‘Divide and rule’ is an effective strategy for controlling any group, from family to country and nowhere is this truer than with women. When I first engaged in feminism in the early eighties it was laughed at in much of the media (Guardian excepted) and feminists were scorned for not being proper women, called lesbians, ugly, fat, dungaree wearing. It was quite daring to announce that you were a feminist in my work circles (journalism) then. Arguably in certain sectors of work and society it still is. The strategy was to distance the women who challenged patriarchal power from the vast majority of women who were acquiescent and it worked. But strategies change and now many of the demands second wave feminists campaigned for have come about or at least are acknowledged as being social issues and not fanatical or fanciful ideas. It is now acknowledged in this country at least that women are just as capable, just as clever as men even if social arrangements often prevent them from fulfilling their potential. However the divide and rule has now been applied in a different way – to split feminists. A lack of education of feminism means that there is now little gratitude from the young to the earlier feminists who campaigned so hard for change. Indeed some older feminists have been cast aside by the young for being ideologically unsound evidenced by the no platforming of feminists like Linda Bellos, Jenni Murray and Germaine Greer. Today lots of young women describe themselves as feminists and the ‘I am not a feminist but….’ start to a sentence is not as common. But political movements need theory and much of feminist theory has been diluted or rejected. Feminism or even feminism(s) as some prefer to say, is much more tentative than it was.
Twenty five years ago some feminists myself included argued that the project of feminism would be damaged if we went too far down the poststructuralism path. We feared a political and moral relativism that would lead to the fragmentation of the class of women and would ultimately result in their disempowerment. Academia continued on the path anyway and the human subject became ever subject to scrutiny – unstable, partial, changeable, relative. Once you remove the ability to name a subject the theorising of discrimination and violence becomes pretty impossible. Material reality was critiqued, deconstructed endlessly, power existed in and through discourse and was continuously shifting. Truths and experiences were limited to ‘partial’ truths. The feminist research focus on violence, rape, inequality and pornography i.e. the everyday reality for many women, was redirected to ‘sexier’ theoretical subjects of linguistics, identity and intersectionality. Yes the early feminist work was white middle-class centred but then so were many of the first wave suffragettes. That does not mean that their work and theory should be discredited, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Whilst these postmodern theories may sound much more inclusive, each theoretical proclamation could be critiqued, undone and disrupted leaving no solid foundation for a cohesive political theory at all. Much of it is built on linguistics and is hard to understand, therefore distancing itself from women’s lived in experience. That itself is a different sort of privilege and means its ideas are inaccessible to the majority of women. Feminism is built on the concept of a universal womanhood, however deep the differences in experiences inevitably are. We need to remember how well divide and rule has worked well in the past to paralyse women’s progress.
In the great poststructuralist sweep ‘grand narratives’ like feminism and patriarchy were condemned as simplistic, universalistic and culturally biased. Poststructuralist ideas were and still are useful in allowing a more nuanced analysis of power and how it operates at different levels and in different locations. It is not a zero sum game. However its limits in relation to the analysis of women’s lives must be acknowledged. Writer Dorinne Kondo concluded pessimistically and correctly with reference to the power women have to change relations with men,that applying only poststructuralist concepts of discourse ultimately means that ‘they (the women in her study) and we will never be able completely to dismantle the master’s house’ (Kondo 1990).
No truths, no big ideas, no commonality, no material power – we can see so easily how this was leading to the near destruction of a feminist theory and the political movement for which it provided the foundation. Its ‘grand narrative’ theory was dismissed as middle class and white after all. Women’s studies became gender studies in the nineties, although we knew it meant women – perhaps gender was more sophisticated and academically acceptable, and we were interrogating what it meant to be a woman at specific times, gender as a social and cultural construct. It also opened the door to studying men and interrogating masculinity. And men there were, analysing masculinity and power within a feminist context. Then queer studies and queer theory, the ultimate in post-structuralist theory of sexuality and identity seeped in to the academy, co-opted poststructuralist feminist theory and ballooned. Materialist feminist theory all but vanished. Queer studies popularised the concept of gender identity, which before feminists could blink seemed to have replaced the feminist reading of gender in everyday language. Judith Butler’s book ‘Gender Trouble’ has a lot to answer for, paving the way for a trans ideology which dominates this space in a way that early feminists and even early feminist poststructuralists would never have envisaged. Womanhood deconstructed to such an extent that even a man can now be a woman and, some women even agree, particularly the younger ones. An ideology held to be a reality which prioritises a notion of gender identity (whatever that may be) over biological sex. (Discussions of what is so wrong with trans ideology and how it harms women and girls are in another post here.) Is it a coincidence that the poststructuralist philosophical landscape has coincided with an ebbing of women’s progress, as gender pay equality progress stalls, sexual violence increases and we already see a backlash to the #MeToo movement. Women sense that the concept of patriarchy is needed but we need to rediscover the theory that provides an explanation as well as solutions.
These observations may sound conspiratorial but historically there has always been resistance to women’s progress towards equality. All our rights have been fought for and challenged, not given freely and cultural and social conditions provide a myriad of ways to resist further change. It is not a group of men standing arm to arm but men are colluding with oppression through their silence. My work has looked at backlash and the unexpected ways resistance to women’s equality is manifested. It was ideology that encouraged a particular type of mothering which alongside structural barriers contributed to educated women staying at home in the fifties, sixties and seventies. My gut told me twenty five years ago that post structuralism was ultimately no friend to feminism. We know historically that violence is not needed to keep people in their place when ideas will do it. And today women’s voices are being silenced and women punished for exposing the threat that an ideology that says you can think yourself a woman to be one, poses for women and girls everywhere.
Just when women’s reality was being acknowledged a theory comes along to say there is no such thing as reality. Just when women’s truth was being spoken and perhaps heard, a theory comes along to say there is no such thing as truth. Just as women started to become the human subject for the first time in history, a theory comes along to say there is no such thing as the human subject.
Poststructuralism is a useful analytical tool, but in essence a nihilist theory that by its nature could never provide the foundation for a political movement and nearly brought feminist activism and theory to a standstill. For women’s sake it is time to dethrone the poststructuralist crown.