Varieties Of Feminsm

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Varietites Of Feminsm

Please note: that this document was originally written about 5 years ago. I hope that students will still find it useful as an introduction to some of the main elements of Feminism but it is now in need of some considerable revision to include more information on intersectionality, Conservative Feminism, the further development and analysis of Third Wave Feminism, the possible development of a Fourth Wave of Feminism  and consideration of transgender and transsexual issues.

I have been hoping to update this document for some time but have come to the conclusion that I am unqualified to discuss recent developments in the Feminist Movement and hope instead that students will be able to make use of the following links to update their knowledge and then discuss recent developments with their teachers


Additions January 2012 I have not included any discussion of Conservative Feminism in this document.

However here are two useful links to Guardian and Observer articles which may help to get you started and you can then pursue the study of Conservative Feminism with your teachers. For a conservative critique of feminism – Click Here.

For Waves of Feminism explained – Click Here

For Guardian article on The Age of Patriarchy- Click Here

For National Geographic Film on Gender Identity – Click Here

For Gender Revolution from National Geographic – Click Here

For documentaries on Feminism and the Suffragettes –

Click Here    Click Here    Click Here    Click Here    Click Here

For 2017: The Year of Transgender Moral Panic: A Trans Review of 2017 [From The Conversation] – Click Here

For BBC coverage of transgender issues – Click Here

For Observer article on Gender Identity – Click Here

Tutor2u summaries on Simone de BeauvoirKate MillettSheila  Rowbotham  and more Click Here

For Video on Non-binary gender identities – Click Here

For the end of binary gender identities – Click Here

For angela Mcrobbie video – Click Here

For Set of YouTube videos – Click Here

For a review of Why I am not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto  {February 2017] – Click Here

For recent Guardian article on Germaine Greer – Click Here

For Guardian item – Click Here

For item on transgender issues – Click Here

For amazing US Feminist site – Click Here

For articles on the Wave analogy

Click Here

For articles on Conservative Feminism

Click Here    Click Here    Click Here    Click Here

For two part interview with Naomi Wolf

Click Here    Click Here

When you activate these links you will also find several additional items by Naomi wolf.

For on line text book ..see chapter on transgender and queer theory issues – Click Here

For academic article on Queer Theory – Click Here

For Radio 4 Analysis : Who decides if I’m a woman? – Click Here

For very important article on Third Wave Feminism

Click Here

For a dispute about Feminism Lite

Click Here

For some recent thoughts on Feminism from Natasha Walters – Click Here

For article on The Beauty Myth – Click Here

For article on Naomi Wolf – Click Here

For a Presentation On Judith Butler: A Post -Structuralist Philosopher – Click Here

For a presentation on Queer Theory – Click Here

For similar – Click Here

For a link to several Slideshare presentations on Feminism – Click Here

For Observer item on Transgender issues – Click Here

For recent article on Feminism [critical of some aspects of Third Wave Feminism] by Julie Bindel [New Statesman].10/11/2012 – Click Here

For  review of “The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change” [2009] by Angela McRobbie : reviewed by Stephanie Taylor The Open University February 2013 – Click Here

For a detailed report and video summary on Women and the Labour Market 2013 [From the UK Office of National Statistics {ONS}] September 2013 – Click Here

For very insightful Guardian article by Melissa Benn on current developments within Feminism November 2013 – Click Here

For a more recent interview with Natasha Walters Click Here

For What’s wrong with privilege theory – Click Here

Click here for Fourth Wave Feminism [from FT] – Click Here

For Kirsty Walk documentary : Blurred lines: the New Battle of the sexes – Click Here

For Germaine Greer on The New Feminism {every day sexism] – Click Here

For very important series of articles on Second Wave Feminism – Click Here

For article on White Privilege – Click Here

For Right Wing Feminism on Twitter – Click Here

For article Why I don’t like using the F word – Click Here

For good item on Intersectional third wave.linked to trans issues– Click Here

For reviews of Walters versus Greer – Click Here

For Article “How the New Feminism went Wrong – Click Here

Click below for reviews of Living Dolls

Click Here    Click Here

For video of Fox News journalist on Conservative Feminism – Click Here

For Independent article on Femen and everyday sexism – Click Here

For indefence of intersectionality – Click Here

For Is There a Fourth Wave: Does It matter? – Click Here

For Lola Okolosie  and Black femimism/Intersectionality – Click Here

For extracts from “Every day Sexism click links below

Click Here    Click Here

For Lola Okolosie on Masculinity Click Here

For Independent on Lilly, Allan Katy Perry etc – Click Here

For Third World Foundation [USA]; intersectional; not spice girl’s feminism click links below

Click Here    Click Here    Click Here

For overstatement of the second-third wave differences – Click Here

For v.useful book chapter – Click Here

For Velvet Coalmine – Click Here

For the 4th wave of feminism Click Here

For Is There a Fourth Wave: Does It matter? – Click Here

For Fourth Wave Feminism [from FT] – Click Here

For very insightful Guardian article by Melissa Benn on current developments within Feminism November 2013 – Click Here

For views on The Female Eunuch – Click Here

For Miss World protest – Click Here

For disputes within feminism – Click Here

Click here and here for articles by Nina Power click links below

Click Here    Click Here

For article by Lucy Mangan – Click Here

For Beyonce and Feminism - Click Here  

For Mylie Cyrus and Feminism

Click Here    Click Here

For Counterfire.Org Women’s Manifesto 2010 – Click Here

For the 4th wave of feminism – Click Here

For useful discussion from The Conversation – Click Here 

For Nerdy Feminist on Intersectionality

Click Here    Click Here    Click Here

For Check Your Privilege Whatever that means – Click Here

For Corporate Feminism– Click Here

For feminism as capitalism’s hand maiden– Click Here

For does the lack of women in the cabinet matter – Click Here

For useful Introduction to Feminism [Steve Bassett Podcast for You Tube]– Click Here

For all the articles [currently 1500+] from the Guardian’s section on Feminism – Click Here

Varieties of Feminism

For some quotes from Mary Wollstonecraft – Click Here

For “It’s all over for sex and shopping feminism [Recent article by Laurie Penny in The New Statesman] – Click Here

For a BBC video discussion of Feminism in the 1970s outlining the differences between Liberal, Radical and Marxist-Socialist Feminism. There are also links to several other related video clips on Feminist issues. A very useful resource – Click Here

Introduction : Some Feminist Concerns

The Three Waves of Feminism…although it is now widely argued that we are witnessing a Fourth Wave of Feminism. I have not covered this yet. For a very useful article by Kira Cochrane from the Guardian [New Link Added December 2014] – Click Here

First Wave Feminism

Second Wave Feminism

  1. Patriarchy
  2. The Public and the Private: The Personal is Political
  3. Sex and Gender
  4. Egalitarian Feminism and Difference Feminism
  5. Main Elements of Liberal Feminism
  6. Main Elements of Marxist and Socialist Feminism
  7. Main Elements of Radical Feminism
  8. Black Feminism

Third Wave Feminism

IntroductionSome Feminist Concerns

  • Gender differences in socialisation within the family [and elsewhere] traditionally operated to the disadvantage of female who were dissuaded from opting for meaningful careers
  • The traditional allocation of roles within the family whereby females take disproportionate responsibility for housework and childcare is determined not by biology but by limited female employment opportunities outside the family and by the  existence of patriarchal power within the family.
  • Many household tasks provide few opportunities for individual creativity.
  • Even well qualified professional women will find their career prospects more limited once they take time out from work to care for young children.
  • Even  when women are employed full-time outside the home this may mean also that they are obliged to undertake the so-called “triple shift” of employment, housework/childcare and emotion work.
  • Patriarchal power ensures that major family decisions are taken by males rather than females.
  • The existence of “empty shell marriages”, high rates of divorce and considerable levels of domestic violence show that family relationships are often far from harmonious.
  • Limited educational\opportunities and gender discrimination at work mean women’s employment opportunities are worse than men’s. Women tend to be horizontally segregated in  a range of poorly paid occupation such as secretarial work, shop work, cleaning and hairdressing and caring professions such as teaching, nursing and social work which are not especially well paid. When they are employed in potentially well paid professions such as Law or Medicine they will tend to be vertically segregated at the lower levels of these professions. They are also unlikely to be employed in skilled manual occupations such as plumbing or engineering.
  • They may also be victims of routine sexism in their daily lives and feel obliged to concern themselves excessively with their appearance.

However there are also arguments that family life is becoming more harmonious , that men are increasingly prepared to share housework and child care responsibilities ,that many women enjoy their roles as housewives and mothers , that in many cases gender differences in socialisation no longer operate to the disadvantage of girls, that females now out-perform males at all levels of the education system and that female employment opportunities are improving considerably .

We might conclude that there is much truth in this but that gender inequalities are still substantial.

Feminism may be described as a body of thought which suggests that women have been and are disadvantaged in both past and contemporary societies. Feminists emphasise the extent to which societies are in several respects patriarchal: that is, societies are dominated by men who oppress and exploit women. There are several varieties of Feminism  but all stress the exploitation of women. They argue that it is vital to clarify the meanings of the concepts of sex and gender respectively; that powerful processes of gender socialisation operate to the disadvantage of women;  that female students have been disadvantaged in education (and to some extent still are, despite their recent relative improvement); and that women are exploited at work, in the family and in society generally where they may often face sexual harassment and/or male violence.

