Judith Butler Post

A very good and interesting post about Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from Pink Scare: Butler, Structure and Subject

Butler‘s project takes its point of departure from politics: the aim of the book is, at least in one concerted sense (i.e. this isn’t an exhaustive aim), to critically evaluate the assumption among some feminists that a unified conception of ‘woman’ is a necessary condition of political action for feminists. The point of doing this, for Butler, is to locate ways in which the feminist project is in some ways complicit with oppression, thus enabling her to gesture at ways we might more effectively (and fully) resist or subvert the oppressive regime of sex/gender.

Gayle Rubin, The Traffic in Women (1975)

I’ve been meaning for some time to write a post about Gayle Rubin.  She’s an interesting figure whose managed to be influential within radical feminism, sex positive feminism and queer theory, but we hardly ever talk about her outside of academia.

Rubin is a cultural anthropologist. In her groundbreaking and theoretically audacious 1975 essay ‘The Traffic in Women’ she takes the economic theories of Marx and Engels, the structural anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss, the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, teases out the implications of their work for feminism, weaves it all together and comes up with a theory that locates the structural oppression of women in the kinship systems that create gender division and compulsory heterosexuality. The essay hails from a time when radical feminists were clearing the way for feminist theory and they don’t really write them like this anymore.

She begins the essay with the big question that second wave feminists had been trying to address in the 1970s: how do we account for women’s oppression and social subordination? How are human females taken up as raw materials and fashioned into domesticated women?  In relation to gender, the essay follows a strictly social constructionist line.

Unlike most other radical feminists of the time, though, Rubin is wary of the term ‘patriarchy.’  The term was introduced by feminists to ‘distinguish the forces for maintaining sexism from other social forces, such as capitalism’ (33).  But Rubin observes that the term ‘capitalism’ is useful precisely because it distinguishes between different systems of political economy – not all countries have capitalist economic systems: ‘The power of the term lies in its implication that, in fact, there are alternatives to capitalism’ (33). ‘Patriarchy,’ however, tends to mask the very different ways in which sexual worlds have been organised.  Rubin prefers the term ‘sex/gender’ system because while we can assume that all societies will have some kind of sex/gender system in place, this term allows for differences and indicates that oppression is not inevitable within that domain, but is rather ‘the product of the specific social relations which organise it’(33).  This will make a more sophisticated analysis possible.

Sex is sex, but what counts as sex is equally culturally determined and obtained. Every society also has a sex/gender system – a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be (32).

In The Dialectic of Sex (1970) Shulamith Firestone drew on Marx to locate the oppression of women in women’s economic dependence upon men.  Rubin also regards Marx and Engels as essential to understanding women’s oppression, but she turns the focus to kinship relations and the work of the anthropologist Levi-Strauss who ‘sees the essence of kinship systems to lie in an exchange of women between men’ and in so doing ‘constructs an implicit theory of sex oppression’ (35).

If it is women who are being transacted, then it is the men who give and take them who are linked, the woman being a conduit of a relationship rather than a partner to it.  In such a system women cannot have full rights to themselves.

Rubin notes the attractiveness of this concept to feminist theory because it places the oppression of women within social systems, rather than biology.  Kinship rests on a radical difference between the rights of men and women and so it must produce differences between men and women.

Take the division of labor, for example.  Rubin sees this division as a:

taboo against the sameness of men and women, a taboo dividing the sexes into two mutually exclusive categories, a taboo which exacerbates the biological differences between the sexes and thereby creates gender.  The division of labor can also be seen as a taboo against sexual arrangements other than those containing at least one man and one woman, thereby enjoining heterosexual marriage (39).

Rubin regards gender as a socially imposed division between the sexes: ‘Far from being an expression of natural differences, exclusive gender identity is the suppression of natural similarities’ (40, emphasis mine).  Furthermore, ‘individuals are engendered in order that marriage be guaranteed.’

According to Rubin the social system of kinship therefore necessitates the creation of gender division and the institution of compulsory heterosexuality.

