Sorrows of a Shieldmaiden

A recent article by Sady Doyle about the problems that inhere to conflating feminism with virtue (or indeed any belief system) and other struggles with morality and activism, inspired me to finally give voice to thoughts that I had suppressed and kept well hidden from view for reasons that I will describe shortly. But as I am so fond of saying, “it’s time to say something.” This is a long story with a very long epigraph but the meandering thoughts therein are, I think, of some significance.

Not To Be Spattered By His Blood by Edna St. Vincent Millay

(St. George Goes Forth to Slay the Dragon — New Year’s, 1942)

Not to be spattered by his blood—this, even then,
This, while I kill him, even then, this, when I slice
His body from his head, must be my nice concern.

This, while I kill him, whom I have hated purely and with all my
heart, for he is evil,
This, while he dies, for he will strive in death, for he was strong
(I say “was strong,” for I shall surely kill him; he is numbered
Already with the dead) .

Yes, although now with all his shining scales, the one above the other
fitted in symmetrical
—Oh, in most beautiful—design, he moves,
And his long body undulant is looped in many loops most powerfully
flung from side to side over the world—
Yet is he numbered with the dead, for I shall kill him surely.

Not to be spattered by his blood—this, while I kill him,
Must be my mind’s precise concern.

Though the dungeons be empty; though women sit on the door steps
in the sun
And sigh with peace, because they fear him no more—because they
fear no one;
And old men in their rocking chairs sing;
And strangers meet in every street of the world and greet each other as
friends;
And people laugh at anything—

Not here my mission ends.
I must think of my return.
I must kill him with gloves on.

For Hatred is my foe, and I hate him and I will kill him—but oh,
I must kill him with gloves on!

Not to be spattered by his blood—for what, should he be slain,
Done to death by my hand, and my hand be stained
By him, and I bring infection to city and town
And every village in our land—for he spreads quickly—
What then, shall we have gained?
Why then, I say, sooner than that, why, let him live, and me
Lie down!
For it is fitter that a beast be monstrous than that I should be.

Not to be spattered by his blood! —For I know well
What I must conquer.
Can I with seething hatred kill him, and return
And be myself, hating no man,
Once he is dead?

Yes. With God’s help, I can.

Not to be spattered by his blood—Oh, God,
In the great hour of my supreme engagement,
Wherein, by Thy just will
And with what strength and skill I can to the endeavor call
I slay our common foe
(For Evil didst Thou never love),
Lest in the end he triumph after all
And what I all but died to kill
Loop his length still
Over the world; lest I inherit
Most hated Hate, and be his son in spirit;
And Evil in my veins froth, and I be no one
I ever knew—Oh, God, lest this be done,
Bless Thou my glove!—
This one!
And watch that in the moment of my supreme encounter I wear it, I keep
it on!

Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head.

My first D&D character was a Paladin, a young woman from the race of angelic Nephilim who sported broad and beautiful white feathered wings. In service to her Goddess as a shieldmaiden, hers was to fight for truth and justice against all comers. The setting? The D&D equivalent of Hell, a plane known as The Abyss whose inherent moral alignment was listed as Chaotic Evil. This plane had layers. Infinite layers. This Paladin, Zoe, was on the four hundred fourth. One woman against an endless plane that was the home of demons, soul eaters, monsters great and small, and every terror imaginable.

There was Zoe with her limitless faith, her sword and shield, and her endless quest to spread not only love, but to find yet more pie.

One might well say that from a psychoanalytic perspective it was interesting that I chose this character, and that it is exceedingly interesting that in my roleplay I rather adore paladins and priestesses; women of faith whose beliefs guide their weapons and their spells into the heart of Evil in their quest to protect the Good, save the world, and find more pie. What is most interesting to me is that this image has long accompanied me on my journeys into the politics of the real world, my own mission out into the Abyss we know of as Earth and has necessarily become infused with my vision of feminism.

It is a beautiful image, as inspiring as a cathedral fresco, with the moral force of the statue of Lady Justice, sword held high in the air, ready to avenge all sin and protect those who cannot protect themselves. Yet she also holds scales aloft; balance, equity, fairness and compassion. Not a shield, but the scales on which Maat weighed the hearts of the judged against that oh-so-light feather. It was those scales, I came to realise, that were much more ponderous than the sword. It was the scales that would determine whether that sword would be shortly stained with blood.

