Explaining Increasing Female Crime in the later half of the 20th Century: The Liberationist Perspective

Freda Adler proposed that the emancipation of women and increased economic opportunities for women lead to an increase in the female crime rate. Her basic idea was that as women attain social positions similar to men, and as the employment patterns of men and women become similar, so too do their related crimes. Adler claimed to have found a cross-national correlation between levels of women’s economic freedoms and their crime levels.


One evaluation of Adler is found in the Marginalistaion Thesis which states that women’s Liberation has indeed lead to increased job opportunities for women, but women are much more likely to be employed in part-time and/or low paid jobs which are unrewarding and insecure. This has  led to the creation of a ‘pink collar ghetto’ – with women suffering higher levels of economic deprivation than men.

NB The Marginalisation thesis might not actually contradict Adler’s Liberation Thesis – if you apply Strain Theory.

Is Kim Kardashian a Feminist Icon?

Just a brief post to get you thinking about different types of Feminism – is Kim Kardashian a Suitable Role Model?

Kim Kardashian – Feminist Icon?

Feminist and Labour MP Harriet Harman recently revealed that she was a fan of Kim Kardashian on Good Morning Britain – saying that she liked the way the Kardashians’ controlled their own agendas and made their own decisions.


She was soundly criticised by some who believe that Kim Kardashian simply encourages young women to aspire to only fur coats and cars,  and suggesting that flashing your crotch and baring your bum is a good way to get all that.

Labour MP Harriet Harman – Kim Kardashian Fan?

A counter criticism is this – in contrast to many topless models who are controlled by an editor, the Kardashians do their own thing for themselves, they exploit their ‘erotic capital’ – and this is what many men have done in the past – such as Brad Bit and Zayn Malik getting their shirts off – and no one bats an eye-lid. So any criticism of Kim Kardashian is just a reflection of sexism – the policing of women’s bodies and not men’s.

The inaccessibility and vacuousness of the Kardashians is also a problem for many Feminists – this simply isn’t an accessible way for most women to make it in life: Kim Kardashian is a millionaire’s daughter and only gets attention because the media and fashion industry profit from it, not everyone can do this.

What do you think? Based on the above arguments, is Kim Kardashian feminist icon?


It is of course possible that Harriet was just trying to give the impression that she’s down with popular culture – something which doesn’t always wash if you remember this painful media-event:

Tony Blair ‘smashing it’ with Oasis at Downing Street


12 Facts about Gender Inequality

Evidence from Kat Banyard  (2010) The equality illusion– the truth about women and men today, Faber and Faber.


Today it is normal for women to worry about their looks. Girls have starkly different relationships to their bodies than boys – they put greater emphasis on how attractive their bodies are to others – for boys physical prowess – what he can actually achieve is more important than looks. Banyard cites the following evidence to support her view that women are more concerned about their looks than men –

1. 1.5 million people in the UK have an eating disorder – 90% of them women and girls

2. A survey conducted by Dove of 3000 women found that 90% of them wanted to change some aspect of their body with body weight and shape being the main concern.

3. One in four women has considered plastic surgery.

4. An analysis of animated cartoons shows that female characters are far more likely to be portrayed as physically attractive than male characters and those who are attractive are far more likely to be portrayed as intelligent, employed, happy, loving and involved in kissing and hugging.

5. In 2007 a survey of Brownies aged 7-10 were asked to describe ‘planet sad’ they spoke of it being inhabited by girls who were fat and bullied about their appearance.

6. A survey conducted in 2009 found that a quarter of girls thought it was more important to be beautiful than clever. – Youngpoll.com

7. The more mainstream media high school students watch,  the more they believe beauty is important according to the American Psychological Association.

8. The media furore over Susan Boyle was mainly because she didn’t conform to the female stereotype of beauty.

9. In 2009 the Bank of England held a seminar for its female employees called ‘dress for success’ – where they were informed, amongst other things, to ‘always wear make up’, there was no such equivalent for men

10. Some studies have shown that the more a girl monitors her appearance, the less satisfied she will be with her appearance.

11. Two thirds of women report having avoided activities such as going swimming or going to a party because they feel bad about their appearance while 16% of 15 -17 year olds have avoided going to school for the same reason.

12. One experiment found that female students performed worse in maths tests when wearing a swim suit compared to regular clothes while boy’s performance doesn’t decrease under the same conditions

Analysis – what Banyard actually thinks is wrong/ harmful about this situation…

‘The existence of a suffocating ideal of beauty has persisted and it has remained a gendered phenomenon. Women are judged on their ability to conform to a beauty ideal – there is a cultural pressure to manipulate their bodies to fit into a pre-existing ideal – to treat your body as an object that will be consumed by an observing public (This is known as objectification)

While some Feminists argue that the Feminine pursuit of beauty is simply a matter of choice – women freely choose to do it (Baumgardner) others (Jefferys) argue that the practise of beautification reflect and perpetuate gender inequalities – women put effort into displaying their femininity/ sexuality because they are relatively powerless – and those women that do engage in the practise of beautification perpetuate the idea that a woman’s value is in her beauty.

Millions of girls and women begin their days with beautification rituals because their sense of self hinges on the gaze of others. If your sense of self esteem depends on what you think others think of your appearance, can you really be said to have freedom of choice? Also, can you really say women are equal to men in this respect?

One of the reasons for the persistent problems of body image faced by females is that girls are taught from a very young age that their physical appearance is a reflection of their worth and value, and treated accordingly.

