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Equality and Feminist Theories

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 4766 words Published: 2nd Sep 2021

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Feminist theory provides more than just a discourse on the interactions of the male and female, within the public and private sphere. In fact feminist theory has considered the core problems in the legal and political systems, resulting in a discourse on the inherent inequalities of these systems that favor men over women.

Therefore this discussion will consider two key areas of feminist theory which are; equality of rights; and the equality in the law.

In order to understand the contributions that feminism has made to political and legal theory the inequalities and injustices that feminists are aiming to eliminate must be considered. The main area of feminist theory that this discussion will consider is liberalist and Western feminism; however it is important to note that there are non-liberalist and Eastern theories of feminism but to explore these feminisms is beyond the scope of this essay.

This essay will discuss the theory provided by theorists such as MacKinnon, Scales and Stanley. It will consider radical feminism and the concept of rape; and the next section will discuss the use of women’s bodies either through rape law or visual norms as a way to control women.

It will then consider the case study of feminist theory and the blurred distinction between the public and the private in general and then consider whether the approach taken by radical feminists goes too far and reduces the accountability of feminist theory.

The following section will consider an alternative approach within feminist theory to ensure that equality and accountability is brought into the theory and then the approach to legal, social and political problems such as the state’s approach to rape as a means of control is taken seriously. Finally this discussion will conclude in answering the title question – does radical feminism theory offer an explanation and solution to women’s inherent inequality in the political and legal systems, in areas such as rape?

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Feminist Theory

MacKinnon approaches feminism from a standpoint that the laws that evoke equality between men and women are not enough, because they rely on the sameness principle between men and women and tries to compensate women by saying that men and women should be treated the same. However this is not enough because of the physical and biological differences which causes a problem, because the social construction of these differences that have caused an inherent inequality between men and women in the current social, cultural, political and legal system. Mackinnon also indicates the current theoretical approaches to equality and rights are not sufficient enough because they fail to recognize that the legal and judicial system is entrenched in a male domination. Hence trying to make women the same as men, rather than recognizing that men and women are different but should have basic rights that protect this difference. MacKinnon also supports leveling the playing field by giving women advantages over men in order to counter the male dominated system. In short MacKinnon argues that the creating of laws to make women equal to men will not compete with the inherent inequalities in Western legal systems, in fact these laws will entrench the inequalities further and support the power men have in society.

Scales also endorses the problems with the inherent social inequalities between men and women. She therefore sets forth the inequality approach in order to combat the structural injustices that face women in the legal system. The central area that Scales explores is the notion of stereotypes which illustrate the structural inequalities between men and women. One such set of stereotypes are the images of the breadwinner and the housewife – the breadwinner, traditionally, is the husband who can successfully have a career and a family because he is not the primary carer. On the other hand, the wife stays at home and commits to childrearing and domestic duties, she can be in employment but not have a successful career because of the responsibilities she has at home. Hence this results in a scenario akin to the case of Phillips v Martin Marietta Corp “where the company hired males with preschool-aged children but would not hire women in that category”. The other key factor of the inequality approach in addition to recognizing that there are inherent structural differences between men women, it also recognizes the extent of injustice that the system affords to women. Scales takes MacKinnon’s basic theory and expands it into an approach that can be adopted into legal theory and thinking in order to eliminate the structural inequalities between men and women in the legal system. Therefore making equality more achievable for women as well as leveling the playing field for women by balancing out the inherent power men have over women in the legal system. If one also considers the work of Stanley who argues that the academics of feminist theory should be made accountable and not fall foul of academic standards or just use the mainstream methods that are inherently biased. This form of accountable methodology will create a serious and challenging feminist theory of politics and law, which will not be scrutinized as zealous ranting or settling for the biased methods of the male hierarchy:

The intellectual location from which debates and arguments are assembled and presented constitutes ‘a point of view’ – and the point of view critic is inevitably different from that of the proponent… Recognizing this is important, because ‘a point of view’ is both unavoidable and also indicates the existence of perspective: a particular way of seeing which highlights and brings into focus some thing as salient.