In order to analyse the ideology and practice of feminism in more detail it is necessary to distinguish historically between First , Second and Third Wave Feminism and theoretically between the varieties of feminism such as liberal, radical and Marxist/socialist feminism associated mainly with Second Wave Feminism and other types of feminism subsequently associated with Third Wave feminism. However in adopting this strategy we should not lose sight of the importance of feminists continuing to work  between the three historical highpoints or “waves” of feminist activity and we must recognise continuities as well as differences between these three waves.

The Three Waves of Feminism

First Wave Feminism

This term refers to the first concerted movement working for the reform of women’s social and legal inequalities operating from the mid C19th to the achievement of universal female suffrage which occurred in 1928 in the UK. Although individual feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft had already argued against the injustices suffered by women in the 1790s , it was not until the 1850’s that something like an organised feminist movement evolved in Britain. Its headquarters was at Langham Place in London, where a group of middle-class women, led by Barbara Bodichon (1827-91) and Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925), met to discuss topical issues and publish the English Woman’s Journal (1858-64).

The leaders of first wave feminism in the UK were mainly middle class women who did focus mainly although certainly not entirely on the concerns of middle class women. They noted that educational opportunities available even for middle class girls were generally limited so that single women and those widowed in later life would lack the relevant skills to secure the employment to support themselves financially and that even for well educated women suitable employment opportunities were not available and so they campaigned for better secondary education and access to higher education and to the professions for women. They noted also that once they married, women’s liberties were severely curtailed in that their wealth and income became the property of their husbands; they could not divorce their husbands unless their husbands agreed and, once divorced, women were forced to relinquish any contact with their children.

Partly as a result of the campaigns of first wave feminists several laws were passed which resulted in the gradual the opening of higher education for women; reform of the girls’ secondary-school system, including participation in formal national examinations: the widening of access to the professions, especially medicine; married women’s property rights, recognised in the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870; and some improvement in divorced and separated women’s child custody rights

For Wikipedia on Women’s Suffrage in the UK – Click Here

For the National Archive which provides detailed information and a range of teaching and learning activities on Women’s Suffrage in the UK – Click Here

For a recent BBC item on the British Suffragettes – Click Here


First Wave feminists campaigned also for the extension of the franchise to women but it was very clear that even after UK women were finally granted  the vote in 1928 very significant gender inequalities were still endemic in UK society. The hopes that the extension of the franchise to women would significantly improve women’s opportunities were dashed in the first half of the C20th for several reasons: for example women were still socialised to believe that their futures would be as housewives and mothers rather than as paid employees; female educational opportunities continued to lag behind male educational opportunities; the UK was still primarily based upon industry and agriculture rather than the service industries which reduced the supply of skilled jobs seen as at least potentially suitable for women; and there can be no doubt that employers discriminated against women when jobs were available.

Second Wave Feminism 

The Second Wave of feminism emerged in the USA, W. Europe , Australasia and Japan in the 1960s and 1970s. In the case of the UK second wave feminism began in small local all-female discussion groups aimed as raising women’s consciousness of the facts that they were all experiencing similar individual private problems which nevertheless were caused by the patriarchal social structures which oppressed and exploited women in society generally.

The first annual conference of many such groups took place at Oxford in 1970 when the first four demands of the UK women’s movement were established: equal pay for equal work; equal opportunities and education; free contraception and abortion on demand and 24 hour childcare meaning that childcare should be available at any time for women who worked unsociable hours. The first demonstration in support of these aims was held in London in 1971 and in the early 1970s an increasing number of local women’s groups and centres were formed and further demonstrations were organised to try to ensure that the provisions of the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act were implemented.

By 1978 additional demands had been added to the 1970 list: legal and financial independence for all women; an end to discrimination   against lesbians; freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; and an end to all laws, assumptions and institutions that perpetuate male  dominance and men’s aggression toward women.

These demands suggested that fundamental and far reaching social changes would be necessary if all of the objectives were to be achieved and it is important to note that there were important divisions within second wave feminism as to the  causes of female disadvantage, the relative importance of the different objectives and the means by which feminist objectives were to be achieved. As we shall see the divisions within second wave feminism may be analysed by consideration of the three variants of feminist theory which contributed to the growth of second wave feminism: liberal feminism, radical feminism and Marxist-socialist feminism.


The Term “Patriarchy” means literally “rule by the father” but in feminist theory has come to mean the male dominance over women which feminists believe exists in society as a whole. The term is especially likely to be used by radical feminists who see male dominance or patriarchy as the fundamental source of female disadvantage and argue that it is entrenched in male-female relationships in general and in the family in particular but also in all of the institutions of the public sphere.

Liberal feminists may also use the term but they tend to believe that it rather less prevalent and entrenched than is suggested by liberal feminists: liberal feminists deny that all relationships between men and women are patriarchal and argue that although many institutions are to some extent patriarchal they are not necessarily thoroughly patriarchal and can be reformed via effective legislation.

Marxist feminists argue that the main source of gender inequality lies in the organisation of the capitalist system and although they make some use of the term they do not agree with radical feminists that patriarchy is the most important source of gender inequality. Socialist feminists have developed so-called dual systems theories according to which women are exploited both by patriarchy in the family and in their personal relationships with men and by capitalism in their working environment.

In Theorising Patriarchy[1990] Sylvia Walby has provided a detailed analysis of the concept of patriarchy. She first criticises alternative approaches to the explanation of gender inequalities : thus according to Walby , radical feminists have assumed Patriarchy to be universal and unchanging and have not analysed the impact of class and “race” on gender; Marxist feminists have concentrated too much on capitalism and have failed to explain women’s exploitation in non-capitalist societies; liberal feminism is seen as providing a very limited analysis of gender inequalities failing to relate them to structural aspects of societies and finally dual systems theory is criticised for its under-estimation of the extent to which patriarchy is based on violence and for its insufficient analysis of the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy.

According to Walby, Patriarchy is indispensable for an understanding of gender inequality and there are 6 “key patriarchal structures which restrict women and help to maintain male domination.” Thus Patriarchy operates via paid work where females face horizontal and vertical segregation leading to lower rates of pay than for men; via the gender division of labour in the household which forces women to take primary responsibility for housework and childcare even if they are also in full-time employment. Women may be trapped in unsatisfactory marriages because they are unable to find well paid jobs to support themselves and their children.
Women are also at a cultural disadvantage because modern western culture especially emphasises the importance of feminine attractiveness which degrades and sometimes threatens women.

Heterosexual relationships are seen by Walby as essentially patriarchal although Sylvia Walby argues that women have made some gains in this respect, for example as a result of modern contraception and liberalisation of abortion and divorce law. Patriarchy is often sustained by male violence against women and by the activities of the State which is “still patriarchal as well as capitalist and racist” although there may have been some limited reforms such as more equal educational opportunities and easier divorce laws which have protected women against patriarchy to some extent.

Walby also makes the significant point that the nature of patriarchy has changed from Private patriarchy in the C19th to Public patriarchy in the C20th. Essentially Walby argues that in the late C19th most married women were excluded from employment such that patriarchal domination occurred mainly privately within the family where it was “the man in his position as husband or father who is the direct oppressor and beneficiary, individually and directly, of the subordination of women.”
Gradually, however, women did gain greater access to the public sphere; most notably their opportunities for employment increased although they were still disadvantaged in the labour market relative to men. Thus “women were no longer exploited so much by individual patriarchs (i.e. fathers/husbands) but instead are exploited by men collectively through their subordination in public areas (mainly but certainly not entirely in employment.)

Walby also points out that in contemporary societies different groups of women may be exploited by different combinations of public and private patriarchy. For example British Afro-Caribbean origin women are more likely to experience public patriarchy and British Muslim women are more likely to experience private patriarchy.

In her more recent study Gender Transformations (1997) Walby argues that although patriarchy still exists in Britain it has altered in several respects. Especially she argues that young women have made important gains relative to older women. Older women may still be subject to private patriarchy whereas younger women on average have better educational qualifications are less likely to accept gender discrimination at work; have greater sexual freedom; and are more likely to be involved in environmental social movements. However some young women are still poorly qualified; they may be heavily dependent upon a husband; or they may be poor single parents; and even very well qualified women still find it difficult/impossible to reach the highest positions in the occupational structure. There is still very considerable vertical segregation in the labour market.

Thus according to Sylvia Walby, despite the progress that young well educated women have made they are still restricted by the existence of patriarchy in several respects and for poorly qualified young and older women the restrictions of patriarchy are even greater.

The Public and Private  Spheres: The Personal is Political

Liberals have always distinguished between the public and private spheres of social life. They argue that public political institutions are necessary for the construction of laws which regulate behaviour in other parts of the public sphere  such as in relation to employment, education, housing, welfare provision, transport etc. However they argue also that in the private sphere relating to personal and family relationships and religious beliefs individuals should be allowed the freedom to make their own decisions and that government intervention in this private sphere is incompatible with individual liberty.

