I started re-reading this book on International Women’s Day. It’s an old textbook from my Women’s Studies days at the University of Manitoba, and I don’t think I’ve read it since then. It’s a survey of the different streams of feminist theory, and gives a clear summary of liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism (from two perspectives: reproduction / mothering and gender / sexuality), psychoanalytic feminism, socialist feminism, existentialist feminism, and postmodern feminism.
In her discussion of each theory, Tong starts with an overview of the basic assumptions of the theory, then discusses several thinkers in that area, sometimes followed by a compare-and-contrast section, or a discussion of the various critiques of that particular theory or of particular thinkers within it. In some cases, she prefaces her discussion with an explanation of the theories that laid the groundwork for that particular feminist theory. For example, the section on Marxist feminism begins with a discussion of Marx’s ideas, the one on psychoanalytic feminism discusses Freud’s thoughts (especially around the Oedipal complex), and the postmodern feminism section starts with some of the ideas of Derrida and Lacan. I found this to be very helpful in terms of understanding the history and context of the various theories.
It seems, however (and here Tong is just the messenger), that many of these theories depend on male and female being two distinct, non-overlapping categories, and on stereotypical middle-to-upper-class heterosexual marriage arrangements. Now that science and society have come further along in our understanding of femaleness and maleness, and now that trans, genderfluid, GLBT*,and non-binary people have gained so much visibility and voice and the production of alternate theory, the theories themselves seemed rather outdated in many places. In some ways, this might not change, since some of theories do depend on essential maleness and femaleness. But Tong’s summary and elucidation of various streams of feminist theory is so clear and helpful that I often wondered, while reading, what would emerge were she to turn her mind to these matters in light of the past twenty-five years of new knowledge, philosophy, and theory.
When I went to look for the cover image to add to this post, I discovered that there is indeed a new version of the book published in 2009, and I’d very much like to read that to get Tong’s perspective on how these feminist theories have continued to evolve, and on new theories that have emerged.
It was fun to read this book and revisit my old self, as I had scribbled many, many notes in the margins. Some were reactions to the material, some were sarcastic or annoyed jabs at whichever thinker Tong was discussing, and some were heartfelt agreements punctuated with multiple exclamation marks. It was interesting to see how my own thinking has changed (or not) over time, as I sometimes cringed in embarrassment, or shook my head in amusement, or just nodded with recognition at my reactions and comments from so long ago when I first encountered this material. I’ve kept Tong’s book over all these years and through many moves, including two emigrations, while the binding has slowly dried out and released the pages, because it was such a helpful overview back then of what differentiated the various feminist schools of thought. I am glad to have revisited it, and curious about how Tong’s latest edition has been updated.
Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction by Rosemarie Tong. Westview Press, 1989. ISBN 0813304288.