Feminist Perspectives on Society – A Summary Grid

feminism definition

Topic Area


A2 Main Ideas

Feminism the Basics:

  • Gender inequality primary lens for analysis

  • Gender is socially constructed

  • Patriarchy is one of the root causes of sex inequalities

  • Feminism is a political movement

Liberal Feminism

  • Socialisation main cause, not structures

  • What change within the system

  • Seek to eradicate discrimination and stereotyping

Radical Feminism

  • The structure of Patriarchy

  • Patriarchal ideology

  • Rape and Violence as tools of control

  • Radical Libertarian Feminists/ Radical Cultural Feminists

  • Political Lesbianism and Separatism

Marxist Feminism

  • Capitalism main source of oppression, capitalists the main beneficiaries

  • Women reproduce the labour force

  • Women take the shit

  • Men more dependent on wages

  • Ideological conditioning

  • Working class and women should work together

Difference Feminism

  • Do not see women as a single homogenous group

  • Criticised preceding feminist theory for claiming a ‘false universality’ (white, western heterosexual, middle class)

  • Sees Feminists theory – essentialist and part of the masculinist Enlightenment Project

  • Look at discourses and the relationship between power and knowledge rather than ‘politics and opportunities’

  • Helene Cixoux – a destabilising theorist

Research Methods Implications

  • Liberal/ Marxist – Prefer quantitative research – trends and bigger picture

  • Radical – mixture of qualitative and quantitative/ also consciousness raising and activism

  • Postmodern – Deconstruction and critique of male language/ researching and celebrating diversity to challenge gender norms.

How they understand family life

  • Liberal – Inequality is primarily to be tackled through improving equality of opportunity in work, politics and education, not the family

  • Marxist – the nuclear family structure and women’s oppression with in it primarily benefits capitalism, and stems from capitalism

  • Radical – The heterosexual nuclear family is one of the main structures through which men oppress and control women – through everything from the dual burden through domestic violence (see Germaine Greer as an example)

How they understand underachievement in education

  • Liberal – The gender gap in education is one of the strongest pieces of supporting evidence for Liberal Feminism

  • Marxist – Gender stereotypes in subject choice still result in a gender pay gap in later life as women go into lower paid jobs

  • Radical – Gender Regimes still make up part of the hidden curriculum – sexual harassment for example often goes unchallenged in schools (Kat Banyard)

Topic Area


How they understand crime and deviance

  • Hegemonic Masculinity is one of the fundamental drivers of crime (Messerschmitt)

  • Violence against women is one of the primary sources of control of women

  • The courts fail to prosecute and put the ‘victim on trial’ which perpetuates violence against women

  • Cultural norms around sexuality serve to control women – The Beauty Myth and the sexual double standard

Key Studies and Examples to use to illustrate

  • The correlation between economic growth and gender equality in wider society supports Liberal Feminism, and criticises Marxist and Radical Feminism.

  • The Equal Pay Act, Divorce Act, Equality Act and Maternity and Paternity Acts are all good examples of policies which liberal feminists support.

  • The gradual trend towards gender equality in the UK supports liberal feminism

  • The Gender Pay gap – and lack of women in control of Corporations supports Radical Feminism

  • The prevalence of the Beauty Myth supports radical Feminism

  • Stats on anorexia and ‘planet sad’ support radical feminism

  • Stats on Domestic Violence tend to support Radical Feminism

  • Stats on harassment from the Everyday Sexism Project supports radical feminism

  • The link between poverty, sex-trafficking and prostitution supports radical feminism

  • ‘Slutever’ is a case study supporting difference Feminism

  • Documentaries on ‘sex work’ support Difference Feminism

  • Bake off supports difference Feminism (and criticises Liberal Feminism


  • Liberal – Based upon male assumptions and norms such as individualism and competition, and encourages women to be more like men and therefor deny the ‘value of qualities traditionally associated with women such as empathy.

  • Liberal – is an ethnocentric perspective – based mostly on the experiences of middle class, educated women.

  • Radical – The concept of patriarchy has been criticised for ignoring variations in the experience of oppression.

  • Radical – Patriarchal systems existed before capitalism, in tribal societies for example

  • Difference – Walby, women are still oppressed by objective social structures – namely Patriarchy

  • Difference – Dividing women into an infinite number of sub-groups which weakens the movement for change.

Key Concepts

  • Patriarchy

  • Patriarchal ideology

  • Gender scripts

  • Hegemonic masculinity

  • The Beauty Myth

  • Dual Burden/ Triple Shift

Key Studies/ Evidence

  • The global gender gap

  • DV statistics

  • The Everyday Sexism Project

  • Pointlessly gendered products

  • The gender pay gap

  • Only 1/5 MPs are female

Related Posts 

Feminist Perspectives on Society (Summary Sheet)

Feminist Perspectives on the Family

A Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

A Radical Feminist Perspective on the Family

A Feminist Perspective on Education

Liberal, Marxist and Radical Feminist Perspectives on Society: An Introduction

covering views on causes of inequalities, solutions, key thinkers and evaluations.

Liberal, Radical and Marxist and Feminism are the three main types of feminism, with different explanations for sex and gender inequalities and related strategies for social change.

This distinction between the three main types of feminism is common in A-level sociology and first year degree social studies, and it is also usual to add a fourth type which is postmodern (also known as difference) feminism.

Most contemporary feminists would balk at the idea of generalising Feminist theory into three (or four) basic types because part of Feminism is to resist the tendency towards categorising things, but for the purposes of A-level sociology, these three/ four are types what you need to know!

Liberal, Radical and Marxist Feminism: Simplified

  • Liberal Feminism – aims to achieve gender equality between men and women through social policy reforms, within the system.
  • Marxist Feminism – argues capitalism structures patriarchy, bringing down capitalism is the main goal.
  • Radical Feminism – patriarchy exists in all institutions. All women share common interests against all men, brining down patriarchy is the goal.
Mind map summarising liberal, marxist and radical feminist theory

There follows below more detailed accounts of each of these three feminist theories with links as appropriate.

You might also like this summary post on FOUR types of feminism (including difference/ postmodern feminism) which bullet points the information below.

Liberal Feminism

Liberal Feminism is the original form of Feminist theorising and activism, dating back to the time of Mary Wollonstonecraft. 

The central aim of liberal feminism is to improve and defend women’s rights through identifying inequalities between men and women and reforming these inequalities. 

Liberal Feminists believe that the main causes of gender inequality are ignorance and socialisation. They do not believe that social institutions are inherently patriarchal and believe in a “March of Progress” view of gender relations. They believe that men and women are gradually becoming more equal over time and that this trend will continue.

As evidence liberal feminists point to legal reforms they have campaigned for which have successfully promoted equality such as winning the vote for women and the sex discrimination act (1970).

