Feminist Politics and Human Nature

by Alison M. Jaggar

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Written about twenty years after the birth of the women’s movement in the 1960’s, Feminist Politics and Human Nature analyzes that movement’s writings and goals as political theory. Alison M. Jaggar attempts to sort the varied and often contradictory statements of the feminist movement into coherent systems of thought. In doing so, she traces the assumptions about human nature that underlay each system and its implied or explicit “solutions” to women’s inequality.

To many, the feminism of the 1960’s and 1970’s was an entirely new way of looking at the world. Early advocates for the women’s movement looked back to the suffragists of the nineteenth century and traced the emergence of feminist consciousness to societal sexism that persisted even during the 1960’s antiwar and Civil Rights movements. In addition, during the 1960’s, feminist writers were discovering the hidden history of women, showing how people’s assumptions about things as diverse as pronoun usage, witchcraft trials, and the scientific method were all filtered through a cultural mindset that defined men as the norm.

Categories of Feminist Thought

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Jaggar’s book can be read, in part, as a response to the dizzying variety of protests, insights, and proposals for change produced during the formative years of the women’s movement. It sorts and categorizes that movement’s important writings by philosophical “schools,” provides a framework that later theorists can refine or argue against, and evaluates these categories not only for intellectual adequacy but also in an attempt to show the best guides to future strategy and action.

In her two opening chapters, Jaggar argues for the acceptance of feminist thought as political philosophy. Feminist discourse is concerned with questions of freedom, justice, and equality, concepts debated by political philosophers for centuries. Feminists of the latter part of the twentieth century have merely broadened the debate, she says, by insisting that such questions also be asked in arenas outside the traditional “public square”—questions about the ways family life is organized, for example, and even about the dynamics of intimate relations.

Jaggar points out that the feminist use of the terms “oppression,” “domination,” and “liberation” implies an ongoing struggle. Most politics deals with conflicts between different classes or groups of people with different, sometimes incompatible, interests. Feminism also deals with the division of society into classes, not necessarily according to wealth and similar markers. It also proclaims the need for change and the belief that human actions can alter conditions formerly regarded as “givens” of natural law or human society. Jaggar cautions, however, that the idea of what it means to be “liberated” will change as the ongoing struggle progresses. As more events and patterns are revealed to be susceptible to human control, the definition of freedom will expand.

Jaggar ends the opening chapters by explaining the book’s purpose: to sort the many feminist analyses and statements of women’s situation into a few fundamental theories or paradigms. Jaggar identifies four basic feminist paradigms: liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism. Because she views the politics of each paradigm as flowing from its theory of human nature, she examines both in detail.

Liberal Feminism

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Liberal feminism grows out of Western liberal philosophy, whose origins Jaggar traces to the triumph of capitalism over feudalism. In this tradition, the most defining and important mark of being human is rationality. The capacity for reason is shared by almost all humans, but it is a trait held by individuals, not groups. Individuals act rationally to attain their own desires and interests; governments exist to promote as much opportunity as possible for them to do so, while...

(This entire section contains 370 words.)

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keeping one individual’s “pursuit of happiness” from violating that of others.

Early feminists argued that the principles of liberalism apply equally to women and men. In the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s, liberal feminists put forth the idea that individuals can attain the freedom that lets them develop their own potential only if opportunities and societal expectations are not dictated by sex. This led to a sequence of strategies. Reasoned argument was followed by action to overturn sex-based inequalities under law. For matters not settled effectively by legal changes, liberal feminists developed projects to “level the playing field,” including child-care facilities, battered women’s shelters, and job training programs for women. In addition, much liberal feminist effort has been aimed at abolishing sex-specific expectations in the workplace, child rearing, and schooling.

Jaggar admits that liberal feminism has been successful in improving women’s legal status in all Western countries. However, she finds many problems with both the theory and practice of liberal feminism. Its theory of human nature, emphasizing autonomous and self-centered individuals, discounts the experience of most women’s lives. Its elevation of reason maintains the mind-body split that has devalued both women and the material world in which all humans reside.

As for the politics of liberal feminism, Jaggar suggests that equality of opportunity may not be an appropriate, or even achievable, goal. Feminists might do better to ask whether their goal is to become “imitation men” in a system similar to the present one or to leave open the possibility of other modes of democracy and social good. Liberal feminism, Jaggar concludes, aims at reforming an existing social and political system rather than replacing it with a new one more in the interests of women.

Marxist Feminism

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Marxist political philosophy sets forth praxis as the defining feature of human nature. Praxis is the conscious use and alteration of the material world to provide for human needs. Praxis is viewed as operating in human evolution by a dialectical process (contemporary non-Marxists might say “feedback”) involving the human body, mind, and society. Marxism attributes most social ills to the division of society into classes, which it traces to the appearance of private property when agriculture was invented. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, however, Karl Marx focused upon the class division wrought by the Industrial Revolution, that between owners of the means of production (capitalists) and workers.

Traditional Marxist feminists reflect this analysis. Their political program held that other inequities would be solved, or at least mitigated, once the capitalist system is abolished and society reorganized upon Marxist principles of equality, nonalienated work, and common ownership of the means of production. In the meantime, working-class women are assumed to share the class interests of their mates. Housewives can best deal with their situation by joining the wage economy, which gives them independent economic power vis-à-vis their husbands and enables them to join the struggle for a new system.

Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels constructed a theory about the evolution of the family based on men’s property interests replacing a very early matrilineal stage, but it was not carried over into the Marxist political program. Both Marx and Engels regarded the existing division of labor within the family as natural and not accessible to political analysis (or change.)

Jaggar finds the Marxist view of human nature more satisfactory than the liberal view. It allows for historical and cultural forces and for shared interests that go beyond the individual. It avoids the dichotomy between mind and body created by the liberal emphasis on reason. She especially likes the Marxist idea that human social arrangements can affect human nature, which means that both are under conscious human control. She also finds its concepts of “class” and of “alienation” fruitful for feminist analysis.

Marxist feminism falls short on theory, she says, because although it notes a sexual division of labor in both the family and the workplace, it fails to explain it. In practice, she finds, most Marxist structures have turned out to be sexist. They are led by men, depict male industrial workers and male intellectuals as heroic figures, and tend to be highly centralized. Jaggar believes women in existing Marxist states are somewhat better off than before, but that major inequalities persist. Marxist feminism fails because its central concept of class is seen only in “economistic” terms.

Radical Feminism

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Radical feminism, unlike the liberal and Marxist varieties, appears to be a totally new school of thought, originating in the 1960’s women’s movement. Its writings have seldom been called philosophy. The term encompasses a wide variety of claims, theories, and insights. Although those based on women’s own experiences predominate, radical feminism has also drawn from many other sources in the twentieth century milieu, especially those of alternative culture. In her book, Jaggar says that radical feminism lacks a central theory of human nature or of women’s oppression. However, she discerns several recurring themes in its writings and practices.

One is that the most significant division in society is by gender, a sex-based class structure. This structure is held to exist at so deep a level that its effect on other differences and problems is often invisible. A related belief is that the line traditionally drawn between the public and private spheres is meaningless. Domination in one sphere supports that in the other, so that the personal is truly political.

Radical feminists may define female biology as the problem or the solution, or they may identify the purported existence of two sexes as the problem. (Andrea Dworkin’s and Monique Wittig’s works assert that human biology itself is a social construct.) Most radical feminists agree, though, that recognitions drawn from women’s bodily experience are important sources of knowledge. At the same time, they hold a strong belief that women’s subordination is innately connected with the spheres of sexuality and procreation. Hence, radical feminists commonly believe that true liberation requires a transformation in such practices. The specifics of what practices need to be radically changed and how forms the content of much radical feminist debate.

Jaggar praises radical feminism for its creative energy, its celebration of women, and its inclusion of human reproductive biology within the sphere of political discourse. However, she believes it does not yet deal well with the problems of human sexual differences that it brings to the fore. It rightly points out their centrality in human social arrangements but tends to wrongly infer that women’s biology causes their oppression. Jaggar also objects to the concept of patriarchy as a system of universal male dominance, believing it inaccurate.

