Kjønn og makt - Rights and Identities: Continuities and Discontinuities in Feminist Debates
"Usynlige grenser - kjønn og makt"
Oslo, 11.-12. november 1999
Anne Phillips, The Gender Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science
The perception we all share, the perception that underpins this conference, is that much has changed in feminism and gender relations . In the course of the last thirty years, there has been a remarkable equalisation between the sexes in participation in the labour market, participation in higher education, and for the Nordic countries at least, participation in national politics. We can no longer talk as if men are the breadwinners, women the dependants, as if men inhabit the public worlds of employment and politics while women are confined to a private sphere of domesticity and family life; and while none of us would say that men and women are now regarded as full equals, there has been a significant lessening of the contempt for and disparagement of women that gave the mobilising impetus to the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s.
These developments have generated uncertainty about what should now be conceived as the feminist project. In some quarters, indeed, they have led to a view that it is men who now face the problems, masculinity that is now in crisis. This is a deeply parochial response, particularly when we look more widely at the situation of women worldwide. I won’t say much on this, but there are many countries in the world today where women are denied equal access to education or employment outside the home; there are still some countries where they are denied the right to vote. One of the most startling reminders of the continuing sexual inequality is Amartya Sen’s calculation that 100 million women are missing. If we take as a norm the kind of sex ratios that exist in Europe, or North America, and even in one of the poorest regions like sub-Saharan Africa, we usually find slightly more women than men (one of the advantages of being female is that if you do get the same access to food and medicine as men, you are likely to live slightly longer). Yet in many countries, the male population considerably exceeds the number of women. The only way to explain this is by gender discrimination in the distribution of food and access to health, not to mention the even starker cases of infanticide in cultures where the boy child is so much more valuable than the girl. (1) Women are being literally starved to death in much of the world. When it comes to such basic rights as nutrition, health, even the right to life itself, women do not enjoy equality with men.
‘Rights-talk’, as it is sometimes called, remains crucially important across the globe. That said, it has undoubtedly lost much of its power in the richer parts of Europe or North America. This is not only because we are more complacent about our enjoyment of basic rights. It is also that the discourse of rights feels inadequate to the politics of sexual equality, either because it conjures up images of women as insistent and rather individualist aggressors or (almost the opposite point) because it situates women as victims. Some feminists see the notion of the rights-bearing individual as part of a ‘masculine’ subsystem (I take this term from Nancy Fraser(2)) that regards people as owners or purchasers or consumers, individuals who go round insisting on ‘their’ rights, ‘their’ entitlements (not seeming to notice much about anyone else); and who turn to the law for redress when they don’t get their rights rather than turning to political movements. Others have suggested that there is something inherently mean-minded and arithmetical about rights, particularly when rights-talk is extended to apply to relations between individuals in families. Those bound by relations of love, according to this argument, diminish the relationship when they insist on their rights (my right to three nights out each week, my right to do only half of the housework); they make children pawns in a battle between fathers and mothers; they destroy the spontaneity of affection and the greater generosity associated with care.
The further point is that rights escalate. So women win equal rights to employment, and they turn their attention to the equal right to promotion. They win the right to vote, and they decide to claim the right to equality of representation, to say women have a right to half of all elected posts. Rights should escalate, on the whole, since we mostly start from a limited level from which we can barely begin to imagine the full extent of our rights. But when we keep raising the stakes, we reach a point where many women – including some feminists – feel it has all gone too far. This is not necessarily because people think women should be satisfied with improvement rather than expecting the parity full equality implies. It is also that people sense a desire to be the perpetual victim – so if one source of complaint is eliminated, we look around for something else that is wrong – and see this escalation of claims as taking us away from the things that really matter.