Therefore as Stanley points out it is not only important to create a distinct feminist theory that is based upon a methodology that is accountable and not a part of the male hierarchy, as this is the only way to ensure that a feminist theory that will ensure substantive equality.

Radical Feminism’s Approach to the Body and Men

The general approach of radical feminism to rape is that it is a form of control and the approach of the justice system to rape and the victimization of the victim when testifying. The key factor that radical feminists argue is that this is indicative of an unequal society, where rape and other factors of male violence are examples of re-enforcing the patriarchal system. Rich argues that rape and violence against women are central to the control of women and their bodies, especially when the advancement of women in the public sphere is de-stabilizing this power base:

Patriarchy is… a familial-social, ideological, political system in which men – by force, direct pressure or through ritual, law and language, customs, etiquette, education, and division of labour, determine what part women shall or shall not play, and in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male. It does not necessarily imply that no woman has power, or all women in a given culture may not have certain powers.

When considering other feminist theories there is an indicator that there is inherent discrimination in the legal, social and political system. Helena Kennedy in her expose of the English legal system’s approach to women in rape trials seems to re-enforce this notion, where a respectable women, i.e. subservient wife or vulnerable career woman can be raped but the aggressive, assertive, sexually active woman will be exposed and not be seen as a victim:

A no may be taken forgranted when a respectable woman is attacked by a total stranger in a dimly lit street, but since a vast majority of rapes are committed by men known to the victim, consent in rape trails has always been an issue that makes men nervous… Getting women to submit is an acceptable part of the sexual game plan… That women who dressed sexily were contributory negligent or that women who did not want sex just had to keep their legs shut.

Therefore the inherent discrimination pervades even violent crime against women, which has been also the case in respect to domestic violence where the justice system would shrug it off as private disputes. The problem with radical feminism is not its findings but the lack to use acceptable academic research from an objective method; it does in fact portray the reality of inequality and control. The action of rape is not about sex but control and power and the more that women threaten the patriarchal system the approach to rape and domestic violence seems to be dismissed; unless the victim falls inline with the ideal picture of a good girl. Campaigning in recent years have brought these problems to the forefront but there are problems with the attitudes of police to rape victims that may not have the purest sexual background then there is little action taken. This is closely tied to the approach of modern media and its onslaught of enslaving women to body image and the perfect Hollywood body, as well as the slow progress in respect to sexual harassment in the workplace, i.e. all are tied to patriarchal control of women. There is a problem with academics’ and policy makers’ approach to radical feminist theory is that it is considered to ignore the traditional approaches to academic research and theory; therefore as Stanley suggests there needs to be an accountable approach to feminist theory, which will be discussed later in this discussion. The following sections will investigate how the theory of radical feminism that pressure and control of patriarchy over women can be seen as inextricably tied to women’s sexuality.

Feminist Theory and Women’s Bodies

Carla Rice states that [w]henever we as women look at ourselves through the lens of culture, we… end up engaged in a war with our bodies, one that we cannot win. Society has inhibited our bodies and we have absorbed into our skin and bones (1999, 317)

Rice introduces an interesting connection between women’s bodies and culture; however the modern restraints on women and the body are not new, i.e. history has restrained the body in differing ways. The modern restraint is the attaining the body of the supermodel and not looking older than thirty years old; whereas in history it was being the chaste and innocent daughter and then the dutiful wife and nurturing mother. After the 1960s and the civil rights movements women became a dominating force of change in the workplace and educational arenas, no longer did women have to get married after high school and start a family; rather the avenues of higher education and careers beckoned women from this form of dominance in culture. In order to remedy these advertisements no longer held the 1950s perfect mother image; rather it was replaced by underfed models, such as Twiggy. This escalated to the modern era of fighting natural processes of aging and the hatred of differing body shapes. This has led to women starving themselves, damaging their body by binging and purging, paying thousands of dollars to have their skin stretched, fat pumped and bones broken and replaced. The modern era has heralded freedom in the sense of the mind; however culture has enslaved women using their body again, i.e. the reproductive functions were the prison of the past, superficial beauty is the prison of today.

