Sociological Theory/Feminist Theory

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Feminist Theory is a way of looking at the social world through the lens of gender inequality. The focus is on male and female 'power.' Feminist theory addresses the roles women have in society and the ongoing battles women face. Most importantly, this way of thinking about the social world focuses on the rights of women, including: economic, sexual, reproductive, property, and voting rights.

Detailed Discussion[edit | edit source]

Assumptions[edit | edit source]

Scientific assumptions are taken-for-granted truths about the world that do not need to be confirmed.[1] Assumptions serve as the building blocks of theories. Although many flavors of Feminist Theory exist, there are some similar key assumptions. Riley (1999)[2] lists three:

  • gender is an organizing principle of all societies
  • gender is a social construction
  • gender theory necessarily involves the politics of inequality

Chafetz (1997)[3] adds a fourth assumption:

  • men and women think differently

Concepts[edit | edit source]

Concepts are the building blocks of theory. They are cognitive units of meaning— abstract ideas or mental symbols sometimes defined as "units of knowledge." There are a number of key concepts in Feminist Theory. While social movements and protests are often associated with feminism, there are other, more central concepts, like: gender, politics, power, violence, and the division of labor. Each of these is discussed in turn below.

Gender[edit | edit source]

"Studying gender means learning about both men and women because of their interdependent nature."[4][citation needed] Unlike sex, gender is learned. Gender is reflected in masculine and feminine identities. Cultures differ in what it means to be masculine or feminine, illustrating that these identities are socially constructed and learned. "(These characteristics) are defined in oppositional relation to each other."[4][citation needed] For example, men who display emotions are considered weak in the United States and are ascribed feminine qualities. In contrast, women who display determination are considered to be masculine. Feminist theorists point out that the responses to men and women crossing gender lines differ. "If a woman achieves success, she is applauded but men who enter in traditional female arenas are often treated with suspicion."[4][citation needed] By dressing up in a pantsuit or acting like males, females are breaking the stereotype of women since they are perceived to be chasing an unattainable dream. "They are attempting to improve their status by 'moving up' and aiming for something valued."[4][citation needed] Men who act like women are "moving down" the social ladder. This suggests that male reputations depend heavily on negative female stereotypes.

Politics[edit | edit source]

A place where women are not completely absent but rarely found is in politics. Women are underrepresented in political institutions in most countries, though women do seem to be increasing their rates of participation in many of these countries. However, even when women do gain entry into politics they tend to be concentrated in positions with less power and lower prestige. This is suggestive of the glass ceiling effect, which basically argues that women rarely ascend to the top of social hierarchies, bumping into an invisible, glass ceiling (some unstated boundary) that keeps them from moving into the upper echelons of power. "This is confirmed by studies that find a strong correlation between percentages of women in legislative bodies and in ministerial positions."[4][citation needed] Women in those occupations are typically found at the bottom of the hierarchy, not the top. According to Peterson and Runyon, "gender socialization, situational constraints and structural obstacles interact in discriminating against women in political office."[4][citation needed]

Given the power of politics and politicians, the low levels of female participation in politics maintains their secondary status in society. Of course, it is women's lack of power that continues to prevent them from gaining power, resulting in a self-reinforcing process of limited access to power preventing the attainment of power. Women are underrepresented in politics within nations, but also in international relations where women are generally not taken seriously (though see Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher as prominent exceptions). Historically, nations have limited women's participation in politics through formal means, "States do this by limiting citizenship to those who perform military duty and/or are property owners."[4][citation needed] Such restrictions were argued to be rooted in biological differences between men and women,[5] claims now known to be wholly without merit.

