|DANCING TO A DIFFERENT RHYTHM: A MEMOIR
See MEMOIR and
|PERSONAL VIEW and GRASSROOTS
'Personal View' and 'Grassroots' were the titles under which Zarina's newspaper columns were published in The Star, owned and circulated by the Independent Newspaper Group.
These popular columns were targeted at a young female audience without a tertiary education, aimed at making them aware, in the simplest language possible, of the role - visible and invisible - of South Africa's women in the country's social and economic development, and thus of their significant, unrecognised, contribution to the country's Gross Domestic Product GDP).
Read a few of those columns here. (The entire collection is available from the archives of the Star Newspaper Offices, Sauer Street, Johannesburg).
|EMPOWERING WOMEN IN THE NEW SOUTH AFRICA
Keynote speech made by Zarina to the Professional Women's League of KwaZuluNatal , on South Africa’s Women’s Day, August 9, at the dawn of the new millennium.
read the article on this page >>
|THREE ARTICLES MAKING UP THE DEBATE (between Professor Cherryl Walker and Zarina Maharaj) published in issues 24, 25 & 26 of the journal ‘TRANSFORMATION’ of the University of KwaZulu Natal.
This debate was judged at the time by Professor Annie Whitehead of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, and her staff, who described Zarina's contribution as 'cutting through the crap, and getting to the heart of the matter'.
The first article is by Zarina (SUBVERSIVE INTENT: A SOCIAL THEORY OF GENDER, Issue 24). The second is a response to it by Professor Cherryl.Walker (COMMENTS ON ZARINA MAHARAJ’S ‘SUBVERSIVE INTENT: A SOCIAL THEORY OF GENDER’, Issue 25). The third is Zarina’s reply to Professor Cherryl Walker (UNRAVELING CHERRYL WALKER’S CONFUSION, Issue 26).
The articles discuss a sociology of gender (as proposed by R.W ‘Bob’ Connell in his seminal book ‘Gender and Power’.) They debate Connell’s proposal of a Social Theory of Gender aimed both at bringing ‘women’s issues’ into the mainstream of established social science (from the periphery of separate ‘Women’s Studies’), and at underpinning a feminist political strategy for changing women’s subordinate status in society ('praxis').
Read on this page:
|FEMINISM AND THE CHANGING BOUNDARIES OF KNOWLEDGE
Article written when Zarina was a Master's student at Sussex University's Institute of Development Studies. It was published by the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa (HSRC), in their collection entitled “Knowledge, Method and the Public Good’ (1998) alongside other articles on this topic by celebrated international scholars, including the trailblazing feminist philosopher of science, Sandra Harding.
Zarina's article 'Feminism and the Changing Boundaries of Knowledge' includes a discussion of social research as a terrain of political struggle to change belief systems, based on the notion - alien to dogmatists, including Stalinists - that 'objective' or 'scientific' truth that adds to our body of knowledge is established through a process of 'intersubjective verification', a process through which natural and social scientists of all races, ideologies, creeds and persuasions engage together to judge their respective findings according to agreed scientific criteria - and in this way collectively add to the body of knowledge we call 'science'. So no one perspective counts as 'THE' truth. (See Zarina's memoir, Dancing to a Different Rhythm', pp 78-82 for more on this. See also Ronnie Kasrils' view (on this website's page 'Struggle Days') about Marxist truth being the 'one and only objective truth' about society'!)
Remarkably, as of 2018, NO ideologue, hardcore or otherwise, has, since the debate with Professor Cherryl Walker, challenged Zarina's understanding of 'scientific truth'. On the contrary some academics have complimented her on the substance of her arguments.
'Knowledge, Method and the Public Good' can be obtained from the HSRC offices, Pretoria
|Article: GENDER INEQUALITY AND THE ECONOMY: EMPOWERING WOMEN IN THE NEW SOUTH AFRICA
Keynote speech at the Professional Women's League of KwaZulu -?Natal, August 9, 1999
(Excerpts only in this posting; the full speech is available on Womensnet.)
This is the last Women's Day of the last decade of this century and of this millennium. This last decade of the 1990s in SA is destined to be stamped in history with two outstanding achievements. One is the birth of a constitutional state and multiparty democracy based on one-person-one-vote. The other is the constitutional commitment to eliminating discrimination in our country, particularly the racial and gender discrimination responsible for the gross inequalities that divide and haunt us as a nation.
One such inequality is in income. South Africa has one of the largest income inequalities in the world. The average income of the richest 20% of South African households, largely white, is 45 times more than the average income of the poorest 20% of households, largely black and mostly African. ...
Where do women fit into this picture of income inequality. The majority of the nation's poor are women. Of these, rural African women, whose incomes are mainly from pensions and remittances from relatives, are the majority of the poorest of the poor, defined as those belonging to households which fall in the poorest 20% of South African households with an income of between R400 and R700 per month. According to Statistics SA (SSA), which has compared the incomes of households headed by women with those of households headed by men, over 37% of women-headed households in non-urban areas fall in the category of the poorest 20% of households in the country, as compared with 23% of male-headed households in non-urban areas. In urban areas, 15% of women-headed households are among the poorest 20% of households, as compared with 5% of male-headed households there. ...
Apart from inequalities in income, there are other racial and gender inequalities. In SA there is glaring unequal access to social resources like land, healthcare, credit, information, education and decision-making power between the races and between the sexes. ...
What unites us as South African women across the diversity of our race, religion and socio-economic status is that we do not enjoy the same access as the men in our social groups to our country's resources. But precisely how male domination and female subordination in society play out in South Africa and how it affects our particular experiences and the quality of our lives, differs sharply according to whether we are white, African, Coloured or Indian. It is African women who make up the majority of those suffering the experiences of being poor; it is rural African women who make up the majority of the poorest of the poor, those who do not have enough to eat.
Male domination arising from such inequalities is reflected in the rapes, femicides and other sexual violence affecting mostly poor women that have today reached such crisis proportions. One in every three women in SA is in an abusive relationship, a woman is killed by her partner every six days and there is a rape every 35 seconds. No wonder we are the rape capital of the world! This is now being seen as a national disaster requiring emergency measures. Let us for a moment remember, with South African women across the country, the victims of sexual violence, murder and assault.
Such violence, which is putting an enormous strain on health facilities and costing the economy millions of rands each year, is being nurtured by gender inequalities which make women poorer than men. I will discuss some of these here.
Let me start with the inequality in the wages of men and women in the formal sector of the economy, the sector whose goods and services are counted in calculations of the GDP. This discussion is based on a study by Carolyn Winter, the results of which were shared with women activists by Judith Edstrom when she was in SA with the World Bank.
The educational attainment of the South African population varies by race from an average of under six years for Africans and Coloureds to eight years for Indians and almost ten years for whites. But surprisingly it is relatively equal for both men and women, compared with many countries, where men have more schooling than women
Of those in the labour force, women have an average of 1,2 years more education than men. Globally, years of education is a predictor of occupation and occupation is a predictor of wage levels. We would therefore expect that South African women would do reasonably well on the remuneration front, especially in professional and technical employment where 21% of economically active women are represented as compared with only 12% of economically active men. This strong showing of women in the professional and technical fields lies partly in their orientation towards teaching and nursing.
However, South African women's wages average only 87% of men's in the formal labour force. The breakdown by race presents a further surprise: African women's wages are actually identical to African men's. But African women average two more years of education than African men. On this basis their salaries should be 20% more. Moreover, white women's salaries average 67% of white men's despite having equal educational attainment. Coloured women's educational advantage over men also fails to translate into a wage advantage. Indian women do not have an educational advantage over Indian men so their lower salaries in relation to their menfolk does not irk as much.
... Women's wages do not reflect their human capital. And simply because of their sex.
As is to be expected, the average hourly earnings of all women employees across both the formal and informal sectors (and this includes domestic workers) is also less than that of men employees. According to gender statistics produced by Statistics South Africa (SSA), African women's earnings average 89% of African men's; white women's average 60% of white men's; Indian women's average 74% of Indian men's; and Coloured women 's earnings average 82% of Coloured men's.
There are also statistics revealing inequalities in levels of employment, levels of education, decision-making positions, access to health facilities and so on. But I will not go into these here. Instead, I want to turn to a very useful single measure of the overall extent of gender inequality in a country. It is a measure used by the UNDP, which devised it, for comparing the levels of gender inequality both in different countries and at different stages in the development of one country.
