Theories And Assumptions
Even though some practitioners of women's studies disavow any attempt to theorize universally about women or women's studies, most others will subscribe to a discussion of the following kinds of theories. Women's studies course material depends largely on various feminist theories, although these assumptions may not always be made explicit. Most feminist theories can be divided into two basic kinds, based on the answer to the question: How important is the physiological or biological difference between males and females? Put another way: What should one make of the sex-gender difference? Should this difference be noted and positively valued for its unique perspective? Or should it be downplayed in a system that recognizes the common humanity of men and women and attempts to unite women with institutions from which they have historically been excluded? These two basic strains of feminist theory have been variously called equality feminism and difference feminism, minimizer feminism and maximizer feminism, or individualist feminism and relational feminism. In each case, the first term includes those who seek to deemphasize difference and press for the integration of women into masculine institutions, usually emphasizing the individual; the second term includes those who seek to stress and value difference, to transform or abandon masculine systems, often emphasizing the relational qualities of women, especially in regard to children and extended families.
The term sex-gender is used here to refer to the biological and social difference between males and females. In the early days, the two words were used separately and distinctly. Sex meant the physiological difference between male and female, while gender meant the social overlay of education and socialization, constructed differently in different eras and societies. The two terms have become conflated in everyday speech, and many use gender where sex would have been used earlier. For many theorists, both terms are constructed—that is, the particular culture gives its own meaning to sex and gender. Additionally, we now have much more research and experience with transgendered individuals, such that the binary of male-female is problematic at best. Any particular "sex-gender system" is of course an artifact of a particular historical time and place. Still, the two major types continue to be a useful way of understanding the various forms of the theories that underlie women's studies.
Each one of the two major types of feminist theories includes several subtypes, from conservative to radical, from positions that imply few changes in the status quo to ones in which the whole society is altered by the shift in women's status and conceptualization. It is useful to envision the positions—minimizers and maximizers of difference—on two lines that move from the more conservative to the more radical, from right to left. The most conservative feminist position on both continua is that view of women that offers a rationale for the present structure of society. The most radical position offers a call for a future society totally transformed either by the extreme of making males and females no longer different physiologically (for example, by the abolition of female reproductive capacities) or, for the maximizers, the extreme of totally separating the two sexes—physically, geographically, and socially. Beyond the conservative feminist pole, one finds reactionary positions: for the maximizers, various sociobiologist positions; for the minimizers, the position that fails to recognize that human rights may be an issue. This latter view is based on an unstated assumption that might be expressed thus: "We are all alike; we all stand in the position of white privileged males; we all have equal rights."
Along the "minimizers" continuum, one moves first from the "human rights" position to "women's rights," the stance of various reformist groups and theorists that advocate granting equal rights to women in all areas by working within existing political systems. This nineteenth-century egalitarian position of the first women's rights activists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, is also known as liberal feminism. It is the point of view of John Stuart Mill in his important work The Subjection of Women (1869) and that of Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The stance is found most conspicuously in the early twenty-first century in views of the U.S. National Organization for Women (NOW).
Next along the continuum are various types of socialist feminists: those who advocate the primacy of socialist revolution, those who advocate wages for housework and other solutions to equate being a housewife (or a househusband) with working outside the home, and others who attempt to make new syntheses of feminist questions and socialist or Marxist answers that begin with an economic analysis. Historically the socialist position on women is stated most dogmatically by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), but many other theorists have used economics and class as a starting point. This approach is illustrated by Sheila Rowbotham's influential Women, Resistance, and Revolution (1972); Juliet Mitchell's four interlocking female structures (production, the reproduction of children, sexuality, and the socialization of children) in Woman's Estate (1971); and Zillah Eisenstein's grid pattern for understanding sex and class in concert in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (1979). What has come to be called "state feminism" in Europe, especially in the Nordic countries, fits into this position. A women's or equality minister is a part of the government, and socialist solutions to women's traditional inequality are made a part of the law.
