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Skeptical Feminism

Dever, Carolyn.  Skeptical Feminism: Activist Theory, Activist Practice.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.  1-51.  Print.


The introduction to Dever’s book addresses the work’s central purpose: to examine feminist theory and practice so as to consider how they relate to and inform each other, both throughout the history of the modern women’s movement and using specific concepts to explore their interaction.  The conclusion Dever ultimately comes to is that there must be a constant translation between theory and practice. 

The first chapter examines how theory played into the earlier stages of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s.  By Dever’s analysis, this was accomplished through the consciousness-raising movement, wherein through exposure to feminist ideas and collective discussion, more widespread groups of women became aware of their oppression.  Dever takes care to detail the problematic aspects of this movement in its appeal and application to almost exclusively white, middle-class, heterosexual women, as well as the balance it variously maintained between effectively reclaiming patriarchal norms of femininity versus unintentionally reinforcing them in counterproductive ways.  Consciousness-raising is in the end posited as a positive force, in that it helped generate early stages of not just feminist action, but of praxis between theory and practice in the women’s movement.

First off, the central purpose claim of Dever’s book is precisely what I have been exploring in my Praxis work: “The dialectical nature of feminism requires constant translation, the engineering of a balance between theory and practice, abstraction and materiality” (25).  What her writing gradually and not always explicitly conveys, though, is that this translation is not a two-step process.  Feminist practice is not directly generated from the arguments and proposals offered by feminist theory; rather, the two inform each other equally.  Translation occurs between them, in a conversation; not from one to the other.  For most of my Praxis work I have assumed the singular direction of theory into practice; various readings, experiences, and reflections have tended in the direction of this more equal framework, but until now I had not made the leap to acknowledging this difference explicitly and restructuring the perspective with which I consider and examine my Praxis work. 

By acknowledging the degree to which the actions of the women’s movement inform the theory that surrounds it, the reactions and questions I have had in response to my work are put into a new light.  Each time I have been confronted with the realistic limitations placed upon progressive organizations – for instance, one organization’s choice to value its ability to provide community services rather than take a political stance on abortion (RESPONSE X) – it is crucial to remember that for all the ideals of theory, those real restrictions are equally valid and should have a role in informing the theory we have to consider women’s movements with.

At the same time, while on my end I need to be more conscious of what organizational actions, strategies, and challenges can contribute to the theory that has been produced, organizations perhaps also have some responsibility to keep more in mind the goals and ideals embodied in feminist theory.  The challenges organizations face are real; but simply accepting the present reality’s restrictions is not always acceptable.  Organizations should take time to push back – not just against the immediate obstacles to action, but also against the larger structural forms that hinder larger feminist goals.  When constantly struggling to make progress in a frustratingly prejudiced, ignorant, and slow-moving world, though, how can actors in the women’s movement make sure they take some of their time – already in short supply – to make sure they participate equally in the conversation between theory and practice?


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