LETTERS FROM A WAR ZONE
--Dr S. Weir Mitchell's prescription for Charlotte Perkins Gilman
All rights reserved.
In the spring of 1978, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the school newspaper of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, became a battleground for women's rights. Women journalists reporting on so-called women's issues, including, as I remember, the DES health emergency, were censored: their stories were suppressed or cut to pieces. They were lectured sanctimoniously about free speech and the high calling of objective journalism by boy editors even as they were being denied access to print. The women fought back. Julie Melrose, women 's editor, was threatened and an atmosphere of violence was palpable. The male editors especially aroused anger against the women by calling them lesbians. The Power of Words is about the hate campaign these male editors waged. Instead of being intimidated, the women occupied the offices of the newspaper and appropriated its equipment to put out an insurgent newspaper (in which The Power of Words was published). They set up a blockade, physically resisting efforts to remove them. They held the offices for twelve days. The Chancellor of the University set up a commission to investigate their charges. His commission recommended separate women's pages and autonomy. The Chancellor refused to implement the recommendations. A few years ago, a man was made women's editor. The claim was that no qualified woman existed. The Power of Words was given as a speech at a rally to support the occupiers when they were still inside. Robin Morgan and Janice Raymond also spoke; and Simone de Beauvoir sent a message of solidarity. Feminists do fight for freedom of speech when it is a real fight for real freedom of real speech.In Berlin in the late 1920s, Joseph Goebbels, soon to be Nazi Minister of Propaganda under Hitler, organized an anti-Semitic propaganda campaign that took the form of cartoons. These cartoons all ridiculed one individual, a Jewish police official. In one cartoon this man, broadly caricatured with a huge, crooked nose and derisively nicknamed "Isidor," is sitting on a pavement. He is leaning against a lamppost. A rope is around his neck. Flags emblazoned with swastikas fly from the rooftops. The caption reads: "For him too, Ash Wednesday will come." "Isidor" became a mocking synonym for Jew; the cartoons became a vehicle for attributing repulsive characteristics and behaviors to Jews as a group. The police official sued Goebbels to stop publication of the libelous, malicious material. Goebbels, making full use of democratic protections ensuring free speech, was acquitted. On appeal, his acquittal was upheld because the court equated the word Jew with Protestant or Catholic. If there was no insult involved in calling a Protestant a Protestant, how could there be injury in calling a Jew a Jew?
In a world with no history of persecuting Jews because they are Jews, the decision would have made sense. But in this world, the one we still live in, all words do not have equal weight. Some words can be used to provoke the deepest hatred, the most resilient impulses toward slaughter. Jew is one such word. Goebbels used it cynically, with cunning, to provoke a genocide of nearly unparalleled monstrosity.
Another word that can be manipulated to induce both fear and violence is the word lesbian. In a time of burgeoning feminism, it is this word that spreaders of hate spit, whisper, and shout with varying degrees of contempt, ridicule, and threat.
We cannot afford to make the mistake made by the pre-Nazi German court: we cannot afford to overlook the real power and the real meaning of words or the real uses to which words are put.
It is no secret that fear and hatred of homosexuals permeate our society. But the contempt for lesbians is distinct. It is directly rooted in the abhorrence of the self-defined woman, the self-determining woman, the woman who is not controlled by male need, imperative, or manipulation. Contempt for lesbians is most often a political repudiation of women who organize in their own behalf to achieve public presence, significant power, visible integrity.
Enemies of women, those who are determined to deny us freedom and dignity, use the word lesbian to provoke a hatred of women who do not conform. This hatred rumbles everywhere. This hatred is sustained and expressed by virtually every institution. When male power is challenged, this hatred can be intensified and inflamed so that it is volatile, palpable. The threat is that this hatred will explode into violence. The threat is omnipresent because violence against women is culturally applauded. And so the word lesbian, hurled or whispered as accusation, is used to focus male hostility on women who dare to rebel, and it is also used to frighten and bully women who have not yet rebelled.
When a word is used to provoke hatred, it does not matter what the word actually means. What matters is only what the haters insist it means--the meaning they give it, the common prejudices they exploit. In the case of the word lesbian, the haters use it to impute a gross, deviant masculinity to the uppity woman who insists on taking her place in the world. To women raised to be beautiful, compliant, and desirable (all in male terms), the word lesbian connotes a foul, repellent abnormality. It brings up women's deep dread of exile, isolation, and punishment. For women controlled by men, it means damnation.
It is horrifying, but not surprising, that the males on the Collegian--these boys who before your very eyes are becoming men--have used the word lesbian in the malicious way I have just described. With contempt and ridicule, they have been waging a furtive, ruthless propaganda campaign against the feminist occupiers. They are using the word lesbian to rouse the most virulent woman-hating on this campus. They are using the word lesbian to direct male hostility and aggression against the feminist occupiers. They are using the word lesbian to dismiss every just charge the feminist occupiers have made against them. They are using the word lesbian to justify their own rigid opposition to the simple and eminently reasonable demands these women have made. They are using the word lesbian to hide the true history of their own woman-hating malice in running that corrupt, pretentious, utterly hypocritical newspaper. They are using the word lesbian to cover over the threats of violence made before the occupation against the head of the Women's Department--threats of violence made by her male colleagues. They are using the word lesbian to cover up their consistent, belligerent refusal to publish crucial women's news. And, painfully but inevitably, they are using the word lesbian to divide women from women, to keep women staffers in line, to discourage them from associating with feminists or thinking for themselves. Intimidated by the malicious use of the word lesbian, women are afraid of guilt by association. Hearing the derision and the threats, good girls, smart girls, do what is expected of them.
Feminists are occupying the offices of the Collegian because words matter. Words can be used to educate, to clarify, to inform, to illuminate. Words can also be used to intimidate, to threaten, to insult, to coerce, to incite hatred, to encourage ignorance. Words can make us better or worse people, more compassionate or more prejudiced, more generous or more cruel. Words matter because words significantly determine what we know and what we do. Words change us or keep us the same. Women, deprived of words, are deprived of life. Women, deprived of a forum for words, are deprived of the power necessary to ensure both survival and well-being.
When all news pertaining to women is omitted from a newspaper, or distorted beyond recognition, a crime is being committed against women. It is a bitter irony that this crime is euphemistically called "objective journalism." It is another bitter irony that when women attempt to stop the crime, they are accused of impeding something called "free speech." It is interesting that the phrase "objective journalism" always means the exclusion of hard-hitting women's news and it is curious how the valiant defenders of so-called free speech threaten violence to shut women up. Marxists call these perplexing phenomena "contradictions." Feminists call them facts.
I say to you that the men who control the Collegian have used words to foster ignorance and to encourage bigotry; to keep women invisible, misinformed, and silent; to threaten and bully; to ridicule and demean. It is shameful to continue to tolerate their flagrant contempt for women, for lesbians; for words, for news, for simple fairness and equity. It is honorable and right to take from them the power they have so abused. I hope that you will strip them of it altogether. In the words of the great Emmeline Pankhurst, "I incite this meeting to rebellion."
"The Power of Words," first published in Massachusetts Daily Occupied Collegian, Vol. 1, No. 1, May 8, 1978. Copyright © 1978 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserved.
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