Toward an Integral Feminism

Sarah Nicholson Article, Cognitive, Journal of Integral Theory & Practice, Sex & Gender, Sex & Gender 5 Comments

This paper studies the development of some of the key schools of feminist thought, exploring the history of the definition of Woman. Ken Wilber’s framework of Integral Feminism is then used to move toward the processual creation of a more adequately holistic understanding of women and subjectivity.

Toward an Integral Feminism

Woman has been written as an object, rather than as a subject, in the discursive order. Feminist theorists such as Irigaray, for example, have claimed that Woman is constructed against a “universal individual self” that is the normative male subject. Under these conditions the phallocentric symbolic system is incapable of representing Her as anything but a negative shadow of Man, his subordinated other. Irigaray suggests that the subjectivity of Woman is thus truly unrepresentable. Kristeva concurs that, “On a deeper level… a woman cannot ‘be’… In ‘woman’ I see something that cannot be represented, something that is not said, something above and beyond nomenclatures and ideologies.” In this nebulous light the definition of Woman within feminist discourse has eroded; gradually slimming down to nothing in what has been described as a bad case of “critical anorexia” within feminist theory. Feminism appears to have encountered an impasse, for under the microscope of theory there appears to be no Woman.

To my mind the nothingness to which Woman has been condemned is a result of the confines of the Western tradition of philosophical thought. I believe opening to the field of nondualism provides the transontological possibility for a more conducive resolution to Her quandary. Nonduality refers to an understanding of the manifest world—itself a holonic system of interrelated wholes and parts—as being directly sustained by the formless, creative ground of being. The radical, unqualifiable openness of the formless that completely transcends all and includes all, is confined to nothing and embraces absolutely everything. In knowing the embrace of the formless, the bounds of duality are dissolved. Subject and object are radically open, interconnected and empty of independent being: “The Formless and the entire world of manifest Form—pure emptiness and the whole Kosmos—are seen to be not-two (or nondual).” The nondualist principles of interconnectedness, emptiness and codependent arising are akin to the ideas of postmodern and poststructuralism, yet are without their recourse to nihilism.

To begin the journey toward a definition of Woman requires a thorough examination of the twists and turns in the development of feminist attention to the question of subjectivity. This paper works toward an unthreading and rebuilding that honours the knowledge of each knot of development in an attempt to move toward a definition of Woman by exploring identity through an Integral Feminist framework. I believe the problem of defining Woman is one of finding an adequate framework to deal with the multiplicity inherent in feminism itself. Integral Feminism allows the dynamic interests of feminism to operate on a number of contiguous levels. It recognises the “inherent, mutually arising, inextricably bound influences” of our biology, psychology, spirituality, culture and the systemic, physical world. Pragmatically, an Integral framework addresses the constructivist impasse by facilitating a contextually discursive definition of Woman through which key feminist values can continue to be represented in the political and social spheres. On an ontological level, Integral Feminism, explicitly grounded in a nondualistic ontology, can facilitate a deeper exploration of the core question of self: where Woman rests beyond sex and gender, in deep fruitful emptiness.

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Sarah Nicholson

About Sarah Nicholson

Sarah Nicholson (born 1973) is an author and scholar. Her interests include exploring human evolution and spirituality from the perspective of integral feminism. She teaches in the fields of religion and gender studies, literature and academic writing practice at the University of Western Sydney and Notre Dame University, Sydney. She has been an honorary postdoctoral research associate of Sydney University's Department of Studies in Religion, and was an awardee of the Ian Potter Cultural Trust Fellowship for Literature.

Notable Replies

  1. Just to be clear, these are Sarah Nicholson’s words, not mine. The excerpt above was taken from her Journal of Integral Theory and Practice article, linked in the post.

  2. ok, got it. It wasn’t clear, even after I checked for the ambiguity.

  3. Feminism seems to me to be a dated movement to the degree it is oriented on gender issues. I think the majority of people agree that yes, women should have rights to equal pay and freedom from sexual harassment and all the rest, and that these issues are slowly but steadily progressing.
    Yes, we do experience a few steps backwards when, for example, an outspoken misogynist and rapist becomes president. Maybe I’m deluded, but I think most people “get it” and I think the overall trend is improving and I think will continue to improve.

    Where I think the limiting factor of Feminism going forward comes in is when we conflate the “Spiritual Feminine” with gender.

    It’s not that "On a Deeper level … a woman cannot “be” - it’s that on a deeper level humanity as a whole has not recognized “beingness” as having value, regardless of gender. Men especially - even more than women - need to be taught to spend more time consciously in “womb time” rather than in “phallus time”. I say “more than women” because if men are not taught this aspect of themselves, they are stuck in a phallic existence and very soon we have some kind of mass violence.

    I think defining the Spiritual Feminine through womanhood would be to take a great wrong turn for humanity, or even to not explicitly state it is a key aspect of manhood as well would also be shortsighted. As an example, the Vikings - in all their manly male manness - ultimately abandoned themselves to the feminine in battle and trusted the Valkyries to carry them to Valhalla. They worshipped Freya as their goddess of love, fertility, and war. Most pre-Christian systems of belief also had a more expansive, inclusive and reverent understanding of the Feminine.

  4. And there’s Mary Mother of God (at varying levels for various Christian denominations). It’s hard to not be awestruck by a woman creating a new distinct human being, then giving birth to this new human that we’ve never before experienced in humanity.

  5. Yes, birth is one of the last Primal events that all humans still experience. Even by cesarean, there is baptism of the innocent infant by blood. Yes, even Jesus came into this world covered in blood.

    Motherhood also has other similar aspects not commonly discussed in Modern times, which I think is part of the problem as well. Since Christian times there has been a cultural desire to whitewash motherhood and conflate it with virginity (innocence). I wonder what the Ancient Greeks thought when they passed on the story of Medea? Was it man making a woman into a villain? Or describing what one sees in the natural world?

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