Feminist political theory

Last updated

Feminist political theory is a diverse subfield of feminist theory working towards three main goals:

Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical, fictional, or philosophical discourse. It aims to understand the nature of gender inequality. It examines women's and men's social roles, experiences, interests, chores, and feminist politics in a variety of fields, such as anthropology and sociology, communication, media studies, psychoanalysis, home economics, literature, education, and philosophy.


  1. To understand and critique the role of gender in how political theory is conventionally construed.
  2. To re-frame and re-articulate conventional political theory in light of feminist issues (especially gender equality).
  3. To support political science presuming and pursuing gender equality.

Feminist political theory encompasses a broad scope of approaches. It overlaps with related areas including feminist jurisprudence/feminist legal theory; feminist political philosophy; female-centered empirical research in political science; and feminist research methods (feminist method) for use in political science the social sciences. Indeed, one scholar notes that, insofar as almost all versions of feminism involve "demonstrating the ways in which politics, understood as power relations, is present in our everyday lives," one could reasonably "describe feminist theory as a whole as a kind of political philosophy." [1] What frequently distinguishes feminist political theory from feminism broadly is the specific examination of the state and its role in the reproduction or redressing of gender inequality. [1] In addition to being broad and multidisciplinary, the field is relatively new, inherently innovative, and still expanding; the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that "feminist political philosophy serves as a field for developing new ideals, practices, and justifications for how political institutions and practices should be organized and reconstructed." [2]

Feminist legal theory, also known as feminist jurisprudence, is based on the belief that the law has been fundamental in women's historical subordination. The project of feminist legal theory is twofold. First, feminist jurisprudence seeks to explain ways in which the law played a role in women's former subordinate status. Second, feminist legal theory is dedicated to changing women's status through a rework of the law and its approach to gender. It is a critique of American law that was created to change the way women were treated and how judges had applied the law in order to keep women in the same position they had been in for years. The women who worked in this area viewed law as holding women in a lower place in society than men based on gender assumptions, and judges have therefore relied on these assumptions to make their decisions. This movement was based in the 1960s and 1970s. It was crucial to allowing women to become their own people through becoming financially independent and having the ability to find real jobs that were not available to them before due to discrimination in employment.

The feminist method is a means of conducting of scientific investigations and generating theory from an explicitly feminist standpoint. Feminist methodologies are varied, but tend to have a few common aims or characteristics, including seeking to overcome biases in research, bringing about social change, displaying human diversity, and acknowledging the position of the researcher. Questioning normal scientific reasoning is another form of the feminist method.. Each of these methods must consist of different parts including: collection of evidence, testing of theories, presentation of data, and room for rebuttals. How research is scientifically backed up affects the results. Like consciousness raising, some feminist methods affect the collective emotions of women, when things like political statistics are more of a structural result When knowledge is either constructed by experiences, or discovered, it needs to both be reliable and valid. Strong feminist supporters of this are Nancy Hartsock, Hilary Rose, and finally Sandra Harding. Feminist sociologists have made important contributions to this debate as they began to criticize positivism as a philosophical framework and, more specifically, its most acute methodological instrument—that of quantitative methods for its practice of detached and objective scientific research and the objectification of research subjects. These methodological critiques were well placed against a backdrop of feminist scholarship struggling to find a place for alternative values within the academy. Such concerns emerged from a sense of despair and anger that knowledge, both academic and popular, was based on men’s lives, male ways of thinking, and directed toward the problems articulated by men. Dorothy Smith (1974) argued that “sociology. .. has been based on and built up within the male social universe”


For summary of feminist history more broadly, see feminism. Feminist political theory as a term only consolidated in the West during Women's Liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s. Previously, very few works of political theory explicitly considered women's political situation. John Stuart Mill’s 1861 call for women's suffrage in The Subjection of Women is a notable exception. [3] In the early 20th Century, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 work The Second Sex exposed the power dynamics surrounding womanhood and laid the foundation for subsequent feminist theories exposing women's social subjugation. In the 1980s and 1990s, feminist theory expanded into the legal realm led by Catharine MacKinnon’s and Andrea Dworkin’s campaigns against pornography. [4] Several distinct stages are sketched out below.

Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve the political, economic, personal, and social equality of the genders. This includes fighting gender stereotypes and seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men.

