The many feminisms

How does one go about sorting out feminist issues? Perhaps one should start by listing and describing the various forms that feminism takes?

While it appears logical enough to begin in that fashion, offering a typology of feminisms turns out to be a tricky thing to do. It is not just that a movement of such intricate diversity resists categorisation but that the very act of categorising has implications of its own. Not the least of these implications is the ‘maleness’ of the act of categorising, which a number of feminist thinkers are swift to allege. Among them are Stanley and Wise (1983, p. 40), who judge ‘one-dimensional forms of classification’ to be ‘dichotomous ways of construing reality’. It matters not whether these are established ways of construing reality or new ways of construing reality. In either case, categorisations of this kind ‘are concerned with pin-pointing differences’, ‘portray political ideologies as clearly demarcated, fixed and unchanging’, and privilege one side of the dichotomy over the other. This, Stanley and Wise conclude, is ‘an essentially masculinist way of interpreting’.

Such misgivings about classification on the part of feminists have not proved totally inhibiting. Rosemarie Tong (1995), for example, offers us no fewer than seven forms of feminism to consider. In her much-cited typology, she suggests that feminism may be ‘liberal, Marxist, radical, psychoanalytic, socialist, existentialist, or postmodern’. As the tide of her Introduction proclaims, these are ‘The Varieties of Feminist Thinking’. She refers to them variously as ‘categories’, ‘labels’, ‘strands’, ‘perspectives’ and ‘views’ (1995, PP. 1-9).

Liberal feminism is grounded in the humanism of liberal political thought. Such humanism privileges the autonomy of the person and views the just society as a system of individual rights that safeguard personal autonomy and allow self-fulfilment. There are liberals and liberals, all the same. Classical, or libertarian, liberalism wants the state to protect rights and provide equal opportunity, but to interfere as litde as possible. Welfare, or egalitarian, liberalism has an eye for social justice rather than civil liberties and calls for forthright state intervention in the cause of equity. Tong believes that, in contrast to many nineteenth- century liberal feminists, who appear as classical (libertarian) liberals, most twentieth-century liberal feminists present as welfare (egalitarian) liberals.

Tong herself leans towards the egalitarian form of liberalism. ‘An egalitarianism that worries about all women’s basic needs is probably more feminist than a libertarianism that is concerned only about a few women’s rights.’ For this reason, she chooses for consideration liberal feminists in whom ‘the drift of their thought is away from some of the less feminist assumptions of classical liberalism and toward some of the more feminist assumptions of welfare liberalism’ (1995, p. 13). These are earlier feminists (Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor) and, in our own day, Betty Friedan (the Betty Friedan of The Second Stage rather than the Betty Friedan of The Feminine Mystique).

Such egalitarianism takes feminists beyond liberal feminism’s traditional invitation to individual women merely to cast off their conditioning and reject traditional sex roles. ‘Sexual equality’, Tong observes (1995, p. 38), ‘cannot be achieved through women’s willpower alone’. Even modest goals relating to equal opportunity tend to demand a significant measure of economic reorganisation and resource redistribution and rather profound changes in consciousness.

Unlike liberal feminism, Marxist feminism is revolutionary, not merely reformist. Liberal feminism may be led to address issues of structure but this is less a matter of principle than a means to an end. It is not the same with Marxist feminism. For the latter, as we would expect from our considerations of Marxism to this point, structural change is the major goal. The structure that it targets is, of course, the class structure. From this perspective, without radical change to the class society, the equal opportunity sought by liberal feminists is a chimaera. Women’s oppression began with the introduction of private property and is now to be seen as ‘the product of the political, social and economic structures associated with capitalism’ (Tong 1995, p. 39). It is capitalism that has shaped the institution of the family as we know it. It is capitalism that leads women’s domestic work to be dismissed as not real work. It is capitalism that ensures that women are generally given the most monotonous jobs and the smallest remuneration. How can women liberate themselves from oppression as long as the structures of capitalism remain in place?

Marxist feminists, understandably, concentrate on issues relating to women’s work—both their paid employment and their unpaid work in the home. They expect that radical changes in the one will induce changes in the other. Margaret Benston (1969) insists that, as long as domestic work remains a matter of private production and the responsibility of women, equal access to jobs will not provide equality but will simply force women into carrying a double workload. What Benston wants to see is a socialisation of domestic work. This, she believes, will bring home to everyone how socially necessary domestic work is. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James (1972) go further, arguing that domestic work is not merely useful but productive, even in the Marxist sense of creating surplus value. By their work in the home, women are already in the productive workforce. This should be acknowledged and women should be receiving a wage for their domestic labour. While socialisation of domestic work and the provision of a wage for domestic work may not seem revolutionary targets, Marxist feminists are in a position to develop the revolutionary consciousness of working women and lead them into revolutionary action (Tong 1995, p. 69).

