Radical Feminism Today

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Denise Thompson

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  • Conclusion

    My task throughout has been to argue that, without acknowledgement of the meanings and values of male supremacy which structure a reality where only men are ‘human’, feminism has no unifying point of reference. I have argued that feminism's obvious concern with women only makes sense as a concern to expose the ways in which women are dehumanized under conditions of male supremacy, while attempting to rectify that dehumanization through women taking our lives and destinies into our own hands by extricating ourselves from male-defined institutions, and by creating or reasserting our own meanings and values outside male control. I have also argued that that enterprise involves women striving for a human status which does not depend on the diminution of anyone else's human rights and dignities. I have suggested that that enterprise is already possible because it is in many ways already conceivable, although the task is by no means ended because male supremacy has not yet been overcome. Indeed the struggle has just begun. Despite the centuries of women's resistance to male definition and control, feminism has made little headway against the hydra-headed monster of male hegemony. None the less, the struggle must continue.

    I began with an extended definition of feminism which detailed what is involved in the idea of ‘social construction’. Although a ‘social constructionist’ perspective is central to feminist theorizing, it tends to be confined to challenging arguments appealing to ‘nature’, and hence to be too narrow in scope to allow other important implications of the concept of ‘social construction’ to be addressed. There is too little awareness of the extent to which the human individual is a social being all the way through, and of the implications of that for the feminist project of exposing and transforming the political dimensions of personal life. Taking seriously the idea that feminism's primary antagonist is a social system was necessary, I felt, if feminism was to resolve some of the contradictions into which it has been driven by a continuing covert adherence to a belief in the ontological primacy of ‘individuals’. If the subject-matter of feminism is a social system rather than just ‘women’, it becomes possible to evaluate what is said by women in the name of feminism on moral and political criteria, rather than on the basis of the experiences or feelings of women as discrete individuals. It becomes possible to challenge anti-feminist positions which masquerade as ‘feminism’ simply because they are held by women who identify as feminist; and it becomes possible to keep feminist energy and attention focused on the main enemy rather than dissipated throughout a multitude of differences among women. If the subject-matter of feminism is a social system rather than a matter of female personal experience, it becomes possible to identify ways in which even women can consent to our own oppression and adhere to meanings and values which operate against our own best interests; and it becomes possible to hold men accountable for the wrongs they do to women, while still acknowledging that they have choices and can refuse to comply with male supremacist requirements that men treat women as less than human. Within the schema of a social system, individuals are both bearers of social relations and the loci of moral and political judgement, decision and action which can lead to resistance and refusal.

    I went on to define what kind of social system it is that feminism is opposing, that is, the social system of male supremacy structured by meanings and values which maintain the male as the ‘human’ norm. I argued that feminism's undoubted concern for women arises out of the recognition that women are debarred from human status under conditions of male supremacy, and that that is the source of the atrocities against women identified by feminism. In other words, ‘women’ are problematic in feminist terms because the relations of ruling under which we live are maintained at our expense. Feminism is unquestionably concerned with the multitude of ways in which women are human too, including not only the various ways in which we live our lives, but also the very fact that we exist at all. But I also pointed out that, unless the feminist standpoint is acknowledged in the first place as the moral and political opposition to male supremacy, feminism loses its central unifying focus, and ‘women’ become nothing but the occupants of their present ‘social locations’, caught up in mutual antagonisms to the extent that some ‘social locations’ are more privileged than others. I argued that without the explicit identification of male supremacy as the problem, there is no feminist standpoint, that ‘women's life activity’ or ‘women's experience’ is not alone sufficient to define feminist politics.

    In Part Two, I argued in some detail that there is much that is labelled ‘feminism’ which is complicit with male supremacist relations of ruling because it refuses, or neglects, to name them as such, or because it actively sets out to destroy the feminist standpoint which does. The academy is an important site for the formation and distribution of meaning, far too important to allow it to be turned against the ruling interests. The gates must be kept barred against the bad crazy women threatening to cut off the phallic source of all meaning and pleasure. Unfortunately for the success of this endeavour to exclude threats to phallic supremacy, the master needs ‘trusties’. He needs discourses defending his interests visibly authored by women in order to demonstrate that his interests are women's too. But women are notoriously untrustworthy as defenders of phallocracy. There is no unequivocal sign marking off the reliable good women from the bad castrating ones. Sometimes the gatekeeping fails because the good woman and the bad woman are the same woman, struggling with the seductions and coercions of malestream thought, at one point losing her way in the tangled thickets of what counts as knowledge, at another point finding the way clearly marked by the interests of women in opposing male supremacy, only to lose it as the jungle closes in around her once again. Sometimes the gatekeeping fails because the master is fooled into believing that she is working in his interests because she is working in a traditional malestream discipline, whereas what she is actually doing is using her feminist insight to challenge and transform that discipline. Sometimes, sadly, it is the feminist who is deceived into believing that she is operating in women's interests by the mere fact that she is working in the field of Women's Studies, a self-deception which can only be exacerbated by the tendency to re-name Women's Studies ‘Gender Studies’.1 Sometimes the gatekeeping simply fails for no perceptible reason (apart, that is, from the general reason that no form of domination is inevitable).

    I have said nothing in these pages about what is to be done in activist terms. My task has not been to address any of the various ways in which feminists in academe have struggled to place feminism on the intellectual agenda. Rather, my task has been to clarify what feminism is in the most general terms, to provide a number of illustrative examples of academic feminist writings which fall short of feminist aims, and to discuss some of the ways in which that happens. Certainly the theoretical schema I have outlined here has a multitude of practical implications. But decisions about what needs to be done, including what needs to be done within the academic domain, are the prerogative of those who are doing it. My own contribution to the struggle has been the clarification of feminist politics on the level of meaning. How that meaning translates into practical activism will depend on the particular problems and difficulties individual activists are faced with. How one engages with specific realities cannot be dictated beforehand. Each of us has to decide for herself (and himself) what is to be done, whether or not anything can be done, and how far one can go before the monstrous regime makes it too hard to go on. As Phyllis Chesler put it in the titles of the first and last chapters of her book: ‘Heroism is our only alternative’ and ‘Sister, fear has no place here’ (Chesler, 1994). Women are no strangers to heroism, despite its traditional monopolization by men; and although fear is an appropriate response to the Leviathan of male supremacy, we cannot allow fear alone to stop us.

    Note

    1 Jocelyn Pixley has suggested that ‘Gender Studies’ might have been justified originally as an improvement on ‘Women's Studies’, because the designation ‘Women's Studies’ implies that the problems are only women's, whereas ‘Gender Studies’ would facilitate dealing with men as well. But although the word ‘gender’ is sometimes used to mean male domination, its chief use and function is to deny it. And academic departments of ‘Gender Studies’ are in fact devoted to anti-feminist substitutions for feminism, of which the most fashionable at the moment is ‘queer theory’.

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