Feminism is characterised by the belief that gender is the most significant division in society, and a desire to overthrow any disadvantage conferred due to sex. Feminism is seen as having emerged and occurred in three distinct ‘waves’:
- First wave (1850s-1940s) concentrated on removing formal forms of inequality, such as unequal voting rights
- Second wave (1960s-1980s) recognised that the removal of legal and political inequalities had not removed other forms of injustice and unfair treatment of women, so attempted to politicise women’s personal lives as well
- Third wave (1990s) was concerned with the experiences of different groups of women, recognising that traditionally, feminism tended to reflect the concerns and interests of white middle-class women
It has been suggested that feminism has entered a fourth wave, which is a reaction against inequality if media portrayals of women, and issues arising from the expansion of social media, such as online misogyny. Feminism is marked out as a distinct ideology by the proclamation of the central importance of gender and gender divisions, which other ideologies had not addressed. These ‘conventional ideologies’ were criticised as ‘difference blind’, or for being patriarchal. Despite this unifying theme feminism includes many different traditions, such as liberal, socialist/Marxist, radical, and others. Feminism is therefore sometimes characterised by fragmentation (and internal opposition to the ideas of different feminists), but, core themes can be identified.
Historically, it was believed that gender differences in society are natural; that women and men fulfil different roles in society that nature designed them to do. A women’s physical design means that she is suited to a subordinate and domestic life. This idea is that ‘biology is destiny’. However, feminists argue that women and men adopt certain roles, such as the child-carer and the breadwinner, because it is expected of them, not because it is a natural function. In reality, domestic responsibilities could be undertaken by the husband or shared.
Feminists have traditionally challenged the idea of ‘biology as destiny’ by claiming there is sharp distinction between sex and gender. Sex refers to the fixed biological difference between men and women. The most important fixed differences are clearly anatomy and the ability to reproduce. Gender is a cultural or socialised term. It refers to the different roles that society attributes to men and women. These differences are imposed on people through the stereotypes of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, ‘femininity’ being characterised by a passive, subordinate role. Simone de Beauvoir claimed, ‘women are made, not born’. Feminists argue that gender differences in people are created by a society that is dominated by patriarchy and that biological differences do not fix gender. They claim that there is no necessary link between the two.
Many feminists believe that human nature is androgynous (neither ‘masculine’ nor ‘feminine’). All human beings inherit the genetics of both their mother and father and therefore have the capacity for both male and female traits. They accept that sexual differences but insist that they have no social / political significance. Women and men should not be judged by their sex but as individual people. The goal for many feminists is therefore to achieve genderless ‘personhood’. Highlighting the difference between sex and gender is vital for feminists. Not only can they try end stereotyping that causes the oppression of women but also try to break down learned gender roles and social expectations.
‘Difference feminists’ disagree with other feminists, suggesting that there is a natural / essential difference between men and women. This ‘essentialist’ perspective suggests that cultural differences do reflect biological differences, and that these differences reflect different characteristics.
Feminists believe that gender (just like any other social division such as race or class) is a politically significant issue. Indeed, radical feminists argue that gender is the most important social division. Feminists have therefore advanced the theory of sexual politics in much the same way that socialists argue the idea of class politics. They highlight sexism as a form of oppression similar to racism. Conventional political analysis has failed to recognise sexism as important and, as a result, feminists have had to create their own theories.
Feminists use the concept of the ‘patriarchy’ to describe the power relationship between men and women. The term literally means ‘rule by the father’. Feminists use the term to simply describe the structure of the family and the dominance of the husband / father. They argue that the dominance of the husband symbolises male supremacy in all other institutions of life. Many argue that the family and the male dominance of it lies at the heart of the systematic process of the male dominance of women, as it reproduces this problem in all other walks of life- because the family shapes attitudes. Patriarchy is usually therefore used in a broader way to mean ‘rule by men’. Millet claimed that it contains two principles- ‘male shall dominate female’ and ‘elder males shall dominate younger’.
The concept of patriarchy is however a broad one. Feminists agree that men have dominated women in all societies but to differing degrees. They argue that in western counties the position of women significantly improved during the twentieth century. However, in other parts of the world there is still the cruel and violent domination of women by men.
Liberal feminists use the term to describe the unequal distribution of rights and entitlements in society. It represents the underrepresentation of women in senior positions and professions, so they support policies such as affirmative action (such as all-women shortlists) to create a more level playing field for women. Socialist feminists argue that patriarchy is focused on economic domination and inequality. Some socialist feminists reject the term arguing that inequality is a consequence of capitalism and the class system. Radical feminists stress the importance of patriarchy, seeing it as a systematic and powerful tool of male domination that oppresses all women. Walby (1990) proposed six structures of patriarchy:
- State (women have been denied access to formal power/representation)
- Household (women have been discouraged from pursuing any occupations other than a domestic role)
- Violence (women are much more likely to be victims of domestic abuse, which was not even a criminal offence in the past)
- Paid work (women are more likely to take jobs in subordinate positions to men, such as assistants, secretaries, nurses)
- Sexuality (women have been encouraged to suppress natural sexual desires)
- Culture (society reinforces the expected position and role of women through the media)