Feminist Theory and Critical Reconceptualization in Sociology: The Challenge of the 1990s

Rhoda Reddock. The International Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Stella R Quah & Arnaud Sales. Sage Publications. 2000.

There is no doubt that the re-emergence of feminism and the women’s movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s has had a significant impact on the discipline of sociology. Many of the earliest social science critiques took place within this discipline and sociologists continue to be major contributors to the development of feminist scholarship. The questions raised by early feminist critiques have to a large extent been accommodated by the discipline to one degree or the other. For example, introductory textbooks in sociology have been revised to include chapters on sociology of women or gender and new texts include such sections as a matter of course.

Introduction and Background

The establishment of Research Committee 32—Women and Society within the International Sociological Association (ISA) in the 1970s, in response to demands by women sociologists is also testimony to the attempts by feminist and women sociologists to influence the course of the discipline. It is true however that the subsequent development of Women’s Studies and Gender Studies as independent interdisciplinary disciplines has to a large extent limited the influence of these new ideas on the mainstream of sociology. However there is still much resistance as many of our colleagues continue to teach as if this work and its critiques never took place. Misconceptions of what constitutes feminist sociology abound and in spite of the emergence of a large and vibrant scholarship, its overall impact on the discipline is questionable. Indeed in their 1985 article entitled “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology”, Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne argued that in comparison with some other disciplines, the potential for this significant paradigmatic shift in sociology was being lost (Stacey and Thorne, 1985).

One of the main achievements of feminist scholarship has been to develop a truly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach to knowledge creation. As such, much of what in recent times has emerged as feminist scholarship cannot be directly seen as sociology per se while much of it definitely is. However, the continued expansion of sociology in terms of content and method (as reflected in the ever-increasing list of research committees, working groups and thematic groups in the ISA), opens up new possibilities for incorporating many of the new theoretical and epistemological insights and developments which continue to emerge from the expansion of feminist scholarship.

The Emergence of a Feminist Sociology

As noted by Helen Roberts (1981), even prior to the 1960s and early 1970s, evidence of women sociologists concern with women’s issues within sociology was evident. In the case of the United Kingdom, she points for example to the classic work of Myrdal and Klein, Women’s Two Roles, published in 1954 along with a number of other studies which preceded it. One early contribution of the new period was Constantina Safilos-Rothschild’s collection Toward a Sociology of Women which included a number of empirical studies on what at that time was loosely referred to as sex roles (Safilos-Rothschild, 1972). It was in 1974 however that two of the most influential feminist critiques of sociology emerged, Ann Oakley’s The Sociology of Housework, and Dorothy Smith’s initial essay, “Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology”.

According to Ann Oakley the invisibility of women in sociology, was a structural weakness, which put into question the validity of its knowledge. From very early therefore she recognised that simply adding women to existing analysis would not solve the problem. As she pointed out:

Male orientation may so colour the organisation of sociology as a discipline that the invisibility of women is a structural weakness, rather than simply a superficial flaw. The male focus incorporated into the definition of subject areas reduces women to a side-issue from the start…. (Oakley, 1985: 4).

In other words, women can be put back into sociology, and to a certain extent, our view of what constitutes valid sociological knowledge can be reconstituted to take account of new work on gender differentiation and social structure, but how far would this affect the mainstream theoretical and methodological basis of the subject? This weakness in sociology, according to Oakley, could be traced to the following three influences.

Its Origins­

It is accepted that Sociology owes its origins to the writings and thought of five or six European men of whom according to Oakley only Marx and Weber held emancipated views on women. The others were sexist and lived in a sexist period of nineteenth-century European history.

It was a Male Profession

Until recently sociology was to a large extent a predominantly male profession. The majority of our textbooks have been written by men and in many parts of the world sociologists are still predominantly male. A 1972 study quoted by Oakley noted that women were under-represented as full professors, editors of journals, and in sociological publications. Much has probably changed since then in that students of sociology are increasingly female, but men still dominate teaching and research positions in most parts of the world.

The Ideology of Gender

A strong ideology of gender roles, not subject to empirical investigation, which underlies sociology. Whereas other aspects of the social reality were studied, this was not the case in relation to common-sense understandings of gender roles or gender stereotypes. These were uncritically accepted and reflected in the one area of sociology where women were visible, Sociology of the Family. Whereas sociologists warned against common-sense understandings in other areas they did the same when it came to the matters of women and gender. In particular there was the underlying assumption and acceptance of biological determinism, the gendered character of social, political and economic realities, thus negating the need for social research. Following on from this, Oakley argued for an expansion of the content and orientation of existing areas of sociological inquiry e.g. work and industry, crime and deviance, social stratification etc. to include issues related to women and gender differentiation for example, housework in relation to the sociology of work.

