Equality feminism and difference feminism
Although the goal of feminism is to end sexist oppression, feminists have often disagreed strongly on what this means in practice and how to achieve it. Traditionally women have demanded equality with men and this is often seen as the core of feminism. However, the meaning of the term equality has often divided feminists and some feminists even dismiss the notion of equality altogether in favour of a promotion of difference.
Liberal feminists have supported the notion of public legal equality between men and women so that they can compete on equal terms. This means an equal status in the public realm. Socialist feminists argue that equal legal rights are meaningless unless women enjoy an equal social status. They, therefore, argue that equality must be focused in terms of equal economic power – wages, ownership and the concept of waged and unwaged labour. Radical feminists are primarily concerned with equality in family and personal life. This must mean equal treatment in terms of domestic expectations and responsibilities, sexual expectations and the control of one’s body and reproductive processes. Despite these differences, all feminists are united in viewing gender differences/discrimination as negative. They are all seen in this sense as equality feminists as they all want some form of equality between the sexes. They see this discrimination as the fault of patriarchal attitudes in society. They want to liberate women from ‘difference’.
Difference feminism, on the other hand, embraces the concept of a natural difference between the sexes. They see the concept of equality as either undesirable or impossible. To want to be equal with men implies that you are ‘male identified’, meaning that women’s goals are defined by male standards of life. Their goal is, therefore, to be female-identified. This means to overthrow the negative attitudes of men (competitiveness and aggression) and design society around female characteristics (empathy and compassion). They subscribe to a ‘pro-woman’ position that argues that the sexes are different and that that difference is important. They see this difference as not a socially learned character but a biological difference that creates different types of people (‘essentialism’). They argue that women should celebrate their ‘natural’ characters and look to develop society in these ways against the negativity of male characteristics. An extension of this view is that to be truly female-identified, a woman must have a relationship with another woman, as all heterosexual relationships involve an unequal balance of power, favouring the man. This is the concept of political lesbianism- sexual orientation as a political choice.
Other feminist groups have strongly criticised this position, arguing that the view of difference feminists, that women are ‘naturally’ different to men, was the very reason used to justify the negative treatment of women in the past, and undermines the progress made by the feminist movement.
Intersectionality: This is associated with third-wave feminism. Proposed by Kimberle Crenshaw, it challenges the idea that ‘gender’ is the single determining factor determining a woman’s fate. She argued that the experiences of black and working-class women are quite different from those of white middle-class women, however first and second-wave feminism mostly reflected the interests and experiences of this group.
‘Women’ are not a homogenous category of people who all think, feel and experience the same things. Similarly, the experience of patriarchy will not be the same for a white middle-class woman and a working-class Muslim woman, for example. Therefore, feminism should aim to expand its focus to consider the particular experiences of different types of women.
Feminist views on:
- Human nature: most feminists believe that human nature is moulded by nurture not nature and that gender roles are created, not innate. Therefore, with education and addressing patriarchy, human nature will restore to balance and equilibrium. Difference feminists argue that men cannot be reformed and their human nature is pre-disposed to dominance over women. Some feminists now would wish to celebrate and value feminist characteristics of human nature as distinct and prized.
- State: many feminists view the state as synonymous with male dominance and patriarchy. Liberal feminists, however, see the state as a way to construct rights and provide equality for women in public life, for example in the areas of politics and employment. Socialist feminists see the state as a supporter of the capitalist system which in turn fosters patriarchy, so for this group, the eradication of the capitalist state is the only thing that will abolish patriarchy.
- Society: all feminists regard patriarchy as pervading all types of society. Men have huge advantages in society controlling the political economic and social spheres of life. Therefore, in society women are fundamentally disadvantaged. Feminists have therefore campaigned against the barriers to women’s oppression and to overcome gender bias and raise the position of women as equal partners in society alongside men. Some feminists feel that it is not possible in the current society to advance the cause of women. Therefore, a separate ‘women only’ society must be created where women live apart from men certainly for a period of re-education.
- Economy: socialist feminists see the capitalist economy as the prime vehicle which supports female subjugation, this economic system has to fall before women can rise to be equals. Liberal feminists feel that capitalist economies have moved to give equal opportunities for women (equal pay and discrimination laws) in economic life. However, despite this formal equality some still argue that there is a ‘glass ceiling’ which still limits women in capitalist economies. Many feminists feel that the position of women in developing economies are much worse than those enjoyed by women in the west. In such economies, the exploitation and position of women is almost medieval.