Feminist Social Theory Essay, Research Paper
How has feminist social theory changed over the last 3 decades? Which current
do you find most satisfying at an intellectual and political level?
In this essay I want to analyse how feminist theory has changed since the 1970s. However, I want to examine the importance of sex, gender and social theory vis- -vis class and race and to show that the experience of oppression by white women and women of colour can be very different. I believe that to examine the issues of sex, gender and social theory at the theoretical level only and without illustrating the discussion with reality is, ultimately, a fruitless exercise. On the subject of which current do you find most satisfying at an intellectual and political level? , the answer to this question will be implicit throughout this essay.
Traditional sociological analysis has in the past tended to look at class, racism and sexism as separate issues. Orthodox Marxian class analysis, for instance, presumed a level of homogeneity and unity among the working class which, if it ever did exist, certainly does not exist today.
The immediate issues raised by the presence of women, blacks and other sub-ordinate groups in the political institutions of the working class carry with them profound theoretical questions which reach into the heart of Marxian explanation. What is the working class today? What gender is it? What colour is it? How in the light of its obvious segmentation, is it to be unified? (Gilroy, 1987, pg.19)
What was left was an inadequate system of analysis when having to consider race and gender.
The same problem was found in traditional feminist analysis. Womanhood’ was talked about as a universal experience, as was the oppression that women suffered. In fact what was been written about was the experience of oppression of white, generally middle-class, women. By largely ignoring issues of race and racism and to some extent class, feminism and the women s movement was alienating many women. This is not to say however that women of colour did not believe in feminist values and ideals (although this would be a feminism formed through their mixed experiences of racism, sexism and class), but it does mean that race and racism was often, if not always, seen as their priority issue, and by uniting with white women, in what was effectively seen as a white movement, they were seen as dividing the black community and drawing attention away from issues of race.(Ryan, 1990))
To analyse the phenomena of class, racism and sexism as discrete, can therefore present both a limiting and dangerously misleading picture. This is not to say however that all phenomena are experienced on an equal level, that one problem can not take precedence over another, as sometimes one is indeed more oppressed by one s sex than one s class, as indeed sometimes one can identify more with one s race than with one s gender. Although often, for many women there is a hierarchy of oppression, for instance, women of colour feeling more oppressed by the phenomena of racism, to get a complete understanding, class, race and gender have to be examined in conjunction with each other.
One of the most written about areas of sexist oppression as seen in traditional feminist writing has been about that of the family . The institution of the family has been seen as the prime site for the disadvantage and oppression of women. Women were seen as the subordinate partner in a patriarchal institution. Oppression and subordination from within the family came in many different forms; housework and unpaid household production, reproduction and childrearing, and the balance of power between the genders in a family unit, to name but a few! However most of the analysis based itself on a very eurocentric view of the family . Presumptions and generalisations were made about the family which were based on the notion of the modern, white, Western family unit. Sylvia Walby highlighted the difference that there can be in family structures in modern Britain, let alone in the rest of the world!
The form of the household in contemporary Britain varies between different ethnic groups, not only between white and black, but between ethnic minorities as well. In Afro-Caribbean households the notion of the dependent full-time housewife is even less likely to be true than in native white families. (Walby, 1990, pg. 76)
Walby then goes on to highlight the difference in family structures, i.e. a much higher incidence of one parent families in the Afro-Caribbean community, and the difference between the different ethnic groups and their women s position in the labour market, i.e. West Indian women having the highest rate of economic activity. All of these structural differences show that there is in fact a huge diversity of experiences to be had within the family and that it is actually impossible to make generalisations, let alone examine the family without taking into consideration issues of race and class.
Little could it then be imagined that for some women the family could in fact be a site of resistance and a safe haven against the sometimes more brutal oppression of racism. Historically, for black people, the creation of a real family and a real home was something that was denied to them through slavery. Therefore,
Historically, African-American people believed that the construction of a homeplace, however fragile and tenuous (the slave hut, the wooden shack), had a radical political dimension. Despite the brutal reality of racial apartheid, of domination, one s homeplace was the site where one could freely confront the issue of humanization, where one could resist. (hooks, 1990, pg. 42)
Angela Davis also reiterates this argument by saying that black women have a history of working alongside the men, on an equal status, during the years of slavery so that ,
Unlike their white counterparts, they could never be treated as mere housewives.
(Davis, 1981, pg.17)
Black women s experience of the family could therefore not be located as the main site of oppression as it could for white women. Therefore to analyse sexism in this instance, without looking at racism and class would be entirely misleading.
Although bell hooks does present a convincing argument about the difference of experience for black women and the family structure, it should be noted that she does acknowledge that it was the sexism which put women in that position in the first place but that,
It is more important that they took this conventional role and expanded it to include caring for one another, for children, for black men (hooks, 1990, pg.44)
This indicates that at least during the years of slavery, tackling the issues of racist and class oppression was seen as a priority over sexism.
Another area which may have in the past been misrepresented because of the lack of consideration of the intersection of class, racism and sexism has been that of the labour market. Anthias and Yuval-Davis argue that in fact what exists today is a dual labour market one for permanent White men (a core) and an impermanent casual, predominantly female one which includes part-time work . (1992, pg.118)
They argue that as well as a gendered segregation race segregation intersects with this to produce specific effects. (ibid.)
