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Feminist theory is a body of literary, philosophical, and sociological analysis that explores the inequality that exists between men and women in societies around the world. Specifically, this theoretical body of knowledge examines gender-based aspects that affect politics, power relations, and sexuality. Feminist theory consists of numerous subcategories that explain gender disparity through differing causal factors. Regardless of the subcategory of feminist theory that is examined, all of them contend that men and women should be equal within the political, economic, sexual, and social spheres of society.
II. Liberal Feminism
III. Radical Feminism
IV. Marxist Feminism
V. Socialist Feminism
IV. Psychoanalytic Feminism
VII. Cultural Feminism
VIII. Minorities and Feminism
IX. Feminism around the Globe
X. Feminist Theory in Relation to Domestic Violence and Other Crimes against Women
The feminist movement has had a long history in the United States and an even longer history in some countries, such as France. There have been numerous women who have advocated feminist perspectives for hundreds of years. For instance, one eighteenth-century feminist writer and journalist, Mary Wollstonecraft, was highly cognizant of the feminist movement occurring throughout areas of Europe (Baird 1992). While in the United States, Wollstonecraft wrote what is considered the first book advocating women’s liberation (Baird 1992). Wollstonecraft’s book, entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Women, was written in 1792 in response to Thomas Paine’s fairly biased treatise The Rights of Man. Naturally, Wollstonecraft’s work underscored the fact that women were neglected and overlooked in almost all aspects of society, including the literary and scholarly circles (Baird 1992). While not popular among most of the male population of the time, her book was nonetheless widely read in the United States and parts of Europe (Baird 1992). This also served as the impetus of future actions that would come on behalf of women worldwide.
Though the work of Wollstonecraft is considered the first text on women’s liberation, the true origins of feminism as a distinct school of thought are typically thought to have emerged in 1848 with the passage of the ‘‘Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions’’ that was enacted at the women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York. Indeed, this has been dubbed the ‘‘first wave’’ of feminism and was also associated with an antislavery agenda. Essentially, this period of feminism advocated for equality of all people and eschewed practices of exploitation regardless of the rationale presented for such unfair systems. This initial wave of feminism grew out of the movement to abolish slavery (Jurik 1999). Even though this initial period of feminism addressed various issues affecting women, the first wave ultimately centered around the acquisition of political rights, with the right to vote being its primary goal. Thus, this period lasted until 1920, when the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed woman suffrage.
The ‘‘second wave’’ of feminism emerged during the late 1960s and was referred to as the Women’s Liberation movement. According to Jurik (1999), second-wave feminism drew its initial membership from women working in the Civil Rights, student, and anti–Vietnam War movements. Jurik (1999) goes on to note that during the Civil Rights movement, rights that were specific to women were largely ignored or placed as secondary to those advocated for racial minorities. Because of this, many white American women (and some minority women as well) disbanded from many of these movements and formed ‘‘consciousness-raising groups’’ that consisted of an all-female membership (Jurik 1999, p. 32). This period emerged in 1967–1968, and it is from this point that the Women’s Liberation movement officially began. During this period, advocates of the feminist movement held that true equality consists of more than a mere ability to vote, hold a job, or engage in other activities. Rather, true equality was also held to mean equality in the legitimate access to such opportunities.
The ‘‘third wave’’ of feminism started in the mid to late 1980s and focused on issues of patriarchy. The basic contention of this movement was that men inherently seek to dominate and exploit women. While third-wave feminists all desired to overcome the systematic subjugation of women, the women’s movement had grown to encompass a wide variety of different and often conflicting subgroups of membership. Although feminists disagreed on many issues, they did share in the work of many projects, including work to support freedom in decisions pertaining to sex and sexuality, access to abortion services (particularly the right for women to choose), and the development of battered women’s shelters (Jurik 1999).
It is from this point that any overview of feminist theory must address the variety of subcategories of feminism that have since developed. This research paper will provide an overview of many of the primary categories of feminist theoretical thought in an effort to compare and contrast the bases for their development. In addition, the last section of this research paper will discuss the importance of feminist theory in addressing issues related to domestic violence and sexual assault. Feminist theory has had a very distinct and important impact on services for victims of such crimes as well as the specific interventions utilized with perpetrators of violence against women.
