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

by editor

This is the Part II of the post, “Integral Feminism: When Integral Thought meets Feminist Theory – Part I”. Following the footsteps of Ken Wilber and Joyce McCarl Nielsen (“Ken Wilber Meets Feminist Theory”), we analyze and explore the various facets of feminism, including the different feminist movements that have emerged from the First to Third Wave of Feminism in these posts on Integral Feminism. In Part I, we raised questions on gender inequality and analyzed what feminist theories have to say about it. We purviewed Liberal, Marxist, Radical, Socialist and other feminists and their take on gender bias. While the Liberal feminists argue for legal equality, the Marxists believe in socialization of household work and entry of women into the industrial world. Radical feminists, on the other hand, believe that it is women’s reproductive role which makes them vulnerable. Hence they offer suggestions to give up that role and take up industrial/productive role.

Socialist feminists, analyzing the root cause of gender bias, nail it on “capitalist patriarchy”. They are of the opinion that only a patriarchal-capitalist society orchestrates this oppression of women in the society. In order to control women, men control her reproduction too. Regarding the verdict on the Gilbert Court case (the fraudulence in not including pregnancy as a physical condition under medical insurance), where the judgment was in favor of the insurance company than the women, Socialist feminists opine that it was a clear cut decision of a capitalist-patriarchal judge. But the question now is, why is there so much antagonism against women? And why should, as many feminists suggest, women be like men? What is the benefit of being men? This article will explore reasons for the above along with the more modern kinds of feminisms.

Man vs Woman – Differences: The society sets up man and woman on different planes. Male is especially placed on a superior plane and people are made to think that man important or significant. As Nielsen herself puts it, “The answer is that a majority of most societies (men and women) put a high premium on men and masculinity.” She explains this by mentioning an array of dualisms that are present in our world – Self-other; mind-body; rational-emotional; active-passive; sun-moon; culture-nature; day-night etc. If you closely look at these dualisms, you can understand that the most prominent among all is the first – the masculine counterpart. The feminine aspect of the same dualisms are “devalued” in the society. If not all together, they are, at least in comparison, lesser than the masculine aspects. Division of the universe into such duals is itself a mark of gender inequality.

Why do such devaluations take place? Why are women lesser compared to men? What makes them stand low before men? Some state that it is because of the differences in the work that men and women do. Women are said to do less productive work, while men are supposed to be doing amazing work, that is useful to the world. Yet, cross-cultural research has shown that everything done by men, except hunting large mammals, can be done by women. And men can equally do all women’s work except childbearing. Margaret Mead in her Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World, states that: “Men may cook or weave or dress dolls or hunt humming-birds, but if such activities are appropriate occupations of men, then the whole society, men and women alike, votes them as important. When the same occupations are performed by women, they are regarded as less important.”

But why are the same occupations done by women regarded less important? The Cultural Feminists have a reason.

Cultural Feminism:
Why are women not treated equally inspite of their ability to do the same work? The cultural feminists opine that there should some other reason behind this animosity. Many socio-cultural historical evidences prove the existence of matriarchy and downfall of the same with the rise of patriarchal ideologies. Several social historians state that myths, legends, stories and fables are exemplars of why women need to be controlled and how men overruled women triumphantly. Though most of it point out women’s inability or weakness or wickedness or arrogance, today we can eliminate all these reasons as a covering up of something behind. Analyzing this sexual politics, cultural feminists opine that this politics should be as old as history as sex stratification has been maintained throughout the ages. Only a second position on the issue of sex can bring a change in attitude – women should be “celebrated rather than denigrated”.

Cultural Feminism brought about a significant shift in values. There was healthy cultivation of thoughts and right from Margaret Fuller, the cultural feminists, believed in celebrating women as women, just as the African Americans celebrate “Black is beautiful”. Though cultural feminism tried to find a solution for gender inequality, the solution was more about healing women’s wounds than resolving the bias. And the reason for the bias has not been defined clearly.

Existential Feminism: Simone de Beauvoir is a prominent figure among the Existential Feminists and her remarkable work The Second Sex is an in-depth analysis of the gender inequality that is prevalent in the society. Applying Existential philosophy to the existing differences between sexes, de Beauvoir opines that women are oppressed because they are considered the “Other”. Using the Hegelian thought of “Pour-soi” and “En-soi” Beauvoir explains the divisions of human consciousness. Human consciousness, according to Hegel, is divided into two – the transcendent or the observing ego (“Pour-soi”) and observed or fixed ego (“En-soi”). “Pour-soi” means “for-itself” while “En-soi” means “in-itself”. It is said that the both the divisions are in a constant “dialectical” process with each other and requires each other to assert themselves.

