The Androgynous Claim

Onora O’Neill

  • Feminism by John Charvet
    Dent, 159 pp, £7.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 460 10255 9
  • Women, Reason and Nature by Carol McMillan
    Blackwell, 165 pp, £12.50, August 1982, ISBN 0 631 12496 9

If feminism is an ideology, it is so only in the blandest sense of that term. Most feminists argue their case as one component of a larger picture of human lives and social possibilities. John Charvet’s contribution to the ‘Modern Ideologies’ series acknowledges this point without comment in its very organisation. The book is divided into sections on Individualist Feminism, Socialist Feminism and Radical Feminism, each tracing feminist themes within a more comprehensive theory. This framework distinguishes the book from its stablemates (‘Socialism’,‘Conservatism’, ‘Liberalism’ and, prospectively, other ‘isms’ of our time) and is also its greatest strength. Charvet takes it that the differences between forms of feminism derive from more general ethical and political theories. While all feminists believe in the equality of women with men (apart from a handful who claim women’s superiority), this shared belief receives wholly different interpretations in the context of more basic conceptions of liberty and equality. To articulate and assess feminist theories it therefore becomes necessary to probe the structure of the host ideologies in which feminist thought has flourished. Accordingly, Charvet presents and assesses the conceptions of human freedom and equality underlying liberal individualism, traditional socialism and the New Left in order to elucidate the three types of feminism.

One advantage of this strategy is that it permits a (loosely) historical approach: feminism is traced as one facet of the history of political thought since the Enlightenment. A second and consequential advantage is that Charvet not only presents an internal critique of each feminist position but can also assess each perspective from the vantage-point afforded by the other two. The result is often illuminating and penetrating, not only about varieties of feminism, but about the underlying ethical and political theories.

The classical works of liberal political theory, with their advocacy of the rights of individual men, provide the context for presenting theories of women’s equal rights. Charvet gives lucid summaries of the thought of Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, John Stuart Mill and (anachronistically but appropriately) Betty Friedan. The underlying argument to women’s rights in these works is simple enough: since women (like men) are rational beings, they should (like men) be educated for autonomy rather than for pleasing dependency and should enjoy the civil and political rights of men. The underlying failure of this individualist and liberal standpoint is its neglect of the economic and personal dependency which family arrangements afford most women. Individualist feminists imagine that women’s subjection can be remedied by education, civil rights and the franchise even while most women lead traditional domestic lives. Neither the opening of careers to the talents of women who forego family life, nor the provision of some help in child-care for those who take on double commitments, squarely addresses the predicament of dependency. Hence individualist writers fail to show ‘how woman’s nature and value as a free being is compatible with the nuclear family and with her traditional maternal role’.

Socialist thinkers address this problem more directly. The critique of liberal rights and merely political emancipation and equality which Marx offers in On the Jewish Question requires of socialists a view of equality which goes beyond the liberal, while Engels’s account of family arrangements requires them to see the nuclear family as a socio-economic formation corresponding to particular modes of production rather than as the natural order. Yet traditional socialist solutions were blatantly inadequate to the problem they so clearly diagnosed. Some advocated the abolition of marriage and communal living and child-care arrangements, yet most envisaged that women would do domestic and child-care work. In practice, socialist societies have often got no further than enabling women to join the work-force, while retaining traditional domestic and familial roles and tasks. Traditional socialism accepts that women’s economic contribution should equal men’s, but equivocates on the amount of sex-role differentiation compatible with equality.

This equivocation is one of the main targets of the various forms of radical feminism which Charvet connects with the social and political vision of the New Left. He notes the New Left’s vagueness about institutional arrangements, but discerns the common thread linking its feminist writers – Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone – in their determination to identify the deepest roots of women’s subjection and men’s domination. These roots are held, contrary to the traditional socialist picture, to be as much psychic as economic: hence the slogan ‘the personal is political.’ The theoretical background for these more psychological claims is often, Charvet suggests, either de Beauvoir’s discussions of women’s self-definition as dependent or passive or Marcuse’s claims about the ‘surplus’ repression which traditional families inflict, but which life in abundant societies does not require. Radical feminists point towards the possibility of an androgynous future in which civil, political and economic equality are complemented by the vanishing of patriarchal and repressive attitudes toward women and the emergence of forms of life without distinct male and female roles.

Radical feminists claim not only that men and women are equally rational beings, but that they have no sex-specific underlying nature, and hence that neither sex is naturally better suited either to private life and caring occupations or to a more competitive life outside the home. This contention – the androgynous claim – provides the reason why radical feminists see women’s relegation to domestic and maternal life as the most basic and widespread of injustices, and why they insist that equality requires the elimination of the nuclear family as we know it and the sharing of all human activities without regard to sex.

