Reassessing Political Ideologies: The Durability of Dissent

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

10

Threads and plaits or an unfinished project?

Feminism(s) through the twentieth century

Diana Coole

Like many of the twentieth-century's major political movements, feminism's origins reside in the broad social changes associated with modernity. Although women's subordination (along with that of many categories of men, too) had been fairly uniform across traditional cultures, it had appeared to be naturally or divinely sanctioned and was rarely questioned. A transformation of social, productive and familial relations which was becoming apparent in Britain by the seventeenth century, coupled with the more individualistic and self-reflective culture associated with it, however, laid the basis for women to begin identifying themselves as an unjustly oppressed category of persons. Feminism as a discursive response to this recognition was indebted to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, but its emergence as a mass movement was a nineteenth-century phenomenon. It is helpful then to think of its entry into the twentieth century in terms of two intimately yet contingently related components: as a women's movement equipped with a feminist ideology. The role of the ideology was to present women's case for emancipation. In liberal cultures ostensibly dedicated to reason, justice and social utility, arguments revealing the unwarranted discrimination women suffer should carry considerable weight. It was nevertheless obvious that reasoned argument alone would be insufficient for gaining sexual equality where established patriarchal interests were at stake, and women were accordingly motivated to organize politically in pursuit of their goals. Despite the many changes the twentieth century would bring to their politics, to their identity as women and to their aspirations, feminists' primary aim has remained one of abolishing discrimination or exclusion on the basis of gender.

The history of the women's movement's successes and setbacks in pursuit of this goal has been often and lovingly reconstructed, particularly in its British and American contexts. 1 Indeed this is part of feminism's ideological arsenal, its own mythology of origins and victories in the face of adversity, which grants it continuity and identity over time. It is a history that an overview such as this one must surely re-present. Yet it is a history that cannot be presented innocently or straightforwardly from the beginning of the twenty-first century, because of the way representations of the past inevitably pass through the concerns of the present. Now one must ask who speaks and from what perspective, as well as

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