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Post lll. Feminist Theories and Practice

1. Feminism: the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes
2. Feminism: What is it?
3. Feminism is a multi-disciplinary approach to sex and gender equality understood through social theories and political activism. Historically, feminism has evolved from the critical examination of inequality between the sexes to a more nuanced focus on the social and performative constructions of gender and sexuality.
4. Feminist theory now aims to interrogate gender inequalities and to effect change in areas where gender and sexuality politics create power imbalances. Intellectual and academic discussion of these inequalities allows our students to go into the world aware of injustices and to work toward changing unhealthy gender dynamics in any scenario.
5. Feminist political activists campaign in areas such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, gay marriage, and workplace issues such as family medical leave, equal pay, and sexual harassment and discrimination.
6. Anytime stereotyping, objectification, infringements of human rights, or gender- or sexuality-based oppression occurs, it's a feminist issue.
Liberal feminism is an individualistic form of feminist theory, which focuses on women's ability to maintain their equality through their own actions and choices.
Liberal feminism is a particular approach to achieving equality between men and women that emphasizes the power of an individual person to alter discriminatory practices against women. For example, pretend it's 1913, and you're walking from New York City to Washington, DC, a hike over 200 miles, because you believe in women's suffrage, or a woman's right to vote.
Over 100 years ago, participants in the Women's Suffrage Parade of 1913 took a liberal feminist approach by using their democratic right to protest to promote women's rights. And it worked! In 1920, the U.S. Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.
Liberal feminism aims for individuals to use their own abilities and the democratic process to help women and men become more equal in the eyes of the law, in society and in the workplace. By organizing women into larger groups that can speak at a higher level, lobbying legislators and raising awareness of issues, liberal feminists use available resources and tools to advocate for change. As such, they stand in contrast to Marxist or socialist feminists who believe the democratic process itself needs to be changed.
For instance, what would you do if someone at work repeatedly made inappropriate remarks to you or your coworkers? Would you speak with your supervisor? Would you file a complaint with the company's human resources department? If the company did not comply with harassment laws, would you seek legal representation or speak out publicly against the company's lack of compliance?
If you'd been in the workforce prior to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, you might have sought out other people in your community who had experienced the same thing, or voted for someone supporting legislation to prevent sexual harassment. Or, perhaps you would have kept working for the same company, hoping for a promotion and the authority to change its corporate culture over time.
The actions we've just discussed demonstrate the liberal feminist approach of working within the democratic system to improve conditions.
Liberal Feminism
First published Thu Oct 18, 2007; substantive revision Mon Sep 30, 2013
Liberals hold that freedom is a fundamental value, and that the just state ensures freedom for individuals. Liberal feminists share this view, and insist on freedom for women. There is disagreement among liberals about what freedom means, and thus liberal feminism takes more than one form. This entry discusses two basic kinds of liberal feminism. Part one discusses what, in the philosophical literature, is commonly called simply ‘liberal feminism.’ Liberal feminism conceives of freedom as personal autonomy—living a life of one's own choosing—and political autonomy—being co-author of the conditions under which one lives. Part two discusses what is commonly called ‘classical-liberal feminism,’ or sometimes ‘libertarian feminism’ (these terms will be used interchangeably here).[1] Classical-liberal or libertarian feminism conceives of freedom as freedom from coercive interference. While liberal feminism is established in academic philosophy, much of the classical-liberal or libertarian feminist literature is oriented towards a more popular audience. (Note that there is dispute over whether classical-liberal or libertarian feminism ought to be considered a version of liberal feminism (see section 2.7)).
• 1. Liberal Feminism
o 1.1 Personal Autonomy
o 1.2 Political Autonomy
o 1.3 Justification
o 1.4 Historical Sources
o 1.5 Criticism
• 2. Classical-Liberal or Libertarian Feminism
o 2.2 Equity Feminism
o 2.3 Cultural Libertarian Feminism
o 2.4 Sources
o 2.5 Anti-Discrimination Law and Preferential Treatment
o 2.6 Justification
o 2.7 Criticism
• Bibliography
o Liberal Feminism Works
o Classical-Liberal or Libertarian Feminist Works
o Historical Sources
o Selected Feminist Criticism
• Academic Tools
• Other Internet Resources
o Cited Resources
o Classical-Liberal or Libertarian Feminist Internet Resources
o Liberal Feminist Internet Resources
o Other Resources
• Related Entries
1. Liberal Feminism
Liberal feminism conceives of freedom as personal autonomy—living a life of one's own choosing—and political autonomy—being co-author of the conditions under which one lives. Liberal feminists hold that the exercise of personal autonomy depends on certain enabling conditions that are insufficiently present in women's lives, or that social arrangements often fail to respect women's personal autonomy and other elements of women's flourishing. They hold also that women's needs and interests are insufficiently reflected in the basic conditions under which they live, and that those conditions lack legitimacy because women are inadequately represented in the processes of democratic self-determination. Liberal feminists hold that autonomy deficits like these are due to the “gender system” (Okin 1989, 89), or the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions, and that the women's movement should work to identify and remedy them. As the protection and promotion of citizens' autonomy is the appropriate role of the state on the liberal view, liberal feminists hold that the state can and should be the women's movement's ally in promoting women's autonomy. There is disagreement among liberal feminists, however, about the role of personal autonomy in the good life, the appropriate role of the state, and how liberal feminism is to be justified
1.1.1 Procedural Accounts of Personal Autonomy
Liberal feminists hold that women should enjoy personal autonomy. That is, they hold that women should live lives of their own choosing. Some offer “procedural” accounts of personal autonomy (MacKenzie and Stoljar discuss these, 1999, 13–19). These accounts suggest that to say women should enjoy personal autonomy means they are entitled to a broad range of autonomy-enabling conditions. On this view, the women's movement should work to identify and promote these conditions. Identifying these enabling conditions requires careful attention to the particular ways in which autonomy deficits are produced in diverse women's lives. Procedural accounts avoid judging directly the substance of women's choices or the arrangements that ensue. The following list of enabling conditions is representative.
Being free of violence and the threat of violence: Violence and the threat of violence violate women's dignity; they make women do what others want or reduce women's sphere of activity to avoiding harm. In some cases violence fractures the self and takes from women their sense of self-respect (Brison 1997). The feminist literature on violence against women documents the particular role that violence and the threat of violence play in unfairly disempowering and limiting women (Cudd 2006, 85–118).
Being free of the limits set by patriarchal paternalistic and moralistic laws: Patriarchal paternalistic laws restrict women's options on the grounds that such limits are in women's interest. Think for example of laws that limit women's employment options on the grounds that taking certain jobs is not in women's interest (Smith 2004). Patriarchal moralistic laws restrict women's options on the grounds that certain options should not be available to women because morality forbids women's choosing them. Think for example of laws that prohibit or restrict prostitution or abortion, or laws that favor certain kinds of sexual expression or family forms (Cornell 1998; Brake 2004). Together, patriarchal paternalistic and moralistic laws steer women into socially preferred ways of life. These are unfair restrictions on women's choices, on the liberal feminist view, because women's choices should be guided by their own sense of their self-interest and by their own values. (But see Chambers (2008, 203–231) for liberal feminist uses of paternalism.)
Having access to options: On the liberal feminist view, women are entitled to access to options (Alstott 2004, 52). Women's access to options is frequently and unfairly restricted due to economic deprivation, in particular due to the “feminization of poverty” (Pearce 1978; see also Cudd 2006, 119–154). Other sources of unfairly reduced options for women are stereotyping and sex discrimination in education and employment (Smith 2004; Rhode 1997). Such stereotyping and discrimination affects some racial, ethnic and cultural groups in particularly pernicious ways. Liberal feminists also point to the way cultural homogeneity unfairly limits women's options (Cudd 2006, 234), for example when culture assigns identities and social roles according to sex (Okin 1989, 170ff; Alstott 2004; Meyers 2004; Cornell 1998, x; Chambers 2008).
Some emphasize the importance of internal, psychological enabling conditions as well, for example the ability to assess one's own preferences and imagine life otherwise (Meyers 2002, 168; Cudd 2006, 234–235; MacKenzie 1999). Without the ability to assess the preferences on the basis of which one makes choices, and the ability to imagine life otherwise, one can't meaningfully be said to have options other than affirming the status quo (see also Chambers 2008, 263–4). These internal enabling conditions are related to the external ones. Violence and the threat of violence, stereotyping and discrimination, material deprivation, and cultural homogeneity all can have the effect of closing down reflection and imagination.
On this view, the women's movement should work to identify and promote autonomy-enabling conditions. Identifying these conditions requires careful attention to the particular ways in which autonomy deficits are produced in women's lives. On the liberal feminist view, the state has an important role to play in promoting these conditions (see sections 1.1.4, 1.2.1, and 1.2.2). But there is much that cannot be done by the state (Cudd 2006, 223). For example, while the state can refrain from blocking such endeavors, women themselves must develop new “alternative emancipatory imagery” (Meyers 2002, 168), and fashion new ways of being a woman and new kinds of relationships through experiments in living (Cudd 2006, 234; Cornell 1998).
Some critics argue that freedom is of limited value because, even when enabling conditions like these are in place, women may choose limiting and disadvantaging social arrangements. Some point to the phenomenon of deformed preferences: when attractive options are limited or arrangements unfair, people may develop preferences for those limits or for less than their fair share (Nussbaum 1999a, 33, 50; Cudd 2006, 152). This phenomenon makes changing preferences through increased freedom problematic, and leads some feminists to reject theories that prioritize free choice (Yuracko 2003). Advocates of procedural accounts of autonomy concede that the enabling conditions do not rule out that a woman could choose, for example, to undergo clitorectomy (Meyers 2004, 213) or become a pornographic model (Cudd 2004, 58). As Ann Cudd explains, possibilities like these must be accepted because liberal feminism values freedom and thus cannot advocate direct “preference education” (Cudd 2004, 57). Liberal feminism must offer only a “… gradualist approach. Individuals and groups will make various experiments in living that we cannot now precisely imagine. They … will sometimes go on a mistaken path” (57). But they must be freed up to find their own way. As Diana Meyers explains, the moral imagination of feminist theorists and activists is limited (as is everyone's); they cannot know with certainty what substantive choices are compatible with personal autonomy (Meyers 2004, 213). Moreover, one should expect autonomous lives to take diverse forms in diverse cultural contexts. On this view, “a morally defensible and politically viable conception of autonomy for an era of global feminism” must be agnostic about the content of women's choices as long as they do not close off autonomy (205).
1.1.2 Fairness in Personal Relationships
Some liberal feminists hold that the social arrangements of personal life should not only be freely chosen, but should be characterized by fairness or justice. Jean Hampton draws on the contractualist tradition in moral and political philosophy to describe one way in which heterosexual intimate relationships often fail to be fair or just (Hampton 1993). (For extended discussion of Hampton's feminism, see Abbey 2011, 120–151. For more on feminist uses of contractualism, see section 1.2.1.)
On Hampton's view, a personal relationship is fair only if both parties to it could “reasonably accept the distribution of costs and benefits (that is, the costs and benefits that are not themselves side effects of any affective or duty-based tie between us) if it were the subject of an informed, unforced agreement in which we think of ourselves as motivated solely by self-interest” (Hampton 1993, 240). Of course, many women choose to enter or remain in relationships in part because of affective benefits; for example women often get satisfaction from satisfying others or fulfilling a duty. Why set aside these affective benefits, as Hampton recommends, when evaluating the fairness of a relationship? Hampton does not set them aside out of a conviction that a woman's affective nature is not part of her essential self. Nor does she set them aside out of a conviction that this aspect of a woman's nature is not valuable. (For criticism of Hampton, see Sample 2002.) Her test sets them aside because affective benefits of relationships are not received from the other; they are benefits that flow from one's own nature (Radzik 2005, 51). Thus while they may, and probably should, figure in a woman's overall decision about whether to enter or remain in a particular relationship, Hampton believes they should not figure in the evaluation of a relationship's fairness. As Linda Radzik explains in her defense of Hampton, a relationship is fair or just if the benefits that flow from each to the other are on par, that is, if each gives as much as she gets (51). When one party gets from the other significantly more than he gives, he is denying the other her legitimate entitlement to reciprocation.
This test formalizes an important insight of the women's movement: personal relationships, in particular traditional heterosexual relationships, are often unfair to women, indeed often exploit women's tendency to care about others. Injustice of this sort is not uncommon. Thus Hampton's test invites criticism of a wide swath of human social life (Sample 2002, 271). But Hampton does not call on women to cease valuing others' satisfaction or the fulfillment of duty (Hampton 1993, 227). Instead, she calls on the women's movement to cultivate in women and men a sensitivity and an aversion to this kind of injustice, and to develop remedies.
Procedural accounts of personal autonomy (see section 1.1.1) do not require that relationships be just in the way Hampton recommends. According to procedural accounts, it is possible that a choice to enter or remain in a personal relationship in which one gives more than she gets from the other can be autonomous. Therefore, according to procedural accounts, liberal feminists should focus on ensuring that women are not pressured into or unable to exit them.
To be sure, Hampton's account of justice in personal relationships can be a resource to women and men reflecting on their own preferences. It invites reflection on how one's own preferences affect the distribution of benefits and burdens within a relationship. Also, moral criticism of relationships that exploit women's preferences reminds us that relationships can be otherwise (because ought implies can). This reminder enhances personal autonomy by broadening the imagination. Thus procedural accounts of personal autonomy can include Hampton's test, not as definitive of the acceptability of social arrangements, but as a contribution to the kind of reflection about the good life on which the personal autonomy of individuals depends.
1.1.3 Personal Autonomy and Human Flourishing
Martha Nussbaum proposes an account of the good life that has “at its heart, a profoundly liberal idea … the idea of the citizen as a free and dignified human being, a maker of choices” (Nussbaum 1999a, 46). Echoing procedural accounts of personal autonomy (section 1.1.1), Nussbaum explains: “If one cares about people's powers to choose a conception of the good, then one must care about the rest of the form of life that supports those powers” (45). But for Nussbaum personal autonomy is merely one of the “major human functionings” (43) which define “a good human life” (42). These functionings include, among other things, bodily health and integrity, affiliation, and political participation (41–42). To be sure, personal autonomy, or in Nussbaum's words “practical reason,” is a good that “suffuses all the other functions” (44). But personal autonomy is not prioritized. A good life is one in which one is able to enjoy all of the major human functionings, that is, to flourish.
Nussbaum's approach takes on the problem of deformed preferences (see section 1.1.1) directly. To be sure, some may choose lives that do not include the actual exercise of some of the functionings—an ascetic may choose to compromise bodily health. But, Nussbaum explains, one must be able to function in each of these ways. Social arrangements are to be criticized if they render their participants unable to function in the valued ways regardless of their preferences (50). The women's movement should sensitize women and men to the injustice of denying women the ability to function in these valued ways, identify arrangements that are unjust to women by paying careful attention to diverse women's lives, and recommend remedies. Nussbaum holds that her account is compatible with global moral pluralism and thus may function as a foundation for a global feminism (Nussbaum 1999a, 40).
Nussbaum's “capabilities approach” may be compared with procedural accounts of autonomy (see section 1.1.1). Procedural accounts suggest that the women's movement should work to protect and promote women's ability to live lives of their own choosing by identifying particular autonomy deficits in women's lives and promoting the conditions that enable autonomy. These approaches avoid directly judging the substance of the choices women make or the arrangements that result. They leave it to individuals and groups to fashion new, diverse, non-oppressive ways of life. The list of enabling conditions for personal autonomy is not unlike Nussbaum's list of human functionings. But advocates of procedural approaches may worry that the goal of the women's movement, according to the capabilities approach, is to bring to women a particular way of life, namely one in which women can function in these ways, instead of freeing women up to find their own way (Cudd 2004, 50). As Drucilla Cornell, an advocate of a procedural approach explains, “social equality [should be] redefined so as to serve freedom” (Cornell 1998, xii) because “there is nothing more fundamental for a human being” (17; see also Cudd 2004, 51–52). Procedural accounts of autonomy can include Nussbaum's approach, not as definitive of the kinds of lives women should live, but as an important contribution to the kind of reflection on the good life on which personal autonomy depends. (There is a large literature on Nussbaum's liberal feminism; for liberal feminist discussion, see for example Abbey 2011 152–205; and Robeyns 2007.)
1.1.4 Personal Autonomy and the State
There is substantial agreement among liberal feminists that the gender system, or the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions, plays an important role in perpetuating morally objectionable deficits in personal autonomy in women's lives, and that the state can and should take action to remedy them. There is also substantial agreement among liberal feminists concerning what the state should do. There is disagreement about some hard cases, however, that pit liberal values against one another.
Liberal feminists hold that the state must effectively protect women from violence, regardless of where that violence takes place (Cudd 2006, 85–118, 209; Rhode 1997, 1193–95). They also hold that sexist paternalistic and moralistic laws are an unjust use of state power. Such laws place control over women's lives in the hands of others and steer women into preferred ways of life. Laws restricting access to abortion are of particular import in this context because they take an extremely momentous choice away from women, and together with the cultural assignment of caregiving duties to women, steer women into the social role of mother. Women must have a legal right to abortion and meaningful access to abortion services. In addition, liberal feminists hold that the state must not grant preferential treatment to particular family forms (Brake 2004, 293; Lloyd 1995, 1328; McClain 2006, 60). Some argue that this means giving gay and lesbian partnerships the same recognition currently available to heterosexuals (McClain 2006, 6; Hartley and Watson 2011). Others argue for removing marriage's privileged legal status altogether or treating it legally more like other associations (Case 2006; Metz 2010).
Liberals tend to reject laws prohibiting prostitution. They advocate instead the legal regulation of the sex trade prioritizing women's safety and women's control over their own working conditions (Cornell 1998, 57; Nussbaum 2002, 90). They support the right to collective bargaining to secure decent wages and working conditions (Cornell 1998, 57; Cudd 2006, 211), as well as a guaranteed minimum income (Cudd 2006, 154). They also support laws against sex discrimination in education, employment, and public accommodations. According to liberal feminists, the refusal to hire or promote a woman or do business with her because she is a woman is a morally objectionable limit on her options. So are workplaces that are hostile to women. Liberal feminists argue that laws prohibiting sexual harassment, and requiring affirmative action and comparable worth policies are often called for to remedy past and ongoing sex discrimination (Williams 2000, 253).
Liberal feminists hold also that a significant source of women's reduced options is the structure of the workplace, which assumes that workers are free of caregiving responsibilities (Okin 1989, 176; Williams 2000). Women, and increasingly men, do not fit this model. The effect of not fitting the model is dramatic. As Anne L. Alstott explains: “Caretakers at every income level have fewer options than noncaretakers at the same income level” (Alstott 2004, 97). She continues: “I am worried that child-rearing too dramatically contracts the options among which mothers can choose” (23). Alstott and others argue that the state must ensure that the socially essential work of providing care to dependents does not unreasonably interfere with the personal autonomy of caregivers. Policies proposed to ensure sufficient personal autonomy for caregivers include parental leave, state subsidized, high quality day care, and flexible work schedules (Cudd 2006, 228; Okin 1989, 175). Some recommend financial support for caregivers (Alstott 2004, 75ff), others suggest guaranteeing a non-wage-earning spouse one half of her wage-earning spouse's paycheck (Okin 1989, 181).
But workplaces fail to accommodate the socially essential caregiving work of their employees in various ways. Thus Joan Williams has argued for legal recognition of the right to not be discriminated against in employment on the basis of one's caregiving responsibilities. Williams recommends, if necessary, legal action alleging failure to recognize this right as an incentive to employers to accommodate caregivers (Williams 2000, 274).
There is disagreement among liberal feminists about some hard cases that pit liberal values against one another. Liberal feminists tend to reject legal limits on pornography (Cornell 1998, 57–58). But some hold that arguments for restricting violent pornography are not unreasonable (Laden 2003, 148–149; Watson 2007, 469; for what such a not unreasonable argument might look like, see Eaton 2007), and that the best arguments for freedom of expression fail to show that it should not be limited (Brison 1998). Indeed some argue that violent pornography can undermine the autonomy of viewers (Scoccia 1996) and the status of women as equal citizens (Spaulding 1988–89).
Other hard cases concern the role of the state in family life. Family life has dramatic effects on the personal autonomy of its adult members. Assuming the role of caregiver, for example, dramatically contracts women's options. On a liberal feminist view, the state has an interest in ensuring that family life does not undermine women's personal autonomy. Some hold that the state should promote justice in the family—for example, the sharing of paid and unpaid labor by its adult members (Okin 1989, 171). Others hold that the state may not be guided by a substantive ideal of family life (Alstott 2004, 114; see also Nussbaum 2000, 279–280; and Wolf-Devine 2004). (See section 1.2.1 for more discussion of this issue).
