• Feminist theory is a generalized, wide-ranging system of ideas about social life and human
experience developed from a woman-centered perspective.
• It is unique not only because it comes from a women’s perspective, but it also encompasses an
interdisciplinary approach of scholars, artists, and activists.
I. The Basic Theoretical Questions
• What began as a questioning of why women were ignored despite their ever-presence in social
life first led to the understanding of gender a social rather than a biological construct, and then
further developed to incorporate diverse perspectives and experiences of women along with the
subordinate and marginalization of all women.
• This text states that feminism(s) ask four basic questions:
o What about the women?
o Why is all this as it is?
o How can we change and improve the social world to make it a more just place for women
and all people?
o What about the differences among women?
II. The Classical Roots
• While women were not recognized for their social scientific contributions throughout history, a
revisiting of history reveals that sociology has always incorporated both feminist scholarship and
feminist activism. Many prominent women emerge, including Harriet Martineau Charlotte
Perkins Gilman, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, and others.
• Classical feminist theorists share with contemporary theorists these facts:
o They practice a critical rather than descriptive or explanatory analysis.
o They emphasize women’s experience, lives, and works as being equally important to men’s.
o They, like everyone, speak from their own situated embodied standpoints and believe that this
must be an understanding adopted by sociology.
o They are concerned with domination as the chief practice that maintains inequality. They are
distinguished by what they see as the nature and remedies for that inequality on which they
III. Contemporary Feminist Theories
• A typology of contemporary feminist theory is best organized around the answers to feminism’s
most basic question: And what about the women?
• These typologies organize the varieties of feminist theory into these categories:
o Gender Difference
o Gender Inequality
o Gender Oppression
o Structural Oppression
A. Gender Difference
• While all theories of difference confront the essentialist notion that gender is biologically
real, a necessary prerequisite of social institutions and/or an indispensable aspect of human
selves, theories of difference vary in the explanations of that essentialism.
B. General Feminist Theories of Difference
1. Cultural Feminism
• In celebrating women’s uniqueness from men (often by claiming women’s ways of
being and knowing are superior to that of men) rather than trying to explain it,
sidesteps questions of essentialism.
2. Existential or phenomenological feminism
• Culture reflects male experience and ignores or marginalizes women’s experience
according to this approach.
• Culture pushes women’s experiences and knowledge to the margins, thereby
stripping women of freedom by making females “the other.”
Sociological Theories of Difference
1. Feminist Institutional Theory
• Gender differences emerge from the different social roles women play in social
institutions, especially the family.
2. Feminist Interactionist Theory
• Ethnomethodologists see gender as something people do or accomplish largely
because others hold us accountable.
Gender inequality theories are characterized by their views that
o men and women are unequally and differentially situated in society
o women have less power, prestige, property, and opportunities than do men who share
their social locations
o all humans have a need to seek self-actualization and they are also adaptable to their
o women and men will respond easily and naturally to more egalitarian social structures
1. Liberal Feminism
• While both men and women would benefit from a more egalitarian organization of
society, gender inequality is embedded in a variety of social institutions and thus the
best way to undo patriarchy (or sometimes gender) as a social structure is to change
law, work, education, media and especially family.
2. Rational Choice Feminism
• Rational choice theory sees humans as purposive actors who make decisions based
on preferences amidst some internal and external constraints (institutional constraints
and opportunity costs).
• Feminist rational choice theories note that women experience more institutional
constraints and opportunity costs than men.
E. Gender Oppression
• Theories of gender oppression focus on patriarchy, or the systematic ways men oppress and
dominate women through direct power relations. Patriarchy is seen as universal, pervasive,
structural, durable over time and space, and triumphant despite challenges leveled against it.
1. Psychoanalytic Feminism
• Men’s oppression of women is embedded in the psyche or subconscious, as both men
and women are socialized to accept, and even rely upon the socioemotional aspects
of the social order that values masculinity while subordinated femininity.
• Psychoanalytic feminism also underscores the importance of infancy and early
childhood because this is where patterns of emotions are established.
2. Radical Feminism
• Universally, all women (and their positive social values) are oppressed via
economics, ideology, legality, and through emotions; ultimately that oppression is
founded upon and sustained with violence.
F. Structural Oppression
• The oppression of women can be examined as it occurs in the power structures embedded in
large-scale social relations, including not only patriarchy but also capitalism, racism, and
heterosexism. Groups of people benefit from controlling and other groups.
1. Socialist Feminism
• Combining feminism with the Marxist tradition enables scholars to focus on the
articulation of women’s oppression through capitalism, often by highlighting how
historical material affects not only wealth and power but also ideas or ideology.
• Socialist feminists highlight the importance of theorizing the confluence of
capitalism and patriarchy, capitalist patriarchy. Socialist feminists point out the
importance of historical materialism to locate the origins and dynamics of both.
• Socialist feminists also broaden Marxism by
o extending definitions of material conditions to reproduction within the family
o emphasizing the role of ideology and texts
o extending inequality beyond class inequality to a wide range of other
inequalities that intersect with economics and politics such as reproduction,
sexuality, domesticity, and so on.
• Socialist feminists call for global solidarity and mobilization with other women.
2. Intersectionality Theory
• Women’s experiences with vectors of oppression and privilege vary by race, class,
sexuality, global location, age, and so on, which enables feminists to recognize
differences among women while still recognizing how women share a distinct
standpoint based on gender but are differentially oppressed based on their social
• Patricia Hill Collins (1948–) has developed feminist standpoint theories. She
describes standpoint as the shared worldview of those with heterogenous
commonality. Group members are often in a position of outsider within, moving
from home group into the larger society.
G. Key Concept: Standpoint
Many feminist theories are based on the idea that people operate from a social position or
standpoint, which is part of a social collectivity with adequate history to develop a shared
knowledge of social relations.
IV. Toward A Feminist Sociological Theory
• Feminist sociological theorists have developed a general theory addressing relationships between
social structure and agency, macro and micro, power, inequality, and change.
• Feminists understand women as agents and social life as a system of inequality where one’s
potential is limited or enhanced by one’s position in vectors of oppression. However, women
also have agency to cope, challenge, witness, subvert, rebel, and resist.
• Vocabularies of feminist macro–micro relations include such terms as relations of ruling, local
actualities of lived experience, bifurcated experiences, and the importance of texts.
1) Choose at least one of these videos to critically analyze.
a) A Girl Like Me (Kiri Davis)
b) I Am Not Your Asian Stereotype (Canwen Xu)
c) You’re not really Mexican, are you? (Cherrie Moraga)
a. Apply some of the ideas on intersectionality offered by Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria
Anzaldua, and/or Kimberlé Crenshaw.
What struck you most about what the individuals in the video had to say about their
ideas on self-image and identity? Cite at least one of the concepts presented by one the
feminist theorists from Chapter 8 to reinforce your argument. (3-4 sentences)
b. In your personal experience, have you observed or had these kinds of conversations
with family/friends regarding race, gender, and social class identity? If so, which aspect
specifically? Respond to at least one classmate’s critical analysis.
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