The Present Moment

Hegel invented, and Marx made popular, a way of schematizing history in which there is an origin, a dialectic of necessary stages and a culmination – the ethical state, the classless society. It is tempting to schematize the history of gender relations the same way. Thus the story of primitive matriarchy, disrupted by men who seized power and set up a patriarchal society, which has now matured a feminist revolution in its turn. Or the: uiea-that the social subordination of womenflowed from their place in biological reproduction, was "tlT^efdfe^technically necessary while fertility was high, productivftyluw TmdTTife short,3пН^ТтщуТаЬГе to be abolished because technological^change has freed women from the need to spend their lives around babiei^–

In such thinking the present moment is one of culmination, or perhaps the dark just before the dawn, and previous history was a kind of preparation for the present. Interim oppressions and injustices may have been nasty but they were in some sense historically necessary; they allowed the maturing of the good society in the end. Indeed quite a lot of nastiness in the present may also be justified to allow the good society to emerge from the womb of history.

Hegelian thinking is seductive: it gives dignity to present oppressions, a sense of connectedness to the past and a vision of the future transfigured. But it is also slightly paranoid. The present we live in was no more a historically necessary development than any of our possible futures is. Human practice produced it, not the operation of a mechanism, whether cosmic, logical or biological. That means that patriarchy, sexism and sexual oppression have never been necessary. Every society has been able to abolish it,

whatever the level of technological development; just as class inequality could be abolished at any stage of history. What is changed by the level of technology is not the possibility of altering gender relations but the consequences of doing so. For example sharing childcare between women and men in an agricultural society without scientific medicine means a different set of arrangements from shared childcare in modern low-fertility cities.

So we live in a world shaped by the collective failure of our forebears to abolish gender inequalities. The corollary is that our children may also live in such a world. An end of gender inequality is by no means inevitable now. This has been seen by some feminist critics of the idea of revolution by bottle-babies, the idea that technologizing reproduction will liberate women from the imperatives of the body and social subordination, or will end the oppression of homosexuals by abolishing distinctions of sex. There is no guarantee that the new technology of reproduction will be under women’s control, or under any kind of democratic influence at all. Indeed there is reason to expect the opposite, given the current rapid development of genetic engineering by big business and the state, and techniques like in vitro fertilization by technocratic medical specialists. Our future could be one of rejuvenated high- technology patriarchy.

The present moment, then, is not a culmination but a point of choice. The purpose of analysis is to understand better the structure of the choice and the collective projects that are feasible responses to it.

The emergence of women’s liberation and gay liberation reflect crisis tendencies of a general kind, and are historically novel in the depth of their critique of the gender order and the scope of the transformation they propose. This surge in the pace and depth of sexual politics and the power of theory opens the possibility of conscious social and personal transformation in a degree unthink­able before. Yet the liberation movements have nothing like the social power needed to push this transformation through, except in limited milieux. And in some respects their internal evolution has led them away from the project of general structural reform, to focus on problems of survival rather than on the fault-lines marking general crisis tendencies.

Other components of a larger transformative project, notably working-class feminism and counter-sexist politics among hetero­sexual men, exist in a dispersed state. The hegemony of an

authoritative masculinity, guaranteed by science if not religion, has been disrupted. But the weakened integration of the gender order has led to a fragmentation of opposition as well. In the absence of a unifying practice this fragmentation could increase.

If some combination of social forces around a progressive programme were achieved, contemporary social and physical technologies would allow a collective choice of the following kind, at least in the richer capitalist and Soviet-bloc countries. Childbearing can be made a fairly short episode in any woman’s life, and can be made socially equivalent to conception, pregnancy – support and infant care in men’s lives. We have the knowledge and resources to share childcare and domestic work among adults to any extent desired in a balance between efficiency and privacy. Large numbers of men and women can choose to be childless without any danger of depopulation; a free choice of forms of cathexis becomes a general possibility. No average physical or psychological difference between the sexes has the slightest bearing on the efficiency of production in an age of numerically controlled machine tools, automatic data-processing and mechanized agricul­ture. Thus there is no economic sacrifice in a total abolition of the sexual division of labour. Hegemonic masculinity is no collective asset in a struggle for survival, in fact it is now a general menace. The social hierarchy of masculinities can be abandoned, and with it the definition of an emphasized femininity.