For radical feminism, the oppression of women is the oldest, most profound and most widespread oppression of all. It is the view of some radical feminists that the oppression of women causes more suffering than any other form of oppression. Some propose the oppression of women as the model for understanding any other form of oppression.

This awareness of the depth and extent of women’s oppression has led some radical feminists into separatism. Despairing of ever forging a community with males in which there would be equality, freedom and respect, they have directed their efforts instead to developing an exclusively female culture. ‘Womanculture’ is likely to comprise a specifically female aesthetic (art, literature, music, dance), specifically female science, and specifically female religion. It may also include a specifically female sexuality wherein lesbianism, autoeroticism or celibacy replace heterosexual relations.

While not all radical feminists choose the separatist path, all are preoccupied in one way or another with women’s sexual and reproductive issues. Tong (1995, p. 51) lists these as ‘contraception, sterilization, and abortion; pornography, prostitution, sexual harassment, rape, and woman battering’. Addressing such issues starkly reveals just how radically disordered the patriarchal society is and how radically it must therefore be transformed. It will not be enough to make human society more libertarian or more egalitarian, as liberal feminism is suggesting. That might even make matters worse. As Farganis states in expounding the views of Erikson:

Women becoming equal to men, in the sense of their becoming like men, allow men to impose their notions, misguided and incorrect though these may be, of what is humanly desirable and humanly possible on women. This imposition enslaves women, continues to entrap men, and precludes any genuine dialectic of an ideal of being human. (1986, p. 117)

Nor will it be enough to rid human society of its capitalistic structures, as Marxist feminism calls upon us to do. The patriarchal system as such, with all its social and cultural institutions, has to be eliminated. Radical feminists may be far from unanimous as to how that might be achieved, but there is impressive uniformity in the strength of their conviction and the passion of their commitment.

Psychoanalytic feminism grounds women’s oppression in the depths of the female psyche. In this form of feminism, arising as it does out of Freudian theory, sexuality is at centre stage. Freud, of course, is seen by many as an implacable foe of all feminism. His talk of penis envy and his alleged biological determinism have drawn incisive critiques on the part of writers such as Betty Friedan (1974), Kate Millett (1970) and, with more qualification, Shulamith Firestone (1970). However, there are a number of feminists who identify in Freud—in Freud himself, that is, in contradistinction to many of his latter-day followers—insights that prove liberating rather than domesticating. This, to be sure, necessitates a break with the biological determinism so routinely ascribed to Freudian theory. It also occasions a spirited challenge to the Freudian notion that men’s sense of justice and morality is more highly developed than women’s. With that break made and that challenge mounted, a number of feminists have found it useful to remain within a Freudian framework. Some of them work towards a non-patriarchal understanding of the Oedipus complex, while others prefer to concentrate on the pre-Oedipal stage in which the relationship between mother and infant is at its peak. The influence of Jacques Lacan has led a number of these psychoanalytically oriented feminists into a post-structuralist reading of feminism.

In Tong’s listing of feminisms, socialist feminism is deliberately placed after psychoanalytic feminism rather than after Marxist feminism. She believes that socialist feminism represents ‘the confluence of Marxist, radical and, more arguably, psychoanalytic streams of feminist thought’ (1995, p. 173). Socialist feminists find that Marxism, taken alone, is inadequate for the analysis of women’s oppression. Hartmann claims (1981, pp. 10-11) that ‘Marxist categories, like capital itself, are sex-blind\ Radical feminism, on the other hand, while it offers a more comprehensive gender analysis, presents such a univocal picture of patriarchy that it blurs important distinctions that need to be made. As a number of writers have pointed out, purdah, suttee, foot binding and clitoridectomy may all come to be dismissed as abominations perpetrated by a patriarchal system, without due regard being paid to the significance each of these possesses in its respective culture. Psychoanalytic feminism is similarly limiting. It too is guilty of blanket statements about patriarchy and generally bases its analysis on psychic structures alone.

Socialist feminists attempt to overcome these limitations by bringing these strands together and drawing on the strengths of each of them. In doing so, some thinkers focus particularly on patriarchy and capitalism, believing that these go hand in hand. Others insist that patriarchy and capitalism are quite distinct and need to be treated differendy. Either way, there is widespread concern among socialist feminists to unify feminists under one banner and have them speak, as far as possible, with one voice.

