A brief genealogy of feminist thought around gender

Where an examination of western feminist literature should begin is a debated matter, not least because of a diversity of thought around how ‘feminism’ should be defined.22 Historians have established that female writers in Italy, Spain, France and Britain addressed negative representations about women in scholarship as early as the fifteenth century,23 long before the feminist movement became politically active in the nineteenth century. While feminist scholarship and praxis throughout the centuries is characterised by a common concern to address social and cultural sexism, the ways in which prominent advocates pursued this goal evolved over time. Hence, while religious beliefs were still potent in western society and human thinking, feminist writers tended to invoke religious idiom to counter what they saw as distorted ideas about women perpetuated in male discourses.24 Similarly, conceptualisations of humanity and gender identity and relations were appraised in relation to theological knowledge, which was steadily opened to critique through intellectual reasoning. An illustrative example is Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she was keen to demonstrate that reason was not reserved only for males, and that women could equally think and develop ‘virtues’ if allowed to be educated. However, she did so not by evading references to religious knowledge, but by questioning conventional biblical understandings as set out by male authors, such as Rousseau (e.g. in relation to God’s intentions for humanity, including the female sex).25

Over time, invocations of religious idiom in feminist writings became more critical and in some cases blatantly hostile. Whereas earlier female writers spoke respectfully and invoked religious knowledge authoritatively not to offend the sentiments of the wider society, with the gradual secularisation of philosophical thinking many became more outspoken in their critique of religious and political ‘patriarchy’ (see Chapter 2). This is evident in the works of feminist writers who were preoccupied with the critique of representations and the treatment of women in biblical traditions, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Mary Daly (1928-2010) and Rosemary Radford Ruether (1936-). Examining the writings of Mary Daly, for example, evidences that she (like other feminists in this and subsequent eras) was concerned about pronouncing women’s positive attributes and characteristics to reverse a historical devaluation of female traits in men’s writings, including theological texts.26 As Linda Alcoff has noted, the problem for such early writers was not so much female essence (which was to be problematised later), but masculinity itself and even “male biology”.2'

Increasingly, however, social sexism was intertwined with ideas of natural sex, which shifted feminist writers’ attention to ‘denaturalising’ sex difference.28 The second-wave feminist movement introduced ‘gender’ in its lexicon precisely to shift attention to socially constructed understandings and valuations of women under what had been unequal power relations

Introduction: gender and development theory 5 between men and women.29 Since the 1920s, the term gender - beyond its grammatical designation in French - had been employed by western psychoanalysts specialising in trans-sexuality to denote what was at the time perceived as the “psychological sex”, or one’s internal gender identification.’0 By appropriating the concept of ‘gender’, feminists reversed the implicit understanding that internal gender identification was more important than biology, causing a departure from the early conceptualisation of gender as immutable psychological feeling to mutable social aspects.’1 On the other hand, ‘sex’ was relegated to the biological or ‘natural’ immutable realm, with the implication that gender was ‘founded’ on sex. This seminal reversal of meaning resulted in a widely affirmed dichotomisation of human existence into natural and social realms.

For example, in 1975, Gayle Rubin referred to the ‘gender/sex system’ which she conceived as “a set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied”.’2 This summarised her perception that female oppression is a product of a pre-existing normative framework, perpetuated in kinship systems, which gendered people by their sexed bodies. By recourse to psychology, Rubin was also the one to integrate more explicitly sexuality into gender, linking heteronormativity to a pre-existing patriarchal status quo. She called for ‘a genderless (but not sexless) society’ in which individuals would continue to be seen as anatomically different, but this anatomy would not determine their sexuality, identities, positions, and behaviours in society.

In 1983, Moira Gatens undertook the critical exercise to evaluate the sex/gender dichotomy and to ascertain whether it was a valid distinction.’’ Gatens responded to liberal feminist positions that favoured reeducation, arguing that these presented the body and the psyche as tabula rasa that could be re-socialised in ways desirable for social transformation. She reasoned that under this paradigm, gender was made an issue of the mind and the effect of internalising social ‘lessons’, while the body was seen to serve only as the passive recipient of these ‘inscriptions’. Gatens’ proposition was that the body should not be seen as a neutral surface and that the connection between femininity and masculinity with regard to the female and male body should not be considered arbitrary. Since male and female bodies were given different social values, subjective consciousness was anticipated to form according to these different significances.

In 1994, Linda Nicholson also criticised second-wave theories on the premise that they assumed biology-founded conceptualisations of women, what she referred to as “biological foundationalism”.34 Nicholson’s argument was that such persistent conceptualisations of gender hindered efforts to understand differences among men and women and the cause of this distinction cross-culturally. In order to deem the analytical construct of gender relevant to all societies, she proposed to appraisesocial variations in the male/female distinction as related to differences that go “all the way down”, that is, as tied not just to the limited phenomena associated typically with gender (i.e. cultural stereotypes of personality and behaviour), but also to culturally variable understandings of the body and more fundamental meanings of womanhood/ manhood.’’

