Conflicts within Feminism

Conflicts within Feminism

The philosophical basis of liberal feminism lies in the principle of individualism, the belief that the human individual is all important and therefore that all individuals are of equal moral worth. Individuals are entitled to equal treatment, regardless of their sex, race, colour, creed or religion. If individuals are to be judged, it should be on rational grounds, on the content of their character, their talents, or their personal worth. Liberals express this belief in the demand for equal rights: all individuals are entitled to participate in, or gain access to, public or political life. Any form of discrimination against women in this respect should clearly be prohibited. Wollstonecraft, for example, insisted that education, in her day the province of men, should be opened up to women. J. S. Mill argued in favour of equal citizenship and political rights. Indeed, the entire suffrage movement was based upon liberal individualism and the conviction that female emancipation would be brought about once women enjoy equal voting rights with men. Similarly, Friedan's work and the activities of groups such as NOW have aimed at breaking down the remaining legal and social pressures that restrict women from pursuing careers and being politically active. Organizations such as NOW and Emily's List have campaigned, in particular, to increase the representation of women in senior positions in public and political life.

Liberal feminism is essentially reformist: it seeks to open up public life to equal competition between women and men, rather than to challenge what many feminists see as the patriarchal structure of society itself. In particular, liberal feminists generally do not wish to abolish the distinction between the public and private spheres of life. Reform is necessary, they argue, but only to ensure the establishment of equal rights in the public sphere: such as the right to education, the right to vote, the right to pursue a career.

Significant reforms have undoubtedly been achieved in the industrialized West, notably the extension of the franchise, the ‘liberalization’ of divorce law and abortion, equal pay and so forth. Nevertheless, far less attention has been given to the private sphere, the sexual division of labour and distribution of power within the family. Liberal feminists have usually assumed that men and women have different natures and inclinations, and therefore accept that, at least in part, women's leaning towards family and domestic life is influenced by natural impulses and so reflects a willing choice. This certainly applied in the case of nineteenth-century feminists, who regarded the traditional structure of family life as ‘natural’, but it is also evident in the work of modern liberal feminists such as Friedan. In The Second Stage (1983) Friedan discussed the problem of reconciling the achievement of ‘personhood’, made possible by opening up broader opportunities for women in work and public life, with the need for love, represented by children, home and the family. Friedan's emphasis upon the continuing and central importance of the family in women's life has been criticized by more radical feminists as contributing to a ‘mystique of motherhood’. Radical feminists have argued that there are limitations to individualism as the basis for gender politics. In the first place, an individualist perspective draws attention away from the structural character of patriarchy, in which women are subordinated not as individuals who happen to be denied rights or opportunities, but as a sex that is subject to systematic and pervasive oppression.

Second, the stress in individualism upon ‘personhood’ may make it more difficult for women to think and act collectively on the basis of their common gender identity, their ‘sisterhood’.

Third, liberal individualism may only appear to rise above gender differences. In viewing human beings as individuals, liberalism seems to transcend gender and other social identities, enabling people to be valued on the basis of personal talents and achievements. However, this may at best depoliticize sexual relations by, in effect, making gender invisible, and at worst it may foist male attributes and aspirations on women, because the allegedly sexless ‘individual’ invariably embodies concealed male norms. Treating people equally may thus mean treating women like men.

Finally, the demand for equal rights, which lies at the core of liberal feminism, has principally attracted those women whose education and social background equip them to take advantage of wider educational and career opportunities. For example, nineteenth-century feminists and the leaders of the suffrage movement were usually educated, middle-class women who had the opportunity to benefit from the right to vote, pursue a career or enter public life. The demand for equal rights assumes that all women would have the opportunity to take advantage of, for example, better educational and economic opportunities. In reality, women are judged not only by their talents and abilities, but also by social and economic factors. If emancipation simply means the achievement of equal rights and opportunities for women and men, other forms of social disadvantage – for example, those linked to social class and race – are ignored. Liberal feminism may therefore reflect the interests of white, middle-class women in developed societies, but fail to address the problems of working-class women, black women and women in the developing world.

