Hypatia 16.2 (2001) 111-116
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Constituting Feminist Subjects
Constituting Feminist Subjects. By Kathi Weeks. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.
The need to re-think notions of selfhood and agency became a fundamental element of feminist theory in the late twentieth century, and since we have not resolved most of the bothersome issues, it looks like it will remain a central question in the twenty-first century, as well. Twentieth-century feminism was born out of the assertion of our social construction as feminine subjects, subjects socially constituted to accept their status as inferior and subordinate [End Page 111] to men. Simone de Beauvoir's powerful analysis in The Second Sex (1974) of the complicated ways in which women have been made, not born, was a liberating call to change the ways in which women and men are made. However, Beauvoir also challenged women to become the active agents of their own emancipation: "If woman seems to be the inessential which never becomes the essential, it is because she herself fails to bring about this change" (Beauvoir 1974, xxii). The philosophical paradoxes of modernist notions of human agency were thus imported into the heart of feminism.
Only a historical materialist analysis of the social and economic structures that explained how our mothers and their mothers and their mothers were made complicit for so many centuries, and a corresponding analysis of how these structures were now changing, could explain how it was that in the early 1970s we finally felt capable of repudiating and overturning patriarchal hierarchies. We were conscious and grateful to be part of what Myra Marx Ferree (1994) has called a "white-hot" revolutionary moment in the early '70s, and we were obsessed with understanding how we might participate in changing the relevant social structures to enable our feminist project to succeed. Mary O'Brien's 1981 historical materialist analysis of what she labeled a "contraceptive revolution" was one exemplary effort at such analysis. By focusing on the changing relations of reproduction as a site of revolutionary potential, O'Brien offered women grounds to think ourselves a historically constituted subject of history, just as Marx's working class had been in the nineteenth century (O'Brien 1981).
With radical changes occurring in women's social and economic rights and responsibilities in little more than a decade, our sense of individual agency and selfhood changed, as well, quite dramatically. Initially, we took such changes for granted, confident that neither abstract Cartesian nor sexed psychoanalytic and biological notions of selfhood and agency could make sense of this historical surge of Women, and untroubled by the undertheorized status of our exciting new abilities to act. Yet the women's movement waned in the 1980s, and feminists found themselves struggling as individuals to make sense of their place in society. It was no longer enough to identify ourselves as feminists in order to know who we were or how we should act. Our own struggles often differed even from those of close friends, and our sense of our own struggles changed in different contexts. It became difficult to know who we ourselves were, never mind how to act as feminists, a condition of confusion captured very well by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble (1990).
Of course, Butler also represented the leading feminist edge of a new philosophical movement with confusing implications for feminism. Poststructuralism, particularly the postmodern critique of the Cartesian unified subject, was gaining momentum, and this critique has been a double-edged sword in relation to feminism. On the one hand, it provides feminism with a new basis [End Page 112] for criticizing patriarchy, as Rosi Braidotti demonstrated so well in Patterns of Dissonance (1991). On the other hand, many feminists felt that it was more than a little ironic that just as women began to gain a full sense of their agency and subjectivity, postmodern theory came along and denied the possibility for everyone.
As the feminist movement declined in the late 1980s, feminists began to seek philosophical grounds for re-articulating our sense of feminist selfhood and agency for two very different...