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New Left Review I/220, November-December 1996

Sabina Lovibond

Meaning What We Say: Feminist Ethics and the Critique of Humanism

1. Liberal and Radical Feminisms

This article will consider a split within current feminist theory which appears to require some declaration of loyalties. [1] An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, and I am grateful to all who have responded to it. Thanks especially to Susanne Bobzien and Miranda Fricker as co-convenors of the relevant seminar at Oxford, and to Perry Anderson for written comments. The split I have in mind is not altogether easy to describe in terms of the standard academic classification of feminist positions that prevailed in the 1970s and early 1980s—the schema that gave us ‘liberal’, ‘socialist’ and ‘radical’ feminism, with the ‘radical’ tendency marked out by a view of men—rather than, say, capitalism—as women’s ‘main enemy’, and by militancy over such issues as sexual abuse and domestic exploitation. This schema seems to have been eclipsed over the last ten years or so—in tandem, as it happens, with the increasing unacceptability of any positive reference to ‘socialism’ in British political discussion—by a different one which offers feminists a choice between just two basic self-images. Nowadays we can be, as before, ‘liberals’, now sometimes designated ‘liberal-humanists’; or we can be ‘radical’ in an updated sense, defined not in terms of any particular form of activism but by the questioning of certain untenable theoretical assumptions—and so of the authoritarian power structures which these assumptions are held to sustain.

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