Heterosexual Utopianism

RP 069 () / Article

‘When people of a later age look back upon the barbarous customs and superstitions of the times we have the unhappiness to live in, what will they say?’ Sue Bridehead’s question – or rather exclamation – in Jude the Obscure – is, of course, rhetorical; and Hardy has surely been vindicated in this appeal to the enlightenment of  later times to put to shame the mores of  his own. We who are in a position to do the saying, do indeed deplore the particular constraints under which Sue and Jude were labouring as the bigotries of  a darker age relative to our own. In  a sense, then, there is  no more to  be said about this  ‘what will they say?’ other than to say that when the time  came, ‘they’ were mostly true to the word  that Hardy had scripted for them. I propose here, however, to pursue the issue of  what later times say about earlier ones a little further, though not so much with respect to Sue ‘s particular question, as to some others circling in its  general orbit:  How do we assess progress in the feminist cause, particularly where this  relates  to its impact on sexuality and relations between the sexes? What interpretative framework should we bring to its shifts of utopian focus? How do these relate to the  appraisals which feminism, at a later stage of  its advance, may retrospectively offer upon the utopian aspirations through which it was promoted at an earlier?

These ruminations have been prompted partly by personal experience and partly by theoretical uncertainty. The  experience in question is that of the particular amities and abrasions which feminism has introduced into relations  between the sexes; the theoretical uncertainty has to do with the difficulties – to which the deconstructivist turn in social theory has made us more alert – of  formulating a view of ‘progress’ which can give due recognition to the cultural relativity of the conceptions we bring to it. The former led me to ponder why it is that feminism today, relative to earlier phases in its development, offers so few reflections on its own role in  transforming  heterosexual relations,  and  is  notably short on any very positive commentary on its potential in this respect. The latter led me to consider how one might account for this contrast of  ‘utopian’  outlook, and what were  the  implications  of  any account provided for  the understanding  of  ‘progress’  in  the  feminist  cause.  My engagement here, then, is part philosophical, part historical, my aim being to outline a conceptual framework in which to consider the effects of the feminist movement on relations between the sexes, and the significance of  the varying degrees of  concern it has expressed  at  different stages  with  their  amelioration. I here compare what I call the ‘utopian discourses’ which have been offered in defence of  feminism, focussing in particular on the shifts that have taken place in respect of  the  importance attributed to its role in transforming heterosexual relations.  But I also pose some questions about the relations (or maybe it is more accurate to speak of ‘dislocations’) between the achievements of  feminism at  any point in its history and its  earlier utopian projections. Since progressive movements seldom seem to advance their emancipatory causes in a form which is thought to realise or coincide with the visionary aspirations  by which they were at a prior stage legitimated (and this, I think, may be particularly true in the case of  sexual emancipation),1the question arises as to whether later gains can, in any sense, be said to realise, rather than  confound, earlier aims; and  if they can, by what criteria we might want to claim this to be the case. As suggested, the main vehicle for this enquiry is the differential and shifting attitudes that  have been expressed within the feminist movement to what I shall henceforth  term  ‘heterosexual  utopianism’, though I would  emphasise that the review I offer of these mutations is extremely synoptic, and too schematic to do justice to  the complexities of the cultural and political history of  the pretty extensive period to which I shall be relating.2 By ‘heterosexual utopianism’, I refer to the claim  that the  emancipation  of  women  will  prove  the condition  of  unprecedented  union  and  understanding between the sexes,  and  allow  both to  enjoy previously unrealised forms  of  erotic  gratification.  Any  discourse on female emancipation may be said to endorse this claim insofar as it sees improvement in the social and economic status  of  women  as  leading  to  more  harmonious  and reciprocal relations between the sexes, and regards this as an important (if not the only) reason for advancing the feminist cause.

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Notes

1 It would be a mistake, all the same, to dwell too exclusively on  the  dislocations  be twe en  the  progressive aims and actual achievements of  progressive causes at the cost of  recognising the extent to which these can be fixed on finite and  absolute  goals.  The campaign for the abolition  of  slavery, for example, may in a sense have been continued into the  anti-apartheid and anti-racist movements of  our  times,  but  it would be misleading to identify these later initiatives  with  the  anti-slavery campaign  itself,  or  to suggest that the latter had  not  be en  targeted  on fairly precise,  and  now  largely realised, objectives.  It  will  be part  of  my  aim  here  to expose  the  interrelationship between the ‘openness’ of the goals of progressive movements  and the transmutations of their utopian discourses.

2 For  accounts which provide both an overview of  the rise and development of  the feminist movement and a sense of  its historical complexities, see Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from  History,  Pluto Press, London, 1974;  Women, Resistance and Revolution, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1974; Women in Movement , Routledge, London, 1992.