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Feminism: History and Morality

Feminism: History and Morality

Jean Grimshaw

Janet Radcliffe Richards’ book The Sceptical Feminist
(Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980, £12 hb) is an
attempt to extricate feminism from what she sees as
ideological commitments that are not essential to it,
and serve merely to confuse feminists themselves, and
alienate potential supporters. The image of the
feminist movement, she says, is ‘unattractive’. And
it is understandable why people tend to dislike
feminists so much, since some of them have, she
thinks, gone out of their way to make themselves unattractive; what is more, they have tended to go in
for polemics and dogma at the expense of careful
reasoning. What they should do is learn to argue
clearly and rationally with their opponents, and
learn to separate out what is essential to feminism
from what is inessential to it.

There can of course be no question that feminism,
like any other movement, has bred its fair share of
bad arguments, poor reasoning, and dogmatic and ill
considered pronouncements; and I have no wish to
quarrel with the value of arguing soundly, although
in some circumstances argument may be pointless and
not the best strategy. Demonstrating incoherence in
the arguments of those who oppose feminism, for
example, can be a very useful thing to do, as opposed
to simply accusing opponents of bias, or ill-will or
indoctrination. (One reason for this is that the
stereotype of female irrationality is still a very
powerful one, and anything that will help to counteract it is worth pursuing.)
l~e need however to consider what conception of
‘argument’ we are operating with. If we look at many
issues with which feminists are concerned, we find
that they are often presented as a conflict about
‘values’ or ‘morality’; and that these ‘values’ themselves tend to be presented as if they had no history
and bore no relationship to social processes or
structures. Thus the debate about abortion, for
example, is often presented as if it simply involved
philosophical or moral arguments about the ‘right to
life’, or whether a foetus should be regarded as a
person. This may sometimes serve to conceal the fact
that other issues are involved in the abortion debate,
which have much more to do with questions of power
and domination and a particular ideology of the
family.

In her book, Radcliffe Richards aims to present
feminism as just such a set of arguments about
‘values’, which she thinks can be divorced from
questions about ‘facts’. The consequence is, I think,
that despite the value of many of the specific arguments that she offers, her ‘feminism’ is ultimately

an enfeebled and unviable thing, which capitulates at
crucial points to some of the very things I think
feminists should be fighting against.

The Essentials of Feminism
Her definition of feminism is as follows. The
essence of feminism should be seen as simply the
belief that women suffer systematic social injustice
because of their sex. She recognizes that this
definition would be regarded as inadequate by many
feminists themselves, and that it does not tally with
many popular conceptions of what feminists do and
believe in.

Feminists are, at the very least, supposed
to have committed themselves to such things
as participation in consciousness raising
groups and non-hierarchical organization,
to the forswearing of femininity of appearance
and demeanour, and to belief in the oppressiveness of families, the inherent equality of
the sexes (or the superiority of the female)
and the enslavement of women as the root of
all oppression.

(p.2)

Radcliffe Richards, on the other hand, wants to
define feminism as a movement concerned with the
elimination of sex-based injustice; it therefore
turns out to be a movement which is neither specifically of women, nor for women, even though in practice
most sex-based injustice is suffered by women.

Why does she want to redefine feminism in this
way? There are, I think,two reasons. The first is
expressed as follows:

The conflation of the idea of feminism as
a particular ideology with that of feminism
as a concern with women’s problems means
that people who do not like what they see
of the ideology (perhaps because they are
keen on family life, or can’t imagine a
world without hierarchies, or just don’t
like unfeminine women) may also tend to
brush aside, explain away, sneer at, or
simply ignore all suggestions that women
are seriously badly treated. Resistance
to the feminist movement easily turns into
a resistance to seeing that women have any
problems at all.

(p.3)

So the first reason is really a matter of strategy;
feminism is, she thinks, losing supuorters by its
doctrinaire insistence on things other than just a

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very general belief that women are treated badly by
society.

The second reason is not just a matter of strategy,
and it is brought out in statements such as the
following:

Feminism has come to be associated with
particular theories about what kind of
thing is wrong, and whose fault it is;
how it came about and what should be done
to put matters right.

