I am rethinking it all — nations, globes, gender, race. There are no effective borders left as each seeps further into the other. I have been tracking this seepage for the last four decades, but this scenario was triggered by gender imagery in the Ukraine war. Change and fluidity make seeing and knowing and naming difficult, especially if you are used to bordered dualisms. (It may be why there is such hysteria against trans identity at this time.)
At this Ukraine moment, I see chaos as nations implode and the globe is not sure how to respond. Gender shifting is at the heart of this tumult, and a result of it. So, my method here respects the chaos because it demands us to look deeply at the disorder through women’s lives. I use the chaos as my method to wonder and interrogate.
Millions of women in Ukraine have bravely responded and left with children and become refugees. This is an old trope of “women and children” first — to be protected, and nevertheless, there is no protection for these women as they go forward with little but their courage.
Yet, more women remain in Ukraine. Many have stayed as militant warriors, 35,000 strong, making it the military with the most women anywhere.
Still some Ukrainian women are being raped by Russian troops, like in all wars.
And as Germany decides to re-militarize, three women will lead this process, as its defense and foreign and homeland security officers. This is a first. They will oversee the re-armament and new national security agenda to figure out their “progressive” strategy against “Russian aggression”. So which is it? Women need protection? Women are protectors? Women are raped? All of it.
But we live in global times so let us also see the globe. Afghanistan, where the U.S. should never have initiated nor maintained a war for two decades, is left to its own rack and ruin. It suffers while all eyes are elsewhere. And the suffering and starvation is especially horrific for “women and children” as women are disallowed from work and girls from their education. Over 23 million people face starvation; 95% of the population does not have enough food, and this is before the coming wheat shortage, given the Ukraine war.
In 2022, 13,700 newborn babies died along with 26 mothers due to a lack of nutrition. Exactly which women did the U.S. save in this war?
And then, here at home in the U.S., there are the confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson — overqualified for the job but interrogated by a bevy of underqualified white men and a right-wing woman who asked racist sexist questions while she had no choice but to stoically endure the humiliation. She did what women, especially women of color do — bided her time in order to get her due.
So, which/what is it? Are we women warriors in multiple manifestations and is this why there is such a war on women’s reproductive freedom and access to abortion? Are women too free? Are women too powerful for the established nation state as it was used to being? Is it why Putin looks so pitiful with his horrific war? And why Biden also looks impotent? Women are the canaries in the mine — the extraordinary power that has been unleashed in women’s struggle against misogyny and racist patriarchy is expressed in and by this gender chaos.
Gender chaos exposes truths and it is also unsettling and frightening, and yet liberatory. Women seem to be doing everything — working, loving, parenting, leading. This has always been the case, but it is more evident in complex visible ways. The COVID pandemic uncovered and exposed the multiple layers of women’s lives. Massive amounts of unrecognized, necessary, unpaid labor in the caring sector of domestic, as well as paid, labor uncovered the essentialness of women’s unrecognized labor. Alongside this revelation, domestic abuse and sexual violence is exacerbated with the lockdowns that exposed the undoing of domestic life.
It is too significant that just as women come into their own, so-to-speak as essential and necessary, the war on our access to abortion gets ramped up, once again, with enormous energy. States — Texas, Arizona, Idaho — are seeking to curtail Roe v. Wade as a step towards the complete destruction of the legal status of abortion. Yet, quite differently, Argentina, Colombia, and Chile have newly endorsed abortion rights. Some call this the green — the color worn by abortion activists — revolution.
The war in Ukraine is affecting the entire globe — because every nation exists within streams of trade of oil and gas and wheat and semi-conductors. No war is clearly bounded by national borders.
So, what is a nation in this time of nationalist fervor? What is the globe when its connectors are fraying? Who is a refugee as no nation seems to be able to embrace all its people in need? Who are women when they have become the newest refugees of this globe and a huge source of all labor? The almost 70 million refugees today bespeak the bursting of the boundaries of the nation state.
Twenty-five years ago I called women, like Madeleine Albright, who fill existing positions of power “sexual decoys.” These women wielded power for racist patriarchy; not the liberation of women. Today, when gender has continued to change and morph given the demands of the global capitalist racist gendered economy and its nations, it is not clear where the decoy status lies. Is it the nation itself that no longer coheres? The phantasm of a nation, symbolized by the mother of the nation who is invisibly visible is in full crisis. This crisis of the nation promises new global re-arrangements. Is it possible that women will lead the truth telling of this history? I think this is a great possibility, even though right-wing populist Marine Le Pen in France has been gaining support for her racist agenda.
COVID revealed every truth to anyone who was willing to see. The injustices, and racist inequities and unfairness, the essentialness of labor that is made invisible. The world has been turned upside down. And there is a struggle by those still in power to make sure their white and male privilege is protected in whatever changes happen. Yet workers are organizing and choosing unions and some people are saying no to the injustice, no matter if they have options or not.
The old dualisms/constructions of inside/outside, public/private, nation/globe, reform/revolution no longer hold. White male privilege has been exposed for its indecency even if it persists.
Asian hate and racism scream for greater attention.
However, democracy gets defined and refined or redefined, and it will be done with women and their bodies. We are essential to this process even though we are usually unseen, untheorized, unrecognized. Will women remain sexual decoys in the new militarism for democracy, or is there a shift, given the borderlessness of gender, and are we now promising a new notion of democratic possibility? Are the Ukrainian women just a whisper of this? The women in Afghanistan? The reproductive activists in the U.S. and across the globe? Are Black women in Georgia and Florida demanding a new democracy?
Women’s lives are always multiple and morphing with the times. This would be understood more if there were greater recognition of patriarchy and its misogynist relations as integral and crucial to dominant systems of racist power. To know what is happening with women — trans, cis, non-binary — of every race and economic class and bodily ability — you must acknowledge the structural demands and responses of capitalist racist patriarchy. The Ukraine war has exploded this truth.
I am hopeful because the world keeps changing and history is made by us. So, I am trying to see more and know more and use this knowledge to resist and recreate and find our freedom, even if it is not fully knowable currently. Gender along with race is malleable to the demands of history and I think maybe we are finally opening new possibilities for a non-gendered equality and freedom. Gender chaos is a crucial part of this process, and so is hope. We must create hope as our practice to end nationalist wars in order to save the planet.
Zillah Eisenstein is a noted feminist writer and has been Professor of Politics at Ithaca College. She is the author of numerous books, including “The Female Body and the Law” (UC Press, 1988), which won the Victoria Schuck Book Prize for the best book on women and politics; “Global Obscenities” (NYU Press, 1998) and, most recently, “Abolitionist Socialist Feminism” (Monthly Review Press, 2019).