems share. She insists that the self is made up of other things aside from gender—i.e. cultural identity and social class—and that one's sexual identity do not necessarily come first. She says, "We think too readily of sexual identities as primordial acquisitions, bound up with the dynamics of the home, forgetting that the "selves" children become include a sense, not just of gender, but of cultural identity and social class." This is an interesting piece of theory because it allows for the dichotomy of the domestic and public sphere to become convoluted. By doing so, this skews the binary of domestic/public and thereby places less pressure on women to be so confined in set roles. I think that the recognition of other categories outside of the gender sense allows for a healthier perspective on gender itself. Things other than gender matter and that's important to recognize.

Rosaldo also asserts that a woman's place in society is not any direct sense a product of the things she does, or what she biologically is, but rather the meaning her activities acquire through concrete social interactions. This is also an idea that I am intrigued by since it allows for a less definitive and standard mold for women. It allows for the diversity among women and a notion of originality for all women. She goes on to say,
And the significances women assign to the activities of their lives are things that we can only grasp through an analysis of the relationships that women forge, the social contexts they create—and within which they are defined. Gender in all human group must, then, be understood in political and social terms, with reference not to biological constraints but instead to local and specific forms of social relationship and, in particular, of social inequality.

This is speaking of how necessary it is to take off the all-encompassing "gender goggles" and allowing for a broader perspective of gender that incorporates social relationships and inequalities. This perspective places emphasis on the construction of gender and allows for a lack of interest and emphasis on the biological aspect of gender.

Rosaldo writes,
The most serious deficiency of a model based upon two opposed spheres appears...dichotomies which teach that women must be understood not in terms of relationship—with other women and with men—but of difference and apartness. "Tied down" by functions we imagine to belong to mothers and the home, our sisters are conceptualized as beings who presently are, and have all times been, the same, not actors but mere subjects of male action and female biology.

This quotation only strengthens her argument about the ineffectiveness of the domestic/public dichotomies. The emphasis on specific social interactions and relationships as a way to find women's place in society plays into the idea here as well. If the relationships between men and women foster, each situation is going to be different, and thereby preventing a defining characteristic about women to be made by men.

Women should not be biology's subject. The domestic/public sphere is very problematic because of the "tied down" issue that surfaces. The issues that are tying women down exist because of holding themselves accountable for the domestic because of their biology. Rosaldo does not think that is right. She says,
Thus, without denying that biological facts like reproduction leave their mark on women's lives, I would insist that facts of this sort do not themselves explain or help us to describe sexual hierarchies in relation to either domestic or public life. To claim that family shapes women is, ultimately, to forget that families themselves are things then men and women actively create and that these vary with particulars of social context....just as families are far more various than most scholars have assumed, so gender inequalities are hardly universal in their implications or their contents.

Continuing her ideas about the originality and unique experience of every woman, that connects into Rosaldo's ideas about how each woman's family life is different too. Each woman's family life shapes them in a different way, or does not at all, and it is not right to assume in which and what way that will happen. Rosaldo doesn't deny the biological connection to women, but doesn't feel that it is fair to create a whole theory for all different women based on it.

Through Rosaldo's breaking down of the domestic and public spheres, it creates space for some ideas for how to fit in women that are seen as "other"—specifically, women with disabilities. My interest in disability studies stems from my interest in feminist studies because I find the two having a lot of overlap. By placing less emphasis on the representation of what a woman should be and look like, as Rosaldo claims, then women with bodies that are not the "norm" can establish relationships by which to be defined which will allow for less stigmatization.

Feminist disability theory transforms feminist theory in certain ways. Some strands of feminism recognize that no woman is ever only a woman—that she claims several cultural categories. According to Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, "Disability is one such identity vector that disrupts the unity of the classification woman and challenges the primacy of gender as monolithic category." This challenge to the primacy of gender is what Rosaldo is trying to get rid of as well. Rosaldo tries to emphasize the whole package that make up one's self, and how one's identity is not always so defined. She tries to portray that one's identity is always in transition. This plays into the idea that with disability, the body is in a perpetual state of transformation. This allows for a connection to be made between disability and the essential identifying characteristic of being human. Garland-Thomson says, "I would argue that disability is perhaps the essential characteristic of being human...We evolve into disability. Our bodies need care; we all need assistance to live." This idea that we are all essentially in one overriding category is something that I've learned to be very helpful. By allowing for every human to be placed in the human being category—based on the fact that everyone's bodies devolves into something—helps prevent the emergence of more restricting categories.

Grasping the workings of categories is a daunting issue. That being said, however, Rosaldo specifically has shed light on the necessary break-down of the limiting dichotomies and hierarchies that help the construction of categories in which women feel "tied down". I know that with more exposure to new theories I will be able to acquire more answers—but one is just fine for right now.

Works Cited

Michelle Rosaldo. "The Use and Abuse of Anthropology: Reflections of Feminism and Cross-Cultural Understanding." Signs 5, 3: 389-417.

Ortner, Sherry. "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?" 1974; rpt. Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. 21-42.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory." Gendering Disability. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2004. 73-106. [an error occurred while processing this directive]