Chris Corrin. Feminist Perspectives on Politics. London and New York: Longman, 1999. xii + 284 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-582-35638-2.
Reviewed by Melissa Haussman (Government Department, Suffolk University)
Published on H-Women (March, 2000)
Differences and Debates within Feminist Politics
This very readable and interesting summary of key issues in feminist politics synthesizes the ways that feminists have sought to confront, change and redefine the political. Corrin states that her interest in politics stems from a concern for eradicating injustice -- a goal which should provide hope for students who are sometimes alienated from the political. This text appears to be aimed mainly at those who need a background in feminist political thought and activism, so is therefore appropriate for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as practitioners.
There are ten chapters covering the book's thematic core of women's varied relationship to the political. They cover the principles of liberal, socialist, and liberationist feminism (chapters one though four); the feminist politics of black, lesbian and disabled women (chapters five through seven); a chapter on political participation and resistance (chapter eight); a chapter on international and transnational feminisms (chapter nine), and a conclusion (chapter ten). This particular combination of chapters is not found in other feminist theory volumes, and thus is a helpful addition to the rich literature in this area (including works such as Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought: a More Comprehensive Introduction, Westview Press, 1998, and Stevi Jackson and Jackie Jones, eds., Contemporary Feminist Theories, New York University Press, 1998). Corrin draws many examples from Britain, but each chapter also includes comparative developments in feminism in both developing and developed countries.
Each chapter starts with an outline, followed by a short discussion. Corrin also includes a "case study" highlighting the chapter's main concepts, many of which are internationally-based. The author ends each chapter ends by summarizing the main themes bullet form -- a helpful mode for reiterating concepts.
The first chapter lays out the threads woven through future chapters, including both "difference," which involves defining a group in opposition to another group, and "identity," based on a group's intentional claiming of political or social space. Corrin also defines key concepts such as subordination, praxis, patriarchy and power relations, public and private spheres, political participation, and new political identities of feminism, which are literally highlighted in bold to emphasize their importance to the discussion.
Chapter two, which connects feminist debates and activism to liberal political theory, provides good background to the rise of many central concerns of liberalism and liberal feminism, including equality of public citizenship. For example, Corrin includes a helpful comparison of the suffrage struggle in the U.S. and Britain. As in the U.S., class- and gender-based loyalties complicated the suffrage debate in England. Distinctive to Britain, though, was the Liberal Party's rejection of suffragette demands in its attempts to retain the political center from the Labour Party (pp. 30-31). Also interesting in this discussion is the citation of Mary Wollstonecraft's radical connection of women's situation in pre-suffrage Britain with Britain's colonialism abroad (p. 32). This leads into a useful "case study" discussion, recognizing white women's relationships to and benefits from British imperialist policies (pp. 37-39) .
The theme that the suffrage movement was primarily focused on white, middle-class women is carried over into chapter three. In her discussion of socialist feminism, Corrin notes that nineteenth-century women's activism was divided between the white, middle-class suffragists and the pro-working class element of the movement, the "radicals and reformers" (pp. 45-46). Organized around the concepts of socialism, marxism, anarchism and Bolshevism, Corrin analyzes why all these theories, centered around the political economy of the state, could consider labor-management-state relations in an essentially ungendered fashion. Given the attention to locating family forms within material conditions by various types of socialist theory, a basis existed for women's appropriation of socialism to explore gendered relationships under various state forms. Similarly, liberal feminists appropriated traditional concepts of liberal theory to envision what citizenship and equal rights entailed. The case study in this chapter illuminates socialist women's efforts (such as those of Clara Zetkin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) to construct the Socialist Women's International (pp. 61-63). Both the founding of the International Women's Suffrage Association in 1904, and of the Socialist Women's International in 1907 were based on recognizing a need for organizations that would not be dominated by the concerns of bourgeois feminists (p. 62).