The situation in the rest of the world is different, and there is no reason to expect that Western patterns of gender relations must provide their model. I know so little about Third World situations that I hesitate to say anything about feasible futures. But one thing is clear, that the world has become an interconnected social order and this is true of the dynamic of gender as well as other structures. Global reconstructions of the sexual division of labour show this already. It is not impossible that low-technology methods of equalizing gender relations could emerge mainly from the poor countries. Such a development could be powerfully reinforced by a transfer of resources made possible by the pacification of gender relations in the rich countries.


If this is a practicable world, what are practicable ways of getting there? The recent history of sexual politics offers two general

strategies, which might be called intensive and extensive.

I have mentioned the attempts to construct, in the social networks involved in radical politics over the last two decades, households and sexual relationships based on thoroughgoing equality. This involves, first, finding ways of equalizing economic resources and decision-making power. This is often difficult in a mixed household given men’s greater earning capacity in a gender – structured labour market. Sometimes the best that can be achieved is some guarantee of an economic ‘floor’ for women, for instance by having property in a wife’s name rather than a husband’s. Second, it involves the reorganization of relations between children and adults, in the teeth of a vast array of institutional and cultural arrangements that presuppose all early childcare is done by women. Third, it involves a reworking of sexual character and sexuality, on the run and often in the context of attachments to third parties and terrible doubts about loyalty and personal worth. The process sometimes feels like tearing out one’s hair, clump by clump, with a badly adjusted mechanical harvester. It is no wonder that a good many people have abandoned the attempt and that those who stick with it can be reluctant to talk about it. It is perhaps important to make the experience more public and cumulative. It is also important to find ways of expressing its positive side: the generation of energy, the joys of being with children, the pleasures of love between equals.

The attempt to create ‘liberated zones’, as this kind of practice is sometimes called, may literally mean a physical space. A common demand of feminist groups in institutions has been a room for women. Refuges, rape crisis centres and women’s centres have often operated on the principle of keeping all men out. More generally, however, a liberated zone is a social ‘space’, a particular institution or part of one, a network of relationships or simply a group of people, where a degree of sex equality has been achieved, heterosexism eliminated, or counter-sexist practice sustained.

The problems of sustaining such a ‘zone’ have something in common with the problems of other enclaves. They require a constant expenditure of energy to keep up. When it is a question of a radical departure from common social practice, as a serious effort at sex equality is, the energy level required is fairly high. People get tired of constant meetings, monitoring and mutual criticism. Egalitarian practices constantly confront hierarchical intrusions from outside the zone. An example is the radical health

collective whose one qualified doctor is treated by the funding authorities, and many of the patients, as the head of a conventional medical practice. Such matters can be worked on, but at a further cost in energy, time and friction. Trade-offs have to be made, things let slide. One of the things most often let slide is the cleaning; liberated zones tend to be grubby.

Offsetting these costs are three kinds of gains. Bases are established for politics of wider scope. Marches and rallies, for instance, do not just happen; there have to be people who call them, people who get on the phone and spread the word, people who paint banners – and provide places to store them. Next, liberated zones can generate energy by giving a taste of the social world to come, what Sheila Rowbotham called ‘prefigurative’ politics in Beyond the Fragments. The sisterhood of feminist activists, the solidarity generated in gay liberation campaigns, the sense of sharing in collective households, are real experiences and do matter in showing that the goals are practical ones.