Although some early feminists subscribed to socialist ideas, socialist feminism only became prominent in the second half of the twentieth century. In contrast to their liberal counterparts, socialist feminists do not believe that women simply face political or legal disadvantages that can be remedied by equal legal rights or the achievement of equal opportunities. Rather, socialist feminists argue that the relationship between the sexes is rooted in the social and economic structure itself, and that nothing short of profound social change, some would say a social revolution, can offer women the prospect of genuine emancipation. As a United Nations report pointed out in 1980: ‘While women represent 50 per cent of the world population, they perform nearly two thirds of all working hours, receive one-tenth of world income and own less than 1 per cent of world property.’ The central theme of socialist feminism is that patriarchy can only be understood in the light of social and economic factors. The classic statement of this argument was developed in Friedrich Engels' The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State ([1884] 1976). Engels (1820– 95), the lifelong friend and collaborator of Karl Marx , suggested that the position of women in society had fundamentally changed with the development of capitalism and the institution of private property. In pre-capitalist societies, family life had been communistic, and ‘mother right’ – the inheritance of property and social position through the female line – was widely observed. Capitalism, however, being based upon the ownership of private property by men, had overthrown ‘mother right’ and brought about what Engels called ‘the world historical defeat of the female sex’. Like many subsequent socialist feminists, Engels believed that female oppression operates through the institution of the family. The ‘bourgeois family’ is patriarchal and oppressive because men wish to ensure that their property will be passed on only to their sons. Men achieve undisputed paternity by insisting upon monogamous marriage, a restriction that is rigorously applied to wives, depriving them of other sexual partners, but, as Engels noted, is routinely ignored by their husbands. Women are compensated for this repression by the development of a ‘cult of femininity’, which extols the attractions of romantic love but in reality is an organized hypocrisy designed to protect male privileges and property. Engels believed that in a socialist society marriage should be dissolvable, and that once private property is abolished its patriarchal features, and perhaps also monogamy, will disappear. Other socialist feminists have proposed that the traditional, patriarchal family should be replaced by a system of communal living and ‘free love’, as advocated by early utopian socialists such as Fourier and Owen. Most socialist feminists agree that the confinement of women to a domestic sphere of housework and motherhood serves the economic interests of capitalism. Some have argued that women constitute a ‘reserve army of labour’, which can be recruited into the workforce when there is a need to increase production, but easily shed and returned to domestic life during a depression, without imposing a burden upon employers or the state. In addition, as temporary workers women are conditioned to accept poorly paid, low-status jobs, which has the advantage of helping to depress wage rates without posing a threat to ‘men's jobs’. At the same time, women's domestic labour is vital to the health and efficiency of the economy. In bearing and rearing children, women are producing labour power for the next generation and thus guaranteeing future production. Women are also responsible for socializing, conditioning and even educating children, thereby ensuring that they develop into disciplined and obedient workers. Similarly, in their role as housewives, women relieve men of the burden of housework and childrearing, allowing them to concentrate their time and energy upon paid and productive employment. In that sense, the sexual division of labour between men, who undertake waged labour in factories or offices, and women, who carry out unwaged domestic work, promotes economic efficiency. Furthermore, housewives are responsible for getting their husbands to work on time, properly dressed and well fed, ready for a hard day's work. The traditional family provides the worker with a powerful incentive to find and keep a job because he has a wife and children to support. In addition the family provides the worker with a necessary cushion against the alienation and frustrations of life as a ‘wage slave’. Indeed, conventional family life provides the husband–father with considerable compensations: he enjoys the status of being the ‘breadwinner’ and is granted leisure and relaxation at home, while the housewife–mother is employed in ‘trivial’ domestic labour. Some feminists have argued that it is the unwaged nature of domestic work that accounts for its low social status and leaves women financially dependent upon their husbands, thus establishing systematic social inequality. The campaign for ‘wages for housework’, associated in the UK with Costa and James (1972), suggested that women would gain economic independence and enjoy enhanced social status if their labour, like that of men, is recognized as productive and worthwhile by being paid. This argument has also been used to suggest that prostitution should be accepted as legal and waged employment. However, most socialist feminists argue that emancipation requires that women be afforded a broader range of social and economic opportunities, rather than merely being paid for fulfilling their traditional social roles as housewives or sex objects.

Although socialist feminists agree that the ‘women's question’ cannot be separated from social and economic life, they are profoundly divided about the nature of that link. Gender divisions clearly cut across class cleavages, creating tension within socialist feminist analysis about the relative importance of gender and social class, and raising particularly difficult questions for Marxist feminists. Orthodox Marxists insist upon the primacy of class politics over sexual politics. Engels, for example, believed that the ‘bourgeois family’, which had subordinated women, arose as a consequence of private property and was therefore a by-product of capitalism. This suggests that class exploitation is a deeper and more significant process than sexual oppression. Women are oppressed not by men, but by the institution of private property, by capitalism. It also suggests that women's emancipation will be a by-product of a social revolution in which capitalism is overthrown and replaced by socialism. Women seeking liberation should therefore recognize that the ‘class war’ is more important than the idea of a ‘sex war’. Hence, feminists should devote their energies to the labour movement rather than support a separate and divisive women's movement. However, modern socialist feminists have found it increasingly difficult to accept the primacy of class politics over sexual politics. In part, this was a consequence of the disappointing progress made by women in state-socialist societies such as the Soviet Union, suggesting that socialism does not, in itself, end patriarchy.