However feminists raised the important general criticism that women had consistently been denied the opportunities to participate on terms of equality with men in the public sphere: in the UK all women were not allowed to vote until 1928 and even once women gained the vote few women were themselves elected to parliament and even fewer achieved ministerial office. Furthermore limited educational opportunities and discrimination meant that women have been heavily under-represented in well paid prestigious occupations and over-represented in low skill, low pad, low status jobs. They have also often been confined primarily to the private sphere in their roles as daughters, wives and mothers

Early feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and supporters of female suffrage such as J.S. Mill supported improved educational opportunities for women as well as their right to vote but at the same time Mary Wollstonecraft believed also that better educated w omen would be able  to contribute most to society operating in the private sphere of the family as enlightened mothers of the new generation  while J. S.. Mill also tended to support the traditional gender division of labour.

However 2nd Wave feminists focused very heavily on the necessity for improved educational and employment opportunities for women so that they would be able to participate in the public sphere of life on terms of equality with men and they also argued  for a redefinition of the nature of politics to include the personal issues which affected women in their private lives. Using their memorable phrase that “The personal is political”  they argued that just as political conflicts arise in the public sphere over issues such as taxation or foreign policy so also the personal conflicts that arose in the private sphere over sexual matters, or the distribution of responsibilities for housework and child care or the general distribution of decision-making power within households were also essentially political conflicts which needed to be resolved.

Liberal feminists certainly agree that governments should legislate to enable women to participate in the public sphere on terms of equality with men. However the liberal principle that individuals should have the freedom to organise their lives in the private sphere as they see fit has clearly influenced liberal feminist attitudes to the private sphere. For example Betty Friedan noted that many women felt unfulfilled in the private sphere of the family  but she argued that the answer was better educational and employment opportunities combined with respect for the freedom of women to who chose to combine employment with marriage and motherhood if they so wished. Several reforms of the public sphere supported by liberal feminists should in principle improve women’s lives in the private sphere but it is up individual women to decide how to live their lives.

Contrastingly radical feminists have argued that women must be encouraged to realise that relationships with men are inevitably based on exploitation, oppression and possibly violence so that women should distance themselves from men although possibly not from motherhood which is still seen as a rewarding experience. It has subsequently come to be argued that many women have been alienated from feminism as a whole by the radical feminists’ attempts to influence women’s behaviour in the private sphere. Most women are heterosexual and aspire to become partners/wives and mothers and have therefore rejected radical feminists’ perspectives on the private sphere   although it is likely that some radical feminist ideas relating to the private sphere must still be taken seriously.

Marxist-socialist feminists tend not to use the distinction between the public and the private sphere preferring instead to concentrate on the distinction between the economic base and the superstructure which includes the family , the education system, the mass media and the political system. They argue of course that women’s exploitation derives mainly form the capitalist system and that women’s public and private lives will improve only when capitalism is abolished.

Sex and Gender

Feminists from Mary Wollstonecraft onwards emphasised the significance of the distinction between sex and gender but second wave feminists have investigated this distinction in much more detail.. Sexual differences refer to biological differences between males and females such that there are variations between males and females in their chromosomes, their reproductive organs and their relative production of different hormones. Males are on average hairier, have deeper voices and are more prone to baldness in later life. They are also on average heavier , taller and physically stronger than females and they also have larger brains although female brains are relatively larger than male brains when measured in proportion to body weight.

Gender differences refer to differences between males and females in their social  attitudes, behaviour and roles between males and females within a given society so that, for example, in the UK men may typically be more aggressive, more competitive and more likely to be in paid employment and females may typically be more emotional, sensitive and more likely to take disproportionate responsibility for childcare and housework. It has been argued that these differences in masculine and feminine  characteristics and roles can be explained mainly by the biological and psychological sexual differences between males and females. Thus it is claimed that gender differences in temperament derive from sexual differences in hormonal balance ; that males are more likely to be employed outside the home because their biology causes them to be physically stronger and/or more competitive; and that women take greater responsibility for childcare because their biology automatically provides them with a powerful maternal instinct. It has even been argued in the past that because males have larger brains they are on average more intelligent than females and that differing aptitudes and skills between males and females can be explained partly by differences in brain shape.

These biologically based arguments have traditionally been used to show that traditional gender differences in attitudes, behaviour and social roles cannot and should not be modified because they reflect the natural order of things so that change would be for the worse rather than for the better. However  many feminists have rejected these ideas as invalid seeking to show  that their effect was to protect male privilege and to entrench female disadvantage whereas in reality feminists believe that gender differences in attitudes, behaviour and roles  are mainly socially constructed through gender differences in the socialisation process [the process by which individuals come to learn the norms and values of their society.

[This means that these feminists may be described as anti-essentialists in the sense that although men and women have  important biological differences in relation to the reproductive process  they are otherwise very similar in all other respects.]

To support their arguments that gender differences are primarily socially constructed second wave feminists have referred to cross-cultural studies indicating that women’s attitudes and roles vary considerably in different societies and to the changes in male and female behaviour that have occurred over time in given societies. For example it may be widely assumed in contemporary Western societies that it is natural and instinctive for young men and women to “fall in love”, settle down and raise a family in which women will play the major role in child rearing and other domestic work. while men are naturally more likely to be in paid employment

However it may  be pointed out also that in some other societies, the character traits of men and women are apparently reversed, romantic love is unheard of and women play a lesser role in the rearing of children. Furthermore patterns of employment vary considerably as between different societies: for example there are many female miners in Latin America and many female builders’ labourers in India while women’s employment patterns in the West have also changed quite considerably in the last 50 years or so and many men are now playing a more significant role in housework and childcare all of which suggests that gender differences in behaviour are primarily socially determined.

The work of Margaret Mead [1935]on  the cross cultural variations of gender roles which she observed in her studies of various Pacific Island tribes has been used to illustrate the extent to which gender roles depend upon cultural influences rather than on natural inborn differences between males and females. Thus she claimed that among the Arapesh Tribe gentleness and passivity were highly valued qualities for both men and women ; that both men and women were equally likely to initiate sexual relationships; and that both parents were likely to care for children.  Margaret Mead further claimed that among the Mundugumor Tribe males and females  were both likely to be relatively assertive; that considerable mutual hostility existed between the sexes and that women detested the  pregnancy and childcare. Finally in the Tchambuli Tribe men were apparently especially interested in art and drama , keen to gossip, very interested in their own physical appearance and often jealous of one another while , according to Margaret Mead women  were likely to be practical and self-assertive. In each case these gender differences in behaviour were significantly different from those which would have been expected in industrial capitalist countries in the 1930s when Margaret Mead conducted here research.

It should be noted that some of Margaret Mead’s earlier work on adolescence in Western Samoa  did attract considerable criticism but  her work on the three tribes  mentioned above is still well regarded and certainly points to the cultural influences on behaviour which otherwise might have been regarded as primarily instinctive. Nevertheless we should perhaps not overstate the differences: both men and women must always be practical in many aspects of their lives and many men in all types of societies have always taken interest in their own physical appearance and been jealous of other men for any number of reasons. Furthermore what is nowadays described as “gossip” among women is likely to be described as “man’s talk” among men although there might be some significant gender differences in the topics of conversation pursued.

The major agencies of socialisation are   families, education systems, peer groups, work places, the mass media, religious institutions and  political systems and many feminists have argued that these institutions socialise females to believe that gender inequality is natural, inevitable and indeed desirable.. It is argued that the primary socialisation which occurs  within families is especially important because young infants are obviously impressionable and may develop attitudes and values in early life which remain with them permanently. However socialisation is a life long process and the secondary socialisation which occurs in all of the other agencies of socialisation is also likely to have a major influence on individuals’ behaviour.

In their description of the socialisation process as it operated at least up to the 1970s many feminists argued that parents may socialise their daughters to show dependence, obedience, conformity and domesticity whereas boys are encouraged to be dominant, competitive and self -reliant and also that when young children see their parents acting out traditional gender roles they come to perceive these roles as natural and inevitable. In schools teachers may praise girls for “feminine qualities” and boys for ” masculine qualities”; boys and girls may be encouraged to opt for traditional male and female subjects and then for traditional male and female careers. Furthermore in the mass media girls were encouraged to recognise the all importance of finding “Mr Right” and settling down to a life of blissful domesticity.

According to many but not all feminists it was therefore the power of the socialisation process rather than the influence of biology which encouraged females to accept traditional gender roles and their consequent gender disadvantages.

It seems very likely that gender differences in socialisation do result in gender differences in behaviour but even in the 1960s it was noted for example by the sociologist Dennis Wrong that the power of the socialisation process should not be overstated because individuals do have the capacity and the freedom to reject conventional roles at least to some extent. Thus some individuals chose simply to reject conventional behaviour , including conventional gender roles, and  even when females did adopt traditional gender roles they might do so not because they had been socialised to accept them but because they had no alternative because of their limited education and/or the limited availability of good employment opportunities for women.

