Gender as politics
Second-wave feminism continued the fight against material inequalities but offered a much more radical challenge to the entire liberal democratic political system and to ideas about womanhood. Second-wave feminists questioned divisions between private and public spheres, highlighted the political nature of relations between women and men, experimented with new political processes and re-wrote political agendas to attend to issues they thought central to women (Holmes, 1999).All types of relationships with men were subject to analysis, but there was considerable attention to sexuality and the ways in which heterosexism contributed to the reproduction of conservative gender roles thought to constrain women. And although there were debates and disagreements among different groups of feminists such as lesbians and heterosexuals, this does not mean that the movement fell apart due to in-fighting. The movement was an amazing collection of women of different classes, ethnic groups, ages, sexualities and so on. White middle class educated women tended to be the most dominant voice in that movement but black working class, lesbian and other groups were always there asking questions about whose interests were being forwarded (Holmes, 2004).
The question of whether women, in all their diversity, can share political interests seems largely — but not entirely — to have been answered in the negative. Women, very broadly speaking, do still share a disadvantaged social position relative to men (see Chapter 1) and are still subject to violence which is directed against them specifically as women (Dobash and Dobash, 1992; Kelly, 1988). However, there are huge differences between women; between women in the First and Third Worlds, or between poor black women in America or Britain in relation to their white middle class peers. As a political movement, feminism has continued to struggle with identity politics and some of the problems it involves were highlighted when certain groups of men began to insist that there were costs associated with being masculine. Searching for the ‘real’ man within became a popular project for middle class men in the 1980s, partly as an individualistic response to the perceived threat to their
privilege that feminism posed (Connell, 1995; Messner, 1997). More pro-feminist versions of masculinity politics tended to stress the need for both women and men to be liberated from repressive traditional gender roles, or the need to refuse to be a man within the hegemonic terms proscribed (Connell, 1995; Stoltenberg, 2000a/1989). From this and feminist questionings of the gender order emerged queer politics (see Chapter 4; Jagose, 1996; Seidman, 1996), which argued the need radically to reconfigure the gender order via freeing individual desires and making gender a matter of fluid choice rather than fixed ascription. Yet this is unlikely to alter significantly the realities of most of the population. Questions arose about the continued relevance of feminist politics in a world where identities are supposedly no longer thought stable and yet divisions around religion and culture are becoming the source of major global conflicts. It is uncertain whether these conflicts are economically (i. e. resource seeking) rather than culturally or religiously motivated, and what their effects will be on local and global gender relations. Yet feminists maintain alliances, sometimes across difficult real and imagined borders, and they and pro-feminist men continue to attempt to bring greater control over their lives to more of the world’s women. At the same time differences are not ignored and the intricate tangle of gender with other forms of inequality is the subject of continued political and intellectual scrutiny. The engagement of class with gender has been particularly important within feminist sociology.