Finally there is the personal dimension. Radical politics often presuppose superhuman energy and result in burnout, or presup­pose superhuman virtue and result in disillusion. Critics of feminism rejoice in claiming that feminists with power behave as crassly as patriarchal men; and of course some do. Likewise some gay liberationists are self-interested or insensitive, and some anti­sexist heterosexual men fail dismally to love vegetables and babies. A relatively liberated zone provides some chance of working on these issues, taking up the politics of personality outlined in chapter 10. It may also provide an essential kind of support. The main resource of radical politics is its activists. Political practice can be personally demanding, wearing and damaging to a high degree. Daily confrontation with sexist business men or bureaucrats is no life for the thin-skinned. It matters to find ways of conserving the human resources and repairing damage.

This issue is common to all radicalism, but sexual politics has a unique personal dimension. Breaking down the gender system means, to some extent, tearing down what is most constitutive of one’s own emotions, and occupying strange and ill-explained places in social space. The oldest jibe against feminists is that they are trying to turn women into men and men into women. In one sense this is right; reform of the division of labour must mean women doing things conventionally thought masculine. Yet ‘role-reversal’ of the kind often advocated in the early seventies has proved

inadequate as a strategy. Feminism has attempted, not just for tactical reasons, to hold on to qualities and practices traditionally thought feminine too. Thus the movement has found itself weaving across the conventional gender boundaries of sexual character and the division of labour, and to the extent that bisexuality has commended itself as a sexual practice, across the boundaries of the structure of cathexis too.

To some theorists the occupation of what might be called ‘border country’ has seemed a basic strategy. Fernbach and Mieli both insist on the gender ambiguities of gay ness. Chodorow and Dinnerstein derive psychoanalytic arguments for the importance of men taking an equal part in early childcare. The counter-sexist men’s movement, at least its more radical wing, sought to purge masculinity of its connection with hierarchy and easily tipped towards ‘effeminism’, attaching a male tail-end to radical feminism.

‘Border’ like ‘zone’ is a spatial metaphor and perhaps too rigid for a dynamic process. The point may be better made by saying that practice on many questions of sexual politics requires living in and through contradictions about ‘gender. Sometimes it is necessary to intensify the contradiction rather than try to resolve it. The problem with the ‘androgyny’ model discussed in chapter 8 is not with the idea that feminine and masculine qualities can be combined in the same person, a helpful if not wholly new insight. It is with the idea that combining them somehow resolves the tension between them. It may do just the reverse.

The domestic politics of the Left, the partly ‘liberated zone’ sketched above, has another strategic significance. The attempt to create egalitarian households and a non-sexist environment for children to grow up in is the only form of progressive sexual politics in which significant numbers of heterosexual men have become involved in a continuing and active way. It is therefore something of a laboratory for the possibility of alliance between groups normally divided by sexual politics.

Gay liberation is another. The tensions between women and men in homosexual politics mentioned in chapter 12 are real and continuing. Given these pressures the continued existence of the movement over fifteen years of fluctuating fortunes is a considerable achievement. Its experience of discussion and compromise, joint and parallel action and collective celebration is perhaps the most sophisticated practice of cooperation between women and men

that has yet been developed in the radical reconstruction of gender relations.

These two cases raise the more general strategy of alliance, the ‘extensive’ side of sexual politics. Many, perhaps most, of the campaigns waged by feminists and gay activists have involved acting in alliance with people outside their ranks. Numbers, access, money or technical skills may be needed from outside. Movement rhetoric usually ignores this, stressing opposition from the rest of the world and attributing all gains to women’s or gays’ own determination and strength. The political reasons for talking this way are obvious enough; but the habit does make it difficult to discuss what is actually going on in sexual politics, and often creates an impression that alliance or support is not wanted.

