Contemporary Feminist Theory

Mary F Rogers. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

Over the past forty or so years feminist theorists have advanced critical social theory along path-breaking lines. Challenges to liberal feminist theory, in particular, have stimulated noteworthy developments during this period. These challenges have taken most visible shape around postmodernism as an anti-Enlightenment perspective, yet the most consequential resistance comes from multicultural and postcolonial theorists demanding attention (postmodernist or not) to racial/ethnic and other hierarchies.

Two other varieties of feminist theorizing have also challenged liberal feminist theory, namely, lesbian and psychoanalytic perspectives. Adrienne Rich’s (1980) lesbian continuum, ranging from sexual to emotional bonds between women that exert priority in women’s lives, raises issues that liberal feminist theory largely ignores or even resists. Similarly, feminist psychoanalytic perspectives such as Nancy Chodorow’s (1978) or Jessica Benjamin’s (1988, 1995) introduce conceptual and political baggage that liberal feminists often find problematic, if not repugnant. Thus, four forms of theoretical resistance to liberal feminist theory account, I argue, for the growing diversity and vitality of feminist theory.spasm first-wave feminism, which eventually gained Western women the franchise. Although such liberal feminism has ‘been a constant feature of modern societies’ (Frazer, 1998: 52), even liberal versions of feminism involve a ‘critique of the Enlightenment’ (Waugh, 1998: 177). Enabled yet constrained by Enlightenment discourses, feminism has had an ambivalent connection with the liberalism rooted there. Kate Nash (1998: 1) sees ambivalence as ‘highly productive for feminism,’ perhaps impelling transformative resistance to liberal feminist theory.

The Liberal Continuum

Over the past several centuries Enlightenment values, such as freedom and rights, evolved into a politically foundational liberalism in North America and Western Europe. Gaining ascendance during the nineteenth century as a centrist ideology alongside socialism to its left and conservativism to its right (Wallerstein, 1995: 1), liberalism helped to spasm first-wave feminism, which eventually gained Western women the franchise. Although such liberal feminism has ‘been a constant feature of modern societies’ (Frazer, 1998: 52), even liberal versions of feminism involve a ‘critique of the Enlightenment’ (Waugh, 1998: 177). Enabled yet constrained by Enlightenment discourses, feminism has had an ambivalent connection with the liberalism rooted there. Kate Nash (1998: 1) sees ambivalence as ‘highly productive for feminism,’ perhaps impelling transformative resistance to liberal feminist theory.

Also stimulating resistance has been the waning influence of liberalism itself. Having peaked between 1946 and 1968 (Wallerstein, 1995: 2), liberalism faced continual challenges in the wake of the 1960s. Second-wave feminism was perhaps its first serious challenger inasmuch as it reworked key liberal notions such as rights (for example, Okin, 1998) and public/private spheres (for example, Duncan, 1996; Pateman, 1979). By the 1980s, if not earlier, communitarianism and postmodernism had also emerged as serious challengers to the liberal hegemony in social theory, as had postcolonial social theory. During the 1990s the deepening crisis in liberalism (Digeser, 1995; McCallister, 1996; Ramsay, 1997) fueled further resistance to it.

All the while, liberal feminist theory continued wielding considerable influence. Carol Robb’s (1998) work on woman-friendly economies or Arlie Russell Hochschild’s (1989) on most women’s second (domestic) shift of work are illustrative. What gets challenged in such theorizing is some fine print on the social contract, not its fundamental terms. Social theory, which has a long history of social critique, can accommodate such feminist theorizing. In effect, liberal feminist theory deflates the gendered character of social theory by rendering it less masculinist or androcentric. It mostly fails, however, to challenge bases of inequality other than the gender hierarchy, such as racial, sexual, or class hierarchies. Put differently, liberal feminist theory has a shape not unlike that of most social theory today, which reflects a ‘relatively privileged’ perspective as well as ‘European cultural traditions’ (Sprague, 1997: 95).

Yet liberal feminist theory is no one-size-fits-all knowledge. Heuristically, a liberal continuum makes sense insofar as it delineates diverse stances among feminist theorists who fundamentally accept institutionalized hierarchies other than the gender order (Connell, 1987). As Zillah Eisenstein (1981: 229) implies, a liberal feminist continuum comprises at least three groupings. At one end are radical liberal theorists; at the other end, status quo liberal theorists. Between these two groupings stand progressive liberal feminist theorists. What puts these feminist thinkers on the same terrain is that they retain liberal notions of ‘freedom of choice, individualism, and equality of opportunity,’ even while disagreeing ‘about the patriarchal, economic, and racial biases of these ideas’ (Eisenstein, 1981: 229). Robb and Hochschild, for instance, occupy the middle ground on the liberal continuum, with Robb leaning more toward the radical liberal pole insofar as she takes class and sexual orientation as well as gender into sustained account.

