Current Challenges to Feminism: Theory and Practice

For much of the period from the 70s through the 80s, I was quite concerned with the way in which Third World movements for national liberation were sidelining women’s issues and relegating these to the background.  In this piece I centerstage the Philippines which I believe may serve as an illustrative case.  Let me try to explain what I mean.  It wasn’t that women were ignored or were not considered important for the revolution, because they could be found in organizations of various kinds and proved to be dependable and committed workers.  It also was not that the platform for national liberation failed to articulate a position on women, because it did.  But I think it is fair to say that women’s oppression was conceptualized almost exclusively along productivist lines so that male chauvinism — or the everyday conduct of men, both as individuals and as a group — could easily escape scrutiny or criticism and, therefore, correction or redress.

Stated theoretically, my critique was lodged at an economistic stance that could not take into sufficient account the social relations of gender, or the distinct and separate character of female subordination; indeed, this was a protest similarly expressed by women against their revolutionary parties in other parts of the Third World (Davies, 1983).  Filipinos writing at the time situated women’s subjugation in their roles as factory workers, as prostitutes, and as domestic workers deployed overseas, all of which were presented, accurately enough, as a consequence of the Philippines’ neocolonial status.  Overall, the aim was to highlight class — to be precise, the extraction of surplus value constitutive of labor/capital relations — and the marginalization of practically all else.  For example, precious little was observed or remarked about the home or family and the gender inequality spawned by the division of labor occurring within this site.  Nor was there any questioning of male authority and male privilege, or attention to quotidian gender interactions.  My point was that without the necessary interrogation, gender asymmetry would remain naturalized, accepted as the normal state of affairs, and continue to place women in a materially and psychologically disadvantaged position.

Economism assumed the emancipation of women (note that “feminism” during this period was anathema) to more or less mechanically transpire with a change in the mode of production.  Yet the experience of women in then existing socialist countries contradicted the naiveté of this belief (Kruks, et al, 1989).  Moreover, the subsumption of the interpersonal or cultural to the economic made the movement’s interest in women appear as purely instrumental; that is, it caused one to wonder whether in fact the movement’s consideration of women was based chiefly on its perfectly understandable need for recruits.  My queries were waved aside through references to women who were “red fighters” ( i.e., in the New People’s Army) in a move by comrades to invalidate my complaints.  These were offered to me as proof that women were now liberated, catapulted as they were into what was regarded as the most esteemed form of struggle.  What better evidence than this of their having breached gender convention?  I was also told in not so many words that, because of my location and long-term residence in the United States, I had been afflicted with the ills of Western feminism which from a revolutionary perspective by definition was individualist, bourgeois, and divisive.

I tried to push for the legitimacy of “women’s issues,” writing that these called for an altogether different type of thinking, one that went beyond the strict boundaries of class analysis and production relations and, although in the end determined by production, mandated independent scrutiny.  At the very least I wanted gender inequality in its various dimensions discussed and dissected, maintaining that cultural forms, particularly when unexamined, tend to survive changes in the economic base.  From today’s viewpoint, the questions I raised were hardly world-shaking.  Along with other women, I argued for a semi-autonomous women’s organization that would enable such an inquiry, allowing women the necessary space to explore how feminism could move the revolution forward, deepening and fortifying it.  A book I wrote in the late 80s titled The Feminist Challenge underscored the indispensability of feminism for the revolution.  (By this time, courageous revolutionary Filipino women had boldly adopted the term “feminism” and bestowed on it substance different from feminism in the West.)  In it I tried to make the case that no movement for revolutionary change could achieve a new, truly humane social arrangement without seriously addressing the challenge put forth by feminism.

