Differing views and tensions within feminism
Liberal feminists apply the principles of liberalism to the position of women in society. Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) argued that women should be regarded as rational humans, just as men, so should gain access to education and public life, just like men. JS Mill said that gender is simply an accident of birth, so there should be no distinction/division in society based on gender. Amongst second-wave feminism, Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963) said that a myth existed that women seek fulfilment and security through the domestic sphere. In fact, this causes despair and unhappiness. Women, therefore, needed to be able to (and feel able to) pursue many different types of career, instead of (or alongside) working in the domestic sphere.
Liberal feminists, therefore, demand equal rights for women, which would be the basis for gender equality (the belief that men and women are of the same value so should be treated the same). Equal rights would take different forms- legal equality (law applies to all in the same way); political equality (right to vote and be involved in politics); and equality of opportunity (equal chance to rise and fall in society).
Liberal feminism seeks to open up public life to women, not to change the structure of society. Once women have the same opportunities as men, this will lead to gender equality, and the removal of gender stereotypes (expected ways of behaving, which often have negative consequences for women). This is a reformist type of feminism, seeking to change society gradually, without revolution or upheaval. Less attention is given by liberal feminism to private life, as this is seen as a realm of personal choice which should not be interfered with. The patriarchy, where it operates, is in the form of unequal laws, for example, and discrimination (negative treatment) which arises from it. Introducing the above types of equality will lead to the effects of patriarchy being removed.
Socialist feminism is characterised by the belief that women’s disadvantages can be explained by the socio-economic situation. A key text is Engels’s The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1942), which argued that capitalism has caused ‘the world historical defeat of the female sex’. Oppression occurs through the family structure, which ensures men pass property to their sons.
Family is also oppressive as it allows men to control women’s sexuality. In addition, women are confined to a domestic sphere, serving the interests of capitalism in many ways:
- They are a reserve army of labour, to be utilised when necessary (during times of war, for instance)
- They produce and rear the next generation of workers, for free
- They relieve men of the burden of housework, so men can spend more time on paid employment
- They give men high status in the family, helping them to forget men’s exploitation and frustrations at work
Therefore, socialist feminists have advocated societies where the traditional gender division of labour does not exist. However, there have been divisions over the relative importance of gender and social class amongst socialist feminists. Traditional socialist feminists, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, believe that class is more important. Overthrowing capitalism will lead to female emancipation, because patriarchy is a by-product of capitalism, rather than a separate system of oppression. Modern socialist feminists on the other hand (such as Juliet Mitchell) argue that gender is just as important a division as class, and that capitalism are different, although linked, systems of oppression. Therefore, it would not be enough just to overthrow capitalism in order to free women- so the patriarchy must be addressed and overthrown as well.
This type of feminism emerged as part of the second-wave in the _1960s __and __70s __and sought to uncover the influence of patriarchy on all aspects of life. Key texts include Simone de Beauvoir’s _The Second Sex; Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch; and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. Radical feminists argue that in all walks of life, women are portrayed as inferior and subordinate to men. Greer said that women are conditioned to a passive sexual role, and have, in effect, been castrated, just like a eunuch at a medieval royal court. Embracing their natural sexual desires has been seen as unfeminine or dirty. Millett said that patriarchy is a social constant, running through all societies and structures and that from an early age, boys and girls are conditioned into specific gender identities. Sexual oppression is the most fundamental feature of society, more than other injustices, such as class division or legal inequality, which were the concerns of socialist and liberal feminists.
Patriarchy, for radical feminists, is a systematic, institutionalised, pervasive process of gender oppression. The origins of patriarchy lie in the structure of family and domestic life; therefore, these structures need to be overthrown. Even if this is done, women need to be aware of the fact that other forms of patriarchy may emerge. For example, Naomi Wolf argued in The Beauty Myth (1990) that beauty and the concept of the ‘ideal woman’ emerged due to the increasing challenge of women to men in education and the workplace. By promoting an idealised version of beauty, women can be controlled. As images of beauty are unattainable (for example, by airbrushing images in the media), women are left feeling inadequate, and may turn to eating disorders and suffer from body image issues.
Although many radical feminists focus on removing the unequal treatment of women by overthrowing patriarchy, some radical feminists (difference feminists) emphasise the fundamental and unalterable differences between men and women. Therefore, women should not try to be more like men but should embrace their ‘sisterhood’. Women have different qualities to men, some of which are superior to men, for example, creativity, sensitivity, caring/nurturing. Some, therefore, advocate a retreat from the male, political world and may support political lesbianism.
‘Equality’ radical feminists criticise difference feminism, suggesting that its arguments have been counter-productive, allowing critiques of feminism to paint the ideology as a whole as ‘man-hating’ and turning women (and men) away from feminist ideas.
This emerged as part of third-wave feminism, a term adopted since the 1990s. It emerged due to the raising of new issues for women, and the effect of second-wave feminism. The unifying theme is engagement with the politics of difference (including differences between women), so extending feminism beyond middle-class, white women.
Different groups of women are considered by post-modern feminism, as there is a recognition that it is not just gender which may confer disadvantage, but other issues such as race. For instance, black feminism portrays sexism and racism as linked systems of oppression. ‘Women of colour’ have particular disadvantages not faced by white women, and have actually been marginalised by the mainstream feminist movement. bell hooks argued in Ain’t I a Woman (1981) that black women had the lowest status of any group in American society.
Postmodern feminism questions the very idea of a ‘female identity’, or distinctive women’s experiences, arguing that the experiences of women are so different, and vary so much, that the understanding of women should be much more fluid. Therefore, there is not one way of dealing with female oppression. Similarly, the idea of a common ‘sisterhood’ has been criticised- hooks suggested that this concept had excluded certain groups of women, and discouraged them from speaking up about their experiences. She argued for a greater understanding of these different experiences to establish a genuine ‘sisterhood’.
- To what extent do feminists disagree about the role of the state? (24 marks - 2-3 arguments for and 2-3 against)
- Your answer should include: Liberal / Neutral / Emancipation / Radical / Patriarchy / Public / Private / Socialist / Capitalism / Useful