Ideology, Theory, and

As with Marxism, the key to liberation identified by the radical feminist analysis is consciousness raising, the process by which the oppressed become aware of their oppression, their role in perpetuating it, and of the possibility of paralyzing the system of oppressor and oppressed by refusing to voluntarily participate in its perpetuation any further.

Marxism, however, was a theory developed and proposed by intellectuals who were not of the working class themselves, and attempts to spread the theory to its intended beneficiaries have been attempts to introduce Marxist concepts from the outside. In contrast, the feminist social movement has from the start generated theory as part of the process of consciousness-raising, and the concepts have originated from the self-described oppressed themselves, from the inside. Women concerned about women's position in society coming together to speak and listen to each other came to understand that women were oppressed as women, through the operation of the social construction of gender, and furthermore in many cases came to understand that there was something fundamental to the complete understanding of society and oppression in this realization. This understanding did not tend to develop from studying gender as an analytical category and comparing data on gender to a definition of "oppression"; instead, for the most part feminism and its theory of oppression grew from individual women comparing notes about the qualities of their lives (Johnson 1987). Such women discovered that in a variety of ways their experiences were common among women but tended to differ sharply from what they had previously considered to be normative experiences, which they now realized were only generalizations about the experiences of men. As they spoke, and compared experiences, a good portion of what they spoke of dealt with their experiences with men, and the commonality of collective experience led to the realization that "the personal is political":

Both of these [women's consciousness-raising] groups have been called "therapy" and "personal" groups by women who consider themselves "more political". So I must speak about so-called therapy groups from my own experience...

I believe at this point, and maybe for a long time to come, that these analytical sessions are a form of political action. I do not go to these sessions because I need or want to talk about my "personal problems"...the reason I participate in these meetings is not to solve any personal problems. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems...

This is not to deny that these sessions have at least two aspects that are therapeutic. I prefer to call even this aspect "political therapy" as opposed to personal therapy. The most important is getting rid of self-blame. Can you imagine what would happen if women, blacks, and workers would stop blaming ourselves for our sad situations? It seems to me the whole country needs that kind of political therapy...

We also feel like we are thinking for ourselves for the first time in our lives...

(Hanisch 1970, pp. 152-154)

The politics of their lives included and quite often centered on their oppression as women, and they found that from that beginning point, they could make sense of everyday life as well as the global political issues and the turmoil of the time with an unprecedented clarity.

The process of reaching these understandings was described as intuitive and sudden, rather than linear and derivative. Women began to understand, in a process described as "clicking", that events and incidents that they might have previously accepted as normative, everyday, and unproblematic were parts of an overall pattern:

Recently one of the feature stories on the Kansas City news was whether women should be allowed to play golf on a public course on Saturday mornings, when the course is usually invaded by several hundred men. One of the men interviewed voiced this opinion: "Well, if she's got the meals cooked, kids dressed, and all the housework and marketing done, I guess she can be out there on the course at 7 A.M. with me, too!" CLICK!

-Margaret Guntert
(1973 Ms. Magazine letter to the editor, p. 4)

The resultant theory expanded, growing from the most specific and immediate experiences to the most global; and as it did so, feminists began to understand that they were, in fact, gaining an understanding of the entire world and all of its problems in the process of understanding their own lives and their oppression as women:

Growing up Mormon gave me a distinct advantage over those feminists who grew up in "liberal" churchesfor them, patriarchy as a habit of mind, a system of values, a method of operating in the world, has been camouflaged, rendered murky and ambiguous, hard to pin down...Mormonism is patriarchy at its most arrogant and blatant...

As I looked about myself with new eyes, I lost all illusions about organized religion as a means to moral ends. I saw that all churches were the Mormon churchI saw clearly that religion was the central pillar of patriarchy, the means through which male supremacy became and remains dogma...One day, shortly after I recognized all churches as the Mormon church in various guises, I was surveying the national and international scenes through my new wide-angle lens when suddenly everything clicked into place. Of course! I should have known! The whole world is the Mormon church! Having studied these habits of thinking and acting for so long and so thoroughly in the microcosm of the Mormon church, I found their extrapolation to the macrocosm a simple matter.

