Angela Weir and Elizabeth Wilson begin their assessment of ‘The British Women’s Movement’ with an acknowledgement of the necessarily partial character of their critique and a declaration that their intention is not a destructive one. Yet despite the benefits of discussion and re-assessment that have accrued to socialist-feminists as a result of both their article and the pamphlet from which it originated,footnote1 the exercise as a whole has, I believe, been not merely partial but sectarian in its motivation, and destructive rather than positive in its effect. I do not propose here to provide a comprehensive reply to the many issues raised in their article, simply to make some general observations about their arguments and to counter some of the specific points made.
Firstly, Angela Weir and Elizabeth Wilson construct a version of socialist-feminist theoretical and programmatic work that is extraordinary in its generalizations from unrepresentative instances. Who are all these socialist-feminists who are arguing against regenerating the manufacturing sector or who ignore the relationship between women’s work and the organization of capitalist production? Who adopt a ‘separate spheres’ approach to tinker with family policy? There are so few of them that Weir and Wilson have to belabour one 1981 article by Anna Coote to show us that this bogey really is there. They even have to use Anne Phillips, one of the few published feminist critics of the aes, to provide the data with which they criticize her supposed position! (p. 41). The fact is that the vast majority of socialist-feminists have been, precisely, doing work that does relate women’s employment to the organization of the labour process; that does criticize the family in a radical rather than a ‘reformist’ way. These omissions in Weir and Wilson’s account of socialist-feminist work are simply gaping holes in their argument. They relegate to a footnote describing what socialist-feminists used to do in the 1970s virtually all the questions that many socialist-feminists are still working on and developing.footnote2
There is surely some onus on the authors of what is entitled a survey of a national political movement to provide some form of balance-sheet rather than a completely one-sided account. Yet the only notes that creep in to relieve the unremitting tone of criticism are a grudging respect for radical feminist activism and some carefully specified formulations about the achievements of feminists working in local government. Leaving aside the more general themes of the article, let us focus from this point of view on the extended discussion of socialist-feminism since the mid 1970s.
Weir and Wilson complain, for example, that socialist-feminist debate has become too academic (p. 91) but this is partly at least because they focus most of their discussion on academic texts, ignoring related campaigns and institutional struggles. They themselves have depoliticized these debates. They criticize the arguments of discourse theory as presented by Rosalind Coward in 1979 in the journal m/f, and they remark that ‘only’ Paul Hirst had the intellectual honesty to admit (in Politics and Power) the conservative implications of these rather vaguely specified developments. Yet as they must surely know, the politics of the journal m/f became clearer after Rosalind Coward’s resignation from the Board on an issue of principle, and the majority of the feminists on the Board of the journal Politics and Power resigned at the time of Paul Hirst’s statement. These are not pieces of classified information, and the political significance of these developments was made clear in published statements at the time.footnote3 Whilst these struggles over the policies of journals are not exactly Molotov cocktails on the streets, they are nevertheless an important dimension of the politics of socialist-feminism and one that is denied by a restriction of debate to the texts themselves. The effect of Weir and Wilson’s treatment is to present discourse theory as a tendency that seduced all socialist-feminists until their own 1985 critique, whereas the truth is that several socialist-feminists have been engaged in substantial critical work in this field for some time.
Secondly, the article is shot through with an opportunistic style that uses arguments highly selectively, to attack a particular position rather than to make a contribution to a general argument. The strongest case of this is their critique of discourse theory and the journal m/f. Weir and Wilson reject the position that power is contested and secured in a variety of discursive practices by asking why it should be that in all these separate instances it should be men who have the power (p. 84). Yet this is not a question that they are immune from themselves. Here they seem to see three theoretical options: the discourse theory position with its failure (or refusal) to explain any social totality; the radical feminist position that poses conflict between men and women as fundamental and irreducible; and a historical materialist explanation of male dominance. Effectively they use the radical feminist position against the discourse theory position, but it is quite clear that they reject the implication, for their own arguments, of identifying men as powerful as men.