feminist theory


feminist theory
   Feminism has made an important difference to British culture throughout the twentieth century as the struggle to change unequal gender relations has taken place in a range of contexts. Although women campaigned for change in the nineteenth century and earlier, the development of feminist theories of gender relations in what is known as Second Wave feminism marked a new and more concerted effort to understand the nature of oppression and to prioritize the struggle for change in the social, political and cultural position of women. Feminist theory is a term which encompasses a diversity of approaches and stances. Among the most influential strands are liberal, radical, Marxist, socialist and poststructuralist. Liberal feminism developed from liberal political thought which championed the rights of an autonomous individual subject, claiming for women the rights and privileges which had been only afforded to men, and stressing the need for equality for women within the existing political and economic system. This includes campaigning for equal rights and opportunities, typified by struggles for the vote, for fairness in employment both in terms of pay, promotion opportunities and conditions, such as childcare provision, and for an end to legal, economic and social discrimination. While the achievements of liberal feminist campaigns in Britain have been undoubtedly beneficial to many women, the aim of this approach is to reform rather than radically change the system, and it tends to focus on the individual who, as in traditional liberal thought, often turns out to be white and middle class. Other feminists have argued that in order to achieve real change in the lives of all women we must overturn rather than reform the social, economic and political structures which sustain unequal gender relations.
   Marxist feminists insist that social existence determines consciousness and that issues of sexual or gender difference and oppression cannot be separated from the context of capitalism. According to this view, women are positioned not only in terms of gender but also class, and their oppression is part of a wider system of economic and political exploitation which alienates all human beings. Marxist feminists have focused on women as workers, both paid and unpaid. One of the main criticisms of Marxist feminism is that it underestimates the extent to which women are oppressed by men, and it can allow gender to become a secondary issue to class. In direct contrast, radical feminism insists that the oppression of women is the oldest and most widespread form of oppression and that all areas of women’s lives, and most notably their sexuality, have been governed by different forms of patriarchalist political and social institutions. Radical feminists have campaigned against these institutions and their effects, including marriage, pornography and the control of women’s sexual and reproductive roles in medical and legal contexts, and have also insisted on celebrating female difference and on reclaiming an essentially female identity and culture in the arts, science and spirituality. In some instances, radical feminists have responded to the threat of patriarchy by calling for women to separate themselves from men and some radical feminists, particularly in the 1970s, argued for a political choice of lesbian feminism. Radical feminism, most popular in the USA, has been of limited influence in intellectual feminist circles in Britain, largely because of its insistence on an essential difference between men and women, which many feminists view as precluding the possibility of change just as liberal feminism with its stress on basic similarity limits the extent of change.
   The most influential forms of feminist theory in Britain today are socialist and poststructuralist, although these labels are not always used. Socialist feminism developed from a dissatisfaction with the limitations of Marxist theories as the basis for analysing women’s positions within the overlapping and intersecting structures of patriarchy and capitalism. Socialist feminist theorists such as Alison Jaggar have deployed a range of different theoretical approaches in their work, some of which derive from psychoanalytic theory, which earlier this century was condemned by many feminists as proscribing rather than describing an oppressive system of sexual difference. The debate between feminism and psychoanalysis has been fraught but productive, and is best seen as part of the development in Britain of a strand of feminist work influenced by poststructuralist critical and cultural theories of language and subjectivity. The vital difference between this and other approaches is its insistence that meanings, including the meaning of ‘woman’, are culturally constructed and as such are contingent, both historically and contextually, and open to change. Language is seen not to reflect but to produce reality, and also as being both a means of installing oppression within society and the individual and a site where feminists can intervene. There is, in this view, no such thing as an essential female identity, good or bad, any more than there is a universal human nature. Poststructuralist feminist theory concentrates on gender in/and representation, and many of the bestknown British exponents work in literary and cultural studies, including Catherine Belsey, Jacqueline Rose and Chris Weedon. Recent work has also focused on the intersection of gender with race, nationality and sexuality. In the context of a society which is seen as increasingly conservative, in which the gains made by liberal feminism seem threatened by recurrent calls for traditional family values, poststructuralist feminism has been accused by some of turning away from urgent social issues to questions of less practical relevance. But an increasing general awareness of the impact of cultural production on women’s lives seems to support rather than undermine the case for the productiveness of this type of feminist analysis. Current feminist studies of the impact of scientific and technological developments such as the Internet indicate that this is a continually diversifying field.
   Further reading
    Belsey, C. and Moore, J. (eds) (1989) The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, Basingstoke: Macmillan (a coherent and representative collection).
    Tong, R. (1992) Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction, London: Routledge (detailed and incisive but accessible throughout).
   TAMSIN SPARGO

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.