Materialist Feminisms

Although feminists and socialists have engaged in continuous conversations since the nineteenth century, those crosscurrents within literary theory that might be designated “materialist feminisms” have their origins in the late 1960s with various attempts to synthesize feminist politics with Marxist analyses. Early work on this projected alliance directed itself, not to questions of literary criticism and theory, but to the problem of bringing feminist questions of gender and sexuality into some form of strategic dialogue with class analysis. In keeping with subsequent developments within the women’s movement, the materialist feminist problematic has extended to questions of race; nationality or ethnicity; lesbianism and sexuality; cultural identity, including religion; and the very definition of power. Conversations and disagreements among English-language writers framing a materialist feminist analysis in the United States and the United Kingdom sometimes acknowledge the influence of French feminists such as Christine Delphy and Monique Wittig but have yet to engage fully with the critiques of Marxist theory being constructed by feminists working in other international locations.

The very term “materialist feminisms” proves contentious, since there has been little general consensus whether women’s interests can, or indeed should, be addressed in terms of traditional socialist and Marxist formulas. In the United Kingdom, Juliet Mitchell’s groundbreaking essay “Women: The Longest Revolution” (1966), which she expanded to book length in Woman’s Estate (1971), initiated the revision of traditional Marxist accounts by analyzing the position of women in terms not only of relations of production and private property but also of psychoanalytically based theories of sexuality and gender. Michèle Barrett’s highly influential Women’s Oppression Today (1980) insists that the way forward for feminists will necessarily involve direct engagement with and transformation of Marxist class analysis. In their editorial to the final issue of the important U.K. journal m/f (1978-86), Parveen Adams and Elizabeth Cowie adopt a more extreme position, stating, “As socialistfeminists we were opposed to the much discussed union of Marxism and feminism” and sought instead “to problématisé the notion of sexual difference itself” through a fundamental critique of psychoanalytic categories (3). These differences should be understood as both intellectual and representative of a specific context of partisan disputes within the British Left. The situation differs in the United States, where, largely working outside the pressures of party politics but constrained by the memory of Joseph McCarthy, feminists as diverse as Lise Vogel, Zillah Eisenstein, Nancy Hartsock, and Donna Haraway identify themselves as “socialist feminists,” thereby distinguishing their work from that of radical and liberal feminists, who contend that women’s oppression will end with the achievement of women’s power, or women’s equality, within existing capitalist societies, positions strangely like the traditional Marxist view that women’s oppression would end once women entered into production.

Michèle Barrett

The importance of these critical positions and developments for feminist literary theory and criticism arises from their foundations in political theory, psychoanalysis, and sociology rather than from traditional literary concerns with questions of canon, form, genre, author, and oeuvre. Materialist feminist literary critics focus instead on key problems in language, history, ideology, determination, subjectivity, and agency from the basic perspective of a critique of the gendered character of class and race relations under international capitalism.

The significance of Juliet Mitchell‘s work for feminist literary theory is indirect yet fundamental. Initially trained as a literary scholar, Mitchell focuses on questions concerning the family and child rearing by means of a feminist critique of psychoanalytic theories of sexual development largely based upon a literary-critical examination of texts within the Freudian and Marxist canons. Mitchell’s project, continued in her influential Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974) and Women: The Longest Revolution (1984), which reprints her 1966 essay alongside exemplary studies of literary texts, has been to inflect feminist politics with insights from Marxism and psychoanalysis. With Jacqueline Rose (in their edition of Jacques Lacan’s Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the “école freudienne/’ 1982), she has continued the engagement between the psychoanalytic theories of Lacan and materialist feminist thinking in Britain (see Rosalind Coward and John Ellis, Language and Materialism: Developments in Semiology and the Theory of the Subject, 1977)· Working from the Freudian principle that “the fate of the adulf personality can be largely decided in the initial months of life” and the Marxist principle of dialectical materialism that “human society is, and always will be, full of contradictions” (Woman’s Estate 118, 90), Mitchell has recently criticized “the voluntarist underestimation of the great difficulty of psychic change,” since, she argues, “the best-cared for child has a caretaker who has grown up with problems—this will always be the case. And these problems will be transmitted in an uneven way” (McRobbie 87). Mitchell’s consistent emphasis upon reading critically Marxist, Freudian, and Lacanian discourses on sexuality and socialization leads to questions of ideology and literary representation that are of considerable importance for such feminist literary studies as Jacqueline Rose’s Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986) and Jane Gallop’s The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (1982), which takes Psychoanalysis and Feminism as its “point of departure” (xiii).