Liberal Feminists are especially keen to emphasise the beneficial effects which women going into paid work has had on gender equality over the last 50 years especially: the pay gap is nearly 0 for women and men aged between 18-34 and dual earner households are now the main type of household in the UK and this is correlated with increased gender equality in other sectors of social life such as education and the family.

Within education, boys used to outperform girls, but now girls outperform boys in nearly every subject and at every level of education and within the family, evidence shows men are doing a greater share of domestic labour (housework, childcare), decision making is becoming more equal and that male and female children are socialised in a much more similar manner with similar aspirations.

Liberal feminists are the most likely to prefer positivist, statistical methods and have a tendency to measure progress towards gender equality using quantitative indicators such as the pay gap between men and women, educational achievement gaps and the proportions of men and women in parliament. 

Liberal Feminists believe research can be value free and freed from malestream bias with sufficient care. 

Solutions to remaining gender inequalities

Liberal Feminists do not seek revolutionary changes: they want changes to take place within the existing structure. 

Greater equality for women is to be achieved through reform of the mainstream liberal democratic capitalist order and reform is mostly sort through official, legal means, especially through campaigning for equality legislation. 

Examples of the reformist political campaigns that liberal feminists have focused on include:

  • Winning voting rights for women. 
  • Equal pay legislation 
  • Increasing financial independence for women. 
  • Cultural changes which promote mutual respect. 

Thus from a liberal feminist perspective, all the major barriers to gender equality have been broken down over the last century and since women now have equal opportunities to enter the workforce and politics, we have effectively achieved legal gender equality in the UK and there is very little else that needs to be done.

Only relatively minor changes need to be made to advance gender equality further, it’s a matter of tweaking social policy rather than radical and drastic systemic level changes.

We find Liberal Feminism embedded in mainstream political institutions such as the Equal Pay Commission and a major current focus of contemporary liberal feminism is the ‘glass ceiling’ as legislation hasn’t yet effectively narrowed the promotion prospects or differences in pay and bonuses between men and women at the higher end of professional life.

Evaluations of Liberal Feminism

On a positive note, Liberal Feminist ideas have probably had the most impact on women’s lives. It is hard to deny that gender equality has improved in many countries through reform rather than the more radical changes Marxist and Radical feminists argue we need.


One easy criticism of the liberal feminist view is that it is ethnocentric – it only really reflects the experiences of white, middle class women.

Liberal feminism tends to treat gender differences as sex differences. Liberal feminists campaign for equal rights between biologically female women and biologically male men, it has little or no interest in campaigning for greater gender equality in the broader sense of equality for people across sexualities or sexual identities. It focuses on biological sex, not issues of gay or trans equalities.  

Liberal Feminism uncritically accepts male-centred constructions of the existing social order including definitions of what it means to be a human being. It accepts deeply held malestream concepts and divisions such as male/ female and sex/ gender divides, something which postmodernist feminists in particular object to.

Marxist Feminism

Marxist Feminism connects Marxist notions of the relations of production to social relations of biological reproduction, focusing on the way childbirth and child care have economic ramifications. 

Marxist Feminists see the exploitative social relations of production as the main focus. Capitalism subordinates and exploits both the working classes and all women, both upper and lower class females. 

The most exploited group is working class women who are exploited by the whole of the ruling class and working class men and a working class housewife’s work is exploited by both her husband and the broader forces of the capitalist economy. 

In the mid twentieth century women were relatively marginalised from the public sphere (work and politics) and relatively confined to the private world of domestic work. Under capitalism the type of labour associated with the domestic sphere such as cooking, cleaning and tidying was not recognised as work at all, leading to the widespread view that women were merely consumers, dependent on the income from the ‘real work’ of their husbands. 

A main focus for marxist feminists in the 1970s was ‘housework’ which was seen as the intersection of class and gender based modes of exploitation. 

Housework was not regarded as real work, and thus unpaid, because of the structure of the capitalist system. It was primarily women who did this work for free, never pausing to think that they might even be paid for it. While male breadwinners benefited directly from the free labour of their female partners, the main beneficiary was the capitalist economy: women provided for the domestic needs of men so they could keep serving the needs of the system through doing paid work. 

Essentially capitalism required that all women be put into the housewife role and be exploited, but this was disguised by an ideology that saw housework as naturally women’s work. 

For further information see the marxist feminist perspective on the family.

The increasing amount of women going into work is not interpreted as liberation from ‘domestic tyranny’ by Marxist feminists, but rather capitalism seeking out cheaper forms of labour to exploit. 

Women are often found in low-paid, low-skilled, part-time, insecure work and the existence of a class of all women who are disadvantaged is a structural necessity for capitalism, so the relative disadvantages women face at work compared to men can’t be solved by legislation as liberal feminists claim. 

Marxist Feminism: Key thinker

Fran Ansley (1972) argued women absorb the anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism. Ansley argued women’s male partners are inevitably frustrated by the exploitation they experienced at work and women were the victims of this, including domestic violence. She famously coined the phrase ‘women as the takers of shit’ to describe their domestic roles.

(The Roots of Marxist Feminism)

Marxist (or more broadly socialist) feminism can trace its roots back to the late nineteenth century and has had a complex relationship to communist and socialist movements over the last century and a half. 

Engel’s (1978/ 1884) pioneering work is the starting point for further attempts to formulate a materialist feminism that sought to apply Marxist concepts to understand the nature of sex and gender based exploitation. 

Engels initially argued that throughout history women have been both economically and politically subordinated by men. Successive modes of production have been structured to control women in terms of their work and their reproductive capacities. Women have been exploited differently to men because of their capacity to give birth. 

Marxist Feminism – solutions to gender Inequality

For Marxist Feminists, the solutions to gender inequality are economic – We need to tackle Capitalism to tackle Patriarchy. Softer solutions include paying women for childcare and housework – thus putting an economic value on what is still largely women’s work, stronger solutions include the abolition of Capitalism and the ushering in of Communism.

They are more sensitive to differences between women who belong to the ruling class and proletarian families. Marxist Feminists believe that there is considerable scope for co-operation between working class women and men and that both can work together.


Marxist feminism is too narrowly focused on issues of the economy and work and downplays issues which are not economic in nature. 

