Fluid-essentialism and
Weberian Sociology

Radical feminist theory is not a completely unified body of concepts and assertions. I find it necessary and useful to make an analytical distinction which will allow me to focus on the sub-form of radical feminist theory to which my assertions apply and from which they derive. Radical feminists differ in the degree to which they conceive of oppressive male tendencies as intrinsically and inseparably part of the expression of maleness by males. For male theorists, this is a critical theoretical point (although women may be inclined to consider it tangential). For discussion purposes, I will describe this distinction throughout this paper as if it were always a vividly polarized opposition, cleanly categoriziing radical feminist theories according to whether they

assert that patriarchy is a system of oppression in which males behave and think like "men" (but patriarchal tendencies are neither inevitable in nor ideal for males, who must also live constricted lives because of patriarchy, so feminism will probably free and benefit males as well as females)


assert that patriarchy is a system of oppression caused by maleness expressing itself to a self-satisfied and unrestrained conclusion in which men oppress women (and men, far from being oppressed, benefit from patriarchy, which is why it is there).

For the duration of this paper, I will use new terms (there are no old ones since the distinction made here is not a traditional one): fluid-essentialism, to describe the radical feminism that falls into category "a" above, since it posits a fluid connection between maleness and "masculine" political motivation or behaviors even as it asserts that "masculine" values and their expression are the essential root cause of all social oppression (e.g., Morgan 1982; French 1985; Johnson 1987); and rigid-essentialism to describe radical feminism described in category "b", where the connection between maleness and "man-ness" is asserted to be self-evidently rigid (e.g., Solanas 1971; Daly 1978).

The important theoretical point, I think, is that rigid-essentialism posits a category of people as enemies in a conflictual power-struggle, in a way analogous to Marx's identification of the bourgeoisie as enemies against whom a violent revolution is entirely ethical and perhaps necessary. Or, as Mary Daly (1978) puts it,

This book is about the journey of women becoming, that is, radical feminism.

This will of course be called an "anti-male" book. Even the most cautious and circumspect feminist writings are described in this wayThus, women continue to be intimidated by the label anti-male. Some feel a need to draw distinctions, for example: "I am anti-patriarchal but not anti-male." The courage to be logical-the courage to name-would require that we admit to ourselves that males and males only are the originators, planners, controllers, and legitimators of patriarchy...

The use of the label is an indication of intellectual and moral limitationsEven feministsare intimidated into Self-deception, becoming the only Self-described oppressed who are unable to name their oppressor, referring instead to vague "forces", "roles", "stereotypes", "constraints", "attitudes", "influences". This list could go on. The point is that no agent is named-only abstractions
This book is absolutely Anti-Androcrat, A-mazingly Anti-male, Furiously and Finally female.

(pp. 1, 27-28)

I have, of course, drawn the very distinction that Daly objects to, and it is precisely the development of a conflict theory that names "vague forces" rather than human culprits which leads me to find radical feminism of the fluid-essentialist variety to be highly interesting. (That I, a male, do so and think so would probably not surprise Daly in the least.)

Not all radical feminists blame men for patriarchy, or attribute its existence to the inherent nature of men:

Blame has no part in the agenda of the women's movement...Though men regard and treat us as their deadliest enemy, men are not our enemy. Feminism, as the biophilic philosophy and world view that it is, has no place for the concept of "enemy"...

To assume that men and women have totally different, even opposing, natures, thus fitting them for altogether different ways of being in the world, is to accept patriarchy's most basic rationale: biology is destiny. Many people do not like how men think and behave, but to lay this solely at the feet of their gender is profoundly patriarchal; to see half the human race as "other" is the imperative of that old, deadly mind.

(Johnson 1987, pp. 263, 282)

Furthermore, to be a radical feminist is not necessarily to assume or propose a permanent antagonism between the sexes, either as an inevitable state of affairs or as a revolutionary strategy:

Feminism is a human movement; the future of all of us-girls, women, boys, and men-depends upon our all comprehending and realizing feminist principles. Repudiation of the male world may be a principled and felicitous position for the short term, but it is not enough for the long term.
(French, 1985, p. 448)