For her part Dorothy Smith took her critique in a different direction, one which she still holds today (Smith, 1987). Contrary to Oakley she held no brief for the traditional areas of sociological work, which she argued were defined by male principles and interests. In 1974, and later in 1987, she argued that as far as women sociologists accepted that perspective, they were in the process alienating themselves from their own personal experiences. The new Sociology of and for Women she posited should be based on and organized around the lived experiences of women; the social world which women inhabit: their experiences as mothers, their work routines, their bodies and the rites of passage which govern their lives. Women’s experiences she argues, do not conform to the analytical categories developed by sociologists who tend to impose an order and a structure in their sociological expression which is at odds with the lived experience of women in particular and people in general. In constructing this new sociology of women she suggests that the entire organization of sociological discourse had to be questioned, along with its place in the world and the social relations organizing the positions of its subjects which is concealed by its objectification (Smith, 1987).

The Influences of Socialist-Feminism

Along with these direct critiques of sociology, then as now, the wider debates of the feminist movement and of women’s studies also influenced and were influenced by feminist sociology. In particular the developments in socialist-feminist theorizing based on critiques and reconceptualizations of the work of Marx, Engels, Lukacs, Rosa Luxembourg, Franz Fanon, Walter Rodney and other socialist and socialist-oriented writers. Key concepts in feminist studies owe much to the work of these scholars. Examples of these include the concept gender already used by Oakley and others but developed more comprehensively by the work of the Subordination of Women Workshop of the University of Sussex (1976) which presented that now classic but contentious differentiation between biological sex and social gender (Young, 1988). They argued for the use of the term gender—a social construction, as opposed to sex a biological construction, as politically more useful because social gender could be changed while biological sex was unchangeable.

The domestic labour debate, the work of the Wages for Housework campaign, and the work of the Bielefeld School of Subsistence production, also owe their origin to socialist-feminist theorizing of different genres. This has resulted in the policy-oriented demands for the recognition of unwaged work in national calculations of GNP, an issue of continued interest to the international women’s movement. Socialist-feminist work on waged work and labour history, has also contributed greatly to a redefinition of the sociology of work and industry, such as the recognition of other forms of unwaged work, the sexual division of labour, and the critique of the masculinized notion of the worker.

Methodologically also, claiming Dorothy Smith’s (1974) identification of a standpoint of Women as their starting point, socialist-feminists contributed to the development of feminist standpoint epistemology and theory which is once more under debate today (SIGNS, 1997). This will be explored in more detail later on.

The Black Feminist Critique

The Black feminist critique in the United Kingdom and the United States has also been an important contributor to contemporary feminist sociology. This critique pre-figured many of the debates on difference and essence which are central to feminist discourse today. Yet it has been quite a struggle to incorporate these ideas into mainstream feminist discourse.

In the 1970s, black, third world and women of colour, based primarily in North America and the United Kingdom, began a continuous critique of what was seen as mainstream (read white) feminist theory and practice. To summarize, it was argued that mainstream feminism was ethnocentric in that it excluded the experience of non-white women and nevertheless put forward generalized theories of women’s experiences. Further they noted that in recognizing gender as a key factor in shaping women’s experience, other factors such as race/ethnicity, nationality and to a lesser extent class were ignored. When these and other critiques were acknowledged by the mainstream, it was found that they were seen as separate from and not part of the general experience of women. When racism became acknowledged within mainstream feminist theorizing it was still regarded as something which only affected black women and women of colour but was largely irrelevant to the experiences of white women. As noted by Evelyn Higginbotham, many feminists were unable to separate their whiteness from their womanness or to see that they too had an ethnic identity which defined their experience as women (Higginbotham, 1996: 7).

Interestingly after many years there is the emergence of a scholarship on whiteness as ethnicity in the United States. One of the earlier of such works was Peggy McIntosh’s (1986) comparing the similarities between White privilege and Male privilege based on her own life experiences. Other scholars in what is today referred to as Critical White Studies, reflect on the combination of white privilege with male privilege and the contemporary challenges to its hegemony and the responses to these challenges (Delgado and Stefancic, 1997).