It is hard to see how the truth of the all-important androgynous claim is to be settled. Charvet points out the fallacious ease with which some feminists have moved from the claim that there is no sufficient evidence of a distinct female nature to the claim that all sex differences are due to nurture, and so to the conclusion that sex-based role differentiation is unjust and eliminable. He also suggests that experimental evidence may show that at least some male and female behavioural traits are biologically-based. However, it is less than clear that nature/nurture disputes can be experimentally resolved: the evidence we have of male and female differentiation is always evidence of the difference between men and women under a limited range of conditions. From this we can deduce neither the limitations nor the full potential of either sex.

Charvet, however, is on surer ground when he argues that even if the androgynous claim is rejected (and with it radical and probably socialist feminism), it does not follow that the lives of women should be confined to their traditional roles. Even within an individualist framework the differentiation of men’s and women’s lives on the basis of the specific nature of each sex could be justified only if the loss of opportunities this costs women (and men?) is more than compensated for by the unique contribution which child-rearing in nuclear families makes to ‘the values of free individuality in successive generations’. Liberal feminists who also support the nuclear family must, it seems, make a contentious claim about nature and nurture; namely, that nuclear families alone can rear children (presumably boys?) who are fitted for lives of autonomous individuality. This Rawlsian twist in Charvet’s argument is perhaps not the only route for an individualist who denies the androgynous claim. Others, less sure of the unique efficacy of child-rearing in the nuclear family, might advocate experiments in forms of life. Even an individualist who believes that women are naturally better at caring and cooperative work and men at competitive endeavours may not think this reason to encourage or demand forms of life which require each sex to make a speciality of its comparative advantage. Maximising the efficiency of resource allocation is not an indispensable component of liberalism.

In terms of Charvet’s classification of feminisms, Carol McMillan’s book would probably count as anti-feminist, despite her insistence on women’s rationality. The book will startle many feminists because of the conclusions it reaches. Briefly, these are that women, while indeed both rational and equal in worth to men, have a separate specific nature, in which the concerns of mothering are a central part; that recent feminists have been so insistent that sex differentiation reflects nurture alone (the androgynous claim) that they have been led to ridiculous and harmful proposals for child-rearing and family arrangements and that an authentic feminism must realise that biology matters and, indeed, that giving birth and mothering matter most of all if women are to fulfil not only their sex-specific but their rational nature. It would be a pity if feminists found these conclusions so unpalatable that they did not consider McMillan’s arguments.

McMillan begins by challenging the very conception of rationality from which much feminist writing (in common with its background liberal and socialist ideologies) starts out. Rationality, she holds, is misconstrued if it is thought to be best exemplified in overtly intellectual, technological or calculating activity. On the contrary, reasoning forms part of a vast diversity of human practices. The practice of crafts, the expression of feeling and much that we call intuitive are reasoned activities. We have only to examine any of these activities in detail to realise how deeply cultural, how far from animal or instinctive, they are. It follows that the traditional activities of women in no way suggest that women are less rational than men. Human love-making and human mothering are subtle, complex, reasoned activities. In a sense (the rhetoric is not hers), McMillan is claiming that the very conception of rationality invoked by feminists, as by their opponents, reflects sex chauvinism. It is only because they accept that men’s traditional lives are paradigmatically rational and women’s are not that feminists have felt a need to argue that women are potentially or actually rational beings, entitled to equal civil and political rights and equal social and economic roles. In McMillan’s view, the case never needed arguing, since women’s rationality is patently displayed in their traditional activities. However, on this conception of rationality, the rights and roles demanded for each sex may, like their rationality, be separate and yet equal.

McMillan’s starting-point is a Wittgensteinian respect for the diversity of particular forms of human life. She rejects the notion that rationality is essentially of one sort. Rational activities form a diverse plurality linked only by family resemblances. It is a mistake to single out ‘technological’ uses of reason as superior, and to do so leads to a devastating devaluation of women’s traditional activities. McMillan Chooses Firestone’s work as revealing the full implications of starting with a misleadingly narrow conception of rationality. Firestone, she holds, advocates applying the standards of ‘technological’ rationality to mothering. Birth control will give way to artificial reproduction, and the care of children will be dispersed efficiently among groups of adults. The role of mother, which Firestone claims harms children, will effectively be eliminated. In McMillan’s eyes, this rejection of the delicate, reasoned tasks of families and particularly of mothers is largely ridiculous and partly pernicious. Human procreation is not a form of manufacturing from which the labour can be removed, but a profoundly important human activity; families are not purveyors of socialisation, or surplus repression, and distorting role differentiations, but mediators of a child’s induction into shared forms of life. Even if some forms of socialisation and education are repressive, it does not follow that they need be so, nor that either is dispensable. On the contrary, infants and children need sustained complex relationships with others, which families provide. Hence the aim of true feminists, in McMillan’s view, should not be the elimination of motherhood but its revaluation. This, however, is not an economic matter – not a matter of wages for child-care or housework. The particular activities of loving, thoughtful, reasoned care for others are not appropriately valued in cash terms.