Fast forward to 2006.  Crucial concrete, material changes have occurred that have altered the worldview of progressives in fundamental ways.  Most critical among these are the collapse of the Soviet Union; the relatively slow but steady economic policy shifts in China; and the rightward turn in the West precipitated by a neoliberal strategy, all of which have been accompanied by the decline or demise of revolutionary movements worldwide.  Speaking less of imperialism than of globalization — understood to mean the way in which all the nations on the planet have been successfully integrated into a capitalist world order — contemporary activists (revolutionaries no longer) aim their blows at corporate rapacity but fail to make mention of the exploitation entailed in capital’s extraction of surplus value.  Thus, visions of an alternative system, though again re-emerging post-9/11 after a period dominated by the catchword TINA (“There is no alternative!”), are vague and blurry at best.  This outlook has additionally projected national liberation struggles as outmoded, passé, and retrograde, capable merely of reinstituting the negative characteristics of the old society they claim to replace.  On the whole, progressive thinking has staged a pronounced retreat.  When anti-corporate and anti-globalization activists declare hopefully that a new world is possible, the majority most likely imagine a kinder, gentler, “humanized” version of capitalism, definitely not the socialism or political utopias of yesteryear.

Such a reformist posture seems particularly ironic when juxtaposed with the increasingly undeniable fact that globalization has intensified poverty and widened class fissures within and among nation-states to an extent heretofore unknown.  Now even more conspicuous as well, the phenomenon of uneven development inherent in capitalism inevitably means that class, national, and racial divisions among women have also become impossible to ignore.  Given this, how has feminism — if one might now speak of a global trend — responded to these glaring schisms?

The success of women’s movements around the world is manifested in today’s acceptance by the general public that it is only right and just for women to be the equals of men.  Without a doubt, it has been the pressure of women’s mobilizing that has driven international bodies (the United Nations, for one) to issue documents on women’s rights, in turn forcing member nations to comply (at least in form) or to make concessions.  It must be remarked that in the global North mass women’s organizations all but disappeared in the early 80s, consigning feminism pretty much to the academy.  Equally worthy of comment is that by then there was no danger of a rollback of feminist thinking as it had become securely established in the popular consciousness.  However, it is also true that with the withdrawal into reformism of the progressive movement as a whole, feminism has been correspondingly tamed.  More precisely, as Barbara Epstein (2002) contends, Western feminism has devolved into a cultural current and is no longer the movement for social transformation that it once was.

What ramifications might this shift hold for international feminism?  Indeed, globalization processes, notably the information industry and high-tech communication, have facilitated women’s networking across national boundaries so effectively that it is now possible to speak of a global (most choose to say “transnational,” which has a falsely leveling effect) feminism.  Such a development implies, for one thing, that my concerns of some three decades ago have been drastically reversed and turned upside down.  If my main worry then was that the sphere of reproduction and the cultural were shunted aside by a productivist orientation, today it is the complete opposite.  Relations of production are left untouched — why deal with this realm at all when the existing system is to be merely reformed, not overthrown? — and research interests diverted to cultural and discursive tinkering.  I believe that the domestication or taming of feminism has rendered it unable to adequately come to grips with pressing issues brought on by the global market, which is truly an unfortunate turn of events.

How, for instance, has feminism treated the diaspora of Third World women, those from impoverished classes of the global South?  Women are now in the workforce in such unprecedented numbers that they can be rightly referred to as constituting the dynamo or engine that propels globalization (Horgan, 2001).  Moreover, it is women’s diaspora that stands out as the most striking, because most visible, feature of globalization.  Yet the dispersal of women of color to practically all corners of the globe and their insertion, as maids, into the private homes of well-heeled women seem not to bother Western feminists too greatly.  What is curious is that second-wave feminists once situated women’s oppression at the heart of the family — in the household gender division of labor, to be exact.  Insisting that the household work that women perform is real labor, not an act of love, they introduced household and family relations as the most important arena of gender conflict, demystifying its presumed sanctity.  Generating numerous publications, articles as well as books, what became known as “the domestic labor debate” sought to identify the precise point where the extraction of surplus value might be located, a theoretical exchange that consumed a great deal of intellectual energy at that time.