The next position on the minimizer continuum is one that advocates the sharing of traditional gender characteristics. In order to remedy the psychosocial tyranny that oppresses both men and women, exclusive female parenting that produced "momism" (as well as the fear and hatred of women) must be ended, these feminists argue. This gender difference is a cultural product, not an inherent biological distinction. The psychologists Nancy Chodorow, in The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), and Dorothy Dinnerstein, in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976), both weigh in with this view, although in different ways. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics (1898) is an early work with this perspective. Traditional masculine (and valued) characteristics had been mistakenly monopolized by one sex, she believed, while the "feminine" virtues also needed to be shared.
Those who want to abolish gender distinctions completely, creating a gender-free (but not sexless) society, are next on the continuum. Males and females are more similar to each other than either is to any other species, these theorists claim. The anthropologist Gayle Rubin proposed this view in her influential article "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex" (1975). Simone de Beauvoir's renowned Le deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953) can be read as arguing this point as well. Her goal is for women to become the independent, "transcendent" human beings that men have always had the choice of becoming. Ursula Le Guin's fictional The Left Hand of Darkness (1977) posits an androgynous society in which people belong to a particular sex for only a few days a month; for most of the time they function androgynously in both physical and psychological ways.
The extreme pole of the minimizer position is represented by those intensely controversial thinkers who want to abolish not only gender and sex roles but also female reproduction (including conception, pregnancy, and birth) or at least their exclusive ownership by women. Gilman wrote one of the first explorations of such a society. Her fictional Herland (1915) envisioned a female-only culture where women conceive by parthenogenesis (without male sperm). In the more recent past, both theorists, such as Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1970), and feminist science-fiction writers, such as Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), have advocated the abolition of exclusive female reproduction. Many believe that reproductive technology, with its artificial fertilization and implantation of a fertilized egg, is close to making this a reality. The film Junior (1994), in which Arnold Schwarzenegger's character becomes pregnant, explores this fantasy in a humorous manner.
All feminists on the maximizer continuum are interested in seeking out, recognizing, and valuing sex-gender difference, especially as it relates to women. Women's specific talents and unique ways of contributing plead for their having a larger role in society. A bumper sticker reading "A Woman's Place is in the House—and in the Senate" uses this maximizer or difference argument, as does one that says "Clean Up Politics—Elect Women."
One notes first the historical "separate spheres" position—that women and men inhabit different physical places in society (private and public) and have different roles, virtues, aptitudes, sensibilities, and "ways of knowing." The nineteenth century saw the first clear use of the separate-spheres philosophy to help ameliorate women's position, in such thinkers as Catharine Beecher and Frances Willard. Later Jane Addams, in Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), enunciated the "municipal housekeeping" argument for giving women the vote: women should manage the household, but if they were to do this well, they must be concerned with clean water, pure milk, garbage disposal, and safe streets and parks for their children. They must therefore participate in municipal government by voting and standing for office. People promoting separate spheres in the twenty-first century include conservative women on the New Right and fundamentalist Christians.
The next group on the continuum wants to glorify the "feminine," wherever it may be found, often in writings of male poets. Sometimes identified as postmodern feminists, many of these thinkers are French or influenced by Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and other French deconstructionists. Opposed to binary oppositions such as male-female, these feminists wish to assert multiple modes of being and gender. Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva are important writers here, as are Jane Gallop, Joan Scott, and Teresa de Lauretis in the United States and Toril Moi and Gayatri Spivak internationally. Additionally these thinkers would be opposed to the very idea of the two continua, since they often assert that neither "woman" nor "man" can be defined.
Cultural feminists and maternalists occupy a middle position on the maximizer continuum. Cultural feminists celebrate women's spirituality, art, music, and writing, especially in women's bookstores, cafés, theater groups, galleries, holiday centers, and support groups. Both the feminist art movement and the women's music movement, with its annual festivals, have been important in articulating these viewpoints. The maternalists cherish motherhood as the source of woman's difference and superiority. Both practical groups—lesbian parenting, natural and home-birth groups, and the women's health movement—and theorists such as Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) and Sara Ruddick in Maternal Thinking (1989) are connected to the maternalist position.
