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Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical or philosophical discourse. It aims to understand the nature of gender inequality. It examines women's social roles, experience, and feminist politics in a variety of fields, such as anthropology and sociology, communication, psychoanalysis, economics, literary, education, and philosophy. While generally providing a critique of social relations, much of feminist theory also focuses on analyzing gender inequality and the promotion of women's rights, interests, and issues. Feminist researchers embrace two key tenets: (1) their research should focus on the condition of women in society, and (2) their research must be grounded in the assumption that women generally experience subordination. Thus, feminist research rejects Weber's value-free orientation in favour of being overtly political-doing research in pursuit of gender equality. Themes explored in feminism include discrimination, objectification (especially sexual objectification), oppression, patriarchy, stereotyping, art history and contemporary art, and aesthetics.
History of Feminist theory
Feminist theories first emerged as early as 1792 (– 1920s) in publications such as “The Changing Woman”, “Ain’t I a Woman”, “Speech after Arrest for Illegal Voting”, and so on. “The Changing Woman” is a Navajo Myth that gave credit to a woman who, in the end, populated the world. In 1851, Sojourner Truth addressed women’s rights issues through her publication, “Ain’t I a Woman.” Sojourner Truth addressed the issue of women having limited rights due to men's flawed perception of women. Truth argued that if a woman of color can perform tasks that were supposedly limited to men, then any woman of any color could perform those same tasks. After her arrest for illegally voting, Susan B. Anthony gave a speech within court in which she addressed the issues of language within the constitution documented in her publication, “Speech after Arrest for Illegal voting” in 1872. Anthony questioned the authoritative principles of the constitution and its male gendered language. She raised the question of why women are accountable to be punished under law but they cannot use the law for their own protection (women could not vote, own property, nor themselves in marriage). She also critiqued the constitution for its male gendered language and questioned why women should have to abide by laws that do not specify women. Although there were not any feminist terminologies based on their arguments, all of these women founded a lexicon of debates that contributed to modern feminist theory. For example, Sojourner Truth raised the issue of intersectionality, while Susan B. Anthony raised the issue of the language debate.
Nancy Cott makes a distinction between modern feminism and its antecedents, particularly the struggle for suffrage. In the United States she places the turning point in the decades before and after women obtained the vote in 1920 (1910–1930). She argues that the prior woman movement was primarily about woman as a universal entity, whereas over this 20 year period it transformed itself into one primarily concerned with social differentiation, attentive to individuality and diversity. New issues dealt more with woman's condition as a social construct, gender identity, and relationships within and between genders. Politically this represented a shift from an ideological alignment comfortable with the right, to one more radically associated with the left.
Susan Kingsley Kent says that Freudian patriarchy was responsible for the diminished profile of feminism in the inter-war years, others such as Juliet Mitchell consider this to be overly simplistic since Freudian theory is not wholly incompatible with feminism. Some feminist scholarship shifted away from the need to establish the origins of family, and towards analyzing the process of patriarchy. In the immediate postwar period, Simone de Beauvoir stood in opposition to an image of "the woman in the home". De Beauvoir provided an existentialist dimension to feminism with the publication of Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) in 1949. As the title implies, the starting point is the implicit inferiority of women, and the first question de Beauvoir asks is "what is a woman"?. Woman she realizes is always perceived of as the "other", "she is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her". In this book and her essay, "Woman: Myth & Reality", de Beauvoir anticipates Betty Friedan in seeking to demythologise the male concept of woman. "A myth invented by men to confine women to their oppressed`state. For women it is not a question of asserting themselves as women, but of becoming full-scale human beings." "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman", or as Toril Moiputs it "a woman defines herself through the way she lives her embodied situation in the world, or in other words, through the way in which she makes something of what the world makes of her". Therefore, woman must regain subject, to escape her defined role as "other", as a Cartesian point of departure. In her examination of myth, she appears as one who does not accept any special privileges for women. Ironically, feminist philosophers have had to extract de Beauvoir herself from out of the shadow of Jean-Paul Sartre to fully appreciate her. While more philosopher and novelist than activist, she did sign one of the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes manifestos.
