Feminist Theory: A Summary for A-Level Sociology

This post summarises the differences between Liberal, Marxist, Radical and Difference (Postmodern) Feminists. It covers what they believe the causes of gender inequalities to be and what should be done to tackle these inequalities and male power in society.

This post summarises the key ideas of Radical, Liberal, Marxist and Difference Feminisms and includes criticisms of each perspective.

Introduction – Feminism: The Basics

  • Inequality between men and women is universal and the most significant form of inequality
  • Gender norms are socially constructed not determined by biology and can thus be changed.
  • Patriarchy is the main cause of gender inequality – women are subordinate because men have more power.
  • Feminism is a political movement; it exists to rectify sexual inequalities, although strategies for social change vary enormously.
  • There are four types of Feminism – Radical, Marxist, Liberal, and Difference.
5-feminism

Radical Feminism

  • Blames the exploitation of women on men. It is primarily men who have benefitted from the subordination of women. Women are ‘an oppressed group.
  • Society is patriarchal – it is dominated and ruled by men – men are the ruling class, and women the subject class.
  • Rape, violence and pornography are methods through which men have secured and maintained their power over women. Andrea Dworkin (1981)
  • Radical feminists have often been actively involved in setting up and running refuges for women who are the victims of male violence.
  • 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.
  • The various alternatives suggested by Radical Feminists include separatism – women only communes, and Matrifocal households. Some also practise political Lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual relationships as “sleeping with the enemy.”

Criticisms of Radical Feminism

  1. The concept of patriarchy has been criticised for ignoring variations in the experience of oppression.
  2. Some critics argue that it focuses too much on the negative experiences of women, failing to recognise that some women can have happy marriages for example.
  3. It tends to portray women as universally good and men as universally bad, It has been accused of man hating, not trusting all men.

Marxist Feminism

  • Capitalism rather than patriarchy is the principal source of women’s oppression, and capitalists as the main beneficiaries.
  • Women’s subordination plays a number of important functions for capitalism:
  • Women reproduce the labour force for free (socialisation is done for free)
  • Women absorb anger – women keep the husbands going.
  • Because the husband has to support his wife and children, he is more dependent on his job and less likely to demand wage increases.
  • The traditional nuclear also performs the function of ‘ideological conditioning’ – it teaches the ideas that the Capitalist class require for their future workers to be passive.
  • The disadvantaged position of women is seen to be a consequence of the emergence of private property and their lack of ownership of the means of production
  • 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
  • In Communist society, Marxist feminists believe that gender inequalities will disappear.

Criticisms of Marxist Feminism

  1. Radical Feminists – ignores other sources of inequality such as sexual violence.
  2. Patriarchal systems existed before capitalism, in tribal societies for example.
  3. The experience of women has not been particularly happy under communism.

Liberal Feminism

  • Nobody benefits from existing inequalities: both men and women are harmed
  • The explanation for gender inequality lies not so much in structures and institutions of society but in its culture and values.
  • Socialisation into gender roles has the consequence of producing rigid, inflexible expectations of men and women
  • Discrimination prevents women from having equal opportunities
  • Liberal Feminists do not seek revolutionary changes: they want changes to take place within the existing structure.
  • The creation of equal opportunities is the main aim of liberal feminists – e.g. the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act.
  • Liberal feminists try to eradicate sexism from the children’s books and the media.
  • Liberal Feminist ideas have probably had the most impact on women’s lives – e.g. mainstreaming has taken place.

Criticisms of Liberal Feminism

  1. 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.
  2. Liberalism is accused of emphasising public life at the expense of private life.
  3. Radical and Marxist Feminists – it fails to take account of deeper structural inequalities
  4. Difference Feminists argue it is an ethnocentric perspective – based mostly on the experiences of middle class, educated women.

Difference Feminism/ Postmodern Feminism

  • Do not see women as a single homogenous group. MC/WC ,
  • Criticised preceding feminist theory for claiming a ‘false universality’ (white, western heterosexual, middle class)
  • Criticised preceding Feminists theory of being essentialist
  • Critiqued preceding Feminist theory as being part of the masculinist Enlightenment Project
  • Postmodern Feminism – concerned with language (discourses) and the relationship between power and knowledge rather than ‘politics and opportunities’
  • Helene Cixoux – An example of a postmodern/ destabilising theorist

Criticisms of Difference Feminism

  1. Walby, women are still oppressed by objective social structures – namely Patriarchy
  2. Dividing women sub-groups weakens the movement for change.

Frequently Asked Questions about Feminism

What is Feminism?

Feminism is a diverse body of social theory which seeks to better understand the nature, extent and causes of gender inequalities. Some Feminists are also political activists who actively campaign for greater gender equality.

What are the main types of Feminism?

The main types of Feminism are Liberal, Marxist, Radical and Difference or Postmodern Feminisms. (Although many Feminists themselves may not recognise these ‘types’ because they oversimplify Feminist theory.

What is the main goal of Feminism?

The goals of Feminists vary from person to person but a general shared aim is to reduce the amount of sexism and gender oppression in societies.

Is Feminism still relevant today?

Yes. The majority of countries on earth still have fewer women in politics, women are still paid less than men on average, and are more likely to be subject to domestic abuse than men. And if we look at sexuality inequalities there is still overt oppression of gay and trans people in many countries.

Related Posts/ Find out More…

Feminism runs across the whole A-level Sociology course, and is especially relevant to the sociology of the family.

Other related posts include…

Sources Used to Write this Post 

  • Haralambos and Holborn (2013) – Sociology Themes and Perspectives, Eighth Edition, Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479
  • Chapman et al (2016) – A Level Sociology Student Book Two [Fourth Edition] Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597495
  • Robb Webb et al (2016) AQA A Level Sociology Book 2, Napier Press. ISBN-10: 0954007921

A-Level Sociology Knowledge Disclaimer: This post has been written specifically for students revising for their A-level Sociology exams. The knowledge has been adapted from various A-level Sociology text books. These text books may mis-label or misunderstand the knowledge outlined above.

The knowledge above (labels used/ interpretations) is what students are assessed on in A-level Sociology, I make no claim that these representations are the same as the interpretations the theorists represented in said text books (and thus above) may make of their own theories. It may well be the case that for degree level students and beyond the theorists and theories above may be ‘correctly’ represented differently in those ”higher levels’ of academic realities”.

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