Sociology Essays - Equality Rights Feminism

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Equality Rights Feminism

Equality - a term associated with fairness, cohesion, and rights - has been an important goal for various theoretical movements that have formed in Feminism. The debate surrounding equality has and continues to be of concern at all different levels - feminism arose as a response to the inequalities between men and women. The question of equality itself puts up a parameter of analysis and critique that allows for investigation and speculation.

To ponder equality, is to enlighten the senses to explore the possibilities of what is known, what needs to be done, and who or what is involved in seeking equality - it challenges the word as well as the people framed within it. Catharine MacKinnon states that “Feminism is the discovery that women do not live in this world, that the person occupying this realm is a man, so much more a man if he is white and wealthy” (367). With this in mind, feminist movements emphasize the importance of every women’s position in social and political spaces.

Various feminist movements can be used to achieve equality. However, each perspective provides a different contribution in obtaining such equality. Feminist theories of the liberal, Marxist, radical, and postcolonial perspectives all cover certain aspects of inequality while limiting in the acknowledgement of another. The integration of these perspectives will allow for a truly beneficial equality for women.

Liberal feminism is a stance that argues for women to have equal rights to men and to achieve individual autonomy. They propose a model of individual autonomy by fighting for the right of women to have educational opportunities and to obtain a career that is outside of domesticity. This is part of their main focus of their strive for women to have the same rights that men hold “naturally” - men being the gender of privilege and power (Whelehan 29). Liberal feminists are interested in the politics of law to maintain equality between women and men.

From this perspective, equality for women is achievable but due to the nature and intensity of its movements, liberal feminism is considered as a starting point for equal rights and freedoms guaranteed to each individual. It takes a more “soft” lobbying approach to fight for the equal rights of women to those of men as they try to refrain from any direct challenge to institutions that cause them to be unequal. They would like to change laws but stay within the boundaries of institutions as they prove to be valuable to many women.

Imelda Whelehan points out that the “liberal perspective on state intervention in people’s lives also proved problematic, since state support was crucial to many women’s lives, and any shrinkage of its services would probably mean that their living standards deteriorated” (34). As a result, liberal feminists were caught between fighting for women’s rights and expressing their victimization that is due to their differences in biological sex. Moreover, social change is restricted because if the current liberal state was overthrown, the male-dominant liberalistic status quo would be disrupted and many services provided by the state (especially services provided to women to improve their living standards) will be in jeopardy.

Combining liberal thought and feminism provides many contradictions because their beliefs do not apply equally to both male and female due to the constraints of reality. If males and females are given equal rights (as hoped by liberal feminists), there will be strains on both sexes in terms of gender roles within and outside of the economy as well as an emphasis on the females biological anatomy of giving birth.

As a result, liberal feminism’s concept of equality is an ideal that is contradictory due to reality, personal benefits, and environmental constraints (such as the state, education, and family needs). It is important to realize that this does not necessarily prove liberal feminism as an ineffective approach to equality. In fact, liberal feminism is the most widely known feminist movement in today’s society. The liberal feminist movement can be seen as the basis and the starting point for the fight towards gender equality. However, this approach needs to be combined with other perspectives for a more effective outcome.

Another effective approach to strive for gender equality is to analyze the problem through the Marxian framework. Marxist feminism emphasizes that capitalism and patriarchy are organizing devices that hinder the contemplation of having a society that is equal between genders. They argue that class is a major factor that creates the division between men and women. In other words, the hierarchy system of class produces inequalities by placing power in the hands of a few while oppressing others that do not have this privilege.

Marxist feminism focuses their attention on women’s position in labor and in the capitalist system - women’s participation in the home and in wage work. Heidi Hartmann states that “the problem in the family, the labor market, economy, and society is not simply a division of labor between men and women, but a division that places men in a superior, and women in a subordinate, position” (7). As a result, Marxist feminists take on a revolutionary approach to overthrow capitalism in order to dismantle male privilege [really really really good clean cut statement].

