Sociological Theories - FEMINISM



Feminist theories emerged in the 1970s as a challenge to a mainstream sociology which studied and explained society largely from the male perspective, ignoring the gender inequalities that exist across all social structures/processes. Feminist theories have revolutionised sociology as they have put women and gender at the heart of sociological thinking and research, furthering our understanding of society. Most feminist theories seek to explain society by focusing on women's unequal position within it and also aim to improve women's lives.

Different types of feminism:

  • Radical Feminism
  • Liberal Feminism
  • Marxist Feminism
  • Dual System Feminism
  • Difference Feminism
  • Post-Structural Feminism
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Radical Feminism

Regard patriarchy as the most fundamental form of inequality - the world is divided into two 'sex classes', men and women, with men dominating and controlling women in all areas of society (public/private).

Irrespective of social class or ethnicity, all men are 'the enemy' who oppress women through VIOLENCE, FEAR and INTIMIDATION, and turn women into sex objects for their own pleasure.

  • Control in public: 'glass ceiling', triple shift, don't walk home alone, catcalls.
  • Control in private: domestic violence, marital r*pe.

Propose a COMPLETE DESTRUCTION OF PATRIARCHY: claim that women should begin to free themselves from male oppression by living their lives separately from men through SEPARATISM (living apart), consciousness raising (reclaiming power through the shaing of experiences) and political lesbianism (avoiding hetersexual relationships).

  • DWORKINS - 'all men are rapists'.
  • GREER - 'every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful'.
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+  Evidence to support ideas - DOBASH & DOBASH, domestic violence.

-  SOMERVILLE - failed to recognise improvements to womens position as we have shifted into a posmodern society.

-  POLITICAL LESBIANISM would never work due to heterosexual attraction.

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Liberal Feminism

Women's inequality arises primarily from factors like:

  • Sexist stereotyping
  • Gender role socialisation
  • Sex discrimination
  • Outdated laws and attitudes

All these generate a lack of opportunies for women, keeping them in lower-paid and lower-status occupations.

Gender equality can be achieved through legal, economic and social reform that would enable women to full take part in exisiting society.

  • EMMA WATSON - UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women, #HeForShe -  wants to achieve political, social and economic equality
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+  Evidence to suggest that this type of feminism works and is appealing - E.G- #HeForShe, shared parental leave, Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

-  Radical feminists would argue that these movements are not effective enough as there is still the existence of patriarchal control.

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Marxist Feminism

Argue that gender inequality arises primarily from the nature of capitalist society, rather than from an independent system of patriarchy. Capitalism intensifies patriarchal inequalities in pursuit of its own interests. Women are:

  • cheap labour force
  • reserve army of labour who can be sacked and returned home during periods of economic recession and re-employed during times of economic prosperity
  • free labour in the form of unpaid domestic labour and childcare at no cost
  • expressive role - to absorb the mans anger and frustration at exploitation from work, thus keeping capitalism stable (w/class women suffer the greatest degree of subordination).

Capitalism is the root cause of inequality so improving women's position in society involoves fundamental changes in capitalism and class inequality.

  • ANSLEY - women are 'takers of sh*t'
  • BARRETT - ideology of society teaches women they want to be housewives and mothers, need to change ideology as well as capitalism.
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+  Marxists like ENGELS agree - women's role is to reproduce the workforce and they are the reserve army of labour.

Engels isn't critical of this explotation of women, Marxist feminists are critical of it.

Considered to be outdated -  changes in the family and women's employment have affected the nature of family and society.

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Dual System Feminism

Combines features from radical feminism and Marxism.

Capitalism and patriarchy are seen as two separate systems that interact with and reinforce one another in the form of 'PATRIARCHAL CAPITALISM'. This generates dual roles for women, both as home makers and as paid workers. 

Patriarchal and capitalist structures also relate to other factors such as CLASS and ETHNIC inequalities to generate multiple causes for the subordination of women.

Believe that by removing the twin structures of patriarchy and capitalism through reform would bring about improvements in the position of women. 

Includes tackling the partriarchal nature of relationships in the private sphere (at home, in the family) and the patriarchal capitalist exploitation of women in the public sphere (labour market, business, govt., media).

  • Tony Blair's cabinet with women = 'Blair's babes'
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+  Considers class and ethnicity and how this can increase/decrease the exploitation of women.

+  Establishes a clear distinction between capitalism and patriarchy and focuses on how both affect women.

-  Could be argued that patriarchy isn't a 'system', it is more of a description of the various forms of oppression women experience.

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Difference Feminism

Includes black feminism, which originated as a result of concerns that many feminist theories focuses too much on the subordination of white, m/class women and ignored the different experiences of black and minority ethnic women.

Emphasise that while many white women may suffer the same problems, not all women are in the same position because oppression can take diverse forms in different contexts and among different social groups.Specific groups may face multiple forms of oppression, such as racism and homophobia, as well as patriarchal oppression = black women face dual oppression. 

May particularly be the case in postmodern societies where social structures like gender, social class and ethnicity have weakened sources of identity and people pick'n'mix their identities and lifestyles from a wide range of choices avaliable in a media-saturated, consumer-based society.

White feminism = 'false universality' - claims to be about all women but in reality only represents white, m/class, western women.

  • OPRAH'S Golden Globes Speech - 1st black women to achieve the Cecil B DeMille award and how there will be many young black girls watching knowing that they now can achieve this.
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+  Accounts for different forms of oppression that women experience besides patriarchy (homophobia, racism).

-  Doesn't bring branches of feminism together but further fragments it and weakens the theory.

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Post-Structural Feminism

Concerned with discourse (ways of seeing, thinking and speaking about things) and power and knowledge.

  • BUTLER - white, m/class women have dominated the feminist movement and falsely claimed a universal womanhood'
  • Argues that there is no fixed essense of what it is to be a women -  identities and discourses are constantly changing.
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+  Accounts for the diverse nature of feminity in comtemporary society.

+  Falls in-line with postmodernist ideas.

+  Supported by numerous campaigns that aim to challenge gender stereotypes - E.G.- This Girl Can.

Ignores structural factors that do impact on women's experiences and similarities that women do share.

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Feminist Critique of Sociological Research

PAM ABBOTT - sociology is 'malestream':

  • Sociology is concerned with research BY men and FOR men.
  • Research on men is generalised to the whole population.
  • Women's issues are overlooked and seen as unimportant.
  • Women are represented in a sexist way.
  • Sex and gender are rarely seen as an explanatory variable.
  • When included, women are seen as 'add-ons'.

Sociology is either SEX BLIND (ignores sex/women) or is SEXIST and PATRIARCHAL.


  • Research should take the woman's side and be free from sexism/patriarchy.
  • Value laden.
  • Researcher should be involved and aim for equality and collaboration with participants.
  • Critical of quantitative methods -- she used unstructured interviews when interviewing women who had become new mothers.
  • Positivism = masculine as it's objective, detached and hierarchical.
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