This measure is based on the UNDP's so-called Human Development Index, HDI for short. The HDI allows countries to be ranked in order of their human or social development. In extracting the indicators needed to calculate the HDI, the UN asked: what are the basic capabilities that people must have to participate in and contribute to the devlopment of their society? The answer was: an ability to lead a long and healthy life, to be knowledgeable and to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living. These factors translate into a society's life expectancy at birth; its level of educational attainment; and the income regarded as adequate for a decent standard of living. The HDI measures a country's achievement in providing these basic capabilities to its population as a whole.
Now when such achievement in basic capabilities is measured for only the women of a population, it is called the Gender Development Index or GDI. The difference between the HDI and the GDI thus amounts to a measure of the gender inequality in these basic capabilities - capabilities which impact on a person's access to the rest of society's resources. As such, the difference between the HDI and the GDI is an indicator of the overall gender difference in access to society's resources, an indicator of the overall gender inequality in a nation.
I have used this measure in previous writings about women's situation in society and have introduced a name for it because it is so useful. I have called it GIM, the Gender Inequality Measure, not previously named (GIM is not to be confused with GEM, which is an indicator of the decision-making power of women).
If you look at the HDI and GDI of South Africa for 1996, 1997 and 1998, you will find GIM has steadily been increasing. This means growing gender inequalities in SA, in spite of some women's empowerment efforts already having taken off. The increase in GIM can be explained by gender inequalities in life expectancy implied by the higher rate at which women are becoming HIV-infected relative to men. More than 90% of South Africans with Aids are Africans, mainly aged between 15 and 40. Over two thirds of these are women, whose infection rate is escalating faster than men's.
The rate of infection is greatest among people between 15 and 25, the majority of them African, with girls and young women especially at risk: for every one male that is infected, two females are. In fact, while a third more South Africans have contacted the virus since 1997, there is a shocking 65% increase in the rate of infection of women of all races aged between 15 and 19. And a 40% increase since 1997 amongst women as a whole.
The huge costs to the economy, direct and hidden, is a topic in itself, which time does not allow me to discuss.
The increase in GIM is also explained by the trend of women's incomes falling more rapidly than men's to below the poverty line. Globally, it has been established that 50% more women as compared with 30% more men have become income-impoverished over the last few years. This is the so-called 'feminisation of poverty'. ...
Let us look at this growing inequality in South Africa picked up by GIM from the point of view of its effect on the economy. I will show that such inequality is bad for the economy because it stifles the contribution women make to social development and economic growth.
In an article in a 1997 issue of Agenda, a South African women's journal, the economist Dori Posel discusses her research on the expenditure patterns of households in SA. She has found that households headed by women spend more income on the nutritional needs of children than male-headed households. And that if consumption patterns in male-headed households were to mirror those in female-headed households, the incidence of malnutrition in SA would fall by at least 12%. She found also that women, even in households that they share with men, tend to spend more on children on items other than food. Unlike men, who even in poor households withhold income for personal consumption of things like beer and cigarettes, women's income is more tied up with the collective needs of the family. A woman would be more likely than a man to spend her overtime pay or bonus on something like a winter coat or school fees for her child.
Such evidence is telling. An income in the hands of a woman has a bigger multiplier effect in terms of greater benefits to child health and family welfare and education than the same income in the hands of a man. Put differently, women's incomes go further towards household survival and human capital investment than men's. This finding is backed by research in other countries. ...
Because women spend a greater proportion of their income on family nutrition and welfare than men, raising their incomes amounts to accelerating poverty alleviation and the quality of life of their families more rapidly than doing the same for men. This means quicker improvements in productivity and economic output.
But spinoffs via the family to the economy have been found to come not just from improving the income generating prospects of women. Improving women's health and education has been found to be another cost-effective route to growing the economy.
A World Bank report entitled 'Enhancing Women's Participation in Economic Development' starts from the premise that economic development is best served when scarce public resources are invested where they yield the highest social and economic returns. It shows, on the basis of worldwide studies that it has carried out, that such returns are, on the whole, greater for women than for men.
For example, in countries where modern agricultural technologies have been introduced, returns on an additional year of women's education range from 2% to 15%, more than the returns for the same educational investment in men. Policy experiments in Kenya suggest that primary schooling for women agricultural workers raises their agricultural yields by as much as 24%.
Improving women's educational levels also lowers fertility and slows population growth, which is a return central to sustainable development. Better educated women also means a reduction in infant mortality. It was found that even with an extremely poor country with a GDP per person of $300, a doubling of female secondary school enrolments reduced the infant mortality rate from 105 deaths to 78 deaths per 1000 live births.
Such a drop is greater than that achieved by direct health interventions that cost the same as doubling the secondary school attendance for girls. In developing nations like ours, children of educated mothers perform better on pre-school tests and daughters of educated mothers hold fewer stereotypical sex attitudes than do daughters of non-literate mothers. Moreover, the school participation rates of rural girls increase far more when their mothers' education changes from none to primary level than when their father's education changes in this way.
There are also significant payoffs to development when scarce resources are invested in the health of women. Take one example. It has been found that public spending to improve the healthcare for adult women aged between 15 and 44 - women of reproductive age - offers a bigger return on healthcare spending than for any other population group of adults. The major causes of disability and death of women of this age worldwide include illnesses associated with pregnancy and childbirth, respiratory infections and anaemia, TB, STD's and AIDS. All six of these illnesses can either be prevented or treated for less than a $100 per woman for a year of healthy life gained. For men on the other hand, only 3 out of the 10 illnesses afflicting them can be prevented or treated for less than a $100.
Similar analyses are still to be made in SA, but the statistics disaggregated by gender required for such studies are already coming together. Statistics on Aids together with others such as those in the SSA booklet 'Women and Men in South Africa' constitute a baseline for such analyses as well as for measuring and monitoring progress in women's access to various resources from year to year. As such gender statistics are a tool for monitoring progress in the empowerment of women.
Such findings by the World Bank provide overwhelming evidence for what is becoming received wisdom in economists' circles: that investing in women's education, health and income-generating opportunities strongly contribute to an improved quality of life of a nation and to poverty alleviation, thus providing a more cost-efficient route to economic growth and human capital development than if this growth were left to men alone.
This is why empowerment and economic growth need and feed each other. This is why empowerment aimed at the equality of women is a catalyst for economic growth. This is why women's issues are issues of social justice as well as of economics.
Perhaps those reluctant to support the cause of gender equality in SA will change their minds when they realise that their pockets are affected by this issue: the bigger the national cake, the bigger all our slices, men's and women's. If nothing else will persuade them, men have an economic stake in women's well-being. Gender discrimination stunts our economic growth and everyone's development. ...
To conclude: As SA sheds the legacy of its iniquitous past into a future founded on social justice and equality, there are 1001 issues clawing for attention. But there are real resource and capacity constraints which limit giving each one of them the attention they deserve. It is therefore critical that from this multitude of issues a set of priorities be extracted that will deliver efficiently on the goal of the upliftment of our society.
I have tried to show why the empowerment of women is one such priority issue - advancing social justice through gender equality has an economic spinoff: it accelerates social and economic development.
In the EDITOR COLLECTIVE, FEMINIST REVIEW, 1990 - 1994
|FIRST OF THE THREE ARTICLES IN THE DEBATE BETWEEN CHERRYL WALKER AND ZARINA MAHARAJ : Issue 24
SUBVERSIVE INTENT: A SOCIAL THEORY OF GENDER
Gender in equality is the structured (institutionally specified) inequality of access to material and non-material social resources between the sexes, generating male privilege and domination and female subordination in society. This recognition that the social power of men over women is a culturally constructed one, insidiously operating as it does through society's structures, gives rise to a critical question, one of theory and practice, for feminists driven to find ways of changing the status quo: how do we create the conditions for gaining equality of access to social resources? What are the social issues around which we should be mobilising for struggle to achieve this goal of empowerment? These questions of feminist politics must be informed by sound theory about the structural dynamics of a society in general and its prevailing gender order in particular.
Such a social theory of gender is currently in the making. In being underpinned by the notion of social structure as historically constituted by social practice, this theory aims to account for gender relations in a way that is challenging and transforming mainstream social and political theory. Feminist theories rooted in such practice-based structural approaches to understanding gender have in this sense made 'feminism' academically respectable and women's subordination amenable to theory-based political strategy and action for change.
This article outlines and discusses the main conceptual underpinnings of such a practice-based structural approach to accounting for the experiences and interaction of women and men as gendered beings. The power of such a practice-based approach emerges in the framework it provides for the analysis of the social relations of gender in any socio-historical context, 'development' or otherwise. Clearly, in an article this size, such an outline can only but be brief.
