The Politics of Difference in Feminist Representation
Lisa Marie Buccella
The politics of difference in feminist theory is hardly a new phenomenon. Feminism has been largely centered on the realities that women experience as the “other” gender. Some critics argue that the notion of difference has become the dominant focus of feminism, even replacing equality as the central concern of feminist theory. Traditional feminism divides the world into two groups: men and women. Feminists further subcategorize with the most common examples being the public versus private spheres and nature versus culture. Motivated by the harm created by societal positioning, the feminist movement has achieved greater public recognition and increased opportunities for women on many levels.
Nonetheless, members of the feminist movement are guilty. The charge is based on the instances when feminism “takes for granted a shared identity among its members [or] some essential point of commonality” (Fuss 582). While striving to provide oppressed women with a voice that speaks out against inequality, feminism has achieved another, not so attractive result: an internal politics of difference comprised of dominant and marginal feminist voices. These competing voices reinforce that the politics of difference in feminist theory reaches beyond the male –female dichotomy and applies to the differences and tensions that exist within feminism. These tensions arise when white, middle class, western women speak on behalf of the experiences of non white, non Western and lower class women, in essence universalizing the female experience. In her famous essay A Room of One’s Own (1924), Virginia Woolf argued that women’s writing should explore female experience in its own right and not form a comparative assessment of women’s experience in relation to men’s. Instead, feminists have tended to consider the gender distinction prior to all other notions of identity, at the expense of ignoring other variances that significantly impact the female experience. Due to its longer life span, the traditional concept of difference has attracted more discourse. Less popular but more deserving of feminist attention is the updated version of the politics of difference in terms of the differences among women. This paper will compare the two leading concepts of difference in feminist theory by assessing the early feminists of autonomy against the feminist theory based on women’s experiences.
First Wave: Ready, Set, Woolf!
“Feminist Theories” highlights the contributions made by the early feminist movements to feminism’s development. Selden et al. identify a selection of the central differences that define the early feminist periods. Leading the early feminist movement were the vocal and androcentric Virginia Woolf followed decades later by the gynocritic Elaine Showalter. As a grass roots feminist, Virginia Woolf’s first and fundamental contribution to feminist theory was her essay, A Room of One’s Own. The piece explored the impact of the politics of difference as experienced by women writers who were disadvantaged by their social constructs. To illustrate her point that members of the opposite sex are afforded very different opportunities Woolf eloquently narrated the fictional tale of Shakespeare’s sister. Although “Judith” may have possessed talent and a comparable flair for writing as her brother, her future unraveled much differently than her celebrity sibling. For instance Judith became conscious of the restricted education she had received having been deprived from learning Greek unlike her brothers. Later, she was prohibited from entering the university library, symbolic of the sanctuary of male logo (Showalter 458). Deciding to proceed with a proactive approach, Judith escaped the confines of home and pursued a path that led to further troubles and ultimately to her premature death. In this text Woolf’s principle concern was with women’s material disadvantages compared to men and in particular, the historical and social context of women’s literary production (Selden et al.’s 124). However, Woolf simultaneously argued that women’s writing should explore the female experience in its own right and not form a comparative assessment of women’s experience in relation to men’s. This second argument introduced feminists to another level of the politics of difference, challenging them to think beyond the narrow scope of the male-female dichotomy. Woolf’s contribution to feminism is accorded with her argument that gender is a social construct, susceptible to challenge and modification. Woolf identified the pressures hindering women writers such as social and economic obstacles that tend to have a limiting effect on the achievement of literary ambitions. Women’s achievements are further hindered because of the dominant ideologies of womanhood and the social taboo associated with expressing their experiences (Selden et al.’s 126)
Many critics describe Woolf’s feminism as one that rejected the notion of feminist consciousness. Perhaps motivating this opinion is that Woolf strove to create an unconscious femininity that would allow an escape from the confinements and fixed notions created by the female /male binary. However, as Woolf’s “Judith” illustrated by her leaving home in A Room of One’s Own while it may be “unpleasant to be locked out…it is worse, perhaps to be locked in” (qtd. in Showalter 458).