In their classic work This Bridge called my Back, Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua summarized the concerns of U.S. women of colour in these words:

how visibility/invisibility as women of color forms our radicalism; 2) the ways in which Third World women derive a feminist political theory specifically from our racial/cultural background and experience; 3) the destructive and demoralizing effects of racism in the women’s movement; 4) the cultural, class and sexuality differences that divide women of color; 5) Third World women’s writing as a tool for self-preservation and revolution; and 6) the ways and means of a Third World feminist future (Moraga and Anzaldua, 1983: xxiv).

During the 1980s and 1990s a consistent scholarship developed in this area and the effects of this on mainstream feminist theory are now being felt. These concerns as suggested earlier have been placed in sharp relief with the pre-eminence of post-structuralist and post-modernist thought in contemporary scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. The emergence of the concept of difference first brought forward by black feminists and further emphasized by post-structuralist philosophers has provided one of the major contemporary challenges for feminist theory and sociology in the 1990s.

In general therefore sociology in general and feminist sociology in particular on the eve of the 1990s, was already being shaped by a number of discourses. To these we can also add the wider criticisms of sociology as being European and North American centric accepting the hegemony of Euro-American behaviours, patterns, theorizing and modes of thought by which other populations were measured. Suffice it to say that these critiques formed the basis for the opening-up of new subject areas for study, exploration and research. But just as importantly, serious questions related to epistemology and methodology also emerged.

Feminist Methodology and Epistemology

Feminists raised questions as to whether a specifically feminist method was possible; whether what was necessary were actually new techniques and methods or simply new approaches and epistemological principles (McCarl Nielsen, 1990). To some extent both have taken place. New approaches to empiricism emerged as well as post-empirical (McCarl Nielsen, 1990) approaches to hermeneutics and interpretative sociology. Social history and literary analysis were also reconfigured. But one of the most important developments was the emergence of what has been termed feminist standpoint theory/epistemology.

Feminist standpoints were identified as locations from which feminists experienced and understood the world. Locations which provided them with the possibility of understanding both their own world as well as that of their oppressors; a double vision which was not available to the dominant group. In many ways this understanding was prefigured in the classic work of W.E.B. Dubois The Souls of Black Folk, where he identified the double consciousness which black people in the United States developed in order to understand and survive in a hostile environment (Dubois, 1961):

One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro: two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (Dubois, 1961: 17).

As noted by Joyce McCarl Nielsen, feminist standpoints begin but do not end with women’s experiences (McCarl Nielsen, 1990: 24). Feminist standpoint theory injected a political value into the experience of knowledge creation; Feminist standpoints became identified with the standpoints of other oppressed or subordinated groups. It was seen as a basis for a struggle for social justice and political transformation. In a recent essay, Sandra Harding (1997) identifies the emergence of feminist standpoint theory as an idea whose time had come as many of the authors whose names have subsequently become associated with it: Smith, Harstock, Jagger, Rose and Harding herself had been working independently and unaware of each others work. As she explains:

It was a project straining at the bit to emerge from feminist social theorists who were familiar with Marx’s Engle’s (sic), and Lukac’s writings on epistemology, the potential parallels Hartstock so incisively delineates between the situations of proletarians and of women in thinking about relations between and knowledge began to leap off the page… (Harding, 1997: 389).

The Feminist Critique of Development

In addition to the impact of feminist sociology on theory and epistemology, it is important to also explore its relationship to social policy and practice. One area where this has been significant has been in the area of development policy where the issue of women/gender and development has been an important aspect of the sociology of development and of development policies and practice emanating from it. In the late 1970s and 1980s, in the context of the United Nations Decade for Women, a major new field of social policy intervention developed around interventions primarily in countries of the economic south—Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean.

While ostensibly emerging from the feminist critique of development, different strands of this discourse and its practice ranged from simply uncritical interventions which left unchallenged the sexual division of labour, and the unequal international division of labour; to others which sought to empower women and transform hierarchical gender relations. In many instances a new north-south relationship of hegemony was instituted, where women/gender and development experts mainly from the North, developed policy for and intervened on behalf of subordinated women of the South.

A significant concurrent development was the critique of development as neo-colonial imperialism by Third World feminists located in the Economic South which drew on their own experience of gendered subordination in the post-colonial world (Sen and Grown, 1985: Shiva, 1988). Unfortunately with these two exceptions, this Third World scholarship is relatively unknown and very much on the margins of international feminist scholarship, a reflection of the continued hegemony of Euro-American scholarship in general and in feminist scholarship in particular.

