For the core seminar in the PhD program in Canadian Studies, we composed brief discussion papers based on the course readings for the month. This is the last part of three from my November 2010 paper on our topics of emphasis in this area study.
*Please note: What follows is a series of gut reactions to readings around feminism, gender, and rape. This content, and links, may not be appropriate for audiences wishing to avoid uneasiness, controversy, or unpleasantness. That’s (partly) why I moderate all of the comments to this blog.*
(I was going to go with an image of Rosie the Riveter for the cover, but I went with something else instead.)
During her talk, “The Politics of Rape,” at Carleton on 25 October 2010, Jane Doe explained: “Rape is a tool of social control and works to maintain the status quo… We must understand the institution of the law to mediate the act of rape.” Doe pointed to her status as White, middle-class, and heterosexual as factors that contributed to her ‘elegant’ treatment as a “‘good girl’ rape.”
She pointed to the systemic sexism she faced while seeking ‘justice’ from her position of relative privilege, and noted that the same resources, community contacts, and social status from which she benefited are not available to “a poor woman raped, a black woman, a lesbian, a trans-woman, a prostitute.” [These quotes are drawn from Carleton’s newspaper, The Charlatan, which frequently lives up to its moniker. Specifically, I cite a brief, and not wholly accurate, account of the event by Christian Belisle. I can make my (thorough, meticulous, and of course completely kosher) notes from the talk available to interested parties. I say more on The Charlatan in another post.]
The inherent injustice in the legal system is clearly manifested in the case of Pamela George. Sherene Razack argues that the trial of George’s murderers ignores the larger systemic injustices that serve to validate and reinforce gendered, racial, colonial, and spatial violence, particularly against Aboriginal women.
In light of the recent public disclosure of Colonel William’s violent crimes against women [links to a feminist critique of the media circus that is Colonel Williams, “The horrific Williams murders were about power not personal fetishes” by Elizabeth Pickett, 21 October 2010, which you should look up should the link ever turn Error 401], Doe argues that, because of their high profile cases, the Balcony Rapist in Toronto (in the mid-1980s), Karla Homolka (with Paul Bernardo in the early 1990s), and Colonel William (during the late 2000s) are considered the “only three rapists in Canada.”
To cite but a few activist projects underway in Canada, family members involved in the Highway of Tears initiative and the narratives collected by the Sisters in Spirit show that these three isolated cases are not representative of reality. Marie-Joseph Angélique’s literal disbursement in 1734 analyzed by McKittrick, women who have disappeared along Highway 16 in British Columbia since at least 1969, Helen Betty Osborne’s 1971 murder (the earliest Sisters in Spirit case), the 1983 New Bedford gang rape case mentioned by Butler, and the murder of Pamela George in 1995 discussed by Razack are only a few examples of the on-going terrorization and subjugation of women, particularly Aboriginal (or, in the New Bedford case, coded as impoverished and immigrant) women.
Razack insists “that in law, as in life, we inhabit histories of domination and subordination for which we are accountable,” but how can we promote meaningful change in our scholarship, in our lives, and in a culture that implicitly condones violence against women?
Butler warns, “the subject is dead, I can never say ‘I’ again; there is no reality, only representations” and “just now, when women are beginning to assume the place of subjects, postmodern positions come along to announce that the subject is dead.” Her question still stands: “How do we understand the material violence that women suffer?”
Is this understanding possible to achieve from a place of privilege in an institution of higher education? Is our only recourse one of intellectual activism, theorizing and extrapolating colonial discourse out of isolated case studies? Do intersectionality and good feminist theory (Davis) go far enough to deconstruct a problematic, naturalized hierarchy predicated on patriarchy and colonialism? If we understand rape as a political act and tool of social control, how do we act to ensure the safety of women (and men)?
As my title may have indicated, I feel personally invested in the topic of gendered violence. My goal as an interdisciplinarian is to use the self-reflexive intellectual process as part of an overall activism to build an egalitarian future for the women in my life and the women in the world. We’ll see how that goes. The project seems to be uphill both ways, but at least there’s some hope and sanity out there.
Kathy Davis, “Intersectionality as buzzword: A sociology of science perspective on what makes a feminist theory successful,” Feminist Theory 2008.
Judith Butler, Undoing Gender. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.
Sherene Razack, Race, Space and the Law: UnMapping a White Settler Society, 2002.