the Social Fabric
in the Social Fabric: Homosexuals in Sydney Allen and Unwin: Sydney
0 86861 676 1 (hardback)
0 86861 684 2 (paperback)
About this book:
Homosexuals and homosexuality, male and female, have
always been part of the fabric of human communities. This applied as much
to Sydney in the 1880s as it does to Sydney in the 1980s. But, some claim,
they have never been as visible, as individuals and as an issue, as they
Whether this claim is true or not, something
happened in the late 1960s in Sydney that had not occurred before: the
arrival of the gay movement, the beginning of the organised articulation
of the political and social demands of homosexuals. This book is both an
account of that development and an examination of aspects of the public
reaction to it.
Flaws in the Social Fabric grew out of research
undertaken by the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board. That study assembled a
vast mass of data which Denise Thompson has reworked to present a fascinating
picture of the relationship between a hitherto-suppressed minority and
its host community.
(This book has long been out of print.)
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Between the Lines
Reading Between the Lines: A Lesbian Feminist Critique of Feminist Accounts
of Sexuality The Gorgon's Head Press: Sydney
0 646 04196 7
About this book:
'Reading between the Lines' critically examines recent
feminist writings on sexuality from a radical feminist and lesbian feminist
standpoint. It takes a stand against the libertarian emphasis current in
many 'second wave' feminist writings on sexuality, and argues that such
an emphasis is antithetical to feminist values.
Early feminism saw the social construction of
sexuality as one of the chief mechanisms for the male domination of females.
Recently, however, this perspective has not been strongly represented in
most self-identified feminist texts on sexuality. 'Reading between the
Lines' attempts to redress this state of affairs.
It criticises the liberal tolerance of the libertarian
ethic of sexual pluralism in these texts, their omission or marginalisation
of lesbianism, their insistence on the sexual similarity of the sexes,
their construction of the 'straw woman' of 'cultural' feminism, and the
anti-feminist implications of the 'anti-anti-pornography' stance. At the
same time, 'Reading between the Lines' argues the case for political lesbianism.
This book can be ordered from Spinifex Press,
504 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne, Victoria 3051, Australia
Tel. 61 (0) 3 9329 6088
Fax: 61 (0) 3 9329 9238
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Feminism Today London: Sage
0 7619 6340 5
0 7619 6341 3 (pbk)
About this book:
- What is feminism?
- How can 'feminism' be defined?
- Should feminism be defined?This book offers
a timely and engaging account of exactly what feminism is, and what it
is not. Thompson questions much of what has come to be taken for granted
as 'feminism' and points to the limitations of implicitly defining feminism
in terms of 'women', 'gender', 'difference' or 'race/gender/class'. She
challenges some of the most widely accepted ideas about feminism and in
doing so opens up a number of hitherto closed debates, allowing for the
possibility of moving those debates further.
A fresh and sometimes controversial consideration
of current academic feminist literatures, Radical Feminism Today will be
essential reading for all students of women's studies and the sociology
Radical Feminism Today
A talk presented at Otago University
(Dunedin), Canterbury University (Christchurch), Victoria University (Wellington),
Massey University (Palmerston North), and Auckland University, from 16
to 25 July. 2002; and at the University of York, UK, 29 January, 2003.
I want to start by talking about the title of the
book. I didn't choose it, the publisher did. The book is a re-write of
my PhD thesis (minus 36,000 words), and the title of the thesis was 'Against
the Dismantling of Feminism: A Study in the Politics of Meaning', which
I preferred. I suggested to the publisher that, if they really had to have
'radical feminism' in the title, it could be 'Retrieving Radical Feminism'.
To no avail. The title 'Radical Feminism Today' was written into the contract
and that was what it was going to be.
You might gather from this that I don't like the
title, and you'd be right. I don't, and there are two main reasons for
that. (There is another, minor, reason, and that is that it has dated very
quickly. When I told someone the book was published in 2001 she said: 'That's
not today, is it?').
The first reason I don't like the title is that
it's too bland. It gives no hint of the battles, of the concerted campaigns
against radical feminism, nor of its struggles to survive against the grain.
