Rachel Blau DuPlessis
What are the conflictual issues today for and within feminism, both locally and at large?
Dear Diotima, I speak as United States feminist and scholar. I would call myself a feminist activist within scholarly and poetry communities. I have worked within the feminist community as an editor, first (for about 15 years) on the editorial collective of Feminist Studies, and recently as the co-editor of The Feminist Memoir Project (with Ann Snitow), a book of memoirs by U.S. activists that was published in 1998 and will be republished in 2007 by Rutgers University Press. I am not known for political work and commentary, nor for theoretical work (in the philosophical vein), but as a writer, scholar, critic, poet and essayist.
The name Diotima is very evocative for me; it speaks to Socrates’ acknowledgement of the person—the woman—from whom he learned, and the subsequent historical and theoretical occlusion and exclusion of this tribute within the history of philosophy and the history of knowledge.
When feminism began in the second wave, it created (in Gramsci’s terms) “organic intellectuals.” These were women who tried to unify theory and praxis; they were making theoretical judgments and evaluations inside their political practices, and they were making a politics that called forth the necessity for evolving theoretical evaluations and claims. For a variety of reasons that I cannot trace (but wish I could), theory and praxis migrated away from that dialectical relationship. They seemed to split apart. Academic feminism often embraced the power and scintillation that theory offered, with some stunning consequences for the growth of feminist-oriented or feminist-inspired philosophic positions and for the rich critiques of many important thinkers in the Western canon, recent ones and older ones. And feminist activists had their own tracks—generally tending to the establishment of organized pressure groups and issue orientated campaigns. One group of practitioners became virtually irrelevant to the other. This is now an issue within feminism and for feminism.
I can say piously that the split of theory and practice is not a good thing; it tends to leave both “sides” somewhat bereft without their fully understanding why. However, I have no particularly compelling sense of what to do—perhaps institutes and conferences can bring selected representatives from both groups together. (But who would do the selection? What are the relevant “groups”? Political—and theoretical—questions!) Perhaps there is a world-wide project on which many women from many sectors could agree, like persistently and actively supporting U.N. programs and Conventions for women. Political activism is the base on which the superstructure of theory rests, one might argue. When that link is severed, both groups suffer. We need to encourage theoretical pragmatics and activist theorizing practices, and their links.
Second, fundamentalist thinking (a potential active in all the world’s religions, without exception) and neo-conservative, clerical authoritarian governments are exceedingly bad for women and must be struggled against without giving up any concessions. Women are protected by secular, civic society and enlightenment legal rights and laws. I am echoing Valentine M. Moghadam’s phrase “secular civil society” and her recognition of the general importance of any “state that enforces universal legal norms and guarantees protection of civil and human rights regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, and class” (Moghadam 2002, 1162). One of the largest dangers currently to civil rights for women is the iconization of women (for their own good, the argument goes), the controlling of women (for their own good, to “protect” their honor), the interpretation of women as non-autonomous members of a tribe, a family, a religion, a nation—or as a sex/gender-caste only good to produce the next generation. Women in any nation or social group without coequal rights and coeval temporalities to those of men and without world-standards for those rights are women suffering grave insult and injustice.
Third, the recognition of feminist achievements—the paradigm shifts, the epistemic revolution spoken about by Mary Hawkesworth—the institutional changes and the construction of new institutions and practices should never go unspoken. The general public needs to be reminded that the recent gains in female human rights and of gender justice in the context of social justice were brought about by feminist activists and their allies.
Fourth, international feminist activists and scholars should try to express support for particular covenants and programs, like the various U.N. statements about women, while making all pertinent critiques of them. Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 and coming into force in 1981, has, in 2006, passed its 25th anniversary.
Hawkesworth, Mary. Feminist Inquiry: From Political Conviction to Methodological Innovation. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
Moghadam, Valentine M. “Islamic Feminism and its Discontents: Toward a Resolution of the Debate.” Signs 27. 4 (2002): 1135-1171.