Chapter 2: The Sociological Perspectives
Section 5: The Feminist Perspective
So far, we’ve talked about the study of sociology as a positivist and an interpretivist science and discipline. We’ve reviewed some of the history of sociology. We’ve discussed the underlying assumptions that sociologists make in studying society. Finally, we’ve learned about the three major perspectives of sociology: Functionalism, Conflict, and Interactionism.
Now, in the last seven lectures, you may have noticed a trend. You may have noticed that much of the theoretical work and all of the perspectives thus far have been dominated by men. Where are the women? I mean, if we are going to study society, might it be a good idea to include some of the perspectives from over half of the people in any given society?
I don’t know. Seems pretty reasonable.
Women thinkers in early sociology
But this hasn’t always been considered reasonable. Throughout much of the history in which Sociology was evolving women were sidelined as academics. When women did manage to break into higher education, their studies usually focused on issues that would be recognized as legitimate by their male colleagues. Namely, they focused on topics addressed from a male point of view. The distinct point of view of women was often ignored.
It’s not like there weren’t examples of women making contributions to sociology and offering a distinctly female point of view. In 1837, Harriet Martineau published Society in America, in which she made pointed observations on democracy and the influence of the free enterprise system in exploiting supposedly free people. She also pointed out the contradiction she noticed as American women were much less free than one might have predicted in a nation premised on freedom.
In the late 19th century Charlotte Perkins Gilman, famous for her novel The Yellow Wallpaper, one of the earliest popular feminist novels, explained gender inequality drawing from Herbert Spencer’s notion of evolutionary sociology. She offered a Gynaecocentric Theory in which the two-sex model of gender was naturally selected in early civilizations. As economies became more complex, men used their power to perpetuate their dominance over women. Women became dependent upon men for sustenance, and therefore their sexuality evolved to attract men who would take care of them. Gilman pointed out that, though these Sexuo-Economic Relations may have been functional in early societies, in modern societies, the consequent inequality between men and women is dysfunctional. She predicted that modern societies would soon evolve into more egalitarian cultures.
In the early 20th century, social activist and community organizer Jane Addams was making significant contributions to applied sociology beginning with her work in founding the Hull House, a settlement house providing services to poor immigrants and other dispossessed groups in Chicago. Addams was an active and recognized academic, feminist, and peace activist. In 1910 she was awarded the first honorary degree given to a woman from Yale University. In 1931, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless efforts.
Despite these significant accomplishments, sociology was and remained a singularly male endeavor. Some studies, like the famous Milgram Experiment, didn’t even bother to include women in the research. Most sociological research recognized women as, at best, secondary players on a social stage dominated by men, without really looking at why that might be. How, for instance, might W. E. B. Dubois’ concept of the double consciousness apply to women? This wasn’t explored. When W. I. Thomas said, “what a man perceives to be real becomes real in its consequences,” it’s very likely he meant that statement literally, interested only in men.
The feminist Perspective
This leads us to our fourth perspective, the Feminist Perspective. Now, this perspective is a bit different from the previous three. Whereas the Functionalist, Conflict, and Interactionist Perspectives address fundamental questions and assumptions made by sociologists in trying to understand social influences on human behavior and identity, the feminist perspective can be seen more as a critique of all three. The feminist perspective is a correction on the part of social theorists writ large who ignored over half of the population of any given society. Feminist researchers seek to illuminate the special circumstances of women in society, especially with regard to sexual and gender inequality, discrimination, and exploitation. Feminist theories all rest on two important assumptions. First, in almost all societies on earth, women face a subordinate status that has significant impact on their lived experiences. Second, Feminist theorists further their analysis with the understanding that there is no natural explanation for this subordinate social status. Gender inequality, from the feminist perspective, is the result of social constructs that define and reproduce gender inequality.
