Week 4 Critical Analysis
A central problem within feminist discourse has been our inability to either arrive at a consensus of opinion about what feminism is or accept definition(s) that could serve as points of unification. Without agreed upon definition(s), we lack a sound foundation on which to construct theory or engage in overall meaningful praxis. Expressing her frustrations with the
absence of clear definitions in a recent essay, “Towards A
Revolutionary Ethics,” Carmen Vasquez comments:
We can’t even agree on what a “Feminist” is, never mind what she would believe in and how she defines the
principles that constitute honor among us. In key with the
American capitalist obsession for individualism and anything goes so long as it gets you what you want. Feminism in American has come to mean anything you like, honey. There are as many definitions of Feminism as there are feminists, some of my sisters say, with a chuckle. I don’t think it’s funny.
It is not funny. It indicates a growing disinterest in feminism as a radical political movement. It is a despairing gesture expressive of the belief that solidarity between women is not possible. It is a sign that the political naivete which has
traditionally characterized woman’s lot in male-dominated culture abounds.
Most people in the United States think of feminism or the more commonly used term “women’s lib” as a movement that aims to make women the social equals of men. This broad definition, popularized by the media and mainstream
segments of the movement, raises problematic questions. Since men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist,
patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to?
Do women share a common vision of what equality means? Implicit in this simplistic definition of women’s liberation is a dismissal of race and class as factors that, in conjunction with sexism, determine the extent to which an individual will be discriminated against, exploited, or oppressed. Bourgeois white women interested in women’s rights issues have been satisfied with simple definitions for obvious reasons. Rhetorically
placing themselves in the same social category as oppressed women, they were not anxious to call attention to race and class privilege.
Women in lower class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white, would not have defined women’s liberation as women gaining social equality with men since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do
not share a common social status. Concurrently, they know that many males in their social groups are exploited and oppressed. Knowing that men in their groups do not have social, political, and economic power, they would not deem it liberatory to share their social status. While they are aware that sexism enables men in their respective groups to have privileges denied them, they are more likely to see exaggerated expressions of male chauvinism among their peers as
stemming from the male’s sense of himself as powerless and
ineffectual in relation to ruling male groups, rather than an
expression of an overall privileged social status.* From the very onset of the women’s liberation movement, these women were
suspicious of feminism precisely because they recognized the
limitations inherent in its definition. They recognized the possibility that feminism defined as social equality with men might easily become a movement that would primarily affect the social standing of white women in middle and upper class groups while affecting only in a very marginal way the social status of working class and poor women.
Not all the women who were at the forefront of organized women’s movement shaping definitions were content with making women’s liberation synonymous with women gaining social equality with men. On the opening pages of Power: The Movement for Women’s Liberation, Cellestine Ware, a black woman active in the movement, wrote under the heading “Goals”:
Radical feminism is working for the eradication of
domination and elitism in all human relationships. This would make self-determination the ultimate good and require the downfall of society as we know it today.
Individual radical feminists like Charlotte Bunch based their analyses on an informed understanding of the politics of domination and a recognition of the inter-connections between various systems of domination even as they focused primarily on sexism. Their perspectives were not valued by those
organizers and participants in women’s movement who were more interested in social reforms. The anonymous authors of a
pamphlet on feminist issues published in 1976, Women and the
New World, make the point that many women active in women’s liberation movement were far more comfortable with the notion of feminism as a reform that would help women attain social equality with men of their class than feminism defined as a radical movement that would eradicate domination and transform society:
Whatever the organization, the location or the ethnic com position of the group, all the women’s liberation
organizations had one thing in common: they all came together based on a biological and sociological fact rather than on a body of ideas. Women came together in the women’s
liberation movement on the basis that we were women and all women are subject to male domination. We saw all women as being our allies and all men as being the oppressor. We
never questioned the extent to which American women accept the same materialistic and individualistic values as American men. We did not stop to think that American women are just as reluctant as American men to struggle for a new society based on new values of mutual respect, cooperation and social responsibility.
It is now evident that many women active in feminist movement were interested in reform as an end in itself, not as a stage in the progression towards revolutionary
transformation. Even though Zillah Eisenstein can optimistically point to the potential radicalism of liberal women who work for social reform in The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism, the process by which this radicalism will surface is unclear. Eisenstein offers as an example of the radical implications of liberal
feminist programs the demands made at the government-sponsor- ed Houston conference on women’s rights issues which took place in 1978:
The Houston report demands as a human right a full voice and role for women in determining the destiny of our world, our nation, our families, and our individual lives. It
specifically calls for (1) the elimination of violence in the home and the development of shelters for battered women, (2) support for women’s business, (3) a solution to child abuse, (4)
federally funded nonsexist child care, (5) a policy of full employment so that all women who wish and are able to work may do so, (6) the protection of homemakers so that marriage is a partnership, (7) an end to the sexist portrayal of women in the media, (8) establishment of reproductive freedom and the end to involuntary sterilization, (9) a remedy to the double discrimination against minority women, (10) a revi sion of criminal codes dealing with rape, (11) elimination of discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, (12) the establishment of nonsexist education, and (13) an
examination of all welfare reform proposals for their specific impact on women.
The positive impact of liberal reforms on women’s lives should not lead to the assumption that they eradicate systems of domination. Nowhere in these demands is there an
emphasis on eradicating the politic of domination, yet it would need to be abolished if any of these demands were to be met. The lack of any emphasis on domination is consistent with the liberal feminist belief that women can achieve equality with men of their class without challenging and changing the cultural basis of group oppression. It is this belief that negates the likelihood that the potential radicalism of liberal feminism will ever be realized. Writing as early as 1967, Brazilian scholar Heleith Saffioti emphasized that bourgeois feminism has always been “fundamentally and unconsciously a feminism of the ruling class,” that:
Whatever revolutionary content there is in petty-bourgeois feminist praxis, it has been put there by the efforts of the middle strata, especially the less well off, to move up socially. To do this, however, they sought merely to expand
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