by Wendy McElroy
"Feminist scholars, many drawing on the insights offered by Michel Foucault, have urged us to develop new ways of thinking and speaking." So write the editors of the book Analyzing Gender.1 In their scholarly work Knowing Women: Feminism and Knowledge, two different feminist editors explain why the French philosopher Michel Foucault is quoted extensively therein: "Foucault's discourse theory and the 'post-structuralist' methods of analysis which depend on it have become very influential within feminist studies." 2 Since I have an antipathy to fully one-third of the words in the preceding sentence, I tend to screen out such scholarly discussions of Foucault for the sake of my digestion.
In truth, I screen the man out even when he is quoted in more popular feminist works, such the writing of the feminist Foucault-fan Judith Butler, or Sharon Welsh's Communities of Resistance and Solidarity,3 in which Welsh uses Foucaldian methodology to construct a feminist liberation theology. I even ignore rather intriguing works such as Valerie Walkerdine's SchoolGirl Fictions in which she declares: "How is this truth constituted...Such questions, derived from the methodology of genealogy utilized by Foucault, can help us begin to take apart this truth about girls."4
Since his death in 1984, there has been something of a backlash against Foucault within the feminist movement. This is exemplified by the scholarly work After Foucault 5which contains two chapters "Disciplining Women: Michel Foucault and the Power of Feminist Discourse" and "Feminism and the Power of Foucaldian Discourse". The two chapters take opposing views on the question "Is Foucaldian feminism a contradiction in terms?" 6 In the popular press, the backlash has been expressed by the iconoclastic Camille Paglia whose book Sex, Art, and American Culture devotes a large part of a large chapter to Foucault-bashing.7
With the controversy drawing me, I began to wonder 'why?'. Why and how did Foucault influence feminism? And why are some feminists now finding fault with him? I knew that his area of influence was in the interpretation and meaning of language, and that his intellectual style was akin to that of the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida.
As I explored Foucault's work, the answer became no clearer. He argued vehemently against Freudian theory, which would endear him to feminists who traditionally view Freud as an ideological arch-enemy.8 But this must be balanced against Foucault's full-frontal attack on Marx. The touchstone gender feminist, Catherine Mackinnon openly refers to her position as 'post-Marxist feminism'. And many of the defining aspects of contemporary feminism -- for example, the male/female class analysis and the use of terminology such as 'exploitation' -- derives directly from Marxist theory. Foucault's anti-Marxist onslaught must bridle some feminist theorists.
Added to this blurred picture is the fact that contemporary feminists have a great bias against quoting or crediting males when charting the development of 'the movement'. Why, then, is Foucault quoted and credited with some regularity? The answer began to fascinate me, as I came to realize that it held the key to making sense of another issue within feminism by which I had been utterly baffled for years. That is: why is there so much stress placed upon the language as a source of the op- pression of women? Indeed, sometimes language is considered to be the source. Thus, women fly into rages at being called 'Madam Chairman' and insist upon the wholesale replacement of the generic 'he' with the ungainly 'he/she'.
For me, the issue of language led to a dramatic encounter on a practical matter about a year ago. I was sitting in the lobby of a Toronto radio station that wanted to hold an on-air debate on pornography between me and the prominent Canadian gender-feminist Susan Cole, who is an editor at Toronto's largest magazine.
At this point I should pause to provide necessary background. I view pornography as words and images depicting the graphic sex of consenting adults. Gender-feminists, such as Susan, consider pornography to be in-and-of-itself an act of violence against women that is instrumental in perpetuating male oppression.
To Susan, pornography is political and personal oppression. To me, pornography is a personal choice and the anti-porn drive is political oppression. In Canada, this debate is more than academic. Through its decision in the Butler vs. Her Majesty case, the Supreme Court of Canada adopted Catherine MacKinnon's definition of obscenity nearly word for word into Canadian law. This 1992 court decision -- which was vigorously championed by most feminists in Canada and the US -- allows Canadian customs to seize what it judges to be pornography at the border as the material is being imported. In reaching the Butler decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged that it was violating freedom of speech, but it deemed the possible harm that pornography could inflict on women to be of greater legal significance.
