Feminist Theories

Liberal or Reformist Feminism

  • Concerned with human + civil rights + freedoms of the individual
  • Believe all human beings should have equal rights e.g. same inalienable rights
  • LAWS and POLICIES: believe women can achieve gender equality through these
  • CULTURAL CHANGE: traditional prejudices + stereotypes about gender differences are a barrier to equality so these must change e.g. liberal fem’s reject the idea that women are biologically less competent or rational than men and men are biologically less emotional or nurturing

Sex and Gender

  • Like Anne Oakley, liberal fem’s distinguish between sex and gender:
  • SEX: biological differences e.g. reproductive roles, hormonal and physical differences
  • GENDER: culturally constructed differences e.g. ideas of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’
  • Sex differences seen as fixed; gender differences vary from culture to culture over time
  • So, what is appropriate role for women in one culture may be forbidden in another (culturally dependent)
  • So, liberal fem’s see sexist attitudes and stereotypical beliefs about gender culturally constructed + transmitted through socialisation – so socialisation patterns must change to achieve equality e.g. provide appropriate role models
  • Liberal feminism is an optimistic theory, very in keeping with Enlightenment project. They believe that:
  • Changes in socialisation and culture are gradually leading to more rational attitudes to gender, overcoming prejudices
  • Political action to introduce anti-discriminatory laws and policies steadily producing progress = fairer society
  • Liberal fem’s can be seen as critique of functionalist view of gender roles
  • Instrumental role performed by public sphere of paid work, politics and decision making – involves rationality, detachment and objectivity
  • Expressive role performed by private sphere of unpaid work, labour, childrearing and caring of family members – involves emotion, attachment and subjectivity
  • Liberal fem’s challenge this division as men + women both capable of performing these roles + these traditional gender roles prevent fulfilling lives for both men + women
  • Despite said critique, liberal fem’s theory closest to consensus view of society
  • Recognises gender conflicts, these are not seen as inevitable but simply product of out-dated attitudes

Evaluation of Liberal Feminism

  • Liberal fem’s have provided evidence documenting extent of gender inequality + discrimination so proves reform in areas like equal pay and employment needed
  • But liberal fem’s over-optimistic as they see obstacles as only prejudices of old and irrational laws. They ignore there could be deeper internal causes for women’s oppression. Walby (1997) liberal fem’s offer little to no explanation for overall structure of gender inequality
  • Marxist fem’s and Radical fem’s argue the liberal fem’s fail to see underlying causes for women’s oppression and are naïve to believe changes in attitudes and laws will bring around gender equality alone

Radical Feminism

  • Emerged in early 1970’s – key concept of patriarchy (‘rule by fathers’). Radical fem’s make the following statements:
  • Patriarchy is universal as all known societies are male dominated. Firestone (1974), patriarchy originates in women’s biological capacity to bear and care for infants, role makes them more dependent on men
  • Patriarchy is primary + fundamental form of inequality + conflict; men are women’s main enemy
  • All men oppress women; men benefit from patriarchy

The Personal is Political

  • Patriarchal oppression = direct + personal
  • Occurs in public sphere (work + politics) and private sphere (family + domestic/sexual relations)
  • For radical fem’s personal = political; all relationships have power and is political where one person dominates another. Power relationships = “sexual politics”
  • Focus on sexual or physical violence in personal relationships; has effect of controlling all women (even those not involved) e.g. Brownmiller (1976) fear of rape is a powerful deterrent against women going out alone at night
  • Sexuality: radical fem’s argue women patriarchy constructs sexuality to satisfy men’s desires e.g. women displayed in pornographic ways. Rich (1981) argues men continue to force women into narrow, unsatisfying heterosexuality


