Feminist Theories and Feminized Politics:
Competing Theories of Gender and Gender-based Political Agendas
The Western Thought Project
State of the Art Collection
Feminist Scholarship No.2
"Gender, Class and the Workplace," Angela Hale Glasner, Sociology, Vol. 21, No.2, May 1987
Science, Morality and Feminist Theory, Edited by Marsha Hanen and Kai Nielsen (Calgary, Alberta: Univ. of Calgary Press, 1987) Introduction
"Women and Social Violence," Elise Boulding, Int. Soc. Sci. J., Vol. XXX,No. 4, 1978
"Antigone's Dilemma: A Problem in Political Membership," Valerie A. Hartouni, Hypatia, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 1986)
"Toward a Feminist Epistemology," Jennifer Ring, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 31, #4, November, 1987.
"Beyond Gender Difference to a Theory of Care," Joan C. Tronto, Society: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 12, No.4, 1987.
"Moral/Analytic Dilemmas Posed by the Intersection of Feminism and Social Science," Michelle Rosaldo, Social Science as Moral Inquiry, Haan, ed.
"Wrong Rights," Elizabeth Wolgost, Hypatia, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter 1987)
"Women, Welfare and The Politics of Need Interpretation," Nancy Fraser, Hypatia, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter 1987).
It would seem that feminist literature deals in two different spheres of discourse; one of them is on the theoretical and epistemological level at the heart of which is deep doubt in the value of gender specific theoretical outlooks. The other sphere in which feminist literature seems to operate is at the social and political level where the aim is to illustrate how gender has functionally operated in most any social system and failed to ensure women an equitable piece of the social, economic and political pie. It seems paradoxical in looking at the literature that the theoretical debate continues to prove inconclusive where gender is concerned while studies on the political level argue in many case studies, very convincingly that gender has played a decisive role in the understatus of women as a group. One should note however, the nature and scope of feminist theory, which deals with issues such as objectivity/subjectivity, value-free science, the liberal ethos and morality, is moving it in a direction that while it might not be able to produce gender specific theories per se, is challenging the basic assumptions of social science as whole. It is perhaps in this sense that the two types of literature are working in tandem to challenge, by offering an alternative perspective, the status quo in the political as well as the theoretical realms to which they might at first glance, seem to be at odds.
The literature which concentrates on the practical place of women in society looks at a number of issues including: women in the work place, single mother headed households, women and welfare, patriarchy, women as victims of violence and the role of gender in defining how the system will perceive and treat women in the distribution of resources and power.
In a recent article by Angela Hale Glasner entitled Gender, Class and the Workplace, she reviews a number of books and the efforts of contemporary Marxists looking at domestic labour as a mechanism for incorporating an understanding of women's labour in the home within a theory of capitalism. These studies led to an interest in issues of gender, employment and stratification. She claims that the most important work to this literature is by Rosemary Crompton and Michael Mann, Gender and Stratification.
Previously, labour had been studied using a gender model which assumed that for men, economic activities provided the basis for social relationships in society and for women the same was true except it was family and care taking activities which defined them. This notion has been replaced by a gender free model for understanding stratification in the work place. Women's place within the labour market is now considered under versions of the dual/segmented labour market theory in understanding the constraints placed on women in their interactions with the labour market. The gender-free model has certain problems in that researchers must listen more carefully to the kind of work women are doing and they can no longer focus on the importance of work to men. Many argue that class is a more important determinant than gender in stratification theory because empirical research is based on structures rather than on individuals. Sex is not a useful component to understanding inequality because allocation of social/economic resources is really more a function of family background. Mann argues that gender relations is a stratification issue in its own right but does attempt to develop a framework of study from both a gendered and a non-gendered perspective. He disagrees with patriarchy as a concept and sees gender as a limited descriptive factor in understanding inequality from the perspective of stratification theory. The author argues that stratification theory must restructure its empirical methodology to include more case samplings of women and their work. Obviously, better research design might alter such theorists perceptions about the significance of gender to labour stratification.
In an article which appeared in Hypatia, "Women, Welfare and the Politics of Need Interpretation," Nancy Fraser argues that gender norms have influenced the social welfare system in the United States. This article makes a very clear case of the distortion of the political-welfare system based on gender. Fraser sites some startling statistics such that analysts predict that by the year 2000, the poverty population in the U.S. will consist entirely of women and their children.
