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Where to for feminist social work?


Brid Featherstone

Applied Childhood Studies
University of Huddersfield
Huddersfield, UK




I will locate the emergence of second wave feminist social work, exploring the context in which it developed, whilst making brief reference to its historical antecedents. I will then outline the main parameters of feminist social work as it developed in the seventies, eighties and nineties in the UK identifying its strengths and weaknesses. I will look at key themes within more general feminist writings which, in the opinion of the author, pose fundamental questions about feminist social work as it has developed. I conclude by arguing that whilst understandings of gender are essential in informing social work theory and practice, there are serious questions to be asked about the viability or desirability of feminist social work as it has been conceived hitherto.

The context

Philp's (1979) classic article analysed the conditions in which it was possible for social work to emerge and the forms of knowledge which were possible given when and how social work was formed. In his view the space for social work to emerge lay in the increasingly powerful voice of the working class and the poor during the nineteenth century. The space was initially one between two discourses, that of wealth and poverty, the powerful and the weak. The exclusion which these discourses required could not however be maintained during this period and the first form of social work which was charity, a form of mediation, occurred. Charity and its accompanying philosophy were necessary but not sufficient conditions for social work, however. The basis of charity was the gift as a means of social control. However, that changed with the separation of the classes as the giver and receiver became too separated and isolated and the concept and reality of a relationship between persons disappeared. The Charity Organisation Society was an attempt to deal with this through the tightening up of the Poor Law so that it served as an effective penalty for moral and economic failure and through the use of 'scientific casework' to differentiate between the deserving and undeserving. Visiting also became a means of collecting data and renewing personal contact. However, it was ultimately the failure of this which gave social work its decisive form. With the slump and widespread poverty of the 1880s, it became more difficult to sustain the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving and a distinction between the respectable and the deviant emerged.

According to Philp the final cast of social work was formed here; it occupied the space between the respectable and the deviant, between those with accesss to speaking rights and those excluded. It performed a mediating role not granting the poor automatic rights but engaging through its knowledge in the recognition of social potential. He argues that social work does have a specific form of truth which is not the same as the social sciences, though clearly linked. The social worker creates a subject who is characterised by a universal subjectivity, one which applies to all individuals but no one individual in particular. The subject that is created owes a great deal to anthropological philosophy in the form of an inbuilt belief in the fundamental good of humanity.

Social work has straddled a split between internal subjective states such as pain and objective characteristics such as old age. The knowledge produced under social work's regime of truth is one which describes a process whereby these individual states and objective statuses are transformed into a social subject, a subject marked by his/her capacity for self determination, responsible citizenship etc. Consequently, social work has had an ambivalent relationship with determinism for determinism suggests forces beyond individual control. At the same time as utilising determinist theory to explain why someone has become anti-social, it denies an absolute nature to determinism by showing that with compassion etc these forces can be transcended. In the process of producing a form of knowledge distinct from other disciplines, the social work theorist produces a picture of the individual who is at once subjective and social.

Whilst accepting Philp's analysis historically, Howe (1996) appears to be arguing that matters have now changed. He argues that social work was formed in the first crisis of modernity but that since the sixties modernity has entered a second crisis based on a recognition that social cohesion has not ensued and resulting in an attack on collectivism. Freedom has been reasserted and with it an emphasis on responsibility. This is resulting in massive changes in how social work is administered, managed and practised. Crucially, he argues that 'performance' has become a central principle. Rather than asserting potential the social worker must demonstrate that the performance of the client can be improved in the here and now. He sees this notion of performance also being applied to social workers and social work in the market place.

However, both writers, while containing persuasive observations in my view miss out on a crucial element of analysis - that of feminism in the emergence and development of social work.

Feminism and social work

First-wave feminism was involved in the development of social work in that organised feminism was a liberal reform programme, a programme for the adaption of the family and civil society to new economic conditions because, according to Gordon (1986), consciously or not, feminists at that time felt that these conditions provided greater possibilities for the freedom and empowerment of women. Indeed, Gordon argues in her study of early child protection practice that 'child protection work was an integral part of the feminist as well as the bourgeois programme for modernising the family' (p, 75).

She argues that there has been a 'thick and complex history of feminist involvement in ...moral reform (anti-prostitution) and anti-alcohol movements, in progressive-era campaigns to reform the living and spending habits of the poor, in campaigns for industrial protective legislation and affirmative action,' (p, 65). In an analysis drawn from developments in Boston at the turn of the century she argues that feminists for the last hundred years have been important advocates of modern forms of social control, noting the irony of this in the light of contemporary feminist theoreticians' tendency to almost exclusively condemn social control, an important point which will be returned to later.

