Ideology and Culture: Towards Feminist Cultural History

Article excerpt

The relationship between culture and history, between text and experience, is of particular concern for feminists as a way of making meaning about the role of gender in cultural construction. Feminist cultural historians focus on the specificity of women's experience, authorship, language and understanding but, in so doing, privilege historical experience in the analysis of culture. We cannot be satisfied with an understanding of reality or culture as a web of overlapping discourses, but must include the historical experience of a particular time that develops or encodes contemporary culture.

In this context, the work of the French philosopher Michèle Le Doeuff provides us with a rereading of the relation between discourses and social practices - as I describe it, one of the key relationships in analyzing culture and history. Le Doeuff's view is that the analysis of culture must be linked with the operations of historically determined institutions. Le Doeuff also links the analysis of texts as culture with socio-economic movements, and socio-economic transformations, in what she calls sociological end political relations. The language she uses to describe these links refers to relationships which "condition" and "provide the context for philosophies." But the interest of what Le Doeuff is arguing, for me, is that she also goes on to analyse the inscription of sociological and political relations in the discourses of philosophy that have excluded women, so the very constitution of philosophic discourse "expresses, expels, represses end overcomes" that which has been aligned with the feminine in discourse (1987, 192).

I would like to suggest that Le Doeuff provides a useful position from which to advance feminist readings of Australian culture. For example, we need further work on the sexual division in education and instruction, as a way of understanding how women's access to philosophy and other public discourses was framed as a "break from the feminine condition." As Le Doeuff has described how women can only gain access to formal discourse through a man, often through approaching a philosopher or thinker as a "love-object," as disciple or vestal, in order to gain theory through "eroticotransference," so we might review our understanding of those women in Australian culture who did enter into the public world of writing about philosophy, history, politics end theology.

Michèle Le Doeuff's comments on women and philosophy may also make accessible for us a position for reading the gander ideology of early nineteenth century society. It is not new to see the construction of gender at that time as aligned with the affirmation of bourgeois ideology and as, at times, framed against the relative permissiveness of the aristocracy. But Le Doeuff also locates the bourgeois view of gender against an increasing polarization of the ideology of sexual difference, whereby women were increasingly confined to the sphere of feelings and emotions. The contemporary ideal of Romantic love was constructed as "an episode in a man's life, end the whole story of a women's."

Le Doeuff also provides us with a useful theorizing of the exclusion of women from public discourse. Women were constructed as incapable of philosophizing; the nature of woman's desire was to be subsumed in the domestic:

In fact it is women's desire that has always been minimized, since it is often thought that baby rattles are enough for them. What, is a man not sufficient to make them feel complete? Is there still a lack, the recognition of which creates the desire to philosophize? (Grosz 1989, 209)

Le Doeuff also forces us to problematize our speaking position in writing women's history. She includes a description of the roles taken by those women in the past who have been allowed to philosophize. I find uncomfortable parallels with current mainstream writers of women's history. Women historians, in her terms, may be: the nurse of dismembered texts; the healer of works battered by false editions; the housewife given the task of the upkeep of important edifices and monuments; the vestal of true discourse that time threatens to eclipse; or finally, a god's priestess, dedicated to a great dead man. …