Feminism, Ethics, and History; or, What Is the 'Post' in Postfeminism?

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Author: Misha Kavka
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,527 words

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[(essay date spring 2002) In the following essay, Kavka discusses the term "post-feminism," linking the study of feminism with ethical history studies in such works as Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory and Christina Hoff Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women.]

Let us assume for the moment that there is such a thing as feminist history, that is, a history of feminism. This may seem, admittedly, like going backward. In her landmark article "Women's Time," Julia Kristeva problematized the relation between feminism and temporality by claiming that, as le féminin is traditionally linked with cyclical temporality on the one hand and monumental temporality on the other, it "becomes a problem with respect to a certain conception of time: time as project, teleology, linear and prospective unfolding ... in other words, the time of history."1 Since Kristeva's claim, it has been difficult to talk unself-reflexively about feminist history, linear or otherwise, let alone to take on the mantle of producing "a history" of feminism. Nonetheless, we are now saddled with a term--postfeminism--that appears to position feminism precisely in/as history and so again raises the issue of how feminist history relates to linear time and its projects of "departure, progression, and arrival."2

Of course, postfeminism is itself a historically located word. The 1990s saw the rise and popularization of this term, in the academy as well as in the media, as a term of approbation and of opprobrium. The term was originally coined in 1985 by Toril Moi in Sexual/Textual Politics to advocate a feminism that would deconstruct the binary between equality-based or "liberal" feminism and difference-based or "radical" feminism.3 In my own memory, however, the appearance of "postfeminism" has a much different source: I recall a sticker on the doors of out-and-out second-wave feminists that read "I'LL BE A POSTFEMINIST IN A POSTPATRIARCHY." The difference between the two uses is instructive; whereas for Moi, "post" indicates a methodological or theoretical shift, the third term of dialectical synthesis, the slogan I recall takes up "post" to refer, however ironically, to a clear historical break. This confusion about the meaning of "post" has plagued--or enlivened, depending on your point of view--the use of "postfeminism" throughout the 1990s. While the term has seemed on the one hand to announce the end of feminism, on the other hand its definition, appropriation, or rejection has itself become a site of feminist politics. Precisely because of this paradox, I want to tease out the uses and implications of "postfeminism" in order to better understand the relationship between feminism and history, or the situation of feminism within time. For my purposes, this relationship will not be thinkable without introducing the notion of ethics, in its pragmatic as well as universalizing forms.

The question about the relationship between feminism and history is pressing because there is now a palpable fear that we are on the other side of a break that we cannot quite specify or locate. We could just call this...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053074