Now when we’re talking about inequality and exploitation, we are certainly drawing from the Conflict Perspective. The feminist perspective, in the conflict tradition, looks at how order and control in society is premised on assumptions of male dominance and power and how this is reflected in the overall culture. This includes, but is not limited to violence and domestic abuse against women, economic barriers and inequality specific to women and the objectification of women in our culture.
The feminist perspective, however, can and does inform work from the functionalist and interactionist themes. That’s why feminism may be best understood as a critique rather than a stand-alone perspective.
Before we get into a survey of feminist theory, however, we have to acknowledge the debt and the theoretical overlap that the feminist perspective holds with the larger feminist movement that was taking place since the 19th century. Whereas the feminist perspective is a mode for scholarly, academic research, it would be wrong to assume that there is no connection between feminist scholarship and the feminist movement. There is overlap. Like the feminist movement, the feminist perspective makes the moral assumption that men and women are inherently equal and, therefore, should have equal status. Inequalities that exist between men and women are artifacts of discriminatory social structures and cultural values. They are not innate to any natural difference between men and women. That’s not to say that such differences do not exist. The problem is in distinguishing the biological or “sexual” difference between men and women and the cultural “gendered” differences. In 1972, sociologist Ann Oakley, in her study Sex, Gender and Society determined that much of what we consider to be natural differences between men and women are, in fact, internalized and socialized knowledge.
Consequently, a great deal of feminist theory is dedicated to Praxis. In other words, many feminist theorists endeavor to actively further the cause of gender equality. Feminist theories are rarely interested in passive and objective observation of social reality.
Are you a feminist?
Because feminism challenges established power relations, the movement often gets some bad press and negative counterclaims are often made to delegitimize feminism and the motivations of feminists. Look, if you believe that men and women should have equal status in society, but in many real ways there are inequalities between men and woman that cannot be explained by looking at physical differences, then congratulations, you are a feminist. Welcome to the movement!
In 1776, when Jefferson was scratching some ideas that would become the Declaration of Independence, Abigail Adams, wife of future president John Adams, wrote to her husband about the new code of laws that would be necessary for creating a new nation, “I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”
Spoiler alert! He didn’t remember the ladies!
Less than twenty years after Jefferson suggested that “all men are created equal,” Mary Wollstonecraft offered the radical hypothesis that women were also equal to men but educated to accept their servile status without question. Wollstonecraft suggested that women should be less concerned about their looks and their reputations and, instead, develop their physical and mental prowess through cultivating reason and physical stamina.
Early Feminist Thinkers
In 1848, activists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the Seneca Falls Convention. After days of speeches and forums participants dedicated themselves to the cause of Women’s Suffrage. They wrote “The Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances,” modeled after the Declaration of Independence, in which they declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal…” This is often considered the beginning of the feminist movement in the United States. The struggle for women’s suffrage and labor protections is known as First Wave Feminism, culminating with the passage of the 19th Amendment recognizing the right of women to vote in 1920.
waves of feminism?
First Wave 1848-1920: Establish national women’s suffrage
Second Wave 1963-1980s: Sought cultural liberation and reevaluation of women’s roles in society
Third Wave 1990’s: Empowering women sexually and as individuals. Questioning assumptions made by Second Wave Feminists about changing women’s roles. Also sought more intersectional understanding of diversity in the movement.
Fourth Wave Today ?: Bringing feminism into the computer age #metoo
But the franchise, or the ability to vote, did not necessarily vouch equal status to women. Women still faced significant discrimination politically, economically, domestically, and culturally. The 1920s gave women a chance to challenge culturally acceptable norms in what many call the first sexual revolution, but these cultural changes did not translate into equality. In 1949, French existentialist and feminist Simone de Beauvoir planted the seed for Second Wave Feminism with the publication of The Second Sex. Here, de Beauvoir postulates that women are denied a sense of subjective self. Instead, woman is “the other” the object by which men define their own manhood. Whereas men can express their subjectivity through projects and transcendent work, women are consigned to mundane and repetitive immanent work. Furthermore, this duality is not based on natural differences between men and women. According to de Beauvoir, these differences are based on indoctrination. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. This work exploded the myth that the ultimate goal for a woman’s happiness is domestic tranquility. Friedan, through interviews and questionnaires, discovered that, overall, women were largely unhappy with a “problem that has no name.” Women could not identify the source of their unhappiness because they had always been taught that finding a good husband, having children, and keeping a house was their natural inclination to happiness. If they were not happy with this, then there was obviously something wrong with them, not with the social arrangement. The Feminine Mystique is largely credited with launching the Second Wave of Feminism in which activists pursued equality at all levels of culture.