Marxist feminism is reductionist in that it subordinates gender exploitation to economic exploitation within capitalism. One obvious criticism of this idea is that women’s oppression within the family existed before capitalism and in communist societies.

Postmodernist feminists argue that there are more complex issues feminism needs to deal with surrounding gender and culture which Marxist feminists dismiss as just ideologies of capitalism.

Radical Feminism

Radical Feminism began to be influential in the late 1970s and argued that the focus of feminism should be on patriarchy, defined as a social order wholly and primarily structured around the interests of males. 

For radical feminists patriarchy runs through multiple social institutions simultaneously: from politics through work, education and the family.

Patriarchy was seen to have its root in both physical and symbolic violence against women. Domestic violence was seen not as an accident arising from the dispositions of particular men, but a structural feature of the current family set up, and pornography was seen as a symbolic expression of a society centred around control of and hatred of women.

In essence many marxist concepts were reworked by radical feminists: social structural explanations, ideology and highlighting the hidden nature of oppression.

Against Liberal Feminists they argue that paid work has not been ‘liberating’. Instead women have acquired the ‘dual burden’ of paid work and unpaid housework and the family remains patriarchal – men benefit from women’s paid earnings and their domestic labour. Some Radical Feminists go further arguing that women suffer from the ‘triple shift’ where they have to do paid work, domestic work and ‘emotion work’ – being expected to take on the emotional burden of caring for children.

Rape, violence and pornography are also methods through which men have secured and maintained their power over women. (Andrea Dworkin, 1981). For evidence of this, Radical Feminists point to the ‘dark side of family life’ –  According to the British Crime Survey domestic violence accounts for a sixth of all violent crime and nearly 1 in 4 women will experience DV at some point in their lifetime and women are much more likely to experience this than men..

Rosemarie Tong (1998) distinguishes between two groups of radical feminist:

  • Radical-libertarian feminists believe that it is both possible and desirable for gender differences to be eradicated, or at least greatly reduced, and aim for a state of androgyny in which men and women are not significantly different.
  • Radical-cultural feminists believe in the superiority of the feminine. According to Tong radical cultural feminists celebrate characteristics associated with femininity such as emotion, and are hostile to those characteristics associated with masculinity such as hierarchy.

Key Thinker: Kate millet

Kate Millet’s sexual politics (1) is one of the most famous works of this period in which she analysed the existence of patriarchy in eight different ways:

  • ideological
  • biological
  • sociological (social, such as in the family)
  • class
  • Economic and educational
  • Force (violence)
  • Myth and religion
  • psychological

Radical Feminism: Solutions to gender inequality

Radical Feminists argued there was a universal sisterhood of all women because women had common interests against all men and engaged in consciousness raising so that individual women could see how patriarchy really worked. 

Radical Feminists see the traditional nuclear family as particularly patriarchal, and advocate its abolition and the establishment of alternative family structures and sexual relations.

The various alternatives suggested by Radical Feminists include separatism – women only communes, and matrifocal (female centred) households. Some also practise political Lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual relationships as “sleeping with the enemy.”

Radical feminists have often been actively involved in setting up and running refuges for women who are the victims of male violence.

Evaluations of Radical Feminism

It Ignores the progress that women have made in many areas e.g. work, controlling fertility, divorce.

The power of men is overstated primarily because of a failure to recognise differences in power between men, for example class based differences. 

They failed to recognise the role of money in some forms of exploitation: pornography for example.

Postmodern Feminists criticise the idea that there is a universal sisterhood of all women with shared interests.

Signposting and Related Posts

I usually teach this as part of my introductory block in the very first two weeks of A-level sociology.

Students should read this introduction to Feminism post first of all.


Inglis, D (2015) An Invitation to Social Theory

Kate Millet (1969) Sexual Politics

Gender Roles, Domestic Labour and Power Relationships – Topic Overview

Families and Households Topic 4 – Changes within the family

Gender Roles, Domestic Labour and Power Relationships

Overview of the topic and sub-topics

In this topic we look at the extent to which relationships between men and women have become more equal, focussing on the following three areas:

4.1. To what extent are gender roles characterised by equality?

4.2. To what extent is the Domestic Division of Labour characterised by equality?

4.3. Issues of Power and Control in Relationships

4.4. To what extent has women going into paid work resulted in greater equality within relationships?

Key Concepts

  • Conjugal roles

  • Segregated conjugal roles

  • Joint conjugal roles

  • Instrumental roles

  • Expressive roles

  • The symmetrical family

  • The ‘march of progress view’

  • The Domestic Division of Labour

  • The ‘New Man’

  • Dual burden

  • Domestic Violence

  • Intenstive Mothering

  • Superdads

  • Gender norms

  • Liberal Feminism

  • The commercialization of housework

  • Emotion work

  • Gender scripts

  • Triple shift

Selected Short Answer Questions

  • Suggest three ways in which families are becoming more ‘symmetrical’

  • Suggest three reasons why families may be becoming ‘more symmetrical’

  • Outline three pieces of evidence that criticize the view that the family is becoming more symmetrical

  • Suggest two reasons why a gendered division of labour still exists between some couples

  • Suggest three ways in women going into paid work has influenced domestic relationships

  • Suggest three ways in which men may still have more power than women in domestic relationships

  • Suggest three reasons why official statistics on domestic violence may be inaccurate

  • Suggest three reasons why domestic violence occurs

Possible Essay Questions

  • Examine the factors affecting power relations between couples (24)

  • Assess the view that modern relationships are becoming more symmetrical (24)

The Feminist Perspective on Education (UK Focus)

The Feminist perspective on Education

Liberal Feminists celebrate the progress made so far in improving girls’ achievement. They essentially believe that the ‘Future is now Female’ and now that girls are outperforming boys in education, it is only a matter of time until more women move into politics and higher paid, managerial roles at work.

Radical Feminists, however, argue that Patriarchy still works through school to reinforce traditional gender norms and to disadvantage girls – Add in details to the notes below.