In stark contrast to such reformist theorizing stand status quo liberal feminists whose work gets little attention within feminist theory. Camille Paglia (1992, 1994) and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1996) exemplify dramatically distinct versions of status quo liberal theorizing. Neither thinker gives women-centered attention to lesbians, straight women of color or low-income women and women with disabilities of whatever racial/ethnic group or sexual orientation. Terms such as exploitation, oppression and injustice serve no positive theoretical functions at this end of the liberal continuum, where ‘postfeminism’ is the order of the day now that equality of opportunity is supposedly in place.

At the radical liberal end of the continuum one finds feminist theorists who insist that feminism is about more than gender inasmuch as women make up substantial proportions of nearly every subordinate group in society, such as minimum-wage workers or welfare recipients. In large measure feminist theorists who focus on issues of race, class and gender occupy this part of the liberal continuum (see, for example, Dill, 1994; Gilkes, 1994; Hurtado, 1996; Mullings, 1994). Such theorists may also attend to sexuality, age or disability, but their main preoccupation is that triad of social formations.

Perhaps exemplifying this part of the continuum is Patricia Hill Collins. Collins (1990), who probes the situated knowledges available to those occupying institutional sites as outsiders, that is, as outsiders-within. Women of color laboring in white households illustrate the outsider-within perspective that Collins (1990: 95ff.) deploys in tandem with the notion of safe spaces to theorize African American women’s struggles for self-definition. Of late, says Collins (1998), a new politics of containment uses surveillance-driven modes of controlling African American women, whether they be mothers on welfare or professors in academe. Collins (1998: 34, 35) sees racism, mixed with sexism and classism, in current trends toward privatization in the United States as ‘market forces’ appear to displace policy-makers and corporate executives as agents in inequality. Under these circumstances the public sphere increasingly functions as a site of subordination as well as surveillance. Calling for ‘new forms of visionary pragmatism,’ Collins (1998: 228, 153) also calls for critical attention to the ‘mutually constructing nature of systems of oppression.’

Earlier (1990) conceptualized as a matrix of domination, that web of interlocking hierarchies now commands Collins’ (1998) attention as intersectionality (see Crenshaw 1991). Whichever term is used, that focus is capable of moving her beyond the liberal continuum, but for the most part it does not. At root, Collins’ recurrent attention to social class, sexual orientation and other women of color besides African Americans remains secondary. That circumstance, coupled with Collins’ failure to challenge hierarchy generically, leaves her on the liberal continuum, albeit at its left end.

Anti-Liberal Feminist Theory

African American feminists such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde go where Collins does not. They represent a strand of multicultural feminist theorizing that is more revolutionary than reformist. Even before African American feminism began establishing itself with such works as Barbara Smith’s (1983) Home Girls: a Black Feminist Anthology (Kanneh, 1998: 91), this anti-liberal strand had been influential. During the 1960s and 1970s Angela Davis’ activism and streetwise theorizing exemplified this strand, as did her later work (1981, 1998) insisting on social class as a central dynamic in African American women’s lives.

Multicultural feminists like hooks (1989: 20, 22) theorize feminism as a transformative antidote to the ‘politics of domination’; ‘as liberation struggle’; ‘as a part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms’ (emphasis added). Hooks (1989: 21, 22) gives priority to fighting gender oppression ‘because it is that form of domination we are most likely to encounter in an ongoing way in everyday life.’ Moreover, it infiltrates people’s intimate, especially familial, relationships where care is supposed to predominate. All the while hooks consistently focuses on other hierarchies that also constrain people, including racial, class, sexual and age hierarchies. Her comprehensive analysis of social injustices also includes a great deal of attention to consumer culture and the corporate media as conduits of domination (hooks, 1993, 1994).

Lorde’s framework is as multicultural as but narrower than hooks.’ Typically writing as an African American lesbian feminist, Lorde (1984) insists on bringing social class to the fore alongside gender, sexuality and race. Like hooks, she is unafraid to criticize those of her white counterparts (liberal or not) whose privilege inscribes their feminist theorizing. Both Lorde and hooks, like Collins, theorize marginality as a site of potential resistance and positive self-definition. Unlike Collins, though, these anti-liberal theorists make patently clear their commitment to remaining outsiders, whether within or beyond mainstream structures like academe. (Yet ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ are far from straightforward terms, as Susan Moller Okin (1998) and Diana Fuss (1991), among others, have theorized.) Thus, these theorists’ work problematizes ‘equal opportunity’ and related liberal ideas more thoroughly than Collins and other radical liberal theorists do.

