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A Journal of Crime, Conflict & World Order
Social Justice Vol. 17, No. 3 (1990)

Editorial: Feminism and the Social Control of Gender


Part of the legacy of the Reagan era has been the devastation of economic and social programs benefiting women and children. An emboldened right wing continues to push its agenda of "traditional family values," resulting in increased attacks on women, minorities, the gay community, and on new and creative visions of human relations. Such an atmosphere prompted Social Justice's decision to devote an issue to women. Last year, when we put out a call for papers, we received such an excellent response that we had enough material for two issues, of which this is the second. Common themes framing practically all the submissions were efforts to come to terms with the status of women's rights, the social control of gender, and women's response to it.

Today, when those who do not conform to socially prescribed norms are subjected to intensified attack, the social control of gender and the reinforcing of traditional gender roles have come to play an increasingly central part. The criminalization of pregnancy, the increasing imprisonment of women of color, and using abortion rights as the emerging litmus test in the appointment of new judges -- all are examples that reflect this tendency. Concomitantly, feminist theory has evolved dramatically by developing new definitions and methodologies, new epistemologies, and new models for social change that place women's reality at the center of primary assumptions. These theoretical advances are coming from women around the world, and articles in these issues reflect some of this new thinking.

It is an urgent necessity to advance both the level of feminist theory and its impact on policy and struggle. It is no accident that the attack on reproductive choice is central to the rollback of gains made by women over the last 20 years. Historically, sexism has been integral to the reproduction of the capitalist world system. Undoubtedly, the struggle over patriarchal designs on women will continue into the 21st century. For instance, the right-wing agenda is reflected in the goals of the Freedom Alliance (an organization headed by Oliver North), which set its sights on traditional enemies ("Communism is still a threat") to urge increased defense spending, but also widened its scope "to counter the left wing-dominated media, and fight an arrogant army of ultra militant feminists opposed to traditional family values" (see Ahlberg, 1990, our emphasis). If this is where our future lies, then, as Jane Armbruster asks in this issue, can Margaret Atwood's fictional totalitarian "nation of Gilead" be so far off?

The fight for women's rights exposes how social control is embedded in the avenues and tools of redress themselves and highlights the contradictions that women face in this struggle. For example, women are forced to rely on a legal system that is based on patriarchy and racism and dominated by white males. At the same time, struggles to date on women's behalf have not adequately considered the interrelationship of race and class with male domination. We must incorporate all of these dimensions in order to formulate strategies that include women in all their diversity.

In the first section, "Theoretical Perspectives," we present a variety of approaches to study the social control of gender. Kathy Daly's article takes a broad view of women and the law, looking at how the law treats women and gender differences, and how feminists think the law should treat them. She reviews the various positions on the meaning of "equality." Discussion has shifted from the terrain of equal rights and treatment to debates on difference, deconstructing such concepts. Daly's concern is to apply these theories to criminal justice policies, while recognizing that no one theory or perspective can work for every aspect of the legal issues facing women (labor and employment, sexual violence against women, reproduction and family issues, etc.). She also points to the need to develop new meanings of discrimination, equality, and justice that go beyond current thinking, as well as to the importance of recognizing the effects of racism and ethnocentrism in feminist analyses of legality.

In search of new methodologies to break the current control over gender definitions, Sandra Walklate pushes forward the development of critical victimology and explores the limits of existing theories. She assesses the limitations of radical left realism, and stresses the importance of developing new methodological approaches that integrate quantitative and qualitative research. Further, she calls for a redefinition of the "real" and the development of generative thinking that does not simply measure patterns of victimization but looks into the factors that both produce and change the patterns and the survival strategies employed by the communities in question.

Martha Gimenez' article contributes an in-depth analysis of the economic status of poor women, by critiquing the notion of the "feminization of poverty" that was popularized by the media in recent years. Although women and children continue to be among the poorest sectors of the population, gender alone does not provide an adequate framework for analyzing who are the poor. Offering a valuable statistical review of poverty rates among and between various sectors of the population, she concludes that the "feminization of poverty" perspective has failed to incorporate race and class as critical variables in the process of immiseration. She predicts little change in the patterns and conditions of poverty for the 1990s.

In her review essay of three major books on male violence, Kathleen Ferraro provides a concise evaluation of the failure of scholars to develop an adequate theoretical base from which to address patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and the state as they relate to male violence. Although the books she reviews face some of these same limitations, each contributes to the body of theory on male violence through useful historical, methodological, semiotic, and policy analyses that challenge the status quo.

John Martin reviews Maureen Cain's book Growing Up Good, and finds that its purpose is to move feminist approaches to criminology beyond the constraints imposed by more traditional perspectives. Instead of focusing on whether men and women are treated the same way by police, courts, and social workers, feminist approaches to criminology should concentrate more on the "substance of justice systems -- i.e., how people, especially women, should be treated and why justice agencies do what they do." In their examination of the experiences of various European countries, the contributors conclude that justice systems reflect "belief systems that describe what men and women 'really' are by defining femininity and masculinity in terms of prescriptions for appropriate behavior within a gendered world."

According to reviewer Marie Bertrand, Catharine MacKinnon's book, Towards a Feminist Theory of the State, does not advance us very far toward its stated goal. MacKinnon asserts that the liberal state is male, while pretending to neutrality. A useful feminist theory of the state would bring about a real understanding of how law works in a social context where power is gendered, but Bertrand believes that MacKinnon's analysis of U.S. jurisprudence on issues such as rape, abortion, pornography, and sexual equality fail to provide such an understanding. Nonetheless, Bertrand notes that MacKinnon believes women should be concerned with gaining some dignity and freedom through legal reform, with two caveats: it is women's concrete reality that is claimed through legal change, and it is recognized that individual rights as affirmed in the law are the bases of male power.

In Section II of this issue, the social control of reproductive rights is addressed in four diverse ways. Margaret Bortner focuses on advances made in reproductive technologies that make the ability of women to control their bodies and their lives more problematic. The framework of this discussion is the contradictory nature of the "rights discourse" and the political and ideological struggles being waged over sexuality, the nature of gender relations, and the role of women in society. She points out that "because of their enormous potential for altering conceptions of family and gender relations, contraception, abortion, and new reproductive technologies generate widespread moral panic." Bortner believes that participation in the rights discourse is necessary to maintain the limited control women have gained over their reproductive lives. It must be acknowledged, however, that the rights discourse also provides viable means of enhanced social control over women.

Lisa Maher's discussion of the criminalization of pregnancy is also set within the framework of the rights discourse and the ideological attack by the right wing on women's role in society. Concern shown by criminal justice agencies over the incidence of fetal defects caused by drug use makes them appear "to be working to save the ultimate in innocent victims from that most dangerous and predatory of species, the druggie mum." Maher exposes the failure of this approach, stating that:

detailed contextual knowledges will be essential to any attempt to turn this problem around -- to reconceptualize it in light of the knowledge that criminalizing the pregnancies of poor women and women of color will not solve any of the health risks associated with drug abuse.

Maher's analysis of the ideological factors underlying this approach makes clear that criminalizing "crack pregnancies" results in increased social control over women who fail to conform to engendered cultural expectations, and singles out African American women as the most unjustly treated in this process.

The "moral panic" described by Maher and Bortner is further documented in Bob Gould's exposé of the right wing's ideological agenda. The attack on abortion is at the heart of the Right's efforts to reassert traditional family values at the center of American life. Other examples include the use of the concept of fetal rights against women on the job, the criminalization of pregnancy of drug users, and the efforts to modify divorce legislation. Moreover, the progressive movement has not been successful in redefining cultural values and family issues. Gould's assessment of the broad strategies of the Right indicates the urgency with which we must take up the challenge.