Girls' participation in families is, especially in the early years, nonvoluntary. The family affects the development of girls' sense of self-worth, as well as their preferences, and the capacities, like the capacity for reflection and imagination, on which their ability to live lives of their own choosing depends (Okin 1989, 97). Liberal feminists hold that the state must protect and promote the development of autonomy capacities in children, especially girls. For example they hold that child-marriage should be legally prohibited (McClain 2006, 79); girls should have access to abortion without parental consent or notification (Rhode 1994, 1204); girls must receive a formal education free of sexist stereotyping, including instruction in the legal equality of women (McClain 2006, 81; Lloyd 1995, 1332), including autonomy-promoting sex education (McClain 2006, 57–58), and ensuring that girls are prepared to be economically independent (Lloyd 1995, 1332). Beyond this some hold that girls' interest in developing autonomy capacities requires that families be internally just, that is, that there be an equal division of paid and unpaid labor between adults, so that families are not characterized by “dependence and domination” (Okin 1989, 99–100; see also Follesdal 2005). Others are not convinced that there is a necessary connection between this kind of justice in families and the development of girls' autonomy capacities (Lloyd 1995, 1335–1343), and hold that the state may not be guided by a substantive ideal of family life (Alstott 2004, 114; see also Nussbaum 2000a, 279–280; and Wolf-Devine 2004). (See section 1.2.1 for more discussion of this issue).
1.2 Political Autonomy
Some liberal feminists emphasize the importance of political autonomy, that is, being co-author of the conditions under which one lives. Some use contractualist political theory to argue that the state should ensure that the basic structure of society satisfies principles of justice that women, as well as men, could endorse. Others argue that the democratic legitimacy of the basic conditions under which citizens live depends on the inclusion of women in the processes of public deliberation and electoral politics.
1.2.1 Distributive Justice
Some liberal feminists, inspired by John Rawls' contractualist liberal theory of justice (Rawls 1971; 1993), argue that the state should ensure that the basic structure of society distributes the benefits and burdens of social cooperation fairly, that is, in a manner that women as well as men could endorse (Alstott 2004; Baehr 2004; Bojer 2002; Lloyd 1998; McClain 2006; Okin 1989; Thompson 1993; for an overview of feminist responses to Rawls, see Abbey 2013). They argue that the basic structure currently distributes benefits and burdens unfairly, in part due to the gender system, or the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions.
As Rawls puts it, the basic structure of society is: “The way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation. By major institutions I understand the political constitution and the principal economic and social arrangements…Competitive markets and the monogamous family [are] examples of major social institutions… The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is that this structure contains various social positions and that men born into different positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances. In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting places over others” (Rawls 1971, 6–7).
Rawls argues that the fairness of the basic structure of society may be assessed by asking what principles representatives of citizens (parties) would choose to determine the distribution of primary goods in society if they were behind a “veil of ignorance” (Rawls 1971, 12). The veil of ignorance blocks from the parties knowledge of their place in society: for example their socio-economic status, religion, and sex. (Rawls does not include sex in A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971), but adds it in “Fairness to Goodness” (Rawls 1975, 537).) Susan Okin proposes we “take seriously both the notion that those behind the veil of ignorance do not know what sex they are and the requirement that the family and the gender system, as basic social institutions, are to be subject to scrutiny” (Okin 1989, 101).
Rawls argues that parties behind the veil of ignorance would choose two principles: a liberty principle providing for the “most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all;” and a principle of equality requiring equality of opportunity, and permitting inequalities only if they are to the benefit of the least well off (Rawls 1971, 302–303).
Okin argues that the “gender system” violates both the liberty and equality of opportunity principles because by effectively assigning roles to citizens according to sex it circumvents citizens' “free choice of occupation” (Okin 1989, 103). On Okin's view, this means that in a just society “gender could no longer form a legitimate part of the social structure, whether inside or outside the family” (103). None of the institutions of the basic structure, including the family, could assign roles according to sex.[2] It is common to argue that the state, educational institutions, and workplaces should not assign roles according to sex. But Okin argues that this applies to the family as well. Gender blindness must play the same role in the family that it plays in these institutions. In Okin's words, there must be “congruence” between the principles that govern these institutions and those that govern family life (21). That is, families must be just.
Okin offers a second argument to support the claim that families must be just. Rawls explains that a society based on his two principles of justice can be stable because within it citizens develop a sense of justice (Rawls 1971, 453ff). For our purposes consider that citizens must develop the conviction that citizens generally are due the rights of equal citizenship. Okin argues that when children are raised within unjust families, families which lack “equality and reciprocity,” and are characterized by “dependence and domination,” they are not likely to develop the requisite sense of justice (Okin 1989, 99–100; see also McClain 2006, 73–84). Instead, girls and boys and may grow to believe that women are not entitled to equal citizenship. Therefore, if the society governed by Rawls' two principles of justice is to be stable, families must be just.
What can and should the state do to ensure that gender no longer forms a “part of the social structure, whether inside or outside the family” (Okin 1989, 103)? Okin endorses measures for the workplace, for example state subsidized daycare, parental leave, and flextime (176, 186). These accommodations make it possible for women and men to choose against traditional roles. She also recommends protecting from vulnerability those women who do choose traditional roles by making them entitled to half of their spouse's paycheck (181). But Okin does not think that the state should stop at increasing the voluntariness of women's choices and compensating for disadvantage. She argues instead that the state may and should promote a particular ideal of family life. She tells us that the state should “encourage and facilitate the equal sharing by men and women of paid and unpaid work, or productive and reproductive labor” (171). Accommodations by employers may be understood, then, not only as a way of making options available to women, but as a way of encouraging the sharing of paid and unpaid work by spouses. Another way the state may encourage such egalitarianism is through autonomy-promoting education, especially for girls (177). To be sure, Okin argues that what is desired is a “future in which all will be likely to choose this mode of life” (171, my emphasis). But the fact that many people currently don't choose it does not mean, for Okin, that it is not an appropriate goal of state action (172). (There is a substantial literature on Okin's use of Rawls' theory of justice. See for example Reich and Satz 2009. See also Liberal Feminism Works.)
Other feminists apply contractualist political philosophy inspired by Rawls to the problem of justice for women but draw slightly different conclusions from Okin. S.A. Lloyd (1998), Anne L. Alstott (2004) and Linda C. McClain (2006) each argue that a basically Rawlsian contractualist argument supports the claim that the current disadvantages women suffer as a result of their shouldering a disproportionate share of the burdens of social reproduction must be remedied by state action. All three endorse many of Okin's policy proposals (Lloyd 1995, 1332; 1998, 218; Alstott 2004). But they reject Okin's claim that the state should promote a particular substantive ideal of family life (Lloyd 1995, 1340–1341; Lloyd 1998, 218; McClain 2006, 78). Alstott writes: “The egalitarian family is, even in principle, a troubling ideal. Strictly equal sharing seems unduly constraining, not merely because families today deviate from the idea, but because free people might want to organize their lives differently” (Alstott 2004, 113). Other liberal feminists have voiced similar concerns. Ann Cudd worries that state action intended to promote gender fairness and foster women's autonomy could impose a homogenizing conception of the good life, and stifle the very reinventions of self and experiments in living that women's liberation requires (Cudd 2006, 209, 223; see also Wolf-Devine 2004). Elizabeth Anderson writes: “The plurality of conceptions of the good that are likely to survive in a world in which the state has done all it can be reasonably and justly expected to do will include a host of unreasonable conceptions of the good, some of which may well be patriarchal. In the face of such injustices, liberals counsel feminists to redirect their claims from the state to those promulgating such unreasonable conceptions of the good, and to redirect their activism from a focus on state action to other domains, including civil society, churches, and the family. I think this counsel is wise, which is why I am a liberal feminist” (Anderson 2009, 131; see also 141–144).
A substantial liberal feminist literature engages this tension between associational liberty and possible state action aimed at remedying the way the current distribution of the burdens of reproduction disadvantages women. Much of this literature draws on both the liberal tradition within feminism and feminist work on caregiving (Barclay 2013; Bhandary 2010; Brighouse and Wright 2008; Engster 1995, 2010; Gheaus 2009, 2012; Gornick and Meyers 2008; Hartley and Watson 2012; Lloyd 1995, 1998; Robeyns 2007; Gheaus and Robeyns 2011; Wright 2008).
1.2.2 Public Deliberation and Electoral Politics
Some liberal feminists, who emphasize the importance of political autonomy—that women be co-authors of the conditions under which they live—focus in particular on participation in the processes of democratic self-determination. These processes include both political deliberation in the many arenas of public political discourse, and electoral politics. Liberal feminists hold that the conditions under which women live lack legitimacy because women are inadequately represented in these processes. They hold that this political autonomy deficit is, in large part, due to the “gender system” (Okin 1989, 89), or the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions, and that the women's movement should work to identify and remedy it.
Attempts to increase women's participation in public deliberation and electoral politics confront a vicious circle of women's exclusion. The gender system leads to women's being underrepresented in influential forums of public deliberation, including in elected law-making bodies. For example women have less free time to engage in public deliberation because of the double-burden they carry of paid and unpaid labor; sex stereotyping leads many to think that women (especially women from particular ethnic and cultural groups) are less capable of leadership than men; the behavior called for in agonistic public deliberation and electoral politics is understood to be masculine; issues of particular interest to women are seen as personal and not political issues; women lack power in the many institutions (like churches, universities, and think tanks) that influence political debate, etc. But when women are underrepresented in these forums and law-making bodies, it is unlikely that the justice of the gender system will become the subject of public conversation or its dismantling a target of legislative action.
Some liberal feminists explore ways to escape this vicious circle. Because women are excluded from important forums of public deliberation and electoral politics in complex ways, remedies must address a variety of problems. Justice in the distribution of benefits and burdens in society would go some way towards enabling women to access forums of public debate on equal terms with men (Okin 1989, 104). But cultural change is necessary as well if stereotypes about women's abilities are not to interfere with their participation, if women's needs and interests are to be understood as legitimate claims on democratic power, and if men's dominance in institutions of influence is to be overcome. Seyla Benhabib argues that the women's movement, along with other new social movements like the gay and lesbian liberation movement, has begun this work (Benhabib 1992). While much of this change is cultural and must come about through civic action, the state has a role to play. Linda McClain argues that all children must receive civic education—to equip them for democratic citizenship—including instruction in women's equality (McClain 2006, 81). She also argues that the state may use its persuasive power to put traditionally excluded issues, like violence against women or the dilemma of balancing work and family, on the agenda for public deliberation (78).
Others take on the vicious circle of women's exclusion by recommending legal mechanisms for the inclusion of women in electoral politics (see Rhode 1994, 1205–1208; Peters 2006; Phillips 1991). Some suggest that legal mechanisms for including those who have been systematically excluded may be justified as remedies for the unjust disproportionate political power enjoyed by others (Phillips 2004, 6–10). Suggested mechanisms include targets or quotas for women (and other underrepresented groups) on party slates, or proportional representation in elected bodies. Karen Green, for example, argues for “guaranteed equal representation of both sexes in parliament” (Green 2006). There is diversity of opinion, however, among liberal feminists about the justice and efficacy of such mechanisms (Peters 2006; see also Rhode 1994, 1205).
1.3 Justification
We can distinguish between comprehensive liberal feminisms and political liberal feminisms (or feminist political liberalisms). The distinction between political and comprehensive doctrines in political theory is due to Rawls (1993) but has been taken up by some liberal feminists in recent years. (For explicit discussion of the distinction in liberal feminism, see for example Abbey 2007; 2011, 72–82, 226–247; Baehr 2008; 2013; Chambers 2008, 159–201; Enslin 2003; Hartley and Watson 2010; Lloyd 1998; Neufeld 2009; Neufeld and Schoelandt 2013; Nussbaum 1999b, 108; 2000b, 76 fn38; Okin 1994; 1999, 129–130; and Watson 2007).
Comprehensive liberal feminisms are grounded in moral doctrines. Liberal feminisms typically give accounts of how state power should be used to feminist ends; so a comprehensive liberal feminism typically includes the claim that state power should be used to some particular feminist ends because some moral doctrine requires it. A comprehensive liberal feminism typically gives an account of how part of associational life—beyond what is traditionally understood as ‘the political’—should be arranged, for example that the family should foster women's and girls' personal autonomy, or that domestic associations should distribute benefits and burdens fairly. Some comprehensive liberal feminisms focus primarily on associational life and only peripherally on the role of the state. Comprehensive liberal feminist accounts of how associational life generally should be arranged may, but need not, include the claim that the state ought to enforce such arrangements. There is nothing about grounding in a moral doctrine that forces a comprehensive liberal feminism to include the claim that the state should enforce liberal feminist values outside of what is traditionally understood as ‘the political.’ To be sure, comprehensive liberal feminisms typically do this. The reason is that comprehensive liberal feminisms typically reject the traditional public/private distinction, and hold that the political justice liberalism promises for women can be realized only when associational life—the family, for example—does not undermine girls' and women's personal autonomy, or distribute benefits and burdens unfairly. (But note that to reject the traditional public/private distinction is not to reject any and all such distinctions.)
Political liberal feminisms (or feminist political liberalisms) are accounts of how state power should be used to feminist ends that are grounded in public political values. Public political values are not the particular values of any one moral doctrine; they are values that are shared by the many reasonable comprehensive moral doctrines citizens hold (Rawls 1993, 227–230). Advocates of political liberal feminism hold that state power is used justly when supported by values that are endorsable by all reasonable citizens. Like comprehensive liberal feminists, political liberal feminists typically reject the traditional public/private distinction. Thus they typically hold that public values can justify using state power to compensate for, or even to dismantle, patriarchal (and other disadvantaging) hierarchies that are pervasive in associational life. (Again, to reject the traditional public/private distinction is not to reject any and all such distinctions.)
Among comprehensive liberal feminists we may count Jean Hampton, Drucilla Cornell, Ann Cudd, Susan Okin, and Clare Chambers. Hampton's feminist contractualist account of justice in personal relationships (see section 2.2.1) is explicitly grounded in Kant's moral philosophy (Hampton 1993, 241; on Hampton, see Abbey 2011, 120–151). Cornell's psychoanalytically informed liberal feminism (Cornell 2003) focuses on the right to intimate and sexual self-determination and is also grounded in Kant's moral theory (Cornell 1998, 17–18; see also Thurschwell 1999, 771–772). Cudd explains that her liberal feminist account of oppression as harm is grounded in a “background moral theory,” namely “a liberal contractarian view of the sort developed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, or the more libertarian version of David Gauthier in Morals by Agreement” (Cudd 2006, 231). Okin's liberal feminism draws on Rawls' A Theory of Justice, which Rawls himself claims is a comprehensive liberalism (Okin 1999, 129; Rawls 1993, xvii). (But note that Okin claims hers is “in between” comprehensive and political liberalism (Okin 1999, 129–130).) Chambers' liberal feminism – which explores the relationship between social construction and choice—may also be counted among comprehensive liberal feminisms as it is grounded in personal autonomy as a moral value (Chambers 2008).
Among political liberal feminists we may count S.A. Lloyd, Linda McClain, Martha Nussbaum, Christie Hartley, Lori Watson, and Amy Baehr. Lloyd constructs an argument based on public political values to the conclusion that “women's disproportionate burden in social reproduction [must] be eliminated” (Lloyd 1998, 214). McClain argues that sex equality is a public and constitutional value (2006, 60; see also 22–23, 60–62, and 76) which requires state opposition to relations of subordination and domination in the family (62); state support for autonomy in intimate matters (22); and support for the development of autonomy capacities in children, especially girls (109). Nussbaum also presents her “capabilities approach” as a political, and not a comprehensive, liberalism (see section 1.1.3.). The capabilities list, she argues, can be shared by citizens holding a wide variety of comprehensive conceptions of the good life, and thus should be able to function as a foundation for a political liberalism (Nussbaum 2000b, 76 fn38). Hartley and Watson argue that public deliberation based on shared values is incompatible with “pervasive social hierarchies” (Hartley and Watson 2010, 8). As Watson puts it, “a central task of public reason arguments, in the context of social hierarchy and inequality, is to expose the ways in which background conditions (inequalities) undermine the necessary conditions for reasonable deliberations among citizens to occur” (Watson 2007, 470).
Political liberal feminists suggest some advantages of political liberal feminism over comprehensive liberal feminism. According to S.A. Lloyd, “it's true that confining the argument to talk of socially recognized values requires operating with one hand tied behind one's back, so to speak. Conclusions that would be quite easy to reach from stronger feminist principles, or other comprehensive principles, are much harder to reach using the sparse … toolbox [of public reason]” (Lloyd 1998, 210). But if we can reach feminist conclusions on these sparse grounds, they will be much more difficult to reject. Amy Baehr suggests that arguments to feminist ends from public political values can move the political community toward a more reasonable understanding of those values (Baehr 2013; see also Rawls 1993, 227). (For further examples of political liberal feminism, see Neufeld (2009) and Neufeld and Schoelandt (2013).)
Comprehensive liberal feminists argue that political liberalism (and thus political liberal feminism) will not be adequately feminist if it is grounded in the public values of a still-patriarchal society (Abbey 2007; Chambers 2008, 159–201; Enslin 2003; Okin 1993; see also Munoz-Darde 1998, 347).
1.4 Historical Sources
Liberal feminism is part of, and thus finds its roots in, the larger tradition of liberal political philosophy; thus we see much liberal feminist work inspired by Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls (and other figures in this tradition). But liberal feminism shares with feminist political philosophy generally a concern with understanding the “gender system” (Okin 1989, 89), that is, the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions, so that it might recommend a remedy. To get a good picture of that system, liberal feminists draw broadly from the rich tradition of feminist theorizing. For example, some liberal feminists draw on radical feminist insights into the nature of violence against women (Nussbaum 1999a) and into the nature of gender identity (Chambers 2008m 43–80); some draw on psychoanalytic feminist theory (Meyers 2002; Cornell 2003); some on socialist feminist work on women's exploitation in the home (Anderson 2004; Gheaus 2008); and some on feminist theories of care (Alstott 2004; Bhandary 2010).
1.5 Criticism
1.5.1 Liberal Criticism
Some argue that liberal feminisms run the risk of being insufficiently liberal. Measures intended to promote gender fairness and the autonomy of women could end up unreasonably hindering autonomy (Cudd 2006, 223). Some argue that Susan Okin's claim that the state should be guided by an egalitarian ideal of family life is an example of such a measure (see section 1.2.1). Other measures recommended by liberal feminists that some hold may be illiberal include quotas on party slates or in elected bodies (Peters 2006) (see section 1.2.2), and bans on violent pornography (see section 1.2.4).
Classical liberals or libertarians are critical of liberal feminisms because, on their view, liberalism cannot support the claim that the right of some against coercive interference may be violated in order to promote the autonomy capacities of others, such as we find in affirmative action programs, or in the substantial taxation that would be necessary to fund the social programs liberal feminists endorse (Epstein 2002; Tomasi 2009).
1.5.2 Multicultural Criticism
Multicultural critics of liberal feminism suggest that liberal feminism's emphasis on autonomy and fairness in personal and associational life runs the risk of elevating one particular comprehensive conception of the good life over the many others found in multicultural societies (Shachar 2009; for discussion, see Okin 1999).
1.5.3 Conservative Criticism
Conservatives hold that reformers can do more harm than good when they undermine the institutions and norms which, while surely offending in many ways, also serve as the foundation for many people's well-being (Muller 1997; see also Fox-Genovese 1996). Such conservatives worry about the radical implications of liberal feminism, its willingness to put women's autonomy ahead of institutions and norms on which many people rely for their well-being. Ann Cudd suggests that the expansion of opportunity and equality promised by liberal feminism “makes us all better off” (Cudd 2006, 237). Conservatives encourage us to consider also the loss that is in liberation.
1.5.4 Feminist Criticism
Some comprehensive liberal feminists (see section 2.3) argue that the public political values on which feminist political liberalism relies render the latter insufficiently critical of precisely those hierarchies and forms of disadvantage liberal feminism aims to criticize and undermine (Abbey 2007; Baehr 1996; Chambers 2008, 12, 159–201; Okin 1994).
Some nonliberal feminists argue that even comprehensive liberalism will be insufficiently critical. Several reasons are offered. Some argue that feminist political theory must rely on a much more robust feminist ideal of the good life than liberal feminism provides (Yuracko 2003). Some argue that liberal feminism's commitment to moral individualism and ideal theory renders it incapable of identifying and criticizing the oppression of women (Schwarzman 2010). Some argue that liberal feminism's focus on the distribution of benefits and burdens in society neglects power relations (Young 1990, 37) and the eroticization of domination and subordination that are the true linchpins of the gender system (MacKinnon 1987; 1989). Still others argue that liberal feminism inherits from liberalism a focus on the autonomous individual and is, for this reason, incapable of accounting sufficiently for the fact of human dependency, the value of being cared for, and the role that caregiving plays in a good society (Held 1987; Kittay 1999).
2. Classical-Liberal or Libertarian Feminism
Classical-liberal feminism or libertarian feminism (these terms will be used interchangeably here—see fn. 1) conceives of freedom as freedom from coercive interference. It holds that women, as well as men, have a right to such freedom due to their status as self-owners. It holds that coercive state power is justified only to the extent necessary to protect the right to freedom from coercive interference. Equity feminists are classical-liberal or libertarian feminists who hold that, in societies like the United States, the only morally significant source of oppression of women is the state. They hold that feminism's political role is to bring an end to laws that limit women's liberty in particular, but also to laws that grant special privileges to women. Some equity feminists see a nonpolitical role for feminism, helping women to benefit from their freedom by developing beneficial character traits or strategies for success, or navigating among their increasing options. Other equity feminists are socially conservative and argue that, while the state should not enforce them, traditional values function as bulwarks against state power and produce independent and self-restraining citizens. Cultural libertarian feminists are classical-liberal or libertarian feminists who hold that the culture of societies like the United States is patriarchal and a significant source of oppression of women. They hold that the patriarchal culture and the state are complementary systems of oppression. Cultural libertarian feminists hold that much of the oppression women suffer today is noncoercive, however, and thus should not be met with state remedies but with a nonviolent movement for feminist social change.
