“Feminism is creating freedom. Robin Morgan goes beyond describing what’s wrong and begins to envision what we could be.” Gloria Steinem
In this reissue of one of her most important and influential books, the editor in chief of Ms. offers a collection of essays, ranging across a variety of subjects, including sexual passion, kinship, mortality, marriage, and even theoretical physics, that seeks to comprehend feminism in its full, holographic nature.
About the Author
Robin Morgan lives in New York. She is the author of A Hot January: Poems 1996-1999.
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The Anatomy of Freedom
Feminism in Four Dimensions
By Robin Morgan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Robin Morgan
All rights reserved.
THE HANDMAIDEN OF THE HOLY MAN
An Anatomy of Freedom
The Enemy is permanent. It is not in the emergency situation but in the normal state of affairs.... The Enemy is the common denominator of all doing and undoing. And the Enemy is not identical with actual communism or actual capitalism—it is, in both cases, the real spectre of liberation.
I wish I knew how it would feel to be free,
I wish I could break all the chains over me.
I wish I could say all the things that I should say,
say 'em loud, say 'em clear
for the whole round world to hear.
I wish I could share all the love that's in my heart,
Remove all the bars that keep us apart.
I wish you could know what it means to be me.
Then you'd see and agree that every[one] should be free ...
I wish I could be like a bird in the sky.
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly.
I'd soar to the sun and look down at the sea.
Then I'd say, 'cause I'd know—
I'd know how it feels to be free.
—Nina Simone's version
of the Billy Taylor song
Once there was a man thought to be holy. He sat near the top of a mountain, night and day, and it seemed that he never moved. Some said that he was always praying or that he meditated or that he saw visions. Some said that this must make him holy, or at least wise.
No one could quite remember when he had first come to sit on his ledge in the mountain, but almost everyone could recall that at one time, years ago, pilgrims had made their way up to him—not without difficulty—to put before him their disputes, their spiritual questions, their despair, their own attempts at holiness. His judgments were so severe, however, and were delivered in tones so seemingly contemptuous of the pilgrims that the same visitors rarely returned, and in time, as word spread, fewer and fewer pilgrims wound their way up the mountain path. At last, only one or two a year would approach the holy man—and then largely as if he were an oddity, a curious sight to be viewed, and not a living saint to be questioned or followed or even quite trusted. Finally, almost no one came at all.
He still sat, nevertheless, on his ledge, appearing to gaze out over the near and distant peaks of other mountains, blinking now and then against the wind, his body wasting away toward desiccation—a bony triangle of spine balanced on a base of crossed legs, his gaunt skull at the apex. No one could possibly estimate his age. He appeared never to speak, although his lips could be seen moving.
All this time, you understand, the woman known as the handmaiden of the holy man remained faithful ...
We have no idea what "freedom" is, or why we, as human beings, seem to fear it so. We understand it best by its absence, just as the defeated creature in a poem of Emily Dickinson's lies on the devastated battlefield and, hearing the distant celebration of trumpets in the enemy's camp, comprehends far more deeply than does the victor just what triumph really is. Being, so far, creatures ourselves of lack and of longing, humans seem to have perfected those skills that permit us to mourn, to yearn—and to deny the condition of not having something we never have had.
We really have no idea what "Woman" is, or why we, as women and men, seem to acknowledge the concept. Like freedom, we understand it best by its absence, its lack, its negative: "Woman" is non-Man. Aristotle was neither the first voice nor the last to define women as "misbegotten males." To be consistent with our character as creatures of longing, we have (rather prematurely) defined Man as human. To be consistent with our character as creatures of denial, we then are forced to define Woman as nonhuman.
Is it coincidental that we have no idea what freedom is, or what Woman is—while we feel we have an idea of what bondage is, of what Man is? Is it possible that our very ignorance of what Woman is constitutes the very thing that stands in the way of our knowing what freedom is?
We know what we are told freedom is (and our capacity for hope often has made us trust the tale and not the teller). We are, for example, told that we already possess it. In the "developed nations," corporate capitalism congratulates its subjects on their freedom of expression while robbing them of economic freedom; in the "communist world," state capitalism congratulates its subjects on their economic freedom while denying them the liberty of expression; in the "developing nations," global superpowers and local hierarchical systems vie with one another in promising their subjects the perfect liberating balance—an imported technological future combined with an indigenous cultural past—all the while exacting from them, in the present, pledges of fealty to this or that system, economic dependence, a "temporary" suspension of critical expression, and a voluntary self-sacrifice to The Cause.
All of these freedoms—either promised or already ostensibly delivered—are in fact illusory. In the United States, for example, "free speech" is usually priced beyond the means of the speaker who happens to be female, or on welfare, or an atheist, or a nonwhite man, or a poet, or a child, or an assembly-line worker or coal miner, or a lesbian mother, or a battered wife, or a feminist organizing against the pornography industry, or a resident in an old-age home.
