For And Against Feminism: A Personal Journey into Feminist Theory and History

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Ann Curthoys, For And Against Feminism: A Personal Journey into Feminist Theory and History,  Sydney, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, (1988). 164 Pages

I’m glad that I didn’t let the awful title put me off reading this book. For Marxist Feminism and Against Radical Feminism would certainly have been a more descriptive, if cumbersome, title.

Curthoys packs an enormous amount of history and theoretical debate into a slim 164 pages. The book is comprised of a collection of her own writing  about feminism written between 1970 and 1986. Each piece she has selected is put into context with a short explanation about why she wrote it and the major debates happening at the time.

I’ve always pushed for the women’s movement to have a multi-issue approach and to locate itself firmly as part of the anti-capitalist left. When I first got involved in the movement in 1979, radical feminism, which identified all men as the enemy, was at its peak. What a revelation to read Curthoys account of the early days of the women’s liberation movement in Australia.

The early women’s liberation movement, while in part a revolt against New Left men, was nevertheless imbued with New Left politics. It was concerned with imperialism, socialism, and the oppression of third world and minority groups, with the ideologies sustaining an evil capitalist system, with revolutionary strategies and tactics.

One of the early pamphlets produced by the women’s liberation movement in Sydney was called Only the Chains Have Changed. It was produced for distribution at an Anti-Vietnam war march in December 1969. The powerful concluding statement was “We, like the Vietnamese, can only be free of oppression when the profit makers no longer have the power to determine our lives.”

As a teacher who has taught women’s studies in the eighties I was fascinated by Curthoys’ accounts of the struggle to establish women’s studies and the debates surrounding this development. For feminists the debate was between fighting to establish interdisciplinary women’s studies courses or making traditional disciplines change sufficiently to allow the incorporation of feminist scholarship. Curthoys opted for the latter but points out that this debate has never been really resolved. The either/or framework of the debate has fortunately been replaced as contemporary Australian feminist educators demand sexually inclusive curriculum in every discipline, while at the same time establishing specific women’s studies courses in all sectors of education.

Curthoys co-ordinated and taught the fledgling Women’s Studies course at the Australian National University where she was a single person department attached to a partially hostile history department. She describes how academics such as sociologist, Jerzy Zubrycki, attacked her at faculty board meetings for having feminist theory texts on the course which he considered “unrespectable” and not scholarly works.

Yet even a glance at the theoretical discussions Curthoys has participated in over the last decade reveals the academic rigour and often fierce level debate which surrounds feminist theory. Curthoys describes the debates taking place in a clear and accessible fashion. She methodically outlines each of the major positions argued before outlining her own positions where she unashamedly uses Marxist methodology.

Curthoys lambasts radical feminists and careerist femocrats. In her introduction to a 1982 essay she explained how she was shocked by many of the directions feminism, especially radical feminism, was taking. A turning point for her was the 1981 visit of radical feminist theorist, Mary Daly. Curthoys is particularly critical of her work which she rightly claims bears no trace of the new left origins of women’s liberation or the Marxist strand of feminism. She writes:

“I was shocked to realise how many of my feminist friends thought this apolitical man-hater to be worthwhile, to be a thinker whom they considered they could align themselves with…the episode revealed to me just how much I had diverged from my closest feminist academic colleagues, and I found it increasingly difficult to find a feminist group which reflected my own particular brand of feminism.”

Curthoys explains concisely the problems she found with Daly’s Gyn/Ecology:

“Daly sees women and men as two orders of being and takes to its logical conclusion the notion of sexual oppression as the basis of all oppression. To Daly, no men are oppressed: all women are. Colonialism, imperialism, class exploitation all cease to exist or matter. Militarism is a product only of male aggression and power play. So too are the ecological disasters of the modern world…Daly’s analysis reinstates men, all men, as the enemy. Daly’s work denies any salience to divisions other than gender. It ignores a class analysis absolutely.”

A paper titled Women and Class, delivered at the 1984 Marxist Summer School, is biting in its criticisms of privileged femocrats. Those women who have gone into the upper echelons of the bureaucracy to “help” other women but lose all connection with the activist base of the movement. Curthoys describes them as seeing themselves as hideously oppressed:

“….they would go to all-women parties and conferences and complain. My god how the whinged! Life was a dreary round of problems and defeats, pain and disillusion. As they drank their pretty good wine and helped themselves to magnificent food, they told themselves how much they were suffering the pain of being women.”

Yet these women would see themselves as socialists of sorts. Curthoys asks the question

“…how could socialists have become so blind [sic] to the exploitation and struggles of working class and/or colonised men? How had they come to identify the relative privilege and power of the middle-class men they combated in their working lives with the position of all men?”

But it is not only the blatant radical feminists and the careerist femocrats who get a serve in Curthoys’ collection. Some who would call themselves socialist feminists also come in for criticisms. The collection contains a review of Heidi Hartmann’s influential essay The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism. Hartmann argues for a dual theory of explaining social life; two completely separate systems, patriarchy and capitalism. Like Radical Women, Curthoys disagrees. She says “using the term [patriarchy] to refer to male power and control makes it difficult to adhere to the older, and I think more precise and helpful usage where patriarchy refers to ‘the  rule of the father’.”  The capitalist system is patriarchal. The two are not separate things. In the Radical Women Manifesto we say “the capitalist system could not function without the patriarchal nuclear family.”

For and Against Feminism is not simply a history. It is also a present and a future. The final section of the book, Coming to Terms With Our Colonial Past, in many ways points to directions for future theoretical work. By the 1980s Curthoys was criticising the lack of theoretical work bringing together class, gender and race. In her own work, Curthoys had been unable to connect all three, having been involved in discussing either class and gender or arguing for the the importance of class analysis when studying ethnicity and colonial confrontation. 

The final essay of the collection Post-colonialism, ethnic identity and gender powerfully argues against an increasing fragmentation as a result of identity politics. Radical Women argues for a unity politics or solidarity politics where all take up the fight for the needs of the most oppressed and in doing so fight to liberate ourselves too. The Radical Women Manifesto puts it this way: 

“We believe that solidarity and mutual aid of all the oppressed are necessary for the genuine liberation of anyone sector; that either we are all free, or none of us is free…’Unity’ that is not based on respect for the different levels of oppression within society is arrogant, false and eventually self defeating.”

Ann Curthoys has made an important contribution to Australian feminist  theory and For and Against Feminism brings a small collection of this work together in a very useful format. My one real frustration with this book was its lack of conclusions about the political practice which needs to flow from the theory. Curthoys is located firmly in academia and so the strategy and tactics are missing. So in the absence of Curthoys’ own conclusions I examined how her theoretical perspectives fitted in with my own political orientation. For me, building a genuinely mass Marxist feminist women’s organisation as an alternative pole of attraction to radical feminism is essential.

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