The Legacy of m/f


           When the first issue of m/f appeared in 1978, the relation between Marxism and feminism was very much at the center of the debate among feminists who, unlike those of the radical-feminist tendency, wanted to conceive their struggle as part of the socialist project. A socialist-feminist current was being organized, distinct from both the class reductionism of orthodox Marxism and the sex reductionism of the radical feminists. Many socialist feminists viewed women's oppression as a consequence of their position with respect to two structures of domination, the economic class structure of capitalism and the sexual hierarchy of patriarchy with its male dominance over women. Many attempts were made to articulate a theory of "capitalist patriarchy" that would account for the necessary link between capitalism and women's subordination. Such a theory alone, it was said, would provide the basis on which the political unity between feminist and socialist struggles could be grounded. While situating itself within the socialist feminist current, m/f argued forcefully against those views. It took the view that not only was a theory of that kind impossible but also that it was irrelevant for politics. The articulation between feminism and socialism had to be the result of specific alliances, not the necessary effect of a common cause. It was misleading to search for a principle of unity; unity could only come about through the construction of common interests and goals. There was no need to prove that the subordination of women was caused by capitalism in order to justify such an alliance.

           Several contributions to m/f pointed out that all the different versions of the theory of capitalist patriarchy presupposed a unitary phenomenon of "women's oppression," which was considered to be the effect of a cause that had to be explained by a theory. These versions implied both the existence of a pre-given unitary subject "woman" already available to be oppressed through various mechanisms, and a unity of subjects, "women." m/f opposed this essentialism. One of its main tenets was that there was no pre-given unity of women to which would correspond a simple notion of women's oppression. Instead, m/f argued that "legal, medical, political discourses each construct different definitions of women rather than being the expression or representation of pre-given objects, women and men. This means that there can be no 'feminine discourse' representing or reflecting a pre-given object, woman" (editorial no. 2). m/f's objective as a feminist journal was to study the construction of the category women within the specific practices that produce sexual difference in many different ways and to scrutinize the way women's subordination was produced in diverse practices, discourses, and institutions. This required analyses of the production of sexual difference in all social practices where the distinction between masculine and feminine existed as a pertinent one, including economic, cultural, political, and legal practices as well as in the family and the specific domain of sexuality. This was quite an original position.

           Another important departure from current political thinking was the deployment of a multiplicity of theoretical frameworks to address the diversity of discourses where sexual difference was produced. So while m/f recognized the crucial importance of psychoanalysis, it did not use it as the master theory that was to provide the key to women's oppression. Freud and Lacan were central, but so were Foucault and Hindess and Hirst's post-Althusserian critique of Marxism. m/f also published several translations of a variety of French writers and established a lively and productive dialogue with different varieties of post-structuralist thought in France. It made a general theory of women's oppression a thing of the past.

           A decade later, the panorama has changed but the crucial issues posed by m/f are still as relevant as before, and the publication of this volume is extremely timely. "Capitalist patriarchy" has now lost its appeal and the crudest forms of reductionism are rather marginal, but the struggle against essentialism is far from having been won. Essentialism takes more sophisticated forms today, but it remains the backbone of feminist discourses. The great attraction of the work of Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan among North American feminists, for example, indicates the permanence of a problematic that postulates that women as women have a specific "gender identity" or share a common model of moral development; this is the attraction of essentialism. Among feminist political theorists the popularity of the view that opposes a feminine "ethics of care" to the male individualist "ethics of justice" as well as the call from Carol Pateman for a "sexually differentiated" conception of citizenship that recognizes the specificity of women as women, not to speak of the various forms of "maternal thinking," testify to the resilience of that essentialist and unitary view of the "feminine" that was m/f's target ten years ago. For the increasing number of feminists who are aware of the aporias and the political limitations of the essentialist approach and who advocate the development of a "postmodern feminism," m/f will provide an alternative framework whose fruitfulness for feminist theory and politics has not been equaled. Indeed, if there is one thing that unites the feminists of the different currents of thought that are now referred to as "postmodernity," it is their common challenge to essentialism, which is precisely the central theme of the otherwise diverse interventions made in the journal during its nine years of existence.

           Rereading those articles today I am struck by their utter relevance to our current debates. I will give three examples. First, the disputed question of equality versus difference. m/f posed the question of sexual difference in relation to feminist objectives and argued that in some cases equality required the disappearance of sexual difference as a pertinent distinction, while in others it required the recognition of the distinction masculine/feminine. It would be beneficial to take up and explore this in a more detailed way.

           Second, the feminist critique of liberal individualism could distinguish itself more clearly from the communitarian one by using the critique of the unitary subject as it is worked out in m/f in relation to many issues of political theory relevant to feminism.

           My third example touches closely on my own work. Despite the misgivings I have always had about a too one-sided emphasis on the dispersion of subject positions in m/f, its lack of recognition of the hegemonic forms of the articulation of these positions, the journal has been for me a constant source of inspiration. I touch here on the point at which, in my view, m/f has opened up an immense field of action for feminist politics. It has done this by denying the existence of a feminine essence and hence of a pre-given sexual division and by focusing on the organization of sexual differences in social relations. The multiple strategy avowed by m/f as the only one adequate to deal with the complexity and variety of the forms of construction of women's subordination both at the theoretical and the political level strikes a chord with the current attempts to articulate a radical democratic project that recognizes the multiplicity of forms of subordination linked to class and race as well as gender without deriving them from a single cause.

           m/f's undoubted contribution to feminism and to democratic politics is not yet at an end. This book will be the opportunity for a new generation of readers to take up the theoretical and political direction that m/f staked out.