Existentialist feminism locates its source in the pre-eminent figure of Simone de Beauvoir and her major text, The Second Sex (1953). Her partner was Jean-Paul Sartre, who, along with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, spearheaded the advance of existential phenomenology. This was in the wake of Heidegger’s Being and Time (1962), which, in developing its radical ontology, invoked a number of traditional existentialist themes. Numerous commentators have regarded Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1956) as, in large measure, a commentary on Being and Time.

Unlike the ancient Greeks and the medieval Christians who found comfort and security in the notion of a stable, orderly cosmos operating according to immutable laws, existentialists find the world contingent, indifferent, even absurd. In this view of things, as conscious and self- conscious human beings, we are thrown back upon our freedom and called to respond to our human situation.

In expounding his version of existentialism, Sartre makes a cardinal distinction between en-soi (the ‘in itself) and pour-soi (the ‘for itself). These are modes of being. The pour-soi is conscious being; the en-soi is being-as-object. Flowing out of this distinction is Sartre’s further distinction between ‘Self and ‘Other’. By Other he means another personal being. Even though the Other is itself a pour-soi, we dissociate ourselves from it as from an en-soi. This is a mutual dissociation: we each constitute the Other as an object and perceive it as a threat.

Simone de Beauvoir takes this Sartrean distinction between Self and Other (perhaps it was hers in the first place?) and uses it to illuminate the relationship between man and woman. She construes man as Self and woman as Other. The Other being a threat to Self, woman must be seen as a threat to man and he needs to make her subordinate. Hence the oppression of women that we find throughout history. Relegated to the status of Otherness, women find themselves in a condition of subjection and dependency. This has led males in the course of time to construct a series of myths about woman so as to control her better. As de Beauvoir sees it, such myths express an ideal image of woman that offers men all that they as men lack. To fulfil this purpose, the image must be chameleon-like: it must be able and ready to change at will. Woman can be a reminder of life or of death. She can be angel or devil. These myths beget the social roles to which women are assigned and which play a pivotal role in holding them subject. Breaking such fetters is no easy task for women but, de Beauvoir believes, joining the workforce, entering the ranks of the intellectuals, and taking part in the socialist transformation of society are all steps in the right direction.

Postmodern feminism is Tong’s final category. The feminist thinkers she has in view are Helene Cixous (1937- ), Luce Irigaray (1932- ) and Julia Kristeva (1941- ). Until recendy, Tong observes, what she is calling postmodern feminism has been referred to as ‘French feminism’. This, along with a linking of postmodern feminists to Derrida and Lacan, is indication enough that Tong sees no need to distinguish between post­structuralism (an eminendy French phenomenon stemming from the equally French phenomenon of structuralism) and postmodernism (a phenomenon much broader both geographically and in terms of the issues it raises and addresses). While Tong is by no means alone in doing this, it will be suggested in Chapter 9 that the distinction between postmodernism and post-structuralism remains a useful distinction to make. In the light of that distinction, it can be argued that the three feminists referred to are post-structuralist rather than postmodernist. Certainly, Kristeva, for one, has expressly declined to be described as postmodernist.

Whatever of the nomenclature, Tong links postmodern feminism very closely to deconstruction, characterising this as a process that is universally and radically critical, anti-essentialist, and fiercely committed to breaking down traditional antinomies such as reason/emotion, beautiful/ugly, self/other, and the conventional boundaries between established disciplines. Deconstruction makes a major theme of ‘the positive side of Otherness—of being excluded, shunned, “frozen out”, disadvantaged, unprivileged, rejected, unwanted, abandoned, dislocated, marginalized’ (Tong 1995, p. 219).

While mention of deconstruction summons up for us the personage of Jacques Derrida (1930- ), postmodern feminists have drawn as well on the thought of another Jacques—Jacques Lacan (1901-81). Lacan’s structuralism will be discussed in Chapter 9 but here we may focus on his use of Freudian theory.

The relationship between infants and their parents has a pre-Oedipal phase and an Oedipal phase. Pre-Oedipally (or in what Lacan terms the ‘Imaginary’) infants are at the start so much at one with the mother that they do not know where their body ends and the mother’s body begins. Then, in a ‘mirror’ phase, they move to an awareness of their self. While this weakens their earlier, undiscriminating unity with the mother, they remain firmly attached to her. The Oedipal phase follows. During this stage the child must internalise the Symbolic Order, that is, the linguistic rules of society that need to be inscribed in the unconscious. Here the father comes very much into the picture. The child separates to some extent from the mother and gains a kind of rebirth—a birth into the symbolic world of language. Language provides a medium for a continued link to the mother but it is, of course, not the same. Because of their anatomy, girls cannot make this shift as well as boys do. Fear of symbolic castration is the prime motive but that can hardly move girls to the same extent. They fail to emerge fully from the Imaginary and remain trapped within it. For this reason, girls are seen to be left at the very margins of the Symbolic Order or at best are repressed within it.

Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva have all been influenced by Lacan ‘s ideas but, far from following him slavishly, have each drawn on his thought in their own way for their own purposes. Lacan holds that the phallus will always dominate and women will always be at the margins of the Symbolic Order. Since they cannot fully internalise that order (‘the law of the fathers’), it will be imposed upon them via the masculine language with which they are endowed. Cixous, for one, refuses to share this pessimism. Women can break free of this circumscribing order, which expresses itself above all in the binary oppositions we inherit— activity/passivity, sun/moon, culture/nature, day/night, speaking/writing, high/low, and so on (Cixous and Clement 1986, pp. 63-5). Exploration of the body, finding strength in ‘oral drive’, ‘anal drive’, ‘vocal drive’, ‘gestation drive’, a ‘desire to live self from within’, and a ‘desire for the swollen body, for language, for blood’, will enable women to escape the dichotomies of the conceptual order in which they find themselves (Cixous 1981, p. 261).

Lacan views women’s entrapment in the Imaginary in a quite negative light, but Irigaray declines to follow suit. She wants to find possibilities for women within the Imaginary. All that women hear about womanhood and female sexuality has come from a male point of view. Irigaray looks for a non-phallic feminine, a feminine feminine, one not articulated by men, and for a way to selfhood and language that is not mediated by men. ‘Thus’, writes Clough (1994, p. 50), ‘Irigaray gives voice to the preoedipal daughter, a voice already full of confusion, anger, and desperation’.

In a move that parallels the modernist attack on ‘identity logic’ launched by thinkers such as Adorno, Irigaray unleashes a fierce onslaught on ‘Sameness’. She finds Sameness to be endemic within a history of ideas stretching back to the ancient Greek philosophers. It is Sameness that leads people to understand woman in the light of what they hold about man—for instance, to interpret woman, in Freudian mode, as a litde man deprived of a penis. To combat Sameness, it is important, first of all, to address the nature of language. However, for all the sexism everyday language displays, it is not Irigaray’s aim to render it gender-neutral. Her tactic, instead, is to insist on the use of the first person and the active voice, which at once puts her practice at variance with the language of science. In this way, science, philosophy and psychoanalysis are forced to assume responsibility for what they say. They can no longer indulge in the false security provided by the anonymous third person and the passive voice that distances subject from object.

To combat Sameness, it is also important not to describe female sexuality in terms provided by male sexuality. The female sex organs are not just the absence of the male organ but are in themselves a most meaningful multiplicity. Nor will the understanding begotten by a direct addressing of that multiplicity be limited to sexuality. It will reach out to all forms of human expression. It can even transform social structures.

Finally, to combat Sameness, Irigaray provocatively suggests that women mime the very miming to which they have been subjected. ‘If women exist only in men’s eyes, as images, women should take those images and reflect them back to men in magnified proportions’ (Tong 1995, p. 228). By its very exaggeration, such mimesis will strip phallocentric discourse of its power to oppress.

Kristeva, for her part, is not comfortable talking about women in general or woman in the abstract. To talk of woman as such or the feminine as such is to embrace an essentialism that Kristeva rejects wholeheartedly. Politically, one may talk in such terms but philosophically she finds it untenable. People may say, ‘We are women’, as they struggle for freedom to use contraception and abortion, the availability of day-care centres, or equal opportunities in the workplace. Yet, at a deeper level, ‘We are women’ is an unwelcome phrase for Kristeva. She does not even want to hear women saying, ‘We are’, for she believes a woman cannot ‘be’ but must always be ‘becoming’. If this sounds a matter of words, we need to be mindful of Kristeva’s focus on language. For her, the pre-Oedipal is the ‘semiotic’ rather than Lacan ‘s ‘Imaginary’. She contrasts the semiotic with the symbolic stage that follows, conceptualising the two stages as engaged in continual interplay, a back-and-forth movement between disorder and order.

The symbolic stage, as we have seen, occurs as a post-Oedipal development. It is this post-Oedipal development that induces disgust, the characterisation of something as ‘abject’ (Kristeva 1982). Identifying the oppression of Jews, ethnic minorities, homosexuals and so on, along with the oppression of women, as the outcome of this very process, Kristeva calls for the marginalised discourses of such groups to be unleashed upon language to transform it. Social revolution, for her, is always poetic revolution (Kristeva 1984).

Source: Michael J Crotty (1998), The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process, SAGE Publications Ltd; First edition.

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