For me, trans activism, feminism, trans feminism, and indeed academic inquiry into society, were always part and parcel of learning to use the scales. Knowing how best to judge, knowing when to judge, and having a sense of honourable ethics; to know when to use the sword and only when necessary.

What Sady Doyle captured so very well, however, is the dark side of all of this. The Jungian Shadow of it all. Your sword casts a very long shadow indeed and the tighter you cling to it, the harder it becomes to notice its shadow, to be wary of it, to draw it back and sheath the weapon. I am not the first woman to stand up and speak tentatively of the fact that she has seen things on the internet within the canon of net-feminism that have disturbed her, that have caused her to swallow thickly and keep quiet in the hopes that she would not be slain by the swords of her comrades-in-arms. But even harder to admit is the fact that I have sometimes used that sword when I shouldn’t, coming down with all the righteous fury of a Paladin, and slaying without mercy. Without error. In the deep of night I ask myself ‘was I right?’ ‘did they deserve it?’

Yet the shadow is longer still.

Madonna By Other Means

It is almost pithy to say that one should not become what she despises. Far more terrible is to actually confront it and stare at yourself in the mirror to speak the quietude of your fall, your lapse. To admit it.

I am leery of comparing feminism to religion as this is often a device used by people, particularly cis men who fancy themselves empiricists or rationalists, to undermine and disregard feminism as so much woo-woo unsubstantiated by “evidence.” But Doyle got it just right. The truth that Carl Jung and many people after him hit on is that Manichean visions are not native to religion. All philosophies, all political systems, all moral codes however complex, intellectual, or plain simpleminded, share in common that Shadow they cast. That Shadow that reflects everything in us that we fight against, all the evil we see in others that also resides in us, that we feel endless internal anguish about. Yet we dare not speak it for fear of interpolating it into reality, into our Light, our conscious waking world where our battlefields of horrendous carnage lay, where things are simple. Where there is an enemy over the next hill, where the sword is your ally and your knowledge of when and how to use it is unquestionably perfect. For you know the truth, you are Good, you are moral and right.

Neither saints nor whores, but women.

Yet the imprint of that doubt is always there, and we fear it because our moral codes demand perfection of us in a quasi-religious fashion. I think that particularly with feminism there is a distinction here that we as women suffer from in particular. Even as we fight the Madonna/Whore Complex we internalise it, it is part of our Shadow, sometimes because we fight it with such righteous and justifiable vigour. Yet that ever-prodigious shadow conceals the truth that we seek to become Madonna-by-Other-Means. We seek feminist Madonnahood, the perfection of being the woman with no past, nothing to be ashamed of, no error, only the perfection of the activist who knows what the answers are and who is always in the right.

Even when we are reflexive and admit error, we still do not speak the shadow’s name. We do not say that terrible truth: that we are striving to be perfect feminists. It bubbles to the surface every time we ask “does liking x make me a bad feminist?” and when we admire people we perceive to have become so very perfect in their activism that they are our icons, they are the people we wish to become on some level. Maybe that person is Julia Serano, or Andrea Dworkin, or Susan Stryker, or Judith Butler. But we look to them as our Saints, they who show us the way we must live, think, and reason, who will give us the tools to say with definitive vision “this makes me a bad feminist” and “this makes me a good feminist.” Lanterns along the way, women who one thinks “If only I could be like her, she is the truest of the true.”

Yet to look at them for five minutes, and to really read their work and know their lives, you see that they are not perfect. They never claimed to be. They’re human beings trying to make their way in the world just as much as you or I.

The Theodicy of Feminist Suffering

The pressure for me has always been to aspire to that feminist Madonnahood, and the perfection this demands is rigorous indeed. There is a strangely Catholic quality to the demand I often hear to show my scars, to prove I am a woman by showing how I have been hurt, to prove that patriarchy can wound me by showing how it has. As a trans woman in particular the stakes are high. If I do not doff my clothes and show those scars, I must not be a ‘real’ woman. This in particular has a strange silencing effect, for fear that if I say anything that contravenes this vision of the Virgin Mary that I must forever be, that I will “prove” to certain feminists that I am not only a “bad feminist” but that I am not “a real woman.” Whenever I speak it is always with this at the back of my mind at the very least.

