Different types of feminism

Forms of Feminism

Some critics have even challenged the notion that feminism can properly be called an ‘ideology’ at all, preferring to see it as a cultural or even a literary movement. Others have argued that it is an incomplete ideology, and really makes sense only if incorporated into more orthodox schools of thought such as liberalism, socialism or conservatism. 

The major traditions within feminism are the following: • Liberal feminism • Socialist feminism • Radical feminism

 Gender Liberals have traditionally regarded differences between women and men as being of entirely private or personal significance. In public and political life all people are considered as individuals, gender being as irrelevant as ethnicity or social class. In this sense, individualism is ‘gender-blind’. Conservatives have traditionally emphasised the social and political significance of gender divisions, arguing that they imply that the sexual division of labour between women and men is natural and inevitable. Gender is thus one of the factors that gives society its organic and hierarchical character. Socialists, like liberals, have rarely treated gender as a politically significant category. When gender divisions are significant it is usually because they reflect and are sustained by deeper economic and class inequalities. Fascists view gender as a fundamental division within humankind. Men naturally monopolize leadership and decision-making, while women are suited to an entirely domestic, supportive and subordinate role. Feminists usually see gender as a cultural or political distinction, in contrast to biological and ineradicable sexual differences. Gender divisions are therefore a manifestation of male power. Difference feminists may nevertheless believe that gender differences reflect a psycho-biological gulf between female and male attributes and sensibilities. Religious fundamentalists usually regard gender as a God-given division, and thus as one that is crucial to social and political organization. Patriarchal structures and the leadership of males therefore tend to be regarded as natural and desirable. Equality and difference Although the goal of feminism is the overthrow of patriarchy and the ending of sexist oppression, feminists have sometimes been uncertain about what this means in practice and how it can be brought about. Traditionally, women have demanded equality with men, even to the extent that feminism is often characterized as a movement for the achievement of sexual equality. 

However, the issue of equality has also exposed major faultlines within feminism: feminists have embraced contrasting notions of equality and some have entirely rejected equality in favour of the idea of difference. 

Liberal feminists 

champion legal and political equality with men. Liberal feminism dominated the ‘first wave’ of feminism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with intellectuals such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor and J. S. Mill all making contributions. Liberal feminism focuses on the full extension of civil and legal rights to women by legislation. This form of feminism is essentially liberalism, stressing the importance of the individual, with the emphatic assertion of female equality. It demands a ‘level playing field’, secured by law, so that women earn the same as men and can aspire to the same jobs as men. It accepts the competition of the marketplace and assumes that women can, and should, compete equally with men. In the second wave Betty Friedan, among others, argued that women were directed by a cultural myth that made them look to the family, the private sphere, as their proper role in life. Equal rights would enable women to become educated and have a greater role in public life. British feminists took up this cause, and later, so did politicians. A series of acts assigned greater rights to women, among which were the Abortion Act (1967), the Equal Pay Act (1970) and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975). Such legislation gives women rights that enable them as individuals to have greater choice about their lives. Liberal feminism may be criticised as little more than Western liberalism with a female dimension, and most of its goals are already achieved or within striking distance. Less moderate critics regard it as merely a prop to sustain the status quo. Others see it as essentially the preserve of middle-class women who ignore the plight of their counterparts in the working-class. Liberal feminism remains a very important element in the West today. Most women in developed societies have individual choices and freedoms that are now almost taken for granted, but they owe much to the liberal feminist struggles for equal civil and political rights over the last two centuries. They have supported an equal rights agenda, which would enable women to compete in public life on equal terms with men, regardless of sex. Equality thus means equal access to the public realm. 