Multicultural feminist theorists thus perpetuate some anti-liberal values that found expression as second-wave feminism emerged in the 1960s in North America and Western Europe. Those second-wave feminist theorists who emerged out of dissensus politics (Piven and Cloward, 1997), such as anti-war and civil rights struggles, tended toward radical thinking (Echols, 1989). Other theorists emerged out ofconsensus politics (Piven and Cloward, 1997), comprising such developments as President Kennedy’s appointment of a commission on the status of women in 1960. (Resonant with such political developments were cultural eventualities such as Betty Friedan’s (1963) The Feminine Mystique.) These liberal-minded theorists came to predominate. Never, though, did they overcome resistance from other feminists whose discontent with the status quo ran wider and deeper.

Dissensus politics and anti-liberal values are also implied or espoused in postcolonial feminist theory, which like postcolonial theorizing in general, blurs distinctions among the center, the right and the left (Giroux, 1994: 149). Such theorizing involves cognitive decolonization, or ‘unlearning historically determined habits of privilege and privation, of ruling and dependency’ (Mohanty, 1995: 110). Postcolonial theorizing also involves critically examining social realities within ‘the fields of transnational economic relations and diasporic identity constructions’ (Grewal and Kaplan, 1994: 15). Post-colonial feminist theory has ‘brought about a “worlding” of mainstream [that is, liberal] feminist theory’ (Mills, 1998: 98). At the same time it has impelled feminists toward ‘theorizing] heterogeneity in place of binaries so that the complicated relationships between men and women of oppressed races and nationalities might be more accurately described’ (Alcoff, 1996: 26).

Particularly influential among postcolonial feminist theorists is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1993: 187), who, resonant with other anti-liberal theorists, sees the postcolonial person as an outside I insider. From that perspective Spivak problematizes much that liberal First World or Northern feminists take for granted. Spivak (1987: 130, 133) emphasizes that feminism cannot operate as a ‘special-interest glamorization of mainstream discourse’ whose ‘academic inceptions’ make it ‘subject to correction by authoritative men.’ She (1987: 136, 153) challenges First World feminists to confront the ‘inbuilt colonialism of First World feminism toward the Third World.’ For Spivak (1990: 42) and other postcolonial feminists, then, feminist theory necessitates ‘the unlearning of one’s privilege’ so that one might be ‘taken seriously’ by the ‘female constituency of the world’ beyond academe. Spivak (1990: 102-3) thus theorizes with a view toward and concern for ‘the one most consistently exiled from episteme,’ namely, ‘the disenfranchised woman, … called the “gendered subaltern’” (cf. Narayan, 1998a, 1998b). In her own fashion she promotes a cognitively nomadic perspective much like that of Gloria Anzaldua’s (1987) mestiza consciousness.

Such consciousness is a border-crossing, hybrid consciousness forged out of struggles to be both/and in the face of either/or geopolitical realities. Such border-crossing, even border-defying, consciousness sometimes finds parallel expression in lesbian feminist theorizing as well, albeit with primary reference to heteronormative rather than geopolitical boundaries. Often cast as and feeling like feminist outsiders-within, lesbian feminist theorists have created theoretical momentum around such matters as compulsory heterosexuality, heterosexuality as an institution, sadomasochistic sexual practices and separatism. Their theorizing makes an issue of how straight feminists’ heterosexual privilege – deflated as it may be by their gender—infiltrates their work so as to erase, marginalize or exoticize lesbians.

Rich’s (1980) delineation of compulsory heterosexuality concerns the diverse practices and penalties deployed to ensure that virtually everyone either become a practicing heterosexual or feel ambivalent or guilty for failing to become one. Just as the notion of compulsory heterosexuality de-naturalizes heterosexuality, so does heterosexuality as an institution. Like other institutions, heterosexuality here gets theorized as a historically and culturally variable array of norms and practices associated with differentsex coupling. Wilkinson and Kitzinger (1993) have helped to lead the charge along this front, inspired in large measure by Rich’s path-breaking work.

Also pivotal along these lines has been Sarah Lucia Hoagland’s theorizing. Hoagland problematizes heterosexual femininity by implying that in the end it amounts to a redundant phrase. She (1988: 7) sees ‘heterosexualism’ as a normalization of one person’s dominance over another person and ‘femininity’ as a means of ‘normalizing] female subordination.’ Judith Butler (1990: 6), whose work we later examine, has also contributed to such theoretical advances with formulations like this: ‘Taken to its logical limit, the sex/gender distinction suggests a radical discontinuity between sexed bodies and culturally constructed genders.’ Butler thus presses forward along theoretical lines that lay bare the connections between gender and sexuality while rejecting the once commonplace distinction between sex as a physical phenomenon and gender as a cultural one.