For there is something very odd about what the perfection my activism and my internalised sense of morality has demanded of me. It is not only that I show my scars but that I, paradoxically, testify to my permanent perfection from birth. In this world where patriarchy has scratched, burned, and tortured me- and where proving this martyrdom is a requirement of feminist perfection- I must also somehow be unblemished by patriarchy. There are some lesbian separatists who take this to an extreme and create hierarchies based on who has never slept with a man. Yet even in less extreme variants this is not uncommon. Some feminists will look askance at you if you’ve ever done sex work, drawn pornography, compromised with your femininity, leveraged sexuality to your limited and conditional advantage, gotten hot at thinking that you were sexy, masturbated in your lingerie, like ‘girly’ things, enjoy certain types of media, occasionally call your women friends ‘girls’, like how you look in high heels… the list is endless.

This is not a litany of how evil feminists make me feel bad for being feminine or somesuch. It’s rather different from that. This is not necessarily about specific instances of this happening where individual feminists have attacked me for any of those things; the opposite is true, I have found nothing but love and support from other feminists for my various distinctions. I have never been called a ‘collaborator’ or an ‘invader’ by anyone in my women and gender studies programme or anyone in the feminist communities I am a part of. What I am speaking of is something internal, why it is I feel this way, and how I actually share this feeling very quietly and subversively with all the women I talk to.

The Secular Virgin

There is this pervasive internalised sense that I must be perfect, not only because I am a feminist but because I am a trans woman. Any imperfection in me is not only a mark against my feminism but a mark against my womanhood as a whole and thus my claim to feminist sisterhood. If I think I look sexy in a dress, is this okay, or is this because my “male socialisation” has made me an eternally self-objectifying being with no sense of self independent of patriarchal norms? This is forever in the back of my mind, for I must be perfect, must I not? If I am to have the right to be that shieldmaiden of feminism, am I not someone who must be completely untouched by patriarchy? The swaddled alabaster babe who grew into a statuesque image of perfection whose armour never stains and whose slight smile never betrays the smallest hint of doubt?

To not be spattered by the blood of patriarchy.

Does enacting this false perfection and propriety actually reinstate old Victorian norms about bourgeois female purity, virtue, and untouchability? Does it not merely shift the Virgin Mary from being a religious icon to one of secular politics? Yes it does, in my view.

From a sociological perspective, these controlling ideas do not leave us so easily and still structure how we think about the world around us. Their nomic potential is so strong and irresistible that it is hard to dispense with them completely. Even if Western culture has become less religious, less Victorian, all of these cultural tropes are there and we have organised our lives around them. Often as not, subconsciously. None of us ever comes to feminism without a history, without a litany of sorrows, mistakes, regrets, and pain. This is the metaphorical stage on which those tensions are both acted out and disavowed.

I once said that I never heard a “this is how I became a feminist” story that did not make me want to drink Scotch. This, by the way, is another instance of that truth that we all know bubbling to the surface. That we, indeed, are not perfect women and that there is the truth of humanity in that; it is the radical idea that women are human- because we are not and never will be perfect by any standard of perfection.

Nor should we be.

Our Lady of Sorrows

We all come to feminism with a past, with a history and with some sorrows. We should neither disavow this nor pretend that feminism is the cure-all for that, for this is another problem: we may be allowed to admit that terrible past, but only to say that once we found feminism it all changed for us. Articulating our struggles with feminism and how the baggage every single feminist brings to these polymorphous movements is much, much harder. As I have often remarked, transphobic feminists bring with them biological essentialism that they have learned elsewhere that became part of their feminist shadow. But this is true of so much besides, as well, and I feel that our internalising of the Madonna, of the spotless woman who never cries, never bleeds, is perfect in her judgement, morality, and heroism, who is the Lady of our dreams, the paradoxical Untouched Martyr, is part and parcel of this baggage we bring to feminism.

We fight so very hard against the idea that a woman ‘should’ be anything, much less a picture of perfection, much much less anything like a virginal Madonna, an untouched marble statue aloft on a pristine pedestal; yet because we know and see this so clearly and fight it with such ardour we almost incorporate it into our very beings and play it out with a strange feminist twist. No longer the perfect virgin of our patriarchal fathers’ nightmarish dreams, we are instead the perfect feminist activist.

If we could not enact the virginal virtue of our upbringing, our faiths, and our families, then we will enact a new virtue, one for real justice and one that is premised on women being people and not perfect pedestaled angels who can do no wrong. …And yet it is precisely this that I have found myself unconsciously chasing through the medium of feminism, that sense of perfection, of moral certainty and righteousness that could both insulate me from the Abyss of our world and allow me to change it.

