What is Feminism?
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What is Feminism?

An Introduction to Feminist Theory

Chris Beasley

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eBook - ePub

What is Feminism?

An Introduction to Feminist Theory

Chris Beasley

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About This Book

So what is feminism anyway? Is it possible to make sense of the complex and often contradictory debates?

In this concise and accessible introduction to feminist theory, Chris Beasley provides clear explanations of the many types of feminism. She outlines the development of liberal, radical and Marxist/socialist feminism, and reviews the more contemporary influences of psychoanalysis, postmodernism, theories of the body, queer theory and the ongoing significance of race and ethnicity.

What is Feminism? is a clear and up-to-date guide to Western feminist theory for students, their teachers, researchers and anyone else who wants to understand and engage in current feminist debates.

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Part IDeparting from traditional fare


Feminism’s critique of traditional social and political thought
Feminist thinkers regard feminism as somehow different from the mainstream—as innovative, inventive and rebellious. In particular, they see their work as attending to the significance of sexual perspectives in modes of thought and offering a challenge to masculine bias. From the point of view of feminist writers, ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ Western thought (which includes a wide variety of thinkers from Plato and Hobbes to Sartre and Habermas)1 is better described as ‘malestream’ thinking and thus its authority needs to be questioned.2 What does feminism’s perceived departure from and defiant stance in relation to traditional thought amount to? I will attempt in this chapter to outline some broad parameters concerning what constitutes feminism by indicating how feminists of various sorts criticise mainstream viewpoints and hence in the process distinguish specifically feminist approaches.
In the first instance it is evident that feminist theories and commentaries upon traditional thought have developed in parallel with mainstream social and political thought. They have in fact developed at something of a remove from mainstream thought. One way of exemplifying this remove is to look at the nature of the content of academic journals, the life-blood of publicly available academic intellectual debate. Current journals which discuss social and political thought tend to discuss a canon of major male theorists and are usually dominated by male writers, with few references to women theorists, feminist analysis or to women’s position in social and political life. By contrast, journals which might be called feminist are dominated by women writers who regularly discuss classical and contemporary male theorists’ views.3 The flow of ideas in academic journals is definitely one way. It exemplifies what is, for the most part, a one-sided interaction between feminist and mainstream theory and theorists. Yet, ironically, feminist writers are the ones who are typically perceived as interested in an overly specialised field without ‘broader’ applications and marked by sexual separatism.4
Mainstream social and political theory today is characteristically generated at a distance from feminist thought. However, feminists have argued that this is simply a part of three on-going processes: excluding, marginalising and trivialising women and their accounts of social and political life. (Trivialising occurs when women’s experiences are reinterpreted in terms of those associated with men,5 when feminist writers are said not to talk about the ‘big’ issues, or when feminist writers are shown ‘respect’ in a patronising way.)
What clearly links ‘feminist’ as against other theoretical frameworks, it would seem, is a particular view of traditional social and political thought. That view involves a critique. It is a critique of misogyny, the assumption of male superiority and centrality. As Theile says, ‘[i]t is common knowledge among feminists that social and political theory was, and for the most part still is, written by men, for men and about men’.6
Though feminist accounts offer a critique of mainstream thought, there have been several different feminist responses to the perceived inadequacy of that thought. I will briefly outline a number of important responses. The first response involves a view that women and women theorists have been omitted from Western social and political theory and that therefore the task of feminist thinkers is to put them back in (while leaving most of traditional thought relatively intact). This might be described as the inclusion/addition’ approach, otherwise known as ‘add Mary Wollstonecraft and stir’.7 The emphasis here is on pragmatic concerns related to reforming Western thought taking into account what is politically possible.
The second view declares that, as Clark and Lange put it, ‘traditional political theory is utterly bankrupt in the light of present [feminist] perspectives’.8 This is the ‘critique, reject and start again’ or the ‘go back to the drawing board’ approach. Such an approach expresses doubts about the success of any agenda to ‘fix’ traditional thought since that thought is conceived as built upon assumptions regarding sexual hierarchy.
