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Why is it that some of the most interesting social experimenters and their experiments gain no visibility in public space, especially if they are dealing with women’s issues? Not only do they not get their due attention, but usually they fall into oblivion without having had the opportunity to provoke the discussions so direly desired. Except if some sufficiently committed and conscientious researcher makes her appearance on the scene and takes up the issue and records at least some of their ideas for future reference.
This is no new phenomenon, as we will convince ourselves reading about the following case, related with care by Virginia Woolf in “Three Guineas.”1 It concerns the father of this Barbara,2 Benjamin Leigh Smith, who did not comply with the traded ways of paying allowances to children and was of the opinion that the same sum should be paid to daughters as to sons. This is how, when his daughter attained her majority in 1848, he gave her a sum unheard of in those times – three hundred pounds a year. She in turn was bold enough to invest the sum in something useful. She founded a “school that was open not only to different sexes and different classes, but to different creeds; Roman-Catholics, Jews and ‘pupils from families of advanced free thought’ were received in it.” The result was a “ ‘most unusual school,’ an outsiders’ school.” She did not stop at this, but even dared challenge the English Law, publish a magazine for women’s issues, of found the first girls’ college in Cambridge.
Not only in this text, Woolf points out that one of the fundamental problems of women is their economic oppression, which throughout the centuries has led them to complete dependency and submission to the conditions of patriarchal society. It comes as no surprise that to this very moment we continue to be irritated by this fact: unfortunately women still are poorer than men. This is true not only of the so-called “Third World,” but also of some of the socially and economically most developed countries in the world. Such as Switzerland for instance. In spite of the claim that a social revolution and evolution has taken place in Western societies following the movements of the sixties of last century, in spite of the enormous work indeed put into subverting power relations and mechanisms, in spite of the great achievements, if I continue digging, I come across a whole range of unresolved problems. This conflict even today provides the backdrop on which most women’s initiatives, discussions and struggles are taking place.
Speaking of the financial side of human survival, I cannot but note the continuously and steeply rising concern about making a living, including in “developed countries.” In your role as a user and client of the social state, that darn money quickly melts away for the sake of the rent, services gradually become more expensive, and pension and health funds absorb the rest, lightheartedly gambling with your money on the stock exchange. All that remains for you is the stress of reading in the newspaper comments on whether after twenty years you will get a pension or not.
If, having made this choice in life, you have to deal with all of this alone, with all of daily life, with raising one, two or more children, we’re getting closer to the situation that has prompted these nine women with their twelve children to look for alternative ways to organize their lives, such that together they could better deal with social and everyday problems. While at the same time finding more free time for themselves, for their own personal development, and wanting, looking for, building a common place: the women’s house. A community offering them and their children a better quality of life in the midst of the hostility of their environment.
This is the only project of its type in Switzerland. The project has no followers, no mediatic advertising , no budget or fees paid out. It does not look for sponsors. There are no “professional development and sustainability plans.” It has no professional management, office or accountant. In spite of this, the project has turned out to be sustainable over time. It continues to develop its own way, without becoming institutionalized or turning into a formal or commercial structure the like of most NGOs.3 Such is the fate of most informal organizations and groups of social activists who have started with the best intentions, regardless of the focus of their priorities, central goals and strategies. Whether they deal with women’s issues, with protecting rare mountain plants, or with hungry children in a region sufficiently remote from their headquarters. Whether they are located in the East or the West, in the North or the South.
Nevertheless, non-infected islands of human self-initiative and women’s solidarity can still be found. The project “Verein Goldregenweg”,4 or “the project” for short, or the “women’s house”, has survived over the years due to the efforts and self-discipline of a group of “strong” women who apply a set of strict inner rules – complete equality and lots of work. Perhaps it also helped that all women in the community share one social identity, being “single-parent” families, regardless of their profession or personal interests. And if the main reasons that have brought them to the community are linked to the survival and raising of the children, the women in the project have succeeded not only in developing a common space, in sharing, showing solidarity between themselves, but they have also learned to love each other.
Historically, women have always been placed by and in the discourse developed by men, in a situation of competition with others, “being the object of private ownership.” Consequently, if their struggles are to be effective, it was necessary to create a “place among themselves” – a place of personal and collective “consciousness-building.”5 The project “Verein Goldregenweg” succeeds based on its internal social construction and the way it interprets the personal and collective space of the house – a “place among themselves.” In the house, each of the women has her own apartment, a kind of autonomy of her personal space, and on the other hand the collective space, especially around the common apartment in which daily life in the community unfolds. This is where they cook, where they feed the children during the day. It’s also a space for playing, sharing, meeting, partying…
If I start out with some of the early feminist theorists, make my way through the feminist struggles and the entire range of political movements and activism, take into account the bitter experience of the generation of the 60ies with its attempt to build the social heaven it was imagining, and get to the theories and visions proposing a society without hierarchies, I might come to the conclusion that the project contains nothing radical – there are no squatted buildings, no protests, no problems with the police. I cannot find the spirit of “traditional” communes of the sixties, or the squats of the eighties.