If biological and hormonal imperatives were as overwhelming as popular mythology would have them, it would hardly be necessary to insure heterosexual unions by means of economic interdependency […] The suppression of the homosexual component of human sexuality, and by corollary, the oppression of homosexuals, is therefore a product of the same system whose rules and relations oppress women (41)

Here she forges a link between homophobia and the traffic in women necessary to maintain kinship systems.  This link forms the groundwork for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theory of homosocial culture, which in turn underpins much queer theory.

Rubin then turns to psychoanalysis and makes a gutsy (for the time) attempt to rehabilitate Sigmund Freud stating that ‘the radical implications of Freud’s theory have been radically repressed’ (43).

Insofar as psychoanalysis rationalizes female subordination it must be critiqued, but Rubin insists that psychoanalysis ‘contains a unique set of concepts for understanding men, women, and sexuality. It is a theory of sexuality in human society. Most importantly, psychoanalysis provides a description of the mechanisms by which the sexes are divided and deformed, of how bisexual, androgynous infants are transformed into boys and girls’ (43).

Rubin argues that Freud was not the biological determinist some people would have him: ‘Freud’s theory was instead about language and the cultural meanings imposed upon anatomy’ (45).  To put the point *cough* another way, ‘penis envy’ is not really envy of an organ, but envy of the cultural meanings attached to the possession of that organ.

This discussion calls for Lacan (it’s just not a party until Lacan arrives), the French psychoanalyst who developed Freud’s work in relation to language and who made a radical distinction between the penis and the phallus, that is, between the organ and information: ‘The phallus is a set of meanings conferred upon the penis’ (46). Castration is not having the symbolic phallus.  Castration is not a real “lack,” but a meaning conferred upon the genitals of a woman.  The phallus carries a meaning of dominance over women and it may be inferred that penis envy is a recognition and resentment of that meaning.

If you’re interested in the subject, Rubin gives reasonably clear summaries of Freud and Lacan’s theories (no easy task!) which I don’t have the patience to type out here, but basically she thinks that what they really address is the way cultural stereotypes have been mapped onto the genitals.

She also notes that psychoanalysts see the creation of “femininity” in women as an act of psychic brutality based largely on pain and humiliation: ‘One can read Freud’s essays on femininity as descriptions of how a group is prepared psychologically, at a tender age, to live with its oppression’ (50).  Little wonder they return to biological determinism to explain why anyone would enjoy being a woman.

Feminism, she argues, should call for a revolution in kinship.

Human and sexual life will always be subject to convention and human intervention. It will never be completely “natural” if only because our species is social, cultural, and articulate […] but the mechanisms and evolution of this process need not be largely independent of conscious choice. Cultural evolution provides us with the opportunity to seize control of the means of sexuality, reproduction, and socialization, and to make conscious decisions to liberate human sexual life from the archaic relationships which deform it.  Ultimately, a thoroughgoing feminist revolution would liberate more than women. It would liberate forms of sexual expression, and would liberate human personality from the straight jacket of gender (52).

The essay is very much of its time in arguing that women are oppressed by having to be women:

I personally feel that the feminist movement must dream of the elimination of obligatory sexualities and sex roles. The dream I find most compelling is one of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love (54).

I agree absolutely that a feminist movement should aim to eliminate obligatory sexuality and sex roles, but I think a lot of feminists would now question this dream of an androgynous, genderless society.

  • Is that really what we want?
  • How would such a thing be achieved anyway?
  • Oughtn’t we question the tendency to construct gender in entirely negative terms?
  • Perhaps most importantly, who, exactly, would be enforcing and policing this genderless utopia, eh?

Maybe we would like to retain some of the pleasures and powers of gender while trying to lose the compulsion.

Moreover, while I’m sure Rubin never intended such an interpretation (she’s since shown herself to be a staunch supporter of sexual minorities and people constructed as gender deviants), we must not be blind to the fact that this kind of theorising gave impetus to transphobia within feminism and has allowed trans women in particular to be made into the scapegoats of gender within some feminist narratives.

It’s important to be careful not to use theory to discredit the lived experiences of real live gendered people.

In a future post I’d like to talk more about her influence on sex positive feminism and queer theory.

Gayle Rubin is an Assistant Professor of Anthropolgy at the University of Michegan.

Further reading: Gayle Rubin, ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex’ in Linda Nicholson (ed) The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory (New York and London: Routledge, 1997): 27 – 62.