The spring 1993 issue of Feminist Bookstore News described the impact of this measure during its first year: "The Butler decision has been used...only to seize lesbian, gay and feminist material." The two primary targets have been feminist-lesbian bookstores -- the Glad Day Bookstore in Toronto and Little Sisters in Vancouver. Customs Canada has blocked shipments to these bookstores of even innocuous material -- of mainstream science fiction writers, for example -- that any other Canadian bookstore is able to import freely. When I drove into Toronto for the radio program, I resolved to ask Susan, with whom I'd debated before, how she reacted to lesbian bookstores being persecuted by legislation that she had championed. Susan is an open activist for lesbian rights, and lives the lesbian lifestyle. She has fought for decades to have lesbian literature published, plays produced, voices heard. It is not possible to doubt her commitment to lesbianism, both as a sexual choice and as an aspect of feminist ideology. Indeed, she is a personal friend of the owner of one customs-afflicted bookstore.
I asked my question. Susan expressed regret although her expression showed absolutely no emotion. I had the impression that this was a question she had answered many times, and her response was polished to a gleam. "I stand firmly behind the Butler decision", she said to me without hesitation, "and I would campaign for it again, if necessary." Lesbian bookstores were acceptable casualties in the war against pornography.
Susan's reaction reminded me of another I'd read about. One of the books seized temporarily by Customs Canada was a gender feminist work by Andrea Dworkin -- also a lesbian activist who applauded the Butler decision. Dworkin declared that having her work seized was a price she was willing to pay to stop pornography. It is important to understand the megomanical nature of Dworkin to appreciate the depth of sacrifice represented by her declaration. This is the woman who recently demanded that a feminist petitioning her for an interview first write a lengthy letter demonstrating 'familiarity with my work'. Now Dworkin was willing to have that work suppressed.
Again, the same word arose that has haunted most of my life: why?
To me, pornography is words and images toward which my political position can be reduced to the childhood chant "sticks and stones may break my bones..." Needless to say, there is what could be called 'cognitive dissonance' between my position on pornography and that of Susan Cole, Catharine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin.
How far apart are we? Consider a statement MacKinnon made about pornography -- specially referring to Playboy and Penthouse. The statement was made during a speech she delivered to a gay lawyers association. There MacKinnon asked what would have happened if pictures had been taken at Auschwitz "and then marketed?" She went on to ask why such markerting is different from pornography. The former, she declared, is recognized as an atrocity; in the latter, the people are not considered real, "because they are women."
Declarations like these are the rhetorical equivalent of thermo-nuclear war, and there is a natural tendency for reasonable people to dismiss them. But it is important not to do so, because it is precisely such statements that allowed the 1992 Butler decision. In that same year, it almost led to the passage of the Victims of Pornography Compensation Act in the states. The Act was blocked by the efforts of an organization called Feminist for Free Expression, a group of largely liberal feminists who banded together specifically to address that particular piece of legislation.
The question repeats itself: Why? Why is it that -- when intelligent women look at words and images that depict consenting adults having sex, they see a sexual violence so profound that they draw parallels to the Holocaust? Indeed, Dworkin doesn't even draw a parallel: she outright calls pornography 'genocide against women'.
The key to understanding 'why?' lies in the fundamentals of gender feminist theory. It lies in the idea of 'gender', which is strongly linked to Marx, and in the interpretation of culture, which is strongly linked to Foucault.
Perhaps the pivotal book in the development of gender feminism was Kate Millett's Sexual Politics , which argued that women throughout history had been "confined to the cultural level of animal life" by men who used them as sexual objects and breeding stock. According to gender feminists, only a profound political difference between the two sexes can explain why women are and have been the constant victims of men. There must be an unbreachable schism between the interests of men -- as a class -- and the interests of women -- as a class.
This class analysis is derived from Marxism, especially from the work of Friedrich Engels, who traced the institutional oppression of women back to the Industrial Revolution. Yet there is no place within Marxist ideology for gender. In Marxism, your political class interests are defined by your relationship to the means of production: are you a capitalist or a worker? It makes no reference to whether you are a man or a woman.
Gender feminism diverges from Marxism by redefining the class structure. It claims that there are two different classes of people with entirely separate and antagonistic interests: Men and women. Through male power -- called patriarchy -- men oppress women. They have throughout history, they will do so in the future. Why? Because they are men and that is their class nature. Consider the words of MacKinnon in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State: "Heterosexuality...institutionalizes male sexual dominance and female sexual submission."9
The oppression lies within male biology itself.
In this process of oppression, many feminists point to pornography as the main mechanism that explains the incredible staying power of the male power structure. As Page Mellish of the group Feminists Fighting Pornography declared, "There's no feminist issue that isn't rooted in the porn problem." Pornography is seen to be the crucial thread in the tapestry of male oppression -- a thread that, if you pull it loose will cause the tapestry to unravel.
