[page-number of print ed.: 9]

2. Gender-theoretical Foundations of Political Strategies – or can Women’s Issues Exist Without a Gender Theory?

Three gender-theoretical approaches and the way in which they are linked to specific pro-women political strategies are presented in the following. The overview is limited to their fundamental features and cannot always do justice to the complexity of the issue as presented in the research literature of their representatives.

2.1 The Theory of Difference and the Policy of Identity

Advocates of the theory of difference assume that there are two sexes as innate elements of the physical nature of humans, while the stereotypes and norms which influence gender-related perceptions are culturally and socially determined. The innate orientation is referred to as an individual’s sex, the cultural and social elements which determine perceptions and norms are referred to as gender. Gender separation is criticized for its effect on women: what is supposed to be characteristic of women is regarded as of lesser social value, inferior and less powerful in comparison with what men represent. Men determine political structures, the State and the economy display masculine features. Women are supposed to represent qualities different from those of men; what is criticized is the lack of visibility of these specific features in public, their lack of representation, but also the institutional structures and mechanisms which perpetuate such suppression. It is not gender separation as such, but the lack of women’s empowerment which is criticized by gender policy based on the theory of difference.

From this point of view, building up women-specific alternative structures is the most promising political strategy. Its aim is to provide scope for developing independent gender-specific concepts of life and work in networks exclusively for women. It is in particular women’s dual aim in life, i.e. reconciling private and professional life, that is intended to be realized in this. The autonomy of male-centred organizations is seen as a condition for developing a counter-culture – positivized female features are to be reinforced without being curtailed by male control. Women’s subjective experience, i.e. at the level of gender relations, is taken seriously, articulated and forms the basis of political actions. Female subjectivity becomes a platform for action. Gender identity is regarded as something that all women have in common. Concrete forms of such female counter-structures vary greatly: many women’s projects, centres for mothers, women’s groups, some concepts of women’s universities have originally come from the theory of difference and translated the specific background of female experience into a basis of independent representation in public. The „Mothers’ Manifesto" of the Green Party in 1987, for example, constituted a document of undiluted identity policy based on the theory of gender difference.

An Italian feminist group of women philosophers (Diotima), representing a specific form of difference-theoretical positions, only recently proposed a pro-women strategy focussing on the relationship between women and on making this relationship – which consists of mutual recognition of individual female strengths and weaknesses – a pivotal point of policies for women. Without providing its own definition of what constitutes „the feminine", this group believes that there is an opportunity of changing power relations within society in favour of women, of

[page-number of print ed.: 10]

„putting an end to patriarchy" (Libreria 1996), provided women relate largely to women by „affidamento", i.e. trusting in female authority.

The theory of gender difference additionally supplies the framework for many empirical studies of women in politics: while in the seventies male researchers supposed that women were apolitical, the large majority of female researchers from a difference-theoretical background nowadays assume that women pursue different policies owing to their sex, that they include female values and attitudes in politics with the aim of reforming it accordingly. As beings complementary to men, women are expected to have a specifically female understanding of politics and their respective attitudes are studied in political contexts, and sometimes identified as such; against this background women are regarded as morally superior, less depraved and more in tune with day-to-day life than men (for example Hoecker, 1995, Schöler-Macher 1994, Schaeffer-Hegel et al 1995). While the differences in attitude described are not always simply interpreted as expressions of specific feminine characteristics, special conflict situations of women in politics are indeed regarded as the result of irreconcilable expectations in male-dominated areas of activities and female gender perceptions. What these research studies have in common is their search for „the difference" women are making in politics.

Critical comments raised by feminists from other cultures have already indicated that not all women share the identity of a middle-class white woman. It was in fact only as a result of accepting black feminist conceptual traditions that Western feminist thinking finally dismissed the assumption of universal womanhood based on the concept of middle-class white women and began to accept other definitions of female gender. The essentialist viewpoint of gender differences – which assumes that all women are different from men and that all women are somehow similar in their gender identity – becomes empirically questionable: this essentialist theory, however, has been most vehemently dismissed by women theoreticians representing a deconstructivist gender theory.