In similar fashion to chapters two and three, chapter four focuses on liberationist feminism, recognizing both women's experiences with the political in male-dominated organizations and their desire to create theory and practice based specifically on women's lives. With reference to previously-existing movements, the discussion recognizes some roots of liberationist feminism in women's experiences with communist movements around the world and in the U.S., in liberal groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In noting that liberationist feminism is the "creation of new analyses of women's lives based on the concept of patriarchy," Corrin equates liberationist feminists' mistreatment in, and disenchantment with, male-dominated organizations as a shorthand for male-dominated society (p. 65). It is laudable that the chapter situates the discussion of liberationist feminism within the concepts of liberation from capitalism, coercive domestic relations, and imposed heterosexuality. However, the linkage among the three matrices of domination should be more firmly established to show the interlocking relationship that controls many women's economic and sexual lives. In its attempts to change both the economic and sexual power of patriarchy, liberationist feminism has arguably been the most sweeping vision for necessary changes to ensure women's ability to fully control their own lives.
In chapters five, six, and seven, Corrin covers black, lesbian, and disability-oriented feminism. She notes that these sets of theories arose from women's exclusion from mainstream women's organizations, often dominated by those of privilege. The process of coming to claim a separate existence under identity politics when difference does not seem to be acknowledged or validated in feminist organizations is central to defining black, lesbian, and disability feminism. The claiming of a separate identities also often means that groups must work in coalitions, an opportunity and difficulty covered in these three chapters.
Coalition politics is presented in chapter five as beneficial to black feminism. The end of chapter case study draws from the formation of the Southall Black Sisters in 1979 (p. 115). In this instance, women from India, African, and the Caribbean worked together to combat inequality and daily violence to "make connections between our oppression in Britain and that of women in the Third World" (p.117).
Black feminists produce coalitions against racist state policies. Lesbian organizing mobilizes against a patriarchal state. Disability-based feminism has had success in fighting against state policies of "medicalizing" disability and challenging the central roles accorded to medical professionals (pp. 156-158). Corrin includes heartening examples of coalition mobilizing within and among these groups internationally. For example, during the Independence 92 campaign in Vancouver, B.C., women sought to acknowledge "diversity and disparity in disabled people's lack of facilities and services in many economically disadvantaged "Third World" countries. Another example highlighted international networks of disabled lesbians and gay men (p. 160).
Nonetheless, in chapter six and seven Corrin acknowleges that identity-based politics have caused difficulties in the formation of coalitions. For example, in many lesbian communities, Corrin notes that women felt pressure to show a strength of lesbian unity to confront patriarchy. The long-term result was that as the movement matured differences in priorities began to be evident within homosexual rights movement. An infrastructure did not develop to work through such differences (p. 137).
Also, Corrin rightly points out the often contradictory medical priorities of gay men and lesbians. Lesbian reformers often believe that gay men are not sufficiently active in social movement coalitions lobbying the state for freer access to abortion and/or increased funding for breast cancer research. In addition, some lesbians believe that gay men consciously access patriarchal privilege. As is the case with lesbian politics, the politics of feminist disability organizing discussed in chapter seven have evidenced a divide between male and female, and gay and straight,over which are the "real" issues that deserve to be addressed (pp. 161-162).
In addition to divisions within these three movements over who takes precedence, male or female, straight or gay, Corrin also notes other points that undercut identity politics. One is the issue of overlapping oppression. The other is that women in all these three areas of feminist organizing, black, lesbian, and disability politics, have had to confront and work around the domination of women's movement politics by economically privileged white women. In chapter six, Corrin notes the oft-repeated anti-lesbian comments by Betty Friedan, a founder of NOW (p. 70). The media often portrays feminists and lesbians as completely overlapping universes, driving the homophobic out of feminist work altogether. While this is annoying in first-world feminist politics, it can be dangerous in underdeveloped countries, where lesbians, or any woman labelled "lesbian," may suffer violent attack. In response, coalitions of lesbian support groups have been formed in some Asian and African states (p.145).
Chapter eight focuses on political participation, representation and resistance, highlighting the traditionally liberal conception of women's participation in parties and electoral politics, without specifically identifying it as such. The discussion of "top down" politics and women's participation is fairly straightforward. For example, Corrin states that the regions of the world having the highest representation of women in national legislatures, the Scandinavian countries, do not use the list-system of proportional representation in their electoral system. Arab states have the fewest proportion of women participating in their systems. Many works on political representation have recognized the importance of the electoral system (variants of proportional representation versus variants of plurality balloting) as one of the single most important factors explaining women's successful candidacies to national legislatures in some countries. This chapter could use some more in-depth discussion on this point.
