Ferrier, Carole, Hecate
What does `feminism' mean now? Does it mean something rather different to the `women's liberation' we talked about in the 1960s and early 1970s and, if so, why?
Hardly anyone talks about women's liberation any more, was the title of a review I wrote in 1986.(1) A perceptible shift in the terminology used for the visible manifestations of women's activism can be observed from the late 1960s through the 1980s; the term Women's Liberation Movement is gradually replaced by Women's Movement and this, in its turn, by `feminism,' though the latter remains a contested site.
Many former women's liberationists (some of whom would still see themselves as Marxists or socialists) are now using the term `feminism' to encompass their own practice, though they don't perceive this as within the historical tradition of mainstream `feminism' (represented by figures like Lily Braun, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst or Rose Scott), which has never been socialist.
Ann Curthoys argued back in 1975 in an article reprinted in For and Against Feminism that the kind of society feminism seeks is one in which sexism as well as "other structural inequalities and oppression" have been eliminated.
The older term `women's liberation' expresses this dual aim better than do our `new' terms `feminist' and `the women's movement' but probably we are stuck with `feminist' as a shorter and more linguistically flexible term. (Curthoys 1988, 21, my underlining)
But in fact, is it this linguistic flexibility of the term `feminism' that has contributed to the problem - does `feminism' mean anything much now? In 1986, Rosalind Delmar commented in an essay "What is Feminism?" in a book of the same title:
The fragmentation of contemporary feminism bears ample witness to the impossibility of constructing modern feminism as a simple unity in the present or of arriving at a shared feminist definition of feminism...it now makes more sense to speak of a plurality of feminisms than of one. (Mitchell and Oakley 1986, 9)
The Marxist left has often used the term `feminist' to designate radical or liberal feminism from which it distinguished its own theory of women's liberation. At the moment, `feminism' is in the process of being aggressively recuperated by gendercentred practitioners (see articles by Judith Allen and others in Watson 1990). However, the linguistic flexibility of the term `feminism' that has led to its incorporating women's liberation to some degree has also led to the marginalisation of the latter which, as I have said, is now rarely talked about. In the interest of clarity, we need to revive the term `women's liberation' to talk about the difference between `feminism' (as primarily a liberal cross-class practice) and the real Marxist tradition of women's liberation (even though this has been occluded and suppressed by decades of socialism being equated with Stalinism, see Lee Ack 1991). Socialist feminists have often reinforced the false equation of Marxism with the Stalinist practices of western Communist Parties; Sheila Rowbotham, for example, comments:
My generation...inherited a Marxism which had only continued in the western capitalist countries as a defensive body of orthodoxy surrounded by protective walls, encrusted with fear, stiff with terror, brittle with bitterness, aching with disillusionment. (1981, x)
Another reason why `feminism' doesn't mean much now for women's liberationists, is the rightward shift that, following the Kerr coup in 1975, has accelerated in the political climate generally. In the arena of women's movement activities there was a development away from the working class orientated campaigns around equal pay, childcare, abortion and so on, towards a central concern with rape, domestic violence, pornography and so on; and a shift away from militancy, towards welfare and working from within the system. Intersecting with this displacement, influencing and being influenced by it, has been a dominance of patriarchy theory ever class theory, even for feminists who might see themselves as Marxists. As Sandra Bloodworth comments of Heidi Hartmann's work:
Hartmann downgrades class as the fundamental determinant - because in the end you can't have two structures. One has to be primary, so her analysis does not treat patriarchy and capitalism as two systems in partnership. She argues that it was a conspiracy between male workers and capitalists which established women's oppression under capitalism. In other words, patriarchy is more fundamental than capitalism. This is an inbuilt confusion in theories which claim to `marry' Marxism and patriarchy theory. Agein and again, they have to read their own prejudice into historical facts to fit the abstract and mechanical notion of patriarchy. (Bloodworth 1990, 9)
This shift finds a parallel in the central political direction of academic feminism. Much of the body-centred work of theorists like Liz Gross (Grosz) or historians like Allen (intersecting in its turn with aspects of post-structuralist theory) incorporates a specific refusal to give any central importance to economic or class questions in analysing power relations. In Pateman and Gross's Feminist Challenges published in 1986, Allen endorses a feminist theory "which gives little credence to Marxist notions of periodisation, cause and effect, modes of production and class struggle" (180), while Janna Thompson's article gives a totally distorted representation of Marxist theory of class struggle by suggesting that it sets up the consciousness of (male) blue collar workers in all its aspects as some kind of ideal: according to her, Marxism "retains the idea that some social group by virtue of its position is best fitted to represent the good of all" (109). The relationship perceived by Lenin between the power of workers at the point of production and the politicised consciousness that can join with this power to produce a revolution (as discussed, for example, in what is To Be Done) escapes Thompson entirely, though Lenin's account of a good revolutionary practice in the same work is remarkably similar to what early women's liberation tried to do: "able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum of people it affects...able to generalise all these manifestations...." (Tucker 1975, 51).