This is what has been said of recent developments, particularly in the USA. Women have won the case over sexual harassment at work, for example, being an equal rights issue, but then have extended the definition of sexual harassment to cover any kind of sexual banter, almost any reference to sex. No country is as far down this road as the USA, and given the difference in our political and legal cultures, none of us is ever likely to go that far. But under the framework of civil rights legislation (particularly Title VII of the 1991 Civil Rights Act which makes employers open to large compensation claims if they do not take the appropriate steps to provide employees with a working environment secure from sexual harassment), American firms have established what I view as repressive rules regulating - or simply banning – anything that might be considered sexual banter, sexual innuendo, or sexual relationships between their employees. It is clearly an advance that sexual harassment at work is now taken seriously, but when everything remotely sexualised comes to be treated as an abuse (so you can’t ever touch someone of the opposite sex, you can’t comment on his/her appearance, and you certainly can’t tease colleagues about their love lives) there has perhaps been a loss of perspective about which aspects most matter.
For ‘third wave’ feminists such as Katie Roiphe, Naomi Wolf, or Camille Paglia, the escalation around sexual harassment and ‘date-rape’ testifies not to women’s power but to their weakness. In their view, the increased recourse to legal redress and legal protections positions women as the victims of predatory men, weak creatures who endlessly need the protection of the university authorities or the employer or the law courts, who never seem to think of taking responsibility for themselves. From this we get a critique of the victim syndrome - and as an alternative to that, a celebration of individual creativity, contestation, women’s empowerment through taking power themselves.
As I’ve suggested, much of that literature is responding to developments that are specific to the USA; much of it also sets up a rather dubious dichotomy between ‘old’ and ‘new’ feminism. Yet the point about women needing to take responsibility for themselves is very strong in Simone de Beauvoir (presumably an ‘old’ feminist?) whose analysis of The Second Sex (1949) was framed by an existentialist philosophy that viewed freedom as the achievement of self-consciousness, becoming a Self to someone else’s Other. IN the existentialist philosophy she draws on, individuals strive to become active subjects by striving to become the looker – rather than the looked-at. De Beauvoir built on this to argue that in the struggle between woman and man, men are almost permanently positioned in the privileged role of the looker; women as the looked at; she also argued that women accept this, connive in it, because of the advantages they gain from male protection. To be a man is to be a subject, acting, willing, creating, having a meaningful existence. To be a woman is to be an object, living rather than existing –engaged in the repetitive functions that humans share with animals. Housework is the paradigmatic example of this –we perform the same tasks day after day, the objective being just to return things to where they originally were. In existentialist philosophy, people are often said to act in bad faith: we fear our freedom, we find the sense of responsibility for our own lives too lonely, too much to take; we then lapse into the ‘bad faith’ that blames circumstances or others for decisions – or failures to take decisions - that were really our own. In de Beauvoir’s analysis, women are particularly prone to bad faith: finding ourselves in positions of relative helplessness, the objects rather than the active subjects of our lives, we blame our husbands, we blame fate, when things go wrong in our lives. De Beauvoir had a much richer understanding than the ‘power feminists’ of the 1990s of where women’s victim mentality came from – but like them, she saw no salvation in a victim syndrome.
What I’ve done so far is to set out some general questions about rights as the appropriate framework within which to pursue feminist concerns. I want at this point to move from the general to the particular, and focus in on an area of feminist politics that has preoccupied me in recent years: the claims around women’s representation in politics. This is an area where tensions between younger and older generations of feminists have been particularly evident, for issues around women in politics have seemed peculiarly stale to younger women. Why is this?
The main point I want to explore is that arguments about women’s political representation have come in two forms. One of these fits broadly into a rights perspective, and involves arguments about women having the equal right with men to participate fully in politics. The other fits more into an identities perspective, stressing the political exclusion not of individual women but of women as a group. The argument in the second case is that men and women have different life-histories, experiences, and perspectives, that these different identities generate different priorities, interests and judgements, and that it is only through the fair representation of people from these different identity groups that we can hope to achieve social justice. In much of the argument around political representation, the older feminists among us have moved from what now seems an inadequate emphasis on equal rights alone to a firmer statement about the representation of different social groups. But what has been a solution to us (some of us) creates difficulties for many younger feminists. On its own, neither the rights nor the identities argument resonates fully with subsequent concerns.