They recognize that women are subordinated as a class and that women’s unpaid work in the home needs to be acknowledged because “women at home not only provide essential services for capital by reproducing the labor force, but also create surplus value through that work” (Hartmann 8). Moreover, Marxist feminism recognizes the social and historical context of all women’s work in paid and unpaid labor. By acknowledging women’s participation in society, women’s contribution will not be taken for granted hence elevating their gender status. Equality can therefore be achieved in a capitalistic sense.

While the liberal approach focuses on gender equality in rights before the court of law, the Marxian perspective takes on a capitalistic approach strengthening women’s status in the economic system. These two approaches aim to fight for more power for oppressed women but, at the same time, they lack focus on a major source of this oppression - the problematic male-dominant gender system. Radical feminism is useful in analyzing this issue as it focuses on patriarchy as the source of gender inequality.

This binary gender system is seen to be a social construct that serves as the basis of gender inequality. Radical feminists argue that men’s privilege oppresses women though social institutions and cultural productions. As a result, men’s dominance over women is seen to take on a social hierarchy that produces unequal power relations. They stress that social organizations created male domination, which has forced upon society a type of thinking that is “malestream.” Moreover, violence towards women and the objectification of women’s bodies have placed women in a position of exploitation and victimization.

Radical feminism coined the slogan “The personal is political” to emphasize that individual experiences brings out political issues that need to be addressed and acknowledged. They take on a revolutionary approach in that social and political changes are necessary in order to overthrow the structural framework of inequality between men and women. They argue that “individual female identity and experience [is] the first step to collective revolution” (Whelehan 36).

Acknowledging female identity apart from the structural gender framework will allow the female gender to break free from “malestream” ideals. In other words, the elimination of this gender system will possibly bring the two genders into equality.

Another feminist movement that aims to challenge existing social norms and constructs is postcolonial feminism. This movement focuses on rejecting all foundational thought that is known and used as truth. They argue that this truth is constructed and created by the powers of those that are the colonizers (middle-class, white males) who have power over the colonized. Moreover, this truth becomes part of the universal - it is accepted to be true with little or no questioning.

As a result, postcolonial feminist reject universalizing principles because it marginalizes those that are not part of the norm. Leela Gandhi argues that a “comprehensive dismantling of colonial hierarchies and structures needs to be matched by a reformed and imaginative reconception of colonized society and culture” (82). Postcolonial feminists stress that women are situated in a “double colonization” in which they are oppressed as women and colonized people as well as constructed as sexual objects.

A reformation of the constructed male-dominant society should take place revamping all social norms that naturally set women as the subordinate. By destabilizing the colonization, ideals on gender that are taken for granted will be overthrown granting an opportunity for women to be acknowledged in society. With an increased level of appreciation of women’s contribution, equality between the genders can be achieved.

With the unique standpoint of each perspective, inequality issues regarding different structures of society can be understood better. Each of these perspectives is effective in their own way as they all aim to bring equality between the genders. By incorporating the multiple perspectives, equality can be achieved to a certain extent. The issue of equality is based on people’s perspectives and the social contexts these people are positioned.

No matter how hard these feminist movements try to strive for equality, gender differences will continue to exist - biological differences can never be eliminated. If “absolute” equality is achieved, men and women will be seen as equal and existing protection for female’s biological differences will be removed. Protection such as laws regarding birth right allowing women to be released [better word?] from work for a recovery period is beneficial and should not be revoked due to “equality.”

In a sense, rather than relieving female victims from oppression, this “absolute” equality may cause even more distress for the female community. With this in mind, achieving absolute gender equality should not be the main goal of feminist movements. These perspectives should be used to help strive to seek for the acknowledgement of women’s position in society. Equality does not necessarily have to be achieved in order for females to obtain a better life. Providing respect and recognition for the female gender will be more useful and beneficial.

  • Based on people’s perspectives/attitudes and the social context people are positioned
  • Equality may or may not be possible
  • Possible for certain sectors but women still needs more rights (ex. birth Þ biological difference)
  • May agree/accept certain aspects of a feminist perspective but don’t have to accept all of it
  • All these feminist perspectives has helped strive to seek equality for women and have made significant contributions to the acknowledgement of women’s position in society
  • Liberal and radical both aim at giving women more rights
  • Even if they strive for equality, gender differences will still exist no matter what (biological difference)
  • Would should still have more rights and be protected for those differences

Works Cited

Gandhi, Leela (1998). “Postcolonialism and Feminism” in Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (81-101). New York: Columbia University Press.

