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"The Master's Tools...."

What follows is a brief discussion of Audre Lorde's often-quoted statement,
"The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."  The discussion
took place on WMST-L in September 2008.  For additional WMST-L files available
on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Wed, 24 Sep 2008 17:11:18 -0700
From: Sasha McInnes <sasha AT NETBISTRO.COM>
Subject: using the father's tools to bring down his house???
My brain is mush right now and I'd appreciate a reminder of who wrote about
"....bringing down the father's house using his own tools....." and what IS the
exact quote?
Thanks so much,

Sasha McInnes
sasha AT netbistro.com
Date: Wed, 24 Sep 2008 19:52:24 -0500
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jeannieludlow AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: using the father's tools to bring down his house???
Hello, Sasha,
It's "The Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house." And the
reason why is that, when we use the Master's tools (i.e., the tools of
patriarchy), we are reifying his authority, his ability to determine which
tools are effective. Therefore, each act of "dismantling" also rebuilds his

From the essay titled "The Master's Tools Will never Dismantle the Master's
House," published in *Sister Outsider* (and perhaps in other venues, too).


Jeannie Ludlow, Ph.D.
jeannieludlow AT gmail.com

Women's Studies & Women's Resource Center
Eastern Illinois University
Charleston, IL 61920
Date: Wed, 24 Sep 2008 19:53:45 -0500
From: milton <milton AT KU.EDU>
Subject: Re: using the father's tools ... exact quote
I don't think anyone has gotten the exact quote yet (unless it is different
in other version of the Lorde essay?) ...
The title of the essay (actually a speech, wasn't it, it in its original
incarnation?) is "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's
House" and the exact quote from the text of the essay is a sentence
fragment: "For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."
That word choice ("dismantle" in contrast to "destroy" or "bring down") is
important, I think, in the context of the essay, it's evocative of
structure, system, constructedness, deconstructability, conscious effort --
and my students and I spend some time close-reading the paragraph in which
that line appears in conjunction with the second paragraph of the piece, in
which Lorde writes "What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy
are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only
the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable."
(The "master's tools" sentence fragment is on page 13 of my 1984 Ten Speed
Press copy of Sister Outsider.)

Milton W. Wendland, M.A., J.D.
Attorney at Law (New York, Florida, & Dist of Columbia)
Doctoral Student (ABD), Program in American Studies &
 Grad Student Instructor, Dept of Women Gender & Sexuality Studies
The University of Kansas, Lawrence
Date: Wed, 24 Sep 2008 21:09:58 -0400
From: Daphne Patai <daphne.patai AT SPANPORT.UMASS.EDU>
Subject: Re: using the father's tools ... exact quote
From a book review in the American Historical Review, February 2006.
my own observation: nobody "owns" language, or other aspects of a culture.
They are a common heritage, and we all use the tools available to us, in
many different ways.)

Todd Vogel. ReWriting White: Race, Class, and Cultural Capital in
Nineteenth-Century America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 2004.
Pp. x, 194. $22.95.

Audre Lorde famously wrote that the master's tools would never dismantle the
master's house. In this book, Todd Vogel demonstrates how a careful
rereading of American cultural and intellectual history complicates, if not
completely contradicts, Lorde's pronouncement. Taking Standard English as
one of the principal instruments in the master's toolbox, Vogel argues that
appropriating "'white' language to write about nonwhite experience"-what he
calls the "supplanter tactic" (p. 10)-was one of three strategies
nineteenth-century minority authors, actors, editors, and orators used to
subvert and otherwise dismantle dominant discourses of whiteness and regnant
ideologies of white superiority. Although there is considerable overlap
among them, the other insurrectionist tactics Vogel identifies are what he
calls "revisionist narration," the purposeful refiguring of foundational
myths of national origin, and "social theory," the direct engagement with
and challenge to "white aesthetics," which people of color used to rewrite,
"again in 'white' language," prevailing definitions of race and gender (p.
Date: Thu, 25 Sep 2008 09:22:30 -0400
From: Madhumita Lahiri <lahirim AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: using the father's tools ... exact quote
Dear WMST-L,

It's fantastic to hear that Todd Vogel finds that standard English is
a powerful tool of intellectual resistance. It sounds like an
interesting book.

If one looks at the actual Audre Lorde essay, however, and not simply
her quotes out of context, one finds that her objection is rather
different. Lorde argues against internalizing a patriarchal fear of
difference -- in particular, racism and homophobia -- in the women's
movement, which in her view will never dismantle the "house" of
oppression in which we as women live. For example, simply read the
very last paragraph of the essay:

"Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this
place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that
deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and
loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears.
Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our

It horrifies me that we can have a WMST-L exchange regarding a famous
Audre Lorde quote without any mention of the location and passion of
her articulation (at an NYU conference in which black feminists and
lesbians were barely included). I urge all of you to actually read the
entire essay --
(not sure if this is identical to the 'Sister Outsider' version, but
it looks like it) -- as a *political* intervention, not the Black
Feminist Quote Generator.

I could try to explain more Lorde, but it's easier and more powerful
to just read her. And more respectful, too.