Sexual agency is also a matter that lesbian feminist theorists emphasize more sharply than their heterosexual counterparts. This difference is most evident with respect to sadomasochistic practices. While lesbian theorists themselves debate these practices, as a group they are more attuned to them than are straight women theorists. Gayle Rubin (1987, 1989) occupies a prominent position here, as do Pat Califa (1981, 1987) and various contributors to the Samois anthology Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian SIM. (Samois is a San Francisco-based lesbian s/m group.) These and other lesbian feminist theorists also see issues about sexual agency in practices such as pornography and safe-sex education.

Lisa Duggan (1995: 5), another theorist addressing sexual agency, sees sexual dissent as the core idea conjoining these and closely related sexual issues. By sexual dissent she means ‘a concept that invokes a unity of speech, politics, and practices and forges a connection among sexual expressions, oppositional politics, and claims to public space.’ With this conceptualization Duggan threatens to upset the liberal, feminist, (often) heterocentrist applecart. By linking sexual expressions with oppositional politics she both affirms and complicates a stance common among feminists. To wit, feminist theorists characteristically construct typologies of feminism as oppositional and political in varying degrees and forms. Further, they typically imply some connection between feminist values and (hetero)sexual practices, routinely problematizing feminists’ heterosexual (and other) relationships. Lesbian feminist theorists like Duggan radically extend these characteristic stances by arguing for expanded rights to public sexual dissent (Duggan, 1995: 5), which unnerves some straight liberal feminists who balk at public displays—any ‘displays’—of non-normative sexual practices (see LeMon-check, 1997).

In the end, some lesbian feminist theorists’ advocacy of separatism most divides them from their liberal counterparts. Here we encounter cultural feminism, which also informs a great deal of ecofeminist theory focused broadly on how the domination of ‘nature’ correlates with that of women and other subordinated groups (Adams, 1993; Warren, 1994). Centered on the assumption that women and men are different enough to construct and inhabit distinctive cultural worlds, cultural feminism inherently opposes liberal feminism which typically emphasizes the basic ‘sameness’ of women and men. Like liberal feminism, though, cultural feminism comes in various versions. Broadly, its ‘strong’ version emphasizes that women’s characteristics are superior or preferable to men’s. Adrienne Rich (1980) and Mary Daly (1978) were early proponents of strong cultural feminism, which not only valorizes what patriarchy has devalued but also advocates separatism, whether holistically (separate communities) or partially (separate liturgies or schooling, for example).

‘Weak’ cultural feminism is less radical. It is not separatist and often leaves room for or even advocates that men adopt some of women’s values and practices or at least accommodate women’s ways across various institutional sites such as schools, workplaces and houses of worship. Here one finds feminist theorists such as Mary Field Belenky and her colleagues (1986) who argue that women’s styles of learning and knowing are distinct from men’s (also see Goldberger et al, 1996); Carol Gilligan (1982, 1995) who has traced the distinctive features of women’s moral reasoning; Virginia Held (1993), whose ‘feminist morality’ rests on a critique not only of Enlightenment individualism but also of communitarian selfhood; and Sara Ruddick (1989), who theorizes that mothering gives most of the world’s women a distinctive slant on everyday life and on politics, too.

Strong cultural feminists are likelier than weak cultural feminists to identify as lesbian feminists. By and large, the strong cultural feminists of interest here part company with theorists like Rubin and Duggan by advancing a cultural feminism centered on women’s institution building in connection with an ‘alternative culture.’ As Verta Taylor and Leila Rupp (1998: 346, 347) go on to emphasize, in the ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s these cultural feminists came to be seen as ‘antisex’ (in contrast with feminists like Rubin who got portrayed as ‘sex radicals’). Greta Gaard’s (1997: 133) conceptualization of the erotic illustrates such cultural feminists’ stances. She sees eroticism not only in sexuality but also in ‘sensuality, spontaneity, passion, delight, and pleasurable stimulation.’ Thus, lesbian feminist theorizing has contributed to, as well as contested, the warm, fuzzy sexuality often associated with middle-class women in modern Western cultures.

Besides reinforcing commonplace notions about women’s sexuality, cultural feminism has reinforced the grounds of feminism during periods of feminist retrenchment or stasis. By theorizing ‘belief in female difference, the practice of limited or total separatism, belief in the primacy of women’s relationships, and the practice of feminist ritual,’ strong cultural feminists have bolstered the bases whereon ‘women can claim feminism as a political identity’ (Taylor and Rupp, 1998: 355). At the same time they challenged the ‘sameness’ thinking characteristic of liberal feminist theory.

