Gender studies · Second year · Sociology

Critically appraise the value of ‘postmodern feminisms’ for understanding –and challenging– contemporary gender power relations

Modernity has not fulfilled its emancipatory promises, and thus has become the object of a challenge which destabilises some of the certainties of Western tradition. It is in this context that women’s emancipation demands were born. Over the last few decades this heritage was targeted by a growth of reflection on gender construction and gender relations perspectives. If there is one common point in feminist production, it is the demystification of a philosophical, political and scientific tradition which has systematically erased, excluded or repressed the experiences of women. The crisis is such that feminism is often defined as a “type of postmodern philosophy” (Flax, 1987, p.623). But the idea of women’s empowerment and gender equality which has long been one of these “grand narratives” that are the target of postmodern critiques is regularly ignored.

The association of feminism to postmodernism is powerful in the English-speaking world, especially in the USA, where theoretical or epistemological confrontations override the previous divisions (between liberal, socialist, radical feminism etc.) and challenge the ideas around which feminism, as a critical and social project, was historically developed. The first idea is that reality is a structure that reason can discover through scientific research. Then, there is the notion of a rational and unified subject acting consciously and to its own benefits, although the homogenizing, ethnocentric conceptualization of women has also led to a tendency to ignore diversity (social, individual…). Another key element has been the critical perspective encompassing all unjust social relations. Finally, the idea of emancipation as a result of progress or reason has been foremost in the historical conception of feminism.

These debates question the presuppositions of feminist thought, both European and American, on the potential, the critical scope and the challenges of today’s feminisms. However, the closed and self-referential nature of American debates is an obstacle to transatlantic exchanges. The best example is the theoretical body designated by the terms French Post-structuralism, French feminism or even French theory, which is at the heart of the American controversy.


Concepts hide theoretical biases as well as the political and institutional issues. The scale and the hegemony of American intellectual production (including women’s studies) in the global cultural market tend to obscure local approaches. What is known as (French) Post-structuralism comes from an American selective appropriation and reworking of a number of authors -Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Lyotard, Kristeva, and Barthes- who however are rarely grouped like this in France, and who for the most part do not accept this designation. Similarly, the title of French feminism refers to writers such as Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva who refuse the term feminism and do not appreciate being grouped together.

This lack of critical examination suggests that postmodern feminists share several paradoxes with the theoretical tradition they are supposed to fight. The use of the adjective “French” to refer to some reflections on sex difference participates to a unitary conceptualization that has marked the dominant tradition of Enlightenment rationalism (Flax, 1987). The national qualifier ignores other feminist positions and suggests that any reference other than those selected and defined as French feminism, is not theoretical (nor feminist) and therefore can be ignored in the debate. This reduction does not only neglect some of the most influential theoretical positions in feminist thought in France (C. Guillaumin, C. Delphy, M. Le Doeuff, NC. Mathieu), it also prevents from thinking about the conditions in which these multiple positions have emerged, about their relationship to the political practice, and finally about their social and academic acceptability or unacceptability, together with their subversive dynamics. Above all, it erases or makes secondary the serious tensions between for example the works of Cixous and Irigaray (or between Lyotard and Derrida).

These conflicts and the lack of unity within so-called postmodern feminism constitute a real obstacle to reaching a common goal, namely understanding gender power relations. It is important to establish a dialogue on issues of theoretical options, compatibility and critical potential of current feminist thought.


One of the most relevant topics to the feminist critique -linear time- is shared by postmodernism and post-structuralism. Inherited from the Enlightenment discourse, its progressive implications has impacted the political and philosophical thought of Western modernity. This criticism is not only at the heart of the denunciation of “grand narratives” and their legitimation of domination as found, for example, in the work of Lyotard, but also of some feminist historiography. However, the chronological connotation of “post” and the systematic critical examination of modernity thought seem inadequate because the production of feminist postmodernism and post-structuralism often presents its judgement as something new like an epistemological break.

Lyotard recognizes this ambiguity by explaining that the postmodern is part of the modern, as it follows the modernist idea that it is necessary to break from the tradition and introduce a new way of thinking. Such a “rupture”, he adds, “is in fact a way of forgetting or repressing the past, that is, repeating it and not surpassing it” (Lyotard, 1993, p.76). Postmodernism emerges following the progress of technology in post-industrial societies that transforms the nature of social ties and knowledge. Lyotard emphasizes the illusory nature of a project that claims to base the legitimacy of science on its ability to serve emancipation. In the “methodological neo-positivism” one finds a reaffirmation of natural science as the basis of knowledge, a historical determinism that analyses postmodern as a condition imposed by a certain stage of historical development and an opposition to metaphysics (as the foundation of modernity’s “lie”).

By outlining all the challenges surrounding the term “post”, we can see that third wave feminists have to outstrip some epistemological problems. In order to understand gender power relations, and move beyond the modernist bipolarity of liberal and radical feminism, postmodern feminism has to become a more coherent theoretical perspective.


The phenomenon of science as the source of knowledge illustrates the difficulty for feminists to find a common theoretical ground. Indeed, some are fascinated by the progress of the exact sciences. There are new theories based on contemporary physics and chaos theory (Oliver, 1991), or the case of cyborgs-mutants (from CYBernetic ORGanism), but it is as if the revolution of science and technology has finally made an eighteenth century dream come true, namely the possibility of a true understanding of the laws governing the cosmos. Although unpredictable local determination, discontinuity or chaos rule the universe nothing changes because this does not tell us how to think the social. There is no evidence that what is true for the explanation of natural facts can also be used for social facts. Nothing proves that the use of “micronarratives”, favoured by exact sciences, has a methodological validity in social and human sciences, except this old belief that we are only individual subjects.

