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Author Comment
Red White and Blar
Unregistered User
(7/26/00 6:16:07 pm)
Sharin' with Karen
Well, Karen, since you didn't change your user settings to allow private messages, naughty girl, I'll post the article here. It's not like I'm proud, and I'm sure that the board can withstand this slight assault.

For what it's worth, another poster to the list said that Maria Mies has "put forward a cogent historical materialist explanation of the rise and evolution of patriarchal society." The works cited were Patriarchy and Accumulation of a World Scale and Women, The Last Colony. I'm not familiar with her work, so I can't comment, but I thought I'd pass that along, anyway.

Without further ado, here 'tis:

***** Women's History Review, Volume 6, Number 2, 1997

The Feminist Challenge to Socialist History

Leeds Metropolitan University, United Kingdom

ABSTRACT This article argues that it is timely to revisit some of the
debates between feminism and Marxism. While acknowledging the
achievements of women's history, it is critical of attempts to ground
feminist history in either patriarchy theory or post-structuralism.
Developing from ideas about what constitutes a theory of history, it
is argued that both patriarchy and post-structuralism cannot sustain
a notion of historicity. The debate about protective legislation in
nineteenth-century Britain is reviewed as an example of the
divergence between Marxist and feminist interpretations. The article
concludes with a defence of historical materialism as an explanatory
framework in analysing women's oppression.

... A Theory of History 1. Patriarchy

Alex Callinicos, in the latest instalment of the development of his
ideas on historical theory, suggests that a theory of history must
meet three conditions: a theory of structure specifying the
fundamental relationships constitutive of particular societies; a
theory of transformation which specifies the mechanism/s of change
from one qualitatively different historical period to another; and a
theory of directionality, whether this be progress, regress or
cyclical. Historical materialism and Weberian historical sociology,
arguably the two major paradigms of contemporary historical theory,
fit his criteria. His analysis also incorporates an important
characteristic of historical practice: the ways in which theory poses
questions and sets the framework for a dialogue with empirical
evidence. It seems a particularly useful starting point in
interrogating the feminist challenge to socialist theory, because I
want to argue that patriarchy theory does not and cannot meet the
requirements of a historical theory, and that post-structuralist
theories in both their feminist and non-feminist guises are also
unable to give a non-contradictory account of their practice.

The ahistoricity of patriarchy theory caused concern among feminists
and socialists from the early days of the contemporary women's
movement. I return to these critiques because patriarchy theory has
provided the distinctive underpinning for feminist explanations of
women's oppression. At its most general patriarchy theory posits that
(all) men have an interest in women's oppression. This interest
cannot be reduced to either class or the impact of racism, and takes
different forms in different historical periods. Patriarchy theory
therefore set a research agenda directed at identifying the
mechanisms of male domination and the distinctiveness of gender
oppression. Feminists have emphasised different foci in their
analyses of male power, from violence to the economic, and they have
also shown themselves variously sensitive to differential power
relations between men. Patriarchy theory's distinctive focus,
however, remains the centrality of unequal gender relations in social
life. By theorising male domination it goes beyond women's history as
the simple insertion of women's lives and experiences into an
unchanged mainstream. Sheila Rowbotham, in the early debates about
feminist history, criticised the universality of the concept of
patriarchy for its reliance on a return to biology.[12] More
recently, and from a different theoretical standpoint, Joan Scott
reiterated the problem:

Any physical difference takes on a universal and unchanging aspect,
even if theorists of patriarchy take into account the existence of
changing forms and systems of gender inequality. A theory that rests
on the single variable of physical difference poses problems for
historians: it assumes a consistent or inherent meaning for the human
body - outside social or cultural construction - and thus the
ahistoricity of gender itself. [13]

These arguments, despite subtle attempts to infuse the concept with
historicity by carefully studying the precise forms through which
domination is achieved, are in my judgement conclusive.[14]

More recent exchanges between Judith Bennett and Bridget Hill have
focused on issues of continuity and change, but this is not the
central issue since both can be legitimately described in historical
research; indeed any adequate history must surely be able to theorise
both.[15] Bennett is right to defend the need for generalisation
while also carefully delineating the nature of generalisation in a
way that does not preclude differences between women. Hill correctly
argues for the need to look at dynamics and "significant women's history", which Bennett also accepts as
important. So the issue of generalisation is not what really divides
them, and there are good and bad examples in both radical feminist
and socialist feminist writing. Patriarchy theory fails, not because
it generalises about women's oppression, but because it generalises
about the primacy of a specifically patriarchal mechanism in
explaining oppression, and that
mechanism cannot explain discontinuities.