The Challenge of the 1990s

The challenges to feminist theory in the 1990s have been many. These have to be examined in the context of international economic and social developments of that period. The 1990s marked a severe departure from the situation of the 1970s and early 1980s. Among the factors contributing to the changed social context were: the collapse of then existing socialism characterized by the fall of the Berlin wall, the break up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War; the resulting triumphalist primacy of economic neo-liberalism emphasizing private initiative; individualism and the hegemony of the market. All this has had deleterious effects on income distribution, employment and social welfare provisions.

The present period is one which is marked by increasing poverty on the one hand and increased accumulation of wealth on the other. The decline of the promise of socialism and of modernization has caused a retreat to group loyalties based on religious fundamentalism, race and ethnicity and nationality and a decline in the importance of organizations based on other forms of solidarity such as trade unions.

It is in this context, that we should examine one of the major epistemological challenges facing feminist scholarship—the deconstruction of the concept woman and its implications for sociology as well as the challenge to make feminist theory and feminist sociology more truly international than it is at present.

The De-Essentializing of the Concept Woman

The realization that women’s experiences and identities were multiple, constituted by intersecting, at times contradictory variable[s] has been one of the most creative insights of the last decades of feminist theorizing (Wieringa, 1995: 9-10). While it is true that anthropological scholarship for decades had recognized the cross-cultural diversity of people’s experience and the variability in women’s roles and statuses this was not always evident in the main theorizing of the early years and certainly less so in sociology. It is ironic that this theorizing which struggled on the margins for so many years to be heard, can now be heralded for forcing one of the significant paradigmatic shifts in mainstream feminist theorizing. These efforts by black feminists were no doubt supported by the efforts of other groups such as lesbian and disabled women which argued quite legitimately for a recognition of the multiple experiences of women and the inability of isolating any woman separate from other identities of race/ethnicity, class, age, ability, nationality and sexuality among others (Spelman, 1988).

A critical contributing factor was the widespread influence, coming from literary theory of various strands of post-structuralist and post-modernist thought. By challenging the legitimacy of the mainstream category of woman, black and women of colour contributed to a process of deconstruction which was fulfilled by post-structuralist challenges to the validity of the female subject. This challenge was part of a larger challenge to the concept of the human subject per se as having any essential identity or authentic core which was natural. De-essentializing was a major component of post-structuralist discourse which supported the black feminist ideas of diversity, multiplicity and difference as opposed to some singular gendered essence. Critiques of essentialism also looked at concepts of race, ethnicity and nation as well as more abstract reifications like the economy. It is interesting therefore to note that this aspect of the black feminist critique became very much part of the mainstream discourse in the 1990s while other aspects remain on the margins.

The hegemony of post-structuralist thought in the late 1980s and early 1990s coincided with the end of the Cold War and all that that meant politically. Old political categories like old political theories notably marxist and neo-marxist ones, were delegitimized. As noted by Susan Hekman in relation to standpoint theory:

Several developments in the late 1980s have led to this declining influence. First the inspiration for feminist standpoint theory, Marxism, has been discredited in both theory and practice. Second, feminist standpoint theory appears to be at odds with the issue that has dominated feminist debate in the past decade: difference. Third, feminist standpoint theory appears to be opposed to the most significant influences in recent feminist theory: postmodernism and post-structuralism (Hekman, 1997: 342).

Increasingly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the categories woman and women became problematic ones. Citing one example, Wieringa refers to Monique Wittig who in 1991:

… draws the ultimate consequence of deconstructing womanhood altogether. She asks herself what is a woman? Does woman exist? Her answer is that a woman is just an ideological construct of male domination, that there is nothing real, essential about women, nor about men for that matter. In her view there is no such thing as a biological reality of the two sexes. Constructed as they are by patriarchy (Wittig cited in Wieringa, 1995: 11).

While some scholars accepted the post-modernist thesis of the impossibility of identifying any such category, the academic feminist project of the 1990s, especially in North America, became that of preserving a non-essentialized category of women as a basis for a continued feminist politics. In other words, rather than feminist politics being a means for diverse women to actualize their vision and political aspirations, preserving the category women became a necessity to keep open a space for feminist politics and feminist scholarship. The problematic had indeed been turned on its head. As noted by a number of writers:

If gender is simply a social construct, the need and even the possibility of a feminist politics becomes immediately problematic. What can we demand in the name of women if women do not exist and demands in their name simply reinforce the myth that they do? How can we speak out against sexism as detrimental to the interests of women if the category is a fiction? (Alcoff, 1989: 306).