(p.2)

This Radcliffe Richards believes to be wrong, and not
just as a matter of feminist strategy, but as a
matter of logic. Throughout the book she urges that
it is possible to be a feminist – to have a general
concern about the position of women and believe that
they are unjustly treated – without this necessarily
implying any particular beliefs about why women are
unjustly treated, and without implying any particular
political views. Thus, she says:

It is … very important to separate the
question of whether anything is wrong with
the situation of women from questions about
whether there is any justification for
particular ideas of ways to put matters
right. Most people, inlcuding most feminists,
take what conspicuous feminists say about
political policy and social theory as
integral to the whole cause. However, the
question of whether anything is wrong is
clearly separable from that of what to do
about it ….

(p.269)

Similarly:

The most important thing is that our ideals ‘

should not commit us to any details about
the kinds of social arrangements which will
be found in the ideal society. They should
involve only general principles which provide
criteria for deciding when one society is
better than another; principles like, for
example, ‘The ideal society is one where
there is the maximum total happiness’.

(p.33)
She does not merely believe that feminism is somethin~
which involves no specific political commitments, or
commitments to particular forms of social change.

She also believes that it is compatible with any (or
no) beliefs about the ‘natures’ of men and women, and
with any (or no) beliefs about the particular causes
of women’s oppression. Thus she says:

We need to know about the nature of the
world we are dealing with, to as great an
extent as possible, in order to proceed
with our programme of change with any hope
of success. Nevertheless the knowledge we
have of the natures of things in no way
dictates what use we should make of the raw
material.

(p. 64)

Feminism, she argues, does not depend on ‘matters of
fact’ .

Of course, if feminism really did depend
on beliefs about matters of fact, and those
turned out to be mistaken, we should simply
have to accept that feminism should be
abandoned. We must certainly take that
attitude to any spe~ific feminist demand
whose justification depends on the truth of
particular propositions.

(p.42)
Fortunately, however, she thinks, feminism is a
question of values and of moral opinions about
justice, so it will not fall hostage to facts, not
even if the facts turn out to be not what we had
hoped. Thus, when she is discussing the issue of
(supposed) male dominance, she says that ‘Feminism,

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as it happens, by no means stands or falls according
to whether women are inferior to men, or equal to
them, or superior to them, in any or all respects’

(p.43). Suppose, she suggests, that it were the
case that men were in some sense naturally dominant?

Even if men are naturally inclined to
dominate it does not follow that they ought
to be allowed to run everything. Their being
naturally dominant might be an excellent
reason for imposing special restrictions to
keep their nature under control … one of
the functions of society is to protect its
weaker members.

(p.44 )
Now this begs the issue of what is meant here by
‘natural’, since in most theories of ‘natural’ male
dominance (e.g. that put forward by Steven Goldberg
in T~e Inevitability of Patriarchy, or by Tiger and
Shepher in Women in the Kibbutz), it is held that
men will inevitably end up dominant, since their
dominance is firmly rooted in their biology, and the
effects of culture in modifying this can at most be
ephemeral.

More generally though, the sort of separation that
Radcliffe Richards envisages between ‘feminism’ as a
question of values on the one hand, and explanatory
theories or political proposals on the other, is
fraught with problems.

Imagine for a moment an analogous theory about
racism. If Radcliffe Richards had written a book
about racism, or opposition to racism, that was like
her book on feminism, she would have said something
like this. If we want to attack racism, what we
really have to concentrate on is the moral question of
what is fair and just in the dealings between black
and white people. This is what is essential, and this
right in no way depends on the truth of any ‘factual
propositions’. Questions about whether or not blacks
are really inferior to whites are irrelevant to the
problem of social injustice. If they really are
inferior, then that is all the more reason for making
sure that they get fair shares by some policy of
positive discrimination. And the fight for racial
justice in no way depends on any particular analysis
of things like colonialism and imperialism, or any
understanding of, say, the history of British immigration policies. We can shelve, or be agnostic, about
that, and still fight for racial justice. Those who
hold radically different theories about why there
were riots in St Pauls or in Brixton, and those who
have no theories at all, can sink their differences
and agree that the really important thing is fairness
and justice.

Now firstly it is very curious to suppose that the
fight against racism does not intrinsically involve
an attempt to understand the causes and psychology of
racial oppression. Secondly, there are theories
around which argue that it is impossible to achieve
social justice or harmony between different racial
groups, since human nature, the biological makeup of
human beings, will not allow it. There are political
parties whose beliefs are incompatible with a belief
in or a fight for racial justice.

