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Feminism is a theory that mainly converges on gender as a field of examination through the interpretation of cultural exercises while proposing a range of experiences peculiar to women. It raises essential questions about the social character of women in affairs of exchange and production. Feminism assumes that gender roles are pre-determined and a woman is taught to fit into those roles. Feminist theory debates that the depiction of women as weak, submissive, guileless, seductive and emotional is a result of and further amplifies her conception as powerless in social relations and her treatment as a sex object or a reproductive machine.
Contemporary feminism considers the issue of gender as also frequently cutting across class divisions.
Feminism’s key political and theoretical stance is that the discrimination prevalent against women is not natural but socially constructed. Cultural and social edifices like art, literature, religion, education enable the fortification of this disproportion. Toril Moi, an eminent Feminist theorist opines:
“Feminist criticism is a political discourse, a critical and theoretical practice committed to the struggle against patriarchy and sexism” (117)
In other words, the influence of poststructuralist thought has amplified the understanding of the female and the feminist in a new light.
It is not just about delving into the boundaries but exploring how these came to be sedimented and accepted.
Feminism in America has a long history. The ‘first wave’ of American feminism began in the 1840s and is commonly marked by the first Women’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls in 1848.
The beginning of the feminist movement in the later half of the nineteenth century also heralded the political movement rallying for female suffrage. Together with Susan B. Anthony, Stanton founded the National Woman’s Suffrage Association on May 15, 1869 in New York City, which later became the League of Women Voters. Reform of divorce laws and improved working conditions for women were also added to the Suffrage platform. It was designed to remove all legal distinctions between the sexes. But legislative change was slow. There was some progress in the reform of property laws and educational opportunities became available.
Literary works during this period deal with the various reactions to the voice of woman and comment on the gender difference which sometimes move beyond the formal boundaries of a text. Feminism thus gradually went on to become an interdisciplinary force panning across literature, sociology, philosophy and psychology. As Deborah L. Madsen, a later theorist sums up that the major concerns of feminist theory have come to be the unique experience of women in history, the notion of female consciousness, the definitions of gender that limit and oppress and the cause of women’s liberation from these restrictions. (ix)
American literary critic, Elaine Showalter in her essay “Towards a Feminist Poetics” has defined three phases of modern women’s literary development: the feminine phase (1840-80), during which women writers imitated the dominant male traditions; the feminist phase (1880-1920), when women advocated for their rights; and the female phase (1920-present), when dependency upon opposition is replaced by the rediscovery of women’s texts and women.
Eighteenth-century British writer, philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft was probably the first feminist writer who gave a major theoretical exploration of gender inequality. In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), she rejected the view that women are naturally weaker or inferior to men. She was one of the first thinkers to say that gender roles are not natural but social. Wollstonecraft was thus one of the visionaries who moved away from a biological assessment of gender to a social one.
The most widely read and influential work during this period was American journalist, editor, and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Fuller divulges the transcendentalist basis of her feminism and includes both men and women in her category of “Man” and shows how the preconceptions work upon individual lives and affect men and women differently. Fuller believed that education was the means of emancipation for women. She was a radical thinker who believed that women need not be confined to the domestic duties and there are no ‘feminine roles’. She was one of the first who sought shared experience between African Americans and women, seeing both as victims of a racist and sexist structure.
In the twentieth century, British novelist and thinker, Virginia Woolf in her work, A Room of One’s Own (1929), explored women both as writers of and characters in fiction. She was one of the first writers to develop a women centric notion of writing. She argued that the language which is available to the woman is patriarchal and sexist and the woman author is forced to practise this limited conception of language.
In 1949, The Second Sex, one of the most important books ever written about the oppression of women was published in France. Its author Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), an existentialist philosopher wrote: “One is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman” (273). Her work, radically questioned the status and role of women in the conservative patriarchal society. According to Sarojini Sahoo, it is undoubtedly true that before The Second Sex, the sexed body was not an object of phenomenological investigation. Simone changed that (15). Her work exposes the ways in which patriarchy abuses the sexual difference to create structures of disparity and exposes the facts of sexual politics. She claimed that the discriminatory sexual difference is because of the conception of male body as standard of equality. She opined that women must take charge of their own choice, instead of being the undesirable, lesser Other, they must become subjects in their own rights. They need not be confined to the roles and identities enforced on them by patriarchy. She argues that an independent woman wants; . . . to be active, a taker, and refuses the passivity man means to impose on her. The modern woman accepts masculine values; she prides herself on thinking, taking action, working, creating on the same terms as man (718).
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) called for women to renew the struggle for women’s emancipation. Betty Friedan, an American writer and feminist, argued that a woman should ask what she wants. As she says;
Neither her husband nor her children nor the things in her house, nor sex, nor being like all the other women, can give her a self (qtd. in Walters 102).