Hartmann, Heidi (1981). “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union.” In Lydia Sargeant (Ed.) Women and Revolution (1-41). Montreal: Black Rose Books.

MacKinnon, Catherine (1985). “Pornography, Civil Rights, and Free Speech.” In Rosemary Tong (Ed.) (1999) Feminist Philosophies. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Whelehan, Imelda (1995). “Liberal Feminism: The Origins of the Second Wave” in Modern Feminist Thought (25-43). New York: New York University Press.

Question Three:

Discuss the potential and limitations of feminist theories with respect to the analysis of gender and sexuality. Compare several perspectives and then draw your own conclusions about this issue.

The social stratification of our society has placed boundaries on all aspects of our lives. With deeper exploration of these constructed issues, multifaceted debates arise in feminism. Moreover, by looking at the social organization of the everyday, feminist theories are able to take a closer look into the complex views surrounding gender, sex, and sexuality. It is important to make a clear distinction between the concepts of gender, sex, and sexuality to understand the underlying message that each of these words conveys - each concept has a particular meaning and construction to its term.

Gender is often referred to as the social construction of our identity of being “man/masculine” and “woman/feminine” (sometimes known as being “gendered”), whereas sex pertains to the biology of our species (male and/or female). Heidi Hartmann eloquently emphasizes that “we are born female and male, biological sexes, but we are created women and man, socially recognized genders” (16). Sexuality, on the other hand, refers to our emotional and intimate relationships (heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality).

The work of liberal, Marxist, radical, postcolonial, lesbian, and third wave feminism all have considerable overlap in their analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality, but each of these perspectives has its own central focus. As a result, the dissimilar concepts have always resulted in contrasting debates. It is beneficial to analyze the potentials and limitations of each of these feminist theories in order to fully understand the complexity of gender, sex, and sexuality. The integration of these various perspectives will provide a deeper understanding and awareness of the diverse issues that our social structure tries to mask.

As a mainstream feminist movement, liberal feminism claims that differences in gender are not based in biology. They believe women and men are not very different due to their common humanity. As a result, they argue that women and men should not be treated any differently under the law - women should have the same opportunities and legal rights as men - by striving to eliminate laws that differentiate people by gender (Whelehan 29). Liberal feminism has the potential of slowly changing people’s attitudes toward gender and sexuality by increasing women’s participation in what is known to be male occupations as well as encouraging support networks for women.

They also provide great contribution by socializing and educating the young with gender-neutral terminology. However, liberal feminism is limited in their focus - there is too much emphasis on the macro and very little on the micro. The private sphere of women’s experiences in their home is not brought to the forefront. As a result, many troubling issues such as domestic violence and marital rape are not spoken about. This limitation undermines liberal feminism’s goal to have men and women being treated equally. The silencing of the private and personal life has hindered the individual autonomy and freedom of speech of women - women’s domestic and sexual lives become unacknowledged (Whelehan 38).

Moreover, Imelda Whelehan states that there is a “limit to how far liberal feminists will ‘pry’ into individual’s private social/sexual choices” (38). As a result, they do not directly challenge capitalism (the main contributor to the oppression of women), which undermines the idea of changing the institutions that maintain gender bias and censors sexuality.

Whelehan also emphasizes that liberal feminism is problematic in that its views are predominately white, middle class, heterosexuals - this ignores women who do not inhabit what is a relatively privileged social position (41). Although liberal feminism has created conditions to fight for equality, it is only a stepping stone for the other feminist theories that follow - it is limited in the macro and public realm of politics.

Another way to approach the problematic concepts of gender, sex, and sexuality is through the Marxian perspective. Marxist feminism suggests that the dual system of roles as paid and unpaid workers in a capitalist economy is the reason behind women’s oppression. They argue that in the workplace, women are exploited by capitalism whereas in the home, they are exploited by patriarchy (Hartmann 5). Moreover, women have fewer economic resources due to their low paying wages as compared to men.

