On the question of radical feminism and women as an underclass

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Radical feminism has always been a strand of feminism that I have been uncomfortable around. Part of this is because of my own internalized sexism that makes me shy away from very radical demands, especially in the realm of personal relationships, beauty standards, and so on. But a bigger issue I have had with it is its blatant Euro/US-centrism that makes it almost useless in contexts such as Egypt. I finally had a chance to read one of radical feminism’s most famous texts, “A Dialectic of Sex” by Shulamith Firestone. I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised, even as the text confirmed many of my problems with radical feminists. On the one hand, I see clear benefits in these kinds of texts – they are very clear in terms of identifying who is responsible for patriarchy and because of this they are able to make clear demands that movements can organize around. They also touch on parts of gender relations that other feminist strands tend to leave under-theorized, notably questions of love, relationships, and psychology. On the other hand, it is clear that these texts use European and American societies as the norm, and when they do mention non-Western societies it is usually to say that they are “more primitive” or that they are headed in the same direction as Western forms of patriarchy once they develop a little more. Some of the key differences I see between radical feminism and postcolonial feminism, for example, are in the ways that men are conceptualised, and how the family and culture are conceptualised. Another difference is that in texts such as Firestone’s that use Freud so heavily, there is bound to be the question of whether we can generalize about the “female psyche” across space and time. These are some of the questions I want to think through in this post.

A major problem I found was her ethnocentrism, which becomes clear at specific moments in the text. One example is when she writes about how turning to “primitive matriarchies of the past” as examples of times where patriarchy did not exist was “too facile.” She then goes on to quote Simone de Beauvoir to make her point. Her discussion of Black Power as well as the sexism of Black men in America is another moment that made me pause. Her heavily Freudian analysis seems to somewhat hide the more clearly racialized political and economic aspects of the Black question in America. In her attempt to argue that “racism is a sexual phenomenon” she seems to emphasize the sexual at the expense of the racial. So while she raises important questions about the ways in which Black men relate to Black women, for example, her attempt to answer these using Freud is problematic.

She then goes on to criticize Black women who did not call out the sexism of Black men in the Black Power movement, writing: “Why do black women, so shrewd about their men in general, settle for this patronizing, impersonal and uninspired kind of love?” Here again, because of her reliance on Freud as well as her totalizing views of women vs. men, Firestone is unable to locate these dynamics within broader societal structures. The Black Power movement was a movement against white supremacy and the extreme brutality with which it was met should partly explain why for Black women the issue of sexism was a very complicated one, and certainly more complicated than it was for White women. One only needs to read the memoirs of Angela Davis, Elaine Brown and other former Black Panthers to realize just how painfully aware they were of the balance between supporting Black Power and addressing sexism, homophobia, and so on. Firestone does not touch on any of these dynamics, showing the weaknesses of relying on sexuality (and Freud) as an overarching framework.

What I did like about Firestone’s book is the points she makes about love and relationships, because I think these issues have been under-theorized in strands of feminism such as postcolonial feminism. She talks about women’s constant need for approval, the ways in which male culture lives off of women’s emotional strength, the fact that for every successful relationship, there are 10 unsuccessful and destructive ones, and the role of envy and possessiveness in modern relationships. Above all, her point that love can never happen when there is an unequal power balance in a relationship is exceedingly important:

I submit that love is essentially a much simpler phenomenon – it becomes complicated, corrupted, or obstructed by an unequal balance in power. We have seen that love demands a mutual vulnerability or it turns destructive: the destructive effects of love occur only in a context of inequality (pp. 185).

This section also relies extensively on Freudian analysis, however. While I do not have an issue with this per se, I do think that Freudian analysis can sometimes become very detached from the material – the political, economic and social – and rely excessively on the psychic and the sexual (the sexual as psychological rather than material).

While Firestone admits that men are often in pain or suffering because they are socialized to be unable to love, she still does not make the point that this demonstrates how patriarchy is a system that creates suffering for all genders, not just women. Moreover, in her attempt to show how men treat women in relationships, she often generalizes in the extreme. For example she writes: “The question that remains for every normal male is, then, how do I get someone to love me without her demanding an equal commitment in return?” No doubt in many relationships there remains the issue of women committing more than men, but to universalize this to all “normal males” is quite the jump, and again reveals ethnocentrism (after all, is this the case across time and space?). Additionally, even in men where this is true, how do we deal with the question of awareness? In other words, I assume that this desire for love without commitment is often present in males without them being aware of it. This is precisely why patriarchy is so powerful, because so many of these desires have become subconscious or “common sense.” How then do we deal with it? Do we still see men as horrible perpetrators of sexism? Or is it deeper than that?

Overall, for a book that has become quite the classic feminist text I found it a bit disappointing in its over-reliance on Freudian analysis. I had expected the Eurocentrism because second-wave feminism is famous for that, but somehow I hadn’t anticipated that there would be so much Freud. The book left me thinking about how easy it is to organize a movement around texts such as this that are full of generalizations and that are very angry. And I mean angry in a good way, because I do think feminist texts should be angry. But is it possible to write a text like this today, considering where feminism is after the popularity of post-modernism? Probably not. And maybe that’s exactly why it has been almost impossible to form a feminist movement in recent decades, after the euphoria of first and second wave feminism, and the many critiques of these waves that emerged from postcolonial and Marxist feminists afterwards. We now have moment in feminism that is about critique and undoing the damage done by Eurocentric feminisms. This has come at a price, with more attention being paid to critique (of each other) than to imperialism, neoliberalism and other forces that are ravaging the globe.

To conclude, one thing I appreciated about Firestone’s book is the emphasis she put on Marx while also noting his limitations when it came to gender. She writes:

Marx was on to something more profound than he knew when he observed that the family contained within itself in embryo all the antagonisms that later develop on a wide scale within society and the state. For unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biological family, the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated. We shall need a sexual revolution much larger than – inclusive of – a socialist one to truly eradicate all class systems (pp. 30).

And yet she doesn’t show very clearly how this is supposed to happen. She often discusses women as an underclass, and yet rarely points to the international division of labour where some women (white, Western) in fact have more power than the majority of men. Indeed this is precisely why it is difficult to theorize women as an underclass, or even as the quintessential underclass. And yet perhaps this is the lesson: Firestone shows us that women are not an underclass – and have never been. Today’s underclasses are made up of men and women. Any feminism that fails to grasp this, and fails to see why we need to analyze different structures simultaneously, is unlikely to gain traction.

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