Liberal feminism contends that equality between men and women is possible but that any such equality will require substantive changes through social and legal reform. According to Hedges (1996), this type of feminism ‘‘attempts to reform or use existing political structures to advance women’s interests along a civil rights model’’ and ‘‘argues that women deserve the same privileges, protections, pay, and opportunities that men do’’ (p. 1). Essentially, this type of feminist thought contends that the social system can accommodate the appropriate social change without the need to resort to an entire social revolution. This form of feminism is a bit more conservative than many other subcategories, since it does hold that men and women can coexist on equal terms and contends that the needed changes can be orchestrated within the current social system. One of the key challenges associated with this theoretical outlook revolves around achieving a balance, where women are afforded equality with men while not forsaking their identity as women (Hedges 1996). Finding such a balance has been touted as difficult, forcing women to act as if they must play the role of a man in the workforce rather than being free to have freedom of feminine expression in conjunction with equal access to opportunity there (Hedges 1996).
III. Radical Feminism
Radical feminist theory focuses on the uneven distribution of power that men hold over women in society (D’Unger 2005). According to radical feminists, violence is the ultimate expression of male dominance over women, and therefore domestic abuse and sexual assault (as well as other, similar crimes) are manifestations of such dominance and exploitation (D’Unger 2005). Views that provide tacit (as opposed to overt) approval of such dynamics are demonstrated in various forms of research pertaining to differing views on pornography, sexual assault, and violence that are held by men and women (Bromberg 1997). According to D’Unger (2005), radical feminist researchers tend to focus on issues related to women’s sexual oppression and victimization, sexual harassment, and pornography. Further, the support for domestic violence interventions has been spearheaded by radical feminist supporters contending that such crimes were long unacknowledged due to similar tacit social approval of such violence within society (D’Unger 2005). The radical feminist contends that such violence is normalized through the lack of public resistance to this category of crime and also contends that women themselves begin to see this type of treatment as typical and acceptable because no contrary opinion is noted, particularly in the lives of those girls who are socialized within an abusive home.
IV. Marxist Feminism
Feminist advocates under this subcategory draw much of their thought from the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Jurik 1999). The original tenets of Marxist feminists held that women’s subordination was the result of a system in which men held and controlled most private property in society (Jurik 1999). Indeed, not only do men hold more private property, but this ownership tends to be transmitted intergenerationally from the male parent to the male offspring, further perpetuating private property ownership among male members of society. Central to the works of Karl Marx was the emphasis on the division of labor. Marxists contend that the wage earners, officially termed the proletariat, are exploited and controlled by the wealthy bourgeoisie. This type of system is considered a form of economic oppression in which the rich control the masses by rewarding the wage earners for the production of desired goods and services at levels that are just high enough for them to exist, but low enough to ensure that they must continue to work in order to subsist. It is in this way that the wealthy maintain control over the working class and ensure that the latter must continue to consent to such a system of exploitation.
For feminists, this theory of power and exploitation goes one step further in defining notions of power through the division of labor in society. Within a capitalist framework, it is the males who tend to go into the workforce, and these men tend to develop the job skills to earn a higher wage than women who choose to enter the workforce. It is through this process and the unequal access to higher-paying job markets that women are further exploited, even though they may be members of the proletariat alongside their male counterparts. Thus it is that female members of the proletariat are doubly exploited, both by the bourgeoisie and by their male partners in the proletariat.
However, Marxist feminists do not contend that this imbalance will last forever. Rather, the purest of Marxist feminists contend that capitalism itself will be short-lived, similar to the contentions of any member of the Marxist school of thought. For Marxist feminists, this means that ‘‘capitalist expansion would eventually force all women into fulltime labor force participation. The incorporation of women into the workforce would lead to the demise of the nuclear family’’ (Jurik 1999, p. 33). From this point, it is contended that the removal of demands from the family system will eventually make men and women equal because their primary value will be derived from their wage-earning abilities (Jurik 1999). Marxist feminists contend that such a system will be necessary so that women and men can come together to realize their mutual plight of being exploited by the wealthy bourgeoisie. Just as with traditional Marxism, the ultimate goal of Marxist feminists is to overthrow the capitalist power structure. Thus, it is the capitalist system that is thought to be the ultimate culprit behind female inequality. The removal of a capitalist system, according to these feminists, will also remove the gender bias within such a society.
