From Difference to Holism

Ma. del Carmen García Aguilar
Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, México

Translation by Mandy Skinner and Jackie Mosio 

They who know that the approach
to whatever it may be,
is done in a gradual and laborious way,
and includes even the opposite of that
which they are seeking,
…they will understand…that this book
takes nothing away from anyone.

Clairce Lispector (The Passion According to G.H.)

This quote opens the door to what will become the path of our reflections.

One of the advantages of our times is, without doubt, the opening to diverse theoretical proposals that make possible other approaches or intents to explain reality. In this respect, my intention is to present in this paper some perspectives on contemporary feminism that point to a change in the established symbolic order. I start with the feminism of difference as a possible way to find new paths for the full exercise of women’s rights and potentials. Afterwards, I move to an analysis of Holistic feminism and its assumptions and expectations.


Feminism of difference introduced in the academic world the idea of sexual difference and the conviction that the academic world should recognize it. In this sense, feminism is contrary to the dominant culture. For Mary Evans, “Facing a culture that appears to minimize sexual difference and yet intensely fears feminine power, feminism presents the challenge of affirming, not only sexual differences, but the right of women to personal and social autonomy.” (Evans, Mary. 1997:178)

One of the most important contributions of this feminism was disrupting the identity of Man = Humanity and transforming it into Women and Men = Humanity. This transformation began to change feminine identity through a de/construction of what had, until that moment, implied only man. Feminism embarked on this path with a decisive criticism of language. In part, the dissolution of the formula Man = Humanity allows women to find elements of identification and representation in a way of thinking from which they had been excluded, attempting in some cases to redefine concepts to include themselves in them, and in others inventing new ones within which they feel truly represented. This is because masculine forms of speech, by not naming women, make them not present; they are absent from and subjugated bya language that “doesn’t belong to them.” On the other hand – and maybe, therefore, the source of resistance to change – men do feel represented by and identify with the formulas. Therefore, to desturcutre and modify them causes men to redefine themselves as well. And so, thanks to feminism, we now have studies about new masculinities.

Generally, feminist studies articulate the de/construction analysis as a process that theoretically and practically de-authorizes and deconstructs the gender differences that exist in all disciplines within the social sciences. Then the task of reconstruction begins, through the production of new concepts without the formulas man = humanity or different = inferior, symbols that have impregnated human knowledge. These studies seek a theoretical and methodological reconstruction of the various sciences and disciplines. That is, “in the same way that the masculine and masculinity were deconstructed as a universal form, so must feminism be deconstructed to allow for difference and diversity between women, as much as between women and men. The two words ‘difference’ and ‘diversity’ have become, therefore, synonyms of feminism in the nineties” (Evans, 1997: 106). This historic phase of critical feminist thought is centered on the critique and deconstruction of masculine thinking regarded as the universal foundation of theory and culture.

To approach the study of feminist criticism, it is necessary to start with a few general but basic assumptions. First, every act of cultural production and reception occurs in a social, historic, and economic context. Second, in these contexts the dominant groups – marked by sex, class and race – have more control over their lives than the dominated groups. And third, since critiques occur in the context of power differences, these can never be disinterested. Thus, we start from an eminently feminist position to attempt to understand systems of sex/gender as a category of analysis. The point of departure of this study is the recognition that we live in a patriarchal society and therefore, knowledge is androcentric. It is equally necessary to consider, as Rosi Braidotti notes well: “In feminist theory, one speaks as a woman, even though the subject ‘woman’ isn’t a monolithic essence defined once and for all, but a set of multiple experiences, complex and potentially contradictory, defined by presumed variables such as class, race, age, lifestyle, sexual preference, and others. One speaks as a woman with the intention of giving greater strength to women, of activating socio-symbolic changes in their condition: this is a radically anti-essentialist position. (Braidotti, Rosi. 1994: 30)

Feminist criticism is explained, then, as an ideological critique that depends on social theory, in that the contexts can be related to the ideological structures that affect women as social subjects. According to this critique, an analysis can never be neutral and will always be impregnated with cultural elements.

Thus we arrive at the radical feminism of sexual difference, whose discourse is not constructed once and for all as something rigid, but, like other discourses, has specific processes of elaboration and consolidation, which, at the same time, link them to certain historical events of humanity. The discourse of sexual differentiation appears explicitly or implicitly in philosophy, history, literature, law, and other subjects.