Major branches of feminist thought
This Second Wave of Feminism resulted in an explosion of feminist theorizing. Multiple schools of feminist thought emerged from the fertile movement culture of the 1960s, each with a slightly different point of view. It’s impossible for me to explore all of these schools, but if you are interested, click here for a primer. For my purposes here I want to talk about four schools of thought: Liberal Feminism, Marxist Feminism, Radical Feminism, and Intersectional Feminism. Each school shares a common vision of a world in which men and women and other sexual and gender minorities share equal status. However, each school of thought identifies the source of inequality differently.
Liberal Feminism, for instance, identifies sexual and gender-based discrimination as the source of gender inequality. Consequently, liberal feminists seek to eliminate discriminatory norms, values, laws, and bureaucratic rules, both written and understood. Whereas liberal feminists have a tremendous grasp of these discriminatory norms, they don’t really focus on the underlying prejudices except to suggest that they are wrong in light of agreed-upon values of equality. Why do we discriminate based on sex and gender and can we achieve equality by simply changing the rules, without changing the underlying structures and assumptions?
Marxist Feminists are drawing upon a long tradition in radical thought. Marx himself addressed sexism in his writings. Shortly after Marx’s death, Friedrich Engels published The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Based largely on Marx’s notes, Engels concluded that the modern family is an organ of materialist, capitalist society, not a manifestation of natural differences between men and women. Many different family arrangements exist, and not all of them subjugate women. The modern family in which women are subordinate to men is a manifestation of capitalism itself. “With the patriarchal family, and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production.”
Nothing more American? really?
This was Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company for Hardees and Carl Jr’s. He was nominated by President Trump to be Secretary of Labor but had to withdraw his nomination for lack of support. Shocker!
Marxist Feminists expand on this analysis. Marxist Feminists see sexual and gender inequality as a characteristic of capitalism itself. Marxist Feminists look at how women’s labor is exploited, even unpaid. Think about child care and how a stay-at-home Mom is distinguished from a “working mom” despite the fact that she almost certainly works from the moment she wakes up until she goes to bed…and then has to wake up in the middle of the night to deal with bad dreams or fevers. Marxist Feminists are also interested in how women, specifically women’s bodies and sexuality is exploited to sell products. Think about sexy women eating hamburgers. What does the quality of the hamburger have to do with what the woman eating it looks like? Nothing. Clearly, in selling the hamburger, the advertiser is selling the woman’s sexuality. See the slideshow below:
Radical Feminism takes a similar track as Marxist Feminism, namely locating the origin of sexism in an overarching social structure. But Radical Feminists point out that sexism isn’t exclusive to capitalist societies. Feudal societies, ancient societies, and even modern communist societies are often very sexist and exploitative of women. The Marxist Feminists cannot account for this.
Instead of locating the source of sexism in capitalism, Radical Feminists recognize a larger trend of patriarchy as the source of women’s subjugation. Patriarchy describes a social power arrangement in which men, by default, have a claim to greater power, prestige, and status than women. Arguably, it is the oldest form of oppression in the world. It is so old that it is incorporated into all of our social institutions and mistakenly understood as the right and natural way of society based on inherent, biological differences between men and women. Even well-meaning scientific studies make assumptions about presumed natural differences that are, upon examination, based on nothing more than patriarchal standards and are often legitimized not by science, but by confirmation bias. So long as patriarchal standards imbue our social structures and our norms and values, women will experience inequality. The goal then must be to eliminate patriarchy in all of its forms.