What do I mean by this? If we think about why the under-representation of women in politics matters – why it should matter whether our representatives are women or men – one obvious answer falls within the broad framework of equal opportunities: that women should have the same chance as men to serve as political representatives and pursue political careers. By what possible superiority of talent or experience could men claim the ‘right’ to monopolise decision-making assemblies? There is, so far as we know, no genetic reason why women should be less suited to the tasks of political representation, less capable of arguing a case, representing the views of their constituents, and contributing to the decision-making process. That being so, we should expect a roughly random distribution between the sexes when candidates are being chosen to contest elections or elected to carry out the representative’s role. That the actual distribution is far from random confirms what all of us already know: that it is far harder for women than men to off-load their caring responsibilities, harder for women than men to present themselves as figures of authority, harder for women than men to take their own political aspirations seriously. The background inequalities are obvious, and make a mockery of women’s supposedly equal right. Failing additional measures (ranging from long term social reforms to equalise care responsibilities between women and men to the more immediately implementable forms of affirmative action such as minimum quotas for women), women do not have the same opportunities as men.
This is an argument that fits within an equal rights framework, though it goes considerably further than the usual arguments about equal rights. There is a standard opposition in the literature on equality between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, and we are constantly told not to confuse the first (good) with the second (bad), not to think that giving everyone an equal chance means making sure they all end up with the same. In the debates about women’s access to politics, this contrast between opportunity and outcome has usually been challenged – if the outcome is assemblies dominated by men, then the opportunities were clearly not equal – and women have queried the complacency that equates legal right with equality of choice. This is a compelling and radical argument.
As it stands, however, it doesn’t seem to carry any implications about what the women representatives are expected to do; it also promises to improve the situation of certain categories of women – the professional women, perhaps also the women without young children, who are most likely to be in competition for a political career – without doing anything very obvious to help anyone else. It is an argument for equal rights that extends to political office precisely the arguments we might also apply to women in management or the professions: the notion that women should have the same chance as men to pursue interesting and rewarding careers. We may be making the argument in a particularly radical way (insisting on affirmative action, for example, to guarantee the equality, rather than leaving the equality up to chance), but so far we have said little about what is special about representation and democracy. Yet if we think (as most of us do) that being a political representative is not just a job like any other, that politicians should not be in public life just to further their own careers, the argument from equal rights to participate in politics can sound rather hollow. Of course women should have the same chances as men – but isn’t there more to the argument than that?
The extra is where the identities come in, for the more profound reason for promoting the better representation of women – as also for promoting the better representation of citizens from ethnic and racial minorities – is that different groups have different experiences, perspectives, and interests, and that those groups that remain outside the political process cannot hope to get their needs addressed. It used to be thought (but only because we didn’t think long about it) that anyone could represent anyone else. In the context of sustained inequalities between male and female, white and black, this is an absurdly optimistic idea. When people recoil from images of an all-white parliament determining the laws and policies for a population made up of both white and black, this is not just because they can see that such a scenario would only develop in the context of a grotesquely unfair society. (It is not just, that is, because the outcome proves that opportunities are far from equal.) The unease also testifies to a well-founded suspicion about the kind of decisions this kind of parliament will take.