2.1 Self-Ownership and Women's Rights
Classical liberalism or libertarianism holds that women and men are self-owners capable of acquiring property rights over things. As such women and men, equally, have the right to freedom from coercive interference with their person and property. This right to freedom from coercive interference consists in, at least, rights to freedom of conscience and expression, freedom to control what happens to one's body, freedom of association, freedom to acquire, control and transfer property, freedom of contract, as well as the right to compensation when rights are violated. The state's role is, exclusively, to protect citizens from coercive interference by protecting their rights. Some reject even a limited state, however, holding that nongovernmental means of protecting rights are to be preferred.
Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists hold that the right to freedom from coercive interference has powerful implications for women's lives. It implies that women have the right to freedom in intimate, sexual and reproductive matters. This includes sexual autonomy (the right to engage in sexual activity of one's choosing including the buying and selling of sex (Almodovar 2002; Lehrman 1997, 23), and the right to defend oneself against sexual aggression, including the use of firearms (Stevens et al. 2002)); freedom of expression (the right to appear in, publish, and consume pornography free of censorship (McElroy 1995; Strossen 2000)); freedom of intimate association (the right to partner or enter into a private marriage contract (McElroy 1991a, 20)); and reproductive freedom (the right to use birth control, have an abortion (on the minority of pro-life libertarians see Tabarrok 2002, 157), and buy and sell bodily reproductive services, for example as in surrogate motherhood (Lehrman 1997, 22; McElroy 2002b; Paul 2002)). Freedom from interference with person and property also means that women have the right to engage in economic activity in a free market, entering contracts, and acquiring, controlling and transferring property free of sexist state limits (Epstein 1992; Kirp, Yudolf, and Franks 1986, 204).
One way to characterize the wrong involved when states fail to recognize these rights of women is as a failure to respect women's right to be treated as men's equal, or the right to equal treatment under the law. To be sure, classical-liberal feminists hold that the law should not treat women and men differently. But this is because they believe everyone has the same rights, not because they believe women have a right to be treated the same as men. This is clear when we note that, for classical-liberal or libertarian feminism, equal treatment under unjust law is not justice (McElroy 1991a, 3).
Same treatment under the law does not guarantee same outcomes. Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists hold that women's rights are not violated when citizens exercise their rights in ways that create unequal outcomes (Epstein 2002, 30). A woman's rights are violated only when she is interfered with coercively, that is, when there is, or is a threat of, forced loss of freedom, property or life (which does not serve as just restraint or compensation).
2.2 Equity Feminism
Equity feminism is a form of classical-liberal or libertarian feminism that holds that feminism's political role is simply to ensure that everyone's, including women's, right against coercive interference is respected (Sommers 1994, 22). Wendy McElroy, an equity feminist writes: “I've always maintained that the only reason I call myself a feminist is because of [the] gov[ernment]. By which I mean, if the government (or an anarchist defense assoc[iation]) acknowledged the full equal rights of women without paternalistic protection or oppression, I would stop writing about women's issues” (McElroy 1998c).
Feminism's political role involves assuring that women's right against coercive interference by private individuals is recognized and protected by the state (for example women's right against groping on the street or rape within marriage (McElroy 1991a)), and that women's right against coercive interference by the state itself is respected. The latter means feminists should object to laws that restrict women's liberty in particular (for example laws that limit women's employment options (Taylor 1992, 228)), and laws that protect women in particular (for example laws granting preferential treatment to women (Paul 1989)). Equity feminists suggest that this has been largely accomplished in countries like the United States. Joan Kennedy Taylor explains: feminism's “goal of equal political liberty for women has been pretty much reached in the United States” (Taylor 2001; see also Sommers 1994, 274).
2.2.1 Equity Feminism on the Oppression of Women
On the equity feminist view, the feminist slogan “the personal is political” is accurate when the state fails to recognize women's right against coercive interference, especially in women's personal lives. So, for example, in some countries husbands have legal control over their wives' persons and property. (Some equity feminists argue that the women's movement in Western countries should not hesitate to criticize countries in which this occurs (Sommers 2007).) But in countries like the United States, where the right of women against this sort of coercive interference is recognized and protected by law, equity feminists hold that “the personal is no longer political” (Lehrman 1997, 5; see also 21).
If an individual or group of individuals suffers sustained and systematic denial of their rights, on the equity feminist view, we may call them oppressed. Women were oppressed in the United States during most of its first two centuries; people of African descent were oppressed before the dismantling of Jim Crow laws. While the culture of the United States supported this denial of rights, equity feminists hold that the oppressor was the state (McElroy 1998c), which refused to recognize and protect the right of women and people of African descent to treatment as self-owners. When the state recognizes and protects this right of women and Americans of African descent, they are no longer oppressed, even if the culture disadvantages them. So, for example, in a discussion of whether Muslim women are oppressed, Cathy Young focuses on whether women's conformity with a religious tradition that subordinates them is enforced by law. If it is, then women are oppressed (Young 2006).
If women are to be described as currently oppressed in societies like the United States, on the equity feminist view, one must show that the state fails to protect women, as a group, from sustained and systematic rights violations. Some feminists have argued that violence against women is pervasive in societies like the United States so that, even though the law recognizes women's right against it, that right is insufficiently protected, and thus women endure sustained and systematic denial of their right to bodily integrity (Dworkin 1991). Equity feminists endeavor to refute this claim by showing that the prevalence of violence against women has been exaggerated. For example Rita Simon contests the claim that as many as 154 out of 1,000 women have been raped. On her accounting, the number is closer to 19 per 1,000; and “rape is less common than other violent crimes”(Simon 2002, 235). In addition, she claims, “the criminal justice system does not ignore or make light of crimes against females”(Simon 2002, 236). Katie Roiphe argues that date rape is not a significant threat to women (Roiphe 1994). Concurring with Roiphe, Cathy Young writes: “women have sex after initial reluctance for a number of reasons … fear of being beaten up by their dates is rarely reported as one of them” (Young 1992).
Women have also been said to be oppressed because their right to be treated the same as men by employers, educational institutions, and associations has been violated in a sustained and systematic way. That is, some argue, women have been regularly denied the right to equal access to opportunities because they are women. Equity feminists generally hold that no rights are violated when employers, educational institutions, public accommodations or associations discriminate against women (see section 1.5). Nonetheless, equity feminists argue that discrimination against women is not a serious problem. Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Christine Stolba argue that “complaints about systematic economic discrimination against women simply do not square with the evidence” (Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xi; see also 2001). They argue that “women's wages and education levels are closing the gap with those of men” (xii). In addition, Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth claim that women have “surpassed men in education” (23; see also 23–43). Christina Hoff Sommers concurs, arguing that, rather than failing to provide girls with an education equal to that of boys, our current educational system disproportionately benefits girls (Sommers 2000, 20–23, 178).
Equity feminists argue that the differences in outcomes between women and men can be explained, not by violence against women and sex discrimination, but by differences in the preferences of women and men (Epstein 2002, 33; Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xii). “In many cases where women remain behind men, personal choices explain outcomes more readily than does overt discrimination” (Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xii). To be sure, classical-liberal or libertarian feminists hold that women and men are sufficiently the same that they have the “same political interests,” in particular the interest in being treated as a self-owner (McElroy 2002, 14–15). But, for some equity feminists, biological differences between the sexes largely explain the sex segregation in the workplace and in family roles still common in countries like the United States (Epstein 2002; Lehrman 1997, 5, 31).
Other equity feminists think biological sex differences alone do not explain this phenomenon (Young 2004). Women's preferences may reflect the effects of socialization or incentives: for example women may be socialized to prefer stereotypically female roles, or the rewards associated with such roles for women may provide motivation for women to take them up. But equity feminists hold that, because women are not legally required, or actually forced in some other way, to choose traditional roles, their choices are not coerced, and thus state remedies are inappropriate. On the equity feminist view, a law prohibiting women to become surgeons is coercive because it constitutes a threat of loss of liberty or property. But if one is socialized to prefer stay-at-home motherhood, or one discovers that one prefers to stay home with children given the other real options, one may still choose to become a surgeon without risking loss of liberty or property. As Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth put it (using the word“prevents” in a very strong sense): “Nothingprevents women from choosing the surgical specialty”(Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, 60; my emphasis).
2.2.2 Feminism's Nonpolitical Role
While equity feminists hold that feminism's political task—securing for women the right to freedom from coercive interference—is nearly completed, some equity feminists believe that feminism has a nonpolitical role to play in women's personal lives. In its nonpolitical role, feminism can help women to develop character traits and strategies that will help them benefit from their freedom; and it can help women to navigate personally among their increasing options.
Karen Lehrman writes: “Men have typically held title to quite a few traits that women can now put to good use. In addition to ambition, assertiveness, and independence, there's also decisiveness” (Lehrman 1997, 33; see also 62). Other character traits emphasized by equity feminists include“self-confidence” (Stevens et al. 2002, 255), being able to think and argue independently (McElroy 1998a), and taking responsibility for oneself (Taylor 1992, 86). Some equity feminists suggest that feminism offers individual women and men the opportunity for freedom from conformity with sex roles (Lehrman 1997, 6; Taylor 1992, 23–24).
Equity feminists recommend strategies for success for women in education and employment as alternatives to state regulation. In male dominated fields, for example, equity feminists recommend that women mentor one another, or organize supportive associations, making use of the techniques of 1960's feminism like consciousness-raising (Taylor 1992, 100–101). In What You Can Do About Sexual Harassment When You Don't Want to Call the Cops, Joan Kennedy Taylor argues that women can avoid sexual harassment or lessen its impact if they learn to diffuse conflicts with men and understand the role of sexual banter in male culture (Taylor 1999). Equity feminists also recommend that women make full use of their right to contract by turning their preferences—for example the preference for being paid and/or promoted on the basis of one's job performance and not on the basis of sexual favors—into rights through contract (Epstein 2002, 40; Taylor 1992, 169).
Some equity feminists stress that women need not give up their gender difference to benefit from their freedom (Lehrman 1997, 198). As Karen Lehrman writes, “completing the feminist revolution… primarily involves [women] completing their own personal evolutions” (35). Lehrman quotes Elizabeth Cady Stanton:“the strongest reason for giving woman a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage of custom, dependence, superstition …is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life” (Lehrman 1997, 201). An important part of this individual life, on Lehrman's view, is navigating among sexual difference and sameness in the personal construction of a satisfying life.
2.2.3 Socially Conservative Equity Feminism
Some equity feminists are socially conservative (Morse 2001; Sommers 2000). To be sure, equity feminism as described here is a form of classical-liberal or libertarian feminism. As such it involves the claim that traditional values should not be imposed on citizens by the state. For example, the state should not tax citizens to support institutions that promote traditional values, nor should the criminal or civil law create incentives for adherence to such values. But some equity feminists hold that it is best when citizens voluntarily adhere to traditional values. They hold that widespread voluntary adherence to traditional values is conducive to well-being in society because traditional values make possible the reproduction of independent and “self-restraining citizens” which are “the basis of free institutions, both economic and political” (Morse 2001, 161).
Socially conservative equity feminists do not take the classical liberal or libertarian theory of the limits of state power to imply endorsement of a libertine cultural ethos. So, for example, while socially conservative equity feminists hold that the state should not force citizens to accept traditional family forms (because individuals have a right against such coercive interference), they hold that society should strongly discourage disfavored ways of life and encourage favored ones through noncoercive, nonstate means. Socially conservative equity feminists hold that when feminism strays from its political role of assuring equal rights and ventures into women's personal lives it tends to discourage in women the kinds of delayed gratification and self-sacrifice on which vital social institutions, like the family, depend (Morse 2001, 133).
To be sure, there are political conservatives who take equity feminism's claim that women and men should be treated the same by the law as a rule of thumb. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is an example of such a political conservative (Fox-Genovese 1991; 1996). The difference between political conservatives who embrace the equity feminist account of women's equality and socially conservative equity feminists is that the former endorse the use of state power to promote traditional values while the latter do not. Also, socially conservative equity feminists hold that individuals' political rights derive from their status as self-owners (Morse 2001, 57) while political conservatives hold that citizens' political rights derive from their status as members of communities (Fox-Genovese 1991, 9). In contemporary popular political discourse it is often hard to distinguish these two, as they are in political coalition. To appeal to both libertarian and socially conservative constituencies, on occasion theorists help themselves to a bit of both traditions. For example, Jennifer Roback Morse identifies herself as a libertarian: “When the topic is the proper relationship between the individual and the state, libertarianism is pretty much the right path” (Morse 2001, 4). She tells us that “the moral and ethical system underlying the polity must be secured outside the political process itself” (124). But she also makes the un-libertarian and politically conservative recommendation that the state should intervene in personal relationships by making it “costly to divorce” (164, see also 104, 111).
2.3 Cultural Libertarian Feminism
Cultural libertarianism is a form of classical liberalism or libertarianism that is “concerned about constraints on individual freedom from government as well as from traditionalist familial, religious, and community institutions-the same civil institutions that conservatives see as necessary for ordered liberty to thrive”(Young 2007). Cultural libertarian feminism holds that these institutions reflect the patriarchal nature of society and are oppressive of women. Thus cultural libertarian feminism recognizes sources of women's oppression other than the state (Presley 2000; Johnson and Long 2005—see Other Internet Resources). As Charles Johnson and Roderick Long put it, patriarchal culture and the state are “interlocking systems of oppression” (Johnson and Long 2005—see Other Internet Resources), both of which should be opposed by feminists. They explain: “There is nothing inconsistent or un-libertarian in holding that women's choices under patriarchal social structures can be sufficiently ‘voluntary,’ in the libertarian sense, to be entitled to immunity from coercive legislative interference, while at the same time being sufficiently ‘involuntary,’ in a broader sense, to be recognized as morally problematic and as a legitimate target of social activism” (Johnson and Long 2005—see Other Internet Resources).
Calling this view “anarchist feminism,” Sharon Presley writes: “What the anarchist feminists are calling for is a radical restructuring of society, both in its public and private institutions” (Presley 2000). Such feminists hold that much of the oppression women currently suffer is noncoercive, however. Laws against prostitution are coercive—the state can put a violator in jail or force her to pay a fine. But on the cultural libertarian feminist view, much of the pressure to conform to gender roles is not coercive. Noncoercive oppression can be resisted, although it is often not easy to do so. Cultural libertarian feminists hold that noncoercive oppression should not be remedied by the state (see also Tomasi 2009). As Presley and Kinsky explain, on the cultural libertarian view, to try to remedy the noncoercive oppression of women with coercive state action “just changes the sort of oppression, not the fact” (Presley and Kinsky 1991, 78). This oppression should be opposed by a nonviolent movement for feminist social change.
Cultural libertarian feminists target the patriarchal culture by, for example, developing in individuals (especially women) the ability to be independent. This involves enabling individuals to resist authority and think for themselves (Presley 2001). Cultural libertarian feminists also recommend the development of more deeply consensual relationships and institutions (Heckert 2004—see Other Internet Resources), relationships and institutions in which there is an equality of authority (Long 2001—see Other Internet Resources). While some equity feminists (see section 1.2) would applaud this work, they would call it “personal,” reserving the term “political” for the work of securing for women their right against coercive interference. Equity feminist Wendy McElroy writes: “I understand that there is a cultural form of feminism and many women would still fight for improved prestige or status, and I wouldn't criticis[e] them for doing so. It just wouldn't grip me. Guess I'm a political animal after all”(McElroy 1998c). But cultural libertarian feminists consider this work to be an integral part of a larger political struggle for women's freedom.
2.4 Sources: Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists understand themselves as heirs to the first generation of feminist political philosophers, for example Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, and John Stuart Mill (Taylor 1992, 25–39); the first generation of feminist political reformers in the United States, for example the abolitionist feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Grimke (McElroy 2002, 6–7); and the tradition of 19th century anarchist feminism, including figures such as Voltairine de Cleyre (McElroy 2002, 8; Presley 2000; Presley and Sartwell 2005). Equity feminists stress the extent to which these early thinkers and activists identify women's liberation with equal respect for women's right against coercive interference (Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 2001, 1–2). Cultural libertarian feminists emphasize the extent to which these thinkers and activists challenged both coercive state power and the patriarchal culture (Presley 2000; Johnson and Long 2005—see Other Internet Resources).
Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists hold that “the very arguments that rightly led to the legal reforms affecting the status of women during the 19th century militate against the demands for reform from the late 20th century women's movement” (Epstein 2002, 30). That is, they hold that the defense of equal rights and independence for women promulgated by these early feminists is incompatible with the tendency of the contemporary women's movement to call on the state to improve the lives of women.
2.5 Anti-Discrimination Law and Preferential Treatment
Classical-liberal or libertarian feminism requires same treatment of women and men under just law. This means that sex discrimination by the state, for example when the state functions as an employer, is impermissible (Block 1991, 102; Epstein 2002, 34; Warnick 2003, 1608). But classical-liberal or libertarian feminists oppose laws that prohibit discrimination against women by nonstate actors, for example in employment, education, public accommodations, or associations (McElroy 1991a, 22–23; Epstein 1992). They hold that the interaction of citizens should be subject to state control only to the extent necessary to protect citizens' right against coercive interference. Businesses violate citizens' right against coercive interference if they steal from their customers or employees; associations violate it if they extort their members; colleges violate it if they kidnap students. But businesses do not violate this right if they refuse to do business with women, pay women less for the same work, or create a working environment that is hostile to them because of their sex. Private educational institutions do not violate this right if they refuse to educate girls or women, offer them an inferior education, or create a learning environment that is hostile to them because of their sex. Business and professional associations do not violate this right if they refuse to admit women as members or make them feel unwelcome because of their sex.
Classical-liberal or libertarian feminism, as described here, clearly implies rejection of legal prohibition of private discrimination in employment, education, public accommodations, and associations. But in the literature one finds a range of views. Some categorically reject any legal protection against private discrimination (Taylor 1992, 62). Others accept basic protections such as those afforded in U.S. law by the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972; but reject more robust protections, such as non-remedial affirmative action or comparable worth (Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 2001, 179; see also 107–108).
Classical-liberal or libertarian feminism holds that private businesses, educational institutions, and associations are free to give or withhold preferential treatment to women. But the state may not treat women preferentially because the state must treat citizens the same regardless of sex. Nor may the state require that private businesses, educational institutions, or associations treat women preferentially. This is because, on the equity feminist view, failure to treat women preferentially is not a violation of anyone's right against coercive interference. Examples of preferential treatment under the law, which classical-liberal or libertarian feminists oppose, include affirmative action in employment and education (Lehrman 1997, 25), comparable worth (Paul 1989), and advantages for women in the legal treatment of custody and domestic violence (Simon 2002).
While equity feminists resist state remedies for private discrimination against women, they also hold that such discrimination is not currently a serious problem in countries like the United States (see section 1.2.1). In addition, they argue, “even where discrimination may exist, we find little, if any, evidence that expanded government intervention would serve any useful purpose”(Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xii), and speculate that freer markets would make whatever discrimination currently takes place even more rare (McElroy 2002a, 187).
2.6 Justification
Why should individuals be treated as self-owners? Much of the classical-liberal or libertarian feminist literature, especially the equity feminist literature, is written for public policy and popular audiences. Thus more attention is paid to implications and policy applications than to philosophical justification. Several justifications are mentioned in the literature. Kirp, Yudoff, and Franks, for example, refer to Kant's categorical imperative and claim that treating individuals as self-owners is what is meant by treating individuals as ends in themselves ((Kirp et al. 1986, 13–14). Wendy McElroy grounds her thought in the natural law tradition (McElroy 1998b). Some imply a perfectionist justification according to which the perfection of the human being requires being treated as a self-owner (Presley 2001).
By far the most common argument in the classical-liberal or libertarian feminist literature is consequentialist. The argument says that the political arrangements recommended by classical-liberalism or libertarianism, as compared with the alternatives, will provide women with more of what is good for them: for example safety, income and wealth, choices, and options. Liberalizing guns laws will make women safer (Stevens, et al. 2002); legalizing prostitution and porn will improve the lives of women in those trades (Almodovar 2002; Strossen 2000) and open opportunities for others; freer markets will root out discrimination against women and stimulate the proliferation of amenities essential to working women, like daycare centers (Epstein 2002, 33; Paul 2002, 208–209; Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 2001, 124, 180; Conway 1998). Indeed, some argue that liberalizing the market will release such an “explosion of prosperity” that women will not need help from a welfare state (Long 1997—see Other Internet Resources).