Such thinking also gets challenged by psychoanalytic feminist theorists. As I (Rogers, 1998: 291) have pointed out elsewhere, theorists like Chodorow see a maternal continuum where those like Rich postulate a lesbian one. Broadly, Chodorow (1978) argues that the institutionalized division of childrearing labor in the heteronormative family ensures that women’s and men’s unconscious psychic structures will differentiate them in socially and psychologically consequential ways. Typically raised by mothers and destined to mother, women develop impressive relational skills, while men—needing to disidentify with their mothers (and other women) in order to become masculine—develop autonomy and deny their dependence on or interdependence with others. Chodorow (1978: 200, 203) argues that women wanting emotional closeness seek it in bonds with their children. Without a ‘fundamental reorganization of parenting’ (Chodorow, 1978: 215), women and men can never be equal, then. Overall, frameworks like Chodorow’s imply the need for fundamental institutional change more than frameworks like those of Collins and other radical liberal feminist theorists.

Though more subtly, Benjamin’s work also implies the need for institutional changes, particularly changes in the knowledge systems whereby we claim to grasp human subjectivity. Interested foremostly in women’s, especially mothers,’ subjectivity, Benjamin reorients the psychoanalytic perspective along lines that intersect with the work of feminist epistemologists and standpoint theorists, who will focus our attention before long. Benjamin (1988) argues, for example, that mothers have in common the fate of having their singular, irreplaceable subjectivity disregarded so that others might more readily ignore mothers’ needs. Maternal subjectivity is elusive for having been ignored or denied even by ‘good’ daughters and sons. To illuminate the unique subjectivities—the full otherness—associated with women’s mothering requires revamping psychoanalytic and related perspectives.

Benjamin (1997: 782, 284) recalls that ‘psychoanalysis began as a marginal, radical enterprise’ centered on subjectivity and concerned with ‘what lies behind knowledge and values,’ especially ‘psychic motives.’ Believing that it could yet be a ‘force of radical social critique,’ Benjamin (1997: 785, 789) aligns herself with postmodernist stances toward objectivity, subjectivity and knowledge. She believes that ‘it may be possible to transcend the split between intellect and emotion, between subjectivity and objectivity.’ Such transcendence is a common aspiration among feminist theorists, especially those identifying themselves as postmodernists or standpoint theorists.

Postmodernist Feminist Theory and Feminist Standpoint Theory

As I hinted earlier, postmodernism opposes liberalism as a modernist myopia, a failed experiment, an array of false hopes, a colonialist rationale. As with liberalism itself, postmodernism presents itself in multiple guises (see Lemert, 1997: 36-52). Whatever the version, postmodernism presupposes that some time during the twentieth century modernist values and dreams began losing their grip on people’s consciousness. In their wake came an appetite for ambiguity, irony and paradox and a feel for how localized and situated our knowledge is in the end and for all practical purposes. As postmodernism gained ground, many feminist theorists developed love-hate or ambivalent relationships with it. Often fearful that postmodernist skepticism toward modern values such as equality might feed resistance to feminism, for example, some theorists (Hartsock, 1990; Minnich, 1990) advocate skepticism toward postmodernist stances. Others embrace postmodernism, while still other feminist theorists carve out more nuanced reactions such as making their ‘political project … one of discursive destabilization’ (Gibson-Graham, 1996: 241).

Prominent among postmodernist feminist theorists are Judith Butler, Donna Haraway and Laurel Richardson. Some of Butler’s (1990) most important work centers on showing how cultures make only certain identities ‘intelligible’ so that other enactments of identity get siphoned off the mainstream heap as abnormal, perverse, unsuccessful or weird. In Butler’s hands identity is a performative phenomenon that is heavily regulated. Institutionalized regimes render some enactments of identity ‘real’—that is, recognizable—versions of X, Y or Z and other enactments something other than versions of X, Y or Z. For example, only culturally approved ways of enacting womanhood get seen as expressions of femininity; other ways of enacting it get seen as selfishness, man-hating, feminist stridency, or bitchiness rather than as more ways of enacting womanhood and expressing ‘femininity.’ As Butler (1992: 15-16) sees it, ‘part of the project of postmodernism … is to call into question the ways in which such ‘examples’ and ‘paradigms’ serve to subordinate and erase that which they seek to explain.’ More generally, for Butler (1992: 15-16), ‘Identity categories are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary.’

For Haraway (1993: 257, 258), feminist postmodernism or postmodernist feminism revolves around ‘politics and epistemologies of location, positioning and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims.’ Her feminism favors ‘the sciences and politics of interpretation, translation, stuttering, and the partially understood.’ Haraway ([1985] 1990: 190-1) adopts irony both as a ‘rhetorical strategy’ and as a ‘political method,’ and she puts the cyborg—a machine/organism hybrid – ‘at the center of [her] ironic faith.’ Yet that center also has modernist ingredients. Haraway (1997: 269) stresses, for instance, that ‘valid witness depends not only on modesty but also on nurturing and acknowledging alliances with a lively array of others.’

