Equality of the Sexes? Feminism Reloaded1

Ladies and gentlemen,
Having been asked to speak on “(leftist) feminism as a liberation theory” on the grounds
that “by and large knowledge of the theoretical problems involved in sexual relations is still
amazingly limited”, I must confess to finding the prospect daunting on three counts. First:
Is it really true? Second: How is it possible? Third: Am I up to answering these questions?
The first question will be answered one way or another in the course of the lively
discussion that I hope will follow. The second question is the subject of the following
remarks, and the third question is being answered right now in a rather ambivalent
manner: for a simple “yes” may be taken either as an expression of arrogance or as an
indication of the impossibility of covering in such a short space of time theories and
policies that took decades to take shape and a history that goes back for centuries, if not
millennia. Also, my perspective is closely bound up with the women’s movements, the
examination of which – in a double sense – is our concern here. I assume that I am in
company where “partisanship” is not viewed with suspicion, and would like to talk about
just some of the ways – as more is not possible in the time available – in which sexual
relations can be viewed as political relations. I will begin by giving a brief overview of
feminist theories before attempting to draw some conclusions for the present context.
To start with, here are a few quotes to mark out my position:
“And so in reality the exchange of wealth (90%) takes place among men.” (Mascha
“My dream is to be able to see with the eyes of a woman.” (Gregor Gysi)
“Male imperialism either marginalises women or trains them to be the same (homologous)
as men.” (Jean-Francois Lyotard)
The sexes have become “equal” and the division of labour between them is a historical
success that capitalism in Europe and the USA can claim as its own. For women capitalist
globalisation means that they do two thirds of the world?s work, while only receiving a tenth
of men?s income:
“If women were to present the bill for their work, the world would go bankrupt.” (Gerburg
Our whole society tries to neutralise the otherness…in the aseptic flow of communication,
in the interactive effusion, in the illusion of exchange and contact. … The whole spectrum
of the denied otherness rears up again as a self-destructive process. (Jean Baudrillard)
“We don?t want a larger slice of the poisoned cake.” (Devaki Jain)
May I assume that what the Indian feminist means by the symbol of the “cake” is
something that none of us want? Or perhaps we do in secret?
“The teleology of the left – the only one that rightly or wrongly interests us – may be much
talked about and bring about good election results. Nevertheless, no one lives in
accordance with its values, and there is probably no one who is prepared to give up his or
her real living conditions for its sake… .”2 This perception, formulated 30 years ago, has a
topical ring – don?t you think – and we seem to have been here before, despite all the
appearance of fundamental changes in “the” left in recent times: the advanced (ego)
individualisation leaves no one unaffected, and election results look quite rosy again. It?s
transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue / issue 02/2008
so nice to have a seat in the European Parliament, for example. So perhaps it is a matter
of demanding a slice of the “poisoned cake”?
Blind Conformity
By now we are closer to the problem at hand. A minor digression toward a question that no
one seems to want to raise any more will help us find the way to a critical gender policy:
who bakes the “cake”? And who would like to attend the tea party?
Absolutely everyone talks about “participation” nowadays, as much in mainstream as in
alternative scenarios. It has become common currency. But we have to ask ourselves what
is to be participated in?
The very term “participation” has a certain ambiguity, as it can be understood in a passive
(= “having”) or an active (= “taking”) manner. Broadly speaking, a distinction can be made
between “dividing up what is held in common” and “helping to determine what happens in
the community”. Nowadays, however, participation is often identified with the “individual” in
the literal sense, who wants/has to take part here, there and everywhere. What tends to be
forgotten, however, is – very much in the sense of the citoyen – the dialectic of co-
determination and responsibility this entails. Is this a case of an old virtue being turned
upside down in a post-Fordian sense? Are the Emperor?s new clothes now to be available
for all? This may be where the real trap lies. Ever since the turn towards neo-
conservatism, i.e. the devaluation of institutionalised co-determination organisations,
participation rates high in the neoliberal discourse: both at the “centre” and on the
periphery. “Since the participation phase (wage agreements, co-determination, concerted
actions) together with its bonuses (jobs, minimum wages, redundancy payments schemes)
has been inexorably drawing to a close,…the participation ethos has been steadily in the
ascendant… He who has nothing left, takes what he gets.”3
But who decides on distribution (which as we know is anything but a redistribution) or the
extent of it? Why are those “on high ” suddenly so keen on participation from “below” ?
What “cunning reason” [Hegel?s “List der Vernunft, tr.”] is behind all the praise of
participation? There is an insidious suggestion of a democratic complicity, as required by
today?s loudly proclaimed strategy of self-empowerment. That is to say, the participants
must learn to govern and regulate themselves. To put it bluntly, they are being encouraged
to become accomplices. This poses an alarming question: are we living in a simulated
At this point we “apprehensively” approach the problem of the still awaited sexual
democracy as it is essentially understood.
So I would like to take the plunge and refer to a forgotten (or denied, or suppressed)
political conception from the tradition of the women?s movements, namely that reflective
feminist option which never indulged in a state feminism, a party feminism, or an
egalitarian feminism – although all these were recognised as everyday political
necessities, of course – but which pursued a “radical” vision of refusal to accept the status
quo. Those who belong to small or large but real communities with a deeply sceptical
attitude towards a patriarchal order that lives from the exclusion of women, cannot blithely
take part in something whose aim it is to degrade those who do not fit in and force them to
