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.
Their own position, presumably, the ‘historical materialist explanation of male dominance’ to which they refer, remains completely unstated. In the absence of any clear argument as to what this explanation might be, we are forced to piece it together from passing remarks. The clearest statement comes in the brief section on socialist feminism and race, but it must apply too to the differences and divisions between women and men. They write: ‘We believe that a theoretical basis, if not for unity at least for a much-needed political cooperation among different groups of women, can be most accurately and concretely developed in the context of class analysis. Far from obliterating differences, Marxism provides the most effective tool for understanding what is often a gulf between the experiences of black and of white women’ (p. 81). Their conclusion, that feminist struggles can only be expressed through an intensification of class struggle (defined in such a way as to incorporate some ‘women’s interests’ but no challenge to masculinity or the gendered division of labour), also demonstrates quite decisively how little ground they are prepared to give to feminism. (Just as, incidentally, their comments on the miners’ strike fail to recognize how this mobilization has been supported more by the rank and file than by the leadership of the trade union and labour movement: they refuse to acknowledge that critiques of the trade unions come from the left as well as the right.) The ‘class position’ that they take up in general has the effect of making their ‘feminist’ critique of discourse theory and m/f look distinctly like an ad feminam argument. From this point of view it is also worth pointing out the speciousness of their opening bid for feminist credibility in the statement that we should ‘locate women’s continuing subordination as central’ (p.75); after a while it becomes clear that it is only central in the sense that it is part of class politics and they are central (a rather different matter).
Thirdly, I want to take issue with Weir and Wilson’s tendency to see their sisters and comrades falling by the wayside all around them. The article reads like the diary of heroic warriors whose troops are deserting them; one by one they are sinking into the various deviations so easily perceived once this righteous and typically sectarian thought pattern sets in. I agree that it is now fashionable within the academy to be explicitly anti-Marxist and that many feminist positions are increasingly challenged with more confidence; I also agree that a certain kind of radical feminism has been espoused by some socialist men (parallel to the black separatism congenial to some white women) at the expense of a more positive socialist-feminism. These are serious problems indeed, but they do not add up to the Weir and Wilson scenario of the enemy within socialist-feminism.