The peculiar women

“We have a peculiar paradox emerging in India, of women doing both more paid work and more unpaid work, and also looking for but not finding more paid work.”

Women are the peculiar of the contemporary world. Two recent articles, published on the same day, suggest as much. Here are five aspects of the women-peculiar.

The peculiar trend

Girls’ sports events bring more cash and more carriers than do boys’: “As the popularity of youth tournaments has intensified over the past decade, a peculiar trend has emerged: girls’ sporting events tend to attract more relatives and generate more revenue for tourism than similar events for boys. And that is drawing increased attention from economic development officials. `There are far more people who will travel with 12-year-old girls than even 12-year-old boys,” said Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions, a trade group that advises communities on attracting sporting events. “And vastly more people will travel with 12-year-old girls than 18-year-old boys.’”

Whether this reported trend is bogus or not, what would make it peculiar?

The peculiar sensation

On the same day, Saaret E. Yoseph reported on watching a KGB commercial that featured an all Black female cast, and wondered, “Why can’t ads get Black women right?” Good question. Here are the first two paragraphs of her reflection:

“`It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.’

—W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

I wonder if the peculiar sensation W.E.B. Du Bois had in mind when writing The Souls of Black Folk is the same one I get when watching KGB’s latest ad. The directory assistance turned question-and-answer text service has me experiencing the 21st century version of double-consciousness—an American Negro woman, a consumer—two warring identities and one bad commercial break.”

When Du Bois wrote about peculiar sensation, he placed that between being-a-problem and becoming-a-coworker. “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. And yet being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe.” For Du Bois, the peculiar sensation begins there, with the real question that elicits seldom a response, that is, the question of the Black Real.

The goal of the Black Real project is simple: “The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better, truer self….This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius”.

For Du Bois, the question of the Black Real was the question of the Black Man: “For Du Bois, the African American male was the paradigmatic Black intellectual”. The Black Woman? The “American Negro woman”? She did not attain the status of problem. She was peculiar.

As she is today: “For black American women, our two-ness is never more evident than when people are trying to sell us something. As advertisers vie for our attention, the incongruity of our two identities—who we are and who we are perceived to be—could not be more clear than in those 32 seconds.”

The peculiar paradox

Jayathi Ghosh has a new book out, Never Done and Poorly Paid: Women’s Work in Globalising India. I hope to read it soon. A recent review quoted Ghosh as having written: “We have a peculiar paradox emerging in India, of women doing both more paid work and more unpaid work, and also looking for but not finding more paid work….[These] indicate the reduced economic and social bargaining power of women as workers”.

Women’s peculiar paradox, in the neoliberal political economy, is that the more they work, the fewer jobs they have, the less wealth they have, the greater debts they incur, all the while suffering a reduction in economic and social bargaining power, as workers, as women workers, as women, at home, in the streets, in the so-called work sites.

The peculiar institution

In United States history, peculiar is a key word. Plantation owners, and for generations after them historians, referred to slavery as the peculiar institution. Kenneth Stampp, who died earlier this month, wrote The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South, published in 1956. That book “juxtaposed the views of slaves themselves with the more conventionally researched perceptions of slave owners, yielding a far different picture of the institution than historians had previously created.”

The slaves never referred to slavery as `peculiar’. Slaves never referred to those who claim to be their owners as `peculiar’. Slaves never refer to their situation today as `peculiar’.  The `peculiar’ of the `peculiar institution’, slavery, was not the peculiar of odd or strange. It was the peculiar of the slave woman and of the women in patriarchy, although neither figured prominently in Stampp’s account.

The peculiar

The peculiar trend, the peculiar sensation, the peculiar paradox: these are terms of art for the categories of woman and of women. Peculiar means particular, of one’s own, odd or eccentric. Peculiar, from peculiare, a sixth century word meaning private property … sort of. Peculiare derives from peculium, which meant “money or property managed by a person incapable of legal ownership.” Under Roman law, it was the “property which a paterfamilias allowed a member of his family, or a master allowed his slave, to hold and administer, and, within limits, to alienate, as though it were his or her own.” Paterfamilias to family, which actually here means wife, master to slave, they’re  the same.

So, when I read that New York City has decided to help the homeless by buying them one-way tickets `back home’, or that England has decided to help asylum seekers, especially women and children, by eliminating services, I think, “How peculiar.” How peculiar indeed.

(Photo Credit: K. M. Dayashankar / Frontline)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.