Military[edit | edit source]

"Conventional definitions of power stress that to have power, to exercise control over others, one must have certain resources at one’s disposal."[4][citation needed] In a male dominated world that means having strength. Engaging in aggressive behavior, such as military action, suggests to onlookers that the person engaged in such behavior is powerful. At present in the U.S. military, there is a gendered division of labor - women are not allowed to fight on the front lines but are, instead, relegated to subordinate and support roles. This gendered division of labor is often justified with claims like, the following, 'Since women are perceived to be "life-givers," it is hard to visualize them as life-takers.' This argument suggests women are not innately violent. Another argument given for the gendered division of labor in the military is that the presence of women on the battlefield will serve as a distraction to men, leading men to focus on sexual rather than military conquest. While ultimately hurting women by removing their power, this justification actually suggests that men are the ones with the problem - an inability to focus on the war effort. A third justification for this division of labor is that men feel a compulsion to protect women, both on and off the battlefield. If men are fixated on protecting women at all costs, they will be less effective as soldiers. Thus, while women participate in the military supporting the soldiers and work for defense contractors building the weapons of war, they are prohibited from actually fighting. As a result, women are disempowered; they are unable to actually exert control over others.

Division of Labor[edit | edit source]

The division of labor in society between men and women is rooted in women’s biological ability to reproduce. Since women can have children and do most of the child care in most societies, it is assumed that they are automatically more nurturing than are men. In contrast, men are cast as "providers" for women and children and are only considered to be "working" if they are engaged in "productive labor. While many people accept this gendered division of labor as a fact of life today, labor has not always been thusly divided as, during more agrarian times and in largely agrarian economies today women work alongside men on farms. That women have taken on most of the childcare early in a child's life is not surprising given that they have historically been the primary means of sustenance for newborn children (through breastfeeding). While breastfeeding is largely encouraged by pediatricians and dietitians today and many women strive to follow those guidelines suggest a gendered division of labor will likely continue into the future.

Religion[edit | edit source]

Religion has been a significant contributor to the oppression of women for millennia. For most religions, particularly monotheistic religions, God is depicted as a male and addressed as “Father”.[6] In the Biblical creation story, Eve is created from Adam’s body, suggesting male superiority. Eve is also often blamed for committing the "original sin" because she gave in to temptation and then persuaded Adam to sin as well (other cultures have similar notions; see Pandora's Box. In Christianity, God gave the world a "Son" to save mankind, not a daughter. Many of the prophets of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are men, including Moses and Muhammad. The majority of religious authority figures are males, and in some religions, like Roman Catholicism, women are not permitted to become priests.[7] Religious institutions and their respective ideologies have contributed to patriarchal cultures around the world. While some religions are backing away from such patriarch (e.g., Unitarian Universalists, many religions are continuing to repress women.

History[edit | edit source]

A wave of fore runners paved the way for feminism and feminist theory, including such famous women as Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth. Any woman who has stood up against a patriarchal society can be considered a feminist.

However, it was not until after World War II, with the second wave of feminism, that feminism became an organized movement and developed a corresponding theory of female empowerment, i.e., Feminist Theory.[8] "The concept of a common identity of woman was challenged by the number growing of studies of the diversity of woman. With second-wave feminism, lesbians and woman of color within the United States, and woman internationally, also challenged the notion of a homogenous category of "women.""[8]

The history of women can be divided into two three strands.The first is that of Compensatory History. Compensatory History deals with instances when woman’s accomplishments are similar to those of men. For example it could be argued that the first woman to attend medical school can be similar to the first African American male to attend medical school. The second strand is Contribution History, which looks at the collective or individual work of women whom have prevailed over a patriarchal society. As mentioned, women like Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth would fall into this type of history. Contribution History also describes fights fought by women only; such as the fight for the right to vote in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in the United States.[8] The third approach is called Histories of Gender and describes instances when women and men collaborate. Wars in which women have left their female duties and joined the fight along men equally would fall into collaborative history. This happened during a battle in the Mexican revolution. Women have also disguised themselves as men in order to be taken seriously (e.g., Joan of Arc. Women have also, on occasion, taken on the role of men for financial reasons (e.g., "male daughters", who took on the role of a male son when there was no actual male son for inheritance reasons)

There are many notable individuals who have contributed to feminism and feminist theory throughout the waves of the feminist movement. These individuals were motivated by the inequalities and injustices women faced around the world. Their reasons for participating varied, but generally included a desire for economic, sexual, reproductive, property, and voting rights.