2.7 Criticism
Some critics take aim at the consequentialist argument offered in support of classical-liberal or libertarian feminism. The consequentialist argument says that the political arrangements recommended by classical-liberalism or libertarianism, as compared with the alternatives, will provide women with more of what is good for them. Following Ashlie Warnick, we can distinguish the claim that particular liberty-restricting policies are bad for women (and that some liberty-enhancing policies are good for women) from the claim that all liberty-restricting policies harm women, or that a minimal state (or no state) would be better for women overall (Warnick 2003). It is surely possible to cite liberty-restricting policies that are bad for women—laws limiting women's employment options—and thus to cite liberty-enhancing policies that are good for women—not having such laws. But it is also possible to cite liberty-restricting policies that are good for women—for example the legal prohibition against sex discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations (which classical-liberal or libertarian feminists recommend dismantling (see section 2.5)). Of course, if sex discrimination is rare, as some classical-liberal or libertarian feminists contend (see section 2.2.1), laws prohibiting it will not produce much benefit. But, as liberal feminists Deborah Rhode and Ann Cudd argue sex discrimination is all too common (Rhode 1997, 156; Cudd 2006, 140–142). Think also of the classical-liberal or libertarian feminist recommendation that women and men be treated exactly the same by the state (see sections 2.1 and 2.5). While different treatment can stigmatize and entrench stereotypes, same treatment can disadvantage women if they are not similarly situated to men—which, arguably, is the case (Minow 1990). So the larger case—that all liberty-restricting policies harm women, or that a minimal state (or no state) would be better for women overall—has not been made convincingly (Warnick 2003). Another concern about the larger case is that much of the support offered is speculative, for example Roderick Long's assertion that “the explosion of prosperity that a libertarian society would see would go a long way toward providing women with an economic safety net more effective than any government welfare program” (Long 1997—see Other Internet Resources).
In addition to the consequentialist argument, classical-liberal or libertarian feminists offer an argument from principle. According to this argument, regardless of the consequences, women and men should be treated as self-owners with rights to property justly acquired and to freedom from coercive interference because this is what they deserve as ends in themselves, or because this is what moral insight teaches, or because this is what their perfection requires (see section 2.6). In short, the claim is that the dignity of women and men depends on their being treated as self-owners.
Critics urge us to consider that all human beings are utterly dependent on the care of others for many years at the start of life; many come to need the care of others due to temporary or permanent disability later in life; and many require care as they become infirm at the end of life. Those who provide care for those who cannot care for themselves will also find themselves dependent on others for material support. These are enduring features of any human community. Thus all individuals have a high priority interest in receiving care when it is needed (Kittay 1999; Nussbaum 2000). As liberal feminist Susan Okin argues, a theory that ignores this interest must assume that there is a “realm of private life in which the reproductive and nurturant needs of human beings are taken care of” (Okin 1989, 75). This assumption hides the fact that it is women who typically satisfy this interest, and do so often without pay and at great sacrifice to themselves. This renders classical-liberalism or libertarianism, including its feminist versions, blind to the nature of obligations to, and entitlements of, children and others who require care. In addition, because caring labor is hidden from view, it becomes impossible to evaluate the justice of the arrangements under which the interest in receiving care is commonly satisfied. This suggests that freedom from coercive interference fails to capture what human dignity requires. At the very least, that dignity requires the right to care when one is unable to care for oneself and the right to a share of resources if one is charged with providing care for those who require it.
In a related criticism, Okin argues that classical-liberal or libertarian views are self-refuting. If individuals have a right to control their bodies and own the fruits of their labor, then women—who presumably make children from resources that have been given to them freely or were bought by them—own their children (Nozick 1974; Okin 1989, 80, 81; see also Jeske 1996; and Andersson 2007). But if women own their children, and everyone begins as a child, then no one owns herself (Okin 1989, 85).
Jennifer Roback Morse, herself a classical-liberal or libertarian feminist, concedes: “I think it is well to admit… that our inattention to family life and community responsibility has left libertarians open to the charge that we do not care very much about these matters” (Morse 2001, 28).
Liberal criticism of the argument from principle begins by noting that the liberties championed by classical-liberals and libertarians are valuable because of what they make it possible for individuals to be and do. But it is not liberties alone which facilitate our being and doing what we value. We require also, at least, adequate material resources, genuine opportunities, and standing as an equal in society (Rawls 1971; Rawls 1993). What is needed is a basic structure of society, including property rules, that secures these. Thus freedom from coercive interference fails to capture what human dignity requires.
Critics have also taken aim at the treatment of oppression in classical-liberal or libertarian feminism. Recall that equity feminism holds that women are oppressed when the state fails to protect them, as a group, from sustained and systematic rights violations. Recall also that for equity feminists the only rights that create coercible duties are the rights to justly acquired property and freedom from coercive interference. Equity feminists argue that, in western countries like the United States, women are not oppressed because the state protects these rights of women. It should be conceded that much violence against women which was, in the past, tolerated or condoned is now unambiguously prohibited. But, critics contend, violence against women remains all too common in western countries, and thus it is premature to suggest that women are not oppressed, that is, are not effectively protected against sustained and systematic rights violations (Rhode 1997, 120; see also Cudd 2006, 93ff).
As we have seen, cultural libertarian feminists criticize equity feminism for ignoring significant, though perhaps more subtle, constraints on women's individual freedom that stem “from traditionalist familial, religious, and community institutions” (Young 2007). Cultural libertarian feminists recommend social activism, not state power, as a remedy for this oppression. Liberal feminists disagree, arguing that state power is legitimately used to ensure the fair value of women's liberties and opportunities. Think here, for example, of the liberal feminist claim that workplaces should be structured by law so that care-givers are not disadvantaged, given the “traditionalist familial, religious and community” pressure on women to assume caregiving responsibilities for dependent family members (see section 1.1.4). Think also of the liberal feminist claim that the education of girls must ensure the development of their autonomy (see section 1.1.4).
As we have seen, while cultural libertarian feminists are culturally liberal, some classical-liberal feminists are culturally conservative. They content that classical-liberalism or libertarianism must call for voluntary adherence to traditional morality because that morality is necessary for the reproduction of citizens capable of independence and self-restraint. Critics respond that the traditional morality championed by cultural conservatives disadvantages women and girls in myriad ways. Think here, for example, of how the traditional nuclear family places on women a disproportionate and disadvantaging share of the burdens of reproduction (Okin 1989). Socially conservative equity feminists are untroubled by this disadvantage as long as it is voluntarily chosen. Some nonliberal feminists argue that the fact that a political philosophy grounded in the value of voluntary choice is compatible with traditions and institutions that disadvantage women shows that feminism should not be so grounded (Jaggar 1983, 194; Yuracko 2003, 25–26). Liberal feminists embrace the value of voluntary choice for feminism, but argue that women often cannot exercise it, because sexist socialization and a homogeneous culture render them incapable of critically assessing their preferences and imagining life otherwise (Meyers 2004; Cornell 1998; Cudd 2006). Indeed, if critical thinking is necessary for freedom but corrosive of tradition, cultural conservatives must be wary of freedom. Thus there is a tension within culturally conservative equity feminism between the emphasis on voluntariness and the value of tradition. (For related criticism, see Loudermilk 2004, 149–172).
To summarize, critics suggest that classical-liberal or libertarian feminism is not adequately supported by a consequentialist case; fails to recognize our obligations to those who cannot care for themselves; hides from view the way in which the work of care is distributed in society; denies that state power should be used to ensure equality of opportunity for women and women's equal standing in society; and (cultural libertarianism excepted) is uncritical of traditional social arrangements that limit and disadvantage women. For reasons such as these, some have argued that classical-liberal or libertarian feminism counts as neither feminist nor liberal (Minnich 1998; see also Freeman 1998).
Radical Feminism is a trend in the Women's Movement which openly espouses that men are the enemy. For women who hold this line, complete separation from men in all areas of life is the solution to women's oppression.
Radical Feminism
Perhaps the stereotype of feminists that we discussed before is most closely associated with our first type of feminism, called radical feminism. Radical feminism is a movement that believes sexism is so deeply rooted in society that the only cure is to eliminate the concept of gender completely. How would this be possible?
Radical feminists suggest changes, such as finding technology that will allow babies to be grown outside of a woman's body, to promote more equality between men and women. This will allow women to avoid missing work for maternity leave, which radical feminists argue is one reason women aren't promoted as quickly as men. In fact, radical feminists would argue that the entire traditional family system is sexist. Men are expected to work outside the home while women are expected to care for children and clean the house. Radical feminists note that this traditional dichotomy maintains men as economically in power over women, and therefore, the traditional family structure should be rejected.
Socialist feminism: Radical feminism is the most extreme form. The second type of feminism, called socialist feminism, is slightly less extreme but still calls for major social change. Socialist feminism is a movement that calls for an end to capitalism through a socialist reformation of our economy. Basically, socialist feminism argues that capitalism strengthens and supports the sexist status quo because men are the ones who currently have power and money. Those men are more willing to share their power and money with other men, which means that women are continually given fewer opportunities and resources. This keeps women under the control of men.
In short, socialist feminism focuses on economics and politics. They might point out the fact that in the United States women are typically paid only $0.70 for the exact same job that a man would be paid a dollar for. Why are women paid less than men for the same work? Socialist feminists point out that this difference is based on a capitalist system.
Psychoanalytic Feminism
First published Mon May 16, 2011
This article will discuss psychoanalytic feminism, not feminist psychoanalysis (i.e., except indirectly, it will not address ideas about developing feminist principles in clinical practice, although most of the authors discussed below are trained analysts). Psychoanalysis develops a theory of the unconscious that links sexuality and subjectivity ineluctably together. In doing so, it discloses the ways in which our sense of self, and our political loyalties and attachments, are influenced by unconscious drives and ordered by symbolic structures that are beyond the purview of individual agency. It might appear at the outset that any alliance between feminism and psychoanalysis would have to be coordinated on treacherous ground: in Sigmund Freud's lecture on “Femininity,” for instance, while discussing the “riddle of femininity” (Freud 1968 [1933], 116) or of sexual differentiation, Freud's rhetoric impeaches women as “the problem” (113) and excuses members of his audience from this indictment by offering the hope that they are “more masculine than feminine” (117). Many feminists have been wary both of the biases contained in Freud's oratory and of the overt content of his claims. This article will explain how and why feminist theory has, nonetheless, undertaken a serious reading of Freud and developed careful analyses of his fundamental concepts, working out their limits, impasses, and possibilities.
In the same essay cited above, Freud writes that “psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a woman is—that would be a task it could scarcely perform—but sets about enquiring how she comes into being, how a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition” (Freud 1968 [1933], 116). In using the term ‘bisexual,’ Freud refers to a quality of the sexual instinct, not a relation to a sexual object (which would be denoted by the term ‘inversion’); the bisexual child is one who psychically is not yet either a man or a woman, whose instinctual life functions prior to sexual difference. Freud here portrays femininity as one trajectory of the Oedipal Complex and indicates that sexed identity is a fragile achievement rather than a natural given or essence. By circumscribing the terrain on which the psychoanalytic account of sexual difference moves, and by seeing unresolved, even unresolvable, riddles where others might see the work of nature or culture, Freud problematizes any causal, seamless, or direct tie between sex, sexuality, and sexual difference. Psychoanalytic inquiry does not fit comfortably with, and even unsettles, biological theories of sex and sociological theories of gender, thus also complicating the sex/gender distinction as it has often been formulated in feminist debates. While sex and gender are sometimes construed in feminist theory in terms of the contrast between biology and culture, or nature and nurture, Freud's theory, as discussed below, challenges these dualisms, developing an account of the sexual drive that traverses the mental and the physical, and undergoes idiosyncratic vicissitudes rather than assuming a uniform anatomical or social shape. Whatever the hazards of Freud's writings on women, then, his work explores in new ways the meaning and possibilities of sexed identity. Likewise, as I will argue below, psychoanalytic feminism interrupts many assumptions about what feminism is and the conceptual and material objects it theorizes, including especially the very concept of woman. In unsettling our understanding of this concept, psychoanalysis also poses questions to feminism about the value of difference and the quest for equality, and the unresolved tensions between these divergent pursuits.
While there is no doubt a vast ouvre of disparate positions that might fall within the framework of psychoanalytic feminism, what is shared in common is a descent from, respect for, and some minimal borrowing of Freudian accounts of the unconscious, even while criticizing and/or revising his theoretical apparatus. Any properly psychoanalytic theory must at the least offer an account of the unconscious and its bond with sexuality and, arguably, death. Precisely this descent, however, has also provided a barrier to feminist deployment since Freud is sometimes read, at least superficially, as proffering misogynist, and perhaps Procrustean, elaborations of psychic structuration, curtailing and diminishing the diversity of individual women's experiences into a restricted and unvarying formula that will fit within its own theoretical parameters. Nevertheless, Freud's reflections and hypotheses concerning hysteria, the Oedipal Complex, female sexuality and femininity, and women's role in civilization, among other ideas, have provided the volatile grounds, the sites of contention, for feminist re-articulation. Before any of the multiple and divergent articulations of psychoanalytic feminism can be discussed in more detail, we must thus first establish their historical roots and the conceptual terrain on which they arise. Since a great deal of psychoanalytic feminist theory is specifically concerned with revising the Oedipal narrative of Freud, this article will devote particular attention to Freud's theories of the unconscious as they pertain to the Oedipal Complex.
• 1. The Freudian Riddle of Femininity
• 2. Feminist Criticism of Psychoanalysis
• 3. Language, Law, and Sexual Difference
• 4. French Feminism
o 4.1 The Impasse of Feminine Subjectivity
o 4.2 Subjectivity, Alterity, and Alienation
• 5. Anglo-American Psychoanalytic Feminism
• 6. Conclusion
• Bibliography
o Cited Works
o Further Reading
• Academic Tools
• Other Internet Resources
• Related Entries
1. The Freudian Riddle of Femininity
Rooted in both clinical practice with patients and speculative attempts to apprehend and delineate foundational concepts, Freud's psychoanalysis aims to offer descriptions of psychical structures that underlie and account for individual experience in the variety of its empirical formations. Rather than the rationally self-interested individual presumed by liberal political theory or the self-contained and independent cogito presumed by Cartesian epistemology, Freud puts forward a divided subject, unknown to itself, an ‘I’ traversed by multiple agencies. According to Kristeva, “Freud's discovery designated sexuality as the nexus between language and society, drives and the socio-symbolic order” (Kristeva 1984, 84). Freud's break-through insight, in other words, is that sexual bonds initiate us into subjectivity and civilization.
Freud distinguishes human drives from instincts insofar as drives (unlike instincts) have no pre-given aim or object supplied by nature and follow no pre-set biological path. For those who inhabit a human world, drives might come to be attached to any number of aims or objects, and felt through any number of bodily locales. Drives, according to Freud, become specified in these ways through the mediation of ideas or representations. Human embodiment is thus imbued with opaque meaning, and sexuality emerges from a kind of instinctual inadequacy that presents desire as a difficulty or problem, and propels its increasing complexification.
The core of Freud's claim about the impact of sexuality on psychic processes can be discerned starting with Freud's early works on hysteria, although a crucial transformation in his thinking must be clarified. In Studies in Hysteria (1895), written in collaboration with Josef Breuer, Freud examines the phenomenon whereby a symptom might exist in the absence of an organic lesion. Hysteria is diagnosed when it is an idea or memory that makes one ill, without any physical disease being the cause. By definition, hysteria is ideogenic (caused by an idea), as it designates the process by which a troubling but repressed idea is converted into a bodily symptom. Freud initially posits that hysterical symptoms arise as a result of violent childhood seduction (what today would be called molestation), a real trauma that is then retroactively set in motion by a second, comparatively more mild, event, after a period of latency. The ‘seduction hypothesis’ is an attempt to explain the aetiology of hysteria (the origins of neurosis) by the traumatic force of a premature sexual experience occurring in early childhood, an external event that impinges upon the psychical apparatus but whose memory is repressed, cut off from consciousness. The repressed memory becomes somatized (enacted on the body and in bodily symptoms) when a later event, usually occurring in puberty, catalyzes the earlier memory traces. The talking cure is developed as a way to bring repressed memories forward and abreact or release them, re-binding the idea to its severed and dispersed affect (unrepressing it) and thereby dissolving the bodily symptom.
In the later Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud contends, contrary to the earlier supposition that sexuality intervenes from the outside, that sexuality is a primordial and innate (if also inchoate) force of infantile life, arising from the bodily sensations that accompany the life processes. In the interim between these two works, Freud had abandoned the seduction hypothesis and replaced it with the thesis of infantile sexuality and the idea that symptoms are brought about via the conflicts and repressions of unconscious fantasy. In other words, it is no longer repressed memory that makes one ill and traumatic sexual violence no longer figures as the primary cause of symptoms. Instead of an actual past experience, Freud posits fantasy as the determining factor of neurotic symptoms. To understand the significance of this transition in his thinking, we must grasp what Freud means by psychical reality and its distinction from material reality. In contrast to the historical, intersubjective domain of material reality, psychical reality is the vital domain of fantasy and intra-psychic life, operating independently of objective considerations of veracity. In Freud's view, unconscious fantasies are not lies or deceptions, but reveal a truth, not about the objective world, but about the internal life of the subject, who one is and what one wants. It might be better to say that fantasies conceal this truth, since conscious articulations of desire and identity will often lead us astray, expressing but distorting, manifesting but denying, the subject's wishes.
As Freud documents in “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through” (1914), the conjectural move from memory to desire and from fact to fantasy is also a move from external scenes of seduction to internal psychical acts, from past events to present-day forces, and from passive submission to active maintenance of discord. Instead of an external event impinging upon a child's undeveloped sexuality, the idea of infantile sexuality presupposes both an energetic drive force at work from earliest childhood and an internal or intrapsychic dissension, a subject at odds with its own desires. The thesis of infantile sexuality universalizes the event of trauma, locating its experience in the instinctual excitations that overwhelm the psychical apparatus which is prematurely affected. In discarding the seduction hypothesis, Freud not only discovers the domain of fantasy and psychical reality, but he also paves the way for considering the energetics of the libido, the intrapsychic conflict that is intrinsic to human being, and the idea of responsibility for the dissonances of desire and the skirmishes that shape a life and its patterns. While controversy has swirled around Freud's rejection of the seduction hypothesis, without the scandalous supposition of infantile sexuality there would be no psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious. Although some revisionists have argued that Freud abandons his principles and betrays his patients, in fact Freud never abjures the reality of sexual abuse or denies that some children are molested. Rather, the transformation in his thinking concerns the aetiology of hysteria in a diagnostic sense; neuroses are no longer said to originate in (presumably rare) childhood sexual violence, and thus they can be seen to pervade rather than oppose whatever might be considered normal sexual development. In discarding the idea of a primary or ontological innocence of the psyche which is then violently imposed upon from the outside, Freud arrives at the fundamental premise of psychoanalytic thought.
The exemplar of this phantasmatic activity of the unconscious is the Oedipal Complex. In Freud's later writings on femininity, including “Femininity” (1933), “Female Sexuality” (1931), and “On the Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes” (1925), Freud postulates that the little girl's Oedipal Complex runs a different course than the little boy's and holds a different relation to castration anxiety. Crucially, Freud maintains that femininity cannot be grasped from a biological or conventional perspective (Freud 1968 [1933], 114). Another way of putting this is that sexual difference is centrally concerned with psychical reality rather than material reality, with the realm of fantasy rather than nature or culture. The Oedipal story is the story of psychic development, the story of how we become subjects and in becoming subjects, how we become sexually differentiated.
The boy and the girl start off, pre-Oedipally, in the same emotional place, attached to the mother, and it is because of this shared starting point that Freud claims the little girl is a little man; they are not yet distinct or sexually differentiated. It is for this reason as well that Freud maintains the idea of a single, masculine, libido: the libido is not neutral in Freud's view since its original object is the mother and this desire for the mother is associated by Freud with masculinity and activity, just as he associates infant clitoral pleasure with phallic enjoyment. Still Freud acknowledges that in the libido's most primordial stages, there can be no sexual distinction. It is not until children pass through the Oedipal Complex that they can properly be said to have a genital organization since this is acquired through a relation to castration and is the last stage in sexual development (following oral, anal, and phallic stages). Hence both children at infancy are ‘little men,’ their desire construed through the terms of a single masculine libido.
Freud seems genuinely puzzled by how femininity comes about: given the girl's prehistory of love and attachment to the mother, why would she switch allegiances to the father? And since, prior to genital organization, she too goes through a phallic (masturbatory) stage, why would she switch the site of bodily pleasure from the clitoris to the vagina? These are among the mysteries he means to designate when referring to the riddle of femininity. That he understands it to be a riddle also intimates that he understands sexual identity not as a natural pre-given essence, rooted in anatomy, but rather as a form of individuation and differentiation realized through complex interaction between the bodily drives and familial others. The boy's story is more seamless and continuous since he retains his phallic pleasure and, although he must displace the immediate object of his desire (no longer the mother, but someone like her), can look forward to substitute objects. The boy's Oedipal attachment to the mother follows uninterruptedly from a pre-Oedipal attachment and it is brought to an end by the threat of castration emanating from the father. At the conclusion of the Oedipal Complex the boy identifies with the father, establishes a super-ego within, and abandons the immediate object of desire with the promise that he too will one day possess a similar object modeled on the mother. But the girl's Oedipal Complex is necessarily more complicated since it can only be instigated by a break from the pre-Oedipal relation to the mother and is therefore a secondary formation. Freud postulates that it is the realization that the beloved mother is castrated that prompts the little girl to turn her love toward her father. For the girl, in other words, castration does not resolve the Oedipal Complex but leads her to enter it, and for this reason Freud claims that it is never wholly brought to a conclusion or demolished, thus accounting, in his view, for girls' weaker super-egos and lesser capacity for sublimation. The girl turns from her mother not in fear but in contempt and because of envy for what the mother does not possess. The father represents for her neither a threat (she finds herself already castrated) nor the prospect of a fulfilled desire in the future (the only replacement for the missing penis is a child of her own), as he does for the boy who can identify with him and hope to eventually have what he has. The father's only promise is thus as a refuge from loss, represented by the mother who bears this loss and who is at fault for the girl's own. In the girl's Oedipal scenario, the father, unlike the castrated mother, stands for the virile capacity of desire itself, which she herself lacks but might reclaim through another man's provision of the opportunity to have a child. In the trajectory of the girl's Oedipal Complex, femininity is realized as the desire to be the object of masculine desire.