However, it became apparent to many Marxist feminists that there was more to male and female inequality than was attributed to capitalism alone. It was clear that other factors did come into play when structuring this system of power and control. From observations in various socialist countries (particularly during the 1960s and 1970s) in Central and South America, as well as in Eastern Europe, it was clear that the removal of capitalism did not result in equality for women (Jurik 1999). Further, as time went on, family structures did modify and divorces were more prevalent, but it became clear to Marxist feminists that there was not necessarily a disintegration of the family (Jurik 1999). Further, it was clear that even with such changes in society, there still existed serious limits for women in the workforce that did not necessarily exist for men. Thus, women were subordinate to men in socialist societies as well (Jurik 1999). Adding to this was the fact that further equality of women in the United States had not caused the complete demise of the family. While it was true that the traditional nuclear family had been fragmented, family systems were morphing into new but cohesive groupings that consisted of the blended families and other familial groupings that had adapted and modified themselves to a more egalitarian society. Granted, problems did exist with this process of transformation, but it was clear that the family had not simply disappeared in the process.
Because of these observed discrepancies in Marxist feminism, a movement developed to bridge Marxism with feminism while incorporating a social movement to include socialist and Women’s Liberation groups (Jurik 1999). This eventually became the socialist feminist school of thought, which emphasizes that both capitalistic economic inequality and the existence of patriarchy are the core underlying causal factors for women’s subordinate role in society (Jurik 1999).
For socialist feminists, the basis of inequality lies in the actual acquisition of material goods. This branch of feminism contends that there is a connection between class structure and the oppression of women and that men maintain power in society because they engage in the world of work, being employed in the tangible workforce that produces specific remuneration for their efforts. Their production of goods and services translates into material wealth that is directly owned and controlled by the male rather than the female. This is compared with the traditional role of the female, who is stereotypically limited to work within the domestic arena. Domestic work seldom receives a specific form of remuneration within most family households and is undervalued by society when it is completed as a choice of vocation. This, along with the fact that women have not been conditioned to engage in the production of goods and services throughout much of history, provides men with power over women. This power comes by way of material production.
Another important aspect of socialist feminism is the rejection of biology in determining gender. According to socialist feminists, social roles are not inherent, and this means that both male and female roles can be pliable if there is sufficient social incentive to make changes in socialization and conditioning. Because socialist feminists do not attribute differences to physiology and emphasize a social basis for such differences in ability and opportunity, they make a specific point to challenge the basis of capitalism and the inherent forms of patriarchy that exist in most societies. Similar to the views of radical feminists, socialist feminists believe that although women are divided by class, race, ethnicity and religion, they all experience the same oppression simply for being a woman. Thus, according to socialist feminists, true equality can occur only through the complete elimination of all class and gender distinctions. This would then mean that women would need to be in all spheres of social involvement in numbers equal to their male counterparts. In fact, the mere distinction between male and female is contrary to socialist feminism, since any true sense of equality would essentially consist of a completely nongendered society. With this view in mind, there would then be a basic unigender, where male and female distinctions would not even exist.
It should also be noted that other class distinctions would also be eliminated if a true socialist feminist view of society were to be formed. This means that economic distinctions would be removed, just as with any form of socialist government or social structure. Thus, wealth would be equally distributed among all members of society. Inherent in this would then be the lack of distinctions based on race and other criteria, since all members would have equal ownership of material goods. This would, by default, create a society in which all members would have equal power on an individual basis. At the macro level, this society would need to ensure that distinctions among groups did not exist. In essence and in its purest form, there would be no racial or economic categories. This demonstrates the broad view of socialist feminism and underscores the fact that it stands in direct contrast to much of the capitalistic thought of many Western industrialized nations.
