The basic assumption shared by all feminists is that women suffer certain injustices on account of their sex. Feminists stress the importance of gender divisions in society and it portrays these divisions as working to the overall advantage of men. Although feminists are united with their common desire for sexual justice and their concern for women’s welfare, there is a range spectrum of feminist views.
Liberal feminism focuses on equal rights;radical feminism focuses on the sex war and separatism (they see patriarchy as built into the structure of society); Marxist/socialists feminism focuses on the impact of capitalism while black feminists focus on racism and ethnicity.
Two of the more famous proponents of feminism are:
Ann Oakley, a British sociologist and writer, born 1944. Her works include ‘Women Confined: Towards a sociology of childbirth.’(1980) and ‘Who’s afraid of Feminism?’ (1997). Her father was a social policy theorist.
Claire Wallace, a British sociologist and writer. Wallace was a professor at Aberdeen University. Her most famous work is ‘An Introduction to Sociology: Feminist Perspectives’ (1990). Wallace was president of the European Sociology Association 2007-09.
Feminism has five major concepts embedded into it:
Patriarchy – the dominance of men in society, and the oppression of women for men’s gain. Example: ‘The family is patriarchal because women must do housework without pay.’
Discrimination – unfair/unequal treatment of women i.e. by the law. Example: Women paid less than men until Equal Pay Act 1970.
Gender stereotypes – negative generalisations/misconceptions about women. These are perpetuated in the media, as well as the education system. Example: ‘Man are better drivers then women.’
Economic dependency – women giving up work to take care of childcare/housework responsibilities, thus becoming dependent on their husbands for money.
Emotional work – women are expected to do the majority of emotional care for their family, on top of their job and housework; the so-called ‘triple shift’.
Feminism and Education: feminists believe that education as it stands promotes male domination; that there is gendered language within education, education produces stereotypes, education misses women from the curriculum, ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ subjects have been allowed to develop eg: (girls do Food Tech while boys do Woodwork). Feminists believe that the education system is patriarchal; they believe that the ‘Hidden curriculum’ reinforces gender differences. Girls tend to do better now, although boys demand more attention from teachers. Men dominate top positions in school (head teachers ect.) Liberal feminists: want an equal access to education for boys and girls. Marxist feminists: want to consider gender inequalities combined with inequalities of class and ethnicity. Radical feminists: men are a bad influence and we should have female-centred education. Illich 1971: ‘get rid of school completely’. He wanted to de-school society as the functions it performs are not good enough to run schools and schools do not create equality or develop creativity.
Feminism and Family: Feminists believe that the family is patriarchal, dominated by men and it exploits and oppresses women. The family supports and reproduces inequalities between men and women. Women are oppressed because their socialised to be dependent on men and remain in second place. They reject the new rights view of the separate roles, and also reject the ‘march of progress ‘view in that society has not changed and it is still unequal. Feminists believe that marriage remains patriarchal and that men benefit from wives. Feminists reject the idea of ‘one best’ family type, they welcome freedom and diversity.
Feminism and the Media: Feminists believe that the media often presents women as cleaners, housewives, domestic servants providing comfort and support for men, a man’s sex object to service men’s sexual needs, ect. Feminists believe that this gender representation is an aspect of patriarchy. Feminists believe that the media suggests these roles are natural and normal. Feminists see this as an example of patriarchal ideology- a set of beliefs which distorts reality and supports male dominance.
Feminism and Crime: Feminists argue that the behaviour of women when criminality is involved can only be understood in the context of male dominance. Pat Carlen argues that women’s crimes are largely ‘crimes of the powerless’. She draws on control theory, arguing that working-class women turn to crime when the advantages appear to outweigh the disadvantages. Feminists believe that women have been socialised to conform; women’s socialisation and domestic responsibilities plus the controls imposed on them by men discourage deviance from social norms. Frances Heidensohn believes that the most striking thing about women’s behaviour is their conformity to social norms. She explains this in terms of their socialisation and control over their behaviour by men. As a result women have less inclination, time and opportunity for crime.
Feminism and Religion: Feminists believe that religion is a patriarchal institution. They criticise the sacred texts as in almost all the world’s religions, the gods are male. (Hindus come close to being an exception, with its female goddesses). Feminists have also been written and interpreted by males by incorporating many traditional male stereotypes and biases. Supernatural beings and religious professionals are overwhelmingly male, and in many religions, women play a secondary role in worship. In strongly religious societies, women tend to have fewer options and less favourable treatment.
Feminist methodology: There are a number of feminist methodologies. The ‘weak thesis’ states that overgeneralisation is found in all aspects of the research process. Research methods, in and of themselves, are not sexist. Once researchers learn to use them in a non-sexist way, the problem will be solved. Some feminists see women’s struggle and feminist methodology as inseparable. The feminist researcher should be consciously partial and actively participate in women’s liberation. Postmodern feminism rejects pre-set, pre-determined categories. It emphasises diversity and variation. It argues that there are multiple interpretations of any observation and that this should be reflected by multiple voices in research reports.
Critics of feminism:
Critics argue that there is too much focus on negative aspects, and that feminists sometime ignore recent social changes . Critics claim that feminists portray women as ‘passive’ victims, as if they are unable to act against discrimination. The same critics believe that feminists focus on one specific group, ignoring women from other cultures and ethnicities (black feminism).
Sociological stance on feminism:
Feminism is a structuralist (top-down) theory. Postmodernist sociologists argue that society has ‘fragmented’ since the ‘modern’ era and can no longer be explained with rigid rules and structures. Instead, postmodernists believe in social action (bottom-up) theory.
Marxism shares some similarities with feminism: it argues that society is unequal and that it is characterised by oppression. However, Marxists believe that the oppression is of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie.
Functionalist sociologists disagree with feminists. Unlike feminists, they emphasise the positive aspects of society. Functionalists believe that society’s institutions (education, media, religion etc.) are vital so that society can function. However, functionalists are often criticised for ignoring negative aspects of society, such as domestic violence
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex