A worthy but confused attempt at exploring feminism


Fundamental Feminism
By Judith Grant
Routledge 1994
Distributed by the Law Book Company Limited 226 pp., $32.95 (pbk)
Reviewed by Carla Gorton

Judith Grant has embarked on a worthwhile endeavour. She offers a critical exploration of the evolution of feminist theory and the state of feminist thinking today. However, many of the conclusions she reaches are unsatisfying and often downright confusing.

The key to this confusion is her desire to draw upon both Marxism and postmodernism, or as she says "for some neo-Enlightenment position, for some compromise between essentialism and constructionism". While stating that she comes from a Marxist perspective and claiming to reject Stalinism, Grant's "Marxism" reflects the Stalinist distortions of Marxism including a very economistic view which gives no weight, for example, to the central role of the family in the institutionalised exploitation of women in class society. Not surprisingly, this version of "Marxism" is an inadequate tool for understanding women's oppression.

While Grant outlines the limitations of socialist feminist theory which tried to unite an idealist theory of patriarchy with Marxist economic categories, she fails to identify the role of the family as a class institution in shaping the origins and nature of women's oppression. She therefore concludes that Marxism lacks a materialist explanation of women's oppression.

The basis of Fundamental Feminism is Grant's attempts to distil what she defines as the core concepts of feminist theory. The concepts which she does identify are drawn most strongly from the radical feminist tradition.

The first concept is that women are oppressed as women. Grant disputes this point by outlining how radical feminism does not provide an adequate analysis as to why all women are oppressed when it is clear that some women benefit from the structures of capitalism due to their race or class. She also correctly asserts that much of radical feminism led to a biological determinism.

However, in disputing the issue that women are oppressed as women, Grant is catipulted towards a postmodernist perspective which relies on social constructionism; that is, which reduces the oppression of women to the realm of ideology.

The second core concept which Grant takes issue with is the reliance of feminist theory on experience. Because radical feminist theory relied heavily on women's conscious experience of oppression to demonstrate the existence of oppression, Grant claims that this led to the problem in which women generalised from their own personal experience to a false universalist position.

The third core concept she takes up is the theory of patriarchy, which she claims flowed out of the concept that the personal is political, or more correctly, personal politics. Grant claims that radical feminism, by positing that all public and private experiences of women were influenced by patriarchy, defined all personal choices as political.

Grant, as do most postmodernists, rejects the theory of patriarchy in its attempt to provide a totalising explanation of women's oppression. She does however, include a chapter outlining feminist critiques of postmodernism — that it does not deal with issues which affect women's daily reality. And for all of her attraction to theorists such as Donna Haraway, she is forced to admit that the "suggestion of taking a cyborg perspective is interesting, but what does it mean to take a cyborg's perspective anyway?"

Grant concludes by outlining a list of hypotheses which, she suggests, could be explored to shape a new feminism. Condensed, they include the assertion that gender is an autonomous, ideological structure which doesn't arise from social relations, but from feminist consciousness. Grant claims that women's interests do not exist as such before feminist consciousness raising, and that there are no universal features of women's existence until they are named as such by feminist theory.

Given these hypotheses, it is hard to believe that Grant still sees herself as more of a Marxist than a postmodernist. Her conclusions epitomise this contradiction when she states that "this feminist vision does not require socialism and neither does it disallow socialism; however its requirements to deal with bodies and concrete self-determination implies economic equality". While Grant does genuinely strive for a new feminist-humanist vision, she leaves the reader confused about how to achieve this.