  1. Some Radical Feminist Sociologists see concern over boys’ relative underachievement as a ‘moral panic’. Boys have still been improving their achievement in the last thirty years, just not as fast as girls. The Feminist argument is that the focus on education at the moment on ‘raising boys achievement’ reflects a male dominated system panicking at the fact that old patriarchal power relations are starting to break down.

  1. Despite improvements in girl’s education – subject choices still remain heavily gendered, and girls do not seem to be ‘breaking the glass ceiling’.

  1. Feminists would also draw on the above research which suggests that traditional gender norms are reinforced in schools, to the disadvantage of girls.

  1. Recent research suggests that despite girls doing well at school – girls are increasingly subject to sexist bullying, something which is becoming worse with the ‘normalisation of pornography’. Read the extract from Kat Banyard over page for more details and consider how common such incidents are today. Read the extract provided for details

Extract from Kat Banyard’s “The Equality Illusion”

Chapter 2 – Hands up for A gendered Education

While girls are discouraged from using their bodies on the sports field, they often find their bodies at the centre of another unwelcome kind of activity. Chloe was one of the many women and girls I heard from during the course of my research into violence at school. ‘I had boys groping my en masse. It wasn’t just at break times – in class as well. Sometimes they used to hold me down and take it turns, it was universally accepted. Teachers pretended they didn’t notice. I would regularly hang out in the toilets at break time. I felt pretty violated; it made me hate my body.’ Having now left school, Chloe can pinpoint exactly when the sexual harassment began. ‘When my breasts grew. I went from an A to an E cup when I was fourteen.’ It became a regular feature of her school day, mostly happening when the boys were in groups. ‘People would randomly scream ‘’slut’’. One boy told me that he has a fantasy that he wanted to tie me up and viciously rape me. He was a bit of an outcast. But when he said that all the boys were high-fiving him. He got serious street-cred for saying it.’’ Classrooms are training grounds for boys aspiring to be ‘real men’ and girls like Jena and Chloe are paying the price. Humiliating and degrading girls serves to highlight just how masculine boys really are. And so, sexist bullying and sexual harassment are an integral part of daily school life for many girls.

Hayley described to me how some of the boys at her secondary school were using new technologies to harass girls. ‘They try and take pictures with their camera phones up you skirt while you’re sitting at your desk. Nobody knows what to say. They wouldn’t want to provoke an argument.’ Boys also access internet pornography on school computers. Hayley said, ‘in year seven and eight it’s quite common. Even the boys you wouldn’t expect you see getting told off by teachers for it.’ Similarly Sarah remembers pornography being commonplace at her school; ‘Every student was asked to bring in newspaper articles. Many boys saw this as a great opportunity to bring in newspapers such as the Sun, Star, Sport etc and make a point of looking at, sharing and showing the countless page-three-style images. Sarah was ‘extremely upset on a number of occasions when boys who sat near me in class would push these pages in front of me and make comments. Most of the time all the forms of harassment went completely unchallenged; I don’t think (the teachers) ever paid any attention to sexual harassment.’

The consequences for girls who are sexually harassed or assaulted at school can be devastating. Depression and loss of self-esteem are common. If girls experience repeated sexual harassment they are significantly more likely to attempt suicide. In fact the trauma symptoms reported by adolescent girls subject to sexual harassment have been found to be similar to those descried by rape victims. Yet despite the fact that sexual harassment is shown to have a more damaging impact on victims than other forms of school bullying, teachers are less likely to intervene in incidences of the former. Why? The sexual harassment of girls is viewed as ‘normal’ behaviour for the boys. And it is precisely this naturalising of the act, this insidious complacency it elicits, which has enabled sexist bullying and harassment to flourish in classrooms across the world.

Sociological Perspectives on Social Policy and the Family

Sociological Perspectives influence ideas about social policies. Views range from the New Right who believe in policies to support the traditional nuclear family to Radical Feminists, some of whom argue for the abolition of the nuclear family.

Sociological Perspectives on the family include Functionalism, Donzelot’s conflict perspectives, Liberal and Radical Feminism, the New Right and New Labour.

There are several social policies you can apply these perspectives too: everything from the 1969 Divorce Act to the 2022 marriage act.

Perspectives on family policy summary:

The two grids below summarise what family policies different sociological perspectives might support or criticise.

summary grid on sociological perspectives on family policy
summary grid on sociological perspectives on family policy

The main blog post below goes into much more depth….

The Functionalist View of Social Policy and The Family

Functionalists see society as built on harmony and consensus (shared values), and free from conflicts. They see the state as acting in the interests of society as a whole and its social policies as being for the good of all. Functionalists see policies as helping families to perform their functions more effectively and making life better for their members.

For example, Ronald Fletcher (1966) argues that the introduction of health, education and housing policies in the years since the industrial revolution has gradually led to the development of a welfare state that supports the family in performing its functions more effectively.

For instance, the existence of the National Health Service means that with the help of doctors, nurses, hospitals and medicines, the family today is better able to take care of its members when they are sick.

Criticisms of the functionalist perspective

The functionalist view has been criticised on two main counts:

  • It assumes that all members of the family benefit equally from social policies, whereas Feminists argue that policies often benefit men more than women.
  • It assumes that there is a ‘march of progress’ with social policies, gradually making life better, which is a view criticise by Donzelot in the following section.

Adapted from Robb Webb et al

A Conflict Perspective – Donzelot: Policing the Family

Jacques Donzelot (1977) has a conflict view of society and sees policy as a form of state power and control over families.

Donzelot uses Michel Foucault’s (1976) concept of surveillance (observing and monitoring). Foucault sees power not just as something held by the government or the state, but as diffused (spread) throughout society and found within all relationships. In particular, Foucault sees professionals such as doctors and social workers as exercising power over their clients by using their expert knowledge to turn them into ‘cases’ to be dealt with.

Donzelot applies these ideas to the family. He is interested in how professionals carry out surveillance of families. He argues that social workers, health visitors and doctors use their knowledge to control and change families. Donzelot calls this ‘the policing of families’.

Surveillance is not targeted equally at all social classes. Poor families are much more likely to be seen as ‘problem families’ and as the causes of crime and anti-social behaviour. These are the families that professionals target for ‘improvement’.