For modern socialist feminists, sexual oppression is every bit as important as class exploitation. Many of them subscribe to modern Marxism, which accepts the interplay of economic, social, political and cultural forces in society, rather than orthodox Marxism, which insists upon the primacy of material or economic factors. They therefore refuse to analyse the position of women in simple economic terms and have, instead, given attention to the cultural and ideological roots of patriarchy. For example, the UK socialist feminist, Juliet Mitchell (1971), suggested that women fulfil four social functions: (1) they are members of the workforce and are active in production; (2) they bear children and thus reproduce the human species; (3) they are responsible for socializing children; and (4) they are sex objects. From this perspective, liberation requires that women achieve emancipation in each of these areas, and not merely that the capitalist class system is replaced by socialism. Radical feminism One of the distinctive features of ‘second-wave’ feminism is that many feminist writers moved beyond the perspectives of existing political ideologies. Gender differences in society were regarded for the first time as important in themselves, needing to be understood in their own terms.

Liberal and socialist ideas had already been adapted to throw light upon the position of women in society, but neither acknowledged that gender is the most fundamental of all social divisions. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, the feminist movement sought to uncover the influence of patriarchy not only in politics, public life and the economy, but in all aspects of social, personal and sexual existence. This trend was evident in the pioneering work of Simone de Beauvoir, and was developed by early radical feminists such as Eva Figes and Germaine Greer (b. 1939). Figes's Patriarchal Attitudes (1970) drew attention not to the more familiar legal or social disadvantages suffered by women, but to the fact that patriarchal values and beliefs pervade the culture, philosophy, morality and religion of society. In all walks of life and learning, women are portrayed as inferior and subordinate to men, a stereotype of ‘femininity’ being imposed upon women by men.

Radical feminism encompasses a number of divergent elements, some of which emphasize the fundamental and unalterable difference between women and men. An example of this is the ‘pro-woman’ position, particularly strong in France and the United States. In sharp contrast to Firestone's belief that women need to be liberated from the curse of childbirth and child-rearing, this position extols the positive virtues of fertility and motherhood. Women should not try to be ‘more like men’. Instead, they should recognize and embrace their sisterhood, the bonds that link them to all other women. The pro-woman position therefore accepts that women's attitudes and values are different from men's, but implies that in certain respects women are superior, possessing the qualities of creativity, sensitivity and caring, which men can never fully appreciate or develop. Such ideas have been associated in particular with ecofeminism. The acceptance of unalterable differences between men and women has led some feminists towards cultural feminism, a retreat from the corrupting and aggressive male world of political activism into an apolitical, woman-centred culture and life-style. Conversely, other feminists have become politically assertive and even revolutionary. If sex differences are natural, then the roots of patriarchy lie within the male sex itself. ‘All men’ are physically and psychologically disposed to oppress ‘all women’; in other words, ‘men are the enemy’. This clearly leads in the direction of feminist separatism. Men constitute an oppressive ‘sex-class’ dedicated to aggression, domination and destruction; the female ‘sex-class’ is therefore the ‘universal victim’. For example, Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will (1975) emphasized that men dominate women through a process of physical and sexual abuse. Men have created an ‘ideology of rape’, which amounts to a ‘conscious Political Ideologies An Introduction 3rd edition Andrew Heywood process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’. Brownmiller argued that men rape because they can, because they have the ‘biological capacity to rape’, and that even men who do not rape nevertheless benefit from the fear and anxiety that rape provokes amongst all women. Feminists who have pursued this line of argument also believe that it has profound implications for women's personal and sexual conduct. Sexual equality and harmony is impossible because all relationships between men and women must involve oppression. Heterosexual women are therefore thought to be ‘male identified’, incapable of fully realizing their true nature and becoming ‘woman identified’. This has led to the development of political lesbianism, which holds that sexual preferences are an issue of crucial political importance for women. Only women who remain celibate or choose lesbianism can regard themselves as ‘woman-identified women’, capable of finally escaping from male oppression. As Ti-Grace Atkinson put it, ‘feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practice’.