adapt. Taking part in something suggests equality and entails system immanence, which
was not what the autonomous women or their movement were after.
In this interpretation, participation – however aware one may be of an inevitable
(internalised) participation in the system – is not a way of positioning oneself to make
really effective changes. For participation is no protection against being taken over. The
insistence on difference(s) – whether by deliberate aloofness, critical distance, refusing to
help stir the cake batter, or staying distant from power (which lives on conformity) – eludes
uncanny conformity to norms.
transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue / issue 02/2008
As ingredients of a politics other than realpolitik, terms like resistance, dissidence and
subversion might well regain their attractiveness.
The “Sexless” Left
Those of you who have been listening carefully will not have failed to notice where my
political sympathies lie – and, albeit in a “transformed” way, still do. For a quarter of a
century my political activities concerned the organizing of women by women and had its
roots in the so-called autonomous women?s movement, which used to mean things like not
joining any party, no matter how left-wing, progressive and pro-women. A “party”, of
whatever shade, meant – and unfortunately still means – structural and hence essentially
male domination – and the denial of this fact by the unreasonable and unreasoning
identification of being a man with being a human being, and the accompanying
assumption that “gender” is allegedly equal (or egalitarian).4 It was evident that the pursuit
of a feminist women?s politics carried out exclusively by women made sense, and it was
clear that the “revolutionary” perspective had as its primary object not the class conflict,
but the conflict between the sexes.5 The abolition of male domination was ideally
combined with the abolition of all domination, which was why the triad of “race, class and
sex” had always been mentioned in the same breath, as the marks of oppression and
exploitation. To put it quite simply: The struggle against patriarchy was foregrounded
because it formed the background of capitalism and imperialism. There were countless
disputes between left and “radical” feminists – enough to fill whole bookshelves – and this
generally led to divisions, on both theoretical and practical planes. For adherents of the
one strategy the “women only” approach was too little, while for others their male
colleagues were intolerable, especially as regards their claim to be the political
representatives of a universal humanism.6
At present the second position seems to be on the way out, since capitalism in its
neoliberal guise suggests the freedom of everyone to do and be what they like. At least in
our prosperous climes. In this state of “freedom”, and on the basis of the basic women?s
rights that have been won and are now taken for granted, women?s emancipation seems
to have been accomplished and thus made itself superfluous. Every public proclamation of
a critical-feminist viewpoint sounds downright quaint and embarrassing. Everywhere.
Radical left positions are getting the same treatment, where they are not being demonised.
It is a remarkable phenomenon of our time that the condemnation of every clearly defined
political attitude as (outdated) ideology is accompanied by growing unease at the gross
distortions in social relations. To adapt a bon mot of Gu?nter Anders who said (in 1964!):
“Let?s not be shy. Let?s be unfashionable. Let?s talk about capitalism”, I would like to say:
Let?s not be shy. Let?s be unfashionable. Let?s talk about sexism.
At present my interest focuses on more involvement and reflection in “mixed” alternative
contexts (and if not within the “left”, where else?), although without today?s oh so popular
parlour game – from the left of the spectrum through the centre to the right – of cheering
on the women?s movements. In view of the world situation – and of the women in it – there
is an urgent need for a critique both of society and of capitalism, this time without leaving
out the gender issue. And that may be why I am standing here before you both as draftee
and volunteer. And with no or fewer reservations than many young people or even some
members of my own generation, about an institutionalised left; no doubt because they
have no traumatic memories of party discipline, because the great (including the Marxist)
master narratives arouse distrust in any case, and because a feminist experience of life
and knowledge acts as a protection against being taken over. For it must be said in all
clarity that the male comrades and (most) of the practising female comrades (historically)
never gave a hoot about the so-called woman question, as it was not considered an
important part of solving the world?s problems.7
transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue / issue 02/2008
Report from the Women?s Movement
Feminist theories and gender studies have filled whole libraries – and present a lot of
contradictory findings.8 But do not imagine they have in any sense found their way into the
generally recognised academic canon. On the contrary, the university reforms have
ushered in a retrograde tendency, and gender studies – despite their fashionable trappings
as gender expertise – have been relegated to the backwater of special study courses. But
that is another story.
By now you will understand that I can only present the complexity of the material in a
highly compressed form (and hopefully without redundancy), i.e. that I have to be
I will do this first by identifying the various tendencies within the women?s movement, and
secondly by briefly presenting the various paradigms of feminist theory.
A political statement that in principle combines all theorems and forms of practice might
be: “Feminism as a politics of transformation is aimed at changing social institutions and
overcoming all forms of oppression, and not at gaining more space for particular groups of
women within existing structures. This politics is not only in the interests of all women, but
of all human beings. Nevertheless – or for this very reason – it is a challenge to the
defenders of traditional patriarchal power structures.”10
First of all we can trace chronologically five currents that still occur and which existed
alongside and in conflict with one another, both in harmony and intermingled. This is worth
stressing as it shows that the women?s movements were not organised on an authoritarian
or hierarchical basis, although of course there were always passionate debates about the
right perspective at any given time.