Fraser's argument is that women have become the principle clients of the welfare state and that the structure is dualistic broken down into female and male subsystems which are unequal in nature, scope and by social norms. She argues that there are two types of welfare in the U.S.; first, such as unemployment and social security benefits are premised on subjects who are 'rights-bearers'. These are contributory where beneficiaries pay into social security accounts and they receive cash which they may carry into the market as 'sovereign consumers'. Women make up 38% of these claims. The other type of welfare is perceived as public charity whose revenue comes from taxes and whose subjects are viewed as charges of the state. Payment is often in kind and subjects must work to continually prove their eligibility. More than 80% receiving Aid For Dependent Children (AFDC) are headed by female households, 60% are women receiving food stamps and 70% are women receiving publicly owned or subsidized housing. Women in the US, comprise two thirds of all adults below the poverty line. Fraser argues that as clients, paid human service workers and unpaid care givers of both children and the elderly, women are the principle subjects of the welfare system in the US.
Based on her characterization of the US welfare system, Fraser calls for the following: a struggle to secure and legitimate the political status of women's needs as opposed to private domestic or market matters; the interpretation of women's needs as a counter force to a culture which perpetuates androcentric and sexist interpretations of women's needs; a struggle to empower women to interpret their own needs and lastly, a struggle to elaborate and win support for policies which avoid both private patriarchy and public charity. It is interesting to note that this article relies entirely on gender to describe and explain what is wrong with the US welfare system. While it does not argue that the needs of women are being met/unmet by the system, nor tell how much (percentage) in total cash and in kind transfers goes to men and goes to women for example, it simply argues that the system is unequal-it is not fair. It assumes that the male "rights-bearing" category of welfare transfer (cash) is the norm to which female in kind type transfers should be measured. The latter she calls 'public charity.' The fact that the way the welfare system distributes its resources might suit the social reality does not enter into her argument.
How, for example, can women make payments into a social security fund if they have no income? The author also sees cash transfer as more equal than food stamps or in kind transfers because she sees the sovereign consumer as more dignified. In the US, if 80% of all professional employment by women is in the health and human social welfare services sector (82.4% of black women), than how can she argue that gender is a major factor in women defining and determining the needs of women in social welfare? Either the over %50 of professional women working in this sector are not in a position to determine the need of their counterparts on welfare, or another factor is operating here other than gender.
Another area which is current in feminist action-political oriented writing is women as victims of social and institutional injustice. While the above article treats and gives an interesting perspective on the perceived inequities in the US welfare system with specific examples and statistical data, other writers attempt to embed a social and political 'feminist' argument into a loosely defined theoretical framework. This is the case with Elise Boulding's article on "Women and Social Violence." While no one would disagree that women find themselves consistently disfavored in most societies in world culture, attempts to make this phenomenon fit into a systematic gender based view of the world is often more difficult.
Boulding's article takes gender as a standpoint position in explaining a smattering of societal ills involving women and packages them neatly into 'the battle of the sexes.' She stumbles clumsily through a number of cliches brandishing an arsenal of ill defined concepts and theoretical stereotypes such as 'patriarchy' and aggressor/victim dualisms. Many of her most shocking examples of violence against women are taken from Africa thus leading the reader to the conclusion that violence against women might be correlated to 'primitive vs. industrialized' civilizations. Referring throughout to what she calls a 'culture of violence,' her arguments are full of dualisms and summational categorical reasoning which fall together into a series of statements supported by randomly cited studies. She seems to be arguing for a future model of social relations based on androgyny. Boulding links current forms of socially patterned dominance to the Greek mythology of Zeusian hero and the corresponding submission of women. While acknowledging that both sexes feel victimized, she argues that an end to the submission of women is necessary for humanity.
Boulding claims that societal violence can be ascribed to 'violence inducing sex-role pathologies' inherent in culture and that a more peaceful social outcome requires more androgynous personalities. Boulding gives many interesting examples of the oppression of women in world society including prostitution, pornography, triple work loads in both public and domestic life (breeder,feeder and worker), unequal pay, rape and deprivation, torture and single parenthood. Part of her theoretical assumptions include universal patriarchy under which women everywhere have experienced structural victimization.
She also assumes a 'male temperament' which is at the head of the patriarchal household to which all members are at the mercy. Her gendered characterization of men and women in social relationship is adversarial. Boulding says that, "therefore the vulnerability of women to the vicissitudes of the male temperament within the household is one aspect of the structural violence inherent in the institution of the patriarchal family." Boulding quotes most often studies of 'African societies' as examples of institutional violence against women.