For example as Rachel Condry (2007) notes, the state may seek to control and regulate family life by imposing compulsory Parenting Orders through the courts. Parents of young offenders, truants or badly behaved children may be forced to attend parenting classes to learn the ‘correct’ way to bring up children.

Donzelot rejects the Functionalists’ march of progress view that social policy and the professionals who carry it out have created a better society. Instead he sees social policy as oppressing certain types of families. By focussing on the micro level of how the ‘caring professions’ act as agents of social control through the surveillance of families, Donzelot shows the importance of professional knowledge as a form of power and control.

Criticism of Conflict perspectives

Marxists and Feminists criticise Donzelot for failing to identify clearly who benefits from such policies of surveillance. Marxists argue that social policies generally operate in the interests of the capitalist class, while Feminists argue men are the beneficiaries.

Adapted from Rob Webb et al

The New Right and Social Policy

The New Right have had considerable influence on government thinking about social policy and its effects on family. They see the traditional nuclear family, with its division of labour between a male provider and a female home maker as self-reliant and capable of caring for its members. In their view, social policies should avoid doing anything that might undermine this natural self-reliant family.

The New Right criticise many existing government policies for undermining the family. In particular, they argue that governments often weaken the family’s self-reliance by providing overly generous welfare benefits. These include providing council housing for unmarried teenage mothers and cash payments to support lone parent families.

Charles Murray (1984) argues that these benefits offer ‘perverse incentives’ – that is, they reward irresponsible or anti-social behaviour. For example –

  • If fathers see that the state will maintain their children some of them will abandon their responsibilities to their families
  • Providing council housing for unmarried teenage mothers encourages young girls to become pregnant
  • The growth of lone parent families encouraged by generous welfare benefits means more boys grow up without a male role model and authority figure. This lack of paternal authority is responsible for a rising crime rate amongst young males.

The New Right supports the following social polices

  • Cuts in welfare benefits and tighter restrictions on who is eligible for benefits, to prevent ‘perverse incentives’.
  • Policies to support the traditional nuclear family – for example taxes that favour married couples rather than cohabiting couples.
  • The Child Support agency – whose role is to make absent dads pay for their children

Criticisms of the New Right

  • Feminists argue that their polices are an attempt to justify a return to the traditional nuclear family, which works to subordinate women
  • Cutting benefits may simply drive many into poverty, leading to further social problems

Feminism and Social Policy

Liberal Feminists argue that that changes such as the equal pay act and increasingly generous maternity leave and pay are sufficient to bring about gender equality. The following social policies have led to greater gender equality:

  • The divorce act of 1969 gave women the right to divorce on an equal footing to men – which lead to a spike in the divorce rate.
  • The equal pay act of 1972 was an important step towards women’s independence from men.
  • Increasingly generous maternity cover and pay made it easier for women to have children and then return to work.

However, Radical Feminists argue that patriarchy (the ideal of male superiority) is so entrenched in society that mere policy changes alone are insufficient to bring about gender equality. They argue, for example, that despite the equal pay act, sexism still exists in the sphere of work –

  • There is little evidence of the ‘new man’ who does their fair share of domestic chores. They argue women have acquired the ‘dual burden’ of paid work and unpaid housework and the family remains patriarchal – men benefit from women’s paid earnings and their domestic labour.
  • Some Feminists even argue that overly generous maternity cover compared to paternity cover reinforces the idea that women should be the primary child carer, unintentionally disadvantaging women
  • Dunscmobe and Marsden (1995) argue that women suffer from the ‘triple shift’ where they have to do paid work, domestic work and ‘emotion work’ – being expected to take on the emotional burden of caring for children.
  • This last point is more difficult to assess as it is much harder to quantify emotion work compared to the amounts of domestic work and paid work carried out by men and women.
  • Class differences also play a role – with working class mothers suffering more because they cannot afford childcare.
  • Mirlees- Black points out that ¼ women experience domestic violence – and many are reluctant to leave their partner

New Labour and Family Policy

New Labour was in power from between 1997 – 2010. There are three things you need to know about New Labour’s Social Policies towards the family

1. New Labour seemed to be more in favour of family diversity than the New Right. For example –

  • In 2004 they introduced The Civil Partner Act which gave same sex couples similar rights to heterosexual married couples
  • In 2005 they changed the law on adoption, giving unmarried couples, including gay couples, the right to adopt on the same basis as married couples

2. Despite their claims to want to cut down on welfare dependency, New Labour were less concerned about ‘the perverse incentives of welfare’ than the New Right. During their terms of office, they failed to take ‘tough decisions on welfare’ – putting the well-being of children first by making sure that even the long term unemployed families and single mothers had adequate housing and money.

3. New Labour believes in more state intervention in family life than the New Right. They have a more positive view of state intervention, thinking it is often necessary to improve the lives of families.

For example in June 2007 New Labour established the Department for Children, Schools and Families. This was the first time that there was ever a ‘department for the family’ in British politics.

The Government’s aim of this department was to ensure that every child would get the best possible start in life, receiving the on-going support and protection that they – and their families – need to allow them to fulfil their potential. The new Department would play a strong role both in taking forward policy relating to children and young people, and coordinating and leading work across Government and youth and family policy.

Key aspects included:

  • Raising school standards for all children and young people at all ages.
  • Responsibility for promoting the well-being, safety, protection and care of all young people.
  • Responsibility for promoting the health of all children and young people, including measures to tackle key health problems such as obesity, as well as the promotion of youth sport
  • Responsibility for promoting the wider contribution of young people to their communities.

This post has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology, and is one of the main topics in the families and households module, usually taught in the first year of study.

Related posts include:

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A Radical Feminist Perspective on the Family

the norm of the traditional, privatised nuclear family can disadvantage women who would be more free in women only households.

Radical feminists see society as patriarchal: all social institutions are systematically structured to run in the interests of men and to maintain male power over women.

The traditional nuclear family is seen as one of the most important institutions which subordinates women to male power by putting women into the roles of housewives and mothers, through which they become financially dependent on men.

Physical violence against women is one of the main ways male domination over women is maintained and the ideology of the the privatised nuclear family makes it easier for men to commit domestic violence. If the family is private in makes it easier for domestic violence to continue on, hidden away from public view.

