What is Postmodern Feminism? Explained

In the previous post we learned about Ecofeminism. Understanding postmodern feminist thought is the main goal of this post. It further defines the poststructuralist and postmodernist discussions, which aids in comprehending the fundamental points of postmodern feminist thought.


  1. Introduction
  2. Background of postmodern feminist theory
    1. Poststructuralism
    2. Postmodernism
  3. Postmodern feminism
  4. Critiques of Postmodern Feminist theory


Feminist philosophy and postmodernism are combined to form postmodern feminism. It has recently been a part of feminist theory. Postmodern feminists, like postmodernists, criticise phallogocentric cognition, or concepts that are influenced by absolute words that are "masculine" in nature. Additionally, they reject any feminist theories that offer a single justification for the oppression of women or outline strategies for their emancipation. Postmodern feminists advocate for diversity, plurality, and multiplicity in this way. Since there is no one method for being a "good feminist,"

Background of postmodern feminist theory

Postmodernism, poststructuralism, and French feminist theory served as the foundation for postmodern feminism and feminist theory. These movements all started at the same time. It's critical to grasp what each of these philosophies promotes in order to comprehend postmodern feminist philosophy.


The goal of structural analysis is to examine organisational structure and relationships as a complex system of interconnected elements. It was created in the 20th century by the Swiss linguist and thinker Ferdinand de Saussure, and sociologists, psychoanalysts, anthropologists, and other researchers have utilised it since. The structuralists argue that since language gives everything meaning, thoughts and perceptions are not innate; rather, they are created by the words used to explain them. Therefore, structuralism researches symbols, signs, and communication. (See movements structuralism.html at www.philosophybasics.com) Marx, Levi-Strauss, de Saussure, Lacan, Piaget, and Freud are some notable structuralists. These theorists have emphasised the role that language plays in establishing power relationships. To achieve this, they created and put out a system of ideas that offered deep, legitimate explanations. A school known as postsructuralists, however, emerged in the 1970s and alters structuralism by arguing that the meanings that language generates are unstable, numerous, and susceptible to interpretation and cannot be fixed. Therefore, one must take into account the political, social, and historical context in which language is written or spoken in order to analyse its meaning. Because readers and discourses are located, they cannot be situated .

Understanding some of the concepts explored in these theories is essential to comprehending poststructuralism. In their article, Sands and Nuccio covered the following topics.
  1. Differences: Derrida makes a distinction between difference and "difference" that affects how readers approach texts. Binary pairs that are opposed, exclusive, and hierarchical are produced by logocentrism. He asserts that although one could feel forced to think in terms of these dichotomous pairs, there are many meanings that do not fall into these categories. This categorical reasoning has linguistic roots. This language has connotations that come from logocentric culture. Derrida contends that rather than being reliant on "metaphysical existence," or actuality, our perception of something is reliant on "signifiers," or other words. The patriarchal or "phallocentric" "Symbolic Order" is maintained and symbolised by language. Tong (2013) has talked on the Helen Cixiousideas dichotomies that have given men the upper hand and put women in a subordinate position. She demonstrates how the patriarchal system is critiqued by Cixious for producing binary oppositions. According to her, man has paired concepts and terms in opposite polarity pairs where one has dominance over the other. Man has partitioned reality in this way. The dichotomous pairs that Cixious presents in her essay "Sorties" include active against passive, writing versus speaking, the sun versus the moon, day versus night, parole versus ecriture, high versus low, etc. 

    Tong further explains that according to Cixous, each of this pair is associated to man and woman. Man is considered to be active, high, cultural, light and positive while woman is considered to be passive, low, natural, dark and negative. Thus, we can see that in these hierarchical oppositions woman is given a subordinate position. Man is considered to be the “self” whereas woman is considered to be the “other”. Thus, woman’s existence in man’s world is according to his terms. Either she is “other” or she is “unthoughtful”. “After man is done thinking about woman, what is left for her is unthinkable”(Tong: 2013).
  2. Deconstruction: It is a method of text analysis that takes into account the voices of the marginalised and the context. By doing this, we reject the construct as a given and instead take into account its social, historical, and political context. This makes it easier to spot any biases in the text. As a result, meanings outside of the polarities are identified and marginal perspectives are centred. Deconstructions assist in expressing the viewpoint of the marginalised and disrupting the stability of the current social order in this way. 
  3. Logo-centrism: According to Sands and Nuccio (1992), there is just one single fixed logical order that exists in "real," "true," and "unmediated" forms. Poststructuralists believe that this presumption is false. They contend that there are two ways to criticise it. First, it is presupposed that the categories of thought have "essential" features that are inborn. They use Derrida's contention that there is no singular truth or essence that could provide meaning in or of itself in order to further explain their position. He contends that different historical, political, and social contexts call for different definitions, categories, and conceptions. Definitions cannot therefore have an intrinsic "essential" meaning because they depend on context. Second, in order to produce knowledge, logocentricism relies on binary opposite pairs. This relates to how language contributes to the creation of meanings.
  4. Multiple Discourses: Deconstruction indicates that history disregards the viewpoint of those individuals who are not included in the text. Sands and Nuccio (1992) apply ideas from Foucault to clarify this. They claim that, in accordance with Foucault, there are several discourses and points of view present at any given time, but that only a select handful of them are heard. He claims,
    “To be more precise, we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, or between the dominant discourse and the dominated one; but as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies. It is this distribution that we must reconstruct, with the things said and those concealed, the enunciations required and those forbidden, that it comprises ……”
    As a result, the opinions that are frequently heard are those of the powerful. These are the tactics that assist in preserving power. However, the conversations that are stifled are more significant.
  5. Subjectivity: They used Weedon's theories on subjectivity to explain subjectivity. Subjectivity, in the words of Weedon, refers to "the individual's conscious and unconscious ideas and feelings, her sense of herself, and her ways of interpreting her relation to the universe." According to logocentric theory, each person has a "essential" identity, subjectivity, and personality that are distinct, reliable, and integrated. Weedon contends that subjectivity is problematic, contradictory, and constantly reconstructed whenever someone talks or thinks in the poststructuralist perspective. This is due to the inevitable changes and contradictions that take place over time. As a result, the subject can speak in a variety of voices depending on the situation. As a result, it has several facets. Subjectivity also contributes to one's own identity being socially constructed. As a result, it is reliant on the societal, historical, and interpersonal context of one's surroundings.


The universalization of knowledge proposed by structuralists during the enlightenment era is contested by postmodern theorists using poststructuralist conceptions of difference, deconstruction, and criticism of logocentricism. Poatstructuralists consider structuralists to be "essentialists" who think that meanings are innate rather than created over the course of history. The Enlightenment's arguments must be examined in order to comprehend postmodernism. Jane Flax summarised the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment as follows in her paper "Postmodernism and Gender relations in Feminist theories":
  1. The perception about “stable, coherent self” who knows what it thinks and why does it think so. 
  2. The opinion that rational power i.e. reason provides basis to “objective, reliable and universal knowledge”
  3. The knowledge acquired through reason is always “true” and universal. 
  4. The notion that reason has “transcendental and universal qualities” which means that reason is exclusive of the historical and social experiences. 
  5. Reason, autonomy and freedom are interconnected in a complex manner. 
  6. The belief that power can be claim only through reason. Whenever truth comes in conflict with power, reason decides the case in favour of truth. Thus, it cannot trump reason. 
  7. The idea that science is the paradigm for true knowledge. This is because science is objective and neutral in its methods. Due to this, it is also socially beneficial. 8. In order to mediate the knowledge produced by science we use language. As language reflects the world which the rational minds of human beings observe 
According to Tong (2013), the majority of people's thinking is dominated by these Enlightenment principles. Therefore, "Enlightenment world" is a creation of people's imagination, according to postmodernists. She explains that neither the stable, consistent ego nor the rational power can produce universal knowledge according to postmodernists. Therefore, rather than looking for general principles and theories, the focus should be on creating local meanings as they are socially produced. They therefore decry the fact that science offers "objective" knowledge. She claims that freedom is the ability to behave as one pleases, and that power actually defines the truth. Politics and ethics are just as arbitrary and circumstantial as science. It is frequently utilised to advance one's personal interests. Similar to how language does not represent reality but rather creates it. As a result, postmodernism promotes "legitimate" philosophy and criticises "legitimate" humanism narratives. According to this philosophy, there are a variety of discourses that need to be considered in their historical, social, and political settings. They also reject binary categories like race, gender, and class as being overly reductive. They thereby support diversity, plurality, and multiplicity.

Postmodern feminism

A new kind of feminism called postmodern feminism fights for gender equality for all women. They consider the variations among the women based on class and race when doing this. As a result, it takes an intersectional perspective. Flax claims that the postmodern feminist thinker wants to do the following:
  1. Identify feminist perceptive of society. 
  2. Examine the way social world affects women. 
  3. Analyse the role played by power and knowledge relationships in shaping the women’s perception of the social world. 
  4. Devise the ways through which social world can be changed (Anonymous).
The most well-known exponents of postmodern female philosophy are Julia Kristeva, Luna Irigaray, and Helen Cixous. Helen Cixous is covered by Rosemarie Tong in her book "Feminist Thought: A more thorough introduction." Author Helene Cixous writes books. She draws inspiration from Derrida's idea of "difference." She distinguished between feminine and masculine works by using Derrida's concept of "difference" in writing. She makes the case that, in the psychoanalytic paradigm, the genitalia and libidinal economy of men, symbolised by the phallus, serve as the foundation for their writings. Cixous therefore asks women to express themselves. She exhorts them to write about themselves in settings other than the ones that humans have created. She says that although a man's writing is composed and filled with purported human wisdom, a woman's writing is just scribbling, scratching markings. As a result, literature written by men are seen acceptable by society. Because of this, they are difficult to replace. Women should write, says Cixous, since their words will change the way the West "thinks, speaks, and acts." The cultural and social norms will gradually change as a result of this. She does, however, caution women that it can be exhausting and challenging to write about nonexistence as existence, or to "foresee the unpredictable."

