For most of its history, western political theory has ignored women. Women have seldom appeared in its analyses of who should have power, when it finally decided to notice women it usually defended their exclusion from public affairs and their confinement to the home; only rarely have women been seen as political animals worthy of serious consideration. The inequalities that exist between men and women are seen as of little practical importance and theoretical interest.
Feminist political theory however, sees women’s situation as central to political analysis, its focuses on why in most societies men appear to have more power and privilege than women and how can this be changed. The term feminist came into use during the 1880’s, indicating support for women’s equal legal, economic, social and political rights with men. (Bryson, 2003) Feminism reflects the varied needs and perceptions of women in different societies and situations. Feminists argue that all women have the right to education, employment, political participation and full legal equality.
Although strongly opposed in the past, they are largely accepted in the west today. However, women still remain disadvantaged despite gaining legal rights. (Bryson, 2003) All feminist do not think alike. Depending on time, culture and country feminism around the world have sometimes had different causes and goals. The labels help mark the range of different approaches, perspectives and frameworks a variety have used to shape both their explanations for women’s oppression and their proposed solutions for its elimination.
The three groups of feminist theories I will seek to analyse in order to assess their contributions against what is known about Caribbean women and their realities in this essay are Liberal, Radical and Black feminist perspectives. One thing we know about Caribbean women is that they have always worked. Women’s position in the Caribbean has been characterised by a dual work role, they engage in both household and extra household work, in order to provide for their families. Evidence has shown, that after slavery the tradition of female labour continued.
Joycelin Massiah states that black women had no choice but to work, because the idea of man as the breadwinner was unrealistic and unattainable. Women were forced to take the major responsibility of their households because a large number of men had emigrated. Erna Brodber examined the role of women in some Caribbean countries. She states that despite the public image of womanhood which stressed on the abstention from physical work for elite woman, Caribbean women continued to seek work outside the household and support themselves.
Brodber also states that images of white women portray them as “delicate” and “unassuming”, the black woman is portrayed as “hardworking to the point of being comical”. (Massiah, 1986) Work outside the household however did not free Caribbean women from their household responsibilities; these women still had to ensure their husbands were still taken care of. Men in the Caribbean societies felt that because of economic circumstances, females should be employed outside the home and should contribute to the expenses.
They also believe that domestic duties should still remain the woman’s responsibility, even if she is employed. In the public domain, women defer widely to male authority and decision making, but in the domestic domain, she exercises power. (Massiah, 1986) Radical feminism claimed to go to the roots of women’s oppression, and it proclaimed itself as a theory of, by and for women; as such, it was based firmly in women’s own experiences and perceptions.
Secondly, it saw the oppression of women as the most fundamental and universal form of domination, and its aim was to understand and develop strategies for the end of that oppression. Thirdly, women as a group had interests opposed to those of men; these interests united them in a common sisterhood that transcended the division of class and race, and meant that women should struggle together to achieve their own liberation. (Bryson, 2003) Radical feminism names all women as part of an oppressed group, stressing that no woman can walk down the street or even live in her home safely without fear of violation from men.
French feminist Christine Delphy points out that like all oppressed people, many women do not like to accept that they are part of an oppressed group, developing various forms of denial in order to avoid identification. To the radical feminists, patriarchy is the oppressing structure of male domination. Radical feminism makes male control visible as it is exercised in every sphere of women’s lives, both public and private. It stresses that ‘emancipation’ or ‘equality’ on male terms is not enough.
A total revolution of the social structures and the elimination of the processes of patriarchy are essential. (Rowland & Klein, 1991) Patriarchy is the domination of men over women. Kate Millet’s early work (1971) is a good example of the approach that ‘sex is a status category with political implications’. Patriarchy, dominates over class, religion, race and culture. Patriarchy is a system of structures and institutions created by men in order to sustain and recreate male power and female subordination.
Institutional structures like the law, religion, the family, have ideologies which perpetuate the naturally inferior position of women; socialisation processes to ensure that women and men develop behaviour and belief systems appropriate to the powerful or powerless group to which they belong. These structures are dominated by men who ensure that they maintain these positions. Within the private domain of the family, men have structured a system whereby woman’s reproductive capacity leaves her vulnerable and powerless, domestically exploited, and entrapped in economic dependence. (Rowland & Klein, 1991)
The family is maintained through the notion of romantic love between men and women, when in fact marriage contracts traditionally have an economic base. Women’s labour within the family, which has been unpaid and unacknowledged, is defined as ‘labour of love’. Women ‘by nature’ are said to be passive, submissive and willing to be led. Processes like socialisation of children encourage this situation to continue. Patriarchy has a material base in 2 senses. First, the economic systems are structured so that women have difficulty getting paid labour in society which values only paid labour and in which money is the currency of power.
