Feminism: Its Promises and Contradictions

Against the Current, No. 52, September/October 1994

Delia D. Aguilar

ACCORDING TO THE organizing committee for this symposium,* one of the main questions you would like to see addressed is why young women today are not especially eager to identify themselves as feminists. This accords with the assessment of a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute that while three-fourths of U.S. women claim they “support efforts to strengthen women’s rights,” only one-third accept the label “feminist.”

I want to tell you that it took me a long time before I could call myself a feminist. Let me narrate my coming to feminism and, in the process, point to some of the areas that I believed were troublespots during the early phases of the second wave, and what those troublespots might be today.

My political development began in work here in this country against the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. This was mostly support for the national liberation struggle taking place in my homeland. What that meant in practice was that our campaign here was to educate the U.S. public to the fact that it was U.S. people’s tax dollars that sustained the Marcos regime.

Support work also meant that we toed the political line drawn by the resistance movement in the Philippines. With respect to what was then referred to as “women’s issues,” the belief was that participation in the movement in itself represented a break from traditional sanctions placed on women, and that national liberation would ultimately liberate them.

It wasn’t long before I saw the bankruptcy of this position. For several years I went back and forth in dialogue with friends in the Philippines, arguing for specific attention to women’s issues. But as you might well imagine, the stubbornness with which my suggestions were received was extremely frustrating, doctrinaire as these folks were.

On the other hand, I did not find feminism in the U.S. terribly appealing, either. This despite the fact that I had then also began participating in women’s discussion groups and was teaching women’s studies. When in the `70s, African-American, Latina and other women of color began to criticize the women’s movement for its universalization of white women’s experience, they were giving voice to the reservations I had.

Seeing Through Whose Eyes?

White, middle-class feminists had then identified the nuclear family as the primary site of female oppression, with motherhood constituting the linchpin. But what about the ways in which families formed cultures of resistance and women, in the name of motherhood, confronted military might in “Third World” struggles?

When white feminists fiercely denounced the male chauvinism and homophobia of liberation struggles and would only condemn U.S. support of repressive governments upon our prompting, what could we make of such equivocation?

For those of us involved in support work for resistance movements, the atomized focus on female/male relations was both distracting and alienating, since as a collective we faced gender, class, racial, and national oppression. I think we know now that the problem was that the women who were most active and visible in the women’s movement failed to take into account matters of class (since they assumed their class privilege) and race (since they took for granted entitlements accruing to being white in a racist society).

I remember bringing up just those issues to a feminist study group to which I belong. A group of us “Third World” women decided to give a presentation on how feminism as put forth really only embodied the experience of white, middle-class women. We initially observed that even our vocabularies differed, the white women’s consisting of patriarchy and patriarchy-related terms, while ours revolved around “capitalism,” “imperialism,” “revolution,” etc. We brought out our concerns, which at the time centered on the struggles in Iran, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, the Philippines, etc.

Still, a white member of the group heaved a challenge that at once acknowledged and deleted our presence: “Should we support national liberation struggles that are patriarchal?” Because this was a Marxist/Feminist study group the response, in the end, was a positive one which resulted in broadening the scope of the topics addressed: working-class families, families in communities of color, workplace organizing in the United States and elsewhere, labor history, healthcare, among others.

Since then I also remember giving a talk along similar lines to the women’s studies faculty at my university. I chose a catchy title – “Why Third World Women Reject Bourgeois feminism” — which, surprisingly enough, did not seem to turn anyone away. But somehow, at this meeting, my theme (the universalization of white women’s experience) was a little more difficult for my audience to comprehend.

I made an argument for class and nation, citing the case of the Philippines, a former U.S. colony whose political economy could hardly be labeled sovereign. I explained that a sizable portion of the population, seventy percent, fell below the government-defined poverty line and that any reckoning of women’s condition would have to take this fact fully into account. Then I described the dilemmas women faced as workers on the assembly line, or as migrant workers, “hospitality girls,” and mail-order brides.

From the responses I received, I felt that the information I was providing seemed to fall outside the purview of the kind of feminism prevailing at the time, for although there was sympathy for the plight of the poor, are class and nation feminist issues?

In the Context of the New World Order

Today, political thinking has been greatly altered. The collapse of the USSR has led progressives to question, on the practical level, the viability of a humanely instituted socialist project. These doubts carry over to the philosophical level as well, where intellectuals now turn away from the use of explanatory frameworks (Marxism, for one) that have a wide compass, for fear that this might invoke totalizing thinking, which in turn is believed to lead to totalitarian regimes.

These revisions in progressive thinking must be situated in the context of changes that have been taking place since the beginning of the Reagan era. Whether we like it or not, Reaganism and the conservative tide it brought about has left its imprint on people’s outlook. With the demise of the USSR, even those who held a progressive worldview had their visions of an alternate society profoundly shaken, if not altogether shattered.

Ironically enough, the “New World Order” formally launched by George Bush is new only in that old alignments have been unscrambled, with the United States now vying for superpower status with Japan and Western European countries. Outside of this, however, the picture for the rest of the world does not look too different. Wretched poverty for the majority and the problem of distribution of resources in developing countries have intensified, if anything. In the United States, widespread wanton violence, crime, drugs, homelessness — a result of the flight of industry to more profitable environments — are predicaments that can no longer be ignored in spite of declarations that capitalism has triumphed.

The Asymmetry of Power Relations

So what are the implications of this new thinking — this disdain for overarching theory — and how has it affected feminist circles? Those of us on the margins should welcome the move away from universalization. Many feminists are now aware that they cannot simply substitute “women” for “man,” proceed to talk as white, middle-class women, and presume to be speaking for womankind. We should be pleased that many feminists now refrain from the use of the totalizing plural “we,” and instead take care to give attention to other social relations like class, race, nationality, ethnicity.