That’s philosophically distinct from eliminating men. Radical Feminists are also interested in equality, not dominance. By challenging the very nature of masculine identity, however, it may feel to men that Radical Feminists are “anti-men.” They should know that Radical Feminists often see patriarchy as detrimental to men as well as to women.
Finally, we have Intersectional Feminism. Intersectional Feminists understand that womanhood is only one of many factors that contribute to inequality. This stems from a critique that feminism is often presented from a white, often middle-class perspective. However, the lived experience of being a woman looks very different when you add multiple layers of inequality. What about the life of a poor woman, of a poor black woman, or a poor black lesbian woman, of a poor black lesbian woman in a wheelchair. Traditional feminism is ill-equipped to deal with the intersections of sex, race, social class, sexuality, age, gender identification and/or ability. The intersectional feminist tries to tie in these intersecting forms of oppression and identity. For instance, liberal feminists wonder how women could have voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after some blatantly sexist statements and actions on the part of the candidate. Intersectional Feminists understand, however, that there’s more to a woman’s identity than just her gender. Other intersecting variables may have influenced their voting choices.
Important Feminist Theorists
Sociologist Dorothy E. Smith, whom we were introduced to in an earlier video, was interested in texts and how women were largely written out of texts. What texts were written were often from the point of view of men. To be left out of textual discourse means being denied a particular kind of power. In essence, there was plenty of knowledge about women in academic and scholarly work, but very little women’s knowledge.
According to Smith, “How sociology is thought–its methods, conceptual schemes, and theories–has been based on and built upon within the male social universe.” This isn’t just about bias or knowledge. This is about power. In this case, the text, or the process by which knowledge is constructed and passed on, becomes a practice of power, one that further empowers the dominant group while turning the disempowered group into nothing more than an object of study, rather than a locus of subjective thought. Methods of study, or gathering information, reporting on data, are not just academic or bureaucratic activities, but rather are Relations of Ruling.
Smith was not just an academic. She was also a wife and a mother. She was a woman within a bureaucratic structure that tended to objectify women’s lived experience. For women, there is a clear and obvious fault line or a bifurcation of consciousness. On the one hand, there is the knowledge that is produced by social structures, namely knowledge about women that is largely created by men or according to norms and values created by men. On the other hand, there is knowledge derived from the lived experience of being a woman. This creates a fault line between one’s knowledge and lived experience.
If this sounds an awful lot like W. E. B Dubois’s Double Consciousness, you’re right. Sociologists build off of the work of other sociologists.
Smith takes this idea to the next step. According to Smith, men, being in the dominant group (especially true for men in academia) do not see this fault line…but it exists nonetheless. Consequently, knowledge derived from a woman’s lived experience, in which she must recognize this fault line openly, is actually more comprehensive than is the knowledge constructed by men without this awareness.
To counter these relations of ruling Dorothy E. Smith suggests a project she calls Institutional Ethnography. In other words, she feels that it is important to study the lived experiences of individuals, especially women (the ethnography part) within these institutional power relations, businesses, families, schools, governments, etc. According to Smith, one’s particular point of view can be understood by looking at that person’s experience, plus their location within the institutional setting.
To further this project Smith offer’s what is known as Standpoint Theory. (1) No one can have complete, objective knowledge. (2) no two people have exactly the same standpoint (3) We must not take the standpoint from which we speak for granted. In other words, we must be reflexive of our own social position and cannot impute our own standpoint onto others. If you don’t think that sounds particularly “Theoryish,” you may be right. Smith considered her Standpoint Theory more as a method of inquiry than an explanation of a particular phenomenon. But it does have explanatory value. For instance, we can see examples of women in male-dominated professions, say, police officers, who participate in the same kind of sexist talk and banter as their male peers. This may not make sense to us from our own standpoint, but if we don’t take our own standpoint for granted we may be able to understand the lived experience of female police officers who must conform to given norms and standards in order to find acceptance and camaraderie in a job that they love.