In chapter nine, on transnational and international feminisms, Corrin does a very good job of emphasizing the themes in this arena that have been present throughout the book. The chapter begins with a discussion of the "terms of the debate." These include: ideas in feminist politics about sisterhood, connectivity and universal visions, the assumption that women in different states face repression that looks exactly the same as our own, and the first world's exploitation of the third world under past times of colonialism and currently in the new economic orders (pp. 196-197). The need to work for economic reform is highlighted in the statistic that "the richest 368 people are wealthier than the poorest 44 countries together, but have none of the political restraints.on the use of that wealth and the influence that goes with it" (Corrin, p. 196). As Corrin points out, "third world" women, wherever they live, are working to mitigate economic domination, which also includes issues related to women's childbearing capacity assigning them roles in the "global assembly line."
Feminist work related to the seemingly permanent globalization of the economy must recognize, as Corrin points out, that differences that have divided feminism within state borders can be even more challenging to solidarity across borders (p. 198). Nevertheless, as Corrin and many others who write on international feminism point out, it is necessary to do this work, as this reflects the current and future reality of our lives. This involves, among other things, "an understanding of a set of unequal relationships among and between peoples," and viewing "international" as a process as well as an adjective which is economic, political and ideological in nature "foregrounding the operations of race and capitalism" (Corrin, pp. 199-200).
Chapter nine also specifically highlights successful examples of feminist solidarity across international boundaries, as well as those that can be problematic, given the distortion of feminist efforts by the dominant political coalition. The former is shown through the International Reproductive Rights Research Action Group (IRRAG), a coalition of feminists in seven countries, whose work "shows how much is common in women's experience of the power relations embedded in reproduction, despite cultural differences and geographical distance" (p. 206). On the other hand, Corrin shows how feminists working together across borders may become part of an official state propaganda machine, as in a case drawn from her personal experience where women from the Greenham Common anti-nuclear protests went to Moscow to work with feminist organizations there. Much to their surprise, they were lauded in the Soviet press as supporting Soviet peace initiatives. At the same time, however, their presence potentially posed a danger to Soviet women who were believe to oppose official policy, since many pro-peace women were then in Soviet jails (pp. 203-204). Having begun with the "terms of debate," the chapter ends with suggestions for "changing the terms of debate."
The "resistance" part of the chapter juxtaposes women's efforts to utilize state power in Sweden, ranked by the U.N. as the best country in which women can live, with those of Nigeria. In Sweden, the efforts described are those of women's movement organizations to name and create shelters for women affected by sexual assault and domestic violence. One interesting note is the correlation between representation an resources -- the municipalities with the highest degree of women's representation on municipal councils also have the most shelters (p. 191).
The Nigerian example is that of women's organizations resisting military regime politics, and the specific group under study is Women in Nigeria (WIN), formed in 1983. WIN resists "abstract universal theorizing about feminism," basing its politics on local conditions. It is a unique organization in its concern for changing both class and gender relations at the same time; it is autonomous both from the state and from any international organization, and includes women from the major ethnic groupings in the country, seeking to avoid the highly contentious politics that have often led to bloodshed through ethnic strife (p. 187). Other interesting features of WIN are its insistence on remaining autonomous, rejecting efforts to make it a party, preferring to act in coalition with other groups. Also, since various branches prioritize class and gender issues differently, they are said to be involved in WIN's overall project of 'conscientisation' (p. 188).
"Conscientisation" seems an apt description for the process which Corrin believes feminism is bringing and can bring to politics in different state systems. Her vision, as expressed through chapter discussions and case studies of feminist work in the seven areas of liberal, socialist, liberationist, black, lesbian, disability and transnational/international politics, is to change the process to one where justice is envisioned and achieved for all. Of necessity, this project entails processes which can "think about women in similar contexts across the world, in different geographical spaces" (Corrin, p. 199). It also involves recognizing the situation of women embedded in structures of global domination, including the economic, and how women of privilege can work with those possessing less power. This helps to provide a blueprint for how to more fully incorporate difference and identity politics into feminism.
Feminist Perspectives on Politics is a solid work in the area of feminist theory and practice. It is helpful in the breadth of issues addressed as well as Corrin's clear efforts to use examples which are completely up to date and to in effect make each chapter a literature review of key works in the field being discussed. One organizational quibble is that in some chapters, the discussion is not tied in to the outline presented at the beginning. The strength of this work lies in its ambition to identify key threads of feminist theory and weave them throughout the different areas of feminist politics.
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