Neither does it give any hint of the nasty, untrue things said about it
and about radical feminists by the academic mainstream. Just think, for
example, of the number of times you've come across remarks to the effect
that Andrea Dworkin or Catharine McKinnon are in bed with the right-wing,
just because they dared to criticise one of male supremacy's sacred cows,
pornography. How often have you come across accusations that radical feminism
is 'essentialist' or 'racist', accusations made as tangential remarks and
throwaway lines, so taken for granted that argument and evidence are regarded
as irrelevant? 'Radical Feminism Today' is too nice, it denies the insults.
It denies, too, the fact that radical feminism has been almost completely
excluded from the academic canon and replaced with 'Gender Studies' or
'Queer Studies', both of which monopolise the terrain that feminism made
its own-sex and the relations between the sexes.
The second reason why I don't like the title is
that it implies that there are other forms of feminism than radical feminism,
and that radical feminism is just one form of feminism among many. But
(as I argue in the book) that is not the case. There's only feminism; and
what's usually called 'radical feminism' (that is, what's usually called
'radical feminism' by those who agree with it, not what is usually called
'radical feminism' by its enemies who distort and trivialise it) comes
closest to being only feminism unmixed with anything else. Catharine McKinnon
called this 'feminism unmodified'. By modifying feminism, I mean calling
it 'radical feminism', 'socialist feminism', liberal feminism', 'Marxist
feminism', 'postmodernist feminism', or (what is more usual these days)
simply referring to 'feminisms' in the plural and leaving the way open
for any kind of modifier at all. This typology, this setting up of many
different forms of modified feminism with the genuine form of feminism
just one among many, has allowed anti-feminist positions to get smuggled
into feminism because they call themselves 'feminism'. By 'anti-feminist
positions', I mean those campaigns, supposedly waged against radical feminism,
but in fact waged against feminism itself, and in its very name. In that
sense, there has been a concerted attempt to dismantle feminism from within,
and that was what the title of my thesis, 'Against the Dismantling of Feminism',
was intended to convey.
There are many examples of these struggles waged
against feminism in the book (and later I'll come to what I see as the
outright victor in these struggles, the widespread use of the word 'gender').
Here I want to give just two examples. (Both are implied in the book, although
not actually spelled out as such). First, there's the way in which socialist
feminism used to berate radical feminism. From what socialist feminism
saw as its own grounding in historical materialism, it accused radical
feminism of being 'ahistorical' with its use of the word 'patriarchy',
of ignoring class and the women 'out there in the western suburbs' (in
the case of Sydney), of being middle-class, of being 'cultural' (as opposed
to materialist), of excluding men, etc.
If we'd taken any notice of these criticisms,
feminism would have shriveled and died under the weight of so much clever
argument. (I refer to this cleverness in the book, in the section called
'Meaning and Understanding', where I discuss the objections feminists have
raised to the incomprehensibility of academic feminism). Fortunately, many
of those who identified as socialist feminists in fact simply espoused
feminism much of the time for most purposes, despite their criticisms;
and there were those of us who continued to adhere to feminism as we knew
it and refused to be seduced away by arcane disputes in the fields of higher
learning. So the academic point-scoring didn't manage to destroy feminism
utterly. The point remains, though, that many of those oh-so-sophisticated
arguments were not advancing the cause of feminism, but actually undermining
Postmodernist feminism (to come to my second example)
used accusations of 'essentialism' to heap such scorn on the very notion
of 'women', that any actions on behalf of women were threatened with political
paralysis (or they would have been if one took any notice of postmodernist
arguments). Once again, this is not a feminist position. It actively undermines
feminism, and in that sense it's anti-feminist. How is it possible to engage
in feminist politics if you're forbidden to talk about women?
Now, as those of you who have read the book will
know, I do think there are problems with seeing 'women' as the subject
matter of feminism. If feminism is seen only in terms of women, the real
social problem, male supremacy, tends to drop out of the picture. But that's
not the postmodernist point. Just what is the postmodernist point I'm not
sure. (It's a bit too clever for me). But the upshot is either to ban any
references to 'women' which expose the ways in which male supremacist relations
of power damage women and subordinate them to men, or to make you feel
theoretically naive, old-fashioned, out of the academic mainstream, and
just plain silly, if you persist in doing so. The point I'm making is that
not everything called 'feminist' is feminist, and the way you tell whether
it is or not is to ask whether or not it makes sense in terms of what feminism
means. Banning talk about women doesn't make sense in feminist terms.
