The political atmosphere in the United States has shifted from a politics of practicality to a politics of emotion.
Mirroring the campaign season of 2004, which helped Karl Rove and the Grand Old Party rouse cultural conservatives using gay rights as its crux, this phenomenon has possibilities and limits, to be certain. But it leads us to a topic of discussion in feminist theory that has been going on for more than three decades — The politics of emotion.
The nation’s most critical “swing state,” Ohio, introduced what has become known as the Heartbeat Bill in early 2011. The bill, which makes abortion illegal after a fetal heartbeat is detected, passed the House and will be put to the state senate before the month is over.
To understand the discourse surrounding the idea of a “politics of emotion,” we go back to the early 1980s and separatist feminist Marilyn Frye. In a collection of essays called “The Politics of Reality,” Frye calls the notion that women’s anger is not well received a “tiresome truth.”
Women’s anger, she writes, is so commonplace and structured outside the domestic sphere that we hardly notice it. Yet, it is so intriguing and real that we have a mainstream movie capture it (Thelma & Louise) and a cult film (Diary of a Tired Black Man) give it a name – “Angry Black Woman Syndrome.”
Frye believes anger is a “reaction to being thwarted, frustrated or harmed. It comes when your momentum is dispersed or deflected.” She writes that one becomes angry “when you see the obstruction or hindrance as unjust or unfair, or when you see it as due to someone’s malice or inexcusable incompetence.”
She also points out that anger “implies a claim to a domain,” an idea that immediately makes it a masculine emotion associated with patriarchy and the public sphere, as opposed to a private space like “home.”
Frye uses a great anecdote about a woman who had adjusted her car’s carburetor and snapped at a gas station attendant for messing with it. He yelled at her and called her a crazy bitch. Frye explains that his response was an all-too-common rebuffing of women’s anger. “He moved to a different level . . . He changed the subject,” she wrote.. Cars were his domain. Thus there was no other option – she must be insane.
When women perform anger outside their domain (home, children, care), the anger is rebuffed, redirected – the subject is changed.
While women as a whole are “crazy bitches” – a descriptor used repeatedly in Thelma & Louise – black women are further reduced to being mentally ill in expressing emotion, particularly anger. An NPR story from Allison Keyes (“Movie Clip Stirs Debate over Black Relationships, June 11, 2006) indicates that “illness” is not just mental, but physical, as well. Filmmaker Tim Alexander calls the disease the “Angry Black Woman Syndrome.” Alexander said, “They are so used to fighting; it’s the only way they know how to have a relationship.”
Women, and especially black women deemed “ill” – mentally or otherwise – are thus marginalized because of their emotion.
Those with historic and current political power (aka, white men) make the first “traditional signpost of inequality,” as Ange-Marie Hancock writes in her book “The Politics of Disgust.”
“Members of marginal groups,” she writes, “even when granted the power of speech, find their voices devalued or disrespected, increasing their isolation and alienation from the public sphere.”
Law-making, of course, takes place in the public sphere.
Last summer, the Ohio House of Representatives voted 54 to 43 to pass the “Heartbeat Bill,” which makes abortions illegal after a fetal heartbeat is detected. It amounts to almost a total ban on abortion.
The legislative hearing on the bill was rife with drama. It almost completely ignored women’s emotion on the issues. There was absolutely zero uptake of women’s anger. The lawmakers moved to a different level. They changed the subject.
And, the passage of this bill was just the first of a recent rash of laws that trample women’s privacy and freedom as evidenced in Congress’s omission of women in a hearing on contraception (you know, the one that got Rush Limbaugh so, um, angry) and Virginia’s new law demanding medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds 24 hours prior to having an abortion.
How exactly was women’s emotion ignored in Ohio?
