The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Posted on June 22nd, by Elizabeth Debold in Uncategorized. Comments Off on The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

I don’t know what “equality” really means any more. It’s so strange that after fifty years of movement toward gender equality, so much has changed, and yet what we have now is not the social transformation that I hoped for. In fact, we’re far from it.

Maybe I’m being too idealistic to expect more. But I didn’t expect that equality would come to be defined, as I feel it largely has been, as the equal right to do whatever one wants to do, to fulfill one’s lusts however one desires, regardless of the effect on anyone else. Somehow, even the notion of equality has become a tool of the status quo that plays zero sum games with men’s vs. women’s dignity, self-respect, and autonomy. My original inspiration could best be described as “the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible,” to quote the title of Charles Eisenstein’s latest book. My longing came from a vision that wasn’t a picture in the mind but a call from the heart for a wholeness within difference. In facing a mind-bogglingly complex world in which the compelling goal of equality has been reduced to a certain shameless, individual sameness of success and consumption, how do we work for a deeper equality that takes us beyond the status quo? How does deeper social transformation work?

The Neoliberal Take-over

My first question is: Could the systems that created the world-as-it-is ever transform into something new? The gender binary of masculine and feminine persons and public and private spheres were created together and complement each other. Capitalism grew up with this modernist division of the world and of our humanness. We cannot use the mechanisms of the legal, political, and economic systems that have been created out of these fundamental divisions to create something whole. The idea that we could just “add and stir” women into public life and change the world has been naïve. Not only has this not disrupted the values of the public world and what leadership should look like in politics, business, law, or even education, but it has devalued the private sphere of human intimacy and care.

Nor can deeper change come from women asserting the value of intimacy and care—even though most human beings would be bereft without it. Within the context of a market-driven economy, caretaking and intimacy literally have no value and so therefore those who do such “labor” are nearly voiceless and valueless. As middle- and upper-class women have vacated the home for work, the vacuum left behind has created a black market in low-paid care work: housecleaning, child care, cooking, elder care, and even sexual companionship. This work, that supports and grounds human relationship, is viewed as unskilled and left to workers, often immigrants and people of color, living with few rights on the margins of society.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, neoliberalism, the ideology that grants God-like agency and righteousness to market forces, has become the only “operating system” on the globe. And it has reached inside feminism, too. Emphasizing individual choice as “empowerment,” this feminism leaves capitalism untouched by not critiquing how our choices are shaped by the market. Neoliberal feminism, given a lot of space in media, holds up the banner of equality in business and political leadership, a la Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s message, Lean In, encouraging women to be part of the system not critical of it. But as poet and essayist Audre Lorde said so powerfully, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Love & Vision

The memoirs of some early women’s liberation activists in 1960s America offer some clues. Their strategies were inspired but often quixotic: protesting at the Miss America contest, staging a “sit in” at the offices of a leading housewife magazine, Ladies Home Journal. Plus they engaged in consciousness raising: progressive young women, offended by how their male peers on the Left treated them, felt compelled to come together to speak about their experience as women and began to see and thing differently. One described how she stunned herself by leaping on a table at a chaotic anti-war protest meeting and spoke with a power she didn’t know she had. Others spoke of an awakening, a sense of illumination, that forever shifted their experience. And almost every one of them spoke of Love. Not the love between a man and a woman that they were taught to seek, but a Love that shattered all division and opened a door to a different possibility.

It may seem strange to speak about Love when feminists are so often seen as bitter antagonists in the gender war. But Love it was, at the beginning. These young women explored so much together, fought, discussed, and shined a light on the unspoken terrain of their experience—as girls, women, daughters, sisters, lovers, poor, working class, rich, straight, gay, white, black, Latina, Asian. None of these young women had a concrete plan for how the world could or should be. But they catalyzed a shift, not everywhere and in everyone, but enough that, as the title of Gail Collins’s book says, “everything changed.”

While everything may not have changed enough, the shift was dramatic—and the call for justice and equal respect for women spread rapidly across the globe. What actually happened? It’s not something that can be easily explained. But I suspect that it does start with this Love that enables us to sense that the world could be different. This Love is visionary, alive with potential, defying division. I don’t mean that one “sees” in the eye of one’s mind how the future could be, but that one knows that something new, whole, and human is right, true, and possible.

