Feminism is a social and political movement that advocates for the rights of women on the grounds of equality of sexes. Feminism accepts the biological differences between the sexes but demands equality in opportunities in social and political and economic arenas.
In fact, feminist campaigns have been a crucial part of history in women’s empowerment. It has delivered the right to vote for women, the admission of women into male-dominated workplaces as well as wider access to education. Historically, traditional marriages required the father of the bride to “give” the bride to the groom, much like a chattel. In other words, the bride had limited agency in this marriage arrangement.
The concept of power lies at the heart of understanding feminism. Feminism strives for equality of the sexes, not the superiority of women. Feminism confronts the gender roles that have been allocated to women – childcare, home cleaning, cooking etc.
Feminism argues successfully that these so-called “gender roles” have been thrust on women by the power relationship with men and the social structures of power which are dominated by men. Most company boards are made up largely of men. Men predominate in structures of government. Some religious organisations disqualify women from holding positions of authority, purely because they are female. This gives rise to a lop-sided society where some peoples’ wishes are given priority, purely because of their sex, and not necessarily because of their competence to participate and shape the debate.
Feminism wants all people to live free and empowered lives without being limited by traditional restrictions. The central premise is that women can make a powerful contribution to society, but they are often excluded because of societal restrictions placed on their participation. The core concepts in feminist theory are sex, gender, race, discrimination, equality, difference, and choice. There are systems and structures in place that work against individuals based on these qualities and against equality and equity. Research in critical feminist paradigms requires the simultaneous building of awareness of these oppressive systems and creates spaces for diverse voices to speak for themselves, and not through others.
The following is a broad overview of feminist theory:
- There are systems of power and oppression in society. These structures are not apparent on the surface, but they are extremely powerful. “You can’t be an engineer because you need to be good at mathematics”. “Women are too emotional”. “We can’t appoint a woman to that role, – she can’t travel because she has children”. “A woman will never be able to manage the construction team.”
- These power structures are used by the powerful against the less powerful to maintain the status quo. These arguments are based on some supposed differences – race, language, gender etc.
- The status quo thus excludes those discriminated against. This is precisely because there are few advocates within the traditional power structures. Women are largely excluded not based on their ability to perform the work, but because they are female.
- Feminism seeks to disrupt this comfortable status quo. It seeks to break up the exclusionary male domains and allow anyone, male or female, to get access to roles and positions they can do.
- Feminism is thus the process of education advocacy and activism that seeks the overturn this cabal.
There was an insightful vignette on social media recently. A well-known orchestra was auditioning for new violin players, and they wanted to increase the number of female violin players in the orchestra. But sadly, every female auditioned did not match their exacting standards. The conductor had a brainwave. He screened the auditioning violin player from the view of the selection panel and continued the auditions. Suddenly the successful violin players included many more females because the judges had to rely solely on the quality of the playing and not the visual appearance of the player.
The following statements expand on the nature of feminism:
- Feminism argues for respectful individual, informed choices. Feminism maintains that there shouldn’t be a double standard in judging a person. Everyone has the right to sexual autonomy and the ability to make decisions about when, how and with whom to conduct their sexual life.
- Feminism challenges the daily systemic inequalities women face and seeks to address these
- Feminism has nothing to do with belittling men. Feminism does not support sexism against either gender. Feminism works towards equality, not female superiority.
- Feminism is the acceptance of the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
- Feminism takes on several forms: critical feminist theory, Marxist feminist theory, and cultural feminist theory are a few of the most frequently debated ones.
Critical feminist theory asks how elements of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and other characteristics intersect and contribute to patriarchal structures of oppression and knowledge (including those that underpin the institution of academia and normative pedagogical practices).
Marxist feminism is a philosophical variant of feminism couched within the Marxist class theory. Marxist feminism analyses how women are exploited through capitalism and the individual ownership of private property. Marxist feminism focuses on women’s work in domestic and public spheres, women’s roles in marriage, women’s sexual practices, and the sexual reproduction of labour power.
Cultural feminism holds the view that there is a “female nature” or “female essence”. attempts to revalue and redefine those attributes ascribed to femaleness. It describes theories that emphasise essential differences between men and women, based on biological differences in reproductive capacity. Cultural feminism attributes distinctive and superior virtues to those differences in women. Cultural feminism encourages building a shared Culture of Women.
A traditional structural functionalist view of gender inequality uses the division of labour to view predefined gender roles as complementary: women take care of the home while men provide for the family. Thus gender, like other social institutions, contributes to the stability of society as a whole. The structural functionalist approach thus ignores the inherent inequality and lack of agency assumed in this conceptualisation. It has been pointed out that the structural functionalists have a rose-tinted view of society – the focus is too much on the positive functions that institutions perform, ignoring the negative life-limiting impacts which institutions and socialisation can have on certain groups and people. The key message of feminism must be to highlight the freedom of choices in bringing personal meaning to feminism. It is to recognise others’ right to do the same thing.
An exhaustive treatment of feminism is not possible here. Other authors have done so much more eloquently and successfully.
The links provided below are provided for the reader to understand feminism and the purposes and ends of feminism more fully.
- Feminism and Class
- Marxist, Socialist, and Materialist Feminisms
- M-Fem (information page, discussion group, links, etc.)
- Marxist/Materialist Feminism (Feminist Theory Website)
- MatFem (Information page, discussion group)
- WMST-L discussion of how to define “marxist feminism”
- Feminist Economics
- Marxist, Socialist, and Materialist Feminisms
- Feminism and Disability
- Feminism and Human Rights, Global Feminism
- Global Feminism (Feminist Majority Foundation)
- Global Feminisms Research Resources
- Global Issues Resources
- International Gender Studies Resources
- NOW and Global Feminism
- Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI)
- United Nations Development Fund for Women
- World Wide Web Review: Websites on Women and Human Rights
- Feminism and Race/Ethnicity