If you have a gender communication course on your campus you may have heard students refer to it as a “women’s class,” or even more misinformed, as a course in “male bashing.” When professors that teach this course hear such remarks, they are often saddened and frustrated: sad because those descriptors define the course as an unsafe place for male students, and frustrated because there is often a common misconception that only females are gendered. Courses in gender and communication serve as powerful places for both female and male students to learn about their own gender constructions and its influence on their communication with others.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the popular misconception that gender is exclusively female is that it has somehow been linked with the other f-word—-feminism. What sorts of images or thoughts come to mind when you hear or read the word feminism? Are they positive or negative? Where did you learn them? Is this a label you would use to define yourself? Why or why not?
Just as gender is not synonymous with biological sex, it is also not synonymous with feminism. As we stated earlier, gender refers to the socially constructed definitions of what it means to be female or male in a given culture. Feminism is a socio-political and philosophical position about the relationships between men, women and power. As a result, there is not one kind of feminism (Lotz; Bing; Marine), thus this section is entitled feminisms. Just as members of republican, democratic, green, and independent political parties disagree and agree about values, causes of social conditions, and policy, so do feminists. Below we provide brief descriptions of thirteen types of feminism. These are not all the feminisms that exist but some of the most common in which you may have already come into contact.
- Liberal Feminism. Liberal Feminism is one of the most common types of feminism and is institutionalized in the organization, the National Organization of Women (NOW). Basic beliefs of this position are that women and men are alike in important ways and should receive equal treatment. Accordingly, supporters work for causes such as “equal pay for equal work,” gender equity in political representation, as well as equality in other social, professional, and civic causes. This is movement is often referred to as second wave feminism.
- Radical Feminism. Growing out of a discontentment with their treatment in New Left political movements of the 1960’s, many women began addressing issues of oppression on a systematic level. They argued that oppression of women is a platform on which all other forms (race, class, sexual orientation) of oppression are based. Communication strategies such as “consciousness raising” and “rap groups,” and positions such as the “personal is political” grew out of this movement.
- Ecofeminism. Coming into consciousness in 1974, Ecofeminism unites feminist philosophy with environmental and ecological ideas and ethics. Ecofeminists see the oppression of women as one example of an overall oppressive ideology. Thus, supporters of this position are not just concerned with ending oppression of women but changing the value structure that supports oppression of the earth (i.e. deforestation), oppression of children (i.e. physical and sexual abuse), and oppression of animals (i.e. eating meat.).
- Marxist Feminism. Stemming from the work of Karl Marx, Marxist feminism focuses on the economic forces that work to oppress women. Specifically, Marxist feminists question how a capitalist system supports a division of labor that privileges men and devalues women. If you thought that women were catching up to men economically, think again. The U.S. census found that the salary gap between men and women is not improving. In 2014 women earned 78 cents for every dollar men made – the yearly wage difference could be about $39,157 for women and $50,033 for men. This is a classic example of economic oppression of women in our society.
- Socialist Feminism. Extending Marxist feminist thought, Socialist Feminists believe that women’s unpaid labor in the home is one of the fundamental causes of sexism and oppression of women. Moreover, patriarchy, the system of sex oppression is connected with other forms of oppression, such as race and class.
- Womanist. One criticism of liberal and radical feminism is that these two movements have been largely a movement for and about white women. These movements have often failed to address issues such as the interlocking nature of race, class, and sex oppression. Womanists, then, connect issues of race and sex when working against oppression.
- Lesbian Feminism. This type of feminism is connected with one’s sexual orientation. Important issues for this feminist perspective include fighting for marriage and adoption rights, fair and safe treatment in the workplace, and women’s health issues for gay and lesbian couples.
- Separatist Feminism. Instead of fighting against the patriarchal system, this position maintains that patriarchal systems of oppression cannot be changed. Thus, the best way to deal with patriarchy is to leave it. Separatists work toward the formation of women-centered communities that are largely removed from the larger society.
- Power Feminism. Power Feminism emerged in the 1990’s and urges women not to be victims. Power is derived not by changing a patriarchal structure but by gaining success and approval from traditionally male dominated activities. Although it labels itself feminist, this position is actually contradictory to some very basic feminist tenants. Instead of recognizing the interplay of cultural institutions and sexual oppression, Power Feminism takes a “blame the victim” position and asserts that if women are denied opportunity then it is their fault.
