Feminist theory · Sexual Stratification Revisited

Class, Caste or ‘Oppression’: Sexual Stratification Revisited (Part 1)

Do women constitute a class? This question has been undertheorised in recent decades, partly because it has been severed from the Marxian accounts of class and class formation which lend its theoretical backbone, but also because of an underlying antagonism between radical feminists (the earliest proponents of a sex-class system) and the Left. The departure from Marxian language was, at least initially, purposive and productive, separating the study of social stratification from potentially untenable commitments and yielding a theory of caste which recognized the intransigence of sexual distinctions. However, in recent decades the term hasn’t been adequately theorised and its paternity has remained largely unacknowledged. Similarly, the antagonism between radical feminists and the male-dominated left arose primarily in the context of the New Left of the 1960s and 70s, but has shifted its terrain in recent years to the academy, which, with the advent of the so-called ‘discursive turn’, has increasingly distanced itself from developing a robust theory of patriarchy.

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to provide an exhaustive history of the terms ‘sex-class’ and ‘sex caste’ and their critics, however, drawing on the work of a variety of feminist thinkers, I aim to both provide an aetiology of its relative decline, reinvigorate old debates, and flesh out the ‘thin’ definition of sexual stratification which surfaces in much of what passes for radical feminism. I use the term ‘sexual stratification’ to encompass both theories of sex class and sex caste, since these terms are either used interchangeably (for example in Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics) or aren’t adequately differentiated  (as in Evelyn Reed’s ‘Women: Caste, Class or Oppressed Sex’). While there are important distinctions between the use of class and caste (some of which I will explore here in closer detail), both constitute positions in a broader, encompassing debate about the nature of sex, gender and social stratification.

While some feminists situate resistance to the notion of sex stratification in the inherent chauvinism and antagonistic political interests of male-dominated groups and organisations , others suggest the problem stems from (nominally) feminist epistemic positions or issues with ‘woman’ as a universal category . It is my intuition, however, that these are intertwined—that the taking up of certain position by the male-dominated Left has lead to an impasse in feminist theory and a disintegration of the term ‘patriarchy’.

Underpinning the decline of the this debate, I will argue, is the poststructuralist hegemony in feminist theory and its anti-ontological stance with respect to sex, that is, the idea that there is no reality independent of our concepts of it, and that these concepts are fragile and tenuous. For these feminists, the concept of sex classes, for instance, is untenable because ‘women’ is a mere sociological convenience, an abstract collection of individuals who fit under some arbitrary criteria. ‘Women’, they claim, fail to constitute a class because they do not share a common historical background, culture, values or interests—in other words, they do not have a collective self-consciousness of themselves as a group. Moreover, they argue, to think of the sexes as natural kinds undermines the heterogeneity of the individuals which comprise the category ‘woman’ and conceals how this category is mobilized politically to the detriment of some members and the benefit of others (cf. caste).

While poststructuralism seems best equipped to accommodate the awareness that women, per differences of class, race, sexuality and ability, are differently positioned in the social matrix, questions of intersectionality have a long history within radical, socialist and materialist feminist thought and continue to inform the sex stratification debate in productive ways. In this post and those that follow, surveying a variety of these contributions, I will argue, not only that a feminism which is philosophically realist and materialist in orientation can provide the foundation for a robust theory of something like sex class, but that poststructuralism actively undermines the formation of a collective self-consciousness among women.

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8 thoughts on “Class, Caste or ‘Oppression’: Sexual Stratification Revisited (Part 1)

  1. I’m no philosopher, but I’d say that what unites nearly all females on this planet, in concrete sociological classical terms, is the notion of being owned by males, through the institution of marriage.
    I would abolish marriage as an institution, it will never serve females, it is designed to serve patriarchy.

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    1. I think I’d like to write a post about marriage one day. Rubin talks about the oppression of women in terms of its “endless variety and monotonous similarity” (The Traffic in Women)- and I think this description fits marriage. Sure it’s not an unchanging, transhistorical or transcultural institution but there’s something there. I’m not sure to what degree modern, companionate marriages resemble marriage as it’s still practiced in most parts of the world- here I would appeal to something like Anna G. Jónasdóttir’s theory of ‘love power’ to talk about how inequality persists it putatively equal heterosexual pairings (married or no)

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  2. It doesn’t matter what you call it; class, caste, or something else, it is simply oppression, and women are globally oppressed. Period. The rest is commentary.

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    1. I appreciate the sentiment and I agree. The question is what is the basis for this oppression- is it merely ideological or material too? What are the mechanisms through which it operates and the structures which assure its continuation? I know the distinction may seem purely semantic and a waste of time but it has important implications for how we diagnose the problem and conceive strategies for resistance.

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      1. Obviously, reality is material, not ideological. Only adult human females are women. Men can’t be women, regardless of their identities. If I “identified” as billionaire Bill Gates, would I get access to his bank account? We all know the obvious answer, and it is instructive about the nature of reality versus fantasy.

        The mechanism is obviously patriarchy; nothing new there.

        The structures are everything that serves patriarchy.

        Strategies for resistance? We can start by deprogramming these 3rd wave cultists — I sure won’t call their anti-woman hatred “feminism.” If that is feminism, then: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” George Orwell, 1984

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    2. Oh I don’t know, I think that’s just wrong. It isn’t simply oppression. It’s historically, racially, contextually specific oppression and those details absolutely matter if you’re going to resist. The details are the guide posts of a manifesto for resistance, not mere commentary. It would be so much easier if that weren’t so.

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      1. “A rose by any other name…”

        Details, guideposts, yada yada yada…

        Patriarchy has been around for a while now. We know these things. Endless commentary is not resistance, nor is playing semantics. We don’t have to have every detail agreed upon to effectively resist. In fact, academic exercises will only slow us down. Women should trust their gut instincts more.

        The colonist revolutionaries in what is now the USA, did not have every detail of their proposed new government worked out before they picked up their guns and fought back against the British. Far from it! Point taken?

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