“Feminism is innately political. To the extent that ‘it picks out and problematizes the fundamentally political relationship between gender and power’ (Hojer and Ase 1999: 73), it has had, and still has a great deal to say to political science, although it is not always apparent that mainstream political science is listening.” (Randell, 2010)
This quote written by Vicky Randell extracted out of a collaborated book entitled ‘Theory and Methods in Political Science’, works well to introduce the purpose of this article which is to serve as an overview of feminism as a branch in the diverse sphere of political science, rather than simply an activist movement where it first started, outside the field of academia. First, I would like to draw on the importance of feminist politics, and its significant contributions to the political, by looking at its ontological and epistemological perspectives. For those unfamiliar with these terms, ontology refers to questions surrounding existence-what is true? Is there a ‘real’ world out there, or is ‘reality’ constructed? Where epistemology refers to questions revolving knowledge-what is knowledge? How can we gain knowledge? These questions are important when dealing with natural or social science because the way in which politicians, scientists and other ‘elites’ or people of ‘knowledge’ make decisions is based on how they decide to interpret the world they are governing or studying.
These ontological and epistemological questions are relevant to the field of feminist political theory because of the innate nature of feminism to ‘expose the misogynist tendencies of traditional political thought’ and when one ‘orthodox’ mode of thought is questioned, other outdated forms of thinking tend to come to light as well. Ontologically speaking, feminist theory tends to sway towards a relativists point of view, meaning that they believe the world is socially constructed and thus no one reality is ‘true’. This in turn suggests their standpoint on epistemology, namely, that knowledge is a contingency, or ever changing. These two belief systems are key for the development of political activism and reform, where the heart of feminist politics is grounded. For this reason feminist jurisprudence, or in other words, governmentality in line with feminist ideologies of equality, is of the upmost importance for the growth of democracy and liberalism. Assuming a perspective of mainstream political science, this then codes feminism as an essential discourse on prosperity and the best interest of the cosmopolitan populace at large.
This, however, is not to say that feminism is a unilateral discourse. To give an insight into the immense diversity that the feminist political branch entails I will briefly mention three of the epistemological phases that it has gone through. Namely, rationalist, anti-rationalist, and post rationalist, which in turn coincided with liberal and radical feminism, Marxist feminism, and post-structuralist feminism respectively. For the purposes of this and my last two articles, I will be focussing on post-structuralist feminism, or ‘second generation’ feminism, because of its roots in consciousness and ideals of reflexivity. Of particular interest is their take on dichotomies such as culture and nature or mind and body, as identified with men and women respectively (Randell). The significance of questioning dichotomies, is that when fundamental principles such as these are shaken from their validity, an entire new notion of perceiving the world must first be established.
This is where the theme of objectivity is deployed; for second generation feminists, the notion of social constructs took its most powerful stance. Under this ideology, the power of definition was taken from the ‘author’ and given to the ‘reader’. Put in more practical terms, the authority of the government to define rationales such as the men-women dichotomy, was passed down to the populace, as legitimated by the new awareness of social constructs. If there is no one reality, no one ‘truth’, then the rational approach would be to give the power of definition to each individual. This sounds much along the lines of the ideals of liberalism and democracy, does it not? In this sense objectivity and feminism go hand in hand, thus feminism can be said to be at the forefront of modern political science. With this article I have hoped to introduce some relevant concepts and terminology for the highly influential political feminist branch and to give some insight into the significance of feminism in political discourse. My next post will be diving deeper into this topic by looking the distinction between public and private spheres, as viewed by feminism.
Theory and Methods in Political Science-Third Edition: Edited by David Marsh and Gerry Stoker-2010: Published by Palgrave MacMillan