Feminist Theory: A Summary for A-Level Sociology

Radical, Marxist, Liberal and Difference Feminisms

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.

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.

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”.

21 thoughts on “Feminist Theory: A Summary for A-Level Sociology”

  1. Josh is so threatened by feminist women he spends his time writing lengthy comments trying to “warn” other men. What he doesn’t understand is how black and white his thinking is and that this type of commentary only works on fellow personality disordered individuals. Warn them all you want please, and thank you!

  2. Hi, I really think joshx45’s comment needs to be deleted – it’s highly misinformed and screams of incel-ish entitlement

  3. To Joshx45

    1. Not using the correct definition of feminism
    2. Demanding chivalry when equality doesn’t benefit women? Uh, no, I don’t care about the disadvantages of equality, if I am crying about inequality and then get that then COMPLAIN, I’m an idiot and you have all the rights to slap me. I’d rather be paid an equal amount to men, be able to walk on the streets without fear… etc.
    3. How does this relate to us having lack of restraint? If you’re arguing with a feminist and they get emotional, then you’re just arguing with the wrong person. We didn’t create feminism to argue, we made it to spread awareness and get equality and rights.
    4. Once again, if you want to argue with a feminist, argue with one who is up for debate and ready to argue? Not everybody is great at arguing, as well as even if we accuse that, it’s because a lot of the time people compare things TO change the topic. Source: I have argued with plenty of men.
    5. The point of feminism is for equality and WOMEN rights, we don’t have to talk about the issues of men since that is NOT the point or reason for feminism, leave that to men rights activists.
    6. We don’t get offended by being judged “as much as a man”, we get offended over being fucking judged? Literally everyone will take offence to being judged at least once, it isn’t an equality thing? Also, even so, I’m sure it’s more common for women to be judged than it is for a man to be.
    7. How often do you see someone say “Not all women” compared to seeing someone say “Not all men”? (See? arguing with someone, I used a comparison, all of a sudden it’s about men and not feminism? Contradicted!) How could you compare feminists to people who say “Not all women?” in fact I assume the only time they say “Not all women” is when they say “NO WOMEN” because men have unrealistic standards for them. Also, don’t you think it’s more appropriate to say not all women? I mean, they never say it under posts about women sharing their rape/victim story, if a woman says it it’s probably because you’re talking about how women loveeee bad boys… you say not all men when they are being vulnerable and opening up about BEING ASSAULTED by A MAN.
    8. A man should NOT BE ALLOWED to comment on the definition of feminism since it is made FOR women BY women. You’re allowed to judge us and tell us what a real woman is? How we should dress, act, think, etc? Why can’t we tell you to have basic human decency?
    9. Using a “minority” of male abusers to justify all men is NOT what us feminists do, in fact, we use a MAJORITY of male abusers to justify all men. Even if it isn’t all men who ABUSE, when was the last time you saw a man defend a woman? Help a woman? Those men are part of the problem too, I have never met a woman who hasn’t been harassed or assaulted or raped, nor have I met a woman who knows any women who haven’t been. We also never say that men can’t accuse all women of things.
    10. FEMINISTS don’t laugh at physical harm to men or anything, are you gonna back that up? Those are people who hate men. Feminists want EQUALITY and RIGHTS, we do not attack other men for being a victim or for being a man.

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