Postmodern feminism

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Postmodern feminism is an approach to feminist theory that incorporates postmodern and post-structuralist theory, seeing itself as moving beyond the modernist polarities of liberal feminism and radical feminism.[1]

Feminism has been seen as having an affinity to postmodern philosophy through a shared interest in speech acts.[2]

Origins and theory[edit]


Postmodern feminism's major departure from other branches of feminism is perhaps the argument that sex, or at least gender is itself constructed through language, a view notably propounded in Judith Butler's 1990 book, Gender Trouble. She draws on and critiques the work of Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, as well as on Luce Irigaray's argument that what we conventionally regard as 'feminine' is only a reflection of what is constructed as masculine.[3]

Butler criticises the distinction drawn by previous feminisms between (biological) sex and (socially constructed) gender. She asks why we assume that material things (such as the body) are not subject to processes of social construction themselves. Butler argues that this does not allow for a sufficient criticism of essentialism: though recognizing that gender is a social construct, feminists assume it is always constructed in the same way. Her argument implies that women's subordination has no single cause or single solution; postmodern feminism is thus criticized for offering no clear path to action. Butler herself rejects the term "postmodernism" as too vague to be meaningful.[4]

Arguably, Butler derives this rejection to postmodernism from misreadings of Cherríe Moraga’s work. “She reads Moraga’s statement that ‘the danger lies in ranking the oppressions’ to mean that we have no way of adjudicating among different kinds of oppressions—that any attempt to casually relate or hierarchize the varieties of oppressions people suffer constitutes an imperializing, colonizing, or totalizing gesture that renders the effort invalid…thus, although Butler at first appears to have understood the critiques of women who have been historically precluded from occupying the position of the ‘subject’ of feminism, it becomes clear that their voices have been merely instrumental to her” (Moya, 790) Moya contends that because Butler feels that the varieties of oppressions cannot be summarily ranked, that they cannot be ranked at all; and takes a short-cut by throwing out the idea of not only postmodernism, but women in general.[5]


Although postmodernism resists characterization, it is possible to identify certain themes or orientations that postmodern feminists share. Mary Joe Frug suggested that one "principle" of postmodernism is that human experience is located "inescapably within language." Power is exercised not only through direct coercion, but also through the way in which language shapes and restricts our reality. However, because language is always open to re-interpretation, it can also be used to resist this shaping and restriction, and so is a potentially fruitful site of political struggle.

Frug's second postmodern principle is that 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. Frug argues that "cultural mechanisms ... encode the female body with meanings," and that these cultural mechanisms then go on explain these meanings "by an appeal to the 'natural' differences between the sexes, differences that the rules themselves help to produce."[6] Rejecting the idea of a natural basis to sexual difference allows us to see that it is always susceptible to new interpretations. Like other systems of meaning, it is less like a cage, and more like a tool: it constrains but never completely determines what one can do with it.

French feminism[edit]

French feminism from the 1970s onwards has forged specific routes in postmodern feminism and in feminist psychoanalysis, through such writers as Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous.

Cixous argued for a new form of writing, writing with the body — a kind of writing rooted not in biology but in liguistic change.[7]

Irigaray considered that "man would search, with nostalgia and repulsion, in woman for his own repressed and uncultivated natural pole" — something which would "prevent woman from truly being an other for him".[8]

Kristeva argued that 'woman' does not exist, but is rather in a state of becoming.[9]

Toril Moi has stressed that issues of difference as well as of femininity are central to the concerns of all the above writers.[10]


Kate Bornstein, transgender author and playwright, calls herself a postmodern feminist, which is not the same as a post-feminist.


Critics like Meaghan Morris have argued that postmodern feminism runs the risk of undercutting the basis of a politics of action based upon gender difference, through its very anti-essentialism.[11]

“One of the most appealing aspects of postmodernism to many feminists has been its focus on difference. The notion that women have been created and defined as ‘other’ by men has long been argued and explored by feminists, most notably Simone de Beauvoir. She challenged male definitions of woman and called on women to define themselves outside the male female dyad. Women, she urged, must be the subject rather than the object (other) of analysis.” [12]

Feminist Moya Lloyd adds that a postmodernist feminism “does not necessarily represent a post-feminism, but alternatively, can affirm feminist politics in their plural, multivocal, fluid, oft-changing hue"[13]

Post-structuralism is defined in the Penguin Reference, Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, as “... a more rigorous working out of the possibilities, implications and shortcomings of structuralism and its basis to Saussurean linguistics itself…. Post-structuralism doubts the adequacy of structuralism and, as far as literature is concerned, tends to reveal that the meaning of any text is, of its nature, unstable. It reveals that signification is, of its nature, unstable.” [14]

“Post-structuralism, pursues further the Saussurean perception that in language there are only differences without positive terms and shows that the signifier and signified are, as it were, not only oppositional, but plural, pulling against each other, and, by so doing, creating numerous deferments of meaning, apparently endless criss-crossing patterns in sequences of meaning. In short, what are called ‘disseminations.'"[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ R. Appignanesi/C. Garratt, Postmodernism for Beginners (1995) p. 100-1.
  2. ^ "The emphasis on practices, which is one of the most radical powers of both postmodernism and feminism, throws renewed emphasis on speech acts and on the enacted, performative aspects of languages." E. D. Ermarth, Sequel to History (1992) p. 172-3.
  3. ^ G. Gutting ed., The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2002) p. 389
  4. ^ Judith Butler, "Contingent Foundations" in Seyla Benhabib et al., Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 35-58
  5. ^ Moya, Paula M.L. From Postmodernism, 'Realism,' and the Politics of Identity: Cherríe Moraga and Chicana Feminism in Gilbert, Susan M.; Gubar, Susan Eds (2007). Feminist literary theory and criticism : a Norton reader (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. pp. 787–797. ISBN 9780393927900. 
  6. ^ Mary Joe Frug, "A Postmodern Feminist Legal Manifesto (An Unfinished Draft)," Harvard Law Review, Vol. 105, No. 5. (Mar., 1992), pp. 1045-1075, at p. 1049.
  7. ^ Ermath, p. 158
  8. ^ Luce Irigaray, Sharing the World (2008) p. 33-4
  9. ^ Appignanesi, p. 101
  10. ^ J. Childers/G. Hentz eds., The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (1995) p. 275
  11. ^ K. Schmidt, The Theatre of Transformation (2005) p. 129-30
  12. ^ Parpart, Jane (22 October 2008). "Who Is the ‘Other‘?: A Postmodern Feminist Critique of Women and Development Theory and Practice". Development and Chance 24 (3): 439–464. 
  13. ^ Parpart, Jane (22 October 2008). "Who is the ‘Other‘?: A Postmodern Feminist Critique of Women and Development Theory and Practice". Development and Change 24 (3): 439–464. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7660.1993.tb00492.x. 
  14. ^ Cuddon, J.A. (1998). The Penguin dictionary of literary terms and literary theory (4. ed.). London [u.a.]: Penguin Books. pp. 689–693. ISBN 9780140513639. 
  15. ^ Cuddon, J.A. (1998). The Penguin dictionary of literary terms and literary theory (4. ed.). London [u.a.]: Penguin Books. pp. 689–693. ISBN 9780140513639. 


  • Assiter, Alison (1996). Enlightened women modernist feminism in a postmodern age. London New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415083386. 
  • Kottiswari, W. S. (2008). Postmodern feminist writers. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons. ISBN 9788176258210. 

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