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Historically, feminism is closely linked to anarchism and socialism. It was feminism that produced such brilliant figures as Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, or Emma Goldman, to name just a few. In the final analysis, one can see the politics of woman’s emancipation after the October Revolution of 1917 as this movement’s main success. In the West, many feminist thinkers have understood the struggle for gender-equality as the most consequent strategy for reaching social equality, considering feminism as the most radical form of struggle to come from the Left.
By today, the political struggle of women’s liberation has successfully activated a broad spectrum of “gender identities” and played a decisive role in redefining how we consider subjectivity and the notion of the Other. Many varieties of feminism have become an integral part of the dominant neo-liberal ideology. At the same time, the universal strategy of solidarity between all women in resisting patriarchy has been called into question on a fundamental level. There is good reason to doubt the traditional feminist solidarity, which arguably ignores a great many differences between women all over the world.
For an example, in post-Communist Russia, any reworking of both feminism and socialism seems nearly impossible. At present, both forms of resistance to exploitation have been marginalized from political and social discourse, as Russian society voices its reactionary demand for the “law and order”. Women are attributed with the status of a “leisure class”, as their lack of economic and political independence becomes the norm. The liberalization of the economy has given rise to new, especially inhuman models of sexploitation. All of this demonstrates the pressing need for a critical re-examination of feminist politics both in Russia and in the West.
Which political role can feminism play in the contemporary world?
Which strategies of solidarity between women of different social, national, and ethnic backgrounds are possible today?
Or is it better to shift our focus from the differences between men and women in order to address different universal features, such as political power-relations or social class?
Feminism was activated in Russian during the early Perestroika, as the social, political and aesthetic orientation-points were shifting totally. On the one hand, the notion of feminism became one of the fashionable “trademark brands” of the new homo sovieticus, reborn immediately under the influence of Western democracy, which brought both freedom and Tampax to Russia. On the other hand, it became clear that feminism was not only in superficial demand, but that it was an integral part of the Western intellectual discourse that was being introduced into Russia at the time. In the late 1980s, as the first feminist conferences and exhibitions were taking place, Victor Mazin and I organized the show “The Textual Art of Leningrad” in Moscow, dedicated to Derrida’s “veil”; in Leningrad, we curated “Women in Art”. One might also remember how stockings were given away at the Bronze Horseman, Petersburg’s central monument. In this total mixture, one could also hear invocations like the one that astonished me when I visited the Fifth International Congress of Woman Art Historians in Hamburg in 1991: it was fashionable to address “our Eastern-European sisters”, only recently liberated from Communist captivity. At this point, many saw feminism as something quite aggressive and bellicose. But as strange as it may seem, it was also sexy. This corresponded to an overall feeling that was in the air. The sexuality of feminism conveyed revolutionary drive and fearlessness. Shocking the public with its directness, the first advertisement of hygiene products was very physical and even demonstratively seductive: the eroticism of a child, suddenly discovering sexual difference. In the late 1980s, it seemed that the “new Amazons” were fearlessly and cheerfully sweeping up the leftover principles of Soviet patriarchy. Seen as one of the most effective forces in intellectual life and politics, feminism carried a great deal of utopian hope.
Yet by the mid-1990s, these hopes had collapsed. The consumption machine had crushed the Amazons. The new Russian woman was one of the most important target groups. The market of long legs, pouting lips, perky breasts and buns expanded to hundreds of millions of former Soviet citizens. Simple-heartedly, its marketplace resounded with cries of one the most understandable principles of capitalism: invest in your body by consuming beauty products; these products aren’t only the most affordable investment; they are also the products closest to you. The first TV shows “for women” began to appear, where Maria Arbatova opposed both “traditional” Soviet values as well as the new capitalist way of life. But chaos and employment were spreading, and beauty-salons seemed a far more effective means in the struggle for survival than political demonstrations. Politico-economic stabilization, however, has brought on a new wave of Russian patriarchal discourse. It has been taking place under the advertising slogan “our mom’s so smart”. Smart mom feeds the family with chicken-broth cubes by “Knorr” and does the laundry with “Tide”. Mom is the perfect consumer; she redeems her natural fertility by becoming an insatiable consumer cannibal.
The particular strains of feminism that have motivated me have not sought simple economic, and perhaps social, parity with males in society because that leaves open the possibility of simply passing along women’s unequal burdens to those who are of a lower class and economic status –or even to other countries where the wage base is lower. Instead, feminism has consistently demanded a broad reorganization of society so that wealth and privilege are not the determinants of who reaps society’s rewards, on the one side, and who must take up its least desirable or lowest paid tasks, on the other.