2.2 Deconstruction of the Category of Gender and its Parody

The so-called post-structuralist gender theories and the „queer" theories assume that an individual’s sex is not part of the nature of human bodies or individuals, but that it constitutes a social and cultural form of existence resulting from specific practices of thinking, feeling and physical being which are based on the binary logic of dichotomies. In analogy to the juxtaposition of the categories of man and woman, categories such as culture – nature, body – spirit, matter – mind are similarly defined by means of opposites. The criticism behind this approach assumes that a large diversity of gender potentially exists, i.e. that there are various forms of femininity and masculinity.

The best known representative of gender deconstructivism, Judith Buttler, criticizes that even feminism has subjected itself to gender constructs and that women fight for their rights as women after having accepted gender dichotomy propagated by men. Even the distinction made within the context of the theory of difference between sex (as the physical state) and gender (as a cultural norm), which originally questioned the natural basis of certain gender characteristics, is criticized – from a deconstructivist perspective – for perpetuating gender polarity by cultural means. In consequence, sex – as a description of the physical body – turns into a historical, societal and cultural phenomenon. Gender dichotomy is dismissed, as is the precedence of nature over societal conditioning, in particular by means of terminology and language. The construction of sexuality can be empirically proved by studying transsexuality. Even though transsexuals are concerned with the interactive construction of gender in its binary form, they reject the definition of their sex as far as it concerns their body. Transsexuals do not feel at ease with the sex that is said to be theirs as a result of their biological sexual characteristics, and accordingly identify with the opposite sex. The process of „doing gender", i.e. the daily gender practice of dualism in perception, thinking and acting is deprived of its „naturalness" if individuals do not accept social

[page-number of print ed.: 11]

constructs – which seems to indicate that the body is the effect rather than the basis of social processes. Travesty is an example of the practice of transforming the current order between men and women into a cultural phenomenon. Manipulating sexual orientation is provocative and furnishes proof of how deeply rooted these cultural constructs are in society.

It is, however, difficult to determine how this dualism of men and women has developed unless the naturalness of this dualism itself is in principle questioned – an idea which many may regard as absurd. In what way this difference between men and women is reproduced again and again becomes visible only if the difference itself is regarded as a construct and not as an unchangeable natural fact of life. It is especially practices normalizing the dualism of men and women, their constant repetitions and clear-cut exclusions that are the subject of deconstructivist studies: institutionalized heterosexuality and gender-specific hierarchies in the division of labour, as the material bases of social relationships, are playing a prominent part in this.

The „queer" theories which were developed in sub-cultural contexts do not use categories of sexual identity. Advocates of „queer" theory look for gender concepts which avoid and criticize both hierarchization (man – woman) and unambiguities (homosexual – heterosexual) (cp. Hark 1996). They equally question the unambiguity of sexual dualism and transfer the problem of gender difference to the problem of hetero- and homosexuality.

The fundamental assumptions of these gender theories are the following:

  • The system of gender dualism is a cultural product.

  • Gender is a construct produced by constant interaction, as well as by structures of society.

  • The subject is transformed into a sexual being by constant exclusion of the opposite.

If, in consequence, both sex and gender have lost their fundamental validity, i.e. if the category of gender can be deconstructed, it no longer presents an appropriate basis for a specific policy. Self-conceptualization of, in principle, such a fragile nature, such ambiguity in defining gender, cannot be used as a means of legitimizing a specific gender policy. Buttler therefore proposes to make visible this fragility and to undermine dominating gender norms by means of parody. The „queer" theories offer clearer proposals for political action; they are not based on sexual identity, but on resistance against and opposition to the domination of heterosexual normality. Consequently, the motivation for becoming politically active is not found in the authentic self – for example as a woman, mother or lesbian – but rather in the constructed self in response to such universal propositions-constructed in opposition to a given social and political counterpart.

