A step too far?

Although from this blog you may perfectly reasonably assume I’m only concerned with humanism, I do also do a bit on the side for the feminist movement, and had very mixed thoughts when it came up in a class I’m taking. The Women of the World recently changed their name to ‘The Feminist Society’ to be more inclusive of men (I’m not so sure, many times after referring to myself as a feminist I’ve had funny looks and someone correct me, “no, you’re a pro-feminist”. It’s stupid because feminism and gender studies is supposed to be breaking down gender roles, but I can’t be a feminist because I’m not a woman? Bit of a contradiction there…)

First, a bit of background. My outside discipline (I spose you might call it a minor), which I’m being forced to take because of some smallprint in my degree programme, is politics (typical fucking Registry making things difficult – surely first year Linguistics would be more useful to my degree than second year politics). As part of that, this semester I took a course called Social and Political Theory, which is a cross-school course, so people doing politics take it alongside people studying social anthropology, social policy and… another course that’s similar to those two but I can’t remember. In 4 stages it places the views of two classical thinkers against each other, so that’s Hobbes and Kropotkin, Bentham and Locke, Marx and Weber, and Rousseau and Mill. All white men. Most of them with beards. It’s a pain in the arse because you get the politics students who are used to studying the details of political systems and concepts, and then the anthropology students who’ll typically just be thinking about what human nature is and not having to back up their ideas with any kind of evidence at all. A lot of the course theory is up in the air, not grounded in anything solid.

So, almost as if to make up for it, the course review (one lecture, that is 50 minutes) at the end of the year had very little to do with what we’d done so far, it instead focused on the feminist perspective. Not the feminist perspective on what we’d studied, just as a way of going about criticising what we’d done. Much of it was differentiating between three ways women have been made invisible in social and political theory, put forward by Artemis March, and later by Beverly Thiele (although the lecturer only seemed aware of Thiele, it rang a bell with me). These three categories are as follows [just paraphrased from memory from the lecture], and can easily be applied to other things like racism, for example:

  1. Exclusion: Women are either not discussed at all, or they are mentioned but mysteriously dropped when it comes down to serious discourse. For example, Hobbes talks about equality in the state of nature between men and women, but then mysteriously ends up with a society involving only men.
  2. Pseudo-inclusion: Women are explicitly mentioned but not treated equally, they are in some sense seen as the exception. So for example Rousseau says that since society is rational, and women are not (!), therefore women aren’t included in society.
  3. Alienation: Women are included and treated equally, but the feminist issue is seen as secondary or derivative. For example, Marx and Engels see gender oppression as a product of class oppression, since men of the bourgeoisie own the means of production and dissemination of ideas.

Yes, the irony of including this third point in a lecture slapped on the end of an androcentric course was pointed out by a friend of mine, who got a round of applause for her trouble, but at least the first two seem easy to get rid of. All you do is, every time the word ‘man’ is used, you cross it out and put ‘people’. And any time someone writes something stupid like “women aren’t rational”, you cross it out. Feminist theorists will be champing at the bit at this point but relax, I do realise that doesn’t solve the whole problem, a start-to-finish revision is required. But these thinkers were writing hundreds of years ago, we can discount some of what they’re saying and apply other parts to the modern-day scenario with revisions.

Now this is the thing. I don’t see a problem with point number 3. Or I do, but with the point itself rather than what it’s describing. Let me explain before I get hanged. Surely complaining that the feminist issue is being treated as secondary assumes that it’s not secondary? Surely if, like Marx, you see your theory as a very overarching one, explaining pretty much all social phenomena, then the feminist issue is going to be derivative? In itself, that’s not a bad thing. Maybe feminism isn’t exactly relevant (or not most relevant) in all quarters. A theory might not treat the female perspective as central, but the female perspective might not be relevant to it! That doesn’t mean the theory is contributing  to the invisible female.

This classification also assumes to a certain extent that a woman’s perspective is necessarily going to be different from a man’s, and that there is a single woman’s perspective, when gender studies is as diverse as any other field.

So it seems to me that point number three needs modifying slightly. First of all, it needs splitting into two separate, but related, points. I do have a problem with the same outdated androcentric theory just being applied now to women. The female perspective does need to be included from the start. Seeing everyone’s world from a man’s (and often a white middle-class man’s) perspective in this way is a genuine problem, which comes under this alienation banner.

The other point, which is related both to the previous paragraph and to the other two points, is treating the female perspective as secondary when it is relevant, as opposed to on all issues as I can only assume is meant by the original point 3. In many cases the male and female perspectives (whatever they are…) will be the same so differentiation is not needed. It should be included from the start in such a case, not as an afterthought. Otherwise you’re treating over half the population as an exception. Maybe this was just assumed and not mentioned.

Obviously it’s field with many potholes, but I don’t think it’s prudent to include things as oppression when they’re just a reasonable way of doing things. But maybe I’ve been looking at this the wrong way, maybe I’ve been working with a dodgy definition of alienation. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

The course did also refer to another issue of interest to feminists, pornography. But this post is huge already, I might leave that until tomorrow.

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