From unity to fragmentation? Identity politics in feminism
In many respects the second-wave feminist movement, as with the first wave, was based on the idea that women shared a common, disadvantaged social position; that as women they had similar experiences of being treated as second-class citizens. Therefore their key identity was as a woman. Political unity between women was possible if they recognized this common identity and their shared oppression. Nancy Hartsock (1998) is well known for her intellectual rendering of this common early second-wave position, albeit she posits Marxist arguments for why women share common experiences, whereas within political activism feminists tended to refer rather more vaguely to women’s shared oppression under patriarchy. She believes there is a feminist standpoint which emerges because women share a worldview based on their common material social position. In this extension of Marxian theory she proposes that women’s reproductive activity, or close relation to that activity, makes them critical of patriarchy as partial and overly abstract, and relations within patriarchy as lacking connection. Because women are likely to be concerned with caring for others — be it children, husbands or elders — they are aware of the limitations of patriarchy’s emphasis on individuals and competition. However, this does assume that all women are similarly involved in, or connected to, the reproductive activities of caring. Even if women do share similar experiences do they necessarily share the same ideas about how to address politically those experiences?
Ever since women have questioned their social position they have had varying ideas about what women want and need. This does not mean that women do not know what they want but that there are many different kinds of women, who have differing degrees and types of privilege or disadvantage according to their age, class, ethnicity, sexuality, ablebodiedness, region, religion and so on. The interests of young single women in a large city are different to the needs of elderly lesbian couples in rural areas, for example. A mass movement seemed to rely on unity, but there was also a need to have respect for differences among women.