American Feminist Theory

Article excerpt

Abstract:

This essay is a survey of some issues that have invigorated theoretical contests among American feminists, especially in the last two decades. I review these debates and suggest that American feminist writers are contemplating deep and important matters that have arisen, or can emerge, in contemporary American society. Counter-arguments to the project of contesting and the general feminist engagement with postmodernism, presented by both feminists and non-feminists in America, are also surveyed. One can note, on the whole, that for many American feminists, the so-called "theory-wars" have been worth fighting for they are being perceived as contributing to an evolving feminist culture and politics.

Introduction

Recent trends in American feminist theory constitute a huge project with two main thrusts so far. In the first place, by means of vast retrievals and redeployment in historical, anthropological political, philosophical and literary-cultural studies, the map of researchable factors relevant to women, the given as it were, has become multivariate. The objects or subjects of oppression themselves are seen and acknowledged to be more diverse, such that the phenomena being investigated and theorized are far more complex than they were thirty years ago. Since that historical launching of second wave feminism in the United States, American feminists have had to acknowledge the wider universe of women on American soil, as including women of color, women of border-cultures, women of different sexual preference, women of lower economic classes. It has been shown that oppression and differential treatment as experienced by these women differ considerably from that of, for example, white, middle class heterosexual women. This recognition has created problems for generalizing and theorizing the condition of women in American society. The whole project of theory-formation itself--in traditional parlance, what it means or has meant, to observe, read, analyze, generalize-predict--is up for grabs for American feminists.

In the second place, in the new ways of thinking that characterize American feminist theory, in calling for identifiable perspectives or standpoints to replace the points of view from nowhere the so-called objective stance, the feminist theorizing project(s) has altered the conceiving and therefore the perceiving of the phenomena. Which is to say that both ways of seeing and ways of conceiving are undergoing radical revisions by American feminist theorists. They are reopening hard philosophical questions about what it is to perceive, to infer, to know and to say or speak. In so doing, they are challenging not simply epistemological norms and traditions, but also ontological and metaphysical theories of the sell subjectivity, identity. A favorite concept of feminism, namely "gender" has been vigorously critiqued; the concept of "woman" has never been more elusive than it is now.

It has been remarked that in 1980, "there was no professional or indexical category called `feminist theory'; rather there were (a few) people `doing theory,' and doing it as feminists."(1) Since then, feminist theory has appeared or is emerging in practically all disciplines in the colleges and universities of the United States, where, according to Catherine Stimpson, it has "matured quickly" but now "tends to adhere to a specific academic discipline, especially literature, history and philosophy."(2) The phenomenon of the so-called "academization" of American feminist theory has evoked enough skepticism among feminists in and out of the academy as to constitute a contentious issue among them. A frequent argument has it that the academy can insulate feminist ideas from the wider popular culture and consciousness thus limiting the practical impact of feminism on institutions of power. Some feminists view this as a betrayal of the political goals of the feminist movement. For others the academy is a site of politics, therefore theory developed there need not be irrelevant to practical interventions in the wider social formation. …