Reading: Feminist Theory


Black and white photograph of two female suffragettes holding a poster for the National Woman Suffrage Association.

Over the years, feminist demands have changed. First-wave feminists fought for basic citizenship rights, such as the right to vote, while third wave feminists are concerned with more complex social movements, like post-structuralism.

The feminist perspective has much in common with the conflict perspective and throughout this course, we will typically discuss feminist theory alongside conflict theory, although many consider it deserving of its own classification. Whereas conflict theory focuses broadly on the unequal distribution of power and resources, feminist sociology studies power in its relation to gender. This topic is studied both within social structures at large (at the macro level) and also at the micro level of face-to-face interaction. Because of this micro level study, feminist theory is sometimes grouped with symbolic interactionism. Feminist scholars study a range of topics, including sexual orientation, race, economic status, and nationality. However, at the core of feminist sociology is the idea that, in most societies, women have been systematically oppressed and that men have been historically dominant. This is referred to as patriarchy.

From the early work of women sociologists like Harriet Martineau, feminist sociology has focused on the power relationships and inequalities between women and men. How can the conditions of inequality faced by women be addressed? As Harriet Martineau put it in Society in America (1837):

All women should inform themselves of the condition of their sex, and of their own position. It must necessarily follow that the noblest of them will, sooner or later, put forth a moral power which shall prostrate cant [hypocracy], and burst asunder the bonds (silken to some but cold iron to others) of feudal prejudice and usages. In the meantime is it to be understood that the principles of the Declaration of Independence bear no relation to half of the human race? If so, what is the ground of this limitation?

Feminist sociology focuses on analyzing the grounds of the limitations faced by women when they claim the right to equality with men.

Inequality between the genders is a phenomenon that goes back at least 4,000 years (Lerner 1986). Although the forms and ways in which it has been practiced differ between cultures and change significantly through history, its persistence has led to the formulation of the concept of patriarchy. Patriarchy refers to a set of institutional structures (like property rights, access to positions of power, relationship to sources of income) that are based on the belief that men and women are dichotomous and unequal categories. Key to patriarchy is what might be called the dominant gender ideology toward sexual differences: the assumption that physiological sex differences between males and females are related to differences in their character, behavior, and ability (i.e., their gender). These differences are used to justify a gendered division of social roles and inequality in access to rewards, positions of power, and privilege. The question that feminists ask therefore is: How does this distinction between male and female, and the attribution of different qualities to each, serve to organize our institutions (e.g., the family, law, the occupational structure, religious institutions, the division between public and private) and to perpetuate inequality between the sexes?

Feminism is a distinct type of critical sociology. There are considerable differences between types of feminism, however; for example, the differences often attributed to the first wave of feminism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the second wave of feminism from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the third wave of feminism from the 1980s onward.

At the turn of the century, the first wave of feminism focused on official, political inequalities and fought for women’s suffrage. In the 1960s, the second wave feminism, also known as the women’s liberation movement, turned its attention to a broader range of inequalities, including those in the workplace, the family, and reproductive rights. Currently, a third wave of feminism is criticizing the fact that the first two waves of feminism were dominated by white women from advanced capitalist societies. This movement emphasizes diversity and change, and focuses on concepts such as globalization, post-colonialism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism. Contemporary feminist thought tends to dismiss generalizations about sex and gender (e.g., women are naturally more nurturing) and to emphasize the importance of intersections within identity (e.g., race and gender). The feminist perspective also recognizes that women who suffer from oppression due to race, in addition to the oppression they suffer for being women, may find themselves in a double bind. The relationship between feminism and race was largely overlooked until the second wave of feminists produced literature on the topic of black feminism. This topic has received much more attention from third wave scholars and activists.

Despite the variations between different types of feminist approach, there are four characteristics that are common to the feminist perspective:

  1. Gender is a central focus or subject matter of the perspective.
  2. Gender relations are viewed as a problem: the site of social inequities, strains, and contradictions.
  3. Gender relations are not immutable: they are sociological and historical in nature, subject to change and progress.
  4. Feminism is about an emancipatory commitment to change: the conditions of life that are oppressive for women need to be transformed.

One of the keen sociological insights that emerged with the feminist perspective in sociology is that “the personal is political.” Many of the most immediate and fundamental experiences of social life—from childbirth to who washes the dishes to the experience of sexual violence—had simply been invisible or regarded as unimportant politically or socially. Dorothy Smith’s development of standpoint theory was a key innovation in sociology that enabled these issues to be seen and addressed in a systematic way (Smith 1977). She recognized from the consciousness-raising exercises and encounter groups initiated by feminists in the 1960s and 1970s that many of the immediate concerns expressed by women about their personal lives had a commonality of themes. These themes were nevertheless difficult to articulate in sociological terms let alone in the language of politics or law.

Part of the issue was sociology itself. Smith argued that instead of beginning sociological analysis from the abstract point of view of institutions or systems, women’s lives could be more effectively examined if one began from the “actualities” of their lived experience in the immediate local settings of “everyday/everynight” life. She asked, What are the common features of women’s everyday lives? From this standpoint, Smith observed that women’s position in modern society is acutely divided by the experience of dual consciousness. Every day women crossed a tangible dividing line when they went from the “particularizing work in relation to children, spouse, and household” to the institutional world of text-mediated, abstract concerns at work, or in their dealings with schools, medical systems, or government bureaucracies. In the abstract world of institutional life, the actualities of local consciousness and lived life are “obliterated” (Smith 1977). While the standpoint of women is grounded in bodily, localized, “here and now” relationships between people, due to their obligations in the domestic sphere, society is organized through “relations of ruling,” which translate the substance of actual lived experiences into abstract bureaucratic categories. Power and rule in society, especially the power and rule that constrain and coordinate the lives of women, operate through a problematic “move into transcendence” that provides accounts of social life as if it were possible to stand outside of it. Smith argued that the abstract concepts of sociology, at least in the way that it was taught at the time, only contributed to the problem.

Feminism and Heterosexism

The feminist perspective also criticizes exclusive understandings of sexuality, such as heterosexism. Heterosexism is a system of attitudes, bias, and discrimination that favor male-female sexuality and relationships. At one point, heterosexual marriage was the only lawful union between two people that was recognized and given full benefits in the United States. This situated homosexual couples at a disadvantage, and made them ineligible for many of the government or employer-provided benefits afforded heterosexual married couples. However, heterosexism can extend far beyond government validation, as it describes a set of paradigms and institutionalized beliefs that systematically disadvantage anyone who does not fit into a normative mold. Like racism, heterosexism can operate on an institutional level (e.g., through government) and at an individual level (i.e., in face-to-face interactions). Feminist critiques of heterosexism thus align with queer theory and the ideas of Michel Foucault, who studied the relationship between power and sexuality.

Feminism and Multiculturalism

Though the feminist perspective focuses on diversity and liberation, it has been accused of being incompatible with multiculturalist policy. Multiculturalism aims to allow distinct cultures to reside together, either as distinct enclaves within ostensively Western societies, or as separate societies with national borders. One possible consequence of multiculturalism is that certain religious or traditional practices, that might disadvantage or oppress women, might be tolerated on the grounds of cultural sensitivity. From the Feminist perspective, such practices are objectionable to human rights and ought to be criminalized on those grounds. However, from a multiculturalist perspective, such traditions must be respected even if they seem to directly violate ideas about freedom or liberty. Controversies about this have arisen with both arranged marriages and female genital mutilation.

Watch the following video to get an overview of the feminist theory.