‘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.
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.
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