The way liberal-egalitarian values develop, part 1

In my last post, I set out my stall in terms of fundamental values: liberté, egalité, fraternité for individuals, and justice towards them in government. But those are very broad and fuzzy ideas. In this post and the next, I’m going to argue that the task of pinning down exactly what they mean is never done – that our ideas of all but the broadest outlines of those values constantly change, and ought to constantly change, in response to developments in intellectual life and in society at large.

First of all, in this post, I’ll set out the kinds of development I’m talking about by running through a few developments in the history of feminist thought, and pointing out how they’re instances of broader types of intellectual development that a free society must provide for (or at least not obstruct). Then, in the next post, I’ll discuss why this kind of development does not point to a Hegel-style perfect end state, but rather an always-unfinished meander across terrain that cannot be predicted in advance.

The development of feminism has often been conceptualised as a branching, interweaving web of ‘strands’, each involving not only particular groups of people and their actions, but also a set of ideas [i] – disrupting the Epsom Derby by throwing yourself under a horse, for example, is also a discursive move. These strands are commonly understood as forming three (arguably four) broad ‘waves’. The first was the Suffragette movement, with ideas based on the work of people like Mary Wollstonecraft, calling for women’s suffrage and equal legal rights. This wave is the most distinct and more or less went into abeyance in the West once its goals were achieved. The interaction between subsequent waves is where I’ll be drawing my examples.

An illuminating account of the interactions between the second and third waves in the United States can be found in Mann and Huffman’s The Decentering of Second Wave Feminism and the Rise of the Third Wave. ‘Third wave feminism,’ they argue, ‘should be viewed as […] the rise of a new discourse or paradigm for framing and understanding gender relations that grew out of a critique of the inadequacies of the second wave’ [ii]. Specifically, they identify four strands that fed into and produced it: ‘intersectional theory; postmodernism/poststructuralism; feminist postcolonial theory; and the agenda of young feminists,’ [iii] ‘young’ here meaning approximately ‘Generation X’.

The first two strands, on their account, grew directly out of critiques of second-wave feminism. Intersectionality theory, first of all, was developed by feminists of colour in response to the ‘abstract anti-racism’ that ‘characterized much of the theorizing and politics of white feminism’ in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the United States[iv]. ‘That is, while may white, second wave feminists wrote about and analyzed differences by race and class, they seldom interacted socially with Black women,’[v] and, as a result, did not produce adequate theoretical or practical responses to the specific problems they faced. Intersectionality theory, as the name suggests, identified groups at the intersection of multiple oppressed categories – prototypically, Black women – and drew attention to the fact that their oppression was not simply the straightforward sum of, in this case, ‘women’s oppression’ and ‘Black people’s oppression’, but was idiosyncratic, and demanded its own particular analysis and response.

Postmodern or poststructural feminism, meanwhile, headed in a rather different direction. Drawing on the work of predominately French theorists such as Jacques Derrida, postmodernists and poststructuralists aimed to ‘deconstruct all group categories and to reject oppositional thinking,’[vi] challenging intersectionality theory’s presumption that particular intersectional groups had a single, unitary perspective. ‘The central idea is that identity is simply a construct of language, discourse, and cultural practices. The goal is to dismantle these fictions and, thereby, to undermine hegemonic regimes of discourse’[vii]. (Out of this strand grew queer theory.)

In these first two moves, we can see two distinct ways in which an existing conception of what it means for people to treat one another as free and equal may be found inadequate in ways that are not obvious to its original proponents. Intersectionality theory demonstrated that the established conception displayed weak spots in its treatment of certain problems, problems that were only visible to participants with first-hand experience of them, who were themselves marginalised from the main stream of the discourse. For postmodernism, on the other hand, the established conception’s blind spot lay in its unexamined presuppositions, which insights from elsewhere in the broader intellectual culture could bring to light and challenge. In both cases, most participants in the preexisting strand of the discourse – second-wave feminism – did not anticipate these developments until they appeared, because to anticipate them would have been to produce them.

These two strands, Mann and Huffman argue, then gave rise to – without being supplanted by – feminist postcolonial theory and ‘the agenda of the new generation of younger feminists’[viii]. Both, they claim, were in a sense syntheses of intersectionality and poststructural feminism; while feminist postcolonial theory was in quite a Hegelian sense an intellectual reconciliation of preexisting elements of both, the agenda of younger feminists was more of a processing of the two strands through their social experience.