In looking at these gender based arguments as an explanation for social and institutional violence against women, what is Boulding suggesting? Because she sees assertive/nurture social roles as gender bound and related to the submission of women, she argues for a more androgynized individual. She offers many illustrative and compelling examples of female vicumization, mostly related to their erotic attraction to men and their reproductive role in the family without explaining how 'androgynization' will correct these.
Her arguments are placed in dualistic victim/oppressor terms. For example, she holds patriarchy responsible for structural and behavioral violence against women in society. On the other hand, she argues that unpartnered mothers leave women vulnerable to economic exploitation. Her argument does not give due to the positive aspects of patriarchal family households and its benefits to women and children and therefore, to society. Furthermore, she blames women for contributing to their own victimization by using child rearing practices that make boys "rape-ready and fight-ready." It is difficult to see how one can vindicate the victim while inditing her at the same time.
She gives many unfortunate examples of the victimization of women but it is difficult to glean her meaning, for example, she argues that prostitution is an exploitative and humiliating practice while arguing at the same time that to abolish it would deprive certain groups of an important source of income. On the one hand, she states that one of the greatest achievements of the women's movement was to get rape classified as a criminal offense while this ignores the sexual nature of the rape crime. While rape is a crime, it is also a crime against sex. She links male gender to assertive/oppressive behavior and female to nurture/submission behavior and then sites a study which suggests that the only reason women are not more criminal and aggressive is for lack of opportunity.
Despite the gender linked arguments she offers in patriarchy and submission, she does hint at the greater societal question of the "pseudo-libertarian ethic that has led to a support of the pornographic industry leading to a rhetoric of sexual liberation which has convinced many women that the traditional women's modesty behavior is prudish, old fashioned and self-destructive." In this statement, Boulding is hinting at the greater framework of social norms and mores which have influenced all members of society both advantaged and disadvantaged.
Political feminist arguments are often couched in terms of 'women's rights.' In the 1970's women attempted to legalistically guarantee their rights under the provisions of the Equal Rights Amendment. Gaining ones rights and social equality (in legalistic terms) have always been part of the feminist dialogue and public debate.
One article that cogently outlines the weaknesses in a liberal rights-based society is by Elizabeth Wolgast entitled, "Wrong Rights." She describes the concept of individual rights as being born of an atomistic view of society where rights are moral property to be claimed and asserted among autonomous and independent entities. She argues that individual rights may be a misguided way to deal with injustice.
The doctor patient relationship for example, is guided by the 'patients rights.' The doctor is to behave ethically because the patient has certain rights. This is unsatisfactory due to the nature of this relationship. How can a sick person who is vulnerable to a health care professional be in any position to exercite and assert his 'rights?' Wolgast feels the emphasis should be on the ethical responsibilities of the doctor not see the patient as merely a biological disease.
Child abuse presents another quandary for rights based perceptions of justice. The nature of the child/parent relationship makes it impossible for a child to exercise his rights. The child is neither a peer nor is he in the situation voluntarily. Furthermore, making the child/parent relationship adversarial by the child claiming his rights is hardly good for the community.
The claim to equal rights for women returning to the workforce after raising a family-or leaving for maternity leave-also fails to administer justice. Since maternity leave is not something men may claim, is it unfair to men? Whose rights are being claimed in the case of the right to maternity leave? To make things equal, one could classify pregnancy as an illness to which women are entitled sick leave and to which men are immune. The dignity of the rights holder does not explain or give much dignity to the state of pregnancy or childbirth.
According to Wolgast, the problem with the rights based atomistic model is that it can only administer justice to those in contractual relationships based on rational choice and self-interest between competitive peers. What rational actor, for example, would accept the marriage contract whose terms are vague (to love, obey, honor), whose conditions are to endure for better or for worse (risky eventualities) and whose length runs until death? What rational actor would accept such a contract?
Claiming something is wrong because someone has a right to this or that, obscures the moral questions. To argue that murder is wrong because people have a right to life avoids the judgement that murder is simply wrong. Rights based thinking goes beyond the framework in which moral justifications are meaningful to skepticism. According to Wolgast, the demand for justification thus threatens to weaken rather than support the structure of moral thinking. Again, the problem here is not so much one of gender and individual rights, but of the structure of the atomized and individualized system failing at certain junctions when presented with circumstances not originally taken into consideration for the original design.
This brings us closer to issues of theoretical relevancy in feminist thought. In exploring issues of gender, feminist theory itself continues to run into problems with the assumption of the greater environment of social science. The situation of women themselves is continually measured against an established ethic of power and material success. More often then not, the standard to which the position of women is compared is that of the status quo white male. While there are many competing definitions and attempts to find the root of the position of women, there are few competing definitions of exactly what women should be aiming for in society - of what makes women happy and fulfilled as human beings.
