Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
 
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Europe
Economy and society
Science and culture
Reviews

Women are not simply their gender

Lynn Segal has been one of the most influential socialist feminists in what's called second phase feminism-the first being the suffragettes and their contemporaries. She has recently published Why Feminism?, a study of the fate of the feminist movement over the last thirty years.

Mike Davis spoke to her about the book and whether the fate of women is still bound up with the fate of socialism.

Eeclining on a heavily cushioned wicker chaise longue to rest her back Lynn embarked on a brief summary of the vicissitudes of the modern Women's Liberation Movement. "The WLM had begun to grow too big for its marching boots by the end of the 1970s. Those slogans chalked on the walls of the first Women's Liberation conference at Oxford exactly 30 years ago sound pretty weird now: 'Women in Labour Keep Capitalism in Power/Down with Penile Servitude'.

Both slogans suggest more about the effects of economic change and the significance of ageing on women than anything else right now, since it is currently women in the workforce who seem to keep profits afloat and job assessment criteria, more than penile servitude, that exhausts older women today. Replacing the demos and slogan writing, a rich diversity of political and cultural objectives have drawn feminists along many different pathways. Some entered the academy, as the rise of Women's Studies and Gender Scholarship began to provide one of feminism's continuing, if elite, strongholds allowing space, increasingly, for ever more sophisticated theorising of subjectivities, identities and differences.

Others entered mainstream politics, with its harsh vicissitudes as inequalities of all sorts have continued to rise ever since 1979, when some memorable events were set in motion. In fact what we find today, under Blair, is the 'mainstreaming' of a type of equal opportunity feminism, many feminists regard with ambivalence.

Some feminists sought to pursue earlier objectives inside the caring professions or within the ever-expanding alternative and therapeutic scene. Others stayed put, campaigning to prevent violence against women, fighting racism or working in solidarity work with women around the world-most recently through the ever growing expansion of NGOs, epitomised by the remarkable Beijing gathering in 1995.

So overall, feminism has continued to act as a catalyst of struggles for change to improve the lot of women , as well as to rethink the meanings of womanhood, personal life, sexuality, pleasure and violence."

The early chapters of the book retrace the highs and lows of seventies feminism. She writes fondly of her friend Sheila Rowbotham with whom she co-authored with Hilary Wainwright, now editing Red Pepper, the seminal Beyond the Fragments. Her concerns in the book are with the reactions against feminism of the last few years. The rise of new laddism, the idea of a post-feminism, that women have it all and in particular the theories of post-structuralists and the modern Darwinian fundamentalists, as she calls them. On the way she repudiates ex-feminists like Melanie Phillips and Ros Coward who spend more of their time "haranguing the successes of feminism". The chapter on genes and gender is a powerful demolition of the evolutionary psychologists and Darwinists, who in the footsteps of Richard Dawkins advise Blair and the world of our basic evolved human natures.

"They describe a world where women and men are stereotyped as almost opposed species, the nuclear family is endorsed and where mothers are most contented when home alone with their children in traditional families with fathers restored to their role as breadwinners and where rape and social violence are explained through men's frustrated breeding habits."

These arguments have gained a foothold, she argues, with feminists, cultural critics and social scientists all accused of disdaining biology in their supposed obsession with language and culture. "Not only is it bad biology it is also a perfect way of refusing to analyse the complexities of, for instance, what mothers actually say they need and want.

"This is yet another backlash against feminism. They argue there might have been certain changes but in the end we know things can't change too much because there is this fundamental difference between men and women. Because our reproductive ends are different and therefore our sexuality and basic sentiments will always remain different as the male predator needing to spread his seed and the female needing to nest build and choose her mate cautiously will always remain the blueprint that monitors our behaviour. I've seen the rising popularity of this approach as an attempt to soothe the feelings of those who are threatened by gender changes. It's a gender panic.

"The rise of evolutionary psychology and new genetics also fits in with a more individualist society which is less and less social democratic and interested in expanding welfare but rather interested in emphasising only individual responsibility. Soon women will be held responsible for breeding 'perfect' babies, and social services will no longer be necessary.

"Mainstream culture and mainstream politics has found so many ways of accommodating feminism. On the one hand we have equal opportunities managerialism everywhere which can be quite a useful way of getting us all back into the workforce as efficient workers, particularly when women are young. Whether or not they have children they tend to be more productive. The contemporary goals are despite the lip service paid to the family and to caring. The norm is to see everybody as part of the workforce. In particular, anybody who might be making demands on the welfare services.

