Feminism against ‘the feminine’

RP 105 () / Article

Whilst the distinction between French and Anglo-American feminism was always rather dubious (failing to be accurate, consistent or inclusive at the level of either national origin, language of choice or theoretical commitment; seeming to parcel feminist theory – or at least the feminist theory that mattered – out into two Western blocks from which the rest of the world might choose), two very specific linguistic differences between French and English have nevertheless determined two streams of feminist thought, and complicated the relation between them. Since the 1960s, English-language feminisms, in so far as they are distinctive, have centrally either presupposed or explicitly theorized the category of gender, for which there is no linguistic equivalent in French. At the same time, much (although not all) that came to be categorized as ʻFrenchʼ feminism has been articulated around the category of le féminin, for which there is no ready equivalent in English, although there is an obvious translational choice: ʻthe feminineʼ.1

Various Anglo-American feminisms have, of course, made consideration of what have been seen as feminine attributes and values central to their critical and reconstructive projects, but it is not this (adjectival) sense which is at issue here in the translation of le féminin, a noun. For despite the fact that the French and English words connote differently (in particular, le féminin also covers most of what is meant by the English ʻfemaleʼ), ʻthe feminineʼ, as a direct translation of the different and specific uses of le féminin in various French discourses, has become a common category in English-language feminist discourse, specifically English-language feminist philosophy of a ʻcontinentalʼ disposition, where it is often presumed to be both the proper object of such a philosophy and the proper goal of feminism.

But is it? Or what exactly is at stake in making it so? Is ʻthe feminineʼ a necessary or useful category for feminism today?