Any movement that is tied to an entire group of humanity – whether that group be homosexuals, African-Americans, immigrants, or women – will ultimately disappoint individuals within that group. Particularly when these groups are not unified by common interests, any movement forward by those groups will be hindered by questions over direction. While feminism was a movement that dominated philosophical thought in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and even into the 1980’s, in the years since it has retreated to the wings of sociological discussions, as newer causes have moved in to occupy the interest of the next generation of thinkers and theorists. Feminism, though, has an important place in social theory. After all, it has a lofty and worthy goal as a movement: the end of the subordination of women. Feminism asserts that “women’s subordination is real, that this subordination is neither natural nor necessary, and that it can and should be ended” (Alway, p. 211). By using the life experiences and anecdotes of women, feminist thought seeks to influence general social debate and move toward full equality for women as a group. To suggest that feminist theories are “prisoners of gender,” though, overlooks the richness of gender difference. It is not possible to separate feminism from gender, because it is impossible to take gender identity away from males or females: even if individuals undergo the changes necessary to switch gender, it is not possible to leave one’s gender identity behind. While this might sound limiting, it is actually a form of liberation – to understand and honor the different gifts that men and women both bring to life and its pursuits is the only way to truly banish the subordination of either gender from social life.
Rather than suffer from the limitations placed on it by gender identity, feminist theory has enriched the public sphere of knowledge. Examples of this progress include the fact that feminist thought has “reduced reliance on and acceptance of male experiences and perspectives; added to existing knowledge about social institutions and processes; introduced new topics and concepts; redirected inquiry into previously overlooked areas of life; and helped and maintain interdisciplinary linkages” (Alway, p. 214). Each of these contributions is valuable in their own right. Before the advent of feminist theory, the male viewpoint was seen as the correct one; when women differed too far from it, they were branded “hysterics” and often sent to sanatoria to recover. The fact that women were not allowed to serve on juries until well into the twentieth century in many parts of the United States indicates how biased general opinion was against the perspectives of women. Social institutions and processes that lacked the input of women often ended up being overly harsh and regimented: one example of this would be the treatment of the mentally ill in the early twentieth century and earlier times: instead of receiving medication and treatment, with an eye towards giving the patients as active a lifestyle as was possible, with as many outlets as possible, mental health patients were often chained to beds or walls inside cement chambers, treated as prisoners, animals or even worse. Many areas of life were overlooked before the arrival of feminist thought – such concepts as the “glass ceiling,” or the invisible barriers to promotion or even to equal pay that faced women during this time period never entered the sphere of social discourse until feminist theorists dragged them out into the open. The idea of a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body had never occurred to mainstream social thinkers until the years leading up to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Bringing feminist questions into the general arena of social discourse was and is an important part of maintaining an atmosphere of equality and dignity; to suggest that feminism can ever leave gender behind, though, is problematic, because the differences between men and women, while certainly no excuse for subordination, are part of what make the tapestry of humanity so beautiful.
The intersection of feminist theory and postmodernism is an interesting one. While postmodernism seeks to tear down many of the traditional Enlightenment claims, using the argument that the Enlightenment was a time centered around white males, rendering its conclusions faulty for a multicultural society that recognizes both of its genders. The very motto of the Enlightenment (sapere aude, or “Have courage to use your own reason”) suggested that reason is separate from social interaction. Postmodernists believe that it is impossible to separate reason from the other impulses that drive human thought and action (Bordo, p. 442). Modernists, on the other hand, tend to view reason as a separate instrument, brought in to analyze human thoughts and deeds much like a microscope is brought in to analyze bacteria and other objects on slides.
However, for feminism to retain its wealth, it is important to analyze the claims from the Enlightenment that postmodernists would abandon. First is the notion that each person possesses a “stable, coherent self” (Flax, p. 624). The Enlightenment view of the self included the capacity of the individual to reason and to analyze one’s own actions and ideas. Postmodernists question the existence of this stable self – however, to question whether or not this entity exists robs both men and women of the dignity of autonomy. While the self is undoubtedly in constant flux, to suggest that the self cannot maintain a stable identity is a step further. For feminists to asserts that the female self can, indeed, keep a constant identity, just as well as men can, is a stronger statement about the power of the individual – of both genders.
Another Enlightenment assumption that postmodernists question is the ability of reason and philosophy to provide, on their own, a basis for knowledge. This assumption is more problematic, because it does not allow for the use of affective factors in decision-making. However, to admit that these affective factors exists does not undermine the power of reason; instead, it enriches the debate by allowing reason and emotion to stand together, combining the best of both impulses in decision-making. One doesn’t have to watch the development of Mr. Spock or Commander Data from the Star Trek menagerie to learn that both impulses have their place and are important in human activity. The Enlightenment thought that reason would necessarily lead to “truth” is also limited. If thinkers only use reason to view the world around them, then they miss out on the affective factors that give life richness and improve connection between humans. These affective elements are very important when it comes to such factors as the maintenance and strengthening of relationships – not just in the home but in the workplace and in society at large as well. Allowing these affective factors into the discussion will keep the drive toward subordination at bay, because every participant in the social circle will be allowed to be as authentic as possible.
While the concept of a stable, autonomous self may fit in the philosophical boundaries established by feminism, it is important to remember that the idea of a common “essence” that serves to define essential elements of all people is contradictory to the founding ideas of feminism. According to this line of thinking, there is no consistent essence that unites all people. Instead, the central ideas that drive and motivate people do not come from some Edenic island, but instead come from the cultural constructs that surround each of us. The ideals of motherhood vary significantly between families in the United States and in Japan, for example – the role of the mother in the development of the child differs significantly between those two cultures. Most of the expectations that pile up on women (and men) vary significantly, depending on the cultural context in question.
The problem remains, though, in the postmodern insistence that there can be no such thing as the autonomous, stable self. Feminist thought demands that people look at the world with a view for depth and take appearances into consideration. Without these two elements of a social viewpoint, it is impossible to achieve the “deep understanding that women and society as a whole want and need” (Tress, p. 197). While the semantic parlor games that postmodernists and structuralists bring to the task of analysis can go on indefinitely, making progress as a society requires that, at some point, the philosophy end and the progress begin. There must be points of common ground that men and women can rationally find and affectively accept. The postmodernist refusal to accept the existence of stable, autonomous individuals and experiences undermines any attempts to build a genuine, thoughtful social discourse.
While feminism remains intertwined with gender, it is inappropriate to suggest that the intertwining is a confinement. Instead, it is a recognition of the differences between men and women. That there are differences does not mean that there is superiority on one side or the other, or that subordination of one group is acceptable. When theorists insist that a point of view is either absolutely correct or completely flawed, they become captives themselves – not to gender, and not to the Enlightenment, but to their own presuppositions about human interaction, and the possibility for finding common ground. While there is much to agree with in the postmodernist deconstruction of the Enlightenment, the fact that there are flaws in the assumptions from the Age of Reason does not mean that those flaws wreck the entire set of ideas. Theorists who have as their goal a rich, meaningful view of the wealth of interactions in society will, instead, take those assumptions individually, dealing with each on its own merits.
Alway, J. (1995). The trouble with gender: Tales of the still-missing feminist revolution in
sociological theory. Sociological Theory Vol 13 (3): 209-228.
Bordo, S. (1986). The Cartesian masculinization of thought. Signs Vol. 11 (3): 439-456.
Flax, J. (1987). Postmodernism and gender relations in feminist theory. Signs Vol. 12
Tress, D. (1988). Comment on Flax’s ‘Postmodernism and gender relations in feminist
theory.’ Signs Vol. 14 (1): 196-200.