Feminism is a conflict theory which views society as male dominated and it seeks to describe, explain and change the position of women in society. Feminism is therefore a theory of women’s subordination and also a political movement. There are different types of feminism, which I will be evaluating in this essay; Liberal, Radical, Marxist, Black and Postmodernist feminist. Feminists criticise mainstream sociology for being ‘malestream’. By contrast, feminists examine society from the viewpoint of women an see their work as part of the struggle against women’s subordination. However, although all feminists oppose women’s subordination, there are disagreements among feminist’s theories about its causes and how to overcome them.
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Liberal feminists are concerned with the human and civil rights and freedoms of the individual, they believe that all human beings should have equal rights. In liberal feminism, the concept of society changing itself to adapt to women does not occur. Liberal feminists insist that all that is needed to change the status of women is to change existing laws that are unfavorable for women and that this will open up more opportunities for women to prove themselves as equal to the opposite sex, this is referred to as reformism. In addition, liberal feminists reject the idea that biological differences make women less competent or rational than me, nor are men biologically less emotional or nurturing than women are. Liberal feminist Oakley, distinguishes between sex and gender. She claims sex differences are seen as fixed, whereas gender differences vary between cultures and over time.
Therefore what is considered a proper role for women in one society or at a specific time may be disapproved of or forbidden in another. According to liberal theorists, sexist attitudes and stereotypical beliefs about gender are culturally constructed and transmitted through socialisation. However, liberal feminism can be seen as a critique of the functionalist view of gender roles. For example, Parsons distinguishes between instrumental and expressive roles. In his view, instrumentals roles such as paid work are taken on by males, while expressive roles such as unpaid domestic labour and childbearing are taken on by females. On the other hand liberal feminism challenges this view. It argues that men and women are equally capable of performing each roles. Radical feminists emerged in the early 1970s and its key concept is patriarchy. Radical feminists have three key arguments; patriarchy is universal as male domination of women is evident in all societies.
Firestone argues that the origins of patriarchy lie in women’s biological capacity to bear and care for infants, as a result of this women become dependent on men. The second argument is that patriarchy is the primary and most fundamental form of social inequality and conflict. Thirdly, all men oppress women and all men benefit from patriarchy. Particularly from women’s unpaid domestic labour and from their sexual services. For radical feminists, patriarchal oppression occurs in the public sphere of work and politics and also in the private sphere of the family. According to radical feminists, patriarchal power is expressed through sexual or physical violence or the threat of it. As Brownmiller notes, fear of rape is a powerful deterrent against women going out alone at night. Likewise Rich argues that men force women into a narrow and unsatisfying ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, which becomes the only socially acceptable form of sexuality. Radical feminists believe that if women are to be free, personal and sexual relations must be transformed.
They have suggested three strategies to achieve this. Firstly separatism, which is when women live apart from men and create a new culture of female independence. Feminist Greer argues for the creation of all-female or ‘matrilocal’ households as an alternative to the heterosexual family. The second strategy is consciousness raising, through sharing their experiences in women-only consciousness-raising groups, women come to see that other women face the same problems. The third strategy is political lesbianism; many radical feminists argue that heterosexual relationships are inevitably oppressive because they involve ‘sleeping with the enemy’ and that lesbianism is the only non-oppressive form of sexuality. Marxists have a key criticism of radical feminists. They argue that class is the primary form of inequality and that capitalism is the main cause and beneificiary of women’s oppression, not men. Another criticism comes from Anna Pollert, who argues that the concept of patriarchy is of little value in explaining women’s position because it involves a circular argument. In contrast, Marxist feminists dismiss liberal feminists’ view that women’s subordination is merely the product of stereotyping or outdate attitudes.
Likewise they also reject the radical feminist view that it is the result of patriarchal oppression by men. Marxists see women’s subordination as rooted in capitalism. This results from their primary role as unpaid homemakers, which presents them in dependent economic positions in the family. Their subordination performs four important functions of capitalism; women are a source of cheap, exploitable labour. As they are viewed as financially dependent on their male partners, they can be paid less by employers. Women are a reserve army of labour, that can be moved into the labour force during economic booms and out again at times of recession. Women produce the labour force through their unpaid domestic labour, by nurturing and socialising children to become the next generation of workers by maintaining and servicing the current generation of workers. Thirdly, women absorb anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism. Ansley describes wives as ‘takers of shit’ who soak up the frustration of their husbands, this explains male domestic violence against women.