Integral Feminism: When Integral Thought meets Feminist Theory – Part I

by editor

While we analyzed on what are the ideals of the Integral Feminine in  the post “The soul of the Integral Feminine”, this post is a complete break away from it. Instead of predicting how will be the Integral Feminine, this post analyzes what will happen if we map feminist theories in Ken Wilber’s AQAL model and look at the line of growth of feminism. Inspired by Joyce McCarl Nielsen’s “Feminist Fission or Fusion? Ken Wilber meets Feminist Theory”, this post explores the root of gender inequality based on the past, prevailing and emergent feminist theories.

The Question of Gender Inequality:
The one question that would haunt any woman during her lifetime is why are women being segregated or devalued compared to men? Why is there is such a strong hostility against women in society? Why does it take time for the society to accept women in male-dominated positions? Why are women thought incapable, stupid and made-only-for-silly-jobs? Why is reproduction alone the single most important job of women and why is a woman’s sexuality a thing of shame in certain societies? Nielsen raises several such questions in the beginning of her paper on “Feminist Fission or Fusion?”. The questions raised are valid and ones which swarm around every thinking individual, especially women. Of all the questions put forth by Joyce Nielsen, the most important is – “Why does gender inequality seem to be hard-wired into our social structures and into the ideologies that support them but not necessarily into the minds and psyches of individual women and men? That too, why is gender inequality always in the direction of male dominance? ”

Nielsen’s Ken Wilber Meets Feminist Theory: Answering these questions may lead to analysis of what feminist theories have to say about gender inequality. While Ken Wilber opines that feminist theories are so diverse so much so that it seems that they agree upon only one thing that is the fact that they are female, Joyce Nielsen asserts that all feminists agree upon a few common facts/truths about women’s societal position: “Women are disadvantaged, subordinated and oppressed”. And all feminists try to explain this inequality and believe that something should be done to bring in equality between men and women. But the problem is, different groups or clans of feminists look at things differently, in several perspectives, making it difficult to come to a consensus on what can be done to cure the society of this problem.

According to Wilber’s Integral theory, we know that all truths or perspectives are but “partial truths” and they need to be “integrated” together to arrive at the real truth or “vision-logic” he advocates. In an attempt to achieve this, Nielsen maps the existing feminist theories (right from the past to the present) in the four quadrants of Wilber – the individual interior, the individual exterior, the collective interior, the collective exterior. Wilber himself has done this in his book, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Nielsen builds up on Wilber’s thoughts on Integral Feminism and elaborates points related to the beliefs of different feminist theories. As Nielsen herself says, “I’ve juxtaposed the different feminist traditions and the four quadrants. The difference, though, is that I flesh out each feminist story, giving more detail, more elaboration, and some attention to its limits.”

Gender stratification across society: Before an analysis of existing feminist theories and how to integrate them, we need to explore on how far “gender stratification” has penetrated through our society. And what is to be analyzed is, what causes such a segregation. If biological differences lead to gender differentiation, then why is such a stratification not accepted by men and women? Why does not anyone feel gender bias as natural, not social? Even in societies where women are as advanced in education, wealth and status as men, gender inequality persists. Moreover, woman’s biology, especially her body is increasingly commodified and commercialized in all aspects in popular culture. In order to eliminate gender inequality, we need to ponder over what is the root cause behind such a bias and how it is signified by different feminist theories. Only then, an “integration” of such theories would be a possibility.

For achieving an “integral” feminist theory, let us explore, along the lines prescribed by Joyce Nielsen, what feminist theories posit about marginalization of women.

Liberal Feminism: Liberal Feminism is one of the oldest schools of feminist thought. During the First Wave of Feminism (from 1800 – 1950), women demanded legal rights – like right to vote, right to work, right to inherit property, right to get divorce etc. In the Second Wave (from 1960 – 1990), the demands were for equal rights with men – to engage in military service, to get equal pay for equal work and to become priest. Liberal Feminism, on the whole, makes a proposal to grant equal rights for women. But what Liberal Feminism failed to state is – equal to whom? Considering now, all the demands of Liberal Feminism seems to be rather primitive. Many feminists want to abolish inequity, not support it. So, as a feminist theory, Liberal Feminism should have put a stop to all inequities against women. But a demand for equality in everything too proves to be dangerous.

Nielsen illustrates this with an example of a Supreme Court case between Gilbert and the General Electric Company. Alison Jaggar describes this in the Feminist Politics and Human Nature: “In this case, female employees of General Electric charged that the exclusion of pregnancy-related disabilities from their employer’s disability plan constituted sex discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this was not so, in part because it argued that the exclusion of pregnancy was not in itself a gender-based discrimination but instead merely removed one physical condition from coverage. The justices counted as quite irrelevant the biological fact that this was a physical condition to which only women were subject!”

Hence, demand for equality brings absurd results that deny women their basic rights, rights that are unique only to them based on their physical condition. In the same way, in the name of equality, little girls playing baseball are asked to wear jock straps; women who hit their partners in self-defense are arrested. All this, feels Nielsen, questions the equality women are trying to achieve. Anchored in the lower half quadrants, Liberal Feminism has become a “partial truth” that has NOT led to equality in all spheres of life. The Court’s judgment is a clearcut case of how liberal politics/feminism fails. In other words, Liberal Feminism is limited because it fails to analyze the root cause of the problem that provoke men to act hostile to women. The question is, what establishes gender bias too strongly in our social structures?

