WS3300 Women in Europe

Week 2 Second Wave Feminism: Theory and Practice - continued

Feminist Theory


Feminist theory consists of systematic sets of ideas and arguments that attempt to identify and explain women's oppression and put forward strategies for challenging and overcoming that oppression. Second wave feminist activists argued that feminist theory needs to be based on women's collective analysis of their own oppression and must inform, and be informed by, the experience of collective action for women's liberation.

This means that feminist theory is not something thought up by individual intellectuals or 'experts'. However, some feminist theoretical writing - particularly that done within an academic context from the 1980s onwards - does seem too abstract to be useful for the women's movement in general. But even very difficult feminist theory can give us a new way of looking at the world and may possibly shape how we act, individually and collectively.

Tasks for Students Can you relate the points above to your own experiences of studying feminist theory?

Theoretical/Political Differences within Second Wave Feminism

In the early days of Second Wave feminism in Western Europe, the most visible feminists were those involved in the Women's Liberation Movement, which was also known as the autonomous Women's Movement. The range and comparative importance of different theoretical and political perspectives within feminism varied from country to country, not just in Western Europe but throughout the world.

By the mid-1970s in Britain and in parts of Western Europe, 2 main theoretical strands could be distinguished - socialist-feminism and radical 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.
By the second half of the 1970s, many radical feminists were concentrating on issues of male violence towards women and some were advocating that women should live and work, not just campaign, separately from men.

The Relationship of Socialist and Radical Feminism to 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 other 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.

The Challenge of Black Feminism

Black feminist theory emerged from 1980 onwards, particularly in the USA and UK. 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 West are anti-imperialist and have an international perspective.


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.

Tasks for Students Which strand of feminist thought appeals to you most? Why?

Other Dimensions of Theoretical and Political Differences

Another way of classifying feminist theories is to place them somewhere on a spectrum that runs from one clear position through to its opposite.
For example

Tasks for Students Where do you locate yourself on each of these?

Feminist Theory in the Soviet Union/Russia/Eastern Europe

The communist governments of the 1970s and 1980s claimed that women not only enjoyed equal rights with men, but that the conflicts between womens' roles as mothers and women's participation in the public sphere - employment, education and politics - had been solved by maternity rights, childcare leave and public daycare. In other words, women had been emancipated. It was officially acknowledged that further progress was needed, but this would occur as socialism developed.

The contributors to The Women's Almanac (1979) analysed women's oppression in the Soviet Union from a number of different perspectives. Some showed broad support for the existing political system but wanted significant change so that the reality of womens' lives matched the official rhetoric. Others rejected the Soviet system and advocated a Russian form of liberal capitalism. Some stressed the maternal and spiritual role of women.

Changes in Feminist Theory

In the 1970s, many feminists in Western Europe were concerned with developing theory which could help explain women's oppression in general 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. This was in part due to Western feminists responding to challenges from Black feminists in the West and feminists in the 'Third World' and realising that they could no longer claim universal relevance for their analyses.
Sometimes the analysis of issues and problems was aimed at activists and/or policy-makers 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 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 oppression 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. Others 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 late 1980s and 1990s attracted some feminists to explore the relationship of feminism to these new intellectual perspectives.

Reading Lists on Second Wave Feminism and on Feminist Theory

Page created by Penny Welch July 2002

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