14.3 Types of Feminism

Gregory Millard; Valentin Quintus Nicolescu; and Valérie Vézina

To sum what was discussed in previous sections, the major variants within feminism are the following:

Liberal feminism First-wave feminism, in particular, was deeply influenced by the ideas and values of liberalism. Wollstonecraft’s work, for example, argued that women should be entitled to the same rights and privileges as men on the grounds that they are both human beings with an equal capacity for reason.
John Stuart Mill in his essay entitled On the Subjection of Women proposed that society should be organized according to the principle of ‘reason’ and that ‘accidents of birth’ such as sex should be irrelevant. Women would therefore be entitled to the same legal rights and liberties enjoyed by men and, in particular, the right to vote.
Second-wave feminism also has a significant liberal component. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan highlighted the ‘problem with no name’ and the fact that, being confined to domestic life, women are unable to gain fulfilment in a career or through political life. In other words, equality of opportunity was being denied to women despite the gains in legal equality secured by first-wave feminism.
The philosophical basis of liberal feminism lies in the principle of individualism: the belief that the human individual is all-important and therefore that all individuals are of equal moral worth. If individuals are to be judged, it should be on rational grounds (instead of factors such as sex, race, colour, or religion), on the content of their character, their talents, or their personal worth.
Liberal feminism is essentially reformist: it seeks to open public life up to equal competition between women and men rather than to challenge what many other feminists see as the patriarchal structure of society itself. Reform is necessary to ensure the establishment of equal rights and opportunities in the public sphere: the right to education, the right to vote, the right to pursue a career, etc., along with meaningful opportunities to do so through the removal of arbitrary barriers such as restrictive understandings of gender roles.
The demand for equal rights and opportunities within a liberal-capitalist framework, which lies at the core of liberal feminism, has principally attracted those women whose education and social backgrounds equip them to take advantage of wider educational and career opportunities, specifically, middle-class, educated women; it does not reflect so convincingly the problems of working-class women, black women or women in the developing world, for instance.
Socialist feminism Unlike liberal feminists, socialist feminists do not believe that women simply face legal or social disadvantages that can be remedied by equal legal rights or the achievement of equal opportunities. They argue that the relationship between the sexes is rooted in the social and economic structure itself and that nothing short of profound social change (social revolution) can offer women the prospect of genuine emancipation.
The central theme of socialist feminism is that patriarchy can only be understood in light of social and economic factors. The ‘bourgeois’ family is patriarchal and oppressive because men wish to ensure their property will be passed on only to their sons.
Most socialist feminists agree that the confinement of women to a domestic sphere of housework and motherhood serves the economic interests of capitalism. A gendered division of labour, for example, conveniently allows men to toil long, brutal hours generating profits for capital while ensuring the next generation of proletariat is birthed, nurtured, and raised by women in the domestic realm.
Some have argued that women constitute a ‘reserve army of labour’ (docile, calm, following orders) that can be recruited into the workforce when there is a need for added labour. This helps keep labour costs down. These women can then be can easily returned to domestic life when the economy contracts and jobs become scarce.
For modern socialist feminists, sexual oppression is as important as class exploitation.
For modern socialist feminists, sexual oppression is as important as class exploitation. Juliet Mitchell, for example, suggested that women fulfil four social functions and are exploited in each:
a) they are members of the workforce and are active in production;
b) they bear children and reproduce the human species;
c) they are responsible for socializing children and
d) they are sex objects. From this perspective, liberation requires women to achieve emancipation in each of these areas.
Radical feminism One feature of second-wave feminism is that many feminists moved beyond the perspective of existing and established ideologies. Gender differences in society were regarded for the first time as important in themselves and necessary to understand.
Gender is thus thought to be the deepest social cleavage and the most politically significant – more important than class, race or nation. Many radical feminists frame gender itself, which is often understood as an essentially arbitrary social construction designed to subordinate half of the human race for the benefit of the other half, as deeply problematic.
Radical feminists have therefore insisted that society be understood as ‘patriarchal’ to highlight the central role of sex oppression. Patriarchy thus refers to a systematic, institutionalized and pervasive process of gender oppression. It is a system of politico-cultural oppression whose origins lie in the structure of the family and domestic and personal life.
Female liberation requires a sexual revolution in which these structures are overthrown and replaced. Such a goal is based on the assumption that human nature is essentially androgynous. A truly non-oppressive society might therefore be one in which biological sex has no more significance than, say, eye colour, and in which hetero-normative structures – the assumption that being cis-gendered and heterosexual is the normal and preferred ‘default position’ in human life – is overturned.
A few radical feminists, such as Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology, focus less on overturning gender than on re-validating womanhood as a distinctive way of being that has been systematically devalued by patriarchy. For these ‘difference’ feminists, the attributes traditionally associated with womanhood – closeness to nature, being more ‘emotional,’ less physically powerful and more consensual and collaborative – should be considered superior to the male mode of competition, domination, and sterile, clinical ‘reason’ that (to quote Tolkien) ‘destroys a thing to know what it is.’ From this point of view, society and its values need to be radically overturned in order to align with the female.


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2023 by Gregory Millard; Valentin Quintus Nicolescu; and Valérie Vézina is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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