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Chapter 12 - Postponing the National Question: Feminism and the Women's Movement

from PART TWO - CONTINUITY AND RUPTURE

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 April 2018

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Summary

The ‘Women Question’ remains, arguably, the most unresolved in the history of democratic thought and practice in South Africa. In tracing the articulations of this question through the twentieth century and into the period of democracy it is evident that the dominant narratives of nationalist and class struggle relegated the demands for a society free of gender domination to a secondary status both in intellectual reasoning and in political projects. Although women were always participants in politics, it was only in moments of extraordinary mobilisation by women themselves that advances were made in defining an agenda for a good and just society in ways that referenced the particular, often-invisible conditions needed to liberate women. Indeed, the very idea of women's liberation was postponed to an indefinite future.

The subject of this discussion – women – is not definable without reference to a range of other markers such as class, ethnicity and race. The cultural meanings of ‘woman’ shift in relation to these markers of identity, and work in tandem with the ways in which capitalism mobilises ideologies of gender to normalise systems of economic exploitation. Although some women's movements, and some forms of feminism, have identified the elimination of patriarchy as the common interest of all women, patriarchy itself cannot be understood in ahistorical terms as separate from capitalism. Postcolonial feminists have argued that the ideological content of feminist consciousness should not be specified a priori according to abstract definitions. The archive of feminism, they argue, presents itself as universal but is indelibly marked by the specific historical trajectories of Western colonial-capitalist development. In this chapter, I therefore follow Chandra Mohanty's (1991) advice and attempt to offer a discussion of women's struggles that is set not against a prescriptive test of ideological conformity but, rather, within the specific historical experience and political culture of South Africa. I suggest that as a working, open-ended definition feminism is the project of examining the particular ways in which power operates between the political, economic and social spheres. It is the complex interaction between these spheres that reveals how gender works to mark power and resource distributions.

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The Unresolved National Question in South Africa
Left Thought Under Apartheid
, pp. 217 - 234
Publisher: Wits University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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