Many feminist arguments against `Marxism' are in fact made against the essentially mechanical Marxism of the Second International, or the un-Marxist practices of various states under Stalinism. `Marxism' is pronounced to have failed because of the failure of `socialism' (that is, Stalinism) to liberate women. In fact, such states did not remove class society or the exploitation of labour; the need of Stalinist state capitalism to exploit labour and to oppress various groups in the course of this does not differ substantially from the need of capitalism to do this. For revolutionary Marxists, freedom from oppression can only come about with the removal of class relations, hence any struggle to get rid of capitalist or state capitalist regimes is part of the struggle for women's liberation, and only when they are got rid of will liberation be possible.
With the weakening now of the influence of Marxist perspectives within `feminism' has come a pessimism about the possibilities of liberating women through workers' action to remove the economic basis of inequality and, often, the replacement of this with an ultimately idealist strategy that focuses upon altering consciousness, that assumes that ideas can change in a widespread way without the social relations of production having been changed, that identifies the main problem as `men' rather than the capitalist or state capitalist systems within which exploitation and oppression maintain the hegemony of the ruling class and its economic power.
Liz Gross is not unaware that the neo-feminist project may be untenable or ineffectual. In her concluding comments to Feminist Challenges she suggests:
Feminist theory has developed the ability to look at any object from the point of view of perspectives and interests of women, of understanding and going beyond phallocentrism in developing different kinds of theory and practice. This description may sound like an idealised or utopian version of what a self-conscious and politically committed, active and informed theoretical practice should involve. Perhaps. (204)
Robin Rowland, another prominent figure within neo-feminism, in Woman Herself gives some indication of where she sees women's power to change the system as residing
So women do have some crucial bargaining areas: in their ability to withdraw reproductive services, emotional services, physical labour, domestic labour and their consent to being defined as the powerless, thereby verifying men's right to power.
Women also have what Janeway calls the power of disbelief. (173)
I myself don't have much confidence in the strategy for resistance attributed here to Elizabeth Janeway. Many of us may indeed have been going round for years saying in response to much of what we see around us: "I just don't believe it!" But in itself this has changed nothing.
"What is power for a woman in a male-dominated society?" asks the dust jacket of a recent paperback.
Dialogue with her team about the program they were about to put to air continued, with Jane building on the determination in the room, until each person had enthusiasm to go to the phones and extract agreements from high-profile `talent' - people in that morning's news - to be part of that day's Jane Singleton Show.
`Yes, darling, it's me.' Jane had answered her insistent phone. `I gave Tommy and Jess their worm medicine last night. It's in the little yellow bottle and they can take it now. You all right? O.k. darling. Yes, I'm O.k.'...It was David, doing a little more guarding. Jane designs it so that her domestic life overlaps her personal life. She is comfortable with it that way. It gives her confidence and the warmth she needs to ease the isolation...`Is there anyone important enough for me to put on make-up for?' Jane asked the team of women...She folded her hands gently across her middle as she asked. She was becoming more gentle as her on-air time approached, wanting some nurturing support, some soothing in readiness. (Knepfer 1990, 82)
No this is not a middle class feminist utopian novel. It purports to be `real life'.
