Complicities of Western Feminism

By Shih, Shu-Mei | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Complicities of Western Feminism


Shih, Shu-Mei, Women's Studies Quarterly


For a scholar situated ambiguously vis-à-vis so-called Western knowledge, a sincere appreciation of this powerful and timely essay by Hester Eistenstein does not come without a vague feeling of unease. There are so many points of agreement with the essay, such as the call for a more sharply anticapitalist feminist practice; there are also so many points of recognition-that, yes, similar experiences have been shared by many feminists, white or otherwise. But the feeling of unease does not fade away. A cynical way to explain this uneasiness is to say that by now it is obligatory for a woman of color to be skeptical of any internal debates within liberal feminism, including the soul-searching kind. But the fact of the matter is that this uneasiness is also, for lack of a better description, an existential condition for many women of color feminists. Reading Eisenstein's essay for me is akin to looking through a transparent or one-way mirror; where Eisenstein sees a mirror on her side I see a window from the other side looking in. I can see and read her essay from this side of the window with agreement and recognition, but the essay on the other side of the transparent mirror does not look back at me, nor does the mirror give my reflection back to me. Transparent mirrors are usually used for the opposite form of hierarchy where the gazed at is the object of scrutiny or surveillance by the gazer from the position of power, but here it is the one looked at that has the power of visibility as well as attraction.

This is not to say that I am not an American or a Westernized subject. I live and work in the United States, and I may be counted as much a Westerner as anyone else, even though I don't have the "natural" look of a Westerner. American feminist tradition is as much my own as it is Eisenstein's, but our degree of ownership, whether self-recognized or recognized by others, is dramatically different, and we might claim different aspects of that tradition more as our own than we might other aspects. My relationship to the mainstream of this tradition, therefore, has always required a double consciousness on my part. The premise of this double consciousness is that there is no doubt that American feminism has contributed to the well-being of many women in the country on the one hand, and that this feminism is severely limited by its own class and race determinations on the other. For those women situated on the bottom end of the economic spectrum, there is no doubt that liberal feminism as social practice has always been intimately connected to and enhanced by capitalist development. For these women, there is no feminism without a political economy of feminism as a lived experience.

A similar double consciousness can be seen in many third world feminists as well: importing American feminist ideas can be empowering for their causes within their local patriarchal societies, but these feminist ideas are limiting and limited in local application on the one hand, and the "original" owners of these ideas tend to be patronizing toward third world women on the other. A leading Chinese feminist, Li Xiaojiang, first incorporated Western feminism in order to criticize the hidden male-norm in socialist gender equality in China; thus Western liberal feminism for her was synonymous with something more modern and more advanced. …

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