Even before the waves of feminism began, Mary Wollstonecraft proposed the idea of equality between men and women. Wollstonecraft was born in 1759, during a time when women did not receive education and were destined to be treated as inferior. Throughout her life she met many people, including many scholars who would help her to pursue her career as a writer and an activist for women. She wrote numerous books, including A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which laid out early feminist thoughts on gender egalitarianism. In this book, she argued that women were equal to men in their intellectual and rational abilities and it was women’s lack of education that created the appearance of inferiority. This lack of education is a result of societal norms, not natural ability.

During the first wave of feminism, which started in the late 19th Century, one of focii of women was property rights. Property rights to them included not only the right to own land or other material objects, but also the right to own themselves and their children after marriage. The focus shifted to voting rights, as well as economic and sexual rights by the end of this wave of feminism. Prominent contributors to the feminist ideology during this first wave include Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony.

Margaret Sanger, born in 1879, was a nurse who devoted her life to creating and improving contraceptives to protect women from the harmful effects of multiple childbirths and dangerous abortions. She was one of eleven children born to Irish Catholic parents, and experienced the tragic loss of her young mother as a result of uncontrolled pregnancies and miscarriages. As a nurse in New York, Sanger cared for women who were recovering from "back-alley abortions" that were often botched. This increased her desire to discover a way to protect women with better contraceptives, in spite of the societal stigma against contraceptives during the time. Sanger was arrested multiple times during her life for her radical beliefs, including after opening a clinic devoted to providing contraceptives to women, as well as founding the American Birth Control League, which would later become known as Planned Parenthood. Sanger was not only concerned about the well being and health of women, but she also forecasted the negative effects that would emerge as a result of uncontrolled population growth. Sanger fought for safer, more effective, and simpler methods of birth control, a term that she coined, until the end of her life, and in fact, reached her goal of creating “the Pill” with the help of scientist Gregory Pincus.[9]

Elizabeth Cady Stanton is best known for the Seneca Falls convention where she and several other women created the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. This declaration discussed the many inequalities between men and women, including not having the right to vote, property rights, or education rights. Shortly after this landmark convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony met and became close friends at an anti-slavery convention in Seneca Falls. The two worked together throughout their lives, Stanton as a strong speaker and brilliant writer and Anthony as a leader and organizer. Not only did they fight for women’s suffrage, but they also made African American suffrage a priority, before their own. Together they argued that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in fact granted women the right to vote, which led to the arrests of Anthony and several other suffragists in 1972. Susan B. Anthony started and became publisher of The Revolution, a journal dedicated to women’s rights.

Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, is also credited with contributing to the ideas of feminism. The Feminine Mystique exposed the many issues in society that restrain women and keep them from reaching their full potential or equivalency with men. Friedan claimed that women are not fulfilled or satisfied by being only housewives and mothers, but should be challenged and stimulated by education and careers in order to thrive. Friedan also became the founder and first president of the National Organization for Women, which is still active today in rallying for equal rights for women.[10]

Modern Examples[edit | edit source]

Women have yet to reach parity with men in most of the world. For instance, women in Saudi Arabia currently face institutionalized discrimination, in part due to laws rooted in Sharia. Sharia laws are religious principles used by Muslims to govern daily life. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive or use taxis unless accompanied by a male escort. This restricts a woman’s mobility and prevents many from pursing professional development. This law makes it difficult for women to pursue education unless they have the financial resources to pay for a male family member to escort the female everywhere she goes. While it would seem like an obvious way to skirt this law would simply be to pursue education outside the country, the government has attempted to restrict that as well. According to Suad (2001),[11] "the opportunity for women to study abroad brought a rule that government scholarship would go only to a woman who had a male guardian to accompany them." These religio-cultural beliefs have the practical effect of confining women in their homes, preventing them from pursuing the education that would allow them to challenge these very beliefs.