The Prevail Scenario

Historians tend to trace the origin of significant, epochal social transformation to material causes—conquest for resources, control over production, war—but the truth is that we don’t know. Would, for example, Christianity have become the religion of the West if so many women and slaves hadn’t leapt at Christ’s message of freedom that they heard from Paul? Their passion defied the Romans, setting a movement aflame that was unstoppable because it lit up human hearts with a possibility that we still have not realized. The Renaissance, which some historians believe was really initiated by about five hundred people, came on the heels of the brutal Inquisition. This rebirth of a classical reverence for human life inherently challenged the Church’s dogmatic invocation of God’s “wishes.” Was this another call from the heart?

As futurist Joel Garreau argues in Radical Evolution, one apparent lesson from history is “how heroic and profound ‘muddling through’ has been for the human race.” Within situations that are potentially destructive to the species, the bottom-up sum total of human responses leads to what he calls “the Prevail Scenario.” We prevail, in a positive sense, not simply survive. The human species’ capacity to prevail in affirming love and justice cannot be understood through a linear plotting of cause and effect. Nor does it miraculously solve everything, but somehow our capacity to side with Life and prevail enables some part of the human species to take a next step in an often-contradicting, complex, and confusing direction that we cannot fully see.

Going Beyond the Master’s Tools

Facing the complexity of a globalized economy that shapes and creates desire while dominating our political systems, we will never be able to plan social transformation through chains of cause and effect. We are outgunned in every way. We have to use different tools. The equality between the sexes that I hope for in my heart arises from a deep recognition of our unity, beyond all apparent separation, and interest in the creative power of our differences. I don’t know how, concretely, to go about making this our shared social, cultural reality. I can only aspire to live it, and very often that feels far beyond what I am capable of.

When I look closely at, say, my foremothers in the women’s movement, I can discern certain attributes that seem to be critical to living in the potential of our hearts’ longing. Many of these early pioneers seemed to feel and express an urgent desperation in relation to the larger social issues of the day: the Vietnam War, racial discrimination and violence, and their own inability to be taken seriously because they were female. Their interest in each other’s diverse experiences as women was like a powerful thirst. And then there was this Love: the soul-piercing, separation-defying openness to a potential that comes from a radical hope and encounter with others. These are not the master’s tools.

For me the question, to myself and to all of us, is: Do I dare to despair, dare to care, and dare to not know and be willing to do that together? When I see young women celebrating their empowerment and freedom through binge drinking and pole-dancing while reports of their anxiety, depression, and lack of self-confidence abound, I despair. When I watch videos of young feminists verbally abusing young men for attending a men’s rights lecture, I also despair. When I read the latest screeds from men’s rights activists trashing young women as “empty little narcissist[s]” who deserve to be raped, that’s cause for despair. And so is the anti-woman viciousness and cyber-stalking that has infected the internet like a virus. I find it hard to stay with and not blame or shame, to care about the very human desires and needs that are underneath these responses, and to urgently know that it has to change without knowing how. Can I trust enough in the intelligence of life itself to be a portal for a Love that is beyond my self and hope beyond the despair?

Dismantling the Master’s House

Part of me isn’t comfortable with the “softer” activism and change making that I am speaking about. It is so easy to reach for the master’s tools, because they are what we know. Yet this is a subtle kind of cynicism. It is a doubt in the intelligence that has created, far better than we arrogant individuals ever could, the living systems that we are part of and have tried to separate from and dominate.

At the same time, I feel an urgency about strengthening our collective capacity to come together, beyond what has historically divided us, in this Love where we are One and unique, which to me is equality. We have a powerful need for spaces in which to dismantle the oppressive structures within our societies and our selves by facing each other fully from a ground of unity. It is work at another dimension of reality, in consciousness itself, which is the fabric of our livingness, our awareness, and Love. Developing a greater sensitivity and openness to this dimension allows us to engage consciously in the creative potential for change that our foremothers stumbled upon and were carried by. It allows us to begin to bring into being that world our hearts know is possible.


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