The Materialism of Standpoint
In particular, I will suggest that, like the lives of proletarians according to Marxian theory, women’s lives make available a particular and privileged vantage point on male supremacy, a vantage point that can ground a powerful critique of the phallocratic institutions and ideology that constitute the capitalist form of patriarchy… I will suggest that the sexual division of labor forms the basis for such a standpoint and will argue that, on the basis of the structures that define women’s activity as contributors to subsistence and as mothers, one could begin, though not complete, the construction of such an epistemological tool. I hope to show how just as Marx’s understanding of the world from the standpoint of the proletariat enabled him to go beneath bourgeois ideology, so a feminist standpoint can allow us to understand patriarchal institutions and ideologies as perverse inversions of more humane social relations.
(Hartsock, 1997: 463)
Originally published in 1983, Hartsock’s essay offers a classic exposition of the role and value of experience for feminist politics. Hartsock’s analysis is an adaptation of Marxist historical materialism that focuses on the centrality of class relations to capitalism. Hennessy and Ingraham (1997) indicate that materialist feminism grew out of Western Marxism and is a term that came to prominence in the late 1970s (see also Jackson, 2001; Landry and MacLean, 1993). Materialist feminism arose through ‘the conjuncture of several discourses – historical materialism, marxist and radical feminism, as well as postmodern and psychoanalytic theories of meaning and subjectivity (Hennessy and Ingraham, 1997: 7). Hartsock’s essay draws on analyses of the gendered division of labour and object-relations psychoanalytic theories of socialization to argue that women’s experiences of being outside the dominant order can give them a privileged knowledge of social reality.
Meyers (1997) notes that what was significant about feminist standpoint theory was its grounding in women’s experiences of the sexual division of labour and how it could be read as an attempt to universalize these experiences to all women. In this, Hartsock’s essay draws on a number of themes that were resonant more generally at the time within second-wave materialist feminist debates. For example, Hartsock makes the case for understanding how women’s household labour produces use-values for capitalism. Yet she goes further than this to suggest that women’s experiences of this form of production are distinctive from the experiences of workers who produce goods for sale in the market place. The experience of motherhood as an institution, rather than simply just through individual and personal experience, creates the relational self. Thus:
Women as mothers, even more than as workers, are institutionally involved in processes of change and growth and, more than workers, must understand the importance of avoiding excessive control in order to help others grow. . . Motherhood in the large sense, i. e. motherhood as an institution rather than experience, including pregnancy and the preparation for motherhood almost all female children receive as socialization, results in the construction of female existence as centred on a complex relational nexus. (1997: 470)
Hartsock highlights how the concept of standpoint ‘posits a duality of levels of reality, of which the deeper level or essence both includes and explains the “surface” or appearance, and indicates the logic by means of which the appearance inverts and distorts the deeper reality’ (ibid.: 464). There are two key points here (Meyers, 1997). First, that the experience of oppression is both denied by the dominant ideology and invisible to the more advantaged people in a society. Second, that this knowledge or understanding of the reality of social relations within capitalism must be worked for at an intellectual level and through political practice. Hartsock suggests that there are five aspects to standpoint theory that are central to epistemological and political claims. These are:
1 Material life both structures and sets limits on our understanding of social relations.
2 Given the above statement, and because material life is structured in opposing ways for women and men, our view of social reality is similarly differentiated. This ‘differential male and female life activity in class society leads on the one hand toward a feminist standpoint and on the other toward an abstract masculinity’ (ibid.: 472). This means that those in a dominant position (i. e. men) will have a partial and perverse view of social reality.
3 It is inadequate just to dismiss as false the view of the ruling class ( i. e. men) because it structures the material relations within which we live and have to work from.
4 Because of the dominance of masculine views, the truth of social relations and change must be struggled for through the use of social analysis and education. Thus, ‘The ability to go beneath the surface of appearances to reveal the real but concealed social relations requires both theoretical and political activity’ (ibid.: 478). Necessary theoretical developments would include a systematic critique of Marxism. Political activity would be focused on ending gendered divisions of labour.
5 The adoption of a standpoint exposes ‘reality’ as inhuman and is therefore potentially liberatory.
The political implications of women’s experiences of connected knowledge and relationality are, according to Hartsock, central to the development of a new kind of social order:
Generalizing the activity of women to the social system as a whole would raise, for the first time in human history, the possibility of a fully human community, a community structured by connection rather than separation and opposition. One can conclude then that women’s life activity does form the basis of a specifically feminist materialism, a materialism that can provide a point from which both to critique and to work against phallocratic ideology and institutions. (ibid.: 478)