Feminism And Social Theory: Can Women Theorise?

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Feminism and Social Theory: Can Women Theorise?

Feminism and Social Theory: Can Women Theorise?

The Historical Roots of Feminist Theory

Historically, feminist activity has paralleled liberation events, including the American and French Revolutions, the abolitionist movement in the 1830s, the mobilization for suffrage in the early 1900s, and the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. These historical movements of feminism are referred to as waves (Ritzer, 1992, 13-15). First-wave feminism-including the first women's rights convention, which was held in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848, and the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920-is characterized by women's struggle for political rights. Second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s and the third-wave feminism of today emphasize a variety of issues, including the growth of feminist organizations and publications and the increasing numbers of feminists in government, the educational system, and other professions (Bryson, 1992, 102-113).

Varieties of Contemporary Feminist Theory

Four varieties of feminist theory attempt to answer the question "What about the women?" The gender difference perspective tries to answer this question by examining how women's location in, and experience of, social situations differ from men's. Cultural feminists look to the different values associated with womanhood and femininity (e.g., caring, cooperation, and pacifism) as a reason why men and women experience the social world differently. Other feminist theorists believe that the different roles assigned to women and men within institutions better explain gender difference, including the sexual division of labor in the household. Existential and phenomenological feminists focus on how women have been marginalized and defined as the Other in patriarchal societies. Women are thus seen as objects and are denied the opportunity for self-realization (Bryson, 1992, 102-113). Gender-inequality theories look to answer the question "What about the women?" by recognizing that women's location in, and experience of, social situations are not only different but also unequal to men's. Liberal feminists argue that women have the same capacity as men for moral reasoning and agency, but that patriarchy, particularly the sexist patterning of the division of labor, has historically denied women the opportunity to express and practice this reasoning. Women have been isolated to the private sphere of the household and, thus, left without a voice in the public sphere. Even after women enter the public sphere, they are still expected to manage the private sphere and take care of household duties and child rearing. Liberal feminists point out that marriage is a site of gender inequality and that women do not benefit from being married as men do. Indeed, married women have higher levels of stress than unmarried women and married men. According to liberal feminists, the sexual division of labor in both the public and private spheres needs to be altered in order for women to achieve equality (Bryson, 1992, 102-113).

Theories of gender oppression go further than theories of gender difference and gender inequality by arguing that not only are women different from or unequal to men, but that they are actively oppressed, subordinated, and even ...
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