The Challenges of Feminism

Commentary No. 446, April 1, 2017

Feminist and women’s rights movements draw their strength and their ideological arguments from one simple observation. Throughout the world and throughout very long historical time, women have been oppressed in multiple ways. There is now an enormous literature presenting a very large gamut of views both about what explains this and what ought to be done about it.

I would simply like to explore here what are the major unresolved tactical issues that feminism as movement and feminism as ideology pose for all of us in the global struggle that is the central feature of the structural crisis of the modern world-system.

Given that we are all located in a whirlwind of constantly shifting situations that we call chaos, there are two different time horizons about which we must make decisions about alliances.

In the short run (up to three years), it is imperative that we defend ourselves against attempts to worsen the immediate situation. For example, there are constant attacks on the rights of women to control their own bodies or to reverse gains in the access of women to occupations that were once closed to them.

Fighting against these attacks on acquired gains will not end patriarchy or end inequalities. But it is very important to do what we can in the short run to minimize the pain. In this short-run struggle, whatever alliances we can build constitute a plus that we cannot disdain.

These short-term alliances however do not make it more likely to win the middle-run struggle to replace a doomed capitalist system with one that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian. And here we must be very careful that we are building alliances based on common objectives. To do that we need to discuss further what should be our objectives and what we can do now to move in the direction of tilting the balance between us and those who wish to replace capitalism with a system that is at least as bad, if not worse, for all of us, of course including all women.

Feminists and women’s rights groups have been divided on a number of major questions: What is the long-term relation of feminist goals and movements based on race, class, sexuality, and/or social “minorities”? What should be the role of men, if any, in the struggle to achieve complete gender equality? How can we achieve a transformation of historic subordination of women in all the major religious traditions of the world?

How we answer these questions depends in large part on our epistemologies. We are perhaps past the point when our guiding epistemology is a binary one of universalisms versus particularisms. However, merely endorsing the rights of all groups to pursue their own particularisms does not answer the question.

The end product of a totally particularist vision of social life can only be a total disintegration of social life. We need to think through how we can meaningfully combine the practice of particularist values with a global movement that is politically on the left. If we fail to do this, we shall fall prey to the capture of our forces by those who would, in di Lampedusa’s words, “change everything in order that nothing change.”

We have twenty to forty years to hone a practice that would resolve this dilemma. That is the great challenge of feminism and women’s rights movements to all of us. The oppression of women is probably the longest-lasting social reality we have known. It therefore provides the soundest basis for intelligent reflection, moral choice, and political wisdom.