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Gender Struggles: Practical Approaches to Contemporary Feminism
Constance L. Mui & Julien S. Murphy, eds.
Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
$22.95, 369 pages, ISBN 0-7425-1255-X (paperback).
$64.75, 369 pages, ISBN 0-7425-1254-1 (hardback).

Agnieszka Graff
University of Warsaw


Gender Struggles is an ambitious anthology of essays in feminist theory from a new book series called “Feminist Constructions,” which aims to “publish accessible books that send feminist ethics in promising new directions,” “move beyond critique” and build a “positive body of theory” (see reverse of title page). The idea of “positive theory” and the book’s focus on “real life” may appear naive in a book of contemporary cultural theory, but these ideas themselves are examined and problematized in many essays. With Gender Struggles we find ourselves at the heart of the ongoing debate about feminism, postmodernism and the relation between theory and practice.

Some of the contributors—Susan Bordo, Rosi Braidotti or Judith Butler—will no doubt be familiar, but you may be disappointed to find that you know one or two texts from elsewhere. For instance, Sharon Marcus’s brilliant analysis of rape as language “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words” (Chapter 7 of Gender Struggles) was published a decade ago in the well-known anthology Feminists Theorize the Political (ed. J. Butler, J.W. Scott, Routledge: 1992). Other pieces are drawn from the authors’ longer projects (e.g. “Rethinking Consciousness Raising: Citizenship and the Law and the Politics of Adoption” by Drucilla Cornell, Chapter 14). The careful and logical arrangement of texts, however, justifies the inclusion of some older pieces. This is no loose collection, but a book with a clear purpose and structure—hence the editorial decision to refer to individual essays as chapters.

What does this book tell us about present-day gender studies? As feminist theory enters its third decade, writers seem to be taking stock, re-asking the basic questions about the grounding of their field, and its relevance to social practice and lived experience. As promised in the editors’ introduction, the aim is to ask: “What is practical feminism in a postmodern world? How has our thinking about practical gender struggles been shaped by the larger context of a crisis in philosophy? How does rethinking old categories affect the way we understand practical issues that we confront daily? (3) These questions, we might add, are always conceptualized in relation to structures of meaning. What happens—culturally, linguistically, emotionally—between a harasser and his victim? Is it about sex or power? (Chapter 10). Why and how does the fetus function in public debates? (Chapter 5) In sixteen essays the book develops new conceptual frameworks for issues such as welfare policies, sexual harassment, abortion, rape, motherhood, housework, always analyzing them as forms of MEANING, as well as ACTING, and examining the relation between the two.

An interesting pattern emerges in these gap-bridging efforts, one which testifies to the seriousness of the split: many the chapters are tightly argued theoretical pieces right up to their final paragraphs, where authors hurriedly and somewhat halfheartedly offer “practical” solutions as applications of their theories. These conclusions often lack both theoretical subtlety and grounding in reality. Consider Nancy Fraser’s reasoning in “After the Family Age” (Chapter 3), a piece devoted to two models of the postindustrial welfare state, and their built-in assumptions about how best to achieve gender equity and share the work that needs to be done. The first model is the American “universal breadwinner” formula, which asks women to be like men in the workplace, but ignores the existence (and gendering) of carework, rendering women’s work at home culturally invisible. The other model, founded on the idea of “caregiver parity”, is favored in the EU. It acknowledges that carework is mostly women’s responsibility, and makes no effort to change this fact, but tries to compensate for it by making the work done at home visible (i.e. paid by means of various benefits and insurance arrangements). As a result, women are economically safer, but the traditional gendered division of labor is preserved. Fraser’s conceptual framework here is impressive: she examines the gender bias and internal contradictions of both models, comparing them step by step along various scales. She shows the ways in which both devalue women’s work and self-worth, putting them at a disadvantage to men. The critical/deconstructive part is brilliant. But when she moves to the practical/constructive part, we learn that “men should be more like women” (i.e. do more carework), and that gender coding of work and care should be eliminated. That would be nice, of course, but didn’t we know these “positive solutions” all along? Being “constructive” rarely does theory any good.

Gender Struggles is no easy read, but it is more fun than many books of pure theory, because it looks at specific issues. Only the authors of the first two chapters (by Linda M.G. Zerilli and Nancy L. Hirschmann) examine the theory/practice dilemma directly, offering theoretical grounding to the whole volume. Zerelli argues that feminist practice cannot consist in “doing without knowing”, glossing over unexamined contradictions—about equality and difference, skepticism and action, deconstruction of the subject and identity politics, essentialism and social construction of gender etc. Feminism needs to KNOW what it is DOING, and “strategic essentialism” is no solution here. She suggests that we look to Wittgensten’s ideas of forms of life and language games for solution to the theory /practice and language/reality dilemma. In Chapter 2, Hirschman offers a formulation of a feminist theory of freedom with women’s sense of community at its heart. These two essays, though well argued, and perhaps necessary to give the volume a solid beginning, are somehow less memorable than those which follow. Most of the remaining contributors tackle specific issues and often take recourse to personal narrative (notably: Brison on violence and trauma, Iris Marion Young on bad housekeeping). Gender Struggles surprises you with innumerable stories told, or rather retold, from new, surprising points of view. Many of them are good, sexy, or scary stories. Protagonists include Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, someone’s mom who never cleaned the house and got arrested for it, a mentally disabled child, a teacher who patted one author on her rear saying it was “time for class, dear” (230) and many others.