Psychoanalytic feminism is based on the work of Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalytic theory associated with him. This branch of feminism contends that gender is based upon the psychosexual stages of individual development. Feminists who support this theory contend that gender inequality stems from a variety of childhood experiences that are taught to and internalized by the child. Essentially, boys are taught to believe themselves to be masculine and girls are taught that they should view themselves as feminine. From this process, the male is ascribed characteristics that encourage competition and the ability to explore his environment, while the female is taught to remain docile and within the vicinity of the home. This theoretical orientation illustrates the manner by which language shapes subjectivity and gender definitions within the family (Hedges 1996). This process leads to a social system in which men are afforded more privilege and competitive advantage than are women. Much of the basis for this view on feminism is drawn from Freud’s work in which he analyzed traditional heterosexuality and gender roles as being an arbitrary social construct rather than a matter of nature, physiology, or genetics (Hedges 1996). One interesting limitation to this theory questions the viability of its framework, which is based on Oedipus (for sons) and Electra (for daughters) complexes in a society in which the two-parent family (a natural dynamic of Freud’s Oedipus/Electra nexus) is much less common than it was in the society that Freud knew (Hedges 1996).
The term ‘‘cultural feminism’’ may seem a bit counterintuitive to many who are not familiar with this type of feminism. This is because cultural feminism does not contend that culture or socialization is the root cause of differences between men and women, as the term would seem to imply. Rather, cultural feminists contend that there are inherent biological differences between male and female members of society and that these differences are inevitable (Deegan 1986; Lewis 2006. Going further, these differences should be accepted as part of nature and embraced. This theoretical perspective holds that women are indeed superior in virtue compared with men (Lewis 2006). Cultural feminists specifically point toward moral deficiencies among men that have been viewed as socially acceptable (the ‘‘boys will be boys’’ mentality) while noting the emphasis on moral purity that has been the hallmark of a woman’s self-worth and social value in a number of societies. Cultural feminists see women as inherently more kind and gentle, and they ‘‘believe that because of these differences, if women ruled the world there would be no more war and it would be a better place’’ (p. 1). Cultural feminists are often nonpolitical and tend to focus instead on change within individual belief systems. This means that these advocates often address micro levels of change rather than the macro levels common in Marxist and socialist feminism.
Minorities and Feminism
Feminist scholars have bemoaned the fact that in addressing women’s issues, the feminist movement has traditionally failed to provide adequate analysis of the unique issues presented to women of diverse racial and cultural groups (Hanser 2002). Because of this, critics have likened feminism to a concept that is limited to the historical and social experiences of middle-class white women (ibid.). However, these experiences have often been quite different from those of African American women, Latinas, and Asian American women (Hanser 2002). Indeed, during the early years of the feminist movement, there were documented cases of racism and discrimination between white American and African American feminists (Baird 1992). Issues of race, racism, and institutional oppression will likely be relevant to African American women but not to most white women (Baird 1992; Hanser 2002). The socialization of Asian American and Latin American women is likely to emphasize even further subservience and other dynamics that are laced with traditional values from their respective cultures. Further, there may be issues of religion as well as racial and cultural differences that should be taken into consideration (Shaheen 1998). This is particularly true for women who are of the Muslim faith and/or community (Shaheen 1998). Because of the vast array of differences that can be encountered among women and since many mainstream white American women are not necessarily likely to be well versed in these cultural differences, an awareness has developed of the need to have feminist schools of thought that can address these differences in an effective and supportive manner.
Feminism around the Globe
In addition to diversity and multiculturalism within the United States, there has been a growing awareness of the rights of women around the world. Reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International make it clear that women and girls are victimized in various forms and to various degrees due to their status in societies throughout the world. Examples include domestic abuse and excessive restrictions in Afghanistan; genital mutilation in Africa and the Middle East; the stoning to death of women for adultery in Pakistan; the trafficking of women and their forced participation in the sex industry in eastern Europe; and the killing of women in India who do not bring an expected dowry amount for the groom’s family. These and other actions necessitate advocacy for women around the world. Even in countries where crimes against women are not noted to be rampant, there are still concerns regarding their access to power and economic independence.
While it is clear that there is much ground to make up for feminist theorists around the world, Baer (2006) argues that various cultural and political hurdles may exist. For instance, ‘‘mainstream feminists are criticized by minority and Third World feminists for unexamined and unrecognized biases of their own’’ (p. 2). This points toward the necessity for feminists to expand their theoretical critiques while presenting a series of co-occurring pitfalls and challenges. Nevertheless, just as with the need for multicultural feminist perspectives in the United States, a similar diversification of views will be necessary to accommodate the global community. This means that it is likely that feminism will continue to contain further subdivisions as feminist theory grows to reflect cultural and international diversity of feminists around the world.