Socialist feminists

Socialist feminists argue that equal rights may be meaningless unless women also enjoy social equality. Equality, in this sense, has to apply in terms of economic power, and so must address issues such a the ownership of wealth, pay differentials and the distinction between waged and unwaged labour. Radical feminists, for their part, are primarily Political Ideologies An Introduction 3rd edition Andrew Heywood concerned about equality in family and personal life. Some of the ‘utopian socialists’ of the nineteenth century, such as Fourier, Saint Simon and Robert Owen, believed that their ideas had important implications for women. For example, Fourier envisaged a highly permissive sexual environment, with women liberated from the burdens of childcare and housework by transferring most of these family functions to the community. Owen, in particular, thought of religion as enslaving women through marriage. Marx, however, was much less interested specifically in the liberation of women, and was conservative in his own family life. A socialist revolution, he believed, would liberate women as a desirable side effect. Subsequent communist regimes have paid lip service to women’s equality but in practice have tended to take a conservative position, especially on the political role of women. 

Male left-wing leaders in many movements, especially in the 1960s, had attitudes that led some women to lose faith in traditional socialist politics and drove them towards a more radical agenda. Some groups, like ‘Militant’ in the 1980s, were scornful of the women’s movement, seeing it as irrelevant, a middle-class intellectual indulgence and a diversion (like anti-racism) from the central revolutionary task of overthrowing capitalism. Engels, on the other hand, showed considerable interest in the situation of women. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) he stated that the family was the root of women’s oppression, but that it had its origin in an economic system, capitalism, based on private property. It is dominated by men; property is owned by men and passed on mainly to men. The whole ideology of the system was designed to reinforce this control of women by men, which reduces women to the status of men’s property. Socialist feminists, therefore, see that only the ending of capitalism and the liberation of women from its shackles, both ideological and institutional, can end the oppression of women. Feminism is part of the class struggle and can only be achieved as part of that general struggle. Some socialist feminists believe that class is so important in forming attitudes that it cuts women off from their fellow women in other, opposing classes. Middle-class women have more in common with each other and their fellow middle-class men than they have with their working-class sisters. Women play a key role in capitalism, serving its interests in several ways. Women in the labour force increase productivity, weaken the wage bargaining powers of male labour, and enter or leave the labour market in times of capitalist ‘boom’ or ‘bust’. They are vital in producing, raising and socialising the next generation of workers into the values of the system. The family ensures that men at work will remain disciplined in order to keep an income. Finally, women reduce the domestic burden of child rearing, allowing men to concentrate on meeting the demands of the capitalist system. 

Socialist feminism is open to criticism from a variety of angles; for example, the destruction of the family as the cement of the private property system is as likely to produce an atomised and irresponsible society (perhaps modified by despotism) as a co-operative one. Such experiments in collective living as have been tried have not been a great success. Marxists of a more traditional hue have taken the view that the pursuit of such goals as pay for housework diverts attention from the central goal of abolishing capitalism. Non-Marxist socialists dismiss the image of the working man cosseted and indulged by his housekeeping, child-raising and domesticated wife as hopelessly outdated. 

Socialist feminists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman have envisaged socialist societies as revolving around alternative living arrangements whereby childcare would not be the concern of individual mothers. Instead, a more communal basis of living was imagined, with couples living alongside other couples, and perhaps also single people, allowing the responsibility of housework to be shared and companionship to be enjoyed by all.

Egalitarian forms of feminism link ‘difference’ to patriarchy, seeing it as a manifestation of oppression or subordination. From this viewpoint, the feminist project is defined by the desire to liberate women from ‘difference’. However, other feminists champion difference rather than equality. Difference feminists regard the very notion of equality as either misguided or simply undesirable. To want to be equal to a man implies that women are ‘male identified’, in that they define their goals in terms of what men are or what men have. The demand for equality thus embodies a desire to be ‘like men’. Although feminists seek to overthrow patriarchy, many warn against the danger of modelling themselves upon men, which would require them, for example, to adopt the competitive and aggressive behaviour that characterizes male society. 

For many feminists, liberation means the desire to develop and achieve fulfilment as women; in other words, to be ‘woman identified’. Difference feminists thus subscribe to a ‘pro-woman’ position, which holds that sex differences do have political and social importance. This is based upon the essentialist belief that women and men are fundamentally different at a psycho-biological level. The aggressive and competitive nature of men and the creative and empathetic character of women are thought to reflect hormonal and other genetic differences, rather than simply the structure of society. To idealize androgyny or personhood and ignore sex differences is therefore a mistake. Women should recognize and celebrate the distinctive characteristics of the female sex; they should seek liberation not as sexless ‘persons’ but as developed and fulfilled women. In the form of cultural feminism, this has lead to an emphasis upon women's crafts, art and literature, and upon experiences that are unique to women and promote a sense of ‘sisterhood’, such as childbirth, motherhood and menstruation. 