However, the issues of separatism and lesbianism have deeply divided the women's movement. The majority of feminists see such uncompromising positions as a distorted reflection of the misogyny, or woman-hating, that pervades traditional male society. Instead, they remain faithful to the goal of sexual equality and the belief that it is possible to establish harmony between women and men in a non-sexist society. Hence they believe that sexual preference is strictly a matter of personal choice and not a question of political commitment. New feminist traditions Since the 1960s it has become increasingly difficult to analyse feminism simply in terms of the threefold division into liberal, socialist and radical traditions. Divisions within the ‘core’ traditions have sometimes deepened, and, on other occasions, divisions between the traditions have been blurred. New forms of feminism have also emerged. Although these new feminisms draw upon a wide variety of influences, they reflect a common interest in the issue of difference and, in particular, the desire to apply difference to women and not merely to the relationship between men and women. These new feminist traditions include psychoanalytical feminism, postmodern feminism, black feminism and lesbian feminism. Feminists such as de Beauvoir, Friedan and Millett had been fiercely critical of psychoanalysis in general and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) in particular, seeing theories such as ‘penis envy’ and the ‘castration complex’ as evidence of flagrant misogyny. However, starting with Juliet Mitchell's pioneering Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974), feminists have come to terms with Freud's work, particularly as developed by thinkers such as Jacques Lacan (1901–81). The central feature of psychoanalytical feminism is to see the process through which women and men are engendered and sexual difference is constructed as psychological rather than biological.

Postmodern or poststructural feminists have taken issue with forms of feminism, such as cultural feminism, which proclaim that there are essential differences between women and men. In their view, there is no such thing as a fixed female identity, the notion of ‘woman’ being nothing more than a fiction. However, in calling the male/female divide into question, postmodern feminism perhaps fatally compromises the very idea of a women's movement. Black feminism has challenged the tendency within feminism to ignore racial differences and to suggest that women endure a common oppression by virtue of their sex. Particularly strong in the USA, black feminism portrays sexism and racism as interlinked systems of oppression and highlights the particular and complex range of gender, racial and economic disadvantages that confront ‘women of colour’. Lesbian feminism has taken a variety of forms. In some cases, lesbianism is viewed as the political expression of radical feminism, that is, a means, available to all women, of escaping from patriarchy and becoming ‘woman identified’. Other lesbian feminists, however, stress the difference between the experiences of homosexual women and heterosexual women. Lesbian feminists may therefore regard the struggle against homophobia as every bit as important as the struggle against patriarchy. Feminism in the twenty-first century In some respects, feminist theory reached a high-point of creativity and radicalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since that time, the women's movement appears to have undergone a decline, and it has been fashionable to discuss the emergence of ‘post-feminism’. Without doubt, feminism has confronted a number of difficulties. In the first place, the women's movement has become increasingly fragmented and incoherent; indeed, some question whether the notion of a women's movement is any longer meaningful. Although united by a common desire to advance the role of women, feminists disagree about how this can be achieved and about what it means in practice. Divisions have long existed – between reformist and revolutionary feminists, between radical and socialist feminists, and over highly controversial issues such as separatism and lesbianism. However, these have now proliferated, with divisions emerging over issues such as prostitution, pornography and censorship, abortion, motherhood, race and ethnicity, the welfare state, and so on. However, such a broad range of concerns and interests be more an indication of feminist strength than a source of feminist weakness. Indeed, it may merely serve to highlight the fact that feminism has developed from a political movement into a political ideology that, like other ideologies, encompasses a range of often-competing traditions.