For a sociologist of knowledge like Michèle Barrett, literary questions are contingent rather than central. Her treatment of ideology in Women’s Oppression Today, however, has been highly influential among feminist literary theorists. According to Barrett, the political urgencies of women’s liberation bear directly on the need for a feminist analysis of “culture,” and it is here that the problematic relationship of Marxism and feminism engages questions important to literary theory, in particular questions of aesthetics, subjectivity, and ideology. In “Feminism and the Definition of Cultural Politics,” her 1980 lecture to the Communist University of London, Barrett addresses three issues of direct importance to materialist feminist literary theory: 1) the indeterminacy of artistic and literary meaning, 2) the relationship between women’s art and feminist art, and 3) the problem of judging aesthetic value and pleasure. Following Raymond Williams , Barrett focuses on the literary problem of “signification,” the “systems of signs . .. through which meaning is constructed, represented, consumed and reproduced” (38). Artistic and literary meanings are determinable but not fixed, since meaning “may depend on who is reading or receiving… and how they do so” (39). This is not an argument for total indeterminacy, however, since for Barrett every work does carry a “dominant, or preferred, reading” (42) that limits the range of possible meanings. Barrett regards literary texts, art objects, and dramatic performances as marked by inner contradictions that cannot easily be adjudicated by reference to the artist’s life or intentions. While agreeing with Rosalind Coward that women’s art is not necessarily feminist, since feminism “is an alignment of political interests and not a shared female experience” (42), Barrett is reluctant to follow Coward and abandon female experience entirely. She does, however, argue that feminist political interests are not necessarily served by the recovery of women’s past artistic achievements or even by self-proclaimed feminist artworks like Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

Barrett approaches the question how we distinguish cultural production in general from “art” within the framework of a historical materialist critique of ideology: “It is only the degradation of work under capitalist relations of production, including the degree to which workers have been stripped of mental control over their labour, that makes us perceive such a huge gulf between work and what we call ‘creative’ work” (48-49). Arguing that feminists ignore the dual question of aesthetic value and pleasure to their peril, Barrett finds the traditional assumption that value judgments can and should be made a highly suspicious assumption for feminist politics, since such judgments about “value” invariably tend to reinforce the values of the dominant classes as apparently natural and universal.

Barrett’s materialist aesthetics seeks to democratize the relation between the producer and the consumer of art. Skills, though socially defined, are not innate but acquired and therefore improvable, while the imaginative rendering of social life in works of art and literature is typically foreclosed in much feminist criticism by an undue emphasis upon the work’s content as unmediated representation. Barrett emphasizes the active role of the viewer/reader and suggests that there is no intrinsic merit in avant-garde forms; nor are the pleasures to be obtained from politically “regressive” art forms (TV soap operas, romances) to be rejected by feminists out of hand. Not only, she contends, can the feminist desire to reject the sexism of dominant cultural productions and to establish feminist alternatives prevent us from understanding our desires but the energy directed at developing alternatives might be used to develop “strategies directed at more fundamental changes” (56). Politics comes first for Barrett, since literature and art help constitute social life but do not determine it: “Cultural politics, and feminist art, are important precisely because we are not the helpless victims of oppressive ideology. We take some responsibility for the cultural meaning of gender and it is up to us all to change it” (58).