The deconstructivist theory of gender offers a blueprint for interpreting many of the awkward and as yet unresolved problems in connection with real gender policy and enables people to better understand them. One question repeatedly raised in the context of women’s and gender policies, i.e. why not all women wish to pursue a feminist policy and why there are so many and varied approaches to women’s issues, can be answered in the light of deconstructivist theory. The problem, in fact, only arises if it is generally assumed that being a woman is related to a specific identity shared by all women. The deconstructivist approach, in contrast, reveals that individuals may, but need not, acquire their sexual identity as a broken sequence of developments, and at the same time it proposes alternative forms of identity which are similarly socially-constructed, such as ethnicity, class, generative position or age. Each of these categories has a cultural and subjective history of its own, and each individual is confronted with a multitude of identity-forming limitations. This is why not every woman has of necessity to identify with a specific definition of womanhood because completely different forms of identification may appear relevant to her, depending on her circumstances in life. Her origins or her age, her generative or socio-economic positions

[page-number of print ed.: 12]

may sometimes appear much more important to a woman than her female identity. A given identity is determined by a fragile construct consisting of various identities – not by a long chalk and not always exclusively by gender dualism. For women to identify themselves as women and to take a clear political stand appears to require a level of distress felt by many, such as in the case of limited self-determination over their own bodies. The daily structural discrimination against the female sex does not necessarily have to be experienced by women in such a manner that they wish to actively oppose it. And even less can it be taken for granted that all women have in mind the same solution for ending such discrimination. Young (1995), for example, tries to interpret gender as a serial identity; in other words, gender becomes the moving force behind political action only if certain structures or situations identify women as women and if the subjects thus identified experience this discrimination against women in a similar manner. Only then will they oppose it. Feminism in this context means a reflected move towards the formation of groups of women, and as women, with the aim of changing the structures that identify them as women in the first place.

People have objected to deconstructivist viewpoints in the gender issue by pointing out that they would have a de-politizing effect by destroying the object at stake in the women’s movement. If it is no longer a question of representing defined entities of womanhood and corresponding interests, political action cannot be legitimized by merely referring to shared substantive characteristics. On the contrary, political aims need to be constantly re-defined, re-negotiated and realized within the framework of changing alliances. The women’s movement has been given its name even though it does not represent all women. Even on key issues such as violence and laws on abortion women do not hold a unanimous view: not all of them interpret male violence against women as an element of dominating gender relationships, but their shared outrage may be the result of different motives: humanitarian attitudes which are equally opposed to violence against children, weaker members of society and even animals, and also those that believe that violence against women is a more pointed expression of general patriarchal structures. This is why it is more important to determine the aims of pro-women policies than to conceptualize their motivation. As soon as an alliance is possible in support of specific aims, the issue develops a greater profile in society and changes may eventually take place. Schäfer (1998) interprets feminist policies at the time of transformation in former East Germany in a Buttler-style deconstruction of gender identity. The common bond between the 1,200 women from the GDR in the Volksbühne Theatre in 1998, which turned them into a political subject of the UFV (Independent Women’s Association), was not the result of their gender identity but of their shared opposition to a specific offer of imposed identity in GDR culture and politics. The many women involved wished to distance themselves from this process in their given locality and to emancipate themselves by making visible their alternative concepts of womanhood. What moved them politically was not a shared identity but the gender-based criticism of the former GDR society. Again, it becomes clear that the category of gender is used as potential, not as substantive ever-present rationale. While for some women the political stage is exclusively and essentially influenced by gender conditions, other women focus more on humanitarian questions and suppression, irrespective of gender. Now the deconstructivist perspective makes people understand why women do not raise the gender issue and take corresponding political action everywhere and at all times. Gender is merely one of several potential considerations taken by many women in many areas, but not by others. Such arguments should not now be used for criticizing constant reflection, examination and political action on the part of those women who address the question of gender conditions in a pointed manner, denounce them and try to change them. The conceptual research work of examining current theories and societal conditions in the light of

[page-number of print ed.: 13]

how and to what extent they are shaped by gender relationships has only just begun.

