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Feminism must move away from ‘women’s issues’

Feminism_fragmented_EvaOver the past four decades the insidious co-option of feminism into the language of the market and choices deeply confused liberation with individual freedom to choose. It’s time to stop fragmenting and trivialising feminism and instead explore new big ideas: feminist-flavoured options for more civil and egalitarian future societies, writes Eva Cox.

This is not an academic article but my musings after nearly 40 years as an activist feminist, both politically and as a practising sociologist. 

My critique and proposals are  based on my experiences, filtered through reading and research. I have been involved with many groups as member and campaigner and tend to see organisations as means for political engagement, so do not belong and fit easily under reformist or radical labels. 

My feminist politics were framed by de Beauvoir’s statement that one is not born a woman but becomes one. Neither Marxism nor liberalism has solutions for removing the power imbalances of that process so we need to redefine the scope for women’s liberation. 

Most ’70s feminist demands were rhetorically and partially co-opted into major political systems but the power imbalances continue. Political activisms were then undermined  by toxic mixed elements of post modernism and neo liberalism that denied the collectivist ethos. 

The correctives to universalised western feminist assumptions and excessive faith in the state were necessary but contributed to the political becoming personalised, not the personal becoming political. 

So in 2010, the defining issues of feminism may seem oddly archaic or abstruse and often mired in political fragmented individualisms. These make it difficult to explore new big ideas: feminist flavoured options for future more civil and egalitarian societies. 

This piece is therefore designed to stir debate and hopefully encourage change. My own definitions of feminism is revolutionary: overturning structures of power and so called universal values that are inexorably masculine dominated to include and revalue those excluded areas defined as feminine. 

Care, emotions, relationships, reproduction and nurture deeply affect the quality of lives and are necessary components of better societies so need be given their due value.    

Broad based movements need to accommodate very wide ranges of interests, and respect diverse views and different standpoints. However, there needs to be shared some core values or it becomes too hard to find any common ground. 

Unless common biological determinism predicts our limits, women are as diverse as men and so a focus just on what a woman or women want is unbounded. Therefore, women’s liberation should be about fixing gender-based power imbalances and valuing differences. 

This means that  discussions of areas like raunch culture, pornography and sex work should not be questioned on whether this type of activity is compatible with feminism but whether it is appropriate in wider terms. 

Similarly, getting more women in top positions should be about changing leadership cultures so the differential demands no longer assume women need to be more macho or nice if they want to succeed. 

This is why I don’t see separatist feminism or liberal feminism as useful political categories, as they are wider political labels that are often applied to ‘women’s issues’.  

In the shifting political frameworks and discourses of the last four decades the term feminism has become targeted, co-opted and degraded by various political groupings by  ridicule and hostile critiques. 

This attack led to internal arguments about what is really feminist with accompanying rigidities and ossification. 

We need to recognise the wider changes in political landscape over the past four decades, as most democracies were taken over by neo-liberal paradigms. The insidious co-option of feminism into the language of the market and choices deeply confused liberation with individual freedom to choose. 

So feminism was publicly redefined as woman’s choices but without recognising the limits that social and economic systems place on choices.

A feminism that is just about the success of individual women means they can be just as obnoxious as some men are, so is very limited and should be criticised on the basis of its failures to look at broader social constraints and ethical questions of  equity.   

We now should realise that just having more women in leadership positions doesn't shift the power balances towards feminist viewpoints. 

Unless the qualities and functions of leadership are re-defined, the assumption will continue that it’s up to women to fit into current ways of doing things, which explains why the percentages are stuck! 

If women are competing as surrogate males or biologically primed to provide support, why put them on boards, or ask for their views/expertise on any changes in workplaces, media or community? It is logical to protect your power base by appointing those who do not want to make changes.

If more women in top jobs won’t create broad feminist changes, we need to move away from acknowledging that numbers alone are the key to reform. 

What other second wave ideas are not working? 

Improving women’s educational qualifications is a good example of both change and no change: women have for some time done much better than men in many areas but still earn less, rise up fewer ranks, and specialise in the soft, less valued areas. And the statistical evidence shows we are stuck and not progressing, even when time out of the paid workforce is not an issue.  