Freud's theories of sexuality and the unconscious implicate not only individual psychology but also the constitution of social life. Formed in ambivalent relation to others, sexuality and sexual identity permeate the bonds of civilization and ramify throughout all social relations. In turning his attention to broader cultural questions, Freud offers a story or myth of the origin of political structures that parallels and echoes his understanding of the individual psyche. To understand the political import of the Oedipal Complex, it will be helpful to place it more generally within the scope of Freud's understanding of group psychology. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), Freud contests any clear-cut opposition between group and individual psychology and alleges that human infancy is from the beginning immersed in a world of others. Even in ostensibly individual psychology, there is always another involved, as model or object, as site of identification or as object of love. Identification and love, which form the core of identity, are already “social phenomena” and, inversely social relations are themselves premised on developments that occur in the family. It is thus mistaken to sever individual from group psychology as though they were not by nature intermingled or to suppose that there is some kind of special social instinct separate from the drives that energize the individual. Put another way, the individual subject is neither formed wholly independently in a kind of solitary interiority nor formed as merely an effect of exterior social forces.
Totem and Taboo (1913) is Freud's attempt to explain the origin of social life, the bonds that, on his account, hold men together, on the basis of psychic phenomena. Freud envisages a primitive pre-political sociality in which a primal horde of brothers is oppressed by a powerful father who claims for himself all the women, all the enjoyment, available in the community. The brothers are deprived or exiled, and they are motivated to bond together to overthrow the father; they aim, that is, to kill the father and take for themselves his women, offenses that mirror, at a collective level, the Oedipal desires of male children. In Freud's story, the father's murder results not in lawless freedom and unlimited access to sexual objects (a fraternal civil war), but rather in the creation of totems and taboos—the primal father becomes a totemic figure, a revered ancestral object, and the brother's actions in killing him and claiming his women are reconceived as the prohibited transgressions of murder and incest. The two blood taboos that are instituted as law, the prohibitions on incest and murder, thus have a common origin and emerge simultaneously, and together they mandate the social processes of exogamy (marriage outside one's own kin) and totemism (communal bonds of affiliation established through the medium of a common ancestor). Freud thereby allies political formation with the two primal wishes of children and the two crimes of Oedipus, predicating exogamy on the incest taboo, and fraternal bonds on the sacralization of life and the prohibition on murder. Totemism and exogamy also entail fraternal equality: in order that no one take the place of the father and assume his singular power, the brothers are equally constrained and equally respected, the distribution of women equally allotted. Depicting the creation of a stable society grounded in law (though founded in violence), Freud's tale serves as a paradigm for not only rudimentary, but also enduring and contemporary, political relations, which he views as rooted in unconscious drives but oriented toward achieving a stabilization or equilibrium of those drives at the communal level. In Freud's narrative, it is the father/son relationship that matters for the establishment of this semi-stable political relation, a band of brothers with equal rights. This lineage founds political order in murderous fraternity, with women as objects of exchange not citizen-subjects.
Moreover, in explaining the advent of lawful existence, Freud identifies something recalcitrant, intractable in social arrangements—a kind of self-assault (the super-ego) that links pleasure with aggression, and thus that carries a potentially destabilizing force. The sons' attitude toward the father is one of ambivalence, hatred qualified by admiration, murder followed by guilt and remorse. The brothers commemorate this loss and maintain their bond with one another in the public ceremony of the totem meal where together they consume a common substance (the father's body transubstantiated into the sacrificed totem), and thereby affirm their fellowship and mutual obligation. This confirmation of shared paternal substance and kinship, and the collective affect of love, loss, guilt, and mourning, maintains ties of identity. The law that emerges from the father's murder ritualizes and enforces his edicts, forbidding murder and incest in the public realm, and takes hold internally in the superegoic 'no' of prohibition, producing a permanent sense of guilt that drives civilization and renders it a perpetual source of discontent. Women, however, appear not as subjects of the law but as objects of its exchange; moreover, given the indefinite prolongation of their Oedipal Complex, women will be more likely to be hostile to the edicts of civilization insofar as these infringe upon family life.
The relation between father and son is also contained, if concealed, in the account Freud offers in The Ego and the Id (1923) of how the ego emerges. There Freud writes that identification is “the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person” (Freud 1968 [1923], 37), i.e., it is prior to object-cathexes or relations of desire. The primordial libidinal, but non-objectal, attachment is with the father of “personal prehistory” (Freud 1968 [1923], 37). The subsequent and recurring retreat from object-cathexis (investment of instinctual energy in an object) to identification (withdrawal of that energy into the self), is the primary mechanism of ego-formation, taking the lost object into oneself. Since the ego is the “precipitate” of abandoned objects, it is configured through loss, in a melancholy reabsorption that incorporates via identification objects from which the ego would otherwise be exiled. Just as the father retains dominance in political life after his death, so he dominates psychic life even prior to the ego's formation. In Freudian theory, the father's reign is pervasive, his sovereignty extended in every domain. Freud's privileging of paternal and fraternal relations provides the impetus for much of psychoanalytic feminism, as will be discussed below.
2. Feminist Criticism of Psychoanalysis
Even in Freud's circle, not all analysts agreed with Freud's assessment and there were debates concerning women's sexuality and the roles of castration and penis envy therein, notably among Karl Abraham, Ernest Jones, Helene Deutsch, and Karen Horney. Horney in particular argued for an inherent feminine disposition that is not merely a secondary formation premised on castration and she took issue with the ostensible effects of penis envy and women's supposed feelings of inferiority. As with some later feminist criticisms of Freud, Horney attempted to retrieve female sexuality, and by extension a valid form of feminine existence, by appealing to a genuinely independent nature and holding culture culpable for women's subordinate status. By thus reasserting the primacy of biological and social forces, however, Horney disputes precisely the idea that is central to Freud's hypothesis and that marks psychoanalysis as a unique field of inquiry, that of a distinctive psychical realm of representation that is unconscious.
Somewhat later, Simone de Beauvoir addressed the discourse of psychoanalysis in The Second Sex (1989 [1949]), devoting an early chapter to her distrust of “The Psychoanalytic Point of View” (Beauvoir 1989, 38–52). Like Horney, Beauvoir denounces Freud's idea that there is but one, masculine, libido and no feminine libido with “its own original nature” (Beauvoir 1989, 39). Freud, in her view, takes for granted what he needs to account for, namely the value placed on virility. Beauvoir takes Freud to task for not considering the social origins of masculine and paternal power and privilege and deems his theory inadequate to account for woman's otherness. If women envy men, she argues, it is because of the social power and privilege they enjoy, and not because of anatomical superiority. Unlike the determinisms and objectifications of human life offered by biological science (which treats human beings as determinate objects in the natural world and thus not as free or self-determining subjects with agency), but similar to the “economic monism” of historical materialism (Beauvoir 1989, 52), psychoanalysis is characterized by Beauvoir as “sexual monism” (Beauvoir 1989, 52): everything in its purview is interpreted through a single lens. Beauvoir indicates at the opening of the chapter that psychoanalysis offers a perspective which she does “not intend to criticize as a whole” (Beauvoir 1989, 38), especially since it does understand that “no factor becomes involved in the psychic life without having taken on human significance” (Beauvoir 1989, 38), but she questions both its dogmatic reliance on determinate elements of development and its “embarrassing flexibility on a basis of rigid concepts” (Beauvoir 1989, 38). Most seriously, in Beauvoir's view, psychoanalysis allots to women the same destiny of self-division and conflict between subjectivity and femininity that follows from social dictates and biological norms. Psychoanalysis presents the characteristics of femininity and subjectivity as divergent paths, incompatible with one another. Women might be able to be full persons, subjects with agency, but only at the expense of their femininity; or they can embark on the course of femininity, but only by sacrificing their independence and agency. This either/or between the masculinization of subjectivity and the submission to femininity retains the moral, political, and metaphysical opposition between free self-creation and corporeal incarceration that precludes the possibility of being both a woman and a subject.
Beauvoir alleges that psychoanalysis holds women to a fixed destiny, a developmental and teleological life process, precisely insofar as it defines subjects with reference to a past beyond their control. By assigning to women an essence or determinate identity, the psychoanalytic reliance on sexual categories once again renders woman as the other to a subject rather than a subject herself, and thereby denies her existential freedom. In Beauvoir's view, however, if women are not themselves subjects, but that in contrast with which men's subjectivities are constituted, they are still freely responsible for this situation, insofar as women collaborate in this process by seeing themselves through the eyes of men, justifying their existence through their romantic relationships, and attempting to mirror men's being. By casting women's otherness as an effect not only of their social situation (with its power relations), but also of their choices (and hence responsibility), Beauvoir preserves women's freedom, unlike the psychoanalytic discourse that she claims rejects “the idea of choice and the correlated concept of value” (Beauvoir 1989, 45).
Beauvoir's misgivings about Freud's account of femininity stem from two sources, a feminist suspicion that women, in psychoanalytic discourse, are understood on the basis of a masculine model, and an existentialist conviction that human beings are self-defining, choosing themselves through their own actions. Following her existentialist convictions, Beauvoir insists that even when women abdicate their freedom, they do so as agents responsible for their own destinies, not merely as passive victims following a developmentally determined fate. Following her feminist convictions, Beauvoir recognizes that women's choices may be constrained by powerful social and bodily forces, but insists that women nonetheless bear ultimate responsibility for realizing their own possibilities by emancipating themselves. Her reading of Freud is thus largely directed against the perceived determinism of psychoanalysis and less against the idea of an unconscious per se, although she does want to defend the notion of a unitary subject at the origin of choice, insisting that “psychic life is not a mosaic, it is a single whole in every one of its aspects and we must respect that unity” (Beauvoir 1989, 44), a supposition that certainly limits the affinities between existentialism and psychoanalysis. Nonetheless, Beauvoir's dispute with Freud appears to be less about whether constraint is part of our being in the world, and more about where that constraint is located: psychoanalysis locates constraint internally, in the constitution of the psyche itself, not only in the situations of social life, whereas Beauvoir locates it externally, in the cultural forces that impact even the most intimate sense of our own agency. Beauvoir thus claims that her own interpretations of women's femininity will disclose women in their liberty, oriented freely by the future and not simply explained by a past. She thereby ratifies the promise of existentialism for feminism.
Beauvoir's own project of elucidating the paradoxical relation between femininity and subjectivity is nonetheless influenced by psychoanalytic concepts and appropriates its theoretical insights in various ways. The Second Sex highlights the practices by which women become women through their appropriation of bodily (sexual) difference, as well as the manner in which a human being generally is limited and compelled by bodily and unconscious forces. Indeed Beauvoir and Freud seem to agree that one is not born but becomes a woman, i.e., that femininity involves some sort of (social or psychical) process rather than a biological or natural given. Both are interested in the ‘how’ of this process, how one becomes a woman, although, as discussed above, they disagree about what this ‘how’ is. Moreover, in her articulation of women's ambivalent attitudes toward embodiment, sexuality, and maternity, Beauvoir is clearly indebted to the attention psychoanalytic practice gives to listening to women's first person narratives, interpreting the emotional impact of events that can not be easily categorized, and heeding attachments that carry both affection and resentment. Like Freud, Beauvoir recognizes that we are embodied as sexual beings and that our bodies not only testify to our own finitude and limits but also matter as sites of encounters with others, encounters that are multivalent—including loving connections and threatening defenses, moments of affirmation and of dissolution. Beauvoir refuses any political program that demands we deny our bodily possibilities in order to be fully human and proclaims that bodies and bodily difference are integral to projects of selfhood, and not merely accidental contingencies of a rational and disembodied mind. For Beauvoir, as for Freud, there is no such thing as a disembodied, non-sexed human being; any ideal of the human apart from sexual identity or difference is an abstraction that can only be affirmed on the basis of a mind/body dualism. Femininity for her is not merely a mystification that imprisons women's subjectivity (even if its social construal has had this effect). Finally, like Freud, Beauvoir is fully aware of the impact on children of their domestic situation, the way familial life resonates with meaning that informs not only intimate relations but relations to the larger world.
Beauvoir's portrayal of living a feminine existence, of sexual difference as an embodied situation, developed through a series of phenomenological descriptions, tries to understand how women have been cast as other in the drama of masculine subjectivity and doubts the premise that this is an historical event, occurring at some definitive point in time. Beauvoir herself has often been (mis)read in a way analogous to her (mis)reading of psychoanalysis, as proferring a determinate succession of experiences for women, rather than describing socially extant processes. But The Second Sex depicts the effects on women's character of inequitable social arrangements; it neither proffers a normalized destiny for women nor presupposes a common metaphysical identity. Even so, in many ways Beauvoir's work is more easily aligned with the sociologically oriented Anglo-American feminists than with Irigaray and Kristeva.
3. Language, Law, and Sexual Difference
In considering the background of psychoanalytic feminism, a large portion of which is rooted in or aligned with what gets called French Feminism, the French context of psychoanalytic theory is also crucial, and in particular the work of Jacques Lacan. Lacan's work has been both a powerful influence on, and an object of critique for, feminist appropriations of psychoanalysis, and his ideas have been taken up, transformed, and challenged by Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva (both of whom are discussed below), among others. Lacan's work is both praised for its de-biologization of Freud and pilloried for its phallocentrism. These two aspects are in fact imbricated, as both hinge on Lacan's elaboration of language as a symbolic order that precedes and makes possible human subjectivity. In order to stay focused on the feminist deployment of the psychoanalytic theoretical apparatus, I will concentrate first on Lacan's understanding of the intersection of language and law in the symbolic order, and then on his account of the ego's formation in the imaginary order. The imaginary and symbolic are modes of representation that make the world and the self intelligible. The symbolic is Lacan's term for the way in which reality becomes intelligible and takes on meaning and significance, through words; the imaginary refers to the mode of intelligibility offered by images. The concordant and conflicting mediation of the world by images and words coordinates, or makes sense of, reality and instigates both subjectivity and social relations. As with Freud, maternal and paternal figures are central to his account of subjectivity.
Lacan characterizes his own work as fundamentally a return to Freud, albeit one that brings the insights of structural linguistics, especially Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson, and structural anthropology, primarily Claude Levi-Strauss, into the domain of psychoanalysis. Even so, his returns are also revisions; he not only retrieves but renovates Freud's central concepts. According to Lacan, Freud's theory of sexuality anticipates a theory of signification that he could not yet elaborate. The anthropological and linguistic lineage of Lacan's thought is central to this conceptualization of a “symbolic universe.” Lacan explicitly endorses Levi-Strauss's conception of the transcendental law at the origin of human sociality as the incest taboo; he writes that “the fundamental or primary law, the one where culture begins in opposition to nature, is the law of the prohibition of incest” (Lacan 1992 [1986], 66–7). The intrusion of language and law institutes a break with nature, one that transfigures the world by imbuing it with meaning. Following the logic of Totem and Taboo, social identities are constituted on the basis of exclusions that establish kinship networks. These social bonds are maintained through mandates and prohibitions (what is required and what is forbidden), and in particular through the mandate of exogamy (with its structures of exchange) which determines that “the Oedipus complex is both universal and contingent” (Lacan 1991b [1978], 33): paternal prohibition provides the conditions for human sociality without the prohibition itself being innate. Lacan thus accounts for the transgenerational transmission of elementary structures of kinship without appealing to any natural necessity. Lacan takes this law of kinship (dictating desire and its limits) to be fundamentally co-terminous with the order of language since it is instituted through a symbolic articulation.
Lacan calls the paternal prohibition (the incest taboo) the ‘law of the father,’ and he develops the connection between law and language by way of a pun. In French Non (No) and Nom (Name) sound alike. The no that prohibits (the father's law) and the name that establishes authority (the father's name or the proper name) are conferred simultaneously. By submitting to the law of the father (his no and name) the child assumes a symbolic identity and place in the human universe of meaning, i.e., the child becomes a subject, bound by law and bearer of language. With this compliance, the child takes on a life of desire and incompletion, pursuing lost objects with no firm ground or fixed purpose, a lack of plenitude in being that Lacan designates as castration.
As discussed above in the section on Freud, Freud understands women to be ‘castrated,’ deprived of a penis, and men to live under the threat of castration. Lacan complicates this theoretical perspective by deeming all subjects, all speaking beings, to be castrated, by which he means deprived of the phallus, which is not the same as the penis. While the penis is a biological organ, the phallus is a signifier which invokes or points toward other signifiers, or toward a system of signifiers. The moment of castration is the primordial moment of loss, the fracturing of being by language. With entry into the reign of law and language, subjects are cut off from the immediacy of bodily experience; relations to things, and to oneself and others, are now mediated by words and representations. The distinction between phallus and penis can be seen to carry forward Freud's own distinction between instinct and drive, since in each case the latter term indicates that the experience of the body has meaning insofar as it takes place in the medium of language and in a world of others.
Castration takes place when the child recognizes lack in the mother and her maternal omnipotence is annulled. The mother, for the child, ceases to be the all-powerful provider of every satisfaction as she herself is a desiring being deprived of satisfaction. This conundrum of maternal desire points elsewhere, toward “the law introduced by the father” (Lacan 2006 [1970], 582). The paternal prohibition intervenes to warn the child that s/he is not the answer to the question of the mother's desire. Galvanized by the mother's lack, the law of the father (which need not be embodied in an actual person) takes the place of the desire of the mother, substitutes for it, occludes it. Indeed the paternal function, working through name and law, indicates a dead father, just as Freud understands in Totem and Taboo that the murdered father, the precondition of law, is stronger than the living one. In the Lacanian version of the Oedipal Complex, human beings achieve a sexual position by traversing the Oedipal Complex, i.e., by submitting to castration, also called the phallic function, and thereby entering into signification. There is thus no sexual difference prior to representation.
Here we arrive at the phallocentrism, if not the patriarchalism, of Lacan's thought, the central role of the phallus in his thinking about subjectivity and sexual difference. According to Lacan, the phallus instates the signifier into the subject regardless of any “anatomical distinction between the sexes” (Lacan 2006 [1970], 576). The phallus, in other words, is responsible for the child's passage from immersion in perceptual immediacy to a representational domain in which the world takes on meaning. It is this claim that de-biologizes Freud, since it articulates the function of the phallus apart from any particular bodily attributes. Lacan insists that the phallus is a signifier, not an image or bodily organ, and that in relation to it all are castrated. The father's No effectively says to the child ‘you are not the object of the mother's desire’ or ‘you are not her phallus, the thing that fulfills her.’ As such, it also conveys the message that the child too is lacking or desiring. Although Lacan distinguishes between a ‘seeming to be’ which characterizes femininity, in the attempt to be the phallus that one is not (to be the object of desire), from a ‘seeming to have’ which characterizes masculinity in the attempt to have the phallus that one does not have (to possess the object of desire), he still maintains that everyone is lacking the phallus in some way, either in the mode of not being it or in the mode of not having it. Nonetheless, while Lacan centers human experience not on the supposed biological fixity of anatomical distinctions, but on a representational economy, the phallus retains its associations with masculinity and remains the focal point of sexual identity.
As already discussed, Freud had theorized that there is only one libido and it is masculine. In “The Signification of the Phallus,” Lacan explicitly addresses, and criticizes, the alternative view that there might be two libidos, which he satirizes as a kind of sexual equality, the “equality of natural rights” (Lacan 2006 [1970], 577). This is the view I earlier mentioned as belonging to Karen Horney who defends the idea of an inherent, underived, biologically-based, nature of feminine sexuality. Lacan also disparages the idea that the final stage of genital sexuality is directed toward the entire person in his or her personhood, the achievement of a kind of tenderness toward the whole being of another (Lacan 2006 [1970], 580). Lacan disputes both of these positions as normalizing and biologizing and claims that the psyche is not harmonized with nature in either of these ways. In contrast to this fantasy of sexual complementarity, the idea that men's and women's sexual interests converge, Freud, Lacan claims, understood “the essential disturbance of human sexuality” (Lacan 2006 [1970], 575), that we are always lacking, always in search of aims and objects, “the deviation of man's needs due to the fact that he speaks” (Lacan 2006 [1970], 579), and that this discordance means also that there is no symmetrical or harmonious sexual relation between well-integrated and self-realized men and women.