As she notes and as is evident in second wave feminist writings on social work, second wave feminists have been often very unhappy about this tradition, locating it primarily as the fault of liberal women. However, her argument is that to locate the problem with liberal feminists is inaccurate and self serving 'as if they were the only individualists and statists, while we had creative communitarian solutions to loneliness, self-destructive behaviour, instrumental and self-aggrandizing behaviour, street violence, public squalor, neglect of the poor and elderly, exploitative commercialization' (p, 65). Furthermore, she argues that in relation to child protection work that the activities and consequences of liberal feminist child protection work were contradictory. Social control agencies and more often individual social workers were able to help at times; battered women were helped ironically even though their problems were technically outside the remit of the child saving agencies- 'Women had the emotional, physical and intellectual potential to leave abusive men, and often a tiny bit of material help, even a mere hint as to how to 'work' the relief, agencies, could turn their aspirations for autonomy into reality' (p, 82). Social control agencies were for some women a tactic in their struggle to change the terms of their continuing powerlessness. However, she recognises that in wrestling with such bureaucracies women often did not get what they wanted but rather someone else's interpretations of their needs.

Gordon's work is important in a number of ways. She reminds us that the emergence of social work was concerned with ethnicity, and with gendered and generational battles as well as class ones; and of the role of reformers and women in that. She also emphasises the agency of clients which offered space for some battles to be won.

I want to turn now to look at second wave feminist involvement in social work in the UK in the last twenty years. If we take Howe's contention that modernity has entered its second crisis, second wave feminism has arisen within this period and, arguably, contributed to this crisis. Howe does not deal with this and consequently his analysis runs the risk of romanticising the past although as we shall see later it captures aspects of what is happening today in important respects. His paper bemoans, for example, the incoherence bedevilling our current social landscape as a consequence, it would appear, of the unbridled rush towards freedom. However, a central and welcome aspect of the last decades has, in my opinion, been the emergence of women's claims to their own own individual biographies (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995). It has however undoubtedly destabilised assumptions about marriage, family, masculinity etc and this is profoundly unsettling.

Certainly, second wave feminism has been far more wide-ranging in its critique than first-wave feminism. In relation to the concerns of social work it has analysed the gendering of modernity and the public/private split which underpins modernity. In contrast to first wave feminism it has been more sceptical, if at times down right critical of the state.

The state has been seen as both repressive and a site for intervention. Considerable stress has been placed on the development of women-only organisations located outside the state, as well as pressure placed on the state to take issues such as sexual violence towards women and children seriously. Consequently, feminist social workers have been placed in complex positions and the power they exercise through their work has been viewed negatively often. Indeed, early writings such as Wilson's (1980) seemed to see no positive or even possible role for feminist social work as an activity carried out under the auspices of the state.

The writings which followed, however, did and there were clear attempts to develop a theory and practice which was distinctive and coherent (see, for example Birmingham Women and Social Work Group 1985). Feminist social work was about working with women - gender was the central social division, 'race' and class were secondary. The development of women's wellbeing was prioritised as was the importance of social workers seeing them as individuals not as wives and mothers. Whilst workers in statutory services could engage in feminist practice, it was organisations such as Women's Aid and Rape Crisis which were located outside the statutory sector which provided the optimal context for empowering practices. Moreover their organisational practices should be adopted by social work departments. Whilst not dismissing individual casework completely there was scepticism about its ultimate usefulness as structural change in how society was organised was the overall goal. Psychoanalytic approaches were viewed with considerable suspicion because of the perceived legacy of mother blaming there. There was tremendous suspicion expressed about men both in their roles as workers and service users as well as the suspicion noted above about social workers' power.

In the eighties feminists in and outside social work became centrally involved in highlighting the issues raised by child sexual abuse. Domestic violence was also raised consistently as an issue that social workers should take seriously. This, however, did not happen until the nineties when feminists were able to make clear links between domestic violence and the welfare of children. (See Featherstone and Trinder 1997 for a critique of this, however).