Psychoanalyst Luca Irigaray was influenced by Lacan and Derrida. Her main objective was to free feminine philosophy from male ideas, hence she produced "feminine" philosophical thought. She makes the case that the women we are familiar with are "masculine feminine." She is more like the women that men see than the real ones. This is so that males can talk about women as reflections of what men think of them rather than as actual women. The need to view another woman who is "feminine feminine," or the woman as women see her, is emphasised by the author. This woman defies classification. Women must follow three stages if they want to see themselves as women. Women should first avoid using language that is perceived as masculine and instead use vocabulary that is gender neutral. Second, female sexuality should be developed. Lesbian and autoerotic practises can help women realise their potential. Women will be able to talk words, think thoughts, and perform deeds that will displace the phallus through investigating the diverse body. The third is that "women should mimic the mimes men have forced on women. Women should reflect back to men in enlarged dimensions the images that men have of them. Women can "reverse the consequences of phallocentric discourse simply by overdoing them" by miming, according to the author.

A psychoanalyst who was influenced by Lacan's work is Julia Kristiva. She expands on Lacan's theory of the Oedipal and post-Oedipal stages with the Symbolic order. She disagrees with the notion that "feminine" corresponds to female biology and "masculine" to male nature. She contends that a child begins to identify with their mother or father when they enter the symbolic order. Depending on their decision, they either become masculine or feminine.
"The belief that 'one is a woman' is almost as absurd and obscurantist as the belief that 'one is a man.' I say 'almost' because there are still many goals which women can achieve: freedom of abortion and contraception, daycarecenters for children, equality on the job, etc. Therefore, we must use 'we are women' as an advertisement or slogan for our demands. On a deeper level, however, a woman cannot 'be'; it is something which does not even belong in the order of being."

She contends that "woman" is a social fabrication and not anything that exists in nature. It cannot and should not be defined as a result.

Postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postmodern feminist theory have been contrasted and compared by Sands and Nuccio in their essay "Postmodern feminist theory and Social work." They contend that despite having similarities to French feminist thought, poststructuralist theory, and postmodernism, postmodern feminist theory challenges both feminism and postmodernism. Postmodern feminists shared the same criticism of essentialism and categorical knowledge as postmodernists. They also emphasised how early feminists believed that when they used the term "women," they were referring to all women, including lesbians, black women, women from the third world, and other groups. As a result, they dismantled the category of "women" and asserted that it is a cultural construct that only a small number of women can fit into. They underline the need for feminists to identify the women they are speaking about in order to avoid making this error. By doing this, they will be referring to a specific "woman" as opposed to all "women" in general. They clarify that postmodern feminists also concur with postmodernists that it is harmful to fixate on categories as the only means of explaining reality. But they criticise postmodernists for ignoring the significance of race, class, and gender. They contend that these are additional categories that merit a diversified perspective. Due to their emphasis on differences, postmodern feminists were especially concerned with diversity.

Additionally, they argue that postmodern feminism shares a political agenda with American feminism, which holds that all feminists, regardless of perspective, strive to change the social and political landscape in order to end the oppression of women. They consequently think that taking political action is essential to redressing the injustices done to women. They adhere to the notion of building a theory and putting it into practise, unlike postmodernists. The practise should take precedence over the theory in this process.

According to Sands and Nuccio, the postmodernist emphasis on diversity presented feminists with challenges. Postmodern feminists, who also value diversity and plurality, do accept this, though. They contend that because women are numerous and diverse, various interests are reflected in women's movements. Politics for women are in opposition to the postmodernist emphasis on many different viewpoints. Unity and action on clearly defined women's issues are required for feminist political action. In order to organise collective action on the subject of women, political institutions based on categorization are required. They contend that despite promoting diversity, postmodernists frequently miss this. Postmodernists contend, however, that when feminists call for women to unite for political action, they often believe that women are a homogeneous group with the "basically" identical interests. Feminists represent the interests of the higher status women by grouping women together under one umbrella. They consequently disregard the interests of lesbians, black women, and women from the developing countries. 

Critiques of Postmodern Feminist theory

Following is a summary provided by Tong (2013) of the various critiques of postmodern feminism. 
  • Feminist criticise postmodern feminist for their idea of diversity. Though, few feminists support their idea of diversity but most of them view it as potential threat to feminist community as a whole. They argue that in the absence of an essentialist philosophy, political action cannot be taken. 
  • Postmodern feminist have been criticised for being overtly academic. The language and the ideas are used in a specific manner that no one is able to understand what they are trying to do. Hence, they are called as “feminism for academicians”. 
  • Gloria Steinem says "I always wanted to put a sign up on the road to Yale saying, 'Beware: Deconstruction Ahead'. Academics are forced to write in language no one can understand so that they get tenure. They have to say 'discourse', not 'talk'. Knowledge that is not accessible is not helpful. It becomes aerialised.”


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