Marxist Feminism: Nielsen now moves on to analyze the Gilbert case through the Marxist-feminist lens. Marxists have certain basic principles regarding the world, the work we do, and our contribution to the society’s economy. Marxist feminists view women’s work in two ways: production and reproduction. Production refers to the household activities that women engage in – especially during the pre-industrial era – like housing, cleaning, weaving, spinning, making beer, soap etc. Reproduction refers to activities exclusive to women alone – like childbearing, childrearing, nurturing, feeding etc. Marxists believe that the second part, “reproduction” is very important to the society as that contributes to the economy at large.

As the industrial revolution set in, women’s production work was passed on to the capitalist industries and women were left to nothing but the supposedly “low-grade” work of reproduction. In order to emancipate women, the Marxist feminists advocated that women take up production work more seriously. That is, enter into the industrial world. But this again became a double burden to women who had to take care of both reproductive and production work. Considering the hardship that women have to undergo, Marxist feminists propagated the idea of socialization of household work. Even that was later not approved by certain Marxists. This is because they found that industrialization alienated man like no other. In a capitalist, money-minded society, homemaking was one of the few non-alienating jobs. Hence they opined that, to distribute homemaking work would be a mistake and dropped the proposal of socialization of domestic work.

Marxist feminists’ two policies were inspiring – one was that women should be paid wages for household work; another was, equal wages for equal work in the marketplace. To put things simply, Marxists feminists felt that women were oppressed because it was considered that they did less valuable work (like reproduction) which did not contribute directly to the economy. That is why wages for household work or women’s entry into the industrial world or equal pay for equal work – will set things right.

On analyzing Marxist feminism, one needs to question whether this gender bias is with regard to the work done by women or based on who does the work. In other terms, it is to question whether women are “devalued” based on their work or because they are women. The latter seems to be reason. This is because a woman in a male-dominated job gets better pay than a woman in a women-dominated profession. As Nielsen quotes Christine Williams’ Still A Man’s World: Men Who Do ‘Women’s Work’, “women who work in men’s occupations report hitting a ‘glass ceiling’ while men who work in women’s occupations encounter a ‘glass escalator’”.So, from Marxist thought, Nielsen deducts that “gender bias” has existed before capitalism. Several instances and historical evidences prove that extreme patriarchy existed even in the pre-industrial era and hence, the industrial revolution has not triggered gender inequality but has only aggravated it.

Though Marxist feminism has contributed to our idea of gender inequality, it fails to explain in clear terms on what causes such a bias. In spite of more and more women entering into the public space, an Utopian society of equality has not been met. What is the reason? Why are capitalists against women?

Radical Feminism: Radical feminists, who are anchored in the upper quadrants of Wilber, take a rather radical stance regarding the oppression of women. They say that only the reproductive role of women make them subjects of men. Meaning, men have control over women only because they have control over their procreation or reproductive activities. They pinpoint instances wherein men have controlled women’s reproduction: One is the idea of needing a socially approved father for a child (a case of illegitimacy is taboo). Another domain is mythical. Though the belief of man existed before everything is absurd (only a woman can give birth to a man), it is propagated to establish man’s control over woman. Even the replacement of mid-wives with M.D.s in the United States during the late 20th century is an instance. In today’s world too, every other advanced technology related to fertilization or reproduction is first in the hands of men (IVF or Artificial Insemination).

In order to reclaim control from men, Radical Feminists advise women to give up reproduction. They suggest use of artificial or technologically advanced procedures for procreation, thereby, stopping men from taking control over childbearing. But there are second opinions regarding this too. If women give up reproduction, they would be giving up the only activity for which they receive much regard in the society. Technology for reproduction will only make women into “domestic or sexual slaves”. This brings us to the threshold of another prevalent view among women – why should women give up reproduction (or her core activities) and try to become men? Why cannot she celebrate her femininity instead of harping on a masculine self that is not her own?

All said, Radical Feminism fails to answer with clarity the questions on gender bias and how to abolish it. If use of technology for reproduction could grant liberation to women, then, why are not the present, upwardly-mobile women liberated? Why do they have to face the discriminations of the society and need to rely on their male partners for several things in life?

Socialist Feminism: Socialist Feminist theory is in a way an integration of Marxist and Radical feminism. As Rosemarie Putnam Tong argues in her book Feminist Thought, “We do not need one theory (Marxism) to explain gender-neutral capitalism and another theory (feminism) to explain gender-biased patriarchy….but a single theory–a socialist feminist theory–to explain gender-biased capitalist patriarchy.” Yes, Socialist Feminism suggests that the root cause of all bias is a patriarchal society that is capitalist. Capitalism and Patriarchy are so intertwined that they cannot be separated from each other. Socialist feminists provide an answer to the Gilbert case. They say that the Judges’ decision was against pregnant workers because he saw the world through capitalist-patriarchal lens. In the Court case, a group of capitalist men have exercised complete control over the reproduction of a few women. And the women, as incapable and socially-handicapped, were able to do nothing about it.

But what is the reason behind such capitalist-patriarchal behavior? Why is there hostility against women? We will see more of Joyce Nielsen’s analysis on this and the mapping of other feminist theories in our Part II section.

Reference Links:

1. Joyce McCarl Nielsen: Feminist Fission or Fusion? Ken Wilber Meets Feminist Theory

2. From Feminism to the Divine Feminist: An Integral Male Perspective

3. Elizabeth Lesser: Women’s Integral Spirituality

4. Elizabeth Debold: Where Are The Women

5. Kaisa Puhakka: Restoring Connectedness in the Kosmos: A Healing Tale of a Deeper Order

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