On Feminism as Tradition, Not Ideology


Feminism is an interesting, if at times divisive, topic for discussion at every level of conversation. When it is said that Feminism is ‘divisive’, it should not just simply be implied that there is a division between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ of feminism, per se, but that Feminist thought is as equally divided internally as it is with other schools of thought externally. No doubt, with it being International Women’s Day earlier this week, there will be a number of voices discussing the topic. Of these voices, it is important to recall that there is not necessarily a Manichean (‘Us and Them’) conflictual division between those who are interested by or practice feminist politics, and those who negate it as ‘cancel culture’ or subversive – despite the constructed narrative.

With the broad and formal discussion of the so called ‘Culture Wars’ across every platform or media outlet, it can often be easier to think in these terms. Indeed, this polarized dualism can offer some kind of foundation or map to navigating the ‘cultural politics’ of the times. The trouble with such a foundation is its inability to detect nuances, broadly subsuming different argumentation into two binary oppositional camps – e.g. ‘For’ and ‘Against’, and this undermines not only the fragility of perspective but also a certain willingness to understand the wider group one does not fall into. This is not to suggest that one should necessarily be ‘anti-foundationalist’ as this always risks falling into a kind of pure relativism, where one’s capacity to judge is hindered by understanding as opposed to aided by it. So, I would like to briefly sketch out why I think that Feminism is an interesting tradition of thought to engage with and why it is not an ideology as a short introduction to the tradition to commemorate this International Women’s Day.

The first thing to note is that I understand Feminism to be a tradition of thought, as opposed to an ideology. Ideology is totalising; where any single idea takes the position of an all-encompassing γνῶσις [gnosis], able to award meaning to anything within the historical framework of that particular logic, i.e., it becomes a key to gaining a watertight foundational understanding to mediate all aspects of life.[1] The term ‘ideology’ itself implies, as the political theorist Hannah Arendt claims, “that an idea can become the subject matter of a science just as animals are the subject matter of zoology, and that the suffix -logy in ideology, as in zoology, indicates nothing but the logoi, the scientific statements made on it”, and as such, “it is the logic of an idea. Its subject matter is history to which the ‘idea’ is applied”.[2] The primary ‘idea’ fundamental to National Socialism, for example, was the concept of historical ‘race struggle’, which could then be pseudo-scientifically applied to explain every object or process by this logic. Q. ‘Why is this computer in existence?’ A. Race struggle, and this is why... Q. ‘Why am I unemployed and others are not?’ A. Race Struggle, and this is why… Q. ‘Why is x the way it is?’ A. Race Struggle, and this is why... [3] You get the picture. All understanding can be subsumed by the applied logic of a single idea, eradicating the faculty of thought altogether.  

I understand that this may be a particularly narrow grasp of ideology, however it is the most apt because it allows us to separate the truly ‘ideological’ from merely partisan, ideational, moralistic, principled or pragmatic forms of politics. Ideology is totalising, it encompasses and can explain all things with the pseudo-scientific appeal to and application of its supposed skeleton-key like logic. Feminism is not this. Although there is a large debate concerning what should be included under the umbrella of ‘Feminism’, the very fact that there is an absence of such a totalising single piece of knowledge or idea stands testament to this fact. Some may suggest the notion that ‘Women are treated unfairly, unjustly or unequally in comparison to Men’ is the central ‘idea’ of feminism, and so permits its qualification as an ideology. Nevertheless, such a stipulation would ignore (a) that even this as a central tenet is highly contested by a number of feminists, and (b) that this cannot be scientifically totalised (pseudo or not) to a universal level of the all-encompassing in order to explain any and all things. In this manner, Feminism is not ideological, it is a tradition of thought, or rather an approach mediating our socio-political constructions and edifices.

The internal and historical factions of feminism are often seen as being divided into a number of waves: first, second, third, and sometimes a fourth. Each wave has added to the feminist discourse in some manner over time, almost in a geological fashion where each layer bleeds into the next. This implies that with every new addition comes a series of internal conflicts between the propositions and stipulations of the various waves. For example, First Wave Liberal Feminism, following the thought of Mary Wollstonecraft, centred its focus on the struggle of women in the public sphere, whereas Second Wave Liberal Feminism, headed by such individuals as Betty Friedan, shift emphasis to women’s rights and experiences of subjugation in the private as well as public spheres. This extended the aims of the feminist movement beyond that of property rights or suffrage alone and thus triggered a chain of dialogues about the relation between the public and private spheres as a whole.

