Tuesday, 30 August 2011


Feminism is no more a homogeneous concept than 'radicalism'. The varieties of feminism from Liberation Theology feminism to Liberal, Socialist, conservative, eco-feminism, existential, and post-modern feminism. Living in the age of cultural relativism, pluralism and multiculturalism, it would be dogmatic to argue that eco-feminism is superior or 'the correct' ideological brand of feminism.

The roots of feminism are based in the humanist spirit of the Renaissance, especially as expressed in the writings of Venetian-born Christine de Pesan's  The Book of the City of Ladies & The Book of the Three Virtues (1405). A product of the Renaissance, Christine de Pisan dealt with the issues of misogyny and negative stereotypes within the context of the larger theme of Humanism.

The struggle for women to achieve social justice has historical roots and it evolves concurrently with the Enlightenment and rise of liberal-bourgeois revolutions from the French in 1789 to those across Europe in 1848. In short, from within middle class intellectual and political revolutions arose the cries of women to end gender discrimination and to be treated as human and humanely; a demand no different than middle class men demanding that the societal order based on aristocratic privilege must be replaced with a meritocracy and Liberal-democratic institutions.

As the Liberal political ideology swept across Europe and US in the 19th century, early Liberal feminists concerned themselves with individual gender inequality and emancipation through the ballot box and the legal system. Liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, The Subjugation of Women (1869), and his wife Harriet Taylor Mill were early ideological contributors to the movement. Having the right to vote and reforming the judicial system to place women at a the same legal plane field as men were universal issues, but mainly the concern of middle class women rather than peasants or workers. Western European nations began passing legislation under Married Women’s Property Acts that recognized the independent legal existence of married women, laws that led to the right of women to seek financial support from fathers through judicial process.

Whereas the Liberal ideal for 19th century feminists was for the state to extend civil liberties protection to women, the Anarchist and Socialist ideal was linked to class oppression that subordinated women into extensions of male property. Economic inequality intertwined with institutionalized sexism in general, and more specifically reproductive issues (contraception), violence against women, economic justice, especially equality of pay for equal work, workplace and institutional discrimination against women, immigrants, and all minorities were issues that concerned women activists that came from a more radical background, including Anarchism and Socialism.

Left-wing feminism was closer to the Renaissance humanist and humane spirit of gender issues. A major contributor to humanist and humane-based feminism was from Emma Goldman, born in a Jewish ghetto in Kovno Lithuania in 1869. Like most parents, Emma's considered her birth a burden because they would have to provide a dowry for her. Trying to study French and challenging traditional male roles, Emma found that her family and society was against her as a woman and a Jew. In 1885 she immigrated to Rochester, New York where she worked in a factory. She married in 1887 when the Haymarket riots in Chicago that left a number of workers dead and injured. After the Russian Revolution of 1905 that resulted in new waves of pogroms against Russian Jews, Emma became more active in anarchist-feminist activities in New York, having divorced her husband.

In 1906, she founded MOTHER EARTH magazine devoted to anarchist worker and feminist issues. In an article entitled 'Tragedy of Women's Emancipation', she wrote that Liberal feminist goals of equal rights and the right to vote did not go far enough to address institutional discrimination against women. She argued that the Enlightenment ideal of a person realizing their full potential by having the opportunity through the political and legal systems did not address economic issues and the right of woman to control her body. In the name of free motherhood, Emma supported birth control that she equated with free speech. Charged under the Alien Immigration Act, Emma was deported in 1919 after the FBI argued that her magazine influenced violent anarchists and other radicals demanding women's rights and birth control.

As a pioneer of early 20th century Anarchist feminism, Emma had a far reaching influence in the 20th century, but it would be lost within the heterogeneous movement. Viewing feminism from the perspective of class and sex domination that rested on institutional structures of force, Emma like other leftist feminists reflected the pre-WWI intelligentsia that was optimistic about a more equal and just society; itself and Enlightenment ideal. The synthesis that Emma provided between class and gender, the concern that women's issues were intertwined with class issues and not separate from them as many feminists would argued in the 20th century, and above all her humane approach accounted for her brilliant grasp of how oppressive institutional structures operate against all dissidents who struggle to awaken society to the injustices around them.

In the absence of systemic change of the institutions of inequality and oppression of all types, it is simply impossible to achieve the goal of gender equality. Considering that a segment of the feminist movement has been coopted by the institutional mainstream and it is to a degree an integral part the corporate and political arena in the most advanced countries, by definition feminism has a stake in the status quo of which it is a part.

That feminism has been co-opted by conservatives and Liberals who use it as a vehicle of undercutting class oppression is another indication of how far it has drifted from the era of Emma Goldman. Humane-based feminism has been obscured in the last three or four decades because many feminists inside the institutional mainstream became increasingly legalistic, bureaucratic minded and narrowly mechanical in their approach to social justice, mainly focusing on narrow interests. Having lost a great deal of support among the masses - males and females - feminism, especially gynocentric feminism, cannot have a bright future unless it returns to its humanist and humane roots.

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