The main purpose, though, is to capture the sense of this theory, and the impact of its transformative potential.
Outline of a Systematic Framework for the Social Analysis of Gender
The 'historicity of structure': RW Connell vs A Giddens
The notion that social structure is historically composed has implications for the possibility of different ways of structuring gender, reflecting the dominance of different social interests. It is in fact only in terms of such a notion that a political agenda for changing the status quo makes any sense. A social theory of gender with subversive intent must therefore be underpinned by such a concept of social structure. It will be argued in this section that the notion of structure espoused by Anthony Giddens, which has enjoyed enormous currency, does not meet the requirements of a social theory of gender whose aim is transformative, whereas that of RW Connell does.
According to Connell,
'structure' is more than another term for 'pattern' and refers to the intractability of the social world...
It reflects the experience of being up against something, of limits on freedom... The concept of social structure expresses the constraints that lie in a given form of social organisation... these constraints on social practice operate through a complex interplay of powers and through an array of social institutions. Accordingly, attempts to decode a social structure generally begin by analysing institutions (1987:92).
This conception of social structure, as the pattern of constraint on practice inherent in a set of social relations, is not new. Gramsci, Williams, Said and Foucault, for example, share the belief that 'a collective culture sets limits and exerts pressures on thought and action' (Cocks, 1989:40-2) through what Gramsci calls 'hegemonic forms of cultural organization' (Connell's 'structures') or what 'discourse theory' would call 'discursive forms' or 'discursive structures'.
The gendered division of labour, for example, counts as a social structure precisely because, operating as it does through institutional mechanisms like the differential skilling and training of women and men, it forecloses a whole range of job options to women: it limits or constrains their economic and other social practices in significant ways. Skilling and training is just one of the institutional mechanisms by which the gendered division of labour is made a powerful structure of social constraint.
By constraining practice through institutions, it would appear that structure is not immediately present in social life but underlies the surface complexity of interactions and institutions. But this fails to capture the concept of practice as the substance of social structure (Connell, 1987:93). The idea of a sharp separation between underlying structure and surface practice must be overcome, a more active connection between structure and practice must be made.
Connell's example of how such an active connection can be made refers to a work on kinship which describes a matrifocal kinship structure in a working class London family: the mother is the core figure and mother-daughter relations are such that they pop in and out of each other's houses up to 12 times a day, exchanging services such as care in sickness and negotiating about other family relationships, including the daughter's marriage. Here is an example of a 'structure being shown in its very process of constitution, constantly being made and remade in a very active social practice... The notion of "structure" here is not abstracted from practice...' (1987:93).
Giddens could not agree more with Connell about the idea of an active presence of structure in practice and an active constitution of structure by practice. In fact, Helongago (1979) formalised this idea theoretically in his concept oft he 'duality of structure', explaining this concept of duality in his more recent work (1986) as the 'double involvement' of institutions and individuals.
He says, in Chapter 1:
To speak of institutionalised forms of social conduct is to refer to modes of belief and behaviour that occur and recur, or as the terminology of modem social theory would have it, are socially reproduced across long spans of time and space... societies only exist insofar as they are created and recreated in our own actions as human beings... We have to grasp what I would call 'the double involvement' of individuals and institutions: we create society at the same time as we are created by it. Institutions, I have said, are patterns of social activity reproduced across time and space... It is very important indeed to stress this point... (my emphasis).
More formally, Giddens ' 'duality of structure' refers to 'the essential recursiveness of social life as constituted in social practices: structure is both medium and outcome of the reproduction of practices. Structure enters simultaneously into the constitution of... social practices and "exists" in the generating moments of this constitution' (Giddens, 1975:5, my emphasis).
Clearly, Giddens is making it a logical, definitional requirement of 'structure' that the practice that constitutes it is socially reproduced. Connell sharply differs here. 'By making the link of structure and practice a logical matter, a requirement of social analysis in general, Giddens closes off the possibility that its form might change in history. This is the possibility raised... explicitly by the practical politics of liberation movements; its significance for the analysis of gender is evident' (Connell, 1987:94).
The point that Giddens has missed is that, being constituted by everyday practice, structure is vulnerable to major changes in practice. In this sense, 'practice can be turned against what constrains it; so structure can be deliberately the object of practice' (Connell, 1987:95). Sexual minorities, for example, are currently challenging the cultural hegemony of heterosexuality by challenging its structures. Gay marriages, or the raising of children by gay parents, or gay discourses themselves, for example, pose such a challenge.
It is this vulnerability of structure to practice that is what makes us agents of history. As structures become modified by human practice so the experiences and options for people these emergent structures generate, change; the cultural 'limits and pressures' that bound people's practices change, what counts as 'common sense' changes. In this sense 'practice cannot escape structure, cannot float free of its circumstances... It is always obliged to reckon with the constraints that are the precipitate of history. For example, Victorian women rejecting marriage were not free to adopt any other sexual life they pleased. Often the only practicable alternative was chastity' (Connell, 1987:95).
Giddens' model, then, needs an opening towards history. It needs to recognize that, rather than being a logical requirement of structure that social reproduction occurs, it is simply a possible empirical outcome. But it is an important one, and the cyclical practice, which produces it, is what is meant by an institution. In this sense 'institutionalisation' is the creation of conditions that make cyclical practice probable. It is in the interests of dominant social groups to create the conditions for cyclical practice (Connell, 1987:141). Giddens' 'theory of structuration', then, is incompatible with a thoroughgoing historicity in social analysis. In his terms, a politics of transformation becomes irrational. Given that much of structuration theory is about finding ways of releasing the 'transformative capacity' of agents, this criticism amounts to an undermining of much of Giddens' work.
Then what of the politics of gender transformation? No framework for the social analysis of gender that is not founded on structure as historically composed can claim to understand the world in order to change it. The accolade of 'praxis' applies only to theories that recognise us, people, as the shakers and makers of our history.
In this sense, in the terms of many of the major frameworks for the social analysis of gender that emerged in the 1970s, political action for change was also irrational. Of liberal, radical, Marxist and socialist feminisms, liberal feminism 'was perhaps the least enamoured of social structural explanation, tending to emphasise the power of prejudice, irrationality and discrimination. Women's oppression was typically conceived in terms of female socialisation into a limited range of roles and assumptions, and the way these social roles were then reinforced by a cultural tradition that persisted in viewing women as very different from men' (Barrett and Phillips, 1992:3). Such implicit and explicit individualism was contested by the other feminisms. Marxist feminists argued, for example, that the key problems lay in a system that actively benefited from women's oppression. Their analysis '...stressed exploitation rather than sexist prejudice, the structure rather than the individuals who operated in it, and more specifically the material benefits that capitalism derived from women's position and role... (R)adical feminists stressed not capital but men... as the ones who got the good deal... in the ensuing arguments,... (these) feminists were concerned... with what to pinpoint as the crucial source of women's oppression' (Barrett and Phillips, 1992:3). Socialist feminism, by contrast, recognises not only class but also race, gender, age, religion, etc as social features structuring women's oppression. Unlike Marxist feminism, which seeks to understand women's position in society from a class-based perspective, socialist feminism sees not only class but also race and gender (and other structural features of society) as conditioning women's experience. Moreover, race, class and gender are seen as autonomous, though intertwined, structural features through which power relations are generated to shape the subordinate status of women. In this sense, unlike the other feminisms of the 1970s, socialist feminists were not involved in disagreements about what to pinpoint as 'the crucial source' of women's oppression.
Such disagreements revolved around the deeper question of whether the main determinant of gender inequalities was to be found in direct power relations between men and women (the assumption of radical feminists) or somewhere else. As the previous passage indicates, Marxist and liberal feminist theories lacked this focus on power. Liberals focussed rather on custom as the determinant of women's oppression, while Marxists focussed on class relations, the capitalist system or the 'relations of production' (understood in class terms) as underlying women's oppression (Connell, 1987:41-2).
So does it make sense in the terms of these three feminisms to talk of a feminist politics of transformation? Take radical feminism, which focuses on the social categories of men and women 'as units rather than on the processes by which these categories are constituted' (Connell, 1987:54). Different brands of radical feminism propose different theories of the power relations between these categories, including for example innate male dominance and aggression. With all the brilliance of radical feminism's insight that direct conflicts of interest and power relations between men and women are the key to women's oppression, a programme of political action to change these relations makes no sense in the terms of this theory, since human agency in structure does not feature here. Again, in the terms of Marxist feminism, a feminist political strategy for change has no place: implementing the proletariat's strategy to overthrow the ruling class will automatically bring about the emancipation of women. As for liberal feminism, with its emphasis on female role socialization, women's liberation will flow from a politics of reform of our expected roles.
