Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Feminist social explanations are wrong

By Stephen Buckle - posted Saturday, 12 May 2001

It is sometimes said that feminism goes too far. The idea is that, although feminism's values may be beyond reproach, its policies and practices are not always so. The complaint is, at bottom, that the single-minded or blinkered pursuit of worthwhile goals is not itself always worthwhile – other goals or values of comparable importance may be compromised in the process – and that single-minded feminism can thereby undermine its value and relevance.

This is a view worth taking seriously, but my view is rather bolder: that feminism is wrong. It is wrong because it is bad social theory: that is, feminist theories provide a wrong diagnosis of social ills. Feminism's alleged tendency to go too far is therefore itself something of a misdiagnosis: it does not so much go too far as go astray. That is, it tends to promote practices that are excessive not merely because of some feminists' blinkered zeal but because they spring from a wrong diagnosis of social problems.

The diversity of feminisms is no obstacle to this claim. The various species of feminism are all about the same thing – they have a distinctive subject matter – and have a defining angle on that subject matter. In short, feminism is about sex and gender relations; and its defining angle is that these relations are to be explained by the damaging effects of male power over women. To claim that feminism is mistaken is, then, to claim that its defining angle is a poor explanation for the phenomena it seeks to explain. I think that this is the case; moreover, I also think that a superior alternative is available.


To explain: Modern (second wave) feminism, confronted, in the 1960s, with the task of explaining women's situation, resorted to the most readily available explanatory model: Marxism's model of class conflict, which had already been adapted to racial issues by the left wing of the American civil rights movement. The feminists did their own adapting, this time transforming the doctrine of class conflict into a doctrine of intrinsic opposition between the sexes. Thus the situation of women came to be explained by reference to male oppression.

It was plain, however, that not all individual men could be described as oppressors – not least those who actively supported the women's cause. So the model needed refining. This was accomplished by shifting oppression from the shoulders of individual men to a male-privileging social structure: patriarchy. This shift failed to satisfy everyone – after all, it failed to explain why the patriarchy should function as it was alleged to do. So grander, more metaphysical versions were invented, in which the source of domination was shifted to the allegedly oppressive character of (male) dichotomous conceptualisation: dualisms.

The important thing to notice about these later versions of feminism is that they share the underlying assumption of the original simple oppression story: present-day conflicts over the social roles of men and women are to be explained by reference to some more fundamental form of conflict. Society is conceived as a scene of a basic division of interests between men and women, whether it be between actual men and women, male political structures and female political inclusiveness or male conceptual hierarchies and female conceptual fluidity. This is no less true of French feminism, with its fountainhead in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. Her thesis appeals to the oppositional model from which Marx drew his account of social conflict and its resolution, that is, Hegel's master-slave dialectic.

So, despite all the appeals to female inclusiveness, and so on, these stories all share an ``us or them'' mentality that derives directly from the background influence of the class conflict model. That is why, despite apparently greater intellectual sophistication, not to mention the much-touted diversity of feminisms, it remains a marker of feminism that, when pressured, it resorts to familiar rhetoric about millenniums of oppression, misogyny and so on. It is also why feminism has become so thoroughly preoccupied with those areas of social life in which there is conflict between the sexes: rape, domestic violence, and so on. In short, whatever its disclaimers, feminism continues to believe that the problem society must deal with and overcome is (some form of) maleness.

This is why feminism generates such an air of trench warfare between the sexes. It can be entirely avoided. Once it is recognised that all feminisms share the conflict model, it becomes possible to start looking for fresh alternatives. A plausible one is readily available and, ironically, it also owes much of its stimulus to Marxian thought.

Marx had observed, in one of his most famous remarks, that ``it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but ... their social being that determines their consciousness''. This principle is not beyond criticism, since it can lead to the view that all human thought can be reduced to the circumstances in which it is produced. The case of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union -- where modern biology was dismissed as mere bourgeois science – is a salutary example. Nevertheless, the principle is vital when what we need to explain is changes in social consciousness: it reminds us to ask what changes in social or material conditions lie behind the rise of new forms of consciousness.


Now feminism is itself a new form of consciousness, so to apply Marx's principle is to ask: what changes in social being lie behind the rise of feminism? The answer is not hard to find. The transformation of the world of work after World WarII – roughly, the transformation from a manufacturing to a service-and-information economy – combined with the revolution in fertility control, produced clean and safe jobs that women would want, and produced women capable of controlling their presence in the workforce. The significance of these changes for our contemporary social situation has often been emphasised, but that they also explain the re-emergence of feminism is rarely noted; or, where it is, its wider ramifications are not drawn out.

The point is, first, that effective contraception placed a woman's fertility under her control, and broke the nexus between sexual activity and procreation. Thus women gained independence from biological imperatives. Second, the proliferation of forms of employment that depended on social and communicative skills, on brains rather than brawn, that avoided dirt and danger, and that, in a buoyant economy, delivered real differences in standards of living, made employment attractive to women. Economic independence became not only possible for women but attractive to them.

Furthermore, the nature of the jobs meant that employers would want female employees. As Marvin Harris puts it in his brilliant application of the Marxian theory to the postwar US, Why Nothing Works, the changes explain not only why women went looking for jobs but why jobs went looking for women. That is, social changes conspired to make female material independence both possible and attractive – to both employee and employer. Imposed on a social order that, since the turn of the 20th century, had developed around the male breadwinner and his dependants, the consequences could not but be dramatic: feminism, since it did not then exist, had to be invented.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. All

This article was first published in The Australian's Review of Books, April 2001.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr Stephen Buckle is a lecturer in philosophy at the Australian Catholic University.

Related Links
Stephen Buckle's home page
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy