• Equality of the Sexes? Feminism Reloaded

  • By Birge Krondorfer | 27 May 09 | Posted under: Feminisms
  • Ladies and gentlemen,

    Having been asked to speak on “(leftist) feminism as a liberation theory” on the grounds that “by and large knowledge of the theoretical problems involved in sexual relations is still amazingly limited”, I must confess to finding the prospect daunting on three counts. First: Is it really true? Second: How is it possible? Third: Am I up to answering these questions?

    The first question will be answered one way or another in the course of the lively discussion that I hope will follow. The second question is the subject of the following remarks, and the third question is being answered right now in a rather ambivalent manner: for a simple “yes” may be taken either as an expression of arrogance or as an indication of the impossibility of covering in such a short space of time theories and policies that took decades to take shape and a history that goes back for centuries, if not millennia. Also, my perspective is closely bound up with the women’s movements, the examination of which – in a double sense – is our concern here. I assume that I am in company where “partisanship” is not viewed with suspicion, and would like to talk about just some of the ways – as more is not possible in the time available – in which sexual relations can be viewed as political relations. I will begin by giving a brief overview of feminist theories before attempting to draw some conclusions for the present context.
    To start with, here are a few quotes to mark out my position:

    “And so in reality the exchange of wealth (90%) takes place among men.” (Mascha Madörin)

    “My dream is to be able to see with the eyes of a woman.” (Gregor Gysi)

    “Male imperialism either marginalises women or trains  them to be the same (homologous) as men.” (Jean-Francois Lyotard) 

    The sexes have become “equal” and the division of labour between them is a historical success that capitalism in Europe and the USA can claim as its own. For women capitalist globalisation means that they do two thirds of the world’s work, while only receiving a tenth of men’s income: “If women were to present the bill for their work, the world would go bankrupt.” (Gerburg Treusch-Dieter)  

    Our whole society tries to neutralise the otherness...in the aseptic flow of communication, in the interactive effusion, in the illusion of exchange and contact. ... The whole spectrum of the denied otherness rears up again as a self-destructive process. (Jean Baudrillard)

    “We don’t want a larger slice of the poisoned cake.” (Devaki Jain) 

    May I assume that what the Indian feminist means by the symbol of the “cake” is something that none of us want? Or perhaps we do in secret? “
    The teleology of the left – the only one that rightly or wrongly interests us – may be much talked about and bring about good election results. Nevertheless, no one lives in accordance with its values, and there is probably no one who is prepared to give up his or her real living conditions for its sake... .”2 This perception, formulated 30 years ago, has a topical ring – don’t you think – and we seem to have been here before, despite all the appearance of fundamental changes in “the” left in recent times: the advanced (ego) individualisation leaves no one unaffected, and election results look quite rosy again. It’s so nice to have a seat in  the European Parliament, for example. So perhaps it is a matter of demanding a slice of the “poisoned cake”?

    Blind Conformity

    By now we are closer to the problem at hand. A minor digression toward a question that no one seems to want to raise any more will help us find the way to a critical gender policy: who bakes the “cake”? And who would like to attend the tea party?
    Absolutely everyone talks about “participation” nowadays, as much in mainstream as in alternative scenarios. It has become common currency. But we have to ask ourselves what is to be participated in?
    The very term “participation” has a certain ambiguity, as it can be understood in a passive (= “having”) or an active (= “taking”) manner. Broadly speaking, a distinction can be made between “dividing up what is held in common” and “helping to determine what happens in the community”. Nowadays, however, participation is often identified with the “individual” in the literal sense, who wants/has to take part here, there and everywhere. What tends to be forgotten, however, is – very much in the sense of the citoyen – the dialectic of co-determination and responsibility this entails. Is this a case of an old virtue being turned upside down in a post-Fordian sense? Are the Emperor’s new clothes now to be available for all? This may be where the real trap lies. Ever since the turn towards neo-conservatism, i.e. the devaluation of institutionalised co-determination organisations, participation rates high in the neoliberal discourse: both at the “centre” and on the periphery. “Since the participation phase (wage agreements, co-determination, concerted actions) together with its bonuses (jobs, minimum wages, redundancy payments schemes) has been inexorably drawing to a close,...the participation ethos has been steadily in the ascendant... He who has nothing left, takes what he gets.”3
    But who decides on distribution (which as we know is anything but a redistribution) or the extent of it? Why are those “on high ” suddenly so keen on participation from “below” ? What “cunning reason” [Hegel’s “List der Vernunft, tr.”] is behind all the praise of participation? There is an insidious suggestion of a democratic complicity, as required by today’s loudly proclaimed strategy of self-empowerment. That is to say, the participants must learn to govern and regulate themselves. To put it bluntly, they are being encouraged to become accomplices. This poses an alarming question: are we living in a simulated democracy?
    At this point we “apprehensively” approach the problem of the still awaited sexual democracy as it is essentially understood.
    So I would like to take the plunge and refer to a forgotten (or denied, or suppressed) political conception from the tradition of the women’s movements, namely that reflective feminist option which never indulged in a state feminism, a party feminism, or an egalitarian feminism – although all these were recognised as everyday political necessities, of course – but which pursued a “radical” vision of refusal to accept the status quo. Those who belong to small or large but real communities with a deeply sceptical attitude towards a patriarchal order that lives from the exclusion of women, cannot blithely take part in something whose aim it is to degrade those who do not fit in and force them to adapt. Taking part in something suggests equality and entails system immanence, which was not what the autonomous women or their movement were after. 
    In this interpretation, participation – however aware one may be of an inevitable (internalised) participation in the system – is not a way of positioning oneself to make really effective changes. For participation is no protection against being taken over. The insistence on difference(s) – whether by deliberate aloofness, critical distance, refusing to help stir the cake batter, or staying distant from power (which lives on conformity) – eludes uncanny conformity to norms. As ingredients of a politics other than realpolitik, terms like resistance, dissidence and subversion might well regain their attractiveness.

    The “Sexless” Left

    Those of you who have been listening carefully will not have failed to notice where my political sympathies lie – and, albeit in a “transformed” way, still do. For a quarter of a century my political activities concerned the organizing of women by women and had its roots in the so-called autonomous women’s movement, which used to mean things like not joining any party, no matter how left-wing, progressive and pro-women. A “party”, of whatever shade, meant – and unfortunately still means – structural and hence essentially male domination – and the denial of this fact by the unreasonable and unreasoning identification of being a man with being a human being, and the accompanying assumption that “gender” is allegedly equal (or egalitarian).4 It was evident that the pursuit of a feminist women’s politics carried out exclusively by women made sense, and it was clear that the “revolutionary” perspective had as its primary object not the class conflict, but the conflict between the sexes. 5 The abolition of male domination was ideally combined with the abolition of all domination, which was why the triad of “race, class and sex” had always been mentioned in the same breath, as the marks of oppression and exploitation. To put it quite simply: The struggle against patriarchy was foregrounded because it formed the background of capitalism and imperialism. There were countless disputes between left and “radical” feminists – enough to fill whole bookshelves – and this generally led to divisions, on both theoretical and practical planes. For adherents of the one strategy the “women only” approach was too little, while for others their male colleagues were intolerable, especially as regards their claim to be the political representatives of a universal humanism.6
    At present the second position seems to be on the way out, since capitalism in its neoliberal guise suggests the freedom of everyone to do and be what they like. At least in our prosperous climes. In this state of “freedom”, and on the basis of the basic women’s rights that have been won and are now taken for granted, women’s emancipation seems to have been accomplished and thus made itself superfluous. Every public proclamation of a critical-feminist viewpoint sounds downright quaint and embarrassing. Everywhere. Everywhere?
    Radical left positions are getting the same treatment, where they are  not being demonised. It is a remarkable phenomenon of our time that the condemnation of every clearly defined political attitude as (outdated) ideology is accompanied by growing unease at the gross distortions in social relations. To adapt a bon mot of Günter Anders who said (in 1964!): “Let’s not be shy. Let’s be unfashionable. Let’s talk about capitalism”, I would like to say: Let’s not be shy. Let’s be unfashionable. Let’s talk about sexism.
    At present my interest focuses on more involvement and reflection in “mixed” alternative contexts (and if not within the “left”,where else?), although without today’s oh so popular parlour game – from the left of the spectrum through the centre to the right – of cheering on the women’s movements. In view of the world situation – and of the women in it – there is an urgent need for a critique both of society and of capitalism, this time without leaving out the gender issue. And that may be why I am standing here before you both as draftee and volunteer. And with no or fewer reservations than many young people or even some members of my own generation, about an institutionalised left; no doubt because they have no traumatic memories of party discipline, because the great (including the Marxist) master narratives arouse distrust in any case, and because a feminist experience of life and knowledge acts as a protection against being taken over. For it must be said in all clarity that the male comrades and (most) of the practising female comrades (historically) never gave a hoot about the so-called woman question, as it was not considered an important part of solving the world’s problems.7 

    Report from the Women’s Movement

    Feminist theories and gender studies have filled whole libraries – and present a lot of contradictory findings.8 But do not imagine they have in any sense found their way into the generally recognised academic canon. On the contrary, the university reforms have ushered in a retrograde tendency, and gender studies – despite their fashionable trappings as gender expertise – have been relegated to the backwater of special study courses. But that is another story.
    By now you will understand that I can only present the complexity of the material in a highly compressed form (and hopefully without redundancy), i.e. that I have to be selective.9 
    I will do this first by identifying the various tendencies within the women’s movement, and secondly by briefly presenting the various paradigms of feminist theory. 
    A political statement that in principle combines all theorems and forms of practice might be: “Feminism as a politics of transformation is aimed at changing social institutions and overcoming all forms of oppression, and not at gaining more space for particular groups of women within existing structures. This politics is not only in the interests of all women, but of all human beings. Nevertheless – or for this very reason – it is a challenge to the defenders of traditional patriarchal power structures.” 10 
    First of all we can trace chronologically five currents that still occur and which existed alongside and in conflict with one another, both in harmony and intermingled. This is worth stressing as it shows that the women’s movements were not organised on an authoritarian or hierarchical basis, although of course there were always passionate debates about the right perspective at any given time. 

      Liberal dialectic (bourgeois) 
      feminisms
       Equal social rights 
      Socialist feminisms
      Class and production relations
      Radical feminisms
      Patriarchy, forced heterosexuality     
      Cultural (gynocentric) feminisms      
      Upgrading of female identity
      Post-structural feminisms
      Symbolic order; “doing gender”

    These labels will have to suffice here, but even in this abridged form they reflect the bandwidth of areas of struggle and investigation as well as the complex and interlocking levels of women’s subordinate status. An important feature which distinguishes feminism from other alternative movements and critical areas of scholarship is the inclusion of the private sphere in those of politics and intellectual inquiry. The recognition that the political is also private and vice versa is one of the essential “achievements” of 20th-century political thought and, because it raised the issue of male violence, is “naturally” not recognised as such.
    At odds with and inside these divergent tendencies there were waves of heated debates on rights of interpretation and priorities relating to recognition theory and political demands and aims.11 We might mention the wages-for-housework debate, the lesbian/ etero debate, the female-accomplices debate, the subsistence-economy debate, the institutionalisation debate, the internationalisation debate, the PorNo debate, the migration debate, the racism debate, the transgender debate …, to name but a few.
    Secondly, there has always been wide-ranging discussion and reflection on the (changing) paradigms of feminist theory, so the following digest is just my subjective view. Four basic lines can be identified: 

      Equality theories
      Equality of the sexes, equality
      of treatment, women as a
      homogeneous group
      Theories of difference
      Equal value of the different
      features of the sexes, women are         
      heterogeneous
      Deconstructive theories
      Logo/phallocentrism constitutes
      a whole culture; woman does
      not actually exist
      Constructionist theories     
      Gender arises interactively/
      performatively, bisexuality is
      a construct

    That should shed some light on a lot of history crammed into a short space of time.


    General (global) dynamics produce big question marks – and some powerless rage. One of the main maxims of the women’s movement – the self-determination of women – has been misappropriated and twisted to fit the discursive category of the neoliberal self, which is concerned with optimizing its own interests, when it is not concerned with sheer survival – as is particularly the case with female existences. In terms of intellectual history this shift can be expressed both in the postmodern “subject” debate and in the context of feminist theories. The struggle against oppression and exploitation was primarily directed against the female object status (egalitarian feminism) and was consequently in favour of the subjectfication of wmen (differential feminism). At this historical moment – i.e. from the 1980s to today – a certain male “cunning reason”,  under the pretence of demoting man from his role of master, declared the subject to be dead, any authorship to be obsolete, and progressive politics to be reactive. Advanced feminist theory was prepared to accept this offer to dissolve the subject in so far as it prevented a concept of “femininity as otherness”, being confined to the adaptation of a rigid, genuine, quasi-natural and prescribed female subject (deconstructionist feminism). With the discursive switch to the total abolition of the female subject as just a registered and ascribed body – with simultaneous dematerialisation – “woman” (and hence the subject of feminism) was discarded in favour of a never-to-be-pinned-down, but constantly self-determinable identity (constructionist or post-feminism).
    At this point I cannot refrain from remarking that I have not encountered any “normal”12 male who has to ask himself whether he exists, or is allowed to exist as such.
    Before I come to the last part, in which I will allow myself a personalpolitical assessment and a modest appeal, I should like to say of the internal post/feminist dispute how necessary these critical voices were, however difficult and even painful the disputes may have been. They continue to carry an explosive charge, so that the walls of the apparently self-evident are in permanent danger of crumbling, which keeps us always on our toes.

    Feminist Enlightenment

    Although I promised to state a personal judgment, I would not like to have it regarded as private, and will therefore presume on your patience by offering some quotations which I consider to be very apposite.
    On sexual relations:
    “The term ’sexual relations’ is intended to facilitate a critical examination of how the sexes are harnessed to overall relations. It assumes what itself is a result of the relations to be studied: the existence of ’sexes’ in the sense of the men and women to be found in history. The complementarity in procreation is the natural basis on which social forms emerge in the historical process, and also determines what has to be regarded as ‘natural’. In this way the sexes emerge from the social process as unequal, their non-equality becomes the basis of further outgrowths, and sexual relations become fundamentally regulated in all social formations. They permeate or are central to questions of division of labour, power, exploitation, ideology, politics, law and religion. Morality, sexuality, the body, the senses, speech – indeed there is no field that can be meaningfully studied without also studying the way in which sexual relations take shape and are formed. The only way to avoid this is to assume – as scholars have traditionally done – that there is only one sex, the male sex, and that all relations are thus to be represented as male.”13

    On  Women

    “They continue to hold their own by working twice as long and harder than men, as though they were punishing themselves for existing. Unpaid In the family and underpaid at work, they are the last to be hired and the first to be fired, although lately we are assured of the opposite. Yet women make up almost two-thirds of all the unemployed, social welfare recipients, part-time workers, and holders of jobs not subject to social insurance, and most of the single parents. Yet they are prepared to shoulder this double burden, although it is exclusively at their expense. It is true that in so doing women aim at boosting a sense of their own value, but this cannot be realised .... within this circle. For it is negated to the extent that nothing is more profitable than someone of no value who produces value without receiving at least the equivalent of social recognition for it. In this respect, too, we are now assured of the opposite: women are present, although still under-represented, at all levels of society, including business, academia and politics. Yet this very “too” expresses a refusal of recognition, thanks to which emancipation has so far brought nothing more than a further ’civilisation’ of women without any of their demands being met.”14

    On the Difference Between the Sexes

    “This is the way in which man-as-human-being plays out the parable of the self. He finds and recognises himself as what is special in his universalisation. Woman, on the other hand, finds that she is only special as the eternally other that is contained in the universal neuter, human-being-as-man. ... Sexual limitation in its male form, that universalises itself by making itself absolute, celebrates its sex in the process without, however, taking cognizance of the difference that is rooted in it and in which it consists. ... The consequence of this for woman is that she cannot recognise herself in the thinking and speech of a universal subject that does not include her, indeed excludes her … This makes woman the universal ‘human being’ with the ‘addition’ of female sexuality. ... Thinking in terms of the difference between the sexes is thus a difficult task, for it is subject to the obliteration on which Western thought is based and has developed.”15 
    I will sum up in five theses:
    Sexual relations are socially produced relations and regulate sexual relations as power relations.
    Politics is structurally and substantively “men’s business”. Men create “meaning”.
    What women do is undervalued and unrecognised, no matter what it is or how hard they work. Emancipation has so far meant adaptation to male standards.
    The West cannot know of or think in terms of the difference between the sexes, since man has established himself as the universal subject.
    In this interpretation, feminism as a liberation theory for politicians and activists of the “European left” should be seen first and foremost as a theory of recognition and perception.