Childcare and legislation of abortion also became part of the agenda of National Organization of Women, founded by Friedan in 1966.
Gloria Steinem in her work Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983) points out that women are subjected to threats represented by the sexual violence they suffered both in private and also in the prostitution and pornography industries. Sexual violation became a major feminist issue in the 1970s and was the subject of Susan Brownmiller’s ground-breaking analysis of rape in Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975). Through her Woman and Nature: The Roaring inside Her (1978), Rape: And the Power of Consciousness (1979), and Pornography and Silence: Culture’s Revenge against Women (1981), Susan Griffin opens up a new era of feminist analysis. Feminist critics of this period also raised their voice against the depiction of women in popular culture maintaining that pornography victimizes all women, who are objectified and their meaning fixed within a system of violent sexual imagery.
In the literary field, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1971), offered an analysis of authoritative male writers and revealed a pattern of male dominance that Millett recognised as misogyny. Sexual Politics exposed the patriarchal chauvinism and sexual violence celebrated in texts such as D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Millett’s elementary discernment was that all writing is demonstrated by gender; this fact is suppressed by traditional non-feminist theory which claims for literature immunity from such worldly experience of one’s sexuality (Madsen 15).
French feminists like Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva were concerned about “women writing” as language plays a very important role in creation and modification of culture and art. Cixous in her essay The Laugh of the Medusa (1974) depicts that women should celebrate and incorporate their bodies through their writing. She writes;
Write yourself. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth (qtd. in Rai 68)
Cixous proposes a French term Écriture feminine for feminine or female writing that will escape the restriction imposed by the phallocratic system. Peter Barry suggests: . . . the female writer is seen as suffering the handicap of having to use a medium (prose writing) which is essentially a male instrument fashioned for male purposes. Thus, it is a place for women where they can express themselves; it is an anti-thesis of masculine writing. (126)
According to Hans Bertens, the French feminists were the first to see the promise of poststructuralist concepts and arguments for feminist critiques. According to Julia Kristeva, what is repressed and relegated to Semiotic is to be seen in undeveloped language of children, or in the blabberings of mental illness (167).
The Postmodern theories of gender argue that gender is not a fixed or stable category. Gender is like a text, a performance, the playing out of roles that has to be repeated within social and cultural contexts. Judith Butler in her most influential work Gender Trouble traces the various discourses around sex and gender and shows their problematic nature. Her theory of performativity which has been hailed as a significant contribution to gender theory and criticism also takes shape in this book.
Butler calls into question the category of “woman”, saying that many feminist theorists have mistakenly assumed the existence of this category as fixed and permanent. She argues that the category of the subject is a performative construct and there are ways of “doing” one’s identity which might trouble the neat binary oppositions of male/female, masculine/feminine, straight/queer etc. Butler claims that gender identity is a sequence of acts. Arguing about the instability of the category of “woman”, Butler says:
Woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end. As an ongoing discursive practice, it is open to intervention and resignification. Even when gender seems to congeal into the most reified forms, the “congealing” is itself an insistent and insidious practice, sustained and regulated by various social means. (Gender Trouble 33)
Butler believes that sex, gender and sexuality do not exist in relation to each other. Generally, sex is seen to cause gender and gender is seen to cause desire, but Butler’s attempt is to show that gender and desire are not fixed but flexible. It is possible to be female by sex and yet display masculine traits. Gender, according to Butler, is a “choice”, that is not as simple as it might appear to be. By “choice” Butler does not mean that a subject is an entirely free agent who can select her/his gender; this is not possible because the choice of gender is always limited from the start. Butler remarks in Variations on Sex and Gender:
[T]o choose a gender is to interpret received gender norms in a way that organises them anew. Less a radical act of creation, gender is a tacit project to renew one’s cultural history in one’s own terms. (131)
Gender is thus an act or a sequence of acts that goes on. Basing her project on Foucault’s works, Butler argues that sex and gender are discursively constructed and there is no possibility of freedom beyond discourse. In this context, Sara Salih remarks, “Culturally constructed sexuality cannot be repudiated, so that the subject is left with the question of how to acknowledge and ‘do’ the construction it is already in” (48).
Butler suggests that it is possible to “do” these constructions differently. She asserts that feminist theories should not accept the category of “woman” blindly but analyse how it is produced within the constraints of power structures. Thus the idea that the subject is an effect rather than a cause lies at the basis of Butler’s theory of performativity.
Gender then, according to Butler, is constructed and not naturally determined by sex. But this raises the question as to whether sex is also culturally constructed as gender is or, in other words, whether sex is gender. Thus, questioning the distinction usually made between sex and gender, Butler says that both these categories are performative:
Gender is not a noun (but it) proves to be performative, that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed. (Gender Trouble 25)
Thus if both gender and sex are performative rather than givens, according to Salih, it would be possible to “enact them in unexpected, potentially subversive ways” (58). However, Butler also emphasises that sex and gender are the effects of discourses and the law. According to her, the plurality of law produces sexed and gendered identities that appear to be natural and innate; indeed, the law itself produces the identities and desires it represses in order to establish and maintain the stability of mainstream sex and gender identities (28).
Butler obviously derives her approach from Foucault, who argues that speaking about sex is a way of simultaneously producing and controlling it; and since there can be no position outside the law, subversion of law also must take place within the existing discursive structures. Moreover, the law by prohibiting a particular form of behaviour creates and helps it. It means that the repressive and the productive function of the law/discourse go hand in hand. In other words, the dominant discourse of heterosexuality requires homosexuality to define itself and maintain its stability.
However, Butler departs from Foucault who assumes that there is a body prior to the discourse. Butler believes that the body is not a given fact, but like sex and gender it is also produced by discourses. Butler sees the possibility of subverting the law against itself through “reinscription and re-citations” of sex and gender which constitute the subject’s agency within the law (Salih 62). According to Salih, gender is. . . the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being. A political genealogy of gender ontologies, if it is successful, will deconstruct the substantive appearance of gender into its constitutive acts and locate and account for those acts within the compulsory frames set by the various forces that police the social appearance of gender. (33)
Butler thus suggests that the subject is not totally free to pick and choose the gender she/he wishes to perform but has a limited range from which to make a choice of gender styles. Elaborating the idea of performativity, Butler says:
Gender proves to be performative – that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed. (Gender Trouble 25)
Beyond Foucault, Butler is also indebted to Nietzsche in stating that there is no fixed gender identity behind the expressions of gender, that identity is performatively constructed by the very expressions that are said to be its results.
Butler links gender also with linguistic performativity. Since gender identities are constructed and constituted in language, there is no gender identity that precedes language. Salih points out that there is no “I” beyond language since identity is itself a signifying practice, so that “culturally intelligible subjects” are the effects rather than the causes of discourses that conceal their workings (64).
And if there is no identity outside language, the existence of an inner core or essence is thrown open to challenge. Butler suggests that gender acts are not performed by a subject, but these acts constitute the subject performatively. Butler says, “That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts, which constitute its reality” (136). In other words, gender is not what you are but what you do at particular times within the possibilities of discourses. Thus any identity acquired through the repetition of expected acts is not truly coherent and stable. Its coherence and stability are only illusions and can be deconstructed to reveal their constructed nature. In fact, there are many performative acts which undermine the normative conceptions of sexual and gender identity, such as cross-dressing. According to Hans Bertens:
Cross-dressing undermines the claim to naturalness of standard heterosexual identities and emphasises a theatrical, performance-like dimension of gender and sexual orientation that our discourses seek to suppress. (230)
Cross-dressing and other unusual experiments with sexuality lay bare the constructedness of sexuality and show that there are no fixities but ever-shifting differences in the field of sexuality.
Butler suggests that certain cultural configurations of gender have come to seem natural in our culture. But these are only effects of discourses. As such, these cultural configurations are not fixed but flexible and can be changed. Butler calls for action to change gender norms and the binary understanding of masculinity and femininity. Since there is scope for combining and recombining certain markers of gender and sexuality, gender is open to re-interpretation and re-signification.
Nevertheless, as Sara Salih points out, even this subversion and re-signification will be determined by dominant discourses, since there is nothing outside discourses. In other words, there is no such thing as complete freedom of choice, since the choice is to be made from among whatever is available to us. Butler herself remarks, “There is only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very “taking up” is enabled by the tool lying there” (145). Here, Sara Salih raises a very pertinent question, “If subversion itself is conditioned and constrained by discourse, then how can we tell that it is subversion at all?” (66). She gives some examples of cross-dressing performances from movies, which she claims are not subversive but serve only to reinforce the existing heterosexual power structures. It appears as if the subject is trapped within a discourse it has no power to evade or alter. Since the methods of subversion of a discourse are also to be determined by the discourse itself, the freedom of choice is hopelessly limited. According to Salih, the discourses would already have determined “how to repeat” in advance, and what appears to be agency is probably another effect of discourse disguised as something else (67).
Yet Butler is optimistic about the possibility of redoing gender identities to reveal the constructed nature of heterosexuality. Hence, she claims, “Construction is not opposed to agency; it is the necessary scene of agency” (147). She, thus, examines subjectivity on a performative axis, calling for subtle actions to subvert pre-existing gender norms gradually. She erodes the last vestiges of the Cartesian self and inaugurates a conception of the performative subject as both free and unfree.
Feminist theory, today, thus has come to encompass the issues of gender, its construction and the possibilities of subversion within these constructions. Drags and Transsexuals, Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals are important categories that cannot be ignored in any discussion of gender. Hence, what began as a movement for equal rights for gender categories, has now come to explore and analyse the formation and reification of these categories and has broadened its perspective to include all gender categories.
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