As I have just pointed out, there are theories,
such as that of the biological inevitability of male
dominance, which imply the impossibility of ever
realising many feminist demands, and these are
ignored by Radcliffe Richards. She argues that the
fight for ‘sexual justice’ does not imply or depend
on any particular understanding of the causes of
sexual injustice or oppression; the goals of feminism
are in no way dependent on ‘facts’. Presumably therefore, qua feminists, our main concern should not be
with understanding the causes of sexual oppression,
but with the moral fight for ‘sexual justice’; since
only the latter is essential to feminism, our goals
as feminists do not depend on such understanding.

Such a separation between moral goals or aims and
attempts at understanding the causes of oppression
seems to me to be quite untenable. For example, it
has often been pointed out that it is not enough to
challenge things like educational or job discrimination at the legislative level; women are oppressed by
social institutions, by language, in their very
psychology, in ways that legislation cannot touch.

Radcliffe Richards herself recognises this, but
promptly shelves the question. But such a recognition
depends on insight into and understanding of some of
the causes of women’s oppression; and its consequence
will be that both the goals and the strategies of
feminism will be changed. The importance, for
example, of consciousness-raising groups in the
women’s movement has depended on insights into the
psychology of oppression; it was not something that
women just decided arbitrarily to try. The importance of the issue of child care is necessarily
related to discussion of the nature and role of the
family, and of women within the family. And so on.

It is perfectly true, of course, that feminists
disagree about many aspects of particular analyses of
the nature and causes of women’s oppression; and at
this point I imagine that Radcliffe Richards might
object that the point she is trying to make is that
feminism can survive the discovery that any particular
theor.yabout the causes of women’s oppression is
false. Thus, she suggests, suppose we discovered that
the view that capitalism and the family were of crucial significance in women’s oppression was wrong,
and it was something else instead, or else we had no
idea what it was; this would not stop us fighting for
sexual justice, or asking whether it was fair that
women should do all the child care, and so forth.

There seem to me to be two things that are badly
wrong with this argument. Firstly, it implies a very
curious view of social causation, and of theories
about the causes of oppression. Radcliffe Richards
writes as if we were faced with a list of discrete
or separable possible causes of oppression, such as
‘the family’, and as if the task of theory was to try
and eliminate them one by one, until one arrives at
the real cause or causes. But it seems to me to be
absurd to suppose that something like ‘the family’

can be isolated in this way, as if one could answer
yes or no to the question of whether it is responsible for oppressing women. The question is not
which social institutions oppress women, as if one
could arrive at a neat list of those which do and
those which don’t, but rather how and in what ways
things that are oppressive to women permeate the
whole social structure.

Secondly, Radcliffe Richards writes as if the
fight for justice was the goal of feminism, and all
other things are simply means; such that it is an
open question whether or not they will actually lead
to justice – whether it is the family, or traditional
sex roles, or conventional femininity or anything
else that is the object of our attack. If we discover;
for example, that traditional sex roles don’t lead to
injustice, then we must give up our attack on them.

This implies that we first have to know what we mean
by ‘justice’, and then look at social institutions to
see if they are just; and the process of finding out
what we mean by justice is simply one of armchair
philosophical argument. This in turn implies that
there is such a thing as a conception of ‘justice’,
which is totally decontextualised and ahistorical,
and whose validity has ultimately to depend on the
moral intuit ions of right-minded people, who have
done a sufficient amount of clear thinking. I do not
believe that such a conception of justice is adequate,
or that one can abstract from each other in this sort
of way the task of saying what justice means or what
it really is, and the task of looking at the history
of injustice or oppression and the reasons why parti-

cular forms of these have predominated. The problem
is that if you try to turn feminism into an abstract
fight for ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’, which you conceive of in this ahistorical sort of way (or if you
try to discuss ‘femininity’ without any discussion of
the history of the notion, or the uses to which it
has been put), then what you say will have an in-built
tendency merely to recapitulate features and values
of the current social order, and to lapse into an
eclectic and uncritical common sense. This is
precisely what I think happens in Radcliffe Richards’

book; and I want to illustrate this from two chapters
of the book, the chapter on sexual justice, and the
chapter entitled “The unadorned feminist”, where she
discusses the common feminist rejection of ‘femininity’ of appearance.