Janet Saltzman Chafetz is a Marxist Feminist. Her theory on the Coercive Structures of Gender Inequality may be one of the most comprehensive descriptions of how women are subordinated in our society. Chafetz analyzes the process of gender inequality at all four sociological levels: the Macro-Level looks at large institutions and structures; the Meso-Level analyzes organizations and large groups; the Micro-Level observes interactions and the individual level looks at the person.
Consistent with Marxist Theory, Chafetz elaborates on how capitalist structures gender inequality from the top down. Capitalism requires the existence of two groups, one that controls the means of production, in this case, the capital, and those who are exploited. Chafetz points out that patriarchy adds another element to this. Those who control the capital are, predominantly, men, while those who are exploited the most are women. After all, men might be exploited in the workplace with low pay, but it’s still pay. A great deal of the work that women do, work that’s necessary to perpetuate capitalist markets and productivity, is unpaid. Nobody pays women to do domestic tasks, to have or to raise children. If women were to be paid for this labor, or if men were to share in this labor, this would constitute a significant cost for the capitalists. So the capitalists incorporate a patriarchal ideology that defines women as primary caregivers and men as workers.
Women who do find their way into the productive (as opposed to the domestic) workforce, or the Meso-Level organizations of capitalism, find themselves disadvantaged in their possibility of advancement, their power to achieve their goals and their relative numbers as compared to men. According to CNNMoney, “Only 14.2% of the top five leadership positions at the companies in the S&P 500 are held by women.” Often, female-dominated careers tend to pay less than those dominated by men.
Because Marxist Theory doesn’t analyze the micro or individual levels of society, Chafetz innovates by approaching this topic using Exchange Theory, which you learned about in Lecture 7. According to Exchange Theory, people seek largely equal and balanced exchanges. Each side needs to feel that they are giving and receiving an even balance in the interaction. When the resources of one actor, in this case, men, are greater than the resources of the other actor, in this case, women, the actor with the fewer resources will offer deference and compliance…because that’s all they have. Chafetz points out that, because of structural limitations to what women can achieve, women are almost always at a disadvantage when it comes to even the most intimate interactions with men due to fewer resources in terms of status, power, and class.
Chafetz points out that this structural gender inequality is often non-coercive. For the most part, men and women largely accept the validity of gender inequality as right and natural. Chafetz refers to this as Voluntaristic Action. In essence, individuals having been socialized by a capitalist system and culture, embracing norms and values through social learning and managing one’s participation through impression management, reproduce gender-based inequality through our decisions to participate.
Fortunately, despite how entrenched gender inequality is from the top down, Chafetz’ theory gives room for resistance and change. According to Chafetz, this iniquitous structure is subject to change by virtue of two influences: Unintentional Change and Intentional Change. Unintentional Change is change that happens for structural reasons. For Chafetz, a Marxist, the necessary structural changes must involve the relationship between the number of available men to meet the demand for production. Four variables are in play, Population changes, sex-ratio changes, technological changes, and economic structural changes. If any of these variables change in such a way as to encourage women’s workforce participation, women will gain power within the market. We can see this happening. Technology has advanced to the point where there is no longer a primacy on male physical strength. To a certain extent, this is even true in the armed forces where women are taking on greater roles.
Intentional changes occur as women move into the middle class and experience relative deprivation as well as consistent contact with other women also experiencing relative deprivation. This leads to the formation of social movements that can directly challenge gender inequality and can influence public and elite opinion about the status of women. This almost corresponds with Marx’s concept of unity and forming a class consciousness. We recently witnessed a huge example of this kind of social movement with the Women’s March, an act of collective voice spanning cities all over the world.