The distinct waves of Feminism place a certain emphasis on different phenomena, experiences or concepts. Second Wave, differing to first wave, explores the politics of gender and the experiences of women both socially and in the private sphere, be that in terms of reproductive rights, as a labouring class, sexuality, domestic abuse and so on. One of the greatest failures of the Second Wave was its lack of account for the different subjective (or closed intersubjective) experiences of women in relation to their subject. This led to the formation of a ‘Third Wave’ that sought to address this issue of experiential exclusion, raising consciousness for and adding the subjective experiences of the non-white, queer, ‘Trans’, post-colonial and/or posthuman subject to the wider feminist discourse. The concept of ‘intersectionality’, discussed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a fantastic illustration of this. Crenshaw contended that critical feminist studies did not take into account the dynamic interaction of race and gender in contributing to the everyday tribulations of non-white women, and as such needed to become ‘intersectional’.[4]

Equally, Judith Butler, and her work on performative linguistics and norms of Gender, enabled a certain insight into relaxing the connection we uphold and recreate between the manner in which we hail bodies as being gendered and the production of exclusion or vulnerability. For instance, Butler achieves this by attempting to critique the subtle connection between ‘biological’ or ‘anatomical’ sex, gender norms, and one’s supposed role in the process of heterosexual reproduction.[5] By seeking to relax this performative nexus, we open the space for new forms of liveable life to be led without a crushing sense of vulnerability or potential for bodily harm. Whose experience, whose subject, or process of subjectivation, is excluded when gender norms are constructed and (re)performed thusly? Fourth Wave, all be it disputed, continues along a similar path to that of third wave, but focusses attention on the relationship between sex, gender, the subject and the increasing magnitude communicative and practical technologies play a part in social life, such as the effect of social media and combatting the subjugation of women on a digital as well as material plane of social existence (e.g. #MeToo). What unites these different factions, however? How do they come together to form a tradition of thought?

Despite their discrepancies and differences, the varying feminist perspectives are unified in the overall assertion that ‘the body’, one often gendered, experiences the effects of social, political, economic and normative structures, making that body limited or vulnerable in some manner. The First wave centred its emphasis on the female body achieving the legal and political rights of the public sphere, rights that are overtly justified through the universalist liberal frame of inalienable human rights. The gendered female body is entitled to public rights because that body is a human body, authorised by that virtue to engage with the political sphere because they are thus a political animal, by definition, inalienably, a ζῷον πoλιτικόν [zōon politikon]. As liberal rights extended into the private sphere, so too did the discourse around the politico-structural limitation of the feminine body. As a body endowed with inalienable rights, these rights of personhood do not end at the threshold of the private sphere[6], nor can critiques of productive labouring life escape a lens examining how the division of labour is drawn along normative lines between gendered bodies[7], or even how our historico-theoretical notions of contractual civic society and political obligation relate to the gendered body.[8] With the inception of intersectional feminism, the gendered body was exposed as an overt site of normative clustering – where norms, structure, power, discourse, linguistics and performative experience collide. Questions such as ‘How is a gendered body constructed?’, ‘How do gendered bodies experience gender norms differently by variations of their bodied subject?’, ‘How do gendered bodies experience vulnerability by virtue of their gendered status?’, ‘How does historical locality add to the experiences of a gendered body?’ or even ‘What constitutes a gendered body?’ fell front-and-centre of the third wave discourse.

No, Feminism is not an ideology. It lacks an overarching claim to some gnosis that is applicable as an all-encompassing logic of life and history. Nonetheless, despite its variations, despite its splinters, fractures and divisions, through its corporeal dimension Feminism has forged a tradition of thinking about the constitutive relationship between the body, structure, politics, norms, social life and gender. Whether or not one agrees with the premises and conclusions of individual feminists or feminist groups, the Feminist tradition challenges us to think corporeally, to consider life as a bodied subject, where norms collide to cluster around our bodied existence, and how our experiences of these bodies encounter ‘the political’. This, therefore, is without a doubt a valuable asset and another precious discursive tool we can employ to think our way through the strange times we navigate.

[1] This is uniquely discussed in the work of Eric Voegelin, who married the political theology of Gnosticism with the ideological forces of the twentieth century: Eric Voegelin (2012) The New Science of Politics: An Introduction, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press; (2012) Science, Politics, Gnosticism: Two Essays, Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc.

[2] Hannah Arendt (1979) The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Harcourt Inc., p. 469.

[3] Q implies ‘Question’, and A implies ‘Answer’.

[4] Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1(8), pp. 139-167.

[5] Judith Butler (1990) Gender Trouble, New York: Routledge.

[6] See: Betty Friedan (1963) The Feminine Mystique, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

[7] See: Simone de Beauvoir (2014) The Second Sex, London: Vintage Random House

[8] See: Carole Pateman  (1988) The Sexual Contract, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Picture by: Ian Aberle, 'Feminism, My 2nd Favorite "F" Word - Dallas Women's March 2018',  https://www.flickr.com/photos/ianaberle/26030565758