Feminist Theory in Relation to Domestic Violence and Other Crimes against Women
As the women’s movement continued to gain momentum during the 1960s and 1970s, an increased awareness of domestic violence issues emerged within the United States. As women continued to demand equality within the professional arena, equality became an issue within the personal realm as well (Hanser 2002). Eventually, these personal demands extended to expectations within the marital relationship (Hanser 2002). Thus, feminist theory has provided a guiding framework for understanding and addressing domestic violence, as well as ‘‘explanations of how it has come about that men and women’s unequal status in society . . . and the differential socialization of male and female children [have] perpetuated violence and abuse in the home’’ (Frances 1995, p. 395). Feminist theory has been instrumental in raising the public consciousness about sex role conditioning and how such conditioning can lead to belief systems that justify sexism, male privilege, and gender socialization (Healey, Smith, and O’Sullivan 1998). It is through the transmission of these belief systems that acts of domestic violence can reflect the patriarchal organization of society, with the male partner exacting forced subservience from the female partner (ibid.).
These views on domestic violence are consistent with many schools of feminist thought (particularly radical feminism), which contend that it is the use of violence that keeps women subjugated in the home and in society as a whole. Crimes such as sexual assault, stalking, marital rape, and domestic violence have two key underlying similarities: The perpetrator is most often male and the victim is most often female. In addition, all of these crimes serve to exploit and/or control the sexual and social freedom of women to have a lifestyle of equality both inside and outside the home. Since these crimes target women and are most often committed by males, it is easy to see the connection to feminist theory. This theoretical perspective has been used in therapeutic interventions for women (providing a framework and rationale for empowering victims), as well as programs designed for perpetrators (providing psychoeducation on the rights of women and enforcing accountability in the recognition of those rights). Thus it is that from the women’s movement for equality in the broader society have come social changes impacting the responses to domestic violence issues.
While feminist theory has had a fairly lengthy history, it did not receive widespread acceptance until the 1970s. Even though feminist thought and critiques have faced many challenges in mainstream society, feminists have achieved substantial accomplishments that have considerably changed the social landscape as well as the personal dynamics between men and women. Throughout the development of feminist theory and against the backdrop of the substantive social change that has been generated, feminists themselves have not always agreed on their rationale or mode of operation. Indeed, there are a variety of subcategories to which a feminist may subscribe. As such, activists, researchers, and laypersons alike belong to various subcategory memberships. Regardless of their specific affiliation, all contend that women must have equality with men if society is ever to be free of oppression and discrimination.
Further still, women should be free of sex-based crimes and aberrant behaviors that provide men with the ability to exploit women. Crimes such as rape and domestic abuse are viewed as forms of specific and generalized control and therefore exploit women individually and collectively. Any society that is committed to equality between the sexes must then be particularly responsive to crimes that are based on sex or gender. It is with this in mind that feminist theory has impacted society on both the micro and the macro level, resulting in far-reaching and long-lasting change destined to change the course of human social development throughout generations to come.
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- Deegan, M. J. Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892–1918. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1986.
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- Frances, R. ‘‘An Overview of Community-Based Intervention Programmes for Men Who Are Violent or Abusive in the Home.’’ In Gender and Crime, edited by R. E. Dobash, R. P. Dobash, and L. Noaks. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 1995, pp. 390–409.
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- Healey, K., C. Smith, and C. O’Sullivan. Batterer Intervention: Program Approaches and Criminal Justice Strategies. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 1998.
- Hedges, W. ‘‘A Taxonomy of Feminist Intellectual Traditions,’’ 1996. http://www.ultrafaction.com/articles001/fem/femtaxonomy.html.
- Jurik, N. C. ‘‘Socialist-Feminist Criminology and Social Justice.’’ In Social Justice/Criminal Justice: The Maturation of Critical Theory in Law, Crime, and Deviance, edited by B. A. Arrigo. Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth, 1999, pp. 31–50.
- Lewis, J. J. ‘‘Women’s History: Cultural Feminism,’’ 2006. http://womenshistory.about.com/od/feminism/g/culturalfem.htm.
- Shaheen, A. ‘‘American, Ambitious, and Muslim.’’ WIN: Women’s International Net 8b (1998). https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/misc.activism.progressive/Mr-srxFSvB0.
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