Feminism’s intersection with Foucauldian analysis and concepts has changed the content and focus of the ‘power-knowledge’ debate within feminism. Understanding patriarchy—‘the knowledge project’—within feminism has become both more complex and diversified. In addition, the nature and application of feminism can be seen to mean different things to those inside and outside the academy. On one level, empirical work around gender inequality and gender relations has continued. However, more theoretical research drawing on poststructuralism in particular now has a prominent profile within feminist debate. Foucault has been a major, though by no means the only, influence in this increasingly theoretical focus within the feminist ‘power-knowledge’ project.

Feminism’s investigations of the categories ‘woman’ and ‘gender’, as well as ‘patriarchy’ and ‘oppression’, are, as McNeil (1993:158) notes, ‘recent exemplary feminist forays involving the interrogation of feminism’s own discourses inspired by poststructuralism in general and often Foucault in particular’. As Judith Butler (1990a:5) maintains, these investigations constitute ‘a feminist genealogy of the category woman’. One of the reasons why feminism has started to investigate or deconstruct its own categories is the relative failure of ‘the equality trajectory of feminism’ (McNeil 1993) to realise its goals. There are still strong gender divisions within established professions and within the academy, with men continuing to occupy powerful decision-making positions. In addition, previously established categories have been shown to be inadequate in reflecting inequalities, as the opening up of global research has exposed inequalities amongst women, particularly differences of class, race, sexual orientation and physical ability.

Feminist knowledge has not only become more diverse but has also shifted in emphasis. McNeil (1993:159) notes that ‘the extended channelling of the feminist emancipatory drive for knowledge into diverse forms of therapy (including psychoanalysis) and into an intensified feminist theory (drawing most notably on poststructuralism and psychoanalysis) has transformed feminism’. While the increasing specialisation and diversification within feminism might have been expected, what was perhaps surprising was the shift away from empirical investigations around gender relations and patriarchy, to a more purist theoretical domain uncluttered by the exigencies of empirical research.

Feminist theoretical analysis, particularly within the academy, has become more specialised. This is partly the result of feminist academics gaining entry into the academy and establishing feminist discourses within traditional academic domains, e. g. feminist literary criticism, feminist philosophy, feminist history, etc. While it is important that feminist discourses should proliferate within the academy, writers such as Toril Moi (1989b), Tania Modleski (1991) and Kate Campbell (1992) have all warned that there is a tendency for feminist intellectuals to become ever more distanced from the mass of women whom feminism set out to liberate. Further, there is an increasing tendency towards the creation of ‘a body of feminist knowledge which circulates more or less within the academy’ (McNeil 1993:162). Both Cornell West (1992) and Nancy Hartsock (1990) have shown that the intellectual becomes distanced from political movements in Foucault’s version of critical intellectual work. Hartsock has argued more generally that Foucault speaks from a position of power. ‘As a white male member of the intellectual elite he is, to use Hartsock’s borrowing from Albeit Memmi (1967), “the colonizer who refuses and thus exists in a painful ambiguity…the colonizer who refuses to become a part of his group” [Hartsock 1990:164]’ (McNeil 1993:161). There is a need for a fuller, more rigorous analysis of the ‘professionalisation’ of feminism and of the nature of feminist intellectual labour.

A number of feminists writing in the 1990s have expressed concern about the direction of feminism. McNeil (1993) maintains that feminist theoretical knowledge has become somewhat detached from the goal of the women’s movement as a liberatory political movement. Tania Modleski (1991) attacks feminist ‘theoretical discourse’ particularly as it is linked to poststructuralism. She maintains that feminism has turned in on itself, particularly in its critique of the categories of ‘woman’ and ‘gender’. As McNeil maintains, although Modleski’s book is not posed in this way, it can be read as a protest against the breaking down of the ‘power-knowledge’ project which once preoccupied feminism. As McNeil (1993:115) notes, the question which reappears continually in Modleski’s book is, ‘What is the relationship between the elaborate development of knowledge associated with feminist theory and women’s power in the world?’. Kate Campbell has shown how feminist theory has helped some women realise power in the academy but often not directly challenging the patriarchal power of the academy. She writes of the academy ‘harbouring feminism: building it up and replenishing it in some ways, yes; but at the same time given to running it dry, keeping it within walls seeing to its overall containment’ (1992:2).

Ramazanoglu (1993) warns of the dangers of ‘the politics of relativism’ if feminism follows a Foucauldian or poststructuralist model too closely. She maintains that, ‘Just as feminism is becoming a significant intellectual force in the production of knowledge it is in danger of being thwarted by an elitist but academically respectable relativism and pluralism which ignores gender, disempowers women and diminishes difference’ (Ramazanoglu 1993:8). She goes on to argue that feminism is in danger of being shifted from an ‘emancipatory global movement’ to a philosophical specialism which she maintains legitimates a political pluralism leading to fragmentation. She sends out this warning:

Feminists need to take seriously the political uses Foucault’s thought can be put to, and the possible uses of his work in supporting male dominance by ignoring ‘gender’ in social relations and appearing to rise above the political implications of social divisions between women’.

(Ramazanoglu 1993:8)