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Rethinking Contemporary Feminist Politics

Dean, Jonathan.  Rethinking Contemporary Feminist Politics.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.  7-36.  Print.


In the first section of his book Rethinking Contemporary Feminist Politics, Jonathan Dean sets out to consider and critique two major academic narratives of feminist politics: the perceived decline of the idealized feminist movement of the 1970s, and the re-emergence of a revitalized, radical feminist movement in the present moment.  With regard to the first trend, one of the key problems Dean picks out is the distinction that has been made between a single, identifiable women’s movement – what may believe the 70s to have been – versus a generalized, disorganized continuation of sexual politics.  This is harmful to analysis of the past and the present, as it erases the diversity and disunity that did exist in the 70s, as well as discredits the work being done now by feminist political practice.  For the second trend, Dean casts academic concerns as resting between optimism at the energy and youth of modern third-wave feminism versus critiques pointing to the emergence and dangers of gender mainstreaming.  Ultimately, Dean asserts his own central concern: that “radicalism” is being unfairly and unhelpfully equated with “autonomy” in examining the women’s movement.

Dean’s overview of the course of feminist discourse is consistent with what I have read this semester.  My readings and experiences have touched on each of these themes – the makeup of the women’s movement, the dangers of mainstreaming, new radical energies – and having been introduced to all of them was hugely beneficial to my personal, academic, and professional growth.

Regarding Dean, though, I have a concern.  Reading any self-proclaimed feminist text written by a man is already a fraught engagement; but at least the subject matter of this first chapter is more easily approached by an outsider (more easily; it still remains that Dean writes as one not part of and not affected by the feminist movement in the same way).  However, I noticed in reading this chapter that Dean had an increasingly repetitive tendency to dichotomize his argument.  Opinions regarding the past or present women’s movements, in addition to the separated transnational, state, and postcolonial feminisms were all organized as one academic perspective juxtaposed to another.  While contrast is a helpful explanatory and analytical tool, it remains that life is rarely so simple; I would have preferred to have read an analysis that did not succumb to normative academic pressures to dichotomize, and instead made a greater effort to demonstrate the variety of views being expressed.  Even if there are only two major discourses regarding, for instance, third-wave feminism – that it is young and radical versus completely gender mainstreamed – I would rather not have the two set counter to each other.

Finally, Dean’s point about the equation of radicalism with autonomy is actually quite interesting.  Having this pointed out does cause me to stop and reconsider how I perceive more traditional feminist organizing.  For all my passion for radical feminism, it is important to remember that there is a method of radicalism that works within systems to change them, versus just outside and against them.  As far as Dean’s argument, though, I am not convinced that tying radicalism and autonomy is so bad.  The consequences of gender mainstreaming are very real; I would posit instead that my concern regarding “radical” is not that the term is unhelpfully paired with “autonomous,” but rather that it is a term both too feared in mainstream discourse, but also too moderately applied when it is used. 


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