Feminist theory refers to a sociological concept of equality between males and females in political, cultural and economic ways. It involves gender difference issues and also has many different branches such as Marxist, Liberal, Socialist and Radical feminism. Each branch has different ideologies that have shifted over time; however, many of these are still relevant to this day. There are many issues that the Feminist movement tackles, which include gender inequality, gender oppression and even structural oppression. Men were seen as privileged and superior to women thus leading women to fight through campaigns in order to become liberated. There are many branches of feminism and each may have different agendas; ranging from radical feminism that has been viewed as the most extreme, to socialist feminism which aims to adapt society to their needs. The relevance of these also, varies since the society we live in today is ever changing; many beliefs were very different a hundred years ago and so the concept of Feminism had to evolve throughout time.
Firstly, the idea of radical feminism is to emphasise the unfairness of the patriarchal society, mainly dealing with the issue of men being more dominant socially as well as privately. Patriarchy is a system within society in which men are believed to hold most power not only in the private but also the public sphere. It exerts the dominance of men and emphasises the term ‘a man’s world’. Throughout the ages women have always felt oppressed in the society that they live in as the belief was that they were expected to obey a man’s orders and hence were forced to play the roles of housewives, which in return meant that women did not receive the same opportunities as men. In the book Sociological Theory, George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky describe Radical Feminism as being based on “two emotionally charged central beliefs” which are that women have a value equal to men, arguing that there is a “universal devaluing of women” and that women everywhere are oppressed, often violently, for example through domestic violence ( Ritzer and Stepnisky, 2014). Radical Feminists portray the patriarchy as an evil, violent structure, in which men dominate the society in return drawing the attention to the victimisation of women. Rather than aiming to cause political change, radical feminists see gender oppression purely as a result of the patriarchal society and therefore they focus on the cultural aspect of it. They also strive to demolish the idea of patriarchy which means that some ideas and viewpoints may be seen as quite extreme. Many Radical feminists rose during the peak of the radical movement in the 1960s, one being Andrea Dworkin, who actively worked against the Vietnam war as well as helping to make pornography illegal in Minnesota, US. She believes that “Feminism is hated because women are hated. Anti-feminism is a direct expression of misogyny; it is the political defence of women hating.” which reiterates the common radical feminist belief that men hate women and that women are oppressed by men as a result of them being the dominating gender. The goal of radical feminism is to reorder the society and rather than making adjustments to the way private and public spheres are governed, radical feminists aim to change them completely. One way of this is that they believe the mother should be the head of the household rather than the man. However, in today’s society, the traditional view is not as narrow when it comes to family life. The head of the family is not a widely used term in the twentieth century and mostly only refers to the family member who supports the family financially. They also want reproductive rights which mean that they want full rights of their body – specifically the reproductive organs. One way, that they argue, this can be achieved is through advances of technology which could allow women to reproduce and carry children without the direct input of a man. It would allow them to take full control of their bodies as they believe that men have hold on them through their reproductive systems in return liberating them. The oppression that women are under can take extreme, even violent forms, such as domestic abuse, and Radical Feminists believe that this is a way for men to keep women subordinate. Domestic abuse is also believed to be a way for men to exert power over women, and rather than being a sexual act is more of a way to dominate over women. Henceforth, radical feminists believe in the creation of an artificial womb which would grant women full power over the birth of the baby. The choice whether they want to carry the child in their own womb means that women would not feel pressured to choose having children over a career.
Consequently, radical feminism has some relevance in today’s society. The number of marriages has decreased drastically since the 1900s due to the focus shifting from a domestic sphere to public one. Many women (and men) now choose to have a career before they choose to have a family meaning that the traditional gender roles are already being dismantled. Through this, the idea of an artificial womb may still seem relevant today, despite the criticisms, as this would allow women to not only have full control over their body but also provide them with the opportunity to keep working. Nevertheless, some approaches of the radical movement can be described as too extreme and perhaps even exaggerated. The idea of completely separating the sexes seems like a senseless idea in terms of factors such as heterosexuality, which consists of the opposite sexes being attracted to each other. Additionally, the complete separation of men from women would have a complex and most likely a negative consequence to mental health. As a result, radical feminism does indeed have some relevance in today’s society, however some of their ideologies do not fit in with the structure of the society.
