The intervention of feminism within the academy has been strengthened by the developments in the 1980s and 1990s of a greater degree of feminist pluralism, particularly as a result of debates emerging from non-Western women and women of colour. As indicated earlier, women of colour have challenged the uncritical use of concepts such as ‘oppression’ and ‘patriarchy’ and questioned the assumptions on which second wave feminism was based, bell hooks (1984:18) has shown that such assumptions tacitly presuppose shared class, race and ethnic group status with dominant group men. As hooks points out, it clearly does not make sense for women who are racially, economically and ethnically exploited to seek equality with their male peers. As hooks notes,
Knowing that men in their groups do not have social, political and economic power, they could not deem it liberatory to share their social status. While they are aware that sexism enables men in their respective groups to have privileges denied them, they are more likely to see exaggerated expressions of male chauvinism among their peers as stemming from the male’s sense of himself as powerless and ineffectual in relation to ruling male groups rather than an expression of an overall privileged social status.
Women’s Studies and feminist theorising have responded to the criticisms emerging from within feminism by the development of a number of critical strategies. Yeatman (1994:47) outlines some of these developments, the first of which she defines as ‘feminism as critique’ and identifies the work of Judith Butler (1990a), Denise Riley (1988) and Elizabeth Grosz (1990a) as representative of this position. Yeatman (1994:47) contends that ‘feminism as critique’ confirms the very ground it seeks to challenge by reproducing and confirming the ‘binarisms of a patriarchal gender division of labour, and, paradoxically, becomes complicit with that order’. A second response, identified by Yeatman, has been the development of a theory based on the intersection of different bases of oppression such as class, gender, ethnicity, race and sexuality. These intersecting bases, it is argued, should be treated analytically, separately, and then examined in their historical specificity. A third response is developed from this and looks at what has become defined as ‘the politics of difference’, based on articulation of a ‘politics of voice and representation’ emerging from ‘women who regard themselves as differently positioned in terms of ethnicity, race, class and sexuality’ (Yeatman 1994:48). As Yeatman notes, these challenges have brought out ‘the neglect of class, racist and ethnic oppression by the feminist movement with its tendency to concentrate on gender issues’ (1994:46). The value of the work of feminist writers and theorists, as McRobbie notes, lies in their interrogation
of the ground rules, the boundaries and the barriers which define feminist theory and politics and which simultaneously have to be broken, have to be trespassed upon…The riposte to white feminists that they were not speaking and could not speak on behalf of ‘all women’, has prompted a reassessment of the feminist self and who she is, and is speaking to and about. At the same time this particular fragmentation of the feminist subject is confirmed through the global and postmodern critique of the European Enlightenment.
It is to these issues, and to the emergence of a significant literature within feminist theoretical debates around ‘the politics of difference’, that we now turn.