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Women's Agency and the Patriarchal State

Wandana Sonalkar

By Johanna Brenner
Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 330, Rs. 300.00


This book, written by a Marxist feminist who has been actively involved in the socialist and women’s movements since the 1970’s, is a collection of articles written from the mid-1980’s to 2000. It thus spans a period during which socialist-feminist associations gradually lost organizational strength, and Marxism lost the widespread intellectual influence it had had during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Feminist thinking also branched out in different directions from the triad of liberal-radical-socialist feminism. In fact this was a time of extraordinary social, economic and political change in Europe and North America, but feminist movements and feminist ideas had made a permanent impact. Johanna Brenner’s book outlines for us how feminist politics and feminist theorizing engaged with a resurgence of right-wing politics and changes in state policy on welfare and other issues concerning women, while arguing that socialist feminism still remains relevant.   In the first chapter, “Towards a Historical Sociology of Gender”(1984), Brenner talks of Marxist-feminism’s theoretical impasse: how to combine the Marxist understanding of capitalist relations of production in the workplace with feminist analyses of patriarchal domination over women in the household? She rejects the dualist approach of those who see capitalism and patriarchy as two different, but interacting systems as well as the economist reductionism of those who try to explain man-woman relations in the family as serving the needs of capitalism. She also criticizes the view, exemplified by Michele Barrett’s widely influential “Women’s Oppression Today”, that it is in ideology and culture that we have to seek the explanation for the confinement of women to the home in industrialized societies.   The increasing influence of post-modernist theory in feminist thinking has led to greater attention being paid to the role of ideology and culture in sustaining and reproducing inequalities between men and women in society. In fact, the use and prevalence of the term “gender” reminds us of this change in emphasis. This is welcome in so far as it redresses an imbalance that characterized first-wave feminism in all its three strands: liberal, radical and socialist. But socialist feminists maintain that culture cannot explain everything. The increasing involvement of feminist theorists with matters of culture and discourse has gone hand in hand with a fragmentation of the women’s movement, a distancing of feminist academics from organizational activity, even as the acceptance of women’s studies as an academic discipline has been fought ...

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