FEMINISM AS A THEORY
INTRODUCTION TO PART ONE
The outburst of feminist theory and practice, which has affected so many women’s lives since the 1960s, differed from previous forms of feminism. It started from assertions of women’s common sisterhood in oppression. Sisterhood expressed the idea that in general women have interests opposed to those of men, that men generally dominate women, and generally benefit from this domination. During the 1970s, however, feminists produced new knowledge of women’s lives. Instead of establishing women’s shared oppression as women, they began to emphasize the differences between women. Once attention was given to the diversity of women’s experience, to the power of some women over other women, and to the political and economic interests shared by some men and some women, problems were created for feminism. Differences of interest between women challenged feminist theory of women’s shared oppression. They also undermined the basis of feminist political practice. If women do not have interests in common, then it is not clear how feminist politics can change all women’s lives for the better. The problems for feminist politics raised by these areas of difference constitute the main theme of the book. Part One
serves to clarify preliminary problems in approaching recent feminist analyses of women’s differences.
Opinions differ on how feminism may be dated, according to how it is defined. In order to avoid constant qualification, I have termed the period of feminist thought which developed from the 1960s to the time of writing, new-wave feminism, but elsewhere it may be referred to as second-wave, be divided into second-wave and third-wave or be labelled feminism and post-feminism. In Part One
new-wave feminism is presented as inherently contradictory. As it developed, theoretical accounts have been given of male dominance and female oppression
which focus on the relationships between women and men. But in order to understand women’s situations fully, it is also necessary to account for women’s relationships with other women.
New-wave feminism has brought to light the many divisions between women which cut across our common experiences as women, and so has a contradiction at its heart. Women are very generally dominated by men, and live in societies in which such domination is taken to be natural and desirable, but women also oppress each other, and new-wave feminism has no clear means of resolving these divisions between us.
reviews the problems of defining feminism and indicates the contradictions both in the experiences of ordinary women around the world and also in the ways in which feminists have come to understand these experiences. In chapter 2
, the question of what is wrong with feminism is dealt with by examining critical problems in feminist explanation of women’s oppression. These problems have led to the diverse rather than unanimous understandings of women’s oppression. Given these weaknesses, the problems of why anyone should take feminist knowledge seriously are considered in chapter 3
: the difficulties faced by feminists attempting to reinterpret the whole of human history, and to challenge the bases of existing knowledge. In chapter 4
, I give a necessarily brief overview of the knowledge produced by new-wave feminism. This is not dealt with in depth as it is available elsewhere. It is reviewed here to show how developing knowledge of men’s oppression of women has led both to knowledge of women’s oppression and to the elaboration of differences and divisions between women.
The idea that new-wave feminism’s problems spring from its development as a generalized theory is developed in Part Two
. I argue that recent feminist thought has led towards the discovery of the diverse ways in which women experience oppression and the extent to which many forms of oppression are shared with men, rather than with other women. Feminist social theory has developed as a theory of women’s oppression which divides women against women and feminists against each other.
In Part Three
, the possible connections between feminist theory and feminist political practice are reassessed. Divisions between women indicate a rather different feminist politics from that envisaged at the start of the new wave. Liberation need not be a uniform or non-contradictory process. But feminism cannot hope to be taken seriously if the implications of liberation are not clearly related to the actual contradictions of women’s lives.
FEMINISM AS CONTRADICTION
There have been many versions of feminist thought throughout human history, and these are being shared and rediscovered after years of isolation and neglect. This book is an evaluation of some of the problems raised by the new wave of feminism which arose primarily in North America and Europe at around the time of the Vietnam War. This approach to feminism is inevitably ethnocentric, and does not give a full appreciation of the diversity of women’s thought and women’s struggles over the last twenty years or so, let alone throughout history. Naomi Schor (1987:99) has commented that a focus which started geographically close to Britain, but from the standpoint of French feminism, would be no less ethnocentric, but would be different. Feminism does not have an agreed meaning or content around the world, and is in many ways so diverse that it cannot be easily characterized. The point of focusing on new-wave feminism is to try to explain both the diversity and the potentiality of feminism as an international phenomenon.
