The Women’s Movement and "Consciousness"


This article reflects a major division in the women’s movement in Western Europe during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Here, Christine Delphy, author of The Main Enemy (Women’s Research and Resources Centre Publications, London, 1977) takes issue with Annie Leclerc, author of Parole de Femme. The issue was the role of ideology in the struggle for women’s emancipation. Leclerc argued, in effect, that women were oppressed because they had internalised oppressive ideas. Delphy argued on the contrary that the problem lay not in women’s ideas — but in the material dominance of men over women in society.

The Women’s Movement and "Consciousness".

Chris Knight. Unpublished typescript, c. 1981.

The women’s movement may be a multitude of conflicting tendencies and strands, but if there is one thing on which all strands are agreed it is that they do not believe in male consciousness or ideology. As true materialists, at least where the politics of the personal is concerned, women have been insisting that men’s "ideas" are really beside the point. They have been discovering that the whole of sexist ideology is no more than so many ways by which men justify, express and attempt to conceal their material dominance, their physical intimidation of, ownership of and control over women. The material dominance comes first. The "ideas" which result are merely the forms through which men become aware of their real power.

In relation to this discovery, it has been the radical feminists who have been most clear-headed and firm. While most "socialist feminists" have insisted on the "primacy of ideology" and on the concept of "ideology as a material force", the radical feminists have poured scorn on all

1. See for example Penny Remfry, "Fascism, Feminism and Wilhelm Reich". Scarlet Women, 9 (January 1979), PP. 18-26.

this and hit men where it hurts. Christine Delphy – author of "The Main Enemy"- has led the way in this respect. Like Marx and Engels in "The German Ideology", Delphy has set about exposing the myth of "ideological power" as such. In a furious attack on Annie Leclerc’s "Parole de Femme", which had seen the source of women’s oppression in women’s own "devaluation" of themselves, she writes:

"The reversal of causality -the belief that the ideological superstructure (the devaluation of women) is the cause and not the effect of the social structure – is not one idealist interpretation among others; it is the very ideology itself." 1

Leclerc had complained that men do not value housework; and that women accept this estimation. Delphy comments:

"How does she deal with this? She replies that men ‘are mistaken’, that housework has a value. She argues from the same ground as that which allows men to assert, equally peremptorily, that it does not."2

Leclerc tries to overthrow one set of ideas – that "housework has no value" – by counterposing to this another set of ideas – that "housework is really valuable". She does this without realizing that it is not the subjective evaluation, but the objective social character of the housework in question which has got to be changed.

Or again, Leclerc complains that women don’t experience their menstrual periods as a source of pleasure and strength. Women submit to men’s "devaluation" – on the ideological level – of menstruation. Her answer? Women should change their attitudes – they should raise their consciousness and relate to menstruation in a different way.

Delphy replies:

"It is not just a question of my attitude to my periods. The attitudes of others, their requests, their expectations, their demands are for me as concrete, as tangible as a chair. The social period is a material framework of conduct for the individual. We must hide our periods: that is not an idea of my own invention, but a constraint imposed on me which is quite outside of (and material for) me. As Leclerc herself says, people compel me to behave ‘as on other days’. But this is materially difficult, whatever my ‘values’ may be… everything is materially understood and made for a population without periods. . . how can women change their attitude whilst having a period remains the same concrete experience?"3

1. Christine Delphy, "Debate on Capitalism, Patriarchy and the Women’s Struggle." In: Delphy, The Main Enemy. A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression. Women’s Research and Resources Centre Publications, London, 1977, p. 41. 2. p. 51 . 3. pp. 48-9.

And so on. Society, insists Delphy, has made housework actually unrewarding just as it has made menstruation actually a handicap. It’s no good urging women to "change their attitudes" towards such things. That would be to imply that women’s attitudes were the problem – a suggestion with which men would be only too happy to agree. Nor is anything to be gained by arguing against men, pointing out to them their "mistakes" or urging upon then a change of heart. Feminists who try to battle against male ideology by resorting to some other ideology are doomed from the start :

"Ideology cannot be used against itself, and in this sense the term ‘counter-ideology’ is false because a true counter-ideology would be an analysis which unmasked ideology for what it is:

Leclerc, writes Delphy, "takes the pretext (the thing in the name of which men oppress women, the reasons they give) for the cause of (the real reason for) the oppression…" 2 Because men say that housework has no value, Leclerc thinks that this statement lies at the root of the oppression of women in the home, and that therefore the statement is the thing to be attacked. In reality, of course, the statement will remain impregnable as long as men are permitted to own what women do in the privacy of the home. The same applies to menstruation. As long as women’s bodies belong to men, menstruation will be felt not as a source of strength but as a source of weakness and pain. There is no way of fighting the "idea" of this weakness except by materially becoming strong:

"…the fight to change attitudes is itself only positive on the condition that it changes something concrete in women’s lives: that it flows into the struggle against the constraints imposed on their bodies."3

Women must emancipate their bodies from the sexual and other constraints imposed on them by men if their minds are to know what liberation can mean.