Equality feminism and difference feminism

Most feminists seek equality for men and women and believe that the biological differences between men and women are inconsequential in modern society. This view is known as equality feminism. However, a small group of feminists, known as difference feminists or essentialist feminists, argue that men and women are fundamentally different from one another. This form of feminism, which arose in the 1980s and 1990s, is based on the belief that there are essential, biological differences between men and women.

Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, published in 1982, gave attention to the concept of difference feminism. She wrote that men and women think and speak in different ways and argued that women’s voices and experiences had been ignored because they sounded so very distinct from men’s. She argued that she was not making moral judgement about the differences, but just acknowledging they were there. Difference feminists call for highlighting and valuing the differences between men and women, rather than encouraging women to deny their distinctiveness and seeking to be ‘like men’. They believe that, by celebrating women’s special and unique qualities, they will create a more female- oriented culture. They argue that traditional equality feminism has encouraged women to replicate men’s behaviour and deny their own nature, which only alienates women from themselves. Difference feminism seeks to encourage women to accept and respect their own female qualities, which are (at the very least) as important as men’s.

Some difference feminists go further, stressing the superiority of women’s cultural values – such as compassion and pacifism – believing that these will overcome masculine qualities of selfishness, violence and lack of self-control in sexual behaviour. Cultural feminism also challenges the dominant cultural argument that women are inferior and subservient to men. An extension of this view comes in the form of separatism and political lesbianism. Separatist feminism is not a unified view. Some separatists suggest that women should create permanent separate societies from men, while others suggest that women should, from time to time, create separate spaces and spend time without men in order to separate themselves from patriarchal society, allowing themselves to reconnect with their female values. Charlotte Bunch  in Learning from Lesbian Separatism (1976)  ‘in a male-supremacist society, heterosexuality is a political institution and the practice of separatism is a way to escape its domination’. This suggests that any relationship with a man is based on power and control, and the only equal relationship a woman can have is with another woman – so lesbianism is a political choice. Sheila Jeffreys was a proponent of this view and co-wrote Love your Enemy? in 1979. It is worth noting that difference feminism has been extremely controversial among other feminist groups. They argue that suggesting that women have a passive, nurturing, caring nature takes women back hundreds of years and undermines all the progress that the women’s movement has made.