Moreover, Woolf’s feminism meant the desexualization of the female in an effort to achieve sameness with man, otherwise described as the androgyny theory. Selden et al.’s explain that the denial of Woolf’s female sexuality was never subverted in her own work or life in that she thought women wrote differently from men…because their social positioning was different. To critic Toril Moi, Woolf did not aim to achieve a balance between masculine and feminine types; rather she was interested in a “complete displacement of fixed gender identities” (qtd. in Selden et. al.’s 126). Furthermore, Moi notes that Woolf disabled essentialist notions of gender by dispersing fixed points of view in her literature. For Elaine Showalter, relying on an androcentric model for feminist principles is not revolutionary; rather, feminist energies would have been better spent engaged in discourse on the exclusive female experience (Showalter 460).
Second Wave: A Rowdy Round Two
In her 1981 essay, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness” Showalter emphasizes the importance of feminism discovering its “own subject, its own system, its own theory, and it own voice” (461). For Showalter the early feminist obsession with competing, correcting, modifying, supplementing, revising, humanizing or even attacking male critical theory, only succeeded at retarding feminist progress in solving their own problems (460).
While second wave feminism shared some of the first wave’s interest in achieving women’s rights in all areas, the main focus of the next movement was directed more towards issues of reproduction and the politics of difference in terms of women’s experience, sexual difference and sexuality. In particular, five subcategories of difference consumed the concentration of second wave feminists: biology; experience; discourse; the unconscious; and social and economic conditions. Elaine Showalter is considered a second wave leader and authority on the issue of sexual difference. Her empirical approach to feminist theory emerged during the second era and her contribution to feminism is reflected in her gynocriticism concept. This concept focuses on three areas of feminism representation, namely the distinction in women’s writing, the importance of redeveloping a tradition of women authors and finally, assessing women’s culture in its own right. Gynocriticism “centres on the female author and character, and on female experience as the marker of authenticity and on notions of ‘reality’ (in particular of a collective understanding of what it means to be a woman) which can be represented, and experientially related to, by way of the literary work” (Selden et. al.’s 136-7).
Building on the introduction of feminist politics of difference from the first and second movements, the final and current movement of feminism represents the most intensified focus on the controversial notion of difference. New feminism celebrates the status of female difference, embraces diversity among its members, rather than “wanting inside” (Arneil 187) and contests traditional notions of sameness and universality. The more recent feminist movements prefer to adopt a relational instead of a binary approach, one that “bases the analysis of politics on the experience and perspective of women rather than men” (187). Elizabeth Grosz comments on the different foci between the movements:
Feminists of autonomy, on the other hand, undertakes the challenge to the foundational reliance of knowledge on phallocentric norms, methods and paradigms. In questioning the ‘content’ and unspoken assumptions, the preferred methods and ideals of phallocentric knowledge, these feminists are committed to the development of new or different forms of knowledge and intellectual inquiry…This, for many, is only the first step in the development of entirely new forms of theory based on women’s experiences and perceptions rather than men’s (qtd. in Arneil 187).
Third wave feminism is “washing over all feminists” as members become increasingly confronted with the central issue of women’s perspectives, positions and experiences, and its implications for previous formulations of politics, history and knowledge (Arneil 187). Feminists are beginning to abandon, what Fuss describes as “useless” theoretical frameworks to which they were previously loyal. According to Barbara Arneil, feminists need to rethink their marriage to traditional political and theoretical paradigms” (187). Instead, the central feminist debate has been replaced with determining “the degree to which a unity and/or universality or women as different from men can be reconciled with the construction of identity and differences among women.
The Problem of Representation
In “Voice and representation in the politics of difference” Anna Yeatman vocalizes the tension of traditional feminism and highlights the other and less popular politics of difference within feminist theory namely, the differences among women. In the context of the contemporary politics of justice, Yeatman points to “differences” as a central issue. Feminism in the context of the contemporary era of oppression, has lost its innocence by having to realize that its existence is premised on an assumption that gender is the most prominent base of oppression (228). This assumption is most significant for women who do not experience additional sources of oppression such as ethnicity, race and class. Yeatman notes that it is impossible to find a practical bearer of this subjectivity, such as a social movement which can stand in for and represent all the various and distinct interests in emancipation. Yeatman’s article explores the possibilities of insight which arise from an internal politics of emancipation within feminism. She describes the emancipation movement by noting that a politics of difference in such a movement exposes the contradictory nature of emancipation itself, its orientation by both interest and ethics (229).