Liberal feminism focuses on the political aspect of inequality between men and women; it raises questions on gender issues such as women being physically and intellectually inferior to men. In Feminist Politics and Human Nature, Alison Jagger argues that human nature is distinguished as a person’s capacity for rationality (Jagger, 1983) which suggests that if men and women should not be categorised by their physical appearance. Liberal feminists understand reason as a moral differentiation of our own separate beings hence supporting the view that a person should be judged by their intellectual capacity allowing everyone to have an equal chance in systems such as the workplace. In other words, everyone must have equal rights to choose their paths, for example religious and spiritual freedom to practice whatever religion or way of life people decide to. Rosemarie Putnam Tong, in Feminist Thought, describes Liberal Feminism as a way of providing “all individuals with an equal opportunity to determine their own accumulations within the market” (Putnam Tong, 1998, p11). This not only focuses on women’s suppression but also stresses that everyone should gain individual liberty and freedom through becoming full persons. The public sphere is the main focus of Liberal Feminists as they strive for gender equality in the work place as this is viewed as the prime system that subordinates women, making them seem less privileged and unequal to men. This, once again, falls back to the idea of patriarchy in which women were suppressed and segregated due to being ‘inferior’ to men as the work place was believed to be ‘male orientated’. The First Wave of Liberal Feminism was specifically aimed at women becoming politically active in order to receive the right to vote in the late 1910s and 1920s, whereas the Second Wave translated those political rights into “economic equality for women” (George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, 2014) thus already showing the escalation of the feminist movement as a whole and allowing different strands of thee movement to focus on different issues. In Liberal Feminism, men were seen as having a privilege in the public sphere thus women aimed to break these barriers within the society by destroying the gender roles they have been ‘assigned’, this had to be done by proving that the idea of women being inferior is merely a social construct. John Stuart Mills considered the emancipation of women to be one of the most fundamental principles for the creation of a more democratic and liberal society. Mills was a politician who also actively campaigned for women’s rights as well as:
“…women’s suffrage and women’s equal access to education. From the latter half of the 1850s until his death, he actively supported the women’s movement as it developed during this period, and participated in various forms of women’s political struggle against subjection and discrimination” (Mariana Szapuova, 2006)
Furthermore, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 was highly influenced by the Liberal Feminist movement, which was a great success in the fight for women’s rights. Parliamentary successes such as the legalisation of abortion and classing having sexual intercourse with one’s spouse without consent as rape, finally allowed women to have control over their own bodies and take their power back from men. The suppression of women was not only in the industrial world but also in the private sphere, in which women felt like they were not allowed to project their voice especially in regards to their husbands. Ending domestic violence and allowing women to make decisions that are to do with their bodies allows them to become free to make their own choices, and as Rosemarie Putnam Tong said, allows them to have “equal opportunities” as men. As a result, Liberal Feminism is probably one of the most relevant strands of the feminist movement today, as issues tackled from the legal perspective have the most impact. All the Acts that women have gained have changed the way our society is designed, which is the fundamental idea of most feminist movements. There is still a fair amount of gender inequality in both, Western and the Third World, which can be approached through Liberal means.
Another major strand of Feminism is Socialist Feminism which developed in the 1970s. Even though it is a young form of feminism, it still has very similar goals to the other feminist movements. Socialist Feminists believe in praxis – the Marxist concept which implies that humans have the conscious ability to manipulate the environment they live in to meet their needs. In this movement, similarly to radical feminists, they believe that gender roles should be abolished. However, Socialist Feminists believe that gender roles and sexuality are a social construct and hence do not define us as human beings or confine us to a certain role. The focus of this movement is also on patriarchy and capitalism and similarly to Marxist Feminists they believe that the best way to liberate women is to dismantle both, the patriarchy and capitalism. It lays down the basis of the feminist movement which created the women’s liberation women that eventually spread throughout the Western world campaigning for women rights. Marx was a big influence in the creation of Socialist Feminism as his ideas on oppression transferred into some of the main goals of this movement. In the book The Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State, which is heavily based on notes made by Marx, by Friedrich Engels, the major argument is that “the woman’s subordination results not from her biology” but from the social relations that can be changed and manipulated. The major difference between socialist Feminism and the others is that socialist feminism is more inclusive than the others; it tackles not only the issues that women face but also other minor groups who experience the oppression of Capitalism. The National Organisation of Women was founded in 1966, and similarly to Liberal Feminists, it advocates for social change as well as focusing on women’s liberation.