Furthermore in the last twenty years or so the situation facing many women has improved significantly. Within families increasing numbers of girls are being encouraged by their parents to gain high educational qualifications and to think in terms of a well paid career. Feminist attitudes , especially liberal feminist attitudes have become much more influential within the education system and have helped to promote educational reforms which have improved female educational prospects  such that females are now out-performing males at all levels of the education system and securing employment in well paid professions such as law and medicine in professions which were once dominated much more by men. Gender differences in socialisation may well be much smaller nowadays than they were, say in the 1950s and  this is one factor which has contributed to the reduction of gender inequality. We must not, however, overestimate the progress which women have made and for mainly working class girls leaving school with few qualifications gender disadvantages are still substantial as is illustrated for example in recent feminist studies by Natasha Walter and Germaine Greer.

Egalitarian and Difference Feminism

In order to investigate further the relative importance of cultural and biological factors as influences on masculine and feminine behaviour we may distinguish between egalitarian and difference feminism.

Egalitarian feminism is associated with liberal feminism, Marxist-socialist feminism and radical libertarian feminism. Difference feminism is associated with radical cultural feminism and radical separatist feminism. Egalitarian feminists  believe that, apart from reproductive differences, biological and psychological differences between males and females are relatively limited and that gender differences in their roles and behaviour can be explained mainly by gender differences in socialisation. Males and females should aim to incorporate the best characteristics of each sex resulting in attitudes and behaviour which are increasingly androgynous. Males are redeemable and relationships between men and women can be personally fulfilling and faced with initial gender disadvantages  women can nevertheless achieve gender equality either through gradual reform as suggested by liberal feminists or through radical change as suggested in different ways by radical and Marxist/socialist feminists.

Difference feminism is associated mainly with radical cultural feminism. These feminists argue that there are significant biological and/or psychological differences between males and females [= the doctrine of essentialism] such that men are naturally more aggressive, competitive and potentially violent and females more sensitive and co-operative. Women should therefore celebrate their differences from men and aim for women’s liberation rather than gender equality so as to retain their superior characteristics and liberate themselves from unsatisfactory relationships with men. Nonetheless many difference feminists see motherhood as a rewarding female experience which implies that women may seek to become pregnant via new reproductive technologies rather than through direct relationships with men.

We should note also that many feminists might classify their theoretical beliefs as intermediate between the extremes of complete egalitarian feminism and complete difference feminism. We now turn  to the distinctions between liberal,  Marxist/socialist and radical feminism.

The Main Elements of Liberal Feminism.

Liberal Feminism is influenced heavily by the values and beliefs of liberalism. Liberals believe that because individuals are rational they should also have the liberty to determine their own behaviour although states are also necessary to guarantee the social order which is necessary for liberty to flourish. Classical liberals were concerned initially with the need to protect individuals’ negative freedom from excessive state intervention but social liberals subsequently supported greater state intervention to provide for the positive freedom for individuals to develop their talents to the full. All liberals believe also that social justice demands that societies should be meritocratic sot hat all have an equal chance to develop their capabilities to the full although socialists criticise the liberal view on the grounds that meritocracy is impossible in an unequal society and that liberals have not done enough to promote the economic equality on which meritocracy depends.

Liberal feminists have argued that women are as rational as men and that they too should have the same freedoms and opportunities as men to develop their talents to the full. To enable women to exercise their liberty to the full first wave feminists influenced mainly by liberal feminism argued that all women should have the vote and that good educational opportunities should be made available to women although both Mary Wollstonecraft and J. S. Mill still argued that women’s’ main role should be in the domestic sphere. Modern liberal feminists argue instead that what is most important is that all women should have the freedom to decide whether to opt for employment careers or roles as housewives and mother and that what they choose to do is a matter for them to decide.

Liberal feminists argue that nobody benefits from gender inequalities; they inhibit meritocracy and therefore inhibit economic efficiency; they prevent many women from pursuing the careers of their choice and they also prevent many men from enjoying their children because they are so heavily focussed on employment. However liberal feminists do believe that women are disadvantaged more than men by gender inequalities.

Gender inequalities arise mainly from the attitudes of individuals which have been learned via a socialisation process which has traditionally disadvantaged women. Therefore such gender inequalities can be reduced via education which avoids gender stereotyping and provides female students with wide-ranging careers advice. Gender stereotyping in the mass media should also be discontinued.

Liberal feminists do not have a deeply negative attitude to men. They recognise that some men are ill-informed but that others are sympathetic to women’s concerns and are keen to help women to achieve greater equality. They argue also that although some relationships between males and females may be unsatisfactory in several respects and possibly violent others can be very fulfilling. They differ clearly in this respect from liberal feminists.

Liberal feminists do not believe that the capitalist system is an inevitable cause of gender inequality. They believe that it is possible to operate within existing political institutions to bring about reforms helpful to women and point to the Equal Pay Act [1970] and the Sex Discrimination Act [1975] were early successful examples of this reformist strategy. Subsequent UK governments have introduced   a wide range of reforms improving maternity leave and childcare provisions and tightening up the law in relation to domestic violence while firms have been encouraged to introduce flexible work times to enable women to take up employment more easily. In recent days the UK parliament has voted not to reduce the time limit after which women will not be eligible for an abortion. However it is widely agreed that despite these reforms gender inequalities are still very considerable in the UK.

Betty Friedan and Liberal Feminism in the USAIn the USA the beginnings of second wave feminism are associated with the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique “in 1963 and she was also one of the founding leaders of the National Organisation for Women in 1966. which remains the most significant national feminist association in the USA.    In her study Betty Friedan argued that many college and/or university educated middle class American wives found that despite their affluence they felt empty, hollow and unfulfilled by their domestic lives. This was what Betty Friedan called “the problem with no name” and furthermore their lack of fulfilment helped to create tensions within the family with adverse consequences for both husbands and children. She believed that the solution  was reform of the female education system and improved female career opportunities although it was assumed that most women would wish to follow careers as well as to become housewives and mothers.

The study clearly placed Betty Friedan within the liberal feminist camp and her study was criticised predictably by Marxist and radical feminists for its failure to recognise the adverse consequences of capitalism and patriarchy and also because it focussed excessively on white middle class housewives rather than employed white working class women and women of colour.

In 1981 Betty Friedan published a further study entitled “The Second Stage” in which she argued that parts of the radical feminist agenda  which denied the importance to many women of marriage, home , children and family had in fact alienated many women from the feminist causes. In her view the liberal feminist agenda was still most appropriate : educational reform, greater equality within the family and better employment opportunities would promote gender equality more effectively than the proposals of radical and Marxist-socialist. Once again she attracted criticism form radical and Marxist-socialist feminists but we can see links between her study and some aspects of the “New Feminism” of the 1990s and later….which helps to explain why radical and Marxist feminists detested it.


Criticisms of Liberal Feminism

It is important to note that each  type of feminism may be criticised from a non -feminist perspective and from the perspectives of other types of feminism.

Radical feminists have argued that liberal feminists have under-estimated the extent and levels of tension and conflict which exist in male-female relationships. Whereas liberal feminists see such relationships as actually or potentially harmonious radical feminists argue that men regularly use their power to oppress women in the home, the work place and in society generally and that in many cases such power is based upon male aggression and sexual violence toward women.

Radical feminists believe that there is no prospect that women’s liberation can be achieved without  thorough transformation of the patriarchal institutions which exist in all societies throughout the world. the reforms supported by liberal feminists may have improved women’s situation to some extent but male-female relationships are exploitative and the liberal emphasis on the reform of the public sphere [politics, education and employment] fails to address significantly the problem that women’s difficulties also occur in the private sphere which is an area of life containing issues which according to liberals, individuals should have the freedom to resolve for themselves.

Marxist and socialist feminists argue that liberal feminists have neglected the extent to which gender inequality does derive from the operation of the capitalist system. They note that liberal feminists underplay the particular disadvantages suffered by working class women as a result of their roles within the capitalist system as particularly low paid workers and that liberal feminists have neglected the extent to which the domestic labour of women helps to stabilise the capitalist system as a whole. Marxist-socialist feminists agree that liberal feminist reforms within a capitalist system may alleviate some of women’s problems  but they will fail to alleviate relative female economic inequality and poverty because these derive ultimately form the capitalist system. Significant gender inequalities in employment opportunities and incomes remain despite the kinds of legislation supported by liberal feminists.

Marxist and Socialist Feminism

In order to discover the fundamental  source of female oppression it is necessary to analyses their various roles within the capitalist system. It is the nature of the capitalist system and the roles of women within that system which is the main source of female oppression. Marxist and socialist feminists argue that capitalism rather than patriarchy is in several respects the main source of female oppression.

Firstly, men do benefit from women’s unpaid labour as housewives and mothers but it is the capitalist class which benefits most because women subsidise the capitalist system indirectly via the reproduction of labour power for the capitalist system. Thus women may bear and rear children because they wish to do so but at the same time they are in effect bearing and rearing the next generation of workers at zero cost to the capitalist class and this new generation will subsequently  then produce profits for the capitalist system.

Women also provide many services at relatively low cost for their male partners which means that male workers will accept lower wages partly because they know that their female partners will cook and keep house for them for limited payment. Furthermore it is argued that females will sensitively soften the tensions arising from male employment and thereby ensure that their male partners are prepared to accept continuous employment under capitalism without rebelling against it.

