What Is the Goal of Feminism?
Much like contemporary schools of philosophy, the feminist school of thought is diverse with ideas in its attempt to unify the struggles of women in the late-20th and now 21st century. However, because of its aim toward political activism, there appears to be either a fracturing or balkanization within feminism itself; leading to either disagreements of the specific goals of feminism, or harsh critiques from feminist thinkers, usually in the realm of biologism, homophobia, or transphobia. I wish to find whether or not modern, "third wave" feminism, can have a specific, coherent goal, or if the movement was doomed from the beginning; insofar as it could be a unified movement, toward that goal.
Before we can assess the goals, or lack-thereof, of modern, 21st century feminism, I first have to identify what makes ‘third-wave’ feminism different than ‘second-wave.’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does a nice job of comparing the two waves. It describes them:
“In this second wave [late 1960s and early 1970s], feminists pushed beyond the early quest for political rights to fight for greater equality across the board, e.g., in education, the workplace, and at home... Third Wave feminists often critique Second Wave feminism for its lack of attention to the differences among women due to race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, and emphasize ‘identity’ as a site of gender struggle.”
With this distinction, it is clear how relevant third-wave feminism is to the conversation surrounding gender equality today. It also becomes clear that “third wave” has become increasingly politically and culturally charged, with the advent of the internet and social media, than it’s second-wave sister. Now that we have a specific distinction from “second wave” feminism, and description of third-wave, we have to understand what it's target affected group and audience are.
Of course, our immediate reaction is to assume that the affected group are women. 1 Unfortunately, in today’s society, this category doesn’t seem to capture the entire experience of being a woman; as there are people who are not born biologically female, and yet still identify as a woman. For the sake of this essay, women or at least the woman gender identity will include any and all people who choose to organize themselves into the woman gender category; which may or may not include femininity. Secondly, we also have to assess who the target audience of third-wave feminism is. When leading a political movement, the best thing you can do for your cause, is to bring potentially outsider allies into the fold. This is important, because in order to reach a larger audience, or at least have a greater effect of change, a movement needs to attract other powerful voices, with sufficiently differing values than the core movement. This is how you can have a cascade effect in spreading your movement’s message: it allows similar groups, with similar goals to reach into other cultural-political spaces; while at the same time not feeding back into an already motivated group. However, this is where I find third-wave to be having the most trouble. Because of its political nature, its main source of spreading information and gathering new ‘members,’ as it were, is via activism; whether that be through social canvassing or some kind of political assembly, like one of ‘Women’s Marches.’ 2
An easy target may be from political parties like the Democratic National Committee (DNC), or from more broad political groups like Social Democrats or Progressives. However, even with groups like these leaning socially “liberal,” there is still divide when it comes to supporting the idea that gender cannot differ from the sex you are born with after birth. According to Pew Research, over 55% and up of adults in America, who are over the age of 37, feel this way; with Democrats in general hovering at 34% (Brown, Anna. PEW). Of course, one then has to consider this from a moral perspective. The political Left appears to be in favor of liberating the minorities it views as oppressed, which is its main moral orientation. However, if you were to look toward the Left leaning, or social libertarians, I find the foundation not that we are all created equal, but we should all have the same equal protection under the law, and that the individual’s rights should triumph over the group’s. In this case, then all women could find the same rights and protections under the law as anyone else. But equal protection under the law does not always mean cultural acceptance. In light of that sentiment, I will take a look at a few writers and activists to see if I can find a clear goal, and whether or not it can lead to some end that is comparable to alleviation of oppression.