Thus it is that there are things I have done that gnaw at me that make me feel as if I have not ‘earned’ my armour, not ‘earned’ my right to be feminist and my right to be heard. Ironically and very interestingly, these are things involving my body. These are things I cannot talk about for fear that they might be taken the wrong way, and they are things about my complicated history as a person growing up in this world of ours that, even if I had no control over it, I am made to feel guilty for. Yet it is precisely because feminism is what it is that I came to call it home, a place where I as a woman could be a person, could be whole, could find the strength to live up to her full potential, could find the explanations she needed to know why women find ourselves where we do, and why trans people are so brutally attacked even.

That is the tension.

This is not just about feminism; it is merely those conflicts and those ideals I know the best.

One time in class- it could be any class, really- a person said something that I identified not only as wrong but as expressly anti-feminist and transphobic. Do I hate them? What do I do in that moment when I find myself cooly staring daggers, mentally unsheathing my sword and preparing for battle, the latest chapter in the endless struggle. My Goddess, my Goddess what do I do? How do I not, in that moment, become what I hate because I hate?

This is about knowing when and how to do what it is right, and struggling to believe that you are even capable of this, to whatever limited extent it may be possible. It is to believe that, in the very end, you can do the right thing, that you can inquire and come to know, with all the proper caveats, what the right thing is, and thereby know how to live the most just life. But it is also about what one confronts in one’s self, to realise that one’s quest for perfection and quest for truth is always going to come up short. Every day of my life now is learning to not only make peace in that but find the joy in those gaps- because often as not when we fall short we may find opportunity and possibility as well as failure.

Take for instance the never-ending struggle over women-only spaces and their tortured relationship with trans people. I have been told more than once that I have two choices. I either support a supposedly universal concept of womanhood and sisterhood that is fundamentally unable to include trans people, or I support a trans inclusive feminism that scrupulously makes little reference to “women” as anything but the most qualified and indeterminate of classes. They are competing Madonnas, visions of perfection I can never achieve. I will be a bad radical feminist if I fail to live up to the first, and a bad trans feminist if I fail to live up to the second.

I fail to live up to both, and yet I am quite fine with this. It is in that gap between where I stand, sword and scales in hand, and where those camps of feminists want me to be that I see a real possibility. A powerful sisterhood that includes trans women. From my failure is born something new, something just as real, and something that is marvellously, riotously imperfect.

Over the Next Hill 

Feminism is not the sole source of my morality, and being a feminist does not make me a good or better person; it is the same trap I fell into when I was a young and naive liberal who thought all liberal people were the “good guys.” One’s morality is always both inside and out, always external and internal to your belief systems. It is a Mobius strip that weaves seamlessly in and out of your various philosophical convictions, two sided while having only one side.

This is what we all struggle with on some level; feminism is merely one enormous field on which those struggles are played out, in which the drama of our moral dilemmas takes on particular shades and uses particular props. For all of feminisms’ imperfections, trials, and struggles, it is through being a feminist that I have learned something very critical: that there is no final answer and no final truth.

One must remember that the scales are there to be used at every juncture, which means that your morality, your ethics are changeable and contextual. We do not (and must not) approach every case, every dilemma, every question with the scales already set. There is something freeing in this, to see possibility over the next horizon, a new setting for my scales, rather than just another enemy into whom my sword must be run.

It is freedom entirely from the metaphors of militarism, freedom from the blade entirely that can lie over the next horizon. Not just shieldmaiden, but sister, lover, friend, and ball-of-fluff to someone who may need a hug as much as yet more fighting. It is the realisation that sharing love and sharing fraternity does not require that you have all the answers, just as I may not know what to tell a weeping friend, but I know that I must at least embrace and comfort them. Answers are not what are needed at all times, there is no single truth that infuses my embracing of my sisters, brothers, and siblings.

To glory in complexity, that is the bliss that is refuge from my struggles.

It is times like these when I understand and honour why people like Shulamith Firestone reduced their political activity and sometimes left activism entirely. One of the most strangely moving things I’d read about feminist lives lived in private was that on the night she died Andrea Dworkin was watching Will and Grace. She was the real woman standing beneath the shieldmaiden in the stained glass window. There were any number of things she might have critiqued about that show, yet her life was not the critique, and she had to relax, watch something, and laugh a little. To put down the sword for just a half hour. Just enough.

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