Q.1(b) Feminist approaches to sociological theory have developed out of historical sites of struggle for equality. Describe the strengths and weaknesses of four (4) different feminist theoretical orientations.
Sociological theory is broadly concerned with structured forms of social inequality. Therefore, sociologist generally attempt to approach human behaviour and relations in terms of the particular social setting of different social groups, classes and etc. However, feminist critics of sociology have pointed out that sociological theorists have neglected gender as a central principle of social differentiation.
Feminist sociologist argue that most sociological theory is characterised by a 'malestream' view of the social world in which women are either overlooked altogether or discussed as if they were identical to men. The concept used most frequently to capture structured power relations between the sexes is 'patriarchy'. This essay will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of four different feminist theoretical orientations.
Liberal feminists are the least 'radical' of all feminist perspectives. The main aim of the liberal feminists is the creation of equal opportunities, particularly in education and work. Probably the most positive thing liberal feminism has for itself is the fact that it has contributed to considerable social change, especially in relation to employment opportunities and conditions, and social policy.
Liberal feminist themselves have not produced a clearly developed theory of gender, but they generally rely on role theory. One of the main strengths of liberal feminism is that they aim for gradual change in the political, economic and social systems of Western societies which, it is assumed, will in turn transform gender roles. This is considered a strength because it is a reasonable and realistic accomplishment. Liberal feminism is willing to take the appropriate time it may take to produce gender equality. With this time liberal feminist pursue an aim through the introduction of legislation and by attempting to change attitudes. They encourage and support such measures as anti-discrimination and equal pay legislation in the hope that they will help to end discrimination.
Liberal feminists do not seek revolutionary changes in society, but rather reforms that take place within existing social and political structures. If there are any weaknesses to he liberal feminists this may be it. Other feminist may argue that the liberals are not aggressive enough and rely too much on hope.
Radical feminists turn their explanatory focus onto heterosexuality as a social construction. Radical feminists thus often see the social context of heterosexuality, family life, as central to women's oppression in modern societies. If men oppress women, then surely heterosexuality constitutes 'sleeping with the enemy'; the slogan which emerged in the 1070's-'feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice'-captures the essence of this perspective.
The radical feminism perspective is filled with weaknesses. The largest weakness among the radical feminists comes from the separatist feminist, who argues that women should organise independently of men. This argument usually leads to the view that only lesbians can be true feminists, since only they can be fully independent of men, which in turn downgrades all other feminists. For the radical feminist the subordination of women is seen primarily in terms of relations of dominance between men and women as distinct social groups. Because men as a group are seen as being opposed to women's liberation by definition, many radical feminists reject any cooperation with them in their struggle to achieve the social change they seek. Looking at all men as a 'group' and then deciding to turn against them is a serious weakness for any feminism. This would only suit the lesbian feminist, and would hold no relevance for heterosexual feminist.
Another weakness in the radical feminist perspective is the way they group. Radical feminists use patriarchy as the most important concept for explaining gender inequality. They use this term to provide a detailed explanation of how power operates within sexual relationships. They argue that politics was not just an activity confined to political parties and parliaments, but one, which exist in 'all' relationships. The radical feminists go on to argue that rape and other forms of sexual violence are ever-present possibilities and ways in which 'all' men intimidate 'all' women.
Marxist and socialist feminism
Marxist and socialist feminists regard capitalism rather than patriarchy as being the principal source of women's oppression, and capitalists as the main beneficiaries. Marxist/socialist feminists and radical feminists have many similarities when it comes to what they see as a problem, however, their solutions are not exactly the same. For example, like radicals they see women's unpaid work as housewives and mothers as one of the main ways in which they are exploited. However, although individual men benefit from this arrangement, it is especially capitalists who gain from women's work, since new generations of workers are reproduced at not cost to them. Marxist feminists also place much greater stress on the exploitation of women in paid employment. The disadvantaged position of women is held to be a consequence of the emergence of private property and subsequently their lack of ownership of the means of production, which in turn deprives them of power.
The biggest strength of the Marxist/socialist feminism is their ability and willingness to cooperate with the opposite sex, rather than turn completely against them. For example, although they agree with radical feminists that women as a group are exploited, particularly since the advent of capitalism, they pay more attention to the differences between women belonging to ruling-class and working class families. In this respect women have interests in common with the whole working class, and Marxist and socialist feminists often see greater scope for cooperation between women and working class men than do radical feminists.
One major weakness to the solutions provided by Marxist and socialist is that it may explain why capitalist exploit workers but not why men exploit women.
One difference between the Marxist and the socialist is in Marxist theories of class women tend to appear insignificant. Marxists have a tenancy to sideline themselves when it comes to the struggle between capital and labour. The simple explanation they give of capitalism is good but it does not automatically explain patriarchy.