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Feminist Social Theory

Though feminist thought was largely ignored in mainstream social theory until the last few decades, feminist social theory has a history as long and storied as feminist movements themselves. In fact, since feminist theory emerged from women’s political movements, it’s impossible to tell the history of feminist theory apart from a history of feminism.

The history of feminist politics and theory is often talked of as consisting of three “waves.” First-wave feminism is generally associated with the women’s suffrage movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. First-wave feminism was characterized by a focus on officially mandated inequalities between men and women, such as the legal barring of women from voting, property rights, employment, equal rights in marriage, and positions of political power and authority. Second-wave feminism is associated with the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. While seeing themselves as inheritors of the politics of the first wave which focused primarily on legal obstacles to women’s rights, second-wave feminists began concentrating on less “official” barriers to gender equality, addressing issues like sexuality, reproductive rights, women’s roles and labor in the home, and patriarchal culture. Finally, what is called third-wave feminism is generally associated with feminist politics and movements that began in the 1980s and continue on to today. Third-wave feminism emerged out of a critique of the politics of the second wave, as many feminists felt that earlier generations had over-generalized the experiences of white, middle-class, heterosexual women and ignored (and even suppressed) the viewpoints of women of color, the poor, gay, lesbian, and transgender people, and women from the non-Western world. Third-wave feminists have critiqued essential or universal notions of womanhood, and focus on issues of racism, homophobia, and Eurocentrism as part of their feminist agenda.

Feminist social theory has influenced and been influenced by the agendas and struggles of each of these waves. “First-wave” theorists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Susan B. Anthony were influential for their focus on how women’s lack of legal rights contributed to their social demotion, exclusion, and suffering. “Second-wave” theorists like Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin were prominent for their focus on women’s sexuality, reproduction, and the social consequences of living in a patriarchal culture. And “third-wave” theorists like Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak are significant for critiquing the idea of a universal experience of womanhood and drawing attention to the sexually, economically, and racially excluded. Moreover, feminist social theorists in each wave have critiqued the male biases implicit in social theory itself, helping to construct social theory that draws on rather than excludes the experiences of women.

Ultimately, if feminism, broadly understood, is concerned with improving the conditions of women in society, feminist social theory is about developing ideas, concepts, philosophies, and other intellectual programs that help meet that agenda. Feminist social theory, like any theoretical tradition, is best seen as a continuing conversation of many voices and viewpoints.

How Feminist Theory Matters Today

Some commentators believe that the women’s movements of the twentieth century were so successful in combating gender inequality that we have entered a “postfeminist” era. While it is undeniable that feminist political movements have made tremendous gains for women over the last 100 years, social scientific evidence demonstrates that there are still large inequalities between men and women when it comes to areas like income and wealth, political power and opportunities, legal rights, sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, and overall status in society. This is even more the case in countries outside of the United States and Europe. As long as gender inequality and oppression exists, feminism and feminist thought will continue to matter to millions of people throughout the world. Moreover, feminist intellectuals continue to develop cutting-edge and nuanced understandings of the social world that enrich the power and possibilities of social theory writ large.

Simone de Beauvoir

The publication of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1949 marked a watershed for feminist theory and politics. In it, de Beauvoir presents the idea of “Woman as Other,” a relational theory of femininity that asserts that the category of woman is defined by everything man is not. De Beauvoir also focused on how control of women’s sexuality and reproduction has historically subjugated them to men, and was one of the first theorists to argue that gender was not an essential characteristic of people, but rather something that one becomes through socialization. “One is not born,” she wrote, “but becomes a woman.” Her work is a cornerstone of feminist social theory, and has been highly influential to second- and third-wave feminist thought and politics.

Dorothy Smith

Dorothy Smith is a Canadian sociologist best known for her critiques of male bias within social theory and for the development of institutional ethnography. Smith is renowned for developing a distinctively feminist-oriented sociology, arguing that the abstract, all-encompassing theories common in sociological thought are problematic in that they come from an implicit male perspective that ignores or suppresses the experiences of women. Smith advocates beginning inquiry not in the realm of abstract theoretical systems but from the standpoint of women in their everyday lives. In starting with peoples’ experiences, Smith argues, sociologists can then move out to explore the institutions and social relations that structure and often exert control over these actors’ lives. Smith calls this approach to social inquiry “institutional ethnography,” and claims that it is not a sociology for sociology’s sake, but a sociology for people (see, for example, her Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People).

Patricia Hill Collins

Patricia Hill Collins is Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and former President of the American Sociological Association. Collins is a foundational theorist of what is commonly called intersectionality, a perspective on inequality which argues that oppressions of race, class, gender, and sexuality cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but instead “intersect” and help mutually reinforce and shape one another. For example, Collins argues that the gender inequality that Black women have historically experienced is related to but qualitatively different from the gender inequality experienced by White women. This is not because of essential differences between Black and White women, but because White women have historically been privileged racially while Black women have been dominated through race and gender. Collins first presented this field-shaping perspective in Black Feminist Thought in 1990. More recently, she has written Black Sexual Politics, a book that more fully explores and theorizes the intersections of racial and sexual oppression.

Judith Butler

Considered by many to be the most important feminist theorist writing today, the philosopher Judith Butler first came to prominence through her provocative book Gender Trouble. In it, Butler controversially critiques the idea that a universal notion of “woman” should serve as the foundation of feminist politics and thought. Instead, drawing on the ideas of Foucault and the philosopher of language, J. L. Austin, Butler argues that the seeming reality or naturalness of gender, sex, and sexuality is actually a product of the ways we act them out in conformity to cultural languages and norms. In addition to her groundbreaking work on gender and sexual identity, Butler has also written on issues central to moral and political philosophy. She teaches at the University of California–Berkeley.

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