This is the theoretical position I am calling fluid-essentialism as it exists within radical feminism. Fluid-essentialist radical feminists Morgan (1982), French (1985), Johnson (1987) and Fisher (1979) depart from conflict theorists who blame a category of oppressors for maintaining a system of oppression. The effect of removing inevitable struggle with the enemy from the conflict model of social theory is that it questions the sources of hunger for power and the will to oppress, rather than taking these tendencies for granted. All of the fluid-essentialist theorists have identified the urge to have power over other people as an aspect of patriarchy that is not "natural", i.e., inevitably a factor in human interaction or as a principle of human social organization. Schaef (1981) notices that it is a myth of the system that domination is desirable and that power is a zero-sum linear commodity-in order for one to have more power, someone else must have less. Marilyn French (1985) made the notion of power and its desirability the central focal point of her treatise, seeing in it the essence of patriarchy and targeting the concept as most central of the abstract enemies with which feminism must content. Like Schaef, and like Elizabeth Janeway (1980), who makes many similar points, French reconceptualizes power in interactionist terms:

Power is a process, a dynamic interaction. To have power really means to have entry to a network of relationships in which one can influence, persuade, threaten, or cajole others to do what one wants or needs them to do. Although no other syntax is available to us, it is in fact false to speak of "having power". One does not possess power: it is granted to the dominator by hosts of other people and that grant is not unretractable...

Coercion seems a simpler, less time-consuming method of creating order than any other; yet it is just as time-consuming and tedious and far more expensive than personal encounter, persuasion, listening, and participating in bringing a group into harmony.

(p. 509)

At some point, my model of a clear distinction between fluid-essentialists and rigid-essentialists falls apart, or at least becomes less clear. French's assertion that power over other people is not intrinsically desirable and therefore that the desire for it cannot explain patriarchy is not shared by all people who deny that dominance per se is ingrained into the male package by nature, or for that matter that submissiveness and subserviency is somehow a part of female nature. Randall Collins, who would hardly be described as a feminist, posited an explanation of sexual inequality by concentrating on physical morphological differences in physical strength at close intimate range between males and females and concludes that, although there need be no inborn differences in terms of personality and behavioral tendencies, there are certainly differences in typical muscle mass and frame size, and that this alone explains patriarchy from a microsocial focus upward (1972). There are also feminists who engage in this sort of pseudo-biological explanation, seeing in women's reproductive biology a handicap in a presumed struggle for control and supremacy which left men in charge of things (Firestone 1970) or in the differences in genital morphology the key to women's subordination due to the non-reciprocal power of the male to force sexual congress (Brownmiller 1975; Dworkin 1987).

The limitation of my analytical distinction between fluid-essentialism and rigid-essentialism lies here, in the complexities of bodily existence and the implications of physical sexual dimorphism itself: I can be quite abstract and choose to regard the body itself as part of the context in which a person lives, or I can be rather down-to-earth and regard the body as being self-evidently an aspect of the self. If, however, the female body and the male body are different in such a way that the female experience of any reality differs markedly and intrinsically from the male experience, it doesn't matter which view I take--the socially gendered selves having the experiences are rigidly connected to the context of physically sexed bodies, or they are gendered/sexed people, irreducibly so, in their interaction. And if the situation that men and women experience differently is an inevitable power struggle because humans inevitably struggle for power, the rigid-essentialists are right.

Therefore, in continuing to emphasize a meaningful distinction between fluid-essentialist and rigid-essentialist feminists, I am drawn further into an exposition of the fluid-essentialist view of the tendency to seek power as a socially constructed human pattern rather than an inevitable and natural human characteristic.

Having suspended the normative concepts of power and of oppressors as successful "culprits", radical feminist theorists who have denied rigid-essentialism sometimes find it problematic to conceptualize men in terms of their relationship to patriarchy:

If we cannot use the word "oppression" to describe men's plight, how can we speak of it? That, of course, is the point: we cannot. Because patriarchy does not recognize the ultimate destructiveness of tyranny to tyrants, the fathers have no word-and therefore no concept-for the kind of dehumanization, the severe characterological damage, done to men by their use of violence of all kinds to dominate women and all "others". Men who are becoming conscious must find their own language for their experience.
(Johnson 1987, p. 290)

By taking the model of conflict theory and removing intrinsic conflict and power struggle from the picture while insisting on the current real-life existence of their oppression, radical feminists found themselves looking at the interactive processes that we identify as oppressive and considering the exchanges and communications that we call power rather than merely studying the effect that unequal power relationships have on interaction.