Sexual Justice
Radcliffe Richards relies heavily on John Rawls’

theory of justice. She starts off by saying that
justice is about sharing out the good things of life.

‘Having determined what the good things in life are,
the next problem is to determine how they should be
shared out’ (p.90). (She does not discuss the
problem of how, except by abstract moral argument,
we are to arrive at our conception of what the good
thjngs in life are; nor does she ask whether or not
‘sharing them out’ does not itself depend on an
ideological conception of the good things in life
being rather like a cake of which everyone should
have fair shares.)
Like Rawls, she denies that justice is synonymous
with equality, and she defends a principle which is
basically the difference principle of Rawls – that
social and economic inequalities are to be arranged
so that they may reasonably be expected to be to
everyone’s advantage.

The criterion of justice is not equality of
well being, but something like the difference
principle; a just society is one in which the
least well off group is as well off as
possible.

(p.96)
Rawls said that the inequality between men and women
would be justified if women were better off under the
present arrangement than they would be under one of
greater equality. Radcliffe Richards points out that
this is highly tendentious, since it simply assumes
that women are to be inferior to men in such an
arrangement, but nevertheless with this qualification
she accepts what Rawls says.

Most of the rest of the chapter on justice is
devoted to a discussion of selection discrimination,
and to asking whether it is ever fair or just that
women should be discriminated against on grounds of
their sex when applying for jobs etc. Radcliffe
Richards recognises that many feminists argue that it
is not merely that women tend to lose out when they
are competing with men for specific things like jobs,
it is rather that the basic social structures put
women at a disadvantage in competition with men.

She says, however: ‘It is extremely difficult to prove
the truth of the vague proposition that the structure
of society really does work against women’ (p.99),
and says no more about the subject, but simply passes
on to discuss the problem of selection discrimination.

What does she say about selection discrimination?

Her central point is as follows:

Discrimination on grounds of sex is counting
sex as relevant in contexts where it is not,
and leads to the rejection of suitable women.

It is not discriminative on grounds of sex
to reject women who are not suitable, even
if their unsuitability is caused by their
being women.

(p.99)

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Now that as it stands would make it appear open to
anyone to reject any woman for anything, since it
does not specify any constraints whatever on the sort
of grounds on which women might be regarded as ‘unsuitable’. Radcliffe Richards does recognize this;
and she goes on to offer arguments against some
interpretations of it. Thus, for example, she argues
that one cannot rationally defend the view that women
are naturally weak and in need of protection, and
that therefore jobs should go to men; or that women in
general are inferior in ability, and that therefore
men should have priority; or that it is in the best
interests of society as a whole that women should
stay at home and be mothers. There is nothing wrong
with her arguments as far as they go; thus she points
out, correctly, I think, that arguments about the
general inferiority of women miss the point, unless
they accept the implausible proposition that all
women are inferior in ability to all men; since the
point is whether the particular woman or women in
question are more able than the particular man or men
concerned. She also argues that some ‘reverse discrimination’ can be legitimate – that is, appointing
a less able or qualified woman, even if there are
better men candidates around, if the aim of this
policy is to improve the general position of women.

But her arguments do not go far enough. The
reason is that if one tries to arrive at a conception
of ‘the socially just way of going about things’

(p.I04) without some form of analysis or critique of
the sorts of social processes that have produced
current ‘injustices’, one is almost bound to reify
current notions like ‘suitability’, ‘fair shares’,
‘equal competition’, and so on, as if they provided a
sort of moral package to which one can appeal in a
completely unhistorical way to provide answers to
tricky questions like those about justice, and as if
the answers merely lay ultimately somewhere in our
moral intuitions. In fact, however, notions such as
‘fair shares’ or ‘suitability’ simply do not have a
universal clear meaning which we can settle once and
for all; – as if we can, in chronological order, first
define our terms, and then look at social reality to
see if it measures up to our definitions. Rather,
the definitions are themselves part of current social
reality; they have a history; they are tied to sets
of social practices and institutions; and they may
sometimes be implicitly used to support or buttress
these, or to prevent critical questions being asked.

It is not that we should stop bothering about whether
our arguments are sound, and simply look at their
history; it is rather that unless we take this history
into account we are liable to fall into the trap of
supposing that current ‘common sense’ dictates not
merely the solutions of problems, but also the terms
in which they are to be discussed. An essential task
of feminism should be not simply to provide ‘answers’

to problems posed in commonsensical everyday language,
but to look critically at that language itself, and
trace its relationships to the sort of social and
historical conditions that have led to its use. And
this sort of criticism is not and cannot be politically neutral; or uncommitted to some attempt at
explanation and analysis.