All of these enslavements—exacted in return for the illusory freedoms—are, however, real. In the Soviet Union, for instance, "economic freedom" is an abstract construct to the woman who must stand for hours on line to purchase a pair of shoes or a piece of meat from a supply of limited quantity and quality, at the cost of as much as one quarter of her and her husband's combined monthly income; or to the prostitute who haunts the train station, sleeping on benches, well aware of her own reality despite the official statistics which proclaim that she no longer exists; or to the homosexual man sent to the gulag for seven years despite the official proclamations that insist he (and his "problem") no longer exists; or to the devoutly religious believer for whom attending the synagogue or church is a defiant political act; or to the racial minorities whose sense of identity is being subtly eroded or militaristically destroyed.
The illusion of these freedoms is made necessary by the concrete reality of these enslavements. If not for such freedom, why is the child guerrilla blown to shreds in Belfast? If not for such freedom, why did the Iranian woman endure the tortures of the Shah's interrogators? If not for such freedom, why did the Buddhist monk in Vietnam immolate himself; why does the Catholic nun prostrate herself? If not for such freedom, why does the raped wife keep her silence? If not for such freedom, why did mothers bind their daughters' feet, why do women perform clitoridectomies on their girl children, why do "First Ladies" exist? If not for the illusion of freedom, why would there be such suffering? What other possible excuse could we have?
We know what we are told freedom is, and we do suspect that it's not what we actually have. We are told, strangely enough, that it's a limited resource which can be earned or rationed. We are told that we must give up freedom in order to get it (leaders exhort their followers to do this, adults teach this to children, men tell this to women, whites to peoples of color; humans use this justification in explaining captivity for endangered species, zoos and animal experimentation, strip mining, oil-tanker spills, and armament buildups; organized religions preach this message to everybody). We are told that freedom is synonymous with choice; yet what is choice to the shopper in the supermarket who can have her pick of twenty different breakfast cereals (all made by the same company) or to the student who can train for any career but (depending on the shape or shade of one's skin) have access to few? What is choice to the Hindu widow who faced either death on her husband's funeral pyre or a life of ostracism and slow starvation? What is choice to the voter in a one-party election—or in a two-party system when both parries articulate virtually the same politics but with ingeniously different rhetoric? Who defines the choices among which we choose?
We are told by the ultra-Right that freedom may depend on our capacity to wage "limited nuclear warfare." We are told by the extreme Left that freedom may consist of our capacity for "revolutionary violence." We are told by the vapid Middle that freedom may be defined by our capacity for enjoying Coca-Cola, animated cartoons, a savings account, neighbors of "our own kind," and a two-week vacation every summer. We may suspect that the ultra-Right and the extreme Left stretch not along a straight line but curve, rather, into one circle, meeting each other in an apocalyptic blur, just as we may suspect that the Middle is not a place of safety and rationality but of an emptiness that runs as smoothly as Disney World. We may suspect—but to do more than suspect is to risk being free of the Right, the Left, and the Middle, as we have known them. And to risk being truly free of all of them, but still politically engaged, is an alarming thought.
We are told by a patently mad society that sanity is freedom, and by its reverse mirror-image counterculture that madness is liberty. (Orwell warned us of this in his novel 1984, in which the totalitarian government puts forth slogans like weeds: "War is peace," it proclaims; "Freedom is slavery.")
We hesitate, of course, to think that we are actually enslaved. To do so seems self-indulgent, since literal slavery still exists in places on our planet. Worse, to do so would give the lie to our insistence that we are free. Yet we have no idea what freedom really is, nor why we, as human beings, seem to fear it so. Besides, almost all of our intelligence has been spent avoiding the comprehension that freedom, without an understanding of what it is, merely constitutes license—another new and insidious shape of nonfreedom—even for ourselves and especially for any we consider "other" than ourselves. We appear to have invested the creative genius of our species in discovering, maintaining, and defending the avoidance of this comprehension.
It was the handmaiden of the holy man who built the rickety lean-to that protected the holy man's body against the rainy season. It was she who guided visitors up the difficult path in the old days, and she who still could be seen sometimes scouring the valley villages as if to recruit new pilgrims. It was she, of course, who begged for his food and each evening brought it to him in the wooden bowl which was known in all the villages as "the holy man's begging bowl"—this, despite the odd fact that no one could remember having seen the holy man himself ever beg with it.
But then, no one could recall ever having known the woman's real name, either, despite the fact that she was so well known in the area. Indeed, she might never have had a name of her own. She had become, in any event, simply "the handmaiden of the holy man." And although some might whisper in dispute as to whether the mountain's recluse was holy at all, and although one or two villagers might even wonder at the definition of the begging bowl as the holy man's when he had never been seen actually carrying it, no one seemed to question the title of the woman as "the handmaiden of the holy man."
Perhaps this was because she had announced herself as such so fiercely and for so long that no one cared to argue the point—although no one could quite recall when, or if, she had begun giving this impression. Or perhaps this was because no other person seemed eager to compete for either title or task—and while ignoring a holy man wasn't that uncommon, letting one starve to death would have brought shame to all the surrounding villages. Perhaps, too, the title "handmaiden of the holy man" was simply an accurate description of what appeared to be her life. What else, after all, was she?