The resurgence of feminist activism in the late 1960s was accompanied by an emerging literature of what might be considered female associated issues, such as concerns for the earth and spirituality, and environmentalism. This in turn created an atmosphere conducive to reigniting the study of and debate on matricentricity, as a rejection of determinism, such as Adrienne Rich and Marilyn French while for socialist feminists like Evelyn Reed, patriarchy held the properties of capitalism. Feminist psychologists, such as Jean Baker Miller, sought to bring a feminist analysis to previous psychological theories, proving that "there was nothing wrong with women, but rather with the way modern culture viewed them."
Elaine Showalter describes the development of Feminist theory as having a number of phases. The first she calls "feminist critique" - where the feminist reader examines the ideologies behind literary phenomena. The second Showalter calls "Gynocritics" - where the "woman is producer of textual meaning" including "the psychodynamics of female creativity; linguistics and the problem of a female language; the trajectory of the individual or collective female literary career and literary history". The last phase she calls "gender theory" - where the "ideological inscription and the literary effects of the sex/gender system" are explored." This model has been criticized by Toril Moi who sees it as an essentialist and deterministic model for female subjectivity. She also criticized it for not taking account of the situation for women outside the west. From the 1970s onwards; psychoanalytical ideas that has been arising in the field of French feminism has gained a decisive influence on feminist theory. Feminist psychoanalysis deconstructed the phallic hypotheses regarding the Unconscious. Julia Kristeva, Bracha Ettinger and Luce Irigaray developed specific notions concerning unconscious sexual difference, the feminine and motherhood, with wide implications for film and literature analysis.
There are a number of distinct feminist disciplines, in which experts in other areas apply feminist techniques and principles to their own fields. Additionally, these are also debates which shape feminist theory and they can be applied interchangeably in the arguments of feminist theorists.
In western thought, the body has been historically associated solely with women, whereas men have been associated with the mind. Susan Bordo, a modern feminist philosopher, in her writings elaborates the dualistic nature of the mind/body connection by examining the early philosophies of Aristotle, Hegel and Descartes, revealing how such distinguishing binaries such as spirit/matter and male activity/female passivity have worked to solidify gender characteristics and categorization. Bordo goes on to point out that while men have historically been associated with the intellect and the mind or spirit, women have long been associated with the body, the subordinated, negatively imbued term in the mind/body dichotomy. The notion of the body (but not the mind) being associated with women has served as a justification to deem women as property, objects, and exchangeable commodities (among men). For example, women’s bodies have been objectified throughout history through the changing ideologies of fashion, diet, exercise programs, cosmetic surgery, childbearing, etc. The race and class of women can be a determinate of whether one body will be treated as decoration and protected which is associated with middle or upper-class women’s bodies. On the other hand, the other body is recognized for its use in labor and exploitation which is generally associated with women’s bodies in the working-class or with women of color. Second-wave feminist activism has argued for reproductive rights and choice, women’s health (movement), and lesbian rights (movement) which are also associated with this Bodies debate.
The generation and production of knowledge has been an important part of feminist theory. This debate proposes such questions as “Are there ‘women’s ways of knowing’ and ‘women’s knowledge’?" And “How does the knowledge women produce about themselves differ from that produced by patriarchy?” (Bartowski and Kolmar 2005, 45) Feminist theorists have also proposed the “feminist standpoint knowledge” which attempts to replace “the view from nowhere” with the model of knowing that expels the “view from women’s lives”. (Bartowski and Kolmar 2005, 45). A feminist approach to epistemology seeks to establish knowledge production from a woman's perspective. It theorizes that from personal experience comes knowledge which helps each individual look at things from a different insight.
Central to feminism is that women are systematically subordinated, and bad faith exists when women surrender their agency to this subordination, e.g., acceptance of religious beliefs that a man is the dominant party in a marriage by the will of God; Simone de Beauvoir labels such women "mutilated" and "immanent".
A life’s project to be in love may result in bad faith; love is an example of bad faith given by both Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre (who were in love with each other). A woman in love may in bad faith allow herself to be subjugated by her lover, who has created a dependency of the woman on him, allowed by the woman in bad faith.