Some of the authors address issues that feminism has often shied away from. Sandra Lee Bartky’s “Suffering to be Beautiful” (Chapter 10) tackles the feminist debate on beauty, including some of its uncomfortable aspects, i.e. the pride, power and pleasure which many heterosexual women derive from participation in beauty culture, and the problems this creates for some feminists. This text and several others in the volume work well as class reading: they can spark off a lively discussion.

My personal favorite in Gender Struggles is Drucilla Cornell’s analysis of the cultural obsession with secrecy, heterosexuality and the breaking of ties in adoption procedures (Chapter 14). Cornell’s study of the treatment of birth mothers and adopted children leads to a striking observation about women’s legal identity within patriarchal culture. Women, she argues, are defined as caretakers with duties to their families, rather than as citizens with rights—particularly the right to knowledge and continuity within their lives (what she calls one’s “imaginary domain”). That so-called birth mothers are forced to break all ties with their children shows us something important about our culture: in the case of women forsaking duties leads to denial of rights. This may seem fair to some, but is contrary to the idea of inalienable human and civil rights. Moreover, the forced break is often a source of pain to all parties concerned. It has more to do with enforced heterosexuality and the cultural anxiety about legitimacy than with the good of children. Finally, the whole process is deeply hostile and divisive to women. The fantasy of the “good mother” turns women—often across class and race differences—into enemies, competing over the right to be the sole “real” mother in a child’s life. Cornell calls for solidarity between so called birth mothers and adoptive mothers “based on the recognition of the asymmetrical positioning of the adoptive mother before the fantasies of the good mother” (311), and offers a vision of family law free from heteronormativity, obsessions with blood ties, the gendering of parental love, and other norms on what makes a “real” family. It is a vision involving custodial responsibility that can (but does not have to) involve sexual ties between parents (of whatever sex), and publicly funded childcare as part of parental entitlement.

What makes Gender Struggles coherent despite the broad spectrum of issues covered, is the fact that its methods are hermeneutic in nature: almost all the authors are theoretically aware readers, interpreters, of systems of cultural signification. Patriarchy is being read not just as a system of power relations, but as a system of signs. Significantly, the term “gender” seems to function as a verb rather than as a noun here: i.e. gender is not seen as an attribute of individuals, but as a process of signification, through which both subjects and cultural practices are constituted as gendered. Authors rely on various theories of language (Wittgenstein, hermeneutics, Foucault, speech acts, narrative theory, etc.), but the anthology is remarkably consistent in placing structures of meaning as its primary object of study. In Marcus’s analysis of rape as language it is argued that rape is a situation in which victims are gendered female (passive, docile bodies), and that this process can be subverted if women resist their attackers, and turn into “fighting bodies”.

Judging by this volume we can conclude that gender studies has, by now, developed a methodology: one in which meaning and interpretation take central stage. Ironically, this is precisely the basis for accusations of irrelevance waged by activists against theorists. This anthology does not resolve the debate, but it does complicate it in interesting ways, and Judith Butler’s contribution to the volume (chapter 8) can be read as an ironic commentary or meta-text on the language-focus of feminism as well as other liberatory discourses. Butler examines the philosophical implications of the fact that “[t]he sphere of language has become a privileged domain in which to interrogate the cause and effects of social injury” (186). Her critique includes Dworkin and MacKinnon’s legal and ethical theorization of pornography as act rather than speech. She also looks at the debate over hate speech legislation it the USA, arguing compellingly the attribution of the power to injure to language is in fact an effort to reinstate the subject, to pin down an unstable context of diffuse power—in short, an anxious response to the diffusion of power in contemporary society. Paradoxically, instead of controlling this power, censorship produces it. “The elaborate institutional structures of racism as well as sexism are suddenly reduced to the scene of utterance, and utterance, no longer the sedimentation of prior institution and use, is invested with the power to establish and maintain the subordination (...)” (193). As a result, (speaking) subjects are cast as agents of power—a move which invests them with power they do not otherwise have, and does nothing to diminish oppressive structure which makes hate speech what it is. This skeptical gloss on feminism’s obsession with language is not a direct critique of other essays in the volume (one from which MacKinnon is significantly absent...), but it does make one wonder about the implications of some of the authors’ theoretical moves.

The whole point of this book is to overcome the boundary between feminist theory and practice—a noble goal, but perhaps unachievable by means of printed paper. The theory/activism split has been a source of anxiety, frustration and tension among feminists at least since the mid-1980s. On the one hand, theorists have been accusing activists of lack of vision, of political practice based on unexamined essentialist assumptions. On the other hand, feminist theory is often seen by activists (and pop- or post-feminists) as obscure and careerist (because in academic hierarchies obscurity often means status). Why are feminist books written in post-structuralist jargon which intimidates so many women? Why are they so detached from the efforts of the women’s movement? How can one “do” feminism, while questioning the very idea of “woman”? Such questions, asked with genuine bitterness, are often dismissed by gender studies scholars as “aggressively anti-intellectual” or “epistemologically naive”. The problem of the status of theory in relation to practice is taken on by this volume without such condescension. Still, I have my doubts whether the gap is (or can be) “deconstructed” or “bridged” in a way that would satisfy the activist side of the debate. After all, this is a collection of feminist theory, written in often dense prose, demanding that its readers be versed in cultural studies and philosophy of language. Still, the very fact that the theory/practice tension is acknowledged and examined makes Gender Struggles an important and worthwhile book.


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