According to Cleveland Plain-Dealer columnist Connie Schultz in an interview with Rachel Maddow in May 2011, the congressmen almost made fun of women’s emotion. She said, “We’re watching fetuses testify by ultrasound on a screen, and when the woman was rubbing the jelly on the belly of the woman, and she was only nine weeks pregnant and they couldn’t find a heartbeat, she made a joke at one point that ‘if only they had the vaginal probe, then they could get it.’ A bunch of men on the committee started chuckling. And at that moment, you realize that this has nothing to do with women’s health, nothing do with protecting life. This has everything to do with playing to their extremist base.”
Schultz described another part of the hearing that ignored women’s anger even further.
“I sat there while an attorney from Washington got up and said that some women who are raped want to have those babies because it is a triumph over their rapist,” she told Maddow. “And I could hear women gasp in the audience. Some of them were tearing up.”
Hancock, in writing about the stereotypic and perception of the “welfare queen,” says that “social constructions of groups are continually reinforced by existing governmental policy.
The Heartbeat Bill, which is framed by socially conservative politicians as an issue affecting mostly young, single, black women taking state subsidies, is attempting to reinforce the subordination of women and the power of men over women’s bodies and rights.
Feministing.com columnist Lori Adelman calls what the Ohio legislature did a “democratic loophole, a way to change the current laws without having the majority of the country on board . . .”
I call it a blatant way to ignore women’s rights and a complete dismissal of their anger.
Why should we recognize women’s anger?
Martha Nussbaum in her book “From Disgust to Humanity,” writes, “The politics of disgust is profoundly at odds with the abstract idea of a society based on the equality of all citizens, in which all have a right the equal protection of the laws.”
And the politics of disgust are alive and well in the United States and have been since the first colonists forced the indigenous off their land, perpetuated the slave trade, and allowed it to flourish.
We Americans have used our imaginations to create abhorrences for minorities that can never be forgiven.
But what if Nussbaum, in her liberal feminist plight for individual rights, can show us that imagination is also the way to a politics of humanity?
What if her argument can make the hegemonic masculine power structure crumble and account for all that anger?
What if imagination is the way to prevent your momentum from being deflected?
Nussbaum recognizes America’s disregard for equality by allowing slavery, the slave trade, and by failing to respect Native Americans. She continues that a politics of disgust is used to conjure up religious matters and division – and that it has worked on the issue of gay rights. However, she believes that “people have to be able to imagine what gays and lesbians [and others who are marginalized] are pursuing, and see it as relevantly similar to their own search of person and sexual integrity and expression.”
Kathleen Woodward in her startling book “Statistical Panic” shows us how this sort of “imagination,” or emotion – in these cases, empathy — works in the courts. She singles out four major U.S. Supreme Court cases – Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Shapiro v. Thompson (1969), Roe v. Wade (1973), and Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) – and shows how “the presence (or absence) of empathetic narratives in oral argument and on the understanding of these narratives (or the egregious lack of it) on the part of judges.”
She explains that judges had to imagine what it was like to be a black child denied the right to go to a white school – something Justice Thurgood Marshall compelled from the other eight white male justices by explaining that Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche would not be able to send his children to a white school if he lived in South Carolina.
Woodward goes on to show how the lack of imagination doomed the Bowers case. She wrote that the case “provides an instance of such narrative failure, a case in which there was a complete absence of sympathetic understanding. (Bowers v. Hardwick was overturned in 2003 with the landmark decision of Lawrence v. Texas when, perhaps, a progressive imagination ruled the day.)
Let’s return to the beginning of this article. What if we – and politicians, in particular – imagined women’s emotions as productive? What if we didn’t change the subject, or take the argument to a different level? What if we imagined why a black woman’s anger might be expressed differently? What if we imagined the historic sufferings of Native Americans and what reparations could look like? What if we could imagine why an Ohio woman might choose to have an abortion?
As we attempt to account simultaneously for class, race, gender, sexual orientation and more, we construct such different concepts for what the answers of those questions could be.
But successful alliances can be formed in the name of imagination. I believe that as long as we are not ignoring emotion, the politics of humanity can prevail.