Therefore gender biases in the allocation of power and resources continue and we need to rethink what changes are needed and how to make them. 

We have tried the materialistic and legal remedies but these are not enough because we have not succeeded in shifting the deep cultural assumptions that suit those (men) in power. 

By denying value to the social, relational, emotional and ethical parts of life, they can maintain their political and policy attachment to macho autistic economic models that see everything as determined by self-interest and market pricing. 

Externalities – that is things that do not fit their models – can be reduced in importance by framing them as women’s issues and not to be taken seriously. 

This viewpoint in a different form drove second wave feminism to reclaim the value of the ‘household/community’ sectors by putting the ‘private’ on the ‘public’ agenda, and we did. 

Issues such as domestic violence and the need for care services to free women to take on paid work are now commodified into legitimate political issues.

However, they form part of the straitjacket of women’s issues that distracts us from pushing for wider structural changes.  

Equal pay is a women’s issue but not more general issues about fairness in the workforce.  Flexibility is for parents but not for the workforce generally. We include violence against women, but not wider violence; focus on harassment and discrimination, but not on more ethical workplace cultures; examine media images but not media control; promote women’s health services but do not address the medical model of the health; talk of the body but not the body politic.  

By defining areas like fertility control, child care and parental leave, as women’s issues it means they are not of universal – that is, of interest to males. Much feminist activism was focused on these neglected areas which became those where feminism was seen as legitimate. 

This constraint seems now to be self-imposed, limiting political legitimacy to those feminised areas. Media images and sexploitation, yes, but tax no. 

Few feminist groups take on the more politically prominent classically masculine issues – for example, money, tax, superannuation and retirement income, the problems of the couple income test, nor on the wider problem of assuming financial inter-dependence. 

And the wider view is not welcome: at the recent tax review here in Australia, when we presented material on cohabitation and wider issues of fairness, the female member of the Inquiry asked why was I talking about the general issues, not women. 

There are many other areas of change that need feminist attention, like questions of how we define workplace productivity, as hours at work is a bad measure that suits men.

How do we look at time budgets that look at balancing our responsibilities to others in and out of paid work? Who defines merit in creative arts? Who carries the costs of care? How do we put the social high on political agendas, and limit the power of bad economic analysis?  In workplaces, for instance, we ask for concessions for those who care for others, not shifts in the way that productivity is valued. 

Women need to push for major changes in cultures that determine how we live, work and play, for all of us. 

The politics of it are hard because women need to be ready to push the boundaries harder than we have. If women are pushy and try and make changes they are labelled difficult but those who are nice tend to be ineffectual. 

I propose that we work on both the processes and content needed for making feminist changes to the social system in the coming difficult times. 

Eva Cox is an eternal optimist who has been actively involved in making feminist changes for 40 plus years. Based in Sydney, Australia, she thinks feminism is about making  the world civil and fair. She hopes that post the recent F Conference (Sydney’s first feminist conference in more than a decade) that more women engage with big change issues. She is also involved in other overlapping political struggles and sees the connections as social and not economic. She can be contacted by email at eva [dot] cox [at]



0 #2 Tracie OKeefe 2010-05-18 22:31
Feminism has often been about class division of ethical electism (eg. separatism, transphobia, educational superiority, white middle class privilege etc). It is still theoretically tribal and divisionist driven by many women of self interest, particularly in the GBL community, academia and politics.

Instead of making women issues as important as men's it often tries to ape men's behaviour badly. The gun and credit card did not set us free but just enslaved us in different ways. The nuturing arm of inclusive caring has been swapped by many women for the right to live in the penthouse, but for someone to be rich, someone else must be poor and the greatest oppression of women in Australia is by other women (the elephant in the room) who are generally bad at doing sororities, whereas men automatically do fraternities. Sisters are doing it for themselves often only ever means 'Sisters like us'. Greed over welfare is not feminist gain but chauvinism.
0 #1 SM 2010-05-17 02:09
Towing the party line is what collapsed feminism.

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