Feminist theory and minority women
How should feminism respond to those women within a particular group – the insiders – who freely choose to be governed by traditional systems of justice that contain rules that are likely to harm them? My main argument is that it is possible for feminism to respond to this challenge at the levels of theory and practice. However, this requires us to revise the usual methods that we employ in understanding the lives and choices of women.
‘How can we start to understand the beliefs and conduct of minority women who are insiders within groups?’ is obviously not a question that is unique for us. There is a vast array of theoretical writing about methodology in the human and social sciences. Feminism is sometimes suspicious of grand theories that may, by making universal claims, crowd out the reality of differences between men and women. Theory, it is argued, needs to give greater priority to individual experience and practice. At one level, this position displays an understandable scepticism about the very status of ‘grand theory’ as a useful tool for analysis. Feminist critique of traditional methods of analysis in the human and social sciences takes a variety of forms, but one recurring theme is the call for a focus on practice as a way of revealing the reality of women’s oppression. This connection between theory and practice in feminist theory is widely acknowledged. MacKinnon, for example, recognises the importance of individual experience to theory. In her early work, feminism – ‘Unmodified’ – is presented as a method that uses practical experience as the point of entry into a more universal theoretical project. Carol Smart has noticed the way in which this method takes on the mantle of empiricism and a ‘scientific feminism’. More recently, Drucilla Cornell has made a similar criticism of this feminist method. She writes:
Of course, there are examples of moralising which purportedly divide the righteous feminists from those women who have fallen prey to false consciousness and who disagree on a given position enunciated by a self-defined feminist. One glaring example is Catharine MacKinnon’s accusation that feminists who disagree with her position on pornography are collaborators.
Smart points out that theorising within law seems to be especially vulnerable to encouraging this tendency: ‘It is unfortunate that working within the discourse of law seems to produce such tendencies – it is as if law’s claim to truth is so legitimate that feminists can only challenge it and maintain credibility within law by positing an equally positive alternative.’ Smart does not argue against theory altogether but rather seeks to challenge a particular method that ‘wants to claim that its truth is better than other truths. I would prefer that it sought to deconstruct truth and the need for such truths and dogmatic certainties, rather than adding to the existing hierarchies of knowledge’. She concludes that: ‘This is not an argument against theorizing, however, but a specific critique of grand theorizing.’
Smart and Cornell’s critique of MacKinnon also provides us with a prescient insight into the perils of automatically applying these traditional feminist methods to minority women. Extrapolating from personal experience to grand theory, and then presenting this as the ‘scientific’ or ‘positive’ truth about women as a group, is a risky strategy when we move beyond a heterogeneous group of women and start to accommodate differences based on factors such as race, culture or religion. What seems to be the neutral truth will often ignore or marginalise the experiences of minority women. In these circumstances, collapsing back into a position that gives overwhelming authority to the personal experience of these ‘different women’ will not provide a solution either. As Segal notes,
if we rely on personal experience alone we cannot explore how that experience is itself shaped by the frameworks of thought of those immediately around us. These frameworks are not static or inflexible; there is conflict and disagreement within the groups we are born into over ways of living and relating to others, ways of interpreting and experiencing the world. We cannot, however, easily step outside our own specific culture.
So how should feminism – more specifically, feminist method – respond to difference in the category ‘women’? There is a fine balance to be struck between the recognition of difference in our definition of ‘women’ and exaggeration of its relevance and importance. The move in feminist theory in the 1980s against essentialism ensured that ‘difference between women’ became almost as important an issue as the ‘difference between men and women’. An important contribution in this field is the work of Elizabeth Spelman. She argues that: ‘There are startling parallels between what feminists find disappointing and insulting in Western philosophical thought and what many women have found troubling in much of Western feminism.’ This is especially damning for feminists because it turns their critique of the exclusionary tendencies of mainstream political thought – that it marginalises and excludes women – on themselves. The accusation is that traditional feminism marginalises women who are differentiated along categories of race, culture, religion or class. This critique is now well established. Mainstream feminist thought is comfortable with the idea that theory and practice can sometimes exclude or marginalise women who do not fit comfortably into the majority category because of their race, culture, religion or class.
