A Comprehensive Guide to Feminist Theory: 20 Essential Reads

  1. Monique Wittig, “The Straight Mind” (1980)

“Frankly, [the definition of woman] is a problem that the lesbians do not have because of a change of perspective. ‘Woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual, economic systems. Lesbians are not women.”

As a materialist feminist, Wittig desires to remove the concept of gender altogether. Like Rich, Wittig argues that lesbianism escapes the power struggles of man / woman relations. For Wittig, if homosexuals are to identify with the labels of man and woman, then they become “instrumental in maintaining heterosexuality,” a politics that reduces the woman to an object of oppression. As Wittig relates heterosexuality to a struggle of domination, she criticizes feminism itself, as it fails to question these injustices surrounding heterosexuality.

  1. Alice Walker, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens (1983)

“To me, the black black woman is our essential mother—the blacker she is the more us she is—and to see the hatred that is turned on her is enough to make me despair, almost entirely, of our future as a people.”

Walker coins the term, “womanist,” a term used to classify a black feminist or feminist of color. A womanist loves other women and woman’s culture. As Walker states, “a womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” By acknowledging that there are other factors that comprise a woman, Walker adds another layer to the woman experience in literature. Part III of In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker critiques Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Using the writer, Phillis Wheatley, Walker reveals that Woolf’s concerns for women were the facts of Wheatley’s life. Wheatley was uneducated, and as a slave, certainly had no property; however, she created beautiful poetry. In her writing, Wheatley describes a “goddess,” who happens to be her slave master. Contradicting Woolf’s central argument for women, Walker recognizes that, despite social limitations, women were, perhaps, expressing their creativity differently, such as in their gardening and oral traditions.

  1. Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex” (1984)

“Sex is always political. But there are also historical periods in which sexuality is more sharply contested and more overtly politicized. In such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated.”

Implementing the work of Michel Foucault, Rubin argues that sex institutionalizes societal norms. For Foucault, sex is political. There is a hierarchical system in which society determines moral and mental capabilities on an individual’s sexual activity. Engaging in taboo activity lowers an individual’s moral standards in the eyes of others. Rubin furthers Foucault’s argument, suggesting that there is a “sexual essentialism” in society, the “idea that sex is a natural force that exists prior to social life and shapes institutions.” Religion, as an institution, dominates in suppressing sexual relations, asserting that sex is sinful or immoral. From these premises, Rubin asserts that sex is a political agent. There are five ideological formulations that arise: sex negativity (sex is bad), the fallacy of the misplaced scale (abnormal sexual behavior is punishable), the hierarchical system of sexual value (marriage and heterosexuality at the top, pornography and homosexuality at the bottom), the domino theory of sexual period (there a zone between morally good and bad sex) and finally, the concept of benign sexual variation (cultural differences in sex is good). By relating sex to society, Rubin adds another layer to the gender debate, as demonstrated in her later analysis of pornography.

  1. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (1985)

“The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”

In this essay, Haraway uses the metaphor of the cyborg (half human, half artificial being) to challenge essentialism, which always insists on the woman as inferior. With the emergence of cyborgs comes the breaking of sexist binaries that the feminists have fought to overcome, such as man / woman, natural / unnatural, Subject / Other and so forth.  Cyborg living, instead, creates connections based on affinity rather than biology or social construction. Anne Balsamo’s “Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women” (1995) wants female cyborg images to do more than challenge oppositions of human and machine. For Balsamo, female cyborgs are still culturally coded as emotional, sexual and naturally maternal, enforcing constructivist notions of male and female. Aiming to move past gender in the same way radical feminists, like Wittig, attempt to do, Balsamo calls for the cyborg to eliminate gender in its entirety.

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