Women are more likely than men to be employed in low paid jobs within the capitalist system and men are more likely than women to own private property within the capitalist system..

Marxist and socialist feminists agree with other feminists that women are exploited as a group but argue that this applies especially to working class women sand that working class women may well have economic circumstances more similar to working class men than to upper and middle class women. Therefore  in order to analyse gender inequality in full it should be related to class inequality. For example private property is far more likely to be owned by men than by women.

Another key Marxist concept used in relation to female employment is the “Reserve Army of labour”.. Capitalist economies fluctuate causing increased demands for labour during economic booms and reduced demands for labour during economic slumps. It is beneficial to the capitalist class to be easily able to vary employment levels in accordance with these economic fluctuations and at any particular time the existence of a reserve army of labour increases competition for jobs and helps to depress average wage levels. According to Veronica Beechey (1986) women are more suited than men to form part of the reserve army of labour and this helps to explain the disadvantaged employment situation of some women.

It may be easier to dismiss women or ask them to work part-time during a recession and then to re-employ them during a boom because: they may accept this because they are prepared to return to their traditional housewife-mother role; they can still rely on the husband’s wage as the main source of income for the family because in any case men are better paid; women’s part-time jobs are less likely to be covered fully by redundancy legislation.

The exploitation of working class women and men can be ended only by the abolition of the capitalist system and Marxist feminists believe that there is scope for collaboration between working class men and women to organise the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism which alone can end female and male exploitation.

Marxist feminists reject the liberal feminist notion that gender inequalities can be reduced significantly via parliamentary reforms   because only the abolition of capitalism can end gender inequality.

They also reject the version of radical feminism which suggests that gender inequalities derive from biological differences [as in Shulamith Firestone’s theory] and other variants of radical feminism which suggest that patriarchy rather than capitalism is the main cause of female oppression. Furthermore since Marxists believe that class solidarity is necessary to abolish capitalism they also reject the female separatism recommended by some radical feminists.

Socialist feminists agree that capitalism is the main source of female oppression and that males and females must unite to end capitalist oppression but that this can be achieved by gradual parliamentary means rather than by revolution.

They are also more likely to argue that patriarchy is a more significant cause of gender inequality than is suggested in orthodox Marxist accounts . According to some socialist feminists women are subject to Dual systems of oppression whereby they are exploited mainly by the capitalist system in their work environment but also exploited by men at home and in the ir personal relationships with men. To repeat they are subject to dual systems of oppression: the oppression associated with capitalism and the oppression associated with patriarchy.

Criticisms of Marxist-Socialist Feminism.

According to liberal feminists   Marxist-socialist feminists have overstated the importance of capitalism as the ultimate cause of gender inequality and they support their argument by  noting that gender inequality exists in pre-capitalist societies and so-called state socialist societies such as the former USSR. Furthermore liberal feminists argue that the experience of  a range of advanced industrial capitalist societies shows that gender inequalities can be reduced gradually via the introduction of relevant reforms such as the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act without the need for revolution demanded by Marxist-socialist feminists. Revolution is unnecessary, unlikely and undesirable.

Radical feminists are critical of Marxist-socialist arguments claiming that Marxist-socialists give too much attention to capitalism as a source of gender inequality and give insufficient attention to patriarchy which exists in pre-capitalist, capitalist and so-called state socialist societies. Some radical feminists [such as Shulamith Firestone] argue also that Marxist-socialists give insufficient attention to female biology as a source of female disadvantage  while all radical feminists would argue that Marxist-socialists give far too little attention to the difficulties for women in their relationships with men. Although Marxist-socialist feminists have attempted to link capitalism and patriarchy as dual sources of female oppression radical feminism argue that even in this case they give too little attention to patriarchy.

The Main Elements of Radical Feminism  

Germaine Greer is a far from typical feminist of any category but she is closer to radical feminism than to any other category. Here is a brief extract from Wikipedia about her.

Germaine Greer and The Female Eunuch [From Wikipedia]The title is an indication of the problem,” Greer told the New York Times in 1971, “Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives — to be fattened or made docile — women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It’s a process that sacrifices vigour for delicacy and succulence, and one that’s got to be changed.”[23]

Two of the book’s themes already pointed the way to Sex and Destiny 14 years later, namely that the nuclear family is a bad environment for women and for the raising of children; and that the manufacture of women’s sexuality by Western society was demeaning and confining. Girls are feminised from childhood by being taught rules that subjugate them, she argued. Later, when women embrace the stereotypical version of adult femininity, they develop a sense of shame about their own bodies, and lose their natural and political autonomy. The result is powerlessness, isolation, a diminished sexuality, and a lack of joy:

The ignorance and isolation of most women mean that they are incapable of making conversation: most of their communication with their spouses is a continuation of the power struggle. The result is that when wives come along to dinner parties they pervert civilised conversation about real issues into personal quarrels. The number of hostesses who wish they did not have to invite wives is legion.


Since women have been and are exploited in pre-capitalist, capitalist and “state socialist” societies, the existence of capitalism cannot explain women’s’ exploitation.

The key concept of the Radical Feminists is Patriarchy  and Sylvia Walby’s work [see above ] provides very useful information on the concept of patriarchy. All  societies are seen as in various respects patriarchal: that is, operating against the interests of women in favour of the interests of men and patriarchy is seen as a more important source of women’s exploitation than capitalism.

The limited importance of capitalism as a source of female exploitation is shown by the facts that women have been and are exploited in pre-capitalist, capitalist and “state socialist” societies, thereby indicating that the existence of capitalism cannot explain women’s’ exploitation.

Greater attention is given to the exploitation of women within the family than is the case in orthodox Marxist accounts. Radical feminists tend to emphasise sexual slavery, forced motherhood and male violence within the family.

There are disputes within radical feminism as to the origins of women’s’ oppression and the solutions to it. Female oppression according to radical feminists may derive from biological factors (e.g. dependence on males during pregnancy as in the theory of Shulamith Firestone), cultural factors  and /or male power and violence [as in the theory of Kate Millet].

Some radical feminists may be described as female separatists supporting  female separation from men and sometimes also preferring lesbian relationships .They may claim that women involved in heterosexual relationships are accepting male power by “sleeping with the enemy” and accepting “compulsory heterosexuality” which is seen as another process by which men dominate women.

Other Radical Feminists may be “female supremacists” who believe that females are the superior sex and that patriarchy should be replaced by matriarchy.. They argue that men have been responsible for war and environmental damage and that the survival of the human race would be more likely if political and social decision-making was dominated by women.

Another important distinction is between  radical libertarian feminists and radical cultural feminists. Radical libertarian feminists argue that both women and men have some positive characteristics and that the aim should be for both women and men to take on the best characteristics of each gender  so that gender differences would be eradicated or at least greatly reduced. They therefore aim for a state of androgyny in which masculine and feminine characteristics are not significantly different. This view assumes that gender differences in character are mainly socially rather than biologically determined and women are women are actually the superior sex. In a simplified example women might take on the self-confidence but not the aggressive qualities of men and men might take on the emotional intelligence but not the passivity of women.

Radical cultural feminists argue that women’s characteristics are superior to men’s so that women should make no attempt to take on the characteristics of men. Instead they should celebrate female characteristics such as emotional sensitivity, peacefulness, opposition to hierarchical relationships and cooperativeness and avoid male characteristics such as aggression, competitiveness and support for hierarchical relationships.  They should also celebrate their biological difference and see motherhood as a very rewarding experience. [See also the earlier section of these notes on egalitarian and difference feminism]

General Criticisms Of Radical Feminism.

Radical feminists have a very negative view of men and a very positive view of women. They argue that relationships between men and women are likely to be based upon various types of domination and oppression possibly involving violence. Critics of radical feminism argue that these opinions about females and males and about relationships between them  cannot be proved. Liberal  feminists argue that male- female relationships can be fulfilling for all concerned and that even bad relationships can be improved via education and counselling while Marxist-socialist feminists argue that co-operation between working class males and females is essential if the capitalist system is to be overthrown via revolution.

It is also argued that radical feminists overstate the similarities between women and understate their differences. Thus for example Marxist-socialists emphasise the importance of social differences between working class and upper and middle class women  while black feminists emphasise the importance of differences in ethnicity. Differences in age, sexuality, disability and geography are also important: in particular the experiences of many third world women are vastly different from those of women in advanced industrial countries.

Marxist-socialist feminists argue that radical feminists have failed to recognise the extent to which female oppression derives from the capitalist system. Women under capitalism are especially likely to be poorly paid; they are poorly represented by Trade Unions and they are trapped in nuclear families which also benefit the capitalist system .Also although radical feminists do focus considerable attention on the family , Marxist-socialist  feminists argue that radical feminists have failed to recognise the extent to which family life under capitalism is influenced by the nature of capitalism as a whole.

Therefore according to Marxist-socialist feminists fundamental improvement in women’s situation can come only from the ending of capitalism, a point underestimated by radical feminists.

Conversely liberal feminists argue that radical feminists have underestimated the extent to which gender equality has been furthered via gradual processes of reform and the potential for similar progress in the future. They argue further that the radical feminist emphasis on the conflict between men and women has alienated many women who are heterosexual and committed to motherhood and the family.

