Strands of Feminist Theory

Introduction

By the mid-1970s in Britain, differences in analysis and strategy could be detected within the WLM. Theorists and activists were beginning to distinguish 2 theoretical strands within second wave feminism - socialist feminism and radical feminism.

Socialist feminism

Socialist feminists can be defined as those feminists who are concerned with challenging capitalism as well as male supremacy or 'patriarchy'.
They endeavour to make analytical connections between class relations and gender relations in society and to relate changes in the role of women to changes in the economic system and patterns of ownership of the means of production.
Socialist feminists recognise that while women are divided by class, colour and political belief, they do experience a common oppression as women.
This oppression needs to be understood, not just in terms of inequalities of power between men and women, but also in terms of the requirements of capitalism and the role of state institutions in a capitalist society.
Socialist feminist writers in the 1970s and early 1980s tended to concentrate on issues such as employment, domestic labour and state policy.
Socialist feminists advocate an autonomous women's movement, but also a broadening of the socialist movement to include feminist perspectives and the challenge the oppression of women within socialist parties and trades unions.
This clearly involves political activity alongside men and a belief that the interests of women and men can be reconciled.
In many ways their analysis, strategy and tactics are all dual - sometimes summed up by the slogan "There can be no women's liberation without socialism, no socialism without women's liberation".

Radical feminism

Radical feminists may or may not be anti-capitalist. They see the basic division in all societies as that between men and women and clearly state that men are the oppressors of women.
The term 'patriarchy' is often used to describe this systematic and universal oppression. For many radical feminists, patriarchal relations underlie all other forms of oppression - class oppression, colour oppression and imperialist oppression.
Some radical feminists see women's role in reproduction as both motivating and enabling men to take power over them, others emphasise the wish of men to control women's sexual availability or to use their unpaid domestic labour in marriage.
Because of their common oppression, women form a social group who share common interests - common interests that override differences between them.
They must struggle as women to overthrow patriarchy and oppression in women-only groups. The ultimate aim is to change gender relations fundamentally - sometimes expressed as eliminating male power, sometimes as eliminating male values in favour of female values.

Liberal feminism

Both socialist feminism and radical feminism can be distinguished from the main theoretical strand in first wave feminism - equal rights feminism or liberal feminism. This version of feminism continued to exist into the 1950s and 1960s. Early activists in the WLM tended to ignore it or be dismissive of it, but in many ways liberal feminism was reinvigorated as a result of the emergence of second wave feminism. The emphasis of liberal feminism is on inequality between men and women in the public sphere of life - employment, education and politics.
Many liberal feminists explain women's exclusion or inequality with reference to ideas of female inferiority or incapacity that inform the upbringing and education of both men and women.
Liberal feminists seek to challenge ideas and practices that treat women as second class citizens while leaving relatively unchallenged othe areas such as sexuality, reproduction and domestic labour.
This is where the label 'liberal' comes from. Liberalism can be seen as the dominant ethos of contemporary society and so it indicates that liberal feminists are not challenging capitalism or patriarchy or any other fundamental structures of society, but rather looking for the removal of barriers that prevent women operating effectively in the public sphere on equal terms with men.
To this end, they will work with both women and men, quite often in formal pressure-group type organisations and quite often aiming their tactics at changes in legislation.

Black feminism

Black feminist theory emerged from 1980 onwards. It challenged perspectives and practices among white feminists that marginalised or excluded Black women. Black feminists called on white feminists to take differences and inequalities between women seriously, to recognise the impact of racism on Black women's lives and to challenge racism within the Women's Movement.
Black feminist research and theory makes the experiences and perspectives of Black women central.
Black feminists generally oppose assumptions of a common sisterhood among women and do not define men as the oppressor. They point out that black men and women must work together politically in the fight against racism.
Many Black feminists in the UK and USA are anti-imperialist and have an international perspective.

Eco-feminism

Eco-feminism came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. Eco-feminists make connections between men's oppression of women and their exploitation of Nature and argue that women have a central role to play in the environmental movement.
They point out that in Western thought, women have been associated with nature and emotion and the body while men have been associated with culture, reason and the mind. Those aspects of life associated with men have always been valued more. They also point out that female terms are often used to describe Nature - Mother Earth, virgin forest etc.
Some eco-feminists see women's reproductive and nurturing capacities as giving women superior insight into how humans can live in harmony with nature.
Other eco-feminists argue that it is women's low status and social roles that make them more aware of threats to the environment eg dumping of toxic waste, degradation of fertile land through intensive farming & pesticides.

Conclusion

In the 1970s, many feminists were concerned with developing theory which could help explain women's oppression and which could indicate how that oppression could be challenged.
By the second half of the 1980s, many theorists had turned away from the search for over-arching explanations of women's subordination and were analysing particular issues and problems.
Sometimes this analysis was aimed at policy-makers and/or activists but sometimes it was mainly intended for an academic audience.
Feminist research and publication expanded considerably, not least because of the development of Women's Studies programmes.

Radical feminism has developed in a number of different directions in the UK since the 1970s. Within this broad strand, there has been more emphasis on differences between men and women and on celebrating the positive aspects of the values and characteristics traditionally associated with women. Some radical feminists have taken Black feminist criticism seriously and incorporated issues of racism, class oppresssion and imperialism into their analysis of patriarchy.

Lesbian-feminism can be seen as a strand that grew out of radical feminism or as a sub-division within it. It has generated a great deal of theorising about sexuality, identity and politics, as well as a growing body of academic theory within Women's Studies and Cultural Studies. Some lesbian feminists have been attracted by the approaches of Queer Theory. Some radical feminists in the 1990s have been strong critics of the way other feminists have concentrated on theoretical work which is highly intellectual and abstract, arguing that this sort of theory if neither accessible or relevant to feminist activists.

In the late 1970s, a number of socialist feminists tried to develop quite sophisticated theories that integrated Marxist and feminist analysis and we can describe this strand as Marxist-feminism. In the 1980s, some socialist feminists moved on to an engagement with psychoanalytical theory in order to understand the continuing strength of patriarchal ideology. In the 1980s too, many socialist feminists responded positively to the Black feminist challenge. The growing influence of poststructuralist and postmodernist theories in the UK in the late 1980s and 1990s attracted some who had previously identified as socialist feminists to explore how feminism related to these new intellectual perspectives.

For those who prefer theoretical work that seeks to analyse aspects of women's lives in ways that are directly useful for individual or collective feminist practice, Black feminist and Eco-feminist writings are probably the most rewarding at the moment, in my opinion.

If you print out this page, it will take up 3 sides of A4.

URL: http://pers-www.wlv.ac.uk/~le1810/femin.htm

Penny Welch
February 2001

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