Feminism is a structuralist theory which sees society shaping our behaviour. In this case it is the patriarchal structure of society where all social institutions serve and maintain the interests of men at the expense of women. Feminism has become a very influential theory since the 1960s; however, feminists do not agree about the extent of patriarchy in society.
Liberal feminism (LF)
Liberal feminists believe that all humans should be equal. They distinguish between sex – biological differences between males and females and gender – the socially constructed differences between males and females.
Liberal feminists disagree with functionalists such as Parsons who believe males and females perform roles they are biologically suited for (instrumental and expressive). Liberal feminists disagree: males and females are not biologically better suited to particular roles; they perform them because they are socialised into those roles. Gender equality can be achieved through gradual reform, not revolution (as argued by radical feminists below), and they believe there is a march of progress towards greater equality.
For example laws and policies have been introduced to prevent sex discrimination at work and equality in pay. Liberal feminists also argue there needs to be a cultural change away from gender stereotypes e.g. toys, school subjects, sports or occupations being gender neutral. This may develop as more women take on traditionally male occupations or activities.
LF have highlighted the significant trend towards greater equality through new laws and policies. However, Marxist feminists and radical feminists argue LF ignore the underlying causes of women’s oppression and they are naïve to think gender reform is possible without revolution.
Radical feminists argue that patriarchy (literally ‘rule of the father’) is the cause of women’s oppression. Patriarchy occurs everywhere: at home, work, education, public. RF argue the personal is political. This means all relationships involve power and become political when one side tries to dominate the other: e.g. males dominating females through financial and physical power.
The threat of male violence controls all women: e.g. fear of **** by males restricts how women use public space. RF also argue that sexuality is a patriarchal construction to satisfy men e.g. the image of women portrayed in ***********.
Personal and sexual relationships must, therefore, be changed if women are to be freed from their patriarchal oppression. RF make three suggestions of how this could happen. Separatism, where women live separately from men; consciousness-raising, where women share their experiences to encourage collective action; and political lesbianism, where heterosexual relationships are defined as inevitably oppressive and ‘sleeping with the enemy’.
RF draw attention to the political nature of relationships.
However, LF argue RF ignore the trends towards greater equality.
MF argue it is capitalism, not patriarchy, that is the source of women’s oppression.
Difference feminists argue RF ignore differences between women based on class, age, ethnicity etc. It is too deterministic and assumes women passively accept male dominance. They are not clear how patriarchy will be abolished, and separatism and political lesbianism are unlikely given the apparent popularity of heterosexual relationships.
Furthermore, not all men are violent or oppressive towards women, and RF cannot explain violence within lesbian relationships, or violence by women against men.
Finally, their argument is circular: male violence is explained as patriarchy, whilst patriarchy is maintained by male violence.
Marxist feminists believe that women’s oppression is due to capitalism, rather than patriarchy as such. Women are a reserve army of labour who can be hired and fired when necessary, they are a cheap source of labour, reproduce and socialise the next generation of workers and absorb their husband’s anger and frustration about the inequalities of capitalism. (Anlsey describes this as women being ‘takers of ****’.)
Women also maintain a healthy worker by feeding them and caring for the children, meaning the ruling class get a fit and healthy worker at no expense. MF argue that capitalism must be abolished if women are to be freed from their oppression.
Barrett argues that we must also consider the ideology of familism. This ideology presents the nuclear family and the sexual division of labour as inevitable and the only place where women can achieve fulfilment and sexual satisfaction. This ideology keeps women oppressed; therefore, the overthrow of capitalism alone will not free women: the ideological idea of familism must also be removed.
MF recognises the relationship between capitalism and women’s oppression. However, it cannot explain women’s oppression in non-capitalist societies. Furthermore, it does not explain why women rather than men are expected to perform domestic labour. RF argue MF ignore how men exploit women for their own interests.
This approach combines MF and RF into a single theory i.e. it recognises how capitalism and patriarchy combine to oppress and exploit women.
For example, domestic labour limits women’s employment opportunities; their lack of work means women inevitably become financially dependent on men.
A weakness of all the above forms of feminism is that they tend to see women as one single, unified social group and ignores the different experiences that women have. LF, RF and MF tend to be essentialist: they see women as essentially the same and focus particularly on white, heterosexual middle class women. DF, on the other hand, recognise the differences between women due to age, ethnicity, class etc, all of which create different experiences for women.