Richardson’s (1997: 55) theoretical projects revolve around ‘refram[ing] sociological discourse as a feminist-postmodernist practice.’ While interrogating narratives, Richardson (1997: 57) looks at ‘issues of representation,’ particularly at which hierarchies they reproduce. More than any other contemporary social theorist, Richardson (1988, 1990, 1992) has probed writing practices for their political baggage and transformative promise and experimented with diverse genres in her own theoretical endeavors. In constructing her ‘feminist speaking position,’ Richardson (1997: 59, 123) thus cultivates a ‘postmodern sensibility [that] celebrates multiplicity of method and multiple sites of contestation.’

Richardson’s bold explorations of non-traditional genres for writing social theory puts her in the camp of feminist theorists committed to bursting representational boundaries as well as discipline-based ones. Some feminist theorists (Alfonso and Trigilio, 1997: 7-16) have, for example, published their work in dialogical form as electronic-mail exchanges. Others (for example, Rinehart, 1998) talk about feminist theorizing as a ‘conversation.’ At least two feminist social theorists—Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham—have done their collaborative theorizing using a combined-name pseudonym (J.K. Gibson-Graham) to designate the authorship of their texts. They then write substantially in the first-person singular] (Gibson-Graham, 1996). What Richardson and others are theorizing, in effect, are profound connections between narrative conventions and what can be said, who can credibly say it and who can hear it in meaningful, practical ways.

Mapping the terrain of feminist epistemology in resonant fashion are standpoint theorists such as Sandra Harding, Dorothy Smith and Nancy Hartsock. Patricia Hill Collins has also contributed to this body of feminist theorizing with her explorations of the situated knowledges and distinctive perspectives of African American women. Collins (1998: 195) refuses, however, to identify herself as a standpoint theorist despite her joining the three aforementioned standpoint theorists in responding to Susan Hekman’s (1997: 341-65) critique of standpoint theory. Yet Collins’ work illustrates Helen Longino’s description of standpoint theory:

By valorizing the perspectives uniquely available to those who are socially disadvantage.!, standpoint theorists turn the tables on traditional epistemology; the ideal epistemic agent is not an unconditioned subject but the subject conditioned by the social experiences of oppression. (1993: 105; emphasis added)

As Longino implies, standpoint theorists assume not that subordinate social positioning determines consciousness but that it makes specific sorts of knowledge available as experiences of subordination get interwoven with pervasive exposure to hegemonic beliefs. To that extent, members are not cognitively interchangeable.

Yet as Sandra Harding (1991: 51) emphasizes, ‘The methodology and epistemology of modern science assume that people are interchangeable as knowers.’ Standpoint theorists like her reject that assumption in favor of some notion that ‘the subject of feminist knowledge … must be multiple and contradictory’ (Harding, 1991: 284). Harding (in Hirsh and Olson, 1995: 25) sees standpoint theory as both drawing from and rejecting various Enlightenment theories but having clearly begun with Marxian epistemology. Her own work has centered on diverse women’s standpoints as correctives to (non-feminist) science. Harding (1986: 10) aims to rid the scientific world of androcentrism, not ‘systematic inquiry.’

Smith’s concerns are similar, namely, those

practices of thinking and writing … that convert what people experience directly in their everyday/everynight world into forms of knowledge in which people as subjects disappear and in which their perspectives on their own experiences are transposed and subdued by the magisterial forms of objectifying discourse. (1990a: 4)

Like other feminist standpoint theorists, Smith (1990b: 1) sees ‘objectified knowledges’ as ‘essential constituents’ of what she calls the relations of ruling in modern societies. Institutionalized, hegemonic knowledge is thus a tool of domination and a precious one at that. For Smith (1990b: 11) and other feminist standpoint theorists, women’s lived experiences provide correctives to hegemonic texts ‘as constituents of ongoing social relations into which our own practices of reading enter us.’ Ultimately, women’s standpoints disturb not only ‘ruling’ texts but also commonplace ways of reading.

More than other standpoint theorists, Hartsock (1998b: 406) emphasizes that both Marxian and feminist standpoint theories presuppose that what is most readily available to consciousness are the notions of dominant groups in society. Moreover, power relations infiltrate perceptions of and judgements about reality, knowledge and objectivity. Following Marx, Hartsock (1998b: 408) sees the criteria for assessing knowledge as ethical and political as well as epistemological. She (1998b: 410) also stresses that subordinated members cannot flatly reject hegemonic versions of the world as ‘false.’ Instead, ‘the understanding available to the oppressed must be struggled for’ (emphasis added) until a distinctive sort of ‘privileged knowledge’ takes shape, namely, knowledge ‘that takes nothing of the dominant culture as self-evidently true’ (1998b: 410, 411).