The criticism of deconstructivist approaches to gender theory is, however, of an even more fundamental nature when reproaching it of neglecting societal and historical contexts of power and objective structures, including in the relationship between men and women (Knapp 1994). Although it must be noted that the deconstructivist approach does not per se exclude such contexts, no major conceptual efforts have so far been made by this school of thought in that direction.

2.3 Gender as a Structural Category in the Power Context – Analysis and Information

It is not the analytically possible dissolution of the category of gender – as a category subjectively creating identity – but the mark it is leaving on structures of society that is at the centre of certain feminist approaches: they do not wish to give up the claim of identifying gender-specific structures of domination when analyzing societal systems. The question arises in this context of how societal systems can again and again produce gender difference, how processes of inclusion and exclusion function by means of the gender variable and how real inequality and hierarchy between men and women come about. To deny that gender-specific contexts exist at all proves to be a particularly effective mechanism in this respect. Feminist political scientists are working on both proving androcentrism in the current theory of State and politics and on decoding the gender-neutral nature of State institutions and policies. The State is analyzed as an institution in conformity with male norms – structured not only by gender hierarchy, but by other forms of dualism as well: for example, the separation of public and private lives, of the State and the family. Feminist political theory aims at revealing the processes behind the genderization of State structures, feminist policy at halting a further genderization of its formative results (Kreisky 1995).

Whoever uses gender as a structural category in analyzing gender-specific power relations presupposes that all societal structures are „genderized" in a certain way. Information about the various forms this may take, separating gender-hierarchic forms of living-together and the gender-hierarchic nature of institutions, will at the same time pave the way for a breakdown of gender hierarchies. However, in analyzing societal conditions, of which the gender relationship is assumed to form a part, it becomes clear that the category of gender is not able to explain all forms of domination. Specific forms of suppression take place in connection with other categories such as ethnicity, class and age. The important point is that these forms are closely interwoven and that it requires major analytical efforts to identify this process without neglecting the one or other category. It is only as a result of contextualization, i.e. very concrete consideration of defined viewpoints, situations and conditions, that one realizes how women as a gender group are linked in a specific context of suppression.

While deconstructivist approaches are attempting to emancipate the subject from societal and cultural determinants of the binary gender code by questioning its legitimacy, feminists who use gender as a structural category for analyzing power relations are trying to prove that binary gender coding occurs in the first place and that it covers up the domination over the female sex in societal and cultural systems. Marxist-oriented feminists criticize on the one hand the gender blindness of marxist societal theory, yet on the other try to change and expand the analytical instruments of this theory and to determine how class domination and gender domination are interrelated. In this, they always regard the gender relationship as an objective relationship between gender groups which is connected with class structures, yet does not form an integral part of them. From their point of view, women have something in common which can be defined, namely structures that treat them unfairly and devalue them across all social sections and classes. These structures establish the objective conditions for gender experience to

[page-number of print ed.: 14]

which women are exposed. Whether individual women are aware of such conditions or not, whether they accept these conditions or oppose them, the way they act in a concrete situation does not, a priori, affect the identification of objective gender discrimination.

However, discrimination and devaluation form only one part of the structures and mechanisms which make women of women, i.e. the manner in which they experience society as a result of their sex. Their situation also offers the opportunity of developing Utopian visions of a better life. Positive experiences of sociability and the emotional bonds of human existence are included in this vision. In other words, the manner in which women, albeit not every individual woman, experience society offers an insight into specific visions and inspires women to develop different, and new visions. The special situation in which many women find themselves, how they have planned and live their lives – which differs from how most men go about it – offers them a different perspective of society: what has been kept private is transformed into a political issue, and the dualism of private and public life called into question; the definition of what turns something into a political matter can be expanded because of the way in which they lead their lives. Such feminist Utopias of a good life in respect of natural resources and by living together peacefully cannot be achieved by merely abolishing gender difference in the way people participate in the political process, but require political concepts which go beyond gender difference and attempt to realize an ecologization and democratization and to establish peace. As far as it concerns these Utopian aims, women may indeed be in agreement with men (Holland-Cunz 1998).