Madhumita Lahiri
Date: Thu, 25 Sep 2008 08:12:22 -0700
From: Ophelia Benson <opheliabenson AT MSN.COM>
Subject: Re: using the father's tools ... exact quote
"It horrifies me that we can have a WMST-L exchange regarding a famous
Audre Lorde quote without any mention of the location and passion of
her articulation"

The thing is, quotations can take on a life of their own, and Lorde's has done
just that. I've seen it invoked to justify contempt for all sorts of "master's
tools" - you know the kind of thing - putatively male science, reason, logic,
language, etc etc etc. That of course is not Lorde's doing, much less her
fault, but it is a part of the resonance of that particular quotation.

opheliabenson AT msn.com
Ophelia Benson, Editor
Butterflies and Wheels
Date: Thu, 25 Sep 2008 11:39:28 -0400
From: Katha Pollitt <katha.pollitt AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: using the father's tools ... exact quote
Ophelia, are you being quite fair here? People take resonant lines from
important writers or proverbs and misuse them all the time, even reversing
their meaning sometime.  As in "the exception proves the rule" coming to
mean "the exception shows the rule is valid" -- which is nonsense --  when
it really means "exceptional cases  test the validity of  the rule." Poor
old Shakespeare is always quoted as if everything he wrote was his own
belief, and not words spoken by characters, for dramatic purposes.
Polonius's advice, for example -- it's not supposed to be wise or profound,
it's pompous platitudes from an old busybody.
Still, I too have only ever heard or seen Lorde's famous aphorism used to
discount things I consider absolutely essential to political discourse and
progress like the things you mention, plus elections, voting and anything
connected with "the system."

Katha Pollitt
kpollitt AT thenation.com
Date: Thu, 25 Sep 2008 09:04:06 -0700
From: Ophelia Benson <opheliabenson AT MSN.COM>
Subject: Re: using the father's tools ... exact quote
Katha, exactly - that's what I meant. I meant to isolate the quotation and the
resonance it has taken on, from Lorde as the source - by way of attempting to
be fair to her. I've attempted to do the same for Shakespeare a million times!
(Another classic in that line, along with taking Polonius's banalities as
wisdom, is quoting Ulysses's devious and manipulative speech on 'degree' as
Shakespeare's considered political view - which is completely absurd. One might
as well claim that Iago's mutterings reflect Shakespeare's view of morality.

opheliabenson AT msn.com
Date: Thu, 25 Sep 2008 12:40:43 -0400
From: Madhumita Lahiri <lahirim AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: using the father's tools ... exact quote
Dear all,

Let me pose the obvious question: why did Daphne Patai assume that
Audre Lorde was objecting to white English?

I agree that people cannot be bothered to read Shakespeare or Lorde
properly -- but for very different reasons. Audre Lorde seems to be
everyone's favorite token black lesbian feminist, and the misuse of
her quotes has to do with the everyday racism, and perhaps homophobia,
of, well, many, many people, some of whom may identify as feminists,
women's studies scholars, etc.

Yet many folks have read that essay -- so then why do they misuse it?
Many people might prefer to believe that Audre Lorde meant male
science in that essay, and not our own racist, classist, homophobic
attitudes. They might want to discuss "strategies of resistance" when
using that quotation, and not who we are and are not inviting to our
conferences (and maybe our listservs), which is what the essay
challenges us to address. And perhaps there's some credibility gained
by using Lorde's words in particular contexts, even when they were not
intended to support one's claims.

It is this backdrop that makes me horrified by discussions of that
quotation out of context, without a discussion of how it came to be
treated that way.

Madhumita Lahiri
Date: Thu, 25 Sep 2008 14:20:58 -0400
From: Mehmet Atif Ergun <mehmetaergun AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: using the father's tools ... exact quote
I agree with that - especially with Lorde's quote and using it within
the framework of Lorde's theory (regarding difference). I misused that
quote too often (to argue against mainstream methodologies and social
sciences themselves for instance) in the past and I had no idea, until
I read the piece quite recently, that (to my reading of it) the tools
she meant were exclusion, subjugation, segregation, alienation, and
even mere tolerance in the absence of a mutual dialogue (the house
being the interlocking systems of oppression). The misuse of the quote
gives too much legitimacy to its misuser (who should be bothered to
read the quote's context) for no real reason. At the very least, it
turns attention away from on-going problems within feminism...

Mehmet Ergun
mehmetaergun AT gmail.com
Date: Fri, 26 Sep 2008 06:46:46 +0800
From: Stella Kao <skao AT POST.HARVARD.EDU>
Subject: Re: using the father's tools ... exact quote
Dear Sasha:

Perhaps you are also referring to the essay, "Poets, Lovers, and the
Master's Tools: A Conversation with Audre Lorde," Mary Loving Blanchard from
This Bridge We Call Home (2002):

"In our hands, the master's tools have become ammunition in the dismantling
of his house, as we set about adding an extra room or two.  We have taken
his tools and with them made tools that fit our individual hands, as each of
us sets out to do the work we have to do....[W]e'll realize that those tools
didn't belong to the master, after all.  Well, they didn't belong to him all
by himself.  And that is one way that we gain agency, by adapting the tools
we have rather than by reinventing the wheel; although the wheel is
reinvented aong the way." (p. 256-7)

Stella Kao

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