The politics of radical feminism have featured a drive for the formation of a separate female culture. This culture would cultivate values opposite those prevailing in the male culture, values such as sensitivity to others, closeness to nature, and emotional openness. Although Jaggar seems sympathetic to such efforts, she believes that radical feminism does not have a program whose scope matches its transformative vision. Withdrawing from the dominant culture is not an option for most women, who are bound by ties of affection or common interest to men. Even the most dedicated lesbian separatist has to live in a world where men wield power over her life. Jaggar observes that the most successful achievements of women’s culture have been the ones that Marxists term “superstructural forms”: art, music, fiction, and spirituality.

Socialist Feminism

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Socialist feminism is a “younger sister” of these other philosophies. In her book, Jaggar describes it as a paradigm still in the formative stages. It draws elements from both Marxist and radical feminism, yet has the potential to go beyond. It could, she believes, reconcile many “either-or” conflicts and point the way to more adequate theory and more effective means of transforming society. Jaggar makes it clear that this is her preferred mode of feminist thinking, while adding that it also has some conceptual and practical problems.

It is fair, if oversimplistic, to say this paradigm aims to reconcile the two theories regarding the main source of society’s conflict, which Marxism sees as class and radical feminism as sex. This will involve, at minimum, accounting for women’s subordination in both the marketplace and in the procreative and maintenance work of family life. Marxism’s historical approach complements the passionate value reversals of radical feminism. For example, it shows that traits now used to devalue women would have no meaning in other settings: “Emotionality” was a virtue during the Renaissance, and being “dependent” merely means being a part of society in feudal cultures. Social feminism is starting to go beyond these insights drawn from Western history and to look at the patterns of women’s subordination in other cultures, which may be quite different. Jaggar concludes that socialist feminism is very far from having a coherent theory, but it is well on its way. She also expects it to incorporate parts of the radical feminism movement in future.

Socialist feminism’s ultimate aim is to abolish both class and gender distinctions. To do so requires changes in many social systems: the attainment of real reproductive freedom (the details of which change with changing technology), the equal involvement of men in family life, the degendering of wage levels, and the continuance of some separate women’s organizations as interim, experimental institutions. Jaggar expects this agenda will be accompanied by dramatic, even wrenching, social turmoil, but considers it achievable as well as desirable.

Call for Feminist Epistemology

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Feminist Politics and Human Nature ends with Jaggar emphasizing the need to develop a feminist epistemology, a way of describing reality that reflects the experience of all women. The book has been very influential in women’s studies and feminist philosophy. It played a major role in establishing the latter as a field of study, and it remains a central text for those doing academic work in either field. As Jaggar herself has commented, even those scholars who disagree with her have defined their positions in reference to this book and theory.

The impact of Jaggar’s book in the ordinary world is less apparent. As a call-to-arms, it lacks the outrageousness and color of many primary women’s movement writings. Although it is more accessible than much contemporary philosophy, its theoretical approach has probably limited its audience to the semiconverted, at least.

Some of the book’s minor points have been overtaken by events. Very few Marxist societies now exist to provide models for Marxist feminism, and highly paid professions such as law and medicine have become less exclusively male. Nonetheless, Feminist Politics and Human Nature remains a basic source for analysis and further development of feminist thought.


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Additional Reading

Bryson, Valerie. Feminist Political Theory: An Introduction. London: Macmillan Press, 1992. An alternate overview of feminist political thought, Bryson’s book pays much attention to the historical background of modern feminism. She discusses Jaggar chiefly in terms of the latter’s attempt to connect Marxist theory and reproductive labor.

Kensinger, Loretta. “(In) Quest of Liberal Feminism.” Hypatia 12, no. 4 (Fall, 1997): 178-197. This article questions Jaggar’s accepted divisions and other theorists’ categories of feminist thought. For example, Kensinger examines Jaggar’s description of liberal feminism, calling its boundaries unclear if not invisible, and concludes that “telling any story of feminism obscures its motion.” She notes that Jaggar had partially anticipated this problem in her remark that theory changes constantly to reflect changing social realities.

Maynard, Mary. “The Reshaping of Sociology? Trends in the Study of Gender.” Sociology 24, no. 2 (May, 1990): 269-290. In this overview article, Maynard questions the sorting of feminists into various schools of thought. She speculates that categories such as Jaggar’s reflect the factionalized nature of the women’s movement during the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s.