Homosexual law reform, as one example, involves lobbying ministers and members of parliament, working on party platform committees, discussions with police, liaison with civil liberties groups, detail work with sympathetic lawyers, academics and journalists. Most of them are not gay or are not admitting it. As another example, setting up women’s studies courses in universities involves working with curriculum committees, getting support from authorities who have money or staff to allocate, co-operation from other teaching staff in the reallocation of labour, organizing rooms, furniture, equipment, secretarial help, library facilities amici’ so on. Most of this requires the co-operation and labour of people who are not feminists, a good many of them not even women.

These alliances are usually temporary affairs. The public side of sexual politics in the last two decades has mainly been a patchwork of campaigns. Local movements and alliances developed around particular issues: setting up a health centre here, demon­strating on Anzac Day there, organizing a lobbying day at Parliament House and so on. Each grouping was liable to disband as soon as some resolution of the particular matter was reached. There have been attempts to set up permanent formal organiz­ations, the National Organisation of Women in the United States and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality in Britain among the most successful. Both of these have provided a framework for alliance in the context of pressure-group politics, for law reform and like purposes. Across the wider spectrum of sexual politics, however, permanent organization has been uncharacteristic. The continuity of women’s liberation and gay liberation, considerable in both cases, is due to overlapping membership of many different

campaigns and networks and to endless internal talk rather than to formal structures.

In the liberal capitalist countries this kind of politics could continue indefinitely. There is enough tolerance and enough intermittent support. It will sustain a feminist and gay political presence at the level of pressure-group politics. But to pursue the project of transforming the gender order something more formi­dable is required. This is a question of putting together radical majorities in sexual politics, and keeping them together for considerable periods of time.

This is an old aspiration, though it is one from which leading tendencies in both gay and feminist politics h? ve now retreated. Majorities matter, if the process of social change is to come under conscious human control. On the argument of this book, structures cannot be levered into new shapes without mutations of grass­roots practice. But majorities do not fall from heaven. They have to be constructed; and if they are to be constructed against the ruling powers, around a radical program of equality, then we need a clear understanding of the social dynamic that might make it possible.

The crisis tendencies discussed in chapter 7, which make radical majorities conceivable, also give some leverage on the main structural obstacle-The lion in th£_&ath is the calculus of interests. In Tygencherfirclef^where men are advantaged and women are disadvantaged, major structuraUieform is, on the face of it, against^ men’s interests] Even subordinated m as culm і tivs” sfiareTo some d^grSmTTrThtSadvantage – as Mike Broker puts it, T may be a queer, but at least I am a man’. With the considerable number of women who gain wealth, prestige or other advantage through their marriages or kin relationships, or through applying an emphasized femininity, there would seem to be a permanent majority for patriarchy.

For two reasons this calculation is not conclusive. First, ‘interests’ are relational as well as egocentric. A father, for instance, has an interest defined by the advantages of men, but also has an interest in the welfare of his children, and half of all children are girls. The practices that articulate interest may be organized around these relationships rather than around the gender category. The crisis of the sexual division of labour in childcare invites this. Second, even egocentric interests are liable to be ambiguous or divided. The ‘men’s movement’ literature was wrong in thinking

men had the same interest in liberation as women but was right in pointing to tensions, costs and unease with hegemonic masculinity as a fairly widespread experience. The crisis tendencies in structures of power and cathexis are likely to increase such internal divisions of interest.

Whether the gender order’s tendencies towards crisis have gone far enough to provide a basis for majorities committed to major structural reform, is perhaps the key strategic question radical politics now faces. It involves, in some sense, a combination of intensive and extensive strategies; the former to define directions and feasibility, the latter to provide the muscle. That kind of combination has not so far been realized. Tendencies towards it seem stronger in relation to the sexual division of labour than elsewhere: one thinks of the breakdown of the ‘family wage’ concept, the crisis of childcare and changing views about fathering, the inability of the liberal politics of equal opportunity to deal with mass youth unemployment. Yet the main energies of movement radicalism are focused elsewhere. If radical majorities are to materialize it is not just a matter of the masses flocking to the banners already embroidered and raised. Some painful reorientations of present radicalism will also have to happen.