Liberal dialectic (bourgeois) feminisms Equal social rights
Socialist feminisms Class and production relations
Radical feminisms Patriarchy, forced heterosexuality
Cultural (gynocentric) feminisms Upgrading of female identity
Post-structural feminisms Symbolic order; “doing gender”

These labels will have to suffice here, but even in this abridged form they reflect the
bandwidth of areas of struggle and investigation as well as the complex and interlocking
levels of women?s subordinate status. An important feature which distinguishes feminism
from other alternative movements and critical areas of scholarship is the inclusion of the
private sphere in those of politics and intellectual inquiry. The recognition that the political
is also private and vice versa is one of the essential “achievements” of 20th-century
political thought and, because it raised the issue of male violence, is “naturally” not
recognised as such.
At odds with and inside these divergent tendencies there were waves of heated debates
on rights of interpretation and priorities relating to recognition theory and political demands
and aims.11 We might mention the wages-for-housework debate, the lesbian/hetero
debate, the female-accomplices debate, the subsistence-economy debate, the
institutionalisation debate, the internationalisation debate, the PorNo debate, the migration
debate, the racism debate, the transgender debate …, to name but a few.
Secondly, there has always been wide-ranging discussion and reflection on the (changing)
paradigms of feminist theory, so the following digest is just my subjective view. Four basic
lines can be identified:
transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue / issue 02/2008
Equality theories

Equality of the sexes, equality

of treatment, women as a homogeneous group
Theories of difference

Equal value of the different features of the sexes,

women are heterogeneous
Deconstructive theories

Logo/phallocentrism constitutes a whole culture;