This imprisoning of the mind by using the body is a very old weapon used by the dominating male hierarchical system in fear that women can no longer be so easily controlled. If one considers cultures, such as the Middle East, being too fat or having a big nose is not a thing of consequence; because women are still imprisoned by their reproductive functions. The male dominated system of the West has been forced to alter cultural images and notions to further dominate women; therefore culture has had to alter by forcing women into a new box, i.e. an underfed, tall, big busted woman.

The war waged on women’s bodies is first a conflict over shape and size, over the terrain of our bodies, played in a deeply entrenched cultural taboos and a powerful dictate against women taking up space and claiming room of our own.

This statement of Rice’s sums up the conflict between the advancement of women and the restraints constructed by the male dominated culture, which has to adapt to the advancement of women in the late 20th and 21st Century. Rice is correct in her evaluation of the male dominated culture adapting to imprison women from declaring their own rights and space.

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Case Study – Women in the Public & Private Spheres

“Occupational segregation is being reproduced by cyclical practices which are the outcome of past conventions regarding ‘proper’ relations between the sexes… Occupational segregation is itself a source of stability and conventional gender identities will be reinforced by work in sex-typed occupations. The orthodox division of labour between men and women in the public and private spheres will also be reaffirmed by jobs that offer the opportunity to combine domestic – with paid work – that is, flexible conditions of working, part-time hours and so on”.

The situation of creating the level playing field has not been achieved by legal policies of equal opportunities, because the higher paid jobs usually require a large amount of commitment and inflexible working hours. This makes it very hard for mothers to enter these professions. In the case of mothers the barrier to higher employment in the professions of law, accountancy, the stock market and business is the hours are not always nine to five; because a crisis or a client may need advice at anytime. Therefore women in these professions are usually kept to the lower levels, because the fact that they may have a family will impede the commitment these employers expect from a partner or CEO. This is not necessarily the case with the actual possible employees, because the traditional role of mother and housewife is no longer the key driver for the identity of women. It is this perception that is prevalent within liberalist democracies where the structure is entrenched with male dominated thinking. Therefore it is this mode of thinking that needs to be changed, which means that the adoption of policies that relay equal-opportunities is not enough. This has been emphasized through the theory of thinkers, such as MacKinnon and Kymlicka. Both these thinkers advise that rights need to be afforded to disadvantaged groups that ensure that the balance the playing field against the dominant group(s) in society. Therefore this introduces policies such as quotas, whereby a certain percentage of women and other disadvantage groups must be represented at all levels of employment. For example within political parties throughout Europe and in certain sectors of Canada a quota system is used, in order to get a representative amount of women into politics. However this has been rejected by the UK and certain sectors of Canadian polity as reverse discrimination. Rejecting the quota systems and labelling them as reverse discrimination illustrates how the current political and legal structures are only playing lip-service to the principles of equal opportunity and anti-discrimination. Institutions of business and government in the who argue against so-called reverse discrimination have failed to recognize that women are more than their traditional role of housewife and mother, because their entrenchment in traditional liberal theory views the labour market as supply and demand; where traditionally the largest supply of cheap labour is found to be women, whereby this labour is traditionally unskilled or related to the caring and domestic sectors. However in the recent years the number of women university graduates has rapidly increased, therefore provides a wealth of skilled female labour. The number of women in the skilled sectors has increased, but the higher one gets in the hierarchy there are fewer women, because of the concept of the glass ceiling for women. This barrier is not recognized in the institutions by equal opportunity policy or within the law because it is so entrenched into the social structure of the present legal and political system that is invisible, hence being called the glass ceiling. Feminism has provided a discourse that has gone farther than just making women equal to men, because in making the law gender-blind it fails to recognize the inherent power of men over women in the legal system, as well as the inherent structural inequalities.