Heidi Hartmann argues that sexist ideology has adopted a capitalist form in that patriarchal relations bolster capitalism - the subjugation of women in the private and public sphere has allowed for the continuance of patriarchal and capitalistic needs. Women’s work is devalued even though they are the major source to an efficient economy - they are caregivers, housekeepers, and work for the paid marketplace. Marxist feminism greatly focuses their analysis on gender being a source of job segregation that exploits women as paid and unpaid workers in the workplace and in the family.

They argue that women are subordinated as a class and that “the problem in the family, the labor market, economy, and society is not simply a division of labor between men and women, but a division that places men in a superior, and women in a subordinate, position” (Hartmann 7).

However, Marxist feminism is limited in its macro analysis of society because the individual and private lives of people (especially the exploration of sexuality in regards to producing products of capital) need to be analyzed. It covers feministic issues within the economic system but, due to its limited framework, it is inefficient in addressing problems surrounding individual issues that women are facing in today’s male-dominant society.

To analyze these problematic individual issues, the radical feminist framework has proven to be effective. Radical feminism is a conscious-raising group that addresses intense debates surrounding issues of women’s everyday lives. They argue that “the personal is political” in that the “original and basic class division is between the sexes, and that the motive force of history is the striving of men for power and domination over women, the dialectic of sex” (Hartmann 13).

Radical feminism are greatly concerned about violence towards women due to the depictions of women as sexual objects to be used, abused, and produced in the mass media. Catharine MacKinnon argues that “maleness is a form of power and femaleness is a form of powerlessness” (369). As a result, according to radical feminism, patriarchy results in the sexual exploitation of women through social control and construction.

However, radical feminisms limitation is that the creation of a women-only space includes particular “women” while excluding those that do not conform to certain gender assumptions such as transgenders - it creates another form of power. This exclusion will lead to another type of inequality and oppression that will once again damage society as a whole.

The liberal, Marxist, and radical feminist perspectives all focus on the major structures that act as the basis of society’s gender concepts. Postcolonial feminism, on the other hand, challenges the gender blindness that is masked in traditional colonial history - it focuses on problematic gender concepts rather than the major structures behind them. In traditional thought, the “Third World Women” is represented as the colonized women of nonindustrial societies and developing countries who are brought into civilization by imperial, patriarchal domination of Western and European masculinity.

Feminist postcolonial theorists argue that the basis of these women’s gender and race places them under imperial circumstances of being women of “double colonization” - “Third-World Woman” are seen “as victim par excellence - the forgotten casualty of both imperial ideology, and native and foreign patriarchies” (Gandhi 83). This is problematic because the “Third-World Women” are placed in contrast with Western woman as opposites, othered, and marginalized - a position of inferiority to ones gender of not being a dominant, white, middle-class woman. Leela Gandhi exemplifies that this “implied cultural lack of the ‘third-world woman’ fortifies the redemptive ideological/political plenitude of Western feminism…seen yet as another object of Western knowledges, simultaneously knowable and unknowing” (86).

As a result, postcolonial and feminist theories challenges discourses that are about women by highlighting the anti-colonial gender blindness and to acknowledge “Third-World Woman” as a voice of difference instead of an object to be silenced by the power and privilege of colonialism.

However, postcolonial feminism is limited in that, like the above perspectives, a more macro-level of analysis is taken whereas the micro-level analysis of sexuality. Postcolonial feminism focuses their attention on the social organization of the “third-world woman” in relation to colonial practices and exploitation.

Lesbian feminism, unlike other perspectives, acknowledges the oppression of compulsory heterosexuality. By challenging traditional norms and heterosexuality, they fight for both women’s and homosexual rights. Lesbian feminism has the potential to combat homophobia by empowering women to explore sexuality and to understand of heterosexual relationships.

They argue that the diverse range of “woman-identified experience” needs to take into account the history and individual experience of each woman’s life (Rich 648). Adrienne Rich argues that compulsory heterosexuality is not examined but accepted as the “sexual preference” of our society (633). As a result, the perspective of lesbian feminism has implications of dismantling compulsory heterosexuality by recognizing the central truth of women’s history in that the “preference” of heterosexuality has been “naturally” imposed on women and that “women have always resisted male tyranny” (Rich 652).