Liberal feminism

Liberal feminism marks an important approach to feminist politics which was especially pervasive during the first half of the twentieth century. Some of the most well known examples of liberal feminist writing were published far earlier, including Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women (1869). A common theme of liberal feminism is an emphasis on equal opportunity via fair opportunity and equal political rights. In addition, according to The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, "[L]iberal feminisms of both the past and the present retain some commitment to the distinction between the public and private realms – a distinction [which is the] focus of much critique within feminist political theory." [1]

Liberal feminism is an individualistic form of feminist theory, which focuses on women's ability to maintain their equality through their own actions and choices. Its emphasis is on making the legal and political rights of women equal to men. Liberal feminists argue that society holds the false belief that women are, by nature, less intellectually and physically capable than men; thus it tends to discriminate against women in the academy, the forum, and the marketplace. Liberal feminists believe that "female subordination is rooted in a set of customary and legal constraints that blocks women's entrance to and success in the so-called public world". They strive for sexual equality via political and legal reform.

Mary Wollstonecraft British writer and philosopher

Mary Wollstonecraft was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women's rights. Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft's life, which encompassed several unconventional personal relationships, received more attention than her writing. Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and work as important influences.

<i>A Vindication of the Rights of Woman</i> philosophic feminist book by Mary Wollstonecraft

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), written by the 18th-century British proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft responds to those educational and political theorists of the 18th century who did not believe women should receive a rational education. She argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be "companions" to their husbands, rather than mere wives. Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men.

Marxist, socialist and radical feminism

Marxist feminism and socialist feminism considered classism as the primary source of women's oppression [5] [6] . "... Marxist theory does not allow women any more than other classes of oppressed people to constitute themselves as historical subjects, because Marxism does not take into account the fact that a class also consists of individuals one by one. Class consciousness is not enough. We must try to understand philosophically (politically) these concepts of 'subject' and 'class consciousness' and how they work in relation to our history. [7] " Early radical feminism was grounded in the rejection of the nuclear family and femininity as constructed within heterosexuality [8] . and Radical feminism abdicated any previous forms of political theory to develop entirely new theories rooted primarily on the direct experiences of women. Radical Feminism [9] has experienced many transitions over time, including facing an anti feminist backlash [10] (humanism [11] [12] ) but the theoretical history and survival [13] remains important to understand [14] .

Topics of inquiry

Feminist epistemology

A key aspect of feminist political theory/philosophy is feminist epistemology. Feminist epistemologists question the objectivity of social and philosophical sciences by contending that standards of authority and credibility are socially constructed and thus reflect and re-entrench the sociopolitical status quo. [15] Thus, one common feminist methodological solution is to include many diverse voices reflecting all parts of society in the process of knowledge-making.

Gendered political institutions

Political theory on the gendering of institutions explores questions such what does it mean for an institution to be “gendered," how can one evaluate whether an institution is gendered, and what are the consequences of gendered institutions for the people who work within them (of all genders). An example of such related scholarship is Eileen McDonagh's book The Motherless State which explores how socially feminized "motherly" attributes have been stripped from modern governance models. [16]

Group identity/identity politics

Theorist studying this aspect of feminist political theory question the construction of women as an identity group. On a basic level, they consider whether it is even possible to come to some sort of conclusion about a "women" group’s relation to politics. One facet of the debate involves intersectionality and whether women from different racial and cultural backgrounds have enough in common to form a political group. [17] Another facet questions whether transgender women should be included in the group "women" insofar as they lack many of the experiences of girlhood and womanhood which bind "women" together as a distinct group. [18]

Yet another approach to this topic includes redefining "groupness;" for example, Iris Marion Young has suggested women are more of a "seriality" rather than a group insofar as they undergo similar experiences but in isolation of each other, lacking a sense of group identity. [19]

Political leadership and gender

This field addresses how women lead differently than their male counterparts as legislators, executives, and judges. Some scholars in this field study how political leadership is itself masculinized to exclude the kinds of political leadership women most frequently provide, often outside of formal offices. For example, Hardy-Fanta looks at grassroots political work in Latino communities in the U.S. to identify feminized political leadership roles, ultimately concluding that Latina women provide the most critical leadership and work in those communities—despite the fact that most studies overlook their leadership because it does not occur within formal officeholding roles. [20]

See also

Related Research Articles

Radical feminism is a perspective within feminism that calls for a radical reordering of society in which male supremacy is eliminated in all social and economic contexts.

International relations theory is the study of international relations (IR) from a theoretical perspective. It attempts to provide a conceptual framework upon which international relations can be analyzed. Ole Holsti describes international relations theories as acting like pairs of coloured sunglasses that allow the wearer to see only salient events relevant to the theory; e.g., an adherent of realism may completely disregard an event that a constructivist might pounce upon as crucial, and vice versa. The three most prominent theories are realism, liberalism and constructivism. Sometimes, institutionalism proposed and developed by Keohane and Nye is discussed as an paradigm differed from liberalism.