Feminist politics evaporates, that is without some conception of women as a social collective. Radical politics may remain as a commitment to social justice for all people, among them those called women. Yet the claim that feminism expresses a distinct politics allied with anti-imperialism, anti-racism and gay liberation but asking a unique set of enlightening questions about a distinct axis of social oppression cannot be sustained without some means of conceptualizing women and gender as social structures (Young, 1996: 164).

The attempts to deal with this philosophical problem have taken many forms, all based on some form of complex social constructionism, a conceptual development which should be of much interest to sociologists whose raison d’etre has always been the emphasis on the social over the natural. A fear of descent into essentialism characterizes all these approaches. The dilemma as described by Alcoff (1989) following de Lauretis (1986), is constructed as one “between a post-structuralist genderless subject and a cultural feminist essentialised subject” (Alcoff, 1989: 313).

One attempt to find a way out of this dilemma as noted by Wieringa (1995), was that of de Lauretis. In Technologies of Gender (1987), de Lauretis conceptualizes gender as a product of discourse and of the meanings produced in the power constellation of discourse itself; as well as itself being a constructing process. Thus one not only receives one’s gender identity within a given discourse, but also by assuming it, by enacting it, the categories such as men, women, gays and lesbians are created. Another attempt is that developed by Linda Alcoff in 1988/89 of identity politics. In this conceptualization, “the concept woman is defined not by a particular set of attributes but by a particular position” or positionality (Alcoff, 1989: 323). Gender for Alcoff therefore is not natural, biological, universal, a historical or essential but rather is a position from which feminists can act politically (Alcoff, 1989: 323).

Other scholars argue that “an identity woman, that unites subjects into a group is not [a] natural or social given but rather the fluid construct of a political movement, feminism” (Young, 1996: 166). Further, as noted by Diana Fuss, “woman cannot name a set of attributes that a group of individuals have in common,… there is not a single female gender identity that defines the social experience of womanhood, rather it is feminist politics itself which creates an identity woman out of a coalition of diverse female persons dispersed across the world” (Fuss, 1989: 36, cited in Young, 1996: 166). The problem here of course is that women exist outside of feminist politics so these approaches cannot account for this.

Clearly from the above it appears to me that feminist theory especially US feminist theory in the late 1990s has found itself in a sort of dead end. On the one hand, as noted by Linda Alcoff following de Lauretis: “the contradiction of feminist theory itself, is that it is at once excluded from discourse and imprisoned within it.” This can also be posited for the female subject—”at once excluded from discourse and imprisoned within it” (cited by Alcoff, 1989: 312).

All the efforts cited above and the many others, to a large degree tend to further imprison the female subject and feminist theory further within a discourse which in turn runs the risk of excluding them once more. Interestingly just at the time when the category woman was being accepted into the mainstream it became de-legitimized first by social constructionist theory and later by post-structuralist theory. These philosophical debates also took place at a time when the women’s movement was facing a significant backlash and when economic neo-liberalism and religious fundamentalism were removing many of the gains made by women in the 1970s and early 1980s. There is no doubt that these critiques were useful in developing a more sophisticated analysis of gender relations, but it is possible that this line of theoretical exploration has reached its end. This point is strengthened when black and third world feminists no longer see post-structuralist thought as an ally but rather as a foe. By de-legitimizing any natural basis to be a human subject, other subjectivities be they race, colour, age, sexuality, ability etc. are also called into question. So what initially was seen as supporting their call for multiplicity, diversity and difference is now seen as throwing out the baby with the bathwater so to speak. This is highlighted by Alexander and Mohanty (1996) who note that “Postmodernist discourse…in dissolving the stability and analytic utility of the categories of race, class, gender and sexuality. This strategy forecloses any valid recuperation of these categories or the social relations through which they are constituted. If we dissolve the category of race, for instance, it becomes difficult to claim the experience of racism” (Alexander and Mohanty, 1996: xvii).

The fear of essentialism has characterized feminist theory especially certain sections of socialist-feminist theory from its inception. Biology and definitions into nature had been used to justify women’s subordination for so long that feminists developed a healthy mistrust of it. Cultural feminist formulations such as those of Adrienne Rich and Mary Daly were seen as constructing and reinforcing essentialisms which imprisoned some women and excluded the reality of others. This strong fear was transformed into something worse in the last decade. The mere mention of the criticism—essentialist was enough to end any argument or cause a hasty denial.