I will be focusing on the writers: Iris Marion Young, Linda Martin Alcoff, the Combahee River Collective, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and Patricia Hill Collins. Beginning with Young and Crenshaw, they have the most detailed analysis when it comes to the oppression of women. Young breaks down oppression into five categories: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. Prefacing her analysis, she suggests that oppression is a condition of social groups, which makes me wonder at what level individuals can sense oppression. What Young appears to be getting at, is that either an individual or group are responsible for the oppression of other groups, to which I have no qualms with. However, depending on the specifics of the oppressive regime, I can envision a state in which the individuals within the oppressed group cannot perceive their oppression. I question then, whether or not we should intervene in their daily practices, especially if there is a claim to be made that an individual might contribute to their own oppression; specifically surrounding the example of women’s rights of dress found in the Muslim world. Young then moves in by attacking liberalism, which again is meant to have liberatory practices for individuals, inasmuch as liberal principles offer the opportunity for individuals to rise above their circumstances, whether or not there are laws in place to guarantee this. It’s clear to me that Young chooses not to participate in the liberal project; but certainly some form of progressivism with apologetic aspirations of Communism. While Young does not specifically endorse Communism, on page 41 of her book, Justice and the Politics of Difference, she claims that the common political discourse has maligned Communism as a form of brutal, tyrannical, and oppressive regimes; Young wishes to change discourse of oppression in general, and I think would argue that one of the goals of Communism is to eliminate oppression, and that it hasn’t been implemented perfectly. But that is my assessment, and I would put out there that many political regimes have certainly attempted to implement a Communist government, being highly inspired by the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and yet still often lead to dictatorships. But her bigger implication here, is that we can understand group oppression through the study of sociology, which I don’t think can provide us with the answers we seek. On its face, sociology is an attempt to understand how groups interact with one another, including behavior, but more importantly how social phenomena can spread within groups. I can of course see the utility in understanding those phenomena, especially how resentment affects groups of people. However, it seems more obvious to me that the psychological behavior of individuals may be the prime correlate with those phenomena, regardless of how much interaction within a group is required. This is why I think it may be more useful to understand oppression from its earlier roots, and why social and evolutionary psychology might be better avenues to take. If we are to take Young’s claims seriously then, I actually think a better way is to undergo a multidimensional analysis in the way that Crenshaw can give us, by having a better look into how oppression may be hiding right in front of us, and can be better understood through intersectionality.
Intersectionality is a term, coined by Crenshaw, in order to give us a useful metaphor in which to view possibly unseen oppression; or at least from a different angle. 3 The metaphor being likened to intersecting highways, where gender and race are viewed as two combining ways in which oppression can be viewed. Because of its relatively simple architecture, it can be scaled up to include class, sexual orientation, age, and gender identity. Crenshaw, then, further subdivides intersectionality into two separate categories: structural and political intersectionality. Unfortunately, Crenshaw falls into similar traps that Young previously had. She uses observations of women’s shelters across the greater Los Angeles metro area and claims that “being a woman of color correlates strongly with poverty” (Mapping the Margins), but correlation does not equal causation. Crenshaw does not provide us with statistical data on how women of color may be disproportionately affected along economic lines, nor does she provide us with a reason as to why these women would be affected in that way. Is there a system in place where its mechanics are designed to keep women of color below the poverty line? And is there an oppressor group with the given intention on keeping women of color in the lower class? Thankfully, Crenshaw gives us the example that for “immigrant women, … , their status as immigrants can render them vulnerable in many ways…” (Mapping the Margins) This is an interesting point, as Crenshaw mentions general marriage fraud found in the 1986 Immigration Act, so it makes sense that immigrant women would be in a vulnerable position. However, I don’t think that is necessarily evidence of oppression from the State and/or government, nor is it oppression from a specific group. Intent matters, and while it may be counterproductive either way, having a clear ideology your against can help your cause much more effectively than something as ambiguous as oppression. Her example certainly points out problems with our immigration policies, but it could very well be affecting many more people, immigrant men included, but Crenshaw only provides us data pertaining to women. If the goal of third-wave feminism is to eliminate oppression, it wouldn’t just include women, but men as well, and we need all of the facts in order to assess the problem seriously. Crenshaw does refer to this worrying problem, found within third-wave feminism, and that is the various tactics that the different schools of feminism use to assess their own oppression. Because of their own singular dimensions of oppression, e.g. race, class, and sexuality, it doesn’t have the same unifying quality that intersectionality is hoping to address. “For example, activists who have attempted to provide support services to Asian- and African-American women occasionally report intense resistance from some of the leaders and institutions from within those communities” (Mapping the Margins). Crenshaw ultimately falls back into what I believe is an unintentional misdirection in a TED Talk she gave in 2016, titled The Urgency of Intersectionality.