As with much of the traditional types of analysis, certain levels heterogeneity have been used when describing groups and their labour market activity. Although data may look as if it is taking race and gender into consideration, in fact the categories used go nowhere near an adequate explanation of the reality and difference of experience in the labour market arena.
What data shows is that all ethnic minorities are generally at the lower end of the economic and class structure and that they suffer most from unemployment, which to a large extent can arguably be attributed to institutionalised racism. As Anthias and Yuval- Davis imply, it is the ethnic minorities (particularly women) which tend to be given casual and unsecure jobs which leads to more spells of unemployment.. However, this in itself is not a broad enough explanation of the activities of the groups found within those categories and what difference their experience may make to the overall picture. The influences of culture, religion, time and conditions of entering the country, whether you are 2nd generation migrant etc., can not be ignored as influential factors in the work arena, and indeed will make for a huge diversity of experience which cannot be portrayed through facts and figures .
What figures and data tend to imply, and possibly encourage, are racial and racist stereotypes linked to the supposed attitudes that black and ethnic minority people have towards work. These include stereotypes of laziness and lack of interest in working (typically associated with black Afro-Caribbean men), the black superwomen (who have to work full time and run a family single-handedly because of the lack of responsible black men) (Reynolds in Mirza, 1997), right down to stereotypes of Asian girls who are not interested in a career because they are bound to become part of an arranged marriage, and therefore can be paid a pittance (Carby in Mirza, 1997). Yet rarely has it been taken into account the extent of racist and sexist practice in the job market, included in this is the fact that many ethnic minority women will be discriminated against by their class, by racism and by sexism all at the same time. Data also does not show the amount of illegal or unregistered work that women of colour are more likely to partake in. Nor does data take into account the fact that a disproportionate amount of black and people of colour live in London, where wages have to be higher because of the cost of living, and therefore the disparity between the wages of white and non-white, as well as male and female does not look as severe when looked at as an average throughout the country. At the same time though, it is wrong to presume that this means that all women of colour will find themselves in the same bleak position in fact;
Almost as many Asian women were in professional or managerial sectors as White women (6 per cent compared with 7 per cent)and nearly as many West Indian women in other non-manual as White women (52 percent compared with 55 per cent). (ibid. pg.120)
Unfortunately all that these figures show is that all women suffer very badly when it comes to opportunities in the job market because of sexism! Yet again this analysis shows the interconnectedness of class, racism and sexism and shows that they can not be viewed as
Ultimately racism , sexism and class have to always be analysed together because they are always part of the structure of black people s lives ( in this instance I mean any person who is not white and British). Hazel V. Carby argues that the three oppressions are simultaneous (for black women) and therefore have to be analysed together.
We can point to no single source of our oppression. When white feminists emphasize
patriarchy alone, we want to redefine the term and make it a more complex concept
It is only in the writings by black feminists that we can find attempts to theorize the
interconnection of class, gender and race as it occurs in our lives. (Carby in Mirza, 1997. Pg.46)
Carby argues that racism is part of the defining structure even within the relationship between black and white women,
Both white feminist theory and practice have to recognize that white women stand
in a power relation as oppressors of black women. This compromises any feminist
theory and practice based on the notion of simple equality. (ibid.)
The triple oppression always has to be considered, even when examining the relationship between black men and other people, including black women and white men and women. Sexism by black men can not be considered and analysed in the same way as that of white men because black men and white men are not on an equal power relationship in the patriarchal structure, because of black men s racist oppression by white men.
The connection between class, sexism and racism is a complex and much debated about relationship, yet many black academics, such as those I have looked at, are adamant about the necessity to examine them together. After all,
Racial subordination is not the sole factor shaping the choices and actions of Britain s
black settlers and their British-born children (Gilroy, 1987. Pg.153)
What this of course implies is that one oppression can not be tackled or overcome without at the same time trying to overcome the oppressive nature of the others or alternatively, that the eradication of one type of oppression would lead to the demise of the others. This is by all accounts no mean feat, and one which is approached by a variety of different methods by different sociologists. Paul Gilroy for instance sees the struggle as ultimately developing from a new radical type of class-struggle which would necessarily incorporate race and through this would tackle racism and ultimately sexism. Gilroy acknowledges the unfortunate difficulty of this task and questions whether or not it is a realistic possibility, however at the same time he does acknowledge the progressive moves that have been made by many organised areas of the black community in an attempt to combat racism.
In conclusion I would argue that any analysis which looks at modern British society, in any way shape or form, has to consider racism, class, and gender together . Society as a whole, and distinct areas of society, such as those that I have looked at, cannot be talked about in homogenous terms. There are no absolutes and facts as everyone brings with them a different experience. However this is not to say that we live in a completely pluralist society and that structures of oppression can be forgotten. What it means is that we live in a diverse society, but one which is still structured within the boundaries of ideologies such as class, race and gender. Because of this and because of the make-up of modern Britain there is no one person s experience which can be analysed without taking all three things into account.
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Carby, H. V (1997) White woman listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood in Safia Mirza, H Black British Feminism- a Reader London, Routledge
Davis, A (1981) Women, Race & Class London, The Women s Press
Gilroy, P (1987) There Ain t No Black in the Union Jack London, Routledge
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hooks, b (1990) Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics Boston, South End Press
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Ryan, B (1990) Feminism and the Women s Movement London, Routledge
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Walby, S (1990) Theorizing Patriarchy Oxford, Blackwell