Let’s consider some other abstractions we often hear about. Take ‘patriarchy’. A great deal of feminist theory since the 70s has postulated the immemorial existence of patriarchy – dating, in the usual account, from the time when humans ceased to be hunter-gatherers. At this point, for some reason which does not clearly appear, the collective male foot was solidly placed on the collective female neck. A great deal of history then took place – Assyria, Persia, Athens, Rome, ancient slave society and mediaeval feudal society – but these were all just fiddly variations on the ground-bass of patriarchy. Finally, in the 1970s, this ancient and foundational institution was called out and taken on by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem et al. Of course patriarchy still survives, though under siege; Harvey Weinstein, on this view of the matter, is just a louche, déclassé version of Abraham.
Might one tentatively suggest that this is all a bit… broad-brush, and even a bit culturally provincial and grandiose? One important question, surely: If patriarchy has been an oppressive force for millennia, why was there never a women’s liberation movement until quite recently (and locally)? Even in the ancient world, where slavery was a normal and accepted institution, there were slave revolts, as there were in the American South and the Caribbean. But there has, so far as I know, never been a women’s revolt, or even a feminist movement, until we arrive at more or less the modern world. And in all the hunter-gatherer societies known to ethnography, specialization along sex lines is universal, though it takes interestingly different forms from place to place. (The “interestingly different” part, of course, rightly gives the visionary imagination a lot of wiggle room.)
Perhaps a more parsimonious view of the women’s movement in our time is that it is historically specific to a particular time and conjuncture of circumstances: it seeks an adjustment – quite in order, of course – of sex roles to the greatly changed conditions of life that have taken place recently in the so-called “developed world” (meaning, primarily, Western Europe and North America, with some extension of cultural and economic influence further afield). In that milieu, hardly any family scrapes out a living on the farm anymore, or spins its own thread, or weaves its own cloth, or cuts its own wood, or needs to have lots of children in order to survive; and people – considered as “human resources” – are pretty much interchangeable, like Lego blocks. In that milieu it becomes perfectly natural and obvious to ask why a woman shouldn’t be a doctor, or a judge, or a bishop, and there’s no justification whatsoever for answering in the negative.
Indeed, one wonders whether the contemporary women’s movement isn’t perhaps a bit more specific even than that. Is it inconceivable that the “second wave” feminism of the latter half of the last century wasn’t merely a matter of picking up where the first wave left off, but was, rather, at least in some important part, a specific pushback to a specific repression – namely, the bundling of women back into the home after World War II, accompanied, of course, by a heavy-handed apparatus of blockhead ideology and indoctrination, and the engineering, by the ad-biz, of adventitious wants, to be satisfied by consumption? If so, then perhaps we can detect a certain analogy between the historical specificities of the gay movement and those of the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s. To say that the latter was characterized and inflected by the immediate circumstances of the postwar period is not, of course, to deny its organic connection with the earlier phases of feminism, dating from the 18th century. That’s the larger context – the context of industrial revolution and bourgeois hegemony in general, and the consequent irrelevance of sexual differentiation.
The Communist movement came up with a term that might arguably be more useful than “patriarchy” – namely, “male chauvinism”. The nice thing about this idea is that it doesn’t wave vaguely at some vast, looming, ancient – perhaps innate? – reprobacy. Rather, it concentrates attention on how people act and think in the here and now, in their dealings with comrades and spouses and children; with their unexamined assumptions and sometimes oafish behavior. “Don’t be a chauvinist” is actually more helpful advice than “don’t be a patriarch” – because in fact few of us have the opportunity to be patriarchs, but anybody can be a chauvinist.
To speak of chauvinism focuses on the beliefs and perceptions and thoughts and behavior of actual human beings in their actual setting. To be a chauvinist, after all, is to believe one’s own group better, in some way, than everybody else, and to act on that belief. To convince a male chauvinist that he’s simply mistaken – that is, that men in general are not smarter or more resolute or more suited to the conduct of human affairs than women are, though on average they’re a bit bigger and stronger – must surely go far to undermine the praxis of male chauvinism. No praxis without theory, and no theory without practical implications.
Is it premature, at this point, to suggest, as a canon of method, that the starting point of our analysis ought always to be historically specific phenomena and structures, and that we should be slow to posit the immemorial and the global, and avoid the use of such broad-brush categories in the description of what is in the world and our program for changing it? I suggest that it’s not only not premature; it’s long overdue.