(Johnson 1987, p. 3, 5, 8)

This process of arriving at understandings in sudden little intuitive clicks meant that many feminist assertions about patriarchy were defended by the women making them on the grounds that they felt them to be true. Along with a general revalorization of human characteristics that have been associated with the "feminine", feeling came to be valued as a way of knowing (French 1985). Women saw that denying the validity of feelings was crucial to maintaining patriarchy, since only through emotion-driven processes was patriarchal oppression discernible. No one had access to a non-patriarchal social system in order to make comparisons, and therefore only through intuitive realizations could the connections be made.

Schaef (1981) compares patriarchy to pollution, noting that "when you are in the midst of pollution, you are usually unaware of ityou are not aware that pollution is not natural until you remove yourself" (pp. 4-5). Leaving New York City and going to the mountains gives one a perspective on pollution, but getting away from patriarchy isn't such a simple matter. Therefore, the processes by which a person might realize that omnipresent conditions form a pattern that is not inevitably embedded in any social scheme are not likely to be simple processes. Intuition is a word commonly used for such a process when it involves the conceptual interpretation of feelings. "To define a judgment as one based on intuition draws attention[the agent's] ideas and judgments are not reducible to a straightforward description of the situation about which [the agent] is thinking" (McMillan 1982, p. 41). Intuition, which is particularly associated with women, is commonly devalued (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule 1986). Schaef (1981) and McMillan (1982) consider the valuing of so-called "rational", "logical", and "objective" thinking over emotionally-based ways of knowing to be an intrinsic part of patriarchy.

Comparing experiences with other women constituted an informal type of qualitative research, to be sure, but it was not as if no one had ever before noticed that men dominated women sexually, or got paid more to do the same work. The assessment was made that the patterns of male-female interaction that they noticed were, in fact, patterns of oppression rather than expressions of natural differences between the sexes, i.e., the natural result of the free interaction of free individuals (male and female) whose freedom has always been (and by necessity always will be) limited by the context of interaction with other, equally free individuals. There was a realization that interaction should not ordinarily produce patriarchy, with all of its hierarchical structures that limit interaction. "Should" in this sense implies lack of inevitability as well as lack of desirability (Fisher 1979). This was not a deductive conclusion.

In summary, radical feminism asserts that intuition is a viable process of emotional cognition by which individuals can transcend the environment in which they were socialized, and that society as we know it is revealed by that process to be a pathological condition of deviation from the natural behavior of our species.

Such assertions, embedded in radical feminist thinking and theorizing, raise questions which are ultimately metaphysical and epistemological: are individuals innately capable of developing independent concepts of reality and then comparing notes, negotiating towards a consensus? If so, how do some individuals manage to cause others to internalize the propaganda that leads them to accept oppression? How do some individuals manage to pierce the veil of ideology and transcend false consciousness and become aware of their oppression? To what extent are the conceptual interpretations that any individual gives to reality (especially social reality) at any given time simply the result of "shared conceptual structures"-the belief systems that one harbors as a result of socialization, in other words? And what is this "reality" which is the subject matter of those "shared conceptual structures"? If "culture", and perhaps the entirety of "society", consists of "shared conceptual structures", where do the concepts come from? Do the concepts give reality meaning, or does reality contain meaning itself? Is it meaningful to distinguish between reality and concepts of reality? If reality has self-evident meaning, where do mistakes and differences of interpretation come from? If reality has a more problematic relationship to meaning, what is the process by which people-individually or in collusion-arrive at meaning?

These questions are unavoidable for any theory that seeks to do what both radical feminism and Marxism set as their task: explain oppression and plan for its demise. Oppression could be intrinsic to certain situations as an objective (and therefore definable) phenomenon, and that to be completely unaware of one's own oppression as a result of socialization is not necessarily the same as being free of it. It could also be that oppression is an individually subjective matter, in which inconsistencies exist between our concepts of proper interaction and actual interactive experience, so that oppression cannot be said to exist except where people consider themselves to be oppressed; or perhaps in some way oppression has characteristics that make it both objectively real and inevitably perceivable, and that we are naturally inclined in such a way that we cannot be socialized to accept certain oppressive conditions without experiencing resentment.