Whose feminist dream is this? Is it yours? The dream of a smooth interaction between a nice home, a nice family and a nice career, all comfortably intersecting. The problem is that it is quite unachievable under capitalism, apart from the fact that under true socialism we wouldn't conceive of any of these things (home, etc.) in the same way. Gael Knepfer, author of the ghastly Women of Power, in which I found this account of Jane Singleton's happy working day, comments in her chapter on Hilary McPhee and Di Gribble:
One of the ironies of life in the late twentieth century is that increasingly we come to require all those services that the aristocracy expected in the late nineteenth century: people to look after the house, gardeners, teachers to look after the children, babysitters, maids and domestics. (51)
Here we can see something of a contradiction with Rowland's strategy of mobilising the power of the withdrawal of women's labour to produce liberation; in addition, the matrician quality of Knepfer's ideological stance becomes clearer. "Increasingly we" expect an army of servants so that "we" can be successful bourgeois professionals. What kind of path to liberation is this? Who exactly is empowered? It is this kind of feminism that is increasingly "publicised," but any feminist theory that asserts that all women have some kind of common interest undifferentiated by their class position is blind to these contradictions.
This situation is not that new. A historical parallel can be found in the figure of Christabel Pankhurst; the person whom Dale Spender, one of the most visible of recent publicists of feminism, claims as her heroine and model in a recent interview (1989).(2) Christabel, according to her daughter Sylvia, commented with extreme elitism in 1914 that: "a working woman's movement was of no value; working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest. `Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!...we want all our women to take instructions and walk in step like an army!'" (Pankhurst 1977, 517)
By contrast, early women's liberationists like Klara Zetkin, or Alexandra Kollontai, or Eleanor Marx, argued for the centrality of a working class women's movement that distinguished itself from the middle class movement for which reform was an end in itself, pointing out that the interests of middle class women and those of their servants could never be the same in any real sense. As Zetkin put it, middle class women competed with men of their class for status and influence, working class women were allied with the men of their class to change the system that was the source of their common oppression.(3) This general perspective is not that alien to the mainstream politics of earlier women's liberation, though recent gender-centred approaches are certainly hostile to it. Even those feminists interested in discussing reform initiatives through the system have frequently in the past expressed caution about such things as affirmative action. In 1986, Marilyn Lake wrote:
Affirmative action programmes...aim to assist women to join the workforce in all capacities and at all levels, seemingly without noticing that the main women to be advantaged by such a policy are those who share men's traditional privilege of freedom from domestic responsibilities (either because they are rich or they do not have children). As equal opportunity becomes equal opportunism, the result of affirmative action policies could well be the creation of two classes of women. (Lake 1986, 146)
On the other hand of course, the development of (at least) two classes of women is hardly something that began in the 1980s.
While I am not suggesting that bourgeois discourses of power like those represented in parts of Women of Power are the norm within neo-feminism (which term I use in preference to post-feminism since the current mainstream of feminism can be seen to descend directly from its antecedents, rather than rejecting them), they may well be on the increase. As Sneja Gunew commented recently:
The more women's writing there was, the less our claims of being silenced or textually absent rang true, so that new witnesses to oppression were required.... A nervousness crept over us as we have registered the spectacular marketing success which women's writing has enjoyed. As ever, we are alert to the spectre of recuperation...the emphasis should now be on rereading these newly conscripted texts and on being alert to their differences in order not to see them as a chorus of women's voices blended in undifferentiated sisterhood. (Gunew 1988, 115)
Given that many of the influential figures of women's liberation have now been incorporated into the femocracy, or achieved at least some rapprochement with liberal or redical mainstream feminism, it is perhaps not surprising that many women who came to `feminism' in the 1980s (for example Nicci Gerrard, or the women moving recently into Women's Studies courses) understand the strategies for, or possibilities of women's liberation to be only as they are currently constructed within the dominant discourses of feminism. Feminist politics today is much more preoccupied with `difference' between the oppressed than with anything that might unite them in struggle around a common interest.
In particular, mainstream feminism is inadequate on questions of race. As Ann Curthoys' paper argued, many neo-feminists are just not interested in looking centrally at the relations between the original indigenous people of Australia and the colonising group; further, in the areas of migration and Japanese investment, feminists have not been conspicuous among the anti-racist voices.
Feminism is now often `respectable,' less concerned with sexual liberation than with acceptability. Most neo-feminists are certainly most familiar with the construction of the feminist as the "nice (middle class, white, preferably heterosexual) girl." The women at the Pine Gap or Greenham Common actions saw themselves as morally superior to men and so rejected their participation in the demos. Female sexuality (with a few exceptions such as Martina Navratilova's according to Margaret Court)(4) is really rather pure and pleasant, as it is publicised in the dominant discourse. As Ania Walwicz's poem "girls" puts it, ironically, "girls are nicer." Rosa Cappiello, Monique Wittig, Kathy Acker, Cicciolina, Madonna, who publicise it excessively as other than that are not fashionable within mainstream feminism.