For one thing, there was the matter of how males become men. Although feminist theory is for the most part composed of the testimony and insight of women working from their own experiences as females, it had not totally escaped the attention of feminist theorists that little boys were under more severe social pressure to conform to the "male sex role", i.e., to become masculinized and socialized into participation in the patriarchal system, and that this pressure begins at a much earlier age than corresponding pressure on females to internalize and accept the strictures and obligations of femininity (see Hartley 1974; Hart and Richardson 1981). If patriarchy were the tool of males expressing themselves to an unrestrained and self-satisfied conclusion at the expense of female self-determination, why the massive effort to force young males to adopt the very behavior that should come natural in the absence of counterbalance and constraint?

Another important factor was the growing awareness on the part of feminist women, who were so often baited by being accused of wanting to be men, that in fact they did not envy men their positions as oppressors and did not see those positions as desirable (Schaef 1981; French 1985). As the above quote from French alludes, establishing power over other people is time-consuming and requires as much energy expenditure as other modes of attaining cooperation from others, which tends to negate the notion that oppressing others is in one's short-term interest. Then, if the overall experience of being in a position of hegemony and domination holds no ongoing attraction once established, the notion that power over others is intrinsically desirable becomes yet harder to defend. Finally, as the workings of patriarchal power hierarchies were increasingly blamed within feminism for the purposeless destruction of the natural environment, the bureaucratic nonresponsiveness to individual and systemic needs, and the adversarial posturing evidenced by the ongoing threat of nuclear confrontation (e.g., see Fisher 1979; Morgan 1982; French 1985; Ruth 1980), the notion that this type of power structure in any meaningful (functionalist) way serves the interests of society in the transcendental very-long-range sense seems indefensible as well.

In this growing light of critical fluid-essentialist consideration, the existence and original genesis of patriarchy began to be seen as due to some kind of all-encompassing constraint on individuals' interaction in a way that controls us but only through our retractable cooperation. Patriarchy oppresses, but not to the advantage of anyone, and actually to the detriment of all life on this planet, and although it oppresses us individually insofar as we are in it (men as well as women; despite Johnson's comment above, the word "oppression" is sometimes used to refer to men's experience of patriarchy, e.g., Ruth 1980), the immediate source of that oppression is not external, for collectively speaking, it is in us as well. In other words, social structures might be better understood as shared conceptual structures located only in our collective individual heads, despite their reality and the reality of how they oppress us.

These perspectives on power and oppression represent a challenge to orthodox sociological theory, a challenge which is probably best explained to feminists by taking a moment to look at the theoretical contribution of sociology's other major conflict theorist, Max Weber, and the effect that he had on the overall sociological perspective. A meaningful overview of Weberian concepts is more than I want to attempt at the moment, and would be largely tangential to the things I'm talking about, but the major lasting legacy he left the discipline is more important, for it sheds some light on the reception that sociology has given radical feminism.

Weber developed a theory of ongoing conflictual power struggles occurring in several different domains of authority. In some ways, this concern with power and the dynamics of inequality mirrored the theories of Marx, which is why Weber is often placed alongside of Marx as a conflict theorist. Yet, in another important way, Weber stands as sociology's favorite critic of Marx and his monocausal theory of oppression, in which oppression revolves around one axis and one axis alone: material possession and control of the means of production. By illustrating the different ways in which individuals can have different sources of social power over other people, and theorizing about the inability of a single pat explanation to set these forms of power in a precise hierarchy so as to establish which persons in a social setting would necessarily possess the most power, Weber set in motion two trends within sociological thinking: that meaningful social phenomena, rather than having single explanations, might better be explained by a simultaneous consideration of multiple variables; and that, since power and access to power seems to occur across the axes of many different structured social distinctions, the universal constant relevant to understanding oppression is not class or any other explanatory categorical distinction setting people apart from each other but rather the omnipresence of power struggle itself. Certainly, Weber said many other things that individual sociologists might find more memorable, but he is particularly representative of and associated with these ideas.

The assertion that power itself is a fundamental human social organizing force has taken on the authority of an axiom within sociological theory, in contrast to which the social construction of virtually every other shared human tendency, experience, etc., is posited. Thus, power and the intrinsic struggle for it forms the inner framework, and all other human behaviors wrap around that framework in largely arbitrary, reshapable, culturally and historically contingent ways for sociology to explain through causal analysis of chosen variables. Radical feminism is therefore contra-Weberian, operating from a different axiomatic beginning in which emotional responses to a situation (if not necessarily the intellectual interpretation thereof) are posited as innate, and power, or the desire for it, joins the rest of the malleable clay that remains to be explained by events and circumstance.


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