In today’s society, Social Feminism still provides an interesting view into feminism as a whole, due to including the idea of patriarchy and capitalism as the roots of the oppression of women. It does not blame only a single system for the oppression of women, and instead argues that it is a more spread out issue. It is arguably one of the most relevant strands of feminism alongside the Liberal Feminism as it tackles issues that are still relevant today such as inequality in the workplace. The inclusion of other oppressed groups also gives an advantage to Social Feminists since this provides campaigns with more force making it more likely to make a change.
Similarly, Marx also influenced the movement of Marxist Feminism. Marx believed that problems of modern life were rooted at sources such as the structures of capitalism. As mentioned before, Marx emphasised the concept of praxis and believed that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” (Ritzer and Stepnisky, 2013). Marxist Feminism focuses on exactly that – the demolition of capitalism. The idea of capitalism affects women not only in the workplace but also in the domestic world. Like the other feminist movements, Marxist Feminists believe that oppression is caused by a dominant power structure that can be translated as patriarchy. The key Marxist idea in this feminist movement is the exploitation of women in the private sphere.
The idea of a traditional family has changed over time, which is why Marxist Feminism does not have the same relevance in today’s society as socialist or liberal feminism. Women have definitely achieved a higher standing in the family life since many women rights, such as the right to vote, have been won. Achievements such as the contraceptive pill, and abortion rights, clearly show the evolution of society in terms of gender inequality. Through this, it can be made clear that although Marxist Feminism has valid points, such as oppression due to the capitalist structure, it is the least relevant strand of feminism out of the four mentioned.
Feminism as a whole is still very much relevant in society to this day. It may not be as extreme as it was a hundred years ago yet it continues to fight for women’s rights in other various ways. The prime example of gender inequality that still clearly separates men and women is the pay gap. As a result of Feminism the pay gap has dropped from 17.4% to 9.4% since 1997, nevertheless the gap still exists meaning that the work is not yet done. The Western societies are slowly getting closer to a point of gender equality, but there is still a great amount of oppression within the Third World. Another example of gender oppression is that in Saudi Arabia women were only recently given the right to drive. This clearly shows that in many countries women are still considered second class citizens. In addition, the lack of representation of women in the government is also extremely problematic. Only 29% of MPs in Britain are women meaning that when different legislations women become severely underrepresented, which only further emphasises the need for the Feminist movement. What can be seen as misogyny is still an ongoing issue in many ways and can only be tackled through big movements such as Feminism. The evolution of feminism in the last one hundred years has definitely shown that women can achieve a great change, as shown by the successes like the first female Prime Minister – Theresa May.
In conclusion, all strands of feminism have developed different approaches and ideologies, which, however, have the same fundamental goal: to tackle gender biases. Some strands of this movement, such as Liberal and Social feminism, are perhaps more relevant now due to their adaptations to today’s society. The main change that had to happen within the movement itself is the realisation that other groups, women and men, are also segregated in some ways, proving that if a certain type of feminism could acknowledge that, it would become more successful. A prime example is Patricia Hill Collins, an African-American sociologist, who represents the adaptations that social moments such as feminism had to endure. In her book Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice, she redefines this social movement not as an organisation of an “elite intellectual group but as the understandings variously situated groups have achieved about the social world” showing that there is suppression not only between men and women but also within these two categories (Ritzer and Stepnisky, 2013). Feminism is developing alongside the ideals of the society today meaning that it adapts to new social constructs in order to stay relevant in different ways. This allows feminists to continue creating change without having to drastically change the fundamental ideas that are held by all of the strands of Feminism.