Feminism and Sexuality
I want finally to illustrate again the way in which
Radcliffe Richards’ dehistoricized approach to feminism leads her into an uncritical acceptance of
common sense categories by looking at the chapter
entitled ‘The Unadorned Feminist’.

Feminists, says Radcliffe Richards, have rightly
criticised the amount of time, money and anxiety that
women have been expected to put into their personal
appearance. This she says she would agree with.

But, she goes on to say, this does not account for

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the ‘deliberately unfeminine’ style of dress adopted
by many feminists. They treat traditional feminine
dress not as something to which one should simply
devote less effort, but as inherently pernlclous;
because the idea of feminine dress is associated with
the idea of trying to attract men, or being regarded
as ‘sex objects’. Some feminists, she says, even aim
deliberately to be unpleasing to men; either because
they reject association with men as far as possible,
or because they want to be loved ‘for themselves’,
and not because of their beauty or attractiveness or
the way they are ‘improved’ by their clothes.

This attitude of deliberately rejecting concern
about one’s personal appearance will, says Radcliffe
Richards, get rid of men who have the ‘wrong’ attitude to women. The trouble is, she thinks, that it
may also get rid of the ones who have the ‘right’

attitude as well, and this is a pity, unless it
happens to be your aim to get rid of men altogether.

Certainly it will get rid of the men who
are interested in women only from the point
of view of sensual pleasing, but it is bound
to affect at the same time not only them,
but also the ones with excellent senses of
priority; the ones who value character,
intelligence, kindness, sympathy and all
the rest, far above mere sensual pleasing,
but nevertheless would like that too if they
could get it as well as all the other things.

… The best judging man alive, confronted
with two women identical in all matters of
the soul but not equal in beauty, could
hardly help choosing the beautiful one ….

A man who would not change his woman for
any other in the world might still know
that she would please him even more if she
looked like the centre fold from the latest

Playboy.

(p.189)

So, she continues, if feminists persist ininaking
themselves deliberately unattractive,
… they are not only keeping off the men
who would value their more important
qualities too little, but are also lessening
their chances of attaching men who care about
such things at all. If they think that is
a good thing to do, they must be prepared
to argue that it is positively bad to care
about whether people are sensually pleasing
or not; that if you do not care at all about
people’s beauty you are morally superior to
someone else ….

Beauty and the sensual enjoyment of sex, she says,
may often be of low priority, but they are not actually bad things. So if sensual pleasing is important,
why not be feminine and wear pretty clothes?

I find this cluster of arguments rather extraordinary. Firstly, I do not know of any feminist
who has found anything inherently wrong in the
sensual enjoyment of sex, or has even regarded sex as
of ‘low priority’. It is true that feminists have
talked about celibacy as a viable option for women
if they want; and they have rejected ideas about
marital duty and so on. But most feminists have
urged women to rediscover and explore and celebrate
their sexuality in new ways, free from the old
tyrannies of reproduction, marital duty, or the
assumption that only heterosexuality is legitimate.

If there is sometimes a streak of puritanism in some
feminist attitudes or writings, this is not where it
is to be found.

Secondly, note the way in which Radcliffe Richards
writes. Men are said to be ‘choosing women for their
qualities’; a man ‘would not change his woman for any
other in the world’ … this is the sort of language
in which one might talk about cars or other commodit-

ies. The old banger may have a lot of dents and be a
bit rusty, but it’s been a good friend and its
reliability outweighs the dents, just as char.acter
and intelligence may outweigh gap-teeth or being
rather overweight. If you use language like this,
women appear, not so much, in the hackneyed phrase,
as ‘sex objects’, but as commodities, whose qualities
you can list in relation to the function they are
going to be expected to fulfil. Note furthermore,
that Radcliffe Richards says that if feminists make
themselves ‘unattractive’ they will not ‘attach men’.

It is this sort of language in which some women’s
magazines discuss the issue of ‘how to get your man’;
and it is precisely this sort of way of describing
relationships between men and women which ought to be
one of the targets of feminist attack.

