Women’s Blood at the Root

Against the Current, No. 31, March/April 1991

Mechthild Nagel

Blood at the Root:
Motherhood, Sexuality and Male Dominance
By Ann Ferguson
Pandora Press, 1989, 299 pages, $14.95.

IN BLOODAT THE ROOT Ann Ferguson presents “a ‘fri-systems’ theory of the semi-autonomous yet interdependent workings of racism, patriarchy and capitalism in contemporary U.S. society which incorporates yet tries to go beyond the insights of classical Marxism, Freudianism and radical feminism?

Ferguson critically reviews these theories of social dominance. She argues that they are reductionistic in their analyses of society’s oppressive structures and notes that they fail to explain the phenomenon of women’s contradictory position in the United States today.

Marxist-feminists tend to misunderstand the origins of male dominance since they connect women’s oppression to the capitalist mode of production. Rather than being exploited by individual patriarchs (for example, in unpaid domestic labor), Marxists argue that women are merely catering towards the needs and interests of the capitalist class through the reproduction of wage workers. Ferguson also points, correctly, to the problem that Marxist theorists like Engels hold onto: the concept of rational self- interested agency. They argue that it is rational for men to control women’s labor power and sexuality that should enable them to attain unequal access to wealth. But this does not explain why women want to become dominated by men (in institutional marriage) even if they could become economically independent.

Ferguson contends that there is indeed a way out of Marxist gender-blind analysis She supplements the analytic concept of economic modes of production with a separate analysis. Thus the patriarchal mode of sec/affective production includes social use values such as mothering, nurturance and sexuality. Ferguson also distinguishes between the universal and historical aspects of sex-affective production systems.

In her critique of neo-Freudians (such as Mitchell and Chodorow), Ferguson argues that both their meta-narratives of infantile development in the patriarchal nuclear family reveal a static structural functionalism that does not allow for cross-cultural difference. Furthermore, their ahistorical analyses do not explain how social change—the development of subcultures or counterhegemonic practices—can come about.

Ferguson does accept Freudian premises such as primary bisexuality and the lack of a unified self, but she deconstructs the predominant notion of possessive individualism. She counterpoises her theory of oppositional versus incorporative aspects of the self, claiming that asocial identity may be composed of conflicting aspects. Thus she carefully avoids the static approach of Chodorow, that boys develop “rigid ego” personalities while girls develop permeable” ones.

In her thorough analysis of the problems of radical feminism, Ferguson contends that radical feminism failed to recognize essentialist, ahistorical assumptions that lead to racial and ethnic biases. In the later part of her book Ferguson proposes a new liberatory feminist sexual morality. She differentiates between risky and morally forbidden sex practices. So she tries to reconciliate what might seem divergent positions, from radical feminism to liberal feminism.

The strength of Blood at the Root lies in its attempt to avoid universalist assumptions, instead emphasizing historical situations. Of course, one could argue that it may be difficult to conceptualize a tri-systems theory, but Ferguson argues that it is important to distinguish between patriarchal, capitalist and racial formations. Each needs to be analyzed to see how each reinforces or contradicts the others. Women as a revolutionary “sex/class” are then called upon to utilize the contradictory positions in order to consciously build alliances: between working-class and bourgeois women, between African-American and white women.

What l clearly enjoyed in Blood at the Root is that Ann Ferguson, a socialist feminist, a lesbian, an activist in the peace and union movements, does not only provide the interested reader with an insightful, succinct critical analysis of contemporary feminist debates (in Great Britain, the United States and France) but she also puts forth a programmatic socialist-feminist strategy.

This book is a must for everyone who wants to serve as a catalyst for revolutionary change. Blood at the Root is an eye opener for those who always wanted to find out about feminism but never got around to engage in its theoretical and practical insights.

March-April 1991, ATC 31