Those “chore wars” have obviously come to an end, the gender tensions these produced finally resolved, and not because properly enlightened men are picking up their proportionate share.  Menial duties traditionally assigned to women and housewives have been turned over to Third World domestic workers, dramatizing racial/ethnic, national, and class differences in the most blatant, awkward, discomfiting ways.  But, perhaps, for feminists today, the old “sisterhood is powerful” slogan looms too distant now for this situation to cause even the slightest embarrassment.  Suffice it to say that one hears of no attempt to invoke that rallying cry these days.  Why or how personal interactions with subjects so profoundly set apart by class, race, and nationality have managed to escape examination is still somewhat perplexing; this baffles, particularly in view of the fact that “intersectionality” is a reigning paradigm in women’s studies.  Of course, in this approach, gender, race, and class are conceptualized as intersecting identities, all equal in impact, rather than as a set of social relations where class exerts a determining power.

Instead of probing the immensely complex dynamics of class, race, and nation in mistress/housemaid relationships, feminists conducting research about domestic workers mainly recount what employers tell them, that they treat their maids “like part of the family.”  Or they invent concepts that, intentionally or not, obscure the glaring status disparity in the relationship (forgetting that status is always relational): notions like “personalism” (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001), presumably a variety of maternal benevolence that is extended by the fair-minded to her “Other.”  Or they emphasize domestic workers’ “agency,” revealed in the manifold ways subordinates by sheer necessity learn to manipulate and resist the authority of their superiors — simple survival mechanisms, in other words (Constable, 1997). (Similar conceptual tools are applied to sex work, earlier known by the name of prostitution, now presented in terms of “desire” or “emotional labor.”)  Few deign to recall aforementioned materialist perspectives on household labor.  Among these few are Barbara Ehrenreich (Ehrenreich & Hochshild, 2002), who writes that feminists ought to feel a “special angst” about how a privileged woman’s safe haven easily transmutes into a sweatshop the minute a hired domestic worker of color steps in, the former’s magnanimity notwithstanding.  Another feminist, Bridget Anderson (2000), argues that domestic work is not labor just like any other.  She asserts without equivocation that what is involved in the transaction is not the sale of the domestic worker’s labor but her personhood, her very self.  But these are minority voices.

Let us now turn to Filipino and Filipino-American feminists writing about this same subject, or the topic of migrant workers generally.  How does their approach differ from that of Western researchers?  From the productivist framework that I sketched in the beginning?  As I previously remarked, the connection of migrant labor to the mode of production has either been made tenuous or extinguished entirely.  In fact, it has become obligatory to preface one’s argument by denouncing any account that smacks of “the economy.”  It is definitely not academically smart today to refer to poverty as a motivation for seeking employment opportunities overseas; desire for adventure and independence, perhaps, or maybe the need to escape patriarchal domination or domestic violence.

Never mind that a staggering 3,000 Filipinos leave the country each day (70% of these female), the majority landing jobs as domestic workers; or that it is their remittances (totaling over $12 billion this year) that enable the government’s debt servicing to international financial institutions.  Rather, the trend is to go for “nuance and complexity”; this is shorthand for a concentrated focus on cultural factors in the micropolitics of everyday life in a way that I would have enormously welcomed in the past, except that this time the mode of production has been scrubbed out of the picture.  This is not to deny that terms like capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism are necessarily avoided, but these are discursively formulated and culturalized as well, amounting, in effect, to mere rhetorical flourishes.  When they are not, they serve only as backdrop for the real story, which is that of individuals and their personal relations.

An example should serve here.  A study of the children of Filipinas working abroad explores husbands’ responses to their wives’ prolonged absence and concludes that, contrary to the researcher’s expectations, men have refused to pick up the slack of childcare (Parrenas, 2005).  They are thus unable to maneuver any substantive “gender border-crossing” that might cause a revision of traditional sex roles.  Again, this line of attack would have been tremendously useful in the past when there was a firm understanding of the influence of systemic forces, but current abstention from “economics” leads nowhere near any project for radical societal transformation.  Had the author deployed a macro framework with a concrete analysis of global capitalism, she might have arrived at the conclusion that no disruption in gender roles of any consequence can occur without the requisite structural and institutional changes.