Patriarchy theory cannot of itself delineate the specific structuring
mechanisms which would allow a distinction to be drawn between one
form of society and another. It is forced to rely instead on hybrid
concepts such as 'capitalist patriarchy', or as Bennett hypothesises,
between 'feudal patriarchy' and 'socialist patriarchy'. The work of
characterising the type of society is done by the first term, e.g.
'capitalist', because patriarchy as an analytical concept, as opposed
to a description of states of affairs, cannot distinguish between
capitalist and pre-capitalist forms of male domination....Feudalism
and capitalism as categories have analytical meaning because they
refer to modes of production characterised by particular structuring
and transformative mechanisms which can be identified. Patriarchy
theory does not specify mechanisms by which one form of patriarchal
domination is transformed into another, for example from feudal to
capitalist. These mechanisms need not be unitary as in historical
materialism. Patriarchy theory is both monist (a single-cause
theory), and fails to specify any internal dynamic.

Furthermore, in relation to Callinicos's criteria of directionality,
patriarchy theory also appears flawed. It veers between a diagnosis
of historical retrogression based on a romantic view of a gynocentric
past glimpsed through (often historically inaccurate) rose tinted
spectacles, and a view of women's economic and social advance.
Progress, however, is frequently depicted as dependent on other
causal factors, such as increased employment or war. Progress and
retrogression are judged in relation to male domination but progress
itself is not connected to any working through, or failure of, an
independent patriarchal dynamic. Patriarchy theory as such provides
only an ethical not an explanatory model of the direction of
historical development. This is not to deny the value of the many
careful analyses which have looked at women's struggles as
contributing to social change; what I am denying is the utility of
patriarchy as an over-arching concept.....

[12] Sheila Rowbotham (1981) The trouble with patriarchy, in People's
History and Socialist Theory.
[13] Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, p. 34.
[14] See, for example, Sylvia Walby (1986) Patriarchy at Work
(Cambridge: Polity Press).
[15] Hill (1993) Women's history: a study in change, continuity or
standing still? Women's History Review, 2, pp. 2-22. Judith M.
Bennett (1993) Women's history; a study in continuity and change,
Women's History Review, 2, pp. 173-184. *****

Registered User
(7/29/00 6:18:47 am)
the verdict.

Mr. Blar,

I have digested the article and, although I would agree that over-arching concepts do have their limitations, I'm afraid I don't find Clegg's argument entirely convincing! Of course all this is hopelessly off topic so I'll be brief and just mention the major point at which she loses my concurrence.

I have a problem with the quotations she gives and, in particular, the quotation from Sheila Rowbotham about patriarchy theory's "reliance on a return to biology".

"Any physical difference takes on a universal and unchanging aspect... A theory that rests on the single variable of physical difference poses problems for historians: it assumes a consistent or inherent meaning for the human body- outside social or cultural construction- and thus the ahistoricity of gender itself".

I would dispute the idea that patriarchy theory is based on a "single variable of physical difference" to begin with, but, laying that aside, I think there's a bit of question begging going on here. It is *quite* possible for a sign (the phallus) to remain "consistent and unchanging" while the meanings or signifieds which are attached to that sign shift and shuffle. Rowbotham is confusing meaning with form, I think. The body is ahistorical and universal, but the way we view it, our perspective and the sense we make out of physical differences are not. A phallus does not equal masculinity. Gender is more than the body itself- it encompasses the way the body is clothed, moved and looked at as well- as patriarchy theory, I think, has generally maintained. There's an unsubstantiated logical leap in this paragraph.

I know I haven't expressed this very well- I hope you can make some sense of me!


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