If for Barrett questions of literature, art, and aesthetic pleasure are important but not determining—there remain those “more fundamental changes” to be worked out—for Rosalind Coward, Catherine Belsey, Toril Moi, and Cora Kaplan the critical study of literary texts is of primary importance to the development and enunciation of a feminist politics firmly committed to socialism. In Patriarchal Precedents (1983), Coward critically historicizes from a feminist perspective the various disciplines within which sexual relations have traditionally been studied. For Coward, Lacan’s observation that the unconscious is structured like a language provides the basis for a materialist feminist approach to s emio t ic s that addresses how different forms of popular culture help construct gendered social subjects in ways that perpetuate oppressive social relations (see Female Desire, 1984). Belsey’s Critical Practice (1980) argues that “the recurrent suppression of the role of language” in traditional literary criticism is an ideological move by which the “‘correct’ reading” of a text installs the reader as “transcendent subject addressed by an autonomous and authoritative author” (55). Belsey develops this bringing together of Lacanian and Althusserian theories of the subject in The Subject of Tragedy (1987), which rereads English Renaissance drama from a materialist feminist perspective, arguing that the emergence of liberal ideologies during the capitalist era has required the “interpellation” of women as, in part, willing subjects of their own oppression in relation to a normative and universal male Self. This critique of liberal humanism emphasizes the political importance of history, as well as the need for readings of literary texts against the grain of their ideological commitments. Preferring Virginia Woolf’s modernist deconstruction of the unitary self and the critique of the subject found in the French poststructuralists, Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics (1985) challenges the humanist presuppositions informing the influential feminist literary criticism of Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Annette Kolodny, and Myra Jehlen. In their antisexist focus on female authors and readers, Moi contends, feminist literary critics adopt what Marcia Holly calls a “noncontradictory perception of the world” (Moi 10) that mystifies rather than disables patriarchal assumptions by positing for itself a place outside ideology. Celebrating women writers and readers as such reinscribes the unitary self and thereby begs the political questions of agency and resistance, “of how it is that some women manage to counter patriarchal strategies despite the odds stacked against them” (64). The primacy of such political concerns defined the project of the U.K. Marxist-Feminist Literary Collective (1976- 78/79), which, Kaplan explains, explored “the contradictions and difficulties of working collectively in a field that prized the individual and original insight above any other,” causing members to confront “how hard it was to ‘let go’ of a private property in ideas and language” (63). In Kaplan’s work, and in that of Mary Jacobus and Penny Boumelha, the collective’s interest “in developing a Marxist feminist analysis of literature” (61) continues, producing class-sensitive critiques of sexual ideology in various literary texts of the postindustrial era (in contrast to Belsey’s focus on the literature of the early capitalist period).

Kaplan writes that her experience in the collective enabled her to overcome her fear of “theory,” an antipathy that persists among the U.S. feminist literary critics Moi examines. Not all U.S. feminist critics, however, share this fear. Critiques of the disciplines of literary history and criticism from a class- as well as genderconscious perspective have been undertaken by Lillian Robinson (Sex, Class, and Culture, 1978) and Jane Marcus (“The Asylums of Antaeus: Women, War, and Madness— Is There a Feminist Fetishism?” The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser, 1989). Gayle Rubin’s much-cited essay, “The Traffic in Women” (1975), remains a useful reading of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Lacan in the interests of rethinking the sex-gender system within social relations. Pioneering articles by Ann Rosalind Jones (“Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l’écriture féminine,Feminist Studies 7 [1981]) and Biddy Martin (“Feminism, Criticism, and Foucault,” New German Critique 27 [1982]) brought French feminism and Foucauldian theory to bear upon feminist criticism in the United States, while in 1981 Judith Newton’s Women, Power, and Subversion: Social Strategies in Women’s Fiction, 1780-1860 raised questions concerning the class character of gender ideology for literary historians (see also subsequent work by Nancy Armstrong, Catherine Gallagher, and Mary Poovey). Written with Deborah Rosenfelt, Newton’s 1985 introduction to Feminist Criticism and Social Change enthusiastically proclaims the emergence of “materialist feminist criticism” in a collection that reprints important studies by, among others, Barrett, Belsey, Jones, and the editors. In challenging the increasing institutional influence of liberal feminism in the later 1980s, the theoretical perspective of the introduction privileges literature over politics, thereby reversing the emphasis of many of its contributors. This is most evident in the selection and discussion of European Marxist feminists who address cultural issues pertaining to literature and the silence over important U.S. contributors to the Marxist feminist problematic working in political science (Zillah Eisenstein, Nancy Hartsock), sociology (Lise Vogel), economics (Heidi Hartmann), philosophy (Marilyn Frye, Alison Jaggar), and legal theory (Catharine MacKinnon).