The Best Literary Theory I read in 2008

Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny

As a lover of Gothic Horror, I have an interest in the uncanny, what Freud described as the haunting sense that something which ought to be repressed is coming to light. Royle’s highly theoretical, imaginative and ambitious book works with Freud but isn’t overwhelmed by him:

The uncanny entails another thinking of beginning: the beginning is already haunted. The uncanny is ghostly. It is concerned with the strange, weird and mysterious, with a flickering sense (but not conviction) of something supernatural. The uncanny involves feelings of uncertainty, in particular regarding the reality of who one is and what is being experienced. Suddenly one’s sense of oneself (of one’s so-called ‘personality’ or ‘sexuality’, for example) seems strangely questionable.  The uncanny is a crisis of the proper […] It is a crisis of the natural, touching upon everything that one might have thought was ‘part of nature’ : one’s own nature, human nature, the nature of reality and the world (p. 1)

It’s also a good read for anyone interested in Derridean deconstruction.


Helene Cixous, ‘Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”)’

In which Cixous analyses Freud, unravelling his own essay about the uncanny and reading it against itself.  This is a challenging piece (from which it’s all but impossible to pull a representative quote) but an important exploration of the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis. Cixous effectively draws out the uncanniness underlying Freud’s own text and by implication all fiction.

Thank you to the kind person who sent me this essay when I couldn’t manage to wrest it from JSTOR.

Linda Nicholson (ed), The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory

Cover of the book The Second Wave Reader

In between everything else, I’m working my way through The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda Nicholson.  The book leaves out a lot because it’s limited to more highly theoretical feminist writing, but it contains some very influential work. I’ve only read the first section ‘Early Statements’ so far, but I already feel like I’m gaining a better understanding of how we got to where we are today.

One interesting factor, which Nicholson draws attention to in her introduction, is the division between the ‘Woman’s Rights Movement,’ which emerged in the early 1960s, and the Women’s Liberation Movement, which emerged out of the New Left in the later 1960s. The Women’s Rights Movement was basically what we now call liberal feminism.  It was largely made up of professional women who put pressure on organisations to end discrimination against women in the work force. It drew on the dissatisfaction felt by a lot of middle-class housewives at the time.  The Women’s Liberation Movement developed the approach now known as radical feminism.  It was concerned with getting women and men ‘to recognise the importance of women’s oppression, its presence across large stretches of history and its fundamentality as a principle of social organisation.  This meant developing a theory that explained the origins of women’s oppression and the means by which it has been sustained’ (2). Of course these different strands were not completely independent of each other but they represent quite radically different approaches to the same problems and it’s important to be aware of them.  While much of the creative thinking (and therefore most of the essays in the book) came from the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement has been hugely influential in determining the feminist agenda.  These days you quite often seem to get people working with a combination of the two strands in ways that can be problematic.

The first chapter is the ‘Introduction to The Second Sex’ (1953) by Simone De Beauvoir. In trying to account for the historical oppression of women as a group, De Beauvoir argues that physiological differences between men and women gave men the opportunity to define themselves as subjects and women as ‘other.’  Biology therefore became elaborated as gender:

‘It amounts to this […] there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus; these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature. It is often said that she thinks with her glands. Man superbly ignores the fact that his anatomy also includes glands, such as testicles, and that they secrete hormones.  He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it.’

I love the opening quote: “For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on women. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in the quarrelling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more of it’ (11).

The quarreling about feminism over? In 1953? Oh how we laugh now!

The second chapter is from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Drawing on Marx and Engels Firestone continued the project of trying to account for women’s oppression by locating the problem in biological differences, specifically reproduction, arguing that women’s capacity to bear children put them in a relation of dependence on men which allowed men to oppress them.  The solution:

‘to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility – the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of childbearing and childrearing.’ (24).

Is that all then?

It’s a powerful argument, but also a problematic one.  As Nicholson notes in her introduction to the book: ‘Are not all of us dependent on each other in some way or other?’  Does the existence of relations of dependence really explain the oppression of more than half the human race?  What about all the women who have never born children with men? And why should reproduction automatically be interpreted as a reason to oppress women?  Why was it not interpreted as a source of power, as seems to have been the case in some early societies? Perhaps Firestone answers these questions in the rest of her book, but I think her argument also puts women with children in a difficult position with regard to feminism because under current conditions there is no way they can seize total control of human fertility.  In having children with men at all, they are doing something arguably anti-feminist.