  • Radical Feminism : An Appendix on Shulamith Firestone : The Dialectics of Sex 1970

This was one of the first studies to outline  a radical feminist explanation of female inequality. She argues in the study that sexual oppression is the first most fundamental form of oppression and that social class inequality is actually a historical consequence of gender inequality. Whilst acknowledging the importance of the work of Marx and Engels [see Marxist feminism] she argues that Marxists have emphasised too much the role of economic factors as contributing to gender inequality.

Instead according to Shulamith Firestone it is the system of reproduction within the biological family which is the fundamental cause of gender inequality: he theory is therefore mainly a biologically based theory. She believes that the first form of social stratification [check hat you know the meaning of this term] was a sex class system and that it arose as a result of the different roles of males and females in the reproduction system. Thus whereas according to Marxists the most significant form of social stratification is based on social class and the bourgeoisie are seen to exploit the proletariat in Shulamith Firestone’s system the most significant form of social stratification is based on gender and males are seen to exploit females.

Women are dominated by men primarily because of female biology: menstruation, childbirth and the menopause all create physical difficulties   but women are particularly dependent upon men when they are pregnant or are breast feeding and the long period of human infant dependency creates further dependency for women since they are obliged to care for these infants. Hence women become dependent for their physical survival upon men not because of their social conditioning but because of their biology.

This also helps to create a power psychology whereby as a result of their dependence upon men women become more passive in relation to men and increasingly prepared to accept male dominance. Shulamith Firestone then argues that because men find enjoyment in dominating women they are then encouraged to try to dominate and exploit other men and it is this which leads to the development of the economic class system. remember that in Shulamith Firestone’s theory the sex class system leads to the economic class system.

However according to Shulamith Firestone patriarchal dominance is not inevitable but if women are to achieve gender equality they must first achieve biological equality  via the elimination of their biological disadvantages. This they can do to some extent via contraception  but Shulamith Firestone argues that full female emancipation will be aided in the future via the development of babies outside the womb…which is difficult to imagine at present.

Social changes will also be necessary if patriarchy is to be ended. It will also be necessary to destroy the economic class system and the cultural superstructures [via educational change and creation of a more enlightened mass media] which at present contribute to the power psychology which persuades women to accept male domination.

Evaluation of Shulamith Firestone’s Study.

The study helpfully shows how biological factors can contribute to female oppression  but it may also underestimate the importance of social explanations of female oppression. remember the following points.

  • In some societies females do not take on the major responsibility for childcare.
  • In modern industrial societies mothers may return to paid employment when their children are still very young perhaps because as rich parents they can easily afford childcare or because as poor parents they cannot afford not to return to work relatively quickly.
  • Men are themselves increasingly prepared to help with childcare…perhaps the more enjoyable tasks.
  • Bearing and caring for children may be seen by many women as  a very rewarding experience rather than as a source of female oppression.

Black Feminism

For a recent article on Black Feminism by Lola Okolosie {Guardian December 2013]  – Click Here

Black feminism emerged in the 1980s as black women increasingly argued that their concerns were given insufficient attention in both first-wave and second-wave feminism which in their view tended to focus especially on the aims of white and mainly middle class women living in advanced industrial countries .Black feminists increasingly pointed out that “the experiences of successful white Western professional women would be utterly alien to a black, working class woman battling against racism and poverty as well as sexism” and this would apply especially to black women living in “Third World” countries.

They pointed out for example that whereas according to many white feminists the family could be a site of oppression it could also for black women be a haven from the racism of white society; they stressed that they faced racial as well as gender discrimination in the labour market emphasising also that they experienced the racist behaviour of white women as well as of white men and that they were often forced to accept jobs that white women would not accept ; they argued that black girls[ and boys ] faced specific problems in the education system not experienced by white girls [and boys] raised important points relating to their own experience.

They noted also that whereas white feminists focused on issues such as the gender division of labour in the household and the facts that although Western women might have reasonable living standards they were nevertheless paid less than men, life for many women [and men] in the Third World involves  a day to day struggle for survival in which , however, women are at  much greater disadvantage than they are in the industrial \countries of the world.

Black Feminists played a significant role in unsettling the second wave feminist movement and continue to make very important contributions to the development of feminism but the issues which they raised were to some extent overshadowed by other developments within Third Wave Feminism …as we were told that the arrival of the Spice Girls had changed….everything.! [or not]   You should note that the Black feminist movement is now often described as the feminism of women of colour to take account of the contributions of Asian and Middle Eastern as well as black feminists. What concerns might be raised by Middle Eastern feminists?

Feminism from the 1980s onwards

In order to outline some of the main developments in feminist theory from the 1980s onwards we may note the following main themes.

  • The Development of Post-Feminism
  • The Development of Third Wave Feminism
  • The recent publication of books on Feminism in which authors recognise the development of Third Wave Feminism but do not necessarily associate themselves with some of its concerns and may be critical of some aspects of Third Wave Feminism.
  • The possible emergence of a Fourth Wave Feminism

The Development of Post-Feminism

The Zenith of Second Wave Feminism occurred in the 1970s after which it came to be argued that the apparent triumph of neo-liberalism in western capitalist societies and the collapse of the Soviet bloc helped to explain the demise of Second Wave Feminism  and the rise of Post-Feminism which, according to its supporters was itself a response to the demise of Patriarchy and the arrival of the Post-Patriarchal Society.

Post-Feminists argued  that for a variety of reasons the claims of Second Wave Feminists had by the 1980s increasingly been invalidated. Thus it was claimed :

  • that even if some desirable reforms inspired by Liberal Feminism had been introduced in the 1960s and 1970s it was clear that the era of gender equality had arrived and that further feminist campaigns were now unnecessary;
  • that in Western capitalist societies female educational and employment opportunities had expanded enormously and that gender inequalities in education and employment had been reduced significantly;
  • that Second Wave Feminists had done a great disservice to women by presenting them as oppressed victims of patriarchy whereas in reality women, especially well educated young women, were perfectly capable of carving out successful careers in now expanding neo-liberal capitalist economies;
  • that the programmes of both Radical and Marxist Feminists were especially unattractive to the vast majority of women. Thus according to Post-Feminists most women rejected the claims of Radical Feminists that heterosexual relationships resulted inevitably in male oppression and often in male violence and that separation from men and possibly lesbianism represented potentially much more fulfilling options for women. Also whereas Radical Feminists were critical of notions of conventional Western femininity Post-Feminists claimed that women enjoyed fashion and displaying their own sexuality and were increasingly self confident in their sexual relationships with men which were a source of great joy rather than female exploitation and oppression. Furthermore while Radical Feminists supported censorship rules  to control pornography  such rules were seen by Post Feminists as infringing freedom of expression  while they believed that young women were often comfortable with pornography and that they might well enjoy the “free and easy” atmosphere of lap dancing and pole dancing clubs and that women who did not were often prudish and /or lesbian;
  • furthermore  as neo-liberal governments were elected in Western capitalist societies and the Soviet bloc disintegrated the attractiveness of the overall socialist ideology declined with obviously adverse consequences for Marxist and Socialist feminism;
  • in another strand of Post- Feminism in the 1980s women who were drawn to Feminism were told that “they should be careful what they wished for”. in her 1992 study of the USA  “Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women” Susan Faludi argued that women in the USA were consistently being told by politicians, business leaders and advertisers that they now enjoyed equality with men but that their victories had come at a significant cost to themselves in that career women in their 30s were allegedly prone to infertility and unmarried and/or childless women were prone to depression and hysteria and that feminism was the ultimate cause of these difficulties. Faludi disputed these conclusions arguing instead that it was married housewives who were more likely to be unhealthy and that male-female employment opportunities and earnings differences were still considerable by the 1990s.
  • THIS PARAGRAPH NEEDS ImprovementXXXIn the case of the UK there is good evidence that although gender differences in employment and pay are declining they are still considerable as a result of a combination of vertical and horizontal gender segregation in the labour market. However also in the UK arguments were increasingly heard that the pendulum had swung to far to the advantage of women so that it was now increasingly boys who were failing educationally and unskilled men who were especially likely to suffer unemployment while in the neo-conservative strand of New Right thinking it was argued that the increased employment of married women was one factor leading to family breakdown with  the resultant threat of social disorder. However neo-liberal supporters of New Right ideology welcomed the increased employment of women insofar as this was likely to increase economic efficiency.
  • Popular culture reflected this Post Feminist mood as pop groups such as the Spice Girls championed a form of “girl power” which was individualistic, hedonistic and sexy. When interviewed at least one member of of the Spice Girls rejected the concerns of Feminism out of hand but whereas the Spice Girls  could perhaps be regarded as “Poster Girls for Post Feminism” many feminists considered Post-Feminism  sense to be simply anti-feminist  and used the phrase “I’ll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy ” to show their rejection of this usage of the term “Post-Feminism”. Section on critique of Post-Feminism could come here..may have to rewrite and base mainly around Angela McRobbie

The Development of Third Wave Feminism

It is difficult to delineate the scope of Third Wave Feminism  and indeed some Third Wave Feminists have argued that attempts at definition are counterproductive because they may well serve to limit the potential scope of Third Wave theorising. It is important to note that Third Wave ideas are discussed in differing formats in highly technical academic journals and in magazines and fanzines geared to wider audiences and that the relative emphases given to the various elements of Third Wave Feminism vary as among these differing formats . Also the actual boundaries between Third Wave Feminism and Post-Feminism and between Third Wave Feminism and Second Wave Feminism are in some cases rather blurred.