"A lot of people like to attack feminism for being responsible for an impasse where everybody is supposed to be a worker whatever else they're doing. It's only really our careers as paid workers that matter. That's a complete caricature of what feminism is about. The demands of feminism were always about making paid work and caring work more compatible with each other and having men as well as women more involved in the work of caring and the home. So it was all about creating a more egalitarian society."

So is this what she meant by the notion of the dismantling of gender archetypes setting feminists against women and gender against politics?

"Because we were questioning stereotypes of women we tend to get blamed for being against women. What this sets up is an inevitable contradiction of feminism because what we were really pointing at was that we wanted to be free to decide how to live alongside men deciding as well. We wanted to step outside constraining stereotypes, but at the same time there's always going to be a contradiction at the heart of feminism because we were also going to be aware that the main way in which sexism operates in culture is to devalue the feminine. We have to question all the ways in which women have been seen at the very same time as criticising the ways in which women habitually have been seen as diminished and as secondary. So again instead of looking at the complexities of what feminists actually said it's easier for critics just to stereotype feminists against women.

In terms of gender against politics this raises a third thing that feminists have been blamed for by some of the old left, namely the sidelining issues of class or race. This is precisely what we didn't do when we started talking about the situation of women. When you look back to the early wave of feminist writing in the 1970s in this country as well as the US it is so strongly out of the left and was completely aware of issues of class and race. Although we would be accused of being predominantly white and therefore not allowing enough space for black women and so on. What has really happened is that we've seen a collapse of the left itself, followed by a way of paying attention to gender issues once they can be redefined as issues of equal opportunity in order not to look at issues of structural inequality like race and class which of course effect women as much as anyone else, as we always knew. You will find people on some of the hard line left who instead of saying the left has got so much weaker and that socialist aspirations have declined so much in cultural significance you somehow get feminism blamed for that having happened rather than looking at the ways in which that aspect of feminism has declined along with the left. That is, there is no longer such a confident socialist feminism as there once was because there is no longer such a confident socialist movement as there once was."

Instead of thinking about the complexities of what's happened to feminism, she explained, people collapse social problems and the way in which shifts in gender relations have thrown up new problems into pretending that somehow it is feminists themselves who are responsible. "Feminism is very much a product of all those gender changes and was never unfortunately the driving force of change. The driving force has been technological, the decline in the industrial sector and the rise of the service sector."

This sounded plausible, but in the book she seems to adopt a more defensive position talking of the fragmentation of feminism, its inability to transcend the limits of race, class and sexuality. All other radical ideologies had equally failed to do this, wasn't it too much to expect feminism to unify all before it? "As feminism became more successful more and more competing voices and quarrels between different groups of women were raised. Each argued their own issues and agenda should receive more attention. For instance, the fact that some demands made in the70s didn't take on board some of the main issues black women might have wanted, for example criticisms of the male breadwinner or the nature of family relations needing to be rethought in relation to ethnic groups.

But the worst quarrels came from issues around sexuality. Black feminism was very important in the 80s and was one of the strongest forces. The destructiveness came from issues around femininity, particularly those around the populist radical feminism associated with Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon which began to focus all attention down on the dangers facing women via male sexuality and to push for single issue campaigns around the elimination of pornography."

In Is the Future Female (1987) Lynn had voiced her criticisms of this cultural feminism which dominated the 1980s depicting the problem as patriarchy and masculine values. Alongside many other feminists she viewed this radical feminism with its focus on pornography as reductionist and simplistic. But why did the likes of Dworkin and MacKinnon become so dominant?

"Partly it was the decline of the left but more generally the fact that we were in more pessimistic times with Thatcher coming to power in Britain and Reagan ruling in the US. A populist radical feminism with its focus on women as victims chimed better with these conservative times where it seemed harder to demand and win the types of social changes which we had been arguing for earlier, namely, expansion of welfare, more nurseries, more of everything. With the rolling back of local government and the slow decline of the labour movement the expansion which feminism was adding to left agendas became harder to fight and win. It was not impossible and many people did stay in those spaces."

