Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

SKEPTICAL FEMINISM: Activist Theory, Activist Practice

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

SKEPTICAL FEMINISM: Activist Theory, Activist Practice

Article excerpt

SKEPTICAL FEMINISM: Activist Theory, Activist Practice Carolyn Dever Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004; 219 pp.

Perhaps the most important sentence in Carolyn Dever's Skeptical Feminism is her deceptively simple and somewhat defiant assertion early in the book: "After all, there is more than one way to do theory" (p. 12). Dever importantly challenges the prevailing tendency in the academy in general for those who "do theory" to collapse this activity into the production of one kind of theory - be it critical theory, social theory, cultural theory, or some particular "school" of theory. For all their commitment to open inquiry, those who "do theory" sometimes have an alarming attraction to factionalization, often resulting in bitter divisions, disdain for outsiders, and discourses of accusation that make genuine dialogue difficult. Dever returns to a particularly contentious period in the formation of feminist theory - the 1970s and 1980s - to examine the many ways in which theory was produced in the United States. One of the most impressive things about Skeptical Feminism is how she adroitly manages to cover this historically significant period of Second Wave feminism without falling into the traps of many prior narratives that tell tales from typically partisan sides of the confrontations between cultural vs. materialist feminisms, white vs. women of colour feminisms, American vs. French feminisms, straight vs. lesbian feminisms, reformist vs. radical feminisms, humanist vs. postmodern feminisms, lesbian vs. queer feminisms, first world vs. third world feminisms, older generation vs. younger generation feminisms, academic vs. activist, and so forth.

The story Dever has to tell is not without conflict. Indeed, she emphasizes the importance of dialectics in feminist theory and practice, and she frequently offers trenchant critiques of various theories. (My favourite is her reading of Toril Moi's influential Sexual/Textual Politics.) But she goes over territory usually fraught with agonistic battles in a fresh way, admirably (and for the most part fairly) entering into the discourse of a variety of different feminist theories to articulate their contributions as well as to expose their inconsistencies or contradictions. She is particularly sharp in her analysis of heteronormativity and the tendency of feminist theory, from radical movement documents to popular novels to high-theory queer theorists, to occlude the presence of lesbians - an absence that still needs to be rectified. Skeptical Feminism is a thoroughly intelligent and engaging read, both for those who lived through these debates (as I did) and for those who believe it is important for the future of feminism to better understand the roots of contemporary feminist theory and activism (as I do).

One of the main contributions of Skeptical Feminism is Dever's insistence of skepticism as essential for, even inherent in, feminist theory. The skepticism she advocates has several layers of meaning. One of these is the method which implicitly governs her own method and which she states in the final paragraphs of the book through her citation of Bonnie Zimmerman, a critic whom Dever clearly admires. In reference to the divisions between lesbian and queer theorists, Dever quotes Zimmerman: "I believe that lesbian and/or lesbian/gay/queer/sexuality studies will develop best if each constituency maintains some healthy and skeptical distance, engages in open and critical dialogue, and acknowledges both the similarities and the differences, the congruencies and the contradictions, among our multiple points of view'" (p. 170). Zimmerman's emphasis on skeptical distance, open and critical dialogue, and pluralism is precisely what Dever aims to achieve in her own chapters on various sites of feminist theory production in Second Wave feminism of the 1970s. Skeptical Feminism revisits many of the forgotten texts of the period and with the benefit of both temporal and philosophical "distance," Dever engages in open and critical dialogue with these texts, emphasizing the plurality of views produced over time. …

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