The second thing that was always true of feminist movement
in the United States was that its agenda really was and is
revolutionary . . . it also demands changes like the
reconstruction of the relationship between the market and
the state and the disassembly of the traditional family. Indeed
feminism, taken seriously, ultimately requires that gender
itself be disassembled, that the category “women” be
reconfigured. And feminist theory sooner or later forces a
confrontation with the other hierarchies in which patriarchy
is embedded, including heterosexism and race.
- Angela P. Harris, What Ever Happened to
Feminist Legal Theory?
Angela Harris concludes the paragraph with this sentiment: “Faced with this complex and daunting agenda of total transformation, it is not surprising that the people working on it have in recent years stepped back from the larger vision and focused their energies on sub-issues.” Until I read this passage, I did not realize why I found myself discomfited by our studies thus far. Recently, Professor Pruitt mentioned in class that law students seem fond of pushing the law to its limits—where its principles fold in on themselves and ultimately collapse. Listening to discussion and reading for class, I wandered down just that same path. Our framework formed a patchwork quilt, but I could not discern how the smaller pieces connected to the larger question. I found myself myopically distracted by sub-issues, leaving the broader context blurry and incomplete.
And what exactly was that larger question? What is the ultimate goal of all our questioning? What principle underlies the feminist movement? Harris defines a “liberation movement” as “a demand for an end to prejudice and discrimination based on an arbitrary characteristic like race or sex.” Yes! Simple, but potent. This discrimination is both personal and systemic. Historically, the voice of male dominance sought and succeeded to obscure the systemic and focus on the personal.
This philosophy, while still prevalent, is no longer the dominant discourse. As Harris’s article points out, feminist theory is sophisticated – “the problem is not a failure or absence of theory; the problem is political opposition, plain and simple. The big-vision days are over for this work; theorizing has moved closer to the ground.”
Joan Williams, in Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About it, discusses the relationship between the family and labor market in the classic problem of “work-family balance”—a terminology I appreciate. More common reference terms it “work-life balance.” But women and men are not being asked to choose between work and life, but work and family.
This problem posits individual women to solve it for themselves, when it is truly a structural problem that crosses gender and class boundaries. Harris traces Williams’ discussion: “Drawing on generations of feminist theory, Williams shows how individual women have been encouraged to think they can and must solve it for themselves, how stay-a-home mothers and mothers working for wages have been encouraged to sit in judgment of one another, and how today’s labor markets penalize ‘mothers’ and benefit ‘others.’ Her work builds upon feminist theory, but her most important task is no longer theory-building; it is turning theory into practice.”
Knowing that we’ve been given an impossible task in the guise of “work-family balance” is somehow comforting. This particular objective is not something I need to feel frustrated in not achieving; it is not my fault. It is the foundation our current society stands on. To achieve this goal means an overturning of our societal structure as we know it. And if that means toppling a system riddled with unconscious racism, flooded with sexism and heterosexism, and driven by industrial profits instead of social justice, then that’s not a bad thing.