Third Wave Feminism, Post-Feminism and Second Wave Feminism

  • Third Wave Feminism is often associated with the younger generation of feminists who reached adulthood in the late 1980s and early 1990s and whose key spokespersons  in some but certainly not all cases were the daughters of key second wave feminists. [There is more to say about this.
  • In some cases Third Wave Feminists sought to distance themselves very explicitly from Post-Feminism as exemplified by the quotation from XX  …not Post feminist …I am the Third Wave. Need to get the exact quote and write a bit more about it
  • These Third Wave Feminists certainly did not believe that the oppressions of patriarchy had been overcome  but they did believe that to some extent it was necessary to question the analysis of women’s exploitation and oppression which had been advanced by Second Wave Feminists. In particular Third Wave Feminists have challenged the essentialism which they associated with Second Wave Feminism. For  Third Wave Feminists Second Wave Feminism was  essentialist in that its theorists tended to focus upon the ways in all women were oppressed irrespective of their age, class, disability , ethnicity or sexuality. Furthermore Third Wave Feminists claimed that this led to a highly undesirable overemphasis on the interests  of white, middle class, heterosexual women at the expense of the concerns of other women.
  • It might be suggested that this is to some extent an unfair assessment of Second Wave Feminism in that it was originally Black and Anti-Colonialist Feminists of the Second Wave as well as Radical Feminists who first raised these concerns  but insofar as Second Wave Feminism was actually dominated by Liberal Feminists the Third Wavers certainly do have a valid argument. Consequently they came to focus on the concept of intersectionality as one of the main drivers of their theoretical approach. The prominence of the concept of intersectionality increased as a result of its use in 1968  in important cases by the legal theorist Kimberle Crenshaw who nevertheless pointed out that in effect Black Feminists had actually been using the concept of intersectionality since the C19.

Third Wave Feminism and Intersectionality

  • Intersectionality refers to the idea that that  the specific types of exploitation and oppression experienced by different categories of women varies according to their age, class, disability, ethnicity and sexuality. Thus , for example using the concept of intersectionality It can be noted that white middle class professional women may themselves sometimes act as the oppressors of lower level female employees; that Black working class women may experience greater levels of exploitation than white women; that lesbian and transsexual women may experience greater levels of deprivation than heterosexual CIS-gendered women; that whereas 2nd Wave Feminists regularly characterised the family  as a site of female oppressions it was for many black women  a source of support against the racial discrimination which they experienced in the wider society; and that whereas white women might see the state as providing some albeit inadequate protection against domestic violence some immigrant women might be unwilling to have recourse to state protection because they fear deportation.
  • It seems clear that the Feminist Movement must take account of intersectional issues if it is to speak for all women but this concept has also provoked some dissension within the Feminist Movement. Thus while some Feminists have participated primarily in campaigns to increase female representation in corporate board rooms and political institutions  or campaigns against pornography  or to ensure that the design of banknotes should incorporate more eminent females  others have argued that these are far less important issues than , say, the alleviation of female of poverty and problems associated with female [and male] disability  and that  such issues have been prioritised due to the relative power of middle class feminists to shape the  political agenda to reflect their interests rather than the interests of other less advantaged women. Consequently it has been argued that white middle class heterosexual women should “check their privilege” and not allow their relative power to privilege their own interests. Against this middle class Feminists argue that although they are supporting particular campaigns this is not at the expense of other Feminist campaigns and that using the term “Check your Privilege  ” itself will provoke disunity and weaken the overall Feminist movement.
  • Another claim which is sometimes made is that intersectionality is itself an overly theoretical concept  which is accessible to only a limited number of Feminist theorists and of limited interest to many women who might well sympathise with Feminist ideals. My personal view is that anyone who wishes to learn about Feminist issues can grasp the concept of intersectionality quite easily and that the concept is absolutely central  to the development of a  comprehensive, inclusive feminist movement.

Third Wave Feminism and Post-Modernism

  • Feminist sociologists within the Second Wave have developed their theories within an overall Modernist approach to social inquiry. Thus although they have often claimed that social scientific investigation has not always avoided patriarchal biases they have nevertheless accepted that in principle social researchers could use the full panoply of research methods  with a fairly high level of objectivity so that their findings would provide a fairly valid representation of social reality
  • It is also the case that some Third Wave Feminists shared these Modernist assumptions but that many were strongly influenced by the counter-assumptions of  Post-Modernism. The key assumptions of Post-Modernism include the following.
  1. Individuals’ identities are seen as far more fragmentary and fluid than is the case in Modernist theories. Thus whereas according to Modernist theorists the behaviour of working class individuals  or women or members of ethnic minority groups might often be predicted fairly accurately from their class background , gender or ethnicity Postmodernists argued that these variables were having a declining influences on individual behaviour as individuals “picked and mixed” aspects of their behaviour from a wider range of possibilities so that individual behaviour would become far less predictable. Note that in this respect a key Postmodern phrase is “the decentring of the subject” which you can discuss with your teachers.
  2. Postmodernists argue that whether particular theories produced via Modernist approaches to social science are granted the status of objectively determined “truth” depends not upon their real validity but upon the power of those promoting particular theories to establish their particular version of reality as true. Thus the bodies of information  incorporated in large scale Modernist sociological perspectives such as Functionalism, Marxism, Interactionism and Feminism  should be seen not as objectively valid knowledge but as subjective metanarratives reflecting the interests of those disseminating them.. Consequently these core perspectives of Modernist Sociology must be discarded and we must instead recognise how little we really know and must seek knowledge not via the construction of grand metanarratives but via small scale research into social relations in particular local contexts.
  3.  We have already seen that Third Wave Feminists emphasise that the concept of Intersectionality points to the dangers of generalising about the universality of women’s experiences and this view is emphasised even further by Postmodernists who claim [see Point 1] that even the identities of individual women are fragmentary and fluid.
  4. Postmodernists themselves argue that the recognition of the fluidity of the individual self and of the limitations of Modernist Social Science will liberate us from Modernist misconceptions  but Modernist Feminists argue that the Postmodern emphasis on individual identity, difference and the limitations of Modernist Feminism result in a neglect of the structural factors generating female oppression and the weakening of the Feminist unity necessary to effect gender equality/ women’s liberation and that it thereby plays into the hands of patriarchy and neo-liberalism.

Third Wave Feminism, Femininity, Sexuality and Pornography

  • It has been argued that the boundaries between Third Wave Feminism and Post-Feminism have been blurred in relation to the analysis of femininity, sexuality and pornography. Whereas discussions around intersectionality and postmodernism have taken place primarily within academic circles Third wave discussions around femininity, sexuality and pornography have occurred primarily in relation to articles published in magazines such as Busted and the work of pop musicians  In relation to popular culture Third Wave Feminists  might well dismiss the manufactured outpourings on “girl power” by entertainers such as the Spice Girls while nevertheless arguing that entertainers such as Courtney Love and the Riot Grrls  and magazines such as Busted reflect  a new form of Third Wave Feminist consciousness in which , if women choose to wear make up and high heels this in no way signifies that they are the dupes of patriarchal popular culture but that they no have more confidence  to express their femininity and sexuality in a way which gives them greater power within their personal relationships. Of course I have absolutely no personal knowledge of these entertainers and magazines but they have been analysed in some detail  in Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration; Stacy Gillis, Gillian Howie and Rebecca Munford [eds.] Second Edition 2007. Thus the Flavour of Busted is encapsulated in the following quotation “In Busted we’ve captured the voice  of a brave new girl: one that is raw and real, straightforward and sarcastic, smart and sassy…So wake up and smell the lip gloss ladies: The New Girl Order has arrived.” Furthermore some Third Wavers adopt positive attitudes toward pornography and prostitution claiming that females as well as males can enjoy pornography and also that the voices of prostitutes and female participants in pornographic activities must be taken seriously when they say that they enjoy it rather than written off as indications of patriarchal false consciousness. Once again such attitudes have provoked conflict with those feminists who reject this Third Wave line on femininity, sexuality and pornography.  .Need to write about the crits of Post-Feminist and Third Wave views of femininity, sexuality pornography..may use Natasha Walter’s book living dolls for this 


  • 3rd Wave Feminism and Queer Theory.
  • 3rd Wave Feminism and Transgender , Transsexual issues
  • Overall conclusion on Third Wave Feminism

This is a paragraph from the original… I think it may still be usable in the section on post-feminism but haven’t fitted it into the “new version” yet. Thus Camille Paglia writing in the early 1990s suggested that although women in general support gender equality, young women especially often reject feminism because its portrayal of women as essentially “victims” is at odds with the freedom and self -confidence increasingly felt by modern women. Similarly in 1995 Rene Densfield argued that young women are not attracted to feminism because they have less experience of gender inequality and because the radical feminist emphasis on inevitable male oppression and its opposition to heterosexuality, motherhood and family cannot possibly appeal to the vast majority of women who are heterosexual, pro-motherhood and pro-family. Similarly again Naomi Wolfe argued in the 1990s that victim feminism disempowers women but that women have actually become more affluent and self-confident not least because of the reforms achieved in the era of second wave feminism.