The intuition underpinning this is that people are fallible, limited, and partial, that our political priorities and judgements are framed by our life-histories and identities and location, and that with the best will in the world, all of us tend to see things from our own point of view. Democracies sometimes try to protect their citizens against the self-seeking bias of elected politicians by drawing up a Bill of Rights, to be interpreted by the wisest of judges – but judges can also be partial, and their experience of life is often rather weird. The best safeguard against partiality and bias is inclusion in the decision-making assembly. We need women representatives as well as men, we need representatives from the ethnic minority as well as ethnic majority, and we need them precisely because they are different, because they will bring different experiences to bear. Embodiment – to use the fashionable term - matters. It matters particularly where there has been a long history of subordination, exclusion or denial, for in these situations it seems especially inappropriate to look to individuals without that experience to act as spokespeople for the group. This is not because individuals outside the group can never be knowledgeable or never be trusted, but because failing the direct involvement of those with the relevant experiences, the policy process will be inherently paternalistic and the policy outcomes almost certainly skewed. By their presence in a decision-making assembly, members of a previously marginalised group can better guarantee that their interests and perspectives will be articulated. By their presence, they also make it more likely that members of dominant groups will recognise and speak to their concerns.
This second argument moves beyond the equal rights of women to participate in politics to address the political exclusion/inclusion of identity groups. It is a far more critical argument, taking up, for example, the pretensions to impartiality, exposing the bias and exclusions that pervade current policy formation, stressing what Iris Marion Young has described as the hegemonic power of dominant groups(3), insisting on the key role of the previously excluded in articulating new policies and concerns. It’s no longer just a matter of getting women the same chance to enter politics as men; it’s about the way their presence disrupts easy assumptions about the way we do things round here, challenges unthinking assumptions about which issues are the most important, opens up policy debate to a much wider range of issues, and hopefully edges us closer towards social justice.
I’ve introduced these two arguments as if they came in chronological sequence, and of course that was never the case. Elements of both arguments have figured in any campaign around equalising the representation of women, but I do think the argument from identities has become more prominent in recent years. This is, first, because of dissatisfaction with the equal opportunities’ argument, which was felt to deal too much with ’women at the top’, and gave the impression that all we needed was more women in politics, regardless of what they then decided to do. The second reason is that the under -representation of women has come to be seen as part of a much broader picture of political marginalisation and exclusion, linked to the experiences of groups that are in a racial or ethnic or religious minority, linked to the experiences of migrants and refugees. Out of the many and diverse groups that make up contemporary society, there always seems to be a small sub-section that commands political power; and under the guise of speaking for us all, this sub-section reproduces and reaffirms its own rather narrow understanding of political priorities and concerns. The problem highlighted here is bigger than the equal rights of all individuals, regardless of their sex, race, religion, etc to participate equally in politics. There is a further imperative that challenges perceived wisdoms about what is normal and natural, opens up a wider range of issues and policy alternatives, builds social justice into the very framework of political debate.
In my view, this second argument is even more compelling than the first, for while I think women should have the same right as men to enter political life whatever they then choose to do with it (we can’t make the right depend on the consequences), I get most incensed by women’s political inclusion when I think about the ill-considered or unjust policies that are adopted in their absence. For me, the second argument fills in the gaps left by the first, and together they add up to a pretty strong reason for needing more women in politics. But in the context of our concern today about ‘old’ and ‘new’ feminism, we have to acknowledge that the combination does not work for everyone. Many women are offended by the insistence on measures of affirmative action: they feel this positions women as more feeble, less able, as needing some extra help that would never be claimed by the men; they see this, in other words, as part of that ‘victim’ feminism that has been so widely criticised in recent years.
Many also find the notion of women as an identity group deeply implausible, and here they can draw on arguments about the essential ambiguity of identity, the hybrid nature of many identities (especially for people who have been part of the colonial and post-colonial migration), the multiple positionalities of gender, race, age, sexuality, nationality, class, that we come to occupy, the borderlands on which so many identities are created and re-forged. Indeed, the more we explore parallels between the marginality of women and the marginality of groups defined by their ethnicity or race, the less likely it is that we will see ‘women’ as a distinct and discrete group. What meaning can we really give to the idea that ‘women’ need political representation? In what sense are we ‘women’ – just women – rather than compounds and constructions of many differences? Does the notion of women as a group have much resonance today?
