Has of ‘universalism’ as a political concept.

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Has the proliferation of feminisms undermined the women’s movement?


Whilst I argue
that the proliferation of feminism has
undermined the ‘women’s movement’, I also insist that this is not necessarily a
negative thing when considering who the narrative of the ‘women’s movement’ has
historically belonged to, and what this narrative has sought to achieve. With a
distinctively White, liberal, middle-class and heteronormative female agenda, the
‘women’s movement’ under first-wave feminism made claims for a ‘universal’ form
of liberation which consistently marginalised the female ‘Other,’ or sought to
use their ‘difference’ as a means to bolster their exclusive political agenda. Thus
the splintering of the ‘women’s movement’ has provided the political space for distinct
groups of women to create themselves as their own political subject, and
identify their own grievances to mobilise around and address. However, the
tension rises when these disparate groups of women, who may be implicated in
the oppression of another attempt to return to a cohesive and universal
feminist project. As Bubeck (2000) suggests, ‘there is only one large dialogue,’
to be had, but only until feminists listen to one another, and engage in
critical discussion, will this ‘large dialogue’ be constructive. The inability
for women to do so, has led to the proliferation of more dangerous feminist
discourses, in which ‘movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a
dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society’
(Fraser, 2013).

            The ‘women’s movement’ is a
political discourse that was historically born out of the White, middle-class,
heterosexual woman drawing upon the political ideas associated with liberalism.

Therefore, one of the most charged criticisms of White liberal feminism, is its
insistence that its normative vision of women’s emancipation is both possible
and universally applicable. (Hutchings, 2007). The feminist literature that
emerged from first-wave feminism was held together by assumptions of the ‘universality
of female oppression and transcendence of ‘sisterhood’ over existing
differences’ (Mama, 1984). However, Ahmed (2010) uses a phenomenological
critique to draw attention to the limitations of ‘universalism’ as a political
concept. If we consider universalism to be a ‘process’ occurring in time and
space, then to ‘universalise’ assumes there is something from which an idea has
universalised from. Applying this to
a gendered context, we can argue that the universal idea of female emancipation
has come from a small group of
western, White women. However, in universalising a set of ideas, not only is
everyone perceived to be included, but we often lose the ‘from’ from which the idea has come. Therefore, whilst those who
the universal accommodates fall into the background, those who do not conform
receive the most attention and criticism. Universalisation reinforces a
‘general’ from which ‘particulars’ are excluded or dominated by the ‘general.’ Thus,
to universalise, is to generalise, and to generalise is to engage in gross
misrepresentation of particulars. This analysis provides the landscape for
thinkers like Okin (1989) who claims that the heterosexual family unit serves
as the optimal training grounds for citizens – implicitly rendering all
same-sex parents as inadequate. Alternatively, Putnam (1995) exposes the way in
which Okin’s claim for free state-funded child care misses the point that
childcare jobs are poorly paid, allowing some women to free themselves whilst
climbing on the backs of other women. Therefore, Butler (1998) makes clear that
by liberals casting the ‘woman’ as the only
subject of feminism, thinkers restrain its emancipatory possibilities by
placing a universal notion of patriarchy and masculine domination as the
singularly oppressing force on women.

Truth’s ‘Ain’t I a Women,’ (1851) speech echoes throughout history,
emblematic of a distinctly Black feminist voice, constituting the coloured
woman as a ‘political subject.’ The discursive and intellectual development of
Black feminist social theory has rejected the universalism of liberal feminism,
and through a shared history of oppression, experience and social relations, Black
women have identified themselves as a distinct social group in need of
political representation. Using standpoint theory, marginalised social groups
have been able to produce their own branches of knowledge through drawing upon
lived experiences, and distancing themselves from the Cartesian philosophical underpinnings
of liberal feminism. Similarly, the emergence of the Lesbian Liberation
movement in 1960s-80s America was drawn out of the marginalisation of lesbians
from the Women’s Liberation movement, and women from the Gay Liberation
movement (D’Emilio, 2009). The exclusion of lesbian women from these two
movements was essential in revealing to themselves the marginalisation of their
social group in society, allowing them to address these issues by representing
themselves in their own political movement. bell hooks (1984) reveals the
danger of essentialism within feminist thought, which overlooks the interests
of marginalised groups in an effort to strengthen its status as an inclusive
and representative political language. This was especially evident more
recently after the annual US Women’s March 2017, in which liberal feminists
claimed that the agenda for the event had been ‘hijacked by organisers bent on
highlighting women’s differences.’ Symons (2017) continues to argue that
‘inclusive liberal feminism’ has been reduced to ‘competing victimhood narratives…
jostling for the most-oppressed status.’ The postmodern move to identity based
politics allowed the critical gaze which White feminists placed on ‘the
patriarchy’ to shift onto White feminists themselves. In revealing how
problematic and fraught with contradiction the ‘women’s movement’ is, it has
been undermined. However, I argue that this internal conflict has been
necessary, and it has now become the challenge of the ‘women’s movement’ to
attempt to come back from the inherently divisive identity-based politics, to a
more inclusive feminist project.

(2000), urges feminist standpoint theorists to distance themselves from a
discourse now saturated in irreconcilable antagonism.  Bubek continues to argue that through a
process of dialogue, both the oppressors and the oppressed become ‘potential
knowers,’ thus acting as both insiders and outsiders in relation to their own
and others groups. Dialogue has the potential to close the ‘asymmetries’ of
knowledge (Spelman and Lugones, 1989) which persist between the oppressor and
the oppressed – such as the limited knowledge White women have of the lives and
experiences of women of colour due to their position of privilege in society. Although
recognising and appreciating that difference in identity is fundamental to a
more inclusive feminism – and with this comes inherent inter-conflict – Bubeck
outlines four valuable approaches to understanding knowledge production between
antagonistic groups: (1) knowledge is ‘produced’ jointly through a mutual
engagement; (2) the relations within which knowledge arises are cooperative –
not antagonistic; (3) knowledge is a public good accessible to the oppressors
and oppressed; (4) the process by which knowledge is gained is knowledge gained
nonetheless. Whilst we can criticise Bubeck’s insistence that the knowledge
produced is ‘accessible’ to all in society, it is more salient to take from her
position, that the persistence to engage in dialogue between discursively antagonistic
groups can yield ‘one large discourse,’ that can be productive.

I argue that the various branches of feminisms have so far failed to produce an
inclusive and representative ‘women’s movement’: It remains divisive, deeply
antagonistic and fragmented. Within the institutional, public and private
sphere, there’s a severe lack of political space which would not only
facilitate a woman’s ability to engage in dialogue, but a space in which to
engage in the necessary dialogue. Feminism as a branch of ‘knowledge’ is neatly
categorised away within academia, it is deemed too controversial, or it is simply
rendered irrelevant. It is also important to understand that the knowledge
created by feminism is deeply embedded within a socio-cultural and political
context. In following a Foucauldian approach whereby meanings and
understandings of power/knowledge are historically contingent, ‘feminism’ as a
branch of study, which explicitly focusses on the gendered political subject is
both open to positive transformation through discourse if taken down a
Butlerian route, but also vulnerable to co-optation by more dominant
discourses. Rottenberg and Farris (2017) point towards the way in which the
feminist project has increasingly been linked with non-empancipatory agendas,
such as neoliberalism and right-wing xenophobic politics. It is noted how
European, right-wing national parties such as the French National Front,