Being vigilant about differences between women on grounds such as race, culture or religion does not, however, necessarily mean that gender must be wholly determined by these other categories for analysis. It is possible to argue that there is something specific about oppression where it is based on gender without necessarily collapsing into the position that oppression based on other grounds is irrelevant. What we need is a more sophisticated analysis: one in which gender is restructured along with these other pressing categories such as race, culture, religion and class. This does not mean that gender is no longer a distinct category or that it should be subsumed within these other grounds. Instead, this increasing complexity in the subject matter means that we need more sophisticated methods that are sensitive to differences between women in those cases where difference is both present and relevant to analysis. We have to be aware of the danger of abstracting from personal experience (which is given such high status in feminist theory) to universal claims and then to conclusions that these are the truth about all women. It also means that, in some cases, we may want to insist that there are similarities that allow us to talk meaningfully about ‘women’ as a coherent category. This approach is more likely to achieve a workable balance between the need to make some generalisations about the form of oppression experienced by all women without marginalising important differences.
One consequence of this delicate balance between essentialism and the recognition of valid difference is uncertainty about how we define fundamental categories and objectives within feminist theory. Recent feminist theory influenced by postmodernism confirms some of these insights. Feminists who draw on these ideas usefully reveal the way in which power is not a concept that can reveal male oppression; it also infuses the way in which we undertake theoretical analysis. For Judith Butler, key questions for feminism include the following: ‘Through what exclusions has the feminist subject been constructed, and how do these excluded domains return to haunt the “integrity” and “unity” of the feminist “we”?’ Smart, Spelman and Segal’s insights are also illuminating because they point us towards some tentative conclusions about how to capture and understand the experience of minority women. Smart and Segal affirm the importance of theory but eschew the traditional positive feminist claims that there is one grand theory – to use Smart’s terms, a ‘scientific truth’ – for analysing all women. We must also be alert to difference within the category ‘minority women’. Just as there is a risk of distortion if we treat the category ‘women’ as a monolithic concept, so there are also dangers in a method that uses ‘minority women’ as an undifferentiated term. Such a crude approach cannot hope to capture the subtle variety and important nuances in the responses, beliefs and actions of these women. Of course, this concern with capturing difference renders the subject matter ‘women’ or ‘minority women’ complicated and unstable. One consequence may be that our choice of method does not yield the usual degree of certainty and predictability with which we are familiar. Feminist theory and practice, as I argue below, may need to accept this as an inevitable by-product of deepening its analysis of women’s oppression. It will have to open itself up to a degree of uncertainty in the realms of concepts and ideas; objectives and policies.
Smart and Segal both acknowledge this risk and they are critical of a method that is in constant search for certainty. Segal concludes her analysis of the challenge posed to feminist theory with a salutary reminder of the challenge facing any feminist theorist seeking to accommodate minority women: ‘We cannot, however, easily step outside our own specific culture.’ It is difficult enough to develop a method that can do justice to differences between women that arise from categories such as class or sexuality. A method that seeks to capture difference among women will always give rise to problems of uncertainty and mutability. Race, and especially culture and religion, provide us with yet more intractable problems. As Clifford Gertz has noted, the study of cultures and religions is difficult because analysis must constantly balance grasp of detail, the perspective of insiders and objective analysis. There is a danger of reification on the one hand and reductionism on the other. Yet, at the same time, these criteria – race, culture and religion – are some of the most crucial determinants of personal identity and well-being. Membership of a racial, cultural or religious group is a secure form of personal identity: it is a based on belonging rather than accomplishment. Hence, the conundrum for feminism: we are being asked to accommodate theory to a subject matter that is intrinsically – and notoriously – difficult to theorise. Moreover, to add to the dilemma, there is no realistic prospect that analysis can bypass the cultural and religious affiliations for minority women. Participation in a group provides women with meaningful choices about how to live their lives; it affects how others in society perceive and respond to them and therefore goes to the heart of a concern with ‘self-identity’ and ‘self-respect’. It is this tension – between the fact that race, culture and religion are so resistant to our analysis whilst simultaneously being critical aspects of the personal identity of women – that raises a significant challenge for feminist theory. So we return to the question at the start of this analysis: ‘How can we understand the beliefs and conduct of minority women who are insiders within groups?’