Was it not also to do with some feminists' over economistic approach, the preoccupation with bread and butter equalities issues to the detriment of qualitative issues in the realm of personal safety, women's space, rights to sexual freedom? Lynn objected:

"It was a common story that 70s feminism was an equal opportunities feminism that gave way to a difference feminism in the 1980s. I don't agree with that analysis. It's much more complicated. Seventies feminism was not primarily about equal opps but about transforming society. The issues around women's safety and women's right to choose their own sexuality, campaigns against violence against women were strongly taken up by socialist feminists. Neither is equal opps feminism opposed to difference feminism."

We then moved into the 1990s. A feminist post-modernism is a composite stream that she is at pains to disentangle. Three strands are identified; that of Lacan, Derrida and Foucault, which Lynn argues have been lumped together. So what does she see as the limits of so-called post -structuralist feminism?

"Post modernism is a very trendy term which is bandied around. A lot of people don't know what it means. These three strands are very different from each other. Lacan is all about seeing the inevitability of the construction of sexual difference and the inevitability of women taking up their place in language negatively. Whereas that's in no way central to the deconstructionism of Derrida. The problem in terns of its influence on feminist thinking is that it is very much taken up by one side of feminism, namely in the Academy. But this move in the universities to thinking about subjectivities, difference and identities rather than social transformation is no longer in touch with an activist politics outside.

Feminists like Judith Butler who take up post structuralist feminism are concerned with the role of language in shaping subjectivities, the way we think about ourselves, the body,. It's fairly distanced from the types of struggles around welfare, working conditions which are far more specific and separable from the issues of how one theorises the nature of femininity, understands the contradictions, fluidities or fixities of language and self perceptions academic feminists are increasingly engaged in. This follows a shift in influence from social sciences to the humanities. It's also connected to what is happening in the wider world with the decline of socialism and types of struggles in which people were using Marxist and post Marxist thinking to grapple with.

Autobiography, personal life and slinking off to therapy become more interesting when change is not on the agenda."

We then talked about the big influences on her feminism, besides close contemporaries like Sheila Rowbotham. She cited the American socialist feminists Barbara Ehrenreich and Linda Gordon, but really warmed to Simone De Beauvoir. "She was always someone very influential on second wave feminism whether we were loving her or hating her. I never moved from loving her. De Beauvoir was always struggling with the problem that she wanted to deal with the situation of women in the world while finding it rather hard to rise above the way in which the feminine always seemed to denote something that was secondary to and less important than what it was to be a man. She gives an excellent description of that and the way in which women are trapped by their situation in the world and remains politically active in her life."

So what is the future of the bond between feminism and socialism? Is there a future for socialist feminism?

"If it's unpopular to call yourself a feminist, it's doubly unpopular to call yourself a socialist feminist. I could only be a socialist feminist because women aren't simply their gender. While it's true that gender is an aspect of every part of life it could never be the case that we can imagine a society where we are free from the trappings of gender. However, hopefully it's becoming easier to imagine a society where gender no longer has the same grip on all our expectations of what it is to be a human person, male or female and that it is somehow at the core of what we are. However, as I argue in the book, we move in and out of the gender settlements in the cultures in which we live. Therefore at any point in our lives, what is most significant to us as women, may not be a gender issue. It might be our race, our ethnicity, our poverty, our appalling overworked working conditions (women will soon be more than 50% of the working population ). The typical female worker isn't going to be the professional woman earning a typical man's wage but a care worker who is badly paid, working long hours, with children, whether or not she has a husband, working all the hours she can just to pay for her own housing and care for the children. So it is not simply a gender issue."

Feminism too is very much around both to inform us and be critically assessed by us. As is always the case, once issues of equality and gender are posed alongside (rather than against) questions of cultural identities and belonging, both the domain of feminism and the domain of politics itself always immediately expand.

She warns of the hard and soft ways of accommodating feminism. "As in the superficially feminising rhetoric of Blair, Clinton or the Pope, apologising for the most eclectic abuses of state power, all of which share only one common feature, that they are in the past, no longer demanding action: from bygone imperial misdemeanours to the Irish famine, the Holocaust or the false imprisonment of the Guildford 4, while remaining more 'macho' and aggressive than ever when it comes to handling the actual social problems currently confronting them: from asylum seekers to young offenders, drug taking, teenage pregnancy or the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill.

So, any analysis of possible feminist futures will need to be looking both at the continuing potential of feminism for demanding change, while remaining vigilant in addressing unforeseen contradictions or complications in its political demands."

 

July/August 2000