Current Challenges to Feminism: Theory and Practice

Legitimacy of “women’s issues”

I tried to push for the legitimacy of “women’s issues,” writing that these called for an altogether different type of thinking, one that went beyond the strict boundaries of class analysis and production relations and, although in the end determined by production, mandated independent scrutiny. At the very least I wanted gender inequality in its various dimensions discussed and dissected, maintaining that cultural forms, particularly when unexamined, tend to survive changes in the economic base. From today’s viewpoint, the questions I raised were hardly world-shaking. Along with other women, I argued for a semi-autonomous women’s organization that would enable such an inquiry, allowing women the necessary space to explore how feminism could move the revolution forward, deepening and fortifying it. A book I wrote in the late 1980s titled The Feminist Challenge which underscored the indispensability of feminism for the revolution. (By this time courageous revolutionary Filipino women had boldly adopted the term “feminism” and bestowed it with substance different from the West.) In it I tried to make the case that no movement for revolutionary change could achieve a new, truly humane social arrangement without seriously addressing the challenge put forth by feminism.

Fast forward to 2006. Crucial concrete, material changes have occurred that have altered the worldview of progressives in fundamental ways. Most critical among these are the collapse of the Soviet Union; the relatively slow but steady economic policy shifts in China; and the rightward turn in the West precipitated by a neoliberal strategy, all of which have been accompanied by the decline or demise of revolutionary movements worldwide. Speaking less of imperialism than of globalization—understood to mean the way in which all the nations on the planet have been successfully integrated into a capitalist world order—contemporary activists (revolutionaries no longer) aim their blows at corporate rapacity but fail to make mention of the exploitation entailed in capital’s extraction of surplus value. Thus, visions of an alternative system, though again re-emerging post-9/11 after a period dominated by the catchword TINA (“There is no alternative!”), are vague and blurry at best. This outlook has additionally projected national liberation struggles as outmoded, passé and retrograde, capable merely of reinstituting the negative characteristics of the old society they claim to replace. On the whole, progressive thinking has staged a pronounced retreat. When anti-corporate and anti-globalization activists declare hopefully that a new world is possible, the majority most likely imagine a kinder, gentler, “humanized” version of capitalism, definitely not the socialism or political utopias of yesteryear.

Such a reformist posture seems particularly ironic when juxtaposed with the increasingly undeniable fact that globalization has intensified poverty and widened class fissures within and among nation/states to an extent heretofore unknown. Now even more conspicuous as well, the phenomenon of uneven development inherent in capitalism inevitably means that class, national, and racial divisions among women have also become impossible to ignore. Given this, how has feminism—if one might now speak of a global trend—responded to these glaring schisms?

Success of women’s movements

The success of women’s movements around the world is manifested in today’s acceptance by the general public that it is only right and just for women to be the equals of men. Without a doubt, it has been the pressure of women’s mobilizing that has driven international bodies (the United Nations, for one) to issue documents on women’s rights, in turn forcing member nations to comply (at least in form) or to make concessions. It must be remarked that in the global North mass women’s organizations all but disappeared in the early 1980s, consigning feminism pretty much to the academy. Equally worthy of comment is that by then there was no danger of a rollback of feminist thinking as it had become securely established in the popular consciousness. However, it is also true that with the withdrawal into reformism of the progressive movement as a whole, feminism has been correspondingly tamed. More precisely, as Barbara Epstein (2002) contends, Western feminism has devolved into a cultural current and is no longer the movement for social transformation that it once was.

What ramifications might this shift hold for international feminism? Indeed, globalization processes, notably the information industry and high-tech communication have facilitated women’s networking across national boundaries so effectively that it is now possible to speak of a global (most choose to say “transnational,” which has a falsely levelling effect) feminism. Such a development implies, for one thing, that my concerns of some three decades ago have been drastically reversed and turned upside down. If my main worry then was that the sphere of reproduction and the cultural were shunted aside by a productivist orientation, today it is the complete opposite. Relations of production are left untouched—why deal with this realm at all when the existing system is to be merely reformed, not overthrown?—and research interests diverted to cultural and discursive tinkering. I believe that the domestication or taming of feminism has rendered it unable to adequately come to grips with pressing issues brought on by the global market, which is truly an unfortunate turn of events.

How, for instance, has feminism treated the diaspora of Third World women, those from impoverished classes of the global South? Women are now in the workforce in such unprecedented numbers that they can be rightly referred to as constituting the dynamo or engine that propels globalization (Horgan, 2001). Moreover, it is women’s diaspora that stands out as the most striking, because most visible, feature of globalization. Yet the dispersal of women of color to practically all corners of the globe and their insertion, as maids, into the private homes of well-heeled women seem not to bother Western feminists too greatly. What is curious is that second-wave feminists once situated women’s oppression at the heart of the family—in the household gender division of labor, to be exact. Insisting that the household work that women perform is real labor, not an act of love, they introduced household and family relations as the most important arena of gender conflict, demystifying its presumed sanctity. Generating numerous publications, articles as well as books, what became known as “the domestic labor debate” sought to identify the precise point where the extraction of surplus value might be located, a theoretical exchange that consumed a great deal of intellectual energy at that time.

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