Attempts to develop an overall feminist social work project, as distinct from approaches which focussed on specific issues, did continue. For example, Hanmer and Statham (1988) espoused the development of an approach which they termed women-centred practice. In this approach there was a recognition of diversities among women but it appeared that they could be incorporated and transcended through the development of egalitarian relationships between women workers and service users. (White 1995). Men continued to be the subject of suspicion in this approach and children generally appeared as the adjuncts of their mothers.

In the nineties more explicit linkages with anti-discriminatory practice emerged. Langan and Day's book published in 1992 looked at a range of oppressions, particularly 'race'. There continued to be a belief here that a universalist theory could be developed which could incorporate all the dimensions of difference within women's situation. However, despite a recognition of the importance of aligning feminist perspectives with anti-discriminatory perspectives, particularly 'race', there was no chapter on men or any acknowledgement that just as the deconstruction of the category 'women' was important, so too was that of the category 'men'.

In the mid nineties a host of critiques of the above emerged . In an important article Wise (1995) argued against some of the central assumptions of feminist social work writing. She argued that non-statutory agencies were inappropriate models to base statutory social work practices upon and that the power which social workers could exercise was potentially positive. She also argued against the suspiciousness with which such power had been viewed by feminist writers. She argued against universalist theorising and for a more contextual approach to theory and practice. She further argued against approaches which assumed women were always the most oppressed in a given situation. White (1995) pointed out that there were considerable difficulties in developing feminist social work practice based on the prescriptions of writers such as Hanmer and Statham. Featherstone (1997) pointed out the rationalism of previous feminist social work writings in terms of the assumptions being made about relationships between women.

Wise's article opened up the thorny and important issue of childrens' needs. Feminists within social work had dealt with this in a number of ways echoing the trends within wider feminism, at times, emphasising the importance of seeing women as individuals, at other times conflating womens' and childrens' needs. As the wider writings on mothering have not had an impact on feminist social work, work in this area remains underdeveloped today. This is partly compounded by the antipathy towards psychoanalysis which has meant that some of the feminist writings such as Parker (1995) and Benjamin's (1995) on mothering, ambivalence and subjectivity have not been explored.

What of men? The issues around men did come onto the feminist social work agenda in the nineties. However, there are difficulties here in my view. Cavanagh and Cree's book (1996), for example, which was one of the first from two feminists, whilst containing some thoughtful chapters, ends with universalist prescriptions for practice such as 'always place women first' and fails to adequately relate to the differences between men and the consequences for practice of taking such differences seriously. Men remain a unitary category. Articles in the Special Issue of the British Journal of Social Work (1998) concentrate on the problematic aspects of men's behaviour such as their involvement in sexual abuse. However, there is virtual silence on matters which are being dealt with in the social policy literature and in popular cultural discussions, such as the future of fathering and the impact of divorce on men, women and children etc.

Overall, at the end of the nineties there continue to be attempts to develop a 'grand project' based on feminism allied with versions of anti-racism, for social work (see, for example, Dominelli 1998). However, I see this as a last gasp and cannot envisage the development of some form of overall feminist social project which tries to develop a universal theory and practice to cover the range of activities covered by social work.

What feminist activity there continues to be in social work has become concentrated in the areas of sexual violence. Here, the dominant approach, (see, for example Mullender 1996) to issues such as domestic violence does however continue within a modernist feminist tradition of grand narratives. There is one explanation for men's violence to women. This explanation can be used to explain all men's behaviour- differences between men are not only irrelevant but it is politically dangerous to interrogate such differences as it may mean the development of approaches which excuse or condone men's behaviour. Furthermore, exploring different explanations for men's violent behaviour is dangerous. Women, in this approach are survivors who generally have the best interests of their children at heart.

Interestingly, the approach to working with violent men advocated by writers such Mullender bears out the aptness of Howe's reflections about what has happened to practice. To recap, Howe argued that a central emphasis in today's climate is on the performance of clients and on developing approaches that improve their performance. Consequently, relationship based approaches which look at why people are behaving as they are, are eschewed in favour of superficial behavioural techniques. Although feminists do think it important to ask why men are violent this is based upon the assumption that they (feminists) know why and that there is one answer to this which needs to be communicated to all including the men themselves. The focus of the work with the men is not to engage them in exploring the complexity of their worlds but rather to get them to see the 'true' reason for their behaviour and to start to behave differently. Consequently, in relation to men it is possible an unholy alliance between certain versions of feminism and managerialism emerging in contemporary social work in the UK.

In this next section I want to briefly signpost some of the insights which have emerged from feminist writers which have hitherto received little attention within feminist social work.

