On Feminism

By Edward Dunning
"Modern feminism, until recently at least," the late social critic Christopher Lasch wrote in a 1993 essay, "promised not to intensify sexual warfare but to bring about a new era of sexual peace in which women and men could meet each other as equals, not as antagonists" (Young, Jan. 26, 2000)

Feminist theory set a new standard for critical examination of the human condition by introducing cultural, structural, and institutional variables previously ignored or excused by traditional methods of inquiry. Feminist theory widened the scope of traditional models which have, over time, demonstrated goodness of fit with our developing understanding of psychology and behavior. Feminist theory promoted humanistic and interpersonal approaches which questioned reliance on statistics over subjective experience, popularizing the notion that "quantitative data cannot fully capture the nature of a phenomenon, because it cannot capture the subjective meaning of a phenomenon" (Thompson,1992). Feminism played a significant role in development of postmodern theory (Madigan,1998, Nichols, & Schwartz,1998), which in turn has influenced treatment methods in mainstream social science, particularly in the growing popularity of the strengths over pathology approach (Seligman,1998). Such contributions to improving the human condition demonstrate how feminist theory has been "...directly beneficial to physical and mental health of all members of our society" (Gelles & Straus, 1988, p. 203).

In discussing the contributions of feminist theory we recognize that the "... the explosion of published research written from a variety of feminist perspectives…" (Renzetti, 1996 p. 214) reflects multiple and divergent belief systems. Our working definition of feminist theory is broad enough to include diverse viewpoints and theoretical orientations which hold a set of core values in common; as defined in the literature:

Feminist theory is egalitarian, participatory, and validates each person's life experience in context
(Hepworth, Rooney & Larson, 1997. p. 535)

These core values of inclusion and acceptance have universal appeal; a primary reason feminist theory has been so influential over the past thirty years. The egalitarian approach has contributed in no small part to "feminism's reputation for common sense, candor and realism." Thus the appeal for “fundamental and intimate changes in everybody's everyday life" (Miller, L, 2000) resonated with a wide variety of people, and fundamental change began to occur in multiple spheres.

Feminism and domestic violence

It is well recognized that the emergence of domestic violence as a public health issue is primarily due to feminist activism. Founding of the first battered women's shelters in the early1970's led to development of psychoeducational group treatment programs for perpetrators in the late 1970's (Conroy, 1996). Throughout the 1990's, passage of new legislation mandating treatment for persons convicted of domestic violence led to proliferation of Batterers’ Intervention Programs (BIPs). This rapid transformation of a private and intensely personal matter to a major issue of public concern brought the political directly to the personal, quite literally for significant numbers of people convicted of domestic violence related offences and sentenced to BIP.

In acknowledging the groundwork of feminist theory, and the accomplishments of feminist activists who contributed to actualizing rapid and radical social change, we recognize that domestic violence is an issue on which feminism is deeply divided; and that objective research, rational discussion and accurate public perception are negatively effected when one or another of fundamentally oppositional philosophies are portrayed as representative of feminism. However, in most domestic violence literature, an identifiable set of core values are consistently presented as the "feminist" or "pro-feminist" perspective; as typified by the Duluth model (Pence & Paymar, 1993).

The Duluth model is grounded in the notion of generalized patriarchic oppression, i.e., men in general are socialized to male entitlement, so men in general believe they are entitled to oppress women. In relationships, this latent sense of male entitlement is manifest behaviorally when men attempt to exercise Power and Control over female partners. Identified as the root cause of domestic discord, Power and Control is the philosophical keystone of this perspective:

...the patriarchal nature of society, with its attendant ingrained male privilege, is responsible for battering (Goodyear, 2001).

Whether a philosophy based on socially constructed gender stereotypes is congruent with the core values of feminist theory is one question. Another is whether the generalization of this construct as feminism is reliable, i.e., do all or most feminists agree that all or most domestic violence is caused by generalized patriarchic oppression?
While there is no question that some men do use Power and Control to dominate women, there is a lack of reliable evidence that the most common manifestations of domestic violence are rooted in generalized patriarchic oppression. Further, this view does not represent the diversity of feminist perspectives:

...much of the recent compelling feminist scholarship on domestic violence steers clear of blaming patriarchy as the sole or direct causal factor, while maintaining that gender remains a crucial key explanatory variable (Miller, S,1996, p. 193)

This type of divergence in perspective is commonly distinguished by the use of terms such as gender feminism and equity feminism. Our working definition of feminist theory is clearly congruent with the construct of equity feminism. Due to the highly-charged and often rancorous debate among gender and equity feminists, it is necessary to clearly state that the call for equality between sexes cannot be associated with denial or minimization of historic and current forms of oppression against women.

