Poststructuralism and Feminism?

Academic Discipline: Women’s Studies
Course Name: Gender Studies
Assignment Subject: Poststructuralism and Feminism?: De-essentializing Without Difference? Towards a Foucauldian Feminist Theory
Academic Level: Graduate
Referencing Style: APA
Word Count: 2,050

The ideas of Michel Foucault have profoundly influenced and altered the development of feminist theory. As second-wave feminists were confronted for their exclusionary and unitary vision of women, new queries about unitary ‘truths’ and grand narratives were being posed by Foucault. At that time, Foucault’s ideas about power and subjectivity provided a fitting response to feminism’s crisis in identity politics while also offering feminists theorists with new ways of looking at the world (Francis, 2001). His writings on sexuality and the body seemed germane to feminist goals of explicating how power operates on subjectified bodies in disciplinary and localized ways. And, his rupturing of the socially constructed partiality in modernist philosophical and political texts, and in methods used in the human sciences also aligned with feminist aims to challenge androcentric essentialist claims about women’s capacities. For these reasons, a Foucauldian feminism began to emerge, albeit adapted at times, and his lack of attention to gender notwithstanding, which has led to a prolific body of feminist scholarship. Not all feminists welcomed this emergent framework, arguing that Foucault’s fracturing of the subject undermines the goal of feminist liberation. This paper will explore the theoretical tension between Foucault and feminism, beginning with the points of convergence and utility. Critiques of a Foucauldian feminism will then be mapped out, followed by reconciliatory efforts and responses. In doing so, this paper will elucidate the ways in which a Foucauldian feminism is not only relevant, but also offers an expansive and inclusive vision of women and their experiences in localized operations of power.

From Foucault to Feminism: Power, Sexuality and Subjectivity
Foucault’s early reception among feminists was generally favorable. His attention to the subject helped theorize a timely response to allegations of feminism’s homogenized and exclusionary identity (Deveaux, 1994) while also echoing feminist goals of making the personal political (Amigot & Pujal, 2009). However, as feminist theorists began engaging more closely with his works, it quickly became evident that his views on gender were ambivalent – at best. For example, in the History of Sexuality (Volume 1), he explicitly noted that disciplinary practices have made female bodies ‘hysterically marked,’ yet he offered no explanation as to what these practices are and how they operate on women’s bodies (King, 2004). There has also been no paucity of accusations of Foucault’s sexist, if not misogynistic comments about gender. Of frequent note are comments in a 1977 essay for a Parisian anti-psychiatry group that punishments for rape should be the same as those for physical violence “and nothing but that” (Heyes, 2013).

Views on women aside, Foucault’s explication of subjectivity in determinations of ‘truth’ by regimes of power have had a significant impact among feminist and social theorists (Amigot & Pujal, 2009). His rupturing of ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ approaches to scientific inquiry, provided an important window through which feminist researchers could (finally) expose the masculinist and essentialist worldviews had legitimized their subjugation (Francis, 2001). Foucault’s analyses with regards to knowledge claims more broadly, such those in modern literary and philosophical texts that constructed and reinforced power relations were also fruitful for a feminist epistemology to emerge (Davies & Gannon, 2005). As he wrote, “Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth”, determined by “the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned, the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Foucault, 1980, p. 131). Conversely, these politics of truth enable modes of thinking and being that deviate from established norms to appear as “abnormal” or “irrational,” and thus warranting sanction (Taylor, 2013).

Foucault’s writings on sexuality and the body also offered feminists with a new understanding of the complex workings of power. For example, in Discipline and Punish (1975), he draws from Marx, in pointing to a “political economy of the body,” but refutes Marx’s over-attention to the state in noting this political economy is an intricate “micro – physics of power” through which bodies are disciplined (Schrift, 2013). Foucault (1977, p. 138-139) explains these disciplinary practices as “a policy of coercions that act on the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behavior,” broken down and rearranged so that “discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.” For feminists, such an analysis offered an understanding that went beyond the simplicity of the state to more insidious forms of discursive versus grand structures of power and control (Deveaux, 1994). Beginning in the 1980s, feminist works inspired by Foucault have explored the disciplinary and normalizing technologies and practices that produce feminine bodies in essentialist and over-deterministic ways (Amigot & Pujal, 2009).

In a similar vein, Foucault’s writings on sexuality and the discourses that operate to normalize its domination have attracted many feminist theorists. In the History of Sexuality (Volume 1), he pays particular attention to how sexuality shifted within modern regimes of power and the proliferation of discourses that subjectify and produce “docile bodies” (Deveaux, 1994). In pointing to the culturally constructed nature of these bodies and of sex, Foucault also ruptured the legitimization of essentialism, and it is this idea that remains one of his greatest contributions to feminism (Falzon, O’Leary & Sawicki, 2013). In many ways, this allowed feminists to challenge modern assumptions about sexuality and the female body which were understood as inevitable and natural (Davies, 2008). Moreover, Foucault’s explication of the socially constructed nature of women’s bodies and sexuality has proven useful for many feminist theorists to expose the falsehood of sexist stereotypes which were profoundly at odds with women’s lived realities (Mills, 2003). The influential work of feminist Sandra Lee Bartky that has prompted a myriad of works from other feminists was premised on a Foucauldian analysis in identifying the ways in which societal and cultural norms about the idealized woman are oppressive to women, regulated through disciplinary practices and industries such as dieting, cosmetics and fashion (Geerts, 2016).