Destabilising thoughts

Here I want to concentrate specifically on what writers such as Flax (1990 and 1990a) are saying particularly about theorising, gender, and subjectivity in order to highlight some of the implications for social work practice, implications which have been ignored or obscured in the feminist and social work literature. I then want to look at the work of a social work theorist who is exploring the implications of gendered changes for social work in new times.

Flax, who locates herself within a project influenced by feminism, psychoanalysis and postmodernism, argues for a sceptical approach to theorising. It is not just that we should abandon attempts at universalist theorising about, for example, trying to understand the position of women within social work. Rather, borrowing from Foucault, she argues for a recognition of the importance of power/knowledge relations. There is no 'innocent knowledge', no knowledge that is not implicated in circuits of power. Now this is farly standard postmodern stuff. However, she introduces a further issue, based on psychoanalytic understandings. She argues that processes of repression and displacement are involved in thinking. Quite simply, we do not allow ourselves, and this is often at an unconscious level, to think about certain issues because they are anxiety provoking, uncomfortable etc.


'From a psychoanalytic perspective the tensions and repressions often found within feminine identities appear to be reflected and played out in feminist discourses as well. Feminist discourse is marked by ambivalence, omissions and gaps. Underlying and partially motivating these gaps are contradictory feelings about sexuality, motherhood, and autonomy that enter into the structure of feminist discourse in its present forms. Anxiety and the need to split off or deny our own ambivalences are revealed in the positing of conceptions such that only one perspective can be “correct” or properly feminist. ........As feminist theorizing is currently practised, we seem to lose sight of the possibility that each of our conceptions of a practice may capture an aspect of a very complex and contradictory set of social relations' Flax, 1990, (p, 179).

Some of the difficulties she argues within feminist theorising reflect and are rooted in feminist difficulties in thinking relationally about gender as well as the ways in which we think or do not think about thinking itself.
This notion of gender as a social relation is very important in my view. She argues that a complex set of social processes are captured by the category 'gender relations'. Quite simply, masculinity cannot be understood except in relation to femininity and visa versa. Furthermore, as these relations are not static but are constituted through ongoing practices, there are ongoing negotiations over time and space about their meaning which changes. She argues that unless we see gender as a social relation rather than a set of opposite and inherently different beings we will not be able to identify women's or men's full part in, and how we are affected by, particular societies.

This does not mean that she does not see gender relations as signified by domination but that we need to understand how women and men together construct gendered social relations. In arguing for this she moves us away from models of women as done to and men as doers ( an argument shared Benjamin (1995) and away from notions that women have been outside history. 'In as much as women have been part of all societies, our thinking cannot be free from the modes of self-understanding of the cultures in which we live. ' ( Flax, 1990, p. 182).

She also uses the same analysis to understand differences between women arguing that 'race' is relational and that black and white women have been constructed in relation to each other. Consequently, for example, white women's theorising whilst not reducible to location must always be interrogated in terms of what is being denied and repressed about whiteness, 'race' and black women and men.

In terms of subjectivity she argues for moves away from a notion of a 'true self', using Foucault's analysis of the role of disciplinary and confessional practices in constructing the notion of the modern self. However, she is also very critical of postmodern writings on the self. She is suspicious of their complete disregard for aspects of the self rooted in intimate social relations. Such social relations are denied in the postmodern insistence on the self as a position in language or an effect of discourses, and repressed in these theories is the centrality of primary relations - particularly with the mother. She asks whether certain postmodern deconstructions of the self may not be simply the latest in a long line of philosophic strategies motivated by a need to evade, deny or repress the importance of early childhood experiences especially mother-child relationships in the constitution of the self and culture. She argues for the notion of a core self which is relational, shifting and contradictory.

Her work obliges us to be cautious about the truth claims we advance, to recognise gender as relational so that we are wary of exploring women in isolation but that also gender is imbricated in other social relations. Feminist theories of whatever hue can illuminate certain aspects of the world but will always be partial and have their gaps and ambivalences. This is particularly important in terms of helping us to understand why feminists in social work can find it difficult, for example, to acknowledge women's violence, ambivalence in mothering or differences within the category 'men'. It also helps us to think about practice - notions of self whilst fictive at a certain level are also important but not fixed. One gets the sense in some of the feminist social work writings of women, particularly service users, having false selves which need re-awakening, and there is little sense of feminist social workers interrogating their own complex and contradictory desires or feelings (see, however, White 1995).