Gayle Rubin, recognising the need for a structural analysis of the power relationships by which women are subordinated to men (she focuses on the institution of kinship as the basis of gender inequality in her attempt to explain gender relations as a social structure) sums up some of the shortcomings outlined in the previous paragraph in her paper 'The traffic in women':
If innate male aggression and dominance are at the root of female oppression, then the feminist programme would logically require either the extermination of the offending sex, or else a eugenics project to modify its character. If sexism is a by-product of capitalism's relentless appetite for profit, then sexism would wither away in the advent of a socialist revolution. If the world historical defeat of women occurred at the hands of an armed patriarchal revolt, then it is time for Amazon guerrillas to start training in the Adirondacks (1975:157-8).
As already noted, 1970s feminisms were largely concerned with what to pinpoint as the crucial source of women's oppression. 'The diversity of (their) answers helped conceal the consensus in the(ir) questions; yet behind all the sharp disagreements over what was primary or secondary, feminists united in the importance they attached to establishing the fundamentals of social causation... This consensus has since broken up...' (Barrett and Phillips, 1992:4). One reason for this has been the impact on feminist thinking of post-modernist ideas that developed as a reaction to the 'belief in reason and rationality... in the possibility of grand schemes of social reform' (Barrett and Phillips, 1992:4), based on a rationalist model for understanding the world revealed in the thinking of philosophers like Hegel, Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza. The realization that the search for 'the cause' of women's oppression was leading up a blind alley was based for one on the realization of a deeper, more general misconception of social reality as in some sense monolithic. Post-modernist feminisms of the 1990s are characterised by their rejection of the tenets of rationalist world views wherever and however these raise their heads in the context of thinking about women in society.
Connell, a post-modern socialist-feminist (for a discussion of the distinction between this paradigm and that of post-modernism see Maharaj, 1993), attempts to account for gender relations in terms of historically specific social structures, dismissing as misleading unanswerable questions about ultimate origins, root causes or final analyses, questions rooted in essentialist assumptions. His attempt poses, instead, the answerable question, albeit a very difficult one, of how gender relations are organised as a going concern; a question which, in terms of identifying oppressive structures conceived as historically mutable, offers us the hope at least of fighting our way out of our current gender orders.
The 'holistic' approach to the structures of women's subordination
This approach sees women's specific experiences as generated by intersecting structures which may derive from any social realm, be it the realm of culture, economics, politics, religion or ideology. What the generating structures are and from which realms they derive depends on the specific experience under analysis. Women's experiences in Hispanic societies, for example, derive as much from culture (the 'macho' of Latin American men, for example) as it does from the Catholic religion, the class position of the women being analysed, men-ethnicity, their age, the status of their economies in global terms. Ideologies of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and other relevant ideologies of superiority or systems of social stratification intersect with each other in specific ways in specific contexts to generate specific gendered experiences. With regard to the 'Third World', Beneria and Roldan, the Latin American GAD feminists, have this to say:
the assumption (is false) that capitalist penetration into Third World countries has a dynamic of its own, independent of its socioeconomic and historical context. In our view, each development process has to be understood in conjunction with pre-existing patterns of accumulation and relations of subordination/domination that have conditioned and are in turn conditioned by that process (1987:7, my emphasis).
The differing experiences of women in the Third World derive not only from gender-related factors but from a pattern of growth that systematically generates acute class differences and social hierarchies (Beneria and Sen, 1992:3).
This holistic view of the structures of women's oppression, long ago espoused in the IDS classic 'Of marriage and the market' (Young et al, 1981), stands in marked contrast to reductionist views which seek to identify oppressive structures in one specific realm. Marxist-feminists, for example, posit structures in the economic realm as the cause of the very different experiences of women both within and across societies. As already indicated, this form of cultural essentialism shares with other early feminisms a belief, now rejected, in a 'cause' of female oppression. Heidi Hattmann in 'The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism' recognised that something was amiss in this assumption, and postulated an account of women's oppression in terms of the dual, semi-autonomous structures of class and patriarchy. But even here, 'patriarchy' is used ahistorically, and the attempt to study the interplay between it and class missed the fundamental point that 'real life does not present itself in a dualistic manner but as an integrated whole, where multiple relations of domination/subordination-based on age, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual preference – interact dialectically with class and gender relations' (Beneria and Roldan, 1987:10, my emphasis). These multiple relations reflect the 'multiple axes on which power in society inevitably turns... This principle of power's fragmentation leaves us no reason to suppose that all of those axes are reducible to one or logically primary or a cause of others... there is (no) single centre to the life of social power' (Cocks, 1989:50). These statements constitute a direct challenge to the racism and ethnocentric assumptions of white, middle-class feminists, sealing the fate once and for all of the original sex and class debate.
From the point of view of setting limits to human experience, structures from any realm may be relevant. What is more, within any realm, a structure may be ideological or material in nature. Women's relatively low salaries, for example, a material economic structure, become part of the ideology of women and work (which reinforces and is reinforced by other material structures of women's work). In the sense, then, of structuring (women's) experience, ideological and material structures are on an ontological par with each other. 'Cultural factors' is a shorthand for these jointly, and captures the idea of hegemonic power being transmitted through culture, a notion which traditional political theory has failed to capture.
It is clear from the foregoing that Connell's attempt to produce a systematic, formal theoretical framework with transformative potential for gender relations has taken openly and freely from the best insights of other theorists. What makes his contribution original is the way he has combined these insights with his own to realize such a theory.
'Pattern of constraint' as 'structural inventory'
The idea of structures working together, intersecting with each other within a specific configuration of social relations to constrain and shape experiences into what they are, has been made explicit and formalised in the notion of 'structural inventory'.
The 'pattern of constraint on practice inherent in a set of social relations' is made specific through the idea of a set of structures in a specific configuration with each other generating specific experiences by setting limits to, boundaries around, social practice. The shape of the boundary constitutes the pattern of constraint. What is bounded is the experience. In the examples above, specific patriarchal relations intersecting with specific pre-existing modes of accumulation generate specific boundaries of experience, set specific limits to social practice (including thought).
As Connell's following definition shows, 'structural inventory' operationalises the abstract 'pattern of constraint', turning it into a formal and explicit tool of social analysis, one which social theorists like Beneria have in any case been using, as he himself indicates:
...structural inventories push towards a(n)... exploration of a given situation, addressing all its levels and dimensions. There is nothing arcane about this. Any historian reviewing the background to a particular event, any politician scrutinising the current state of play or balance of forces, is compiling a structural inventory. Any attempt to grasp the current moment in sexual politics, to define where we have got to, any attempt to characterise the gender relations of another culture, likewise involves a structural inventory (Connell, 1987:98).
Note that this definition by example as it stands is not really helpful as it does not make at all clear and explicit the importance of specifying the particular configuration of the structural features of a situation in analysing how those features shape that situation. His emphasis is on 'compiling a list' of structural features, a necessary but not sufficient condition of structural analysis. His examples, though, implicitly assume such a configuration.
Where the 'situation' under (inventory) analysis is a gendered experience ie Whitehead's 'substratum' requiring explanation (1979), the list of relevant structural features always includes, according to Connell, specific structures of labour, power and cathexis (1987:99) to be discussed in the following section. Where the gendered experience under analysis occurs in a specific institution like the home, workplace, the school, the street, he calls the relevant structural inventory its 'gender regime'. The 'gender order' of a society is a historically constructed pattern of power relations between men and women and definitions of masculinity and femininity. It is, as I understand it, a concept that is meant to capture the gendered dimension of all social experience. Connell, therefore, uses the term 'gender order' to refer, rather abstractly at this point, to the structural inventory generating gendered experience at the level of an entire society (1987:98-9). What he is driving at is the dynamic relationships between the institutions of society in shaping gendered experiences across society.
The state, the family, and the institutions of capitalist industry, for example, are structural features acting together in concert to produce the gendered experiences of the labour market. Women's part-time employment, or the 'reserve army of labour' are cases in point. But such action in concert is not necessarily deliberate, nor always harmonious. For example, the emotional relationships of the family and the demands of a state at war create unavoidable conflicts. Another example of 'institutional abrasion' is the terms of the relationship during times of economic recession among state, family and labour market: during times of increasing unemployment deliberate cuts in welfare benefits occur, increasing the economic disadvantages of women and accelerating the feminisation of poverty (Connell, 1987:134-6).