Feminist postcolonial theory arose as a solution to a conflict between intersectional and poststructural analyses: poststructuralism, its intersectional critique pointed out, neglected serious structural oppression in favour of examining discourse itself, and was, because of its deconstruction of group categories, unable to even effectively discuss that oppression; while intersectionality, as poststructuralist feminism observed, reified concepts of identity in a way that could forge new chains for their participants even as they broke the old. The resolution feminist postcolonial theory offered might be thought of as a best-of-both-worlds solution: ‘use group concepts, but carefully!’ Thinkers such as Gayatri Spivak and Chandra Talpade Mohanty acknowledged the merits of structural analyses of power and extended them from a national to a global context, even as they recognised that the ways those analyses divided society into groups were only contingent, deconstructible intellectual tools, appropriate for analysing one situation but not another, and potentially essentialising when used uncritically[ix]. In this sense, feminist postcolonial theory can be thought of as an example of a third general kind of move in the development of our ideas of equality and freedom: the union of two strands in productive dialogue to produce something new.

The ‘agenda of younger feminists’, meanwhile, was influenced by the same two theoretical strands that rooted feminist postcolonial theory, but also by the response of young feminists to the perceived puritanism of second-wave feminism, which was seen – not inaccurately – as ‘both disciplinary and transformative in that it required that social change was part of one’s everyday life. By contrast, the new generation, in its attempt to open up and broaden feminism, introduced a number of less restrictive ideas, strategies and ways of conceptualizing feminism that sparked condescension, controversy and rather hostile critiques from their second wave sisters’[x]. They attempted to break down the boundaries between feminism and, for example, the gay and trans rights movements, while also shifting the focus of activism onto ‘micro-politics’ and personal expression and ‘performance politics’ as a means of resistance to patriarchy[xi]. This methodological and ideological individualism was inflected by the neoliberal consensus of the 1990s, and was correspondingly critiqued as sharing its weaknesses in the form of selfishness, ideological vacuity and blindness to structural oppression[xii].

The dynamics of this strand illustrates a broader point about the development of our ideas of freedom. Like the postmodern strand, it shows off the ways in which different parts of the landscape of ideas can influence one another. In helping provoke and shape the young feminists’ reaction to the austerity of second-wave feminism, the neoliberal individualist ethos – itself a strand or bundle of strands in the discourse of freedom – propelled that discourse’s further development. Given the influence of postmodern theorists such as Michel Foucault on neoliberalism, one might even argue that its impact on the young feminists’ agenda was in part a second-order effect of postmodernism – an echo added on top of its direct influence.

The ideas at the heart of each of the strands we have looked at sit fairly happily under the umbrella of ‘treating one another as free and equal citizens’, by their own lights. They’re all ways of making those vague values, ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’ (or, more to the point, sororité) specific and concrete. But the ways in which they flesh out those principles can differ quite significantly. In each, the substance and practice of freedom and equality is different. And each move made at least attempts to respond to the failings of, and the gaps left by, previous moves. One of the things a society has to do if it wants to be free, we may conclude, is allow these kinds of developments to occur.


Breines, Wini. ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It? White Women, Black Women, and Feminism in the Movement Years’. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 27, no. 4 (2002): 1096–1133.

Evans, Elizabeth, and Prudence Chamberlain. ‘Critical Waves: Exploring Feminist Identity, Discourse and Praxis in Western Feminism’. Social Movement Studies 14, no. 4 (2015): 396–409.

Mann, Susan Archer, and Douglas J. Huffman. ‘The Decentering of Second Wave Feminism and the Rise of the Third Wave’. Science & Society 69, no. 1 (January 2005): 56–91.

[i] Evans and Chamberlain, p. 406.

[ii] Mann and Huffman, p. 57.

[iii] Mann and Huffman, abstract.

[iv] Breines, p. 1122, quoted in Mann and Huffman, p. 60.

[v] Mann and Huffman, pp. 60-61.

[vi] Mann and Huffman, p. 62.

[vii] Mann and Huffman, p.63.

[viii] Mann and Huffman, p. 65.

[ix] Mann and Huffman, p. 68.

[x] Mann and Huffman, p. 70.

[xi] Mann and Huffman, pp. 68-72.

[xii] Mann and Huffman, pp. 74-75.

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