This symbolic dimension of human relations must be clearly distinguished from the imaginary as the domain of the ego. The imaginary order is most fundamentally and plainly elucidated in Lacan's essay “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” where he elaborates Freud's insights in The Ego and the Id, taking up the idea that the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego formed through the “projection of a surface” (Freud 1968 [1923], 27), a visual representation of an external veneer or façade. Lacan concurs, writing that consciousness occurs “each time … there's a surface such that it can produce what is called an image” (Lacan 1991b [1978], 49). The mirror stage commences, pre-Oedipally, when the infant is around 6 months old. The infant at this age is literally infans, without speech and moreover, without bodily coordination or motor control. Born prematurely, at a point prior to any adequate capacity for self-care, the infant is wholly instinctually inept. By identifying itself with an image, a coherent unity that contrasts to its own fragmented and dispersed bodily existence, the infant forms a preliminary self, one animated by an illusion but an illusion that allows it to anticipate its own future organization.
Lacan's account of the mirror stage establishes the ego as fundamentally imaginary, formed through the infant's specular captivation with the unitary form presented in images of itself which it assumes as its own through identification. This perceptual image of coherent bodily contours and boundaries is at odds with the infant's motor incapacity and the “turbulent movements” or fragmented drives that animate its own body and processes. The ego, with its illusion of self-mastery and containment, is formed through misrecognition, an anticipatory identification with an idealized, stable, self-enclosed, citadel of self. This identification with an image of oneself sets up the ego as rivalrous, narcissistic, and aggressive. While the act of misrecognition becomes the basis for a sense of self or for self-consciousness, it is also an act of alienation, exclusion, or self-division; by erecting an imaginary ideal, representing oneself in a perfected image, the self is also split and rendered unconscious to itself, cut off from the multiplicity of dispersed drives.
For Lacan, the ego is a “knot of imaginary servitude” (Lacan 2006 [1970], 80) and thus the site of the subject's stagnancy and inertia. The mirror stage also forms the basis of Lacan's critique of ego psychology; whereas the latter takes strengthening the ego to be the aim of analytic practice, Lacan takes the aspirations of the ego to be a “lure” (Lacan 2006 [1970], 78) of self-possession, an armor that rigidifies the subject and resists freedom and movement, a defensive structure that provides an alienating identity. With this theory of the ego, Lacan presents a subject at odds with itself, non-self-identical, in “primordial Discord” (Lacan 2006 [1970], 78), torn between unity and anarchy, organization and chaos, integration and fragmentation. The withdrawal of the self from itself proceeds from the reflexivity of representational practices of language. The ego as object is trapped in oppositional relationships, including with itself, and cannot therefore be equated with the subject as speaking being who, in the use of words, signifiers that are differentially related to one another, is capable of more complex plays of presence and absence; language, unlike perception (I perceive an object or I don't), can evoke simultaneously the presence and the absence of the thing (I can represent objects that are not present).
While the advent of the symbolic order is tied to Oedipalization, and the imaginary order is tied to the pre-Oedipal period, it would be mistaken to think of the imaginary and symbolic in only developmental or chronological terms as they are also ongoing structures of experience. Even in the seemingly dyadic relation between mother and child, Lacan argues, a third term is always at work. Initially this third term is simply a question, the question of the mother's desire, of what she wants, but already this question interrupts or destabilizes the child's position, rents dyadic unity, even as the child takes itself to be this object of desire, since it indicates in a preliminary way that the mother is lacking, that she is not whole, entire, omnipotent. The question of desire, in other words, means that the phallic mother of the imaginary is already the castrated mother of the symbolic, and that the imaginary unity of the ego, with its oppositional relations, is bound to be sublated into a symbolic relation of difference.
It is important, however, not to conflate the mother with the woman or maternity with femininity. Lacan famously declares that “there's no such thing as Woman, Woman with a capital W indicating the universal” (Lacan, 1998 [1975], 72), a metaphysical concept with determinate and substantive content. In asserting that ‘The Woman’ does not exist, Lacan indicates that something of the psyche escapes castration, limitation, signification, and the demands of the law of the father. Symbolic and imaginary representations leave something out, hit their limit, produce an impasse that presents a fracture or fissure in the symbolic order. While sexual difference is mediated by representation, it cannot be fully contained within its terms.
The idea that sexual difference is not biologically innate but established through language and law has led some feminists to conclude that Lacan is on the side of social constructionism but this would be mistaken. Lacan is adamant that the choice between nature and culture is a false one, and that language is not a “social phenomenon” (Lacan 2006 [1970], 578). Language and law, personified by the name of the father, are irreducible to social practices and processes and are in fact the condition of their possibility. While Lacan is criticized for constituting sexual difference on the basis of the phallic function and subjectivity on the basis of paternal authority, what the Lacanian project does provide for feminism is not the idea of a malleable culture, susceptible to human mastery, as distinct from a fixed nature that escapes it, but the more disconcerting idea that human mastery, of ourselves, of others, of nature and culture, is itself illusory. Rather than the promise of a rational progress toward greater and greater equality, respect for individual difference, and universality, Lacan's insights, like Freud's, point toward the precariousness of identity and social bonds and to the instability of the drives that attach us to one another. Subjectivity and sexuality are not natural adaptations but deviations, detours, breaks from nature that undermine identity and divide or limit any unity of self or community. In addition to the distinctiveness of his method, focus, and insight, this willingness to grapple with the limits of self-mastery is one reason why Lacan has been taken as an innovative and amenable resource for some feminist theorists. In exposing the inadequacies of social or empirical accounts of sexual difference, identity, and the power relations built upon them, Lacan confronts the fundamental structures at the root of empirical socio-historical circumstances.
4. French Feminism
French Feminism is in many ways a misnomer since the authors thus characterized are rarely of French origin or nationality (although French is the predominant language of their writing) and not necessarily overtly self-identified as feminist. The writers affiliated with French Feminism, including Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Sarah Kofman, Catherine Clement, and Helene Cixous, among others, variously ask about the relation between the maternal and the feminine, doubt that we can say what a woman is, worry about Freud's lack of attention to mothers, play with writing style, wonder about feminine subjectivity, ask if women can be subjects or citizens without adapting to masculine norms, impeach Lacan's phallocentrism, and suspect that access to language assimilates women into neutralized brothers. Unlike Beauvoir, they are philosophically and temperamentally more sympathetic to the split of subjectivity detailed by psychoanalysis, the idea that I am not I, that self-division rather than self-identity is the fundamental feature of human existence, and therefore that the subject is not a unitary point of origin for choice. Like Beauvoir, they ask whether the structures of femininity and the structures of subjectivity are compatible, commensurable, reconcilable, and are vexed by the apprehension that they are fundamentally at odds. While they aim to disentangle femininity from maternity, and provide a critique of their conflation, they also take seriously the significance of maternity for women and for children of both sexes. Because they concede the limits of socio-cultural explanations for women's lack of standing in the social contract, and take femininity and the feminine body as points of departure for speech or writing, they have often been accused of essentialism. Below I focus on the work of Irigaray and Kristeva, examining how they engage with and transform the ideas of Freud and Lacan, and how they articulate sexual difference as integrally connected to the foundation, and disruption, of a symbolic order.
4.1 The Impasse of Feminine Subjectivity
Irigaray characterizes her own project as taking place in three stages: first, deconstructing the masculine subject; second, figuring the possibility for a feminine subject; and third, construing an intersubjectivity that respects sexual difference (Irigaray 1995a, 96). Sexual difference, in her view, is not a system of domination to be overcome but a cultural process and practice to be achieved and nourished; the actual relations of domination and subordination that characterize Western politics, society, history, literature, language, and law, epitomize for Irigaray the reign of sexual indifference, the fraternal order of equal brothers/citizens that is inattentive to the self-division of nature, its immanent sexual differentiation. Irigaray's writings implicate Freud in this culture of sexual indifference, his work a symptom of masculine metaphysics and its dream of self-identity and self-mastery. I will discuss Irigaray's understanding of sexual indifference further below, after first describing and elucidating her style of writing.
Irigaray's writing style is often mimetic, an approach that she claims has been “historically assigned to the feminine” (Irigaray 1985b, 76) and therefore that she adopts deliberately in order to “try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse” (Irigaray 1985b, 76). Irigaray's writing does not proceed propositionally, laying down theses and supporting arguments, nor is it formulated through conventionally linear explanations. This is not to say, of course, that she does not draw conclusions or that her writing is empty of insight. But these insights are reached by mirroring the text she is reading, allowing it to play out its tensions and contradictions, juxtaposing, transfiguring, and intensifying its crises and putting its parapraxes (its textual and conceptual slips of the tongue) on display. Her writing is driven by the vagaries of the author before her, and makes appear, or unmasks, the structuring forces of the text and its impasses and limits. This reading strategy goes to work on the unconscious logic of a text, revealing the author's underlying fantasies and anxieties by amplifying and reflecting them, and thereby attempting to loosen the masculine hold on the symbolic by conveying its unstated postulates and conversing from a different perspective. Intently attentive to the signifer, to the words and silences of psychoanalytic texts, she aims to retrieve the bodily in language, something underlying symbolic processes of representation, and to invent a new language and imagine new forms.
Speculum of the Other Woman (her dissertation and the work that got her exiled from the Lacanian school) includes “The Blind Spot of an Old Dream of Symmetry,” Irigaray's long essay on Freud's writings on femininity. Irigaray's essay on Freud begins by tackling head-on his articulation of the riddle of femininity (Irigaray 1985a, 13) in his lecture on “Femininity.” Here already we can recognize both Irigaray's unique style and her critical project, and the way these two features of her writing are imbricated and entangled with one another, propelling a distinctively mimetic method of reading, repeating, and reproducing the text, mirroring Freud's speculative discourse but also transforming and sabotaging its terms. Her text opens as Freud's does, with his words, and is comprised of long quotations that follow the course of Freud's essay. Insofar as this appropriation might at first appear as the passive listening of a dutiful daughter, Irigaray performs a kind of masquerade of femininity: receptive, submissive, obedient. But this performance does not merely reiterate or reproduce; in exemplifying the ways in which women have no language of their own, can only speak in or through the voice of the father, she is establishing the symbolic terrain upon which any critique must move while also subverting its presuppositions. Her own words are inserted as commentary, question, counterpoint, breaking open the Freudian text, usurping its privileges, revealing its wounds. By engaging Freud in a conversation, she insists on her own status as a speaking subject, and not merely an object of study in support of the expansion of a sexist science.
Irigaray's insistence on her own speech is especially crucial given Freud's reprimand to women: “you are yourselves the problem” (Freud 1968 [1933], 113). Freud's lecture had ventured to address the question of sexual difference, and had endeavored to complicate rather than simplify our perceptions and certainties concerning its meaning and status. Irigaray, however, by retrieving and replaying Freud's voice, attempts to show that he remains caught up in certainties and dogmatisms about sex, so that ultimately his discourse is one of sexual indifference, as I will discuss next. Freud is thus not the master of Irigaray's essay: his words do not so much determine her trajectory as reveal their own (freely) associative character, his own unmastery, the egoic and identificatory fantasies that haunt his texts on femininity.
According to Irigaray, Freud's work is sexually indifferent because of its assumption of a kind of symmetry or harmony between masculine and feminine identities and sexualities. With regard to sexual desire, Freud assumes that ‘normal’ women will desire men and be desired by them and thus that each sex can fulfill the longings of the other. With regard to sexual identity, Freud models the feminine Oedipal Complex on a masculine paradigm and origin, with the feminine as its distorted copy. In both cases, Freud contrives to understand women as the complementary other to men, an other modeled on the same. Irigaray considers this to be a monosexual, homosocial economy governed by specular opposition or mirroring. It is this sexual indifference that is referenced in the title of Irigaray's essay as “the old dream of symmetry.” But, as also indicated by her title, Irigaray believes this dream is premised on a “blindspot.” Freud characterizes the girl's relation to the maternal figure as an “especially inexorable repression” (Freud 1968 [1931], 226) and views the little girl as a little man; the mother/daughter relation is not seen or apprehended by him. The crime here, in Irigaray's view, is matricide and the suppression of maternal genealogies or lines of descent. The law of the father, the patrimonial order by which sons inherit the father's name by submitting to his prohibitions, privileging this name over the maternal body, appropriates even birth to the father. The maternal lineage is suppressed. Irigaray argues that this means that a pre-Oedipal mother-daughter relationship has not been taken up by the signifying order; in fact that order retroactively denies that such a relation ever existed, since a daughter becomes a daughter properly, becomes feminized or sexually differentiated (as a girl or woman), only post-Oedipally. In Lacanian terms, Freud excludes the mother/daughter relation from the symbolic order. Not only is the maternal connection lost or repressed, but the ability to name or identify the loss as a loss is also barred. Banished from memory, the loss of the mother cannot be mourned. Irigaray claims that it is this genealogical asymmetry, with the father's name memorialized and the mother's body sacrificed to it, that sustains the legitimacy of patriarchy and propels the fantasy of a harmony of sexual difference, the conviction that the sexes are reciprocal and complementary in their identities and desires.
Sexual difference, in Irigaray's reading of Freud, is thus subsumed under or derived from “the problematics of sameness” (Irigaray 1985a, 26) and oriented by the fantasy of auto-genesis, being one's own origin, an ideal of self-mastery that is not threatened by any real difference. Freud's account of sexuality presupposes that the sexual subject is male, and even that there are no women, only mothers or those destined to become mothers, that is that the meaning of being a woman is fully exhausted in the meaning of being a mother. In the psychical pre-history of the little girl as elaborated in the idea that “the little girl is a little man” (Freud 1968 [1933], 118), she will not have been a daughter. As little girls diverge from little boys, as they cease to be little men, they are expected to be appealing visual objects, the mirror of men's desires, enabling men to represent themselves, shore up their self-image with an adoring reflection. Irigaray sees in this account a masculine desire for women's desire to be directed toward men. Women are expected to provide the mirror that supports men's projects, nurtures and nourishes their identities, energizes their drive for mastery, by presenting themselves as an alter ego. This imaginary, specular, order is matricidal, feeding on the blood of women, leaving unpaid its fundamental debt to the mother, and abandoning the subjectivity of the daughter. By repressing dependence on the maternal origin of life, the masculine is marked as originary, that from which differentiation proceeds. What functions as a primal loss for boys/sons, the cause of their desire, can only function as a gap in language, an absence of meaning for girls/daughters, an exile from desire, language, and other women, an irretrievable void that cannot be recuperated in language because it is instigated by language, by the entry into symbolic order called forth by the paternal prohibition of the father's no/name. Irigaray's concern is that for Freud, the mother is only a mirror and her relationship is always to a son; there are no mother/daughter relations. Not only is Western culture premised on matricide, which she claims is more primordial than the patricide of Totem and Taboo, but this matricide is forgotten and the mother remains unmourned.
Repressing any maternal genealogy, political life has been predicated on the lineage between fathers and sons and the bonds of brotherhood, appropriating universality and citizenship to men and rendering women as objects of their desire and exchange. The exploitation of women is not merely a phenomenon that takes place within the social order, it is its very foundation and premise. Irigaray calls the fraternal order “hom(m)osexuality,” meaning both that it is an order of the same (homo) and that it is the order of men (homme): the regime of sexual indifference ignores relations among women, and especially between mothers and daughters, and situates women as the medium of men's alliances with one another, as the buried support and energetic reserves of the body politic. This forgetting of the mother supports vertical and horizontal relations between men but leaves women unrepresented in language (as subjects) and incapable of achieving representation in the body politic (as citizens). Irigaray's own project thus aims to criticize the hom(m)osexual order and its specular economy, to reinvigorate mother/daughter relations to make possible a feminine subjectivity, and to cultivate sexual difference in the political realm, in civil identity. Developing the resources for transformation, i.e., for women to become citizens and subjects, entails disrupting the transmission of power between men and rethinking the passage from nature to culture represented by the Oedipal Complex. This task requires intervening in the symbolic and imaginary realms, creating a new language that would not be severed from the body and ending the division of labor between love and law.
The structure of the representational economy, its association of subjectivity with masculinity, precludes the convergence of being a woman and being a speaking being. Although of course there are words for women, these words constitute her only with reference to masculinity, as a photographic negative of man, or in response to a patriarchal exertion of feminine norms and expectations. They secure her in a masculine universe, they say in advance what she is, they render her captive to an idea of feminine essence. By contrast, Irigaray seeks to create a representation for women that would not be a designation of what she is, defining her by and holding her to some concrete essence, but would allow her to exist on her own terms and speak for herself. Irigaray believes that this type of self-determination is barred by the exclusion of mother-daughter genealogies, an exclusion that works to assign woman to a maternal destiny (as mothers of men). Neither denotative nor expressive, neither speaking of woman (as though woman were a determinate object of study) nor speaking as one (as though the aim were to express an inner essence), Irigaray's writing establishes a reflexive relation to language. By acquiescing, in her mimetic writing style, to the cultural expectation of feminine artifice, Irigaray stages her own exiled agency and thereby extends the possibilities for being a woman to include being not only an object in or reference of language but a transformer of language. Without claiming to say what a woman really is, to get right what the symbolic order gets wrong, she shows that in speaking differently, the very meaning of being a woman (or being a man) can be transformed, so that sexual difference remains open to new possibilities. She thus does not so much refute Freud's account of the Oedipal Complex and the little girl's purported masculinity as re-present its primal crime against women, the Oedipal exclusion of maternal dependency, thereby altering the scene of its representation.
Irigaray also challenges the Lacanian idea of the law of the father and the phallic signifier, pillorying the way in which natural birth has been assigned to maternity while cultural birth is assigned to paternity, equating the woman-mother with body and the man-father with language and law, and relegating the bodily process of parturition (maternity) to mute nature while valorizing the symbolic process of legitimation (paternity) as constitutive of civilization. Human subjectivity has been masculinized, while human flesh is both feminized and animalized. Irigaray aims to provoke a legitimation crisis in the paternal legacy and the name of the father that bestows on the child a political and familial identity.
The erasure of sexual difference enables a metaphysics of substance in which sexual identity is a matter of fixed and pre-determined being, of underlying essences or common properties, rather than a form of becoming and self-generation. Irigaray's genealogical account of sexual difference resists both the idea of an invariant universal (and hence sexually neutral) human essence that subtends (and thereby expels) human multiplicity and the idea of sexual essences that consist in self-enclosed identities between which there is an uncrossable divide. That is, she rejects the ontological assumptions of both universal equality and separatism, taking both to be implicitly masculine and patriarchal, bound to a metaphysical essentialism that aims to capture diversity in first or final principles, or to subsume particulars under general concepts. Challenging the logic of the one and the many, Irigaray takes the self-division of nature, its being-two, as a model of autonomous self-development. When Irigaray says that human nature is two, she does not mean that there are two fixed sexual substances, but that to be natural is to be embodied, finite, divided, that the fundamental character of nature is growth through differentiation. Human nature, in her view, is not disembodied or neutral; it is always distinctively sexed or sexuate, a neologism for sexed, but not necessarily erotic, bodily difference. Viewing the natural body as self-differentiating rather than self-identical, Irigaray also articulates distinctive capacities for generation corresponding to differing morphological possibilities (the possibilities of bodily form) that entail “different subjective configurations” (Irigaray 2001 [1994], 137).
If human nature is two, and always divided, Irigaray argues, then civil identity is also two and divided; the two of nature needs to be brought into the two of culture. The one is an illusion of patriarchy, while the two threatens the phallocentric order and challenges the supposition that universality must be singular. The scandalous idea of a feminine subjectivity means that the universal must be doubled. Doubling the universal does not, for Irigaray, mean merely replacing a neutral universality (something that holds true for all human beings) with two wholly distinct and separate truths. A universal that has been doubled has also been split or divided from itself, no longer one, and Irigaray sees in this the possibility for cultivating sexual difference and overcoming a culture of sexual indifference that is dependent on the idea of the generic human.
If the other has always been formulated on the basis of the same, as merely a specific difference from some underlying generic identity, there has only been complementarity and opposition, there has never been an actual other subject, each with its own path of development. Women have mirrored men's subjectivities, reflected their egos back to them in an illusion of wholeness and unity, submitted to the demand that they perform or masquerade femininity. Given this criticism of the exploitation of otherness, and despite her criticism of a feminist politics of equality, Irigaray thus cannot be simplistically aligned with the project of difference, if this means asserting features of women's biological or social specificity as essential and innately valuable attributes, since these Irigaray takes to be framed already and in advance by a patriarchal symbolic and imaginary order. Irigaray's affirmation of sexual difference does not mean affirming the feminine traits that have been ascribed to women, since these are actually, in her view, the traits of sexual indifference, defined only with reference to men. Sexual difference has yet to appear and it is her task to bring it into being.
Being-two is counterposed to the metaphysical alteration between the one and the many, with its incessant oscillation between the essentialism of a rigid identity and the laissez-faire contingency, independent of any determining essence, of unlimited multiplicity and atomistic individualism. It is on the basis of this being-two that Irigaray attempts to build an ethics of sexual difference, a political relation between-two, with civil rights appropriate to sexuate identity, so that one's identity as a citizen is not cut off from the body, and law is not severed from nature. If sexual difference is not simply an effect of oppression, then freedom does not mean freedom from sexed embodiment. While political neutrality can only recognize disembodied subjects deprived of their bodily life, for Irigaray, citizens are not abstractions. The doubled, non-neutral, universal allows for distinctively feminine (and distinctively masculine) subjects to be recognized politically.