The New Feminism: A Fourth Wave of Feminism? [Just the first stab at an introduction..nowhere near finished]

In the UK the years since 1979 have seen the political dominance of New Right Conservative governments followed by the Labour Governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown which also generated policies much influenced by New Right ideology albeit combined with some moderate social democratic initiatives  influenced by the Third Way ideology associated primarily with Anthony Giddens. Although it has been argued that the degree of positive support for both Conservative and Labourite versions of New Right ideology was actually rather limited political developments in the years between 1979 and the early 21st century nevertheless seemed to offer little encouragement to those hoping for radical transformation of capitalist and patriarchal societies.

The Feminist movement was pushed onto the defensive by a powerfully articulated POSt-Feminist backlash which to a considerable extent marginalised important and still relevant arguments of Second Wave Feminists against capitalist patriarchy and it could also be argued that although Third Wave Feminists did in some ways very usefully extend the arguments of Second Wave Feminists especially via the greater emphasis on the importance of intersectionality for the analysis of different kinds of women’s oppression the overall popularity of Feminism did not increase as much as might have been hoped largely because of the ongoing power of Post Feminist arguments.

However it has been argued that  th eearly 21st Century is now witnessing the development  a a “New” Feminism  which is often being described as a “Fourth Wave” of Feminism. We may outline the key components of this “New”/ “Fourth Wave ” Feminism using the campaign literature of particular new women’s campaigns , important new studies such as Natasha Walter’s “Living Dolls [2010]and Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune [2010] and several newspaper articles. So what are the key components of this “New” Feminism and does it amount to a “Fourth Wave”?

  1. It  is argued that the  New Feminism has been heavily influenced by the activities of younger, often well educated women using their internet skills  to involve larger numbers of women in their campaigns. A prime example is Kat Banyard  who is one of the founders of UK Feminista , a new Feminist activists organisation whose website states that they wish toxxx
  2. There is considerable emphasis by new feminists on the explicitly sexual aspects of women’s oppression. Thus Laura Bates has set up the Everyday Sexism website  which focuses upon the egregious everyday varieties of sexual harassment faced by females in their  own personal relationships with males   ansd in their everyday interactions  with males in schools , colleges, workplaces, pubs and clubs and in the wider society. Laura Bates describes here Feminism asXXXX and in this respect she is aiming to engage many women who might otherwise not have chosen to identify strongly with the feminist movement.
  3. Other contemporary feminists have emphasised the adverse consequences for women of the increased sexual objectification of women as evidenced in the continued existence of the Sun’s page 3, the growth of pornographic magazines, films and music videos , the expansion of lap dancing, pole dancing and strip clubs  and the continued existence of prostitution. It is argued that the prospects of meaningful, self-fulfilling female-male relationships are seriously undermined by these developments which in some cases have encouraged males to believe that the sexual exploitation of females is  a normal aspect of personal life and to pressurise women and especially young girls  into acceptances of  sexual advances which they ideally would wish to reject. New Feminists have campaigned against these developments which result in various was in the sexual objectification of women.
  4. New Feminists have also criticised the fashion industry  for its promotion of a particular version of physical attractiveness  at the expense of more valuable personal characteristics  and the roles of the cosmetics and cosmetic surgery industries which are seen as profiting financially from the manufacture of health damaging female insecurities. Essentially women are being told on a daily basis that they should aspire to look like the latest Hollywood actress or pop star  and that the purchase of the latest cosmetics  or, in some cases, the latest cosmetic procedure, will help them to do so.
  5. It should be noted, however, that although New Feminists have focussed with great energy on all of the above concerns  with the aim of attracting the support of larger numbers of women sand although  they desrve great credit for so doing these concerns , far from being new were also emphasised by Second and Third Wave Feminists.

Bibliography [Several More to be added…Angela Mac, Judith Butler, Naomi Wolf , Germaine Greer etc

  1. Gender: Harriet Bradley Second Edition 2013
  2. Feminist Theory : The Intellectual Traditions Josephine Donovan Fourth Edition 2012
  3. Feminism: Jane Freedman 2001
  4. Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration; Stacy Gillis, Gillian Howie and Rebecca Munford [eds.] Second Edition 2007
  5. Theory and Methods in Sociology John A Hughes and W. W. Sharrock 2007
  6. Introducing Social Theory Pip Jones, Liz Bradbury and Shaun Le Boutillier Second Edition 2011
  7. Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune 2010
  8. Gender and Women’s Studies Diane Richardson and Victoria Robinson [Eds.] Third Edition 2008
  9. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction Rosemarie Tong Fourth Edition 2014
  10. Theorising Patriarchy Sylvia Walby
  11. The Future of Feminism Sylvia Walby 2011
  12. The New Feminism Natasha Walter
  13. Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism Natasha Walter 2010

Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whehelan [50 Key Concepts in Gender Studies 2004] have helpfully explained that “Third Wave Feminism may be generally described as the feminism of a younger generation of women who acknowledge   the legacy of Second Wave Feminism but also identify what they see as its limitations.” However just as second wave feminism contained the often conflicting liberal, radical and Marxist-socialist variants there are also subtle variations within third wave feminism which themselves are subject to competing interpretations.

In order to investigate some of these difficulties it is useful to begin with a consideration of the concept of post-feminism which itself is subject to different interpretations. Firstly the term “post feminism” may used to apply to a set of ideas suggesting that the main objectives of second wave feminism have now been achieved in that gender inequalities have now been eradicated such that women now enjoy equal rights and equal opportunities with men but that the achievement of these second wave feminist objectives has actually imposed several undesirable costs on women.

These claims have been investigated critically in the USA by Susan Faludi  in her 1992 study “Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women.” Thus she argues that women in the USA were consistently being told by politicians, business leaders and advertisers that they now enjoyed equality with men but that their victories had come at a significant cost to themselves in that career women in their 30s were allegedly prone to infertility and unmarried and/or childless women were prone to depression and hysteria and that feminism was the ultimate cause of these difficulties. Faludi disputed these conclusions arguing instead that it was married housewives who were more likely to be unhealthy and that male-female employment opportunities and earnings differences were still considerable by the 1990s.

In the case of the UK there is good evidence that although gender differences in employment and pay are declining they are still considerable as a result of a combination of vertical and horizontal gender segregation in the labour market. However also in the UK arguments were increasingly heard that the pendulum had swung to far to the advantage of women so that it was now increasingly boys who were failing educationally and unskilled men who were especially likely to suffer unemployment while in the neo-conservative strand of New Right thinking it was argued that the increased employment of married women was one factor leading to family breakdown with  the resultant threat of social disorder. However neo-liberal supporters of New Right ideology welcomed the increased employment of women insofar as this was likely to increase economic efficiency.

Many feminists considered post-feminism in the above sense to be simply anti-feminist  and used the phrase “I’ll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy ” to show their rejection of this usage of the term “post-feminism”.

However the term post-feminism may also be used to suggest that second wave feminists focussed excessively on the possible disadvantages which they believed were suffered by the vast majority of women and in so doing had failed to emphasise the specific disadvantages experienced, for example by black women. Furthermore “post feminism” may be used also to suggest that gender inequalities have indeed been reduced [although certainly not eliminated] partly as a result of the good work done by second wave feminists . Consequently some reanalysis of women’s changing situation is necessary

We may then say that Third Wave feminists  wish to dissociate themselves from the first usage of the term “post-feminism” but not with the second although some second wave feminists, notably Germaine Greer  have in effect accused Third Wave feminists of anti- feminism.

This is all a bit tricky but we may attempt to illustrate these general points with reference to some recent feminist studies. Thus Camille Paglia writing in the early 1990s suggested that although women in general support gender equality, young women especially often reject feminism because its portrayal of women as essentially “victims” is at odds with the freedom and self -confidence increasingly felt by modern women. Similarly in 1995 Rene Densfield argued that young women are not attracted to feminism because they have less experience of gender inequality and because the radical feminist emphasis on inevitable male oppression and its opposition to heterosexuality, motherhood and family cannot possibly appeal to the vast majority of women who are heterosexual, pro-motherhood and pro-family. Similarly again Naomi Wolfe argued in the 1990s that victim feminism disempowers women but that women have actually become more affluent and self-confident not least because of the reforms achieved in the era of second wave feminism.

Natasha Walter’s study “The New Feminism” might be described as a version of Third Wave Feminism which conforms very well to the broad definition of Third Wave Feminism provided by Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan while .Germaine Greer’s recent study ” The Whole Woman” restates a range of Radical Feminist concerns. Very useful summaries of these studies can be found in Haralambos and Holborn’s Sociology: Themes and Perspectives [Seventh edition pp.132-135].

For “It’s all over for sex and shopping feminism [Recent article by Laurie Penny in The New Statesman] – Click Here