It allows women to move away from the prescribed scripts produced by the distorted lie of compulsory female heterosexuality as “normal” and a “preference” - a form of liberation for all women. However, lesbian feminism is limited in that they do not address the power issues may still exist in lesbian relationships just as they do in heterosexual relationships. It also neglects larger oppression issues that are bringing distress to the female gender.

Contrasting other perspectives, third wave feminism guides their analysis towards a more micro perspective and emphasizes that individual identities are unique and complex. They strive for women to have agency and acknowledge that female sexuality is a form of power to express oneself. They find the category of “woman” to be problematic because, as stated by Himani Bannerji, women’s issues should not be located on a broad and generalized way of “Woman - a singular yet universal entity” of patriarchal social construction (48).

Third wave feminism embraces sexuality and the act of sex as fun rather than deviant or dangerous. They see themselves as empowering and as women of choice. Third wave feminism appreciates and views the internet as an important source for opening up lines of communication and support networks for young scholars (Alfonso and Trigilio 7). They stress the importance of speaking and writing about individual personal experiences in order to resist universal assumptions. However, this is limiting in that they do not evaluate certain issues that arise.

Third-wave feminism provides a more micro-approach to analyze everyday conversations. This can be problematic because the specificity of these conversations becomes hard to apply to societal issues. In Rita Alfonso’s dialogue to Jo Trigilio, Rita acknowledges that a “political generation can account for subject positions across historical waves of feminism, as well as for the existence of two relatively distinct waves of feminism (9-10).

However, Trigilio stresses that the use of “political generation” needs to accompanied with concerns about which groups are empowered to give them a voice (10). Trigilio also fears that there is becoming less class-consciousness in third wave feminism and highlights the increasing problems of academic discourses (written in a form that is only accessible to a few and again oppresses).

All perspectives have their own unique qualities that provide insight into the deeper issues that underlie our social and political structures in society. Each stance is beneficial to our understanding even though they are limited due to their specific nature. The combination of liberal, Marxist, radical, postcolonial, lesbian, and third wave feminism will allow us to recognize the historical shifts of these perspectives - all these perspectives have risen at certain points in time due to societal issues concerning gender and sexuality.

Society is a gradual process that slowly finds acceptance in issues (especially in sexuality) that surface as a result of progressive movements that fight for change. The problematic issues surrounding gender, sex, and sexuality have always brought a lot of distress to women in society. On a larger scale, these problems exist in the economical, political, and patriarchal aspects of society. From a micro viewpoint, domestic oppression and heterosexual gender ideologies are also the concerns of the female gender.

Sexuality is a major concern because not only is it seen to be deviant but talk of having sex is seen to be sacred. Instead of finding pleasure in explore ones sexuality, traditional ideology has oppressed the talk and the act of engaging in this private and personal sphere of the individual. Historically, many issues were shunned because of dominant discourses but over time, it has been a gradual movement to give rise to these issues that were always present. By incorporating the multiple perspectives discussed, society can continue to evolve and move towards better social structures and norms that will help improve the living standard of the female gender.

Works Cited

Alfonso, Rita and Jo Trigilio (1997). “Surfing the Thrid Wave: A Dialogue Between Two Third Wave Feminists.” Hypatia 12, 3: 7-16.

Bannerji, Himani (1999). “Inroducing Racism: Notes Towards an Anti-Racist Feminism” in Thinking Through: Essays on Feminism, Marxism, and Anti-Racism (41-53). Toronto: Women’s Press.

Gandhi, Leela (1998). “Postcolonialism and Feminism” in Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (81-101). New York: Columbia University Press.

Hartmann, Heidi (1981). “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union.” In Lydia Sargeant (Ed.) Women and Revolution (1-41). Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Rich, Adrienne (1980). “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs 5, 4: 631-660.

MacKinnon, Catherine (1985). “Pornography, Civil Rights, and Free Speech.” In Rosemary Tong (Ed.) (1999) Feminist Philosophies. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Whelehan, Imelda (1995). “Liberal Feminism: The Origins of the Second Wave” in Modern Feminist Thought (25-43). New York: New York University Press.