The changing lives of men and women – implications for social work

I want to turn now and look at how social work theorists such as Ferguson (forthcoming) are taking on board the inplications of changing gender relations. Ferguson, using analyses developed by Giddens (1992 )and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) argues for a new way of thinking about social work and the individual versus society in the context of a post-traditional order. Although his analysis is more wide-ranging in scope I will concentrate for the purposes of this paper largely on what he says about the transformation in gender relations and their implications for social work. Giddens (1992) has argued that a transformation of intimacy has occurred in late modernity, a transformation which has been led by women and holds out the possibility of a democratisation of the intimate hitherto unrealised. Within simple modernity, intimate relations were relatively fixed and, Ferguson argues, so was social work. 'For much of the twentieth century men and women essentially knew their place, and the State intervened to ensure that those on the margins did not forget it.' (p, 2). He notes Giddens' observations that marriage and intimate relations were treated as fate rather than as relationships to be negotiated or subject to choice. Men were defined primarily in terms of being good providers and women were defined in terms of motherhood and housewifery.

This has fundamentally changed as a result of a range of factors central to which was the emergence of feminism and the growth of women's participation in the labour force. I have outlined elsewhere (Featherstone 1999) how mothering is being re-thought in the context of an opening up for women of questions relating to identity. This has implication for both workers and service users as they negotiate with each other about mothering practices. Ferguson deals with the implications more broadly. He notes the emergence of what Giddens has called the 'pure relationship'. Such relationships now tend to be entered into and sustained for their own sake for the rewards they bring and if such rewards do not continue we end them, hence the enormous rise in divorce. 'Marriage today, is in principle at any rate, a meeting of equals rather than a patriarchal relation: it is an emotional tie, forged and sustained on the basis of personal attraction, sexuality and emotion, rather than for economic reasons; and it has actively to be 'made to work' by the marital couple' (p, 4). Ferguson acknowledges that this does not mean that all relationships are now organised on this negotiated basis and he fully recognises the work that continues to need to be done on deconstructing power relations and a hegemonic masculinity which still limits women's and children's as well as men's choices in how gender relations are organised and experienced. However, he argues that a structural transformation in intimacy has occurred which has radically altered the conditions in which self-identity is constituted today. A new intimacy has emerged which is concerned above all with emotional communication with others in the context of equal relationships. (Giddens 1992).

This has occurred in a context where the traditional external controls such as the church, family, and tradition itself are absent and individuals are faced with the task of making choices, if not by themselves, then in a context where they seek out and choose the guidance they feel they need (eg. self help groups, counselling etc). The process of individualisation which is occurring here is of course located in a context of job demands, state requirements etc. There are institutional reference points within which people conduct their life planning.

'What is characteristic of the post-traditional era is not that people have to make decisions about their lives, but the increased number of choices that are open to us. Reflexively constructing the self in a post-traditional order is a process pervaded by decisions: whether or not to marry; to stay married; to have children; who will work outside the home if there are children ; one's sexuality can even be chosen' (p, 5).

Giddens argues and Ferguson agrees that against the background of these kinds of social changes and individualization processes a new kind of politics of the personal arises-'life politics'. This is distinguished from emancipatory politics which is a politics of social change and societal transformation. Life politics is concerned with how we should live in a world where everything that used to be natural or traditional has in some sense to be chosen or decided upon ( Giddens 1994).
Ferguson explores the implications for social work by focussing on child protection. He argues that 'the new discursive space surrounding child abuse that has opened up in the public domain since the 1970s has played a significant part in opening up new processes of intervention into traditionally repressed 'private violences', helping to 'detraditionalize' family forms and secrets. Reflexive citizens, actively engaged in constructing their own biographies, have appropriated the knowledge that has come from the new public awareness of violence in intimate relationships and the opening out of expertise and responded by bringing more child abuse cases forward....Women who act as referral agents in cases of intra-familial child sexual abuse, for instance, often responding to the initial disclosures by children of abuse by fathers or relatives, can be seen to be making cricial life-planning decisions' (p,9/10).

He argues that in conditions of simple modernity lay people made decisions to refer themselves to experts like NSPCC Inspectors. Expertise was then more akin to traditional authority. In reflexive modernity expertise is more visible in the sense that the principles on which expert systems are based are routinely opened out for public debate. Furthermore, the nature of the kinds of help people seek today is different. The emphasis is not simply on safety and the securing of rights in some limited sense but on self-actualisation and it is done in a context where the state is not the only resource for help. Self help groups, books etc are all important resources for people. Life politics are, according to him, influencing social work across a range of practices, separation and loss, HIV, adoption work, relationship counselling, mental health work etc.

