I have been asked on occasion if WPR is a feminist theory. I am commonly referred to as a “feminist researcher”, an attribution I am happy to accept. However, I would not characterize WPR as “feminist” in any clear and obvious sense. This is because I do not believe that feminism has a clear or obvious meaning. I start from the premise that I can only attribute the descriptor “feminist” to someone who so identifies. Otherwise, the effect is to impose an agenda on people who might well support alternative views. As just one example, there are many self-identified feminists who would take issue with the concept of gendering, as introduced in the previous two entries, and the associated project of questioning gender binarism (man/woman, etc.)
I have long engaged with debates among (self-identified) feminists on a range of issues. My early work in the area considered how different groups of feminists developed contrasting positions on the question of sexual difference due to their specific socio-political locations (Bacchi 1990). More recently, I have applied the WPR (“What’s the Problem Represented to be?”) approach to divergent views among gender mainstreaming advocates about the meaning of “equality” (Bacchi and Eveline 2010). As a result, I have always considered feminism to be a contested space embracing diverse objectives and methodologies.
The WPR approach emerged from my engagement with the work of those (self-identified) feminist theorists who stressed the urgency of asking a particular form of question about epistemological and ontological assumptions (Harding, Haraway and Young, with many others). It made sense to me to apply those questions to various (self-identified) feminist positions on a range of policy issues, positions commonly associated with a project of “equality” for “women”. These analyses form the basis of Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems (Bacchi 1999), which offers an early version of WPR.
In Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009), where the WPR approach is developed more fully, I note that the approach should not be restricted to so-called “women’s issues”. At the same time, I insist that “women” need to remain a focus of study in any account. Relatedly, in my recent work (Bacchi 2017) I describe gendering as a dynamic that needs to be considered alongside other political dynamics, including racializing, heteronorming, third-worldizing, disabling, classing, etc.
There is no doubt that there exists in the (self-identified) feminist research community a heightened sensitivity to what, for simplicity’s sake, can be described as “differences among women”. What surprises, and dismays, me is that, alongside this sensitivity, there are references to feminism as if it represents a singular political stance. I find this tendency even among some researchers who associate themselves with poststructuralism, where we would expect acknowledgement of plurality and contingency.
I do not wish to single out particular researchers but need to provide a few examples. Gherardi (2019: 45) suggests that one can “think like a feminist”, a rather surprising reference to a singular political stance or ethic. Usefully, Kantola and Lombardo (2017a: 11) emphasize the need to acknowledge a “diversity of approaches to feminist political analysis”. They (2017a: 16) mention the inspiration they draw from Breny Mendoza’s (2012) “critique about the epistemic violence of Anglo-American political science on Latin American disciplines of gender and politics”. They also mention my work on contested meanings of equality among (self-identified) feminists (2017a: 9). However, they then conclude that examples of discursive politics analyses have shown “how the meaning of gender equality is reproduced in political debates in ways that can take it far from feminist aims”, as if those aims are readily identifiable and agreed upon (Kantola and Lombardo 2017b: 329).
What I detect here is a moving backward and forward between recognizing the contestation around meanings of feminism and a tendency to refer to feminism as if its meaning is clear and generally supported – an example, perhaps, of what I described in the previous entry as “fixing” and “unfixing” meanings. There I suggested that the decision to engage in such practices – i.e. when to “fix” meanings and when to “unfix” meanings – is tied to reflexive thinking about political goals.
Given the current widely shared commitment among self-identified feminist researchers to recognize the diversity of political views held by “women”, I suggest that efforts ought to be made to avoid language that produces feminism as an “it”. Currently I am wrestling with ways to amend this tendency. With St Pierre (2000: 493) I hope to resist the tendency to impose “one grand vision of liberation for all women” and to recognize that “though many different women do organize at critical times to fight for certain issues, others resist those agendas and do not desire others’ particular brand of liberation”. St Pierre’s examples include African American feminists who have been “clear about the very different projects and goals of feminists of color and white feminists”, and feminists who work in the area of “postcolonial theory”. In line with this thinking I endorse the practice of using, wherever possible, a plural form, such as “feminisms”, “to indicate that those who call themselves feminists do not necessarily see the world in the same way” (Bacchi 2017: 36 fn 1). In this same spirit I now refer to “feminists’ theories” rather than to “feminist theory”.
Hence, I would conclude that WPR reflects the thinking of some (self-identified) feminist theorists. However, it is not a feminist theory if that designation is taken to mean an agreed upon political vision of “gender equality” – since there is no such shared vision. Rather, WPR is associated with a normative commitment to an egalitarian politics that is subject to “a work of problematisation and of perpetual reproblematisation” (Foucault 2001: 1431; see Research Hub entry on normativity, 30 April 2019).
Bacchi, C. 1990. Same difference: Feminism and sexual difference. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
Bacchi, C. 1999. Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems. London: Sage.
Bacchi, C. 2009. Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be? Frenchs’ Forest: Pearson Education.
Bacchi, C. 2017. Policies as Gendering Practices: Re-Viewing Categorical Distinctions. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy. 18(1): 20-41.
Bacchi, C. and Eveline, J. 2010. Approaches to gender mainstreaming: What’s the problem represented to be? In C. Bacchi and J. Eveline, Eds. Mainstreaming politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. pp. 111-138. Available as a free download from University of Adelaide Press website.
Foucault, M. (2001) . À propos de la généalogie de l’éthique: Un aperçu du travail en cours (rewritten version). In D. Defert, & F. Ewald (Eds.), Michel Foucault: Dits et Écrits, tome II. Paris: Gallimard.
Gherardi, S. 2019. If we practice posthumanist research, do we need ‘gender’ any longer? Gender, Work and Organization 26: 40-53
Kantola, J. and Lombardo, E. 2017a. Gender and Political Analysis. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kantola, J. and Lombardo, E. 2017b. Feminist political analysis: Exploring strengths, hegemonies and limitations. Feminist Theory18(3): 323-341.
Mendoza, B. 2012. The Geopolitics of Political Science and Gender Studies in Latin America. In Jane H. Bayes (ed.) Gender and Politics: The State of the Discipline. Opladen: Barbara Budrich, pp. 33–58.
Prügl, E. 2016. How to Wield Feminist Power. In M. Bustelo, L. Ferguson and M. Forest (eds) The Politics of Feminist Knowledge Transfer: Gender Training and Gender Expertise. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
St. Pierre, E. 2000. Poststructural feminism in education: An overview. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(5): 477-515.