It may be time therefore to reconsider this position. This dilemma has probably bogged us down in yet another dualistic quagmire characteristic of all of those which we have identified before viz: culture/nature; social/natural; gender/sex. As I have noted for many years and as stated by Sandra Harding—a clean separation between sex and gender is hardly possible. Is it possible to separate the biological from the social aspects of our “sexual identities, practices and desires” (Harding, 1992: 351). While it is true that in feminist theorizing we have moved beyond vulgar biological determinism as natural determinants of human behaviour. Yet it would be foolish to deny the existence of an entire other area of human knowledge and experience, that of biology and the related areas of study.

Maybe the challenge for social science scholarship in the 1990s is to move beyond our disciplinary boundaries and interact and collaborate with the natural scientists in comprehending the complexities of our gendered human reality. In so doing as suggested by Harding (1992) we can then challenge the unmodified biological determinism which continues to flourish in those fields without feminist social science intervention.

Saskia Wieringa (1995) goes one step further in calling for a rapprochement between constructivism/constructionism and essentialism. She notes that while constructivism was a major step forward both theoretically and politically, over essentialism. Essentialism itself should not be reduced to biological reductionism. In a later work, she refers to the work of Birke and Vines (1987) feminist biologists who worked on the interaction of social phenomena with biological phenomena. They suggest that this relation far from being static as feared by early social constructionists, is dynamic and transformative in relation to both social contexts and physiological characteristics:

… they suggest we should think of transformative processes. In this way the social may be seen as providing the niches in which the biological is acted out. But those niches in turn are constructed in a dialogue with psycho-biological factors. It should be realised that psycho-biological factors can never be studied directly, they are always socially mediated. (Wieringa, 1995: 146).

It should be recalled that in the original conceptualization of the term gender the scholars of the social relations of gender school of Sussex argued that the use of the term gender as a social construction in contrast to sex, which was a biological construction, was politically more useful as social gender could be changed while biological sex was unchangeable. As noted by Harding (1992) however, recent evidence suggests that we may have to rethink that formulation, for while we are witnessing startling changes in medical technologies and through ecological disasters; long-standing problems of sexism, racism and classism seem to be particularly resistant and difficult to change. She nevertheless fails to make the bold step and concludes that in spite of the fact that these divisions between culture and gender and sex and gender are empirically false “we cannot afford to dismiss them as irrelevant as they continue to structure our lives and consciousness” (Harding, 1992: 353).

In this critical re-thinking of essentialism, feminists can once more reclaim their bodies not as natural objects but as canvases on which society, including feminists as social actors enscribe and negotiate meaning. This approach would provide men also with the options to re-write their bodily scripts in the ongoing context of the struggle to re-negotiate and transform power relations. Gender then would emerge as suggested by Dorothy Smith through the differential ways in which women, men and others of diverse ethnicities, classes etc. experience their bodies and embodied lives in a social and historical context.

Contributions to Feminist Theorizing: A View from the South

As noted earlier, contributions to mainstream feminist scholarship from the South have been limited. As a result what has been termed an international scholarship may more correctly be regarded as the globalization of a hegemonic Euro-American scholarship. Caribbean feminist scholarship for example has a great deal to offer for a number of reasons. For example some of the earliest sociological research was carried out in this region especially in the area of population and demography, sociology of the family, social stratification and plural society and applied sociology/social administration. Indigenous male scholars such as George Roberts, Lloyd Braithwaite and M.G. Smith have contributed to sociology at a wider international level especially in the 1960s, however since that time, the heavy concentration on empiricist work in the Anglophone Caribbean has limited its international appeal.

In the area of feminist sociology, for many years that too tended to be quite empiricist. Building on the rich experience of demography and quantitative sociology in the region especially located in the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) of The University of the West Indies, the first major collaborative research exercise, the Women in the Caribbean Research Project (WICP) generated a base of empirical data on women’s livelihoods, emotional support and power and authority.

As a multiethnic region where the indigenous peoples were almost decimated and where European settlers and investors derived profits from forced labour systems using indigenous and later other imported labourers. Complex systems of social stratification based on race/ethnicity, colour, class and gender—the result of years of plantation agriculture and its attendant migrations—forced and voluntary emerged. Not surprisingly therefore, sociological theories of stratification and plural society, precursors of contemporary understandings of difference have always been significant.

