Sociology 319

February 17, 2000

Feminist Social Theory – II


Notes from Alison Hayford

Notes for Soc. 319 Feb. 17 2000: Aspects of feminist theory

It's important to place all social theory in the context in which it is created and used.

  1. Act of creating academic theory is an act of domination: people who can do it have time and education

This leads to some problems for some feminists who challenge established theories: because of the essentially privileged nature of social theory (at least the "canon" of academic social sciences), they often see theory (and logic and mastery of knowledge) as

From this some feminists deduce that truly liberatory thinking—e.g., feminism—can't take the forms of social theory.

Note as well: while the article in the text does discuss some feminist theorists, its author has to place these theorists in the context of which established, canonical male theorists they follow—Marx, Freud, Foucault, etc. (e.g., p. 328. P. 336)

  1. One counterargument to this is that not all theory is academic:

People in subordinate positions must have a theoretical understanding of the world in order to survive. This remains outside the canon because

Question #1:

If feminists do succeed in making feminist ideas part of the mainstream (academic/cultural), do these ideas simply become part of the "master's house"?

If feminism has any success, does it subvert itself?

  1. Unlike the 19th century based social theories that are dominant in sociology, feminist theory has roots in praxis:

This was particularly important for the more politically radical feminists of the 60s and early 70s:

Liberal feminists came to theory as they discovered their reasonable demands met with resistance and had to figure out why—but they tended to be less theory laden than more politically radical feminists.

  1. The first thing 2d wave (1960s/70s) feminists had to do was separate sex/gender—i.e., figure how to get away from the "naturalness" of gender difference

This solved some problems and opened up theory in important ways; it was essential to do this in order to bring females and feminine roles into the realm of the social. But it left some significant issues open:

Question #2 (a lingering one): Since we all walk around in bodies, how do feminists deal with issues that arise from biology?


Question #3 (another lingering one) If the body doesn't matter, then what is the basis for political claims on behalf of a biologically defined group (women)?

  1. Feminist praxis immediately ran into problems because of several of its basic tenets:
  1. The denial of the body/of biological determinism:
  1. Binary thinking—what is male/masc. is not female/fem. and vice versa:

This gave rise to a strong anti-intellectual element in feminism even though so many vocal activists were intellectuals:

  1. Idea that difference=oppression (not particular in liberal, but widespread in other); rise of identity politics
  2. Need to frame feminist issues/claims in terms of established political/theoretical terms:

In many ways, feminist women were still defining themselves as Other. Much 1970s feminist theory framed in terms of or in response to established 19th century theories, in particular Marxism and psychoanalytic theory. Furthermore, there was (and is) a liberal undercurrent to all feminist theory—though it's not always recognized as such:

Feminist double bind #1: Any acknowledgement of different/attempt to analyze difference seen as a return to essentialism/determinism. Failure to acknowledge difference seen as cultural imperialism by middle class white women.

  1. 1980s on: feminist theory more academic, framed in terms good for dissertations, hiring, tenure:

Feminist double bind #2: 1960s/70s feminist mistrust of "malestream" meant that academic women who "made it" got little encouragement from outside the academy—they were just doing "men's jobs"—"real" feminists would be doing "women's work." Academic mistrust of feminism meant that feminist academics had little support within academy—few female colleagues, males tended to keep distance. The more feminist theory and research "made it" within the academy, the more distance developed between theory and practice, and the more feminist academics found themselves "outside feminism—"but the more many academic colleagues distrusted them.

7. Until 1980s, feminist theories were predominantly structuralist; in terms of tactics, one had to change structural conditions to change situation of women. Experience of resistance along with general difficulties of structuralist models led to turn to post-structural and post-modern feminisms: increasingly academic, non-practice based. Even feminist academics who were activists found it harder and harder to coordinate their theory and their action—even though the post-modern turn came about in part because of problems of practice (entrenched cultural resistance impervious to all evidence, reason).

8. The "posts" open doors to new issues and to unresolved older ones:

9. Within structuralist theories: identities are created/determined by positions within social structures (e.g., class, gender).

Within the "posts:" identities are shaped by the positions of individuals within multiple social conditions (structures may not even exist); individuals actively create identities; identities are unstable, shifting; different conditions may be more salient at different times. Without fixed social identities there are no fixed social groups. Individuals form more or less temporary alliances based on sets of shared characteristics.

10. The posts were dominated by certain forms of French feminism—based in psychoanalysis and a kind of Hegelian vision of self/Other:

Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous—all women

11. Psychoanalytical theory is a sort of ultimate distance from praxis.

The essence of psychoanalytic assumptions (a conflation of Freud/Lacan/French posts):

Indeed, gender itself is phallic; the acquisition of femininity by females is entry into a male-dominated symbolic and social order. But the alternative is psychosis: non-humanity. Male power is essential for the rise of culture; the male exchange of females is the primal cultural act (Levi-Strauss and Lacan); thus female passivity is a prerequisite for culture itself. (Talk about the blind viewpoint of dominance!)

Two big contradictions:

10. Linguistic feminism is related: This idea, that the structure of language is centered by the phallus, produced the word "phallocentric." Derrida's idea that the structure of language relies on spoken words being privileged over written words, produced the word "logocentric" to describe Western culture in general. Cixous and Irigaray combine the two ideas to describe Western cultural systems and structures as "phallogocentric," based on the primacy of certain terms in an array of binary oppositions. Thus a phallogocentric culture is one which is structured by binary oppositions-- male/female, order/chaos, language/silence, presence/absence, speech/writing, light/dark, good/evil, etc.--and in which the first term is valued over the second term; Cixous and Irigaray insist that all valued terms (male, order, language, presence, speech, etc.). are aligned with each

other, and that all of them together provide the basic structures of Western thought.

11. Another trend is to deny the body again—to see sex as well as gender in terms of "performativity" (Judith Butler). Queer theory.

Gender is not passively scripted on the body, and neither is it determined by nature, language, the symbolic, or the overwhelming history of patriarchy. Gender is what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure, but if this continuous act is mistaken for a natural or linguistic given, power is relinquished to expand the cultural field bodily through subversive performances of various kinds"

(Judith Butler, ‘Performing Acts and Gender Constitution', 1990: 282).

In the latest challenge to notions of gender, Queer theory has

borrowed Austin's original notion of linguistic performativity in

order to comprehend the ways in which gendered and sexed

bodies are discursively constituted. Yet, the speech act theory of

performatives has been heavily criticised: for its lack of attention

to sequence, for its individualistic focus on single utterances

originating from an intentional subject, and by post-structuralists

for the hierarchical separation of 'real' performatives from

'theatrical' citations. Alternatively, radical Queer theorists argue

that gender performativity comprises not singular 'acts' but a

stylised citational practice, a chronic reiteration without an

original, by which discourse produces the phenomena that it

regulates and concomitantly reproduces hegemonic heterosexist

gender norms.

12. There still is a deep division between academic theory and front-line work. There are still significant differences in the theoretical understanding of what's at issue:

There are still lots of subtle but deep practices that affect the roles and places of women in the world.

13. Gender issues are still represented as women's issues. Issues of home/paid work in particular are still represented in this way. Few discussions of masculinity/roles of males. Why aren't men the problem? Why isn't masculinity an issue? Evolutionary psych. (new form of sociobiology) casts masculinity as biologically based and unchangeable—but in this case, it's an advantage for males.


Last edited on February 18, 2000.

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