The Manifesto for Cyborgs (Haraway, 1991), one of the least controversial references in postmodern feminist literature, is a good example, inasmuch it contributes to the necessary renewal of socialist feminism of the 1980s. The cyborg being a hybrid -a machine and a living organism- evokes the evolution of technology and knowledge, their combined effects on the socio-economic organization (late capitalism, computerization of society, social and sexual division of labour), the experience of these transformations (social practices, forms of subjectivity, modes of perception) and political potentials to a solution of modernity dead-ends. Postmodernity is a new era in which the industrial society gives way to a diverse information system, marked by the social relations of science and technology.

The Manifesto reproduces some of the most problematic assumptions of scientism in its Marxist version (corrected by socialist feminism). The social organization of gender and women’s political struggles are no longer determined by the relations of production but by the relations of science and technology. Similarly, it is no longer an industrial work and its promises of gender equality and female autonomy that structures emancipation, but the “homework economy” with its global dynamics of gender deterioration. Moreover, it is not the education of the working class that promises to dispel gender inequality but high tech culture upsetting the dualisms of Western culture.


The construction of analysis categories do not take into consideration certain historical experiences and aspirations that were merely presumed identical (class, gender, racism, poverty, etc.). Domination, oppression, exclusion are not facts of knowledge but facts of society. The questioning of the homogenizing conceptualization is linked to the relations of political and intellectual forces, created by different types of social relations. The writings of Black and Multicultural women demonstrate the impossibility of a universal viewpoint. They build a position from a context where racism, sexism and poverty define a particular configuration of exclusion. It is because they are located at the lowest level of social hierarchies (race, gender and class), and are at the same time excluded from the establishment and development of these categories (Hull et al., 1982), that black women, but also Mexican and Asian minorities of the USA have a radical critical view of social reality, offering one of the most promising signs of feminist thought. They allow the reworking of the dilemmas that marked the struggles of women and feminism in the last two centuries: the tensions between self-affirmation of the individual and the homogenizing normativity of the group, and those between general and universal. These authors who have tried to transform their radical marginalization and exclusion into a deliberate position of Otherness, are trying to include in their critique most of the unjust social relations.

The use of this epistemological position in some postmodern analyses often reproduces the problems of conceptualisation. The construction methods of Black and Multicultural women provide a good example because the consideration of Third World women’s experiences are usually limited to homogeneous socioeconomic positions, experiences, cultures and political views (Bell Hooks, 2000). If, for example, the development of the concepts of private and public in feminist studies is contradicted by the historical experience of black women, it is also disproved by that of many western white women (immigrants, singles living alone, lesbians and so on). Finally, the status of the Other does not fundamentally change: it is always related to a first view (the West, white feminism), that must now be corrected. Black women’s experiences are most often integrated into feminist discourse for their ability to testify what exceeds the experience of white feminists (Butler & Scott, 1992).

This instrumental use of some women’s experiences and the polarity that it maintains (West/non-West) may again homogenize the Other, perceived through its differences. The affinity of these approaches with classic ethnocentrism has often been noted by authors from the periphery, who highlight the danger of such structures for a common political action (Lazreg, 1991). Thus, the price of the recognition of a different status is a reconstructed uniqueness of Third World women’s experiences, because if a group becomes visible, the visibility often involves the absorption of differences.

Black and Multicultural US women are now part of a Western body, a product of social history, and of the configuration of domination and social exclusion, symptomatic of Western modernity whose dilemmas are also explored by American women’s literature. It produces a position (but also a deliberate choice) of interiority/exteriority that allows a dialectical exploration of identity and difference, of universality and diversity.


To conclude, postmodern theoretical discourse highlights the fact that all knowledge is impacted by issues of power, and proclaims the impossibility of any critical distance in contemporary societies. Despite the diversity of their political positions, many of the postmodern theories implies the assumption that postmodern is a condition that cannot be criticized. For example, in The Postmodern Condition (1984), Lyotard posits that it is an “old truth” of postmodern consciousness: the failure of universal emancipation projects, the internationalism against the nationalism, the attempts to make progress for human needs.

Utopia is between what is no longer tolerable and what is yearned (Weigel, 1985). It seems for some postmodern feminists that stopping the denial of what is historically given, and using its positive aspects, is the condition of any radical transformation (Nicholson, 1990). It is one thing to think about the failures of the major projects (liberal, Marxist or feminist) regarding the end of domination, yet it is another to deduce their inevitability. This can remove the subversive potential of the feminist critique of modernity by denying the authority of the most overwhelming positive facts (eg the asymmetry of sexes). This negative approach reproduces the visions which, since the eighteenth century, have challenged the universalism of human rights, the issues of power behind emancipation, the instrumental reason, and the submission of the individual to the group.


  • Bell Hooks (2000) Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center, South End Press. 2nd
  • Butler J. & Scott J. (eds) (1992) Feminists Theorize the Political. Routledge.
  • Flax J. (1987) ‘Postmodernism and gender relations in Feminist Theory’, in Signs 12, n° 4. University of Chicago Press.
  • Haraway D. (1991) ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge.
  • Lazreg M. (1991) ‘Feminism and Difference : The Perils of Writing As a Woman on Women in Algeria’, in Keller E. & Hirsch M. (eds.) Conflicts In Feminism, Routledge.
  • Lyotard J-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press.
  • Lyotard J-F. (1993) The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence, 1982–1985. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Nicholson L. (ed.) (1990) Feminism/Postmodernism (Thinking Gender). Routledge.
  • Oliver K. (1991) ‘Fractal Politics: How to use the Subject’ in Praxis International 11:2 (Accessed: 20/12/14) Available at:

  • Weigel S. (1985), ‘Double focus. On the history of women’s writing’, in Ecker G., Feminist Aesthetics, The Women’s Press Ltd.



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