Towards a Caribbean Feminist Theory of Difference

While as we saw earlier, a vast scholarship on the interrelationship of race/ethnicity, class and gender emerged internationally, this has centred on the experience of black women and women of colour in North America and Europe and to a lesser extent South Africa. Little has so far been contributed from post-colonial immigrant societies such as Fiji, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore or indeed the regions of the Caribbean (Reddock, 1994).

In a recent paper (Reddock, 1997) I sought to contribute to the feminist understandings of difference as it was experienced in the Caribbean situation where the main axis of conflict is not today between white women and their others, but among women and people of colour themselves. Interestingly this context of contestation occurs in a historical context where racial and ethnic stereotypes were largely defined by the European colonialists but continue to influence inter-ethnic relations today. As noted by Brackette Williams in relation to Guyana (former British Guiana):

There is ample evidence to suggest that in Guiana subordinated ethnic segments accepted European cultural domination in practice and consistent with Bartels’s conclusion, utilized racial stereotypes derived from this elite stratum to compete for and to justify their rights to certain economic and political benefits.… This image was reinforced by formal and informal administrative policies that encouraged group competition and a notion that political representation along ethnic lines was essential to protect the interests of the different groups (Williams, 1991: 159).

Over the period of the l990s, in a largely uncoordinated way, a number of anglophone Caribbean scholars have contributed to what I see as an emerging discourse on Difference and Feminism relevant to this sub-region. In so doing, the theorizing which has emerged is relevant not only for this region but for similar post-colonial societies as well as for countries in the North.

In 1991 for example, Gemma Tang Nain, rejected what she saw as the divisiveness of Black feminism in North America and the United Kingdom, suggesting that its re-conceptualization as an anti-racist feminism may be more appropriate. In this article she argued that in the Caribbean’s post-colonial context, although economic control was still to a large extent in the hands of white men, both local and foreign, political power had shifted from white men to black men (and in some cases, one could add today to Indian men). Women had no part in this equation and therefore Caribbean women had not found it necessary to divide feminism into black and white (Tang, 1991: 1).

For her part, Rawwida Baksh-Soodeen, while noting that the post-colonial feminist discourse in the Commonwealth Caribbean had been largely what she terms an afrocentric one (Baksh-Soodeen, 1993: 25), also posits that in spite of the real cultural differences among feminists of different ethnic and religious groupings, the larger tradition of anti-colonial struggle based on the commonalities within the different experiences of the plantation, slavery and indentureship, provide a common base from which to collaborate, and a greater basis for a multicultural feminist platform (Baksh-Soodeen, 1993).

Another worthwhile contribution to this discourse comes from Patricia Mohammed (1994) who in a socio-historical study of Indians in Trinidad argued quite successfully for a system of competing patriarchies operating simultaneously since the colonial period. Mohammed like Tang Nain, focuses on the competitions among males for political power and hegemonic control as being the defining characteristic of the Trinidad and Tobago patriarchal order, an understanding which no doubt has resonance elsewhere. This context she notes is one where:

… the patriarchal context as it existed in Trinidad in 1917 was that of a competition among males of different racial groups, each jostling for power of one sort or the other—economic, political, social status and so on. In the face of a hegemonic control by the white group and another kind of dominance by the Creole population, the contestation was both a definition of masculinity between men of different races, and for Indian men to retrieve a ruptured patriarchy from the ravages of indentureship and thus be better placed to compete in this patriarchal race (Mohammed, 1994: 32).

This analysis therefore as it develops puts a new slant on the understanding of gendered power relations and ethnic differentiation among groups, especially historically subordinated groups. As feminist scholars have noted for some time, ethnic struggles have usually been defined in masculinist terms as struggles for the reclamation of manhood, against emasculation etc. In this process women have both colluded with their men in the interest of the group and/or have struggled against the definitions of place and culture which this process has assigned to them. For my part, I argue that feminist conceptualizations of difference, especially those coming from the Anglophone Caribbean need to be quite different from masculinist ones. They also tend to be different from those in the North in that they highlight the interconnectedness among women as well as the separateness and so provide a basis for collective social action. In conceptualizing difference in the Caribbean, I note that in the colonial context, the groups had been defined in opposition to each other. Women especially have been othered in relation to each other to stress group differences, often within the context of historical stereotypes. It can be argued therefore that our understanding of difference has to be one which shows the ways in which our contrasted definitions construct the other within ourselves. As noted in a previous publication:

In conceptualizing a theory of difference for the Caribbean therefore, it is not enough to simply celebrate diversity. We need to isolate the ways in which the constructed differences have contributed to how we have conceptualised ourselves. Difference in the Caribbean therefore can be a mechanism for showing interconnectedness. In other words, the long-term project of a feminist understanding of difference would not be simply to come to terms with the other but rather to understand the other within ourselves as we have in many ways been defined in opposition and in relation to each other (Reddock, 1997: 12).