To say that structures of labour, power and cathexis are the major structural features of any gender regime and of any gender order is to specify a framework for the structural analysis of women's experience of oppression in any institution of any society at any time. In this sense, Connell's framework for the social analysis of gender amounts to a meta-theoretical framework: it suggests identifying the culturally specific structures of labour, power and cathexis at play in order to understand and analyse the gender relations in any institution in any socio-historical context.
Structures of labour, power and cathexis
This section identifies examples of these structures and discusses their interplay in order to illuminate the framework for the social analysis of gender referred to in the previous paragraph.
There are substantially different social structures that condition the relations between men and women in quite different ways. One has to do with the division of labour: the organisation of housework and childcare, the division between unpaid and paid work, the segregation of labour markets and creation of 'men's jobs' and 'women's jobs', discrimination in training and promotion, unequal wages and unequal exchange (Connell, 1987:96). These are specific structures that are useful to regard as elements in a category of related structures constituting the gendered division of production, consumption and exchange in society, ie the gendered division of labour.
Another has to do with structures of authority, control and coercion as they affect women. Examples are the hierarchies of the state and business that virtually exclude women, institutional and interpersonal violence against women, sexual regulation and surveillance, domestic authority and the contestation of such authority (Connell, 1987:96). Again, it is useful to see these as elements of a category of related structures, labeled for convenience the 'gendered division of power'.
A third social structure has to do with the recognition that sexuality is socially constructed; that sexed bodies are perceived 'ethnomethodologically', through our particular conceptual lenses that derive from our society's specific configuration of social structures. This means that the bodily dimension of sexuality does not exist before, or outside the social practices in which relationships between people are formed and carried on (Connell, 1987:111). Since such structures reflect and reinforce dominant interests, Foucault claims that 'everything above and beyond the brute raw body that appears to be either some natural expression or extension of it... is in actuality a marking on the body made by power relations in a "political field" (Cocks, 1989:56). The structure of sexuality recognises 'that the body... is an artefact of specific configurations of power...' (Cocks, 1989:56). Sexuality, in other words, 'is enacted or conducted, it is not
expressed' (Connell, 1987:111).
'Cathexis', in Connell's terms, refers to the structure that constrains and so shapes people’s emotional attachments to each other. It refers both to the hegemonic 'limits' placed on practices that constitute emotionally charged social relationships in which the bodily dimension features and to the social practices which challenge such hegemony. Gay practices in this sense constitute a cathectic structure. Heterosexual practices another. These are related to another structure of cathexis, to do with sexual desire. "The social patterning of desire is most obvious as a set of prohibitions... expressed in law... prohibiting sexual relationships between certain people... in our culture objects of desire are generally defined by the dichotomy and opposition of feminine and masculine; and sexual practice is mainly organised in couple relationships' (Connell, 1987:112). Feminist arguments on sexuality as outlined in the previous paragraph, by challenging the 'naturalness' of hegemonic sexuality through emphasing its social construction, constitute in their own way yet another type of cathectic practice, that of cathectic 'praxis'.
'Cathexis' refers, then, to the category of structures to do with sexuality. The practices that constitute these structures follow a social logic of their own, and are unaccountable in terms of the structures of the division of labour and power.
To say that these structures are different is not to say they are separate: in practice they are inextricably interwoven. Indeed, in any social interaction between people they are present together, as coalesced ideas internalised in the minds of the interactors, ideas that (ethnomethodologically) influence the nature of those interactions, giving them their particular 'vibes'. (It is in these very terms that one can make sense of Foucault's remark that 'the individual is the fine target of hegemonic power... that individuals are the capillaries through which power diffuses itself through culture' (Cocks, 1989:44-45)). Structures lived as practices are embedded in our minds as the ideas, and our hearts as the feelings, which constrain our practices; since power operates through structures (power does not exist apart from the structures through which it operates), and structures operate through us, as our practices, then we are indeed the targets and capillaries diffusing discursive power through culture. Distinguishing the structures of labour, power and cathexis analytically is done merely to explain the logic of structural analysis.
The three major elements in the structural inventory of gendered experience in any specific institution can be found from among specific structures in each of the three categories of labour, power and cathexis outlined above. The particular experience under analysis, say wife beating, will have a context including at one level the race, class and nationality of the couple involved, and at another the economic contribution each member makes to that family, the sexual and social esteem in which they hold each other, etc. These levels complement each other in the analysis, providing a context that suggests the structures from the three categories that are likely to be at play in this situation. But the guidelines for structural analysis offered by this framework stop here. Precisely how the suggested structures interweave to generate that experience is the next stage of the problem of analysis. It requires for its solution a creativity in thinking for which there are no guidelines. In his chapter 'Gender regimes and the gender order' Connell engages in just such creative analysis of gendered experience in specific Western institutions, rooting his analysis in the framework of structural inventory with labour, power and cathexis (constituted in Western terms) as structural features. Using this framework, we too could begin to engage in creatively analysing gendered experience in institutions, in whatever socio-historical context.
The constitution of social categories
The structures of labour, power and cathexis are all implicated in any society's ideas of 'masculinity' and 'femininity'. These structures ideologically construct 'women' and 'men' in terms of certain work-related characteristics, a certain type of sexuality and a certain possession or lack of authoritative decision-making capacity of the sort necessary to control the levers of power in political and other institutions. These structures differ, then, in their effects in the shaping of 'masculinity' and 'femininity'.
Structures being historically mutable, so are 'men' and 'women' who are constantly being produced by changing social formations.
As the opening statement of this article implies, current inequalities of gender power through unequal access to social resources are embedded in the very structures that define 'men' and 'women'. 'Gender... so conceived gives rise to feminist politics that focus on "long-run" gender interests and goals to do away with male domination... Since, however, gender is constructed simultaneously with a multiplicity of relations - such as class, race and ethnicity - each historical analysis may show that women perceive long-run gender interests differently and according to their own life experience' (Beneria and Roldan, 1987:12).
This passage raises extremely interesting issues about social interests: how they are differently constituted according to the different cultural constructions of 'men' and 'women'; yet within these historicised categories, the very facts of inequality and oppression provide a motive for collective action, the motive (or 'objective interest') in doing away with male domination; how these differ from interests that are articulated by processes of political mobilisation that define collective goals and strategies relevant to the socio-historical context; who articulates these interests and how. But a discussion of these issues would form the subject of another article.
The five elements discussed above constitute the main conceptual underpinnings of a practice-based theoretical framework for analysing and therefore understanding the social relations of gender.
The transformative potential of this theory, explicitly recognizing and systematically rooting itself in the historicity of social structure, distinguishes it from all previous attempts at theorising the social relations of gender. But what practical guidelines does it offer for realising this potential, for changing the current gender order? Can we draw on any theoretical links suggested by this theory between structural analysis and the politics of our liberation? And if so, what would this mean in practice for our activism?
Connell suggests that to identify arenas of struggle which will open up new historical possibilities for the gender ordering of societies, it is necessary first to identify the major structural features of the gender orders of those societies. In his view the major structural features of First World capitalist societies, for example, are institutionalised heterosexuality and the invalidation or repression of homosexuality; heavily masculinised core institutions such as the state; and the gendered separation of domestic life from the money economy and the political world. These patterns together sustain the overall subordination of women by men. Identifying the dynamics which have the potential to transform these features amounts then to identifying the conditions for changing in fundamental ways the conditions of future social practice (Connell, 1987:159).
Given the role of the state in constructing the 'ideal' family form and hence domestic and public patriarchy, then any dynamics which will weaken the institutional order of family-plus-state to sustain the legitimacy of men's power must count as progressive. Challenges to the legitimacy of the state posed by women's demands for fair and equal treatment before the law on the basis of equal citizenship, such as demands for equal pay and equal opportunities in education, is a source of such family-plus-state institutional weakening: responding to such demands to maintain its legitimacy involves the state in strategies which inevitably weakens domestic patriarchy. Examples of such strategies include state funding of women's education on a scale comparable with men's, the training of police for intervention in domestic violence, the framing of laws which give women greater control over their reproductive capacity, changing the provisions about property, taxation and pensions which treat a married woman in her own right, etc. These all undermine the taken-for-grantedness of male authority in the home on which the reproduction of power inequalities rests. But this should not be taken to mean that in attempting to maintain its legitimacy in the face of challenge, the state deliberately sets out to undermine domestic patriarchy (Connell, 1987:159-60).