In her commentary on Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale, Jane Armbruster asks us to assume that the nation of Gilead -- a fictitious, totalitarian, patriarchal society in which women are totally defined by men -- exists not in the future, but rather today in the United States. With her thoughtful summary, she asks us to consider Atwood's story as an allegory for the cultural context that shapes our attempts to create through political action institutions that support the full expression of humanity in all its diversity. Striving to find new directions out of the situation we are in, she suggests combining memory and feelings as highly creative political instruments, evoking past efforts at consciousness-raising, which may again open a feminist path out of our Gilead.

Section III explores the particular experiences of women of color in the struggle for social justice. Responding to the failure of feminist theory to date to incorporate the perspectives and realities of women of color, the contributors in this section redress aspects of that omission and provide insights that advance our understanding of the social control of gender.

Regina Arnold looks at the relationship between victimization and criminalization in the lives of young Black women: victims of class, gender, and race oppression, who became structurally dislocated from the major social institutions for women (family, school, and work). In the course of resisting oppressive situations involving family violence and sexual abuse, racism and poverty, girls who run away, steal, or leave school come into contact with the criminal justice system, which labels them offenders and begins the cycle of criminalization and subsequent victimization. Arnold points out the racial and sexual dimensions to this process and critiques the failure of the system to provide adequate remedies to the violence faced by these girls.

A format somewhat new to Social Justice is Karlene Faith's contribution, which resulted from a round table discussion she organized with Indian (Native) women in Canada. From a perspective as women and as people of color, they speak about their struggles in areas such as health care, adoption rights for their own children, gender equity in traditional societies, and the effects of assimilation in terms of crime, schools, and the prisons. Faith also addresses the importance of maintaining cultural identity and difference by developing a "radical pluralism," which acknowledges both individual rights and group particularities.

"Women, Values, and the Law" is the subject of a course developed by Cynthia Spence and Mona Phillips at Spelman College, which was designed specifically for a predominantly African American female student body. The purpose of the course is to study the historical factors that have shaped women's lives within the context of the legal system. The authors review the books they selected for the course, which cover themes such as the historical role of racism in the women's movement as well as the recurrent manifestation of the "forced choice question: 'Whose side are you on, women or Blacks?'" In addition, they also integrated the importance of race and class into a discussion of reproduction and employment, stressing that "it was important that our course removed women of color from the 'margin' of analysis to the center."

Carolyn Clark's review of Angela Davis' book, Women, Culture, and Politics, highlights Davis' analysis of the role of race and class in defining the positions and alliances of American women, both past and present. Clark then focuses on contradictions in the struggles facing women in Egypt, pointing out that Davis went to Egypt having found elements of racism, ethnocentrism, and ignorance in Western feminists' attitudes toward Middle Eastern women. Although Davis identifies women's loss of economic power as a cause for returning to the use of the veil and for the persistence of the practice of clitoridectomy, Clark suggests that an economic analysis alone does not take into account the resilience of cultural traditions that reassert themselves in different contexts. This review, like other articles in this section, contributes to our understanding of the social control of gender as it specifically affects women of color.

As this issue of Social Justice demonstrates, the entire question of the social control of gender is highly complex. The current controversy over who will make our reproductive decisions and with what criteria exemplifies that complexity. Today's challenge to feminist scholars and activists is nothing less than overcoming the social control of gender in its entirety, and thereby forging a path out of Gilead.

-- S.D. and N.S.


Ahlberg, Brian

1990 "New Revelations in Iran-Contra Scandal." Utne Reader41 (September-October): 38-39.

Citation: Editors. (1990). "Editorial: Feminism and the Social Control of Gender." Social Justice Vol. 17, No. 3 (1990): 1-5. Copyright © 1990 by Social Justice, ISSN 1043-1578. Social Justice, P.O. Box 40601, San Francisco, CA 94140.