What is interesting here is that in contrast to Northern discussions of difference among feminists, the Caribbean discussion clearly identifies men of competing ethnicities as very much implicated in these processes. The Northern discourse focussed primarily on women and their relations to each other outside of their relations to men. This brings us to the other area where Caribbean scholarship may contribute to international theorizing in sociology and feminist studies.

Theorizing Manhood and Masculinity in the Caribbean: A Beginning

Increasingly within this region and internationally, the theorizing of masculinity and manhood and its relationship to femininity and womanhood has become an important component of feminist theorizing. Although it is recognized and indeed stressed that men also need to be part of this process. The issue of masculinity therefore will be a serious intellectual challenge for feminists, men’s studies scholars and hopefully sociologists in the 21st century. The significance of this in the Caribbean region, can be attributed to a number of historical factors characteristic of the Anglophone Caribbean. For example, Afro-Caribbean family forms (in common with other New World Afro-American communities) which deviated significantly from the accepted Euro-American conjugal forms, generated a wide range of sociological, anthropological and social-psychological analyses since the 1940s. These forms were at various points in the literature described matricentric, mother-centered, matrifocal, matrilocal, matristic, and denuded. In other words, all the studies shared a concern with what was seen as the unusually important role of women and the relatively marginal role of men especially within lower-class families.

In the 1980s a new discourse on male marginality emerged, led by Errol Miller (1986; 1992) who argued that colonial policy had facilitated the elevation of women over men due to the colonialists fear of black men. This resulted in a situation where black men were increasingly educationally and economically marginalized in the Anglophone Caribbean. This thesis, concretized the concerns by many men over the apparent improvement in women’s status and their willingness to act autonomously and challenge accepted forms of male privilege. This concern was fueled by women’s predominance in institutions of higher learning and representation in the higher echelons of the public sector, a situation often contrasting with young male criminality and violence. The fact that the reality of the majority of women continues to be dismal is of little relevance here.

In addition to this masculinist discourse however, a pro-feminist men’s movement and a scholarship on men and masculinity with female and male contributors is slowly emerging. A recently concluded sociological study on gender socialization among males for example, found that far from being marginal fathers, Afro-Caribbean men fulfilled the requirements of fatherhood perceived as required of them in this cultural context and fulfilled other requirements as their mothers sons. These requirements however were minimal. Men were therefore not marginal to this type of family but integral to this particular form. This new approach to Caribbean family and the gender relations within it, is finally based on a recognition that Caribbean families are not deviant forms of some overarching norm, but have an internal dynamic which needs to be understood on its own terms if it is to be challenged.


This chapter sought to do three things. First it sought to give a broad panoramic overview of developments in feminist sociology over the last two decades internationally. Second it examined one of the key theoretical and epistemological challenges facing feminist theorizing in the 1990s, the deconstruction and reconstruction of the concept woman. Third, using the example of a small subregion of the world, the Anglophone Caribbean, it tried to show how the hegemonic international discourse could benefit from insights being developed in other parts of the world.

It would have been impossible in this single article to encompass all of the richness and diversity of feminist sociological scholarship which contest today. In concluding, some of the other issues which should be on the agenda for the 21st century include the following: the interdisciplinary concern with the environment and ecology, much of this work coming from eco-feminists in the social and natural sciences; works on gender identity with an emphasis on formerly hidden categories including old and new forms of transgender identities, bringing once more to the fore that contentious relationship between the social and the biological. Issues of race, class, nationality and citizenship will continue to be on the agenda with the continued contestations of nationalist, ethnic and religious social movements; the feminist critique of science will be an important meeting ground for sociologists of science and for natural and physical scientists as disciplinary barriers continue to be challenged and finally the future of feminism as an international social movement will continue to be a concern for scholars and activists alike in the context of various forms of backlash and the transfer to new generations of scholars and activists.

This was indeed a large task, one which could only be incomplete given the depth and breadth of the subject. It is hoped that rather than being a definitive statement, this paper would be seen as a basis for further discussion.