However, of particular import in her article and for the purposes of this essay is Yeatman’s concern with the representation of women in feminist theory. She identifies the “custodians” of feminism as the white, Western and middle class women whose voices are privileged by the discursive economics of feminism by whom these same economics disprivilege: women who are not white, Western and middle class. Mary Eagleton supports Yeatman’s custodial notion in her comment:
The white, heterosexual, middle-class woman is taken as the norm and the literary history produced is ‘almost as selective and ideologically bound as the male tradition (qtd. in Selden et. al.’s 137).
Before now, this same privileged group was tolerated and even expected to speak on behalf of all women, including those less economically privileged than themselves. However, the fact that this select group assumed the role as spokesperson for the universal female experience is precisely what the new emancipatory movement detests. The challenge then arises whether or not the custodians of feminism may truly be associated with the new movements without forfeiting the distinctiveness of their voice. “How far can the custodians advocate for the voice of a new emancipatory contestants without beginning to appropriate this voice? (239)” The dilemma presents one example of the tension fueled by the differences within feminism.
The Bell debate further illustrates the politics of difference within feminism. While the debate is specific to the politics of voice and representation within the context of Australian feminism, the issues it presented reaches into and challenges every feminist community. The tension arose as Aboriginal women began objecting to the “historically established dominance of white settler women in Australian feminism” that were claiming to be the better advocates of the Aboriginal woman experience (Yeatman 239). The politics in the debate intensified as it came to include a chorus of voices ranging from Aboriginal and non English speaking background feminists that became the prominent emancipatory voices to the extent both that the custodians no longer monopolized agenda-setting within the movement, and that the difference within the movement can not be arraigned within any one binary” (239). Reflected in her controversial article’s title, Diane Bell’s argument was that the “rape of aboriginal women by Aboriginal men in the Northern Territory is every feminist’s business” (240). Anna Yeatman intervened in the debate over Bell’s premise with the purpose of raising public awareness of the objections to the Bell position. One example of such objections was articulated in the Huggins et al. piece. By her intervening Yeatman challenged her “sister white feminist audience” by asking them to consider their position on the issues raised by Huggins argument of Bell’s assumption that there is a universal feminist voice which can speak on behalf of all women. Yeatman expressed to her audience her belief that women were positioned based on the commonality of their shared historical location as racist. She further expressed that in order to understand this uncomfortable position, it was imperative to reflect upon arguments such as those raised by Jackie Huggins et al.’s.
Just because you are women doesn’t mean you are necessarily innocent. You were, and still are part of that colonizing force. Our country was colonized on both a racially and sexually imperialistic basis. In many cases our women considered white women worse than men in their treatment of Aboriginal women, particularly in the domestic service field. (qtd. 240)
Yeatman further challenged her audience with the question of whether or not they were prepared to admit the “fact and implication of their shared positioning as racist in relation to Aboriginal women” (240). Yeatman clarifies that she was not suggesting that Diane Bell was any more racist than any other feminist woman. Rather, Yeatman took issue with Bell’s assumption as an authoritative speaker on behalf of the Aboriginal women’s history of abuse when the actual voices belonging to the victims were absent and not available to present, arbitrate, complicate or argue their own politics. In her defense Bell claimed that her access to cultural resources allowed her to bring a voice to the politics of the issue and was in effect, “respecting the spirit of their conversations about how rape and violence are damaging Aboriginal women” (241). So perhaps resourcefulness is not one of Bell’s better qualities. If her genuine purpose was to “empower” and “respect the damage to Aboriginal women”, she should have deposited her “cultural resources” to the provision of victims’ forums where the real voices could be heard and Aboriginal women could experience genuine empowerment.
Yeatman emphasizes that what is required for the politics of representation is actual representation (241)! If public awareness of women centered experience such as Aboriginal rape, is achieved in academic contexts such as conferences, seminar series, publications and classrooms etc., then Yeatman urges that is incumbent for those who are positioned as minority feminists to be present! The absence of these voices from such forums results in custodians such as Bell, whose cultural competence is limited by the very nature of her status as white, Western and middle class, taking the microphone and speaking on behalf of the lives lived by the non white, non Western and lower class feminist.
