Engaging efforts to inspire outsiders

French Feminist Theory - A Concise Companion to Feminist Theory. First edition - Feminism

May 28, 2004

The advent of second-wave feminism in western Europe and the US in the 1970s was a catalyst for the subsequent growth of feminist studies in the academy. As activists in the women's liberation movement demanded equality with men, they also asked for women to be included in the male-centred curricula taught in universities. Over the next 20 years or so, courses in women's studies, women's history, women's literature and feminist theory were institutionalised. Although the expansion of feminist studies in the academy has slowed, a steady stream of books on such subjects still appears.

These three books, all aimed at an undergraduate readership, focus on feminist theory but present the subject in differing ways. They will be of use to those reading women's studies, sociology, cultural studies, literary studies and history.

Dani Cavallaro's text, the most intellectually demanding of the three, offers an overview of the main themes expounded by French feminist theorists. She outlines and evaluates the two key strands of her subject: material feminism, which focuses on the fashioning of notions of gender and sexuality by patriarchal social institutions; and linguistic feminism, which concentrates on the impact of symbolic representations of gender and sexuality on the human psyche.

Drawing on the work of a range of writers as diverse as Simone de Beauvoir, Christine Delphy, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, Cavallaro asserts that French feminism continually cultivates "a thought-provoking dialogue" between notions of equality (commitment to gender-free norms) and difference (the recognition of women's special feminine attributes).

Her claim, however, that her book is an introduction to these ideas is not entirely fulfilled. While some sections are clearly expressed, large chunks will be incomprehensible to the average undergraduate new to this topic.

Students may find it helpful to start with the informative appendix, which offers concise accounts of theoretical positions advanced by Anglo-American feminist critics that are of varying relevance to the main concerns of French feminist thought.

Mary Eagleton's edited book offers an international dimension on feminist theory, with coverage of British, American, French and post-colonialist theorists, among others. Most useful to students with some knowledge of the subject, the book's various essays by different contributors offer competent, up-to-date surveys of familiar themes: class, race, sexuality, language, literature, the visual, philosophies and more.

But it is the chapters with unusual titles that catch the imagination. In a fascinating essay on "Place and space", Linda McDowell, a geographer, explores the meanings of "home", traditionally identified in white western societies as a private sphere associated with women, the feminine, conservatism and status. McDowell questions these assumptions, which, she argues, are less settled in a global system where identities based on place are transformed through real and virtual travel and migration. The urban apartment home, for example, is a miniature city, embodying the intersection of the private and public, or feminine and masculine spheres of influence.

Krista Cowman and Louise Jackson, in a spirited chapter on "Time", look particularly to the discipline of history and the feminist challenges offered to traditional historical periodisation that is judged significant from a male perspective. What has been regarded as "progressive" for men does not necessarily apply to women. Arguing for the continuing centrality of women's "experiences" as a focus for feminist research, they stress that the processes of remembering and re-remembering, telling and re-telling, can be understood more fully if the intersections between the physical, the material, the cultural and the social are explored.

Jennifer Mather Saul's lively book assumes no prior knowledge of feminism.

She seeks to introduce discussion of the philosophical ideas behind feminism by focusing on controversial topics such as work and the family, sexual harassment, pornography, abortion, appearance, language, gender differences, science and cultural diversity. Should feminists try to restrict pornography? Should a woman always have a right to choose an abortion? In what ways are the pressures on women to be "attractive", with large breasts and slim legs, feminist issues? Are there gender differences in how women and men approach moral problems? Should feminists defend the veiling of Islamic women?

The book is fair, accessible and informative and Saul brings in various feminist perspectives, pointing out that there are often no easy answers to these thorny questions. I highly recommend this lucid and engaging textbook. It shows that feminist theory need not be the province of a closed group talking only to itself in ever-increasing circles of complexity, but an exciting subject that can fire its readers.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

French Feminist Theory: An Introduction. First edition

Author - Dani Cavallaro
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 200
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 0 8264 5885 8 and 0 8264 5886 6

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