As Connell is quick to point out, the result is not an automatic disruption of the institutionalised order of power it is an increasing vulnerability to challenge. Whether and how such challenges develop is another matter.
The 'crisis of the family' outlined above is just one type of challenge to the gender order of rich capitalist countries, a 'crisis tendency' opening up new historical possibilities. The emergence of alternative patterns of sexuality on a significant scale from hegemonic heterosexuality would amount to another such tendency. According to Connell, there is evidence for this possibility being realised (Connell, 1987:161).
Similarly, the definition of a married woman's interests as being essentially those of her husband and children is the hegemonic pattern: the definition of her interests as those of a group of exploited women in a factory, say, is subversive.
As already noted, it is a further question whether these possibilities are realized, whether new groupings are formed to take these challenges further. But these examples of crisis tendencies (another important one surrounds the problems of childcare, women's employment and fathering, but there are many, many more) point to a rational link between structural analysis and women's liberation politics, a link which provides the framework for guiding political action: creating or identifying crisis tendencies amounts to identifying arenas of political struggle, where conditions for structural change are emerging; political activism is about expanding then exploiting those conditions.
How? By working to construct majority groupings around the crisis tendencies that make radical majorities conceivable in the first place.
Majorities matter if the process of social change is to come under conscious human control... (S)tructures cannot be levered into new shapes without mutations of grassroots practice. But majorities do not fall from heaven. They have to be constructed... The lion in the path is the calculus of interests... In a gender order where men are advantaged and women are disadvantaged, major structural reform is, on the face of it, against men's interests... Whether the gender order's tendencies towards crisis have gone far enough to provide a basis for majorities committed to major structural reform is perhaps the key strategic question radical politics now faces (Connell, 1987:285-6).
To gain such insights as this theory provides is to my mind the right and duty of every political activist engaged in gender studies. These insights provide the rationale for our activism, equipping us both to defend our belief that social change is in principle possible through our efforts, and to make us realise just what we are up against in the analysis and practice involved in trying to bring about such change.
Barrett, M and A Phillip (eds) (1992) - Destabilising Theory (Polity Press).
Beneria, L and M Roldan (1987) - The Crossroads of Class and Gender (University of Chicago Press).
Beneria, L and G Sen (1992) - 'Class and gender inequalities and women's role in economic development'. Feminist Studies, 8(7).
Cocks, J (1989) - The Oppositional Imagination (Routledge).
Cornell, RW (1987) - Gender and Power (Polity Press).
Giddens, A (1975) - Central Problems in Social Theory (Macmillan).
Giddens, A (1986) - Sociology: a brief but critical introduction (2nd edition).
Haranann, H (1981) - 'The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: towards a more
progressive union', in H Haitmann - The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: a debate on class and patriarchy (Pluto Press).
Lukes, S (1974) - Power: a radical view (Macmillan).
Maharaj, Z (1993) - 'Feminism and the changing boundaries of knowledge: some theoretical issues' (unpublished paper).
Rubin, G (1975) - "The traffic in women' in R Rayne and M Reites (eds) - Toward an
Anthropology of Women (Monthly Review Press).
Whitehead, A (1979) - 'Some preliminary thoughts on women's subordination', IDS Bulletin,
Young, K, C Wolkowitz and R McCullagh (eds) (1981) - Of Marriage and the Market (CSE Books).
|SECOND OF THREE ARTICLES IN DEBATE IN ‘TRANSFORMATION’ BETWEEN ZARINA MAHARAJ AND PROFESSOR CHERRYL WALKER : Issue 25
COMMENTS ON ZARINA MAHARAJ’S ‘SUBVERSIVE INTENT: A SOCIALTHEORY OF GENDER’
I agree with Zarina Maharaj about the contribution that ‘sound theory’ can make a feminist politics. I also agree about the importance of viewing social structure as historically constructed, hence mutable, hence more amendable to human agency than hyper-determinists and functionalists allow – although I think social constructionism is more of a sociological commonplace than she recognises. However, I disagree with both the style and much of the substance of her analysis in ‘Subversive intent: a social theory of gender’ (Transformation 24, 1994).
In the interests of promoting debate, I offer the following critical comments. I begin with what I regard as significant conceptual and historical weaknesses in her analysis, and then address the not unrelated problem of style.
Firstly, there appears to be an unresolved tension between the post-modernist and the realist ‘moments’ in Maharaj’s analysis, leading to what strikes me as major ambivalences, if not contradictions, in her argument. Thus in one section she uses post-modernism to support her dismissal of 1970’s liberal, marxist and radical feminisms as monocausal and essentialist (also, in passing, racist, ethnocentric and middle-class) (47). Here she argues for a ‘holistic view’ of gender relations, which ‘sees women’s specific experiences as generated by intersecting structures which may derive from any social realm, be it the realm of culture, economics, politics, religion or ideology’ (46). Here, there are no a priori assumptions about what structures are primary in any given society – all is historically and culturally specific intersection and context.
In this vein she quotes approvingly J Cocks on ‘the multiple axes on which power in society inevitably turns’:
This principle of power’s fragmentation leaves us no reason to suppose that all of these axes are reducible to one or logically primary or a cause of others... there is (no) single centre to the life of social power (47).
Two pages on, however, under the influence of RW Connell, she retreats from post-modernist pluralism to a sterner assertion of hierarchy in social structure. Here she endorses Connell’s claim that gender analysis must always include an analysis of labour, power and ‘cathexis’ (which I translate as the social practices through which emotional and sexual relationships between people are conducted and shaped). This is the route to understanding women’s oppression, in all societies, at all times:
To say that structures of labour, power, and cathexis are the major structural features of any gender regime and of any gender order is to specify a framework for the structural analysis of women’s experience of oppression in any institution of any society at any time (49).
Perhaps Connell explains the relationship between a structural framework claiming validity for all societies at all times and the rejection of reductionist world views. Maharaj, however, does not. Should we, following her, take as given that labour, power, and cathexis constitute the starting point for an analysis of gender relations in Southern Africa – or should we steadfastly refuse to be locked into such pre-given analytical categories, ones which have, furthermore, been developed in quite different social, cultural, and historical contexts from our own? And if the latter, how might we then order the multiple intersecting structures that the pluralist approach will undoubtedly throw up?
Maharaj is also ambivalent about the familiar theoretical dilemma of the relationship between structure and agency. In her account, structure seems to win out theoretically, although agency is proclaimed the victor politically. On the one hand structure is ‘vulnerable’ to practice and thus modified by practice; on the other hand, again quoting Connell, ‘practice cannot escape structure’ (43). Her conclusion quotes Connell on the political imperative of constructing ‘majority groupings’ which will be able to challenge the gender order on particular fronts and thus create new and more emancipator social structures. However, Connell himself appears to fall back on a view of the gender order as an impersonal ‘force’ driven by an internal logic untouched by human hands; to me at least this is highly reminiscent of the ‘logic of capitalism’ theories that Maharaj earlier decries. Thus, after stressing the political importance of constructing political majorities to take advantage of what are described as ‘crisis tendencies’ in contemporary capitalist societies, Connell notes:
‘Whether the gender order’s tendencies towards crisis have gone far enough to provide a basis for majorities committed to major structural reform is perhaps the key strategic question radical politics now faces’ (quoted on page 54, emphasis added).
Perhaps part of the problem lies in Maharaj’s conception of ‘practice’, i.e. human behaviour which shapes but is also shaped by social institutions. She appears to identify practice with challenge to given social institutions – so that the assumption of ‘practice’ as constitutive of social structure becomes the presumption of political action that is necessarily resisting or transformative.
It is this vulnerability of structure to practice that is what makes us agents of history. As structure becomes modified by human practice so the experiences and options for people these emergent structures generate, change... (43).
What is not acknowledged is the way in which human behaviour may well affirm and reinforce dominant social structures: practice as conservation rather than transformation.
Secondly, I regard Maharaj’s dismissive account of ‘1970s’ western feminism as unhelpful and superficial. The appellation ‘racist and ethnocentric’ (47) is gratuitous, especially in view of her own use of the theoretical insights of, inter alia, Rubin, Young and Whitehead. Furthermore, her judgement that liberal, marxist and radical feminisms all failed to provide a ‘rational’ basis for political action is undermined by her endorsement of Connell’s recognition that ‘since... gender is constructed simultaneously with a multiplicity of relations - such as class, race and ethnicity – each historically analysis may show that women perceive long-run gender interests differently and according to their own life experience’ (51-52).
