GOAL 1 DEVELOPING AND ADAPTING THEORIES
Chafetz (1988) defined feminist theory in sociology with four criteria: (1) that gender is a central focus; (2) that gender is systematically related to social contradictions, inequalities and pressure points; (3) That the theory accepts that gender relations are mutable, have changed and will change; and (4) that it can be used to ‘challenge, counteract or change’ situations in which women are devalued or disadvantaged. Any sociological theory which met these four criteria was, in Chafetz’s view, feminist. In 1997 she revisited feminist sociological theories to see how far they had developed, and if they had made any impact on the mainstream discipline. Her work is discussed in more detail in Chapter 3.
From the earliest years of contemporary feminism scholars have been developing theories. For example, Ruth Wallace’s (1989) collection on feminist theory in sociology brings together the American sociological theory produced by feminists up to that date. However, much of the intellectual effort has gone into developing feminist theory, rather than feminist sociological theory. Against the one collection by Wallace there is a series of volumes on interdisciplinary feminist theory. In 1981 Bunch edited Building Feminist Theory based on papers published in Quest. This latter collection included Hartsock’s (1975, 1981) early formulation of feminist standpoint theory, still being debated in Allen and Howard (2000). In 1982 Keohane, Rosaldo and Gelpi edited Feminist Theory drawn from early issues of Signs. In 2001 a specialist journal, Feminist Theory, was founded to provide an outlet for this theory.
In the UK the best-known feminist sociological theorising came from two women who epitomised the intellectual positions of Marxist and radical feminism: Michele Barrett and Sylvia Walby. In Canada, Dorothy Smith (1987) blended elements of Marxism and eth – nomethodology for feminist purposes. Many feminist sociologists would see Smith as one of the most creative, innovative and thought – provoking theorists in the world, with an impact far beyond Canada.
Laslett and Thorne’s (1997) collection of feminist autobiographies shows the importance of Dorothy Smith as a foundational scholar for modern feminist sociology. I was very shocked to discover that a group of women PhD students in sociology of education at a conference in Seattle in 2001 had never heard of her. While Britain, Canada and the USA had indigenous feminist sociological theorists, for many feminist sociologists the main theoretical developments came from France.
There are several French women thinkers whose ideas have been influential in British and American feminist sociology. Christine Delphy’s ideas were publicised in Britain by Diana Leonard from the mid-1970s onwards, from her inclusion in Barker and Allen (1976) through to Leonard and Adkins (1996). Delphy is certainly a sociologist, with a commitment to a materialist feminism. Some sociologists have been inspired by Monique Wittig (1992) especially those drawn to work on the body and/or lesbian issues. However, the most influential theorists are not sociologists: Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva. It is a paradox that the three most influential women theorists in feminist sociology are not sociologists and indeed, are not themselves even feminists in any way that most Anglophone women would define the term. Many feminist sociologists do not have good enough French to read the work in the original, and have used translations, compilations and the exegesis by Weedon (1987) as their source. There are several features of their position in France, and several aspects of their ideas, which make them problematic as icons for feminist sociology. Judith Butler (1999: x) points out that in her 1990 edition of Gender Trouble she ‘read together, in a syncretic vein’ a number of French intellectuals who were not, in France, friends, colleagues, allies or even producers of texts for the same audience. Braidotti (2000: 94) remarks that the same theorists are ‘marginal’ in France, with ‘barely any institutional pull’. Bourdieu (1988: xviii) reminds Anglophone readers of Homo Academicus that many of those lauded in the USA ‘held marginal positions in the university system which often disqualified them from officially directing research’. Irigaray was sacked by Lacan in 1974 and has never held an academic post since. Cixous has been based at Vincennes/Saint Dennis, which is a marginal university in the French system. Kristeva is depressingly anti-feminist. Bourdieu bemoans the fact that in both the USA and France:
attention and discussion focus on a few female theorists, capable of excelling in what one of their critics has called ‘the race for theory’, rather than on magnificent studies… which are infinitely richer and more fertile, even from a theoretical point of view but are less in conformity with the – typically masculine – idea of ‘grand theory’. (2001:
These women, because they are central to any discussion of postmodern feminism, are discussed in more depth in Chapter 8.