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’.

Patriarchy, figure 1

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. 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:

  1. State (women have been denied access to formal power/representation)
  2. Household (women have been discouraged from pursuing any occupations other than a domestic role)
  3. Violence (women are much more likely to be victims of domestic abuse, which was not even a criminal offence in the past)
  4. Paid work (women are more likely to take jobs in subordinate positions to men, such as assistants, secretaries, nurses)
  5. Sexuality (women have been encouraged to suppress natural sexual desires)
  6. Culture (society reinforces the expected position and role of women through the media)

The personal is political: ‘Politics’ is usually thought of as an interactive activity that takes place in the public sphere of life- activities such as governmental institutions, protest groups and so on. Private life such as the family is usually seen as the private sphere of life and therefore non-political. Second wave feminism, however, insisted that politics takes place wherever there is any kind of human relationship and not merely in public life. Politics is thought to exist wherever social interaction and conflict is found. Millett defined politics as ‘power-structured relationships’. The relationship between state and citizens is therefore clearly political but, relationships such as those between husbands and wives or parents and children are also political.

This understanding of politics is important because it explains the feminist argument of sexual inequality. They claim that inequality and oppression are underpinned by the sexual division of labour that runs through society and has been thought of as ‘natural’ rather than political. Traditionally the public sphere of life such as politics, arts and work have been seen as a male world. The private sphere of life such as the family, home and children have been seen as the female world. If politics only takes place in the public sphere this means that women are excluded from public life/politics.

Feminists have therefore sought to challenge the divide between ‘public man’ and ‘private woman’. However, they have not always agreed on how to do this and what their focus should be. Radical feminists have been the keenest opponents of the idea that politics stops at the front door, arguing that the ‘personal is political’. Female oppression is thought to operate in all walks of life and is preserved and created by the family institution. They have therefore challenged the ‘politics of everyday life’ – for example – child-rearing responsibilities, domestic chores and other so-called ‘female duties’. Liberal feminists focus more on the equality of opportunity in the public sphere. They warn against politicising the private sphere, claiming that this is a place of individual freedom and choice.