Precisely because the family is supposed to be private, victims of domestic violence are reluctant to report crimes against them and friends, neighbours and state agencies reluctant to investigate.

For radical feminists men and women have different interests and part of the radical feminist strategy is consciousness raising to help women realise this. Part of this involves challenging women’s ideas that the nuclear family set up is good, and getting them to question whether they need to have children or families at all.

Some radical feminists have suggested that in order to combat patriarchy women need to live in radically alternative family structures: such as women only households or even adopting lesbian relationships.

Germaine Greer – The Whole Woman and The Family

Germaine Greer (2000) argues that the family continues to disadvantage women. She focuses on looking at the role of women as wives, mothers and daughters.

Women as Wives

Greer argues that there is a strong ideology suggesting that being a wife is the most important female role. The wives of presidents and prime ministers get considerable publicity, but often have to be subservient to their husbands. Such a role demands that the woman…

‘Must not only be seen to be at her husband’s side on all formal occasions, she must also be seen to adore him and never to appear less than dazzled by everything he may say or do. Her eyes should be fixed on him but he should do his best never to be caught looking at her’.

Radical feminist criticism of marriage

This inequality is mirrored in most marriages. Greer argues that marriage reinforces patriarchal relations from the outset. What she refers to as the ‘ghastly figure of the bride’ expresses traditional conceptions of femininity and once the honeymoon period is over marriage settles into a pattern in which husbands spend more time outside of the home compared to the wife (reinforcing the gendered public-private divide), spends more money on himself, does less housework and generally does better out of the relationship. Wives tend to see it as their job to keep the husband happy, while the husband thinks he has done all he needs to keep his wife happy just by consenting to marry her.

It is typically women who are more likely to think they need to be married in order to be happy, but in reality this is a myth. In fact it is men who do better out of marriage than women. Married men report higher levels of satisfaction than non-married men, while single women report higher levels of satisfaction than married women.

Three quarters of divorces are initiated by women, which has led to a decline in the stable married-family in recent years. Greer sees this as a good thing because the illusion of traditional family life was built on the silence of suffering women.

Women as mothers

Greer consents that motherhood can be intrinsically satisfying she argues that it is not valued by society. She says ‘mothers bear children in pain, feed them from their bodies, cherish and nourish and prepare to lose them’. Children are expected to leave their mother’s home when quite young and to ow their mothers little or nothing in return. Many of the elderly who die of hypothermia are mothers, yet their children accept no responsibility for helping to support them. Society attaches no or little value to motherhood:

‘Mother’ is not a career option; the woman who gave her all to mothering has to get in shape, find a job, and jeep young and beautiful if she wants to be loved. ‘Motherly is a word for people who are frumpish and suffocating’.

Greer suggests at least the following pieces of evidence to demonstrate that mothers are undervalued in society:

  1. In childbirth, the attention focuses mostly on the well-being of the child. The mother’s health takes a back-seat.
  2. Mothers and babies are generally not welcomed in society – in restaurants and public transport for example.
  3. Women are expected to return to work shortly after giving birth, on top of all of the child care duties.
  4. The feminine ideal is to be slim and hipless, while broad hips and the blossom of maternity are seen as monstrous. Women are expected to ‘regain their figure’ shortly after childbirth.
  5. After all is said and done the final role for mothers is to take the blame if their children go bad. Single mothers are here singled out for special attention.

Women as daughters

According to Greer men expect to exercise control over women and expect them to service their needs. Greer argues that daughters are quite likely to experience sexual abuse from their fathers, step-fathers and other male relatives and that this is a particularly horrendous form of patriarchy and is an extension of male heterosexuality.

She believes that such abuse is very much more common than most of us think and that ‘it is understood that heterosexual men fancy young things, that youth itself is a turn-on, but no-one is sure how young is too young. Why after all are sexy young women called ‘babes’?

Solutions to patriarchal families

While Greer does not believe that women should cut themselves off from men altogether she thinks they would be better off in matrilocal households, where all the adults are female. She believes such households have a lot to offer women, especially if they incorporate the many older women currently living alone.

Evaluations of radical feminism

A problem with Greer’s work is that it makes sweeping generalisations which are not backed up by evidence. In fairness it took me a while to find the above picture of the Camerons, most of them seem to involve them looking at each other, rather than her looking at him.

Jennifer Somerville in particular is very critical of Greer, arguing that she does not take into account the progress women have made in terms of family life in recent years.

This 2019 comparative study of the subjective well being of men and women in cohabiting and married relationships found that married women and men are no happier than those cohabiting, so at the very least we can say marriage doesn’t make you happier, and thus maybe isn’t necessary!

Evidence supporting radical feminism

Women still do more housework and childcare than men

In 2022 women did 30 minutes more housework per day than men and an hour per day more childcare.

According to a 2021 YouGov survey  38% of women in full time work say they are primarily responsible for childcare and housework compared to only 9% of men. 

Around 40% of men and women say they share domestic chores and housework equally. 

Things haven’t changed since 2017. 

Same sex couples share domestic chores more equally

One (2020) study: Same Sex Couples Division of Labour from a Cross National Perspective  found that both male and female same-sex couples divide their domestic chores more equally than opposite sex couples, and female couples share more equally than male couples. 

It also found that where paid work is concerned male couples do more paid work than females: suggesting broad support for gender role socialisation norms carrying on into adulthood independently of the heterosexual family. 

The shocking maternity laws in the U.S.A

25% of women in the U.S. have to return to work two weeks after childbirth (1) because their employers only give them the minimum of two weeks statutory maternity pay. 

This affects women in low-paid jobs more, professional women are far more likely to get more generous maternity packages. 

The problem is with social policy in America: the law only requires companies provide a minimum of two weeks paid leave, it’s a good example of social policy not working for women. 

(1) (2020) Why one in four women in the U.S. return to work two weeks after childbirth 

Related Posts

This material is mainly relevant to the families and households topic within A-level sociology.

Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)

The Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

The Marxist Feminist perspective on the family

Marxist Feminist Perspectives on Family Life

women do housework and childcare for free and this benefits capitalism.