Intersections of Race, Class, and Gender
This debate can also be termed as intersectionality. This debate raises the issue of understanding the oppressive lives of women that are not only shaped by gender alone but by other elements such as racism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, etc. One example of the concept of intersectionality can be seen through the Mary Ann Weathers’ publication, “An Argument for Black Women’s Liberation as a Revolutionary Force.” Mary Ann Weathers states that “black women, at least the Black women I have come in contact with in the movement, have been expending all their energies in “liberating” Black men (if you yourself are not free, how can you “liberate” someone else?)” Women of color were put in a position of choosing sides. White women wanted women of color and working-class women to become a part of the women’s movement over struggling with their men (working-class, poor, and men of color) against class oppression and racism in the Civil Rights Movement. This was a conflict for women of color and working-class women who had to decide whether to fight against racism or classism versus sexism—or prioritize and participate in the hierarchy. It did not help that the women’s movement was shaped primarily by white women during the first and second feminist waves and the issues surrounding women of color were not addressed. Contemporary feminist theory addresses such issues of intersectionality in such publications as “Age, Race, Sex, and Class” by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.
In this debate, women writers have addressed the issues of masculinized writing through male gendered language that may not serve to accommodate the literary understanding of women’s lives. Such masculinized language that feminist theorists address is the use of, for example, “God the Father” which is looked upon as a way of designating the sacred as solely men (or, in other words, biblical language glorifies men through all of the masculine pronouns like “he” and “him” and addressing God as a “He”). Feminist theorists attempt to reclaim and redefine women through re-structuring language. For example, feminist theorists have used the term “womyn” instead of “women." Some feminist theorists find solace in changing titles of unisex jobs (for example, police officer versus policeman or mail carrier versus mailman). Some feminist theorists have reclaimed and redefined such words as “dyke” and “bitch” and others have invested redefining knowledge into feminist dictionaries.
Feminist psychology, is a form of psychology centered on societal structures and gender. Feminist psychology critiques the fact that historically psychological research has been done from a male perspective with the view that males are the norm. Feminist psychology is oriented on the values and principles of feminism. It incorporates gender and the ways women are affected by issues resulting from it.
One major psychological theory, Relational-Cultural Theory, is based on the work of Jean Baker Miller, who's book Toward a New Psychology of Women proposes that "growth-fostering relationships are a central human necessity and that disconnections are the source of psychological problems." Inspired by Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, and other feminist classics from the 1960s, Relational-Cultural Theory proposes that "isolation is one of the most damaging human experiences and is best treated by reconnecting with other people," and that a therapist should "foster an atmosphere of empathy and acceptance for the patient, even at the cost of the therapist’s neutrality". The theory is based on clinical observations and sought to prove that "there was nothing wrong with women, but rather with the way modern culture viewed them."
Psychoanalytic feminism is based on Freud and his psychoanalytic theories. It maintains that gender is not biological but is based on the psycho-sexual development of the individual. Psychoanalytical feminists believe that gender inequality comes from early childhood experiences, which lead men to believe themselves to be masculine, and women to believe themselvesfeminine. It is further maintained that gender leads to a social system that is dominated by males, which in turn influences the individual psycho-sexual development. As a solution it was suggested to avoid the gender-specific structuring of the society by male-female coeducation. In the last 30 years, the contemporary French psychoanalytical theories concerning the feminine, that refer to sexual difference rather than to gender, with psychoanalysts like Julia Kristeva, Maud Mannoni, Luce Irigaray, and Bracha Ettinger has largely influenced not only feminist theory but also the understanding of the subject in philosophy and the general field of psychoanalysis itself. Other feminist psychoanalysts whose contribution enriched the field are Jessica Benjamin and Jacqueline Rose.
Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theories or politics. Its history has been varied, from classic works of female authors such as George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Margaret Fuller to cutting-edge theoretical work in women's studies and gender studies by "third-wave" authors.
In the most general, feminist literary criticism before the 1970s was concerned with the politics of women's authorship and the representation of women's condition within literature. Since the arrival of more complex conceptions of gender and subjectivity, feminist literary criticism has taken a variety of new routes. It has considered gender in the terms of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, as part of the deconstruction of existing power relations.
Feminists have taken many different approaches to the analysis of cinema. These include discussions of the function of women characters in particular film narratives or in particular genres, such as film noir, where a female character can often be seen to embody a subversive sexuality that is dangerous to males and is ultimately punished with death. In considering the way that films are put together, many feminist film critics, such as Laura Mulvey, have pointed to the "male gaze" that predominates in classical Hollywood film making. Through the use of various film techniques, such as shot reverse shot, the viewer is led to align themself with the point of view of a male protagonist. Notably, women function as objects of this gaze far more often than as proxies for the spectator. Feminist film theory of the last twenty years is heavily influenced by the general transformation in the field of aesthetics, including the new options of articulating the gaze, offered by psychoanalytical French feminism.
Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock are prominent art historians writing on contemporary and modern artists and articulating Art history from a feminist perspective since the 1970s. Pollock works with French psychoanalysis, and in particular with Kristeva's and Ettinger's theories, to offer new insights into art history and contemporary art with special regard to questions of trauma and trans-generation memory in the works of women artists.
Feminist history refers to the re-reading and re-interpretation of history from a feminist perspective. It is not the same as the history of feminism, which outlines the origins and evolution of thefeminist movement. It also differs from women's history, which focuses on the role of women in historical events. The goal of feminist history is to explore and illuminate the female viewpoint of history through rediscovery of female writers, artists, philosophers, etc., in order to recover and demonstrate the significance of women's voices and choices in the past.
Feminist geography is often considered part of a broader postmodern approach to the subject which is not primarily concerned with the development of conceptual theory in itself but rather focuses on the real experiences of individuals and groups in their own localities, upon the geographies that they live in within their own communities. In addition to its analysis of the real world, it also critiques existing geographical and social studies, arguing that academic traditions are delineated by patriarchy, and that contemporary studies which do not confront the nature of previous work reinforce the male bias of academic study.
The Feminist philosophy refers to a philosophy approached from a feminist perspective. Feminist philosophy involves attempts to use methods of philosophy to further the cause of the feminist movements, it also tries to criticize and/or reevaluate the ideas of traditional philosophy from within a feminist view. There is no specific school for feminist philosophy like there has been in regard to other theories. This means that Feminist philosophers can be found in the analytic and continental traditions, and the different viewpoints taken on philosophical issues with those traditions. Feminist philosophers also have many different viewpoints taken on philosophical issues within those traditions. Feminist philosophers who are feminists can belong to many different varieties of feminism. The writings of Judith Butler, Rosi Braidotti, and Donna Haraway are the most significant psychoanalytically informed influences on contemporary feminist philosophy.
Feminist sexology is an offshoot of traditional studies of sexology that focuses on the intersectionality of sex and gender in relation to the sexual lives of women. Feminist sexology shares many principles with the wider field of sexology; in particular, it does not try to prescribe a certain path or “normality” for women's sexuality, but only observe and note the different and varied ways in which women express their sexuality. Looking at sexuality from a feminist point of view creates connections between the different aspects of a person's sexual life.
Feminist political theory is a recently emerging field in political science focusing on gender and feminist themes within the state, institutions and policies. It questions the "modern political theory, dominated by universalistic liberalist thought, which claims indifference to gender or other identity differences and has therefore taken its time to open up to such concerns".
Feminist economics broadly refers to a developing branch of economics that applies feminist insights and critiques to economics. Research under this heading is often interdisciplinary, critical, orheterodox. It encompasses debates about the relationship between feminism and economics on many levels: from applying mainstream economic methods to under-researched "women's" areas, to questioning how mainstream economics values the reproductive sector, to deeply philosophical critiques of economic epistemology and methodology.
One prominent issue that feminist economists investigate is how the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) does not adequately measure unpaid labor predominantly performed by women, such as housework, childcare, and eldercare. Feminist economists have also challenged and exposed the rhetorical approach of mainstream economics. They have made critiques of many basic assumptions of mainstream economics, including the Homo economicus model. In the Houseworker's Handbook Betsy Warrior presents a cogent argument that the reproduction and domestic labor of women form the foundation of economic survival; although, unremunerated and not included in the GDP. Warrior also notes that the unacknowledged income of men from illegal activities like arms, drugs and human trafficking, political graft, religious emollients and various other undisclosed activities provide a rich revenue stream to men, which further invalidates GDP figures. Somehow proponents of this theory operate under the assumption that women don't generate revenue from illegal sources and men provide no domestic production. They have been instrumental in creating alternative models, such as the Capability Approach and incorporating gender into the analysis of economic data to affect policy. Marilyn Power suggests that feminist economic methodology can be broken down into five categories.
The study of feminist legal theory is a school thought based on the feminist view that law's treatment of women in relation to men has not been equal or fair. The goals of feminist legal theory as defined by leading theorist Claire Dalton, consist of understanding and exploring the female experience, figuring out if law and institutions oppose females, and figuring out what changes can be committed to. This is to be accomplished through studying the connections between the law and gender as well as applying feminist analysis to concrete areas of law.