Traditionally, argue theorists, women have been betrothed to the private sphere in society. Jean Elshtain, a political theorist, argued that fleeing the home and convincing others to do the same only give the state more power in matters private. Elshtain is known as a "pro-family feminist." She claims that from their private stance, women should check and harass the intrusiveness of the power of the state. In an article entitled, "Antigone's Dilemma: A Problem in Political Membership," Valerie Hartouni likens Elshtain's argument to the situation of Antigone who to a stand against the state in favor of her private concerns of kinship and the divine order. Hartouni feels that if women lampoon the state entirely that they will only end up hurting themselves because the public and the private are inextricable linked. While the private is subordinate to the public, it is by no means separate.
In her conclusion, Hartouni states that, the standpoint which Elshtain urges contemporary women to adopt, the standpoint of an Antigone, dissolves in its enactment. Within a culture that holds silence to be the condition of women's honor, as in Antigone's case, women's speech and action have no public context. Both remain incoherent in the existing political terms. It is no different for contemporary women. Action takes its meaning from its context. And within a context in which the President himself attributes the currently severe unemployment rates to the large number of women entering the work-force, [Time Magazine, July 12, 1982:23] it is clear that traditional reasoning with respect to women's proper place and activity have yet to undergo the revaluation which would make plausible or even noticeable a "feminist" reappropriation of either. Hartouni seems to be arguing her that linking the feminine to the private and setting it up in opposition to the public will only create a situation whose outcome would be meaningless because it prevents women and men from viewing themselves as an interdependent social system with the private having perhaps a subordinate but no less of a stake in the whole. It might be paramount to cutting off ones arm. Many of these issues are dealt with in the literature reflecting upon the theoretical aspects of feminist thought.
In a volume edited by Marsha Hanen and Kai Nielsen, Science, Morality and Feminist Theory, Marsha Hanen argues that feminist theory is not solely concerned with political philosophy/theory and that feminist theory is uniquely placed to develop integrative theories of knowledge, especially in the philosophy of ethics and epistemology. The work warns against the pitfalls of gender essentialism and give a critique of what is commonly known as human nature and the realm of moral paradigms. All the essays in this collection are concerned with morality and modes of knowing and theories of human nature and the self. They would argue that the problem should not be formulated so much in terms of gender but in terms of the valorization of those morals which are traditionally associated with women.
One of the qualities that has been traditionally associated with women is the ethic of care. Jill Gilligan has described this not in gendered terms but as "a different voice." Joan Tronto criticizes theories of care based on gender in her article, Beyond Gender Difference to a Theory of Care. She contrasts an ethic of justice which is based on separateness with an ethic of care based on connectedness and subjectivity. Since the ethic of care is more prevalent in US minority groups than is the ethic of justice, Tronto suggests that women should be classified as a minority rather than as a gender. This author argues interestingly that because women's morality has a corrective role in society that this makes it vulnerable to criticism.
Tronto suggests that we place the care/different voice ethic in an entirely different theoretical context: outside of gender and into moral theory. She makes the following observations: if feminists recognize a moral tradition that is non-Kantian, they will be able to ground an ethic of care more seriously in philosophical theory, and one must keep in mind that there are problems with all contextual moralities based on social norms.
Universalistic moral theories presume that they apply to all cases; contextual moral theories must specify when and how they apply. How do we define the appropriate boundaries of caring? Web based close to home care theories foster hate of difference which is why universal impartiality is so appealing. Contextual theories of care border on "soft relativism" so we can conclude that an ethic of care will depend on the adequacy of the social and political theory of which they are a part. And finally, while there seems to be a yearning for care based communities, there is nothing to show that such communities are less oppressive to women. The most important challenge according to the author, is to place the morality of care suggested by feminist into the terms of moral and political theory.
In an article entitled, Moral/Analytic Dilemmas Posed by the Intersection of Feminism and Social Science, Michelle Rosaldo tries to identify some of the pitfalls and barriers to feminist thought posed by the present framework of social science. In their search for origins of what it perceives to be wide spread cross-cultural sexual inequality, feminists often turn to sociology and anthropology for answers to the condition of women. She points out that the current paradigm in sociological thought is primarily individualistic and that it is subject to the same biases as other disciplines. Two biases in social science link individualism, dualism and biological determinism in modern thought; 1) the bias that all social forms are motivated by individual needs where gender is concerned and 2) the tendency to think in dualistic terms leading feminists to think of biology as opposed to one another rather than a product of social relationships.