He argues that attention to this mundane yet, in his view, radical concern with enhancing people's 'mastery' has got lost in social work critical theory amidst a discourse inappropriately preoccupied with power in its hierarchical forms. This is partly because radical social work has been deeply ambivalent about any focus on the individual life. Whilst he argues that life politics contains a much broader more personal universe of action and experience than emancipatory politics interventions into life politics can indirectly contribute to emancipatory politics. Excavation of the past in terms of personal narratives as a means to exploring the present and establishing future plans is a fundamental aspect of therapeutic discourses in late modernity. This personal/individual process mirrors broader social processes. For example he notes that in I reland, child abuse scandals such as the abuse of children in children's homes run by religious orders in the 1950s have been at the centre of detraditionalizing processes. They have served to excavate the pain that was repressed by the traditional order and contributed to clearing away the toxic bonds which held simple modernity and to the loss of faith in hegemonic institutions such as the Catholic Church ' (pp. 14-15).

Ferguson's paper is a very important intervention in my view into contemporary debates about social work. He also puts the transformation of gender relations at the heart of contemporary social processes and invites us to think about what that means for all of us as workers and service users alike and as men and women. It is possible to see feminist social work, although he does not refer explicitly to it, as part of a process which has contributed to the possibilities for self -actualisation for women and opened up to scrutiny the harms that have been caused to children by men. However as he himself notes (personal communication) there are important implications for men as a result of the social changes which are occurring. This can mean that they experience considerable distress as they struggle to find meaning in a bewildering world. Feminist social work, as I have argued, has appeared unable and/or unwilling up to now anyway to think of men as other than problems.

In this last section I want to develop my concerns about this further in the context of thinking about feminist social work for the future.

Feminist social work- where do we go or do we go anywhere from here?

I would wish to argue that feminist social work as it has been developed in the UK is neither a viable nor a desirable project for a social work practice which seeks to understand, think about and transform the contemporary complex social worlds of women, children and men today.

Firstly, its ambitions have been both too grand and too limited. It has sought to develop a theory and practice which can relate to all women, and to a lesser extent children, and it has constructed men almost exclusively as problems. This is simply not viable for workers who need to engage with local contextual situations where pain, distress and exploitation are not always straight forwardly attached to categories. Secondly, the kinds of feminist theories which most of the feminist social work literature bases itself upon are simply too limited. The lack of attention paid to the enormous developments within feminist postmodern writings or feminist psychoanalytic writings has meant the proliferation of accounts of a social world which appears comprised of goodies and baddies, victims and villains. Contemporary feminist work on violence is the most graphic example of this tendency towards binary thinking and in some cases, as I indicated, has meant that an unholy alliance with managerialism emerges.

So where do we go from here?

I can only offer some tentative thoughts.

Firstly, the transformations in gender relations which have occurred have implications for all of us. The most useful analytic tool for holding on to this insight continues to cohere around the notion of gender as a social relation. Categories such as 'men' and 'women' are constituted in relation to each other and crucially through processes of opposition and exclusion. Interrogating what it means to be a man requires us to think about what it means to be a woman and the construction of the category 'man' has involved excluding, repressing and disavowing that which is assigned to 'woman'. Crucially, these categories are neither fixed nor unitary. The constructions are precarious and becoming more so. For example, material and discursive changes have contributed to the widespread destabilisation of 'what it means to be a man' although it is very important not to assume that the category was ever that stable anyway .

Moreover, masculinity has not only been constructed precariously in relation to femininity but is also fractured internally an important recognition for social workers to address. Many of the men who come to the attention of social services are marginalised and impoverished. They are not straightforwardly powerful as much of the feminist rhetoric would have us believe. Feminist social workers have realised the importance of deconstructing the category 'women' but have signally failed to recognise this in relation to men. This omission is not accidental, in my view, as once one starts to do this dichotomised approaches which sustain fantasies about powerful men and powerless women are simply untenable.


Harry Ferguson's unpublished paper received just before I did the talk for this conference proved extremely stimulating as did the conversations we had. This is a very tentative attempt to begin to think through some of the issues his work has introduced me to.



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