Women without economic independence cannot sustain themselves without a breadwinner. They cannot leave a brutal husband, cannot withdraw sexual, emotional and physical servicing from men, they cannot have equal say in decisions affecting their own lives. Radical feminists have therefore stressed the necessity for women to exercise economic power in their own lives. The second material base is the woman’s body. Women in marriage are seen to be ‘owned’ by their husbands and cannot bring a civil case of rape.
Women’s bodies are advertised and pornography alike objectified and defined as ‘other’ and available for male use. Rowland & Klein, 1991) Radical feminists sees the oppression of women as universal, crossing race and cultural boundaries, as well as those of class and other structures like age and physical ability. One of the basic tenets of radical feminism is that any woman in the world has more in common with any other woman regardless of class, race, age, ethnicity, nationality, than any woman has with any man. In Sisterhood is Global (1984) Robin Morgan draws together contributions from feminists in seventy countries, the majority of which are third world countries.
She begins with a quote about the global position of women in the report to the UN Commission on the states of women. ‘While women represent half the global population and one third of the labour force, they receive one tenth of the world income and own less than one percent of the world’s property. They are also responsible for two thirds of all working hours’. In the developing world women are responsible for more than fifty percent of all food production. In the industrial nations women are still paid only half to three quarters of men’s wages. Most of the world are starving are women and children.
Women in all countries bear the double burden of unpaid housework in association with any paid work they do. Radical feminists thus hold that women are oppressed primarily and in the first instance as women. But because of differences in their lives created by, for example culture and class, women experience oppression differently. (Rowland & Klein, 1991) Black feminist theorising has made critical contributions to feminist epistemology. The theory comprises of a body of work by black feminist intellectuals reacting to the failure of existing feminist explanatory framework to adequately comprehend the realities of black women.
Feminists like Sojourner Truth, Audre Lorde, Patricia Bell, Patricia Hill Collins as well as many others interrogated existing feminist theories and found them lacking, as they fully ignored or denied black women’s specific experiences. For instance Sojourner Truth’s powerful statement on racial inequalities ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ was a 19th Century deconstruction of the notion of a global, common womanhood and an insistence on inserting black womanhood in the concept of what it meant to be a woman.
In her speech Truth argued that white women were placed on a pedestal and gave them certain privileges (mostly that of not working), this attitude was not extended to black women. Speaking of the U. S. A in the 1970’s Audre Lorde stated, “by and large, within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as woman and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class and age. (Barriteau, 2006) The work of black feminists reveals hierarchies of power within categories of race, class, gender, patriarchal relations, sexuality and sexual orientation.
Black feminism demonstrates that white or other feminist theorising refuses or fails to recognise race as a social relation of domination within feminism and society. Radical, socialist and liberal feminist had examined other oppressive social relations but none had made race central to their analysis, black feminist theory exposes racism. They focus on difference in order to understand problems of oppression. Audre Lorde points out that white radical feminist Mary Daly images white women as Goddesses, with African women entering her analysis ‘only as victims and preyers upon each other’.
Here Lorde exposes a key distortion that is similar to how early development discourses constructed women in the Caribbean. Women in the south, whether Caribbean, or African were seen as helpless victims in need of international development intervention. (Barriteau, 2006) This theory holds that the constructed invisibility if black women’s lives must be challenged. For example, much of the history of the West Indies was based on the activities of black men. Black feminist thinkers underline the importance of using lived experiences as a criterion for generating knowledge.
Deborah King’s concept of multiple jeopardy or multiple consciousness shifted the conception of women’s oppression as confined within ethnic and racial boundaries. She was concerned with the invisibility of black women. She noted that class inequality compounded the problem of racism and sexism for black women and felt that class constituted a third jeopardy. She therefore defined multiple jeopardy as, a way to understand the ways in which various forms of oppression interact in ways that negatively affect the lives of black women.