Not all feminists take the approach of MacKinnon and Scales, however their theories do recognize that there is a structural inequality of power between men and women. There is definitely a feminist political and legal theory which has recognized the structural inequalities between men and women and has tried to eliminate these inequalities through various different approaches. However feminism has provided a very important analysis of the legal system and theory by recognizing that power is inherent in the ruling group; where the only way to balance this power is to identify and eliminate the inequalities that afford the ruling group power. This is also applicable to class, caste and race inequalities and if an approach can be made in legal theory to ensure that there is a redistribution of historical burdens and benefits to disadvantaged classes then there would be an effective law of equality. Therefore feminism has provided a new dimension to liberalist legal theory is; a re-evaluation of its structure; and a consideration of its inherent power and inequalities. This argument ties closely into the arguments presented by Stanley. Stanley argues that there is a need for accountable feminist methodology to ensure that this feminist theory is challenging the academic norms; as well as freestanding as an academic school of knowledge.

Alternative Approach Necessary for Equality and Reduce Violence against Women:

Nozick’s Entitlement Theory

Inequality is a reality for women at all levels of life, in the home, in the labor market and as a citizen of the state. The laws of liberal democratic states have set up value neutral laws that are based in an androgynous view of the sexes; however this is not the reality of situation, because the state, family and labor market is based on systemic discrimination of women, i.e. men have created the system and have inherently based the position of women, at best as second class citizens and at worst as the property of men. This has made the theory of re-distribution key to creating equality economically, socially and politically for women. Therefore this discussion will consider the theories of re-distribution and then apply them to women’s social and political situations, which then should cause changes in women’s social image and therefore create a situation of equality in the family. It will do this by considering Nozick’s entitlement theory and adapt it in respect to feminism to create an inherently indiscriminate state and a more objective approach by the justice system to rape.

The core thinking of Nozick is the entitlement theory whereby there are three principles which are; the transfer principle; the acquisition principle; and the rectification principle. It must be stressed that Nozick’s liberalism is entrenched in the theory of natural and core rights as set out originally be Locke. Therefore all men are created equally as derived from the state of nature but in order to create a civil society men contracted for a just system of governance with essential human rights. This is the traditional theory of the relationship between the market and the state; however this value-neutral approach fails to create equality for women. The problem of inherent inequality is because such a theory based on the free market would view re-distributive actions by the government as unjust. The main problem for this thinking is the original premise whereby Nozick assumes all people began as equals, because the present Western society has been created primarily by white men, therefore for there to be equality.

Inequalities within the home and views on women’s sexuality have been the focus for theorists that emphasize the need for a level playing field. However, on the other hand, the focus on labour market inequalities arguably may be deteriorating within the UK, due to the introduction of legislation from the early seventies to the nineties, this legislation; whereby two of the key concepts were equal pay for equal jobs and the freedom from discrimination regardless of race, religion, gender or creed. For women there was also the introduction of maternity rights, making it impossible to dismiss women or not hire women solely on the grounds of pregnancy (actual or future). This has been strengthened in the last few years with carers leave for children under five and the introduction of flexible working for parents. Therefore the current legal atmosphere promotes equality in the workplace, especially between the genders. The law in general follows from the Human Rights Act 1998; however these equal rights are based on treating men and women the same and do not combat the inequities that are inherent in the system, which are illustrated by the fact that there are problems with sexual harassment and the prosecution of such acts. In fact in some jurisdictions such as Canada there was no legal action of sexual harassment until 1989 with the case of Janzen v Platy Enterprises. If there are problems in defining and prosecuting sexual harassment because of the traditional views of women this illustrates the problem with the Therefore it is necessary for this systemic discrimination to be tackled by re-distributive justice, which feminists such as Mackinnon purport.

Therefore inequality is the key term that needs to be discussed when contemplating the validity of re-distributing resources. Re-distribution can be done by either handing out state benefits of money, housing or material items or by providing more opportunities to those that are in disadvantaged positions. Nozick and Rawls are examples of two extremes in liberalist thought; Nozick represents the true laissez-faire liberals whereby redistribution is against equal opportunities and the only way to present a just government is to follow free-market principles. Rawls, on the other hand, argues that re-distribution can be fair as long as it is just, but would not suggest quota systems or the socialist democratic state of the Scandinavian nations. This section will end by comparing the two theorists. There are other theorists such as Kymlicka who argue that re-distribution is the only manner of ensuring that inherent inequalities are eradicated in the political system. Such lines of arguments come from feminist thinkers, such as MacKinnon. Therefore this approach would tackle rape and the current approach of the court as an example of this inherent inequality, ensuring that rape is treated seriously and a matter under an objective court rather than a court that is biased against women, using their sexual backgrounds against them when all there should be is a question of consent.


