Handout: The Feminist Challenge

(This handout is part of Activity 9: The feminist challenge: how feminism expands ideas of freedom.)

Over the years, the feminist tradition has engaged in a sustained conversation with many of the ideas that are associated with what we call dominant conceptions of freedom. This conversation takes place in the form of a dialogue and sometimes it becomes similar to a community hall meeting, with many different voices in the room. At different points in time, the feminist tradition – with its different currents of thought – had to tackle liberalism, Marxism, the anti-colonial tradition and much more. These conversations are often robust, with the feminist tradition pointing out ‘blind-spots’, silences and exclusions in these traditions. The robust nature of these conversations should not lead us to miss three important points:

  1. These conversations and disagreements between feminism and other traditions often take place in the course of struggle, in the heat of things. This is important to underline as sometimes, those who are opposed to feminism as a political project, dismiss it as an “academic exercise”.

  2. The feminist tradition is not just engaged in the process of identifying problems, important as this might be. There are novel and creative interventions that feminism has introduced to how we think about freedom today.

  3. The critique is sometimes not just directed at dominant conceptions of freedom. There are fierce internal debates within the feminist tradition, and most of these differences are around who exactly are the social layers whose freedom we should fight for and what are the processes that shape the experiences of women from different classes, geographies and races.

Some of the ideas about freedom that feminism has introduced include among others social reproduction theory, the potent slogan – “the personal is political”, understandings of race that go beyond the masculine image of a revolutionary and the refusal to allow national liberation movements to treat gender and women’s oppression as an “optional extra”.

Social Reproduction Theory

Social reproduction theory is a challenge that is directed at anti-capitalist conceptions of freedom. These conceptions of freedom are criticised for their pre-occupation with production and the exploitation of workers in the mines, factories and farms to the neglect of an important question: who reproduces the worker? This pre-occupation leads to the treatment of women’s oppression and the care work that women perform in the home as an extension of capitalism’s functions. This explains why many anti-capitalist conceptions of freedom argued that the inclusion of women into waged work would free them from their subjugation. Feminists have persistently argued that this is a superficial solution to the unfreedom of women caused by reproductive labour. The washing of laundry, cooking, looking after children and the elderly does not only benefit capitalists but men (husbands and fathers) too. It is important to challenge men’s power and women’s subjugation in the home and understand that this relationship of dominance and subjugation can live beyond capitalism. New iterations of this challenge have broadened the scope even more by including all the services that are required to reproduce the working class – like creches, schools, hospitals and clinics, parks, housing, water and electricity – in this definition of social reproduction.

Personal is political!

Here we look at a popular slogan of the Second Wave which made the charge that seemingly personal issues like getting an abortion, experiencing intimate partner violence and doing back-breaking labour in the home, are not just personal problems or individual issues but are related to how power is distributed in society. We also look at how feminism challenged the idea that there are two separate spheres of life: the private sphere and the public sphere. According to this separation, the public sphere is a space for men to exercise political power and preside over political and economic affairs. The private sphere is seen as a domain of women in the home and the family where the rearing of children and caring for members of the family takes place. Historically, the idea of separate sought to keep women in the home and away from “public affairs” like politics. It also called for the “private sphere”, the family, to be free from interventions from the state and other social institutions. Feminism challenged this by arguing that decisions made in political affairs have a bearing on women’s freedoms and that the home or family is not free of politics. Relationships in the family are based on inequality, hierarchy and domination. Using the slogan “personal is political”, feminists argued that the idea of a separate “private sphere” that is delinked from the rest of society is a liberal invention that is designed to confine and isolate women’s oppression to “private spaces” like the home and relationships. It is an idea that seeks to delink the forms of oppression that women experience in the family from their subordinate and subservient positions in the workplace, economy and politics. Overall, the contribution of this challenge was to politicise the home and the family and to redefine the “political” by arguing that women’s experiences of patriarchy constitute political experiences.

Race Matters, so does gender and class!

There is a vision of freedom that stems from a challenge to how some strands of feminism neglected race and racism in their analysis. This vision of freedom is also a challenge to the sexism within movements and organisations that stand for the liberation of racially oppressed groups. It highlights the interconnectedness or intersection of multiple forms of oppressions (race, class, gender, sexuality). In this group, we look at how these contributions, emerging from the Black radical feminist tradition, challenged and expanded notions of freedom. We use Robin D G Kelley’s claim that Black radical feminism – in engaging the ‘black freedom struggle’ – also challenged the idea that oppressions based on sex and gender were the secondary residue to racial capitalism and that they would eventually wither away with the advent of black liberation. We look at how Black women took up struggles for abortion rights and against forced sterilisation practices in ways that made their experiences visible, valid and a solid platform against oppression.

Women’s liberation is not a by-product of national liberation!

This challenge addresses two audiences. The first audience are feminists in the global north who are reminded that their experience does not mirror the experiences of all women and that, in the global south, the struggle for freedom from oppressive gender relations is simultaneously a struggle against capitalism and colonialism. Therefore, making claims for equality solely based on a gendered lens amounts to competing to be equal to oppressed and colonised men. The second audience is made up of men within the national liberation movement who often argued that women’s liberation could either be postponed to sometime after the defeat of capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, or it would be automatically delivered by the “revolution”. Women in the movements for independence had to constantly show how women’s liberation is neither a diversion from national liberation nor can it be postponed to some indefinite date. The women’s movements of the global south insisted that women are not just a strategic social layer to be mobilised in struggle. Women have experiences that are gendered and these experiences, alongside experiences shaped by race and class, inform women’s participation in national liberation politics.

Works consulted/cited

  • Angela Davis (1981) Women, Race and Class, Random House.

  • Cathia Jenainati and Judy Groves (2010) ‘Introducing Feminism: A Graphic Guide’, Icon Books.

  • Frances Rogan and Shelley Budgeon (2018), ‘The Personal is Political: Assessing Feminist Fundamentals in the Digital Age’, Soc. Sci.

  • Jo Beall, Shireen Hassim, and Alison Todes, (1987) “‘A Bit on the Side’?: Gender Struggles in the Politics of Transformation in South Africa”, Transformation, 5, pp. 3 – 32

  • Jo Beall, Shireen Hassim, and Alison Todes, (2011) “We are all radical feminists now: reflections on ‘A bit on the side’

  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2019) ‘Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective’, Monthly Review.

  • Kumari Jayawardena (1986 / 2016) ‘Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World’, Zed Books/Verso Press.

    Also see Pat Horn (1991) ‘Marxism and Feminism: Uneasy Bedfellows?’ African Communist, 3 rd Quarter, pp. 10-20.

  • Robin D G Kelley (2002) Freedom Dreams: the Black Radical Imagination, Chapter 5 (“The battlefield called life: black feminist dreams).

  • Thithi Bhattacharya (2017) ‘Introduction: Mapping Social Reproduction Theory’ in her Social Reproduction Theory, Pluto Press.

  • Zine Magubane (2016) ‘Domains of Freedom: Justice, Citizenship and Social Change in South Africa, Chapter 7 ‘The Politics of Women and Gender in the ANC: Reflecting Back on 20 Years’, UCT Press.