However, Yeatman acknowledges that even when minority voices are presented in these forums, they are stifled by the dynamics of the “same/difference game” (241). The “game” provides limited options for individual voices to be heard and is based on the positioning of the speaker. The rules of the game are as follows:
if you are like us we do not have to create space for your voice
if you are the other, when we invite you to speak, please speak on behalf of all others, all minorities, all difference
Yeatman understands the object of this game as having to “avoid the complexity of dialogue that arises between subjects who understand themselves to be complexly like and different from each other” (241). But nor is discouraging forums of dialogue the solution either. Instead, to be more effective a revision is required in order to incorporate the representation of different experiences into the face of feminism and ultimately achieve greater accountability.
For example, when feminist forums are sheltered within the confines of academia, widening the politics of representation is hindered and issues of difference are vulnerable to becoming “corrupted by the introversion of academic competitive narcissism” (Yeatman 242). While perhaps location is a mere technical detail it has significant ramifications. The dialogue based forums must be situated in a non threatening, non competitive space that is accessible to and welcoming for non scholarly self advocates to enter. If the forums are revised, there is greater possibility that feminism will begin to incorporate wider representation of the issues that affect marginalized groups. Yeatman encourages a co operation between non academics advocates and academic feminists. To this end, she explains that “the opening up of public space involves the process of developing accountability within a dialogic partnership between professionals and self advocates” (242). Yeatman admits that Diane Bell may have reflected this incorporation by contributing to the accountability between herself as a professional and other self advocates who lacked access to the written, policy-oriented text. Finally, Yeatman challenges the current custodians to foster such relationships bearing in mind that the true representation of difference “cannot occur without the participation of the actors concerned” (243).
The Problem of Essentialism
In Reading Like a Feminist Fuss identifies the textual and political effects of essentialising notions such as “class,” “woman,” “a shared women’s experience,” “male reader,” and “female reader.” (580). Fuss takes issue with such terms that lack epistemological usefulness because of their failure to account for the real, material differences among women (580). The harm created by universal notions is the suppression of the differences that exist within feminism; consequently feminism has traditionally been reflective of only a small portion of women, better known as the custodians of feminism: the white, Western and middle class women. Furthermore, collapsing terms such as “woman” with “women”, “female” with “feminist” reinforces the binarism between feminism and deconstruction (580).
Fuss begins her article by asking what it means to read as a woman or as a man. She questions what “it is exactly” that underlies and fosters the notion of a gender-based--class style of reading. In search of answers, Fuss consults three pieces including Robert Scholes’s “Reading Like a Man”, Tania Modelski’s “Feminism and the Power of Interpretation”, and Gayatri Spivak’s “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography.” In common, these works illustrate the problem of essentialism and the “vexed relations between feminism and deconstruction” (581).
Robert Scholes’ highlights the notion of class and endorses the ability of women to be conscious of themselves as a class because they are bound by a certain shared experience. For Fuss, Scholes’ premise is problematic. In a weak attempt to clarify his notion of “experience”, Scholes’ concludes that it is “Whatever experience is, it is not just a construct but something that constructs” (582). Fuss ponders but quickly dismisses the possibility of Scholes’ referring to the shared experience of female specific body functions such as the “menstrual flow” (582). A second suggestion Fuss presents is the experience defined by Teresa de Lauretis, experience in terms of an ongoing process by which subjectivity is constructed semiotically and historically. But Fuss admits that Scholes’ earlier reference to the female body renders the de Lauretis suggestion unlikely.
However, even by acknowledging that a shared experience exists, there is little consensus among women to determine what that experience looks like. Consequently, Fuss warns that it is important to be skeptical of any authority such as Scholes, who purports to present substantive claims regarding the female experience. Fuss relies on a helpful note by feminist philosopher Jean Grimshaw to emphasize the complexity and depth associated with the notion of experience:
Experience does not come neatly in segments such that is always possible to abstract what in one’s experience is due to ‘being married,’ ‘being middle class’ and so forth (583).