Of greater concern, however, is the narrowness of Maharaj’s account of the debates and her lack of historical perspective on the development of ideas. She is at pains to present as radically new the theoretical framework derived from Connell’s examination of the three ‘major structural features’ of any gender regime, i.e. labour, power and cathexis. What is striking, however, is how similar Connell’s analytical framework is to that put forward in 1971 by Juliet Mitchell in her feminist classic, Woman’s Estate. In this book, far from positing an a historical and monocausal explanation for women’s oppression (Maharaj’s summary of the theoretical thinking of this period). Mitchell argued for the historically specific interaction of four key structures, namely: production, reproduction (of children), sexuality, and the socialisation of children. She wrote:
Past socialist theory has failed to differentiate woman’s condition into its separate structures, which together form a complex – not a simple – unity. To do this will mean rejecting the idea that woman’s condition can be deducted derivatively from the economy (Engels) or equated symbolically with society (early Marx). Rather, it must be seen as a specific structure, which is a unity of different elements. The variations of woman’s condition throughout history will be the result of different combinations of these elements (1971:100).
My point here is not whether or not one agrees with Mitchell’s or Connell’s formulation of the key elements – or thinks they are both misguided. Rather, I wish to underscore the intellectual debt that Connell and others owe to the theorists of the 1970s and to challenge the presumption that only in today’s enlightened (or should I say post-enlightened?) era have feminists come to grips with cultural and historical ‘specificity’ in the construction of gender relations.
There is, in any case, a crucial flaw in Maharaj’s claim that because 1970s feminists failed to understand social structure as historically constructed, they were incapable of providing a ‘rational’ basis for a politics of change. What is a ‘rational’ basis for social change? The fact is that radical, Marxist and liberal feminists of the 1970s did engage politically. They drew on their different perspectives not simply to analyse but also to challenge particular institutions and norms and in the process they reshaped gender relations. Surely this is precisely what Connell is arguing when he states that structure cannot be ‘abstracted from practice’? Whether or not the practice amounted to a fundamental restructuring of gender relations is another matter – but then, Connell’s own account suggests the importance of the cumulative effect of multiple challenges to different aspects of the gender regime in order to create the ‘crisis tendencies’ which allow for ‘major structural reform’: ‘Structures cannot be levered into new shapes without mutations of grassroots practice. But majorities do not fall from heaven. They have to be constructed’ (53).
In the end, I am not clear how Maharaj’s political agenda differs from that of 1970s liberal feminism. Her account of a transformative politics produces an agenda of action that could come straight from liberal feminism. It includes ‘challenges to the legitimacy of the state posed by women’s demands for fair and equal treatment before the law on the basis of equal citizenship, such as demands for equal pay and equal opportunities in education’, ‘state funding for women’s education on a scale comparable with men’s, the training of police for intervention in domestic violence, the framing of laws which give women greater control over their reproductive capacity, changing the provisions about property, taxation and pensions which treat a married woman in her own right, etc.’ (52.53). What, in practical and strategic terms is the difference between such an agenda derived from a theoretical analysis of the relationship between structure and practice (Maharaj) and one deriving from the belief in equality, common citizenship and individual rights (classic liberalism)?
My final set of concerns related to the way in which the argument is presented – in particular the difficulty of the language. It seems clear to me that no theory, no matter how brilliant, will be of much relevance to women’s struggles for justice and equity so long as it is couched in obscure, academically overloaded terms. This is more than a plea for academics to ‘simplify’ their language and ‘popularise’ their concepts in order to make their analyses ‘accessible to the masses’. At its most critical, it is a question about the relationship between theoretical rigour and linguistic obfuscation. Ideas that cannot be expressed reasonably clearly are likely to be muddled in their conception. A related concern is that Maharaj’s article perpetuates what is ultimately an elitist practice – it makes theorising appear esoteric and difficult, the preserve of a small group of insiders.
I really struggled to decode much of what was written. For instance, what is meant by the following:
The three major elements in the structural inventory of gendered experience in any specific institution can be found from among specific structures in each of the three categories of labour power and cathexis outlined above (51).
The best interpretation I could get is ‘Labour, power and cathexis can be found among specific structures in labour, power and cathexis’, which did not make any sense to me. My interpretation may be quite wrong, but then that reinforces my original point. The language is often so tortuous and obscure that deriving meaning becomes a kind of guessing game of what might have been intended, given the theoretical flags flown, i.e. the illustrious authors and texts cited and the code phrases marking the text (for example, ‘specific’, ‘essentialism’, ‘capillaries’, ‘inextricably interwoven’). Since Maharaj is interested in developing theory that can generate political action for change. I presume she is interested in communicating with her readers and does not wish to quarantine her argument behind the post-modernist claim that all meanings are relevant and contextual.
Yes, we need theory. We need theory that explains rather than obscures social relationships, that decodes rather than encodes social institutions and practices, including intellectual ones. We also need theory that engages critically and fully with the history of ideas and especially the ‘historical specificity’ of where we live. In the end, it seems to me, only the intention of this article is subversive.
|THIRD OF THREE ARTICLES IN THE DEBATE” BETWEEN PROFESSOR CHERRYL WALKER AND ZARINA MAHARAJ: Issue 26
UNRAVELING CHERRYL WALKER’S CONFUSION
I welcome Cherryl Walker’s response to my article despite its acerbic tone.
In the interests of a productive debate let us keep a firm hold on the purpose of my article. In the introduction to ‘Subversive intent: a social theory of gender’ I state that the main purpose 'is to capture the sense of [Connell's] theory, and the impact of its transformative potential' (40). Furthermore, precisely because I do not regard any theory as complete, I claim that 'such a social theory of gender is currently in the making' (ibid).
Walker claims that there is 'an unresolved tension ... leading to ... major ambivalances, if not contradictions, in her [my] argument' (88). If this is correct, the views expressed in my article need major revision. I do not think so.
Let us take this aspect of Walker's criticism step by step. Can we agree that any feminism which is founded on essentialism is fatally flawed? That what is required is a holistic view of gender relations which sees women's specific experiences as generated by intersection structures which may derive from any social realm?
This proposition is linked to the insights of postmodernism. If we stop at this point, we stand at the edge of the abyss where postmodernism leaves us stranded: it invites the abandonment of theory. How do we avoid falling into this abyss?
This is a critical question which warrants separate attention. The answer lies in the crucial distinction between postmodernism and postmodern feminism. In my article 'Subversive intent ...' I state that I deal with this in a separate paper (45). This paper is to appear in a forthcoming anthology entitled 'Knowledge, Method and the Public Good' edited by Jo Muller (UCT) and Johann Mouton (Stellenbosch).
In order to help Walker out of her confusion, we need to deal with this distinction at this point of my rejoinder. In my view, the way out and the way forward lies in postmodern feminism. Accepting that reality is relentlessly plural and heterogeneous, postmodern feminism argues that social theory is nevertheless possible.
What criteria must such a postmodern feminist theory meet? This issue is examined rigorously by Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson (1990) in their seminal article 'Social Criticism without Philosophy: An Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism'. They conclude:
Theory would be explicitly historical, attuned to the cultural, specificity of different societies and periods, and to that of different groups within societies and periods. Thus, ... categories ... would be inflected by temporality, with historically specific institutional categories ... taking precedence over ahistorical ... categories like reproduction and mothering. Where categories of the latter sort were not eschewed altogether, they would be ... framed by a historical narrative and rendered temporally and culturally specific ... When its focus became cross-cultural or transepochal, its mode of attention would be comparativist rather than universalising ... (Fraser and Nicholson, 1990:34, my emphasis).
Connell's theory passes this test. It meets the requirements of postmodern feminist theory precisely because his categories of labour, power and cathexis are not ahistorical. They underpin a structural framework which is 'cross-cultural or transepochal' and become 'inflected with temporality' in attempting to account for gender relations in specific societies. This is the meaning of the statement that I make that:
Connell's framework for the social analysis of gender amounts to a metatheoretical framework: it suggests identifying the culturally specific structures of labour, power and cathexis at play in order to understand and analyse the gender relations in any institution in any socio-historical content (49).
Earlier, I say 'Connell:
... attempts to account for gender relations in terms of historically specific social structures, dismissing as misleading unanswerable questions about origins, roots, causes or final analyses, questions rooted in essentialist assumptions. His attempt poses instead the answerable question albeit a very difficult one of how gender relations are organised as a going concern (45).
