You Are What You Read?

"Feminist scholars, many drawing on the insights offered by Michel Foucault, have urged us to develop new ways of thinking and speaking." So wrote the editors of Analyzing Gender. The anthology Knowing Women: Feminism and Knowledge, quoted Foucault extensively because his "discourse theory and the u2018post-structuralist' methods of analysis which depend on it have become very influential within feminist studies." He has also found his way into more popular feminist works, such as those of Judith Butler.

Foucault's main influence came in the initial stages of radical feminist theory in the late u201860s and early u201870s. Given that such feminists have a bias against quoting or crediting men for developments in u2018the movement,' why has Foucault been so quoted and credited?

Foucault's specialty was the interpretation and meaning of language and, for decades, radical feminism has stressed language as a source of the oppression of women. Sometimes language is considered to be the source. Thus, they refuse to be called "Madam Chairman" and insist upon the wholesale replacement of the generic "he" with the ungainly "he/she." The word "man" is replaced with "human being" or "person." History becomes herstory. Words are deemed to be so powerful that syllables are acts in and of themselves. For example, pornography becomes an act of oppression and violence against women, and radical feminists call it "rape." Indeed, to eliminate such words, radical feminists have been willing to damage other causes near to their hearts.

Consider the 1992 Butler decision by which the Supreme Court of Canada wrote a radical feminist definition of obscenity into Canadian law. Vigorously championed by most feminists in Canada and the US, the Butler decision allows Canadian customs to seize what it judges to be pornography at the border as the material is being imported. The spring 1993 issue of Feminist Bookstore News described the impact of its first year: "The Butler decision has been used…only to seize lesbian, gay and feminist material." The two primary targets have been feminist-lesbian bookstores – the Glad Day Bookstore in Toronto and Little Sisters in Vancouver. Customs Canada has blocked shipments to these bookstores of even innocuous material – of mainstream science fiction writers, for example – that any other Canadian bookstore is able to import freely. Yet radical feminists and many lesbian activists continued to defend the Butler decision. Lesbian bookstores are acceptable casualties in the war against pornography, the war against words.

The question remains, why? Part of the answer lies in radical feminist concept of "gender." Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970) – a pivotal book in the tradition – argued that women throughout history had been "confined to the cultural level of animal life" by men. According to radical feminists, only a profound political difference between the two sexes could explain why women have been the victims of men throughout time. There must be an unbreachable schism between the interests of men – as a class – and the interests of women – as a class. Men oppress women because it is in their class nature to do so.

Radical feminists point to pornography as one of the main mechanisms through which male structure maintains its incredible longevity. As Page Mellish of Feminists Fighting Pornography declared, "There's no feminist issue that isn't rooted in the porn problem." Why is pornography so crucial that radical feminists are willing to sacrifice lesbian bookstores in the war against it? Because, to them, sex and a woman's body are social constructs. Foucault's landmark book Les mots et les choses (Words and Things, 1966) laid the groundwork for this key feminist concept.

Foucault argued that history and culture are indispensable to an understanding sexuality. This hypothesis is not controversial. But then he introduced the idea of an "episteme," which means "knowledge" in Greek. An episteme of a culture is its single and self-enclosed totality that includes its language, attitudes, ideas, and science: it is all the paradigms of the society. It is how a specific culture or era approaches the world. As history progresses, one episteme replaces another. That of the Middle Ages is replaced by that of the Renaissance. The destiny of words and things is intertwined. The episteme determines how people think, which determines who they are and what they do, which can determine a new episteme.

Take, for example, the human body; people assume there is some permanence to human biology that society does not alter. But, for Foucault, the human body lives in the episteme; it lives in a culturally constituted world and, so, is literally constructed by society itself. Foucault's treatise, The Birth of the Clinic, is devoted to what he calls the "medical gaze." Through the medical gaze, the body is objectified and converted into a well-ordered u2018thing' that medicine seeks to control through surgery, diet, drugs, and so forth. But the medical gaze of the eighteenth century differed from that of the twentieth century. Therefore, the eighteenth century human body was different from the twentieth century one because the body is defined by the ruling episteme.

Similarly, the most important factors in defining sexuality are the texts that are written and spoken about it. Consider the Victorian epoch of repressed sexuality. A common approach is to look at its plays and literature, the songs and newspapers – in short, the texts of Victorian society – and to conclude that these writings reflected a repressed, sexually horrified culture. Foucault saw exactly the opposite. He believed that society was a reflection of the texts. The texts caused society, and not vice versa.

In her essay "Feminism, Criticism and Foucault'" feminist Biddy Martin explains,"His History of Sexuality states very clearly that discourses on sexuality, not sexual acts and their histories, are the essential place to grasp the working of power in modern society." Words and texts – not acts — are the keys to how power works. Thus…the demand that feminist, lesbian and gay characters be included in children's literature and schoolbooks. Thus…history is re-written to include the voices of women, even when those voices did not significantly contribute to events. Radical feminists want to correct the texts in order to re-define sexuality and gender.

In accepting "sex as a construct," radical feminists reject sexual essentialism – the notion that sex is a natural force that exists prior to society. Sexual essentialism claims that there is something natural or biological, rather than cultural, about deeply felt urges such as motherhood and heterosexuality. There is something biological about gender.

But according to Foucault's analysis, biology is shifting sand. Even deeply felt sexual preferences, such as heterosexuality or homosexuality, are not matters of biology but of ideology. They are determined by the texts of society. Thus, the phenomenon within radical feminism about two decades ago: many lesbians urged heterosexual feminists to stop sleeping with the enemy, men. Heterosexuality was viewed as an indoctrinated political choice, not a biological one.

Sex as a social construct is good news to radical feminists. If sex has been constructed, then it can be deconstructed and put back together correctly. How? They must control the single most powerful of those texts – pornography – because this is how a woman's body is defined. This is what radical feminist theorists mean when they say u2018pornography defines/objectifies women,' or u2018pornography IS rape', or that we live in a rape culture. It is why lesbian-activists are willing to promote legislation they know will harm lesbian bookstores.

With this new perspective, read a famous passage from Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will:

"Pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access, not to free sensuality from moralistic or parental inhibition. The staple of porn will always be the naked body, breasts and genitals exposed, because as man devised it, her naked body is the female's u2018shame', her private parts the private property of man, while his are the ancient, holy, universal, patriarchal instrument of his power, his rule by force over her. Pornography is the undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda."

In other words, pornography is the text through which man expresses hatred of woman and socially constructs her oppression.

It took me a long time to understand that – in discussions with radical feminists – I was speaking gibberish to them. I would talk about choice and personal responsibility. By their analysis, however, I am socially constructed by male society that controls the texts and language. I can no more choose my sexuality than a concentration camp prisoner chooses the menu of her evening meal. It is no wonder that so little productive dialogue occurs between radical and individualist feminists; we are speaking different languages. Radical feminism speaks of class warfare over who will control the deconstruction and reconstruction of gender. Ifeminism speaks of a mutual respect between the sexes and of autonomy in which women celebrate their inherent biology.

June 29, 2000

Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable Woman. See more of her work at and at her personal website.

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