Some of the most important U.S. contributions to materialist feminist criticism have come from socialists and feminists working directly with the interrelated literary problems of sexuality, racial difference, the politics of language, and postcoloniality, questions barely addressed by U.K. materialist feminists. The autobiographical essays by Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Barbara Smith (Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism, 1984) and literary studies by Biddy Martin (“Lesbian Identity and Autobiographical Difference[s],” Life/Lines: Theorizing Women’s Autobiography, ed. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck, 1988) , Katie King (“Audre Lorde’s Lacquered Layerings: The Lesbian Bar as a Site of Literary Production,” Cultural Studies 2 [1988]), and other lesbian feminists have fundamentally challenged the heterosexist biases and presuppositions of both capitalist ideology and socialist critique. Donna Haraway‘s influential “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s” (Socialist Review 80 [1985]), reprinted with other essays in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991), explores how recent developments in the technologies of the body destabilize not only gender categories but also the unity of self and body, with a view to constructing a socialist-feminist mythology of the future. Her Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modem Science (1989) analyzes the interconnections of gender and racial ideologies within the history of primatology as a representative twentieth-century science. From Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981) through Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984) and Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1990), bell hooks (Gloria Watkins) documents how the history of class and race blindness among U.S. feminists continues to affect the work of feminist scholars and cultural critics. Valerie Smith (“Gender and Afro-Americanist Literary Theory and Criticism,” Speaking of Gender, ed. Elaine Showalter, 1989) analyzes the institutional pressures toward commodification that specifically affect African-American feminist critics. From the perspective of Derridean deconstruction, the essays in Gayatri Spivak‘s In Other Worlds (1987) and the interviews in The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (ed. Sarah Harasym, 1990) emphasize the complicities and dangerous instabilities of “class,” “gender,” and “race” among the analytical languages needed to negotiate a global politics that will destabilize the continuing logic of capitalism in the contemporary postcolonial era. Also working from a poststructuralist problematic, Hortense Spillers argues that African-American women writers, and women generally, are betrayed by liberal feminist literary critics who rely on master narratives that reinscribe legitimacy crises based on patriarchal and imperialist myths of Oedipal anxiety (“A Hateful Passion,” 1983; “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 1987). Barbara Harlow’s Resistance Literature (1987) examines literary texts from West Asia, Africa, and South and Central America from a race-conscious materialist feminist perspective. Not all race-sensitive U.S. feminist critics have been sympathetic to recent developments in literary theory, however; Barbara Christian (whose work is included by Newton and Rosenfelt) has raised her influential voice against “theory,” by which she means poststructuralism, in “The Race for Theory” (1987; Gender and Theory, ed. Linda Kauffman, 1989).

