Feminist political theory

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


  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]


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.

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]

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]

Postmodernist Feminism

Postmodernist feminists agree with others that gender is the most important identity, however what makes Postmodern feminists different is that they are interested in how people 'pick and mix' their identities. This is a key part of Postmodernist thought, not just from feminism. They are also interested in the topic of masculinity, and instead reject the stereotypical aspects of feminism, embracing it as a positive aspect of identity. One of their key goals is to disable the patriarchal norms that have led to gender inequality. [15]

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. [16] 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. [17] An exploration of the history of patriarchy is central to understanding how political institutions have become gendered and the impact this has on feminist political theory. The importance of understanding patriarchy historically is explored in Judith M. Bennet's book 'History Matter: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism'. [18] A definition of patriarchy is provided by Sylvia Walby in her book 'Theorising patriarchy'. [19] This shows how patriarchal systems have historically caused the oppression of women and the male domination of politics.

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. [20] 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. [21]

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. [22]

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. [23]

See also

Related Research Articles

Feminism Movements and ideologies aimed at establishing gender equality

Feminism is a range of social movements, political movements, and ideologies that aim to define, establish, and achieve the political, economic, personal, and social equality of the sexes. Feminism incorporates the position that societies prioritize the male point of view, and that women are treated unfairly within those societies. Efforts to change that include fighting gender stereotypes and seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

Cultural feminism, the view that there is a "female nature" or "female essence", attempts to revalue and redefine attributes ascribed to femaleness. It is also used to describe theories that commend innate differences between women and men. Cultural feminism diverged from radical feminism, when some radical feminists rejected the previous feminist and patriarchal notion that feminine traits are undesirable and returned to an essentialist view of gender differences in which they regard female traits as superior.

Materialist 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.

Postmodern feminism is a mix of post structuralism, postmodernism, and French feminism. The goal of postmodern feminism is to destabilize the patriarchal norms entrenched in society that have led to gender inequality. Postmodern feminists seek to accomplish this goal through rejecting essentialism, philosophy, and universal truths in favor of embracing the differences that exist amongst women to demonstrate that not all women are the same. These ideologies are rejected by postmodern feminists because they believe if a universal truth is applied to all woman of society, it minimizes individual experience, hence they warn women to be aware of ideas displayed as the norm in society since it may stem from masculine notions of how women should be portrayed.

Critical criminology

Critical criminology is a theoretical perspective in criminology which focuses on challenging traditional understandings and uncovering false beliefs about crime and criminal justice, often but not exclusively by taking a conflict perspective, such as Marxism, feminism, political economy theory or critical theory. Critical criminology frequently takes a perspective of examining the genesis of crime and nature of 'justice' within the social structure of a class and status inequalities. Law and punishment of crime are viewed as connected to a system of social inequality and as the means of producing and perpetuating this inequality. Critical criminology also seeks to delve into the foundations of criminological research to unearth any biases.

Black feminism holds that the experience of Black women gives rise to a particular understanding of their position in relation to sexism, class oppression, and racism. The experience of being a black woman, it maintains, cannot be grasped in terms of being black or of being a woman, but must be elucidated via intersectionality, a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw argued that each concept—being black, being female—should be considered independently while understanding that intersecting identities compound upon and reinforce one another.

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.

Political lesbianism is a phenomenon within feminism, primarily second-wave feminism and radical feminism; it includes, but is not limited to, lesbian separatism. Political lesbianism embraces the theory that sexual orientation is a political and feminist choice, and advocates lesbianism as a positive alternative to heterosexuality for women as part of the struggle against sexism.

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.

Sylvia Walby British sociologist

Sylvia Theresa Walby is a British sociologist, currently Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University. She has an Honorary Doctorate from Queen's University Belfast for distinction in sociology. She is noted for work in the fields of the domestic violence, patriarchy, gender relations in the workplace and globalisation.

Feminism is a broad term given to works of those scholars who have sought to bring gender concerns into the academic study of international politics and who have used feminist theory and sometimes queer theory to better understand global politics and international relations.

Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. Some patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage.

Feminist aesthetics first emerged in the 1970s and refers not to a particular aesthetic or style but to perspectives that question assumptions in art and aesthetics concerning gender-role stereotypes, or gender. Feminist aesthetics has a relationship to philosophy. The historical philosophical views of what beauty, the arts, and sensory experiences are, relate to the idea of aesthetics. Aesthetics looks at styles of production. In particular, feminists argue that despite seeming neutral or inclusive, the way people think about art and aesthetics is influenced by gender roles. Feminist aesthetics is a tool for analyzing how art is understood using gendered issues. A person's gender identity affects the ways in which they perceive art and aesthetics because of their subject position and the fact that perception is influenced by power. The ways in which people see art is also influenced by social values such as class and race. One's subject position in life changes the way art is perceived because of people's different knowledge's about life and experiences. In the way that feminist history unsettles traditional history, feminist aesthetics challenge philosophies of beauty, the arts and sensory experience.

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.

In feminist theory, heteropatriarchy is a socio-political system where (primarily) cisgender males and heterosexuals have authority over cisgender females and over other sexual orientations and gender identities. It is a term that emphasizes that discrimination exerted both upon women and LGBTQ people has the same sexist social principle.

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.


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