In Russia, like in other countries with transitional economies, the emergence of weak political feminist groups runs parallel to the discursive backlash toward patriarchy. This backlash confirms archaic ideas of the rightness of the male and female; its public sexism and its dreary biologizations of sexual difference are followed by the legitimization of inequality. This is actually the arena in which “our” feminism currently operates. Our main goal is to explain why feminism is such a hobgoblin to Russian intellectuals. What are they so scared of? Why do they laugh feminism off so often, without even trying to understand what it’s all about…
The goal is not to achieve simply to achieve legal equality; instead, we need to transform the problem of sex, bringing it beyond the system of binary oppositions. In my opinion, feminism has a great future, since it has proven capable of not only opening discourses on gender and its socio-economic backdrop, but also touches upon an ontological problematique. By asking questions of the feminine sex, feminism also raises questions as to its various modes of co-existing with the masculine part of society. Is the woman really an Other in relation to the (masculine) Others? This is probably one of the most fundamental questions that feminism has been able to ask. For the woman has always been no more than a narrative: she could even be the central object of an artwork, but her ontological status of Otherness, as the existence of the Other, was displaced from society’s communications at large, only to surface briefly in the event of love, which, in turn, could only present itself as an artwork. A contemporary reposing of feminism’s question cannot be reduced to criticizing the masculine or criticizing the feminine. Communication needs to be re-marked in non-binary terms, as does the event that occurs when the two sexes meet, even in this meeting’s erotic option. This does not mean that communication needs to become unisexual or purely based in groups. Instead, it means that we need to get beyond the phantasmal sexual expectations associated with the Other.
I start from my political perspective as a Western socialist feminist, for whom feminism is a resource and a source of strength. Feminism is not irrelevant to any form of political, social or cultural question today – especially as a form of critical and creative thinking about women’s position in the world to enable women’s perspectives to be heard. Women are 52% of the world. They possess intelligence, wit, untold capacity for endurance, invention, creativity and patience but what they frequently lack are opportunities, advanced forms of education and material resources (including money) to realise their ambitions. What women can produce in the world is still an unknown. Plenty of women have written of their aspirations for social change and their utopian hopes for revolution on a macrocosmic and microcosmic level. Yet, the women leaders we have had in the world have suprisingly come largely from the right of politics, and their role has been to maintain and expand a social order which they did not invent, and this they have done with passion and conviction and very negative consequences.
Feminism is fate. No matter how the circumstances of your life or your inner attitudes develop, feminism is something you can never ignore, once you have been drawn into its discourses. Feminism is struggle. And if we want to reach some positive goal in society and politics, we cannot make do without its intellectual and political successes, its potential possibilities, and, in the final analysis, without its experience. More concretely, for us, the feminist frontline has shifted, becoming internal. Hence, it runs through our heart and our minds. Our only hope for transmitting all that occurs on this inner line-of-conflict, our only means, our only medium is culture.
I must note that feminism has never paved its way under the aegis of universalism. Quite on the contrary, feminism has always emphasized the multiplicity of differences. As an event, universalism is an idea that stems from an alternate interpretation of difference and its role in political struggle. To be concise, one could express this as follows: why should we strive for difference if it already exists, if we encounter such a great variety of genders, ethnic identities, faiths etc.? As strange as it may seem, the truth is what is never given in advance, which is why it demands universality. Yet this universality does not come first but last: universality demands nothing more and nothing less than a change – a liberation, if you will – of subjectivity itself.
However, I do not think that it is feminism’s contemporary vocation to fulfill universal goals: instead, local problems usually take center-stage. In our country, for an example, even traditional forms of feminism are still extremely marginal. I would even say that they are unwanted. As ever, one must bear the burden of the elementary discrimination against women, which is but poorly camouflaged on all layers of social life. This means that women themselves will need to play no small role if they are ever to face the purely practical side of these issues.
Seen from the vantage of contemporary thought from the West, feminism’s goal can be summarized as follows: the discovery, recognition and preservation of the multiplicity of feminine identities, in all of their socio-political aspects and their variation of identity. Racial, ethical, religious or cultural differences are just as important as individual aspects: differences of the body, of psychology, or of sexuality and so on. However, it is also feminism’s aim to search for common goals for women in struggling with the dominant culture of patriarchy. The results is a continual process of mediation between two tendencies that would seem to contradict one another.
Even if they prefer to remain in their “grant ghetto”, failing to become civil-rights-activists, Russia’s feminist organizations face a mass of political questions such as prostitution, family violence, the status of women in Islamic regions etc. Today, it is paramount to differentiate all of this from the discourse of feminist liberalism, which has displayed what I would call “positive gender racism” throughout recent years: the woman is equated to the Other, thus confirming as a privileged victim. This gives rise to fundamentalist statements (a woman is soft, caring, intuitive etc. “by nature), which, in turn, form the basis of political decision-making: in contemporary Russia, it is politically necessary to stimulate the woman’s role as a housewife by decree, for an example. They also form the basis for intellectual decisions: in American cultural studies, it has become necessary to prohibit anything that is not marked by “Otherness”, anything rational or masculine, condemning it because of its one-sided point of view.
We see feminism as a strong tool to strengthen individualism and self-confidence. If people feel that they are in charge of their life they function better in all ways. If people stop looking at themselves as victims but start to figure out ways to control their surroundings and their lives everything becomes more optimistic and better.