Current Challenges to Feminism: Theory and Practice

Restoring feminism’s emancipatory project would require a solid comprehension of the basic operations of the global economic order, first of all, and how it is relations of production that underpin nation, race, and gender. Without this, the international division of labor that has engendered vast class, racial and national divisions among women will remain concealed and worse, like male domination, become normalized and naturalized.


For much of the period from the 1970s through the 1980s I was quite concerned with the way in which Third World movements for national liberation were sidelining women’s issues and relegating these to the background. In this piece I centerstage the Philippines which I believe may serve as an illustrative case. Let me try to explain what I mean. It wasn’t that women were ignored or were not considered important for the revolution, because they could be found in organizations of various kinds and proved to be dependable and committed workers. It also was not that the platform for national liberation failed to articulate a position on women, because it did. But I think it is fair to say that women’s oppression was conceptualized almost exclusively along productivist lines so that male chauvinism—or the everyday conduct of men, both as individuals and as a group—could easily escape scrutiny or criticism and, therefore, correction or redress.

Stated theoretically, my critique was lodged at an economistic stance that could not take into sufficient account the social relations of gender, or the distinct and separate character of female subordination; indeed, this was a protest similarly expressed by women against their revolutionary parties in other parts of the Third World (Davies, 1983). Filipinos writing at the time situated women’s subjugation in their roles as factory workers, as prostitutes, and as domestic workers deployed overseas, all of which were presented, accurately enough, as a consequence of the Philippines’ neocolonial status. Overall, the aim was to highlight class—to be precise, the extraction of surplus value constitutive of labor/capital relations, and the marginalization of practically all else. For example, precious little was observed or remarked about the home or family and the gender inequality spawned by the division of labor occurring within this site. Nor was there any questioning of male authority and male privilege, or attention to quotidian gender interactions. My point was that without the necessary interrogation, gender asymmetry would remain naturalized, accepted as the normal state of affairs, and continue to place women in a materially and psychologically disadvantaged position.

Economism assumed the emancipation of women (note that “feminism” during this period was anathema) to more or less mechanically transpire with a change in the mode of production. Yet the experience of women in then existing socialist countries contradicted the naivete of this belief (Kruks et al, 1989). Moreover, the subsumption of the interpersonal or cultural to the economic made the movement’s interest in women appear as purely instrumental; that is, it caused one to wonder whether in fact the movement’s consideration of women was based chiefly on its perfectly understandable need for recruits. My queries were waived aside through references to women who were “red fighters” (i.e., in the New People’s Army) in a move by comrades to invalidate my complaints. These were offered to me as proof that women were now liberated, catapulted as they were into what was regarded as the most esteemed form of struggle. What better evidence than this of their having breached gender convention? I was also told in not so many words that, because of my location and long-term residence in the United States, I had been afflicted with the ills of Western feminism which from a revolutionary perspective by definition was individualist, bourgeois, and divisive.

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