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Contemporary Feminist Theory
Sociological Theory

Chapter 13 Chapter Summary

Contemporary Feminist Theory: Theoretical Orientation

Feminist theory is distinct from other theoretical perspectives in that it is woman-centered and interdisciplinary, and it actively promotes ways to achieve social justice. Three core questions inform feminist theory: (1) "What about the women?" (2) "Why is the social world as it is?" and (3) "How can we change and improve the social world so as to make it a more just place for women and for all people?"

Feminist theorists have also started to question the differences between women, including how race, class, ethnicity, and age intersect with gender. In sum, feminist theory is most concerned with giving a voice to women and highlighting the various ways women have contributed to society.

The Historical Roots of Feminist Theory

Historically, feminist activity has paralleled liberation events, including the American and French Revolutions, the abolitionist movement in the 1830s, the mobilization for suffrage in the early 1900s, and the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. These historical movements of feminism are referred to as waves. First-wave feminism-including the first women's rights convention, which was held in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848, and the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920-is characterized by women's struggle for political rights. Second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s and the third-wave feminism of today emphasize a variety of issues, including the growth of feminist organizations and publications and the increasing numbers of feminists in government, the educational system, and other professions.

Varieties of Contemporary Feminist Theory

Four varieties of feminist theory attempt to answer the question "What about the women?" The gender difference perspective tries to answer this question by examining how women's location in, and experience of, social situations differ from men's. Cultural feminists look to the different values associated with womanhood and femininity (e.g., caring, cooperation, and pacifism) as a reason why men and women experience the social world differently. Other feminist theorists believe that the different roles assigned to women and men within institutions better explain gender difference, including the sexual division of labor in the household. Existential and phenomenological feminists focus on how women have been marginalized and defined as the Other in patriarchal societies. Women are thus seen as objects and are denied the opportunity for self-realization.

Gender-inequality theories look to answer the question "What about the women?" by recognizing that women's location in, and experience of, social situations are not only different but also unequal to men's. Liberal feminists argue that women have the same capacity as men for moral reasoning and agency, but that patriarchy, particularly the sexist patterning of the division of labor, has historically denied women the opportunity to express and practice this reasoning. Women have been isolated to the private sphere of the household and, thus, left without a voice in the public sphere. Even after women enter the public sphere, they are still expected to manage the private sphere and take care of household duties and child rearing. Liberal feminists point out that marriage is a site of gender inequality and that women do not benefit from being married as men do. Indeed, married women have higher levels of stress than unmarried women and married men. According to liberal feminists, the sexual division of labor in both the public and private spheres needs to be altered in order for women to achieve equality.

Theories of gender oppression go further than theories of gender difference and gender inequality by arguing that not only are women different from or unequal to men, but that they are actively oppressed, subordinated, and even abused by men. Power is the key variable in the two main theories of gender oppression: psychoanalytic feminism and radical feminism. Psychoanalytic feminists attempt to explain power relations between men and women by reformulating Freud's theories of the subconscious and unconscious, human emotions, and childhood development. They feel that conscious calculation cannot fully explain the production and reproduction of patriarchy. For example, the unconscious fear that men have towards their own mortality may account for why men are driven to control women. Radical feminists argue that being a woman is a positive thing in and of itself, but that this is not acknowledged in patriarchal societies where women are oppressed. They identify physical violence as being at the base of patriarchy, but they think that patriarchy can be defeated if women come recognize their own value and strength, establish a sisterhood of trust with other women, confront oppression critically, and form female separatist networks in the private and public spheres.

Structural oppression theories posit that women's oppression and inequality are a result of capitalism, patriarchy, and racism. Socialist feminism combines Marxian class analysis with feminist social protest in an attempt to answer the question "What about the women?" They agree with Marx and Engels that the working class is exploited as a consequence of the capitalist mode of production, but they seek to extend this exploitation not just to class but also to gender. Intersectionality theorists seek to explain oppression and inequality across a variety of variables, including class, gender, race, ethnicity, and age. They make the important insight that not all women experience oppression in the same way. White women and black women, for example, face different forms of discrimination in the workplace. Thus, different groups of women come to view the world through a shared standpoint of "heterogeneous commonality."

Feminism and Postmodernism

During the 1990s some feminists began to incorporate postmodern ideas and vocabulary into their theoretical work. The oppositional epistemology of postmodernism complemented feminism, particularly in questioning the relation of power to knowledge. However, feministtheorists are cautious of the postmodern turn in social theory for several reasons. They view postmodernism as too removed from political struggles. Postmodernism may lead people away from collective action and towards a radical individualism. Furthermore, feminists argue that postmodernism is too divorced from material reality - its focus on discourse, representation, and texts ignores material inequality, injustice, and oppression.

Towards a Feminist Sociological Theory

Feminist sociological theory combines the various types of feminism discussed thus far to focus on five major areas: the sociology of knowledge, the macro-social order, the micro-social order, subjectivity, and theory integration. A feminist sociology of knowledge emphasizes standpoint theory and intersectionality theory in relation to knowledge production and power relations. Feminist sociologists who study the macro-social order seek to expand Marx's analysis of economic production to social production more generally, including the household, the state, religion, and sexuality. One main topic of concern for these theorists is the production and reproduction of gender ideology. Feminist sociologists who study the micro-social order emphasize the role of gender in everyday interactions and the different meanings that men and women have regarding specific situations. Subjectivity occupies a special place in feminist sociological theory as it seeks to understand how women are socialized to see themselves through the eyes of men. When women learn to internalize the generalized other, or the perspective of society, it is a male-centered other that they must relate to. In other words, women, like other subordinate groups in society, develop a bifurcated consciousness where they live with both the reality of actual experience and the reality of social typifications. Other feminist theorists question the reasons why a male-dominated sociology has categorized and divided the world into micro or macro. Feminist sociologists seek to integrate macro- and micro-level social phenomena. For example, Dorothy E. Smith (1926- ) discusses "relations of ruling," "generalized, anonymous, impersonal texts," and "local actualities of lived experiences."