Kate Millett is a radical feminist. Her book, Sexual Politics is considered one of the most important works of the feminist movement along with de Beauvoir’s Second Sex and Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. In Sexual Politics, Millett uses a literary critique to point out the ways in which Patriarchy, or structures and assumptions of male dominance, are so embedded in our everyday lives that we hardly see them. After all, patriarchy is the oldest form of dominance in history. Older even than class. It has had a long time to integrate itself into our everyday lives. These patriarchal standards are so all-pervasive that they are often viewed as “natural” differences between men and women.
Millett identifies the differentiation between men and women based on three criteria, temperament, roles and status. The patriarchal assumption is that the status difference between men and women is the consequence of natural, psychological differences in temperament. In other words, women are naturally inclined to be nurturing, passive and emotional. They, therefore, take on the roles of homemakers and wives or perhaps participate in nurturing professions like nursing or teaching to satisfy their temperaments. Because these roles, as well as the natural desire for motherhood, tend to be lower status positions, women have naturally lower status.
See. No big deal. Sexual inequality is perfectly natural.
No so fast, Pendergast!
Millett flips this model. According to Millett, men have historically used their dominant status to assign relatively narrow, powerless, and isolated roles to women. Namely, women are consigned to three appropriate roles: The Mother Role, The Wife Like Role, and the Decorative Role (which she can only satisfy in youth). Any inability or unwillingness to satisfy these role expectations results in a fourth possible label: The Witch-Bitch Role.
In so flipping the process, Millett created a powerful model for analyzing the cultural influences on women. Now I’m not going to review Millett’s critiques of D. H. Lawrence or Henry Miller…because…you know. D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller aren’t really household names. But Disney Princesses are! Feminists have used Millett’s model to critique Disney’s Princesses, all of whom, despite many positive qualities, is rescued from hardship by princes based on nothing more than their sexual appeal. As a result of this critique, Disney is trying to develop more dynamic and complex “Princesses” Of course, they are still Princesses.
But we don’t need Disney Princesses. Take a look at female super heros. These are supposed to be women with superpowers who save the world. But they are also sexualized with tight or skimpy costumes. You can fight crime and alien invasions, ladies, so long as you do it wearing leather. Even female superheroes are consigned to the Decorative Role.
But this also has real-life implications. Take, for instance, this statement made by a manager making a promotion selection between two equally qualified candidates quoted in Fortune. “Jessica is really talented,” he said. “But I wish she’d be less abrasive. She comes on too strong.” Her male counterpart? “Steve is an easy case,” he went on. “Smart and great to work with. He needs to learn to be a little more patient, but who doesn’t?”
Yeah. Who doesn’t? Look, Steve has a clear and recognized problem with patience…he loses his temper, but this flaw is dismissed, while Jessica is, ambiguously, “too abrasive.” This report goes on to analyze the different feedback given to women and men on their performance reviews, with women receiving significantly more criticism and negative feedback. The Pew Research Center reports that, though the gap is narrowing, more people would rather have a male boss than a female boss, with women workers being more likely to feel that way. A study out of Rutgers University reveals a backlash against women managers if they are perceived to be acting in stereotypically masculine ways, assertive, competitive, or self-promotional. There are both great and subtle pressures on women at every level, in every institution to conform to dominant patriarchal definitions of femininity.
Finally, Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins adds a layer of complexity to feminist Standpoint Theory. In fact, she may have added multiple layers. One critique of the Second Wave of Feminism is that it tended to be derived from the standpoint of middle-class white women, many of whom, were straight. Collins suggested that sex and gender are not the only forms of dominance in society. When it comes to feminism and male dominance, one must acknowledge the fact that women are represented by many different races, ethnicities, classes, sexualities, and abilities.
Collins expands Dorothy Smith’s concept of Standpoint Theory with what she called Standpoint Epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. For instance, women may be shaped by patriarchal domination, but the standpoint of women of color is even more complicated. Women of color must contend with dominant patriarchy in society overall, but also dominance patterns among black men. At the same time, the woman of color must contend with her racial distinctions in a dominant white society. So a woman of color’s standpoint takes place where race and gender intersect. For this reason, this theory is known as Intersectionality or Intersectional Feminism. So we can really complicate this perspective by looking at the intersections of dominance influencing a young, poor, black, lesbian with a disability. For this person, her standpoint is influenced by her age, her class, her race, gender, sexuality, and ability.