Marxist Feminists argue that the exploitative relations of capitalism are what causes exploitative patriarchal relations within the family.

Individual men may benefit from the unpaid domestic labour and childcare which mainly women do, but it is the capitalist system within is the main cause of women being in the subordinate housewife and mother roles.

It is ultimately capitalism which needs to be brought down in order for patriarchal relations within the family to cease.

marxist feminism
Marxist Feminism

Women’s free domestic labour benefits capitalism

A main focus for marxist feminists in the 1970s was ‘housework’ which was seen as the intersection of class and gender based modes of exploitation. 

Housework was not regarded as real work, and thus unpaid, because of the structure of the capitalist system. It was primarily women who did this work for free, never pausing to think that they might even be paid for it. While male breadwinners benefited directly from the free labour of their female partners, the main beneficiary was the capitalist economy: women provided for the domestic needs of men so they could keep serving the needs of the system through doing paid work.

To Quote Margaret Benston:

‘The amount of unpaid labour performed by women is very large and very profitable to those who own the means of production. To pay women for their work, even at minimum wage scales, would involve a massive redistribution of wealth. At present, the support of the family is a hidden tax on the wage earner – his wage buys the labour power of two people’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).

In other words, all of the chores associated with the traditional, expressive role, such as domestic labour, child care and emotion work are necessary to ‘keep the family going’ and so women’s unpaid work ultimately ends up benefiting the capitalist class, because they only have to pay the male breadwinner a wage. The woman attends to the husband’s needs and ‘keeps him going’ as a worker for free.

A related point here is made by Fran Ansley who sees the emotional support provided by men as a safety valve for the frustrations produced in the husband by working in a capitalist system:

‘When wives play their traditional role as takers of shit, they often absorb their husband’s legitimate anger and frustration at their own powerlessness and oppression.’

(NB This analysis is essentially a more critical view of Parson’s ‘warm bath theory’ – the theory of the stabilisation of adult personalities – in Marxist-Feminist terms this is not ‘different but equal’ roles, it is a case of different an unequal – and this inequality benefits capitalism)

Also, because the husband has to pay for his wife and children he cannot easily withdraw his labour power even if he is exploited. This reduces his bargaining power in relation to his employer and makes it more likely that he will put up with a low wage rather than risk being sacked by striking for a higher wage.

As an economic unit the nuclear family is a valuable stabilising force in capitalist society. Since the husband-father’s earnings pay for the production which is done in the home, his ability to withhold labour is much reduced’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).

The reproduction of labour power

Capitalism also benefits from women being the primary child carers. As with domestic work childcare is done mainly by women for free, and from a marxist-feminist perspective this is women bringing up the next generation of workers for the capitalist system.

The traditional nuclear family not only physically reproduces cheap labour for the the ruling class, it also teaches the ideas that the Capitalist class require for their future workers to be passive.

Diane Feeley (1972) argues that the family is an authoritarian unit dominated by the husband in particular and adults in general. The family has an ‘authoritarian ideology which teaches passivity, not rebellion and children learn to submit to parental authority thereby learning to accept their place in the hierarchy of power and control in capitalist society.

Ideological conditioning

Ideologies about domestic work and childcare being naturally women’s work are mainly responsible for keeping this system in place.

Back in the 1970s at least women generally didn’t question their roles as housewives and mothers.

Evaluations of the Marxist Feminist Perspective on The Family

Marxist-Feminism has too narrow a focus on the role of economics in ‘causing’ patriarchal relations at home. This is a problem when women are in subordinate domestic roles in many pre-capitalist societies, suggesting patriarchy is a more general problem.

Marxist Feminist analysis doesn’t seem to hold up to social changes which have taken place since the 1970s:

  • There are many more job opportunities for women in 2023 and no gender pay gap for younger workers, suggesting the end of the breadwinner role for men.
  • This gives women a lot more freedom to be the main or equal income earners and the majority of households are now dual-earner households meaning Marxist-feminist analysis no longer applies.
  • Many more women today live alone and don’t have children, this analysis doesn’t apply to them.
  • social policies such as the shared parental leave act (2015) and more free child care for children as young as nine months (2024) make it easier for mothers to avoid the full-time domestic and housewife role.

The only real support for Marxist feminism today lies in the fact that when women become mothers they are more likely to take time off work than fathers and they do more housework (still today), but most women are in paid work most of their working lives, so even this is pretty weak evidence.

There might still be a case that the lives of working class women and single mothers are relatively worse off because of capitalism: maybe this theory selectively applies to families with lower incomes; maybe single parents (85% of whom are women) have higher poverty rates because capitalism doesn’t value their free childcare sufficiently.

However, you certainly can’t argue that the root cause of women’s exploitation at home is caused by capitalism because capitalism (as neoliberalism) has intensified in Britain since the 1970s but women’s lives in general have improved.

Research supporting Marxist Feminism

Being a father seems to push men into the breadwinner role and women into the caring role.  

Becoming a young mother results in more women leaving work, but has the opposite effect on young men. 

For 25 to 34 year olds the respective employment rates are:

  • 86% for non-fathers compared to 92% for fathers 
  • 89% for non-mothers to 69% for mothers. 

So childless young women are MORE likely to be in employment than childless young men, but this changes drastically when those young women have children. Young women, it seems, are far more likely than men to leave employment and become the primary child carers.  

Source: How does motherhood affect paid work?

Women then gradually return to work as children get older…

31% of women with a 1 year old are in employment compared to 49% with an 18 year old. The percentages of men in work with children aged 1 to 18 are level. 

This suggests many mothers still want (or have to work) but nonetheless it is still women who take the career-penalties associated with taking time off work to be the primary carers. 

A (2019) longitudinal study Employment Pathways and Occupational Change after Childbirth  examined the pathways of men and women returning to work and found that of women working full time prior to childbirth only 44% returned to work full time after 3 years. 

There was some variation: those with degrees were twice as likely to return to full time work (so 88% after 3 years) and those working for the public sector or large organisations with over 50 workers were also more likely to return to work full time.

Related Posts

Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)

The Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

The Radical Feminist perspective on the family

Sources used

The material above is adapted from Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives.

Ingles, D (2015) An Invitation to Social Theory