Gender feminism is a term used by Christina Hoff Sommers and other writers to describe the feminist view of gender as socially constructed and distinct from biological sex. In her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism?, Sommers used the term gender feminist in contrast to equity feminist to refer to "radical" feminists who endorse the notion of patriarchy, i.e. male dominance reinforced through society's institutions.

Marxist feminism

Marxist feminism is feminism focused on investigating and explaining the ways in which women are oppressed through systems of capitalism and private property. According to Marxist feminists, women's liberation can only be achieved through a radical restructuring of the current capitalist economy, in which, they contend, much of women's labor is uncompensated.

Socialist feminism rose in the 1960s and 1970s as an offshoot of the feminist movement and New Left that focuses upon the interconnectivity of the patriarchy and capitalism. Socialist feminists argue that liberation can only be achieved by working to end both the economic and cultural sources of women's oppression. Socialist feminism is a two-pronged theory that broadens Marxist feminism's argument for the role of capitalism in the oppression of women and radical feminism's theory of the role of gender and the patriarchy. Socialist feminists reject radical feminism's main claim that patriarchy is the only or primary source of oppression of women. Rather, socialist feminists assert that women are unable to be free due to their financial dependence on males. Women are subjects to the male rulers in capitalism due to an uneven balance in wealth. They see economic dependence as the driving force of women's subjugation to men. Further, socialist feminists see women's liberation as a necessary part of larger quest for social, economic and political justice. Socialist feminists attempted to integrate the fight for women's liberation with the struggle against other oppressive systems based on race, class or economic status.

Material feminism highlights capitalism and patriarchy as central in understanding women's oppression. Under materialist feminism, gender is seen as a social construct, and society forces gender roles, such as bearing children, onto women. Materialist feminism's ideal vision is a society in which women are treated socially and economically the same as men. The theory centers on social change rather than seeking transformation within the capitalist system. Jennifer Wicke, defines materialist feminism as "a feminism that insists on examining the material conditions under which social arrangements, including those of gender hierarchy, develop... materialist feminism avoids seeing this gender hierarchy as the effect of a singular... patriarchy and instead gauges the web of social and psychic relations that make up a material, historical moment". She states that "...materialist feminism argues that material conditions of all sorts play a vital role in the social production of gender and assays the different ways in which women collaborate and participate in these productions". Material feminism also considers how women and men of various races and ethnicities are kept in their lower economic status due to an imbalance of power that privileges those who already have privilege, thereby protecting the status quo. Materialist feminists ask whether people have access to free education, if they can pursue careers, have access or opportunity to become wealthy, and if not, what economic or social constraints are preventing them from doing so, and how this can be changed.

The term intersectionality was coined by black feminist scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. "Intersectionality" represents an analytic framework that attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society. Intersectionality considers that various forms of social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, religion, creed, disability and gender, do not exist separately from each other but are woven together. While the theory began as an exploration of the oppression of women of color within society, today the analysis is potentially applied to all social categories, including social identities usually seen as dominant when considered independently.

Nancy Fraser American philosopher

Nancy Fraser is an American critical theorist, feminist, and the Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science and professor of philosophy at The New School in New York City. Widely known for her critique of identity politics and her philosophical work on the concept of justice, Fraser is also a staunch critic of contemporary liberal feminism and its abandonment of social justice issues. Fraser holds honorary doctoral degrees from four universities in three countries, and won the 2010 Alfred Schutz Prize in Social Philosophy from the American Philosophical Association. She is President of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division.

Standpoint feminism is a theory that feminist social science should be practiced from the standpoint of women or particular groups of women, as some scholars say that they are better equipped to understand some aspects of the world. A feminist or women's standpoint epistemology proposes to make women's experiences the point of departure, in addition to, and sometimes instead of men's.

Iris Marion Young American philosopher

Iris Marion Young was an American political theorist and feminist focused on the nature of justice and social difference. She served as Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and was affiliated with the Center for Gender Studies and the Human Rights program there. Her research covered contemporary political theory, feminist social theory, and normative analysis of public policy. She believed in the importance of political activism and encouraged her students to involve themselves in their communities.

Feminist philosophy is an approach to philosophy from a feminist perspective and also the employment of philosophical methods to feminist topics and questions. Feminist philosophy involves both reinterpreting philosophical texts and methods in order to supplement the feminist movement and attempts to criticise or re-evaluate the ideas of traditional philosophy from within a feminist framework.