woman does not actually exist
Constructionist theories

Gender arises interactively/performatively,

bisexuality is a construct
That should shed some light on a lot of history crammed into a short space of time.
General (global) dynamics produce big question marks – and some powerless rage. One
of the main maxims of the women?s movement – the self-determination of women – has
been misappropriated and twisted to fit the discursive category of the neoliberal self, which
is concerned with optimizing its own interests, when it is not concerned with sheer survival
– as is particularly the case with female existences. In terms of intellectual history this shift
can be expressed both in the postmodern “subject” debate and in the context of feminist
theories. The struggle against oppression and exploitation was primarily directed against
the female object status (egalitarian feminism) and was consequently in favour of the
subjectfication of women (differential feminism). At this historical moment – i.e. from the
1980s to today – a certain male “cunning reason”, under the pretence of demoting man
from his role of master, declared the subject to be dead, any authorship to be obsolete,
and progressive politics to be reactive. Advanced feminist theory was prepared to accept
this offer to dissolve the subject in so far as it prevented a concept of “femininity as
otherness”, being confined to the adaptation of a rigid, genuine, quasi-natural and
prescribed female subject (deconstructionist feminism). With the discursive switch to the
total abolition of the female subject as just a registered and ascribed body – with
simultaneous dematerialisation – “woman” (and hence the subject of feminism) was
discarded in favour of a never-to-be-pinned-down, but constantly self-determinable identity
(constructionist or post-feminism).
At this point I cannot refrain from remarking that I have not encountered any “normal”12
male who has to ask himself whether he exists, or is allowed to exist as such.
Before I come to the last part, in which I will allow myself a personal-political assessment
and a modest appeal, I should like to say of the internal post/feminist dispute how
necessary these critical voices were, however difficult and even painful the disputes may
have been. They continue to carry an explosive charge, so that the walls of the apparently
self-evident are in permanent danger of crumbling, which keeps us always on our toes.
Feminist Enlightenment
Although I promised to state a personal judgment, I would not like to have it regarded as
private, and will therefore presume on your patience by offering some quotations which I
consider to be very apposite.
On sexual relations:
“The term ?sexual relations? is intended to facilitate a critical examination of how the sexes
are harnessed to overall relations. It assumes what itself is a result of the relations to be
studied: the existence of ?sexes? in the sense of the men and women to be found in history.
The complementarity in procreation is the natural basis on which social forms emerge in
the historical process, and also determines what has to be regarded as ?natural?. In this
transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue / issue 02/2008
way the sexes emerge from the social process as unequal, their non-equality becomes the
basis of further outgrowths, and sexual relations become fundamentally regulated in all
social formations. They permeate or are central to questions of division of labour, power,
exploitation, ideology, politics, law and religion. Morality, sexuality, the body, the senses,
speech – indeed there is no field that can be meaningfully studied without also studying
the way in which sexual relations take shape and are formed. The only way to avoid this is
to assume – as scholars have traditionally done – that there is only one sex, the male sex,
and that all relations are thus to be represented as male.”13
On Women
“They continue to hold their own by working twice as long and harder than men, as though
they were punishing themselves for existing. Unpaid In the family and underpaid at work,
they are the last to be hired and the first to be fired, although lately we are assured of the
opposite. Yet women make up almost two-thirds of all the unemployed, social welfare
recipients, part-time workers, and holders of jobs not subject to social insurance, and most
of the single parents. Yet they are prepared to shoulder this double burden, although it is
exclusively at their expense. It is true that in so doing women aim at boosting a sense of
their own value, but this cannot be realised …. within this circle. For it is negated to the
extent that nothing is more profitable than someone of no value who produces value
without receiving at least the equivalent of social recognition for it. In this respect, too, we
are now assured of the opposite: women are present, although still under-represented, at
all levels of society, including business, academia and politics. Yet this very “too”
expresses a refusal of recognition, thanks to which emancipation has so far brought
nothing more than a further ?civilisation? of women without any of their demands being
On the Difference Between the Sexes
“This is the way in which man-as-human-being plays out the parable of the self. He finds
and recognises himself as what is special in his universalisation. Woman, on the other
hand, finds that she is only special as the eternally other that is contained in the universal
neuter, human-being-as-man. … Sexual limitation in its male form, that universalises itself
by making itself absolute, celebrates its sex in the process without, however, taking
cognizance of the difference that is rooted in it and in which it consists. … The
consequence of this for woman is that she cannot recognise herself in the thinking and
speech of a universal subject that does not include her, indeed excludes her … This
makes woman the universal ?human being? with the ?addition? of female sexuality. …
Thinking in terms of the difference between the sexes is thus a difficult task, for it is subject
to the obliteration on which Western thought is based and has developed.”15
I will sum up in five theses:
