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Feminist Theory Explained

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Feminist theory is broad. There is no one feminist theory per se. Rather, there have been evolutions of the different frameworks under the broad heading of "feminist theory" since the late 1700s.

Feminism is the doctrine advocating social, political, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.

It is an alternative theory, which attempts to look at women's oppressed positions in today's society.

There were two waves of feminism. The first wave came about regarding the issue of suffrage, or the campaign for women’s right to vote.The second wave of feminism occurred during the Civil Rights Movement, which focused on women’s liberation.

The concepts of feminism include:

  • Gender: culturally determined cognitions, attitudes, and belief systems about females and males
  • Sex: the descriptive, biologically-based variable that is used to distinguish females and males
  • Sex Roles:patterns of culturally approved behaviors that are regarded as more desirable for either females or males

Many social workers are dissatisfied with the traditional treatment of women. Various reasons for their concern include the facts that:

  • Male type traits are depicted as norms
  • Female type traits are depicted as deficient in comparison
  • Women tend to be omitted in psychology knowledge base
  • There's sex stereotyping & sex bias in diagnosis (e.g., psychopathology)
  • There's disregard of social work relating to validity of women's self-reported experiences
  • Blame is attributed to women for sexual/physical violence
  • Mother/women blaming theories (Freud) are still used as foundations
  • There's increasing medicalization of women's psychological problems
  • Pathology reflects inequalities of social status & interpersonal power between men and women

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Types of Feminism

There are several major schools of thought on feminist theory.

Liberal Feminism

This type of feminism points to the disparity in social conditions as the basis for women’s oppression.

It argues that men and women are essentially the same because they both possess the capacity to reason, and therefore equal opportunities and treatment should be the norm.

Political action, changing social conventions, and the ways in which children are socialized are key to achieving this equality.

  • Critiques of liberal feminism are that it downplays gender differences, equal opportunities do not mean equal outcomes, and it is too heavily focused on the public sphere in equality.
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Liberal feminism advocates for equality between the sexes through social and political reforms, and legal means. Liberal feminists stress on the importance of an individual, and believe that every woman can assert her place in society & gain rights.

Liberal feminism advocates for equality between the sexes through social and political reforms, and legal means. Liberal feminists stress on the importance of an individual, and believe that every woman can assert her place in society & gain rights.

Radical Feminism

Male supremacy is the oldest form of oppression and therefore, male dominance is the primary focus of this theory.

Another tenant of this theory is that women’s personal problems are grounded in sexist power imbalances and their consciousness of this needs to be raised for their psyches to be healed.

The theory advocates that only revolutionary change, such as socialized child and family care and the end of marriage, not legal reform of the existing social system, needs to occur.

Also, radical feminism explains how women’s differences are emphasized and separate women-centered services are promoted, as male-dominated service systems perpetuate sexist attitudes that oppress women.

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by Hanna Naima McCloskey | Founder & CEO, Fearless Futures. Educator and feminist

Cultural Feminism

Gilligan argued that women are profoundly different from men, and these differences should be recognized and celebrated.

Cultural feminism is concerned with relationships and the nurturing and empathetic traits of women.

The relational theory of the psychosocial and moral development of women is emphasized by cultural feminism.

It is distinct from identity development and based on separation, individuation, and logical, legalistic moral reasoning, according to Erikson, Mahler, and Kohlberg.

Cultural feminism argues that the cultural embeddedness of sexist thinking needs to be changed through the ways we support, socialize, and erect children and a distinct female culture should be fostered.

  • Critiques of cultural feminism include that its focus on male domination can lead to the downplaying of other forms of oppression and that it is difficult to gain political support for such a separatist agenda.

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What Feminism's All About

"Feminism isn't about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It's about changing the way the world perceives that strength."

— G.D. Anderson

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Socialist Feminism

Social feminism views women’s oppression as part of structured, class-based inequality.

It recognizes different forms of economic oppression and it's activities center on childcare, in addition to the home.

The focus of social feminism is on the social and economic aspects of patriarchy, rather than on its psychological effects.

It advocates for social policies to ensure equal pay and strives toward public support of and responsibility for families.

  • Critiques of social feminism are that its emphasis on the economic basis of women's oppression ignores other manifestations of patriarchy.

The Promise of Socialist Feminism

Rebuilding the Left will require drawing on socialist-feminist traditions.

Rebuilding the Left will require drawing on socialist-feminist traditions.

Postmodern Feminism

This type of feminism focuses on how social discourse and language create social assumptions about who women are and how they should be treated.