Much of feminist theory represents white ethnocentric feminist theorising and is therefore inadequate in not addressing the concerns of other women, especially black women. (Barriteau, 2006) Unlike radical feminism, black feminism goes on to demonstrate how racist relations follow black women into the private realm. Experiences of relations of oppression within households differ for black or minority women in a racist state. Central to black feminist theorising is the knowledge that patriarchal relations structure women’s lives very differently to their male peers.
The ‘rule of the father’ enforces men’s power in the family and society. In the Caribbean, men have assumed the role of patriarchs. Black feminist theory reveals that there are other dimensions to black women’s experiences of the home that are not captured by other feminist theories, especially for those black women who for centuries have been obliged to work outside the home, whether in fields, factories or the homes of others. Many of these women instead of longing to be liberated from the home, they yearn for the opportunity to go home or stay at home.
Hazel Carby noted that ideologies of black female domesticity and motherhood have been constructed through black women’s employment in chattel positions as domestic workers and surrogate mothers to white families rather than in relation to their own families. (Barriteau, 2006) In terms of sexuality, black women have been stereotyped as having wild and uncontrollable sexual urges. Black women were presented as either whorish or unsexed; they were either nanny or jezebel. Evelyn Hammond has argued that black women’s sexuality is constructed in opposition to that of white women.
In the struggle for sexual liberation, many white women demanded reproductive technologies in order to say yes to sex, while black women wanted autonomy and freedom from a racist and intrusive state in order to say no. (Barriteau, 2006) Criticisms of black feminist theory are that sometimes there is the impression that all oppressions are equal, and it has been critiqued for assuming that black women have a superior standpoint in the world. There is also a sense in which persons of African descent are privileged in black feminist thought. (Bryson, 2003) The final theory I will analyse is the liberal feminist theory.
Liberalism is based on the principle of individual liberty, in which every person should be allowed to exercise freedom of choice. Each individual should be given equal opportunities and civil rights, but that was conceived of as a privilege that should extend to European men. When it comes to state interventions in the private sphere, liberals agree that the less we see of Big brother in our homes the better. (Tong, 2009) Liberal feminist Mary Wollstonecraft has been very influential in her writing, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. She wrote at a time when the economic and social position of European women was in decline.
These women were left at home with little productive work to do, and they were married to relatively wealthy professional men. These women had no incentive to work outside the home or, if they had several servants inside it. (Tong, 2009) Middle class ladies were, in Wollstonecraft’s estimation, ‘kept’ women who sacrificed health, liberty and virtue for whatever prestige, pleasure and power their husbands could provide. She denied that women are, by nature, more pleasure seeking and pleasure giving than men. She reasoned that if men were confined to the same cages that trap women, men would develop the same flawed characters.
She stated that women lacked the power of reason because they were encouraged to indulge themselves and please others. She believed that women should have the same access to education as men. She believed that women should experience full personhood. Other liberalists John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill believed women needed suffrage in order to become men’s equals. They claimed the vote gave people the power to express their own political views but also change those systems, structures, and attitudes that contribute to their own and others oppression. (Tong, 2009)
Betty Friedan in the Feminist Mystique, studies the lives of white middle class housewives living in the suburbs. She described the dissatisfaction of these women as the problem with no name. She claimed that these women led unfulfilling lives in their traditional roles as mother and wives. She argued that a more meaningful course for these women was to have the opportunity of full time work in the public sphere. She believed that the absence from the home would make children and husbands more self sufficient. She felt that by limiting women to being wives and mothers was limiting their full human development.
She also believed that women would always have to work harder than men. (Bryson, 2003) The main critique of liberal feminism is that of racism and classism, they focused primarily on white, middle class women. They also privileged so called male values. They also continue to distinguish between the private and public lives of people without understanding that the private and public sphere often intersect. In conclusion, feminist epistemology has transformed the world for many Caribbean women, as it questions women’s lived experiences and their roles in identity formation.
Caribbean women in their roles have mostly preached a strong work ethic and promoted a strong social identity. The Caribbean has a legacy of race and colonial legacies, therefore the experiences and history of Caribbean women has been different. Unlike some the white middle class women in European societies that the liberal feminist talk about, Caribbean women have always had to work and frequently they have been the principal breadwinners in their households. But because of all the earlier groups of feminist theories about women, it paved a way for the new knowledge about Caribbean women and their realities.