Furthermore, Collins elaborates a matrix of domination in which “depending on the context, an individual may be simultaneously oppressor and oppressed…each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege form the multiple systems of oppression that frame everyone’s lives.” So a black woman may be subject to dominance by white or black men, but she can also be an agent of dominance over children or people of lower class status, perhaps employees.
Collins suggests that there are three levels by which people can resist these multiple layers of dominance. First is through controlling one’s personal biography, what Collins calls a self-defined standpoint. For Collins, this standpoint is especially critical of the relations of domination that pervade the lives of black women. Next, Collins elaborates on group or community identity through the formation of Black Feminist thought. Though each intersectional standpoint is different, each biography is unique, Black women or people experiencing any form of intersectional dominance can form communities by sharing their stories and developing shared angles of vision with others. Collins recognizes the importance of black women like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker in advancing this black feminist thought. Walker’s novel A Color Purple is a masterful model of intersectionality at work. In this way, black women can challenge the systemic level relations of power that serve to oppress.
Okay, look, it’s impossible in one short chapter to cover the whole breadth of feminist thought even as we enter what many consider to be a fourth wave of feminism. Feminism is probably the perfect sociological perspective. From Dorothy Smith and Patricia Hill Collins’s emphasis on standpoint to Millett’s and Chafetz more structuralist approach, feminism challenges our accepted, common sense notions of some of our most basic assumptions about society and human nature. And that’s what sociology is all about.
That being said, feminism isn’t without its problems and limitations. For instance, with the perspective’s emphasis on praxis and movement feminism, to what extent is feminist research more rhetorical than descriptive. Are feminists describing the real world, or are they creating rhetorical justifications for their movement goals?
Also, feminism is very critical of traditional expressions of sex, gender, and sexuality. Since sex and gender are, as defined by feminists, forms of oppression, there is an inherent value judgment placed on culturally normative expressions of sex and sexuality. Consequently, forms of sexual and gender expression that challenge dominant values seem to be privileged by feminists. But isn’t this just another form of power relation within the movement? Should men and women who accept normative expressions of sex and gender feel guilty for participating in an oppressive system? Is, say, a woman who wears make-up betraying feminism even if she advocates for fair pay? Shouldn’t free women also be free to accept traditional roles if that is what satisfies them?
Feminism also has a problem communicating with men. Often, feminist rhetoric puts men in a defensive position. Men, for the most part, do not want to believe that they are actively oppressing their girlfriends, wives, sisters, and daughters. Any suggestion that this is so often encourages men to reject feminism.
On the other hand, feminism can be an informative perspective for men who have no interest in taking part in exploitation. After all, if these forms of dominance are ingrained in our culture as Kate Millett suggests, men are not necessarily aware of their role in this oppression. The vast majority of men are married or in relationships with women whom they love and respect. Many men, like myself, have daughters. We belong to families with mothers and sisters and aunts. Most men don’t want to be oppressive. Yet the underlying premise of many feminist perspectives defines men as the “oppressors.” This is understandably alienating to men who resent being labeled in such a way. After all, most men are also facing their own forms of oppression and carry their own burdens that can also be traced to patriarchy. In fact, patriarchal manhood often contributes to norms destructive to men. Men are encouraged, for instance, to suppress emotions defined as “weak” such as sadness or self-doubt. Men as the “non-nurturers” often face emotional distance from their own children. How can feminists appeal to men and convince us that equality is mutually beneficial?
The Feminist Perspective fills in quite a few holes created by male-dominated academics in sociology. In the next lecture, we’ll learn about one more critical perspective, The Postmodernist Perspective.