Similarly to Beauvoir, who ascertains that language and culture constitute the subject as masculine, and the feminine as other to him, Irigaray maintains that inhabiting a feminine subjectivity is paradoxical in a fraternal social order. But, for Irigaray, both Beauvoir and Freud fail to address sexual difference insofar as they retain a singular notion of masculine subjectivity, Freud because he presumes the libido is always masculine, and Beauvoir because she reckons the aim of women's emancipation as equality with men (for instance by concluding the Second Sex with a call to brotherhood and seeming, arguably, to be calling for women to assimilate to masculine norms of selfhood). Irigaray rejects the project of equality, since ‘equality’ can only ever mean equality to men, and proposes instead doubling the notion of subjectivity in line with the subject's own self-division. This might seem unnecessary, especially to equality-oriented feminists, since of course, women can, at least in much of the liberal, democratic world, be citizen-subjects, just like men. But Irigaray's point is that women can have the rights of men only so long as they are like men, i.e., insofar as they are brothers, subsumed into the neutral individuality of the liberal social contract. This purportedly equal access to citizenship and subjectivity thus does not resolve the paradox, since it merely takes the side of subjectivity over that of femininity, retaining the constitution of the feminine as lack, the inverted image of man, the other of the same, that which stands in the way of political agency and obstructs autonomy, and which thus must be overcome in order to achieve self-determination. In the prevailing social contract, femininity and subjectivity remain opposed.
Irigaray does not think she can say what a woman is or what femininity is. Familial, social, and symbolic mechanisms of exchange have denied femininity its own images and language, fashioning women through men's language, images, and desires, and thereby producing an apparent, but false, symmetry within a single, monotonous, language. Against this homogeny, with its same and its other, Irigaray construes the production or work of sexual difference, sexual difference as a relation between-two, to be the path toward liberating both femininity and masculinity from their metaphysical and political constraints by allowing them each to cultivate their own interdependent natures. The idea of a between-two does not mean a singular path that is shared by both, but rather indicates, in addition to the value of a specifically feminine sexual identity and a specifically masculine sexual identity, the ethical path of an intersubjective relationality that allows them to appreciate and value one another. Since the between-two is premised on being-two (self-differentiated), it is in the cultivation of this sexual difference that we will find the possibility of an ethical sexual relation, what Irigaray calls an ethics of sexual difference. For Irigaray, then, contra Lacan, there can be a sexual relation. Irigaray's undertaking thus involves not merely an assertion of difference against equality, nor certainly a simple reversal; such stances take place on the basis of an already existing symbolic order and imaginary relation and are themselves what need to be interrogated. To find a language for feminine sexuality and feminine subjectivity, we must go “back through the dominant discourse” (Irigaray 1985b, 119) with its metaphysical assumptions of substance or essence, and its concept of identity which adheres to the regime of sexual indifference.
Although Irigaray often invokes the maternal as the source of life and subjectivity, she does not equate maternity with femininity or the mother with the woman. Among many others, Jessica Benjamin (whose work will be discussed below) seems to share the mistaken view that Irigaray's theoretical project is premised upon valorizing “female genitals as a starting point for a different desire” (Benjamin 1988, 276). No doubt this (mis)interpretation stems from Irigaray's difficult text “When Our Lips Speak Together.” But what Irigaray means by ‘speaking from the body’ is moving away from a singular conception of origin and desire, and most especially the origin of desire. Her writing of women's bodies, like her retrieval of mother/daughter genealogies is a strategy of language and imagination, situating the body as fluid border, the site of the overflow of culture into nature and vice versa, rather than a self-enclosed egoic center. She is not an essentialist who views women's biology as their destiny. Instead she challenges the nature/culture divide, and the either/or of biology or civilization.
4.2 Subjectivity, Alterity, and Alienation
While often grouped together in cursory overviews of so-called French Feminism, Irigaray and Kristeva have fundamentally disparate projects (and locations in the academy), both with regard to their critical analyses and with regard to their political enterprises. Whereas Irigaray was a student of Lacan who breaks with (even as she is inspired by) his teachings from her earliest work, Kristeva has a much more ambiguous relationship to his school of thought and was never his student or attended his seminars. Their respective views can perhaps best be captured with respect to their attitude toward the symbolic violence of castration (the Oedipal Complex) and the social contract. As explained above, Irigaray envisions a sexuate culture that would overcome the Oedipal demands of a sacrificial economy and restore feminine genealogies to the work of civilization. Kristeva, by contrast, argues that there is no subjectivity beyond sacrifice and does not believe Oedipus can or should be overcome. Kristeva and Irigaray do not form a cohort and they do not respond to each other's writings. But they both have psychoanalytic training and practices and both attend to the body and the drives, taking up the theme of loss or exile of the mother's body and the impact of matricide on social relations. Kristeva even (echoing Irigaray) condemns humanism as “the fraternity of the same” (Kristeva 1998, 168) and, like Irigaray, she plays with writing style, offering experimental, innovative, sometimes imagistic portraits of psychical moods, maternal practices, and artistic endeavors.
Kristeva's connection to feminist thought is also unsettled and volatile, although her focus on questions pertaining to language, femininity, and the maternal body has made her work amenable to feminist interest and development. In her essay “Women's Time,” she classifies the feminist movement into three distinct times or generations, each with its own approach to and vision of justice. The first generation is universalist in principle and aspires to give women a place within history and the social contract; this generation takes equality as its mission and asserts women's identification with the dominant values of rationality. Kristeva aligns Beauvoir with this project of pursuing access to universal subjectivity. The second generation is reactive, rejecting the idea of assimilation to values taken to be masculine; this generation insists on feminine difference. While Kristeva does not mention Irigaray, it seems clear that Kristeva would align her with this strategy and the project of recognizing feminine specificity. In Kristeva's view, the first generation is so committed to universal equality that it denies bodily difference, and the second generation is so committed to difference that it refuses to partake of a history it deems to be masculine. The third generation follows neither the path of fixing identity nor the path of neutralizing difference in the medium of universality. Instead it embraces ambiguity and non-identity, respecting both the value of participating in historical time and the ineluctability of bodily difference. The third generation recognizes that it is as embodied beings that we enter into the social contract and community with others.
Since Kristeva believes that there is no subjectivity and no sociality without the violence of the symbolic contract and the splitting of subjectivity, the feminism that she proposes would not take refuge from this violence either by standing outside history (as the second generation does), or by denying women's bodies and desires (as the first generation does). Taking seriously the intransigence of sexual difference, and the violent fractures within and of identity, Kristeva advocates feminist support for alienation that would not pretend to reconcile the rupture between body and law (what Lacan calls castration) and would refuse the solace of identity. Kristeva mentions the bodily experience of pregnancy, an experience of being split, of being two in one, as manifesting the instability of, and alterity within, identity.
This insistence on the fragility and precariousness of identity can be grasped in the first instance by looking at Kristeva's understanding of the drives and language. Kristeva introduces the notion of the semiotic as the affective dimension of language that facilitates its energetic movement. The semiotic is the materiality of language, its tonal and rhythmic qualities, its bodily force. In Kristeva's account, the drives are not simply excluded by language but also inscribed as an alien element within it. While more primitive than signification, the semiotic participates in signifying practices.
Kristeva's elaboration of the semiotic situates it at a point prior to the Lacanian imaginary, i.e., prior to the moment at which the infant identifies with its own ego and distinguishes itself from an object. Still in porous relation to another body, without clear borders or limits, the infant is propelled by the anarchic, heterogenous, rhythmic flow of drive energy “which has no thesis and no position” (Kristeva 1984, 26). Mobile and provisional, moving through the body of the not-yet subject, the semiotic is a chaotic force anterior to language, unlocalizable because it courses through an as yet undifferentiated materiality in which the infantile body is not yet distinct from the maternal body. Kristeva calls this stage pre-thetic since it is prior to the reign of propositions, judgments, positions, and theses, these being subsequent possibilities that might arrest or seize a movement that always exceeds them. Since the image is itself a kind of sign, a first representation, the advent of the imaginary demarcates the first thetic break, a break from nature and into the realm of convention. What Kristeva means by the thetic then includes both the imaginary (the mirror stage) and the symbolic (the Oedipal Complex) dimensions of Lacan. Only with the advent of the thetic phase, the “threshold of language” (Kristeva 1984, 45), can there be said to be signification proper along with negation as judgment. In thereby altering Lacan's understanding of the imaginary or mirror stage, she attends to the pre-Oedipal mother/child relation in a way he does not, while also elaborating on an underdeveloped theme in Freud's work.
Freud distinguishes between auto-erotism and primary narcissism, attributing to the latter a new psychical action. While auto-erotism precedes the formation of the ego and the individuation of the self, primary narcissism only ensues with the preliminary development of egoic unity, when the ego is able to demarcate itself from the surrounding world and take itself for an object. The semiotic corresponds to the diffuse drive energy of auto-erotism and Kristeva takes up Freud's challenge to assess the psychical action of ego-formation that enables primary narcissism, which she attributes to a primary identification with the imaginary father. In Tales of Love, which jumps off from Freud's claim in The Ego and the Id that identification with the father of individual pre-history is prior to and more primary than object-cathexis, Kristeva offers an original account of the pre-Oedipal period, finding a paternal figure there. Since the bond of identification precedes any bond with objects, the imaginary father is what makes possible the initial separation between ego and object, or rather proto-ego and proto-object. This father is not the first object, but the first identification, making language and love possible, movement within and among a world of others. This identification, Kristeva hypothesizes, alters maternal space, interrupts it with something beyond its borders. But it also indicates that there is a preliminary pre-thetic symbolic capacity at work in infantile life. As the drives expel, detach, or isolate a proto-object, the space of differentiation is supported by identification with the imaginary father, who holds it open. The imaginary father is here associated with love (unlike the symbolic father who is associated with law), an invitation to language and subjectivity, to become a being who can have relations with others.
Kristeva accepts Freud's insight that the thetic break, or the prohibitory break of the Oedipal Complex and the dead father, that founds law and sociality is violent and murderous (Kristeva 1984, 70). The capacity for representation transforms our perceptual universe, entailing that no bodily immediacy is possible, that all experience will be mediated by significatory practices and filtered through the ego's organization. But although this rent in experience is suffered by the signifying child as a loss to be mourned, it is also, Kristeva claims, a gift, the gift of a self that can navigate language. With words and memories available, the child can compensate for the loss of objects in perception (in the exemplary case, learning to endure the mother's absence). On Kristeva's view, “the structural violence of language's irruption as the murder of soma, the transformation of the body, the captation of drives” (Kristeva 1984, 75), is preceded by a loving father who makes possible the preliminary individuation of the infant from the mother. Although symbolic violence is integral to the maintenance of a social order, the promise of language on Kristeva's account is initially brought forward by love, not by law. Unlike Irigaray, who wants to retrieve the pre-Oedipal period in order to reclaim feminine genealogies, Kristeva wants only to redescribe it in order to reassess its import for individuation and creative self-transformation. She takes infantile matricide (separation from the mother) to be a necessary condition of subjectivity and not a remnant of patriarchal violence.
Still, Kristeva charts differing arcs for the paternal and maternal relationships in the constitution of subjectivity. The imaginary father empowers a new psychic space premised on the distinction between internal and external, self and other. The breaking in of the signifier inaugurates individuation, the assumption of bodily form and corporeal unity, and thereby entails loss of the maternal body. In Kristeva's view, matricide, repression of the maternal body, is a necessary event on the way to subjectivity. The bodily exchange between mother and child can serve as a barrier to love, imprisoning the child in an overwhelming bond. The loving mother provides the first approach to language and law by demonstrating love for an object who is not the child, a third outside this dyad who makes the dyadic relationship itself possible and releases the emotional pressure of it. The loving father proffers a kind of promise, even as he disrupts fusion with the mother, allowing and encouraging the child to represent itself. Kristeva's thought here follows Lacan's idea that a mother whose only object of desire is her child will produce a child who cannot move beyond the psychosis of being the phallus for her.
Signification and language are sites of sublimation, creative workings out of the drives, but they can be stalled by abjection and melancholia which are both preconditions for, but also limits to, subjectification. Kristeva identifies abjection and melancholia as sites of psychical (and social) crisis rooted in narcissistic disorder. In them, the tenuous processes of ego-formation risk collapse; faced with difficulty clarifying the boundaries of the self, the subject reverts to ambivalent aggressivity. While Kristeva understands narcissism to be a fundamental, if unstable, structure of the psyche, abjection and melancholia are problematic relations to the maternal body and its loss (or the malfunctioning of its loss). They are experiences of disintegration or dissolution of the ego without reorganization, but also of its rabid fortification.
In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, the abject is described as neither inside nor outside, neither subject nor object, neither self nor other, troubling identity and order with the instability of boundaries, borders, and limits. Kristeva offers the examples of bodily fluids, sweat, blood, pus, milk, as non-objects that are banished in the course of ego-formation. These non-objects also include the mother's body; indeed the maternal body is a privileged site of abjection, as it is that which must be excluded in order for individuation and separation to take place, so that one can distinguish self from other and establish a dyadic (imaginary) relation out of undifferentiated maternal space or the semiotic chora, the pre-spatial relation of fluid (although not entirely unregulated) drives. The abject can then also be called the primally repressed, primal because prior not only to the secondary symbolic prohibition of the incest taboo or Oedipal Complex, but also prior to the establishment of any identity.
The abject is horrifying, repellent, but also fascinating; it is strange but familiar. The process of abjection is not merely a symptom of phobia or borderline disorder, but a necessary and even recurring ordeal in any subject's transition to identification with the father and accession to language. It is the most archaic form of negativity, an exclusion or expulsion which functions by securing the borders of self, carving a space, marking a divide, out of which the ego can emerge. Kristeva calls it the violent attempt “to release the hold of maternal entity” (Kristeva 1982, 13) or rather what will have been the mother, since this process establishes the distinction between the maternal body and the infant in the first place, making possible primary narcissism. The abject exposes the precariousness of the subject/object divide, the fragility of identity, the need to constitute oneself against the threat of, and desire for, dissolution.
Although this is not primarily Kristeva's concern, abjection can also be understood as a social phenomenon, one with political implications. The psychically primitive experience of egoic instability can be propelled into the political realm, and be socially accentuated or reinforced. In abjection, subjects confront what they must exclude or expel in order to maintain identity, that is, they confront their own dependency, mortality, finitude, and materiality. This strangeness experienced at the porous edges of identity can rebound into troubling relations with others, including especially with others who are perceived as lacking intelligible identity, socially marginal, or refusing cultural assimilation. While Kristeva's own focus is less on what is abjected than the process of abjection, that is, less on the expelled non-object than on the violence of separation that brings objects (and others) into being, her work provides the theoretical underpinnings to ask questions about who bears the burden of abjection, how and why some are figured as inhuman, animal, or alien. Her analysis of abjection exposes the ways in which social life is dependent on jettisoning or containing disorder and disruption, and managing the fear of contamination.
The confusion of borders, the ambivalent relation to maternal space at the outskirts of narcissism, also motivates melancholia. The idea of the maternal as the primally repressed recurs in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, where Kristeva claims, “matricide is our vital necessity” (Kristeva 1989, 27), the founding partition that facilitates the birth and growth of the ego. Kristeva praises the child, the “intrepid wanderer” who “leaves the crib to meet the mother in the realm of representations” (Kristeva 1989, 41). Maintaining that the organization of the psyche is premised on loss, Kristeva also understands that the suffering entailed by loss can derail the formation of a self, that loss itself can become the dominant reality for some who are unable to establish a secure relation to themselves. While mourning, for Kristeva as for Freud, enables a subject to, gradually and painfully, let go of loss by establishing a relation in language to it, melancholia is a practice which enables the subject to hold onto lost objects, most especially the mother or, better, the dead (or repressed) mother. The loving father facilitates mourning and linguistic creativity; the deadening mother disables self-creation. The generation of the ego out of expulsion, the division of unity, is not simply a mournful moment, but also potentially a joyous one, in which the advent of language, the promise of the father, offers reparation and life with a world of others, so that words can provide the nourishment that the breast previously had. The father makes it possible to fill the void with language and the formation of signifying bonds.
In Kristeva's understanding of melancholic breakdown, the problem is similar to the one discussed above in the section on Irigaray, namely that loss goes unnamed and unmourned but thereby stays unprocessed within, leaving the subject stagnant and inert. Women, in Kristeva's view, suffer the loss of creativity, the incapacity for sublimation, more severely than men. Women's access to language, and creative self-transformation, is more vulnerable to disturbance both because of the (previously discussed) inexorable repression of their pre-Oedipal relation to the mother and because they have greater difficulty establishing a primary identification with the father. Whereas the loss of the archaic bond with the maternal body is (potentially) sublated by men into the rhythms of language, for women it often becomes a dead space where once there was life, filled only with loss and emptiness. Imprisoned by an undead, unmourned, mother, excluded from language or representation, women are vulnerable to the devastations of symbolic sacrifice without recompense.
Psychoanalysis is presented as a counter-depressant, as are art and writing, able not only to keep the drives or semiotic forces moving through language but also to foster their revolutionary potential to transgress symbolic limits and laws and to creatively rework self and society. Accessing the drives and rhythms that symbolic law and order typically repress, psychoanalytic practice, like the poetic text, revitalizes or reactivates the semiotic chora, a connection to the maternal body or to femininity. Such practices let loose the disorganizing energies of the body, the pleasurable rupture of sense and nonsense. They take productive advantage of the dialectical discord between semiotic and symbolic and thus keep this discord oriented toward dissent and protest rather than inner collapse.
Although the semiotic resists the symbolic order, or cannot be contained by it, the two are always entangled and imbricated in language; drives both support and subvert the symbolic operation, bringing bodily rhythms and forces to signification, both impelling and pulling apart its organization and stases. This disruptive potential of semiotic drives and rhythms is associated with negativity as a force of revolt, an excess, most archaically, the force of bodily expulsion, but more generally the forces that continually spur the dissolution of one's own organization. Negativity maintains life, keeps it going by circulating energy, rendering the subject always in process. Through its movement, the subject is not a rigid identity, but always developing, reconfiguring itself through the interplay of drives and language, in the tensions between body and mirror image and between mirror image and self.
While Kristeva advocates for ‘poetic revolution,’ (meaning the ongoing process of reconfiguring language and oneself by exploiting the heterogeneities between semiotic and symbolic elements), she is sometimes read as a conservative thinker because of her commitment to maintaining a symbolic order and social contract. The danger of a too strong or too weak symbolic order is that it encourages a return to abjection or melancholia, to the point prior to ego-formation, to a dissolution of the borders that maintain social life and creative subjectivity, contributing to the ego's collapse into an empty abyssal void and discouraging semiotic creativity. Such a fragile, fragmented, disintegrating ego, always in search of objects to heal the rift of being, dreaming of a return to unity but suffering the nightmare of upheaval and collapse of identity, is especially susceptible to the traumatic impact of encountering the stranger, the unfamiliar other or alien who provokes turmoil and who is repudiated in a rebound to delirious narcissism and a reassertion of self-mastery and self-identity. The stranger disturbs boundaries, indicating the failure to fully eliminate the refuse of identity and purify oneself. Kristeva sees in the ethics of psychoanalysis, premised on self-division, being strange to oneself, the possibility of establishing an ethical relation to alterity, inviting it into our political bonds (and warding off the most virulent forms of abjection). Where Irigaray aims to introduce sexual difference into the social contract and the domain of law and rights, Kristeva proposes that we introduce self-discord.
5. Anglo-American Psychoanalytic Feminism
There are a number of Anglo-American (and Australian) feminist theorists and scholars who read Lacan and laid the groundwork for the passage from French to English and from France to the US, Britain, and Australia in the 1970's, 1980's, and early 1990's. Among these are Juliet Mitchell (Psychoanalysis and Feminism), Teresa Brennan (The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity), Elizabeth Grosz (Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction), Jane Gallop (Reading Lacan and The Daughter's Seduction), and Jacqueline Rose (Sexuality in the Field of Vision). While writing in English, these theorists take their bearings from the French Lacanian approach to psychoanalysis and can generally be classified in the field of what today gets called “Continental Feminism.” Responsible for revitalizing psychoanalysis for feminist thought and countering earlier feminist dismissals, they aim to reclaim Freud's central analyses for feminist purposes. Juliet Mitchell, for instance, develops the insight indispensable to any feminist reading, that “psychoanalysis is not a recommendation for a patriarchal society, but an analysis of one” (Mitchell 1973, xiii). Mitchell and Rose are also the co-editors of Feminine Sexuality, a selection from Lacan's seminars, for which both editors wrote influential introductions.
This section will address, however, not the Lacanian inspired feminist appropriation of psychoanalysis in the English speaking world, but the Anglo-American development of feminist psychoanalysis that has descended from and is indebted to British object relations theory and its focus on the pre-Oedipal mother-child bond, especially the work of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott. Authors who work in this vein include Nancy Chodorow (The Reproduction of Mothering), Dorothy Dinnerstein (The Mermaid and the Minotaur), and Jessica Benjamin (Bonds of Love and Like Subjects, Love Objects). What distinguishes this Anglo-American tradition from the French-influenced one is its emphasis on pre-Oedipal sociality or intersubjectivity and its focus on the values of integration, harmony, and wholeness, as opposed to those of self-division and respecting the alien within.