- Revalorist Feminism. Those who are Revalorist Feminists are dedicated to uncovering women’s history through writings, art, and traditional activities such as sewing. Once uncovered, they can be incorporated into educational curriculum, used as a basis for reevaluating existing theoretical and methodological perspectives, and receive a more positive or accepted place in society. Their approach is to move women’s positions, ideas, and contributions from the margin to the center.
- Structural Feminism. Unlike Liberal Feminists who contend that women and men are alike in important ways, Structural Feminism holds that men and women are not alike due to different cultural experiences and expectations. These different experiences produce dissimilar characteristics. Because women can bear children, for example, they are more nurturing and caring.
- Third Wave Feminism. Third Wave Feminism believes the best way to change patriarchy is to not replicate the strategies of second wave feminism, although it is vital to acknowledge their contributions. Instead, a feminist agenda should focus more on practice than theory, foster positive connections and relationships between women and men, and be inclusive of diversity issues and diverse people.
- Post Feminism. Post Feminism suggests that feminism has made sufficient progress at eliminating sexism in our society. There is a move away from sex (women and men) and a focus on the human experience. Though its members aren’t in 100% agreement of the meaning, they generally agree that feminism is over and we have reached equality. However, there is much disagreement about post feminism because many women and men experience inequality daily.
Just as there are many women’s movements, did you know that there are men’s movements too? Men’s movements also vary in their goals and philosophies. Some men’s movements are strong supporters of feminist positions while others resist feminist movements and seek to return to a time where sex roles were clearly defined and distinct. Just as women can consider themselves feminists, many men consider themselves as feminists too!
- Pro-Feminist Men. Pro-feminist men are the most closely aligned with the Liberal Feminist position. They share the belief that women and men are alike in important ways, thus, should have access to equal opportunities in work, politics, and the home. They do not stop at challenging the traditional roles for women. They also work for expanding the roles and opportunities of men. The ability to express emotions, to seek nurturing relationships, and to fight against cultural sexism are all concerns of Pro-Feminist Men. The organization NOMAS (National Organization for Men Against Sexism) represents this group of men.
- Free Men. Compared to Pro-Feminist men, Free Men – represented by organizations such as NOM (National Organization of Men), the National Coalition for Free Men, and MR, Inc. (Men’s Rights, Incorporated) – seek to restore the macho and independent image of men in culture. While they may acknowledge that women do suffer gender and sex oppression, the oppression leveled at men is far greater. Arguing that feminism has emasculated men, Free Men want women to return to roles of subordination and dependence.
- Mythopoetic. Founded by poet, Robert Bly, this group of men is a combination of the previous two perspectives. Although they believe that the man’s role is limiting and damaging to both men and women, they argue that there was a time when this was not the case. Masculinity, they claim, was originally tied to connection with the earth and it was the advent of technology, resulting in modernization and industrialization, and feminism that ripped men from their roots.
- Promise Keepers. Strongly aligned with a Christian belief system, Promise Keepers urge men to dedicate themselves to God and their families. They ask men to take a servant leadership role in their families, being involved in their homes as well as in work contexts.
- Million Man March. Like the Womanists who believe that a majority of feminisms do not adequately address issues of race and class oppression, many African-American males do not feel represented in the majority of men’s movements. Thus, on October 18, 1995, the leader of the nation of Islam, Minister Louis Farrakhan, organized the Million Man March to bring African American men together in Washington, D.C. Like, the Promise Keepers, this group asked men to dedicate themselves spiritually with the belief that this will help strengthen families. Since the march, two decades ago, people gather to observe the Holy Day of Atonement and reflect on the messages spoken that day and the ideas they wish to spread.
- Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. This annual event raises awareness of sexualized violence against women–by men. It was founded in 2001 by Frank Baird as a mile walk for men in women’s heels. The idea is to get men to walk the walk and then talk the talk to end sexualized violence. It is not only an event to raise awareness of violence against women but to offer resources to those needed and ultimately creating a united gender movement.
With the different groups or philosophical positions all communicating aspects of gender, the next section examines how gender is related to communication. Specifically we discuss what we study, gender development theories, prominent scholars in this specialization, and research methods used to study gender and communication.