Lesson 4: What is Feminism?
What makes the study of feminism so interesting is that there are "zillions" of ideas circulating and enriching our
understanding of the world.
Your course package has an article by Patricia Elliot and Nancy Mandel that details some of the major feminist
theoretical positions. I would like to emphasize that there are many more than just the ones found in this article.
Many of the newer theories have emerged through Third Wave feminism which entered in the 1980s and forced
white feminists in particular that their view of the world failed to accommodate the more complex oppression of
women of colour. Feminism today contends that no one theory or group can speak for all women. There are
many voices and there are many feminists developing theories that focus on race, sexuality, class, or religion or
epistemology (knowledge systems). There are feminists focused on science and new ways of looking at bodies
and their interpretations. There are cultural theorists, or postmodernists or French feminists, like Helene Cixous
who present a very different perspective. (I would recommend that you take notes on the Elliott/Mandel article.
Return to these notes throughout the course to see how your understanding increases).
Whatever theory is adopted (i.e. Liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, Socialist feminism, Radical feminism) the
concern is not only to have tools to be able to examine the present conditions accurately, but to be able to
articulate a way to address injustices in action so that a more just society emerges.
Amultitude of theories forces feminism away from any hegemony (domination) of thought or practise. And
since the goal is to dismantle all forms of domination it is critical it is done so within feminism itself.
While the Elliot and Mandell article details the major theories, the focus of this section of the lecture is on
several approaches that are important lenses on specific elements of oppression. These lenses are derivatives of
Liberal, Marxist, Radical and Postmodern theories.
The approach in anti-racist theories is derived from a specific location, from a practise in society (segregation),
from discussions on power, from laws or cultural practices that subordinate a group of people who are identified
by colour. For example,Angela Davis analyses theAfricanAmerican experience of racism from its roots in
slavery or as she defines it a slavocracy. Here in Canada many feminists look for the ways in which racism is
practised by tracing our history through the IndianAct, immigration laws and our work place practises.Maria
Lugones, a Chicana feminist from the United States, places her emphasis on how people of colour are designated
with culture while the ruling whites view themselves having no discernible culture. White culture then defines
the culture of Latinas, or of Caribbean or of Middle Eastern or ofAsian women in ways that justify these groups
exclusion from power. Culture defining in this form both blames and patronizes the victim for being the cause of
their own subordination. Whites then see themselves as being more civilized in contrast to the "uncivilized
practises" of the other.
Anti-racist theory often combines race and gender to elicit a complex picture of the intersecting categories in
terms of oppression. The work of Susan Friedman, who as a literary theorist working in race and gender theory
looks at the use of "scripts" to maintain racist positions and theoretical gridlocks. For example, when she
analysed feminist racist practises in the 1980s she found that white feminists first responded with what she calls
the "denial script". In this first stage, white women claimed that as feminists they could not possibly be racist.
The response from women of colour was to accuse (the second script in Friedman's theory) white women of
ignoring the specifics of their oppression that included race and sex. The combination of race and sex analysis
had been ignored by white feminists. Women of colour held white women accountable for silencing them or
denying them a space in which to articulate their oppression. The response to these accusations from white
feminists was "guilt". In this third script white women absorbed the reality of what women of colour had
outlined and felt so overwhelmed by the force of it that their only response was to admit their part in the
oppression of others. It is after this third script that we arrive at a gridlock in feminist theory according
Friedman. The challenge has been in finding a new way to communicate that is different and allows for more
valuable ways of pushing feminism forward that will be of value for everyone. GloriaAnzaldua is currently working on developing a new script for white women and women of colour. She
writes about imagining a bridge where people come from each side and meet in the middle. They leave behind
the old animosities (but not the important features of analysis) so that they can be open to new conversations.
While this sounds a bit too obscure you can read her anthologies that include the writings of such a diversity of
thinkers that through them you begin to discern new ways of talking to one another. ForAnzaldua this also
means new ways for men and women to speak to one another as well as straight women and lesbians or bisexual
Anne McClintock takes nationalism as her pivot point and looks at the use of race and gender in the maintenance
of power structures that oppress women of colour by exoticizing them. Cythia Enloe's area of research is in the
miltitarism of society using women and women of colour to maintain the dominance of government sponsored
In your textbook, you have the examples of Patricia Hill Collins,Audre Lorde, bell hooks and many other
women working to understand the force of race, class, sex and sexuality on the oppression of women. In Canada,
the research ground is equally as vibrant with Himani Bannerji, Enakshi Dua, Shahnaz Khan, Sherene Razack
and many more. These scholars have brought forward critical analysis of our immigration policies and laws,
labour practises and social systems but they have also traced racism into the university setting. For example,
when women of colour are instructors, they are most often paid attention to when questions of race emerge and
then all too often only marginally. When they focus their work on race they are told their scope is too narrow
(not withstanding the narrow scope of white scholars). Finally, research has demonstrated that students perhaps
unconsciously tend to question the validity of ideas of women of colour more frequently than they do of their
white male professors even though the level of scholarship is equal.
Language or its use has become a central concern for many feminist theorists. In everyday parlance we tend to
ignore or diminish the power of language and its use. Language by necessity has been a focus of feminists who
have examined how its use operates to justify unjust practises.
Theory is our tool to understand how gender, race, class and sexuality all intersect to create meanings about girls
and women that limit their participation in society. To examine the intersection of oppressions, we need to look
at language and its function and why some words are used in reference to women but lack the same meaning
when applied to men.
The question is why. For example if we call a woman a "slut" the slur has such damaging implications. First we
intimate that sexuality or its expression among women is not acceptable unless within a heterosexual permanent
relationship. The word "slut" is more of a triumphant boast when and if it is ever directed at men. Men have
traditionally been encouraged to display their masculinity by being sexually promiscuous.
Language and our use of it function to discipline our behaviour while concurrently outlining an appropriate
identity for our gendered selves. Men are expected to explore their sexuality to confirm their heterosexual
masculinity. Men are assumed to want sex while "good" women are given stories of romance into which to
channel their sexual desires. (See Micaela di Leonardo ed. Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist
Anthropology in the Postmodern Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
When we intersect race with sexuality the meaning is replete with racist overtones.AfricanAmerican women
from the time of slavery forward (films and music videos are notorious for these depictions) have been identified