Introduction to Feminism: Notes
- a modern movement to promote the full equality of women with men and the
high valuation of women as human beings; involves both theory and
practice--"feminism is both a way of thinking about the world and a
way of acting in it" (Sapiro 444)
- essential characteristics of feminist approaches:
- Shared Theoretical Positions
- gender is constructed and changeable
- gender is a crucial category of analysis
- Shared Methods
- critique of androcentric norms
- assumption of female subjectivity
- openly political stance
- varied types of feminist theoretical frameworks (see Sapiro 471-78):
- Liberal Feminism: focus on individuals; minimize male/female
difference; emphasize equality of opportunity; extend to women the individual
rights gained by men
- Socialist Feminism: focus on material conditions and how these
create oppressive societal structures, particularly class; emphasize effort to
reform communities and institutions; stress social relationships more than
- Radical Feminism: maximize male/female difference; focus especially
on sexuality and sexual relations as key to patriarchal oppression; may even
- Multicultural Feminism: emphasize differences among women (race,
ethnicity, class, etc.); focus on coalition-building among different groups of
women; emphasize international and global programs of reform
2. Lenses of Gender
- Biological Essentialism
- Essentialist explanations of sex differences: genes, hormones, evolutionary
- Biohistorical explanation (see Bem 30-38)
- Gender Polarization (only two, mutually exclusive sexes; two opposite
- "the cultural requirement that the sex of the body match the gender of
the psyche" (Bem 115)
- "the imposition of a gender-based classification on social
reality" (Bem 125)
- Androcentrism (males and male experience as universal, neutral norm)
- "the definition of a woman in terms of her domestic and reproductive
function within a male-dominated household . . . [and] in terms of her
departure from a male standard . . . [and] in terms of her ability to stimulate
and to satisfy the male sexual appetite" (Bem 62)
- American equal rights laws "give equality only to those few women who
manage to be in the same situation as men while denying equality to those many
women who are in a different situation from men" (Bem 73)
3. Mutual interaction and multiplicative effect of all marginalizing
Transforming the Debate: Notes
Eradicating Androcentrism: "[T]he cultural debate about sexual
inequality must be reframed so that it addresses not male-female difference but
how androcentric social institutions transform male-female difference into
female disadvantage" (Bem 176-77); we must move away from debating whether
men and women are fundamentally the same or fundamentally different, take for
granted "at least a subset of sexual differences," and concentrate on
how to eradicate androcentrism (see Bem, chapter 6).
- Given all the differences of race, class, ethnicity, etc. among women, is
there enough underlying similarity to constitute women as a viable political
group who can be served by a feminist program of social change?
- The cultural lenses of androcentrism, gender polarization, and biological
essentialism together create a category "woman" that is automatically
associated with inequality, disadvantage, etc. across classes and cultures,
even though the degree will vary depending on the situation of various groups
- Causes of Inequality: Do the economic and political disadvantages facing
women stem from sex discrimination or from personal choices made by women?
- Not really an either/or: discrimination operates through highly
androcentric social institutions, forcing women make life choices in the
context of a system that makes it extremely difficult to coordinate paid work
with responsible parenting.
- Such structural discrimination is revealed when we compare the type of life
choices faced by men and women; discrimination lies in the very fact that women
have to make choices not faced by most men
- Strategies for Ending Inequality: Is the best strategy gender neutrality
(never make any distinctions on the basis of sex) or special protection for
women (make provisions for women's childbearing and child rearing roles)?
- Historical problems with both strategies: The principle of gender
neutrality enshrined in legal codes has helped only those women who are
similarly situated to men, while special protection policies reinforce sexist
stereotypes and support the idea that women are not capable of competing with
- Not really an either/or: Androcentric culture has always given men special
benefits ("affirmative compensation") for their typical life patterns
and special needs; the only way to even approach gender neutrality is to give
women the same kind of special benefits (see Bem 183-89).
- Must extend the same kind of group rights and benefits to women that are
now extended to men (though currently disguised as "normal
procedures," "business as usual," or "human rights").
- Gender neutrality--a focus exclusively on individual rights and
talents--can only be truly equitable when the playing field is perfectly level
in terms of group rights and benefits, which is not currently the case
(currently, only rich people, white people, and heterosexual people have
system-wide group rights).
- Nature of Desired Equality: Should women and men play exactly the same
roles at work and home or should women continue to play different roles but get
the same respect, status, rewards, etc. as men?
- Refocus the issue: Since androcentric institutions turn male-female role
differences into female disadvantage, eradicate androcentrism so that different
roles will be equally esteemed and rewarded in society; then and only then can
both sexes really make life choices that are truly free.
Eradicating Gender Polarization: Controversial, radical, and
difficult to achieve program that would reduce the male-female distinction to a
narrow biologically-based difference in reproductive function: "people of
different sexes would no longer be culturally identified with different
clothes, different social roles, different personalities, or different sexual
and affectional partners any more than people with different-colored eyes or
different-sized feet are now" (Bem 192).
- Gender polarization keeps both men and women from fully developing their
human and individual potential
- GP tends to downplay individual diversity and push men and women alike into
their respective gender boxes.
- GP falsely genders personal qualities, traits, behaviors, and ways of
relating into "masculine" and "feminine," ignoring the fact
that these are all potentially human characteristics that do not belong
exclusively to either sex
- GP creates a false emphasis on becoming a "real" man or woman as
opposed to a biological male or female
- Gender polarization reinforces androcentrism and strengthens the social
reproduction of male power.
- GP sets up different roles for men and women and therefore obscures the
need for institutional structures that would coordinate work and family in such
a way that males and females could easily participate in both.
- GP sets up psychological constructs of masculinity and femininity,
predisposing "men to construct identities around dominance and women to
construct identities around deference" (Bem 195) and pathologizes those
who deviate from these gender scripts.
- GP rationalizes the sexual status quo and encourages the culture to explain
away sexual inequality as sexual difference.
- Depolarizing gender necessitates situations that give women more experience
of power and status and that give men more experience of nurturance and
responsible service to others.
- Eradicating androcentrism requires a social revolution;
eradicating gender polarization also requires a psychological
"It will take ferocious creativity to do the restructuring so as to
arrive at a society where both female-male equality and important communal
values are protected, where the economic structure is designed with
consideration for the needs of female and male employees and their families.
Nothing is more certain than that such a goal will never be reached if women
are the only ones who change." Hilary Lips, Women, Men, and Power
(Mayfield 1991) 200.
Women and Law Syllabus