Discourse and Practice

When Mary Wollstonecraft wrote to vindicate the rights of women, it was mainly questions of ideology that she had in mind: morals, manners, education and religion. These topics have been constant friends in the literature of gender since, .and few authors have doubted the power of ideology. Even so vigorous a materialist as Emma Goldman was content to explain the difficulty of unionizing women this way:

The woman considers her position as worker transitory, to be thrown aside for the first bidder. That is why it is infinitely harder to organize women than men. ‘Why should I join a union? I am going to get married, to have a home.’ Has she not been taught from infancy to look upon that as her ultimate calling?

In contemporary theory too there is a strong tendency to make ideology the site of sexual politics. Julia Kristeva writes of the ‘inseparable conjunction of the sexual and the symbolic’ as the terrain of the new feminism. Juliet Mitchell and Roberta Hamilton treat patriarchy as the realm of ideology in contrast to a realm of production governed by class relations. A vigorous literature drawing on French semiotics and discourse theory analyses patriarchal symbolism and language as, effectively, a self-contained system.

Some notable research on the symbolization of women and men has resulted, moving beyond the familiar research on stereotypes to the implicit structure of whole discourses about gender. The most penetrating, such as Jo Spence’s ‘What do People do all Day?’ and Wendy Hollway’s ‘Gender Difference and the Production

of Subjectivity’ go on to trace change and contradiction in the process of symbolic representation.

The results of these researches are important. But there are serious difficulties with a theoretical program that gives an absolute priority to ideology or to semiotic analysis and treats discourse as a closed system. Lynne Segal remarks on the drift towards idealism in recent feminist theory, and how an overemphasis on matters like language marginalizes grass-roots concerns of the feminist movement. From a theoretical viewpoint too, much of this writing appears startlingly one-sided. Neglecting institutions, economics and the routines of politics means that analyses of ideology are often parked on top of crude categorical assumptions about power and the relations between person and group. No matter how sophisticated the analysis of symbolization much of its value must then be lost.

The way to resolve this is not only to give due attention to institutions, economics and so forth. It is essential to recognize that discourse and symbolization are themselves practices, which are structurally connected with other practices and have a great deal in common with other forms of practice. They too have to be analysed with attention to context, institutionalization and group formation. It is important to consider what groups engage in them and how specialists in these kinds of practice are socially constituted within gender relations. This is why I have delayed the analysis of ideology, despite its prominence in current debate about gender, until after a framework for the structural and personal analysis of gender has been established.

The practical context and institutionalization of language is more than a question of ‘pragmatics’, the application or use of an existing syntactic and semantic structure. Practice is constitutive of syntax and semantics too, when considered over historical time. For instance, historians of language have noted the increasing sexism of the English language in the early modern period, as in the use of masculine pronouns to refer to men and women together. As Casey Miller and Kate Smith argue, this has to be seen in the context of the historical emergence of intellectuals (Dr Johnson being one) able to act as ‘authorities’ on language and impose sexist usage as standard. One of the major tools invented was the dictionary. It is notable that early dictionaries were in part directed to the education of women, as a substitute for schooling.

The importance of social context in the ‘uptake’ of culture, in

the appropriation and use of elements of ideology, can be documented in a wide range of situations. Angela McRobbie’s research on the ‘culture of femininity’ in Britain is an especially convincing example because her theory is structuralist. The field­work shows very clearly how the impoverished, constricted and oppressive situation of working-class teenage girls is made tolerable by a cultural practice exaggerating femininity and romanticizing marriage as the main goal in life.

Studies of families similarly show ideology in context among adults. Pauline Hunt’s research on the division of labour in an English village shows how ‘the situation itself breeds traditionalism’ for wives who do full-time childcare at home. They are obliged to adapt to their husbands’ timetables, are isolated from the public world and intimidated by politics, and find that childbearing has become the central experience of life. Yet in some ways ideology is able to override the logic of other practices. The belief that husbands are breadwinners is sustained in families where the wife earns a wage. Even when she earns more than he does, the ideology is not criticized but the couple’s situation* is – ‘it’s degrading for a man.’