We are made uncomfortable by the notion that "Woman" has never existed.
After all, women exist. But women exist in all shapes, colors, configurations, sizes, humors, classes, ages, states of and attitudes toward fecundity. Men do, too, of course. The only thing men truly share, in fact, is their commonly conceived and perpetuated definition—by men—of Woman. Is it because men created Man as a definition of themselves (out of lack and longing) that actual men feel impelled to live daily lives closer to that definition? Is it because women did not create Woman as a definition of ourselves, but rather received it from others, that we feel less impelled to resemble it—and have for eons stifled our laughter at the thought that we ever have resembled it?
We know what we are told Woman is, and we do suspect that it's not us. We are told that it's relative: depending on the priorities of men in a given area at a particular time, Woman can be Raquel Welch, a Hero-Worker Mother, Mata Hari, a doting grandma, a respected widow; a human being crippled by three-inch feet; a human being with silicone pumped under its skin; a human being forcibly concealed under a veil or forcibly exposed on a centerfold; a human being whose labor is too revered to be demeaned by wages; a human being whose genitals are sewn together; a human being content to fight waxy yellow buildup on the kitchen floor; a human being who, at the age of three, is capable of seducing her father; a human being at once able to offer extreme and continual tenderness and to receive extreme and continual violence—both with apparent pleasure. These are only a few of the identifying traits of Woman—yet we recognize ourselves as women in none of them, either as sole identities or as willing ones, nor in any of the other lists of Woman's characteristics. The definition may describe our condition, but it has nothing to do with us.
It's worth noticing that when we think of Woman, we do not think of Empress Wu, Marie Curie, Juliana of Norwich, Indira Gandhi, George Eliot, Lady Murasaki, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary Cassatt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Yaa Asantewaa, Amy Beach, Rabi'a, Yvonne Goolagong, Elizabeth I, Zora Neale Hurston, Teresa of Avila, Agõtime, Sor Juana, or Simone de Beauvoir. No, we think instead: religious reformer, scientist, mystic, prime minister, writer, and so forth. We think: genius, leader, creator, talent. We think: exception. Exception to what? Great men have been just as much exceptions among men, and with, one might add, far more access to the exercise of and recognition of their greatness. Yet an Akhenaten, an Einstein, a Mozart, a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Schweitzer, a Chakka, a Kubla Khan, a Black Elk, a Thomas Paine, a Saladin, a Shakespeare—all are seen as part of and consistent with Man. When we think "exception" about those many women of genius or invention or creative power whose names have filtered out to us despite all possible obstacles, we mean exception not to women, but to Woman. (Genius must equal human must equal Man.)
Individual women like those named above are critically dangerous to the image of Man, just because they imperil the image of Woman. Men have protected Man from them by calling them exceptions to Woman, and by telling the rest of us that most women equal real Woman while these aberrations do not. And so we were tricked out of feeling pride in and envy of such women into feeling alienation from and even contempt for them. We disowned them so that we ourselves could be owned. We also feared their fate, because the cost Man exacted from them was enormous. We have been unable to "own" our own, to say to men—speaking through his mirage of Man—"Yes, these are some, even many of us: this genius, this energy, this intellect, this agility, this force and drive, these very qualities. These? Oh, they were just women."
We are told that we must give up being women in order to gain our Womanliness, and the forms of exchange are clear, rigid, and ingenious.
Women have been offered religion in place of philosophy, morality in place of ethics, "womanly fears" in place of existential dread, community affairs in place of politics, selflessness in place of self, volunteerism in place of paid (for which read: valid) work, appearance in place of substance, romanticism in place of sexuality, childbearing in place of art, and the home in place of the universe. We are told that we have been happy and safe with this bargain and, although we have felt neither happy nor safe, we have managed to breathe on the coals of our own humanity and coax them, at moments, into a flicker of happiness, a warm mirage of safety. This too was inevitable, for more than one reason. First, we had no choice; we were told this—and we forgot that it was a lie. Then, too, we wanted to survive, and being ourselves creatures of lack and of longing, we thought to prove our very humanness by perfecting those skills that permitted us to mourn and to yearn—but most of all to deny the reality of our not having something we never have had.
Excerpted from The Anatomy of Freedom by Robin Morgan. Copyright © 1994 Robin Morgan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Foreword to the Second Edition,
I THE HANDMAIDEN OF THE HOLY MAN: An Anatomy of Freedom,
II THE TWO-WAY MIRROR: An Anatomy of a Woman,
III DIALOGUE WITH THE DREAM SELF: An Anatomy of Dreams,
IV THE STAKE IN THE HEART: An Anatomy of Sexual Passion,
V THE BEAD OF SENSATION: An Anatomy of Marriage,
VI BLOOD TYPES: An Anatomy of Kin,
VII PUBLIC SECRETS: An Anatomy of Mortality,
VIII THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF FLESH: An Anatomy of Art and Technology,
IX THE NEW PHYSICS OF META-POLITICS: An Anatomy of Last Resort,
X CENTERS AND EDGES: An Anatomy of Anatomy,
About the Author,