The shared experience allows “this experience to become politicized,”6 to contribute to the struggles. If it was not so, the project would become marginalized. Seen from this angle, the women of the “Women’s house” can be criticized for their lack of political activity and public visibility. If I compare to similar projects of twenty years ago, I find a historical link which is not completely accidental. It is not so much a question of ideology, but of the concept as such. I shall use as an example the women’s fraction of the SDS7 – the sixties movement that stands at the origin of Commune 1. Despite their countless points of criticism towards the men in the movement, the women see it as the most progressive at that moment, given that in their opinion besides it there is nobody else to work with. For the women of the SDS, it is essential to raise together broader social questions, to work on them while intervening in a political space within a broader social context that breaks out of the personal and private. In the sixties and eighties with their radical and expressive political gestures, it was unthinkable that a social project could be realized without public visibility, public debates and political demands.8
On this background or historical foundation, the project “Verein Goldregenweg” is contradictory just like the political context in which it has evolved. The women in the Project have realized the necessity of creating a common space for themselves. They have managed to define their wishes. And their reluctance towards publicity may be explained by the lack of a politicized context. One can only regret the lack of shared experience, because the “Women’s House” can give a serious input and experience to other women on how they may take their life into their hands.
The recession and crisis of the nineties does not hit only the economic sphere, but also the social and political spheres. This includes a sizeable crisis of the individual or of personality, with the not-so-innovative idea of the lost identity in an ever more global world,9 regardless of whether we are wired geeks or marginalized social outsiders in the overall spectacle of money, petrol and muscles. Under this cover, we find an economy of power and war.10 At the same time, over the past decade we have been witnesses to the migration and massing of an unexpected number of people linked to the great political protests and movements. Nevertheless, the opportunism and pragmatism of the system, characteristic of the last years of the past century, but also of the present moment, superposed to our everyday egotism dictated by our own survival, forces all of us to remain merely some lonely people, frustrated from the lack of optimism and opportunities. Any attempt beyond the theoretical interpretations and utopian logic, as marginalized as it may be, which may point out some path towards toppling the current values, a step in the direction of a non-hierarchical society, gives rise to true hope and rouses curiosity.
Viewed on a theoretical level, the Project provides the tools for deconstructing the concept of the home. The private home – sanctuary of the family, a small social formation which has found its concrete definition when it was created for the use of the modern state and industrialization. And which has bolstered up its “unalienable right” to exist by providing a vital pillar in the construction and smooth functioning of the institutions, as well as in the perpetuation of the mechanisms of control. Historically, the home presupposes property – private property. The home is the first form of property, and correspondingly of oppression. In the grammar of the home, women and children are the objects of the male subject.
The “Women’s House” as a social formation breaks out of the traditionally imposed scheme of the family home, in this world structured by the Law of the Father and the concepts defined by it. The project proposes the alternative of “collective motherhood,” an essential means for women in the community to deal not only with their everyday problems linked to the complicated combination of having to make their own living while at the same time raising and educating their children, but also finding time for themselves. “Collective motherhood” is an opportunity to work towards the social and moral development of the children in their education under the effect of the community. At the same time, there is no effort to “tip over the pedagogical relationship,” through which some sort of truth would be imposed, and which would lead to a marginalizing and seclusion of the children from their peers and from reality. “Collective motherhood” works as a fundamental unifying mechanism for the community, through the equitable daily distribution of responsibilities and work among the women.
What will become of the children from the project? What personalities will they have formed, in the context of this “social experiment”? To what extent will they be prepared to continue to take down taboos? And how will they deal in the future in their personal life with their role of “programmed rebels,” when, coming out of their “home”, concepts will be defined under the pressure of established social consensus. We ask this question without going into the theoretical and practical spheres of psychoanalysis or Oedipal system of Freudian theory with all the research that followed in its step, including existing criticism. Our interest remains focused on “collective motherhood,” that social practice that was used in the sixties in some groups of activist women in order to manage to reconcile their wage-labor with their active participation in the struggles and their responsibilities as a parent.
In a bolder interpretation we can find how “collective motherhood,” with the opportunities it can provide, contributes to the ideas for an anti-Oedipal system that would come close to the theoretical ideas of the “fluid mechanics” or “flows.” Because if we reject fatherhood from a discussion, we should also try to deconstruct motherhood, itself defined by (and through) this same “sole existing” discourse and its language.11
Coming from a context which lies partly outside the authoritarian discourse of the fathers, for the girls and boys growing up and being raised in and by the community, at least at first sight there is no possibility for everyday identification with the favored figure of the father and his power. Unfortunately of course, outside the house and “home” the irradiation by this entire phallic culture remains – in school, on the street, by friends, television, advertising.