To understand 'why' pornography is so crucial, it is necessary to appreciate the legacy of Foucault and those of his philosophical ilk. Only then does it become clear why pornography is considered to be genocide and why almost no sacrifice in the war against it is too high. The key idea of the legacy is that sex is a social construct. This concept is basically derived from Foucault, whose landmark book Les mots et les choses appeared in 1966.
In the body of his work, Foucault argues that history and culture are indispensable in understanding sexuality. This hypothesis is not a controversial one. But then Foucault introduces the idea of an "episteme" which means "knowledge" in Greek. An episteme of a culture is its single and self-enclosed totality that includes its language, attitudes, ideas, science: it is all the paradigms of that society. It is the way that a specific culture or era approaches the world.
As history progresses, one episteme replaces another. That of the Middle Ages is replaced by that of the Renaissance and, then, a new era is said to dawn. The destiny of words and things -- the literal translation of his title Les Mots and Les Choses -- is intertwined. The episteme determines how the people within that era think. It determines who they are and what they will do.
Take, as an all-important example for feminism, the human body. Most philosophers assume that there is a pre-cultural human body. In other words, they assume that history and culture do not alter the permanence of mankind's biology. But for Foucault, the human body lives in the episteme -- it lives in a culturally constituted world. By this he means that the human body is constructed by society: the body is a 'social construct.' Even its physiological "givens" have been produced by the medical science of our time.
Foucault devotes an entire treatise entitled The Birth of the Clinic to the study of what he calls the "medical gaze," which he says determines the human body. It is through the medical gaze that the body is objectified and converted into a well- ordered thing that medicine then seeks to control through surgery, diet, drugs, and so forth. But the medical gaze of the eighteenth century was different from that of the twentieth century. The episteme was different. Therefore, the eighteenth century human body was different from the twentieth century one. The body itself is redefined by each society that examines it.
The most important factor in defining the human body and sexuality are the texts that are written and spoken about them. As a way understanding this point, consider the Victorian epoch of repressed sexuality in the late nineteenth century. A common approach is to look at its plays and literature, the songs and newspapers -- in other words the texts of Victorian society -- and to conclude that the texts reflect a repressed, sexually-horrified culture. Foucault sees exactly the opposite. He believes that the society reflects the texts. The text cause the society, and not vice versa. The texts cause the repression.
In her essay "Foucault, feminism and questions of identity," Susan Bordo explores a contemporary example of this phenomenon. She argues that our beauty culture, "with its 'tyranny of slenderness' produces pathological forms of subjectivity that might also be understood as a crystallization of the cultural production of 'normal' femininity."10
It is important to stress: Foucault (and Bordo) is not saying that society is influenced by the words and images that flow through it: he is saying that the texts create the episteme of the society, which creates the society itself. He claims that speaking and writing about a repressed sexuality caused the repression of sexuality that characterized the Victorian era.
In her essay "Feminism, Criticism and Foucault", Biddy Martin explains of the philosopher: "His 'History of Sexuality' states very clearly that discourses on sexuality, not sexual acts and their histories, are the essential place to grasp the working of power in modern society."11
Words and texts -- not acts -- are the keys to how power works. Remember this the next time you are puzzled by the gemder feminist insistence on using politically correct language -- for example, in using the word 'herstory' instead of 'history', -- or the demand that lesbian and gay characters be included in children's literature and schoolbooks -- or on their penchance for re-writing events to include the voices of women, even when those voices were insignificant to the actual events. Gender feminists are trying to correct the texts and the language that they believe define women.
Back track a moment to Foucault's denial that the idea of a human body, of "man" objectively exists. Indeed, for him, "man...is probably no more than a kind of rift in the order of things..." The concept of "man" is up for grabs in Foucault's rampant historical relativism.
Now, gender-feminists come along and add the twist "if there is no objective man, there is no objective woman either." In doing so, gender feminists reject what they call 'sexual essentialism', which is the notion that sex is a natural force that exists prior to women's exposure to society or to social/political institutions. Sexual essentialism says that there is something natural rather than cultural about deeply held urges such as motherhood or a disposition toward heterosexuality. There is something natural about the general relationship between men and women which spans centuries, cultures and religions.
Gender-feminists reject such sexual essentialism, the idea that sex is based on biology. After all, according to Foucaldian-type analysis, biology itself is shifting sand with no lasting definition. Gender-feminists deny that women have natural tendencies, such as motherhood. Even deeply felt sexual preferences, such as heterosexuality or homosexuality, are not seen as matters of biology but of society's ideology...which is largely determined by the texts of society.
[This explains a common phenomenon in feminism about 15 years ago. This was when lesbian feminists urged heterosexual feminists to stop sleeping with the enemy, aka men. Our sexual orientation was seen to be a political choice, not a biological tendency.]