Radical feminism 

The most recent and most interesting form of feminism, if the most difficult to fit into the conventional definitions of ideology, is radical feminism. It is a very important element in the second wave of feminism. Radical feminism holds that the suppression of women is a fundamental feature of almost all societies, past and present, and is the most profound of all the tyrannies. This oppression, this patriarchal oppression, is all-pervasive and takes many forms – political, cultural, economic, religious and social. It functions by a socially defined role for women, gender, which has little to do with genuine social differences and everything to do with the exploitation of women as a group by men. This exploitation permeates the whole culture and must therefore be challenged by an attack on all fronts – political, economic, cultural, artistic, philosophical and scientific. Within this broad coalition there are a number of competing standpoints. One of the most extreme of these claims that everything, including science, philosophy and even language itself, is the product of a given social order, an order totally dominated by men. This male hegemony must be challenged by a rejection of all that it entails, even to the point of creating a new language for ‘women to speak unto woman’. A rather less extreme, but nonetheless challenging, view is that women are essentially different from men, more attuned to the maternal virtues of tenderness, caring and intuition, and are more in harmony with life, nature and the ecological nature of the planet itself. Feminist critics, however, feel this is a retreat to the comfort of a romanticised version of woman’s nature favoured by men. This, of course, raises the fundamental, and as yet unresolved, issue of whether women are actually substantially different from men. The implications of feminism for men raise interesting points. Some feminists believe that to liberate women is simultaneously to liberate men: the two sexes will be able to negotiate a new and healthier relationship. To others, men seem redundant: women simply do not need them (hence the famous remark, ‘a woman needs a man as a fish needs a bicycle’). This easily leads to the more extreme manifestations of feminism; for example, Andrea Dworkin, in Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1974), comes close to defining ‘maleness’ as essentially violent, negative, destructive. Male sexual redundancy might even be approaching, thanks to modern scientific advances, to the point of men being unnecessary even for breeding. For some feminists this has led to ‘political lesbianism’ in which women relate only to each other at every level, not just sexual, in modes determined by themselves without reference to the male world. Critics argue that these several strands of feminism are mutually incompatible. The widest gap is between those who argue that there is very little fundamental difference between men and women, and those who identify profound biological, even spiritual, differences. Some critics of feminism condemn it as essentially elitist, ethnocentric, racist and even sexist. Feminism’s strongest supporters are to be found in the wealthy industrialised societies of the West, among women who have largely achieved legal and political equality. Women in the developing world, whom Western feminists are accused of neglecting, suffer oppression on a scale unimaginable in the developed world. Indeed, within developed countries feminism is criticised by black women as being concerned with emancipation that essentially benefits white women and does little for their black and brown sisters. Changes in the economy have reduced the role of large-scale, male-dominated industries that placed a premium on physical strength. The ‘new economy’ of ‘high-tech’ industries and services is almost designed to enhance the employment opportunities of women, reliant as they are on education and social skills, brain rather than brawn. Women do not require men for economic support. Increasingly, many women do not need a man for his role in child rearing. The economic value of men to women as providers declines with rising male unemployment – and unemployability – rates. There are growing concerns about the ‘redundant’ male in modern society. Seeking solace in drink, violence and crime, as his ‘proper’, traditional social roles decline, the ‘redundant’ male falls behind women in education and the world of well-paid jobs that are associated with the new knowledge-based economy. Time will tell if there will be a need for a ‘men’s movement’ to enhance the role of men in society. 

it was with the work of activists such as the US writer, Kate Millett (b. 1934), and the Canadian author, Shulamith Firestone (b. 1945), that radical feminism developed a systematic theory of sexual oppression that clearly stood apart from established liberal and socialist traditions. The central feature of radical feminism is the belief that sexual oppression is the most fundamental feature of society and that other forms of injustice – class exploitation, racial hatred and so on – are merely secondary. Gender is thought to be the deepest social cleavage and the most politically significant; more important, for example, than social class, race or nation. Radical feminists have therefore insisted that society be understood and described as ‘patriarchal’ to highlight the central role of sex oppression, just as socialists use the term ‘capitalist’ to draw attention to the significance of economic exploitation. Patriarchy thus refers to a systematic, institutionalized and pervasive process of gender oppression. In Sexual Politics (1970) Millett described patriarchy as a ‘social constant’ running through all political, social and economic structures and found in every historical and contemporary society, as well as in all major religions. The different roles of men and women have their origin in a process of ‘conditioning’: from a very early age boys and girls are encouraged to conform to very specific gender identities. This process takes place largely within the family, ‘patriarchy's chief institution’, but it is also evident in literature, art, public life and the economy. Millett proposed that patriarchy should be challenged through a process of ‘consciousness raising’, an idea influenced by the Black Power movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. Through discussion and education women would become increasingly aware of the sexism that pervades and structures their society, and would therefore be better able to challenge it. Women's liberation thus required a revolutionary change: the institution of the family would have to be destroyed and the psychological and sexual oppression of women that operates at all levels of society would have to be overthrown. Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex (1972) attempted a still more ambitious explanation of social and historical processes in terms of sexual divisions. Firestone adapted Marxist theory to the analysis of the role of women by substituting the category of sex for that of social class. According to Firestone, sex differences do not merely arise from social conditioning, but from biology. The basic fact that women bear babies has led to a ‘natural division of labour’ within what she called ‘the biological family’. In bearing children, women are constantly at the mercy of biology, and therefore, like children, are dependent upon men for their physical survival. Nevertheless, Firestone did not accept that patriarchy is either natural or inevitable. Women, she argued, can achieve emancipation by transcending their biological nature and escaping from the ‘curse of Eve’. Firestone believed that modern technology had opened up the prospect of genuine sexual equality by relieving women of the burden of pregnancy and childbirth. Pregnancy can be avoided by contraception or be terminated by abortion, but new technology also creates the possibility of avoiding pregnancy by artificial reproduction in test tubes and the transfer of childrearing responsibilities to social institutions. In other words, the biological process of reproduction can be carried out in laboratories by use of cybernetics, allowing women, for the first time in history, to escape from the biological family and enter society as the true equals of men. Although Millett saw the roots of patriarchy in social conditioning, while Firestone located them in biology, they agreed that liberation requires that gender differences between men and women be diminished and eventually abolished. They both believed that the true nature of the sexes is equal and identical, a fact presently concealed either by the influence of patriarchal culture or the misfortune that women are born with wombs. Both accepted that human nature is essentially androgynous. 

