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Feminist Theory

The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World

Zillah Eisenstein

Feminist Theory. 

Western feminist theory locates and names power as it defines the lives of women in the home and in the market (as mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and lovers) and the ways they bring their gender along with them from the home to the market and back again. At its best feminist theory reinvents the way we think about power itself because it directs us to the politics of sex. It requires that we reimagine the relationship between the personal and political realms of life; the public and the private; the family and the economy; the domestic and the waged spheres of work. In its more limited scope it is a corrective to a “generalized” viewing of political theory that presumes the male standard as the referent.

Feminist theory examines and critiques the relations of power that are defined in and through the sex/gender system that “unnaturally” differentiates women from men. The feminist viewing of this problematic system of power, which privileges men while denying women legal and political equality and sexual freedom, has shifted over time. Different theorists of feminism reflect the changing times, histories, and varied conceptions of women's power and oppression.

Western feminist theory first developed in eighteenth-century England both as a critique and extension of bourgeois democratic rights. Mary Wollstonecraft argued in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that women had the same capacity for rationality as men and therefore should be included in ongoing societal changes. She very specifically argued for women's right to an education. There were many variations of this liberal equal rights theme that called for women's rights to be similar to men's in terms of property, contracts, etc. The articulation of liberal feminism—which both endorsed the discourse of liberalism and indicted it for its exclusion of women—was the center of Western feminist theory through the early twentieth century.

Modern Western feminist theory emerged in 1970 via its roots in this earlier liberal feminism, its roots in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and its embrace and critique of New Left politics. Feminist theory, through the 1970s, was articulated by a series of critical dialogues between feminism, liberalism, and radically leftist and Marxist theory. As such, the naming of feminist theory is done through “other” political identities: socialist feminists define the problem for women as the system of capitalism and its intersections with patriarchy and/or male privilege; radical feminists theorize the system of patriarchy as the central problem of women's domination; radical lesbian feminists focus on the problem of heterosexuality as the pivotal core of women's oppression; anarcha-feminists highlight the problem of structure within the systems of capitalism and patriarchy. By the late 1970s black and Third World feminisms emerged as a critique of the white privilege inherent in feminist theory itself.

Contemporary Western feminist theory in the 1980s moved beyond the dialogues that sought to differentiate feminisms from each other and instead began to articulate a more pluralized notion of feminism at its core. Feminist theory emerged with an understanding of gender and its sexual class structure that cuts through the differences of race and economic class while recognizing its semiautonomous political status. There is no uncontested agreement about how the various systems of oppression intersect with the gender system. But feminist theory has mapped and charted patriarchal privilege as a key political/power relation to be threaded through these other systems of power.

Theory always develops in dialogue with other theory and with the particular historical and political contexts of the moment. Whereas feminist theory in the 1970s established its epistemological identity through multiple constructions of patriarchal privilege, the contemporary period is one of cross-dialogue and critique of the various feminisms themselves. The focus of the 1970s was on Western society and its structural barriers toward women. The focus of the 1980s for feminist theory was a critique of feminism itself and the ways it reproduces aspects of a racist and patriarchal society. In the 1990s this dialogue continues with a specific focus on the concept of difference. This is in large part due to the influence of women of color within feminist theory, in part due to a dialogue with postmodernist and French feminist theory, and in part a reaction to the neoconservative antifeminist discourse that dominates the U.S. state and policy arenas.

Feminist theory has always had to contend with the “problem” of difference, particularly women's supposed difference from men. This notion of difference focuses on women as homogeneous; as though they all are alike, and different from men in the same way. In reaction, liberal feminism takes the stance that women are not different from men, that they are the same, or more similar than different. Cultural feminism, often also termed “essentialism,” argues that women are different and the difference is positive, i.e., women are more caring, less competitive, more likely to be peaceful. Women of color take the concern with difference in other directions and demand a recognition of racial and economic class diversity as a starting point for any discussion about similarities and variations among “women” considered both as a group by itself and as distinct from men. These developments, some of which have been farther developed by postmodernism, continue to keep feminist theory open to new invention and theorization.

There is no one feminist theory, but this is different from saying that feminism has a problematic theoretical status. Rather, it means that there are a variety of ways to theorize the key institutions and relations of patriarchy. There are various interpretations of the institution of motherhood (the conflation of bearing and rearing children and domestic labor) as distinguished from biological motherhood; the dichotomization of public and private life and the personal from the political; and the intersections of patriarchy, economic class, racism, and heterosexism. As a result feminist theory theorizes women's lives in the ways they interact with the relations of power. Because systems of power are always shifting and being reconstituted, feminist theory must continually redefine itself from the multiple sites of women's oppression. Hopefully this creates the possibility of using feminist theory to change and reconstruct systems of power.

(See also Anarchism; Class and Class Politics; Gay and Lesbian Politics; Gender and Politics; Marxism; Race and Racism; Reproductive Politics; Women and Development.)


Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York, 1970).Find this resource:

    Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (Garden City, N.Y., 1970).Find this resource:

      Juliet Mitchell, Woman's Estate (New York, 1971).Find this resource:

        Ti-Grace Atkinson, Amazon Odyssey (New York, 1974).Find this resource:

          Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York, 1976).Find this resource:

            Zillah Eisenstein, The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism (New York, 1981).Find this resource:

              Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (New York, 1982).Find this resource:

                Catharine A. MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, Mass., 1987).Find this resource:

                  Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (New York, 1987).Find this resource:

                    Linda Nicholson, Feminism/Postmodernism (New York, 1990).Find this resource:

                      Zillah Eisenstein

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