As Nielsen says, “Sartre’s further development of this concept is that the self has two dimensions, one is transcendent (which he called “being”), the other is immanent (or “non being”). One’s relation to other parallels the relation between one’s pour-soi and en-soi. To constitute oneself as a self, one objectifies others.” In this sense, Beauvoir says, men have objectified women as the “Other” to assert themselves. In other words, women have been taken as “en-soi”, the Other, instead of “Pour-soi” owing to the work – reproduction – they do. This discrimination with regard to work emerges from the idea that any work that “transcends” nature is superior (creative, building work) compared to any other work that is “immanent” in nature (like reproduction work). Women are objectified because their work is considered to be mean compared to the higher creative work men do. Reproduction or body work is “devalued” as in the ancient times men thought rationality to be superior to any kind of menial bodily work. Only later it was evident that we human beings relate to the world around through our bodies.

With such objectification of women, there is no scope for freedom till the chain of the “Other” is broken. In order to liberate themselves, Beauvoir encourages women to engage in creative, transcendent work that is beyond nature. She opines that women who stay put with their state as sex objects, mothers or dumb blondes will just be ignored in the male-world. To achieve gender equality, women should undergo a personal transformation and become empowered.

Beauvoir is a little different from the others in that she suggests a personal transformation (Lower Right quadrant) compared to the others who suggest collective, social/structural transformation (Lower Left). Though this a remarkable feat in Feminist theories down the ages, Existential feminism has its own drawbacks and the foremost one is – one cannot explain “Pour-soi” or “En-soi” to lowly women who work hard to make both their ends meet. Another issue is, she herself “devalues” reproduction or immanent work like the Radical, Liberal feminists and advocates “transcendent” work. But postmodern and new age theories state how it is this “transcendent” work or work that involves overpowering nature, which has caused all the havoc in the world.

Postmodern Feminism: Postmodern feminism is a little different from Existential and other feminist schools. There is no structured philosophy behind postmodernist feminism. But many ideologies are advocated by feminists of this school. First, postmodern feminists think that being the “Other” is an advantage as women are unattached to the dominant culture. Second, they suggest that women should emulate men and create their own “female language, female sexuality and female world.” Third, they question the existence of a core self or identity through their questions regarding anti-essentialism. Postmodern feminists also say that women should not want to be special or unique or different treatment as it would lead to “essentialist” thinking. In which, women would have been granted no right to work during their pregnancy and instead be made eligible only for enjoying a special status.

In her Woman-Nature Thesis, Ortner states how women are closely linked to nature (on account of their reproductive activities) while men are closely linked to culture (human development) which is against nature. Pointing out how cultural values tend to think that culture is superior to nature, similarly men, representing culture, tend to think of themselves as superior to women. Also, they have an urge to control women on account of women’s close association with nature. Ortner opines that women have lesser social status because of this association, as a mark of controlling everything natural.

Ecofeminism strongly believes in the connection between women and nature. It presents the idea that “scientific thinking is itself gendered and that the scientific attitude toward the natural (feminine) world parallels men’s apparent interest in controlling women.” Some Ecofeminists are of the opinion that women are, “better, nicer, more connected, less apt to kill, less apt to screw up the environment.” That is, women are more akin to nature than men. Ken Wilber says that such an assertion will create more differences and lead to essentialism. Nielsen rejects this comment of Wilber and argues that such an endorsement can only do good to women or at least make amends for all the past ills done to them. She says that feminine traits can be celebrated irrespective of gender or sex and this, in turn can help level the society when it comes to gender bias.

Gender as Performance: Ecofeminism is again a partial truth and it does not deliver the need of the hour. And also, what are the possibilities to eliminate this gender inequality? Several reasons can be stated for this dissonance between men and women – First, can be a sea of differences in the psyches of both the sexes; Second, while sex differences studies are about personality traits, in reality, it is all about men and women interacting with each other. But how does this gender interaction happen? Are women rigid to changes? No. They are very flexible, adaptable as a species. Homemakers took up jobs during WWII. Women can be as aggressive as men, experimental tests can prove this. Many such incidents and instances can prove that women too possess all the traits of “masculinity”. Transsexuals are another subjects for rumination. If a male (a biological male) can pass through as a woman, where is the signifier of female identity? Analyzing all these, Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker in their Theory on Gender: Feminism on Theory state that sex, sex category and gender are different. Even Kate Millett in her Sexual Politics states that sex does not influence gender in any way.