There’s a weird process at work here, for like the critique of the victim syndrome, this last reservation has a long history in feminism. (I say this not to suggest that nothing new is ever said – that the old feminists had already said it all – but to remind us of the complexities in feminism, the way issues get simplified, obscured, and then return.) I don’t know what other people’s entry into feminism was, but when I was growing towards adulthood through the 1960s and 70s it was one of my constant refrains that I didn’t want be treated as a woman but as a human being; I wasn’t ‘woman’, I was Anne Phillips, I was a person, not a female, I didn’t want these boxes we were all supposed to fit. Though feminist philosophers have developed powerful and important critiques of individualism, the desire to be treated as an individual, not as a stereotype or symbol of femininity, has always been part of the impetus towards feminist politics: we want to be valued for who we are, not for what we are expected to be. In my experience, this insistence on freeing individuals into their own individuality has been a particularly important part of recent feminist thinking – and you can see that it fits rather poorly with initiatives to raise the proportion of women in politics. Where those initiatives depend on the first set of arguments about needing affirmative action to secure women’s equal rights, they are perceived as patronising to women. Where they depend on the second set of argument about needing to secure the representation of different social groups, they are perceived as falsely imposing a group identity on individuals who are more varied and unique. Neither the rights nor the identities argument then rings true.
My own response to these concerns is broadly similar to that given by Iris Marion Young in her article on ‘Gender as Seriality’( in Intersecting Voices): that if we give up on any categorising of groups, we are forced to fall back on thinking of people only as individuals. In doing so, we lose the capacity to theorise relations of inequality, subordination and power. If you believe, as I do, that there is a systematic subordination and exclusion that operates precisely against and through groups – that women are positioned as women and thereby suffer particular kinds of disadvantage, that racial minorities are positioned as racial minorities and as such are systematically disadvantaged or harassed or oppressed – then refusing to recognise the collective nature of this disadvantage makes it virtually impossible to address it. As far as political representation goes, refusing to acknowledge the group nature of current exclusions also makes it very difficult to come up with effective remedies.
But I recognise – as I think we all should – that this is not a compelling argument for all of us today. I see contemporary feminism as poised between an overly individualist reading of the feminist project, stressing empowerment as an almost exclusively individual affair, and an overly collectivist reading that plays with notions of group identity that do not fit most people’s experience. For those of us in the second camp (and perhaps I should just speak more simply for myself) there is a tendency to fudge. We tend to say ‘”women”… but’, to accept, that is, all the necessary qualifications about ‘women’ not naming a clear and distinct identity group, about women being divided by as much as what unites them, about ‘woman’ being an essentially contested identity, what we struggle over rather than who we are - and yet we still insist on notions of women as a social group because without this we fear we will have nothing more compelling than individual claims and rights. Gayatri Spivak once talked of a ‘strategic essentialism’, suggesting that we need politically to hold on to notions of women even while knowing intellectually that they have little meaning, but in later comments she has expressed her dissatisfaction with the way this was taken up. I incline to the view that the fudge is a necessary part of political action, that ‘women’ (like the category of ‘working class’ before it) is an identity constantly in process of formation and reformation, and that trying to freeze it through some philosophical imperative does more harm than good. But I’m not confident we’ve got it right – and I think this has a great deal to do with the uncertainties we currently face in developing dialogues across generations of women.
(1) On Sen’s calculation, there are 44 million ‘missing’ women in China, 36.7 million in India, 2.4 million in Southeast Asia, 4.4 million in Latin America, 2.4 million in North Africa, 1.4 million in Iran, 3.7 million in Bangladesh, 5.2 million in Pakistan, 4.3 million in West Asia. See Martha Nussbaum’s discussion of women’s situation worldwide in Sex and Social Justice (Oxford University Press, 1999),ch1.
(2) Nancy Fraser,’Women, Welfare and the Politics of Needs Interpretation’ Unruly Practices ( Polity Press, 1989)
(3) Iris Marion Young Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton University Press, 1990)