Gender Matters

“A frequent criticism of radical feminism is that it supports a biologically based “essential” division of the world into male and female. In particular this accusation is charged against radical feminists working in the area of violence against women who name men as a social group, as well as individual men where relevant, as oppressors of women.

The facts are that men brutally oppress women as radical feminists have empirically shown. But why do men do this? Can it be changed? Kathleen Barry has addressed these issues in her analysis of sexual slavery which we discussed earlier. She states that men do these things to women because “there is nothing to stop them” (1979, p. 254). Her analysis of the values of patriarchy and theories which supposedly account for male violence is too detailed to discuss here. The important point to stress is that radical feminism cannot be reduced to a simplistic biological determinist argument. That its critics often do thus reduce it is a political ploy which takes place in order to limit the effectiveness of its analysis. Women have good reasons for being frightened to name men as the enemy, particularly when they live in hetero-relationships: punishment is often meted out for exposing patriarchy and its mechanisms (see Cline and Spender: 1987).

Christine Delphy argues that the concept of gender—that is the respective social positions of women and men—is a construction of patriarchal ideology and that “sex has become a pertinent fact, hence a perceived category, because of the existence of gender” (1984, p. 144). Therefore, she argues, the oppression creates gender, and in the end, gender creates anatomical sex (p. 144), “…in a sense that the hierarchical division of humanity into two transforms an anatomical difference (which is in itself devoid of social implications) into a relevant distinction for social practice”.

Radical Feminists are well aware of the dangers of basing analysis in biology. If men and women are represented as having “aggressive” and “nurturing” characteristics because of their biology, the situation will remain immutable and the continuation of male violence against women can be justified. But this is not to say that there are not differences between the sexes. This is patently so. These differences, however, do not need to be rooted in biology nor do they need to be equated with determinism. As the editors of Questions Feministes put it (1980, p. 14): “…we acknowledge a biological difference between men and women, but it does not in itself imply a relationship of oppression between the sexes. The struggle between the sexes is not the result of biology”.

Men are the powerful group. But men need women, for sexual and emotional labour, for domestic labour, for admiration, for love, and for a justification of the existing power imbalance (see Cline and Spender: 1987). In order to maintain the more powerful position and so feed on their need of women without being consumed by it, men as a powerful group institutionalise their position of power. This involves the need to structure institutions to maintain that power, the development of an ideology to justify it, and the use of force and violence to impose it when resistance emerges (see also Rowland: 1988).

It is possible that differences between women and men arise out of a biological base but in a different way to that proposed by a reductivist determinism. The fact that women belong to the social group which has the capacity for procreation and mothering, and the fact that men belong to the social group which has the capacity to, and does carry out, acts of rape and violence against women, must intrude into the consciousness of being female and male. But this analysis allows for change in the sense that men themselves could change that consciousness and therefore their actions. It also allows women to recognise that we can and must develop our own theories and practices and need not accept male domination as unchangeable.

Existing differences between women and men may have been generated out of the different worlds we inhabit as social groups, including our experience of power and powerlessness. Again this is not to say that these differences are immutable. The history of women’s resistance is evidence of resistance to deterministic thinking, as is the history of the betrayal of patriarchy by some men who support feminism.”

-Klein, Renate; Bell, Diane (1996-05-01). Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed p.33-34

“One of the most common misreadings of radical feminist thinking is that it is essentialist; that it locates the source of women’s subordination in female biology and/or male biology. For example, although they state that not all radical feminists accept “biological theories”, british sociologists Pamela Abbot and Claire Wallace nonetheless feed this caricature of radical feminism as biologically determinist when they claim in their introduction to feminist perspectives in sociology that:

Women’s oppression is seen as rooted in women’s biological capacity for motherhood or in the innate, biologically determined aggression of the male, as manifested in rape (1990, p. 12)

The supposed essentialism of radical feminist perspectives can be seen, in part, as the outcome of a tendency, which in some cases would seem to be deliberate, to reduce the diverse strands of radical feminst thought to a relatively few sources. For instance, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, first published in 1970, is still frequently cited twenty-five years later as if it were representative of what is termed the radical feminist “position”. Although issues of sexuality and reproduction remain central to radical feminist theorizing in the nineties, few radical feminists nowadays would agree with Firestone’s view that gender divisions are the outcome of natural biological differences between the sexes.”

-Diane Richardson, in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed p.143-44 Klein, Renate; Bell, Diane (1996-05-01).

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