Thus, ‘a standpoint is not generated unproblematically by simple existence in a particular social location’ (Hartsock, 1998a: 237). A standpoint ‘represents an achievement’ most likely to come from members of dominated groups whose experiences of ‘inversions, distortions, and erasures … can be epistemologically constitutive’ (Hartsock, 1998a: 229, 241). From this perspective, social theory is a kind of ‘appropriation, a way of taking up and building on our experience’ (1998a: 39). The more inclusive or multicultural it is, the more rigorous and useful our theorizing will be. As Joy James (1993: 34) puts it, ‘The point is to stand at the crossroads’ or, to invoke earlier terminology, to cultivate intersectional thinking. In Hartsock’s (1998a: 58) view, our ‘differences’ thus provide ‘potential grounds for creativity, connection, and complementarity,’ especially as we struggle against ‘truths’ handed to us rather than forged from our own experiences.

The matter of struggling to express the truth of one’s own experiences against the readymade truths inherent in the relations of ruling raises among many feminists the issue of generations. Over the past decade much has been said, especially in the corporate media, about young women’s apparent disidentification with feminism, signified mostly (and simplistically) by their common unwillingness to call themselves ‘feminists.’ Yet ‘postfeminist’ stances find clearest expression in polemical works like self-identified feminist Katie Roiphe’s (1993) The Morning After. Among most young women a more complex stance toward feminism seems to predominate. In large measure that complexity derives from feminism’s oppositional character. As Lisa Maria Hoagland (1994: 21) reminds us, ‘To stand opposed to your culture, to be critical of institutions, behaviors, discourses—when it is clearly not in your immediate interest to do so – asks a lot of a young person.’

In other words, the struggle for an antihegemonic standpoint is particularly hard for young women. In addition, ‘once equal access to jobs, pay, credit, and education was legislated, once abortion was at least protected by law and women could begin to take more control of their lives’ (Tobias, 1997: 171), a diversification of feminist stances, especially among younger women, was likely. Nevertheless, energized by the contradictions and ironies of their own experiences as well as second-wave feminist ideas, many young women are diversely positioning themselves within the third-wave feminism being shaped by post-Baby Boom women born after 1964 and Generation X women born even later. To be sure, their voices are seldom heard in academe or on the evening news, but these feminist voices resound in ‘transnational popular cultural productions such as comics, zines, music videos, and films’ (Bhavnani et al, 1998: 578). For third-wave feminists, in fact, ‘the embrace of popular culture is tantamount to a kind of populism’ (Orr, 1997: 41). Increasingly, too, third-wave feminists’ voices are finding some limited academic sponsorship, for example, the University of Minnesota Press’ Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism (Heywood and Drake, 1997). Not surprisingly, then, feminist scholars such as Nancy Whittier (1995: 2-3, 25) consider ‘postfeminism’ a sociopolitical myth that obfuscates ‘the continual infusion of new participants who simultaneously challenge and carry on the feminist legacy.’

Whittier’s perception holds up well now, even in academic circles. In the late 1990s at least two feminist journals devoted entire issues to third-wave developments. Signs (Spring, 1998) focused its issue on ‘feminisms and youth cultures.’ There, for example, Kelly O’Neill (1998: 611, 615), then the director of a ‘nonprofit organization run for and by young women (from thirteen to twenty-four years old),’ notes the age biases within feminist organizations and sees much mentoring as ‘a one-way, patronizing, class-based approach’ that often serves as a mechanism of control. Such stances illustrate how young women’s struggles can constitute a distinctive standpoint that both carries on and contests their feminist heritage.

The third-wave issue of Hypatia also illustrates the continuities and contestations linking second- and third-wave feminisms. In that issue Cathryn Bailey (1997: 25) theorizes that young women’s standpoints may illuminate the lived meanings of feminist identity in a society where ‘postfeminism’ has been widely declared. Moreover, forging a feminist identity today may necessitate ‘navigating feminism’s contradictions’ (Orr, 1997: 35) more than older feminists had to, since the latter grouping inherited a less developed legacy. Older feminists were also likelier to theorize, at least initially, on the basis of substantial activism, whereas younger feminists often begin with theory that they encounter in ‘institutional space’ (Siegel, 1997: 62). In any event generational differences among feminists appear to be significant but not yet well understood (Findlen, 1995).

Materialist Feminisms and Feminist State Theory

Within as well as beyond feminism, multiplicity is the order of the day. Feminist theorists grapple with it, as we have seen, using such concepts as ‘matrix of domination,’ ‘intersectionality,’ and ‘relations of ruling.’ Yet the multiplicity representing a site of theoretical struggle and progress typically centers on gender, race and ethnicity, with sexual orientation getting only secondary attention outside of lesbian feminist theory. Age, too, mostly gets relegated to supposedly special-interest theorists such as those currently shaping the third wave, and disability gets only sporadic attention within feminist theory.