It emphasizes deconstruction, a critical questioning and examination of language and meaning. It is also concerned with the relativity of social understanding.

Postmodern feminism argues that "Woman" is not a universal construct and no one can speak for all women.

  • Critiques of postmodern feminism are that it shifts feminist focus from oppressive power relations to social discourse, which may undermine the solidarity and collective social action for political change.

Postmodern Feminism

Lesbian Feminism

This type of feminism analyzes the intersection of gender and social orientation.

It opposes the imposition of any form of sexual orientation and criticizes the institutionalized heterosexism.

Lesbian feminism asserts that heterosexism and patriarchy are equally oppressive and they work together to maintain male supremacy and the oppression of women.

It argues that women should identify themselves independently of men and look to other women to understand what it means to be a woman.

Also, it is a threat to the ideological, political, personal, and economic basis of male superiority (e.g., lesbians literally do not need men).

Lesbian Feminism

Black Feminism or Womanism

This type of feminism focuses attention on the interlocking oppressions of gender and race.

It argues that there is a unique experience that mainstream feminist approaches do not adequately address. It also asserts that feminism must be culturally embedded to be effective.

Black Feminism or Womanism further points out that multiple identities comprise the total self and all of them, not just gender, should be recognized. Both social and personal change are important.

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Unifying Themes of Feminism

Another reason feminist theory is important is that most social work is practiced by women. Nevertheless, most supervisory positions are held by men.

Some unifying themes of feminism include:

  • the elimination of false dichotomies, which asserts that people should critically evaluate the way thought and behavioral expectation are structured within the culture.
  • the belief that Western culture emphasizes the separation of people into mutually exclusive categories, which emphasizes difference.
  • the want to eliminate this type of thinking, along the same lines as dialectic analysis.

Counter-Cultural Feminism

Beyoncé shouting out to counter-cultural feminism.

Beyoncé shouting out to counter-cultural feminism.

Differences in Lifespan Experiences

Feminism recognizes that there are differences between the lives and experiences of men and women.

  • Especially pertaining to how gender role socialization occurs.

End of Patriarchy

This is the doctrine that men should hold positions of power and authority.

  • Feminist theories refute the naturalness of male dominance, female submission, and gender discrimination.


This is the process of increasing personal, interpersonal, or political power so that individuals can take action to improve their life situations.

It emphasizes the need to enhance women’s potential for self-determination and to expand their opportunities.

Empowerment strategies include:

  • assertiveness training
  • enhancing self-esteem
  • improving communication
  • developing problem-solving skills
  • learning conflict resolution
  • honing negotiating skills

Valuing Process Equally with Product

This is about how not only is it important what gets done, but how it is done.

The traditional patriarchal approach emphasizes the end result and is not concerned with how things are accomplished.

  • Feminist theory asserts that decisions should be made based on quality and participation.


One’s personal experience is integrally intertwined with the social and political environment.

Sexism is the result of social and political structures, not just what is experienced by individuals.

One of the biggest implications of this principle is that the political environment can be changed and improved through personal actions.

Women can collectively campaign for a candidate and the candidate, once elected, can improve his or her supporters' personal lives.

Unity and diversity, as it relates to feminism, point to sisterhood and solidarity.

Essentially, women need to work together to achieve a better overall quality of life.


This refers to the development of critical awareness of the cultural & political factors that shape identity, personal & social realities, and relationships.

The Girl Effect

Relationship Between Feminist Identity and the Superwoman Ideal

Given that more roles have changed from mom to working woman, women have experienced more stressors (e.g., juggling provider and nurturer roles).

There are significant mental health issues for women because they are sacrificing more to balance.

The superwoman ideal is a construct born out of the 1960s women's movement. It defines women who strive to "do it all and have it all".

Three main factors that contribute to the superwoman ideal:

  1. Masculinity: society puts gender role strain on women trying to do too much
  2. Perfectionism: this is also a risk factor for #3 because achieving in all areas of life is unlikely (e.g., neurotic)
  3. Body Image: unrealistic size aspirations and anxiety about failure to achieve it drives attitudes of poor body image

Research has shown there is a relationship between the superwoman ideal and feminist identity.

Feminist identity believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. It is a multidimensional concept that encompasses feminist self identification, feminist consciousness, and gender-role attitudes.

Ultimately, these theories and concepts point out that women need social support and social immersion to protect them from the pressures of society.


Rija Awais on May 22, 2019:

well explained article, thanks a bundle.

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