The problem with over inclusive categories like “the female experience” or “the male experience” is that given their generality and seamlessness, such terms are of limited epistemological usefulness (584). Tania Modelski provides an example of the “case of a man and a woman reading Freud’s text.” She reports that “the woman, having been accustomed to the experience of being considered a more sensual than intellectual being, must respond to the text differently from the man…”(584). To this assumption Fuss questions what woman Modelski is speaking for, to and about? Is Modelski including in her notion of female reader, third world readers, lesbian readers, working class readers? Probably not. Fuss is repulsed that one can speak so simply of “the female reader” or “the male reader”, “the woman”, “the man,” and in so doing, blatantly ignores other dimensions of difference that affect one’s reading and interpretation such as class, culture, ethnicity and nationality and the fact that some readers may be more materially empowered than others. Modelski’s universal female is an example of the politics that black critics protest: the massive silence of feminist criticism about black and Third-World women writers” (Showalter, 458). Fuss questions whether our reading responses are really that predictable and interpretable that they merit labels such as “female reader” and “male reader”. Ultimately, Fuss concludes that despite her good intentions, Modelski is as guilty as her male counterpart Scholes as they both fail to account for the real, material differences between women. By their camouflaging of the variances among women, both authors in effect treat the difference in female experiences as immaterial. Clearly, experience is a shaky ground upon which to base the notion of class of women when the notion itself varies from woman to woman. The questions then remains, if essence and experience are too problematic what can the idea of a class be premised upon?
Finally, Fuss assesses Spivak’s concept of subject positions as a proposed means of reading texts and more importantly, textualizing readers. Spivak relied on Foucault’s definition of the concept who elaborated his own notion of subject positions as one of the four fundamental components of discursive formations. Fuss then applies Foucault’s approach to subjectivity into a general theory of reading by considering questions such as “what are the various positions a reading subject may occupy? How are these positions constructed? Are there possible distributions of subject positions located in the text itself? Can a reader refuse to take up a subject position the text constructs for him or her? Does the text construct the reading subject or does the reading subject construct the text? Spivak unclearly concludes that “the clearing of a subject position in order to speak or write is unavoidable” (588). Spivak’s conclusion is ambiguous in the sense that she does not revisit whether or not she is referring to a clearing away of a previously held subject position or a clear the way for a particular subject position. Foucault suggests that the subject positions one is likely to read from is less a matter of choice than assignment. In response Fuss argues that Foucault’s perspective leads to two difficulties. First, it leads to an inclination to taxonomize, to list one’s various categorical positions in linear fashion as if they could be easily extracted and distinguished from one another. Second, reading from an assigned position can lend itself to stereotyping, and labeling “kinds” of readers and predicting their institutional responses as Modelski illustrated earlier (588).
Fuss revisits her initial challenge of determining upon what a notion of a class of women [reading] ought to be based (590). She suggests that both “class” and “women” represent political constructs and points to politics as the self evident category in feminist discourse. However, while Fuss identifies politics as feminism’s essential focal point she agrees that the notion of politics is resistant to precise definition. In an attempt to achieve some degree of understanding, Fuss quotes Donna Haraway:
What kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective?
To Haraway, the ‘kind of politics’ includes a class of women connected “through coalition-affinity, not identity”-affinity based on choice rather than on nature. Fuss prefers a different approach than Haraway and subscribes instead to the idea that politics grounds affinity. Ultimately, while Fuss at some points seems to contest the notion of a class because of its tendency to take for granted a shared identity and commonality, she agrees that it is important to retain the notion for political purposes. Despite its unsettling controversy, Fuss considers politics integral to the many definitions and very essence of feminism.
Feminist politics would certainly be less complicated if the only dichotomy that existed was that based on gender. However, thanks to the fundamental argument of Virginia Woolf that the female experience deserves exploration in its own right followed by the support of second and third wave feminists, the politics of difference among women has and will continue to consume feminist discourse. More advocates are realizing and acting upon the reality that gender is not the only difference. To subscribe to such a notion is to ignore the impact of culture, race, class, ethnicity and nationality on one’s persona. Feminism cannot claim to be representative of Woman because She does not exist. On the other hand, in order to represent women effectively and accurately, the custodians of feminism need to be reselected. The face of feminism needs to reflect different experiences, but specifically the experiences survived by the non-white, non Western, lower class women. The achievements of the feminist movement are less meaningful if feminists themselves repeat the same oppressive behaviors toward their own members that they have fought to overcome. (Copyright 2006, Lisa Marie Buccella)
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