Thirdly, note the way in which Radcliffe Richards
tends to conflate terms like attractiveness, beauty,
sex, sensual enjoyment, sensual pleasing. She
displays minimal recognition that one might want to
draw distinctions between, say, conventional
‘femininity’ of appearance, and the notion of sensual
pleasing; that these are not necessarily the same
thing. Nor does she seem to recognize that there may
be contradictions between these notions in the way
that they sometimes currently are socially used.

Some aspects of conventional femininity of dress,
for example, may militate against sensual enjoyment
or sexual pleasure, particularly of women (think of
women who feel compelled to get up early to make up
their faces so that their husbands don’t see them
without makeup, or suffer agonies in case their hair
style is being ruined). Radcliffe Richards would
presumably reply that this is an instance of
excessive concern about one’s personal appearance
which should of course be rejected; the trouble is
that this sort of eclectic commonsensical reasonableness is incapable of exploring the contradictions
such as that mentioned above, of understanding the
function and historical emergence of current ideas of
femininity, or of articulating a coherent critique of
them.

Fourthly, note the way in which she sees sex and
sensual enjoyment as having a rather low priority
compared to things like character and intelligence
or the virtues of the soul. True, she is at pains to
stress that she does not see sex or beauty as bad in
themselves; nevertheless what we have here is simply
a modified version of the old split between ‘higher’

and ‘lower’ pleasures, or between the sensual and the
spiritual, which has been extremely influential
historically in justifying the oppression of women.

It underlies the ‘double standard’ for men and women;
the view of women as divided into two categories,
those who are ‘pure’ or ‘virtuous’, and those who are
not (the ones you marry and the ones you don’t). It
underlies the constant reiteration in the press
during the reporting of the ‘Ripper’ killings that
there was more cause for concern and anger when he
attacked ‘respectable’ women. Now I am sure that
Radcliffe Richards would not want to agree, say, with
this distinction between the victims of the Ripper.

But the point is that the sort of language that she
uses is precisely that which is used by those who do

want to make the distinction; she accepts uncritically so much of the current language in which sexual
relationships are described, and current conflations
betweer. sensuality or sexuality and conventional
femininity of appearance, that her criticisms are
vitiated or rendered weak and ineffectual from the
start.

Radcliffe Richards’ defence would be that it is
just a (cosmically unfair) fact that some women are
more beautiful than others, and that men will tend
to prefer these women rather than the ugly ones; and
that no amount of argument about different standards
of beauty in different cultures can sensibly deny
this. It is just a hard fact of life that if you are
born deformed or ugly, you will have a harder time of
it, and it is pointless expecting men all suddenly to
become so idealistic and altruistic that they will
cease to care whether women please them sensually or
not. And there is nothing wrong in trying to improve
yourself, including your appe~rance, if nature hasn’t
done a very good job to start with.

But this again misses the point; which is not that
of whether we should expect men as individuals to be
more or less altruistic. The point is rather that at
no stage does Radcliffe Richards challenge current
definitions of femininity and their relation to
relationships between men and women, or suggest that
they need to be challenged. She simply argues that,
relative to other things, we should perhaps devote
a bit less time and effort to the achievement of a
feminine appearance. In fact she argues that really
the question of how much effort one should or should
not put into the cultivation of ‘beauty’ or of one’s
appearance is not really anything to do with feminism
at all (p.196). This is because feminism is, as we
have seen, to be defined as essentially only to do
with sexual justice, so the proper feminist concern
turns out to be only that women should have to put
no more effort into working on their own personal
appearance than men do, and that men shQuld demand no
more of women in this respect than they are willing
to give themselves. Both sexes, she says, should be
able to allow themselves ‘the luxury of being able
to choose a beautiful partner’ (p.196). After all,
if we care about beauty in other aspects of our lives
there is no reason why we should not care about it in
the personal appearance of other people, just so long
as this affects men and women equally.

This of course offers no critique at all of
current ideas of feminine beauty and its relation to
sexuality and relationships between men and women.

The only alternative to this total lack of any
critique Radcliffe Richards sees as a blank cultural
relativism, which merely harps on the fact of differences between cultures. She offers no conception
that a critique of femininity might involve more than
an appeal to commonsense categories on the one hand,
or an appeal simply to cultural differences on the
other; that it might need to involve a historical
account of the emergence of the modern concept of
femininity; that this might involve looking at the
ways that women’s roles and women’s lives have
changed under industrial capitalism, and at the role
that the family plays in this. Shorn of this historical and critical dimension, feminism is so enfeebled
that it is hardly worth the name.

