Feminism has always engaged with the ‘master’ discourses with which it has found itself allied, whether they are the discourses of modernity or postmodernity. It cannot be denied that the theoretical frameworks and principles of operation which have characterised feminism have been the result of feminism’s intersection with these discourses, either the ‘metanarratives’ of modernity, e. g. Marxism, or the postmodernist and poststructuralist discourses of postmodernity.

The relationship between feminism and modernity is not a straightforward one. Marshall (1994:148) notes the relationship of women to modernity and to social theory as a modern project is one riven with contradictions and ambiguities. She claims that feminism ‘constitutes both a critique of and a defence of modernity, so has a great stake in the modernity-postmodernity debates which are at heart about the possibility of a “subject” for social theory’. The failure of theories of modernity for feminism has been their inability to come to grips with ‘difference’ adequately. Thus, on the one hand, as an emancipatory politics and a body of critical and political theory, feminism continues to use ‘egalitarian rhetoric as the basis of most of its political demands’. In this sense, as Marshall contends, ‘feminism is wedded to the modern by virtue of its rootedness in the space opened up by rights discourse’. However, she notes that, at the same time,

its commitment to ‘difference’ and diversity and its sceptical stance towards reason call forth the postmodern.

Moira Gatens (1986) highlights the significance of feminism’s deconstructive relationship to modernist theory, in this case philosophy:

By self-consciously demonstrating that any philosophical paradigm is not neutral these feminists make themselves, both as philosophers and women, visible.

By making themselves visible, they in turn throw into question the legitimacy of claims and assumptions in philosophy that have been taken as axiomatic. Insofar as the approach questions the very foundation and status of philosophy it also reveals the investments and concerns of philosophy. It does this by demonstrating not only whatis excluded from a particular philosophy but also why it is crucial for the very existence of that philosophy, to exclude it.

(Gatens 1986:25)

Gatens’ comments identify two dimensions to feminism’s critique of modernism: first, feminism’s approach to theoretical deconstruction, as Yeatman (1994:17) claims, ‘evinces unwillingness to evacuate the ground of knowledge production, to leave a particular discipline to its phallocentric leadership’; second, it anticipates feminism’s critique of modernism’s metanarratives. Central among such metanarratives has been Marxism and the ‘production-paradigm’. Feminist philosophical critique as outlined by Benhabib and Cornell offers a direct challenge to the production paradigm. They raise the question of whether

the concept of production, which is based on the model of an active subject transforming, making and shaping an object given to it, can adequately comprehend traditional female activities, such as childrearing and caregiving, which are so thoroughly intersubjective.


The challenge to metanarrative as an explanatory framework came from within and outside feminism, perhaps the most serious critique being that of the theorisation of the ‘subject’. Marshall (1994:96), drawing on the work of MacDonald (1991), contends that it is in their questioning of the ‘subject’ that Marxists, feminists and poststructuralists have found some intellectual affinity. Marshall notes that ‘there is increasing doubt cast on the premise of orthodox Marxist theory that an individual’s identity, consciousness and in essence social being, are derived from one’s position in the social division of labour’ (ibid.).

Feminism’s critique of modernist metanarratives has been thrown into relief by feminism’s engagement with postmodernism. Fraser and Nicholson’s (1990) work in this area has been seminal.1 They argue that feminist theorists must abandon their own versions of the modernist metanarratives which have inspired the great general theories of modernity.2 Yeatman (1990b:290) contends that if ‘postmodernism empowers, as in a sense it is empowered by, feminism and feminist-inspired democratic visions, feminist theorists will have to give up their own “trained” subscription to modernist perspectives which sustain monovocal, monological constructions of authority’.

Fraser and Nicholson (1990:31) cite the work of Nancy Chodorow (1979) as one of a number of feminist social theorists who ‘has constructed a quasimetanarrative around a putatively cross-cultural, female-associated activity’. In addition, Yeatman notes that they identify a number of second wave feminists whose work has followed a similar pattern. She identifies Ann Ferguson and Nancy Folbre, Nancy Hartsock and Catherine MacKinnon (among others), who ‘have built similar theories around notions of sex – affective production, reproduction, and sexuality respectively’ (Yeatman 1990b:291). The difficulty with these theories is their biological essentialism, their lack of a cross-cultural component, and their tendency towards social constructionism. She argues that ‘a genealogical’ construction of the ‘categories of sexuality, reproduction and mothering would avoid the universalistic assumptions inherent in these models’.

The response of feminist theorists to postmodernism and poststructuralism has not been characterised by consensus. Sylvia Walby (1990, 1992) has been in the forefront of critics of feminism’s theoretical incursions into postmodernism. She contends that ‘postmodernists are correct to point out that many of the existing grand theories of patriarchy have problems in dealing with historical and cultural variation. But their solution of denying causality itself is necessarily defeatist…’ (Walby 1992:36). While Walby herself rejects a return to modernist metanarratives, with their ‘totalizing’ frameworks, she contends that ‘postmodern critics go too far in asserting the necessary impossibility and unproductive nature of investigating gender inequality’. She argues that the problem with a traditional Marxist framework is that it attempts to incorporate all forms of social inequality into that of class, utilising ‘a simple basesuperstructure model of causal relations’. Walby’s solution is to be found in theorising more than one causal base. She contends that the ‘ability to theorize different forms of patriarchy is absolutely necessary to avoid the problem of simple reductionism and essentialism’. However, Yeatman (1990b:291) points out that it is important to emphasise that, if postmodernism means abandoning universalistic, general theories and instead exploring the multivocal worlds of different societies and cultures, ‘this is not the same thing as abandoning the political-ethical project of working out the conditions for a universal pragmatics of individualized agency’.

It is the issue of agency and of subjectivity more generally, which lies at the heart of feminism’s ambiguous ‘positioning’ between modernity and post-modernity. As Marshall (1994:148) notes, ‘feminist analysis must recognise and build upon the insight that it can fully embrace neither an unreconstructed modernism’s subject nor postmodernism’s rejection of the subject, by virtue of the fact that women as subjects have never been accorded the coherence, autonomy, rationality or agency of the subject which undergirds an unreconstructed modernism, and which postmodernism has deconstructed out of existence.’

The fragile consensus of second wave feminism was increasingly challenged from both within and outside feminism. One of the key texts that brings together these two sets of pressures is Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips’ book Destabilizing Theory (1992).3 Barrett and Phillips outline three reasons why feminism has gone through a period of radical self-criticism: the political impact of women of colour within feminism; the issue of sexual difference, highlighted as an area that had not been sufficiently articulated within feminist theories of the second wave and more generally the whole area of subjectivity, diversity and difference within feminist theorising; and the impact of poststructuralism and postmodernism on feminism. The shift of emphasis from ‘equality’ to ‘difference’ emerging from within feminism’s own ranks as a result of critiques from women of colour, Third World feminists and lesbian feminists has been described by Barrett (1992) as ‘paradigm shift’ of the same order as that of feminism’s intersection with poststructuralism and postmodernism.