Feminist Social and Political Theory

Authored by: Clare Colebrook

Routledge International Handbook of Contemporary Social and Political Theory

Print publication date:  March  2011
Online publication date:  March  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415548250
eBook ISBN: 9780203875575
Adobe ISBN: 9781135997946


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One way of understanding feminism as a movement in general is to see it as a social and political claim for women's justice and equality, and then to see feminist theory as a means for justifying and effecting such claims. (Theory would have the sense of being a second-order or reflective process following on from practice.) Feminism would, on this account, proceed from a certain political grouping or class and may, in turn, provide a specific perspective from which one might evaluate and redefine the nature and proper functioning of the traditional polity. If, for example, one begins from the modern liberal claim that a proper polity is composed of equal and self-legislating persons, then it not only follows that women ought to be included in such an egalitarian state (so that feminism would follow on from liberalism); it may also be the case that feminism adjusts or reconfigures liberalism. Perhaps, one might need to regard political rights as not only those of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but also rights to care for others or to determine one's own bodily being (reproductive rights and sexual rights). Feminism would operate in two directions: as a claim of an already existing political body it would extend the duties, rights, obligations and norms of the polity – for if women were granted rights suitable to their specific being then rights may have to be modified beyond the classic rights of non-interference. But feminism would also be more than extension of already existing social political theories, for it may alter the very nature of political theorizing by asking about both the nature of the subject who theorizes and the nature of the polity. 1 Radical separatist (or second-wave) feminists, for example, deem the liberal paradigm of equality and non-interference to be both inadequate (for women should not be seen as equal to men but as bearing their own values and qualities), and also to be implicitly masculine: 2 the ideal of individuals as self-determining subjects who act in their own interests precludes traditional female virtues of care, nurturance, empathy and emotive reasoning (Ruddick 1989). On the one hand, then, feminism is a movement with primarily practical goals – of achieving a better condition for women – and this movement would deploy political and social theory accordingly. On the other hand, it could also be the case that the very nature of women as a group might require new modes of theorizing and new modes of political grouping. I will turn to this second mode of feminism in the final part of this chapter.

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