So these are the two reasons why I don't like
the title-it's blandness gives no hint of the struggles that went on; and
it implies that radical feminism is one feminism among many, whereas it
isn't. Now, I'm not recommending the complete abolition of the term 'radical
feminism' in favour of just 'feminism', obviously not, since I've been
using it a fair bit myself. I'm simply trying to suggest that things are
not quite as they seem, and there's still a lot of work to do to clarify
the meaning of feminism.
So what does feminism mean in my view? Well, that's
what the book's about. I start by explicitly defining feminism. Since that
takes close to 6,000 words, it's obviously not a definition in the ordinary
sense, but an extended debate about a certain meaning and the reasons for
it. Here, though, I'll condense it into a few paragraphs.
Feminism (I argue) is the political movement which
struggles against male supremacy (or male domination-I don't make any distinction
between the two). By 'male supremacy', I mean a kind of social order, a
system of meanings and values based on the principle that only men count
as 'human' and that women can gain access to a 'human' status, although
a subsidiary and diminished one, only through their relationships with
men. As a central part of its struggle, feminism focuses on women because
women are the chief victims of a system designed to give preference to
men over women.
Three things need to be said about this. (Well,
probably more than three things, but I'm going to stick to three here).
The first is that, as a social system of meanings and values, male domination
affects us all, women and men. Its reason for existence is to benefit men
at women's expense, but women can embrace that ethic too (and men can refuse
it). As a social system, male domination is not only where we live, it
also lives in us. It permeates our selves, even to the deepest reaches
of our being (the unconscious) and manifests as our own feelings and desires,
even what seem to be the most private and secret of them. None of us is
immune, no one has escaped its influence, we're all creatures of the social
environment. There are no self-engendered individuals unencumbered with
social relations, and neither are there special bits of us which have somehow
evaded the meanings and values of the world we live in. When those meanings
and values serve to justify and maintain oppression, exploitation, dehumanisation
and degradation, we've got real problems because those things aren't just
imposed on us from outside, they're deeply embedded in us. They are us.
Each of us, then, has the political responsibility to find out how those
meanings and values have affected us, and we'll all be different in the
ways we've taken them in (or they've taken us in, more likely).
But (and this is the second thing which needs
to be said) the social arrangements of male supremacy are not the only
social arrangements there are, even under present conditions. Male supremacy
is not the whole of social life. If it had been, the human race would have
ceased to exist long ago because the core values of male supremacy-hierarchical
power over others, violence, competition, callous disregard for human welfare,
greed for wealth, etc.-are not life-enhancing. No society could last very
long with never-ending violence and competition for resources unleavened
by co-operativeness and care and concern for others, not least because
no infant would ever survive to adulthood. So even though male supremacy
is powerful and dominant, even though it is too often the default option
which switches in if we're not vigilant, it's not all there is. There are
also forms of interaction which enable us to treat each other with respect,
and they can be appealed to as a counterweight to the meanings and values
fo male supremacy.
And the third thing I want to say is that there's
a tremendous contradiction at the heart of male supremacist relations of
power, and that is that its denial of a human status to women means that
men can't be genuinely human either. So in that sense, male domination
doesn't benefit men at all. It's bad for men too from a genuinely human
And what's that, you may ask? It's a bit startling
to hear someone making blithe references to the 'human' in these days where
anti-humanism (or in some quarters, 'post-humanism') is the peak of theoretical
sophistication. However, I do believe there's a vital need for a concept
of the human. I don't mean this in the positive sense of supplying a list
of characteristics which count as human. I'm not going to tell you that
such and such is the way to be human because I don't know. Indeed, I can't
know because ways of being human are ways people live their lives. Each
of us has to decide that for ourselves and there are probably as many different
ways of being human as there are people in the world, although there are
also commonalities too. But I'm not even going to talk about the commonalities
because what I'm chiefly concerned with in this question of the human are
But how can we know what counts as a violation
if we don't first know what it is that's being violated? My answer is that
it's through the violations that we get to recognise what being human means.