The prevailing "Marxist" (and "socialist feminist") position reflects, according to Delphy, "…a desperate desire to continue to exempt men from responsibility for the oppression of women." 4 Don’t blame men for sexism or women’s oppression, we are told. Blame…

1. p. 42. 2. p. 56. 3. p. 50. 4. Delphy, "A Materialist Feminism is possible." Translated by Diana Leonard. Feminist Review 1980 (4) p. 79. "bourgeois ideology.” Writing of Leclerc, Delphy says that she "…totally isolates the ideological level. She considers it the most important level, independent of other levels, and the only field, of battle." 1 Likewise, the position of most "Marxists’" is that ideology is itself a material force. The capitalist class produces "bourgeois ideology" in order, very cleverly, to get women to oppress themselves. The "ideology of the family", the "ideology of motherhood", the "ideology of patriarchy"-these and similar expressions of ideological power are (so the argument runs) generated by the mass media and reproduced by women themselves through the family, the result being that women are brought up actively to want their own oppression.

Women actively want "an ideal marriage", "true love", the "joys of motherhood" etc. etc.- and in this way become the principal agents of their own oppression. The capitalist class does all this (goes the argument) for obvious political and economic reasons – in order to maximise the exploitation of women’s domestic labour in the home, in order to atomise the working class in isolated family units, in order to use the authority of the father in the home as the starting point from which authority in school and workplace can be developed-and so forth. At root, the capitalists’ purpose is to maintain the oppression of the male and female working class.

From this analysis stems the conclusion that the ultimate obstacle to women’s emancipation is capitalism, while the immediate obstacle is… "bourgeois ideology". The immediate task is, therefore, to propagate a counter-ideology. This means, concretely, explaining to women that their real interests lie with the working class movement and explaining to men that they are acting against their class-interests as workers if they oppress the opposite sex. If only men and women could "see" that they were oppressing themselves through their acceptance of bourgeois ideology, the power of this ideology would be undermined.

Delphy says the opposite. Her argument is simple and direct. In terms of the immediate struggle against women’s specific oppression, what is ”the main enemy"? Is it ”bourgeois ideology"? Is it "patriarchal ideas"? No, says Delphy. It is men. Break the dominance of men over women’s bodies, and the power of men’s "ideas”’ will be shown to be no power at all. Are women to blame for causing their own oppression? Are they oppressing themselves because of their "ideas"? No, says Delphy. It is not women who are the oppressors of women – 1. The Main Enemy, p. 47. it is men. Men have the material power – which is given them no matter what their ideology – to dominate, weaken and isolate women from each other. It is men who keep women weak. Admittedly, men are given this power by the structure of the wider social system, but this does not alter the basic facts. Men are in a real sense a "class". Delphy says:

"men are the class which oppresses and exploits women."1 Like any ruling class, men endeavour to ensure that those they oppress remain isolated and weak. To the extent that they are in fact weak, women feel weak. These feelings are not "mistaken" but perfectly correct. Those who are genuinely weak must have the ideas which correspond to this weakness. Other ideas would be simply inappropriate. The ideas of oppressed women, consequently, must be the ideas of their weakness. Women who are deprived of practical support-structures, practical sisterhood, practical strength will feel the need to get married, the need to seek protection from dominant men, the need to compete against each other sexually and in other ways for the favours of men. And for as long as women remain actually weak, no "counter-ideology" on earth will make them feel strong. Weak, isolated women won’t feel the need for "women’s liberationist" ideas, which will seem, perhaps, quite laughably inappropriate to their real situation. They will feel the need for other ideas – ideas, perhaps, about a "perfect romance", "an ideal husband", "a new home", ‘"another baby" or whatever. And, in a real sense, these women will be right. As long as they remain isolated and powerless, such ideas will be the ones required by their situation. Isolated, dependent women need such consolations, compensations and dreams.

* * * * *

Delphy and the radical feminists therefore pose a real threat. Instead of fighting ideas with other ideas, as do most of the "Marxist" propaganda groups, they have given up arguing with men. "Radical feminism", writes Chester,2 "told us it was possible to take on the man, especially if we do it collectively, and win."

The radicals are saying that if men’s consciousness is to be changed (as it must be), men must be confronted with certain material obstacles to their ability to dominate and control. Only to the extent that women apply a material force – simply refusing to be available domestically or sexually in the way dominant males require – can women

1. "A Materialist Feminism…" p. 102. 2. Gail Chester, paper in Feminist Practice. In Theory Press, London, gain an awareness of their real strength as women, and undermine the material foundations on which sexist ideologies arise. These feminists in other words, are saying on behalf of the revolutionary sex in society what Marx said on behalf of the revolutionary class:

"Ideas never lead beyond the established situation, they only lead beyond the ideas of the established situation. Ideas can accomplish absolutely nothing. To become real, ideas require -men who apply a practical force.’"