At 5 minutes, 20 seconds of the video, Crenshaw gives an anecdote of a legal case she came across (as a lawyer). The case in question, was a woman’s suit being dismissed by a judge, based on the claims of racism and sexism at a job she wished to procure at a local car manufacturing plant. The company responded to the claim that they hired both African-Americans as well as women, but the woman had claimed that all of the African-American employees were the black men given the typically more difficult, and physically demanding manufacturing positions, and the women employees were white women, who were invariably given the less difficult, secretary jobs. Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to claim that either sex, or either race are better at certain tasks than the other. However, this anecdote nor case refers neither to average differences among men and women, especially physical, when it comes to doing jobs requiring physical labor, nor does it refer to the average preferences of men and women, being interested in things or people, respectively. The case also does not refer to the qualifications of the woman applying to the position at the plant, nor the position she applied to. What this example is doing, however, is appealing to our emotions and hoping we can empathize with the woman in question, buying into Crenshaw’s narrative. No doubt, though, that appealing to our emotions is an effective rhetorical tool. However, assuming that there is fire where you see or smell smoke, does not guarantee that there is fire, of course. It very well could be that the company defending itself is actively discriminating against the woman, but until we have clear evidence of the fact, it is safer to err on the side of skepticism, for risk of not targeting our allies as enemies.
What seems to be needed the most, when speaking about issues in third-wave feminism, is skepticism. So far, I see neither Young nor Crenshaw giving us that; only examples that affirm their narrative. One of the core values of science, in order to assure against this very thing, is to record the misses as well as the hits. Of course, the goal of science is not to say what is true, but most likely. What I see as integral to third-wave feminism, is to start with a foundation of what is either true, or most likely, in terms of oppression, and not just personal experience or anecdotes on the matter. For the goals of third-wave to be solid, it must take a rigorous stance. Division within third-wave then becomes an important hindrance when attempting to align the goals found within the movement. I think this is further explored from the works of Collins, in her piece The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought. Within the first paragraphs of the piece, Collins speaks to the goal of bringing together political activists, so already we have political motivation, but it is at least a unitary goal. Early on in the piece, Collin’s seems to agree that men and women are similarly minded, but women have had to use their mind differently in order to survive. But when it comes to race, I think at first glance she makes it difficult for outsiders to ally themselves with her cause. Anytime she writes the word black, she capitalizes the ‘b,’ especially in reference to the word white. She says “white masculinist and Black feminist” on pg. 751. Collin’s is using a specific rhetorical technique here, but I fear that without further reflection, or at least an acknowledgement in the text, it might dissuade some readers as it did with me on my first read. Any attempt at racial superiority is a poor argument, whether or not it is perceived in that way or whether or not it is intended. On pg. 755, she makes reference to an Afrocentric value system, prior to white colonialism “that existed prior to and independently of racial oppression.” Collin is referring here to the theory of the Black feminist standpoint. Standpoint here being the key word; instead of academic or political positions of power, or cultural movements being traditionally headed by either men, or white women, it should be that black women now take on those roles. This can come in the form of being brought into the fold or taking them over entirely. It’s the latter point that bothers me.
Personally, I have no problem accepting that some cultural movements be spearheaded by the people whom are most directly affected if nothing is done otherwise. However, I think blatant overturning of a system or culture, rather than reform, can have dangerous consequences. I may be exaggerating my worry, but often these conversations tend to have ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric, and a quick glance at history can show just how well identitarian revolutions have played out. But I think a larger issue looms over standpoint theory, and that is its criticisms of positivist epistemology. Positivism is often associated with logical positivism or scientism, which can be seen as a slight on traditional European schools of thought, surrounding the idea that we can absolutely confirm phenomena through a system of logical deduction and empirical induction; that necessarily allows for bias to enter into the system, as well as not allowing for contradictions, often denying the emotions. I simply do not think this is a charitable understanding of logic nor the scientific method. If there were a way to affirm our experiences, or to find with precision where oppression lies, wouldn’t we want an efficient method for doing so?