Lesbianism also remains a largely unmentionable subject within mainstream feminism. It could be argued, though the research has not really begun to be done, that there is a particular specificity to the repression of non-heterosexuality in Australia.(5) By comparison to Britain or, especially, the United States, it seems as though there have been few gay writers: to juxtapose to Faderman, Foster or Zimmerman's histories of lesbian writing you can come up with few texts, perhaps Kerryn Higgs' All That False Instruction, published under the pseudonym of Elizabeth Riley in 1975, is really the first lesbian novel in Australia - or has the work of writing the history of this genre just not been done?
Recent anthologies of feminist erotica are `nice' enough to give your Mum for Xmas. Jyanni Steffensen, reviewing Lyn Giles' Feminist Erotica comments:
Too much of the writing in Women's Erotica displays an inordinate respect for the socio-political conventions of erotic taboo. The cultural mandate on heterosexuality and vanilla sex for women remains largely unchallenged. (26)
We need to challenge the construction of desirable Australian femininity summarised by Ania Walwicz:
such a good girl/such a quiet/such a little quiet...I wanted people to like me/everybody like me/accept me/...such a good girl/never any trouble.
Theories that have been recently influential within academia have probably also contributed to the pervasive quietism. While deconstruction and post-structuralism purport to be daring and to challenge authority, their influence on practice is often to render any action impossible or irrelevant, since you have no theory that offers any ground to (make a) stand on. Hester Eisenstein suggested in a discussion with Alice Jardine in 1986 that deconstruction's rejection of liberal humanism posed political problems of its own:
It is my suspicion that the death of the unified subject came about just at the historical moment when feminists were deciding that the human subject could be female....you are drawing attention to the enormous questioning that's gone on, philosophically, about holding views that are tenets of liberalism. For example, that justice matters; that there is such a thing as truth; and that there is such a thing as an individual with a continuous history, who has a past and who makes autonomous decisions. (Eisenstein 1986)(6)
These problems also relate to the situation of formerly colonised indigenous groups. Eisenstein continues: "European males announce the death of liberty, equality and truth just at the moment when the rest of the world - the previously excluded groups - are saying, hang on, we want some!" Jardine responds that in a sense post-structuralist feminists work at "two speeds". She also recognises the limitations of the Theory that she works centrally with. In Theory, totalising discourses are finished, "we can no longer talk about human liberation. In my most pessimistic moments I say to myself, `Well, if we can't talk about human liberation, what can we possibly talk about?'"
What indeed? Some feminists and some feminisms may be in some ways entering the mainstream, but to remain effective we will have to refuse the construction of women's liberationists as "nice good middle class girls;" refuse to be incorporated within institutions, despite the rewards that might be offered to a few of us. If we want women's liberation, we will have to demand to reclaim the disreputable stereotype along with all the others who are still disreputable because they still continue to challenge the institutions, challenge the system - Blacks, Migrants, gays and lesbians, and workers - and also ally ourselves with them in their struggles.
(1). You haven't seen it. No-one would publish it at the time.
(2). Though recently under pressures from socialist feminist responses to her work Spender had begun to acknowledge that her cross-class feminism needed some justification, eg: "Feminism is for people who have full tummies, and who can say `I want something better'." (Bagnall 1988, 167)
(3). Particularly argued in pamphlets published in 1889 and 1896. See Zetlin, 1981, 14 for discussion.
(4). "'Martina is a nice person; her life has just gone astray.' Court who became a Christian in 1972, said she would have preferred to see West German Steffi Graf win this year's Wimbledon singles...`It is very sad for children to be exposed to it (homosexuality)'." Courier-Meil 12/7/90, 3.
(5). Though the recent revelation that the first Premier of Queensland Robert George Herbert lived gaily for six years with his lover Attorney-General John Bramston, their names amalgamated immortally in the suburb of Herston (Courier-Mail 12/7/90) is welcome.
(6). A very similar point is made by Nancy Hartsock (1990) in her essay on Foucault in Joyce Nicholson's Feminism/Postmodernism, 163-4.…
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Publication information: Article title: Publicising Feminism. Contributors: Ferrier, Carole - Author. Journal title: Hecate. Volume: 17. Issue: 1 Publication date: May 31, 1991. Page number: 116. © 1999 Hecate Press. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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