Sociology, generically speaking, has placed a heavy stress on the role of culture and socialization in determining the thoughts, values, and concepts of reality of each individual. An extreme position was taken by structuralist theorist Orville Brim (1960) who rejected the notion that an individual could bring anything into an interactive setting which was anything other than the composite results of previous socialization. Like a social onion, the individual self was described as layer upon layer of socialization with no core personality, intrinsic values, or other sources of behavior that could not be explained in terms of social structure and socialization processes. This was echoed by the behavioral determinist B. F. Skinner (1971) who identified environment as the sole cause of individuals' behaviors, and who denied the existence of intentions, values, or individual free will as relevant factors. Oppression, according to the Skinner model, is subjective and corresponds to experiences with unpleasant aversive forms of behavioral control. Those who are not aware of and resentful of the forms of control to which they are exposed are not oppressed.

Structuralists are criticized for promoting theories which cannot address or explain social change (Sternberg 1977). Their theories emphasize stability and equilibrium, and they tend to take the larger social context for granted while considering the function of phenomena within that context for its structural stability (Erikson 1985). Brim's denial of the existence of an independently cognizant and critically conscious individual, while especially explicit, is reflected in structuralist theory generically. Skinner, on the other hand, moved beyond status quo conservatism and called for social change in the form of planned total social control by means of deliberate macrosocial behavior modification (arguing rather inconsistently that by some method we, who are but passive puppets of our environment and who lack intentions, values, or free will, can assess human behavior and "induce people not to be good but to behave well" (p. 63) by intentionally redesigning the system of behavior reinforcements).

Marxism, like structuralism, works at a composite level of analysis (classes of people) which makes individual consciousness of oppression a problematic construct. Nevertheless, as a conflict theory, it attempts, by necessity, to explain consciousness of oppression. Consciousness is generally conceptualized as caused by the social environment, as in structuralism and behaviorism, but under certain circumstances people attain class consciousness which allows them to pierce through the veil of ideology and see matters as they really, materially, are (Marx 1844; 1872; 1888). (Material reality is asserted to be self-evidently, unproblematically real.) The distinction between false consciousness and accurate class consciousness explains both oppression and the ability of oppressive systems to exist unrecognized, but the explanation of the distinction between falsity and accuracy of consciousness is thin enough to be considered tautological: false consciousness is that which corresponds to internalization of capitalist ideology, and class consciousness liberates the proletariat from that ideology so that they see their circumstances as oppressed people. The qualitative difference in consciousness lies in the correctness of the latter and the falsity of the former, which can be discerned by those who have attained the latter but not by those who are in the grips of the former. The macrosocial level of analysis makes an interactive analysis of oppressed person, oppressive social context, individual assessment of reality, and ideological socialization difficult.

The trend towards social determinism within conventionally accepted sociological theory is strongest in the structure-oriented "macro" theories. Exceptions that offer more of a role for individual consciousness in explaining human behavior are most common among the class of theories called "interactionist", which are "micro" theories focusing on small groups of people and generalities about their interaction. Among the interactionist theories, on the other hand, there are none which purport to explain the particular social systems that form the backdrop against which individuals must do their interacting; analysis of the specific structures of modern society which our interaction has formed, and the effect of those structures on our consciousness and further interactive processes were not a part of the first wave of interactionist theories (Coser 1977) and for the most part have not played a major role in the theories of their more modern conceptual offshoots (Turner 1986). And yet, faced with the political problem of how one might either be oppressed by ideology or come to recognize ideology as a tool of oppression, we find ourselves in need of a sociological approach to individual conceptual activity that does not depend solely on exterior causes. Such can be found among the interactionist theories. For example, Homans (1964) took note of the socialized-puppet model of the individual as a trend in sociology and traced it back to the Durkheimian tradition of insisting (for reasons having to do with the staking out of academic turf) that sociology not be conceptualized as a mass form of psychology. Posing the question "If there are norms, why do men conform to them?" (p. 814), Homans rejected the reductionisms of functionalist sociology and formulated his exchange theory on the premise that individuals acted and reacted as conscious rational creatures with wants and intentions from which independent value judgments could be made. "I now suspect that there are no general sociological propositions, propositions that hold good of all societies or social groups as such, and that the only general propositions of sociology are in fact psychological" (p. 817). Socialization, including the process of indoctrinating subject peoples towards an acceptance of oppressive conditions, would have to occur as a process of interaction in which independently cognizant individuals participated, and oppression could easily be discerned. The principle of interaction in Homans' theory is rational calculation of the desirability of the results of that interaction.

