When I was an undergraduate I probably spent more time dosing up on heavy duty social theory than drinking until blindness set in. One module I took was on feminist social theory because, at that time, I was deeply concerned with questions around revolutionary subjectivity and the place socialism had in a fragmenting and media saturated society. Now, I wasn't a complete stranger when it came to feminism. At A-Level I learned about your liberal, Marxist and radical feminism (thanks Haralambos!), and read a bit around The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism/Dual Systems Theory. So I thought I knew a thing or two. No. It turned out that good old Haralambos hadn't told half the story. He, in fact, had completely skipped over the emergence of postmodern feminisms and feminist standpoint.
This approach, forcefully argued by bell hooks in her coruscating Aint I a Woman, for example, put it that feminism, as much as any other social theory, is socially situated. It followed that the feminism of the 1970s, she argued, was primarily the feminism of relatively privileged middle class white women. Their idea of the feminist subject that unconsciously undergirded their work was foregrounded on their situated and specific experience of gendered oppression. As this was universalised as the subject on which feminism rested, little mind was paid to the experience, struggles, and views of working class women and women of colour, for example. hook seminal and important intervention was one of many that (alongside the tidal wave of postmodernism and poststructuralism in the wider social sciences) worked to undo any notion of a politics or philosophy founded a priori upon coherent subjectivity. Now, while many a paper was published unpicking the metaphysical residues of dear Descartes, feminism was left in something of a quandary. If the subject of feminism, 'woman', is contested, disaggregated; then what is 'woman'? And without 'woman', what was distinctly feminist about feminism?
Well, Iris Young argued that feminism should begin with the commitment to social justice. However, others were - as Elvis might say - "caught in a trap". There was a tendency among some (by no means all) feminists to treat the dispersal of the subject as a theoretical, not a political problem. They attempted to rescue feminism by trying to ground a new feminist subject on experiences common to all women, or on facets of womanhood all women could relate to. Of course, immediately, you try to make claims universal to all women you will get yourself shot down. But some tried. One attempt was so-called 'mothering theory'. It suggested that all women are socialised into actual and potential motherhood from the moment of birth, and that women have a deep, personality-forming relationship with caring and nurturing, as well as an orientation toward children that is qualitatively different from men and their experience/expectations of fatherhood. From this one can extrapolate a set of ethics and positions from which to critique society and agitate for social change. But also a number of values that are suppressed and denigrated by society - hence child birth, care, understanding, mothering should all be valorised.
Naturally, such a position makes a great many assumptions about the nature of motherhood across cultures and the socialisation of women generally. However, most problematic of all was the fact that this form of feminism pretty much mirrored the position women had traditionally occupied in Western societies. In fact, you could go as far to say it's not dissimilar from the 'different but equal' spin evangelical Christians put on their commitment to patriarchal gender relations. So truly, if 'conservative feminism' could be said to exist, mothering theory with its rendering of gender as an impermeable barrier is probably it.
This lengthy diversion brings me to Louise Mensch's stab at "reality based-feminism", or rather conservative feminism. Now, I don't want to particularly address the first part of her piece, which makes very cheap and unoriginal points about intersectionality and "privilege checking" (especially as a post should be appearing about that over the weekend). I'm more interested in the content of her feminism itself. She writes:
American feminism gets organised. It sees where power lies, and it mobilises to achieve it. It gets its candidates elected. Feminism here is about running for office, founding a company, becoming COO of Facebook or Yahoo. It is power feminism that realises that actual empowerment for women means getting more money, since money and liberty often equate, and being able to legislate or influence. Hillary Clinton shifted from First Lady to Senator. Before that she was a powerful lawyer. Before that she went to Yale. Today’s keyboard valkyries would be sneering at the graduates of Yale and asking them to take a long hard look at their privilege before offering an opinion to somebody not as high-achieving as they are.Far be it for me to give Louise a lesson in the feminism of her adopted home, but where does she think "privilege-checking" originated in the first place?
The second point is, come on, really? Feminism is about climbing the greasy pole?
This is basically liberal feminism on Red Bull, but with a key difference. While the liberal feminism I imbibed during my A-Levels suggested the barriers facing women were attitudinal and legislative as opposed to how capitalist societies are structured and stratified, Louise's conservative feminism bigs up the women who make it despite the relative lack of opportunities. To make it in a man's world like Mensch, Hillary Clinton, Stella Creasy and Margaret Thatcher have/did, they must have something about them, a tenaciousness and commitment to hard work. At the top of their game they in turn inspire other driven women to get involved, work, and succeed. Hmmm, by that logic should Paris Hilton be feted as a feminist icon?
That's all fine and dandy. But what's 'feminist' about it? Like all the permutations of the conservative ideology of individual success, problems arising from deprivation, disadvantage and, yes, privilege, don't exist. It's a matter of will and determination to overcome. Masters of the Universe-types have been saying this about themselves to justify their power, position and prestige since year dot. All Louise has managed to do is half-inch this view and stick a feminist label on it, while not-so-subtly suggesting that women who don't make it like her are rubbish feminists. And so feminism passes from a political commitment to equality to an ideology that whitewashes and justifies the status quo.
As far as I'm concerned, this is far more regressive than mothering theory. While adopting positions out of sorts with feminism generally, mothering theory at least offers an explanation of why women are held back and leaves open the possibility of collective action based on its diagnosis of the situation. Its understanding of gender mirrors conservative views, but it is part of the feminist family for all that. Louise's conservative feminism apologia, however, is a contradiction in terms. It is oxymoronic, if not plain moronic.