Stanley’s accountable feminist knowledge and how this approach might address methodical problems of gender, these are the problems that radical feminism hold and many ward of unwarranted ranting, rather than a theoretical argument.

Gender is not an a priori characteristic of social life or of people or of the content of documents; it is not ‘in’ these as a ‘by definition’ component of them, but instead a construction, one capable of being construed differently in different times and places, by different commentators, using different (or in deed the same) evidences.

Stanley’s approach to feminist knowledge is very important because it sheds the inherent methodologies of society, which are entrenched with biases of the male dominated society. In addition Stanley argues that gender is not an a priori characteristic rather it is the construction of society and dominated by male dominated methodologies, i.e. one’s sex refers to the simple a priori characteristic whether one is male or female; whereas gender is the construction of how this sex should function in society, such as the Victorian and 1950’s image of the male (husband) is the breadwinner and the female (wife) is the nurturer and housewife. This is a very important distinction because for too long have all academic disciplines mistaken gender and one’s sex for one in the same thing. What Stanley is proposing will take a closer look at how gender is constructed and whether a feminist methodology will ensure that equality and substantive justice will be meted out fairly. One such example is the use of quantitative and hard scientific methods; whereby the only manner to ensure equality is from a value neutral approach, i.e. men and women are considered androgynous and without sex; therefore creating a system of equality. On the other hand, a more modern approach denies this value neutral approach as an example of inherently sexist methodology because it does not combat the differences between the sexes; as well as the value neutral approach being steeped in gender stereotypes that does not truly combat the male dominated academic biases of methodology. Stanley uses the work of Rich to create and exposition of this approach and focuses on the differences in perspective, i.e. no scientific method can truly be value neutral as they are being conducted by humans and humans are inherently biased:

The intellectual location from which debates and arguments are assembled and presented constitutes ‘a point of view’ – and the point of view critic is inevitably different from that of the proponent… Recognizing this is important, because ‘a point of view’ is both unavoidable and also indicates the existence of perspective: a particular way of seeing which highlights and brings into focus some thing as salient.

Stanley, therefore, proposes that in order to combat these biased perspectives, where the male dominated perspective is inherent in the societal structure, there needs to an accountable feminist methodology that will provide a feminist perspective that will provide a realistic and challenging opponent to the inherent male dominated perspective. Accountability is the key because it allows for the methodology to be considered as an equal to the current academic methodologies, without accountability it will be dismissed as mere zealous ranting as opposed to a new academic method. As Stanley argues:

A real debate about feminist methodology has not yet happened… in particular because of the use of binaries… What is needed now is an actual, real, debate, involving an exchange of ideas and the thoughtful interrogation of alternative approaches.


At the moment because the state and economic situation is only playing lip service to equality this re-enforces the inequality in the family, work and justice system where the good girl gets justice the wife who is not only a career women, but also a cleaner, caretaker, nanny and a personal servant to her husband. Therefore the argument of radical feminism is not too far from the truth; however its methods and accountability raises questions and it gets regarded as biased and un-objective. In order for this attitude in society to change feminist theory needs to be incorporated in the state and the economy further, with re-distributive justice; the reason why feminist theorists have only been partially successful is that either the theory has no accountable basis or it is falling prey to mainstream academic methods. In order to do this feminist theory must incorporate an accountable feminist methodology, in order for feminist theory to be held as a valid theory of the state and economics with valid aims to create equality through realistic systemic change. By bringing true systemic change it will cause a change in social views and policy, which will bring true equality to the family home, women’s sexuality and in the workplace and most importantly in the justice system for victims of rape.


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