2.4 Gender Theories and Political Strategies

The various gender theories, in their pure form as described and outlined briefly above, lead to various political strategies: theories of difference advocate an autonomous policy in isolation of men and everything masculine. Deconstructivist theories legitimize all forms of policies which do not exclude, but „de-border" gender identities and recognize societal constructs as such; they de-legitimize every form of gender domination and encourage individuals to rid themselves of any gender-based classifications. Gender theories critical of society provide a blueprint for an analysis of and insights into existing forms of gender hierarchy and discrimination against women.

No political platform and no political strategy can be directly derived from gender as such; this is an aspect emphasized by deconstruction theories. Nevertheless, to belong to a specific gender, or rather an individual’s classification within the framework of a binary gender order, gives rise to discrimination or privilege in many areas, as underlined by gender theories critical of society. The abolition of these forms of discrimination and privilege can be achieved by political means only.

In connection with a policy of mainstreaming which is deliberately aimed at existing structures in order to change them from within by abolishing gender hierarchy, all three theoretical approaches offer important orientation. Difference-theoretical concepts and the corresponding studies assume that gender differences exist and establish a counterweight to the disregard of anything generally attributed to women. They maintain that values and orientations attributed to women within the framework of gender polarization are not to be spurned, but need to be enhanced. Even if one does not share their theory of identity, they are very helpful in preventing women from agreeing with the discrimination against women and from regarding the male concept of life and male attitudes as generally applicable to which they have to adapt. Deconstruction theories can explain the fact which so many women involved in women’s issues deplore, namely that not all women pursue a determined gender policy and oppose discrimination. To get rid of the idea of identity according to which all women, just because they are women, develop the same gender identity, opens up new space for developing a different type of policy: it

[page-number of print ed.: 15]

is no longer women’s shared identity that shapes political contexts, but the aims of gender policy are constantly changing within their historical context and need to be re-defined and implemented accordingly. Thus there are no clear-cut gender-based political aims, but instead only aims valid at a given point in time within a specific context. The often-expressed fear that this theory fits in with many different situations can be overcome if the political actors involved react sensitively to a given context. Deconstruction theories may enhance acceptance of different positions in the gender issue. Gender theories critical of society deliberately limit their statements in respect of subjective identities. They refer to the analysis of gender relations. In the process, they offer a multitude of insights into mechanisms applied with the aim of establishing these hierarchies in all areas of society.

The different approaches to gender theories can also be related to different levels of analysis.

  1. Gender identity and gender relations

  2. Gender-related conditions

  3. Gender policy

Gender identity means the classification of an individual, by itself and by others, as part of or outside sexual dualism, and also the internalization of corresponding norms and forms of behaviour. Gender relations describes how men and women deal with each other, the private and public behaviour of concrete persons. Gender relations can – to a limited extent – be changed by individual behaviour, it is influenced by gender identity.

Widespread experience of gender relations plays a major part in alliance strategies in women’s and gender policies. Whether a political alliance with men is at all conceivable for women largely depends not on how they evaluate gender relations, but on concrete conditions in the field of politics.

Gender-related conditions describe societal structures, institutions and mechanisms which define the status of men and women and how they relate to each other, and create a hierarchy between them. How gender conditions change can be observed by means of a theoretical and historical perspective. While gender relations are culturally diverse, conditions of hierarchy between men and women are far more uniform.

A declared gender policy is based on both individual experience in gender relations and knowledge of gender conditions. It is the aim of such a policy to shape gender conditions according to specific perceptions or to leave them as they are. Since the hierarchic gender relationship forms a vital part of conditions in society, any attempt at shaping or changing these conditions by political means will also affect gender relations, either directly and explicitly, or indirectly and implicitly.

[page-number of print ed.: 16 = blank page]

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Dezember 2001

Previous Page TOC Next Page