Friday, September 7, 2007

Postmodern Feminism by Rebecca Tirabassi

Postmodern Feminism, to one who has been newly introduced to the study of feminism, is abstract. In my research, an article by Emmy Kurjenpuu from the University of Helsinki titled, "Women’s Magazines Meet Feminist Philosophy," I was encouraged that even experts in the field struggled to completely grasp Postmodern Feminism. Her admission that “The abstract of post-modern feminism…” made it …"difficult, even impossible, to make comparisons.”[1] This immediately gave me some relief in my quest to learn more on the subject!

Postmodern thought originated in France after WWII, and impacted culture, art, and society "en masse" with a general disillusionment and negative reaction to tradition which quickly spread to Western culture. The wave of postmodern thought that captured art, religion, philosophy, architecture, and law has been characterized as “lacking a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle and embodying extreme complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, and interconnectedness or interreferentiality.”[2]

Blending Postmodern thought with Feminism as explained in Wikipedia is the largest departure from other types of Feminism because of “the argument sex is itself constructed through language.”[3] The most out-spoken feminine activist and post-structuralist philosopher, Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble (1990) dissects and “criticizes the distinction drawn by previous feminisms between (biological) sex and (socially constructed) gender.”[4]

Concepts by Frug, Butler, and other leaders in Postmodern Feminist thinking caused me to realize that I had to define many of the common phrases familiar to Feminist thinkers before I could fully understand Postmodern Feminism. I had to start at the beginning of First, Second and Third-wave Feminist philosophy before I could actively engage in this discussion. By better understanding each of the three waves of Feminism, I uncovered that Postmodern Feminism, by virtue of definition, though it “resists characterization, it is possible to identify certain themes or orientations that postmodern feminists share.”[5]

Mary Joe Frug, who is often called the mother of Postmodern Feminism and author of A Postmodern Feminist Legal Manifesto detailed at least two principles of Postmodern Feminism: (1) human experience is located “inescapably within language,”[6] and (2) “sex is not something natural, nor is it something completely determinate and definable. Rather sex is part of a system of meaning, produced by language.”[7]

Another author, in her article (and website) dedicated to the discussion of Feminism, Heather-Noel Schwartz further identified themes within Postmodern Feminism by which I could envision its entrance into Feminist philosophy. She gives Postmodernism credit for unveiling the “oppressive structures that are built into feminist theories.” She states that Postmodernists answer the problems of Feminism that fail to “include the diffuse perspectives of various women. Postmodernism answers these problems by deconstructing everything and forcing feminists into a corner.”[8]

I particularly enjoyed how Schwartz was adamant that Feminist discussion should always lead to activism. I appreciated how she discussed purposeful movement and solutions, rather than permitting a reversal or impediment of Feminism by its members. Her suggestion allowed civil discussion to prevail: “Activism is therefore able to serve the interests of Feminists by allowing the gender category ‘woman’ to exist as a historically temporary position of protest.”[9]

In comparing Postmodern Feminism to the First, Second and Third waves of Feminism, I found Jan Hill’s (May 3, 2006) article on Postmodern Feminism at to articulate in very manageable and agreeable terms how this type of Feminism is compatible with Second Wave Feminism. She wrote, “In reality, these groups are compromised of individuals and subgroups with many differing experiences and perspectives. . .We know that women—all women—need to experience equality from a place that recognizes difference and is not threatened by it. . .Group members are called to use their collective voice to make visible those who have been hidden, to bring lived equality to others, and to know that all of us, regardless of body parts, are diminished when another’s voice is silenced.”[10] This sounds, feels, and impresses me as a noble and passionate approach to all of life!

In conclusion, I am so new to the study of Feminism that I cannot yet determine where I “stand!” At this time and in general, though, I would not say that I am a “Postmodern” thinker. But as someone who has many times felt oppressed, discounted, and ignored because I am a woman, I find myself as a willing and eager sojourner who is listening and learning with great openness to the entire Feminist philosophy.

Sources and Resources:

[1] Emmy Kurjenpuu, University of Helsinki, Women’s Magazine Meet Feminist Philosophy, p. 121

[6] Mary Joe Frug, “A Postmodern Feminist Legal Manifesto,” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 105, No. 5 (Mar 1992), pp. 1045-1075.


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