By bringing power to the micro level, through the operation of “micro-physics,” feminists were provided with new ways of understanding and challenging it. Rather than viewing power unilinearly, he illuminated the ways in which individuals are both objects and subjects in its operation. For Foucault (1980, p. 98), subjects of power “are not it’s inert or consenting target; they are always the elements of its articulation. In other words, individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application. In many of his later writings, he expanded upon the ways in which subjects can be vehicles of power through micro possibilities for resistance. Foucault (1998, p. 95-6) further asserts that resistance exists wherever there is normalisation and domination, and that “if it is exerted on ‘micro levels’ it can be contested on micro levels; there is “no single locus of great Refusal” but a “plurality of resistances” (King, 2004, p. 37). Thus, rather than seek emancipation through overturning systems of the state, such as patriarchy and/or capitalism, Foucault provided feminists with a vocabulary of resistance (Mills, 2003) that opened up possibilities of doing and thinking otherwise (Allen, 2013).

Problematizing and Reconciling Foucault’s Fragmented Subject
While Foucault’s conceptualization of power, subjectivity and resistance resonated among many feminist theorists, others have argued that it is insufficient for feminist ends. More specifically, criticisms have been raised about his lack of elaboration of the practices of and degrees to which liberation are afforded to subjects (Amigot & Pujal, 2009). This is particularly problematic for many feminists who reject Foucault’s vision of emancipation, such as Hartsock (1990) who suggests resistance is strained at best by reducing women to ‘docile’ bodies and victims of disciplinary technologies. Moreover, this reduction, coupled with Foucault’s perspective on the micro operation of power has been challenged as decentres the experiences of the subject (i.e. women) as well as goals to challenge systemic injustice and oppression (Deveaux, 1994). In other words, his diffuse conception of power prevents the existences of a localized gendered inequality and an identification of an operative antagonism to organize against (Amigot & Pujal, 2009).

Indeed, challenging the micro exertions of power is a departure from established feminist theoretical traditions. However, by highlighting the complex entanglements with power does not mean that Foucault refutes the existence of power and the importance of resistance altogether (Allen, 2013). In other words, Foucault’s ideas do not deny global situations and systems of domination, such as male domination, but points to the heterogeneity and complexity in the operation of power and in possible modes of resistance (Amigot & Pujal, 2009). Thus, for Foucault, regimes of power function to limit, or at times eliminate the range of possible subjectivities and discursive practices available to individuals (Davies, 2008). Moreover, Foucault’s attention to the subject also opens up possibilities for self-agency, enabling reflexive awareness of discursive practices and positionality that was otherwise unavailable (Davies & Gannon, 2005). In that reflexivity, and in the range of possible subjectivities, Foucault also provides a more liberating view of gender in not unitarily positioning all women as powerless all of the time, caused in any simple way by men’s possession of unwavering power (Falzon, O’Leary & Sawicki, 2013). As such, Foucauldian feminist theorists and researchers see change as ‘transformative quest’ as opposed to an emancipatory agenda that aims to expand the range of subjectivities available to women (Baxter, 2008).

Another central criticism of Foucault is his fracturing of the subject, as without unified gendered subject, it is difficult, if at all possible to make claims for and political demands on behalf of women (McLaren, 2002). Feminist theories such as Nancy Harstock have voiced some vehement critiques of a destabilized gender subject. As Hartsock (1990, p. 163) asks, “Why is it just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of sujbecthood becomes problematic?” Similarly, Brown (1995) problematizes Foucault’s fragmented subject as it offers no critique of vision of collective struggle, or grounds for activist efforts. In other words, the notion of “womanhood” appears to be indispensable to feminism as it is the fundamental basis of feminist thought, without which there would be no feminism (Francis, 1999).

Feminist theorists that have embraced a Foucauldian perspective suggest such critiques are premised upon a limited and exclusionary politics that emerged in feminism’s second-wave. As Butler (1990: 148) aptly notes, “a feminist identity politics that appeals to a fixed ‘feminist subject,’ ‘presumes, fixes and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate.” To reject such fragmentation would also deny that feminists have discriminated against other women, and that power relations and inequalities exist between women, just as they also exist between women and men (Francis, 2001). It would also ignore an understanding and analysis of the ways in which gendered relations of power intersect with other oppressive regimes, as Third-Wave and postcolonial feminisms have demonstrated (Amigot & Pujal, 2009). Furthermore, Foucauldian feminists point out that by illuminating heterogeneity and differences among women, there is a freedom binary constructions, not only of female/male, but those such as gay/straight, Caucasian/racialized, etc. that have been used to grant normalcy, and conversely deviancy and irrationality (Davies & Gannon, 2005).

As this paper has illustrated, the relationship between Foucault and feminism has been a tenuous one, inciting some of the fractures within the movement itself. Indeed, his critiques of modern conceptions of reason and truth have resulted in a feminist double bind (Allen, 2013). Those that use Foucauldian concepts for feminist aims have found his analyses of the micro workings of power, whether through modern texts, disciplinary or discursive practices helpful to bring about a more complex and inclusive understanding of gender on localized levels. Those that contest his ideas suggest his denial of structural bases of power, and of a shared gendered inequality resulting from such power are insufficient to accomplish any kind of feminist emancipatory ends. While there is no denying that a Foucauldian feminist theory has complicated, if not undermined the possibility of a feminist representational ‘truth,’ and his works are not without flaws, he has offered feminism with an enriched and inclusive vision of gender and new tools for understanding and challenging the intricate workings of power.


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