Substitute "women" in place of "men" and the identity is complete.

Chester’s attack on the so-called "Marxist" groups is made entirely within the philosophical tradition of Marxist materialism itself:

"If we absorb Marxism as the model, at least as it is latterly practised, we accept that there is such a thing as revolutionary theory separable from revolutionary practice, which can moreover tell us what practice to follow, and we can be led to believe that the development of theory alone is a sufficient revolutionary practice."

Or again:

"Radical feminist theory is that theory follows from practice and is impossible to develop in the absence of practice, because our theory is that practising our practice is our theory… theory and practice are not separate things done by different groups of people, but a constant refinement of our practice as we discover with experience what was wrong with the last action we took."

Or again:

"Because radical feminists do nut recognise a split between our theory and our practice, we are able to say that the revolution can begin now, by us taking positive actions to change our lives."2

Unlike the believers in a ”struggle for ideology", therefore, Delphy and her allies believe in the struggle for power. This is a Leninist position. The same women also believe – as did the author of "State and Revolution"- in seizing state power in order to destroy "polities" as such. Writing of the emancipation of women, Delphy argues:

"…this liberation necessitates the total overthrow of the bases of all known societies. This overthrow cannot take place without a revolution, that is, the seizure of political power over ourselves presently held by others. This seizure of power should constitute the ultimate objective of the Women’s

1. K, Marx and F. Engels, The Holy Family. Moscow, 1956, p. 160. 2. Chester, pp. 13-14.

Liberation Movement, and. the movement should prepare for a revolutionary struggle."1

Delphy and her supporters have concluded, in other words (as all of us must have concluded when we first became revolutionaries): "’If the power is to be taken, we will have to take it!" No-one else will do it for us. This realization is the starting-point of every revolutionary movement.

And Delphy and. her sisters have also re-discovered another essential component of the Marxist tradition – that starting the revolution now involves our beginning already to abolish politics as such, by replacing (among ourselves) political relationships with relations of a different kind. Marx wrote:

"Revolution in general – the overthrow of the existing power and. dissolution of previous relationships – is a political act. Socialism cannot be realized without a revolution. But when its organizing activity begins, when its peculiar aims, its soul comes forward-, then socialism casts aside its political cloak."2

* * * * *

"But what about capitalism?", the "Marxist" and other propaganda-groups have never tired, of protesting. "Isn’t capitalism the main enemy?" "And what does Delphy mean by the ‘seizure of power’? Does she mean the seizure of power from all men?"

Delphy, in actual fact, considers herself a Marxist. She rejects indignantly the description of her as "bourgeois." Her argument is not that capitalism needn’t be fought. On the contrary, it is that women can begin the real fight now. Obviously, working women can fight their employers – to the extent that their husbands allow them to. But the power holding back women from even beginning this fight is the enemy at home. Women who are exploited (as almost all are) in the home are up against their husbands as "the main enemy" as far as that level of oppression is concerned. And this level is the level of the oppression of women as such – the specific oppression of women. True, women – as the oppressed of the oppressed – must bear the weight not only of their husbands exploiting them but also that of their employers exploiting them and/or their husbands. But this doesn’t mean that the husbands are not exploiters, or that women can expect their "socialist" husbands to

1. The Main Enemy, p. 20. 2. "The King of Prussia and Social Reform" (1844). In: D. McLellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Early Texts, Blackwell, Oxford, 1972, p. 221.

join them on the basis of an "appeal." The point is that men have a choice. They can weigh up the disadvantages of being exploited by their employers as against the advantages of being able to exploit their wives. If they fight consistently against capitalism, they will risk losing control over their wives. But if they insist on keeping control over their wives, they risk losing the fight against capitalisn. For Delphy, the crucial question is therefore this: how serious are men when they say they are engaged in the struggle against the capitalist system as a whole? As she puts it: "’It’s up to then to see if the alliance with women against capitalism is worth the high cost of abandoning the benefits of patriarchy, or whether they prefer to keep those benefits and to risk not being able to overthrow capitalism by themselves."1 It is certainly in men’s economic interests as workers to ally themselves with the women’s movement. But men are not only workers. They are also beings with sexual, emotional and other interests and insecurities, and – to the extent that they feel insecure – they feel an extremely powerful need to "keep" their wives or sexual partners to themselves and under their ultimate control. The prevailing system gives men an obvious means of ensuring that their sexual and other needs are met. The question is whether they can be made to see that there is another way. 1. The Main Enemy, p. 33.


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