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Feminist theory

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Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical or philosophical discourse. It aims to understand the nature of gender inequality. It examines women's social roles, experience, interests, and feminist politics in a variety of fields, such as anthropology and sociology, communication, psychoanalysis, economics, literature, education, and philosophy. While generally providing a critique of social relations, much of feminist theory also focuses on analyzing gender inequality and the promotion of women's interests. Themes explored in feminism include discrimination, objectification (especially sexual objectification), oppression, patriarchy, stereotyping, art history and contemporary art, and aesthetics.


Feminist theory/perspective reflects the thinking across the feminist movement that focuses on:

1.  The inequality of power between men and women in society and in family life.

2.  The feminist perspective – is about choice and about equally valuing the choices individuals make.


Feminist theories are a group of theories which focus on Four important themes (Avis, 1986)

1.     A recognition of women’s oppression

2.     An examination of what contributes to the maintenance of that oppression

3.     A commitment to ending the unjust subordination

4.     A futuristic vision of equality



Historical Background

  • Women’s subordination appears in works of Plato, who believed that men were more virtuous by nature, and others who believed men had more intellectual and reasoning capabilities.

  • Following the industrial revolution, the women’s movement emerged in the 19th century.

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton established the National Organization of Women (NOW).

  • Susan B. Anthony was chosen to represent the Suffragists because of her less radical views. By the 1880s there was widespread support for obtaining the vote.

  •  Many believed women deserved the vote due to their maternal virtues while others believed women and men were equal in endowments.

  • A major accomplishment in 1920 was the right to vote


 In the 1960s there was a resurgence of the feminist movement which grew from the movement for the rights of African Americans.

  • Major themes were:

  • oppression

  • liberation

  • Contributors included:

  • Betty Frieden:

  • who wrote The Feminine Mystique which described dissatisfaction and depression among American housewives, and

  • Simone de Beauvoir:

  • who formulated the idea that power is central to the social construction of gender in the book, The Second Sex.


In 1972 the ERA was approved by the U.S. Congress, however, it failed to become law.


Assumptions of feminist theories

  1. Women are oppressed

  2. Must focus on the centrality, normality and importance of women’s experience

  3. Gender is socially constructed

  4. The analyses of gender should include the larger socio-culture context

  5.  The term “family” supports women’s oppression because it contains class, cultural, and heterosexual biases

  6. Social change and methodological approaches should be value committed

  7. Women need to succeed and change the oppression.



Feminist Theories

There is no ONE feminist theory, although all of the theories share common assumptions and values.


1.     Liberal feminists

  • believe gender should not be a barrier since men and women are endowed with the same rational and spiritual capacities.


     Liberal feminists are committed to:

  • social and legal reforms that will create equal opportunities for women” (Osmond & Thorne, 1993, p. 594),

  • ending sex discrimination. and

  • challenging sex stereotyping.


2.     Social feminists

  • believe women are oppressed by capitalism.

  • The focus is on redefining capitalism in relation to women’s work.


3.     Radical feminist theories

  • Insist the oppression of women is fundamental.

  • Radical feminists believe the current patriarchal system must be eliminated.

  • Attention is directed towards issues of the body such as:

  • men’s control over women’s sexuality and reproduction,

  • men’s use of rape and violence to violate women.


Concepts And Terms


  • The hierarchical social structure through which men dominate and manipulate women (Avis 1986)



  • A person’s learned masculine or feminine status apart from ones biological male or female makeup.

  • Gender is analyzed in terms of the socialization process; gender identity; the social structure of the family, state, education, religion and other institutions; cultural or symbolic notions; and gender-power relationships.


    The person is political

  • Women’s personal lives are an expression of their subordination within society (Avis, 1986)



  • The imposition of constraints by one group over another (Osmond & Thorn, 1993)


·        Important values of feminism include:

  • mutuality

  • cooperation

  • equality

  • democratic use of power

  • enjoyment of body and work

  • peace.


Applications of feminist theory

·        Critiquing of other perspectives on families as ignoring or misrepresenting power structure and paying insufficient attention to socio-culture and historical contexts.


·    Challenging the traditional approaches to the study of families

  •  Focusing on gender as a theoretical construct instead of as a variable

  • Advocating the use of “household” as opposed to “family” due to the term family’s biases

  • Emphasizing the harmful effects of the traditional family roles, economic exploitation, and social inequalities

  • Refuting the stereotypes of the women as dependent and economically unproductive

  • Focusing on the influence of capitalism and patriarchy on the organization of work, including work within the family

  • Viewing motherhood as an experience as opposed to a role

  • Challenging the structure of heterosexuality as the norm

  • Recognizing the public-private dichotomy where men are recognized with public society and women with private family


Current Focus of feminist theory:

  • emphasis on women’s experiences

  • focus on ending the subordination of individuals based on class, ethnicity, race, age and gender

  • Current feminism has a commitment to change (Osmond & Thorne, 1993)

  • Feminist research attempts to understand gender power relationships

  • A major feminist tenet, according to Walker (1993), is the need to deal with familial conflict, competition, and structural arrangements which increase the probability that family processes will be harmful

  • Feminism reveals harmful effects traditional family roles, economic exploitation, and social inequalities have on women’s general well being.


Feminist theories and political movement:


Are inextricably interwoven as demonstrated by the many efforts to apply feminism to political actions such as:

  • Changing policies that economically weaken female headed households

  • Changing laws that support heterosexual and men dominated nuclear family arrangements over alternative family types

  • Making laws to combat sexual and physical violence against women and children

  • Supporting women’s reproductive freedom

  • Reinforcing women’s unpaid work


Strengths of feminist theories

  • Can be applied to a broad range of issues

  • Provides valuable critique of other theories and perspectives


Limitations of feminist theories

  • Research and practice are emotionally charged

  • Overemphasis on gender and power


Adapted from Scott Plunkett, Ph.D, Course Notes

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