A brief look at historical perspectives

As the history of patriarchic oppression is well-documented, it should suffice to say there is no question that women in general have experienced institutional inequity. There is no question that the thinking and behavior of individual men and women has been influenced to some degree by patriarchic socialization. However, just as modern equity feminism “steers clear of blaming” men without minimizing the traditional oppression of women, historical perspectives also reflect a diversity of thinking that is often overlooked in literature and discussion.
In the references section of her work "Regulating the Lives of Women..." (1988), Abramowitz notes that historical views divide into three main perspectives regarding the influence of modern patriarchic, or "industrial family ethic."

• The mainstream, gender feminist view of patriarchic oppression

• A second perspective adds dimension to the first by recognizing
that women also utilized the patriarchy "to advance their educational opportunities, to gain influence and satisfaction, even to express hostility towards men."

• The third viewpoint acknowledges that development of industrial patriarchy elicited development of a women's subculture, which:
"...formed a source of strength and identity and afforded sisterly relations...the tenacity of the [patriarchic] ideology owed as much to the motives of women as to the imposition of the wishes of men or the wider social order" (p. 131). [see Cott, 1977, p 197-206]

Abramowitz notes that patriarchy has also been historically viewed from an equity perspective; as oppressive to both women and men: In 1829 a New York Post article hinted at the dialectical position of men under industrial patriarchy; men, who appeared to be sole beneficiaries of male power and control were simultaneously oppressed by the "...pressures of economic survival and upward mobility..." which reinforced the stereotypes embodied in the breadwinner role; a man must be independent, tough, competitive, in control of emotion in order to be successful. As if the enormous burden of sole responsibility for familial welfare were not sufficiently oppressive, within this stereotype lurks another dialectic; in order to be successful, to climb the corporate ladder, a man must assume a role similar to that stereotype of a woman in the home; he must be compliant and subordinate, must expect to sacrifice personal fulfillment to satisfy the needs of superiors, etc. This complicated set of factors "reinforced industry's ability to exploit and control the male labor force" (Abramowitz, p.128). With economic means to fulfill the patriarchy-defined role of maleness under corporate control, a modern man remains much as his medieval predecessor; held in fief by the local warlord.

Over the past two decades gender feminism has created another iron cage in which the "felt powerlessness" of modern man is amplified. While on one side patriarchy "... isolates men emotionally and alienates them from their ability to sense and know their own feelings..." (Dutton,1996, p. 142,3), gender feminism as embodied in the Duluth model further alienates men by pathologizing rather than empathizing with this internalized oppression. The basic divisiveness of this ideology, and it's dependence on crude stereotypes has fed the gender wars; reinforcing a widespread perception that "the women's movement often seems to have shifted from the goal of equal treatment to one of female advantage" (Young, 2000):

Men...have historically been viewed as the physically violent gender in need of change...research has led some analysts to conclude that traditional, sociopolitical views of domestic violence are inaccurate and falsely framed and have led to social and legal policies that have left men socially and legally defenseless... (Hamberger & Potente, 1996, p. 54)

These and similar observations are often repudiated as “male backlash,” i.e. the product of misogynist myth makers. However, this argument tends to reinforce the perception of an “inaccurate and falsely framed” issue, as support for the backlash position is maintained by ignoring criticism from within feminism, from influential leaders of the feminist movement:

Betty Friedan, in "The Feminine Mystique," [1963 ] saw middle class men less as oppressors than as victims of housewives obsessed with domestic perfection and social status (Young, Jan. 26, 2000)

Also overlooked by proponents of male backlash are long-standing criticisms from women of color and lower class, who "...called for changes in the ideologies responsible for distorting relations between men and women." Failure to adequately address and correct these distortions is one reason for the failure of gender feminism to resonate with many women who do not see their male partners as oppressors or themselves as "...sisters of the white middle-class women...at the forefront of the movement" (Garcia, 1991, p. 275, 282). Rather, many women of color and lower class see feminism in general as a White middle-class ideology, analogous to the "elements of academic colonialism" in scholarly research; "they see what they want to see, go back and write their books and get famous off our problems" (Collins, 1989, p. 18).
As an expanding body of research, including some "compelling feminist scholarship on domestic violence" (Miller, S.), increasingly supports equity-based perspectives regarding domestic violence, it becomes ever more difficult to simply dismiss observations of gender bias in the mainstream approach to domestic violence as the reactionary rhetoric of men's rights groups or "the ideological agendas of conservative pundits who wear the anti-feminist label with pride" (Pozner, 1999).

The most brilliant scientists have always paid tribute to the role of intuition and emotion, as well as logic, in their work. They collaborate as well as compete. Ultimately, all the best minds — male and female — engage in "constructive knowing" as defined in "Women's Way of Knowing," a flexible blend of abstract reasoning, received information, personal experience, empathy and debate.
It's the small minds that cause the trouble, people looking for absolutes and fool-proof formulas instead of the unpredictable, laborious business of thinking for themselves (Miller, L, 1997)

© 2001