By today’s reckoning, “resistance” has become reduced to everyday spontaneous individual acts not involving much political deliberation.  To repeat, the simple survival strategies of migrant workers have been elevated to the category of “agency,” ostensibly to demonstrate their empowerment and to dispel the slightest suggestion that the oppressed may be passive victims.  (Let us hope that President Gloria Arroyo’s recent proclamation of Filipinos’ “supermaid” status does not serve to amplify this tendency.)  To go even further, their very identity as transnational border-crossers is shown to always already exemplify opposition.  For aren’t picking and choosing which facets of the old culture to retain and the new one to accept already performative acts of hybridity, and therefore in themselves acts of defiance?  And how are notions of oppositionality arrived at?  First, by positing that “inbetweenness” or transnational subjects’ location in the interstitial spaces of nations and cultures inevitably produces transgression as they must navigate across literal and metaphorical sites and negotiate their multiple, fluctuating identities (read: displaced from home, migrant laborers wind up summoning all the coping devices they can muster to keep body and soul together in an estranged, alienating, and exploitative milieu).  Second, by radically readjusting the viewing lens to zero in and focus wholly on the personal or private, magnifying the import of individual actions and interpersonal connections while obfuscating disturbing political landscapes.

Sometimes it takes just a bit of parody to shed light upon what verges on the absurd.  The current state of feminist theorizing, in my opinion, not only severely limits our understanding of how the global market works but also circumscribes the field of feminist action.  That it is unequal to the task of explaining how globalization is built on the backs of Third World women, as it allows a few to move up the class ladder, is an understatement.  This task ought to be paramount if feminism is to restore its emancipatory project.  Undertaking it would require a solid comprehension of the basic operations of the global economic order, first of all, and how it is relations of production that underpin nation, race, and gender.

Without this encompassing frame, the international division of labor that has engendered vast class, racial and national divisions among women will remain concealed and worse, like male domination, become normalized and naturalized.  It is already proceeding in this manner when feminists resort to phrasing their relationship with Third World “Others” in terms that connote altruism, munificence, and compassion; or when, in the name of “agency,” they unwittingly attribute a native perspicacity and shrewdness to housemaids’ everyday coping.  This merely echoes North/South relations of power in a version of imperial feminism different from that of the 70s, but imperial feminism, nonetheless.  If current preoccupation with nuance and complexity were to be redirected to illuminate the ways in which gender, race, and nationality are ultimately grounded in production relations, the resulting findings would likely depart radically from those of current studies, for these would unavoidably recognize the necessity of mass political mobilization, not merely the celebration of individual oppositional acts.  It would be a theoretical enterprise that could open up the possibility of collective action, with social justice as the primary item on the feminist agenda once again.


Works Cited

Anderson, Bridget. 2000.  Doing the Dirty Work? The Global Politics of Domestic Labour.  London: Zed Books.

Constable, Nicole.  1997.  Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Davies, Miranda, ed. 1983.  Third World, Second Sex: Women’s Struggles and National Liberation.  London: Zed Press.

Ehrenreich & Hochschild, eds. 2003.  Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy.  New York: Metropolitan Books.

Epstein, Barbara.  “Feminist Consciousness After the Women’s Movement,” Monthly Review (September 2002), vol 54, # 4.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette.  2001.  Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Horgan, Goretti.  “How Does Globalization Affect Women?”  International Socialism Journal (Autumn 2001), issue 92.

Kruks, Sonia, Rayna Rapp, and Marilyn B. Young, eds. 1989.  Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism.  New York: Monthly Review Press.

Parrenas, Rhacel.  2005.  Children of Global Migration: Transnational Family and Gender Woes.  Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Delia D. Aguilar has written extensively on feminism and nationalism, among them a book titled Toward a Nationalist Feminism published in the Philippines.  She recently co-edited a collection of essays, Women and Globalization, with Anne Lacsamana.  She was on the faculty of women’s studies and ethnic studies at Washington State University and Bowling Green State University and now teaches at the University of Connecticut.

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