  • Patriarchy + women’s oppression reproduced through personal + sexual relationships – said relationships must change to gain women’s freedom
  • Radical fem’s suggest different solutions to obtain this:
  • SEPARATISM: men’s oppression of women mainly seen in intimate domestic relationships so women should live away from men, creating female independence, free from patriarchy. Greer proposes creation of ‘matrilocal’ homes are good alternative
  • CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING: women could share experiences + come to see women can face similar problems = collective action e.g. Slutwalks
  • POLITICAL LESBIANISM: Radical fem’s argue heterosexual couples inevitably oppressive – “sleeping with the enemy”; lesbianism only non-oppressive sexuality

Evaluation of Radical Feminism

  • Their idea of personal is political reveals how intimate relationships can involve domination. Draw attention to areas such as marriage, domestic labour, violence, rape etc.
  • Marxists state class, not patriarchy, is primary form of inequality. Capitalism main form of women’s oppression, not men!
  • They (RF’s) offer no explanation why female subordination tales different forms in different societies + assumes all women are in the same position; ignore class, ethnicity etc.
  • Pollert (1996) concept of patriarchy is of little value as it is a circular argument…
  • Has an inadequate theory of how patriarchy will be destroyed – vague utopian notions of separatism are unlikely to be achieved; Somerville (2000) heterosexual attraction reinforces nuclear family
  • Patriarchy may be in decline as liberal fem’s argue women’s positions have improved recently due to social reforms + changing attitudes
  • Radical fem’s also ignore female violence towards men

Marxist Feminism

  • See women’s subordination as rooted in capitalism. Men may benefit from their subordination, but capitalism is main beneficiary
  • This subordination results of primary role as unpaid homemaker, putting them in economically dependent position
  • Plays an important amount of functions for capitalism:
  • Women are a source of cheap, exploitable labour
  • Women are a reserve army of labour
  • Women reproduce the labour force
  • Women absorb anger – Ansley (1972) describe women as the “takers of shit”

Barrett: the ideology of familism

  • Marxist fem’s agree women’s subordination within the fam performs economic functions for capitalism. But others argue that non-economic factors should be considered to understand change in women’s position
  • Barrett argues we must emphasise women’s consciousness + motivations + role of ideology in maintaining their oppression
  • Why do they marry and live in nuclear families where they’re repressed? B suggests the ideology of ‘familism’…this presents this family type + sexual division of labour as normal/natural. Family portrayed as only place where women can be fulfilled – keeps them subordinated
  • B believes overthrow of capitalism needed BUT that alone isn’t enough to liberate women; must also overthrow familism. This would free the sexes from restrictive stereotypes
  • Mitchell (1975) uses Freud’s psychoanalytic theory to argue that ideas about feminism so deeply implanted in women’s unconscious mind, difficult to remove therefore, even after an overthrow, would still be difficult to move on from patriarchal ideology as it’s so deeply rooted

Evaluation of Marxist Feminism

  • Economic production = important so Marxist fem’s right to emphasise relationship between capitalism and women’s subordination – great understanding
  • Fails to explain women’s subordination in non-capitalist societies as it is also found in these areas so can’t be explained on needs of capitalism alone
  • Unpaid domestic labour may benefit capitalism, but this doesn’t explain why women perform it, not men – Hartmann (1981) Marxism is ‘sex-blind’
  • Places insufficient emphasis on ways men oppress women and benefit from their unpaid labour + this form of labour isn’t proven to be cheapest way of reproducing labour power

Dual Systems Feminism

  • Have sought to combine key features of Marxist and Radical fem’s into one theory
  • An economic system: capitalism
  • A sex-gender system: patriarchy
  • Patriarchal Capitalism – Dual system theorists e.g. Hartmann (1979) see patriarchy and capitalism as intertwined systems that form a single entity
  • These theories accept patriarchy is universal, but they argue it takes a specific form
  •  Must look at relationship between positions in domestic division of labour (patriarchal) and in paid work (capitalism)
  • Walby (1988) capitalism and patriarchy are inter-related but interests of the two aren’t always the same
  • In long run, capitalism usually more powerful + patriarchy takes a strategy of segregation instead: women allowed into capitalist public sphere but only at low status
  • This approach is useful as it shows how the two systems interact
  • However, Pollert (1996) argues patriarchy not a system in the same way as capitalism which is driven by own internal dynamic of profit making, while patriarchy made from range of practices