In the last section of the same chapter, Radcliffe
Richards does try to rehabilitate sexuality and save
it from the designation of being ‘lower’ or less
worthy in itself than other activities. To this end,
she suggests that there is nothing wrong in principle
with selling sex, or with pornography or strip shows;
it is merely that in the course of pursuing these
activities, men do not treat women properly. She
argues that ‘What feminism really needs is … women
who are very desirable to men, but who will have
nothing to do with any man who does not treat them
5

properly’ (p.204), and she suggests that really
feminism has fallen into the old puritanical trap of
saying that sex is wrong unless it is purified by the
presence of other emotions and feelings. Why should
this be so, she asks, and why should relationships
based on anything else except sex not need this
special purification?

But I do not think that most feminists would want
to express their objections to things like porn shops
and strip shows or the Miss World contest in these
sorts of terms. I think that most of them do not see
sex as a special case in this sort of way at all; and
one does not have to believe that sex should be
sanctified by finer feelings in order to object to
porn shops ,and the sexual exploitation of women, or
the predatory way in which many men think of sexual
relationships. The point is not that sex is a
special case, but that sexual relationships often
provide an extreme and striking example of the
generaZ ‘commodification’., as one might call it, of
the relationships between men and women, in which
women are expected to play the role of servicing men,
whether it be sexually, or as secretaries or sockwashers, with little regard to their own human needs.

(It is also of course true that the denial of humanity
in relationships and the reduction of relationships tc
that of mere functions affects men as well as women,
in al~ sorts of ways; but the ways are not identical,
and one of the main tasks of feminism is to point out
and analyse this asymmetry, and attempt to understand
why the burden has fallen particularly heavily on
women. )
The other problem is that if you put the matter in
this sort of way, that is if you suggest that the
trouble is simply that men do not treat women properly
and that women should insist that they are treated
properly, it makes it sound as if it was simply a
question of getting individual men to behave themselves. (What, incidentally, would Radcliffe
Richards think was the ‘proper’ way to behave in a
porn shop or at a strip show?) This leaves untouched
the question of what ‘proper’ behaviour amounts to,
or where we should move beyond commonsense notions to
find some analysis of notions of proper behaviour
which find the Miss World contest acceptable. It does

not ask whether certain institutions or forms of
social organisation make it impossible, or extremely
difficult, for people to behave towards each other in
more human and non-exploitative ways. You cannot
change relationships between people, including those
between men and women, if you leave completely untouched the social structures within which these
relationships take place. Radcliffe Richards dislikes moralising about prostitution, rightly, but she
makes two mistakes: firstly, that of supposing that
moralising is what feminists do, as if they were only
a hair’s breadth from Mary Whitehouse; and secondly,
that of just substituting one form of moralising for
another. Instead of gunning for the prostitutes or
the strippers, we are to go for the men who will not
behave properly and lecture them until they do. But
if it were that easy there would hardly be a need for
feminism; blank moralism is no substitute for critical analysis of the conditions which breed the very
things to which this moralism is supposed to be a
response.

We would like to concentrate a
forthcoming issue largely on
FEMINISM
Please send contributions and
suggestions to the editorial
address (back cover)

6

****

I have picked these two chapters of Radcliffe
Richards’ book to illustrate what seems to me to be
the fundamental weakness of the book, which is that,
in conceiving of feminism simply as a moral fight
about abstract and decontextualised and dehistoricised issues such as that of ‘sexual justice’, it
tends merely to recapitulate current terms and categories, and to fail to recognise how often many of
the things which feminism is fighting against are
expressed in precisely those terms. This is why I
think that ultimately Radcliffe Richards’ ‘feminism’

is often scarcely worth the name, and rarely transcends everyday commonsense in order to ask why things
have become commonsense. In a way, the book, for all
that it offers some useful ammunition to feminists
at certain points, is another exemplification of the
barrenness of moral philosophy or of moralising which
fail to try and understand the history of the terms
that they use, and fail to recognise that the terms
of moral debate do not exist in a remote philosopher’s
heaven, but underpin and are underpinned by social
structures which may themselves have an interest in
concealing this fact.

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