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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
FAMILY/PARENTING
From Address to the
Feminist Family Values Forum
by Gloria Steinem

I also agree with Cherokee scholar and writer Rayna Green, who says that true feminism­women's liberation, womanism, self-government, autonomy, self-authority, self-determination, whatever we want to call it--is really memory on this continent. Because many of our ideas about individual human dignity and democracy within families--about non-hierarchical forms of organization and balance with nature--came from cultures that were already on this continent millennia before Europeans arrived. That's where they were learned, not from some idea of democracy in Greece that actually had a very limited idea of democracy and kept slaves. Yet Native groups have been so de-humanized by history in order to justify their persecution and genocide that we ourselves don't understand how much our ancestors learned from them.

We must remember that what now is called "Women's History," "Native American History," "African American History," or "Asian American History" really ought to be called "Remedial History." I don't know about you, but I didn't learn about the female plus people-of-color part of history when I was going to school. So I am continually amazed and angered when I learn that, for example, the entire state of Florida was governed by a coalition of Seminole Indians and freed or runaway slaves. For many years, they fought off the entire U.S. government. Or when I learn that Mozart had an older sister, Nannerl, whom he considered "the really talented one." She was sent home to marry, but some musicologists think compositions attributed to him might really be hers.

Somebody gave me a button once that said, "The truth will make you free, but first it will piss you off."

I also didn't learn in school that our form of government and constitution were inspired in part by the Iroquois Confederacy. Of course, our forefathers still didn't get it right; they left out women, who declared war and peace, and chose the male chief in the Iroquois Nations. I didn't know until a few years ago that the women of the abolitionist and suffragist movements--like Sojourner Truth, Matilda Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others--knew, visited with, learned from, and wrote about women in those Native American cultures, and held such cultures up as examples of the kind of society they were striving to create.

In a way, early American feminists were talking about feminism as theory. But indigenous women were often living it as practice. Moreover, when Engels wrote his essay on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, he based much of it on the work of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan and his published studies of the Iroquois Confederacy.

So indigenous cultures were and are among the roots of feminism, socialism, the idea of communalism, communal ownership, a different relationship with nature, and so on. They still exist in some form on every continent--embattled, almost annihilated, subject to genocide. But they still exist.

I think that gives us some hope. It isn1t that we can go back to the past. We can't. Nor should we romanticize the past. But we need to know that changes we're now told are impossible--living with feminist values, changed forms of organization, our insistence that violence is never an acceptable way of solving conflict but only for self-defense--all these have existed in some form. When they tell us, "You can't change that; it's human nature," we need to have the knowledge that for 95% of human time on earth, there existed a very different vision of human nature.

I think the first thing we need to re-consider about "family values" is saying "family" in the singular. That is a right wing trip altogether. The minute you say "family" in the singular, it defines one kind of family as normal and renders all other forms peripheral or wrong. The truth is there have always been many, many different kinds of families­extended families, communal families, families in which, in the African tradition, children were raised by the grandparents, because it was thought that someone young enough to have a child was not wise enough to raise it.

There have always been committed, nurturing relationships between men, between women and also chosen relationships, adopted relationships. Certainly, native cultures on this continent often adopted people who were of different nations, different races into their extended families. The patriarchal, nuclear family that we are supposed to think is the normal and only one, that kind of family is really only about one-hundred-and-fifty-years-old, and is almost entirely the function of industrialization and capitalism. It was a form invented to make people portable, so they could be shipped about at the will of their employers, something that could not be done with big, extended, communal families.

Even in recent agricultural communities, women in patriarchal families still played important economic roles. It was industrialization that took fathers out of the home and made them the only wage earners for the first time­causing women and children to be entirely dependent on men.

The idea that there is only one family form is really pure bullshit.

 

 

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