In chapter 9, from The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy, Alcoff speaks to her specific rise in academia, studying philosophy and emerging out of the lower class. Most of the essay is spent on attempting to show how intelligently she navigated the oppressive nature of the academy, but she does speak to the problems with the kind of social movements of the previous writers. Alcoff implies that “when progressive social activism has non-progressive effects” (Of Philosophy and Guerrilla Wars, pg. 182), it leads to further alienation of groups, and perhaps further oppression. Alcoff then takes a turn to criticize Western thought on pg. 183, she says that “Western philosophy is notorious for its lack of consensus; when asked what progress has been made in the central problems, we have shamefacedly admit not. This alone should make it clear that logic is an insufficient criterion for adequacy in philosophical argument.” I don’t see how logic is insufficient to tackle the the social and philosophical questions we want to ask. Like reason, logic is just a tool, where its most fundamental position is the principle of non-contradiction: P and not-P. Simply put, as a way of organizing thought, we should not contradict ourselves, and retain the ability to make distinctions. As far as the lack of consensus goes, that is a fundamental aspect of philosophical dialogue. However, unless the topic or ideas are grounded in political philosophy, it’s outcomes or goals rarely affect the marginalization of groups, insofar as whatever schools of thought and the metaphysics is portends does not target a specific group and its immutable characteristics.
The problem that I see in the school of third-wave feminism is that its goals often require a total deconstruction of cultural and political systems, rather than reformation. I also see issues with the actual mechanics of the movement and how to achieve the goals set forth. However, the theme of progress does seem to be the salient goal within third-wave. where I see the largest problem here, at least as it stifles progress within the movement. But something as broad and ill defined as progress isn’t easy to work through. Progress assumes a best, most complete answer; implying a grander, metaphysical goal, that to my eyes leads to a utilitarian utopia. When it comes to political progress, there have been much more simple, straight forward, and effective goals throughout history. Women’s suffrage was to gain the vote, the Civil Rights movement was to gain equal rights of African-Americans under that law, the Gay Rights movement in the late-2000’s was to gain marriage equality. But there are clearly less effective movements. Black Lives Matter is an attempt to unify black people and bringing police violence further into the light, but the identity dimension to that campaign has invariably led to many other *Choose Your Identity Here* Lives Matter movements. #MeToo has been an attempt to out abusers of sexual harassment or assault in the workplace, which is certainly overdue, but it has led to innocent casualties losing their jobs and being blacklisted from the job market.
When group identity is the focus of solving something as large and ambiguous like oppression, people on the tail ends of the problem will be pushed out into the margins, feeling alienated, and when you don’t fit neatly into categories driven by activism, you either form your own group, further dividing yourself, or you fall into the feeling of resentment.
I won’t be debating the difference of sex and gender in this essay, as that would be an entirely different essay.
Because there are several different “Women’s Marches,” I won’t be getting into the specifics of each organization.
It’s useful to note here Crenshaw’s motivation for intersectionality, being a black activist, that black feminism be a useful angle to tackle oppression. However, I won’t be discussing the specific methodology of black feminism.
Brown, Anna, and Anna Brown. "Transgender Issues Sharply Divide Republicans, Democrats." Pew Research Center. November 08, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/11/08/transgender-issues-divide-republicans-and-democrats/.
Collins, Patricia Hill. "The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14, no. 4 (07 1989): 745-73. doi:10.1086/494543.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color." Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (07 1991): 1241. doi:10.2307/1229039.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. "The Urgency of Intersectionality." Ted. https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality.
McAfee, Noëlle. "Feminist Philosophy." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. June 28, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-philosophy/.
Yancy, George. The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
Young, Iris Marion, and Danielle S. Allen. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press, 1990.