The discourse of sexual differentiation is divided in two: the masculine and the feminine. According to Margarita Dalton: “Within the discourse of knowledge, the feminine includes all the thoughts and feelings expressed about the reality of being a woman. There are two primary ways that these ideas about women are presented: one is descriptive, and one is prescriptive. The descriptive, as the name indicates, presents an external and apparently objective description of women. The prescriptive shows how women should and should not be, attempting to establish norms of ideal behavior that, directly or indirectly, threaten those who do not comply with punishment or social exclusion. A description becomes prescription to the extent that it exemplifies a desirable or undesirable behavior. Explicitly, silence within the discourse of the feminine appears as a prescription that women shouldn’t speak, that they should keep quiet; implicitly, when, by considering women inferior to men in intelligence, they exclude them from the same history of thought.” (Dalton P., Margarita. 1996: 16).

Analyses like these have permitted the recognition of sexual differences in humanistic studies as a point of departure for the analysis and use of subjectivity and experience as inherent elements of the theory.

Feminism of difference argues that, to the extent that men and women are different, there can be a reevaluation of feminine traits and behaviors that is in agreement with the former way of constructing women themselves. Feminism of difference vindicates the existence of women as a separate group by affirming the value of differences such as a sensitive and loving character, and being less competitive and aggressive, and by rejecting the integration of women into the masculine world. For feminism of difference, women should not try to be like men.

Feminism discovered and articulated the power of women, and through this new meaning of the feminine began to reject the relation with what was thought of as “masculine” thinking or “androcentric knowledge.” Feminists, recognizing the differences women have, distanced themselves from the ideal of integrating into the masculine understanding of the world, which they considered to be negative and aggressive.

Sexual difference in practice does not have to do with biological facts, but with the way culture marks our bodies, creating specific conditions for how we are able to live and enjoy ourselves; and assuming, as Graciela Hierro notes, “1) to deprive men of legislating over women, 2) speaking in her name, 3) defining women, 4) explaining what she enjoys [and], 5) thinking that men are the measure of all things.” (Hierro, Graciela. 2003)

Thus feminism of sexual difference can be considered as a creative mode or force that points to the affirmation of sexual difference as a positive force that can be affirmed by women as they compare their many differences of class, race, age, lifestyle, and sexual preference. On this basis, one can see feminism today as “the activity destined to articulate questions of individual identity, of the body and of gender with related questions of political subjectivity, and to connect them as much with the problem of knowledge as with epistemological legitimization” (Braidotti, R. 1994: 70).


If I conform and consider myself real,
I will be lost, because I would not know
where to fit my new way of being;
if I were to continue with my fragmented visions,
the whole world would have to change
for me to have a place in it.

– Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H.

This quote hints at the holistic proposal: the transformation of the world. Holistic Feminism emerged in the decade of the nineties at the suggestion of a Spanish group named “ágora feminista” and headed by Victoria Sendón, an advocate of feminism of difference. At that time it seemed like only one more idea amidst other postmodern theories. But national and international changes, the diverse analyses and diagnostics of our realities, have given it a new boost: the reconsideration of the power to find within it – in the words of its creators – “a window to the world.”

Holistic feminism is a proposal sustained within feminism of difference, but one that intends a radical rupture with the symbolic order established by patriarchal system, in the understanding that proposing a diverse order can resolve some of the problems concerning humanity. For this feminism, reality is shaped by the interrelationships of multiple differences, differences that constitute the great richness of this broad horizon from which the only thing excluded, is exclusion. It is an effort to understand the subtle web of so much existing unrest and discontent, and an attempt to unveil what we don’t see in order to change it.

It begins with a diagnosis of patriarchal societies that include only one reality, with only one androcentric symbolic order that leaves us, as humanity, only pain and death. Thus the end of this “perverse” model, that is, the end of patriarchal logic as the human paradigm, is proposed. The recognition of the existence of the masculine paradigm, of binary androcentric thinking, of the existence of a patriarchal logic, has to open up the possibility of thinking about the re/structuring of another way of conceiving reality, of another way of men and women relating to each other, that allows for more just and equal coexistence. That is to say, if it is possible to generate a diverse order out of the current disorder in which we live.

In this transition of rhythms, “dissipative structures” are key. The theory of dissipative structures was proposed by the Nobel laureate Ilya Progogine, to describe the great disturbances of energy that make living systems disintegrate in order to reintegrate themselves again into a more evolved, intelligent order. According to this theory, for holism dissipative structures permit change to an order that, while at first seems disordered, capricious, illogical, “the other,” marks the start of change. Such structures are found when conditions are very far from equilibrium; that is why the transformation of disorder and chaos into order is possible. Accordingly, the force of this transformation is rooted in the unexpected, in the profoundly “other.” (Sendón, Victoria. 1998: 20)

Another of Progogine’s categories of analysis and perspectives on transformation are the so-called “fluctuations,” considered to be “failed changes.” A small fluctuation can generate a new evolution that would drastically change the entire behavior of a macroscopic system. Examples of these fluctuations have been “new ag,” feminism, liberation theology, and student movements, among many others. These are attempts humanity has made to change the established order, but that haven’t achieved profound transformations; nevertheless, according to these theories of holism, to the extent that more paths are opened or already existing ones are deepened, change will be successful. This process can be compared to the force of the Renaissance. Thus, feminism, if it attempts to be transformative political thought, can never settle for merely thinking of new things, but rather thinking in a different way.