    What can a European left do if it wants to learn from feminist insights
    and prospects?16
    • “Re-Form the Revolution” could at last be understood in a feminist sense, since so far all “revolutions”, whatever their slogans, have been able to live with the “second sex” notion perfectly well.
    • A genuine desire to practise a pluralist politics means first of all no longer avoiding the gender divide, but confronting it. Lip service of the usual kind, claiming to embrace “women, migrants, homosexuals, the disabled, etc., etc.”, only draws attention to the fact that men do not appear in this equivalence chain, and are thus above and beside it.
    • This in turn shows that we are still talking about a supposed or voluntaristic proxy politics. And plurality threatens to degenerate into an empty pluralism – analogous to neoliberal ideology.
    • Feminism as a theory of political liberation – from what, to do what? I suggest we start by having women come to their senses and having men come to their senses. Which is not the same. Freedom for women would not be against something (men), but for something (women), while freedom for men would primarily be against something, namely their habit of regarding themselves as the general “self”. 
    • One conclusion: institutionalisation of formative political processes, demanding and promoting self-determination and self- evelopment in the “trialectic” of given facts, collective relations, and subjective relativities: for men it would mean the importance of self-diagnosis – which would involve opposing the eternal repetition of the same thing; for women it whould mean the importance of self-awareness – which would involve joining others in resistance to eternal sameness.
    How this might look in practice could provide material for another lecture and a lot of discussions.17 
    As a parting thought I offer you the words of the black, lesbian, feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde:
    “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained. Nor is any one of you!” 


    1 This text is in the form of an undelivered speech.

    2 Jean Francois Lyotard: Das Patchwork der Minderheiten. Für eine herrenlose Politik. Reihe: Internationale Marxistische Diskussion 69, Berlin, 1977, p. 40

    3 Wolfgang Fach: “Partizipation”, in U. Bröckling,  S. Krasmann, T. Lemke (eds.): Glossar der Gegenwart, Frankfurt/Main 2004, p. 201

    4 Exceptions prove the rule – or they wouldn’t be exceptions.

    5 This did not mean, on the other hand non-cooperation – for example in connection with international Women’s Day – with
    leftist and other alternative women’s organizations. It may be, however, that this is a specifically Austrian phenomenon, because in a country that is not only territorially small but deeply conservative (Catholic clericalism, no serious attempt to confront its own fascist past till the mid-1990s, ...) co-operation is a practical necessity.

    6 Yet one cannot help but feel nostalgia for that period, as there really was something at stake.

    7 I don’t mean to deny the  existence, thankfully acknowledged, of EL-fem, the feminist network within the ELP. 

    8 I should say that I know of no social movement with an academic apparatus that is so self-critical (not always in the friendliest of ways, alas). The discoveries this led to, such as the deconstruction of racism in its own ranks, were then snapped up by scholars in other fields and movements that did not, however, feel it necessary to credit the source. A similar “fate” overtook the methodological variety and interdisciplinarity which characterized gender studies right from the start and were later loudly proclaimed to be general academic paradigms worthy of emulation without a single reference to the women who had developed them. 

    9 All that follows refers to developments in second wave feminism, i.e. since the 1960s.

    10 Elisabeth List: Feminismus als Kritik, in E. List/H. Studer (eds.), Denkverhältnisse. Feminismus und Kritik, Frankfurt/Main. 1989, p. 10

    11 I refer here to the debates in the German-speaking countries. In the UK, for example, the Marxist-feminist debate was conducted on a broader basis than here.

    12 This refers to the interesting question of why there are hardly any leftwing homosexuals. Has the left always been a heterosexual affair? Someone should look into this.

    13 Frigga Haug: Zur Theorie der Geschlechterverhältnisse, in: www.linksnet.de/drucksicht.php= 552 Accessed: 25.2. 08

    14 Gerburg Treusch-Dieter: Frauen gemeinsam sind stark - aber was stärkt Frauen? Köpfung als Strategie. Attentatsachen und Terrortraumata. Revisionen zum 11. 9. 2001, in: www.treusch-dieter.de Accessed: 2.3.0

    15 Adriana Cavarero: Ansätze einer Theorie der Geschlechterdifferenz, in: Der Mensch ist zwei. Das Denken der Geschlechterdifferenz, Diotima (group of feminist philosophers from Verona), Vienna 1993 (2nd ed.), p. 67ff

    16 A reversal of the question, if possible at all, would require further reflection and might be stimulating.

    17 In the establishing of a left educational foundation, for example, one would have to make sure that the subjects of sexual relations and politics, and gender as politics, were an immanent part of the curriculum and the agenda. And not just for the benefit of the students, but also as an institutionalized self-reflective process for politicians and activists.

    Birge Krondorfe
    r, Vienna, is a political philosopher, author and lecturer at universities and for adult education courses, the organizer of various women’s congresses, and (co-)founder of the women’s educational organization Frauenhetz – Feministische Bildung, Kultur und Politik.


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