“Phallocracy” is still solidly anchored within the traditionally prevalent model of family life, and the message reaching our children from all hip-hop videos, schoolbooks and billboards is clear: you really want to be part of this. In the average family, it’s as if a great part of the creative energy of the “couple”12 goes into maintaining and perpetuating the power of the father.
These are some of the broader, long-term questions raised by the Project as a social experiment: How can we deal with that difficult undertaking that is the education of our sons, an education with which we do not serve the power interests within the existing discourse? What kind of personalities do we want to, are we able to and would we really foster in our sons, careful not to repeat the model provided by the men in the existing economic and social system? Are we able to escape the pattern of privileging our sons with respect to our daughters? Can we give our daughters the tools not only to survive in a patriarchal world, but to find new ways of struggling and undermining?
I am reminded by the flow of these thoughts, of the answer of the Romanian artist Stela Lie, in an interview I made with her in a completely different context:
It’s equally difficult for men and women to work in contemporary art in Romania. At the same time the men are lagging in their development. For instance, in my personal experience, they expect food on the table, and this food someone has to prepare it and put it on the table, and that is the woman. All this takes a lot of time, and that is time that could be put into our professional work. Yes, and here’s my husband! Meet my husband! He is an architect, he’s not stupid, a contemporary person, and in spite of it all he almost completely relies on me for homework. But all this is the women’s fault, with the way they’re educating their sons. For me it’s always easier to speak out of personal experience, and not from a feminist or gender theoretical point of view. But what I can permit myself to say, generalizing the question: Society is always patriarchal. So much for my answer to your second question, does it do?13
What struck me most on the way was the insistent repetition of one and the same picture. Stopped cars and, next to them, on the very pavement, casually half-turned to the side, men relieving themselves with visible calm. Strikingly this turned in my mind to understanding, as we were drinking coffee in a little restaurant. I saw how a young mother took her boy to the very middle of the lawn in front, turned him around to face the path and slowly started unbuttoning his brand-new pants. Indeed, who better than a woman could educate patriarchal thinking in a man?
Milena Kirova, Belgrade from inside, in: Kultura, No. 25, 21 June 2002 (in Bulgarian) <http://www.online.bg/kultura/my_html/2233/belgrad.htm>
1 Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, in: A Room of One’s Own / Three Guineas, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, pp. 355-356.
2 It is interesting to note that Virginia Woolf leaves Barbara with only her first name. She is referring to Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, one of the most famous feminist leaders and intellectuals of the 19th century. Cf. <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Wbodichon.htm> or <http://www.girton.cam.ac.uk/about/history/bodichon.html>.
3 NGO: non-governmental organization.
4 The project carries the name of the street it is located at, Golden Chain Street. The “golden chain” is a poisonous bush (lat. Laburnum anagyroides or Cytisus laburnum; not to be confused with the Chinese golden rain tree, lat. Koelreuteria paniculata) with bright yellow flowers in hanging clusters. In German, its name coincides with the Golden Rain of the ancient Greek myth of Danae, which may give rise to allusions to the patriarchal norms and violence contained in the myth or other, more far-fetched interpretations. We are convinced that the well-intentioned bourgeois of the neighborhood have had in mind that very bush, so that any relation to Greek mythology is purely coincidental.
5 Luce Irigaray, This sex which is not one. Quoted from the Bulgarian edition, p. 140. Questions II, asked by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe during the preparation of the broadcast “Dialogues” of 1975.
6 Luce Irigaray, op. cit.
7 SDS: Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (Socialist German Students’ Association).
8 It seems important to me to provide the opportunity to confront the project with the political context in which the discussions and struggles of the women of the SDS towards the end of the sixties developed. We publish in this volume excerpts from two texts: Resolution for the 23rd Regular Conference of the Delegates of the SDS, November 1968, Hannover and Speech of the Action Council for the Liberation of Women, held by Helke Sanders at the 23rd Regular Conference of the Delegates of the SDS, September 1968 in Frankfurt.
9 ... identity is always lost, exists always in crisis.
Ivaylo Ditchev, From affiliation to identity. Politics of the image (in Bulgarian), Sofia 2002, p. 23. Ivaylo Ditchev refers to Erik Erikson.
10 Term used by Luce Irigaray in “This sex…”, op. cit.
11 Jacques Derrida, lecture held in Sofia at the conference “The Balkans and Europe. Deconstruction of the political,” 16-18 November 2001.
12 Here I use the designation “couple” in quotes in reference to feminist theory, which discusses the social influence in the construction of the married “twosome.” In other words, it takes more than two to make a “couple.”
13 Dimitrina Sevova, Interview with the Romanian artist Stela Lie, for the project “Exchanging Places” <http://xplaces.code-flow.net/sevova-skin/stela-lie-en.html>.