OPINION: When women’s rights are not women’s rights
I recently wrote an article on the impact of postmodernism on feminist history. I spent hours delving into postmodern theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and their application in feminist history by women such as Joan Wallach Scott and Judith Butler. By the end of it, I was quite convinced that postmodernism was truly the way to go for my discipline. It was able to take into account problems with feminist theory such as differences with the overarching category of “women”, and allow all women’s voices to be heard and valued within history (or herstory!)
Essentially, postmodern history celebrates diversity of opinion and experience, encourages plurality of truths, and promotes a “deconstruction” of language and the way that it operates through symbolism, myths and signs. With it comes a shift from feminist history that examines women’s lives and experiences with the purpose of advocating for equity and equality, to gender history, which examines the relational concept of gender as a social construct and the power relationships inherent in relationships. In itself this is not a bad thing, because an understanding of women’s oppression certainly requires an investigation into the aspects of gender relations that contribute to it. What concerned me was the shift in mindset away from women’s history and feminist history, in favour of only studying gender history. To me, this is unacceptable. Gender history should be a complementary discipline, not the primary one.
This shift towards “gender” studies, away from women’s studies, is part of a wider trend in our society that transfers any focus solely on women to a focus on how men are also affected by these issues. While trying to be more pluralistic in our focus, while trying to accommodate different groups within “women” we start to loose sight of the aims of feminist disciplines. Indeed, there is a wider trend within society to take the focus off women, and to show how men are also affected by the same issues. Suddenly, it is “PC gone mad” if we focus solely on women’s issues, and do not take a gendered focus that takes men into account.
Strictly speaking this new discourse is not postmodern, and skews the relational aspect of gender studies – which look at the way the sexes interact and impact each other’s lives. Postmodernism may have been the starting point, but the new trend is having a much more damaging effect on the women’s movement. Campaigns that highlight violence against women become simply anti violence campaigns. Women’s rights officers become Gender officers. Women’s organisations shy away from denouncing the ills of society that affect women, but also point out how men suffer too. The discourse becomes about single issues, such as violence, rather than about a systematic oppression of one gender by the other. In fact, gender is often taken out of the equation all together.
I don’t know the solution to this problem. What I do know that when women’s rights are demonised as too politically correct, or as reverse sexism, something is seriously wrong. Particularly when we live in a world where one in four women have been raped or sexually abused, earn 86% of what men earn, and are still subject to demeaning stereotypes in the media. No amount of deconstruction or semiotics or postmodern theory will solve these problems. Only advocacy and activism grounded in personal experiences can.