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Feminists: Bourgeois vs. Radical Perspectives

by Louise Antony


Preparing the syllabus for my course on philosophical issues in feminism, I had occasion recently to reread the founding documents of what is sometimes called "second-wave" feminism (the resurgence of interest in women's rights that surfaced in the United States in the early 1970's). Reading the scholarly, but urgent essays published by Barbara Ehrenreich, Heidi Hartmann, Zillah Eisenstein, and others, I was struck by the intense engagement of feminist theoretical writings at that time. Now that women were on the scene, politics could never be the same. Most of the feminists writing in the 70s had no official academic credentials, no institutional affiliations, no grants and no publishing contracts. They educated themselves outside of traditional, officially sanctioned avenues of learning: sometimes through "teach-ins" and non-credit seminars on college and high school campuses, but also through the famous (or infamous) consciousness-raising sessions and study groups with no "teacher" at all.

In contrast, "Feminist Theory" today is largely an academic subject. Courses in feminist theory, or courses billed as "presenting a feminist perspective on..." are offered for regular academic credit at both the undergraduate and graduate level at virtually every college and university of repute in the United States. Many of these institutions also offer undergraduate or advanced degrees in Women's Studies. There are special feminist academic journals, read mainly by professors and graduate students, that publish essays by feminist scholars in history, economics, literature, sociology, philosophy, aesthetics, and other subjects.

Some academic departments actively recruit scholars with expertise in some area of feminist thought-I was the object of such recruitment by the Philosophy Department at the University of North Carolina. While I do not say that the position of feminism or of feminists is secure within mainstream academia today, it is undeniable that a certain co-opted has occurred.

To understand the trend I find disturbing, it's necessary to understand a bit about the development of second-wave feminism itself.

Post-war feminism sprang from two sources. One, the dissatisfactions of privileged white women, during a time of bourgeoning economic opportunity, with male-prescribed roles.

The other, the awakening anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist consciousness of the 1960s.

From the first source, came Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, the National Organization of Women, and the generally reformist "equal-rights" movement, which is the only feminism with public visibility today. This version of feminism, sometimes called "liberal" or "bourgeois" feminism, made limited demands of the body politic: an end to legal and quasi-legal barriers to women's advancement, increased control for women over their reproductive functions, and a greater sensitivity to the cultural messages that shaped society's conceptions of what women were and of what they could become.

This brand of feminism gradually became the benchmark of reasonableness about gender and social issues. Conspicuously absent from the writings of bourgeois feminists was any serious analysis of the roles of race, class, national origin, and sexual orientation of American women. As a result, bourgeois feminists' recommendations for "liberation" posed no threat to established economic interests, or to established class structure. And while the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified, much of the rest of the legal reform agenda was enacted.

The brands of feminism that grew out of the 60s liberation movements were far more radical in outlook, and called for far more sweeping changes in the economic and social structure of society. Women who experienced discrimination and sexual harassment in groups working against the war, or for civil rights, began to question the adequacy of radical political theory's treatment of "the woman question." Marx, for example, seemed unable to envision a system of oppression not organized around one's relation to the means of production. The questions then arose: what, precisely is the relation between capitalism and patriarchy? Are racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression a result, a precondition, or an enhancement to capitalism? Or do all these systems operate independently? How does American imperialism affect the condition of women around the world? Can there be international feminist solidarity without chauvinism? Working out the answers to these questions was the work done by radical feminists thinking, meeting, and writing at the beginning of the second wave.

Feminism has succeeded in finding a public voice through traditional mainstream politics and through academia. Mainstream politics is dominated by bourgeois feminists; academia is the province of radical feminists. Academic feminist theorists have stopped asking questions that were asked two decades ago. There are exceptions to this generalization. African-American feminist scholars (for example, literature professor bell hooks, and legal theorist Kimberle Crenshaw), and critical legal theorists generally are doing academic work closely connected to specific political efforts. But "feminist theory" nowadays refers to a body of extremely arcane work in metaphysics and the theory of knowledge that uses a specialized jargon virtually unintelligible to people outside the academy.

Many of the issues are ostensibly the same. What is the relationship among gender, class and race? Is feminist solidarity possible? These questions are raised not in the context of specific political movements, but more against a presumed background of ongoing political struggle. Though there is much discussion about the value of theory for praxis, it is unclear that anything going on in feminist theory today is relevant to the issues of analysis and strategy.

One huge issue that currently receives almost no attention is the relation between capitalism and other forms of oppression.

Most discussions presume that capitalism is bad, and that the bad stuff falls disproportionately on women, non-whites, and the poor. What is to be done?-to coin a phrase. The popular press has declared socialism dead. Do we agree? Is a socialist society possible, or is some accommodation with capitalism necessary?

Abstract discussions do not produce the analyses needed to conceive political strategy for the future.

I do not mean to disparage the intellectual value of feminist theory. I am a philosophy professor, after all, and I find the consideration of abstract issues both inherently valuable and immensely rewarding. What I am questioning, is the equation of intellectual work with political work. Academic feminists are forgetting that what is most intellectually interesting may not be what is most needed. Debate the question whether reality is socially constructed, and let's consider whether knowledge is social or individualistic. Then we can determine whether Enlightenment conceptions of reason are gendered. But let's not confuse intellectual work with politics.

I do not think that a politically concerned academic must center his or her professional activity around topical political issues. Perhaps the most brilliant and committed "public intellectual" of our time, Noam Chomsky, has intellectual interests that are utterly irrelevant to the political issues that have occupied his time and energy over the last half-century. (I was once present when Chomsky was asked if he could explain the connection between his linguistic theories and his political views. Chomsky said he didn't understand why people always asked him this-did they think someone couldn't be interested in more than one thing?)

Intellectuals have the same human moral responsibilities as everyone else. If we can discharge them by means of our academic work, then good for us. If not, we'd better think of ways that we can make a more visible contribution to the struggle for social justice.

This may mean more letters to the editor, more point-of-view pieces in the local paper and more position papers presented to legislators. It may mean a return to the creative, counter-establishment pedagogical innovations of the 60s and 70s. It is our job to translate radical feminism into a practical, working strategy for the establishment of social justice.

  Louise Antony is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC-CH and Director of the Academic Advisory Board of the Common Sense Foundation.  

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