Conservative Feminism

This may at first sight appear something of a contradiction in terms. There have been, however, some attempts to construct a theory of female liberation based on the belief in ‘equal but different’ roles and the natural division between the public and private areas of social life. Attempts to be equal on men’s terms, according to men’s values and in men’s interests are doomed to failure and create a new form of female exploitation and manipulation, with grave social consequences for the upbringing of children and the relationship between the sexes. Conservative feminists take the view that women should have ‘sovereignty’ within their own sphere of life. Cultural manifestations of this approach, such as the strict dress code of many Islamic countries, may appear repressive but in reality, they strengthen respect for women and their freedom. Thus family life is a very important and respected sphere of female activity and fulfilment. Many conservative feminists argue that too much feminist theory attacks the vital role of women in child rearing and homemaking. Indeed, many women actually want to be family-centred, and find deep fulfilment there, rather than in careers and salaried work in the public sphere. Some feminist writers, such as Jean Bethke Elshtain in Public Man, Private Woman (1981), have evolved a variation of these views and claim that women’s life experience, for example of motherhood, has nourished values such as cooperation, tenderness and sensitivity that have universal application 


Post-feminism suggests that the goals of the feminist movement have been met, particularly in areas such as employment, financial autonomy, political influence, and women's empowerment in reproductive decisions and sexual relationships. Consequently, the suggestion is to shift away from feminism towards celebrating female achievements and empowerment. There are those who propose that women should assert dominance and influence through their sexualized bodies. However, many feminists view post-feminism not as a continuation of feminism, but as a movement in opposition to it.

Post Modern Feminism

 The rival traditions of feminism have largely emerged out of established ideologies or theories, most obviously liberalism and socialism, but also, more recently, ideas such as postmodernism  and psychoanalysis. Such ideologies and theories have served as vehicles for advancing the social role of women because they are generally sympathetic towards equality. Hierarchical or elitist ideologies or theories, in contrast, are more commonly associated with anti-feminism. For instance, traditional conservatism holds that the patriarchal structure of society and the sexual division of labour between ‘public’ man and ‘private’ woman is natural and inevitable. Women are born to be housewives and mothers, and rebellion against this fate is both pointless and wrong. At best, conservatives can argue that they support sexual equality on the ground that women's family responsibilities are every bit as important as men's public duties. Men and women are therefore ‘equal but different’. Forms of reactionary feminism have also developed in certain circumstances. This has occurred when the traditional status and position of women has been threatened by rapid social or cultural change. So-called Islamic feminism has this character. In Islamic states, such as Iran, Pakistan and Sudan, the imposition of Shari'a law and the return to traditional moral and religious principles have sometimes been portrayed as a means of enhancing the status of women, threatened by the spread of western attitudes and values. From this perspective, the veil and of other dress codes and the exclusion of women from public life have been viewed by some Moslem women as symbols of liberation. However, from the perspective of conventional feminism, reactionary feminism is simply a contradiction in terms, reflecting the misguided belief that traditional public/private divide genuinely afforded women status and protection. Indeed, it provides evidence of the cultural strength of patriarchy and its capacity to recruit women into their own oppression.