It is, however, in studies of workplaces that the interplay of situation and ideology is clearest. Michael Korda’s description of New York office life in Male Chauvinism shows how sexist ideology is embedded in management and supervisory practices, such as promotion of staff and the segmentation of tasks, and acts as a discursive rationalization of inequality. In this setting, Korda notes, the shift of feminist argument onto issues of sexuality (for example in Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch) came as a relief to men, as it excused corporate executives from facing the issues that were the hard ones to them – about money. The study of an insurance office in Britain by Collinson and Knights, described in chapter 5, underlines the amount of work that goes into construct­ing and defending sexist ideology.

The most complex and sophisticated account of the maintenance of sexual ideology in the workplace is Cynthia Cockburn’s Brothers. Here the analysis of ideology is set in the context of the historical development of the British printing industry, from which women were expelled some generations ago. The ideology of the ‘natural’ weakness of women and their unsuitability for work as compositors is thus a suppression of history as well as a rationalization of present practice. The collective practice of the compositors is now

being undermined by drastic technological change, and with it the traditional justifications of the sexual division of labour. Cockburn documents the passing of a particular form of sexual ideology, traditional patriarchalism, while the institutional bases of men’s power in these workplaces, the control of management, unions and training, remain. New rationalizations, such as the masculine mystique of high technology, are imperfect substitutes.

/ Parallel evidence of process and tension in sexual ideology can be found in research on schools. In the literature on sex roles, schools are frequently discussed as an ‘agency of socialization’ impinging children. They^ic also Woikplaces. with H work­force divided on gender lines. Recent research on teachers shows a good deal of invoTvemenFm issues of sexual politics. Teachers are one of the main occupational groups to be influenced by the growth of the new feminism; their reactions range from strong endorsement to bitter hostility. In many schools the result is an active negotiation, sometimes turning into open conflict, about issues of curriculum, promotion, sexual harassment and so on. A school’s whole policy may be made over. A case in point is the private secondary school for girls, ‘Auburn College’, mentioned in chapter 8. This school was repositioning itself towards the professional labour market and revamping its curriculum to emphasize maths and sciences. A changed definition of femininity was at issue in almost every aspect of the school’s educational policy.

Such evidence does not imply that ideology can be reduced to economics or institutional arrangements, nor that ideology is to be contrasted with a ‘material’ world. It does imply that ideology has to be seen as things people do, and that ideological practice has to be seen as occurring in, and responding to, definite contexts. Some ideological practice is very plainly work. The school curriculum, for instance, is a labour process for the teachers as well as a definition of the pupils’ learning. To understand it fully requires an investigation of the social structure of the workplace and the political economy of the industry, as well as its connections with patterns of ideology in other milieux.

These considerations lead to an approach to sexual ideology that is closer to the tradition of the sociology of knowledge than it is to contemporary theories of discourse. There are some well – recognized difficulties with this approach. Some versions of the ‘sociology of knowledge’ are reductionist, presenting ideology as a

reflex of social interest. Much of the sociology of knowledge takes a rather crude approach to the internal structure of ideas and has little to say about the process of symbolization. Finally, most of the sociology of knowledge has been based on a class analysis of social structure and ignores gender completely.

None of these problems is insoluble. Reductionism can be avoided, not by claims for the autonomy of ideological practice, but by consistently seeing it as practice, ontologically on a par with any other practice and equally involved in the constitution of social interests. Some classic researches in the sociology of knowledge, such as Georg Lukacs’ analysis of reification and European philosophy, and Lucien Goldmann’s analysis of Jansen­ism, are very concerned with the internal structure of ideology. And there is a notable proof that the sociology-of-knowledge approach can be effectively applied to gender: Viola Klein’s The Feminine Character, which appeared as long ago as 1946.

The point is not to apply a precast ‘sociology of knowledge’ to the subject-matter of gender but to use methods generated in that tradition to expand the social theory of gender. In what follows I draw partly on analyses of discourse and symbolization to charac­terize ideological practice; and partly on ideology theory and the sociology of knowledge to raise questions about the contexts of the production of sexual ideology, its consequences for the gender order, and the social character of its producers.