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Feminist social theory: overview of key approaches

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1 Feminist social theory: overview of key approaches
lecture 4

2 lecture outline historical overview – first and second wave feminism
critique of ‘malestream’ sociology overview of (modernist) feminist theoretical perspectives ‘cultural turn’ – shift from ‘things to words’ postmodern feminism Black and post-colonial feminisms final thoughts

3 terminology ‘feminism’ originates from the French term féminisme
in 1871 some claim the term ‘feminist’ first used in French medical text -‘feminisation of male body’ 1872 Alexandre Dumas (French Writer) – pamphlet - adultery ‘women with masculine traits’ the early usage of the term – associated with ‘gender confusion’ and it is also worth noting that the term ‘feminist’ was not initially used by women meaning changed - political position – change and improve the position of women in society retrospectively applied to recognise earlier attempts by women who were attempting to promote such changes

4 ‘first wave’ feminism 1880s -1920s pros and cons of ‘wave’ analogy
e.g. Mary Wollstonecraft (1792); 1848 Seneca Falls Convention (USA); rise of women’s suffrage movements (UK and USA) ‘first wave’ feminism 1880s -1920s e.g. associated with ‘equal rights’ – struggle for vote – legislative changes but addressed other issues too important to note that there were splits within the movement in terms of focus and strategy pros and cons of ‘wave’ analogy

5 ‘second wave’ feminism
‘second wave’ feminism 1960s-1970s: - grass-roots activism - women’s liberation movement – radical? consciousness raising groups - ‘personal is political’ - ‘sisterhood’ moved into the academy women’s studies (now gender studies - debate) feminism is both theory and activism (praxis) – importance of experience

6 feminist critique of ‘malestream sociology’
sociology has a history of conducting research on men e.g. use male only samples – findings derived from studies are unquestioningly generalised and assumed to be equally relevant to women – men taken as norm? issues and experiences of concern to women were at best neglected and at worst considered sociologically irrelevant e.g. domestic violence and labour if women incorporated into studies - tended to be quite simply misrepresented and/or represented in a stereotypical manner sex and gender tended to be naively and uncritically tagged on and stirred into research designs – little (if any) appreciation that the theoretical frameworks themselves were part of the problem

7 e.g. sociological research on class (Acker 1973)
Nuffield Mobility Study (1980) Register General’s Scale ( ) based on all male sample women classified indirectly – male head of household – women hidden from the figures Joan Acker – seminal paper – feminist critique of stratification literature

8 ‘Feminists argue that women’s position within society is not a natural phenomenon, but a social, political and economic product which is reflected and perpetuated by the bias of ‘science’’. (Harding, in May 2001: 19)

9 black and post-colonial feminism
feminist theoretical perspectives (e.g. Tong 1990; Evans 1995; Jackson & Jones 1998 Zalewski 2000; Abbott et al 2005) attempt to explain women’s subordination in society – different perspectives - ask different questions and come to different conclusions: e.g. liberal feminism radical feminism marxist feminism postmodern feminism black and post-colonial feminism

10 liberal feminism equal rights and opportunities – challenge long held beliefs and ideas about women’s (in)abilities e.g. Wollstonecraft (1792) – ‘the feathered race’ humanism; emancipation; meritocracy sameness – ability to reason are human values equated with male values? reform - simply add women – perpetuate malestream bias? explain women’s inequality?

11 radical feminism ‘feminism in its “purest” form’ (Abbott et al 2005: 33) woman-centred and celebrates the differences between women and men patriarchy is central - ‘structural domination’ – ‘universal sisterhood’ ‘the personal is political’ – e.g. family; domestic violence; body politics

12 radical feminism separatist – women only organisations and critique of heterosexuality rediscover and promote knowledge from the experience and standpoint of women oversimplified understanding of patriarchy? claims to a universal and homogenous sisterhood – problematic?