New-wave feminist ideas were launched over a very few years, often in ignorance of earlier struggles over the same issues. They were spread very rapidly, largely by educated young women moving between different countries (see e.g. Dahlerup 1986). These ideas provoked an enormous public response, both positive and negative, in societies already shaken by race riots, civil rights movements, anti-war protests, student demonstrations, pressure for sexual liberation, gay rights movements and the rise of drug and hippie cultures. Feminist ideas quickly spread to societies with rather different internal struggles and to the third world. Nowhere was women’s political activity as women new, but new-wave feminism made the very general subordination of women to men all over the world political in many new ways.
The term third world is inadequate for encompassing the complex connections within and between the different countries of the world, but it is used here to indicate approximate areas of difference in women’s situations and histories. New-wave feminism logically and politically requires that the ideas and practices developed in the west become part of the experience of women everywhere. The problems inherent in this position are recognized in feminism now and constitute one theme of this book.
The early euphoria produced by politicizing the shared oppression of women by men provoked hostile media reactions to the castrating, bra-burning, unfeminine women’s libbers. Much more seriously, the new wave of feminism soon stimulated feminist critiques of feminist ideas and very diverse responses to such criticism. New-wave feminism split almost immediately into different schools of feminist thought, which offered different explanations of women’s oppression and different strategies for liberation. Each school has attracted its own criticisms and generated its own practical problems.
WHAT IS FEMINISM?
Although many definitions of feminism have been attempted and a variety can be found in textbooks and dictionaries, and in general use, attempts to provide a general definition of feminism are inevitably confusing. Women’s emancipation, or liberation, has developed numerous meanings over the years, not least because the ideas and political aims of those who have struggled for women have varied. Nineteenth-century European and American movements were split between socialist and liberal movements favouring either working-class or middle-class women. Some struggles were confined to white women, while others fought for rights for blacks or for the working class as well as for women. Organized women’s movements had developed by the early twentieth century in most parts of the world. In addition, there have been many spontaneous women’s struggles which are now forgotten, or are unknown outside local areas.
In the light of this diversity there are various possible approaches to the definition of feminism. These tend to vary according to the period and to the way in which they define ‘woman’. Leaving aside popular and mass media definitions, which are generally limited or hostile, feminists themselves have recognized problems in defining feminism. For
example, feminism can be defined in terms of American 1970s radical feminism, or nineteenth-century bourgeois movements. Writers early on in the new wave tended to take this narrow approach. A similarly narrow approach is also taken, however, by liberal feminists, and by those male commentators who identify feminism as an organized political movement. Alternatively, a broad definition can be offered which attempts to encompass all versions of feminism. This approach is more typical of feminists writing after new-wave feminism had clearly diversified into schools.
Neither of these solutions is particularly satisfactory. The narrow version excludes a variety of political practices and schools of thought which are widely regarded as feminist, and which have fought for women. At its worst it can lead to increasing concern with the exclusion of those who are not ‘proper’ feminists, rather than with political strategies to achieve unity. Narrow liberal definitions, which define feminism as a quest for equality with men, exclude most of new-wave feminism. Narrow definitions of an organized political movement exclude the wealth of feminist knowledge and practice which lies outside any organized movement, and is opposed to organization.
The broad version, however, fails to convey the variety and contradictions of feminist thought. A unified version of feminism cannot reconcile the conflicting struggles within feminism. Rather than attempting to impose uniformity on diversity, some feminists have simply accepted feminism as a loose term for a variety of conceptions of the relations between men and women in society, their origins and how they might be changed for the better (Mitchell and Oakley 1986). Further explanation of these differences is then needed to demonstrate the extent to which the different versions of feminism have any common characteristics.
Defining feminism is then clearly a question of taking a political stance. The way in which feminism is defined is contingent upon the way the definer understands past, existing, and future relationships between women and men. This book is an attempt to achieve a positive but critical evaluation of new-wave feminism which will make the nature and causes of these problems of definition somewhat clearer. Ultimately a conception of feminism rests upon a vision of the future and, as with all such visions, the relations between what we can understand of human history, of present societies, and of what might be, become critical strengths or weaknesses. Feminism has many weaknesses, and many critics to point these out. But it is the only social theory
at present which retains some optimism for the future. In the 1980s this optimism, which owed much to western culture in the 1960s, has been faltering (Segal 1987), but it is by no means extinguished. The first generation of new-wave feminists are older and more tired than when they began, but not down and not out. Defining feminism remains difficult because feminism entails rethinking the past and the future, and seeing women as active agents in achieving change. Feminists share at least some understanding of what women’s oppression might mean, but they differ enormously over what could constitute women’s liberation.