Finally, there is the view that it would be impossible to develop a theoretical framework completely uncontaminated by past perspectives or by the history of male domination.9 Such a perspective argues that we cannot escape our social and intellectual context and, ironically, that traditional thought might be seen as a means to elaborate feminist theory itself, since the more we understand the sexual politics of our cultural and intellectual heritage the better able we are to comment on and transform it. Feminist thought is here regarded as revealing the partial and sexualised character of existing theoretical knowledges. This is the ‘deconstruct and transform’ approach. If traditional thought is seen as a woollen sweater, the above viewpoint might be described in the following terms: ‘don’t throw away the wool, but rather unravel and restitch the jumper, perhaps several times’.
I have said that there is considerable agreement among feminists that traditional social and political thought is inadequate, even though they differ over what to do about this inadequacy. Accordingly we may be closer to characterising feminism now because some general agreement in perspective if not in strategy can be detected. Moreover, there is general agreement over what is inadequate about traditional social and political theory. In other words there is also agreement about flaws in the content of traditional thought. The South African feminist Bernadette Mosala perhaps sums up the basis of the consensus about that content when she says of mainstream thought, ‘When men are oppressed, it’s tragedy. When women are oppressed, it’s tradition’.10
Feminist writers regularly point out that mainstream social and political thought has commonly accepted and confirmed women’s subordinate position in social and political life, either explicitly or implicitly.11 Feminists argue that mainstream theory largely takes for granted women’s subordination and assumes that this is not a centrally significant topic of political thinking. Whether or not the various forms of mainstream thought express a progressive concern with emancipation, equality and rights, they all tend to accept that women’s position is to be taken as given, at most viewing it as of relatively marginal interest. According to Porter, there appear to have been two major ways in which women’s accepted subordinate status has been explicitly presented in mainstream thought.12
The first view involves an account of women as partial helpmates. Here women are defined in terms of men’s needs regarding pleasure, provision of services, children and so on. Such a perspective is particularly evident in Judaeo—Christian theology13 and Greek philosophy, both of which remain fundamentally important in present-day Western political concepts as well as in the general cultural heritage of the West. One example of this account of women may be found in the work of Aristotle. He argued that while the ‘rational soul’ is ‘not present at all in a slave, in a female it is inoperative, [and] in a child undeveloped’.14 Aristotle linked ‘rationality’ to ethical virtues (moral qualities) and self-control. Women, in his view, are therefore in need of care and control and are morally unstable. Another example may be found in the work of St Augustine. St Augustine asserted that only man is in the image of God. Women were partial beings for St Augustine because he linked God’s image with a particular view of reason.15 Women’s lesser spiritual and social status is a consequence of their link to sensuality and nature, while men are committed to reason and authority. Once again women can only be cast as assistants, given their intrinsic failings and limitations. This notion of women as partial beings, and as for men, constituted women as second-rate, as flawed or blemished men. Such a view is still evident in much of Western thought today.
Secondly, feminists found in mainstream thought a conception of women as different but complementary.16 Supposedly in this account both sexes are valued. However, in practice women are described not just as different but as men’s opposite. Women, in other words, are defined not so much as for men but as in relation to men. Man is the norm and woman is defined negatively in relation to that norm. Man becomes the standard model and woman the creature with extra and/or missing bits. (The alternate view, in which women are seen as the starting point, is expunged—even though this perspective is just as possible.) The notion of man as the norm is certainly a view alive and well today. For example, a person who cannot become pregnant (a man) is the standard worker of industrial law in Western countries. Women—people who may become pregnant—are not the general reference point but rather represent a particular group with special (and problematic) requirements. Simone de Beauvoir summed up the hierarchical relationship between men and women assumed in the concept of ‘different but complementary’ in these terms: ‘He is the subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other’ [emphasis added].17 Woman is not so much second-rate man in this context as that which is ‘not man’.
Woman becomes a kind of rag-bag of repressed elements that cannot be allowed within the masculine. Hence, women come to represent physical reproduction and the nurturing of dependent children within industrial law, even though men in the workforce have children too. Once again in the ‘different but complementary’ approach men are linked to rationality, to civilisation, to the ‘big picture’ beyond specialised small-scale concerns, and to what is particularly human (rather than merely animal). By contrast women are associated with the nonrational or irrational, with the supposedly narrow concerns of kin, and with biology and nature. Any notion of overlap between or uncertainties in the meaning of terms like ‘rational’ and ‘emotional’ is precluded or discouraged. An example of this kind of approach in traditional thought occurs in the work of Rousseau, who opposed those who saw women as flawed men. By contrast, Rousseau saw the sexes as different kinds of beings. He considered that women should be educated to please and complement men.18 Women’s difference, appropriately directed, was to be viewed as for men’s benefit.