13 Marxist/materialist feminisms
particularly influential during 1960s-70s explain women’s subordinated status in (capitalist) society feminists revised Marxist theory – blind to gender - tried to ‘fit women in’ to Marxism – relations of production and relations of reproduction

14 Marxist/materialist feminisms
- e.g. institution of the nuclear family – property and inheritance (Engels) – flawed thesis? ‘women’s work’ in public sphere devalued and poorly paid – ‘reserve army of labour’ – why women? domestic work – not regarded as real work - ‘domestic labour debates’

15 Marxist/socialist feminisms (see e.g. Jackson in Jackson & Jones 1998)
serve interests of capitalism and men? what about non-capitalist societies? capitalism and/or patriarchy debates – disputes over the location and explanation of women’s subordination? e.g. dual systems theory – e.g. Walby – shift from private to public patriarchy? exclusion/segregation convergence/polarisation but what about other factors and inequalities – e.g. globalisation and ethnicity?

16 ‘cultural turn’ and feminist theory (1)
social science perspectives informed and shaped feminist theory but some argue that literary and cultural theoretical perspectives are now more influential since the 1980’s witnessed a cultural or linguistic turn: a shift from ‘things to words’ (Barrett in Kemp & Squires 1997) for example the focus moved away from materialist issues related to domestic labour, gender inequities in the workplace and domestic violence to issues related to symbolic - language, representation and discourse

17 ‘cultural turn’ and feminist theory (2)
‘gender is understood to be shaped not just by social structures but by dominant discourses – forms of language that construct what it means to be a man or a woman’ (Abbott et al 2005: 358; my emphasis) misrecognise and take as ‘real’ what is actually linguistically constructed? (e.g. Butler) how has this shift impacted on feminist theory?

18 impact of ‘cultural turn’? (see e.g. Barrett in Kemp and Squires 1997)
Barrett charts a shift to focus on symbolic in explaining gender differences (late 1970s onwards) critique of universalism – not all women the same critique of rationalism and of the subject – masculine? the gendering of modernity - modern=masculine – is feminism indebted to modernist liberalism? critique of materialism – are we determined by social structure or are meanings and experiences important?

19 reminder of postmodernist thinking: ‘anti-everything’?
‘post-modernism is not a clearly defined theory, but a loose body of thought which draws on interconnected ideas around language, knowledge, reason, power, identity and resistance’ (Bryson 1999: 36) critical of Enlightenment project authoritative and objective status of scientific knowledge – reject ‘view from nowhere’ grand or meta-narratives – e.g. Marxism include (modernist) feminism too? claims to the truth reject idea of the subject anti-foundational contest and deconstruct stability – favour shifting, fractured, arbitrary nature of meaning and identities

20 postmodern feminism (see e.g. Weedon 1997; Zalewski 2000)
contest and resist categorisation – what ‘woman’ ought to be - the point is to deconstruct all attempts to fix identity – this in itself is a political act focus on differences between women not commonalities but what are the political implications for feminism if no basis for a collective identity?

21 Black and post-colonialist feminisms
critical of ‘white elitism’ – prioritises and represents the experiences of white, middle class, heterosexual, affluent Western women diversity of women’s experiences – e.g. family how does gender intersect with other factors? e.g. class, ethnicity, disability should gender be given primacy over other aspects – hierarchy of oppression?

22 Black and post-colonialist feminisms
can women oppress other groups of women and/or men? all women have ‘racialised identities’? notion of solidarity as opposed to sisterhood? (hooks 1984)

23 mapping feminist theories

24 final thoughts what about materialist issues and structural factors?
things - words – debate opportunity to re-think and transcend dichotomies - modernist/postmodernist? (Roseneil 1995) feminist theory – more theory and less feminism? (Wise and Stanley 2000) feminist theory arose out of personal politics – importance of women’s everyday ‘lived experiences’ is it becoming disconnected from women’s experiences?

25 inaccessible and elitist?
final thoughts to what extent is feminist theory politically relevant today and for whom? given the emphasis on diversity and differences between women – how effectively and legitimately can feminists from different cultural, religious, class, ethnic backgrounds etc theorise about ‘other’ women and their experiences? inaccessible and elitist?

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