Fundamental Feminism: Contesting the Core Concepts of Feminist Theory Judith Grant New York, NY: Routledge, 1993.
Reviewed by Brenda L. Beagan Department of Anthropology and Sociology University of British Columbia Vancouver, BC
Judith Grant's Fundamental Feminism offers a highly readable analysis of early feminist theorizing, a critical examination of feminist standpoint theories and feminist epistemologies, and an overview of current explorations in postmodern feminism. In each area she traces three central concepts, which she calls "core concepts," that emerged from early feminist writing and politics, and which she argues have become foundational for feminist theory. These concepts are: (1) Woman; (2) experience; and (3) personal politics.
Grant argues that a notion central to early feminism was that women were oppressed as Women, a category that must "include all women or risk dissolution." However, the acknowledgment that women constituted a distinct social group required some basis for connection. Thus developed the idea that there was a female nature shared by all women, at all times across all cultures. As Grant points out (and as many others have pointed out), this was essentialist, ethnocentric and ahistorical.
Equally problematic for Grant is the core concept of "experience." Early feminists redefined oppression subjectively to mean anything women experienced as oppressive; the measure of any ideology, theory or generalization was whether it matched women's experiences. The major problems Grant identifies with this core concept are that experience is impossible to discern authentically, and that experience leaves some women out. This is especially problematic when whole categories of people say, "That does not match our experience." Grant's primary concern seems to be that "experience" is linked to the universalistic category "Woman," assuming that all women share common experiences. However, it is not clear whether the problems Grant identifies would remain if it were disconnected from a universal Woman. While I agree with Grant that essentialist and universalizing understandings of "experience" are problematic, it strikes me as very dangerous to ground feminist politics, theory and action in anything other than women's experiences.
The third core concept, "personal politics," arose from the epistemological position that women's experiential knowledge was the only valid knowledge. The notion of personal politics was that the things women experienced as profoundly personal in fact came directly from political relations between men and women in a system of male domination -- patriarchy. And since the oppression of Woman was transcultural and transhistorical, patriarchy had also to exist across cultures and across time. Grant points out that this made it difficult even to imagine any relations between men and women that would not be based on domination and subordination.
Grant examines how these core concepts are used in many different versions of feminist theory, including socialist feminism, feminist standpoint theories and theorizing by women of colour. While she raises many valid criticisms, she also tends to characterize an entire category of theorizing with the flaws that may be true of a single theorist. Furthermore, some of her criticisms seem to be based on misunderstandings of the theories she is critiquing. At the very least, in searching for her core concepts, I think she has at times oversimplified complex theories.
Nonetheless, in establishing the existence of the three core concepts in a wide range of feminist theories, from early radical feminism to contemporary postmodern feminism, Judith Grant shows a greater continuity and connection in feminist theorizing than most feminists tend to be aware of. Furthermore, she has given many of these theorists, especially early radical feminists, a more generous reading than I have seen in a long time. …