- Feminist Theory in Pursuit of the Public: Women and the Re-privatization of Labor
Robin Truth Goodman’s Feminist Theory in Pursuit of the Public is a theoretically rich and ambitious effort to rethink feminism and a feminist politics in relation to the public. It traces the private/public divide historically across feminist debates in conjunction with careful readings of theoretical, literary, and popular texts. This proves fruitful not only for reviving an engaged feminism that has seemingly lost some of its critical and social efficacy, but also for confronting the marginalization of public democratic life within late modern culture.
Goodman begins by suggesting that feminist theory has been caught off balance in its response to the re-composition of labor under a flexible and deregulated global capital—i.e., non-unionized and mass sweatshop production, and the prevalence of immaterial and affective valorization in the service and financial sectors. This “feminization” of labor has coincided with a waning of feminism that Goodman argues is tied to the absorption of the private, particularly its gendered dimensions, into economic liberalization. Here, the private is symbolically naturalized as a site of entrepreneurial “empowerment” for women, unencumbered by either the public or the regulatory state. This seeming incompatibility between “femininity” and the public generates and legitimizes depoliticized zones of deregulatory nonintervention. Goodman insightfully refers to this phenomenon as the “re-privatization” of women’s work bound to ”the current corporate and financial practice of avoiding the regulatory state by directly capitalizing on a type of labor that resembles women’s work of the industrial era in its legal status, tasks, and definitional traits” (1–2). The re-privatization of women’s work materially and symbolically transcodes the private of women’s industrial domesticity into the private anti-public coordinates of enterprise culture—thus calling into being new understandings and articulations of the public/private divide.
Goodman proceeds to highlight a series of retreats in feminism from the public. She positions these retreats as roughly corresponding to three stages in the historical division of labor: 1) industrial production where the private home represents the gendered site naturalizing women’s subordination and alienation from the public, 2) Fordist welfare regimes where the public is symbolically associated with both feminized labor and the re-inscription of patriarchal authority through the state, 3) multinational post-Fordist models where the private becomes positioned as “liberation” from a supposedly excessive and inefficient public authority and where corporate “interests have taken over the exercise of power in the public’s name” (34). This discussion unfolds through detailed meditations on first- and second-wave feminism and liberalism, psychoanalysis and the “linguistic turn,” and queer identity politics. In each case, Goodman suggests that feminist investments [End Page 383] in privacy have made it incompatible with a feminist politics rooted in the public. Drawing on Nancy Fraser, she argues that feminism’s focus on the private as the primary site of women’s oppression and liberation, whether in the domestic sphere, in language, or in identity, has unwittingly served to advance neoliberal transformations due to a failure to “predict how the public sphere could be reconceptualized to take on the structural features that defined the private sphere” and/or to “calculate the indelibility of capital’s need for the private sphere as a site of superexploitation and exceptions to the law” (48).
Goodman next turns to critical theory in order to reclaim what Seyla Benhabib has referred to as feminism’s “ethical impulse,” its grounding in visions of autonomy, liberation, and collective democratic action and imagination. This involves a sustained effort to think through Habermas’ communicative rationality and its understanding of women and the public/private divide. According to Goodman, Habermas demonstrates that “the overlapping of public and private results in the placement of women and their work as the line of communication between them, in particular as the type of work that resists total instrumenalization” (52). Here, women’s work is likened to Kantian aesthetic judgment: a universal model of noninstrumentalizable experience that demonstrates...