If one considers that man and woman are equal except in their biology (which is immaterial to us now or does not have any influence on gender), then where lies the differences between male and female? Some say it is in the way they socialize, others state that each sex has distinct “essential” element that makes a female female and a male male.

Apart from the diversities between sexes, there are differences between the same sex too. There is a world of difference between the way a White woman and an African American woman perceives the world. While the white female thinks of her as a “woman”, the Black female may look at a mirror image of herself and identify her as a “black, Asian or African American woman”. Ethnic or color identity is so ingrained in our thought processes that personal identity is itself shadowed by our racial prejudices. On the other hand, a white male would just think of him as a “man” or a “human being”. All these differences between women and men of different races complicate our exploration of the basic men and women antagonism. But Psychoanalytic feminism, the most recent of feminisms, has an answer, a psychological answer.

Psychoanalytic Feminism: Based on Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, Psychoanalytic feminism states that everything begins with parenting. Every child’s first parent is a female. The child, from its entry into earth, grows closer to its female parent so much so that it becomes completely dependent on the parent for its daily sustenance, emotional and physical support. When years pass by and the child reaches an age of 3 or 4, there is a break from the familial atmosphere. Knowledge seeps in and it watches its other parent’s activities. It begins to understand that the man in the family has greater responsibility and control over the family. If it is a male child, it understands that it is like its father and cannot grow up like its mother or marry her. Similarly, girls understand that they are females and have to grow up like their mother. For a girl it is easy. It just is her being and the feminine quality that has already developed in her is not sacrificed. But the boy who has adopted his mother’s feminine quality has to sacrifice his femaleness to grow to be a man, a man in the social sense. This is tough, but it results in a sense of autocratic and autonomous tendency in the boy. Girls, as they maintain their connection with their female parent, tend to be “relational”. But all these psychological changes occur because of structural changes. As Nielsen puts it, “All this occurs because of a structural feature, the division of labor by sex that has women being the original parents, with fathers becoming more important only as children get older.”

Finally, we have arrived at an integral approach to the topic. Gender inequality is caused by many things – but two basic causes are psychological and social. This structural and relationship arrangement of the family and the society illustrate how sex differences happen and how there is problem even with the interactional style of the feminine and the masculine. But Chodorow argues that though these disparities are built in our psyches, they are not inborn or essential. The only way is to restructure the family such that boys can grow into better beings without rejecting the femaleness in them. One of the most generative of feminist theories, Psychoanalytic feminism cuts across all quadrants of Wilber. It is, as Joyce Nielsen describes it, “a clinical, anecdotal and experiential” way of analyzing the problem of gender inequality. And for the first time, we arrive at a psychological truth that is valid and substantiates the antagonism against women.

Integral Feminism: Ken Wilber views gender in rather an optimistic way. He opines that in such a perturbed gender-biased society, feminist theories can vary from radical to conservationist. Each may state something as the end. But, looking from an Integral lens, we need to use a wide-ranging perspective to solve the male-female antagonism. Wilber feels that the emergence of a new consciousness can put an end to this division in the society and bring forth acceptance of all things – masculine or feminine. “Part of this new consciousness is a real integration of male and female expressions within all individuals and at all levels.” Wilber presupposes development in the upper left quadrant (interior), thereby an evolution of human consciousness. Though it may take time to achieve complete gender equality, as Ken Wilber believes, the stage is set up for such a thing to happen.

Perspectives are changing in the feminist realms too. Many believe that post-feminism is the next era. It is not a negation of feminism but a radical shift from it at the structural and psychological level. In the same way, as Nielsen asserts, “There is now less commitment to the idea that a single factor or metanarrative can explain gender and other types of oppression. We now recognize no one or right way to be feminist.” As mentioned in her title, Nielsen feels a sort of feminist fission has occurred. A feminist fission that would take time to fuse or “integrate” together to eliminate gender inequality from the society.

Reference Links:

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

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

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

4. Elizabeth Lesser: Women’s Integral Spirituality

5. Elizabeth Debold: Where Are The Women?

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

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