The problem that I see, however, is that the approach of the “politics of difference,” as this is called, at its very best fails to take into account asymmetries of power. That is, in its zeal to acknowledge the existence of a plurality of differences — presumably to celebrate this in the age of multiculturalism — the relations of power (which are made visible only through analyses of social structures) that have produced those differences are obscured or glossed over.

For example, class — which is the result of power relations and often irresoluble conflicts between the haves and have-nots — becomes interpreted as a matter of lifestyle and is frequently interchanged with “classism,” presumably meaning class bias. This celebration of difference (and the list of differences can be very lengthy), then, is a superficial one because we never really get to understand how the differences came to be.

We need to comprehend such fragmentary thinking as an immediate consequence of not having a larger context, an overarching frame, that would try to make sense of component parts. Viewed from this angle, attempts to resolve racial, class, and other divisions within feminism by specifying and clarifying difference are inextricable from neoconservative trends that impel the move away from analytical instruments attempting to describe and explain larger social systems.

While the early second wave feminism was blemished by race and class prejudice in the fervor of white feminists to achieve gender unity, it existed at a time of social ferment and activism.

This ferment was characterized by a willingness to call social systems by their names — e.g. capitalism, socialism, etc. — and using analyses of macro structures to explain social phenomena. Thus when we discussed the oppression of women in the domestic sphere, we looked at the gender division of labor and tried to show how this reflected the inequities in the labor market of a profit-based society.

This perspective motivated us to work toward a future when these disparities might be eliminated or minimized in a society whose goal would be the fulfillment of people’s needs.

Many of these explanations, one must admit, were reductive or economistic. Nonetheless, the temper of the times encouraged the creation of visions of alternate societies that entailed, if not outright revolution, at least some sort of thoroughgoing social transformation.

In contrast, in the current period, pleasure found in praise of difference has taken over as an end in itself. Not only are women seen as different from each other in countless ways, but each woman’s identity is posed as heterogenous, fluctuating, and constantly shifting. And all this, in the light of a neoconservative political climate, is conducted with no notion of an encompassing totality, as though to deny the totality that is capitalism. The differences are flattened out and, in the final analysis, the conditions giving rise to such differences, effectively conserved.

Towards Theorizing

I would like to conclude with two examples which I think are symptomatic of current trends in feminism. The first is a performance that I recently saw with two friends. Billed as a satirical play that looked at “the history, shortcomings, and progress of the U.S. women’s movement,” “The `F’ Word” was wildly entertaining and very funny. It was cleverly and imaginatively executed with a minimum of props and, addressed to the “converted,” poked fun at the deficiencies of feminism, particularly its race and class biases.

Superficially, the play had all the requisite elements that spoke “diversity”: color, class, sexual orientation, etc. How the audience laughed and applauded, for it was outrageously humorous, indeed. I noted that one song even took a direct jab at the ethnocentrism of U.S. feminism with the chant, “Why, oh why, is the women’s movement so white?”

Yet in spite of this, I felt just as strangely alienated as I did in the `70s when white feminists unhesitatingly presented their class- and race-bound views as universal. Why did I feel this way?

During the open forum afterward, Susan Porter Benson, a white historian, stood alone in raising criticisms of the play. Everyone else thought the performance was terrific. She pointed out how the movement for the abolition of slavery cannot simply be situated alongside that for women’s suffrage; the latter was an offshoot of the former. And that was exactly how the play laid out its multicultural ingredients — side by side, as though each operated in isolation, a perfect illustration of the currently reigning politics of difference.

The second example is a review by Leslie Hazleton of Naomi Wolf’s widely publicized book, Fire with Fire, and the reviewer’s response to a reader’s comments. My interest here is less with the book itself and its advocacy of “power feminism” (Wolf’s corrective for what she sees as the victim complex of feminists), which has had its share of criticism even in the mainstream press. For example, Newsweek writer Laura Shapiro thought that viewing Ivana Trump as a symbol of this “new” variant of feminism was a bit ridiculous. But I bring up this review precisely because it was overwhelmingly positive and completely uncritical of the notion of “power feminism” and its preponderantly white, middle-, and upper middle-class base. That it was frontpaged in The Women’s Review of Books, a respected feminist monthly, is probably of some significance also.

In the next issue, a “left-wing” reader wrote that the goal of ending gender discrimination within capitalism would leave unchanged the exploitation of the vast majority of women. The reader, in short, highlighted the class-boundedness of Wolf’s point of view. In response, Hazleton queries the reader: is she or isn’t she for women? For Hazleton, “as women gain more power…they do so thanks to a determination and a sense of possibility created by feminism.” Perhaps, but which “women”? She writes about getting “a feminist high” from attending a U.S. car company meeting in which twelve women employees sit with twelve journalists to discuss women and cars.

Organized by men, the meeting was taken over by women who turned the focus to “aiding and abetting each other’s careers and women’s issues in general.” For her the “camaraderie…felt very similar to that of consciousness-raising groups in the sixties.”

Surely, we cannot doubt the camaraderie Hazleton felt, nor its similarity to one she experienced decades earlier. Chances are great that the “women” she writes about, now and then, are the kind who, sharing specific social characteristics, can interpret their subscription to “power feminism” as somewhat subversive. Indeed, why not? But what is interesting is the manner in which the pendulum can swing so easily from the “difference” mode back to the “universal woman.”

In the absence of a critical analysis of societal structures and societal goals, how easily the plurality of difference in the first instance can slide into the univocality of “woman” in the second!

ATC 52, September-October 1994