McMillan does not attribute the erosion of family life to the success of feminist arguments. She reminds us that family life was undermined long since by the spread of the cash economy, the erosion of the extended family and the distancing of fathers from their families with the removal of work from the home. But she sees as absurd the feminist attempt to remedy matters by having mothers, too, become remote from the home. Anything which technologises procreation or mothering is to be seen as invoking conceptions of rationality which are alien to these activities. Hence all but natural methods of contraception, natural approaches of giving birth and natural feeding of infants by suckling are to be avoided. In McMillan’s view, it is a mark of the wholly mistaken direction of contemporary feminists (whether liberal, socialist or radical) that most have advocated the availability of the artificial technologies of birth control and abortion and of public child-care facilities as feminist objectives.

The route which McMillan takes to her conclusions does not rest solely on Wittgensteinian anti-essentialism about reason. It depends also on a certain reading of the Wittgensteinian contention that it is the forms of life that are given, and so beyond dispute. For there is one common reading of that claim which has profoundly conservative implications. It suggests that the practices which we can understand, which we must presuppose if we are to make intelligible moral judgments, are those ways of life amid which we find ourselves. McMillan cites D.Z. Phillips and H.O. Mounce’s Moral Practices to vindicate her claim that ‘concepts such as good and evil are given meaning only by the form of life or the moral practices in which they operate.’ She might equally well have drawn on other Wittgensteinian works in ethics such as R. Beehler’s Moral Life or R.W. Beardsmore’s Moral Reasoning. These writers all construe Wittgenstein as supposing that (moral) discourse must be relative to shared practices. Proposals which do not accord with current practices are either morally wrong, or, if they reject fundamental features of these practices, unintelligible. It is easy to see how this starting-point can be used to argue to the immorality of revising our conceptions of families and motherhood, and so rejecting practices which are constitutive of traditional family life.

Few Wittgensteinian writers on ethics have gone as far as McMillan in claiming that deviations from the detail of current (or perhaps no longer current) ways of life are morally wrong. However, her deep moral conservatism is, I believe, a correct inference from this reading of Wittgenstein. Only if we were to understand the forms of life which are given and by which we make sense of our world, not as particular ways of life, but as more abstract forms or categories, could Wittgensteinian ethics be given a less conservative reading. The reading which McMillan adopts commits her to valuing traditional practices and indeed to seeing them alone as intelligible.

This is a curiously uncomfortable posture from which to attack more standard feminists. For if those feminists – or mere historical trends – do succeed in altering our practices, it is the new practices which will set the standards of intelligibility and morality for our successors. The underlying relativism of this standpoint contains the seeds of its own disintegration: an appeal to tradition won’t point to the same practices if the tradition changes. Here it seems that McMillan hedges her bets. For she seems to appeal beyond current and traditional practices to certain claims about what is natural and beneficial for mothers and for children. She offers not merely a Burkean vindication of mothering as lying near the heart of our long traditions but claims that traditional mothering fulfils women’s ahistorical specific nature. She tries to shed the relativism of her Wittgensteinian starting-point by denying the androgynous claim and insisting that women are fundamentally, naturally different from men, rather than merely, as it happens, historically differentiated from them by the moral and social practices we have grown into. But it is just as difficult to see how, from our quite limited evidence of the differentiation of men’s and women’s capacities, we can conclude that this differentiation reflects nature rather than nurture as it is to see how the feminists Charvet so lucidly assesses can establish the androgynous claim.

It does not seem to me that the feminists whose thought John Charvet articulates can afford simply to dismiss McMillan’s arguments. She challenges the abstract, unitary conception of human reason which nearly all feminists have relied upon. She reminds us (the appropriate Wittgensteinian method!) of the particular, sustained and attentive activity which mothering requires and leads us to doubt that this can be replaced by the part-time services of a rotating group of adult caretakers. She points to the guilty underside of much feminist thought – its shallow optimism about the replacement of familial with socialised child-care. Even those who do not share McMillan’s rejection of the technologies of birth control and modern obstetrics, and who are appalled by her readiness to see women’s lives returned to the nursery and to economic dependence, and at her unconcern about the lives of women who are not or are no longer mothers, may feel uneasy. If McMillan is even partly right, it is a deep failure in liberal and socialist as well as in radical feminism that these theories do not fully acknowledge that children need sustained relationships and wholehearted care, which we have yet to reconcile with parental liberation.