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Workin’ Woman Blues

Mapule Mohulatsi  a South African writer and reader shares the experiences of members of her ‘after work, working girls’ session. The group is made up five working girls who occassionaly meet and speak about anything and everything – mostly about men, bosses, white people, sex, politics, babies, our own mothers, books, hair, and money.

“I ain’t fit to be no mother

I ain’t fit to be no wife

I been working like a man

I been workin’ all my life

Ain’t no dinner on the table

Ain’t no food in the refrigerator

I got work and I be back later, I got work, said I be back later

Coz I been workin’ like a man, I been workin’ all my life

Lord you know I’m a good lookin’ woman, Lord you know I’m a good lookin’ girl

And if you want to give me something, anything in this great big world

Lord you know that I am ready, for my sugar, my sugar daddy” – Valerie June, ‘Workin’ Woman Blues.

Working Girls and 5pm Johannesburg

5pm Johannesburg. Surrounding us, the working girls, is the usual buzz that comes with 5pm Johannesburg. We are having our ‘after work, working girls’ session.  The session is a ritual we initiated ourselves into at the beginning of the year. There are about five of us. We started meeting at a bar, close to all of our workplaces, to have drinks and ‘drown our sorrows’. We speak about anything and everything – mostly men, bosses, white people, sex, politics, babies, our own mothers, books, hair, and money.

We speak about anything and everything – mostly men, bosses, white people, sex, politics, babies, our own mothers, books, hair, and money.

We do not meet every day, really, most of our meetings have been ‘coincidental’. But we know each other. Not on the personal best friend level, the only time we actually call each other is to meet after work. But we know each other on the level where one can confide with the others about a vaginal infection, make up advice, or sex with a colleague. The conversations are never linear, or even decorous, they are an attempt at dismantling eight hours of paid bullshit, and really, anything can be said, or asked.

"#BlackFeminisms has become an agenda in and of itself - @pnesaude on the state of our feminist movements #AWIDForum" (Image courtesy of globalblackfeminisms.tumblr.com)  “Can femininity be anti-feminist? What is feminism?”
“#BlackFeminisms has become an agenda in and of itself – @pnesaude on the state of our feminist movements #AWIDForum” (Image courtesy of globalblackfeminisms.tumblr.com)

“Can femininity be anti-feminist? What is feminism?”

A working’ girl poses the question at the bar. For one, I know that her boss ‘Bret’ is a young territorial white man who is constantly making her feel insubstantial. The stories she tells of him make him look terrifying in our eyes. So her asking us ‘’What is feminism?” is not an out of the blue question; this is especially since we have all openly claimed that we are not feminist; and have equally made attempts to understand and accept this ‘thing’ that may save us from Brets and 5pm Johannesburg.

We are in the dingy milieu, chasing dreams, forgetting our home addresses, missing mothers, formulating budgets, loving men whom in our conversations are usually represented as not loving us back.

We are in the dingy milieu, chasing dreams, forgetting our home addresses, missing mothers, formulating budgets, loving men whom in our conversations are usually represented as not loving us back, giving each other essential advice and tips on how to protect our heels from the unruly streets. We are also diverse, for one, we have an ex – feminist in the crew, one of the working girls, is a self – proclaimed ‘retired feminist’. Wait, so one can retire from feminism?

On Anachronism and Feminism

Feminism – the advocacy of women’s rights and equality of the sexes. Feminism is a not only a political/social movement, but a range of ideologies with the common goal of establishing and attaining rights for women that are equal to those of men.  The term and the idea of feminism emerges in Europe in the 19th century, however, it has been adopted, and redefined by some black women in a radical fashion. Women like bell hooks have emerged to contribute to feminist thought. bell hooks in her book, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, answers the profound question my dear friend asked, “What is Feminism?”.  bell hooks, and not me, answers, “It is rooted in neither fear nor fantasy…Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression”. So for bell hooks, it, feminism, is neither rooted in fear nor fantasy – it is a movement that is conscious of itself, pacifying the illegitimate ghosts, and fantasies, surrounding femininity. This particular conversation, the working’ girls and I were having, we have had before; usually it takes many turns – after a few beers, I fervently reply to the question posed –

Woman in Tamale (Ghana), photo: Stefano Peppucci
Woman in Tamale (Ghana), photo: Stefano Peppucci

“Feminism is bullshit. It is anachronistic to ancient feminine sentiments. Ha! Equality? Who wants to be equal to men? We are and have always been more powerful than men”.

Another of the working girl’s chirps –

“Your argument is flawed…” and in the manner of women who have engaged with the feminist tradition, she promptly educates me about bell hooks and the quote above.

“Feminism is bullshit. It is anachronistic to ancient feminine sentiments. Ha! Equality? Who wants to be equal to men? We are and have always been more powerful than men”.

So feminism is a movement? Yes. And can femininity be anti – feminist? Maybe. Femininity is the fragile and delicate topic/phenomena that has been changing the game since the days of Adam and Eve. The dictionary, so as to not to step on any toes, puts it simply as “the quality of being female, womanliness”. The dictionary I have consulted puts it too simply for both males and females can have feminine traits and, also, femininity is made up of both social and biological attributes.