Both versions of women within traditional social and political thought do not allow women much capacity or room for analytical (‘rational’) thinking. Women are defined as precluded from theorising. What they ‘think’ is either not on the agenda at all or is seen as being of little significance. Women are not the subjects of social or political thought, nor are they seen as being capable of engaging with it or contributing to it. If you have ever wondered why many women are inclined to think abstract intellectual theorising has not much to do with them, it may be because in a very real sense it has not.19
In this setting the book you are now reading itself involves a kind of subversion of or challenge to mainstream social and political thought. Women are at the centre of the theories discussed here and are also construed as theorists. Women are both the subject and the agents (active practitioners) of theory. This is in keeping with the characteristics of the field which this book investigates, for what unites feminist commentaries on mainstream modes of thought is a critique of the mainstream focus upon men as the centre of the analysis and the related invisibility and marginality of women. Feminist commentators offer a critique of the focus on men insofar as that focus is not recognised. Feminists note that, within Western thought, to speak of men is taken as speaking universally.
Feminists consider that a major problem within mainstream Western social and political thought lies in its inclination to universalise experiences associated with men, that is, to represent men’s experiences as describing that which is common to all human beings. How is this sleight-of-hand undertaken? Initially contemporary feminist writers often note a characteristic formulation within mainstream theory in which concepts are organised into dualisms (oppositional pairs). Each dualism also contains a hierarchy. Rather than a coupling with equal weight given to both sides, one side of each opposition is represented more positively (as better, more significant) than the other. In other words, traditionally Western thinking is arranged in advance by a series of lop-sided conceptual pairs. Such pairs are so much an accepted principle in our (Western) way of understanding the world that they tend to be instantly recognisable, as is evident in the list below.
However, the reliance of mainstream thought upon paired associations which repetitively represent a hierarchical order is also linked by feminists to an inequitable sexual order. Hence, the characteristic tendency of traditional social and political theory to take men as the central subject of the analysis and extrapolate from their experiences is related to a pregiven conceptual ordering within Western thought. Western thought is organised around pairs of unequally valued associations that mirror over and over again the Violent hierarchy’20 of the dualism, man/woman. These pairs of associations are suffused with sexual hierarchy even when apparently at a distance from a concern with sex. Thus certain concepts are aligned with the masculine and placed in opposition to others. The latter are constituted as subordinate to the first order of concepts and are connected with femininity. This may be seen more clearly if we look at some oppositional associations characteristic of Western thinking.21
On this basis feminists consider that sexual difference actually shapes the intellectual geography of our social and political life. It shapes what we can think and how we can think it. Moreover, by this means, feminists argue, mainstream political thought offers a conceptual schema in which viewpoints associated with men are taken as the view, the standard or rational/sensible/proper, universally applicable view.
The dualistic nature of Western social and political thought means that categories like ‘work’, ‘the public sphere’, ‘citizen’, ‘politics’, et cetera, become imbued with meanings dependent upon sexual difference and sexual hierarchy. The notion of a link between men, public life and universal ethics (beyond one’s own ‘particular’ interests), and hence greater access to Truth or morality, enables the specific vantage point of men to be seen as the broader picture. Women are then construed as being sm...

Table of contents

Citation styles for What is Feminism?
APA 6 Citation
Beasley, C. (1999). What is Feminism? (1st ed.). SAGE Publications. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/859976/what-is-feminism-an-introduction-to-feminist-theory-pdf (Original work published 1999)
Chicago Citation
Beasley, Chris. (1999) 1999. What Is Feminism? 1st ed. SAGE Publications. https://www.perlego.com/book/859976/what-is-feminism-an-introduction-to-feminist-theory-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Beasley, C. (1999) What is Feminism? 1st edn. SAGE Publications. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/859976/what-is-feminism-an-introduction-to-feminist-theory-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Beasley, Chris. What Is Feminism? 1st ed. SAGE Publications, 1999. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.