Talking Theory: Feminism Only for ‘Feminists’?

Just some thoughts about the status and perceptions of feminist scholarship in academia and the broader public.


When we read and analyse Foucault writing on prisons and punishment or on sexuality, we do not limit our horizon by thinking of these works simply in terms of the thematic rubric covered.  Foucault has, quite rightly and fortunately, managed to enter the realm of theoretical discussion, debate and development primarily as an approach, as insight into the workings of society in general, and as a framework or basis of many new frameworks for theorising and analysing quite diverse range of themes and areas.

Whereas, this is not the case, at least not to that degree, in case of most feminist research and approaches. This does not mean to say that, on highly specialised theoretical areas we do not find non-feminist scholars drawing on feminist theoretical perspectives.  But it does mean to suggest, that in their more everyday invocations —be it in university classrooms, or in most mainstream textbooks in social sciences — the terms Feminism and Feminist theory are most readily associated with feminism and the coverage of substantive themes more or less immediately concerning the practice of feminist activism and the feminist cause/s. In other words, the instrumentality of the Feminist theories for the feminist cause is the main focus. Thus, at least to most students, the mainstream textbooks seem to suggest, that feminist theoretical approaches are useful for looking at feminist issues—the plight of women, their various expressed need for emancipation, the global social and economic inequalities that result from women’s oppression, women being more targeted and easy victims of war and conflict, etc.

All these are hugely important facts and topics, revealed and brought to our attention owing to feminist scholarship; too important for students of social sciences to miss exploring. But it seems to me, the exploration must not stop there. Feminist perspectives and approaches allow us to see things not necessarily and directly gender-related; they unearth realities otherwise not noticed; they allow conceptualising theoretical notions useful for the broader social sciences applicable on a variety of themes.

In other words, my concern is to credit feminists and feminism not only for what they have achieved in exposing gender inequalities, reified /hegemonic power relations and their social/economic and political consequences, but also and significantly for developing theoretical concepts/approaches which are highly transferable to inquiries into other topics/fields. These approaches and insights are often unique, and sometimes ahead of their time.

I will mention just two illustrations of such transferability. One comes in the form of a research by Sandra Whitworth into “Militarized Masculinities and the Politics of Peacekeeping”, where she offers an alternative and compelling understanding of the failures of the Canadian mission in Somalia. This research, rather than being categorised and taught as an illustration of a feminist view (note the ‘a’, i.e. ‘just another view’), or a research into masculinities, must rather, be presented and understood as a legitimate framework for understanding the conduct of peacekeeping, and militarism in general. In other words, it should not be simply discarded if feminist ideas do not particularly appeal to a scholar or student. To achieve such kind of change in mentality, thematically and in terms of the physical organisation of academic texts, such type of research must feature in chapters and reading lists dealing with, in this case ‘Peacekeeping’, rather than ‘Gender’.

The other illustration is of a different nature. When reviewing existing discourse-theoretical literature on silencing in political argumentation, the most useful insight I found was offered in the form of feminist research.  Thus, feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon has developed the ‘silencing argument’ regarding pornography, whereby “pornography silences women”. Expanding on this, Jennifer Hornsby developed a more enhanced discursive understanding of speech act and silencing, again drawing on the case of pornography. These studies, however, are equally about philosophy of discourse in general, and a new discourse-analytical concept in particular, as much as about the topic of pornography and women’s rights.  Crucially, the concept of silencing and ways to research it are transferable to political argumentation in general (rightly notice by Jason Stanley). This is how they must be presented to the academic community. This is how they must be appreciated—in terms of their transferability to other topical areas of research.

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  • OwenDThomas says:

    Hi Tatevik. This is a thoughtful provoking post – thanks. However I wonder whether the way in which you frame the debate actually exacerbates the thing you are trying to contest. I agree that scholarly critiques are, almost without exception, transferable beyond the specific site, debate and, perhaps most importantly, the sub-disciplinary context into which the author is emerged (by this last point I mean authors who work with other ‘feminists’ are thus characterized). I wonder, then, whether the problem is that in this context we are calling Whitworth or MacKinnon feminists in the first place? The question is then how are we to label these works to encourage the greatest degree of collaboration? Obvious any attempt to constitute scholarly identity is likely to exclude something. Personally, and I am happy to be corrected on this, I tend to consider feminism a substantive normative theory of politics but not a distinct methodological or conceptual framework. Instead these methodological or conceptual framework, distinct from ‘the site’, are shared. Accordingly, are we better off thinking in terms of rationalists, reflectivists, poststructuralists etc?

  • Thanks, Owen, for your reply and comments. Indeed, I had doubts that my post might be interpreted as unwittingly dichotomizing the theories and scholars as Feminist vs. non-Feminist. However, in fact, my message is just against such a dichotomy. First, if Feminism is more about ‘feminism’ (i.e. a normative theory of politics, as you say), then indeed those identifying themselves with its normative cause are and should still be called ‘feminists’. I see nothing inherently wrong with that. But the issue is with the other side of the purported ‘dichotomy’– the non-Feminists. Here, I disagree. Indeed, Feminism is not a coherent framework, and I never claimed it was. But it is by all means a distinct ontology (primarily ontology, and then methodology) which has resulted in developing innovative theoretical concepts. These challenge, but also shed light to/complement/enrich, other ontologies, and indeed methodologies. Therefore, the non-Feminist part of the this dichotomy must be challenged rather than, the ‘Feminist’ part. Awareness must develop, that without certain insight drawn from Feminist theories, certain ontologies of politics and IR may be incomplete and lacking; therefore, students or scholars cannot simply ‘opt out’, if they do not identify with (and oh so many don’t) the normative-theory-of-politics part, or the small-letter ‘feminist’ (i.e. activist) cause.

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