The "woman-as-force" position rejects "woman-as-victim" stances and argues that because of women's close connection to nature—historically, biologically, mythologically, and psychologically—women can save humanity from the destructive path that men have begun. The historian Mary Beard enunciated the woman-as-force position in 1946, while Carol Gilligan's argument that young women take different ethical stances than young men, articulated in her In a Different Voice (1982), has influenced psychological and learning theories on gender differences. Another important work in this vein is Mary Field Belenky and her colleagues' Women's Ways of Knowing (1986).
Ecofeminism is an important subcategory of the woman-as-force position; the views of various theorists, such as Ynestra King, Susan Griffin, and Karen Warren, have been influential. The Indian nuclear physicist Vandana Shiva's work, especially Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development (1988), explores ecofeminism on the global stage and makes connections with postcolonial and development concerns.
The female supremacists occupy the most radical position on the maximizer continuum. Either lesbian or celibate, these most extreme of the separatists advocate a complete partition of the sexes, believing that only with their own institutions can women find freedom. How far separatism is taken depends on the individual, but some advocates call for separate geographical areas for women, attempting self-sufficiency in various communal living situations. Most influential in this argument are Mary Daly, in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978) and Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987); Sonia Johnson, in Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution (1989); Marilyn Frye, in Some Reflections on Separatism and Power (1981); and various science-fiction proposals, such as Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975). It should be noted, however, that lesbians are found in all categories of feminism.
Problems with the model; or, mediating the dichotomy.
The dichotomy of equality-difference or minimizers-maximizers is difficult to maintain and often false, asserts the German critic Gisela Bock, since dichotomies are often hierarchies in disguise. Arguing strongly on the side of difference can lead to the dangerous "difference dilemma" because it can confirm women's inferiority. Yet strong arguments from the equality stance produce the "equality dilemma," in which gender differences are completely erased and everyone is presumed to be the same.
The most fruitful way to deal with the two kinds of arguments is to mediate between them, as some contemporary thinkers have done. There is a suggestive link made by African-American and multicultural feminists who argue the need for forms of socialism (a minimizer strategy) while identifying and celebrating the unique assets supplied to the struggle by strong women of color (a maximizer strategy). "The Combahee River Collective Statement," in Home Girls (1983), edited by Barbara Smith, and This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1983), edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, are essential works in this vein. Likewise the historian Gerda Lerner's conceptualization of "woman as majority" in The Majority Finds Its Past (1979) connects maximizer arguments about women's different strengths and special institutions with the minimizer insistence on the necessity of abolishing the sex-gender system and sharing gender.
Other creative thinkers have written of "difference in unity" or "equality in difference." Virginia Woolf, in Three Guineas (1938), proposes that women need to belong to a society of outsiders who have the same goals as men but must work in their own way on the borders of the patriarchal system, both inside and outside. In a spoof on the religious vows of monks and nuns, she says that women who belong to this society must take vows of poverty, chastity (of the brain), derision of honors, and freedom from the "unreal loyalties" of nation, class, sex, family, or religion. Members of the Society of Outsiders would agree to earn their own livings "expertly," not engage in any profession that promotes war, and criticize the institutions of education and religion. Only in this way can women help prevent war. Contemporary thinkers, especially Latinas and other bicultural women, such as Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands: The New Mestiza La Frontera (1987), or African-American women, such as bell hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), also explore this "border" position. So-called Third or Developing World feminists (also known as postcolonial feminists) clearly mediate the two strands of theory, with their call for support for nationalist struggles ("all issues are women's issues" and "if it's appropriate technology, it's appropriate for women") and their recognition of women's continuing "double day" work (housework, child care, and productive or economic activities) at every level of society around the world.
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