Femininity is not merely a human trait –  animals, planets, and deities have feminine attributes. I recently discovered a flower called ‘Venus Flytrap’, a carnivorous plant which catches its prey with rapid movements that capture the unfortunate insect, probably attracted by the wild pink of our peculiar predatory plant.  It is worth mentioning that the flower is extremely pretty. Named after Venus, goddess of love, it also resembles female genitalia. Capable of rapid movement, the Venus Flytrap is pretty dangerous. So is femininity. Attributes such as dangerousness, delicacy, broodiness, strength, and tact, have been a part of the ‘system’ of femininity since, well, even written history does not have the exact date. So how can feminism, an ideology, capture something as elusive and archaic as femininity.

The retired feminist, at this point drunk, says my statement is flawed; but, I demur, and point out that feminine sentiments predate feminism. Feminism is too ideological. That is my personal opinion. Feminism also masquerades too much as the only radical truth. I read something on the internet, an interview with Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, and in the interview she states that she does not understand women who are not feminist, that it makes her angry. But the matter is not all women understand feminism as it is also not readily available to every woman. Feminism is not only anachronistic, but it is also available to women of a certain class, not as practice, but as theory. Feminism is not bad, because socially, women have been disempowered and movements such as feminism are necessary, if not important.

Feminism fights patriarchy, not men. Photo: Charlotte Cooper/Flickr)
Feminism fights patriarchy, not men. Photo: Charlotte Cooper/Flickr)

However, it is also important to critique them, so as to make them better. For most women I engage with, feminism needs to be a self – definitive concept first. Women need to understand their own situations, and if need be, come to their own resolutions; resolutions that will be accepted even in radical spaces. There is a growing perception that has led to some women being labelled as ‘patriarchy princesses’, and to me, this label shows how exclusive feminists can be; defining what is radical, and what is not. One woman even said that for her feminism needs a spiritual intervention as existing processes of lineage and ancestry in women are an active meaning, and revolt, against disempowerment and patriarchy.

Woman that have been named after their grandmothers, or maybe even resemble a matriarchal ancestor, for example, represent something that is essential to the genealogy of the feminine struggle. Yes, feminism claims that our great grandmothers were feminist, but that is turning what is essentially feminine strength, into a movement that does not necessarily capture the myriad voices of women. Another woman said that for her, feminism was too essentialist, which is something many women, and even men, struggle with.

Chaucer, Valerie June, and Women on Horses.

Let us go to Chaucer, Valerie June and women on horses to answer a dear friend’s question, “Can femininity be anti-feminist”.  Yes. Chaucer in the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales introduces us to the Wife of Bath, a woman with her own view on Scripture and God’s plan. She has had five marriages, and is ready for her sixth. Experience, and this she tells the reader, is her only authority.

The Wife of Bath is on a pilgrimage with holy men, and on this pilgrimage tales are told by characters which gives the reader insight into medieval society. The Wife of Bath bases her authority over the pilgrims through an intricate mixture of fable and memory. She imitates churchmen and her prologue is full of textual evidence that is not really concise, mocking the clergy and men who choose to defend their cunning ways with Scripture and scholarship. She easily dismantles the notion of virginity as the only radical holiness, for her, a woman can attain power, or even likeness with men, through marriage. It is unclear whether Chaucer is feminist or anti – feminist, feminist writings have seen him as both. What is clear is that Chaucer is making critical social commentary on the subtleties of women. The Wife of Bath mentions that she is wicked, and is, in fact proud of it, challenging the patriarchal society she lives in. She is sexually insatiable, has sex to get money, dominating the men she marries. In the society she lives in, she is not equal to men – however, she incessantly challenges her role in the society– if society expects a woman to marry, then why not marry five times?

The Wife of Bath is a sharp-tongued middle aged woman on a horse, she is also on a pilgrimage with men discussing her sexual exploits with the pedagogical coolness of a priest on a pulpit. In the medieval times! Chaucer writes of a woman who torments her men, prefers to marry them old and ready to die, refuses to give them the full benefits of her sexual exploits, unless they promise her money. This is not to make her seem unwise, in fact, her prologue demonstrates how canny she really is. The Wife of Bath is an example of the innumerable ways femininity can negotiate itself in society. How it shifts and takes different forms for social benefit.

The working’ woman blues of 5pm Johannesburg also shift and turn in many imaginative ways.  Our meetings have been named after a song by Valerie June, ‘Workin’ Woman Blues’.

The working’ woman blues of 5pm Johannesburg also shift and turn in many imaginative ways.  Our meetings have been named after a song by Valerie June, ‘Workin’ Woman Blues’, in the song she describes how she has had to work her whole life, and as a good looking woman, she is ready, for her sugar, her sugar daddy. In the song, for June, a sugar daddy is saviour from a life of hardship and bad economic standing. A sugar daddy is what a good lookin’ woman deserves, her prayer into the unknown. Going back to bell hooks, if feminism is ‘’rooted in neither fear nor fantasy”, then maybe femininity is. The fear many women hold culminates into fantasy thinking and inventive ways to escape, especially for women like The Wife of Bath, and the women June is singing for, who isn’t fit to be no mother, ain’t even fit to be no wife. The struggle with femininity against the systems and the abuses of men is often individual, yet also collective, and women have different approaches to it. Meaning that feminism is not the only radical approach to defeating patriarchy. And maybe if more women understand this, then feminism, can become easier to approach and understand. For now, it, feminism, to me, remains as easily dangerous as any other ism out there.

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