Equality feminism and Difference feminism

Traditionally, women have demanded equality with men, even to the extent that feminism is often characterised as a movement for the achievement of sexual equality. However, the issue of equality has also exposed major fault lines 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. 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.

The feminist response to patriarchy is echoed in two attitudes towards the position of women in society. These are sometimes described as equality feminism and difference feminism. Equality feminists have limited aspirations. They seek equality for women in all spheres. Most of these feminists describe themselves as liberals. Difference feminism is more complex. From this perspective men and women have fundamental differences and these should be recognised in society. Most difference feminists do not accept that one gender is superior to another, arguing simply that they are different and that those differences should be embraced but not fought against. For them, the search for equality is fruitless.

Equality feminism

feminism that seeks equality for men and women in society and believes that the biological differences between men and women are inconsequential.

Difference feminism

feminism that argues that men and women are fundamentally different from one another.


for difference feminism this is the belief that biological factors are significant in the different behaviour of men and women.

Cultural feminism

A form of difference feminism that seeks to challenge the dominance of male culture in society by promoting ‘women’s values’.

Furthermore, some difference feminists have claimed, the attributes peculiar to women, such as a caring nature, the ability to nurture the young and non-aggressiveness, are superior to male characteristics. A world dominated by women, therefore, would be a better world. The interests of children would be paramount, there would be less violence and possibly no wars. Some environmentalists have also suggested that women would be better custodians of the environment than men, being more likely to embrace nature than to exploit it.

It is an attitude that has been challenged by many feminists as defeatist. Equality feminists argue that difference automatically leads to inequality and if there is inequality it is inevitable that men will benefit. For them, there must be equality and male superiority must be destroyed. 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 as the ownership of wealth, pay differentials and the distinction between waged and unwaged labour. Radical feminists, for their part, are primarily concerned about equality in family and personal life. Equality must therefore operate, for example, in terms of child care and other domestic responsibilities, the control of one’s own body, and sexual expression and fulfilment.

In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) expressed this idea succinctly:

‘Society, being codified by man, decrees that woman is inferior; she can do away with this inferiority only by destroying the male’s superiority.’

Difference feminists are thus often said to subscribe to a ‘pro-woman’ position, which accepts that sex differences have political and social importance. This is based on 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 deeper hormonal and other genetic differences, rather than simply the structure of society. To idealise androgyny or personhood and ignore sex differences is therefore a mistake. Women should recognise and celebrate the distinctive characteristics of the female sex; they should seek liberation through difference, as developed and fulfilled women, not as sexless ‘persons’. In the form of cultural feminism, this has led to an emphasis on women’s crafts, art and literature, and on experiences that are unique to women and promote a sense of ‘sisterhood’, such as childbirth, motherhood and menstruation.

Carol Gilligan published In A Different Voice in 1982. American psychologist Gilligan did significant research on moral development of boys and girls, putting forth the theory that there were gender differences in patterns. Specifically, she explained that girls develop morally based on relationships, as well as on the basis of responsibility for others and Gilligan argued that girls exhibit distinct patterns of moral development based on close relationships and responsibility for others. In other words, interpersonal morality was quite different between the genders, according to her theory. 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.

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 argued in Learning from Lesbian Separatism (1976) that ‘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.

The Women's' Peace Camp Greenham Common

On the 5th September 1981, the Welsh group “Women for Life on Earth” arrived on Greenham Common, Berkshire, England. They marched from Cardiff with the intention of challenging, by debate, the decision to site 96 Cruise nuclear missiles there. On arrival they delivered a letter to the Base Commander which among other things stated ‘We fear for the future of all our children and for the future of the living world which is the basis of all life’

The Greenham Common Peace Camp became a symbol of feminist protest against the male values of aggression and destruction.

The presence of women living outside an operational nuclear base 24 hours a day, brought a new perspective to the peace movement - giving it leadership and a continuous focus. At a time when the USA and the USSR were competing for nuclear superiority in Europe, the Women’s Peace Camp on Greenham Common was seen as an edifying influence. The commitment to non-violence and non-alignment gave the protest an authority that was difficult to dismiss – journalists from almost every corner of the globe found their way to the camp and reported on the happenings and events taking place there. In February 1982 it was decided that the protest should involve women only, which established it as the first and longest lasting peace encampment. This was important as the women were using their identity as mothers to legitimise the protest against nuclear weapons, all in the name of the safety of their children and future generations.

The spider web became one of the most-used symbols at the camp, because it is both fragile and resilient, as the Greenham women envisioned themselves. The Greenham women were notorious for dressing themselves up as witches in order to contrast the symbol of the evil witch with the actions of ordinary women at the base.