I think it is possible to generalize about feminism, but only within limits and with very careful qualification. It is possible to generalize about women, but again only to a limited extent. When I use the terms ‘woman’ or ‘women’ without qualification, I refer to all people who are, were, or will be physically female, but it is frequently necessary in discussing the oppression and liberation of women to qualify the term and to specify which categories of women are being discussed.
At this stage it is sufficient to state that feminism comprises various social theories which explain the relations between the sexes in society, and the differences between women’s and men’s experience. Without giving a precise definition, it can be said that the various versions of feminism share certain common characteristics:
1 all versions of feminism assert that the existing relations between the sexes, in which women are subordinated to men, are unsatisfactory and ought to be changed;
2 feminism challenges much that is taken for granted as natural, normal and desirable in our various societies;
3 feminism consists of ideas which raise fundamental problems of explanation. The whole history and future course of human society is brought into question;
4 feminism is not simply ideas. Its point is to change the world, to transform the relations between women and men so that all people can have more chance to fulfil their whole human potential; feminism is logically then a set of ideas which are also a political practice;
5 feminism comprises very varied political practices but these are all aimed at changing the relations between the sexes by giving women control over their own lives; they may vary from consciousness-raising groups and struggles over the washing up, to struggles for separation from men, to organized demands for civil liberties and
economic and political power; feminism is then by definition provocative;
6 feminist proposals for change always encounter resistance, although the nature and strength of this resistance is variable;
7 feminism does not start from a detached and objective standpoint on knowledge of the relations between women and men. Even the most moderate advocates of women’s rights must take the view that men have rights which are unjustly denied to women. This commitment does not mean that feminist knowledge is not valid knowledge, but it does entail asking what we mean by knowledge, and why some forms of knowledge are seen as more valid than others. Feminism implies a radical critique of reason, science and social theory which raises serious questions about how we know what we think we know.
Once feminism is seen both as social theory and also as practical politics, as an engagement in struggle to change the world, the goals of change have to be defined. But the political strategies of different groups of feminists vary very widely, which makes any common definition of feminist aims problematic. There are considerable differences in social theory and political strategy between campaigns to get more women into prominent positions in public life, ‘reclaim the night’ marches aimed at making public spaces safer for women, campaigns for more liberal abortion laws, campaigns against sterilization and infanticide, and attempts to draw low-paid women into trade unions. The problem of finding a common definition for feminism is not then simply one of finding the correct form of words which will cover everything satisfactorily, it is a problem with feminism. The problem can best be seen clearly in two main areas of contradiction: in feminist social theories that explain the relations between the sexes; and in the nature of women’s lives and experiences in society.
CONTRADICTIONS IN FEMINISTS’
CONCEPTIONS OF WOMEN’S LIVES
The main contradiction in new-wave feminism is between the different schools of feminist thought and different strategies of feminist political practice. Not every feminist can be assigned to a particular school of thought. In practice it is getting increasingly difficult to label individuals
or to identify boundaries between schools as feminists struggle to learn from each other and to bridge our differences. Yet the development of different versions of feminism with distinctive theoretical positions has given new-wave feminism acute political problems which are still with us. It is still useful to distinguish between these schools of thought in order to clarify the contradictions inherent in feminism.
There is a convention of grouping different theorists loosely together on the basis of the assumptions they make about human nature, the relative importance of biology, ideology and material conditions in determining social practices, and on the basis of their strategies for change. These groupings vary somewhat between different countries. The radical feminism of the 1970s, with its emphasis on unstructured organization, lack of hierarchy and lack of leadership, was a particularly American product which has had a limited impact in, for example, Scandinavia (Dahlerup 1986) compared to Italy (Hellmann 1987) or in many spontaneous political conflicts in which women are involved (Ridd and Callaway 1986). Marxist feminism has been stronger in Europe than in America, but with numerous variations. There are some unique schools, such as the French ‘Psycho et Po’ (Duchen 1986).
A brief review of three main categories, however, brings out key differences within feminist thought and practice. These categories should properly be further subdivided distinguishing, for example, between different strands of radical and revolutionary feminism or between varieties of marxist and socialist feminism, but these three groupings suffice here to show the main contradictions inherent in feminist theory and practice.
Liberal feminists have followed a long tradition ...