So when Walker asks:
Should we, following her [Maharaj] take as given that labour, power and cathexis constitute the starting points for an analysis of gender relations in southern Africa - or should we steadfastly refuse to be locked into such pre-given analytical categories, ones which have furthermore been developed in quite different social, cultural and historical contexts from our own? (89, my emphasis).
she confuses analytical categories which underpin cross-cultural theoretical frameworks with those ahistorical categories that are the hallmark of essentialism. The categories of the postmodern feminist Connell in no way resurrect the enlightenment project.
Categories are needed because, paraphrasing Bordo (1990), whilst reality itself may be relentlessly plural and heterogeneous, human understanding and interest cannot be. Categories which have to be fleshed out within a specific society and within the framework of its history are tools of analysis which can actually encourage difference to reveal itself. Labour, power and cathexis are such tools.
To change the metaphor: they are route-markers on a map which enable a researcher/analyst/theorist to traverse the gender terrain of a particular society. If, in the course of the journey they do not provide adequate pointers, additional route-markers will have to be inserted. Connell's view is that they are the major, but not the only structures, conditioning gender experience. We have to start the journey at some point if we are to avoid falling into the postmodernist rejection of theory and with nothing more than a plethora of empirical studies. Walker acknowledges this when she says that if we reject Connell's 'pre-given analytical categories ... how might we then order the multiple intersecting structures that the pluralist approach will undoubtedly throw up?' (89, my emphasis). I am not aware that Walker has an answer. I do contend that Connell has.
Walker agrees that we need theory (92). But it is clear she has not begun to understand how such theory would be reconcilable with and would build on the insights of postmodern pluralism. We cannot escape the fact that such reconciliation is difficult and intellectual exercise. Her confusion permeates her response. One symptom is her charge that there is an inconsistency in my approving of J Cocks on 'the multiple axes on which power in society inevitably turns' and the use of labour, power and cathexis as analytical categories (88/89). She fails to see that the structures within each of these categories may have their roots within the realms of ideology, politics, religion, economics or culture.
Walker criticises me for failing to see the conservation aspect in the relationship between structure and agency, and for focusing only on the transformation aspect of this relationship. However, difficult she may find my style, she has failed to note my categoric assertion that 'it is in the interests of dominant social groups to create the conditions for cyclical practice' (43). She similarly chooses to ignore the example which describes a matrifocal kinship structure in a working class London family, an example of 'a structure being shown in its very process of constitution, constantly being made and re-made in a very active social practice' (42). (Such selective reading of my article underlies much of her criticism and is a symptom of her confusion). Conservation and the potential for transformation co-exist in the same social structure. I assumed this as an agreed starting point for all sociologists; that what distinguishes feminists who wish to change the status quo is that we are looking to the transformative capacity in social structure which we as agents can exploit to bring about change.
She has difficulty in understanding what I mean by 'rational' action for social change. When practice is consistent with theory, it is 'rational'. Any social theory which does not rest on an understanding of 'practice as the substance of social structure' (41/42), on a 'thoroughgoing historicity in social structure' (43), cannot be consistent with practice aimed at changing structure. It is a lack of consistency between theory and practice, manifested in different ways in each of Giddens and the 70s Marxist, liberal and radical feminisms, that makes their politics of transformation irrational (43/44). I should have thought that very little decoding was necessary to understand the concept.
Her reaction to my assessment of 70s feminisms is also confused. I distinguish between socialist and other feminisms (43/44) and reject those that are founded on essentialism and/or which fail to provide a rational political strategy for change (44/45). My dismissal of 70s radical, liberal and Marxist feminisms on these grounds does not in any way mean that they have played no role in the feminist struggles of that period or that they have made no contributions towards the theoretical insights that we hold today. At all times historicity requires that we be clear about what we dismiss and what we appropriate. In my paper I actually acknowledge Connell's debt (47). But I do maintain that 'what makes his contribution original is the way he has combined these insights with his own to realise such a theory' (ibid).
I welcome Walker's reference to the work of Juliet Mitchell. I believe that 'Woman's Estate' was pathbreaking in the sense that Mitchell tried to construct a practice-related structural theory of gender. But while Juliet Mitchell helped open the door, it is Connell who leads us through that door. The charge that I fail to acknowledge the enormous debt that current theory owes to past thinkers is superficial, misleading and unfair, especially given that the main purpose of my article, which is insistent on the need for gender theory to be grounded on historicity and specificity, concepts dating back to Foucault and others, was 'to capture the sense of [Connell's] theory and the impact of its transformative potential' (40).
Given this as the main purpose of my article, Walker's criticism that I do not catalogue those whose thinking constituted the building blocks of Connell's theory is nit-picking. What I am arguing is that Connell's theory is (a) a postmodern feminist theory, (b) a socialist feminist theory (c) aimed at transformation rational in its own terms in a way that no other social theory of gender to date can claim, and (d) constitutes a step-change from all thinking hitherto on the question of theorising gender, or to be more precise, on the question of a sociology of gender that is an integral part of, and not just an add-on to, mainstream sociology.
I concede that my outline did not explicitly place Rubin, Whitehead and Young in the socialist feminist camp, which they are. Hence there is nothing inconsistent in using their theoretical insights. In this regard I also agree that my dismissal of 70s feminisms as 'racist, ethnocentric and middle class' is gratuitous because it is unsubstantiated in the article. However, essentialism, which abstracts from a particular society and claims universal validity for its proposition/s, is implicitly racist and ethnocentric.
Perhaps Walker misreads my criticism of 70s radical, Marxist and liberal feminisms because, whether under the influence of postmodernism or not, there is a reluctance on the part of many feminists, who played a very important part in the women's struggle in South Africa, to grapple with analytic theory.
Part of the reason for this lies in her criticism of my style. The question of gender relations is a complex one. Writing on this matter at the level of theorising is also complex. It is in the nature of this intellectual debate that we should engage with all such writers no matter how complicated their presentations may be. We should not use anti-elitism as an excuse to propagate the view that theorising is a simple task which would be easily comprehensible to all. We need to distinguish between theorising and popularising the output of such labours. Indeed, if there is no such distinction, then there would be no need for a publication such as Transformation.
The centrality of praxis underlines the enormous importance of popularising theory. One should always strive for clarity of ideas and unambiguous formulation. I hope that Walker does not hide her recognition of the legitimacy of the need to produce theory under the guise of elitism. My article was directed at a particular audience and based on my perception that there is a critical need for South African feminists to debate a social theory of gender with a view to making political action for change more effective and bringing about a fundamental transformation.
I agree there are some high-flown formulations in my article. And the particular sentence which she cites is tautological. As to whether the bulk of the article required such painful decoding by her, I believe that there is hardly an article in Transformation, including her comment, which would be understood by anyone else other than a 'small group'. I would like to think that side by side with the intellectual task with which we are engaged, we would all seek to engage with a wider circle. The purpose of publishing my article was to generate an intellectual debate in search of a consensus which we would then seek to popularise.
As for my political agenda being no different from that of a liberal feminist, the fact that Connell recognises the importance of the cumulative effect of multiple changes must not deflect our attention from the need for a theory which enables action to bring about a fundamental restructuring of gender relations. That is the central aim of Connell's theory. That is where the 70s feminists we are talking about failed. Walker's claim that these feminists 'reshaped gender relations' is a judgment not validated by the present-day conditions of the societies where they operated. Unless all that Walker wants to do is to applaud the changes that take place on the same plane of a particular step without giving account to the need for a theory which keeps us on track to a step-change. The issue is to recognise all the inputs in a particular society at a given time, including liberal reforms, which are helping to create 'crisis tendencies' and exploit these to construct majorities to achieve a radical restructuring of gender relations.
This is what distinguishes my political agenda a la Connell from that of liberal feminists. The fact that many items on our respective shopping lists may coincide should not obscure the strategic goal of consciously bringing about a step-change.
The fact of the matter is that democratic South Africa is in a state of intense movement to change gender relations. Different forces with different philosophical underpinnings and therefore different strategic goals (whether articulated or not) are engaged in constructing alliances which are in a state of flux. While we work assiduously to gather together all these forces within the women's sector as well as beyond it, it is as critical that those who are committed to bringing about a transformation in gender relations should not abandon developing a theoretical framework so that the current changes do indeed lead to a fundamental restructuring of gender relations in South Africa, the type of restructuring which has not yet been realised anywhere to date.
Bordo S, 1990, 'Feminism, Postmodernism and Gender Scepticism' in Nicholson L, (ed), Feminism/Postmodernism, Routledge, London.
Fraser N & Nicholson L, 1990, 'Social Criticism without Philosophy: an Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism' in Nicholson L, (ed), Feminism/Postmodernism, Routledge, London