Materialist feminist critics in the United Kingdom and the United States have contributed significantly to f il m t h e o r y , semiotics, and the study of popular culture, though work in these fields has often developed independently of socialist politics and outside of traditional Marxist analytical categories. A co-editor of and contributor to the important collection of essays Feminism and Materialism (1978), Annette Kuhn has subsequently developed theories of feminist film production and criticism that focus on questions of representation, ideology, and sexuality (Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema, 1982; The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality, 1985). In The Subject of Semiotics (1983), Kaja Silverman draws heavily on critical readings of Althusserian Marxism and the work of Foucault to examine problems in film theory, ideology, and aesthetic pleasure from a feminist perspective, as does Teresa de Lauretis in Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (1984) and Technologies of Gender (1987). Tania Modleski’s important Loving with a Vengeance (1982), which employs a class-conscious feminist critique of psychoanalysis to explore subject formation in massmarket romances, Gothics, and soap operas aimed at female audiences; Terry Lovell’s Pictures of Reality: Aesthetics, Politics, and Pleasure (1982) and Consuming Fiction (1987); Janice Radway’s ethnographic Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984); and Meaghan Morris’s The Pirate’s Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism (1988) have helped open up the study of popular genres to politically sophisticated feminist analysis. Although little concerned with literary or filmic texts, Diane Macdonnell’s Theories of Discourse: An Introduction (1986) offers a lucid Marxist and feminist introduction to Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and Michel Pêcheux. Janet Wolff’s The Social Production of Art (1981) and Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture (1990) and Rita Felski’s Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change (1989) provide rigorous arguments for the inseparability of any effective feminist cultural politics from social analysis. Important materialist feminist essays in theory, film studies, semiotics, and popular culture can be found in the U.K. journals Feminist Review, l&C (formerly Ideology and Consciousness), LTP, m/f, New Left Review, Oxford Literary Review, Red Letters, and Screen and the U.S. journals Camera Obscura, Cultural Critique, enclitic, Feminist Issues, Feminist Studies, Genders, jump Cut, Signs, and Socialist Review.

While feminist theorists such as Kuhn, de Lauretis, Modleski, Silverman, and Morris are critical of the unitary self of liberal feminism and insist on the materiality of signifying practices (such as film and mass fiction) in the ideological construction of gender, their concern with gender and subjectivity all but abandons the basic materialist questions of history, class, and the economic that variously remain crucial in Mitchell, Barrett, Coward, Belsey, Kaplan, Haraway, Felski, King, Lovell, Martin, Spivak, Spillers, and Wolff. It may be that the conversations, to use King’s term, of the 1970s and early 1980s attempting to bring feminism into dialogue with Marxism are over, doomed from the start. But in Barrett’s concern with the aesthetic, ideological, and class bases of women’s oppression; in Belsey’s and Kaplan’s analyses of the historical constructions of female subjectivity in literary texts by and about women; in Martin’s and King’s theoretical examinations of lesbianism and sexuality; in Spivak’s materialist-deconstructionist readings of the global texts of postcoloniality via Capital; in Spillers’s critique of Judeo-Christian, Oedipal, imperialist historiography; and in Haraway’s excavations of the ideology of what we so often mistake for “nature” or scientific “truth,” many important questions raised by those conversations continue to generate new problems demanding the attention of feminists engaged in the construction of a leftist theory and practice of literary criticism.

Parveen Adams and Elizabeth Cowie, “The Last Issue between Us,” m/f 11/12 (1986); Michèle Barrett, “Feminism and the Definition of Cultural Politics,” Feminism, Culture, and Politics (ed. Rosalind Brunt and Caroline Rowan, 1982), Women’s Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis (1980, rev. ed., Women’s Oppression Today: The Marxist/Feminist Encounter, 1988); Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (1980), The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (1987); Rosalind Coward, Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today (1984); Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (1987); Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991); Cora Kaplan, Sea Changes: Culture and Feminism (1986); Annette Kuhn and AnnMarie Wolpe, eds., Feminism and Materialism: Women and Modes of Production (1978); Angela McRobbie, “An Interview with Juliet Mitchell,” New Left Review 170 (1988); Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974), Woman’s Estate (1971), “Women: The Longest Revolution,” New Left Review 40 (1966), Women: The Longest Revolution (1984); Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (1982); Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985); Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt, eds., Feminist Criticism and Social Change: Sex, Class, and Race in Literature and Culture (1985); Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” Toward an Anthropology of Women (ed. Rayna R. Reiter, 1975); Hortense J. Spillers, “A Hateful Passion, a Lost Love,” Feminist Studies 9 (1983), “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” diacritics 17 (1987); Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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