Equity feminism is a form of liberal feminism discussed since the 1980s. Equity feminism has been defined and classified as a kind of classically liberal or libertarian feminism, in contrast with social feminism, difference feminism gender feminism, and equality feminism.

A variety of movements of feminist ideology have developed over the years. They vary in goals, strategies, and affiliations. They often overlap, and some feminists identify themselves with several branches of feminist thought.

Marxist schools of thought

Marxism is a method of socioeconomic analysis that frames capitalism through a paradigm of exploitation, analyzes class relations and social conflict using a materialist interpretation of historical development and takes a dialectical view of social transformation. While it originates from the works of 19th century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marxism has had several different schools of thought.

Diana Meyers is a philosopher working in the philosophy of action and in the philosophy of feminism. Meyers is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut.

Feminism of the 99% (F99) is a contemporary, grassroots, radical feminist movement, which recognises intersectionality and advocates activism for and by all women - including those who have been overlooked by other feminist movements. It was proposed by a collective of prominent American feminists in an appeal published in Viewpoint Magazine in February 2017, and built upon the mobilisation of women seen in the 2017 Women’s March in January. The appeal simultaneously called for an International Women’s Strike on 8 March 2017. It is a successor to the accumulated intellectual legacy of feminist movements such as radical feminism, Marxist feminism, Black feminism and transnational/decolonial feminism, and asserts that gender oppression is not caused by a single factor, sexism. They insist that it is rather a multifaceted product of the intersections of sexism, racism, colonialism and capitalism.


  1. 1 2 3 Watson, Lori (2013-01-01). "Feminist Political Theory". International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. doi:10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee757. ISBN   9781444367072.
  2. McAfee, Noëlle (2014-01-01). Zalta, Edward N., ed. Feminist Political Philosophy (Summer 2014 ed.).
  3. "John Stuart Mill: The Subjection of Women". www.constitution.org. Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  4. "philosophical feminism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  5. Hartmann, Heidi (2003). The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union. Feminist Theory Reader (Eds: McCann & Kim): Routledge. pp. 206–21. ISBN   978-0-415-93152-6.
  6. Kaplan, Cora (1985). Pandora's Box: Subjectivity, class, and sexuality in socialist feminist criticism. Feminisms (1997) (Eds: Warhol & Herndl): Rutgers University Press. pp. 956–975. ISBN   978-0-8135-2388-0.
  7. Wittig, Monique (2003). One is Not Born a Woman. Feminist Theory Reader, Eds: McCann & Kim): Routledge. p. 253. ISBN   978-0-415-93152-6.
  8. Echols, Alice (1989). Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN   978-0816617876.
  9. Bryson, Valerie (2016). Feminist Political Theory. Palgrave. ISBN   9781137439048.
  10. Tolentino, Jia (2/8/2017). "The Case Against Contemporary Feminism". https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-case-against-contemporary-feminism . Retrieved 7/11/2018.Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help); External link in |website= (help)
  11. Johnson, Pauline (1994). Feminism as Radical Humanism. Routledge. ISBN   9780429969065.
  12. Johnson, Pauline (2015). Feminism and Humanism. In The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism (Eds: Copson & Grayling: Wiley. pp. Chapter 16. ISBN   9781118793305.
  13. Sullivan, Mairead (Spring–Summer 2016). "Kill Daddy: Reproduction, Futurity, and the Survival of the Radical Feminist". Women's Studies Quarterly. 44 (1–2): 268–282. doi:10.1353/wsq.2016.0012.
  14. Dow & Wood (2014). "Repeating History and Learning From It: What Can SlutWalks Teach Us About Feminism?". Women's Studies in Communication. 37: 22–43. doi:10.1080/07491409.2013.867918.
  15. "philosophical feminism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2015-11-04.
  16. McDonagh, Eileen (2009). The Motherless State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  17. Mansbridge, Jane (1999). "Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent Yes". Journal of Politics.
  18. "The Dispute Between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-11-04.
  19. Young, Iris Marion (1994). "Gender as Seriality: Thinking About Women as a Social Collective". Signs. 19 (3): 713–738. doi:10.1086/494918.
  20. Hardy-Fanta, Carol (1995). "Latina Women and Political Leadership". New England Journal of Public Policy.
  21. "Politics & Gender" . Retrieved 2015-12-11.
  22. "Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Retrieved 2015-12-11.
  23. "Feminist Theory | SAGE Publications Inc". us.sagepub.com. Retrieved 2015-12-11.
  24. "International Feminist Journal of Politics - Volume 17, Issue 4". www.tandfonline.com. Retrieved 2015-12-11.