The remainder of this section will focus on the work of Benjamin as exemplary of the Anglo-American approach, and clarify its differences from and similarities with the French approach. Like Irigaray, Benjamin is perturbed by the psychoanalytic depiction of social life as the world of men, developed on the basis of the father-son relation and its aggression, hostility, love, and mourning. Deploring this “struggle for power” (Benjamin 1988, 6) in which women are merely the triangulating object of desire, Benjamin argues that, in the formation of identity, subjects become bound by love to oppressive social relations. She worries that “domination is anchored in the hearts of the dominated” (Benjamin 1988, 5), that women are erotically attached to patriarchal power, and she believes that psychoanalysis can help explain how and why this is so. Psychoanalysis thus offers to Benjamin insights not only into the individual psyche but also into the organization, structure, and distribution of political power and hierarchy. Her aim is “to grasp the deep structure of gender as a binary opposition which is common to psychic and cultural representations” (Benjamin 1988, 218). Unlike Kristeva and Irigaray, both of whom problematize the duality and comprehensiveness of the nature/culture distinction, and emphasize transformation of symbolic bonds, Benjamin highlights the role of (contradictory) cultural stereotypes in bringing forth gender as we know and live it, and emphasizes the need for social transformation.
Taking what she calls an eclectic approach, and eschewing methodological orthodoxy with regard to Freudian metapsychology and the theory of the instincts, Benjamin establishes her project on the basis of a two person relational perspective, with the other as a separate independent subject. Rather than an undifferentiated unity governing early infantile life in the pre-Oedipal period, which would make of the infant merely a “monadic energy system” (Benjamin 1988, 17), she maintains that a genuine duality and relationality exists from the start and that the process of growth entails development within relationships rather than a development of them. The infant, she postulates, is a fundamentally active and social creature, reaching out to the world and expressing a desire for recognition. The knots of identity are formed via the interplay of this desire with the response of another who variously affirms or defies the child. Benjamin claims that this emphasis on sociality and intersubjectivity is not intended to disregard the intrapsychic elements of subject formation, and in fact she argues for “the interaction between the psyche and social life” (Benjamin 1988, 5). She holds that the inner and the outer are not competitive but complementary theoretical perspectives. Nonetheless, she does want to situate identity generally, and gendered identity more specifically, within the purview of the subject's multiple and ambiguous social identifications.
Domination, she argues, ensues from the failures of recognition built into the political and social order, not merely failures that take place at the personal or individual level in a single relationship. Borrowing an initial insight from Foucault, Benjamin looks at the way power shapes and forms identities and desires, producing gendered relations (Benjamin 1988, 4). Borrowing another insight from Hegel, Benjamin depicts the dialectic of recognition in the struggle for identity as a “conflict between independence and dependence” (Benjamin 1988, 33). In her view, however, the Hegelian tale, like the Freudian one, erroneously begins with a “monadic, self-interested ego” (Benjamin 1988, 33) and it thus concludes with the inevitability of breakdown and domination. According to Benjamin, Winnicott resolves the Hegelian and Freudian dilemma (Benjamin 1988, 38), the solitary egoism of the fight to the death, by reformulating the problem of recognition at the level of fantasy and distinguishing between internal and external worlds. The infant feels confident in asserting its independence, and destroying its object in fantasy, so long as that object is discovered to have a secure external existence in reality. In other words, the fantasy of destruction is appeased by its failure; the infant destroys internally but externally is relieved to still have an object to address and interact with. More particularly, the infant destroys or separates from the mother internally and in fantasy, but simultaneously retains a relation to her externally and in reality. The good enough mother must foster this relationship between two separate egos, neither allowing the child to succeed in destroying or dominating her, nor allowing herself to squash the child's nascent attempts at self-assertion. The mother-child relation is then a kind of revised neo-Hegelian struggle for power, retaining the aim of mutual recognition or respect, but risking domination and rebellion. The violent conflicts within are not repressed but neutralized and pacified in the reality of intersubjective life that affirms and recognizes autonomy.
Asking, as do Chodorow and Dinnerstein, about the genesis of patriarchal power, Benjamin concludes, as they also do, that a main source or component lies in exclusive childrearing by women/mothers, which occasions the related risks of collapsing maternal authority into mere dominance, supporting the fantasy of maternal omnipotence, centering potent ambivalence on the mother, and fostering rigid gender identities and identifications. While the boy attains autonomy via loving identification with the father and separation from the mother, the girl's relation to paternal power is complicated by its inaccessibility to her. If she seeks “liberation in the father” (Benjamin 1988, 99), she connects her femininity to submission rather than agency, and attaches to masculinity as an idealized object of love (and as its love-object), conferring on it value while devaluing the mother, and creating a divide between feminine sexuality and autonomous subjectivity. Benjamin argues, however, that the “protean impersonality” (Benjamin 1988, 216) of male domination cannot be addressed by a critique that focuses solely on the family and childcare and that power relations cannot be overcome solely through a transformation in caretaking roles, although the equation of women with motherhood is certainly one component of the problem. If gendered identities are encouraged by social power relations—masculinity is developed as a denial of dependency and assertion of independence, while femininity is developed in an identification with nurturing and concession of autonomy—then real transformation requires attention to social roles and “cultural representations” (Benjamin 1988, 217), since “the core feature of the gender system—promoting masculinity as separation from and femininity as continuity with the primary bond—is maintained even when mother and father participate equally in that bond” (Benjamin 1988, 217). In Benjamin's theoretical model, children are responsive not only to their social environment, but also to ideas with opaque meanings (mandates, expectations, prohibitions, exhortations, etc.) that are often covertly, indirectly, or unknowingly conveyed in parental language and edicts. Gender equality thus requires that women be recognized, by themselves and by men, as subjects in culture and that intersubjectivity itself be revalued.
Benjamin's analysis can be distinguished from those of Irigaray and Kristeva precisely by the way in which it tends to conflate or collapse the distinction between representation and social roles. While Anglo-American psychoanalytic feminism theorizes gender as derived from or dependent on social (including familial) inequalities and power relations, and thus aims to reduce its psychic effects by redressing social and familial domination/subordination, French feminism does not calibrate the psyche on socio-cultural relations but on imaginary and symbolic representations. Benjamin's partitioning of intrapsychic life into internal and external relations, and her vision of intersubjective equilibrium is, in contrast to Irigaray and Kristeva's assertion of discord within and between subjects, oriented by the conviction that social harmony is desirable and attainable.
6. Conclusion
Psychoanalysis presents a critical and diagnostic project, not necessarily a normative or liberatory one. In developing a theory of the drives and the non-rational forces that move and impel us, the idea that we are opaque rather than transparent to ourselves, incapable of complete self-knowledge or self-mastery, psychoanalytic theory also challenges the rationalist, humanist ego and proposes that our ethical characters and political communities are not perfectable, exposing the precariousness of both psychic and political identity. The unconscious cannot be assumed to be inherently either a transgressive or a conservative force, but an unreliable one, promoting revolt or rebellion sometimes, intransigence and rigid border preservation at other times.
Although they are in often uneasy alliance, the psychoanalytic account of the unconscious provides feminist theory with resources for both political and ontological inquiry. Ontologically, psychoanalysis offers a distinctively psychical understanding of sexual difference, how we come to inhabit our bodies and our identities, and misinhabit them, an analysis reducible to neither social nor biological categories. Politically, psychoanalysis offers a depiction of the forces that impel us to organize, disorganize, and reorganize the bonds that hold us together. By offering insight into the formation of subjectivity and the animating fantasies of social life, psychoanalysis thus also facilitates feminist analysis of the obdurate elements of patriarchal social relations, including the symbolic bonds and internal forces that undergird identity and attach sexed subjects to relations of dominance and subordination. Psychoanalytic feminist attention to the core constituents of civilization, to the nuclei of sexual difference and communal affiliation, helps explain the perpetuation of masculine power and enables feminist theorists to articulate possible correctives, challenges, routes of amelioration, or ethical interruptions that go to the roots of political life and to its beyond and do not simply operate on the given social terrain
4. But Isn’t Feminism About Hating Men?
Simple answer: No.
Feminists don’t hate men. We hate male privilege and the systems that create and reinscribe it. “Not all men” are awful, but all men benefit from male privilege.
Feminism is about dismantling the systems in which people are oppressed for their gender identity, those same systems that privilege cisgender men.
Thus, men can play a role in dismantling those systems so long as they are following the leadership of those who don’t share their gender identity!
Notably, though, many men think feminists and feminism hates them because men are not centered or made to feel comfortable in their privilege.
We need to be clear not to conflate men not being the center of a movement with that movement marginalizing or hating men.
5. Can I, As a Man, Call Myself Feminist?
This is the sticky part.
It’s not a man’s place to label themselves as a feminist since at its core, feminism is for gaining equality for women. A woman you are close to can assign that label to you, but you have to earn it!
And you have to keep earning it.
It’s important to incorporate feminist practice in your daily life – earning the label of feminist isn’t even half of the work. It’s a challenge to unlearn harmful patriarchal ideas, and it’s work you must do routinely in order to be a strong ally within feminist spaces.
In feminist spaces, it’s best for men to take the backseat and actively listen to women’s concerns while thinking of productive ways to challenge their own privilege while lending support to the movement.
. As a Man, Why Would I Want to Be a Feminist or Hold Feminist Ideals?
Why not?
As a man, you also benefit from feminist ideals!
Feminism is about getting rid of oppressive forces that hold women down and also make men adhere to restrictive norms and ideals.
Patriarchy wants you to be dominating, assertive, hyper-masculine, athletic, emotionless, and the breadwinner of a heteronormative family. That’s a lot of pressure!
Feminism seeks to eradicate patriarchal norms like these that have men bound and women perceived as inferior.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the people in our lives who don’t share our identity are hurt to greater and varying degrees by patriarchal oppression.
That should be enough for us to want to strive for an intersectional feminist understanding of justice.
What brings many men to feminism in the first place is realizing how much our current society hurts those we love. And that empathetic concern should inform our own values!
7. Why Is There a Need for Women-Only Spaces? Isn’t Segregation Bad?
You know what’s bad? State-sanctioned segregation meant to reinforce the oppression of already marginalized people.
You know what’s awesome? Allowing for, encouraging, and protecting spaces for those who are marginalized in our wider society to meet in a space that offers reprieve from microaggressions and other enactments of oppression.
Thus, let’s stop using “segregation is bad” to break up protected spaces for women, people of Color, and other marginalized and oppressed people.
In our society, there are very few spaces where cisgender men aren’t welcomed, centered, and safe. That’s not true for people of other genders, so those spaces have to be created.
Women-only spaces (and remember, when we say “women,” we are absolutely including trans women) are necessary because women can share their ideas and mobilize without the interference of someone who holds the privilege they are actively fighting against – and who may not fully understand how they benefit at the expense of women’s oppression.
It’s an uncomfortable experience to be confronted with your own privilege – and also your ignorance of oppressions others may face – so you must willing to let go of control and allow for spaces where you are not centered or welcome.
But Aren’t Men Oppressed, Too?
No… And yes.
Men are not oppressed as men, though transgender men do often experience gender oppression.
A woman being mean to you online or rejecting your romantic advances is not oppression. But you may experience oppression due to other aspects of identity – racist oppression, classist oppression, ableist oppression, religious oppression, and so on.
Feminism is all about working on the intersections of identities to challenge societal oppression. And men do suffer and struggle within our patriarchal systems.
The patriarchal pressures put on men do lead to higher rates of suicide, and men are expected to go fight wars for the oligarchy’s empire when that’s not necessarily expected of women.
But all of these things are rooted in violent patriarchy, which only furthers why men ought to strive to be in feminist solidarity and to live out feminist ideals.
10. So What Is My Role As a Man in Feminism?
We’re sure you’re sensing a theme here, but there’s no easy answer.
Simply put, your role is to listen to women’s concerns, challenge your male privilege, and hold other men accountable.
You can be an invaluable ally to the feminist movement because you can challenge yourself and others to acknowledge gender inequalities in our society, which will bring us one step closer to eradicating injustice.
Perhaps the best way to answer this question, though, is to ask the feminist people in your life!
Different people who are experiencing oppression want different things from those they consider allies.
Thus, perhaps the best thing that men can do in feminism is to listen to the feminist cis women, transgender people, and non-binary people in our lives and take cues from their leadership about working for justice!
We hoped to have made things clearer for you, and hopefully, it’s easier for you to approach feminists in your community!
So, can men be feminist? From our perspective, definitely, so long as you’re not simply self identifying as such without any accountability!
After all, labels aren’t as important as the actions behind them. We hope you’re willing and able to hold yourself and other men accountable and work to support and uplift the women around you while working to dismantle harmful patriarchal systems.
Yes, feminism is for you as well! You can be a powerful ally for fighting against patriarchal oppression – and eradicating injustices in our society will set you free as well.
Postmodern feminism is an approach to feminist theory that incorporates postmodern and post-structuralist theory, seeing itself as moving beyond the modernist polarities of liberal feminism and radical feminism.
Postmodernism is, well, post modern. So what's modern? While there are several philosophers from the"modern" generation, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is considered the most influential. Sartre said that existence precedes essence, that is,"essence" or the meaning of things, is not given by God, but is a machination of man. There is no ultimate force or meaning, meaning is something we make up for ourselves as we go along. In the existentialist view of Sartre, we are entirely free to make our own choices and create our own meanings. Any time we do not accept our essential freedom, we are acting in bad faith. Critics of Sartre's view questioned the place of societal expectations in individual's lives: Do we really all have complete freedom? Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, said that we are all brought up in a world defined by men, where women are defined as "Other" or not normal (maleness being the norm). According to de Beauvoir, no woman in this society can act outside of this constriction. The Structuralists were also critical of Sartre's views. Claude Levi-Strauss, using the work of linguist Ferdinard de Saussure (1857-1913), saw that the structure of language, looked at as a whole, could tell us something about society's structure. Levi-Strauss believed that there are rules of human relations and culture has rules centered around binary oppositions like good/bad, male/female, up/down. Learning the language containing these binaries, one is not free to think outside its confines.
The next important step towards Postmodernism is Michel Foucault. In The Order of Things, he starts with this list, from Borges, that is supposedly from a Chinese encyclopedia and divides the animals of the kingdom into the following categories:
"a) belonging to the Emperor,
b) embalmed,
c) tame,
d) suckling pigs,
e) sirens,
f) fabulous,
g) stray dogs,
h) included in the present classification,
i) frenzied,
j) innumerable,
k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
l) et cetera,
m) having just broken the water pitcher,
n) that from a long way off look like flies."
Of this ridiculous list, as he says, "In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that." (p. xv) He points out that we all know when categories make sense and when they don't, and then traces how the structure of knowledge and therefore what makes sense) has changed throughout time. In this changing world," One thing in any case is certain: man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed in human knowledge." He postulates that modernism is drawing to a close and that "man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea." (p. 386-387)
While the humanist modernism of Sartre placed man as central and surmised that God was dead, Foucault said Man was Dead. This negation of the centrality of man was a direct challenge to Sartre. In fact, to make the challenge even more clear, the French title of The Order of Things was Les Mots et les Choses ("Words and Things"). Sartre's autobiography was entitled Les Mots ("Words").
Another important philosopher to mention is Jacques Derrida, who continued the rejection of essentialism in almost everything. A search for meaning is pointless, because there isn't one. What would be most freeing is to liberate our thoughts from binary oppositions (male/female, nature/culture, speech/writing). Derrida's rejection of a single truth is important to an understanding of Postmodern feminism.
Postmodern Feminism
Postmodern Feminists have built on the ideas of Foucault, de Beauvoir, as well as Derrida and Lacan (who I'm not going to talk about). While there is much variation in Postmodern feminism, there is some common ground. Postmodern Feminists accept the male/female binary as a main categorizing force in our society. Following Simone de Beauvoir, they see female as having being cast into the role of the Other. They criticize the structure of society and the dominant order, especially in its patriarchal aspects. Many Postmodern feminists, however, reject the feminist label, because anything that ends with an "ism" reflects an essentialist conception. Postmodern Feminism is the ultimate acceptor of diversity. Multiple truths, multiple roles, multiple realities are part of its focus. There is a rejectance of an essential nature of women, of one-way to be a woman." Poststructural feminism offers a useful philosophy for diversity in feminism because of its acceptance of multiple truths and rejection of essentialism." (p. 19, Olson).
This is in contrast to some other feminist theoretical viewpoints. Feminist empiricism, or liberal feminism, sees equal opportunity as the primary focus. They are concerned with "leveling the playing field." It does not question the nature of the knowledge or the structure of human interactions, but rather the events that go on within that structure. Accepting the idea that there is a single knowable truth has led liberal feminists to use the accepted methodologies in research, believing that they just need to be used in different ways.
Radical feminism has focused on how deeply entrenched the male/female division is in society. Women have been oppressed and discriminated against in all areas and their oppression is primary. Their focus has been to detail how the male dominated society has forced women into oppressive gender roles, and has used women's sexuality for male profit. Radical feminist proposals for change include creating woman-only communities to embracing androgyny. Criticism of radical feminism include that it suggests that men and women are two separate species with no commonality and that it romanticizes women and interactions between women.
Famous Postmodern feminists
Three writers have been instrumental in the establishment of Postmodern feminism as a philosophy: Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. There are many others who deserve mention but in this cursory treatment, they're not going to get it.
Hélène Cixous is a writer of prose who built on Derrida's works to criticize the very nature of writing. According to Cixous, man's writing is filled with binary oppositions but woman's writing is scribbling, jotting down, interrupted by life's demands. She also relates feminine writing to female sexuality and women's body concepts. Her idea is that development of this kind of writing will change the rules that currently govern language and ultimately (remember what Levi-Strauss thought) the thinking processes and the structure of society.
Luce Irigaray is a psychoanalyst whose primary focus is to liberate women from men's philosophies, including the ones of Derrida and Lacan, on which she's building. Irigaray takes on Freudian and Lacanian conceptions of child development, and is one of the thousands who criticize the Oedipal complex. However, since Western culture is not going to abandon Freud, Irigaray has three strategies for woman to "experience herself as something other than 'waste' or 'excess' in the little structured margins of a dominant ideology." (Tong, p 227): 1. create a gender neutral language, 2."engage in lesbian and autoerotic practice, for by virtue of exploring the multifaceted terrain of the female body, women will learn to speak words and think thoughts that will blow the phallus over;" 3."mime the mimes men have imposed on women. If women exist only in men's eyes, as images, women should take those images and reflect them back to men in magnified proportions." (Tong, p. 228). This means wear red high heels.
Julia Kristeva rejects the idea that the biological man and the biological woman are identified with the "masculine" and "feminine" respectively. To insist that people are different because of their anatomy is to force both men and women into a repressive structure. Kristeva openly accepts the label of feminist, but refuses to say there is a "woman's perspective":
"The belief that 'one is a woman' is almost as absurd and obscurantist as the belief that 'one is a man.' I say 'almost' because there are still many goals which women can achieve: freedom of abortion and contraception, daycare centers for children, equality on the job, etc. Therefore, we must use 'we are women' as an advertisement or slogan for our demands. On a deeper level, however, a woman cannot 'be'; it is something which does not even belong in the order of being." (Kristeva, New French Feminisms, as quoted in Rosemarie Tong)
Kristeva sees the problems of women as Other similar to the problems of other groups excluded from the dominant: Jews, homosexuals, racial and ethnic minorities. Like other Postmodern feminists, she viewed the use of language as crucial. In her view, linear, logical "normal" writing was repressed, and writing that emphasized rhythm and sound and was syntaxically illogical was unrepressed.
Critiques of Postmodern Feminism
A major critique of Postmodern Feminism is its seeming identification of women with the feminine and the biological body. Many view Postmodern Feminists as valorizing women and the feminine over male and the masculine. To many feminists I have known, the idea that we should embrace the feminine, or "mime the mimes men have imposed on women" (Irigaray) feels awfully similar to the pressure to be feminine from the dominant society. Some of us didn't want to wear feminine looking dresses when our mothers tried to make us to go to the patriarchal church and we don't want to wear them in graduate school either.
However, most of the criticism in this vein simplifies Postmodern Feminism. As we have seen, there are widely varying viewpoints within this theoretical framework. While this diversity is sen as empowering by some feminists, many are concerned with the potential loss of feminist community. With no essential philosophy accepted by all feminists, it is difficult to make political action.
One of the most prevalent criticisms of Postmodern Feminism, and Postmodernism in general is its apparently nonsensical writing. Much of the writing of Postmodernists reject linear construction in their writing. And so accusations of eliticism have been leveled at the Postmodern Feminism as a whole. Critics contend that only few academics can participate because the jargon is so thick, and that "true" feminists address issues of political import. Considering that Postmodernist reject essentialist, there is an obvious lack of conceptual understanding of Postmodern Feminism reflected in these criticisms. Also, because linear, syntaxically normal speech and writing are viewed as part of the propaganda of the dominant order, breaking them down the linguistic power structure is, in their philosopies, an important part of undermining that power. So in fact, being obtuse and chaotic is their way of introducing change and therefore offering new meanings.
Postmodern Feminism has resulted in some of the most ground breaking research in the last twenty years. Its major technique, discourse analysis has been used in many different fields to ask many different questions. A logical progression of Postmodern theory, it has revitalized feminism by questioning many assumptions that were previously unexamined. While as of yet it has not been a major presence in the field of library and information studies, the number of studies utilizing it is steadily increasing.
'fa inna ma'al usri yusra.'
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