Gender-mixing is another oppressive practice used by the Saudi Arabian government against women. Women are not allowed to work in organizations alongside males, due to the possible sexual tension they may ignite in males. In addition, males also determine the type of employment a woman is given and therefore severely repress and restrict women's potential. The claim is that this practice protects societal mores and prevents any conflict that may arise from men's inability to control their sexual urges. Permission must also be granted by a guardian in order for women to work outside the home.[11]

In India, girls are discriminated against because they are seen as a financial burden. Because men often work outside the home and make more than women, male children are more highly valued. Despite the illegality of dowry practices – gifts from the bride’s family given to the groom’s family at the time of marriage – the cultural practice continues. This increases gender bias. Infant mortality rates are higher among girls due to discriminatory childcare practices. Gender preferred abortions, while illegal, are widely practiced to prevent the birth of female babies. Feticide otherwise known as female infanticide is, "the illegal termination of a female form when it is detected to be growing inside the womb, (which) results in declining sex ratio."[12] India’s 2001 census revealed an imbalanced sex ration among children in India. Similar practices are common in China for the same reasons.

Discriminatory treatment of women continues on the African continent as well. In many villages in Rwanda, girls and women are forced to remain absent from school when they are menstruating. This cultural practice stigmatizes menstruation and is part of the cultural repertoire of many Rwandans. Additionally, sanitary pads are heavily taxed, contributing to young girls’ inability to afford them. These discriminatory practices create lifelong institutionalized inferiority of females to males. Monthly absences from school result in less education and a concomitant decrease in their earning potential in adulthood. Additionally, lack of education further reduces their employment opportunity due to the anticipated absence from work. Employers prefer to hire males, which reinforces male dominance in the society.[13]

Because many of the original theories used to explain delinquency were based on research limited to boys, these theories needed to be modified to understand gender differences in delinquency, especially why girls are so much less delinquent than boys. Josephina Figueira-McDonough argued that social control theory explains girls’ and boys’ behavior equally well; predictors suggested by strain theory also work equally well. Some experts have predicted that as the female gender role changes in our society, girls will become more and more like boys in their delinquency, with girls acting more violent and taking part in activities like gang fighting. Because of the importance of girls’ running away and other status offenses, it is important to understand girls’ status offending. According to Chesney-Lind, girls often run away from abuse, and once they are “on the streets,” several negative outcomes are possible.[citation needed]

Illustrative Video[edit | edit source]

Feminist Theory

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Chafetz, Janet Saltzman. 1978. Primer on the Construction and Testing of Theories in Sociology. F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.
  2. Riley, Nancy E. 1999. “Challenging Demography: Contributions from Feminist Theory.” Sociological Forum 14(3):369-397.
  3. Chafetz, Janet Saltzman. 1997. "Feminist Theory and Sociology: Underutilized Contributions for Mainstream Theory." Annual Review of Sociology. 23:97-120.
  4. a b c d e f g h Peterson, Spike and Runyan, Anne. 1993. Global Gender Issues.
  5. Donovan, Josephine. 1985. Feminist Theory. Continuum.
  6. Reuther, Rosemary Radford. 2007. Patriarchy. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender.
  7. Winkelman, Michael. 2007. Priesthoods, Priests, and Priestesses. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender.
  8. a b c Bonnie G, Smith. 2005. Womans History in Global Perspective Volume 1, Chicago, Illinois
  9. “People & Events: Margaret Sanger (1879-1966).”
  10. Fox, Margalit . “Betty Friedan, Who Ignited Cause in 'Feminine Mystique,' Dies at 85. 2011.
  11. a b Joseph, Suad. "Women and Power in the Middle East" University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2001.
  12. Ganesamurthy,V.S. “Empowerment of India: Social, Economic, and Political.” New Century Publications. 2008.
  13. Aruthum, K. "Sanitary Pads too Expensive". The New Times Daily, Rwanda 2011.