Or rather, it's because our humanity is violated that we feel compelled
to say what it is. An illustration might make this clearer. Take rape as
an example. There's no doubt that rape is a violation. But of what? Of
the woman herself, of course, but what aspect? How do we name whatever
it is that's violated by rape? Certainly, we can say it's a woman's bodily
integrity that's been violated, and that would be right. But this notion
of 'bodily integrity' would never have arisen were it not for the rape
in the first place. We don't normally engage in conversations about our
bodily integrity, discussing whether it has this characteristic or that,
this peculiarity or that, whether it takes this from or another one, whether
it's giving us trouble or working well, etc. The term 'bodily integrity'
doesn't slide trippingly off the tongue. It's awkward, not a common usage.
I would suggest that's because there is no need for such a term in normal
everyday social intercourse. Bodily integrity, whatever it is that's violated
by rape, is something that's taken-for-granted and respected as a matter
of course when the social arrangements of male supremacy are not operating.
My point is that something every human being is entitled to simply by existing
is only identified when it's violated, and even then, it's not named easily
So I'm not going to tell you what it is to be
human in any positive sense. My point about the human is simply that it
is constantly violated under conditions of male domination. The system
creates a profoundly dehumanised world. It dehumanises women because it
denies women a fully human status in our own right; and it dehumanises
men because men can't be fully human if women aren't. That's the political
reality feminism is struggling with.
To call this political reality 'gender' is to trivialise
it out of existence.
I have three objections to the term 'gender'
as a designation of the subject matter of feminism, one logical and one
political (although all three are linked because confusion serves the political
purpose of obscuring where the real power lies).
My logical objection is that 'gender' falls right
into the very trap it was supposedly designed to avoid. You might remember
that it was originally half of the 'sex-gender' distinction, and its purpose
was to emphasise the fact that sex differences were social not biological.
But separating 'gender' out from 'sex' and making 'gender' refer to the
social aspects of sex differences, means that 'sex' is not social. And
if it's not social, it must still be biological, just as the malestream
has always said it was. So on the one hand there's this new thing called
'gender' which refers to the social aspects of sex (although phrases like
'the gender of the foetus' make one wonder if the feminist message ever
did get across). On the other hand, discourses about sex and biology survive
in their original form, untouched by the sex-gender distinction. Interestingly,
they're largely about men and involve (not entirely serious) references
to testosterone as the explanation for their ungovernable sex drive. It's
my impression that there's less likelihood these days of encountering explanations
of women's behaviour as a result of their hormonal levels. But that 's
not because of the word 'gender', but because feminism has had some influence
So that's the logical reason for my dislike of
the word 'gender'-it simply doesn't make sense. Instead of focusing attention
on the social construction of sex differences, it sets up a distinction
which allows those differences to continue to be explained in terms of
My second objection is that, because it really
doesn't have its own meaning, it can take on any meaning at all. It usually
means 'women', but it can mean 'women and men', 'sex differences', 'relationships
between the sexes', 'the family', 'social relationships in general', or
even male supremacy. Sometimes it doesn't make any sense at all. I give
an example in the book of the useof the phrase 'gender ideology' where
it's impossible to decide what's meant-whether it refers to male supremacist
ideology or to feminism.
My political objection is that it's a euphemism.
It pussy-foots around and won't name the real social problem, which is
male domination. In the book I advise getting rid of it altogether, but
since then I've been doing some work in the social policy area, and that's
an area where you just can't use terms like 'male domination' (or 'feminism',
and if you say 'women' you have to say 'men' too, and 'poverty' is now
called 'social exclusion', and punitive penalties for breaking petty regulations
are called 'mutual obligation', and coerced labour is called 'volunteering',
and the unemployed are being blamed for unemployment-I could go on, but
I won't). So I'm prepared to acknowledge that there are times when euphemisms
can be helpful. The important thing, though, is to know that that's what
you're doing-using a euphemism while still trying to identify the real
problem. And that's not easy to do with such a squishy term as 'gender'.
To sum up, then. I don't like the title of my
book (and I'm not responsible for it) because it gives a misleading impression
of what's actually been happening in feminism. I've defined feminism in
terms of the struggle against a social system based on the principle that
only men count as 'human' and for a genuinely human status for women. I've
talked about how I use the word human, saying that I'm not interested in
enumerating positive characteristics of what it means to be human, but
rather, in those violations which we can recognise as violations even though
we didn't realise there was anything there until the violation happened.
And lastly, I talked about my objections to the word 'gender'-logical,
in that it's self-contradictory; semantic, in that it's difficult, and
sometimes impossible, to decide what it means; and political, in that it's
a euphemism designed to disguise the real problem.
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