I prefer Gayle Rubin’s argument in the following essay, ‘The Traffic in Women’ (1975), which locates gendered oppression in the exchange of women which takes place within kinship systems.  I also love this essay for its sheer audacity. Rubin manages to weave together Marx, the anthropology of Levi-Strauss, and the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan.  I’m going to write a separate post on  this one because I think it deserves a more in-depth discussion than I can provide here.

The next chapter is The Combahee River Collective’s ‘A Black Feminist Statement’ (1979), which I also think deserves a post of its own.  Basically, the statement defends identity politics, rejects separatism and insists that gender cannot be abstracted form race and class:

‘The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.’ (63).

More on that when I have a moment

The final essay in this section is the ‘The Equality Crisis,’ the one Women’s Rights Movement piece in this section and I haven’t read it because… I can’t get up much energy for liberal feminism at the moment.  I may go back to it later, but right now I have skipped to the next section which is on feminism and Marxism and interests me more.

Thoughts on the term ‘Feminism’

This was posted on one of my deleted blogs in 2008 while I was going through another phase of re-evaluating my relationship with feminism.

I don’t think it’s essential to hold onto the word ‘feminism’ in order to continue the work of feminism.  Evidently, millions of women around the world work hard for other women without calling themselves ‘feminists.’  But language takes a long time to change and people hang onto generally accepted terms for the purposes of communication, so I think it’ll be quite a while before ‘feminism’ falls out of use. It probably won’t change until the majority of people interested in stopping gendered oppression decide that the term is no longer useful, move onto something else and the rest gradually follow suit. People will probably still need to have some kind of shared terminology which refers to the ideas though.

‘Feminism’ may be a broad umbrella term which doesn’t accurately describe the real situation, but it’s a short hand that a lot of people still find useful and I include myself among them.  I think a lot of women who call themselves feminists do so (at least partly anyway), to find other people who might share their interests and politics. I say “might” because, as we know from 5 minutes of looking at blogs, this is not guaranteed.  People often came to my last feminist group and told us that they had been searching for other feminists for ages because they just wanted to find people with whom they could talk about their politics.  When I find a blog or a book which identifies itself as ‘feminist’ that does mean something to me. It tells me it might be of interest, so then I take a closer look to see if it actually has anything in common with my politics.

In a way, I feel a fondness for the old term ‘women’s liberation’, but just in terms of practical communication, it’s been rendered archaic.  From reading my Second Wave Reader I’m not sure early ‘feminists’ were too taken in by an illusion of homogeneity.  Apparently feminists who called themselves ‘women’s liberationists’ generally meant that they were what we would now call radical feminists who were after a revolution in gender relations, while women who called themselves ‘women’s rights activists’ were usually liberal feminists who  wanted to achieve ‘equality’ with men.

But the problem continues when you break feminist down into more specific terms. Take ‘radical feminist,’ for example; it’s obvious that people use this term in very different ways. I’ve come across quite a few bloggers who stopped calling themselves radical feminists when they encountered the blogosphere and found something completely different to what they thought the term meant.  If I ever refer to myself as a ‘radical feminist’ (and I very rarely do these days) I mean New York radical women type radical feminism, not 1980’s sex wars kind of radical feminism or transphobic feminism, which are strands of feminism I would actively want to dissociate myself from.

But these  problems of language and appropriation are not specific to feminism. Take ‘queer,’ for example: I’ll often look out for the signifier ‘queer’ on blogs because it suggests a certain kind of politics – anti-heteronormative and anti-assimilationist.  But ‘queer’ is an umbrella term which is also inadequate and in recent years has increasingly been co-opted by rich, white, middle-class people.  In popular usage it has started to stand for a kind of individualistic, consumerist position which destroys the term’s radical potential.  There is also the issues of it’s history as a term of abuse and there are plenty of people who don’t think we should try and reclaim it for that reason.  I still use it because it retains some of its old meaning for some people, but the day may be approaching when it is no longer useful and needs to be replaced with something better.