In other words, it would be necessary to conduct a more in-depth analysis that considered how sex difference was understood within the societal framework overall.

Also in the 1990s, Judith Butler took a step further in denaturalising conceptualisations of gender by problematising the very category of sex.’6 Butler advanced a conceptualisation of gender that was different from previous theories, locating it neither within the body nor outside of it, but identified it with the very locus of the subject’s coming into being and its becoming socially intelligible.’' She reasoned that even though sex had always been considered dimorphic, if gender was the cultural meaning of the sexed body (following Gatens’ thinking), it was not necessary for gender to manifest exclusively in a binary form. If the immutability of sex was questioned and understood as culturally constructed, then perhaps it could be suggested that sex had been gender all along. Butler’s subversion of the western humanist ‘metaphysics of substance’ that had historically assumed some innate quality to sex and gender was enforced by other theorists who were preoccupied with how classifications and language determined body intelligibility and the metaphysical edifice that had traditionally sustained binary sex. For example, Anne Fausto-Sterling observed in 1993 that while multiple sexes and intersexuality existed in nature, in medical and social classifications the sexes had been conventionally limited to two.’8 She, thus, stressed the power of classification in determining ‘nature’, shaking irrevocably the understanding of sex as biologically dyadic.

Contradicting post-structuralist definitions of gender that radically relegated its replication to discursive-psychical processes, Linda Alcoff proposed an alternative understanding of gender invoking the concept of ‘positionality’.59 She advanced what she believed to be a non-essentialist conceptualisation, but one that could still enable women to be treated as a uniform category, facilitating feminist politics. According to her reasoning, a woman’s identity was shaped multi-dimensionally by various elements in her surroundings, which she summarised in the concept of positionality. She argued that this theorisation “should not imply that the concept of ‘woman’ is determined solely by external elements and that the woman herself is merely a passive recipient of an identity created by these forces” but that the woman “actively contributes to the context within which her position can be delineated”.40 Hence, positionality was not to be studied to discover meaning, but rather to uncover how women used “their positional perspective as a place from which values are interpreted and constructed”.41

Introduction: gender and development theory 7 More recently, Raia Prokhnovik,42 engaging critically with post-structuralist theorists, set to bridge the cognitive with the corporeal and to overcome the implicit mind/body and reason/emotion bifurcations implied in the gender/sex dichotomy.45

It is important to note that feminist debates and theorisations evolved under the heightened recognition of ethnocentric representations of women in the world talking privileged white women’s conditions as their point of reference.44 Black feminist thinkers and activists in North America drew important attention to the fact that white women’s theorisations could not capture black women’s multiple oppressions, that is to say, the implications of race in the construction of gender subjectivities and relations.4’ In her deconstruction of ‘gender’ in the Igbo society on Nigeria, I ft Amadiume seminally criticised the rigid gender binary in western feminist theory by drawing on the social categories of ‘male daughters’ and ‘female husbands’ in Igbo society.46 Although her use of the concept of gender to advance her argument has been subsequently problematised by Nkiru Uwechia Nzegwu,4' Amadiume effectively demonstrated that women were not subordinated in the Igbo society by default of their sex identity, weakening western feminist assumptions.

In 1997, Nigerian anthropologist Oyeronkee Oyewumi insightfully traced the problematic ‘bio-logic’ in gender theory to western epistemology', arguing that this inherently assumed a body-mind bifurcation and prioritised visual indicators over holistic ‘world-sense’.48 She argued that if gender were to be defined as socially constructed, as prominent western theorists proposed, gender would need to be dissociated from anatomy and be granted diversity across time, space and cultural context.49 By this she meant to say that gender should not be essentialised on the basis of a bodily or biological division, since the division alone does not communicate anything substantive about gender relations if alienated from the local matrix of meanings and embodied practices. In 2006, Nzegwu addressed full force the fact that western feminist understandings have stubbornly assumed within the concept of gender an inherent hierarchical relationship between female and male, reflecting a fundamental inculpation of sex difference in western thought (the ‘mono-sex system’).50 She laboriously juxtaposed this to the Onitsa dual-sex system to demonstrate an alternative system that openly admitted and embraced sexual difference but ensured that women and men had their respective powers and responsibilities to shape society and life.

Subsequently, building on the concept of ‘intersectionality’,51 western feminist thinkers enlarged their analytical dimensions to consider other lines of difference and vectors of human identity, such as race and ethnicity.52 In parallel, mainstream feminist thought has invariably adopted the position that gender is socially constructed, but “which social practices construct gender, what social construction is and what being of a certain gender amounts to are major feminist controversies”.’5 This reflects a more profound inconclusiveness around human metaphysics and a divergence infeminist thinking around how bodies intertwine with cognitive and emotional consciousness and how they may be conceptualised in relation to social categories and historical processes without either essentialising or nullifying the individual subject.

 
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