Feminism twenty five years on

Just been reading Joan Kelly’s article ‘The double vision of feminist theory’ (first published in Feminist studies 5 (1979)). It reads as if from a completely alien world in the scope of its ambitions, seeing ‘the current political goals of the women’s movement…to extirpate gender and sex hierarchy altogether, and with them all forms of domination.’ A breadth of ambitions that today would only be expressed by fringe religious/political parties. What happened? Was it just Thatcher and Reagan? Or did the fall of communism (among other things) discredit the idea that societies could be radically changed, convincing everyone that capitalism was the only game in town? For that matter, what happened to the ‘women’s movement’? Did middle class women get enough that they lost interest? I think of myself as a feminist, yet my ideas of change would be far more incremental than that.
The other major reason the article seems so remote is its stress on the synthesis between capitalism and the C19/20 bourgeois family, going back to Marxist ideas of production/reproduction. What is clear now is that modern capitalism doesn’t need or particularly value the nuclear patriarchal family. When it uses it at all, it wants to freeload on it, taking from it, but not supporting it. The traditional relationship was that the husband worked, while the wife raised the workers for the next generation and provided support services for the husband as worker, to enable him to be more productive. What capitalism has now seen is the advantage of women in employment all their lives: an extra supply of cheap, flexible workers, often with the soft skills that some men lack. The couple (and then the family) are also a key market: when we first had L we realised what a consumer market even babies/toddlers form. However, what capitalism doesn’t want is to have to spend money supporting the raising of families: contrast USA and France/Scandinavia in attitudes to parental leave, early childhood education etc. Walmart justifies not paying a wage sufficient to support a family by saying that it’s not intended to: family members can have other jobs. In fact, in a globalised world, social reproduction doesn’t have to be within one’s own state at all: why bother investing resources in the expensive business of raising highly trained workers when you can just poach them from the third world/other migrants? It’s not just that the pressures on (Western) women to reproduce have reduced (which is a positive development in some ways), but, at least in Britain, women having children are increasingly seen negatively. Rather than being seen positively, as contributing towards future generations, they’re now either seen as a burden on the state (if working class) or else (if middle class) as making a self-indulgent decision that should receive no more societal praise/support than if you choose to raise Afghan hounds. (Though there are far more complaints about mothers failing than about dog owners).
See http://observer.guardian.co.uk/focus/story/0,,1479056,00.html, http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/story.jsp?story=641675. (not free).


6 thoughts on “Feminism twenty five years on

  1. One aspect of this you touched on, with your references to Reagan and Thatcher. It’s hard nowadays to remember – and it must be harder to imagine, for those too young to remember – how positive many trends looked in the late 1970s, esp. in the USA. “We” had ended the VN War; elected a president who claimed to take human rights seriously; made massive steps in the arena of civil rights; and opened many doors to women. No one thought we were “there” (wherever there is) or anywhere near it, but neither did we imagine that all of these putative gains would be challenged, and many reversed, over the next quarter-century.

    I personally encounter this most frequently in a relatively inconsequential quarter – “revisionist” history of the VN War, which essentially boils down to saying that the warmakers (LBJ, but esp. Nixon & Kissinger) were right all along, and we really “won” except for betrayal by a pusillanimous Congress. I find myself making almost exactly the same arguments I did 30 years ago, sometimes against people who weren’t even born then.

    In the area of feminism, the ur-text on the subsequent period is Susan Faludi, “Backlash,” which is by now slightly out of date in details, but stronger than ever in spirit. So – getting back to the original question – I would tend to put this sea-change early (1980 in the USA) and continuous since, rather than attribute anything to the end of the Cold War as such.

    (Having said this, I must acknowledge I have no expertise on the topic except superficial and desultory reading, and no expertise on the period except having lived through it.)


  2. Out of interest.. and I posed this question on my own blog.. did you you see the Channel 5 programme on the role of both men and women featuring Melanie Philips?



  3. PS. Perhaps I should add that I find your blog extremely absorbing with regard to such things as gender roles motherhood and social attitudes, and had you seen the prog., whether you had any views on it.



  4. Dear CasaB,

    I’m afraid I didn’t see the Channel 5 prograame, although my expectations about anything featuring Melanie Philips would not be high, since she’s so reactionary and anti-feminist. I also deliberately avoided the Michael Buerke rant on Channel 4 about the devaluation of masculinity. I felt even an academic duty to keep up with discussions of masculinity did not force me into wtaching what sounded like pure tosh (from the advance publicity).


  5. Thanks for replying. I was genuinely interested in your views on how Melanie Philips sees masculinity and also on your perspective of the role of men today. Is that the same thing as masculinity or is there a difference there?



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