Problems of power and identity
The emphasis on embodied identity/experience as the ‘proper’ basis for feminist knowledge and action was at times a radicalizing position, but sometimes produced an individualized approach to power and oppression caught up with how feminists oppressed each other within political action (Grant, 1987). In general, there was some doubt as to where the personal and political should be connected in representing yourself as a feminist. This resulted in a struggle over the place of the personal, some advocating the need for unity, others trying to think about how conflicts and differences between women could be dealt with more effectively. Feminists did not necessarily share the same ‘personal’ experiences, nor interpret them in the same way. Therefore, representing themselves in relation to ‘the personal’ highlighted differences. This made political action difficult if it was thought a unity of identity was necessary. However the process of struggling over how to represent the differing needs and interests of women was a crucial part of political action. A belief that women could or should avoid power in their relations with each other meant that identifying some as more powerful than others could be an accusation of personal and political failure. This was very painful for many of the women involved. It was a symptom of the general tendency within second-wave feminism to
see power as something men have and women do not (see Curthoys, 1997; Yeatman, 1994). Understanding power is central to the feminist movement and Yeatman (1994) argues that its vision for change depends on the adequacy of its conceptions of power. Yet there are considerable problems with feminist understandings of women as subject to patriarchal ‘power over’ them. One is the way it contributed to an unhelpful categorization of hierarchies of oppression.
In trying to recognize difference some feminists represented themselves and others in terms of rigid sets of identities organized into hierarchies of oppression. White middle class women were closest to the top of the hierarchy and black working class lesbian women towards the bottom. And power relations were personalized. Lesbians attacked heterosexual women for dominating the movement, working class women denounced their oppression by middle class sisters. Power relations were defined in personalized and moralistic terms; ‘racism, ‘classism’, heterosexism were [seen as] forms of personal oppression which certain women ‘did’ to others by dint of their membership of a more privileged group’ (Jones and Guy, 1992: 8).The problem with the identity politics at the base of hierarchies of oppression was the cardboard cut-out notions of identity they enshrined. Overlapping, fluid and changing identities were difficult to deal with in that model (Adams, 1989). How might a middle class black lesbian understand her experiences via hierarchies of oppression? And where do you stop? What is significant — disability, religion, age, height? Hierarchies of oppression stifle debate and individualize problems.
Of course there are feminist scholars who have argued that all identity categories exclude — including the category ‘woman’. In the shift from an emphasis on things to an emphasis on words, feminist intellectuals took issue with the way in which feminism had been based on a politics of identity which assumed a commonality of experience between women. Judith Butler, for example, explains her discomfort with the response of many feminists to postmodern interrogations of subjectivity and identity. That response insisted on the necessity of seeing a stable subject (‘woman’) as the foundation of feminist politics. However Butler proposes that this argument prevents political opposition and a questioning of the constitution of the subject. She particularly takes issue with the way in which subjects have been gendered in material ways by imposing ideas about the ‘naturalness’ of sexed bodies as the foundation for stable subjectivity. Therefore she suggests that:
‘[if] there is a fear that, by no longer being able to take for granted the subject, its gender, its sex, or its materiality, feminism will founder, it might be wise to consider the political consequences of keeping in their place the very premises that have tried to secure our subordination from the start. (Butler, 1992: 19)
To not challenge constructions of subjectivity was to ignore that ‘the constituted character of the subject is the very precondition of its agency’ (Butler, 1992: 12). In other words, feminism’s reliance on a stable notion of ‘woman’ tended to assume that women were determined by their oppression, it tended to conceive of women as victims of patriarchy. Yet I would argue that Butler herself universalizes feminism too much. It is true that as a response to postmodernism many feminists may have promoted the advantages of a politics based on a subjectivity shared as women. However, the feminist movement fundamentally challenged liberal democratic conceptions of the political and this involved questioning dominant notions of subjectivity. Admittedly the focus was on the way in which women had been rendered non-subjects and therefore needed to claim a political voice. Nevertheless, this questioning existed and was arguably present in the attention to differences among women which I have suggested were always a part of the movement, even if initially given scant attention.
The problem with giving only scant attention to difference was that feminist politics often became based on notions of authenticity. Both Butler (1992) and Denise Riley (1988) discuss the ways in which feminist reliance on an identity as a ‘woman’ often produced squabbles over who was a ‘real’ woman. The same is true of more fragmented versions of identity politics; so, for example, in the USA there were debates about who might properly represent black women’s interests which often fell into notions of who were the ‘real’ black women (hooks, 1981: 150). As already suggested there were debates about whether feminists should be lesbians and who were the ‘authentic’ lesbians. Even at the time, feminists saw the political limitations of such rigid definitions of identity and — contrary to stereotypes of them as humourless — they displayed a sense of humour about trying to account for the actual complexities of their ‘personal’lives in such terms. In one feminist magazine in New Zealand a cartoon of two lesbians in bed read:
I feel you should know that although I’m a downwardly mobile upper
middle class non-monogomous socialist feminist lesbian separatist killer
dyke… the little boy sleeping in the next room is not the neighbours’.
(Anonymous, 1980: 6)
The resort to such hierarchies of oppression was brief; they prevented coalitions and indeed most meaningful debate. In addition they cast already disempowered groups of women as voiceless victims of oppression. Although the intention was to allow such marginalized women to speak, the ranking of oppressions assumed in advance that it would be extremely unlikely that those voices would be heard. This was not an empowering position for those women wishing to articulate different needs than those usually claimed as what women wanted by dominant feminists. Instead, therefore, feminists from more marginalized groups began to develop a politics of difference (Young, 1991) which emphasized the way in which identities were multiple, fluid and changing and yet were relational. This meant no longer viewing identity in terms of distinct boxes such as ‘woman’, ‘white’, ‘middle class’ and ‘heterosexual’. In a politics of difference what was more crucial was the ways in which various key aspects of identity were constructed in relation to each other. Feminists — usually labelled postmodern — interested in the symbolic construction of gender, such as Riley and Butler, had already proposed that women’s identity had to be understood as constructed in relation to what it meant to be a man. Marginalized women made this point in relation to class and sexuality, but perhaps most strikingly in relation to ‘race’.
The black feminists discussed above and in Chapter 8 cannot perhaps be easily placed on one side of a ‘turn’ from emphasizing material inequalities to foregrounding symbolic constructions. It is true that some such as Davis (for example, 1983; 1998) had more to say about things, and others such as bell hooks (for example, 1981; 1992) wrote more of meanings and representations. But for black women a crucial factor in their oppression was their construction as non-white, and therefore as non-women. They were simultaneously invisible as ‘blacks’ because that term usually meant black men (see Hull et al., 1982).Their lack of access to material rewards within the societies they lived in needed to be understood in such terms. Even within nations where whites remained the minority the ramifications of colonialism meant that indigenous women in all their diversity of colour and culture were defined in relation to white European women and their descendants. Third World women were often represented by feminists in the West as all the same and as victims, always on the verge of starvation, enslaved to ‘traditional’ notions of women’s inferiority within their culture. Such portraits, as Mohanty (1991) argues, lack an appreciation of the complexity and diversity of ‘third world women’ and their circumstances and serve largely to make Western feminists feel better about themselves and how relatively ‘liberated’ they are. Postcolonial feminism, as discussed in Chapter 8, has been one intellectual home of such new efforts to understand differences between women. This is a rather different project from understanding perceived differences between men and women as key. However, ‘sexual difference’ has continued to be addressed by feminists (see Beasley, 2005), and was also taken up by men within different types of masculinity politics.