Feminists who use anthropology to explain root causes complicate the search for unity and difference. Both anthropology and feminism are bound up with the cultural relativism rule in social science theory. Anthropologists are tempted to argue that man/woman roles in heterosexual production figure centrally in social bonding and that the family is a universal social institution. Because the organization of gender does appear to be so bound up with biological constraints, anthropologists have become paranoid about making such claims, and as self-evident as they appear, have come to mistrust these observations. Feminists have a stake in challenging these observations and those unities and in questioning all claims that link and define a social group through individual biology.
Rosaldo suggests that feminists' use of anthropology with the undrlying faith that gender is related to all social roles tends to inhibit systematic thought to broaden conceptions of the self and their roots in other forms of social life. Unity in this sense must be more seriously examined. Feminists must criticized the nature/nurture argument by clarifying the uses and abuses of biology; ex. birth control will make us free. Looking for a natural or moral law cannot help women understand the complexities of their situations.
Rosaldo also points out the dangers of biased dichotomies for which feminist literature is famous: public/private, dominant/submissive, care/justice etc... States the author, "if we assume that women and family are universal, we might miss diversity in home family or the famillism of politics...it typically sustains a set of pieties about what our families-and our feminism ought to be like, permitting use of questionable biofunctional accounts by persons who would universalize what is, in fact, a historically specific faith that families are the natural moral basis of human societies." Rosaldo claims that feminist literature has failed to come up with a discourse with which to deal effectively with old categories and idioms because these have inhibited the development of a morally and intellectually satisfying feminist sociology. First, suggest Rosaldo, we must perhaps question our enduring faith in biological accounts as cause of our situation.
Another primary value of social science theory is that of objectivity and empiricism. In the article, Toward a Feminist Epistemology, Jennifer Ring discusses contemporary feminists efforts to collapse the border between subjectivity and objectivity. She proposes dialectics as an alternative to empiricist objectivity and demonstrates the possibilities in Marxist/Hegelian dialectics in contrast to Anglo-American empiricism. The main assumption of the empiricist social scientist is that a world exists independent of the subjectivity of the observer. Unlike the elimination of subjectivity in objective materialist thought and traditional empiricism, subjectivity and objectivity are interpenetratable in a dialectical world. Because the dialectical epistemology assumes knowledge to be dynamic and not static, the interpenetration of subjectivity and objectivity is what leads to dialectical truth. Knowledge is not static nor linear in the manner of logical positivism or empiricism. Also distinguishing both Hegelian and Marxian dialectics from Anglo-American empiricism is historicism. Empiricism, according to Ring, has no vision - it is not self-consciously 'architectonic.' The empiricist sees peace/truth in an enforced dichotomy between subject and object, the dialectician in the ultimate elimination of the dichotomy altogether. Basing her discussion of dialectic on Marx, she claims that Marx never intended to separate reason from nature or the sensuous from science. Unlike liberal theory, Marx sees no tension between reason, history and nature. Marx's work may eliminate the antagonism between subject and object and between reason and nature. Because dialectical method necessitates a view of the world which includes an active role for consciousness, feminists, argues Ringer, should not completely relinquish subjectivity and objectivity.
This brief overview shows to some extent, the major themes of a cross-section of feminist literature. That literature which is aimed at the social, political and economic actualities of women is driven by an impetus for transformation through empowerment and women's rights. This work seeks to define inequalities which by definition are in relationship to and measured by the status of men in society. One cannot say at this point that feminized politics are based on any shared vision of the female self or her place in society. The main concerns are clearly equity and the redistribution of resources and opportunities through critique of the status quo and action for change.
Feminized politics seems to be almost at odds with women's traditional place in society and the patriarchal family as they define it. This is most evident in the literature which opposes the public to the private sphere where one notes an underlying disdain for the value of what women have provided society in their traditional roles of wife and mother and manager of domestic affairs. It is very clearly assumed that these roles are considered politically ineffectual and degraded in contrast to the male public realm. In the public/private argument, the question is rarely asked, "what is wrong with society that it degrades these roles and does not recognize their importance to human society," but rather the question is, "what is wrong with society that it does not liberate women from the constraints of these roles to play a 'more important' part in public society?" In any case or formulation of the problem of gender, the mood is usually confrontational.
As the papers cited in this essay have shown, feminist theoreticians and students of epistemology tread more cautiously than some of their sisters on the gender question. The debate focuses on a number of questions of import to the philosophy of social science and offers a rich spectrum of alternative insights stimulated by issues which are coming to be central to the feminist outlook.