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.

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