- Unassimilable Feminisms: Reappraising Feminist, Womanist, and Mestiza Identity Politics by Laura Gillman
As we make our way into this new century, is there a feminist knowledge derived from women’s experience that could empower us as a gender, or did everything that might have held us together disappear with the essentialist definition of women that we left behind at the end of the last millennium? In this interesting and well-researched book, Laura Gillman explains that the essentialism debates that marked feminism at the end of the twentieth century ended with the triumph of the antiessentialist view, which in its extreme claims that “universal understandings about women’s physical or metaphysical nature are false; there is no fixed, universalizing biological essence, nor are there sociocultural patterns of conduct, activities or structures of feeling that bind all women together as a group” (1). Any attempt to define identity based on gender leads inevitably to normative roles and is an exercise of power, according to this postmodern reading.
Gillman deconstructs the antiessentialist argument through her detailed critique of two representative works: Susan Friedman’s Mappings: Feminist and Cultural Geographies of Encounter and Robyn Wiegman’s American Anatomies. She then defends her contention that identity politics are not only possible but essential to the feminist project: “a necessary mechanism for developing reliable knowledge … justification for our decision and meaning-making procedures as well as political action” (2). Identity politics, as a self-naming, self-identifying process that enables groups and individuals to intervene in their political reality, empowers differently located embodied subjects to engage actively in interpreting and evaluating the meanings of their identities and the social categories to which they have been indexed. This understanding of identity moves from epistemology through ethics to politics.
Knowledge is, first of all, possible. The interaction of a human subject with the natural and social world in which she lives yields valuable awareness. Knowledge thus begins in the experience of an embodied subject—a person—interrogating her position, including the body as a site of knowledge. The experience of the subject must be reflected upon since it is open to erroneous interpretation, but it may be evaluated against empirical and theoretical criteria. The contradiction between subjective and objective knowledge disappears in this framework.
Identity also has an ethical dimension in that the woman engaged in this process is not simply discovering but rather negotiating and constructing herself as a social and political subject. Her identity will form the basis for her ethical behavior, linking identity to the web of women’s moral development as well as social action.
Since identities arise from specific, embodied positional perspectives occurring at distinct social and cultural locations and are understood according to different interpretive traditions, then they are not capable of being shared in a politics of inclusion. As Gillman writes, “Black feminist, womanist and mestiza feminist thoughts must remain unassimilable to one another” (9). This quality of being unassimilable is not a negative but rather a productive situation. It means that we must recognize and accept that we can never comprehend completely the point [End Page 76] of view of another group, although a certain cultural translatability is possible. We must also treat one another in a completely egalitarian fashion. Gillman affirms that our goal as feminists is not initially to seek solidarity but rather to consider the possibility of learning from one another’s distinct identities. An attitude of openness makes universalism possible, meaning that the claims about the social world made by women of color will be “not applicable only to the identities of the group in question, but rather to the world we all share.” (8)
Having set forth very methodically her argument against “getting beyond” identity politics, Gillman applies the principles of postpositivist realism, whose tenets include objective location and universalism. That is, identity is both constructed and existing in the natural world (thus subject to change); social knowledge is always derived from embodied experience in specific space and time; and women are active agents in the construction of their own identities...