Sunday 27 July 2014

What's wrong with feminism?

Feminism has had a good run since the 1970s at universities and in public debates. Yet, more recently it seems to have lost momentum. There are few female political or cultural commentators that are happy to call themselves feminists and the movement itself appears to be fragmented and riven with theoretical factions.

Let me state at the very outset that I believe that feminism has made an enormous contribution to a better understanding of the female experience of oppression and disadvantage which has been with us (and still is) for times immemorial. Yet, the question remains, why has feminism not made more of an impact? Given that horrific injustices against women are still perpetrated (not least FGM) and appear to be still deeply ingrained in cultural traditions, the question is legitimate: what went wrong?

Feminism started with a laudable agenda. It was to chart the female experience of systemic oppression and injustice. In academia it quickly became mired in theoretical subtleties and undercut by countervailing philosophical movements such as postmodernism. This may have sapped some of the energy of the initial project, but some of the blame, I think, should surely be shouldered by feminist theorists themselves (they include men too).

I recently read Nancy Hirschmann's attempt to outline a feminist account of political obligation (Rethinking Obligation. A Feminist Method for Political Theory, Cornell: Ithaca 1992) and here is what she says about why the feminist experience is different from the masculine one:

'The very process of identification for girls is relational, whereas for boys it tends to deny relationship and emphasize abstraction and fragmentation. ... Just as the boy's identification with an abstraction makes it difficult for him to maintain connection and trust in later life, so does the girl's difficulty in breaking away from her primary identification [her mother - AK] inhibit her sense of separateness.' (p.135)

Hirschmann's problem is that either she wants to make an empirical point, for which Freudian psychoanalysis may not be a suitable vehicle, or she intends to forge a new conceptual framework, which requires justification. Over about 150 pages of psychobabble, it increasingly appears apparent that Hirschmann actually believes that children grow up without a father, which means that boys cannot form relationships and girls cannot reason abstractly. Where the evidence comes from for this strong claim is never quite clear but she refers repeatedly to Freudian psychoanalysis in post-war incarnations as her main witness.

The problem for a feminism built on Freudian foundations is obvious. As an empirical claim, it is certainly wrong that girls cannot reason abstractly and boys cannot form relationships. But the real danger lurks in the essentialism that she advocates. In her theory of personal development, she actually confirms the most egregious gender prejudices that have been advocated for centuries and contributed to the marginalisation of women in public life. So, basing her feminist theory on 'empirically proven' accounts of gender difference in personal development re-arms the prejudices she wants to defeat.

Philosophically, this lands her in hot water as she proceeds to build a political theory of obligation out of gendered difference that she actually wants to eliminate. The choice she has is either to privilege the 'feminine' over the 'masculine' experience, or to simply claim that neither of them should be epistemologically superior. The latter position closely resembles the contortions of linguistic theorists and social constructionists who claimed that all narratives of reality are equally valid.

Whilst this position may sooth some notions of political correctness, it jars with reality on a daily basis. Clearly, Hirschmann's starting point was that injustices perpetrated against women (such as FGM) ought NOT to be seen as morally equal to those practices that are based on women's free choices.

Hirschmann spends about 200 pages to bat away the ghosts that her own inconsistent position calls up yet ultimately arrives at little more than the banal statement that 'a theory of feminist obligation requires us to attend to the political context for obligations, and that context requires participation, communication, and interpersonal relationship as the model of political community' (p296). You don't say!

So why is Hirschmann's attempt so instructive for feminist theory? It appears to throw a light at the heart of any essentialist philosophising. If you think that the way in which we are positioned in our world should be the starting point for theorising, then don't be surprised that the way the world looks from those positions is slightly wonky. Whilst Hirschmann is full of contempt for liberal philosophers who try to abstract in their work from actual situations, she mistakes this for wilful masculinist distortions. In fact, although abstractions may not allow us to see the whole picture (which is often shot through with serious injustices for specific groups in society) they are a useful heuristic device to agree on basic principles that can apply to all, regardless to creed, gender, colour or status. It's is this universalising feature of philosophy which feminism appears unable to accommodate.

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