The shortcoming of this formulation is that it attributes an amazing degree of innate analytical ability and an intrinsic taken-for-granted understanding of reality to the individual. Psychological propositions are considered to be adequate for explaining how a person is able to interpret a range of complex experiences and calculate outcomes, make predictions, and behave accordingly. Meaning is considered unproblematic: a teacup is a teacup, oppression is oppression. Reducing sociological processes to a matrix of calculated exchanges between psychologically constituted individuals is as much of a simplistic strategy as reducing individual tendencies to the results of socialization.

Neither of these opposed binary positions provides a convincing explanation for the struggle between feminism and patriarchy, in which periods of omnipresent and consistent patriarchal world-views (Schaef 1981) have been periodically challenged by interrupted and discrete waves of feminism (Morgan 1982), in which women have risen up against oppression. Structurally based social determinism cannot convincingly explain feminism, or conceptualize oppression beyond subjectivity, and rational-choice exchange theories such as that of Homans cannot explain the possibility of patriarchy, or any complex system of oppression.

The classic interactionist Mead (1934) established the microsociological tradition of social behaviorism, in which the temporal and logical location of the social process prior to the self-conscious individual sets the stage for interaction. Meaning and knowledge are produced in the individual through interactive processes in which the body of shared conceptual structures, which exist prior to any given individual, are passed along but not simply internalized whole; the individual search for gratification operates as a critique which allows for flux, growth, and change in the socially shared conceptual structures. This model could account for social change from the conceptual level onward, but needs elaboration. It is not apparent how the individual searching for gratification is to recognize it, or know where to search for it, apart from concepts learned along with (and embedded in) the language to which Mead attaches so much importance.

Radical feminism, with its emphasis on emotionally-driven intuitive processes and validation of experience through small-group interactive processes such as the consciousness-raising group, can be understood as an interactionist theory; certainly, it is qualitatively different from Marxism and structuralism, which do not effectively focus on microsociological processes. Going back to the three categories of sociological theory used by the introductory textbooks, we could place radical feminism along with other interactionist theories, whereas Marxist theory would be categorized as "conflict" theory (and structuralist theory represents the third major category itself). But in the beginning, I said that radical feminism was most easily understood by analogy to Marxism, since both are self-evidently conflict theories. Radical feminism is, in fact, both of these things. It is a conflict theory with a microsocial focus that is lacking in most other conflict theories; and, more than that, it is actually a radical interactionist theory.

Clearly, then, radical feminism has the potential for offering to the discipline of sociology an explanatory framework that addresses important issues in a way that other, more conventional sociological theories do not do well.

There is reason, however, to believe that sociologists would find two aspects of this model problematic: the centrality of emotions and intuition in the model by which individuals are said to be able to transcend ideology and see the circumstances of their oppression; and the apparent contradictions of causality implied by trying to simultaneously explain social structure as the result of the interaction of individuals whose perceptions are not necessarily determined by socialization and social-contextual location, and yet explain the circumstances of individual social experience in terms of a massively global system called patriarchy, which is said to be the cause of all subsequent oppression.

One simple solution to the latter problem, which is to see patriarchy as the result of the intentional behavior of men but the exterior cause of women's oppression, is widely associated with radical feminists and their alleged tendency to hate men and blame men for everything. This solution does in fact exist in the form of a branch or sphere of thought within radical feminism; but, as I shall shortly proceed to show, it is not the only one, nor, I daresay, the most elegant one.


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