A further problem is that, particularly in the 1980s and 1980ss, feminism operated in a hostile political environment. In Islamic countries, the advance of fundamentalism was reflected in pressure for the exclusion of women from politics and public life, the abolition of their legal rights and a return to the veil. A conservative backlash against feminism was also evident in the industrialized West. Both the Thatcher and the Reagan administrations in the 1980s, for instance, were openly anti-feminist in their call for the restoration of ‘family values’ and in their emphasis upon women's traditional role as mother and housewife. The new right tried to reassert ‘profamily’ patriarchal values and ideas, not only because they are seen to be ‘natural’ but also because they are viewed as a guarantee of social order and stability. For example, the rise in crime and vandalism amongst young people was blamed upon working mothers, and in both the USA and the UK single mothers were demonized for threatening the traditional family and increasing the welfare burden. These are examples of what Susan Faludi referred to in Backlash (1991) as the ‘blame it on feminism’ syndrome. At the same time, however, such anti-feminism also paid the women's movement a backhanded compliment. The attempt to reassert conventional social and religious values reflected the success of feminism in encouraging women to question established attitudes and rethink traditional sex roles. Feminism in the twenty-first century also faces the problem that many of its original goals have been achieved or are being achieved, which is the basis of the post-feminism critique. Just as the right to vote was won in the early years of the twentieth century, so ‘second-wave’ feminism successfully campaigned in many countries for the legalization of abortion, equal pay legislation, anti-discrimination laws and wider access to education and political and professional life. Some have even suggested the victory of feminism can be seen in the emergence of a new breed of man, no longer the chauvinist bigot of old, but the ‘new man’, who has come to terms with the ‘feminine’ elements of his make-up and is prepared to share domestic and family responsibilities within the ‘symmetrical family’. The so-called men's movement has in fact argued that matters have gone further still, that men have become the victims of gender politics and is no longer its beneficiaries. This perspective suggests that the advance of feminism has simply gone ‘too far’. Confronted by the decline of traditional ‘male’ occupations, faced with growing competition from women in the workplace and at home, and deprived of their status as ‘breadwinners’, there is a danger that men, particularly young men, will retreat into a culture of non-achievement, unable to cope with a future that is female. In the face of these challenges the women's movement has certainly undergone a process of deradicalisation. The militant and revolutionary wing of the movement has been increasingly marginalized, and feminist literature reflects clear evidence of revisionism. Friedan's The Second Stage (1983) and Greer's Sex and Destiny (1985) both celebrated the importance of childbearing and motherhood, and drew criticism from more radical feminists for lending support to traditional gender stereotypes. Moreover, new feminist thinkers are generally more iconoclastic and less politically radical than their counterparts in the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, Camille Paglia (1990) has attacked the image of women as ‘victims’, and insisted on the need for women to take greater responsibility for their own sexual and personal conduct. The central illusion of post-feminism is that the most obvious forms of sexist oppression have been overcome, and therefore that society is no longer patriarchal. Without doubt, an increasing number of women go out to work, in many western countries a clear majority of married women. However, despite anxiety about male non-achievement, it is still women who are predominantly employed in poorly paid, low-status and often part-time jobs. Women also have less control of their own bodies than men, thanks to still-powerful stereotypes of femininity and beauty, and continue to play a subordinate role within marriage and to be under-represented in positions of power within society. In The Whole Woman (1999), Greer attacked the notion that women are ‘having it all’, arguing that they have abandoned the goal of liberation and settled for a phoney equality that amounts to assimilation, becoming more like men. This highlights the capacity of patriarchy to reproduce itself generation after generation, subordinating women by creating bogus forms of emancipation. Quite simply, feminism will survive as long as patriarchy persists. However, feminism's chief challenge in the twenty-first century is to establish a viable and coherent ‘third wave’ that is capable of making sense of the changing nature of gender relations and of exploding the myth of post-feminism.

Radical feminists reject the liberal feminist agenda on the grounds that it fails to understand the true nature of patriarchy. Liberal feminists see patriarchy in terms of the historical dominance of men in society. This, say the liberals, explains the oppression of women; it is merely a characteristic of society rather than a fundamental explanation of how society works for women. Radical feminists provide a number of explanations of patriarchy, all of which suggest that it lies deep in human consciousness, so deep that there is a need for a dramatic and revolutionary change in such patriarchal consciousness. Mere legal, political and cultural reform will not make a significant difference therefore.

Liberals counter this by arguing that radical feminists are imposing their own views on female consciousness which seek to restrict their freedom of choice. As long as there is a framework of legal and political equality, women should be free to adopt their own aspirations, say liberals. In particular, liberals criticise radicals on the grounds that they do not recognise that there is a private sphere where women should be free to choose their own status and consciousness. Radicals, say the liberals, are imposing forms of consciousness on women by breaking down the barrier between the public and private spheres.

Socialist feminists argue that liberals and radicals have de-emphasised the importance of economic factors in the oppression of women. For them, the inferior, exploited status of women in economic life is the true source of their oppression. Patriarchy has economic origins, they insist, and under modern capitalism this has intensified.

Radical feminists take issue with socialists, especially Marxists, for stressing economic factors excessively. The patriarchal domination of society may have economic elements, but the truth is much more complex. Patriarchy is cultural and psychological, not just economic. By over-stressing economics, radical feminists argue, socialists fail to recognise that there is still a great deal of patriarchy in socialist societies.

There is tension between difference feminists and equality feminists. The difference feminists say that seeking equality is a recognition that male characteristics are superior. The feminism of difference denies male superiority and seeks a different road to liberated consciousness by stressing sex differences and celebrating the superior qualities of women.