The great strength of the holistic proposition lies in demonstrating and exposing patriarchal logic, the symbolic world that precedes it and the reality that follows it, in order to thus be able to construct a feminist paradigm that previously had questioned the very same rules of the game. It deals with, for these feminists, creating a matrix of vibrations that are reverberations of other similar vibrations that have preceded them, recognizing all of the forces of change and generating new figures of representation. In the words of Donna Haraway: “we need feminist figures of humanity that ‘put up resistance to linear constructions and explode into energetic new figures of speech, new ways of speaking, new terms of historical possibility.’” (Braidotti, R. 1994: 36)

In this sense feminist genealogies gain strength as a necessary and unavoidable process for the rediscovery of maternal lines.

The paradigm of holistic feminism wants to overcome the patriarchal logic of divorce, of separation and segregation, whose unjust end has consisted of dividing reality into two opposing spheres that are governed by different rules: the spheres of immanence and transcendence. A method proposed to overcome this logic is a path that transforms according to the shared lives and interests of women. This path starts from a basic principle: that the models of understanding created by the mind have as their purpose the resolution of practical problems, because what is truly important is to advance, not adapt to the truth since truth can not exist in a world in transformation and subject as well to chance. It attempts to create a new logic more in accord with our reality, closer to reality than to abstraction.

For these women, it is no longer possible to reduce themselves to the treatment of gender or to rescuing forgotten women, because their field of vision has to open itself to the horizon of the totality. It is the world that is of interest, it is the world that wants to be changed, not only life although it begins with life.

Holistic feminism proposes to widen the struggle for vindication to political work, as well as to elevate its theoretical and creative horizon to the level of the universal. Logic justifies God and the patriarch, who in turn constructs that logic which supports its privileges: a compromised logic that converts itself into a powerful, untouchable totem. Dualistic, binary logic hides and manifests the encoded language of what is “real”.

But it’s necessary to take into account that it is reality which makes up the real, that once enthroned it acts as a model and multiplies itself in all circles. But reality can not be understood without the real, and reality can not be changed without destroying the deep structure that supports it.

Change in the symbolic order will have to generate itself by an epistemological shift and by the rescue of mythical and real feminine figures, reconciliation with symbolic and natural mothers of the feminist genealogies, and with approaches [affidamentos] that will permit new relations among women and between women and men. Education of women is necessary, then, through the recognition of the wisdom, power and thinking of other women. For our holistic feminists it is in the very heart of patriarchal logic where holistic feminism creates its fight and initiates its reflection. “Holofeminism is something similar to a unified field theory by which it is possible to approach both the micro-physical as well as the macro-physcial, both in the symbolic world of relations and metaphors that shape what is real, as in the multiple metonymies in which reality conceals and reveals the patriarchal paradigm, because now it is not enough to think new things, but to think in a truly new way. It is not enough to think what has already been thought, but to venture down paths of the unexpected.” (Sendón, V. 1998:66).

Why continue opposing various theoretical positions instead of incorporating them? As long as binary androcentric thinking doesn’t change, strategies for change will have to continue, maybe implying that the epistemological shift is not yet accomplished. A turn of the spinning wheel could give “feminism of new nomadic subjects” which we will discuss another time. Meanwhile, I want to end with another quote of Clarice Lispector, which far from closing a proposal or giving answers, attempts to open up more possibilities for searching and questioning:

I know that I still do not feel free
that I think again, because my purpose is to find
,…find the moment of discovering the way out.

Clarice Lispector (The Passion According to G.H.)


  • Braidotti, Rosi (1994) Sujetos nómades. Buenos Aires, Barcelona, México: PAIDÓS
  • Dalton Palomo, Margarita (1996) Mujeres, diosas y musas. Tejedoras de la memoria . México, D. F.: El Colegio de México
  • Evans, Mary ( 1997 ) Introducción al feminismo Contemporáneo. España: Minerva ediciones
  • Hierro, Graciela (2003) “La filosofía feminista. La ética feminista de la diferencia sexual, el tema de nuestro tiempo, en Vargas Lozano, G.(Coordinador): Día Internacional de la Filosofía. México, D. F.: Asociación Filosófica de México
  • Sendón, Victoria (1998.) Feminismo Holístico. Madrid: Cátedra