Recently, the University of Texas asked faculty members to answer in 300 words or less the question, “What is the most important challenge facing women in the 21st century, and why?” for its online “Many Voices of Feminism” collection. This is what journalism professor Robert Jensen had to say.
Given the disastrous consequences of the human assault on the ecosystem that makes our lives possible, the most important 21st-century challenge for women is the same as for men: Can we change the way we organize ourselves socially, politically and economically in time to reverse this ecological collapse? Can we learn to live in sustainable balance with the non-human world so that we might make it to the end of the 21st century with our humanity intact?
In facing these social, political and economic challenges, I believe women have a crucial contribution to make through feminism. My own intellectual and political development is rooted in the feminism I learned from women, both in the classroom and community. Much of my work has addressed men’s use and abuse of women and their sexuality in the sexual-exploitation industries: prostitution, stripping and pornography. But from those women I also learned that feminism was not merely a concern for “women’s issues” but also a way of understanding power and critiquing the domination/subordination dynamic that is central to so much of modern life. The roots of that dynamic are in patriarchy, the system of male dominance that arose only a few thousand years ago, but that has been so destructive to people and the earth. Patriarchy is incompatible with justice and sustainability.
The challenge for feminism is to articulate an alternative to the illegitimate hierarchies that structure our lives: men over women, white over non-white, rich over poor, First World over Third. That isn’t “women’s work” but “feminism’s work,” which we all should undertake, in conjunction with the many other intellectual and political movements concerned with real justice. If we can change the way we treat each other, those new non-hierarchical social arrangements may help us solve the fundamental problem of the destruction inherent in human domination over the non-human world.
Robert Jensen is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007) and All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, June 2009).