On feminisms and their different understandings – L. Y. Sandoval

To raise awareness and provide space for discussion and debate, Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus regularly organizes talks on various topics that have an impact on our contemporary world, including social justice, gender equity, and international politics. The Women’s and Gender Studies Brown Bag Series, coordinated by Dr. Anne Dewey, Program Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies at the Department of English, is one such series which invites guest speakers from various disciplines to reflect on key points and issues related to the field of Women’s and Gender studies. The first talk welcomed Dr. Laila Yousef Sandoval, professor of Philosophy at SLU-Madrid, who presented her lecture titled, “The Enlightened roots of feminism: Rhetoric strategies and debates of classic Spanish feminism.” The OCC had the chance to sit down with her to further explore the history of feminism in Spain and the current dynamics playing out within the movement.

OCC – Dr. Yousef, your talk referred to the differences that prevail between classic and contemporary Spanish feminism. Could you explain what is it that the two schools of thought disagree on concretely?

Dr Laila Yousef – Plurality inside the feminist movement in general, and in Spain in particular, has always existed; however, tensions are more visible today now that transfeminist demands are at the forefront of the mediatic debate. The main differences between the so-called “classic feminists” – who are contemporary but who defend an Enlightened line of interpretation – and those feminists who align with transfeminism and postmodern philosophies, are built on philosophical grounds.

On one hand, classical philosophers, like Celia Amorós and Alicia Miyares among others, defend and remember the enlightened inheritance of the beginnings of feminism. They highlight the importance of universal values related to the rights of the subjects and they insist on the idea that sexism attacks women on the basis of their specific sex and the gender socially constructed around it. Those philosophers don’t deny the need to protect transgender people, but they don’t consider these demands as part of the feminist movement since, according to them, this would mean erasing the notion of “woman.”

On the other hand, transfeminism and intersectional feminism in general, through the lens of postmodern philosophy and authors such as Judith Butler, make a critique of the Enlightened tradition as, according to it, the alleged universality is actually the imposition of certain Western values which somehow includes the imprint of oppression. Transfeminism may consider that even sex could be deconstructed and that gender identity, self-identification and subjectivity should be the central focus of feminist analyses, so that transgender people can be protected and defended according to their gender identification.

OCC – Are there any perspectives that are shared by the two schools?

 LY – Both schools share the goal of putting an end to gender violence and to sexist structures and inequality. It is always good to remember that feminism consists of the belief in social, political, and economic equality among men and women. The achievement of this equality suggests that structural inequality exists, and that this systemic problem should be solved. Since this notion of protection, as well as the guarantee of the rights of all individuals, are generally goals for both interpretations, there may be hope that, despite their theoretical differences, the two sides can find common ground and the protection of individuals ends up being as extensive as possible.

OCC – Is there any approach that is specific to any branch of Spanish feminism that distinguishes it from other schools of thought?

 LY – The tradition of Spanish feminism is a good example of how every social movement includes both a universal imprint of demands and a set of specific particularities determined by historical and cultural aspects. What makes Spanish feminism special is the specific historical context it had to face under Franco’s dictatorship. Many advances that were already happening in Europe couldn’t happen in Spain due to the lack of freedom and development that the country suffered under the dictatorship. Spanish women got the right to vote for the first time in 1933. This right was then confiscated shortly after and was finally given back to them after the end of the dictatorship. Less than fifty years have passed since that conquest, and maybe this explains why Spanish feminism evolved based on its own dynamics.

OCC – You say that classical feminists are reluctant to extend their claims to transgender women. Why so? Does this not contradict the trends and realities of contemporary societies?

LY – Classical feminists have worked with “gender” as one of the key categories of their analysis, as a social and symbolic construction at the basis of the structural sexist oppression. They defend that gender should be deconstructed, but on the belief that sex, the specific biology women and men have, is a natural fact, used by sexism to promote inequality. Transfeminism focuses on the idea of “gender identity” and thinks about how sex can also be a social construction, and how transgender people are also the victims of sexism. Classical feminists consider that an analysis focused on identity can lead to essentialist positions linked to the category of “desire,” a subjectivity that also holds the risk of depoliticization. Transfeminists answer them by saying that the self-identification of each subject is part of the movement against sexism and defines the very core of self-determination as a basic human right. There is also the feeling on the part of classical feminists that the conquests achieved by the movement so far would be unfairly enjoyed, sometimes with negative consequences – see the controversy around sport. Here, transfeminists respond by claiming that the extension of rights does not harm anyone.

OCC – What is your general assessment of feminist movements in Spain, their achievements so far and what is to come in their future?

LY – The conquests that feminism has achieved for Spanish society are countless, from basic rights in education and the right to vote, to other essential social advances in the professional and economic fields. Feminism has made possible a more equal society and it has raised awareness about the need to get rid of the existing inequalities.

That is why the feminist movement in Spain has observed considerable growth in terms of public acceptance, something that has transpired parallel to the spread of extreme right-wing messages against feminism. The latter follows the historical campaign to discredit feminism that the movement has suffered since it emerged as a theory in the enlightenment period: opponents of feminism already at that time made gender equality appear as non-necessary or even disadvantageous for society, a very similar statement of current anti-feminists.

Theoretical differences inside the feminist movement are not negative per se, they reveal the existence of trends of thinking that are constantly reflecting on equality and trying to rationalize the complexity of reality. In that sense, feminist movements should keep the theoretical debate alive and maintain a healthy atmosphere for debate. However, it is important to convey to society the idea that despite these differences, there is a main, common objective in feminism, which is putting an end to the suffering that is caused by sexism. Maybe if we keep this idea really present in our minds, then there will be less difficulty in making the different interpretations of feminism agree with each other. It is normal for new demands to be generally welcomed with reluctance and suspicion, independently from the field that we are talking about; however, in the long run, and with the historical perspective and the passage of time, the furthering and extending of rights generally tends to become more easily accepted.

To quote this article, please use the following reference: L. Y. Sandoval (2021), “On feminisms and their different understandings ”, https://crisesobservatory.es/on-feminisms-and-their-different-understandings-l-y-sandoval/

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