Difference Feminism and Poststructuralism

  • Don’t see women as single homogeneous group as M-C women, W-C women, white women, black women etc. have different experiences e.g. of patriarchy and racism
  • Difference fem’s argue feminist theory has a ‘false universality’ – claims to be all about women but only focusses on white, Western, heterosexual, M-C women

The Problem of Essentialism

  • Essentialism is the ides that all women share the same fundamental ‘essence’ (share the same experiences of oppression)
  • Difference fem’s argue against other fem’s for being essentialists + they fail to reflect diversity of women’s experiences

Poststructuralist Feminism

  • E.g. Butler and Scott (1992) offer alternative approach; focus on discourses and power/knowledge
  • Discourses = ways of seeing, thinking, speaking about something
  • By enabling its users to define others in certain ways, a discourse gives power over those it defines
  • Knowledge is power – power to define or ‘constitute’ the identities of others

The Enlightenment Project

  • Poststructuralists argue this project is one such discourse (form of power/knowledge)
  • Butler uses this to critique existing feminist theories
  • B argues this project’s ideals are simply form of power/knowledge that legitimated domination by white, Western, middle-class males. These supposedly universal ideals claim to apply to all humanity in reality excluded women + other oppressed groups
  • B also argues that white, Western, middle-class women who dominate feminist movements falsely claim to represent “universal womanhood”
  • Feminists wrong to believe they can adapt the Enlightenment project, so it magically includes all women – don’t share the same ‘essence’
  • For poststructuralists, no fixed essence as our identities constituted though discourses, of which there are many = no fixed entity
  • B argues poststructuralism advantageous to feminism as it allows them to de-construct different discourses to reveal how they subordinate women
  • Different forms of discourse lead to different forms of oppression + different identities + individual experiences
  • So, in B’s view, we reject essentialism + by stressing diversity of discourses, poststructuralism recognises + legitimises diversity of women’s lives, rather than prioritising some and excluding others

Evaluation of Poststructuralist Feminism  

  • Poststructuralism offers theoretical basis for recognising diversity of women’s experiences and struggles
  • Walby (1992) agrees there are differences among women but there are also similarities (all faced with patriarchy)
  • Celebrating differences could divide women into several sub-groups, weakening feminism as a movement for change
  • Segal (1999) criticises poststructuralist feminism as it abandons any idea of real, objective social structures. Oppression not just about discourses, but real inequality. Fem’s should continue to focus on struggle for equality of wealth and income!

Quick-Check Questions

  1. Malestream sociology refers to how society is seen only from a male perspective. 
  2. Liberal feminists are most likely to believe equality can be gained through reforming legislation and changing attitudes.  
  3. Sex refers to biological differences between males and females e.g. their reproductive role and hormonal and physical differences. On the other hand, gender refers to culturally constructed differences between the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ roles.
  4. Radical feminism argues all men oppress all women!
  5. True, Marxist feminists believe gender equalities only benefit capitalism.
  6. Women, supposedly, are a source of cheap exploitable labour and a reserve army of labour. They also absorb anger. 
  7. The oppression of women in the family supports capitalist production by maintaining the current generation of workers and by reproducing and socialising the next generation of workers. Women also provide a cheap reserve army of labour for capitalism. 
  8. Difference feminists argue that feminism needs to consider all women, in many different circumstances, not just white Western women. 
  9. Essentialism refers to the idea that all women share the same ‘essence’ or same fundamental characteristics and experience. 
  10. Firstly, oppression isn’t just about how women are seen, but the result of real structural inequality. Secondly, the feminist movement is weakened by dividing women into many different sub‐groups.