To my way of thinking, though, the single most consequential gap in feminist theory is the absence of sustained, detailed attention to social class. To be sure, a rich feminist literature on low-income women, including mothers on welfare, does exist, but it comprises mostly empirical studies (Edin and Lein, 1997; Polakow, 1993) of low-income mothers and their children. When one looks for feminist theories of social class, one finds little. Less ambitious theoretical works are also in short supply, for example, theoretical works on interclass interactions among women, on the exploitation of lower-income by higher-income women, on the politics of childcare as a class-skewed women’s issue, or on the class origins of influential feminist theorists. To my ear the relative silence about women and class among feminist theorists is debilitating. Particularly rankling are some theorists’ swift mention of their ‘middle-class’ status among their litany of standpoint-related self-attributions, as if ‘middle class’ meant much of anything besides ‘not poor’ and ‘not wealthy.’ Since I am speaking in relative terms, the picture I sketch is partly impressionistic. Yet it repeatedly strikes me that feminist theorists need to catch up with feminist empiricists in shedding light on social class.

What this overall state of affairs amounts to is the historically diminishing role of materialist feminisms among First World or Northern feminist theorists (cf. Jackson, 1998: 25). Materialist concerns have not lost ground across the board, however, as the ‘new phénoménologies of embodiment’ (Alcoff, 1996: 21) advanced by Iris Marion Young (1990), Sandra Lee Bartky (1990), and to a lesser extent Susan Bordo (1993) illustrate. For the most part, though, Marxian, socialist and other materialist feminisms exhibit considerably more vitality in other parts of the world (Chinchilla, 1991; Hennessey and Ingraham, 1997). Beyond the First World, in other words, no ‘cultural turn’ in feminist theory (Barrett, 1992) is evident. Even in the First World, though, that turn has been sharper in some areas of feminist theorizing than in others. Feminist state theories (for example, Haney, 1996) and feminist jurisprudence (for example, Fineman, 1995) neither turn away from material realities and social structures in favor of culture nor consistently give social class secondary attention.

In particular, (socialist-)feminist political theorizing about whether patriarchy and capitalism represent a single system or dual-systems of domination has tended to keep class issues—that is, issues of production, profit, and capitalist power—at the fore (Brenner and Laslett, 1991). Similarly, theorizing about the welfare state, wherein women occupy distinctive positions both as employees and recipients, typically includes attention to social class. Nancy Fraser’s (1988) theorizing about ‘rights’ and ‘needs’ is illustrative. In the political sphere ‘rights’ rhetoric often earmarks ‘deserving,’ higher-class individuals, while ‘needs’ rhetoric targets undeserving, lower-class individuals. The latter individuals, disproportionately women, exhibit visible dependence evocative of scorn, while the former individuals, disproportionately men, are rarely seen as dependent at all. Linda Gordon (1990: 10) points out that in spite of these woefully gender-skewed perceptions non-feminist scholars largely ignore gender in their analyses of the welfare state.

What more generally gets ignored, even among feminist theorists, are the diffuse, complex connections between gender and social class—connections between gender and career trajectories, single motherhood and downward social mobility, gender and career planning, and so forth. Yet the intersections between gender and social class are at least as consequential as those between gender and race or gender and disability. Thus, feminist theorists cannot remain softspoken or relatively silent about social class. In particular, they cannot in good faith refuse to theorize poverty as ‘the radical, unrepresentable, suppressed other to bourgeois pleasure’ (Ebert, 1996: 121). Disproportionately women’s burden, albeit in different ways around the planet, poverty is in my view feminist theorists’ most promising, pressing topic in the new millennium. Much feminist theory and debate already implies the economic ramifications of being feminine, that is, enacting womanhood in institutionally mandated ways. Theorizing about the economic vulnerabilities of single mothers, the demise of a ‘family wage,’ the nature of ‘work,’ the financial ramifications of divorce, the feminization of poverty, comparable worth, sexual harassment and other matters implies that people’s economic prospects and outcomes—thus, their class positions—are profoundly gendered.

A theoretical focus on poverty, including attention to the working poor, would perhaps bring the insights of all this extant work into a bold, path-breaking framework centered on the economic sanctions that keep women subordinated to men. With poverty seen as the ultimate such sanction, other economic penalties take on significance as key elements in the relations of ruling. In the end well-founded anxieties about downward social mobility—often soft-pedaled as a ‘lifestyle change’—may well have kept modern women subordinated more than feminist theory has yet delineated. Exploring that possibility may catapult feminist theorists of the twenty-first century into the limelight as they continue demasculinizing the materialist legacy that social theorists since Marx have both carried forward and resisted.