Gender-feminists argue that those who consider women's sexuality to be biological are taking sides with the conservative anti-feminists who maintain that biology determines women. Biology makes women inevitably weaker than men, or less intelligence or slated for domesticity, or... In short, anyone who claims women's sexuality comes from biology is blaming the victim for her own oppression.
The idea that sex is a social construct is good news to gender-feminists. After all, if sex has been constructed, then it can be deconstructed and put back together correctly. How?
In gender feminist theory, you have two classes of people with inherently antagonistic interests: men and women. You have a definition of sexuality -- of the woman's body itself -- which is up for political/cultural grabs through the episteme of society. And the single most important factor in the definition are the texts of society. First and foremost among those texts is pornography. The question now becomes: which class controls the texts through which a woman's body is defined?
This is what feminists refer to when they say 'pornography defines women, or 'pornography causes rape', 'pornography IS rape', or that every problem women have can be traced back to pornography. It is why lesbian-activists are willing to promote legislation that suppresses 'words and images' even though they know will be used to persecute lesbian bookstores.
With this new perspective, read a passage from Susan Brownmiller's in Against Our Will, which is typical of gender-feminist literature:
"Pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access, not to free sensuality from moralistic or parental inhibition. The staple of porn will always be the naked body, breasts and genitals exposed, because as man devised it, her naked body is the female's 'shame', her private parts the private property of man, while his are the ancient, holy, universal, patriarchal instrument of his power, his rule by force over her. Pornography is the undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda."
Let me act as a guide to Brownmiller's words: pornography -- graphic sex -- is an invention of man; as an invention, it is designed to dehumanize women; the naked female body as men devised it is the female's shame; his private parts are "his rule of force over her"; pornography is anti-female propaganda. In other words, pornography is the text which expresses man's hatred of woman and which socially constructs her oppression.
[Please note that I am not saying Brownmiller or any other particular feminist is a Foucaldian. I am merely stating that his sort of linguistic interpretation has so permeated the gender-feminist approach that Brownmiller and similar writers use his methodology, whether or not they are conscious of doing so.]
It took me a long time to understand that -- in discussions with gender-feminists -- I was speaking gibberish to them. I talked about choice, "a woman's body, a woman's right". By their analysis, however, women have been socially determined by men: we have been sexually constructed by the enemy class. I can no more say that I choose my sexuality than a concentration camp prisoner can claim to choose the menu of her evening meal. I take what gets served up, and sometimes a prisoner, such as me, is so brainwashed as to believe she is choosing. Indeed, Foucault is arguably best remembered for his analysis of suppressed groups, such as prisoners and mental patients. Phyllis Chesler, a key figure in feminist psychiatric work, refers to Foucault's Madness and Civilization as "a brilliant essay" which shows how the prestige of patriarchy is linked with the "dialectic of the Family", especially the father.12
To gender-feminist, "a woman's body, a woman's right" is just another patriarchial prison sentence. It is just another line of text through which men politically define who I -- as a woman --am.
(1) Analyzing Gender, eds. Beth B. Hess and Myra Marx Ferree, NewburyPark: Sage Publications, 1989, p.519.
(2) Knowing Women: Feminism and Knowledge, eds. Helen Crowley and Susan Himmelweit, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992, p.65.
(3) Sharon Welsh Communities of Resistance and Solidarity: A Feminist Theory of Liberation, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985.
(4) Valerie Walkerdine, SchoolGirl Fictions, London: Verso, p.136.
(5) After Foucault, ed. Jonathan Arac, New Brunswick: Rugers University Press, 1988.
(6) Ibid, p.161.
(7) Camille Paglia, Sex, Art, and American Culture "Junk bond and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf", New York: Vintage Books, 1992, pp.170-248.
(8) There have been recent attempts to reinterprete Freud, which I applaud, although -- as Freud himself said -- 'I am not a Freudian'.
(9) Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State Cambridge: Harvard, 1989.
(10) The Cambridge Companion to Foucault "Foucault, feminism, and questions of identity", by Jana Sawicki, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.291.
(11) Biddy Martin "Feminism, Criticism and Foucault" in Knowing Women p.276.
(12) Phyllis Chesler "Patient and Patriarch: Women in the Psychotherapeutic Relationship" in Woman in Sexist Society eds. Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran, New York: Basic Books, 1971, p.272.
Return to Subdirectory
Visit An Individualist Feminist Compendium -- a site dedicated to electronically reprinting classic individualist feminist works.
Return to home page