Sexual relations are socially produced relations and regulate sexual relations as power
Politics is structurally and substantively “men?s business”. Men create “meaning”.
What women do is undervalued and unrecognised, no matter what it is or how hard they
work. Emancipation has so far meant adaptation to male standards.
The West cannot know of or think in terms of the difference between the sexes, since man
has established himself as the universal subject.
In this interpretation, feminism as a liberation theory for politicians and activists of the
“European left” should be seen first and foremost as a theory of recognition and
What can a European left do if it wants to learn from feminist insights and prospects?16
transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue / issue 02/2008
• “Re-Form the Revolution” could at last be understood in a feminist sense, since so far all
“revolutions”, whatever their slogans, have been able to live with the “second sex” notion
perfectly well.
• A genuine desire to practise a pluralist politics means first of all no longer avoiding the
gender divide, but confronting it. Lip service of the usual kind, claiming to embrace
“women, migrants, homosexuals, the disabled, etc., etc.”, only draws attention to the fact
that men do not appear in this equivalence chain, and are thus above and beside it.
• This in turn shows that we are still talking about a supposed or voluntaristic proxy politics.
And plurality threatens to degenerate into an empty pluralism – analogous to neoliberal
• Feminism as a theory of political liberation – from what, to do what? I suggest we start by
having women come to their senses and having men come to their senses. Which is not
the same. Freedom for women would not be against something (men), but for something
(women), while freedom for men would primarily be against something, namely their habit
of regarding themselves as the general “self”.
• One conclusion: institutionalisation of formative political processes, demanding and
promoting self-determination and self-development in the “trialectic” of given facts,
collective relations, and subjective relativities: for men it would mean the importance of
self-diagnosis – which would involve opposing the eternal repetition of the same thing; for
women it whould mean the importance of self-awareness – which would involve joining
others in resistance to eternal sameness.
How this might look in practice could provide material for another lecture and a lot of
As a parting thought I offer you the words of the black, lesbian, feminist writer and activist
Audre Lorde:
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from
my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained. Nor is any
one of you!”
1 This text is in the form of an undelivered speech.
2 Jean Francois Lyotard: Das Patchwork der Minderheiten. Fu?r eine herrenlose Politik.
Reihe: Internationale Marxistische Diskussion 69, Berlin, 1977, p. 40
3 Wolfgang Fach: “Partizipation”, in U. Bro?ckling, S. Krasmann, T. Lemke (eds.): Glossar
der Gegenwart, Frankfurt/Main 2004, p. 201
4 Exceptions prove the rule – or they wouldn?t be exceptions.
5 This did not mean, on the other hand non-co-operation – for example in connection with
international Women?s Day – with leftist and other alternative women?s organizations. It
may be, however, that this is a specifically Austrian phenomenon, because in a country
that is not only territorially small but deeply conservative (Catholic clericalism, no serious
transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue / issue 02/2008
attempt to confront its own fascist past till the mid-1990s, …) co-operation is a practical
6 Yet one cannot help but feel nostalgia for that period, as there really was something at
7 I don?t mean to deny the existence, thankfully acknowledged, of EL-fem, the feminist
network within the ELP.
8 I should say that I know of no social movement with an academic apparatus that is so
self-critical (not always in the friendliest of ways, alas). The discoveries this led to, such as
the deconstruction of racism in its own ranks, were then snapped up by scholars in other
fields and movements that did not, however, feel it necessary to credit the source. A similar
“fate” overtook the methodological variety and interdisciplinarity which characterized
gender studies right from the start and were later loudly proclaimed to be general
academic paradigms worthy of emulation without a single reference to the women who
had developed them.
9 All that follows refers to developments in second-wave feminism, i.e. since the 1960s.
10 Elisabeth List: Feminismus als Kritik, in E. List/
H. Studer (eds.), Denkverha?ltnisse. Feminismus und Kritik, Frankfurt/Main. 1989, p. 10
11 I refer here to the debates in the German-speaking countries. In the UK,
for example, the Marxist-feminist debate was conducted on a broader basis than here.
12 This refers to the interesting question of why there are hardly any left-wing
homosexuals. Has the left always been a heterosexual affair? Someone should look into
13 Frigga Haug: Zur
Theorie der Geschlechterverha?ltnisse, in: http://www.linksnet.de/ drucksicht.php?id= 552
Accessed: 25.2. 08
14 Gerburg Treusch-Dieter: Frauen gemeinsam sind stark – aber was sta?rkt Frauen?
Ko?pfung als Strategie. Attentatsachen und Terrortraumata. Revisionen zum 11. 9. 2001, in:
http://www.treusch-dieter.de/  Accessed: 2.3.08
15 Adriana Cavarero: Ansa?tze einer Theorie der Geschlechterdifferenz, in: Der Mensch ist
zwei. Das Denken der Geschlechterdifferenz, Diotima (group of feminist philosophers from
Verona), Vienna 1993 (2nd ed.), p. 67ff
16 A reversal of the question, if possible at all, would require further reflection and might
be stimulating.
Birge Krondorfer, Vienna, is a political philosopher, author and lecturer at universities and
for adult education courses, the organizer of various women?s congresses, and
(co-)founder of the women?s educational organization Frauenhetz – Feministische Bildung,
Kultur und Politik.
transform! european journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue / issue 02/2008


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