The myth of sisterly unity
The notion of sisterly unity is in fact a feminist myth. Some accounts of second-wave feminism (for example, Mitchell and Oakley, 1997) have represented it as a united sisterhood torn apart by fragmentation because some women could not see their common cause with others. There was a great deal of excitement and fellow feeling, which emerged from women’s struggles to fight their oppression. Yet from the very beginning there were women challenging some of the claims about women’s interests made by the dominant white middle class heterosexual feminists. These challenges took place both within political activism and within scholarly debate — and the two were often closely connected in the 1970s and 1980s. In drawing on some of the excluded ‘private’ values associated with women, problems emerged because certain assumptions were made about which ‘womanly’ values were appropriate. Often the class and cultural location of these values were not considered. Those who did not fit easily within the class and culture or cultures to which those values referred, began to have difficulty in feeling that feminism represented their interests. Yet the attention given to process also allowed intense debate and demonstrated that unity did not pre-exist between women but had to be forged through acting together (see Laclau and Mouffe, 1985; Mouffe, 1992). To see feminism as only later acknowledging the importance of difference also ignores the fact that difference played a part not only in first-wave feminist arguments about what women would bring to politics, but also in second-wave attempts to further consider whether equality meant sameness. Although initially these arguments were ostensibly about women’s difference from men they showed that, as Carol Bacchi has argued (1990), feminists have used both equality and difference arguments strategically in order to make material gains for women. At times feminists have suggested that women are different to men and could by this very difference enhance political life, bringing new perspectives and new skills. There are also cases, for example, pregnancy, where feminists have suggested that ‘equality’ can only be achieved if women are treated differently to men, because men do not get pregnant. In other situations such as arguing for educational equality, feminists have focused on similarities between women and men and therefore the rights of women to equal educational opportunities. All this proves that feminists did appreciate that there were differences among women as well as between women and men — and had ways of thinking about the political efficacy of drawing attention to differences. Many second-wave feminists argued that there were times when emphasizing similarities and building unity would bring the greatest rewards, but others suggested that this strategy usually excluded the needs of marginalized groups of women.
Women of colour from the USA to the Middle East, to former European colonies, mounted criticisms of white dominated feminist assumptions about women’s interests and experiences, especially in relation to the family. Within the United States Afro-American women were at the forefront of challenges to white feminist versions of women’s situation which failed to appreciate the importance of ethnic differences and racial inequalities. In the 1970s dominant feminist ideas about women’s oppression, drawing explicitly or implicitly on Marxist debates, targeted the family as the key site through which women were subject to men’s control (Barrett, 1980; Barrett and McIntosh, 1991). However, for most black women their families provided huge amounts of support and shelter in the face of a racist society (Martin and Martin, 1978). For black women to define men as ‘the main enemy’ (Delphy, 1984) was problematic given the common cause with their men in the fight against racism (Carby, 1982; hooks, 1981). Thus black women developed their own analyses of their oppression within a sexist and racist society, and encouraged white feminists to attend to their often racist treatment of non-white women within and beyond the movement (see for example, Davis, 1983; hooks, 1981; Hull et al., 1982). Such criticisms were not only made in an American context.
Indigenous women were also tackling issues of difference in former colonies such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. They were arguing for their interests as women of colour; these often involving land rights claims, concerns about feminist and wider racism, and concerns about the physical and mental health of women who were still suffering from the consequences of colonial oppressions even after independence (see for example, Awatere, 1984; Kenny, 2002; Naples and Dobson, 2001; Pattel-Gray, 1999; Summers, 1975). Many of the ideas emerging from these criticisms are discussed in Chapter 8. Within feminist politics the debates centred on whether it was possible to act together to bring change for women.
Political alliances were still necessary and possible if it was recognized that unity did not ‘naturally’ exist because of identity but was created strategically in acting politically (see Laclau and Mouffe, 1985).There is a subtle but important distinction to be made here between this view of feminism as always being a debate (see Bacchi, 1990; Schor, 1992: 46) and the idea that feminists shifted from a concern with sisterhood to an emphasis on difference (see Evans, 1995; Oakley, 1997;Whelehan, 1995). The latter reproduces dominant strands of feminism (usually white and middle class) as central and ‘other’ feminisms as added later, rather than being parallel and equally important — even if often struggling to be heard.
Trying to construct unity and respect differences were things that were juggled simultaneously by feminists as they acted together. The emphasis on either unity or difference by particular feminists depended on their political and social location at the time and the aims they had in mind. It also depended on whether particular feminists or groups of feminists felt themselves represented by the movement. Those who believed strongly in unity often felt that they were clearly fighting for what women wanted — for equality for all. However, there was not always agreement on what constituted equality, which women were in need of it, or how it could be achieved. These problems were largely a product of feminist difficulties in analysing power.